Reading Around the Bible, 4: Luke

Just starting the fourth gospel, John, so let me write up impressions of Luke first, beginning with some broad observations and questions:

  • The whole idea of fulfilling prophecies, which the gospels variously emphasize, becomes considerably less impressive once you notice that Jesus himself knew of the prophecies he was supposedly fulfilling — to the point of quoting Isaiah.
  • How is it that though Jesus was supposedly fulfilling Jewish prophecies, most *Jews* remained unconvinced of his messianic status and never became Christians? Did the ‘miracles’ not persuade them? Jesus’ followers were apparently mostly Gentiles, so why would they have cared about Jewish prophecies? Part of the answer seems to be that the Jews who opposed Jesus were the Pharisees, the scribes, and so on — i.e. the *establishment*, obsessed with rules, rituals, and purity, and nervous about anyone upsetting their order. Jesus was preaching not to them but to the downtrodden… in a way that resembles the appeal of certain contemporary politicians, who rail against the establishment, who promise the return of lost glory (to some, Jesus as messiah heralded the re-establishment of the Jewish state against Roman rule), and who as a consequence find plenty of followers. No doubt there have been would-be leaders like this throughout history; they only become heroes, or messiahs, when their followers prevail.

And then comments about specifics in Luke, with references to Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The New Testament:

  • 1:28, 1:46, 1:67. Asimov describes how these phrases became common hymns.
  • Asimov, p265ff, explains the theological motives for placing Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and the implausibility of the Romans conducting a census that would require entire families, including pregnant women, to travel to the town of their ancestors. p267.8: “It is hard to imagine a more complicated tissue of implausibilities and the Romans would certainly arrange no such census.”
  • Asimov spends several pages describing the historical circumstances for why Christians ended up celebrating Christmas on December 25th, including the usual idea of the appropriation of existing pagan holidays, the difference between lunar and solar calendars, and the schisms that resulted from rival methods of determining the date of Easter. The fact that Easter was determined on the lunar calendar (which is why it floats in our solar calendar), while Christmas is fixed in the solar calendar, indicates Easter was established as a holy day first, Christmas much later, after A.D. 300.
  • Asimov p275 also explains how year 1 came to be established — in part because Dionysius Exiguus, hundreds of years later, took Luke 3:23 — “And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age…” — too literally.
  • 3:23 ff: the geneologies in Luke don’t match those in Matthew.
  • 4:31, 5:20, 5:24: Luke and people of the time believed that illness was the result either of possession by demons, or the result of sin. Do believers today believe in demons and that illness is a consequence of sin? I suppose some do. (Certainly there are occasionally those stories of parents who refuse their children medical attention in preference to prayer, with tragic results.)
  • 6:20, the beatitudes seem to be commonly thought inspired, revolutionary teachings of a gentle soul to downtrodden folks, but squint at these right and they are a kind of rabble-rousing, a reassurance to the weak and powerless that they will prevail and the rich establishment will be overthrown. Also, 6:27 and following, does anyone actually follow this advice?
  • 7:31, 32: a cliche of history: the current generation is always shiftless and spoiled (and life was so much better in the good old days!).
  • 8:10: Jesus speaks in parables deliberately to confuse people, and says so.
  • Asimov p280 emphasizes Luke’s point of view as a gentile, explaining some of the variations between this gospel and the earlier ones. Narrative!
  • 10:10 and following: If you don’t believe you will be destroyed!
  • 10:16: In this verse it’s not about the message, but about the messenger, who seems to be in effect saying, “it’s all about me”.
  • 16:25: the fires of hell just for being rich! Presumably this played to the poor, downtrodden crowds. Asimov, p285, describes how conceptions of hell, ideas of good and evil, rewards and punishment, changed over the centuries; earlier ideas of hell were more about a “gray nothingness”; it took the Christians to turn it into a place of eternal fire.
  • 18:17, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (As in Mark.) It strikes me that there’s a big difference between the kind of ‘truths’ best understood by children versus the kinds of ‘truths’ best understood by adults. The latter can be much more difficult, yet are more likely to be real. Beware anything best understood by a child.
  • Ch24, the resurrection: how much more detail Luke has discovered since the earlier gospels!

This last item reminds me of another general issue about ancient texts like these, especially the gospels and the life of Jesus. The gospel writers were not eye-witnesses. Who were their sources, even in principle? For every story about Jesus, if it actually happened, there would have to have been some eye-witness who later told the story to others, becoming one story among many later collected and recounted in the gospels. It’s plausible enough that each of the gospel writers might have gathered a somewhat different set of stories. But has anyone ever tried to figure out who the presumed original eyewitnesses even could have been? For the three wise men (did the wise men tell the story? Did Mary?) For the 12-year Jesus hanging out in the temple impressing the teachers there (the teachers? Who could have reported that it took Jesus’ parents 3 days to find him?) Who would have first passed on such stories? …Or are many or most of these passages in the gospels related more as parables or story-lessons than as historical incidents?

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