History of Christianity—Lecture 7: The Gospel according to Luke (part 2)

This is a summary of the seventh part of twenty-four in the course on the New Testament presented by The Teaching Company.  The lectures in this course are by Prof. Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  His expertise is in the Greco-Roman cultural environment of early Christianity and the textual criticism of the New Testament.  For those who are interested in purchasing this course and listening to the complete lectures, please go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com.

7.  Jesus the prophesied Messiah

The stress that Luke places in his genealogy on Jesus being the Savior of the entire human race can be found throughout Luke’s Gospel at a number of critical junctures.  That can be seen above all by comparing several episodes of Luke with those that are found in Mark, which was one of Luke’s sources.  One of the most interesting stories to compare with Luke and Mark has to do with an event that takes place halfway through Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus goes to his hometown of Nazareth and preaches in the synagogue only to be rejected by his townsfolk who can’t understand how a simple carpenter like Jesus can speak such words of wisdom (Mark 6:1-6).  Luke also has this account (Luke 4:16-30), but he has changed it in significant ways.  The first thing to notice is that in Luke’s Gospel, this rejection of Jesus is the very first thing that happens in Jesus’ ministry.  It doesn’t happen as halfway through the account in Luke, but it’s the first that happens.

Why does Luke transpose the account to the very beginning?  Because in Luke’s Gospel, this is going to set the stage for everything else that is to come.  Moreover, in Luke’s account, the rejection of Jesus of Nazareth is much longer than in Mark.  Luke lengthens the account by having Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue.  Jesus goes to the synagogue and gets up to read the scriptures.  The attendant hands him a scroll of Isaiah, Jesus reads the scroll and it’s a passage which says “the spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim forgiveness to the captives, sight to the blind,” etc.  And then Jesus sits down—this is found only in Luke, not in Mark—as everybody is looking at him and says “truly today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Jesus explicitly claims to fulfill the prophet Isaiah.  He is the prophet that Isaiah has anticipated.  The people wonder what Jesus can possibly be talking about, and Jesus likens himself to two prophets of the Hebrew Bible:  Elijah and Elisha, whose stories in the Hebrew Bible include accounts of them going out to help people who were non-Jews even when Jews were suffering.

There’s a drought in the land in and Elijah, rather than going to stay and help out a Jewish family, goes to a pagan family, a widow in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:7-16).  Elisha is sent to heal a leper; not a Jewish leper, but a pagan leper.  Jesus likens himself to Elijah and Elisha and his audience knows full well what he is talking about.   He is saying that he has come to minister not to Jews but to Gentiles.  Their reaction is immediate.  They take him out of the synagogue, they take him up to a high hill, and they going to try to cast him off, but Jesus then walks through their midst.

It’s an interesting account because it’s going to set the stage for what’s going to happen in Luke’s Gospel and then in the Book of Acts.  Jesus comes to his people, he proclaims his message of salvation that he is the one that fulfills the prophets.  They reject him, and because they reject him, his message goes to the Gentiles.  Jesus throughout this account is portrayed as a rejected Jewish prophet.  There are several ways in which Luke portrays Jesus as a prophet in narratives that are unique to Luke.

8.  Jesus as Prophet

First, Jesus is born like a prophet.  Like Matthew, Luke has a birth narrative.  We saw that Matthew’s narrative emphasized that Jesus is like Moses and that Jesus fulfilled scripture.  Luke also has an account of Jesus being born to a virgin, Mary, in Bethlehem, but here the emphasis is quite different.  What one sees when one reads this account is not that Jesus is fulfilling scripture in the sense that you have in Matthew.  Instead you have a sense that Jesus is born how prophets are born, specifically, when Mary conceives Jesus, she breaks out into a song in which she praises God for bringing down the high and raising up those who are low.  It’s a song that sounds almost exactly like the song of Hannah in the Hebrew Bible 1 Samuel chapter 2, Hannah who gave birth to the first major Jewish prophet Samuel.  Mary’s song in other words is to call to mind the song of Hannah.  Why?  Because Luke is trying to emphasize that Jesus is born how prophets are born.

Second, he’s not only born like a prophet, he preaches like a prophet, as we saw in the sermon he gave at Nazareth.  He claims that the prophecies have been fulfilled in him and he likens himself to Elijah and Elisha, these two great prophets of the Hebrew Bible.  All of these stories are found in Luke; you don’t find them in Matthew and in Mark.

Thirdly, Jesus heals like a prophet heals.  There’s a very interesting account in Luke 7:11-17 of Jesus raising from the dead the dead son of a widow from a city called Nain.  The account, if you know the Hebrew Bible well enough, sounds very similar to the account of Elijah raising the dead son of widow from a city called Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-9).  In fact, the similarity of the miracle is not lost among the people who witness it in Luke’s Gospel.  In chapters 7 through 16, the crowd acknowledges the significance of what Jesus has done on the occasion by saying “a great prophet has risen among us.”

So Jesus is born like a prophet, he preaches like a prophet, he heals like a prophet, and most significantly, he dies like a prophet in Luke’s Gospel.

9.  The Passion Narrative in Luke

Jesus explicitly says only in Luke that he must go to Jerusalem to be killed because that’s where the prophets die (Luke 13:33).  Because Jesus is being portrayed like a prophet in his death, Luke modifies some of the traditions about the Passion narrative itself in some very interesting ways.  Jesus knows what’s going to happen to him in Luke’s Gospel.  Because he knows, it doesn’t appear that Jesus experiences real agony in this Gospel the way he does in the others.  This is one place in particular where it’s important not to conflate the accounts and pretend they are all saying the same thing.  If you read Luke’s account just on its own terms, you don’t have the sense of Jesus going through real agony up to his death.

You can see this in two different narratives.  When Jesus goes out to pray prior to his arrest, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus goes to the garden of Gethsemane.  He’s extremely distraught; he tells his disciples that his soul is troubled unto death.  He tells them to wait for him.  He goes off, he falls on his face, he prays three times, “God, take away this cup from me.”  Luke has the same narrative, but Luke doesn’t say that Jesus is distraught.  Jesus in this narrative doesn’t say to his disciples, “my soul is troubled unto death.”  He goes to pray, but he doesn’t fall on his face; instead he kneels down.  Instead of praying three times “God, take away this cup from me,” he says “if it be your Will, take this cup from me,” and he says it only once.  There’s not the same sense of agony here at all.

The idea of Jesus not being in real distress and agony going up to his death is seen even more clearly in the account of Jesus’ own crucifixion in Luke’s Gospel.  Again, it’s worthwhile comparing what Luke says with what his predecessor Mark had said.  Remember Mark’s account:  Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate, he is accused of being King of the Jews; he is basically silent during the whole proceeding.  He only says a few words in Mark’s Gospel.  Pontius Pilate asks him, “are you the King of the Jews?”, and Jesus says “you say so.”  He goes to his place of crucifixion and he is silent the entire way in Mark’s Gospel.  He is nailed to the cross in Mark’s Gospel and is silent the whole time.  People are passing by, people are mocking him, and he says nothing even on the cross until the very end.  When people have betrayed him, denied him, mocked him, in Mark’s Gospel at the very end he is hanging on the cross and he cries out, “”Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani?”, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, and he dies.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus appears to be in doubt and wonders why God himself has forsaken him in the end.

It’s a stark contrast with Luke, because Luke has changed the story.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is not silent on his way to crucifixion.  He is walking to the cross, and he sees some women weeping on the side of the road and he turns to them and he says weep not for me but weep for yourselves and for your children for what is to befall you.  He has more concern about this women than for himself.  In Luke’s Gospel, while he is being nailed to the cross, he’s not silent:  instead he prays, “Father forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.”  While he is hanging on the cross in Luke’s Gospel, he’s not silent:  he has an intelligent conversation with one of the other people being crucified with him.  Now in Mark’s Gospel, both robbers mock Jesus; in Luke’s Gospel only one of them mocks him.  The other one tells him to be quiet because Jesus hasn’t done anything to deserve this, and then this robber turns to Jesus and says, “Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”  And Jesus replies, “Truly, I tell you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

Most striking of all, at the end in Luke’s Gospel, instead of crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, Jesus instead says “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit”, and then he dies.

There is a tendency for readers to assume that he said all of these things on the cross.  So you have the seven dying words of Jesus, where he says the words in Mark, those in Matthew, those in Luke, and those in John, and altogether you have seven sayings of Jesus.  In fact, these are distinctive portrayals.  Luke is not portraying Jesus the same way Mark is, as someone who is in agony and uncertainty at the end.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is going to his death knowing full well what is happening to him and why it is happening, and what is going to happen to him after his death:  he’s going to wake up that day in Paradise and this robber is going to be with him.

10.  God’s Plan

Jesus is a prophet who is fully certain about God’s Will for him and the future of the Earth.  For that reason, Jesus doesn’t go to his death in agony.  So, Jesus is portrayed as a prophet in Luke, one who is born as a prophet, one who preaches as a prophet, one who heals as a prophet, and one who dies as a prophet.  This emphasis on Jesus as a prophet, one who knows full well what God’s will is, and who is sent to proclaim it, coincides with other emphases found throughout Luke’s Gospel.  In particular, it coincides with an emphasis found distinctively in Luke that everything is going to God’s plan.  The Will of God, the Plan of God, are terms that one finds throughout Luke’s Gospel.

Moreover, in this Gospel there is no emphasis the way there is Mark that the end of the world is supposed to happen right away.  Mark’s Gospel on a couple of occasions that we will refer to later on in the course refers to the stance that the end is immediate.  Jesus tells his disciples in Mark, “some of you standing here won’t taste death before the Kingdom of God has come in power.”  Luke changes that verse to “some of you standing here won’t taste death before you see the Kingdom of God,” but he says nothing about it coming in power.  Luke does think that the disciples have seen the Kingdom of God, because according to Luke Jesus’ own ministry is the Kingdom of God.  Luke says in chapter 17 that “the Kingdom of God is in your midst” or “among you”.  For Luke, there is not going to be an end of the age as we would normally think of; the Kingdom has already arrived in some sense.

So too in the trial before the High Priest, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says “you will see the son of Man coming on the clouds of Heaven.”  Luke has the same verse, but he changes it to “from now on, the son of Man will be seated at the right hand of power.”  It’s not that the high priest is going to see the cosmic judge come from heaven; it’s that from now on Jesus will be exalted.

Jesus as a prophet in Luke knows that the end is not going to come right away.  The reason why it’s not going to come right away is because God wanted to allow time for the message of Jesus to go out in the world so that salvation can come to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews.  That’s what the second volume of Luke’s, the Book of Acts, is going to be about, the salvation of God that goes to Gentiles.  Well, it takes time for salvation to go around the world, so of course in this Gospel you can’t expect the end to come right away:  first there has to be time for the establishment of the Church.

Since Luke thinks that there is going to be a long period of time before the coming of the end, Luke more than the other Gospels has a strong social agenda.  Unlike the other Gospels, Jesus stresses the importance of taking care of the needs of those who are poor and oppressed and outcast.  You can some of this in the other Gospels, but in Luke, it is much more strongly stated.

11.  The Beatitudes and Rights of Women

Compare the Beatitudes in Matthew and in Luke.  In Matthew, Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit.”  In Luke he says “blessed are you who are poor”; in other words, poverty itself is the problem.  In Matthew, it says “blessed are those of you who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  In Luke, it’s “blessed are you who hunger and thirst.”  In other words, in Luke’s Gospel, rather than being concerned just about spiritual matters, Jesus is concerned about material matters as well, including the needs and rights of women.

In Luke’s there is an emphasis on the need for Christian communities, the followers of Jesus, to take care of the needs of women who were of course an oppressed group in ancient societies.

12.  Conclusion

In conclusion, Luke is both like and unlike Matthew and Mark, the two other Synoptic Gospels.  Like both of the others, Luke describes Jesus’ public ministry as one this is filled with stupendous,  miraculous fears and marvelous teachings.  Here too, we see the importance of Jesus’ death for God’s plan of salvation.  But instead of stressing Jesus as the misunderstood son of God, as in Mark, or as the Jewish Messiah who insists that his followers keep the Jewish Law, as in Matthew, Luke portrays Jesus as a Jewish prophet whose salvation goes to the whole world to bring salvation not just to Jews, but also to Gentiles, in fulfillment of the plan of God.


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