Luke's Infancy Narrative

It is very fitting that these words should be written during the Christmas season. The Christmas story in Luke, the most familiar and revered of only two nativity accounts in the gospels, is one of the primary sources regarding John the Baptist as well. In the nativity account, the Baptist is not merely Jesus' contemporary wilderness preacher, or forerunner. He is associated even before the birth of either as their expectant mothers meet and share the astonishing exchange preserved in these verses. This account, rich in Old Testament source and citation, has fueled more than any other passage the conclusion that a Baptist tradition existed and contributed to the formation of our gospels. For a discussion of this, we turn to the book, JOHN THE BAPTIST, by Charles Scobie:

Within the section Luke 1:5-2:52 there are two more or less parallel sets of stories concerning the infancies of John and Jesus. The two stories are integrated by the placing of the annunciation of Mary (1:26-38) after the annunciation to Zechariah (1:11f), and by the insertion of the story of Mary's visit to Elizabeth (1:39f). The narrative concerning John can easily stand apart, for it is complete in itself, and some scholars hold the view that the infancy narrative of Jesus was composed later with the stories of John serving as a model. It is clear that the story of Jesus, whatever its exact origins, has been integrated into that of John, and not vice versa. (p.49f)

The observations made in this paragraph are easily and clearly affirmed by reviewing the text. It might also be observed that the role of women appears featured here once again, as Mark includes them at the empty tomb, but now also at the beginning of Jesus' story. Luke's inclination to include the role of women would make this tradition attractive to his purposes.

There is also a stylistic issue here. In the section outlined, the normal Greek of Luke is suspended for a semitic style observed by many scholars. This indicates a separate source is being used for this section. An arguement against this, even by Harnack, is that Luke is deliberately feigning the semitic style of the Septuagint for effect. This can hardly be convincing.

Another feature is the method of this section. It is the method of "searching the scriptures", of finding whatever can be found in the Torah and the writings to illuminate the present subject. This is part of a process of seeking answers in scripture to present questions such as how and when will the Messiah come, what is the meaning of events befalling Israel, and generally what has God revealed to us in scripture. Once a claim has been made, it is essential to marshal all possible relevant material from scripture in support of that claim. That is the task of the scribe and the rabbi. In this section, just that process is evident for the tradition of John and Jesus. What is most interesting is that this appears in an existing form before Luke includes it in his gospel, and that it appears not in the familiar gospel form of supporting the Messiahship of Jesus, but rather supporting the Baptist.

When we come to examine the story of the birth of John in detail, we cannot but be struck by the distinctive character of the narrative, for almost every sentence contains words, phrases or ideas which echo Old Testament passages... obviously the source of many of the ideas is to be found in the birth stories of Isaac (Gen. 17:15-21), of Samson (Judg. 13:2-24), and of Samuel (I Sam. 1:1-23). (Scobie p.50)

Now we add a new question to the series: were there Baptist disciples?, was there a Baptist tradition, even communities of Baptist believers?, and that question is: were there Baptist hymns or poems?

Two of the poetic passages in Luke 1 call for special mention.

The Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55), as it stands, is a psalm attribute to Mary, in which case it belongs to the narrative of the infancy of Jesus. But in the oldest Old Latin manuscripts and in some quotations in the Church Fathers, the reading in Luke 1:46 is 'And Elizabeth said'. This had led scholars to the belief that the Magnificat should properly be attributed to Elizabeth, and that it thus belongs to the story of John's infancy. It is difficult to see why anyone should change 'Mary' to 'Elizabeth' but easy to see why the reverse change should be made by a Christian writer. (Scobie p.54)

Thus is the predominantly Baptist character of the infancy narrative in Luke made even more so. The process by which the Magnificat appears to have been reattributed must be examined. The propensity of a "Christian writer" which Scobie mentioned can be extended even more thoroughly to "Christian readers." It is only by narrowist of chances that some surviving manuscripts should preserve a reading which runs counter to these propensities. It demonstrates the power of the suggestive "increase/decrease" program that attaches itself to every example of Baptist tradition which survives. One can only imagine how this has colored the way in which Christian tradition absorbed and encorporated Baptist tradition. It has been observed elsewhere how the Q material could be so easily reattributed. A question might be, could this infancy account be a part of the Q material itself?

The Benedictus (Lk. 1:68-79) also poses a problem. It is a psalm of praise to God who has visited and redeemed his people. The context shows beyond all doubt that it is the birth of John which is being celebrated in the psalm. The phrase, 'from the house of his servant David' in v.69 is, however, meaningless, for John was of priestly descent; it was Jesus who was of the house of David. How did this reference to Davidic descent come to be in a psalm which is applied to John? When the original Hebrew of the psalm is reconstructed the phrase in question spoils the metre, and is therefore almost certainly to be excluded as a later gloss. Very probably it was inserted by Luke when he revised his source, with the object once again of toning down the high estimate of John. The result has been (from Luke's point of view) very successful, for the usual interpretation is that the first part of the psalm, vv.68-75, refer to Jesus, and that it is only the last part, vv.76-79, which refers to John. Clearly, however, in the original source, the whole psalm celebrated the birth of John. (Scobie p.55)

So the answer must be: there were Baptist hymns/poems. This points to a mature belief system on the part of the Baptist community, whose writings existed at the time Luke was written. It is ironic that the very gospels which are at pains to correct from their point of view an estimate of John which is to be reduced and an estimate of Jesus which is expanded, have preserved so much evidence to the contrary. It must also be observed that this evidence is universally ignored. There is simply no constituency for it. As the legendary seminary professor might have said, "it won't preach." But the historian and the exegete cannot ignore it, and surely it enriches the understanding of the formation of early Christianity and its gospels.

Finally, there is the question of kinship between Mary and Elizabeth. This has entered into Christian belief without resistance, and is exemplified by the stained glass window pictured on the contents page. Scobie, however, has this to say:

Much has been made of the statement in Luke 1:36 that Elizabeth was the 'cousin' of Mary, and later tradition and art have linked the two families closely together, and pictured John and Jesus as children playing with one another. The Greek word "suggenis", however, means only 'kinswomen', and could easily mean that they merely belonged to the same tribe. It has been suggested that the word "suggenis" is introduced merely as a device to link the two narratives together, or in order to suggest that Jesus, through his relation to a priestly family, was himself of priestly as well as Davidic descent, thus strengthening his Messiahship in the eyes of those Jews who looked for a priestly as well as kingly Messiah. Certainly, it would be unwise to suggest any close family connection; the rest of the New Testament does not support the idea and indeed casts doubt on the idea of any previous link between John and Jesus (cf. John 1:31..'I myself did not know who he was'). (Scobie p.56)

Two comments follow from this paragraph. First is the reference to dual Messiahships, which is consistent with the role of the Baptist having such prominence in some Jewish/Christian groups. Second is the notion of "caliphate", which links middle eastern religious leadership through blood relationships. Remember the ascent of Jesus' brother James to prominence in the Jerusalem church: if Jesus was the relative of John, so was James! The enmity of Jesus' family recorded in brutal detail by Mark has always made James' ascent to authority a problem. We have no indication of enmity between James and the Baptist, however. But that would only be an argument from silence.

How great is our debt to Luke for his including this account! He boldly encorporated what appears to be Baptist material in his story of the infancy of Jesus and so preserved for us what might have been lost as a relic of a rival group. In doing so, he also preserved for us a picture of that very group, the believers in John the Baptist. He became an architect of a Baptist/Dominical perspective.

A Prophet and More