A critical assessment of the extent and importance of the historical issues that may arise for theology through study of the narratives of Jesus’ birth


In carrying out a critical assessment of the extent and importance of the historical issues that may arise for theology through study of the narratives of Jesus’ birth, it is expedient that one first of all consider the concept of authorial intent or authorial intention.

In literary theory and aesthetics, authorial intent refers to an author’s intent as it is encoded in their work. In an extract from her article published in 2010, entitled: Authorial Intention, Mitchell noted that:

Arguments over authorial intention — and the relevance of this to the interpretation of a text — go back many centuries, having a notable force and currency in the discussion of religious texts. However, contemporary debates about authorial intention in the literary sphere can be quite precisely dated to the publication of a seminal article, entitled “The intentional fallacy,” by W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, which first appeared in 1946 in the Sewanee Review. In that article, Wimsatt and Beardsley, who are generally associated with the school of literary criticism known as new criticism, argue that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a literary work of art” (1962[1946]: 92).

Staying on this topic, and using Luke’s narrative as an example, we notice the story of Samuel anointing David as king (1 Samuel 16:1–13), in his telling of the story of John the Baptist (JTB). So, JTB is the prophet that baptised Jesus, just as Samuel anointed David as king of Israel. Sander & Davies (1989) noted that, “Although scholar sometimes suggest that the genre ‘gospel’ was something new, they also admit that literature always draws on what went before, combining, transforming, dividing motifs and genres already familiar to listeners, readers and writers” (p. 252).

There are also elements of syncretism in Luke’s version of events, in the sense that there are comparisons between Jesus and JTB, so one learns about John through Jesus and vice versa. This was perhaps because JTB was seen by some as the messiah, owing to his ancestry, events leading to his birth, popularity, ministry, baptism of Christ and death by the hands of Herod. Sadly, we miss this vital point because we are reading the gospel over 2000 years after they were written. Perhaps this goes to show the quality of their literary work.

With this in mind this essay will focus on the virgin birth and dates as mentioned in the birth narrative.


Dates in the birth narrative

Matthew and Luke tell a different story. Matthew’s lenses are on events unfolding in Bethlehem, while Luke starts from Nazareth. The dates in both narratives do not synchronise either, so even though they highlight the reign of Herod the Great, a Roman King; the differences between their dates amount to up to 10years in some calculations.

Luke gives us a snippet into Jesus’ life when he was twelve (Luke 2:41–52), and then mentions that Jesus was around thirty years old when he started preaching, which would take his birth year back to 1 BCE. But according to recent calculations, it seems more likely that Luke slightly miscalculated the death of Herod, as such Jesus would have been born around 4 BCE, approximately bout 2,019 years ago.

Also in Luke’s account, the dates in chapter 3 with regards to the public ministry of John and Jesus was noted as to be in the era of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate and Herod. However Sanders and Davies (1989) noted that, “The high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (see also Acts 4:6) causes some historically difficulty because Annas became high priest in CE 6 but was deposed in CE 15, whereas Caiaphas from CE 18–36” (p.277). Sanders and Davies (1989) also noted that the dates in Luke 1:5 and Luke 2:1–5, are irreconcilable historically, and that the idea of everyone having to go to their ancestral cities to be counted would have caused much chaos and thereby counterproductive for the Romans (p.277).

But Stanton (1993) argues that, “even though the ancient biographers did not trace character development and rarely summed up their subject’s character in their own words, they were interested in the character of a person and knew how to portray it by using an indirect method of characterization” (p.18).


The virgin birth in the birth narrative

The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are the only accounts of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament. Both Matthew (1:18) and Luke (1:35) attribute the birth to the creative power of the Holy Spirit (Ladd, 1994, p.323). And they make no link to the virgin birth with Jesus’ ministry as the story progresses.

It is also important to note that there were other miraculous births in the Bible, for example in the Old Testament, we have the accounts of Samson and Samuel, while in Greek mythology, Heracles, and Alexander the Great as told by Plutarch.

On this point, it is vitally important to note that some theologians argue that verses in Jesus’ conversation with the authorities in John 8, highlight the fact that there were disputes over Jesus’ origins: “You are indeed doing what your father does.” They said to him, “We are not illegitimate children [born out of fornication]; we have one father, God himself.” (8:19, 41). For example, Tabor (2006) argue that Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera (c. 22 BC — AD 40), a Roman soldier whose tombstone was found in Bingerbrück, Germany, in 1859, was the father of Jesus. He based his arguments on the accounts of a Greek philosopher named Celsus, who attested that some Jews claimed Jesus was the result of an affair between his Mary and Tiberius Pantera who was serving in the region at the time of Jesus’s conception, stating that she was “convicted of adultery and had a child by a certain soldier named Panthera” (The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 64–72).

Matthew models the story of Moses in his telling of Jesus’ birth, emphasising to his readers that Jesus fulfils Moses’ prophecy in Deuteronomy 18:15: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet”; especially at a time when they were seeking deliverance from the scourge of Roman occupation. This style of writing is known as mimesis, which can be defined as the imitative representation of the real world in art and literature. Matthew focuses on the big picture: history, big figures — Herod, Caesar etc., while Mary and Joseph have a very small part to play in the grand scheme of the narrative. God is sovereign, while Jesus plays the role of the nation Israel as he fulfils prophecies.

According to Stanton (1993), “Matthew’s Prologue falls into two parts: the infancy narratives in chapters 1 and 2 (which do not have parallels elsewhere), and the accounts of preaching of John the Baptist and the temptations of Jesus in 3:1–4:11 (which are taken from Mark and from Q)” (p. 65). Matthew also recognises Jesus as the Son of David (2 Sam 7:12–15), and Son of God in reference to royalty as in Psalm 2.2. In fact Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:1–16 is built around David, with three sets of fourteen generations at the centre is David. The first set — Abraham to David, second set — the exile, the third — the birth of the messiah (Matthew 1:17). On the issue of the Virgin Birth, I believe it is also noteworthy to emphasise the presence of gentile women such as Bathsheba, Rahab, and Ruth, with scandalous past, in a strange contrast to Mary the virgin mother of Jesus. In fact the first worshippers (the wise men from the East) as recorded in Matthew 2:1–12 were also gentiles.



Sanders and Davies (1989) notes that Matthew’s writing “imitates parts of that in 1 Chronicles 1–3” (p. 259). In reference to the virgin birth, Matthew quotes Is. 7:14 in Matthew 1:23, using the Septuagint (Greek translation) which for some unknown reason translated the word young woman in Hebrew to mean a virgin, while Luke records his version in Luke 1:26–38. However John’s gospel which perhaps has the highest Christology apart from Paul’s writing, has no record of a virgin birth. Even though Jesus refers to God as his father over a hundred times, and Joseph only twice. Instead John uses the word logos, as he introduces a pre-existence Christology (John 1:1–5), and in 1 John 3:5 he uses the word revealed.

With regards to Luke’s narrative, Brown (1994) noted that “Jesus’ identity as God’s Son is proclaimed by an angel at his conception, by Jesus himself the first time he speaks (2:49), by God at the baptism (3:22), and by Paul after the resurrection (Acts 13:32–33)” (p. 131). For Luke the highpoint of the birth narrative is captured in the preceding verses after his prologue in Luke 1:1–4. He sets the stage with an old priest burning incense in the temple, while the people were praying outside. And Yahweh in his sovereignty answers both prayers through JTB and Jesus Christ. In doing this, he takes away the reproach of Zechariah and Elizabeth, but perhaps most importantly, the reproach of the nation of Israel (Luke 1:5–24).

For Peter, the focus is on Jesus’ revelation (birth) and glory (resurrection) in 1 Peter 1:11, 20. In similar vein, Paul writes in Hebrews 2:14, 9:26 — just using the word appeared. Furthermore Paul referred to Jesus as being born of a woman (Gal. 4.4), and Phil. 2:5–11 (which many believe to be a familiar hymn in the first century church) has no mention of a virgin birth, just Jesus’ incarnation. Mark went straight into John’s ministry at the river Jordan, before delving into Jesus’ baptism, temptation and ministry. James also makes no mention of a virgin birth (1:1), in like manner to Peter and Paul, focussing on his glory (2:1).

And even though some scholars cite Romans 5:12, 17, and 19 as Paul’s endorsement of a virgin birth, these references are quite weak. If anything they strengthen the argument for a focus on Jesus’ death and the justification of believers. And if the virgin birth was so significant, then Paul should have recorded it within the verses of Romans 5.

For Bultmann (1968) “the verses which contain the reference to the Virgin Birth are a Christian addition and derive from the same Hellenistic sphere as Matt. 1:18–25” (p. 296). Furthermore he noted, “admittedly this could not have then contained the motif unheard of in a Jewish environment, a virgin birth. It was first added in the transformation in Hellenism, where the idea of the generation of a king as a hero from a virgin by the godhead was widespread” (pp. 291–292)



First and foremost, it is important to note that in Matthew and Luke’s account of the birth narrative, their gospels, and other writing as with the book of Acts for Luke; Jesus never used the virgin birth to justify or validate his origins or being.

It is also important to note that history cannot be recaptured in essence because it is impossible to recover every millisecond as events unfold. In Heraclitus’ vision of change, in relation to time he uses an epigram of the river of flux, and noted, “we both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not” (B49a).

Even when history is captured, we still need to validate accounts for objectivity, biases and idiosyncrasies. On this point Stanton (1993) argues that “while Christian faith does not depend on the accuracy of every detail in the gospels, Christians do need to know whether or not the evangelists’ differing portraits are misleading (p. 151).

So, very much like poetry, the authorial intent of a writing can sometimes be difficult to fully grasp. They are often polyvalent (having many different functions, forms, or facets), just as with Jesus’ parables. But contrary to the views of some scholars, I hasten to qualify that this does not mean that these stories were just fabricated by the evangelists. In fact in Luke’s prologue he makes mention of eyewitnesses who were interviewed, albeit informally, in the process of his writing. In reference to this Ladd (1994) cited Cadbury (1923) who noted that “by the use the word parekolouthekoti (“having investigated”) in verse 3 Luke means to say that he has participated in the events he is to relate” (p. 349), which thus “shows, however, no more than that an historian is only as good as his sources, judicious good sense and skill in presentation” (Sanders & Davies, 1989, p.277).

So in optimism I am reminded of Wright (2015): “I regard the continuing historical quest for Jesus as a necessary part of ongoing Christian discipleship. I doubt very much if, in the present age, we shall ever get to the point where we know all there is to know, and understand all there is to understand, about Jesus himself” (p. 3).



Brown, R. E. (1994) An introduction to new testament Christology. London: Geoffrey Chapman.

Bultmann, R. (1968), The history of the Synoptic traditions. Blackwell, Oxford

Davies, M. and Sanders, E. P. (1989) Studying the Synoptic Gospels. 5th edn. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International.

Ladd, G. E. (1993) A theology of the New Testament. Edited by Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Mitchell, K R. (2010), Authorial Intention. In Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literary Theory, ed. Robert Eaglestone, Blackwell. eScholarID: 3b2968

Stanton, G. N. (1989) The Gospels and Jesus. Oxford University Press.

Wright, N. T. (2015) The Challenge of Jesus. United Kingdom: SPCK Publishing





What does Jesus have to say about social justice in Luke’s Gospel?


In giving consideration to the concept of Social Justice, let us have a look at the Oxford English Dictionary definition and John Rawls’ pivotal work on the subject, aptly entitled Principles of Justice. First, the Oxford English Dictionary: justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.

For Rawls (1971) there were two key principles: ‘The first principle: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with similar system of liberty for all. The second principle: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and, (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under the conditions of fair and equality of opportunity’.

With these as backdrop, this essay seeks to explore cross cuttings themes on Social Justice from Luke’s account of Jesus, as consolidated in the verses of Isaiah 61:1–2a, recorded in the gospel of Luke 4:16–30.

Luke’s Jesus

The gospel of Luke opens up Jesus’ ministry with an event recorded in Luke 4:16–30, just after his temptation by devil (the god of this world). However, before we delve into this event it is important to touch briefly on the key battlegrounds with the devil during his temptation. First he was tested for: his devotion (If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread); then his love for power and wealth (To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours); and finally his desire for fame (If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone) (Luke 4:1–13).

Unlike Adam who fell for the lure of the derivatives of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Jesus matched each of the devil’s assault with scriptural texts. He emptied himself of the desires of the material world, emerging victorious — ‘filled with the spirit and his fame spread through all the surrounding country’ (Luke 4:14–15).

Going back to Luke 4:16–30, we see an account in which Jesus visits the local synagogue in Nazareth (the town he had been brought up), and a scroll was presented to him for reading — perhaps based on his new found fame the leaders decided to honour him. As fate would have it, this scroll was the book of Isaiah, so he unrolled it and read to the congregation:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ (Luke 4:18–19)

I believe this proclamation echoed though the structures of the synagogue just like a prophetic manifesto of the kingdom of God, which he began to express through his: actions, lifestyle, preaching and teaching over the course of his ministry.

According to Cone (2012), ‘This reversal of expectations and conventional values is the unmistakable theme of the gospel’. Cone went on to use the term transvaluation of values in explaining this phenomena, a term he borrowed from Niebuhr, citing examples from: Luke 16:15, ‘What is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.’; and Luke 18:14, ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ In line with this thought, Torre (2014) noted that, ‘Justice begins with the plight of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised, the outcast, and the disenfranchised. To engage in justice is to do with it, and from, the perspective of those whom society considers (no) bodies.’ (p. 86).

Grassi (2003, p. 172) and Stanton (2002, p.79) highlight that the word manyin Luke’s prologue denotes that other writers had embarked on a written account of Jesus’ life. They both agree that Mark was a primary source for Matthew and Luke, and, the possibility of another source which was not accessible to Mark. According to Stanton (2002), ‘Luke’s portrait of Jesus seems to stress his human qualities. Even more than Matthew and Mark, Luke emphasizes the concern of Jesus for women, for tax collectors and sinners, and for those at the fringes of society’ (p. 79).

The book of Luke takes its readers on a journey which can be summarised in three stages: Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (Luke 4:14–9:50); his journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51–19:48); and, his arrest, trial, death, resurrection, instructions and promise of power — through the Holy Spirit (Luke 20–24:53).

Through Luke’s writing, we are privy to seminal parables like: the Prodigal son and the Good Samaritan. The latter inspired Martin Luther King’s last speech to a crowd of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, popularly known as ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’. The crescendo of this piece being the moral dilemma he presents to his audience, and the ethical question he leaves them to muse over:

‘…In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the ‘Bloody Pass.’ And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ “But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’

Through the threads of key events and key personalities, Luke unravels the mystery of the incarnation, presenting a beautiful tapestry of spiritual liberation and social justice for humanity. I can hear the reverberations of God’s thoughts through the pages of this gospel — I hear God pondering ‘If I do not stop to help humanity, what will happen?’ For the rich young ruler was as poor and vulnerable, as the widow in the earlier parable who was seeking justice from the unjust judge. Perhaps both accounts were craftily juxtaposed by Luke for reflection by his audience. Reflection on the social dilemmas they were faced with on a daily basis (Luke 18:1–14).

So he cites that Jesus was born in the days of the decree by Emperor Augustus, and John the Baptist began preaching in the fifteenth year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius. Stanton (2002) noted that the dedication of both volumes (Luke and Acts), to most excellent Theophilus, strengthens the case that Luke’s writing was geared towards the intelligentsia of his era (p. 80). Perhaps with a view not to alienate this group, he omits ‘the day of vengeance of our God’ (Isaiah 61:2b) in his account of Jesus’ reading of the text in the synagogue — our God denoting the God of the Hebrews — as to Jesus, the saviour of both Jews and gentiles. However I hasten to clarify that some scholars take the literal meaning of Theophilus, (lover of God, or friend of God) , underscoring that the letter was not written to any individual, but rather, a body of believers.

Furthermore Grassi (2003) also noted Luke’s purpose for writing as detailed in his prologue of his Gospel, with emphasis on the events fulfilled among; indicating the promises of God found in the scriptures. He further highlights the quote by Jesus towards the end Luke’s Gospel, (Luke 24:44): ‘these are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled’ (pp.172–173).

Jesus and social justice according to Luke

Hanson and Oakman (1998) mentioned that the ruling elites during Jesus’ era sought out the backing of either the Seleucids, Ptolemies, Parthians or the Romans; for protection, access to power, religious control, and inducement (p.87). These families protected their interest through very strong family ties and allegiance, making economic and social mobility very difficult for the peasantry. Like the widow in the parable (Luke 18:1–8), the peasants were entirely dependent on the ruling elites for justice on issues regarding: unfair tax bills, the dispossession of their land and property, the oppression by their employers or slave masters, the arrest or enslavement of their children… In the absence of equity some resulted to banditry. As a result Jesus’ association and identification with these groups, made him an enemy of the establishment (Luke 7:36–38). He was seen as a renegade preacher, a non-conformist, one with a contrary agenda, one who was gathering a following, one who might lead an insurrection. And because they had too much at stake, they sought to get rid of him, with a view to maintain the status quo and protect their interest. In some quarters he was even seen to be an arbitrator, hence he replied the man who demanded his intervention over a family dispute: ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ (Luke 12:14).

Luke recorded thirteen parables by Jesus. These parables can be best described as allegories or simple stories, some from oral tradition; which he used to illustrate moral or spiritual lessons to his audience. As well as spiritual and ethical slants, these parables also carried along themes of social justice, and clear links Jesus’ messianic manifesto as recorded in Luke 4:18–19. They include: the parable of the Sower (8:4–15); the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25–37); the parable of the Rich Fool (12:13–21); the parable of the Mustard Seed (13:18–19); the parable of the Great Dinner (14:15–24), the parable of the Lost Sheep (15:1–7); the parable of the Lost coin (15:8–10); the parable of the Prodigal Son (15:11–32); the parable of the Dishonest Manager (16:1–9); the parable of the Widow and Unjust Judge (18:1–8); the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (18:9–14); the parable of the Ten Pounds (19:11–27); and, the parable of the Wicked Tenants (20:9–19).

As with his teaching and lifestyle, Jesus’ call to repentance is far more emphasised in Luke’s writing in comparison to the other gospels. His desire was for change, and for the people to become agents of change — hence he cried over Jerusalem in disappointment before entering the city (Luke 19:41). We see later in the Book of Acts, and through history, these catalysts (disciples) causing sea change in the way people do: business, politics, relationship, worship, law, race-relations, diplomacy, education, government; across the Roman Empire — incarnating God’s will and kingdominto communities as they fled persecution from the authorities.

It is also important to note that Luke highlights Jesus’ dealings with non-Jews and the ruling elites of his era. For instance, the story of the centurion whose servant was gravely ill comes to mind (Luke 7:1–10). This senior Roman soldier’s social and political status is brought to light to us through the testimony of the Jewish elders he sent to solicit Jesus’ help. They spoke of some of his good deeds — including his contribution to the building of a synagogue. The centurion’s sphere of military authority was also underscored by the statement of faith he conveyed through his friends to Jesus:

“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” (Luke 7:6–7 NRSV).


Grassi (2003) noted that ‘If one word were to sum up a dominant concern of Luke, it would be metanoia, meaning ‘repentance’ — literally, a change of mind and heart. The beginning and end of Luke’s two volumes focus on this word.’ (p. 173).

For Luke, repentance was a precursor to forgiveness. There needed to be a conscious effort on the part of the recipients of God’s love; to effect a lasting change. Perhaps a process not dissimilar to the exegesis of the different landscapes, and their corresponding response to the seeds scattered by the sower, in the parable of the sower.

So in closing, I return again to Luke 4:18–19, this time with a view to amplify the text using John Rawls’ Principles of Justice.

Jesus said: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And John Rawls encapsulates the spirit of these words in two enduring principles: ‘The first principle: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with similar system of liberty for all. The second principle: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and, (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under the conditions of fair and equality of opportunity’ (p.302).


Cone, J. (2012) The Cross and the Lynching Tree. United States: Orbis Books

Grassi, J. (2002) Informing the Future: Social Justice in the New Testament.United States: Paulist Press International, U.S.

Hanson, K. and Oakman, D. (1998) Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts. United States: Minneapolis : Fortress Press, c1998.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 3, 1968). “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” (Transcript). American Rhetoric.

Rawls, J. (1971) Theory of Justice. United States: Belknap

Stanton, G. (2002) The Gospels and Jesus. 2nd edn. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, USA.