This Sunday’s gospel lectionary reading for Advent 2 in Year C is Luke 3.1–6, the location and opening of John the Baptist’s ministry. We will hear more about the content of John’s ministry next week; for now, we are just given the setting.
During the last year, we have got used to reading Mark by looking at the narrative shape of what he says, and the way he does his Christology and makes his theological points by his arrangement of his material. I am beginning to feel that, returning to Luke, we will need to be alert to this even more. As many commentators now note, Luke appears to be making a deliberate effort to meet the criteria for what was expected of good historiography in his day, and this is shown in his sometimes complex and subtle arrangement of material. This week’s reading is a good example.
There are several interesting things to note about the opening list of rulers in Luke 3.1. This is not the first time that Luke has located his story in the context of the wider world. After his short prologue outlining his purposes and method, he introduces us to Zechariah ‘in the days of Herod [the Great] king of Judea’. The birth of Jesus is set in Luke 2.1 at the time of ‘Caesar Augustus’ who issued a census, and Luke further qualifies that this is the ‘first [of importance?] when Quirinius was governor of Syria’. Despite our confusion about what Luke means here, he appears to be wanting to locate the events he narrates with some precision.
The much longer list does a number of things. Most obviously, it tells us that time has moved on; Herod the Great has died, and Luke mentions two of his three sons who succeeded him (omitting mention here of Herod Archelaus, who was removed by the Romans, and Pilate now governs what has become the Roman Province of Judea). In fact, it allows us to date the ministry of John with some accuracy; the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius would be 28 or 29, depending on the exact time of year. This is a remarkable thing to know about someone who is an apocalyptic prophet in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire; we know this only from Luke’s gospel, but it correlates perfectly with other information we have about dating the events of the gospels and Acts.
The second thing this list does is illustrate Luke’s concern for historiographical accuracy. Although some English translations obscure it, Luke is careful to use the correct titles for each of the rules, so Pilate is ‘governor’ whilst Herod, Philip and Lysanias are ‘tetrarchs’ ruling parts of Herod the Great’s domain after it was divided up. A classic text exploring the historicity of the New Testament was F F Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: are they reliable? (I have the 1960 fifth edition reprinting which I bought in 1980) which you can read online. Bruce notes:
Whatever his sources were, Luke made good use of them. And he sets his story in the context of imperial history. Of all the New Testament writers, he is the only one who so much as names a Roman emperor. Three emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, and Claudius) are mentioned by name; the Emperor Nero is also referred to, but not by his personal name—he is the ‘Caesar’ to whom Paul appealed. The birth of Jesus is fixed in the reign of the Emperor Augustus, when Herod the Great was king of Judaea, at the time of an imperial census. The commencement of the public ministry of John the Baptist, with which the ‘Kerygma’ proper begins, elaborately dated by a series of synchronisms in the Greek historical manner, reminding the classical student of the synchronisms with which, for example, Thucydides dates the formal outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in the beginning of the second book of his History.
Names of note in the Jewish and Gentile world of his day appear in Luke’s pages; in addition to the emperors, we meet the Roman governors Quirinius, Pilate, Sergius Paullus, Gallio, Felix, and Festus; Herod the Great and some of his descendants—Herod Antipas the tetrarch of Galilee, the vassal kings Herod Agrippa I and II, Berenice and Drusilla; leading members of the Jewish priestly caste such as Annas, Caiaphas, and Ananias; Gamaliel, the greatest contemporary Rabbi and Pharisaic leader. A writer who thus relates his story to the wider context of world history is courting trouble if he is not careful; he affords his critical readers so many opportunities for testing his accuracy. Luke takes this risk, and stands the test admirably. One of the most remarkable tokens of his accuracy is his sure familiarity with the proper titles of all the notable persons who are mentioned in his pages. This was by no means such an easy feat in his days as it is in ours, when it is so simple to consult convenient books of reference.
Bruce goes on to list the correct names that Luke uses throughout Acts—including those that change at particular times, so Luke would need to know the exact timing and changes to record them accurately, which he always does.
There are two questions about the inclusion of Lysanias. The first is whether Luke was in error, since Josephus mentions a person by that name from a much earlier period—but the accuracy of Luke’s reference was confirmed by the discovery of an inscription in the nineteenth century that mentioned a ‘tetrarch Lysanias’ (the first two words on the fourth line in the image on the right) in the correct period.
The second is why Luke includes him at all? He is an otherwise insignificant figure, and the small territory he ruled over is not significant in the gospels, and doesn’t really complete a systematic geographical description. I have not found an explanation in commentaries, but I would like to suggest a solution in the light of Luke’s interest in numerical composition, which is evident in other places in the gospel and Acts: Luke here offers us a list of seven names, and so in some sense is describing a ‘complete’ historical location for John’s ministry. Four of these seven (Pilate, Herod Antipas, Annas and Caiaphas) play important parts in the narrative that follows.
Although the main part of this list focuses on the ‘secular’ power of rulers, he completes it with mention of the two high priests; into the international scene of political and military power, he folds the national scene of ‘religious’ power. Annas was high priest from 6 to 15, so by now no longer holds office, but he was succeeded by his five sons, his son-in-law Joseph Caiaphas (from 18 to 36/37) and perhaps a grandson.
Annas had…near-dynastic control of the office…As the head of the temple and its cult, Caiaphas and Annas would have exercised virtually unrivalled power and privilege among the Jewish people (Joel Green, NICNT on Luke, p 169).
What would be the rhetorical impact of this introduction? I wonder how it would feel if we did something similar in introducing a local event?
At the time when Boris Johnson was Prime Minister of Great Britain, when Joe Biden was President of the United States, Xi Jinping was President of the People’s Republic of China, Nicola Sturgeon was First Minister of Scotland, and Emmanuel Macron was the President of France, when Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell were Archbishops of Canterbury and York, John Smith was appointed vicar of St Muggles in the Marsh.
At one level, there is a sense of absurd contrast between the large scale of the canvas on which the story is painted, and the quaint parochialism of the story itself. And yet at the same time it suggests that there is a connection between the two; we might expect that John Smith is going to do something quite dramatic in order to merit this introduction. It reminds me of the beginning of the Lord of the Rings, where on the one hand we are aware of the weighty history and centres of power represented by Minas Tirith and the land of Mordor—but then we suddenly find ourselves in the comparative humdrum of a birthday party!
More than that, we might begin to think about the implications of the context. The seven names I have included hint at the exit of the UK from the EU, and the uncertainties that has brought; conflicts with France about fishing rights, trade, and migrants; questions about the Union and Scottish independence; the political tensions around Trumpism in the US; the growing threat of China in trade, military power, and cyber warfare; and closer to home the challenges facing the Church of England, and its disputes about mission, parishes, and church planting.
For Luke’s readers, they will be aware of the reign of Tiberius as marked by his decline in mental health and the terror of his final years, including the expulsion of Jews from Rome. Pilate was known for his ruthlessness, a man who was ‘inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentless’, who held the Jews in low esteem, introducing tokens of emperor worship into the temple at Jerusalem and taking money from the temple treasury. Herod Antipas built his Hellenized capital, Tiberias, on a graveyard, which would be unclean for Jews, placed images in public places, and was fiercely loyal to Rome. Philip reigned in a Gentile area, in which he accelerated Hellenization.
Luke’s synchronism in Luke 3.1–2a provides, therefore, more than an historical setting for or local colour to the narrative. Rather, they bespeak a particular, tension-filled, top-heavy, socio-historical milieu (Green, ibid).
Into this context of power, threat, and instability, ‘the word of the Lord’ comes to John. This is the language of the Old Testament patriarchs, kings, and (especially) prophets: the word of the Lord comes to Abraham (Gen 15.1); Samuel (1 Sam 15.10); Nathan (2 Sam 7.4); Solomon (1 Kings 6.11); Elijah (1 Kings 17.2); Isaiah (Is 38.4); Jeremiah (Jer 1.4 and 22 times more!); Ezekiel (Ezek 1.3)—well, you get the idea! The phrase comes 98 times in the OT, but Luke alone uses it in relation to John the Baptist. And we find a similar mention of geo-political markers juxtaposed with the coming of the ‘word of the Lord’ in many prophets (see Is 1.1, Jer 1.2–3, Joe 1.1). Into a scene of power, conflict, and oppression, God speaks his word and announces the coming of the promised king.
John is introduced both in terms that remind us of the preceding chapters, taking us back across the strong sense of introduction in these opening verses back to the preparation that God has made (‘son of Zechariah’, again unique to Luke). The mention of his being ‘in the wilderness’ also connects us with where we left him in Luke 1.80, but, along with mention of the Jordan, points further back to the Exodus wanderings and entrance into the promised land.
Luke agrees with Mark’s phraseology in describing his message as ‘preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. Like the prophets of old, John is preparing the people for the imminent eschatological coming of God to his people in both liberation and judgement.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins… (Luke 1.76–77).
The idea of baptism, administered by a third party, appears to be novel. Gentile converts to Judaism (proselytes) had to undergo a ritual washing as part of their initiation, but this signified a change of ethnic affiliation, and here John is baptising Jews who remain Jews. Ritual washing in the miqveh was practised at Qumran and in connection with the temple, but only began around this time, was self-administered, and was a repeated action where John is offering a once-for-all action in preparation for the coming of God.
But there is a sense in which the people of God are very familiar with the idea of passing through water as preparation for the action of God. They passed through the waters of the Red Sea as preparation for journeying in the wilderness (hence Paul’s language of ‘baptism in Moses’ in 1 Cor 10.2); they then passed through the waters of the Jordan to enter the Promised Land; the psalmist is rescued through the deep waters of death by God (eg in Ps 18.16); and in returning from exile God has rescued them as they ‘pass through the waters’ (Is 43.2). This multiple significance was captured rather nicely in the prayer over the water in the ASB 1980 Baptism service (sadly emaciated in the Common Worship service).
John’s baptism is offered as a sign of ‘repentance’, of turning back to the way of God after having strayed, and anticipates Jesus’ own preaching about the right response to the kingdom. (It is often suggested that the Greek term metanoia has a sense of ‘thinking again’ because of its etymology, but words do not always mean what their etymology suggests, and it is a synonym of the verb (epi)strepho which in the LXX translates shuv meaning a literal or metaphorical turning around and changing direction.)
Through submitting to repentance-baptism, in which their roles were passive, they signified their surrender to God’s aim, distanced themselves from past ways of life oriented away from God’s purpose, and professed their renewed allegiance to his will. By coming out into the wilderness to meet John they symbolized that separation from ordinary life, through baptism embraced a conversion of loyalties and were themselves embraced into it the community of God’s people, and by returning to their everyday lives they accepted the vocation to reflect behaviours apropos true children of Abraham (Green, NICNT, p 165).
The citation of Isaiah 40.3–5 is fuller than Matthew’s brief citation, and more disciplined that Mark, who combines Isaiah with Malachi. (It is interesting that Luke describes it as ‘the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet’, avoiding contemporary issues of authorship!) The citation brings together the themes of preparation for God’s coming and judgement in the desert place, and so this continues Luke’s themes rather than being a biblical aside; he has already provided the evidence which correlates the words of Isaiah with the actions of John.
Although the Christological claims implicit here are slightly more muted than in Mark, they are still present, as they have been from the beginning of Luke: the Lord, Yahweh, Israel’s God who comes to his people, arrives in the person of Jesus for whom John is making preparation.
There is a powerful parallelism between ‘mountain/made low’, ‘crooked/straight’, ‘rough/smooth’ and ‘people/salvation’. The mighty will be brought down from their thrones, the crooked powers will be straightened, and the challenging times will be made bearable, when God’s salvation comes. Crooked and sinful people, within and without Israel, will have the offer of forgiveness and salvation held out to them, in ways they cannot yet imagine. There is an inclusio between the mention of Caesar in verse 1 and ‘all flesh’ in verse 6, an inclusio that shapes the whole of Luke’s account which ends in Acts 28 with the good news of the kingdom being preached by Paul to all—in Rome, the heart of the empire at whose fringes this action begins.
The picture at the top is John the Baptist in the Wilderness, held at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, by the French nineteenth-century artist James Tissot. One of the reasons I like it is that John looks like a 1970s rock star…