What is a gospel? Who is Luke? The musical play “Godspell” that opened on Broadway in 1971, was based on the Old English ‘godspel.’ Like the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον, this Germanic based word gospel means good news or good tidings. This term originally meant the Christian message itself. However, in the second century, it came to be used for the books where this message was set out. Thus, the gospels became known as the written accounts of the life, actions, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. This title, the Gospel of Luke (κατὰ Λουκᾶν εὐαγγέλιον), was added some time in the second century, perhaps by Papias of Hierapolis (60–130 CE), an early bishop and apostolic father. Traditionally, this work has been ascribed to Luke, a companion of the apostle Paul. He was a gentile and not a Jew, so that his Greek style of writing was more refined. Perhaps Greek may have been his first language. Paul described him in the Letter to the Colossians, chapter 4:14, as his physician. Thus, Luke was a well-educated non-Israelite who tried to situate the presence of Jesus and his followers within a historic setting, to be precise a salvation history outlook. He also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, since the Greek style and the same dedication is at the beginning of each work. Both were addressed to Theophilus, and both assume an educated Greek speaking audience. This gospel is a movement towards Jerusalem, while the second work of the Acts is away from Jerusalem. The dating for this work usually extends from about the late 60s CE to as late as 110 CE. This gospel is the longest book in the New Testament and thus the longest of the 4 gospels. In fact, more than 25% of the whole New Testament was written by Luke if you include the Acts. Luke probably used Mark with a second document called the Q source, as well as some material that is unique to him, about 35%. 41% of Luke can be found in both Mark and Matthew. The Q source is a hypothetical written or oral collection of Jesus’ sayings that was common to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but not in the Gospel of Mark, that makes up about 23% of his work. This Q source, from the German word Quelle, included many parables and the beatitudes. Did Q even predate the Gospel of Mark? Another question is whether Luke used Matthew instead of having a common source.
This Gospel of Matthew has a prologue with five parts that echo the book of Genesis. First, there was the genealogy of Jesus via Joseph that began with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then this genealogy went through the twin sons of Judah and the descendants of Perez. Then it went from Ruth to King David. Then there was the kings of Judah from Solomon to the gap and up to and including the Babylonian captivity. Finally, there were the unknown names in this genealogy that led up to Joseph and his father. Matthew then explained the genealogy of Jesus, since there were differences of this genealogy with that of the Gospel of Luke.
The second part of this prologue was the virgin birth of Jesus. First of all, there was the conception of Jesus from Joseph’s point of view, not Mary’s. Joseph wanted to divorce Mary for being pregnant until an angel in a dream told him that Jesus would be a special child that fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah. After waking up from his dream, there was the virgin birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
The third part of this prologue was the visit of the Magi. They brought their questions to Herod the Judean Roman king, who was annoyed and frightened. He found out that Bethlehem was described by the prophet Micah as the place where the Messiah would be born. Herod summoned the Magi and sent them to Bethlehem. The Magi followed the star and found Mary with the child at the so-called Epiphany. However, they went home another route so that they did not go back to King Herod.
The fourth part was the flight into Egypt, as Joseph had another dream. They went to Egypt to fulfill another prophecy that the Messiah would come out of Egypt. Meanwhile, King Herod killed all the under two-year old boys in the Bethlehem area as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah.
Finally, the fifth part of the prologue was the return of Jesus to Nazareth when Joseph had a third dream. He was told to return to Israel, or more specifically to Galilee in a place called Nazareth. Thus, this prologue gave the unique perspective of Joseph.
Matthew now switched to more common material about Jesus and his life. John the Baptist is mentioned in all four canonical gospels. In fact, if anything, Matthew seemed to be following Mark, chapter 1:4, since Mark began his gospel with this story. Matthew began this episode with his trademark transitional phrase, “In those days it happened (Ἐν δὲ ταῖς ἡμέραις ἐκείναις).” John the Baptizer (Ἰωάνης ὁ βαπτιστὴς) came preaching (παραγίνεται…κηρύσσων) in the wilderness or desert in Judea (ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τῆς Ἰουδαίας). This wilderness was southeast of Jerusalem and west of the Dead Sea. Apparently, John the Baptist was a Jewish itinerant preacher in the early first century CE. He used baptism, some kind of dipping in water, as the central symbol or sacrament of his messianic movement. Thus, he became known as the one who baptizes, the Baptizer, John the Baptist. He certainly had a relationship with Jesus, but the exact relationship between John and Jesus is also problematic. According to the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1:36, John’s mother and Jesus’ mother were relatives of some sort. Both John and Jesus may have originally been co-workers. However, they separated as Jesus went along a different route. However, the shadow of John the Baptist appeared again and again in the biblical stories about Jesus and his apostles. Some believe that Jesus may have been a follower or disciple of John, but the textual indications are that John saw himself as subservient to Jesus. Some of Jesus’ early followers had previously been followers of John, as in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 19:2-6. There may have been some contact between John the Baptist and the Qumran-Essene community, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Thus, John might have been associated with them or part of their community for a while. John the Baptist died by beheading, as explained later in this gospel, chapter 14:10. Thus, John the Baptist has been revered as a prophet and a Christian saint throughout the centuries.
The Gospel of Matthew presented the infancy story of Jesus from the perspective of Joseph, unlike the Gospel of Luke that presented the same story from the perspective of Mary. What do they have in common and what is unique. Mary and the child Jesus play a secondary role in this narration, since it was all about Joseph, the son of Jacob, the father of the child. There were certain things in common with the Luke story. Both Joseph and Mary were troubled by this pregnancy. Both had an angel come and explain that the child was from the Holy Spirit. Both were told that the name of the child would be Jesus. In both stories, the child is born in Bethlehem. Beyond that, there were some unique things to the story of Joseph in Matthew. He almost divorced Mary. He had a number of angelic dreams. He was told to go to Egypt, which he did. He then returned to Israel and settled in Nazareth in Galilee. In between, there was the strange story of King Herod and the magi. Matthew used 5 different Old Testament Hebrew prophecies to show that Jesus was truly within the Jewish prophetic tradition. Clearly, in these two opening chapters, Matthew was a Jewish scripture scholar with his use of 1 Chronicles in the genealogy and the various prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Micah, and Judges. Whatever sources he used for this unique perspective on the birth of Jesus, they were clearly Jewish based. Joseph was a righteous Jewish man. After this presentation, Joseph seemed to drift off the center stage in the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth.
The end of this genealogy is Joseph (Ἰωσὴφ) with his father Jacob (Ἰακὼβ). Perhaps the names of Jacob and Joseph were an attempt to connect Jesus with the great Joseph, the son of Jacob, who brought the sons of Jacob to Egypt. However, compared to the text in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 3, there is a difference. Luke has Joseph called “the son of Heli,” not “the son of Jacob.” The Greek text used the term “begat” (ἐγέννησεν) to represent the relationships between Jacob and Joseph. It seems perfectly acceptable to simply call him the father, instead of saying “he fathered him.” This Joseph was the husband of Mary (τὸν ἄνδρα Μαρίας), so that there was no doubt that he was the legal father of Jesus (Ἰησοῦς) and the legal husband of Mary. The term ἄνδρα could mean man or husband, but the context here is clearly as a husband of Mary. Instead of begetting (ἐγέννησεν) Jesus, Jesus was born (ἐξ ἧς ἐγεννήθη) into Mary. Lest there be any question who this Jesus was, he was the one called the anointed one (ὁ λεγόμενος Χριστός), the Messiah, the Christ.
This gospel is the only one of the four gospels that calls itself a book (Βίβλος). Thus, more contemporary translations have used the term ‘an account’ rather than a book, which appears 10 times in the New Testament. Clearly, this is about the genealogy of Jesus (γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ). The Greek word for genealogy means origins, like the Greek word for the origins of the world in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Then there is the Greek term that we all familiar with “Christ,” (Χριστοῦ), which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew “Messiah,” or “The Anointed One.” This author clearly states at the beginning of this book that it will be about Jesus the expected anointed Messiah, Christ. This Jesus was the son of David (υἱοῦ Δαυεὶδ) and the son of Abraham (υἱοῦ Ἀβραάμ). Jesus, the Christ, the anointed one, had Jewish ancestry as a son of Abraham. He also had a royal Hebrew lineage as a son of David. Unlike the Gospel of Luke, this genealogy does not start with the more universal Adam, but with the first Hebrew or Israelite, Abraham. Clearly, Jesus was Jewish.
Here we have the famous phrase that was used by the Christian writers of the New Testament to speak about John the Baptist. The Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke both use these phrases from the Greek Septuagint when citing them from Isaiah. Apparently this new path is a way out of the Exile, just as there was the path of the Exodus. In this wilderness or desert, they were to make a straight path, like a highway for God or the Holy Way that was mentioned earlier in chapter 35, to prepare a path for Yahweh. This would also be a time of upheaval. The valleys would rise as the mountains and hills would fall. Also the uneven and rough places would become level and plain. All the people would then see the glory of God revealed. In case there was any doubt, Second Isaiah said that this was spoken by the mouth of Yahweh.