Posted by: Johnold Strey | December 5, 2009

Luke the Historian

For the past several weeks, my non-sermon posts have been pretty quiet, as other projects are keeping me busy for the final few months of the year.  Despite that, hits were quite high because a number of people found last year’s post about the Advent wreath.  Apparently “Advent” and “Advent wreath” are big web searches this time of year!  But now that Advent has started, the wave of web searching visitors (and “easy hits”) has slowed — suggesting that I need to write something new!

The Gospel for tomorrow, the Second Sunday in Advent (in Year C of the lectionary), is Luke 3:1-6.  The Second and Third Sundays in Advent always take us to the ministry of John the Baptist.  John’s preparatory work for Jesus’ ministry serves as a useful and appropriate preparatory message for Jesus’ Advent–both the celebration of his first Advent and the anticipation of his second Advent.

Luke’s record of John’s ministry, much like his record of Jesus’ birth, sets the historical stage before describing the specific details.  Luke 3 begins:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar–when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene–during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert (Luke 3:1-2, NIV).

It seems to me that every time a biblical writer makes a historical reference, critics are right there suggesting that the reference couldn’t possibly be accurate or that there is some other flaw in what the biblical author says.  The first part of my Christmas Day sermon from last year, based on Luke 2:1-14, dealt with the critics’ comments on Luke’s historical references at the start of the Christmas account.  One chapter later, the situation isn’t much different. 

I’m preaching on the Luke 3:1-6 Gospel selection tomorrow.  In preparation for that sermon, I came across the following quotation from a Lutheran commentary on Luke’s Gospel.  The author of these comments, William Arndt, gives us a brief overview of the issues surrounding Luke’s historical references in Luke 3:1-2, and provides two possible answers (one more likely than the other).  As useful background material on the Gospel that many people will hear tomorrow — and as an easy way to offer a new post (just quote someone else!) — I’ll share with you some of Arndt’s comments here.

Luke carefully dates the appearance of John the Baptist as the special preacher of God. While he does not name the month and the day of the month when John preached his first sermon, his dating is, generally speaking, as precise as that found in ancient histories. … In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, John appeared before the public. Emperor Augustus, the predecessor and stepfather of Tiberius, died August 19, A.D. 14. The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius began August 19, A.D. 28, and extended to August 18, A.D. 29. If we assume that Jesus was baptized when the ministry of John had been in progress for about half a year, then it was about January of A.D. 29 that this baptism occurred; and at the time of his baptism, according to Luke 3:23, Jesus was about 30 years old. Counting back thirty years from this date would place the birth of Jesus in about 3 B.C. But that year cannot be correct, because the Savior was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in the spring of 4 B.C. In January A.D. 29 Jesus must at least have been 33 years old. But this matter causes no difficulty. Luke says that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his ministry, using an expression which grants much latitude. The words of Luke do not make it impossible for us to assume that Jesus was born in 5 or early 4 B.C. … One difficulty presents itself; it is quite well established that Jesus was crucified April 7, A.D. 30. If his ministry did not begin till late in 28 or early in 29, not sufficient time is available for the ministry of Jesus described in John’s Gospel.

Another interpretation must not be overlooked, and in my view is to be preferred. The scholars who sponsor it … hold that Luke may begin his reckoning as to the reign of Tiberius with the year in which Tiberius became the coruler of Augustus, which according to our chronology was A.D. 11 or 12. … If Luke begins to count the years with the time that Tiberius became coruler of Augustus, the year in which John the Baptist appeared would be 26 or 27. The birth of Jesus then would have occurred in 5 B.C. or even earlier. According to this method the age of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry would be quite accurately described in the phrase “about thirty years old.” My view, then, is that the Evangelist is referring to A.D. 26.

William F. Arndt, Luke, Concordia Classics, pp. 105-106.

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