Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve / Dawn
The Nativity of Our Lord - Year ABC

Other texts:


An outline of these verses is offered by Brown (The Birth of the Messiah, p. 410. Much of the following information comes from his book.)

Setting (1-7)

a) The occasion of the census brings Joseph with Mary to Bethlehem (1-5)
b) While there, May gives birth to Jesus; she swaddles him and lays him in a manger (6-7)

Annunciation (8-14)

a) Nearby, an angel of the Lord announces to shepherds the birth of the savior, Messiah, and Lord, giving them the sign of the baby in the manger (8-12)
b) A multitude of the heavenly host appears and recites the Gloria (13-14)

Reactions (15-20)

a) The shepherds go to Bethlehem to see the sign; and finding it verified, they make known what was told them (15-17)
b) The hearers are astonished; Mary keeps these events in her heart; the shepherds return, glorifying and praising God (18-20)

CAESAR AUGUSTUS

Luke sets the birth in the days of Caesar Augustus. His name was Octavian, the great-nephew of Julius Caesar. After the assassination of Julius in 44 B.C., he ruled with Lepidus and Mark Anthony. He became the sole ruler after defeating Lepidus in 36 B.C. and Anthony in 31 B.C. He was given the title "Augustus" by the senate in 27 B.C. (Our month of August gets its name from Octavian.) Before dying in A.D. 14, he had designated his stepson, Tiberius, as his successor. It is in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar that Jesus began his ministry (Luke 3:1).

Augustus was remembered as the founder of the empire that brought peace to the world. There is an inscription at Halicarnassus that calls him "savior of the whole world". Brown writes: "It can scarcely be accidental that Luke's description of the birth of Jesus presents an implicit challenge to this imperial propaganda, not by denying the imperial ideals, but by claiming that the real peace of the world was brought about by Jesus" [p. 415]

Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) notes some contrasts:

The Savior of all people was born under the reign of Caesar Augustus, whose peace paled before that announced by the angels. The Messiah born under Roman oppression, which was so evident in the forced registration, would overthrow the powerful and raise up the oppressed. [p. 63]

THE CENSUS

There is much discussion about when (or if) a census of "all the world" (oikoumene) occurred. There are no other records of such an event during the reign of Augustus, nor of any census that required people to be registered in their ancestral cities. There is a record of a Judean census (which did not include Galilee) in 6-7 A.D. when Quirinius became governor of Syria. This took place ten years after King Herod had died, who was reigning when the birth announcements took place (Luke 1:5).

Within Luke's narrative, the census serves to move the holy family from Nazareth to Bethlehem. If it were known that Jesus grew up in Nazareth and that he was born in Bethlehem, there needs to be some connection between the two cities. Matthew's (ch. 2) approach is to have Jesus born in Bethlehem, presumably in the family's house, and then they are forced to flee to Egypt during the massacre of the children. When they return, they settle in Nazareth (to fulfill an unknown scriptural passage).

Theological, we see that the Roman emperor, the mightiest figure in the world is serving God's plan by issuing an edict for the census of the whole world. Bethlehem will be the place where the savior of the whole world will be born. Craddock (Luke, Interpretation Commentaries) says more about this:

Beyond any argument as to Luke's historical sources is his basic conviction that emperors, governments, and laws serve the purpose of God, often without knowing it. In this, Luke agrees with Isaiah 45:1. Caesar Augustus is more than a date for the story; he is an instrument of God's will. There does not have to be a miracle or an unusual event for God to be at work. God works miracles in Luke, to be sure, but God works without them, too. [p. 34]

There may also be symbolic meanings behind the census.

Augustus may represent the Roman background of the birth, and a census the Jewish background. King David ordered a census (2 Sam 24) and incurred God's wrath in the form of a pestilence. But, in accord with God's ability to bring good out of evil, the place in Jerusalem where the pestilence stopped became the spot for the building of the Temple (2 Chr. 3:1). Jesus is born in the city of David. The temple plays a prominent role in the opening chapters of Luke.

The census of Quirinius (mentioned above) provoked the rebellion of Judas the Galilean, the founder of the Zealot movement. Part of the charges against Jesus was that he refused to pay Roman taxes (Luke 23:2), of which Pilate declares Jesus innocent. Ironically, Jesus birth happened in Bethlehem, because his parents were obedient to the Roman census edict to go there and pay their taxes.

A Greek version of Psalm 87:6 attested in Eusebius' Commentary on the Psalms reads: "In the census of the peoples, this one will be born there." While we don't know for sure whether this version of Psalm 87 predates Luke or if it was influenced by Luke's story, it is possible that Luke was influenced by this version of the psalm and thus expanded the census taken by Quirinius of Judah to include the whole world.

THE PLACE OF THE BIRTH

We are told that the baby is laid in a phatne. This word only occurs in Luke (2:7, 12, 16; 13:15). Traditionally this has been translated "manger," and the word does refer to a trough for feeding animals. Interestingly, in English, the word "crib" refers both to a type of container for animal feed and a place for infants. Both are structures with bars on the side.

The word phatne can also refer to a "stall" for tying up animals. Such a stall may be indoors or outdoors. This seems to be the meaning in Luke 13:15 where an owner will untie an ox or donkey from the phatne to lead it to water.

In the birth narrative, phatne is in contrast to katalyma. Properly a katalyma was a place where a traveler "lays down" (katalyein) his baggage = a place of rest, lodging. The same word is used in Luke 22:11 (par. Mk 14:14) to refer to the "guest room" where Jesus will eat the Passover with his disciples. The verbal form is used in Luke 8:12 & 19:7 to refer to finding lodging or being a guest (i.e., where one puts down baggage). It is also used in Luke 21:6 with the more literal meaning of "to throw down".

The phatne becomes a sign for the shepherds (2:12, 16). It is how they recognize this baby as the one in the angel's declaration. (It was normal to wrap infants in strips of cloth.)

THE FIRSTBORN

Brown (The Birth of the Messiah):

Although prototokos, "firstborn," is sometimes clearly equivalent to monogenes, "only born," some would take this to mean "first born among many." And so, since the time of Helvidius (A.D. 380), this verse has played a role in the dispute among Christians as to whether Jesus was Mary's only child (because she remained a virgin), or she had other children, born after Jesus (the brothers and sisters of Jesus , mentioned in Mark 6:3) .... In the second century A.D. the Cynic Lucian of Samosata (Demonax 29) proposed a dilemma about a philosopher who claimed to be the first and only: "If the first, not the only; if the only, not the first"; and many have seen fit to quote that here. More subtly, Plummer, Luke, 53, argues that the evangelist would not have used "firstborn" of Jesus if he knew that Mary had no ore children, so that at least in Luke's time there was no well-known tradition that Jesus was an only child. However, the use of prototokos rather than monogenes proves only that Luke had no interest in presenting Jesus as Mary's only son. Others have seen in "firstborn" an implication of special affection; yet when Luke wants to imply that, as in the case of the widow of Nain, he uses monogenes (7:12; also 8:42; 9:38). [p. 398]

There may another reason why Luke uses prototokos for Jesus. That became part of titles given to him: "the firstborn of all creation" (Col 1:15); "the firstborn of the dead" (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5); the firstborn (Rom 8:28; Heb 1:6).

SHEPHERDS

In a Christmas Day sermon I described the shepherds:

They are people whom we wouldn't expect to be worshiping Jesus. Because of their jobs, shepherds normally didn't make it to the Temple worship services. They didn't practice sabbath day observances. They were seen as ignorant, irreligious, immoral, crude and vulgar Jews and they smelled bad, too. I would guess that we wouldn't like anyone to describe our church members using those kinds of words: ignorant, irreligious, immoral, crude and vulgar. Those aren't words you use to describe good, Christian people.

A member reminded me every Christmas afterwards that I had ruined Christmas for her with the comment about smelly shepherds. What would we expect from men who slept in the fields with sheep and without showers?

While there are positive images of shepherds in scriptures, e.g., "The LORD is my shepherd," at the time of Jesus' birth shepherding was a despised occupation. Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) says of them: "... in the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others' lands" [p. 65].

Brown (The Birth of the Messiah) writes in a footnote:

TalBab Sanhedrin 25b mentions that herdsmen were added by the early rabbis to the list of those ineligible to be judges of witnesses since frequently they grazed their flocks on other people's lands. Thus, they were among the type of dishonest people who were excluded from court. [p. 420]

Men who were not considered fit to be witnesses in court, are the first to witness the Christ child! Might they suggest that God has a sense of humor?

Luke's nativity story begins with Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man in the universe and it ends with lowly shepherds.

Like infant Jesus, the shepherds have no "guest house" where to sleep. They are describes as "living out doors" or "living in the fields" (agrauleo 2:8 -- a word that occurs only here in the NT).

The naturalness of the holy family's journey to Bethlehem -- following the orders of Caesar; is now contrasted with the supernaturalness of the shepherds' journey to Bethlehem. A question Culpepper (Luke, The Interpreter's Bible) asks in his reflection is "How will we get to Bethlehem?" In Matthew the Magi are led by a star, then by the scholars in Jerusalem who quote scriptures. In Luke, the holy family travels there in obedience to the government's decree. The shepherds see a dramatic, heavenly vision. He then writes:

By all these roads travelers can reach Bethlehem. Not all will follow the road of scholarship or historical investigation. Many will come as families surprised to hear God's Word in the midst of life. Others will come as the result of dramatic, moving experiences of the immediacy of the spiritual and the wondrous in the fabric of ordinary existence. By whatever road we take, the story invites us all to Bethlehem. [p. 66]

Within the humble dwellings of the shepherds at night -- in the darkness -- the angel of the Lord stands before them and the glory of the Lord shines around them.

The natural reaction to the appearance of angels if fear. They "are afraid with a great fear". The first words from the angel are "Do not be afraid."

This angel's message to the shepherds is similar to the angel's message to Zechariah. Both proclaim the gospel (euaggelizomai, 1:19; 2:10). What is the good news? It is described as "great joy" and "for all the people".

In Luke there is the shallow joy of those who quickly receive the word, but because it has no root, they fall away when testing comes (8:13).

There is the misplaced joy of the 70 over demons submitting to them. They should rejoice that their names are written in heaven (10:17-20).

There is joy in heaven when sinners repent (15:7, 10).

There is joy and disbelief at seeing the risen Jesus (24:41).

Finally, Luke ends the gospel with the disciples worshiping the ascending Jesus and then returning to Jerusalem with "great joy" (24:52).

Luke, more than the other gospels, presents Jesus as the savior for all people. Men and women, poor and rich, Pharisees and sinners (only in Luke does Jesus eat with Pharisees in addition to eating with sinners and tax collectors).

HEAVENLY ARMY

The word usually translated "host" literally means "army" (see footnote in NRSV). They praise (aineo) God. The shepherds will also do this in verse 20. The multitudes will do this when Jesus enters Jerusalem (19:37), where they somewhat echo some of the "army's" song: "Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"

A major issue in the army's song is the last word in Greek.

First: how to translated eudokia. Some possibilities are: good will, pleasure, favor; desire, purpose, choice.

Second: who is expressing the good will, pleasure, etc.? Are the people expressing good will, pleasure, favor? towards God? towards each other? towards the Child? Is it God who is expressing good will, pleasure, favor towards the people?

Third: there are the variant readings: eudokia = nominative case vs. eudokias = genitive case.

With the nominative case, we can have a three-line parallel song. (I'm adjusting the order in Greek to highlight the parallels):

glory to God in the highest
peace on earth
good will among people

However, the oldest and best manuscripts have the genitive. This leads to a two-line parallel song that offers something to someone at some place. (Again adjusting the order):

Glory in the highest to God
peace on earth among people of [divine] favor

THE SHEPHERD'S RESPONSE

"They kept saying to one another." The imperfect implies repeated or continuous action in the past.

Literally, what they kept saying to one another: "Let us depart now to Bethlehem and let us see this word which has happened, which the Lord made known to us."

I think that rhema = "word" is significant. In Hebrew, dabar, means both word and deed. When God speaks, things happen. Or, we might say, this is a deed where God speaks to the world.

Rhema is a word that occurs often in the opening chapters of Luke in regards to Mary and the birth, although often hidden in translations.

The response of the shepherds is to go and see and tell; and then to return glorifying and praising God. Shouldn't that be the life of all believers? We are to go to where Christ is present -- to the Word and Sacrament -- to church. There we are to see and hear and share. From there we return to our homes and places of work glorifying and praising God.

THE RESPONSE OF MARY

Not only are the shepherds models of obedience and transformed people by the birth of Christ, but so is Mary in v. 19. She treasures or holds dear or stores in her mind (syntereo) these words of the angel as shared by the shepherds. She ponders (symballo) them in her heart. These verbs imply that both her mind and her heart are connected with all that has happened and all that she has heard.

These words don't indicate that she necessarily understands everything that has happened. In fact, a literal meaning of symballo is "to throw together". I would paraphrase it to indicate that she is trying to put all these things together -- to make sense of it all.

CONCLUSION: THE ESSENCE OF THE GOOD NEWS

It may be that God uses the most unworthy shepherds to prove his point. There are no good reasons why God should have invited shepherds to the birth of Jesus. They are the last group of Jews you would want around at the birth; but precisely because they were not expected, precisely because they shouldn't be there, precisely because of their bad reputations; God makes his point.

The shepherds come to Jesus because God extended them an invitation they couldn't refuse. The shepherds come, not because they were worthy, but because God invited them.

That is the way the Gospel works. We are not worthy to come to Jesus. We might not be as bad as the shepherds. We have much better reputations than shepherds did. We certainly smell better than the shepherds did; but still, it is only by God's invitation that we have come to Jesus. It is only through the power of God that we are able to believe in Jesus as our Savior and Lord. We deserve nothing that God has given us; but God has been good to us amazingly good to us. God not only invited shepherds to see and believe in Jesus; God has also invited each of us to see and believe in Jesus as the savior of the world and our own savior. Then sends us back home changed people.


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com