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Note of the Day – March 1 (Luke 4:16-30)

In yesterday’s note I looked at the tradition of Jesus’ visit to his hometown (Nazareth) in Mark 6:1-6a. Matthew’s version (13:53-58) differs only slightly from that of Mark. Luke’s account, as I have already mentioned, has a number of details unique to his version, though it almost certainly is describing the same (historical) event and tradition. These differences I will be discussing today. Before proceeding, it is worth pointing out that neither Mark nor Matthew actually mentioned the name of the town, simply referring to it as Jesus’ patri/$ (patrís), “father(‘s) land”, i.e. the territory of his home town. We may assume that the Gospel writers both understood it to be Nazareth, based on earlier data they recorded (Mk 1:9; Matt 2:13; 4:13), but, in all likelihood, the original tradition as passed down did not include the name of the town. Luke specifically refers to it by name (4:16), and he has good reasons for doing so, as we shall see.

Luke 4:16-30

Let us first note the elements and details which are unique to Luke’s version of the episode, and which he most likely has added to the core Synoptic narrative. We may take these to be (authentic) historical traditions, and, if so, they would be considered part of the so-called “L” material (traditions found only in Luke). The significant additions are as follows:

  • A different narrative introduction (v. 16)
  • The detail of Jesus standing up to read a passage from the Prophets (v. 17)
  • The quotation of Isaiah 61:1, with Jesus’ explanation (vv. 18-21)
  • The proverb cited by Jesus in v. 23
  • The Scriptural examples involving the Prophets Elijah and Elisha (vv. 25-27)
  • The violent reaction by the people, with intent to do harm to Jesus (vv. 28-29f)

The core Synoptic tradition, as found in Mk 6:1-6a (cf. the previous note), can still be glimpsed by combining together vv. 14-15 (with 16), 22, 24, and (very loosely) 28, 30. Beyond the added details listed above, consider how the author has (apparently) modified the core tradition:

  • The details emphasized in verse 16 (cp. Mk 6:1-2a par):
    (a) The name of the town (Nazareth)
    (b) That it was the place where Jesus was nourished (i.e. raised, brought up)
    (c) That he was used to attending local Synagogues on the Sabbath (and teaching there)
  • A different formulation of the people’s reaction—that is, the summary of their words/thoughts (v. 22 / Mk 6:2-3 par)
  • A different version of Jesus’ saying (v. 24 / Mk 6:4)
  • The episode apparently ends with a rather different (more violent) result to Jesus’ visit (vv. 28-30)

Each of these will be examined briefly, going verse by verse.

Verse 16—The Lukan details mentioned above all relate to the distinctive purpose of the episode within the context of the Gospel narrative. Two major literary and thematic elements are clearly at work:

  • The reference to Nazareth as the place where Jesus was brought up (as a child) points back to the Infancy Narrative of chapters 1-2, especially 2:40-52, which share certain motifs and language with 4:16ff. I have discussed these in an earlier note on this passage.
  • This episode illustrates the summary of Jesus’ (Galilean) ministry in verses 14-15—in particular, that of his teaching in the synagogues. The Synoptic tradition introduces the ministry of Jesus with a different episode (cf. Mark 1:21-28 par [this follows in Lk 4:31-37]). Note the way that both the initial Markan and Lukan episodes illustrate the two aspects of Jesus’ ministry:
    (1) Teaching/preaching (with a synagogue setting)—Mk 1:21-22, 27; Lk 4:14-16, 22
    (2) Working miracles—Mk 1:23-27; Lk 4:14a, 23-27

Verses 17-21—The quotation of Isaiah 61:1 is a tradition unique to Luke’s account. In verse 21, Jesus states that this prophecy has been fulfilled at the moment of his reading it. In other words, Jesus identifies himself with the Anointed herald/prophet figure of Isa 61:1ff, just as he does elsewhere, in the traditional “Q” material (Lk 7:22 / Matt 11:5). Luke’s inclusion of this reference probably offers the best explanation for his location of the Nazareth episode, set at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This can be explained on three levels:

  • A connection with the Baptism scene, with the descent of the Spirit upon Jesus (3:22). This is to be understood as the moment when the Spirit came upon him and he was anointed by God (Isa 61:1 / 4:18).
  • A connection with the preceding Temptation scene (4:1-13) which is framed by important references to the presence/activity of the Spirit (vv. 1, 14). In other words, this also shows how Jesus has been ‘anointed’ by the Spirit of God.
  • Jesus’ identity as the Anointed One (Messiah), which serves as a principal theme of the Lukan account of Jesus’ Galilean ministry (4:19:20). However, in this period he is not identified as the royal Messiah from the line of David, but as the Anointed herald/prophet of Isaiah 61. Matthew (4:12-17) introduces Jesus’ Galilean ministry with a different Messianic prophecy (Isa 9:1-2), one more in keeping with the Davidic figure-type.

Verse 22—Here it is worth comparing Luke’s account of the crowds reaction with that of Mark. Consider first the initial description of their reaction:

“and many hearing (him) were laid out (flat) [i.e. amazed], saying ‘From where (did) these things (come) to this (man), and what (is) th(is) wisdom…’?” (Mk 6:2)

“and all witnessed (about) him and wondered upon [i.e. at] the words of favor traveling out of his mouth” (Lk 4:22a)

The idea is roughly the same, but with a different emphasis. In Mark, the people recognize the two aspects of Jesus’ ministry—the wisdom (of his teaching) and his powerful deeds (miracles). In Luke’s account, it seems that they are responding to his gifts as a speaker, fulfilling a traditional religious role—that of reading the Scripture and offering a (pleasant) word of exhortation. It would seem that, while they may have recognized the Messianic significance of Isa 61:1ff, they certainly did not understand the implication of Jesus’ declaration in v. 21—that he was the Anointed One of the prophecy. Mark’s version may contain something of this idea as well, in the statement that the people of Nazareth were “tripped up” (the vb. skandali/zw) by Jesus (v. 3, cf. Lk 7:23 par)

The second part of the people’s reaction is even more significant. In Mark (6:3) the people find it hard to explain Jesus’ words and deeds, since they know all of his family—his mother, brothers, and sisters—as ‘ordinary’ people in the area. Luke has simplified this statement greatly, highlighting just one family member of Jesus:

“Is this not the son of Yoseph {Joseph}?”

This is reasonably close to the words in Matt 13:55: “Is this not the son of the craftsman [i.e. carpenter]?”, as well as being virtually identical to those in Jn 6:42. However, for Luke the reference to Joseph (as Jesus’ human father) has special importance, as can be seen clearly from two earlier passages:

  • The episode of the child Jesus in the Temple, in which Joseph as Jesus’ (human/legal) father is contrasted with God as his (true) Father (2:48-49)
  • The genealogy of Jesus (3:23-38), which begins “the son, as it was thought, of Joseph…” (v. 23), and ends “…the (son) of God” (v. 38). The implication, again, is that God is Jesus’ true Father (1:32, 35; 3:22b).

With these allusions in mind, it becomes apparent what the author is emphasizing here in this scene. The people of Nazareth are still thinking of Jesus as the ordinary, human/legal son of Joseph, and do not at all recognize him as the Anointed One and Son of God.

Verses 23-24—In Luke’s version, the Synoptic saying is preceded by an additional proverb (in v. 23). It functions as a provocative challenge to the townspeople. At this point, Luke does not mention the people taking offense at Jesus (cp. Mark 6:3); rather, Jesus seems to be taking the initiative in provoking them. The proverb brings to light the miracles performed by Jesus and plays upon the Synoptic tradition in Mk 6:5 par—that he was unable to perform many miracles in his home town (because of the people’s lack of faith). The proverb itself is relatively common, with parallels known from the Greco-Roman and Near Eastern world. However, in Luke, joined as it is with the saying of v. 24, it effectively creates a dual contrasting statement (physician/prophet). This, in fact, is how the saying has been preserved in at least one line of tradition, as recorded in the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1 and the Gospel of Thomas (§31)—i.e. “a prophet is not… and a physician does not…”. The Lukan form of the saying in v. 24 also differs from the version in Mark/Matthew:

“A foreteller [i.e. prophet] is not without honor, if not [i.e. except] in his father(‘s) land and among his relatives and in his (own) house” (Mk 6:4)

“Not one foreteller [i.e. prophet] is accepted in his father(‘s) land” (Lk 4:24)

Most likely, Luke’s version represents an abridgment and/or simplification of the Synoptic tradition. Again, it serves a distinct purpose in the Lukan context—it makes more direct the identification of Jesus as a prophet.

Verses 25-27—The prophetic association becomes even clearer with the references to Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:8-16; 2 Kings 5:1-19) and the miracles they worked. Jesus effectively is identifying himself with a prophet like Elijah/Elisha, a connection which appears a number of times in the Gospel tradition. For more on this, see parts 2 and 3 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Verses 28-30—Luke, quite in contrast with the narrative in Mark/Matthew, records an openly hostile, violent reaction to Jesus, provoked, it would seem, by Jesus’ own words in vv. 23-27. There is nothing quite like this in the core synoptic narrative, which ends rather uneventfully, with a laconic statement that Jesus was unable to perform many miracles in his home town, and that he marveled at the people’s lack of faith (Mk 6:5-6a). This is the only point at which the Lukan account really does not fit the Synoptic outline of the episode in Mark/Matthew. It does, however, fulfill two important themes within the narrative context of Luke’s Gospel:

  • It prefigures the opposition/violence that Jesus, as the Anointed One and Son of God, would face from the people, and serves as a parallel to the close of the Galilean period, and the Passion references which follow (9:21-22, 31, 43b-45, 51).
  • It also looks back to the Infancy Narrative, and the oracle by Simeon in 2:34-35, illustrating the opposition predicted by him most vividly.

Quite possibly, the original (historical) tradition contained more of this element of opposition to Jesus, but that it was not preserved in the Synoptic account of Mark/Matthew, retained (if at all) only in the statement at the end of Mk 6:3. If so, then Luke has developed and enhanced this aspect of the tradition.

John 6:42

Finally, it is worth noting, that, although the Gospel of John does not have anything corresponding to the Nazareth episode of the Synoptics, it does include at least one similar tradition—Jn 6:42, forming part of the great Bread of Life discourse in 6:22-59. As in the Synoptic episode under discussion, verse 42 reflects the people’s reaction to statements by Jesus regarding his identity. In Luke 4:16-30, he identifies himself with the Anointed (Messianic) herald/prophet of Isaiah 61:1ff (v. 21), and, by implication, as also being the Son of God (vv. 22ff, cf. above). In the discourse of John 6:22-59, Jesus draws upon different Scriptures—the Exodus traditions, especially that of the manna (as “bread from heaven”)—and identifies himself as the true Bread that comes down from heaven. This is expressed in verse 42 by one of the famous “I Am” declarations in John—”I am the bread th(at is) coming down [lit. stepping down] out of Heaven” (cf. also vv. 32-33, 35, 38, 48, 50-51, 58). In the Johannine context, this certainly refers to Jesus as the eternal (pre-existent) Son of God who has come (down) into the world to bring Life to those who would believe. Here Jesus’ sonship (in relation to God the Father) is understood at a much deeper level than in the Gospel of Luke. However, the basic contrast expressed is the same. The people recognize Jesus only at the ordinary, human level, and are troubled/offended by his words:

Is this not Yeshua, the son of Yoseph, of whom we have seen [i.e. known] his father and (his) mother? (So) now how (can) he say that ‘I have stepped down out of heaven?'”

The italicized portion is quite similar to the words of the people of Nazareth in Mark 6:3 par; indeed, the first phrase—”is this not…the son of Joseph?”—is virtually identical with Luke 4:22b. And, to be sure, John expresses the same aspect of opposition and misunderstanding among the people as Luke does. They view Jesus merely as the son of Joseph, when, in fact, his true identity is as the (eternal) Son of God the Father (Jn 6:27, 32, 37, 40, 44, 46, 57, etc).

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