[Note: This is the “Old” version of the Grace Commentary on Luke. It will be updated to the new version soon.]
The first chapter of Luke revealed some of the great Messianic expectations. The Messiah, it was believed, would overthrow enemy occupation, restore righteousness and justice on the earth, set right all wrongs, and remove oppression from the land. The Messiah would then rule and reign over all the earth from the throne of David in Jerusalem, thus fulfilling the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants.
Chapter two, however, begins to reveal that the life of Jesus the Messiah would not exactly fit the expectations. The circumstances surrounding His birth were certainly not kingly. Instead, it was a humble, lonely event. These circumstances were somewhat caused by the exercise of power from a selfish and greedy foreign emperor. It was just this sort of abuse of power the Jewish people expected the Messiah to stop, and yet when Jesus was born, He and His family experienced troubles as a result of this ruler. Later, after his birth, the people who visited him and pronounced prophecies about Him also begin to show that all will not be exactly as expected with this Messiah.
So while this may not have been the birth which the Jewish people expected for their Messiah, it shows that even from birth, the Messiah suffered along with His people, and experienced the same hardships as they. If deliverance came, it would come from one who suffered among them, not from a rich and pampered king, who knew nothing of pain and hardship.
2:1-2. As with the beginning of chapter 1 (1:5), this second chapter begins with an historical time reference. This helps validate the historical accuracy of the events Luke records. Furthermore, the two time references reveal the scope of ministry of John and Jesus. The birth of John is introduced with a time reference to a local king, King Herod of Judea. John would later have confrontations with the son of King Herod, Herod Antipas, which would result in John being put to death. The birth of Jesus is here introduced with a time reference to the emperor of the known world, Caesar Augustas. While Jesus would not directly have conflict with Caesar, the kingdom of God which Jesus inaugurated would be in direct conflict with the Roman Empire, and Jesus would be put to death by the Romans, but gain the final victory in His resurrection. So while the time reference for John anticipates his local and limited ministry, the time reference for Jesus anticipates His worldwide and eternal influence (Green 1997:58-59, 125).
Caesar Augustus was a Roman Emperor, and reigned from January 16, 27 BC to August 19, 14 AD. At birth, he was named Gaius Octavius Thurinus, and became the adopted son of Julius Caesar. When Julius Caesar died, Octavius became emperor, and became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, or Octavian Caesar for short. Through a series of military and political maneuvers, he introduced the “Peace of Rome” (Pax Romana) across all conquered lands, and became the sole ruler and emperor over the Roman empire (cf. Green 1997:58-59, 125). As a result of his accomplishments, he took on the title “Augustas” which is a religious title meaning “Majesty” or “Illustrious One.” It is a name of divinity, and carries the idea of being “of the gods.” He also described himself as “Emperor Caesar, son of god” (imperator Caesar divi filius) and “the firstborn head” of the Senate gathering (primum caput).
During his reign, he began requiring Roman citizens to pay homage to him, not only through taxation, but also through pledging their allegiance with the phrase “Caesar is Lord.” After his death, all Roman Emperors followed these practices. The average reader at the time of Luke would have recognized and understood all of this historical background when he writes about “Caesar Augustas.” Luke writes about Caesar Augustas, not just to provide a historical time reference, but to introduce the inevitable clash of kingdoms that would result between the Kingdom of God announced by the Messiah, and the Kingdom of Man led by Caesar Augustas (cf. Bock 1994:202; Green 1997:122).
Luke records that Caesar Augustas made a decree…that all the world should be registered. All the world refers only to the Roman Empire (Evans 2003:49). However, there is much debate about the historical accuracy of Luke’s statement. Luke writes that this decree first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. Historical documents from that time period reveal that Quirinius became governor of Syria in 6/7 AD, and began his rule by carrying out the census commanded by Caesar Augustas. However, Matthew records that the birth of Jesus took place during the reign of Herod the Great (Matt 2:1). The problem is that Herod the Great died in 4 BC, roughly ten years before Quirinius become governor and carried out the Roman census. Numerous theories have been proposed, ranging from historical error by Luke or Matthew, to alternate translations of Luke 2:1-2 (e.g., “this was the first census, before Quirinius became governor of Syria”), or even an earlier governorship by Quirinius (Pentecost 1981:56-57. For an excellent discussion of this issue, see Bock 1994:903ff). There is even some question about why Joseph had to go to Bethlehem in the first place, since no known census required this. Maybe a particular cultural practice was followed (Bock 1994:204) or that he owned land in Bethlehem, and so had to return to register with his land (Evans 2003:49; Pentecost 1981:58; cf. Barclay 1975:21).
The best option is to believe that there is no error, and that we do not yet have all the historical facts (Wallace 1996:304; Wright 2004:23) . We can believe that a census did take place for the purpose of taxation. Prior to the census, the Jewish people paid taxes to the King, who in turn, paid tribute to Rome. But the result of a census would be direct taxation of the Jewish people to the Roman Emperor, who had set himself up as God. This would be viewed by the Jewish people as essentially equal to slavery, and nearly identical to idol worship. As a result, a census like this would often result in revolt (Acts 5:37). The census was a reminder to Israel that they were dominated by Rome, and were demanded to pay homage to Caesar (Green 1997:123). “For the Jews this [census] was more than an irritation, it was an assault on their ancestral rights and their holy land, which was now degraded to a mere province of the vast Roman Empire. …The fact that Jesus’ birth was linked to the taking of the census perhaps also contributed to the view that he might be the expected Messiah, that precisely in Israel’s darkest hour God would send a deliverer” (Bosch 1991:26).
2:3. As a result of the decree, all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. The fact that Luke records this proves that there are historical circumstances of which we are ignorant. The census by Quirinius in 6/7 AD did not require people to return to their ancestral home. Some hypothesize then that this was an earlier census carried out by Quirinius in Judea when Herod the Great was king, and which followed the Israelite custom of requiring families to return to their ancestral home for registration. This was due to the fact that in Israel, land was tied to the family.
But again, whatever the historical events, the point is that this event would be seen by the majority of Jewish people as a terrible inconvenience, all for the purposes of having to pay more taxes to an occupying government. Nevertheless, God used these troubling circumstances to take Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for the birth of the Messiah, in fulfillment of prophecy (Mic 5:2).
2:4. Joseph was one of those affected by the registration, and so he left Nazareth and went southinto Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem. Jerusalem was traditionally thought of as “The City of David”(cf. 1 Chr 11:7), and when Luke first begins to mention that Joseph and Marywent…into Judea, to the city of David, the reader would expect Luke to refer to Jerusalem. After all, the royal city is where the Messiah should be born. But Luke does not mention Jerusalem, butBethlehem. This is the city of David’s ancestral family (1 Sam 16; 17:12-16, 58; 20:6), and can therefore be called “the city of David” (Bock 1994:204; Green 1997:127; Malina 2003:231). Therefore, Joseph, because he was of the house and lineage of David had to travel to Bethlehem. Matthew 1 contains the genealogical record of Joseph showing this royal lineage. The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was about 80 miles. Both towns were quite small, probably less than 100 people lived in each (Malina 2003:231), emphasizing once again the humble situation of the birth of Jesus.
2:5. Joseph did not go alone, but traveled to Bethlehem with Mary, his betrothed wife. Though not yet officially married, Jewish culture considered betrothed couples to be married in all ways except the physical union (Bock 1994:205). So Mary traveled with Joseph. And of course, she was with child. Luke does not reveal how far along she was in her pregnancy.
2:6. Since so little is known about this type of census, it is also unknown how long Joseph and Mary would have had to remain in Bethlehem. It appears that they were there for quite some time, since Luke writes that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. Many Christmas pageants portray Mary as beginning to have birth pains while on the road to Bethlehem, and once they arrive, Joseph abandons her in a stable while he frantically runs around the village trying to find a warm and clean place for Mary to give birth. The harsh innkeeper turns him away because he is too busy with his guests, and so Joseph and Mary must make do with the only shelter they can find, a stable filled with animals. Though this makes for a great story, it probably did not happen in exactly that fashion. The origins of such details probably arose from the apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 13 and the Protevangelium of James 17:3-18:1 (Bock 1994:206). These sources are notoriously unreliable embellishments of the life of Jesus, and should not be trusted.
Based on what Luke writes, it seems likely that Joseph left Nazareth with plenty of time to get to Bethlehem (Malina 2003:232). The text says that while they were there the time came for Mary to give birth. This seems to indicate that they had been in Bethlehem for some time, a few days at least. Furthermore, in an honor-shame culture, hospitality to relatives (and even non-relatives) was expected. If Bethlehem was the town of his ancestors, he certainly would have had relatives in Bethlehem who would have provided housing for Joseph, and his pregnant, betrothed wife.
2:7. Due to a misunderstanding of Middle Eastern culture, and longstanding tradition, modern readers of this text believe that Mary gave birth in a stable “out back” behind an inn. Though Joseph would have tried to stay with relatives, the text seems to indicate that Joseph and Mary tried to obtain a room in the inn. But the word Luke uses for “inn” is not the typical Greek word for “inn” (pandocheion, used in Luke 10:25-37), but is kataluma which is best translated “house” or “guest room” (Bailey 2008:32; Bock 1994:208; Green 1997:128). Luke uses kataluma in 22:10-12 to refer to the upper guest room where Jesus and His disciples would eat the Passover meal.
The average home at this time consisted of one room, with an upper and lower portion. The upper portion was where the family lived, ate, and slept. The lower portion is where the animals stayed at night. This was both to keep them safe, and to provide heat for the family at night. If visitors arrived, they would room with the family in the upper portion of the room. Sometimes, families with more financial means would also have a separate guest room for visitors to stay in, either above or to the side of the main family living area. But whether the family they were staying with had an extra guest room or not, it appears from the text that when Joseph and Mary arrived, the room was already full, probably with other guests who had arrived for the census, and so Mary and Joseph had to stay down below where livestock would usually be housed (Plummer 1960:54; Wright 2004:21). Generally, due to the fluids that accompanied birth, peasant women gave birth in the lower, “stable” portion of their home (Malina 2003:333). The text of Luke does not indicate the presence of any animals (Wright 2004:21).
Though this is not the lonely and frantic series of events that many Westerners have imagined, the scene is still full of trouble, disappointment, and confusion. Doubtless, this is not the birth location that either Mary or Joseph imagined God would provide for the long-awaited Messiah, the object of all Jewish prophecies and expectations.
This is especially true in light of the other circumstances of the birth. Luke records that when Marybrought forth her firstborn Son [she] wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger. As her firstborn, Jesus would have had the rights of inheritance, which would have included the royal birthright through Joseph (Bock 1994:207; Green 1997:128). Also, as the firstborn, Joseph and Mary would have to redeem Jesus, as they do in 2:23.
Swaddling clothes were strips of linen which were tightly wrapped around a newborn to make the child feel secure, and to help straighten the limbs (cf. Ezek 30:21 where strips of linen are used to strengthen and straighten a broken limb). Wrapping newborn children tightly with linen was an ancient custom (Ezek 16:4), but is still in use today (Bailey 2004:28). Some have indicated that the same type of cloth used as burial clothes was also used here as swaddling cloths (Pentecost 1981:60). Luke may indeed have this in mind since later in his account, he uses similar terminology to write about the burial of Jesus.
2:7: “wrapped him . . . in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger”
23:53: “wrapped [him]. . in a linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb”
The manger that Mary laid Jesus in was an animal feeding trough, most likely made of wood, hewn stone, or a depression in the wall. The point is that the birth of the Messiah was lowly and humble, in stark contrast to Messianic expectations and the life of Caesar Augustas (Kittlel 1974:IX,54). It foreshadows a Messiah who “has nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9:58). The frequent mention of the “manger” in this section is due to the fact that it serves as a sign to the shepherds in verses 8-20.
The point in this passage that Luke is making is twofold. First, the life and mission of the Messiah will not be as commonly expected. Rather than coming in power, riches, honor, and glory, after His parents have been displaced by a foreign ruler, Jesus arrives in obscurity, poverty, and humility. The second point Luke is making is related to the first. The Kingdom of this Messiah will be the exact opposite of the kingdoms of this world (Green 1997:58). “The birth of this little boy is the beginning of a confrontation between the kingdom of God – in all its apparent weakness, insignificance and vulnerability – and the kingdoms of the world” (Wright 2004:23).