This Week’s Readings
This week’s readings are Matthew 1 and Luke 1. I’ll look at them separately, for the most part, though the Gospels often run in parallel. I’m a big fan of reading chapters and books whole, not just skipping around and cherry-picking whichever passages support the doctrinal point of the moment.
You’ll occasionally find me summarizing or retelling a passage without offering additional thoughts. I’ll do this either to connect with something earlier or later in the text (or discussion), or because sometimes merely retelling a passage in different words can be insightful.
Sometimes I will speculate, as I imagine what might have happened, given the sparse record we have. I’ll try to be be clear about that, when I do.
Matthew gives Jesus’ royal lineage — royal because the line runs through David — as if Joseph were Jesus’ father. It says Joseph’s father’s name was Jacob.
Luke gives a different genealogy (but also through David, therefore royal), in which Joseph’s father is Heli. (Luke 3:13-38)
Here’s where it gets interesting, when we consult the scholars who have wrestled with the differences — not just this one — between the two genealogies.
- Matthew’s may be the sort of genealogy used to determine succession to the throne, while Luke’s may be Joseph’s actual, physical lineage.
- Matthew’s genealogy may be Joseph’s, and Luke’s may be Mary’s. This would make Jesus of royal blood through his mother, not just his stepfather. And because it appears that Jacob and Heli were brothers, this would also make Joseph and Mary first cousins. (First cousins marrying was not taboo then.)
If you want to pursue this further, a good starting point would be Note 5 to Chapter 7, in James E. Talmage’s Jesus the Christ. (Notes are at the end of chapters there.) There’s also a good note in my favorite one-volume non-LDS Bible commentary, The One-Volume Bible Commentary, ed. J. R. Dummelow, in the notes on Matthew 1. (I often reach for my Dummelow and find it helpful; thanks to my New Testament professor, the late Cathy Thomas, for pointing me to it decades ago.)
Joseph and Mary were “espoused” — a relationship more binding than modern engagement, but less binding than marriage.
Joseph must have been stunned and heartbroken — and likely angry — to learn that his betrothed was pregnant with a child not his own. But verse 19 calls him “a just man” and says that he did not wish to shame her publicly. He would “put her away privily,” that is, break their engagement quietly and privately.
Then comes Gabriel to explain what’s really happening — and I imagine that it was a much lengthier conversation than we have in scripture. Thereafter, Joseph takes Mary to wife.
We read that he “knew her not till she had brought for her firstborn son.” This way, whatever doubters or gossips might say, at least Mary and Joseph would know that Joseph could not be Jesus’ father — if, after their experiences, they would ever be tempted to doubt that Jesus was the Son of God.
Luke begins by observing that “many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of these things.” There must have been many who wrote — more still who tried to write — firsthand accounts of the mortal Messiah. We have only a few such records. One may hope that God has arranged for us to have many more of them eventually.
Luke appears to be writing to Theophilus (meaning “lover of God”). Whether this is merely a conventional dedication for a work aimed at a larger audience — Luke was a Gentile physician, apparently educated in Greek culture — or represents an actual person to whom Luke was writing a very long letter, I cannot say. I suspect the former, but it matters little to our reading of Luke’s account.
Note that Luke’s other book, Acts (of the Apostles), begins with a similar dedication (Acts 1:1).
The miracle of granting a child to an aging, childless couple, Zacharias and Elizabeth, is less impressive than the impending virgin birth, but it’s miraculous enough. According to Luke, these were righteous people, and Zacharias was on duty in the temple. (Each “course” of priests had a scheduled period of service during the year.) He kept a multitude of worshippers waiting while he conversed with the angel.
His question was like Mary’s: How can this be? I am old, and my wife is not young.
When he emerged he could not speak to the people, but he was able to use his hands to convey some sense of what had happened. The people marveled.
Genealogies notwithstanding, the royal lineage that matters most is that in spirit Jesus is the Firstborn Son of God the Father, and in body he was the Only Begotten Son of God the Father in the flesh. In the Book of Mormon Nephi called him “the Son of God after the manner of the flesh” (1 Nephi 11:19).
Having listened, no doubt in wonder, to Gabriel’s description of God’s plans for her future, Mary asked the obvious question: how can I be pregnant when I’m still a virgin?
Mary said unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? (Luke 1:34)
If Gabriel explained in detail, Matthew isn’t telling. Or Mary isn’t. All we really know from Gabriel is that it would be by the power of God, that it would be holy (therefore, not tawdry or worse!), and that “with God nothing shall be impossible.”
No doubt God knows a way to accomplish this which does not involve the physical means by which mortal men father a child — but I take the scriptures’ silence on the subject to mean that the details are none of our business.
In deference to certain prevailing (and mostly welcome) sensibilities of our time, I note that, having heard Gabriel’s explanation, Mary agreed to become the mother of the Son of God: “Behold the handmaid [we might read, servant] of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38.)
Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, her cousin, whose pregnancy is several months more advanced, and Elizabeth salutes the mother of the Lord. Maybe Elizabeth spoke with inspiration, learning from her own words. Maybe Gabriel told Zacharias more than our record tells, and Zacharias told Elizabeth. Or maybe Gabriel told Elizabeth himself, and we have no record of it here. If I had to bet, I might bet on the last one.
Much of Christendom knows these verses as the Magnificat, from part of the Latin for “My soul doth magnify the Lord” (v. 46). Many Latter-day Saints don’t know it by that name, but that hardly diminishes our appreciation.
Mary speaks of prophecy and God’s power and mercy, of the House of Israel and of divine promises to Father Abraham. She celebrates God’s exaltation of the humble and poor, and rejoices, “He hath filled the hungry with good things.”
By all accounts Mary was a teenager, and I have heard skeptics say that she could not have said these things so beautifully, even if she was the mother of the Lord. It must be Luke or a translator cleaning things up for us.
I find this condescending and presumptuous. We have no reason to suppose that she was not devout; rather, we must suppose that she was. Despite the inferior status of women in Jewish society of the time, we have no reason to suppose that she had not learned her religion well. Moreover, she was taught by an angel. So we might as well suppose that she was this articulate, this poetic, this well schooled, at least in this moment on this subject.
Why wouldn’t the mother of the Son of God be an exceptional young woman?
Mary stays with her cousin Elizabeth for three months, leaving sometime before John’s birth.
At John’s circumcision, tradition prevails at first — the tradition by which a firstborn son is given his father’s name. But Elizabeth corrects them: “He shall be called John.”
Not only is John not the baby’s father’s name; none of their kindred is called John. This is irregular, so they turn to the man of the house. Zacharias confirms this unusual choice, and with that regains his power of speech. This causes a stir, and the grapevine buzzes with the news.
Notably, when Zacharias can speak again, his first words aren’t curses for Gabriel, for depriving him of his power of speech for months — while he was serving in the temple, no less. Instead he praises God.
He cites Messianic prophecy and speaks of mercy, light, and salvation, and of promises God made to and through Abraham. His focus is the coming of the Savior, and he knows from the beginning that his son John’s work is subordinate, to prepare the way.
Whoever else may not know what’s happening here, Zacharias and Elizabeth know — and Mary and Joseph know — far better than vaguely.
Here Jesus is yet unborn; this final verse speaks of John, who “grew, and waxed strong in Spirit,” and lived in the desert until the time for his ministry would come, some thirty years later. Whether this means that he lived his entire life in the desert, or just that he was in the desert for a period (or periods) before he began his ministry, probably doesn’t matter much. And I don’t know.
Next week, it’s Luke 2 and Matthew 2. See you then — unless, of course, you want to share your thoughts here in the comments. Then I’ll see you sooner. (Or whenever.)
Thanks for reading!
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2 thoughts on “Reading the New Testament (Week 1)”
I read in some commentary once (can’t remember what, so who knows if it’s plausible) that some translations suggest that it was baby *John*, rather than his father, who spoke and glorified God after the conversation about his name. That would have certainly caused a stir…?
David Rodeback says:
A stir indeed!
The source for that bit wouldn’t have to be in English, of course, but out of curiosity I checked a site with parallel English versions and translations (biblehub.com) to see if some were ambiguous as to the speaker in the passage, and none of them was.
For that matter, the speaker addresses the child in verse 76, which I take as a clue. Then again, interpretations aren’t always restrained by the actual text anyway.
Here’s the link to the key verse: https://biblehub.com/luke/1-67.htm