The opening chapters of the Gospel of Luke emphasize that Jesus of Nazareth is a special Son of God. Before the birth of Jesus, the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that her future child will be a Son of God both by virtue of his miraculous conception (Luke 1:35) and by his status as a Davidic ruler (v. 32). Later, when the adult Jesus is baptized, a heavenly voice proclaims, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased" (3:22).
After describing the baptism of Jesus, Luke provides a genealogy, tracing Jesus' legal ancestry back through Mary's husband Joseph (3:23-38). The list of names proceeds backward in time to "Adam, the son of God" (v. 38). This genealogy shows Jesus to be a Son of God in a different sense, the sense in which all human beings are children of God as descendants of Adam. Here Jesus is linked to all humanity as a second Adam. In Luke 4:1-13 he faces forty days of testing and succeeds where the first Adam had failed.
Luke's genealogy of Jesus raises several questions. In particular, Luke lists Joseph as the son of Heli, while Matthew's genealogy has Joseph as the son of Jacob (Matt 1:16). The traditional explanation for the differing ancestries of Joseph is that Jacob and Heli were close relatives, perhaps half-brothers, one of them being Joseph's biological father and the other his legal father. In one variation of this model, the one who was Joseph's biological father died, and the other one then adopted Joseph as his son. In another variation, because one of the two died childless the other married the widow and fathered Joseph in order to continue the dead relative's line.(1) Either scenario is possible and plausible given the cultural context.
Luke's genealogy also differs from Matthew's in tracing Joseph's ancestry through David's son Nathan (Luke 3:31) rather than through Solomon and the kings of Judah (Matt 1:6). The Bible says little about this Nathan, but a tradition later arose that he was a prophet, like the prophet of the same name from David's court. For example, one manuscript of the Targum on Zechariah identifies the "house of Nathan" in Zech 12:12 as "the house of Nathan the prophet, son of David."(2)
The tradition that David's son Nathan was a prophet suggests that one purpose of the genealogy in Luke 3 is to present Jesus as a prophet. Luke, in fact, vividly portrays the prophetic role of the Nazarene.
In chapters 1 and 2, Luke brings out a number of parallels between Jesus and the prophet Samuel. Samuel's birth is a miracle, the result of the fervent prayer of his mother Hannah (1 Sam 1). Hannah's prayer of thanksgiving (1 Sam 2:1-10) is similar to Mary's expression of rejoicing in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). In particular, both Hannah and Mary state that God humbles the proud and exalts the humble.
Like Mary and Joseph, Hannah and Elkanah made regular pilgrimages to worship God (1 Sam 1:3; Luke 2:41). Samuel as a young boy served under Eli the priest (1 Sam 2:11), while Jesus discussed aspects of Torah with teachers at the Temple in Jerusalem when He was twelve years old (Luke 2:46-47). Luke emphasizes the
connection between Samuel and Jesus when he writes in Luke 2:52 that "Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men," a reference to 1 Sam 2:26.
In 7:11-17, where Jesus resurrects a young man at Nain, Luke compares Jesus to Elijah the prophet. The man is the only son of a widow, as was the man brought back to life by Elijah at Zarephath in 1 Kings 17. In Luke 7:15 Luke notes that Jesus, after raising the man, "gave him to his mother," quoting 1 Kings 17:23 from the Septuagint. The widow of Zarephath responds to Elijah's miracle by proclaiming, "Now I know that you are a man of God" (1 Kings 17:24). Similarly, the people at Nain exclaim, "A great prophet his arisen among us!" (Luke 7:16)
Luke records a number of other instances where either Jesus implies that he is a prophet (Luke 4:24; 13:33) or someone else refers to him as such. The men on the road to Emmaus, for instance, describe Jesus as "a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people" (Luke 24:19).
We have already seen how the genealogy of Luke 3 connects Jesus with Adam and with the prophets of Israel. This genealogy also makes an implicit comparison between Jesus and a person well known to all of Luke's readers—Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, who is mentioned in Luke 2:1.
According to popular legend, Augustus was a "son of the gods" in two different ways. One of way was by conception. Augustus was said to be the product of a union between his mother Atia and the god Apollo. In addition, Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who claimed to be a descendant of Aeneas, the son of Anchises and the goddess Aphrodite.(3)
Against the Greco-Roman mythological backdrop of these stories, Luke presents Jesus as the Son of God in two ways. First, Jesus is a Son of God by a miraculous birth (Luke 1:35). Second, as the legal son of Joseph, he is a part of the Davidic line, and Davidic kings are also designated as Sons of God (2 Sam 7:14).
As part of a very effective public relations campaign, Augustus was widely credited with ushering in a golden age of peace for Rome, the so-called Pax Romana. But Augustus died in AD 14 when Jesus was young. In contrast, Gabriel declares that Jesus "shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end" (Luke 1:33). Luke goes on to chronicle the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, showing that Jesus defeated sin and death and now reigns by his Spirit.
At first glance, the genealogy of Luke 3:23-38 may appear to be merely a reporting of seventy-seven names. Upon closer inspection, however, we see that this list is an integral part of Luke's goal to present Jesus as the second Adam, the Prophet foretold by Moses, and the promised King of all kings, ruling today and always.
(1) This "levirate marriage" version goes back to Julius Africanus (c. 225 A.D.) and is recorded in Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, Chapter 7.
(2) See Marshall D. Johnson, The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies, Cambridge University Press, Second Edition, 1988, p. 241.
(3) See Michael Kochenash, " ‘Adam, Son of God' (Luke 3:38): Another Jesus-Augustus Parallel in Luke's Gospel," New Testament Studies 64 (2018) 307-325.
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