Luke 1-2 – Infancy Narratives and Old Testament Background

The first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel are known as the ‘infancy narratives’. Matthew, too, devotes the first two chapters of his gospel to stories of Jesus’ infancy. The Lukan chapters, however, present not only Jesus’ infancy but also that of John the Baptist. The style and content of these two chapters of Luke are markedly different from the rest of the gospel ad Acts of the Apostles. The infancy narratives of Luke exhibit a strong Semitic flavour. This and other indications in the text have led several scholars to think that Luke has made use of a pre-existing Aramaic account of the infancy of Jesus and John the Baptist.

Old Testament Background

The infancy narrative in Matthew’ gospel contains several explicit quotations from the Old Testament. The narrative itself (except the genealogy) is systematically arranged into five stories, each of which involving a citation from the Old Testament. This, however, is not the case with the Lukan infancy narratives. There is only one explicit quotation from the Old Testament in the first two chapters of Luke (Cf. Lk 2: 23). Evidently, Luke’s primary concern in his account of the infancy of Jesus and John the Baptist is not so much to show the fulfilment of the Old Testament promises. Nevertheless, Luke’s infancy narratives do retain many points of contact with the Old Testament. In fact, several episodes in the Lukan narratives are closely patterned on the Old Testament models. The two accounts of the annunciation, namely, of the birth of John the Baptist (Lk 1: 11-20) and that of Jesus (Lk 1: 26-38) are closely patterned on certain call-narratives of the Old Testament (Cf. Ex 3: 7-12; Judg 6: 11-18; Jer 1: 4-10). These stories have a well-defined form:-

  1. Vocation/command from God for a particular mission.
  2. Objection/doubt of the one called.
  3. Refutation or removal of objection/doubt and promise of divine help.
  4. A sign requested or given.

The two annunciation stories in Luke are clearly structured according to the pattern of these call-narratives in the Old Testament. Again, there are annunciation stories in the Old Testament (Cf. Gen 17: 1 – 18: 15; Judg 13: 2-20) which retain certain stylistic features in common with the call narratives. These stories too may have influenced the structure of the Lukan annunciation episodes. Similarly, in the account of the visitation (Lk 1: 39-45) Mary’s journey to Elizabeth and the cry of joy from Elizabeth may be parallel to the story of the journey of the Ark of the Covenant from the house of Obed-edom to Jerusalem (Cf. Sam 6: 12-16). The Magnificat (Lk 1: 46-55) certainly has parallel elements in the prayer of Hannah in 1Samuel 2: 1-10. Besides, the hymn Benedictus also seems to contain elements drawn from the Old Testament, especially from the Book of Malachi (Mal 3: 1 // Lk 1: 76 and Mal 4: 5-6 // Lk 1: 16-17). Moreover, in the presentation of Jesus in the temple (Lk 2: 22-38) Luke sees the fulfilment of prophesy of Malachi according to which Israel’s expectations will be realized when the Lord comes to the temple (Mal 3: 1). There are also certain points of contact between Luke 1 – 2 and Daniel 8: 1 – 9: 24.

Thus we can see that the Lukan infancy narratives have been strongly influenced by the Old Testament. The evangelist has certainly made use of the pattern of ancient biblical narratives to give the expression to his insight into the mystery of Christ. He has put his entire artistic genius to express the ineffable. His pen is like the brush of a painter. But the message is unmistakably clear. Beneath the artistic beauty of the infancy narratives lies a remarkably deep theological reflection on the person of Jesus and his mission.

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