This coming Sunday is the Second Sunday of Advent in lectionary cycle C, the year when the Gospel of Luke is the primary source of our gospels. In the two previous posts we covered the historical and scriptural context of our gospel reading. Today we begin to look at details and how they help create Luke’s overarching theme: preparing the way. As Luke promised his patron Theophilus, the gospel will be an orderly presentation (Luke 1:3) – and so he begins with history.
1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
The chronological data of these verses reflects the conventions of Greco-Roman historiography as well as a pattern found in some Jewish prophetic books (Jer 1:1-3; Ezek 1:1-3; Hos 1:1; Isa 1:1). Luke seeks to place his “orderly account” (Lk 1:1) within the context of “world” history. In addition, this writing, addressed to “Most Excellent Theophilus” (Lk 1:3), places the events within the context of the rulers and times (and some historiographic forms) that Theophilus would know. It is likely that he was some type of Roman official.
Even though six different people are named, that doesn’t allow us to pinpoint the exact date that John began his ministry. First of all, our standard time reckoning of “year of the Lord” (A.D.) did not begin until 533 AD. Our year of 365+ days and 12 months was not standard in the first century. There were at least four different calendars back then. Each reckoned the years differently. We can’t be sure how long “15 years” would have been.
Secondly, we are not sure when Tiberius began his reign or when Luke started counting the years. There were two or three years when Tiberius was co-regency with Augustus starting in 11 or 12 AD. Augustus died in 14 AD. Did the counting start in the year 11 or 12 or 14? Our best guess is that Luke refers to a time around 28 AD.
The date ranges of the other rulers (from Culpepper, Luke New Interpreter’s Bible, 40):
- Pontius Pilate 26-36 AD
- Herod Antipas 4 BC-39 AD
- Philip 4 BC-34 AD
- Lysanias ruler of Abilene is unknown
- Annas was high priest from 6-15 AD
- Caiaphas was high priest from 18-36 AD
Note that Luke includes both civil and religious leaders in his list. There is also a sense of narrowing the focus: starting with the ruler of the Roman Empire — nearly the whole world — and ending up at the temple in Jerusalem — where the high priests did their work.
What is the significance of this information? First of all, they indicate that the historical context was important to Luke. Secondly, I think that Luke tries to show to Theophilus (and all Roman rulers) that Jesus and the Christians were not subversive to Rome. The charges that Jesus was putting himself up against Caesar were created by Jesus’ enemies (see Lk 23:2; compare to 20:21-25). Thirdly, Luke seeks to speak in a form (language) that Theophilus will understand. He places his Gospel in the form and in the historical context that will make sense to his audience.
…the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert
Luke’s phrase in 3:2, “the word of God came,” reminds us of Luke’s core and central focus on God. The phrase clearly identifies the source of divine inspiration behind John’s work but also puts us on notice that Luke’s emphasis on God as the story’s primary actor will be carried forward and enlarged. Other evidences of this most intrinsic element show up in this section—for example, the citation of Scripture by the narrator (3:4–6) who thus presents God’s own perspective on John’s ministry, by Jesus (4:4, 8, 12) who is engaged in a process of discerning the way of God, and by the devil (4:10–11) who tries to garner the authoritative voice of God for his own agenda of frustrating God’s purpose; the activity of the Holy Spirit, God’s empowering and guiding agent (3:16, 22; 4:1); the voice of God, heard by Jesus and Luke’s audience, breaking into the narrative in a way that echoes his voice to Israel in the past (3:22); the genealogy of Jesus (3:23–28), showing Jesus’ relation to Israel’s past, recalling significant aspects of the story of God’s interaction with his people, and testifying to the relation of Jesus to God as his Son; and above all the account of Jesus’ test in the wilderness (4:1–13), pitting the aim of God and the design of the devil against each other.
So, we are reminded that, though the narrative spotlight turns first on John then on Jesus, this is not their story. God is the primary actor around whose purpose the narrative develops. In 1:5–2:52 Luke has anticipated the roles of John and Jesus in God’s plan. Will they embrace God’s aim and serve his design? This is the central question Luke plays out in this Gospel.