Yesterday’s post covered the mythological elements of the Christmas story unique to Matthew, so today I’m doing the same for Luke.
The Story of the Shepherds and Jesus in the Manger
In Luke’s story the adoration scene features shepherds rather than magi, and it occurs on the night of Jesus’s birth rather than several months afterwards as in Matthew. Biblical scholars generally agree that Luke’s story is myth (Freed 136), but there is no consensus around why Luke chose shepherds for the adoration role and the meaning of such choice. In my view, first understanding Luke’s overall message in the scene makes it easier to understand why choosing shepherds for this role makes sense.
The scene opens with shepherds tending their flock at night when they see an angel standing before them, who announces that he is bringing “to you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” After this announcement, the angel together with a multitude of the heavenly host break out into song, singing “glory to God in the highest [heaven], and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” This rings of the apocalyptic thinking with which Jesus, and John the Baptist before him and Paul after him, were associated. According to that view, the unrepentant people and more generally the evil forces in the current world would be overthrown, and the kingdom of God would be established on earth in which the good people who follow God and believe in Christ as their savior will live in peace (Ehrman). Under this approach, while potentially all people are eligible to be elected on judgment day, only the repentant and humble who love God with all their heart will enter the kingdom, while the rich and the Romans will be excluded. In this story, Luke seems to be drawing a contrast between the pax Romana imposed by force by the Roman emperor (at this point Augustus Caesar, who was mentioned in Luke’s lead-up to this story (2:1)) vs. the coming kingdom of God in which the people whom God has favored will live in true peace (Freed 141-43).
So how do shepherds fit into this scheme? Shepherds typically were ordinary people of modest means, but they also had a dubious reputation for being tricky and dishonest and hence were viewed as sinners (Freed 137-38). Jesus attracted both such kinds of people to his flock during his ministry, and upon repenting they became poised to enter the kingdom of God. In Luke’s story, the shepherds hearing a revelation and then recognizing and venerating the baby Jesus as their savior and Messiah symbolizes this.
The other connection with shepherds lies with David. Luke first has Mary and Joseph travel to “the city of David called Bethlehem, because he [Joseph] was descended from the house and family of David” (2:4). The angel then announces to the shepherds that Jesus has just been born “in the city of David,” without having to mention that it is Bethlehem. David was a shepherd in Bethlehem. In fact, it is only as a shepherd that the Hebrew Bible connects David to Bethlehem, and this happens in the scene where he was chosen and anointed as king, at which moment the spirit of God came upon him and remained with him from that day forward (1 Sam 16:1-13). So Luke’s shepherd story as told serves to identify Jesus with David and supports the notion of Jesus both being born in Bethlehem and being recognized as the Messiah.
As mentioned in Sunday’s post, most biblical scholars view the whole notion of Jesus being born in Bethlehem as unhistorical, so the manger scene is myth. As mentioned in Monday’s post, Jesus’s parents being unable to secure accommodations in Bethlehem, his being placed in a manger (presumably among animals), and the adoration by shepherds, all serve to emphasize his humble beginnings, which is a typical element of the “birth of the hero” motif. Interestingly, in the apocryphal second-century Protoevangelicum of James, the place of the nativity was changed to a cave, a parallel tradition that has survived through the centuries and carries much the same meaning.
Luke has thus composed a beautiful mythological scene in which ordinary people come into contact with the sacred in the form of an angel, the heavenly host, and the Christ child, accompanied by music and with remembrance of the heroic King David, all designed to promise salvation to the actors and the audience of the story.
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
The next event that Luke describes (2:22-38) is the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple 40 days after his birth and the recognition of his status as Son of God there. The vast majority of Biblical scholars do not consider this story historical, and as noted in Sunday’s post the story contains inaccuracies in terms of Jewish law and ritual. Luke’s goal, though, was not to write accurate history but to develop the myth further by reconfirming and amplifying Jesus’s status. Having fulfilled prophecy by being born in Bethlehem and being recognized as the Messiah there, now Jesus must get to Jerusalem and be similarly recognized as the Son of God in the Temple itself, his Father’s house, which as a literary matter also anticipates the story of his long journey to Jerusalem and the Temple that occupies the whole second half of Luke’s Gospel.
This story is modeled on the Hebrew Bible story of Elkanah and Hannah and their son Samuel (1 Sam 1:1-2:26). There the formerly barren Hannah conceives and bears Samuel through Yahweh’s intervention (in answer to her prayer), and once the boy is weaned he is taken up to the temple in Shiloh (then the main temple in Israel) during the family’s annual trip there for sacrifice. While there Hannah prays and breaks into a song of praise and thanks, which was probably Luke’s model for Mary’s Magnificat. As the firstborn, Samuel is offered into the service of the Lord, as a nazirite, and his parents leave him there. The boy is then said to grow up in the presence of the Lord, and to grow in stature and favor with the Lord (2:21, 26). The similarities with Luke’s presentation scene, his descriptions of Jesus maturing, and with the subsequent scene of the young Jesus staying at the Temple when his parents leave for home, are obvious.
Luke’s purpose in Jesus’s case is similar but magnified. At the Temple Jesus encounters the prophets Simeon and Anna, who recognize him as the Messiah and savior of both Jews and gentiles. Simeon paints an apocalyptic picture, prophesizing that Jesus will divide Israelites and be opposed by some, that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed, that some will rise while others will fall, and that a sword will pierce even Mary’s soul, all of which foreshadows the end times.
Jesus in the Temple at Age Twelve
Luke’s final story in his infancy narrative (2:41-51) presents Jesus again at the Temple, this time during the family’s annual pilgrimage there during Passover. At the tender age of 12, he stays behind when his parents depart Jerusalem for Nazareth in order to engage in discussions with teachers of the Law at the Temple, who are amazed by his understanding. When Mary and Joseph come back and find him and ask why he did this, he answers, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Part of Luke’s purpose in this story is to show that Jesus had remarkable abilities at a young age, especially when it came to understanding the Law. Under Jewish law, a boy assumes certain adult responsibilities at age 13, signified in modern Judaism by the bar mitzvah; before then the parents are responsible for the boy’s actions. So by having Jesus break away from his parents and show remarkable understanding of the Law, Luke was showing that Jesus was ahead of the norm and indeed extraordinary.
As mentioned in Monday’s post, having remarkable abilities and qualities at a young age is an element of the “birth of the hero” mythological motif, and Luke’s story is no exception (see Jung, p. 406). Other examples at this or a similar young age include Pythagoras, the Olympic champion Theagenes, Cyrus, Epicurus, Alexander the Great, Apollonius of Tyana, and the biblical figures of Samuel, Moses, Solomon, and Daniel (for Apollonius see Philostratus, Vit. Apoll 5; for Theagenes: Pausanias, Descr. 6.11.2-3; for the others see Nolland 129).
Luke’s ultimate purpose in this story, however, was to show that Jesus, as the Son of God, must do the work of his real Father at the expense of even his own earthly family obligations, just as later during his ministry he would expect much the same from his followers. This is the first time that we see Jesus understand his purpose, his calling. Whereas in the previous presentation scene at the Temple the reader is told (again) who Jesus is, now we see Jesus himself coming to understand this. Here again, Luke may have had the Samuel example in mind, for Josephus reported what probably had become a tradition, namely that at age 12 Samuel began to prophecy and, together with the high priest, realized that God had called him (Ant. 5.2.4, §§ 348-49).
This event corresponds to the stage in the mythological hero cycle when the budding hero hears “the call” to his hero’s journey (Campbell 49-58). In this stage, the protagonist, still in the everyday world of everyday people, is stimulated and perceives the call to adventure that promises to take him out of that world and onto his hero’s journey. In Luke, this story marks the beginning of the call phase but Jesus is still too young to act upon it. This phase ends and the next two typical stages, which Joseph Campbell calls “supernatural aid” and “the crossing of the threshold” (Campbell 69-89), transpire together in the very next event that Luke narrates, Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist, at which moment the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove, activating him to begin his hero’s journey, in the form of his ministry and beyond.
What we celebrate each Christmas is the birth of a mythologized Christ figure, in that he was built up by Matthew and Luke to be larger than life using a number of standard motifs in mythological narrative, molding or making up facts to fit them. By the end of the events that we celebrate at Christmas, the figure of Jesus is developing into a hero in much the normal manner. Looking at Christmas merely from a mythological standpoint, Christians are celebrating the birth and life of their hero, including his death, and resurrection; and the first Christians also included in their veneration his expected imminent return to establish the kingdom of God. Since mythological narratives are designed to convey sacred truths, Christmas (in its ideal pristine form) is also a celebration and reaffirmation of the sacred truths that Jesus taught, stood for, and (quite literally) embodied. As history has shown, Matthew and Luke achieved their aims spectacularly.
There is much more I could write about the mythological aspects of the Christmas story (e.g., the virgin birth), but I will save that for my next book. In the meantime, Happy Holidays to everyone!
Note: The mythology underlying Christmas is covered in more detail in my new book, The Mythology of America’s Seasonal Holidays: The Dance of the Horae.
Sources and Bibliography
Brown, Raymond. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. Garden City/New York: Doubleday (1977).
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: MJF Books (1949).
Ehrman, Bart. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press (1999).
Freed, Edwin. The Stories of Jesus’ Birth: A Critical Introduction. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (2001).
George, Arthur, and Elena George. The Mythology of Eden. Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Books (2014).
Jung, Carl. “Answer to Job,” in Psychology and Religion: West and East, Collected Works, vol.11. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1969).
Nolland, John. 1989. Luke 1-9:20. Dallas: Word Books.
Vermes, Geza. The Nativity: History and Legend. New York: Doubleday (2006).