This essay seeks to argue the case that Luke 1:5-2:52 is an insertion into the Gospel of Luke and not original to it.
The Virgin Birth: A Late Narrative
Thematically, Luke 1:5-2:52 seems to fit better alongside legendary 2nd century ‘Infancy Gospel’ narratives, such as the Infancy Gospel of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, in which there was something of a fad for stories about Mary, Joseph and boy-Jesus. In 1:44, the unborn John the Baptist, still in his mother’s womb, kicks for joy merely for being in the near presence of the Virgin Mary, who responds by breaking out into liturgical-sounding poetry/song.
If the Virgin Birth was an early tradition, it is odd that it isn’t mentioned more in roughly-contemporary (e.g. John c.90-110CE) and clearly earlier texts (Paul c.50sCE, and Mark c.70sCE). Each of these authors would have had good reason to recall it in their writings. While it is mentioned in Matthew (c.80-100CE), Church Fathers tell us of other Christian sects that had versions of Matthew that also omitted the virgin birth story and believed Jesus to be the natural offspring of Mary and Joseph.
A Notable Change of Linguistic Style
Linguistically, 1:5-2:52 differs from the rest of Luke-Acts also. To quote scholar Craig Blomberg: “Abruptly, with 1:5, Luke adopts a very Semitic form of Greek writing. From chapter 3 on, he uses standard koiné, though with a bit more literary artistry than the other evangelists, but not as elegantly as the preface or as Hebraic in style as the rest of [chapters 1-2]” (“Jesus and the Gospels: Introduction and Survey”, p.202).
Attestation of the Chapters Missing from Early Manuscripts
Church Fathers Irenaeus and Tertullian attest to the existence of versions of Luke that must have been in prominent circulation by c.150CE that did not include chapters 1-2. These were found in Marcionite churches. Is it just a coincidence that these are the very chapters that differ thematically and stylistically? Of course Irenaeus and Tertullian say that these chapters had been edited out by the holders of these gospels, but they don’t provide compelling evidence and argument. It’s their word against the word of the Marcionites. To quote scholar Jason BeDuhn: “[criticism by the Church Fathers that Marcion edited out Luke 1-2] was at best a guess on their part, and it cannot be given any weight as history just on their word” (“The First New Testament: Marcion’s Scriptural Canon”, p.69/70)
The Virgin Birth Missing through the Rest of Luke-Acts
The virgin birth (and any other significant content from 1:5-2:52) is never recalled or alluded to again in Luke-Acts after chapter 2 – even in places where we might expect to find it such as further scenes with Mary the mother of Jesus – e.g. she is never referred to as “the Virgin Mary” nor is it referenced again in the long summarizing speeches by Stephen, Peter and Paul who recall earlier events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Did they just forget to mention that Jesus was born of a virgin? Is it just a coincidence that this missing piece of information happens to be the same information that was also found missing in the alternative circulating versions of Luke, that when told in the canonical counterpart differs thematically and linguistically to the rest of canonical Luke-Acts?
Chapter 3 as the Original Introduction of Luke’s Gospel
The beginning of Chapter 3 reads like the beginning of a bios-history / gospel: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea… ” etc., and is shortly followed by Jesus’s baptism and genealogy, etc. From the canonical point of view, it seems an odd place to insert Jesus’s genealogy – at the point of his adult baptism and after he has already “grown in wisdom and divine favor” (2:52) instead of at his conception or birth where genealogies would normally be placed. Indeed, one has to question the relevance and coherency of a genealogy that traces Jesus’s lineage through his father’s side if Jesus did not have a human father as is stated in chapters 1-2. Of course none of this would be odd if the gospel that underpinned Luke originally began at Chapter 3 – right at the point where the gospel sinks back into standard koiné style, and where we know other early versions started, and where the silence of further allusion to the virgin birth begins. Is this just all coincidence?
Baptismal Oddities Solved
The hypothesis that an earlier form of Luke did not include chapters 1-2 solves several other oddities within Luke-Acts’s surrounding John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus. Firstly, John the Baptist is reintroduced in Luke 3:2 as if for the first time: “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah”, despite John having already recognized Jesus in the womb (1:44). There have been no other ‘Johns’ mentioned yet that would require this kind of formal distinction, and Luke 3:24 betrays no knowledge of the detailed events and family connections between Jesus and John in Luke 1-2. Secondly, Acts 1:22 has Peter refer to “the beginning” of “the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” as Jesus’s baptism, not his birth nor maturity. And thirdly, there are textual variants in the surviving manuscripts of Luke 3 over what the voice from heaven said at Jesus’s baptism (3:22). Some manuscripts read “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased”, while others read “You are my Son. Today I have begotten you” (thus making it a quotation of Psalm 2:7). If the latter is the original saying, as is supported by many textual critics, this raises the question of why Jesus needs to be “begotten” further after already having been born of a virgin untainted from inheriting sin nature and already having obtained an increase in “wisdom and divine favor” (2:52). Similarly, the action of the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus from above seems unnecessary. Again, all of this can be explained if chapters 1-2 are a later add-on.
Further Oddities Explained…
Furthermore on the version of Luke that circulated in Marcionite churches: The Church Fathers indicate that it more or less began with 3:1 and jumped straight to 4:31, skipping over (among other things) the story of Jesus’s rejection at Nazareth. If this is how an earlier form of the gospel once stood, this would actually prevent a further little oddity found within canonical Luke. In the canonical version, Jesus mocks the Nazareth synagogue attendees by suggesting they will want to see a miracle sign like the ones they have heard he performed in Capernaum (4:23). But at this point in canonical Luke, Jesus hasn’t performed any miracles in Capernaum yet. The miracles he performs in Capernaum occur AFTER these verses (4:31-41). If the Nazareth episode (4:16-30) wasn’t part of the gospel (as the Church Fathers attest was the case for the Marcionite version) then there is no oddity. It seems to me that the oddity was created unintentionally by a careless splicing together of sources. The redactor wants to have Jesus’s ministry expand from Nazareth (Jesus’s home town) to Capernaum, to Jerusalem, and ultimately to the rest of the world. However in constructing it this way, by splicing in a miracle narrative that references Jesus’s earlier Capernaum deeds before he even goes to Capernaum, he makes a little error that gives us a hint of the underlying redactional processes.
Once more, is this just another coincidence that the Marcionite version of Luke doesn’t have these textual oddities that seem to be the result of a careless splicing together of several sources?
I think when one takes all these factors in tandem, a fuzzy but distinguishable conclusion begins to rise to the surface – that Luke 1:5-2:52 is not original and has probably been added to a proto-Luke gospel that initially started at 3:1. I should also add that this is also not a denialist fringe view only held by a handful of amateur skeptics, but one that is held by many respectable scholars teaching in prestigious universities around the Western World. Bart Ehrman (Univ. North Carolina), Jason BeDuhn (Univ. Northern Arizona), David Trobisch (Univ. Heidelberg/Yale), are some names that subscribe to this view.
Relevant Quotes from Scholars:
“Granted that the birth material [of Luke 1-2] had an origin and transmission different from the stories of Jesus’s ministry, how did the evangelist proceed in joining birth material to the story of the ministry? Did he begin writing with the birth stories, or did he begin with the account of the ministry and, as an afterthought, prefix the birth stories? [The] evidence points in [the latter] direction. Although there have been occasional attempts to join the infancy story to the next two chapters, so that a continuous narrative-unit of the Gospel would extend from 1:5 to 4:15, the solemn beginning of the ministry in 3:1-2 could well have served as the original opening of the Lukan Gospel. Support for this is found not only in the fact that Mark and John open the Gospel story with the events surrounding the baptism of Jesus, but also in the reference to this baptism by John the Baptist as a beginning in Acts 1:22 (the latter passage suggests that the infancy narrative may have been prefixed to the Gospel after the Book of Acts was completed). The placing of the genealogy in the third chapter of Luke makes more sense if that had been done before an infancy narrative had been prefixed. As was true also with Matthew’s Gospel, none of the Lukan infancy narrative has had major influence on the body of the Gospel, so that, if the first two chapters had been lost, we could never have suspected their existence.”
– Raymond E. Brown: “The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke: Updated Edition”, 1993, p.239-240
“Luke 3:1 opens with an elaborate chronological statement: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was … the word of the Lord came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness”. This surely reads as if it was originally written as the opening section of a book. The impression is strengthened by the curious position of the genealogy of our Lord (3:23). If this had been inserted by the last editor of the Gospel, we should have expected to find it, like the genealogy in Matthew, somewhere in chapters 1 or 2 in connection with the account of the Birth and Infancy. If, however, it was originally inserted in a book which only began with Luke 3:1, its position is explained – for it occurs immediately after the first mention of the name of Jesus.”
– Burnett Hillman Streeter: “The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins”, 1924, p.209
Regarding Luke 1:5:2-52:
“Nowhere is the variety of the ‘narrative tradition’ more apparent, for here we find, not self-contained stories, but a continuous narrative, and yet a narrative which is very different in form from the Passion Story. … The section itself … suggests that Luke 1:5-2:52 is a literary composition of no mean order which ought to be treated as inspired poetry rather than as sober prose … If the Galilean material is so fragmentary, how was it that Luke was able to write a continuous account of events thirty years earlier still? There is no satisfactory answer to this question except the conclusion that the Birth Stories are a literary compilation. … All indications are that it was composed at a relatively late date. This follows at once if Proto-Luke began with 3:1 – the Preaching of John, the Baptism and the Genealogy. It is also implied if the section is a literary composition. Activity of this kind is hard to understand unless it belongs to [a time post-70CE]”
– Vincent Taylor: “The Formation of the Gospel Tradition: Eight Lectures”, 1964, p.159-160
“[Editorial] clumsiness is demonstrated strikingly in Luke [between the Virgin Birth narrative and the genealogy] … We are obviously confronted by a process in the development of an idea, the gradual magnification of Jesus, in which a prior layer of tradition has actually been pried up by the wedge of another, later tradition, and instead of replacing it has simply been juxtaposed … [Luke’s] impressive enumeration of Jesus’s forefathers is marred at the very outset by the incomprehensible interpolation of a parenthetical phrase: “Jesus, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph”, and so on. This simple-minded “as was supposed” cancels the whole point of the lengthy genealogy, which is then given in detail anyhow! The editors who copied out the list establishing Jesus in the Jewish line of royal success were evidently active in a milieu that believed in the *later story of the Virgin Birth*. They simply inserted the parenthetical phrase to cancel what which would otherwise be normally conveyed by the presence of the genealogy – the perfect natural sonship of Jesus”
– Joel Carmichael, “The Death of Jesus”, 1964, p.53
On how textual discrepancies in the manuscripts might further indicate that 3:1 was the original beginning:
“If Luke 3 *began* this Gospel, then the placement of the genealogy makes perfect sense – especially if the words spoken by God from heaven are a quotation of Psalm 2:7, as [I’ve proposed elsewhere], “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” In that case, the Gospel begins by providing a dating for the events it is about to narrate, it opens with an account of Jesus’ baptism by John (as in Mark’s Gospel), that account ends with God indicating that this is the day on which he has “given birth to” (or “begotten”) Jesus, and then the author launches directly into the genealogy of Jesus’ birth. If that’s the case, there is no longer a problem with the voice of God at the baptism indicating that this is the moment at which he has “begotten” Jesus. He did not make Jesus his son at his birth (as indicated in 1:35 – a verse that was not originally in the Gospel) but at his baptism.”
– Bart Ehrman, “Arguments that Luke Originally Did Not Have the Virgin Birth”, blogpost, 22/10/2015.
“Without texts of the Gospel of Marcion or the pre-Marcionite edition of Luke, contentions about the composition of canonical Luke cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Any hypothesis is just that. But hypotheses carry conviction in the degree to which they answer questions and solve problems. In my judgment more problems are solved and fewer new ones created by a theory that understands canonical Luke to be the end of a rather long process of composition.
The first stage in this process would be the composition of a pre-Marcionite gospel. It probably began with Luke 3:1, and it would have contained material its author obtained, assuming the two-document hypothesis of synoptic relationship, from Mark and Q. This gospel probably also contained a brief narrative of Jesus’ resurrection, perhaps similar to what is now in Mark 16:1-8. Some material from the Lukan Sondergut was also used, but this early text almost certainly did not have the preface of the infancy narratives that now stand at the beginning of canonical Luke, and it probably did not contain the narratives of Jesus’ postresurrection appearances that we find in Luke 24. Without being precise about its actual contents, we may think of the pre-Marcionite gospel as similar to our Luke 3-23. This text, coming after Mark and before Marcion, probably dotes from ca. 70-90 C.E.
The second stage would be the composition of the Gospel of Marcion. This gospel as probably based on the pre-Marcionite gospel but with significant omissions, and so Marcion’s opponents could claim that he had “mutilated” the Gospel of Luke. We cannot be certain when this text first appeared, but a date of ca. 115-120 C.E. would probably not be far off the mark.
The third stage would be the composition of canonical Luke. This gospel was almost certainly based on the pre-Marcionite gospel, but its author added a number of new pericopes. He appended a preface (Luke 1:5-2:52); he rewrote the Markan story of the empty tomb (Luke 24:1-11) and added the postresurrection narratives (Luke 24:13-53). Undoubtedly this author also worked through his source and gave it his own stamp, thus creating the sense of literary unity that the work has. One of the purposes of this author was to publish a gospel that would clearly and forcefully respond to the claims of the Marcionites. The author of canonical Luke was also the author of Acts, and it is likely that he brought out the complete work about 120-125 C.E., just when Marcion’s views were becoming widely known. The author of these volumes almost certainly did not make use of Marcion’s gospel, which may well have appeared at about the same time. The work as a whole, Luke-Acts as we know it, surely served as a formidable anti-Marcionite text.”
– Joseph B. Tyson, “Marcion and Luke-Acts”, 2006, p.119-120
“It would not surprise me that the first two chapters [of Luke-Acts] take an anti-Marcionite view. In the first two chapters, Jewish piety is terrific. There is reference to John the Baptist’s circumcision, to Jesus’ circumcision, to people going to the Temple and making offerings. It looks like Old Testament wonderland! It’s fabulous! And you don’t see much of that particular view of Jewish piety, that particular view of the Temple and ritual in the rest of [Luke-Acts]. Everything in the first two chapters rings an anti-Marcionite bell. […] I put [the bulk of Luke] to probably the 90sCE, [and] I put Acts in the early second century. By the same author”
– Amy-Jill Levine, “Trinities Podcast Episode 236”, 2018.