St Luke and Modern Scholars

On 18 October we celebrate the feast of St Luke. Of course, we also remember him and seek his intercession on the occasion of the feast of the Four Evangelists. In this post I want to consider some issues arising from some recent research: namely, the way that we tend to rely on the opinions of scholars and theologians, unaware of how inclined they are to follow the fashion, and make outright mistakes. I am not speaking against scholarship and theology. After all, we shall see that it was a scholar and theologian who pointed out the error I shall discuss. But it is not so easy to perform good intellectual work, and it is outright impossible if one is subject to the latest trends.

It concerns Luke 2:22-24 and what those verses mean for our understanding of St Luke. They read:

Now when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be set apart to the Lord”,  and to offer a sacrifice according to what is specified in the law of the Lord, a pair of doves or two young pigeons.

Scholars, including leading Catholic scholars like Raymond Brown and J.A. Fitzmyer, both priests, asserted that St Luke had been confused: he had not understood the Jewish rituals. What St Luke was describing could not have happened, they said, and he has mixed things up. This led them to suggest that he must have been a gentile, and working from outside of Judaea, because a Jew or someone close to the Temple would have known. Brown then spends pp.449-451 of his book The Birth of the Messiah trying to explain how St Luke could have made this mistake. He ingeniously invents things for St Luke to have thought and then dismisses his own inventions.

Even when I was reading Fitzmyer’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Luke, and Brown’s book, I could not help but feel that they could be just a little more humble, that there might be more to it than surviving sources reveal. I was very fortunate to have been taught by the late Dr Noel Weeks, a highly intelligent and equally fearless servant of the Lord, who would point out to us that we have to be somewhat humble before the ancient sources, and especially the scriptures. We may think we know the ancient languages better than they do, and they did sometimes make simple errors, but, he would point out, it is more likely to be them who teach us about their own world and culture, and not we who correct them.

And so it proves in this case. As stated, I had thought to myself: they cannot possibly know as much about what was thought and done in ancient Israel as St Luke. I am inclined to think that St Luke, who specifically states that he did his research, and who knew the people who had been around, was correct (and that is to put to one side the question of inspiration). Then, when I did some research, I found that a gentleman named Matthew Thiessen had had the same thought, done the research, and found the answer: St Luke was right.

I will not set out all his arguments, but they can be found in his article “Luke 2:22, Leviticus 12, and Parturient Impurity” Novum Testamentum 54 (2012) 16-29. “Parturient” originally meant “about to give birth,” but here “parturient impurity” is the ritual impurity associated with childbirth.

Thiessen notes that scholars usually say that St Luke is wrong when he attributes impurity to Our Lady and to Jesus (or possibly to St Joseph in addition to or in place of the Lord). They say that the relevant Old Testament text, in Leviticus 12, only speaks about the mother’s impurity. He goes on to contend that Luke was not wrong. First, the logic of Leviticus 12 does in fact lead one to infer that the newborn child is also impure – it just does not set out all the consequences which flow from the principles. Second, this was actually believed by some writers of the period, notably the authors of the book called Jubilees, and in the Dead Sea Scrolls. He even shows that cross-cultural parallels would point to the “unstated assumption of the child’s impurity” (21). It is the sort of thing where, when one considers what Leviticus 12 does say, and one grasps the trajectory of the impurity laws, one could ask how it could possibly be that the child not be rendered impure (22-23).

This is a very important point: Thiessen points to the “Ancient Near Eastern context and the logic driving the legislation of the book of Leviticus” (23). This is too little done by scholars: they tend to read the scripture as a sort of code. This is another matter Dr Weeks used to point out to us: they tend to read documents from the Ancient Near East as if they were a modern text or even the Napoleonic Code. Then, when one thinks about it, the reason for the silence of Leviticus over the child is clear enough: the infant would not be doing anything which required he or she be ritually pure! (27) It is because Luke is describing the entry of the Lord into the Temple that the purification has to be stated (27-28). Now, of course we know that the Lord was purity itself. But it is similar to the baptism He accepted from John the Baptist, so that He might “fulfil all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).

At p.28, Thiessen turns to Brown’s conclusion that St Luke was probably a gentile who had only “book knowledge” of Jewish customs. Fitzmyer equally confidently states that “What has to be recognized is that Luke, not being a Palestinian Jewish Christian, is not accurately informed about this custom …” I will not aim a sarcastic barb at these two men. But I will agree with Thiessen’s last words:

perhaps the fact that Luke-Acts evidences sophisticated knowledge of ritual practice should cause us to reconsider long-cherished orthodoxies on the identity of Luke and his portrayal of Judaism and the Jewish Law. (29)

I just wanted to make this point: perhaps we may read St Luke from his text and not through the eyes of modern scholars, confident in their learning, confident in their errors.

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