Luke’s Birth Narrative: Pagan Myth or Sacred Story?

Many claim that the birth narratives in the Gospels–here the third Gospel–were merely  reshaped copies of Greco-Roman myths. True?

The thesis: Luke’s birth narrative does not originate in pagan literature, but in Genesis. The next verbal parallels between Gen. 11-21 and Luke 1:5-2:52 are amazing. Luke shaped his historical and true narrative according to Genesis. He must have studied those chapters in Genesis very carefully–or his source did.

Genesis 11-21 Luke 1:5-2:52
1 Sarah was barren (11:30) Elizabeth was barren (1:7)
2 Promise to make a great nation (12:2) John will be great (1:15); Jesus will be great (1:32)
3 The Lord says he will bless Abram (12:2), and Melchizedek blesses him (14:19) Elizabeth says to Mary she is blessed (1:41-45); Simeon calls Jesus blessed (2:25, 34)
4 Promises to Abraham (12:3; 15:5, 13-14, 18-21; 17:2, 4-8) Promises to Abraham remembered by God (1:55, 73)
5 Lord to Abram: To his offspring he will give land (13:14-17; cf. 17:7; 18:18; 22:17) Mary says God helped Israel according to promise he made to Abraham and his offspring (1:55); the oath he swore to Abraham (1:73)
6 Chronological and geo-political markers (14:1) Chronological and geo-political markers (1:5)
7 Melchizedek to Abram: God Most High is blessed because he has delivered enemies into Abram’s hands (14:20; cf. 15:13-14; 22:17) Gabriel says to Mary that Jesus will be called Son of the Most High and Most High will overshadow her (1:32, 35); Zechariah to John: child will called prophet of Most High (1:76); Zechariah says God has granted that they will be rescued from hands of enemies (1:74)
8 Lord to Abram: Don’t be afraid and God’s gracious act on his behalf (15:1) Angel says to Zechariah not to be afraid and reminds him of God’s  gracious act (1:13); Gabriel says to Mary not to be afraid and offers gracious act on her behalf (1:30)
9 Abram believed the Lord and reckoned it to him as righteousness (15:6; cf. 18:19; 26:5) Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous before God (1:6)
10 Sarai bore Abram no son (16:1) Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless because she was barren (1:7)
11 Angel of Lord to Hagar: you have conceived in womb and will bear a son (16:11-12) Angel to Mary: she will conceive a son in her womb and call him Jesus. He will be great (1:31-32); the point is not that Hagar = Mary, but the verbal similarities
12 The Lord appeared to Abram when he was ninety-nine (17:1) Zechariah and Elizabeth were getting on in years, and an angel appeared to them (1:7, 11)
13 God to Abram: walk before me and be blameless (17:1) Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous before God, walking blameless (1:6)
14 God promises an everlasting covenant and to be an ancestor of a multitude of nations; kings will come from him (17:4-8; cf. 17:16) Zechariah says of God that God has shown mercy and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath he swore to Abraham (1:72-73); “throne,” “kingdom,” (1:32-33); “our ancestor,” “Abraham” “forever” (1:55)
15 Circumcision is instituted for boys eight days old (17:12); Abraham circumcised his son when he was eight days old (21:4) John was circumcised on eighth say (1:59); Jesus was circumcised on eighth day (2:31)
16 God says he will give Abraham a son by Sarah (17:6) and name him Isaac and he will have a future role (17:19) Angel to Zechariah: Elizabeth will bear a son and name him John, and he will have a future role (1:13); Angel says to Mary: you will conceive a son and name him Jesus and he will have a future role (1:31-33)
17 God went up from Abraham (17:22) The angel departed from Mary (1:38)
18 Abraham presents himself as a servant (18:3-5) Mary presents herself as a servant (1:38, 48)
19 Abraham expresses doubt: can a child be born to a man at one hundred years old and a woman at ninety (17:17); Abraham and Sarah were advanced in years and will experience no pleasure (18:11-12) Zechariah and Elizabeth were advanced in age (1:7; 1:18)
20 God to Abraham: Is anything impossible with God? (18:14) Gabriel to Mary: Nothing will be impossible with God (1:37)
21 Abraham is a prophet (20:7) Zechariah prophesies (1:67)
22 Sarah conceives and bear a son (21:2) Elizabeth conceives and bears a son (1:24, 57)
23 Sarah: God has brought laughter to me; everyone who hears will laugh (21:6) Elizabeth: God has taken away her disgrace; she and her neighbors hear about God’s mercy on her and rejoice with her (1:58)
24 Isaac: he grew and was weaned (21:8); Ishmael: God was with the boy who grew up and lived in the wilderness (21:20) John: The child grew and became strong in spirit and lived in the wilderness (1:80); Jesus grew and became strong and God’s favor was with him (2:40; cf. 2:52)
Joel B. Green. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Eerdmans, 1997), pp. 53-55, strongly edited. Green quotes Scripture for each row; I summarized them, but keeping many verbal parallels.

The verbal parallels–down to the exact wording and phrasing–are amazing. Clearly, Luke knew his Scripture in Genesis  or his source did. His birth narrative did not come from paganism, but Scripture.

An objector could claim that Genesis itself is rooted in paganism. However, Luke (and all other NT authors) saw Genesis as a reply against paganism. Luke (and the other NT authors) saw Genesis as sacred, promoting monotheism. In a post about Genesis in its religious, cultural environment, I wrote:

… the author of Gen. 1-11 simply had to cover popular stories circulating in his day. Today we call them myths because we do not believe in many gods and the strange behavior of them and goddesses and the men and women described in those stories.[ii] (Today atheists and hyper-skeptics call much of the Bible a myth because they don’t believe even in one God!) The ancient author of Gen. 1-11, though he did not use the term myth in his writing, also believed the gods in his religious culture were at least odd and needless and even ridiculous characters as they fought and squabbled and panicked and committed immoral acts, for he was clearly a monotheist.[iii] But the biblical author must have liked the stories in general terms. However, all he had to do was transform the ideas and images and religion to fit in to calm, unconfused, moralistic, relational, and streamlined monotheism. At the same time, the author purged the false gods and the deficient and strange ideas that flowed from polytheism.

Source: 1. Genesis 1-11 in Its Ancient Religious Environment (Part One of a five-part series)

Genesis was a reply to ancient paganism. It was not a slavish copy of it. In any case, we are not talking about Gen. 1-11, but about the story of Abraham and the birth narratives in Gen. 11-21. And from my modern (not modernist or post-modernist) point of view, the story of Abraham reads like history in the normal sense of the word. As noted, for the NT authors, Genesis was sacred monotheism, as distinct from paganism.

To sum up, the verbal parallels in Luke 1:5-2:52 and Genesis 11-21, down to exact wording and phrasing, prove beyond any reasonable doubt that Luke did not have in mind Greco-Roman myths of his day. Instead, he went out of his way to ground his birth narratives in sacred Writ–in Genesis.

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