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Monday, July 9, 2018

Luke 3:1-2

It might seem absurd this week to read Luke 3 so slowly. However, there's a lot packed into this chapter from several different angles, so we'll take five days to navigate paragraph by paragraph, or maybe not even that fast.

In these two verses, Luke lays out a careful sense of the power structures in place when John begins to preach, starting with Emperor Tiberius. He is careful not to disparage any of these powers -- it just wouldn't do to offend Rome -- but his original readers would have known that about this time, Tiberius (who never really wanted to be Caesar, it seems) had actually removed himself from Rome and left the reins of the Empire to an administrator for the last decade or so of his reign. He was known as "the gloomiest of men." Pilate was ruthless, resenting his assignment to the troublesome backwater province of Judea and not hesitating to shed Jewish blood in order to keep the peace. The Herodian dynasty had faded from its former brutal glory under Herod the Great (the Herod of the murder of the innocents in Bethlehem around the time of Jesus' birth, see Matthew 2) and now his sons Herod Antipas and Herod Philip served not as kings but as frustrated "tetrarchs" at the pleasure of Rome, balancing their self-indulgent habits with the frustrated ambitions and unpleasant necessities of ruling without the freedom to make real decisions. In each and every case, these Roman rulers carry a sense of the fallibility of human rulers and the desperate need for something more -- for God to come and set the world to rights, as N.T. Wright likes to put it.

Luke gets a bit more pointed in that regard by mentioning "the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas." He feels a little more free to hint at the scandal surrounding this family, who had purchased the high priesthood from Rome, though according to Jewish law they were not eligible to hold the office. What's more, Annas, Caiaphas' father, shared the office with his son and the two passed it back and forth for political advantage as needed. They were skilled politicians who knew how to curry Roman favor. It was these two who presided over Jesus' trial, and it was Caiaphas in John's gospel who said it was prudent that one man (Jesus) should die for the nation, rather than having Rome come and destroy their country and their temple (which in fact did occur in 70 AD).

Lysanias is worth mentioning in some detail. Josephus, who is by far our most detailed extra-biblical historian for the Jews of this period, tells of a Lysanias who was tetrarch of Abilene (a region in what we would call the Golan Heights, on the border between northern Israel and southern Lebanon) around 40 BC -- fully two generations before the events Luke is describing. A century or two ago it was popular for scholars to point this out and poke fun at Luke's accuracy -- he had obviously thrown Lysanias into the list just to bolster it, without any concern for historical veracity. More recently, however, inscriptions have come to light from the reign of Tiberius mentioning another Lysanias, probably the son or grandson of the one Josephus mentions, who was tetrarch of Abilene at precisely the time Luke is talking about. Always be careful about saying the Bible can't be trusted because some human authority says it's wrong!

One of the benefits of Luke's careful list is that for readers ancient and modern, it places the preaching of John and the ministry of Jesus in a very specific historical context. The list itself served in ancient times to pinpoint when these events took place -- this is not about timeless spiritual truths, but about a specific set of historical events tied to a real person. God does not become incarnate in principles, but in history. According to our dating systems, we would say that these events launch onto the historical stage right around 28/29 AD.

The point, however, of this tremendous list of human authorities, disappointing and corrupt, comes right at the end of verse two. With all these characters scrambling around the halls of power political and religious, the word of God comes not to Caesar, not to Annas, but to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. God is working, and he is no respecter of human power structures. The greatest movement in history starts with a man who by all appearances has no power, who appears not in the palaces or the temples but in the wilderness, preaching not "peace and security" -- the slogan of the Caesars (see 1 Thessalonians 5:3) -- but repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That phrase will provide the bookends of Luke's story of Jesus' ministry, and that's the topic we'll take up tomorrow.

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