Last time, we spoke about the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. This time, let us move to the beginning of Luke’s Gospel and try to see it through the Tanach and Jewish background.
THE ANGEL AND THE PRIEST
Have you ever been to Ein Karem, one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Jersualem? Two thousand years ago, in this picturesque village nestled in the “hills of Judah,” a priest named Zacharias and his wife Elisabeth lived righteously “before God”. They were not young, they didn’t have children, and their lives must have seemed quiet and settled. So when Zacharias, as was his custom, went to perform his Temple duty, he didn’t know that, not only the life of their small family, but the life of entire humankind, was about to change!
Why did Zacharias go to the Temple on that day? Zacharias was a priest – cohen. All the cohanim were divided into 24 divisions (see 1 Chron. 24:7-18), and the Aviyah division (Zacharias’ division) was the eighth. Each division served for a week at a time; thus the members of each division served in the Temple twice a year. It was a regular event and a regular trip for Zacharias; he did it “according to the custom of the priesthood” – but something of extraordinary importance happened that day in the Temple: …while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division … an angel of the Lord appeared to him.
Zacharias experienced an angelic visitation and heard the annunciation of the miraculous birth of his son, and all of this happened in the Temple “while he was performing his priestly service before God”. Have you ever contemplated this simple, but very powerful fact? Almighty God could have sent His angel to Zacharias at any place – in his house, his garden, on the street – yet He chose to announce the birth of John the Baptist in the Temple. Thus, the whole story of Jesus begins in the Jewish Temple!
WHY DID ELISABETH TARRY?
In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we find an interesting detail. Zacharias and Elisabeth are clearly overwhelmed with joy on the occasion of the birth of their long-awaited and miraculously given child, and yet for some reason they are not in a hurry to name him. It was not until the eighth day, Luke writes, “they were going to name” their son. On the eighth day? Didn’t they have nine months to think of a name? Why did John’s parents wait for such a long time?
From the commandment that God gave to Abraham, we know that the rite of circumcision was to take place on the eighth day after birth. The Gospel of Luke records the strict observance of this rite, both in case of John the Baptist and Jesus: circumcision of a Jewish boy had to take place on the eighth day. Next time, we will talk more about that, but here it’s important to note that in Jewish tradition it’s not only circumcision that happens on the eighth day.
In the modern Jewish world, a boy’s name is always announced at his circumcision – brit-milah – ceremony. This tradition is tied to the idea that a boy has to be named immediately after entering into the covenant of Abraham, and also to the fact that Abraham himself received a new name when he was circumcised (in Genesis 17, along with God’s commandment of circumcision, Abram received the name “Abraham”). But do we really know when this tradition began?
You might be surprised to learn that it is here, in Luke’s Gospel, that we see the first evidence of a Jewish boy being named at his brit-milah – circumcision. Luke shows us very clearly (both with John and with Jesus) that by that time, the tradition had already been established. However, within this established and existing tradition, the very first recorded instance of “giving a boy his name during the circumcision ceremony is not known from our Talmudic literature, but from one of the gospels” (David Flusser, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity). Can you imagine? Many fascinating details of the Gospels become clear to us when we see them through the eyes of the 1st century Jewish people.
DID JOHN INVENT BAPTISM?
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar… John the Baptist… went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” His cry, that the salvation of God is at hand, and his call for repentance, awakened echoes throughout all the land and gathered multitudes. What did people think when they came for this baptism of repentance? Was it something completely new and unheard of in Israel?
Unfortunately, most of the Christians are not aware of the Jewish roots of water baptism. Water baptism has a long history and did not begin with John the Baptist. The Book of Leviticus says that one has to be ritually pure before he can enter the Temple. Thus, an ancient process of spiritual purification and cleansing of the Jews – Mikveh – had existed long before the Baptism of John. Mikveh is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism, in order to achieve ritual purity. Over the centuries, this Mikveh cleansing, the purification washing, has been as essential and important to the Jews, as baptism is essential and important to the Christians.
Undoubtedly, John the Baptist gave a new meaning to the old practice of immersion: cleansing from sin. Never before had Israel heard a call for a “baptism of repentance”. However, in order to better understand and appreciate the novelty of this call, we need first to be aware of the water purification tradition existing at that time – Mikveh.
The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or JBNT (Jewish Background of the NT) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion) classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses (firstname.lastname@example.org) .
If you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books – you can get them from my page: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/ . I also want to let you know that I am preparing a book with all these Hebrew insights into Torah, which I hope will be published and available soon.
 Lk. 1:8,11
 Gen. 17:12
 At this point, we offer the WTP course only in English, while DHB course exists, not only in English, but in both Spanish and Portuguese as well.