New Testament

What Led to the Christmas Story in Luke?

S. Kent Brown discusses the events leading up to the Christmas story in Luke.

Billions of people read the Christmas story in the Bible each year. The Gospel of Luke in particular tells the oft-repeated story of Joseph, Mary, and the nativity. In this Come Follow Me 2023 interview, S. Kent Brown discusses the events leading up to the Christmas story in Luke.

Read the commentary by S. Kent Brown, The Testimony of Luke.

What draws S. Kent Brown to Luke’s account?

I was initially drawn to the Gospel of Luke because of his interest in portraying Jesus as a Person who bore compassion towards all whom He met—especially the marginalized and unimportant in society.

People would have noticed the delay.

A good example is the widow of Nain who was in a very desperate situation after the death of her only son who was the one who supported her (Luke 7:11–17). In the same chapter, we come upon the woman “which was a sinner” who had made her way into a dinner gathering hosted by a Pharisee named Simon.

Because of her importuning, Jesus forgave her sins and sent her away “in peace” (Luke 7:36–50).

How did Joseph and Mary’s ancestors end up in Nazareth?

We are not told in any ancient source how Joseph and Mary’s ancestors ended up in Nazareth. But the matter may well lie with the Hasmonean ruler named Aristobulus who in 104 BC sent military forces to Galilee to subdue it and take control so that political and economic interests would be regularized and taxes would begin to flow to Jerusalem.

To ensure this step, functionaries were appointed to move to the north of the country and help in the process that the military had begun.

It is highly possible that the forebears of Joseph and Mary were among those who saw an opportunity for a new start and the chance to get away from the Hasmoneans who, as a priestly family, had taken control of the city and countryside.

Joseph seems to have been offered a spot on the first floor where the animals were kept.

These rulers, of course, looked askance at those of the line of King David, seeing them as a threat. The ancestors of Joseph and Mary thus moved away from a situation that could potentially prove extremely difficult for them just because of their family ties.

Does Luke provide any clues about where the Annunciation of Mary occurred?

The Annunciation most likely occurred in the home of Mary’s parents. The key expression is that “the angel came in unto her” (Luke 1:28).

He must have found her in a room or a courtyard that belonged to the house. That is why he had to calm her down—”Fear not, Mary” (Luke 1:30). She was seeing a male personage in a space where she otherwise felt safe and could be alone.

The Annunciation of Mary likely occurred inside a room of courtyard. According to S. Kent Brown, the angel may have scared Mary because “she was seeing a male personage in a space where she otherwise felt safe and could be alone.”

The notion of her going to the village well where she heard a strange voice grows out of a source that was composed 150 years after Mary’s birth and thus has to be considered untrustworthy (the Protevangelium of James 11:2).

Why is Luke one of the only gospels to mention taxation in the Christmas story?

Aside from Matthew, Luke is the only gospel writer who took an interest in the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. The taxing was really a registration for taxing purposes. Neither Joseph nor Mary paid any tax at this registration.

But the need to register took them back to the town where their family had originated a couple of generations earlier until, as we presume, those progenitors went north to Galilee as government employees of some sort.

It is the registration that drove Mary and Joseph to return to Bethlehem where prophecy had located the origin of the special child who would become a ruler (Micah 5:2).

How often would Zacharius have had the opportunity to light incense in the temple?

Zacharius would’ve had the opportunity to light incense in the temple only once in his lifetime. So reads Mishnah Tamid 5.2.

(Even though the Mishnah was not codified until AD 200, it preserves laws governing temple matters from the New Testament period.)

Why were people waiting for Zacharius when he came out of the temple?

The scene is most likely from the afternoon service (about 3 o’clock)—not the morning service—when a larger Jerusalem crowd would gather.

Many of these people were regular temple patrons and they knew the approximate time that was required to complete the lighting of the incense. People would have noticed the delay.

In what ways is Zacharius’s appearance in Luke similar to that of Nicodemus in the Gospel of John?

Zacharias and Nicodemus represent both themselves and others like them—pious, honorable, upright members of their society. But they were unbelieving when it came to God’s real power and manifestation.

Thus, they are rather alike and, in their appearances in the two gospels, their behavior offers lessons for readers.

Does Luke’s Christmas story suggest where Christ was born?

Christ may have been born in a first-floor room where residents kept their animals, according to Luke. The question likely ties to whether Joseph and Mary sought out distant relatives with whom they could stay in Bethlehem. Mary was about at full term for her pregnancy (she was “great with child” [Luke 2:5]).

Luke has introduced me to the compassionate Christ.

The term translated “inn” is translated later in the gospel as “guest chamber” (Luke 22:11). We are not to think that Joseph went looking for accommodations in a caravanserai or the like. Rather, he went to find a place within the home of a relative.

Not finding a room to stay in, Joseph seems to have been offered a spot on the first floor where the animals were kept (the upper floors were for the family). Often houses were built over caves where the animals could be kept.

Why doesn’t Luke mention the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt?

We don’t know whether Luke knew of this episode. He likely did. But it is not possible to say one way or the other with any certainty.

The Christmas story in Luke doesn't include an account of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt.
The Christmas story in Luke doesn’t include the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. BYU’s S. Kent Brown sees the omission as significant because it deprives readers of seeing Jesus’s childhood.

Omitting the account, in whatever form it may have come to Luke, would have been a significant omission—leaving out, in my opinion, an important part of Jesus’s development as a child. Jesus would have learned to speak Egyptian with playmates, making him multilingual as a very young person.

That said, both Luke and Matthew were certainly intent on locating the family back in Nazareth.

Why do some of the gospels refer to Jesus as a “carpenter”?

It is Matthew and Mark who call Jesus either “the carpenter’s son” (Matt. 13:55) or “the carpenter” (Mark 6:3). The Greek term tektōn can refer to a worker in wood but it can also mean a worker in stone.

In the broad sense of the word, Joseph and Jesus possessed building skills.

Did Mary carry a burden of loneliness as the Mother of the Son of God?

Mary seems to have grasped, at least in a preliminary way, what her pregnancy would mean for her life and reputation going forward (Luke 1:38). Ever after, even though she gained a notable status in her town of Nazareth, being known as the mother of the carpenter (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3).

An unpleasant aroma followed her and her son as John 8:41 clearly hints: “We be not born of fornication,” said the leaders of the Jews.

Among followers of Jesus, of course, she enjoyed a sterling reputation as is seen from her inclusion in the meeting where the decision was made about who would succeed the late Judas in the Twelve (Acts 1:14).

Even so, her lot must have made for loneliness outside the circle of her family and Jesus’ disciples.

How has the Gospel of Luke helped S. Kent Brown better know Jesus Christ?

As I wrote at the beginning, Luke has introduced me to the compassionate Christ—full of forgiveness, spreading mercy to all who will receive it, and taking action to support the vulnerable in his society.

His acts, of course, stand as superb models for anyone who will read Luke’s gospel with real intent.

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About the author

S. Kent Brown is an emeritus professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He holds a PhD from Brown University and has served twice as the director of the BYU Jerusalem Center. Brown is the author of dozens of academic works, including The Testimony of Luke, a Brigham Young University New Testament Commentary.

Further reading

Christmas story in Luke resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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