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The Gospel of Luke without a Birth Story

In my previous post, ostensibly on the genealogy of Luke, I pointed out that there are good reasons for thinking that the Gospel originally was published – in a kind of “first edition” – without what are now the first two chapters, so that the very beginning was what is now 3:1 (this is many centuries, of course, before anyone started using chapters and verses.) If that’s the case, Luke was originally a Gospel like Mark’s that did not have a birth and infancy narratives. These were added later, in a second edition (either by the same author or by someone else).

If that’s the case then the Gospel began with John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus, followed by the genealogy which makes better sense here, at the beginning, than it does in the third chapter once the first two are added.

But is there any hard evidence that a first edition began without the first two chapters? One of the reasons it is so hard to say is because we simply don’t have much hard evidence. Our two earliest manuscripts of Luke, P75 and P45, are fragmentary, lacking portions of Luke, including the first two chapters. We can’t say whether they originally had them or not. Our first manuscript with portions of the opening chapters is the third-century P4. But our earliest patristic witness is over a century earlier. As it turns out, the witness is the heresiarch Marcion, and as is well known he didn’t have the first two chapters!

As early as …

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Does Mark’s Gospel Actually *Deny* the Virgin Birth?
Did Luke Originally Tell the Birth Story?



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  December 24, 2018

    Adoptionism deserves equal time! Teach the controversy!

    • Avatar
      Actual_Wolfman  December 26, 2018

      I’d never heard of the adoptionist view (I don’t think) until reading this blog post. Interesting idea.

  2. Lev
    Lev  December 24, 2018

    Very good. I’m convinced by this – I don’t think ch 1& 2 were part of the 1st edition.

    I think you’ve said elsewhere that even if chs 1&2 were not part of the 1st edition, there’s good reason for believing it still opened with Lk 1:1-4. Could you tell us what those reasons are?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 25, 2018

      Those verses appear to be the introduction of a book and they have no bearing on the rest of chs. 1-2; so it makes good sense they were originally part of the first edition. Also they are reflected in teh opening verses of Acts, which shows that the author originally began both books this way.

  3. Robert
    Robert  December 24, 2018

    As we agreed (6 years ago?), this first edition of an abortionist Luke would be especially nice if Lk 3,23 did not include the either the entire phrase ⸂υἱός, ὡς ἐνομίζετο⸃ or even just the single word ἐνομίζετο. Have you given any more thought to this possibility?

    • Robert
      Robert  December 24, 2018

      Yikes! Correction to adoptionist Luke!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 25, 2018

      I think you meant “adoptionist” :-). My sense is that the ενομιζετο (“it was supposed”) shows that even at the time of his writing of the first edition he knew there were “issues” with Joseph being the father. Later another author (or Luke himself?) decided to add that actual story.

  4. Avatar
    godspell  December 24, 2018

    But if that’s the case, did he change his mind? Do scholars think ‘Luke’ wrote what are now the opening chapters of that gospel? We know the same person who wrote Luke also wrote Acts. So I assume that can be determined.

    My impression of Luke is that more than the other three gospel authors, he especially wanted to reach as many as possible. He is, for want of a better term, PR-conscious. Perhaps after he wrote his first edition, it became clear to him that the Virgin Birth story was increasingly popular among the burgeoning number of pagan converts. Who wouldn’t object to the notion of Jesus being God’s adopted son, for reasons you’ve explained. But who also liked stories about supernatural births. Being a mix and match kind of writer (unlike Mark), Luke obliged.

    After all, you can adopt an illegitimate child (shall we say bastard?) Legitimacy is primarily about being publicly acknowledged as someone’s issue at birth–which doesn’t happen in either birth narrative we have.

    Jesus is God’s SECRET son at birth (though some are privy to the truth). It’s only once his ministry begins that God acknowledges him. So Luke can have it both ways. Jesus was divinely conceived out of wedlock, then adopted. Only then can he be heir to God’s power.

    And, of course, Joseph has adopted him before that. Thus making him heir to the line of David, in a symbolic sense. Joseph has died by the time Jesus is baptized, so his true father adopts him. A second birth. (Third?)

    To be clear, I don’t think any of Jesus’ first followers believed in the Virgin Birth, but you can’t control the way a religion develops. New converts bring new ideas. I think people probably started telling versions of the Virgin Birth story because in the pagan world, a great hero (which is what Jesus is in their minds) needs an origin story. And typically, great heroes are the offspring of gods. The idea has to be adapted for a religion that began as an offshoot of Judaism. But it’s not as hard as one might think.

    After all, Samson was born to a barren woman, through a miracle–and what was he to be called? A Nazirite.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 25, 2018

      It wouldn’t be that he changed his mind but the he — or another author/editor — later heard the fuller story and decided to tell it.

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 25, 2018

        That might not have been such a simple decision.

  5. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  December 24, 2018

    Yay! for adoptionists! They were right: ” adopted sons (have) a higher status than natural sons; ” I’m an adoptionist!
    OK, I’m also a diplomat, so I’ll settle for (just to keep the peace) Adopted Kids Are Every Bit Born Kids Equals.

  6. Avatar
    Phil  December 24, 2018

    Am I right in thinking that without the first two chapters there would be no mention of the virgin birth in Luke, just the birth of Jesus as an apparently normal natural event?

  7. Avatar
    SkepticsRUs  December 24, 2018

    According to Wikipedia, from what we know of the lost Gospel of the Ebionites, the gospel “began with the Baptism of Jesus (presumably because the Ebionites denied the Virgin Birth)”. If correct, it would be consistent with a version of Luke that also began with the Baptism of Jesus.

  8. Avatar
    stokerslodge  December 24, 2018

    Bart, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish you and your family a very Happy Christmas and New Year. Dee McCarthy

  9. Avatar
    Stephen  December 24, 2018

    Are there other passages in Luke that look like attempts to tone down the Adoptionist point of view?


    Happy Holidays!

  10. Avatar
    AstaKask  December 26, 2018

    Let’s assume chapter 1 and 2 were inserted. Whoever did this can’t have known about Matthew, can he? Otherwise, wouldn’t they have coordinated it better with the other nativity story. The two are incompatible in many places. Which means that it must have been added relatively quickly. Does this reasoning sound right?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2018

      Yes, I agree that he does not appear to know about Matthew. But then again, most Christians didn’t know about Matthew, for decades after it was written.

  11. Avatar
    mannix  December 26, 2018

    While Mary is not mentioned in Luke’s Gospel outside of Chapters 1&2, she is cited in Acts 1,14. I would assume therefore “Luke” did not agree with the Marcionite view that Jesus simply appeared as an adult.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 27, 2018

      I assume so too.

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 27, 2018

      Mark clearly believed Jesus was in all respect a normal man, with a normal birth, until he was chosen by God for a higher purpose. To Mark, it would ruin the story he’s telling for Jesus to have any supernatural attributes before the baptism–the moment Jesus gave himself over to God. Jesus’ power comes entirely from faith, and that’s probably how Jesus saw it as well.

  12. Avatar
    Gary  December 26, 2018

    Interesting. If the Lukan Birth Narrative is a later addition to the Gospel of Luke, is it possible that whoever wrote the added Lukan birth narrative based his story on Matthew’s Birth Narrative? Even though the stories on the surface are very different, there are some similar themes:

    –a bright light appears to two different groups of strangers, one a group of magi, the other a group of shepherds.
    –both groups of strangers come to Bethlehem to worship the child/baby
    –some apologists/scholars have noticed words/terms used in the Lukan Birth Narrative that are unusual for the rest of the Gospel of Luke/Book of Acts, but the same as words/terms used by Matthew.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2018

      It seems unlikely, since most of the stories are very different from each other and actually stand at odds at key points.

  13. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  December 27, 2018

    Professor, I haven’t read Michael Peppard’s book, “The Son of God in the Roman World” so please excuse me. Does Peppard present any factual argument for the presumed position that first century Jews viewed adoption the same way the Romans did? While we understand the influence Greece and her philosophies had on contemporary Jewish culture in the region, can the same be said for Rome and hers? Romans (and Greeks for that matter) didn’t circumcise; they shaved their faces; they were polytheists. There were lots of Roman practices and attitudes that were not adopted by the Jews. So why can we simply assume that the higher status of an adopted Roman among other Romans also goes for adopted Jews among other Jews, such that the “adopted” son of God is of a higher status than had God, like Zeus, been directly responsible for Jesus’ birth?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2018

      I don’t remember offhand what Jewish evidence he explicitly cites. But his book is really about Mark’s Gospel, and Mark was not written by a Jew, so he may not go into terrible depth into the question. Wish I could remember!

      • Avatar
        michael_kelemen  January 19, 2019

        How is it known that Mark was not written by a Jewish person?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 20, 2019

          Ah, that deserves an entire post. I’ll add the question to my list!

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