LUKE AND THE MEMORIES OF MARY

There seems to be a cottage industry these days in "debunking" the "myths" of the Bible, especially its message concerning Jesus Christ. There are some who claim that Jesus never existed, that the accounts of Him in the Gospels were stitched together from pagan legends or pure imagination. This, of course, is a decidedly minority opinion, even among secular historians, so we need not take it at all seriously. However, many academic historians remain skeptical concerning the details of the "birth narratives" found in Matthew and Luke. They believe Jesus was born, to be sure, since they believe that he was a real person who was tried and executed outside Jerusalem by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.

The thing that bothers them, however, is that the story of Jesus' birth contains miraculous elements. For instance, they generally reject the idea that He was born in Bethlehem, although both Matthew and Luke declare this to be the case. The reason for this is that it too neatly fits a prophecy made hundreds of years previously in the book of Micah (5:2).Matthew makes explicit reference to this apparent fulfillment (2:1-6). Might not the writers of the Gospels have made this up to encourage faith in Jesus as the Messiah? The same would be true for all the other miraculous elements, such as the appearances of angels, magi from the east who follow a star and, above all, the virgin birth. But should we be impressed with the doubts of these scholarly skeptics? There are many good reasons to doubt their doubts. I will focus on one line of evidence that supports the credibility of the Gospel narrative concerning Christ's birth: the likelihood that Luke drew upon the eye-witness testimony of Mary herself.

Let us first take into account that Luke is generally regarded as a good historian. There are one or two places where scholars are dubious concerning Luke's historical statements but these are really cases where we lack sufficient information to rule Luke's version in or out. The progress of historical research has actually proven Luke right about a number of matters concerning which he was once doubted so that it would be best to allow him credence until definitely shown to be in error. Yes, as a believer in Jesus he is "biased". But how did he come to have this "bias"? Could it have been personal experience and research brought him to the convictions which he held? He was probably not raised to be a Christian. He was probably a Gentile and came to faith in Jesus as an adult.

Very probably his Christian convictions were first engendered by the preaching of an apostle, such as Peter or Paul. Their testimony was often accompanied by the performance of miraculous "signs", usually of healing (Acts 8:13; 19:11; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:4). As a physician (Colossians 4:14), Luke would have been impressed by these miracles. His experience and training would have put him in the best position of any in his day to judge whether these were produced by trickery, natural causes or were beyond the ability of such means. But above all, it must have been their testimony concerning the resurrection of Jesus that weighed heavily in his decision to become a Christian. Here were men who claimed to have seen Jesus alive after He had been severely beaten, publicly crucified, pierced to the heart and sealed in a tomb from Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning. That they made such claims was not by itself impressive, to be sure. Rather, it was that they maintained these claims under the severest of incentives not to. It brought them neither wealth nor position but rather removed from them any chance of these worldly rewards. Instead, it brought them poverty, hazardous journeys over tempestuous seas and through brigand-infested mountains, imprisonments, beatings, lashes, pillory, ostracism, mob violence and, in many cases, a painful, untimely death. Still, they boldly heralded their eye-witness testimony to the resurrection of Jesus. This is what probably sealed his conviction that Jesus was who He claimed to be - the Son of God and Savior of the world.

Once he believed, Luke was not content to stay at home. He began traveling with the apostles, especially the apostle Paul. As he traveled with them, he was interested to ascertain the exact truth concerning what he had been taught by them (Luke 1:1-4). One of those travels was with Paul and Luke recorded it in the book we know as the Acts of the Apostles. That these portions contained his own memories is evidenced by the so-called "we" passages (as in chapters 16, 20 and 21). This journey led to Jerusalem and Paul's arrest in the Temple. So far as we can tell, Luke remained with Paul while he was imprisoned at Caesarea in the Holy Land for two years (AD 57-59) although he would have been free to come and go as he was not under arrest. It was here, and at this time, that he would have had an ideal opportunity to pursue his investigations into the stories related to him by the apostles and to gain further information about Jesus. And it is here that we may suppose he had access not only to people who knew Jesus personally but to one who knew Jesus best of all - his mother, Mary.

This would explain the language he uses at the end of each of two lengthy narratives, the first of which concerns the circumstances of Jesus' birth. After recounting the story of Jesus' birth that has thrilled the hearts of generations of Christians down through the centuries, he writes, "But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart." (Luke 2:19) The word translated "treasured" in the NASB version is suntereoand means "to preserve, keep safe, keep close". It means to watch over and guard something so that it does not escape or become lost, as when Herod watched over and kept John the Baptist safe (Mark 6:20) from Herodias during his imprisonment - until Herod became drunk and made a rash vow! Mary not only kept the events surrounding Jesus' birth safe in her memory but she also was "pondering them in her heart." The Greek word for ponder is sumballo and means to bring people together to confer or to mentally connect various things to each other, seeking to understand their meaning. In other words, Mary not only kept these memories alive but also thought deeply about them. Mary's memories are again mentioned in verse 51 as the source for the stories of Jesus' presentation in the temple and the time His parents lost him after they began journeying back home to Nazareth from Jerusalem.

But could Luke have obtained these memories directly from Mary rather than through second-hand sources? First, even if these memories were second-hand they still could have come from members of Jesus' own family, such as his brothers or sisters or from the Apostle John into whose care Jesus entrusted His mother as He hung on the cross. One of Jesus' brothers, James, was a prominent leader of the church in Jerusalem at the time Luke was staying in the vicinity. But Mary herself could easily have been alive at this time. If she bore Jesus at a young age, say 16, which is very likely as women married young then and Jesus was her first-born, and we know that Jesus died at about age 33 in AD 30, then she would have been 77 years of age in AD 58, in the midst of the time Luke spent in the land of Israel. While the average life-span was low in those days, a female who had made it past her childhood and child-bearing years, as Mary did, could live to ripe old age. Males also could live long. John the Apostle lived until AD 100, seventy years after Jesus died and rose again!

Like Mary, let us remember the amazing circumstances and earth-shaking significance of the advent of our Lord and meditate upon their meaning for us and for all mankind. It will help if we keep in mind that we have every reason to believe it happened as it was reported to us by those who were there!