In the extraordinarily sensitive infancy narrative in Luke’s Gospel, we find an unusual amount of detail which appears in none of the other Gospels.
Matthew and Luke both have accounts of Jesus’ birth, while Mark’s Gospel commences with John the Baptist baptising in the Jordan, and John’s commences with the words, “In the beginning was the Word ...”
In St Luke’s Gospel, we have a detailed account of the events surrounding John the Baptist’s conception and birth, as well as the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, in which the words of the Angel and of Mary are quoted verbatim.
According to Luke, the Angel told Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, then an elderly woman, was six months pregnant, “for nothing is impossible with God”.
Our Lady immediately sets out from Nazareth for the hill country of Judea, where Elizabeth lived, and again, Luke gives us an extremely detailed account of what happened when Mary met her cousin.
Luke says Mary “entered the house of Zekariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud voice, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that what had been spoken to her from the Lord would be fulfilled’.”
Luke then quotes Mary as saying the words of that wonderful hymn of praise known as the Magnificat.
Luke’s account of events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist tellingly says, “All these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts saying ‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him.”
Interestingly, both these stories are told from Mary’s perspective, not Elizabeth’s, and not Joseph’s. We can reasonably conclude that Mary herself is Luke’s source.
In the following chapter of Luke’s Gospel, there is a detailed account of the Holy Family’s long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Joseph was required to register for a census, organised by the Roman occupying force for raising taxes.
Luke tells us that this census had been ordered by the Roman Emperor Augustus when Quirinius (a very well-known Roman aristocrat) was governor of nearby Syria.
Luke then gives us a lengthy and detailed account of Jesus’ birth in a stable in Bethlehem – because, he tells us, there was no room for the Holy Family in the inn. He tells us that the birth was heralded by legions of angels who appeared to shepherds tending their flocks, and who told the shepherds that they would see a sign: a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
The reference to swaddling cloths brings back to mind the statement of his ancestor, the son of King David, King Solomon, who says, “I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths.”
On two occasions, Luke refers to Mary in very similar words. Luke says she “treasured these things, pondering them in her heart”, in reference to the events surrounding Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and again at the time when he was lost in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Some biblical scholars have speculated that the infancy narrative in Luke’s Gospel is a later invention by the early Christian community.
But internal evidence, including the author’s clear attempt to anchor his history at a particular moment in both Jewish history and that of the Roman Empire, suggests that either directly or indirectly, the infancy narrative came from Mary herself, because only she would have known these details, and could have related them in such a personal way.
One of those who has examined Luke’s writings – his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles – in detail was Professor William Mitchell Ramsay, one of the leading biblical scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
What is of most interest about Professor Ramsay is that his academic background was as a member of the Tubingen School (founded by FC Baur) which denied the historical accuracy of the New Testament narratives, claiming they were written in the 2nd century AD, as either pious tracts or as propaganda to support the early Christian movement.
Professor Ramsay did field work in Greece and Anatolia (now part of Turkey), and travelled extensively through Asia Minor, studying classical Greek and Roman civilisation. As a result of his research and writings, he was recognised as an authority on all matters relating to the districts associated with St Paul's missionary journeys and on Christianity in the early Roman Empire.
When he first went to Asia Minor, many of the cities mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles had no known location and almost nothing was known of their detailed history or politics.
The Acts of the Apostles was the only record and Professor Ramsay fully expected his own research to prove that Luke, the author of Acts, was hopelessly inaccurate since no man could possibly know the details of Asia Minor more than a hundred years after the event — this is, when Acts was then supposed to have been written.
He therefore set out to put the writer of Acts on trial. He devoted his life to unearthing the ancient cities and documents of Asia Minor.
After a lifetime of study of Acts, he concluded: “Further study ... showed that the book could bear the most minute scrutiny as an authority for the facts of the Aegean world, and that it was written with such judgment, skill, art and perception of truth as to be a model of historical statement” (The Bearing of Recent Discovery, p. 85).
On page 89 of the same book, Ramsay wrote, “I set out to look for truth on the borderland where Greece and Asia meet, and found it there [in Acts]. You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian's and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment ...”
Professor Ramsay also examined the infancy narrative in Luke’s Gospel, and came to very similar conclusions.
In his book, Was Christ born in Bethlehem?, Ramsay discussed the importance of the infancy narrative in Luke’s Gospel, and Mary’s role in it.
He said, “”The beautifully told story of Luke 1, 2, is an episode of family history of the most private character. The facts could be known only to a very small number of persons. If Luke had the slightest trace of historical instinct, he must have satisfied himself that the narrative which he gives rested on the evidence of one of the few persons to whom the facts could be known.
“It is not in keeping with the ancient style that he should formally name his authority; but he does not leave it doubtful whose authority he believed himself to have. ‘His mother kept all these sayings in her heart’ and ‘Mary kept all these sayings, pondering them in her heart’ (Luke 2:19 and 51) those two sentences would be sufficient. The historian who wrote like that believed that he had the authority of the Mother herself.
“But those two sentences are not the only indications of the source whence Luke believed his information to come. Some facts intimately concerning Elizabeth are mentioned in 1:24 and 41; and the narrative carefully explains how these facts became known to Mary (Luke 1:36 and 41): she had been told ...
“The narrative has the form which is natural only if Mary is understood to be the authority throughout: she simply states what concerned herself, while, in what concerned Elizabeth, she not merely states the facts, but also explains that she has first-hand authority.”
In writing this, Professor Ramsay was directly contradicting the prevailing opinion among Protestant church historians.
He wrote, “It is generally assumed as specially clear, that we have in the narrative of the birth and childhood of Jesus a translation from an Aramaic narrative or from a series of Aramaic narratives.
“Instead of seeing evidence of Luke’s literary power in the variations of style in different parts of his history, many scholars see only evidence of difference in documentary authority.”
Professor Ramsay disputes this view, arguing persuasively that if any such accounts existed, they would certainly have been preserved in an original form. In fact, the only source we have is Luke.
Our familiarity with Luke’s infancy narrative – caused by its repetition at Christmas-time – obscures its extraordinary content which could have come only from Mary herself.
Luke’s Gospel includes not only details of Jesus’ early life known only to his mother, but additionally, Mary’s own understanding of Jesus’ role in the salvation of mankind.