In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
Translation: But in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and Philip, his brother, being tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanius tetrarch of Abilene, upon high priest Annas and Caiaphas, a word of God came to be upon John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness, and he went into all the region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance into release of sins, just as it has been written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
"'A voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path. Every valley will be made full, and every mountain and hill will be made low, and the crooked will be made into straight, and the rough into smooth ways, and all flesh will see the salvation of God.'"
Background and situation: Luke has just concluded the prelude of his work. In chapters 1-2, Luke has told of the origin of Jesus. What we call "the Christmas story," Luke 2:1-20, is only a part of Luke's larger opening move. (Some scholars believe that "original Luke" began with chapter 3 and that Luke's "Christmas cycle," chapters 1-2, were added later.)
Luke began with the conception of John the Baptist (1:5-25), continued with the conception of Jesus (1:26-55), including Mary's song. Then, he tells of the delivery and naming of John (1:57-80), followed by the delivery of Jesus (2:1-20), his circumcision and Mary's "purification" (2:21-40). The 12 year old Jesus in the Temple completes this first section--the "overture," as Borg and Crossan put it--of Luke's gospel (2:41-52).
Opening themes include: God's suspicion of power and preference for the marginalized, a major theme of Mary's song. The angel came to Zechariah, not Herod (1:5). God was with Joseph and Mary, not Caesar and Quirinius (2:1-7).
Luke presents the family of Jesus as being very devout. They participate in the rituals and festivals of Israel. Women are quite prominent (Elizabeth, Mary, Anna). Luke also shows a pronounced emphasis on the Holy Spirit (eleven references in the first two chapters).
The fifteenth year of Tiberius: As he moves from the birth of John and Jesus into both their public ministries, Luke anchors his story in history. It was the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar (AD 28 or AD 29).
Luke then introduces a long list of other major figures. In so doing, he establishes the historical and cultural climate of the times: The land is dominated by Roman power through the rule of Caesar and Pilate, their supporters in the local aristocracy (Herod, Philip, Lysanius), and their supporters in the religious heirarchy (Annas and Caiaphas).
Less than two chapters previous, Mary had exulted in the Lord, "God my Savior," who "has brought down the powerful from their thrones" (1:52). Luke intends the names of those occupying the power structure to be seen in light of Mary's song of thankfulness to God for taking the side of the lowly against the political and financial elite.
Tiberius became Caesar after the death of Caesar Augustus (Octavian) in AD 14. Tiberius was a step-son of Octavian, and was later adopted by Octavian. This brought Tiberius into the Julio-Claudian line which would lead Rome until the death of Nero (AD 68).
Not long after the death of his son Drusus in AD 23, Tiberius exiled himself, first to Campania, and then to the isle of Capri (AD 26). Daily administration of the government passed to Lucius Aelius Sejanus, and not to good effect.
Sejanus controlled virtually all information reaching Tiberius. This gave Sejanus a position of great power. He used it to purge people at the highest levels of the government whom he perceived to be his enemies or rivals. (Sejanus may also have been involved in killing Tiberius' son.)
Sejanus' downfall came in AD 31. Exactly how he was deposed is unclear. The most common theory is that Tiberius was informed by someone about Sejanus' true activities and plotted against him. The theories are many and the arguments long, but the upshot was that Sejanus wound up being arrested, tried, and put to death all on the same day--October 18, 31.
Tiberius' later years are marked by a decline in his own mental health. He died in AD 37. The "fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" (AD 28 or 29) would have been during Sejanus' "reign of terror" during which time Caesar himself was all-but-retired, out of the loop, and probably clinically depressed besides.
Would Luke's readers have known this? Would they have understood Tiberius' "fifteenth year" as one of particular political chaos? If so, it would underline Luke's over-all argument about the corruption of the earthly powers and God's intervention to "bring down the powerful from their thrones" (1:52). Fecklessness and brutality is typical of these worldly empires, Luke is saying, and God has intervened to show a new "way."
God's way vs. the way of Roman power: Like Mark, Luke accentuates the "way" of God. Indeed, perhaps the central point of this week's lection is the exhortation of Isaiah, through John the Baptist, to "prepare the way of the Lord." (3:4)
Later, Luke will tell us--and often--that the early Christians were known as "followers of the way." (Some examples: Acts 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14; 24:22.) This way--the way of God--stands in sharp and antithetical contrast to the ways of worldly power exemplified by Tiberius, Sejanus, Herod, Pilate and all the rest.
Pontius Pilate was "prefect" of Judea. (Later, the word "procurator" would be used to describe the same office.) Pilate's major responsibilities were military and financial. He was responsible for keeping order and collecting taxes.
During the time of Pilate, much of the civil administration of the region was run through the Temple, though Pilate was the one who chose the high priest. The early Christians, of course, would have identified Pilate with the execution of Jesus, as would Christians today. Luke's mention of Pontius Pilate at this early juncture raises the level of tension in the story.
Luke mentions Herod, but he does not mean Herod the Great who died in 4 BC. This is a reference to his son, Herod Antipas, who was tetrarch of Galilee from the death of his father to AD 39.
Among other things, Antipas is known for establishing the city of Tiberias in Galilee in AD 20. The site was a former graveyard, rendering the city "unclean" in the eyes of Jews. (Later, however, the city was "cleansed" and became an influential Jewish center.) In Luke, Herod Antipas figures in the death of John the Baptist and Jesus himself. His mention raises the level of tension yet again.
The brother of Herod Antipas, Philip, ruled from 4 BC to AD 34 in a largely gentile region toward the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee. He is known for advancing the process of Hellenization. Little is known of Lysanias except that he ruled a gentile region to the north of the Sea of Galilee beginning in AD 27.
After this litany of political figures, Luke drops in the names of Annas and Caiaphas. The high priesthood--archiereos--is singular in the Greek text, yet we are given the names of two high priests.
Annas was high priest from AD 6-15. He was followed in that office by five sons and his son-in-law Caiaphas (AD 18-36/37). The intimation in the use of the singular archiereos is that even though Caiaphas might technically have held the office, Annas was still pulling the strings. For Luke, the figure of Annas hovers over the high priesthood like a dark cloud.
The Word came to John?: After Luke runs through this litany of big shots, he says a startling thing: "A word of God came to be upon John"--egeneto rhema theou epi ioannan. A "word of God" did not come to any of these powerful, corrupt, pompous, bizarre oligarchs living in high style in elaborate palaces. It came rather to a mere "son of Zechariah" somewhere out in the "wilderness."
The "wilderness" held rich associations for Israel. The wilderness had been the place where God had led the slaves of Egypt and supernaturally attended to them. The "wilderness" is a place of uncharted territory. There are no maps or guides to a wilderness. You go in the wilderness and you may never be heard from again. Nevertheless, in this wild and uncharted place, God had done something new. God had, in essence, created the Hebrews as a distinct people.
John "went into all the region of the Jordan." Like the wilderness, the Jordan River also resonated in the psyche of the Hebrews. This was where Joshua had led them into the Promised Land. Now, John's message saturates "all the region of the Jordan."
The message was "a baptism of repentance into release of sins"--baptisma metanoias eis aphesin amartione. This was not what we today would consider a "Christian baptism." John's baptism was a ritual cleansing which was quite common in Judaism as well as other Mediterranean religions. Anything that might defile the Temple needed to be removed before one could enter, hence the need for cleansing. The wealthy of Jerusalem had their own private baths for this purpose.
Repentance and forgiveness figure particularly large in Luke's gospel. Nearly half of the usages of the word "repentance" in the New Testament are in Luke. Unfortunately, the original meaning of the word "repentance" has been largely lost in popular understanding. Most people today seem to associate the word with emotions such as "feeling sorry," or, as the founder of Habitat for Humanity, Millard Fuller, used to say, "For most people, repentance means feeling sorry for getting caught."
Metanoia is based on the word nous, which means "mind," to which is attached the prefix meta, which means "after," "with," or "beyond." Literally, then, metanoia means "after mind," or "second thought." It is used to describe an action of "turning" and then "moving in a new direction." It has very little to do with one's emotions, and everything to do with a change in one's actions.
For Luke, the people needed a "turning" from the way of Tiberius, Pilate and Antipas. Indeed, John's purpose was precisely to call people to God's new path: "He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God (1:16)." This is not the work of people, lest, as Paul would say, any could boast. For Luke, repentance and "turning" are God's work (Acts 5:31).
The word we generally translate as "forgiveness" is aphesis, which means "release," "deliverance," "remission," "setting free." The word was used both to describe the cancellation of debt and the release of prisoners. Debt and prison were high on the list of peoples' concerns in the time of Jesus. Aphesis brings release from these, and any other, forms of bondage. It means "fresh start."
"All flesh shall see": Having placed John in the historical and political context of the time, Luke now makes an even more important move: He places John in the context of the prophetic tradition of Israel--specifically, the great prophet Isaiah. (At this point, Luke follows Mark, the primary source, but makes significant changes. Mark cites only Isaiah 40:3. Luke expands this to include verses 4-5 as well.)
The Isaiah text (40:3-5) is about the return of the Lord to Zion. When a ruler visited a city, the people were to repair the road of approach and decorate it to herald that ruler. In the case of Isaiah, the ruler is God, and the landscape is to be radically and utterly transformed--low places filled, high places made low, the crooked made straight, the rough made smooth.
Luke makes a small change in the Isaian text, though that change has a very large implication. Where Isaiah has "make straight the paths of our God" (Is 40:3), Luke has "make his paths straight." Luke has already established that the Messiah and Lord is Jesus (1:43, 2:11). For Luke, the preparation of the way is not for Yahweh, but Jesus.
Luke also amends the last line of the citation somewhat, from "and all people shall see it together" to "all flesh will see the salvation of God." This fits with the words of Simeon in 2:30-31: "...for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples..."
The text had begun by focusing on John, around whom is clustered a number of significant Jewish markers--wilderness, Jordan, Isaiah. Yet, the ultimate mission of God is not limited to Jews, but includes "all flesh". (This may have been signalled even in 3:1 by mention of rulers of primarily gentile regions.)
The mission of God came through the Hebrew people, but its scope is all of humanity. Striking a strongly universal note, Luke says that everyone "will see the salvation of God."
Image: Sermon of St. John the Baptist, Pieter the Elder Bruegel