Luke the Historian

I have read the opening lines of Luke 3 hundreds of times and it was this last time through that I asked a few questions I’ve never asked before.


With his opening words Luke tells us that he was serious about getting the story correct and so worked hard to get the facts straight. He said, “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning…to write an orderly account for you” (Luke 1:3). I have often wondered who he talked to and what documents he read along the way. Did he talk to Mary, Jesus’ mother? Which of the original apostles did he interview? Did he talk to people Jesus healed? And what of primary source material? I wonder what documents he got his hands on. (I have a suspicion that an early gospel was written in Hebrew. Did he once hold a copy of “the things that were fulfilled among us” 1:1?)



Well, when I came to Luke 3 I suddenly stopped and thought, “I wonder what year was the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign. He was a significant player on the world stage so I bet historians have that figured out.” So I looked it up. Tiberius Caesar reigned from 14 AD to 37 AD. That means his fifteenth year—and so the year that John the Baptist started his ministry and the year Jesus is introduced—would have been 29 AD.


 I, then, went back to Jesus’ birth. Now, some would say that Jesus must have been born on the year zero, and in a perfect world that would make sense. But in the jump from using a lunar to the Julian calendar (46 AD) and then the upgrade correction to the Gregorian calendar (1582), things got out of sync. Scholars have long debated the actual year of Jesus’ birth. For reasons I will not get into now, I am convinced that Jesus was born in 3 BC. This is where it gets interesting.


If Jesus was born in 3 BC, we know He had to flee from Herod and could only return after Herod died. Herod sought to kill all boys in Bethlehem who were two years of age and under so Joseph and Mary must have fled before the soldiers came. Two BC is a likely date for their flight and Herod’s atrocity. Herod died in 1 BC. They, then, returned to Nazareth and I think it telling that no one seemed to remember the Bethlehem birth or flight to Egypt. Its lack of attention tells me it was not on the minds of the people.


So if Jesus was born in 3 BC, then He was 12 years old in 9 AD (the story of Jesus in the temple with the religious leaders, 2:41-51). That means he was 31 or 32 years old when He entered into ministry in 29 AD. Or as Luke puts it in 3:23, when Jesus was “about 30 years old.” Remember, this is a culture that did not mark birthdays or count as accurately as we do. “About 30” and 32 are close enough to be considered accurate!


The numbers stopped me in my tracks again and made me marvel and how it all fits together. I thought, “If Luke was able to get this correct, I can trust everything he wrote.”


As I kept reading, I tried to climb into each story as if I was there, experiencing the crowds and the teaching. I tried to feel the tension as Jesus looked each of His detractors in the eye or as He asked questions that others were not willing to answer. I put myself in different sandals and wondered how I would have responded or what I would have thought (often landing on the side of the Pharisee, I sadly realized). Then I ran across a little line that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.


With crowds pressing in to touch Him and great needs making demands on His time, I came to 5:16. “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” He often withdrew. How “often” do I stop my world to be with my Father? Why did Jesus feel the need to do it? If Jesus had the need, how much more do I?


If Luke got the other details right, this one is also spot on. If the One I seek to follow “often” carved out the time and sought a place to pray, and if I am His follower and it is my purpose to become like the teacher (6:40), what will I do about that?


These words are accurate and true. How carefully do we listen?


I’ve been through this gospel many times and yet there is always something to learn. I hope you remain open to how this familiar story may touch you today and when it does, feel free to share your story with me. I’d love to hear it.


Looking for new surprises along this familiar path,