Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Source and Significance of the Centrality Theme in Luke

It is undisputed that Luke has adopted the theme of the centrality of the city and that undoubtedly he used Isaiah as one of his sources. This article asks the question, what is the source of the idea that Jerusalem is the center of the world? Secondly, is there any significance in Luke using this particular idea and source?

Book of Jubilees asserts that Jerusalem is “the center of the navel of the world.” Ezekiel 38:12 also uses the word ὀμφαλὸν in declaring that Jerusalem is the navel of the world. Philo in his Legatio ad Gaium also claimed that Jerusalem is “situated in the center of the world.” That Jubilees, Ezekiel and Philo each can assert in their own words that Jerusalem is the center of the world certainly is a statement that the idea was generally accepted by the people of Second Temple Judaism. Luke has certainly utilized Ezekiel and Jubilees as well as Isaiah as a source.

Paradise is God’s abode. Thus Jubilees 8:19 states that Noah “knew that the Garden of Eden was the holy of holies and the dwelling of the Lord.” The translators of the Septuagint called the Garden of Eden planted by God himself, with a river running through it, παραδείσῳ. Ezekiel 31:8 also uses this word in the same context. Therefore it is remarkable and significant that the Luke uses this Greek word when Jesus on the cross tells the criminal, “Today, you will be with me in παραδείσῳ.”

The Book of Jubilees makes Pentecost the most important of the annual festivals on the Jewish liturgical calendar. According to Jubilees, the Feast of Pentecost was instituted in connection with Noah and was to be celebrated annually in perpetuity. Of further interest Luke, but not Matthew, includes Noah in the genealogy of Jesus.

The Book of Jubilees, as confirmed by Christiansen, is an important example of Palestinian Jewish writing. Christiansen notes that the Book of Jubilees introduces the angel of presence as the writer of the tablets received by Moses on Sinai. Stephen’s last sermon includes the idea that the laws were promulgated through angels. Secondly, “... Israel’s identity depends on Jerusalem as its geographical centre of holiness.” The third reason is Jubilees has elevated the importance of the rite of circumcision from a sign of obedience “by adding eternal validity in making it a law written on heavenly tablets (Jub 15:25-34).” Finally, “It is noteworthy that Jubilees lacks criticism of contemporary religious structures. The established cult is accepted; the present temple is a valid means for atonement and moreover serves as an important centre for holiness and for social and religious identity. Because Jerusalem is a centre of shared identity, it unites the nation and helps to maintain the social structure, and as such it is not questioned.” Luke is the only New Testament writer to tell us about the circumcision of the Messiah and the only New Testament writer to defend the covenant of circumcision. He also has not condemned the Temple or the animal sacrificial system.

According to Talbert, “The echoes are unmistakable. Sound, fire, and speech understood by all people were characteristic of the Sinai theophany. The same ingredients are found in the Pentecost events.” The Book of Jubilees connects Pentecost to the covenant of Noah. The Book of Jubilees also connects Pentecost in book 1:1 to the giving of the laws during the Sinai theophany. Therefore, it is clear that Luke is alluding to the Sinai theophany of the Book of Jubilees as well as paradise, the importance of circumcision and the centrality of Jerusalem.

In chapter 38 of Ezekiel where Jerusalem is described as the navel of the world, we also read “Son of man, set your face toward.” Luke uses the “son of man” phrase 25 times in his gospel including in verses 22, 26 and 43 of chapter 9. At verse 35, we read: “And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” The Lucan Jesus has been unmistakably identified as the son of man and the son of God. Consequently when Luke states: “When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem,” the Ezekian allusion is strong.

The author of the Book of Jubilees, who wrote his scroll in Hebrew, was probably a Palestinian Jew. He was also probably a priest, given his detailed knowledge of priestly matters (3:27; 6:3; 13:25–27; 16:21–24; 21:7–17; 32:4–16) and the prominence that he gives to Levi (31:15; 45:15). Ezekiel was a priest living with the Jewish exiles in Babylon after the taking of Judah and Jerusalem by Babylon, around 580-600 BCE. The Prophet Isaiah was also a priest. Therefore, the question can be asked, was the centrality of Jerusalem a sacerdotal concern?

In the Book of Jubilees, we read "And he (Noah) knew that the Garden of Eden is the holy of holies and the Lord's dwelling place, and Mount Sinai the center of the desert, and Mount Zion the center of the navel of the earth: these three were created as holy places facing each other."

The Prophet Ezekiel acknowledged the destruction of the temple even as he wrote to reassure his people that God would conquer the foes from the north in the next battle soon to occur. Ezekiel placed Jerusalem at the center of the world and in the same chapter separated by a few verses he uses the expression "he set his face towards" that we find in Lk 9:51. Luke undoubtedly was influenced by Ezekiel and proclaimed the centrality of Jerusalem making Jerusalem the center to which everyone returns. This Luke could not do if Jerusalem had already been destroyed.

Matthew and Mark have not adopted the motif of the centrality of Jerusalem. Their Jesus instructs his disciples to wait for him in Galilee. The animal sacrificial system having been condemned by them and the city and temple having been destroyed by the Romans, Jerusalem was no longer significant for them.

Copyrighted 2007


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