What’s Luke Got to Do With It?


Relating the disputation as portrayed in painting to its textual origins.

This post forms part of a wider enquiry into a selection of paintings that depict the story in Luke 2:41-52, where the twelve-year-old Jesus is found in the Temple in discussion with the doctors. The scene has become known as the “disputation.”

I shall consider the paintings’ relationship to the Lukan text. How faithful are they? How truthful are they? And how could we know?

I’m not entirely sure how you would measure that other than to suggest asking the following: Does the Lukan text itself conjure for us any useful imagery with which we can compare to a given picture? For example, we could consider the inclusion of such motifs as the Temple, being seated, the presence of the doctors/elders, their astonishment, Mary and Joseph finding Jesus and so on. Do the pictures include what we might reasonably expect? And what about what we do not expect? And furthermore, are we even agreed on what the text says.

I wanted to be on much firmer ground with my interpretation of the Temple story, that it is not what I think of as a “disputation.” This is what makes some visual portrayals of the scene of interest. In some examples, one gets a sense of the dispute rather than the discussion on matters of Torah.

That the Lukan Temple story describes a discussion, the style of which has been described as a “disputation” is not [if you will pardon the expression] in dispute. It is understood that what is described within the Temple story is a Jewish Question and Answer technique typical of the time as Roger David Aus describes in his account of the narrative.

Additionally, Brad Young has described ancient Jewish teaching as an unstructured and potentially meandering process, at least from the perspective of the modern learner. The New Testament scene in the Temple takes place within the world of Late Second Temple Judaism.  Teaching could take place in many varied settings. Perhaps from a boat as Jesus did in [Luke 5:3] or on a mountain as Jesus did in [Matt 6:25-34] in a field, [Matt 13. 3-9] or within the portico of the Temple, where we imagine the 12-year-old Jesus to have sat, listening to his teachers.

I speculate that perceptions of the Temple narrative blend this Jewish teaching and learning technique with the later emergence of a dialectical and scholarly disputation. Additionally, there is a history of competitive theological disputes between Jews and Christians in, and beyond antiquity to consider. This means that when we speak of “disputations” in the present day we potentially conflate quite disparate elements.

Moreover, there are many paintings and altarpieces purporting to depict the Temple scene only to diverge in tone from the Lukan text. I further hypothesize that some works of art have nudged our understanding of the Lukan text towards the idea of a hostile disputation. There is a possibility that we now read those images back into the Lukan text consciously or unconsciously.

I will affirm that Luke does not set out to portray the doctors as hostile to Jesus, even if we are persuaded by means of some artistic endeavours to the contrary.

The Temple scene as grounded in Judaism

In addition to the ambiguity around the meaning of “disputation” appertaining to the Temple narrative, there has been a tendency to regard the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple story in terms of foreshadowing later disagreements between the adult Jesus and the religious authorities. This becomes commingled with the events in that Temple pericope. In this sense, the Temple story has become emblematic of a more generalised historical dispute between Christianity and Judaism. To what extent this tendency is reflected or even produced by the many paintings of the scene, is open to question.

As I hope to demonstrate, the substance of the teaching/discussion [debate, disputation] between the twelve-year-old Jesus and the teachers is not the central point of Luke’s Temple narrative. The emphasis lies elsewhere:

The Temple story fulfils a number of functions. In brief, it draws attention to Jesus as intelligent and wise and signals his relationship to his parents and by implication, indicates to readers the matter of his relationship to his [or the] father.

Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that far from being a disputation between Jesus and the teachers, the scene is Luke’s attempt to ground the life and mission of Jesus firmly within a Jewish context.

He does this in the following ways:

Firstly, Luke reminds his readers/listeners that Jesus’s parents are devoted and pious Jews making an annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, over and above normative requirements and expectations.

Secondly, Jesus’s place is shown frequently to be within the Jerusalem Temple, the authoritative centre of Judaism. Luke could have set the scene elsewhere, perhaps a smaller synagogue, or another town. However, he does not do this. We must understand that the Temple setting [itself] is relevant not merely to this pericope, but to Luke’s entire project. Indeed, Luke’s gospel begins and ends with the Temple setting.

Thirdly, Luke grounds the story within a Jewish social and religious tradition by making frequent allusions to Hebrew scriptures, in particular, 1 Samuel. The entire Temple story is rooted firmly within Judaism to the extent that it would lose coherence if it were otherwise so.

If that is the case, then it would hardly make sense at this point in the gospel narrative for a state of hostility to exist between Jesus and the teachers. And yet some works of art (but not all) apparently focus less upon the amazing twelve-year-old and more on the expressing something negative or strange concerning the elders.

The Lukan Temple Scene and scholarship

So, what’s Luke go to do with it?

It is my contention that the customary artistic interpretation of the Temple scene as a confrontational disputation is at the least, misguided, and in terms of reception, misunderstood. Many of the artworks that depict the scene rely on the historical differences between Judaism and Christianity, in addition to actual public disputations between Jews and Christians for their substance. [Reconstructions of those disputes are available to us in the accounts of the Paris and Barcelona disputations in Hyam Maccoby’s work.]

With the help of scholarship, I will account for how the Temple scene functions to demonstrate not merely Jesus’s uniqueness, but to situate him unambiguously within Jewish tradition, Jewish customs and Jewish places. This will then demonstrate that Luke does not seek to set Christian apart from Jew, rather he seeks to connect them.

I now turn to make some brief remarks on New Testament scholarship and Luke’s use of 1 Samuel. I will then consider the use of Jewish motifs, especially the Temple setting. I will then return to the image and meaning of Jesus being seated before concluding.

New Testament scholarship has undergone a period of reflection in the light of events in the 20th Century, specifically, the Shoah and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. There had been considerable concern that Christianity’s foundational documents might have played a role in cultivating negative stereotypes or the acceleration of anti-Jewish expression which led to the Holocaust.

Discussions regarding the extent to which the New Testament might or might not be anti-Judaism have not resulted in any firm consensus, according to Joseph Tyson.

Summarising the matter briefly, amongst other concerns, the two issues that dominated critiques of 1st Century Judaism were those surrounding concepts of legalism and materialism. Ferdinand Weber (1836-1879) understood legalism to be at the heart of Judaism. And Julius Wellhausen (1844 1918) saw Pharisaic practice as being embedded within a system of religious materialism which he claimed leaves no room for individual conscience.

Many of the critiques levelled by scholars at the Judaism of Jesus’s time were subsequently challenged by Jacob Jervell, the Norwegian scholar and priest. Jervell’s scholarship has contributed to a reappraisal of first century Judaism. (103)

Jervell maintained that in Lukan theology, Torah observance is a requirement for the church in order for it to be a continuation of Israel. At the beginning of the gospel, pious Jews await the fulfilment of God’s prophecies. Moreover, in the Lukan Temple discussion scene, Jervell understands Luke as portraying the child Jesus as an apprentice of the Torah taking the form of a rabbinic disciple situated in the Temple.

Jervell additionally wrote about the inclusion in Luke of the brit Millah or circumcision of Jesus. This is a narrative seen as important in Luke because it demonstrates that Jesus bears the sign of Israel’s identity which in turn gives Jesus the right to speak in the name of God.

How Luke understands and makes use of Old Testament material has been the subject of much scholarly work. My understanding is that Luke’s narrative does not achieve coherence without those references.

We need to understand the interpretations of the Temple story as a “disputation” in this context, [that is to say] understanding the Jewishness embedded within Luke. Jesus is shown to be knowledgeable in Jewish, scholarly terms. I now turn to more recent scholarship which further develops this point.

Luke’s Use of the Old Testament

John Drury describes Luke’s first two chapters as, “packed with Old Testament language” (46) to the extent that there is a possibility of mistaking them for the [quote] “old stories of the Jews – from Judges, Samuel or Genesis.” [end quote]

According to Drury, Luke is the “master historian among the New Testament writers” and displays an historian’s approach, acknowledging that he is an heir to a particular tradition, reaching further back into that tradition than the other gospels. Unlike the other gospels, Luke does not begin the narrative with the cross, nor the baptism, and not even the nativity, but with the promise given to Zecharaiah, the father of John the Baptist.

Luke’s description of Zecharaiah serving in the Temple and being visited by an angel, is in keeping with Jewish scripture’s interest in annunciations and birth stories. It also foregrounds the Temple setting, acting as a reminder of the spiritual and authoritative centre of Judaism. Luke’s text in part, parallels the Hebrew Scriptures in style and content with childless couples, angelic visitations that recall Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah.

Roger David Aus – in a substantial examination of Luke’s use of the Old Testament, identifies a number of similarities between the Twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple narrative and the Judaic traditions of the boy Samuel in the Temple in 1 Samuel, 1-3. After identifying some peculiarities in the Lukan narrative, he concludes that the Finding Jesus in the Temple story is derived from the Semitic original, and its author a Palestinian Jewish Christian. I cite selectively here.

In one example, Aus cites the emphasis on the phrase “going up”. 1 Samuel 1:3 says that Elkanah used to “go up” year by year from his native city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord (in the Temple) at Shiloh. The “going up” motif is repeated, and then again by Hannah who with her now weaned child Samuel, “took him up” with offerings to the house of the Lord in Shiloh. The Temple in Shiloh was compared to the Jerusalem Temple in various Judaic sources.

In contrast with the Lukan story, Samuel’s parents intentionally left him in the Temple. Aus suggests that the 1 Samuel story provides the scriptural basis for Luke to describe Jesus’s parents as “going up” annually to Jerusalem, and on one occasion leaving Jesus in the Temple, albeit unintentionally.

Raymond Brown also sees significance in the expression “going up” in the Lukan Temple story which he says anticipates Jesus’s journey of public ministry as outlined in Luke 9:51 to 19:28.

Aus maintains that the age of twelve for Jesus is not accidental. It corresponds with what is likely to have been Samuel’s age. Although this is not explicitly stated, it can be deduced from Judaic sources such as the writings of Josephus, the Seder Olam and the Midrash on Psalms. (Josephus describes Samuel as being at the age of 12 when he began to prophesy. (Antiquities. V x, 4. 348))

The boy Jesus’s wisdom and understanding can be linked with the boy Samuel’s wisdom and understanding. Indeed, they are both described as growing in wisdom and understanding. There is a clear motif of Jesus as a teacher throughout the gospels which is retrojected into his youth via the Temple story. Samuel’s adult wisdom is similarly retrojected into his youth through Judaic sources.

Samuel’s parents are “astonished” at their child prodigy when Samuel instructs them in the finer points of ritual slaughter in the Temple. The high priest, Eli is similarly astonished. In the Lukan Temple story both parents and teachers are astonished. In Luke 2, verse 47 it says, “all who heard him were astonished at his understanding and his answers” and in verse 48, “When his parents saw Jesus, they were astonished.”

In the matter of being God’s son – there is a correlation between Samuel and Jesus [41]. There is some ambiguity regarding the identity of Samuel’s father. Samuel has three father-figures. Elkanah is Samuel’s father and yet Samuel addresses Eli, the high priest as “father” in a tradition that understands a rabbinic teacher as a father figure. There is an instance of confusion when a voice calls to Samuel in the Temple only for Samuel to confuse the voice of his “heavenly father” (God) with that of Elkanah. The voice proceeds to address Samuel as “son”.

The Lukan Temple story foregrounds the issue of sonship by means of word play with the concept of “father” when Jesus answers Mary’s question:

“Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” [49] He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

When Jesus says “did you not know” he uses the plural form of “you” (in Greek) to include his father, thus magnifying the incongruity of the situation.

Luke makes frequent use of the Old Testament in order to make the Finding in the Temple story function as a bridge between Jesus’s nativity, circumcision and presentation at the Temple and his later ministry. Moreover, this story is a further opportunity to simply place him in the Temple environment.

The Temple as a motif.

Scholars have noted the frequency with which Luke makes use of the Temple in his corpus. Gregory Lanier (2014) makes the point that Luke stands out among the synoptics for his use of the Jerusalem Temple to frame the narrative. The Temple continually comes to the forefront of the gospel. Lanier further reminds us that compared with Matthew and Mark, Luke emphasises the Temple more and is more positive in his language.

Lanier offers some figures on this, which if we trust them suggest that in Luke’s gospel, the Temple and the city are mentioned 52 times, compared to 35 in Matthew, 26 in Mark. If Luke was writing post 70 of the Common Era, as most scholars appear to believe he was, Lanier says that he had to have a purpose for incorporating what he describes as a  “now defunct entity so prominently in the narrative.”

In Chapter 2v22, the episode preceding the Finding narrative, Jesus is presented to the Temple as a the first born by Mary and Joseph. This action foregrounds the fidelity to the religious element of purification in Judaism.

Moreover, Jesus is linked to the Temple in this scene and then returned to it promptly in the Finding scene. As John Drury puts it: “(in the prologue) Jesus and Jerusalem are never apart for long.”

Henk Jonge sees the Temple setting as a means to makes Jesus’s wisdom more distinct. This is why the occasion of Passover is mentioned and then not elaborated upon. It is simply used as the means to get Jesus to Jerusalem in a plausible manner.

The wider significance of the Temple in 1st Century Judaism is worth noting. Lanier clarifies that the Temple was, notwithstanding the presence of synagogues, the beating heart of religious Jewish life. It was the source of authoritative teaching and worship and the primary destination for Jewish pilgrimages and festivals. Additionally, it was the cultural centre of Israel. This would involve the administration of Justice in addition to commerce and banking.

Temples as multifunctional spaces were common practice in the Ancient Near East. Moreover, the Temple was the sacred place where God resided in whatever form this took. That presence for Jews, says Lanier, situates the Temple as the symbolic centre of the cosmos. As Jews were fervently hoping for God to dwell in the Temple once again (439) The questions that arise are: when will this happen and how will this happen? Lanier suggests that Luke’s purpose here is to articulate the major theme of the return of God to the Temple in the person of Jesus, thus understood as a fulfillment of prophecy.

I now turn to the matter of Jesus sitting amidst the rabbis.

That Jesus is described as sitting amidst the doctors is important as it signifies Jesus as a scholar and disciple.

Aus highlights two matters to note here:

  1. The location of scholarly discussions;
  2. The custom of sitting while engaged in scholarly debate or teaching.

Teaching and learning would most likely take place in a portico adjacent to the Temple. Josephus’s descriptions provide some guidance on this. However, the precise location of the Bet Ha-midrash (study house) within the Temple precinct is not known. It would have to be positioned somewhere permissible to women because Mary is able to approach Jesus and the elders. The description in Luke conforms to expectations of a scholarly discussion typical of the time of Jesus. Moreover, notwithstanding the highly developed nature of Jesus’s own responses to the elders’ questions, Aus maintains that  “there is nothing of a negative nature in the narrative, in which the Palestinian Jewish Christian author, who himself probably still attended the Temple, respectfully speaks of ‘teachers’”

That Aus emphasizes the lack of negativity suggests an awareness of a presence of hostile interpretations and portrayals of the scene.

Christ Among the Doctors, Durer, 1506.

The elevation of Jesus in a throne-like chair might also be said to deviate, if not literally, then in terms of the spirit of the story because it suggests that Jesus is teaching the teachers. According to Raymond Brown, being seated was the normative position for students or disciples as well as teachers. Therefore, although Jesus was shown as “sitting” whilst teaching in later passages, such as Luke 5:3, where it says: “He sat down and taught the people”, Brown maintains that Luke does not have him teach in this passage.

Luke’s use of language and terminology is of interest to Brown. In the Finding in the Temple story, the Jewish leaders/elders are referred to as teachers. This makes the scene one of amicable friendship and the use of the more neutral term of teachers underpins this. This contrasts with later passages where they are described more disparagingly as “lawyers” and “scribes”. The scene may be constructed to foreshadow later disagreements he argues, but here, the emphasis is on Temple piety. At this point in the Lukan narrative Brown maintains that Jesus is a disciple, not a master.

The goodwill that surrounds the Temple narrative is further emphasized by contrasting it with its re-writing in the apocryphal Infancy Gospel. As Raymond Brown has noted, when the Temple scene is added to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, 19:2 a notion of hostility is introduced. This is because it says: “All paid attention to him and were astounded how he, a child, put to silence (or alternatively, it could be translated as “could interrogate”) the elders and the teachers of the people.”

I believe it is fair to conclude that the Temple scene, whilst describing a teaching and learning technique or discussion, does not convey Jesus as teaching the teachers, nor does it portray the participants as being in dispute or in a state of hostility.

The function of the story – some conclusions

The Temple scene was not designed as an illustration of hostility between two faiths. Rather, Luke’s concern is to situate Christianity within its Jewish roots as an authentic continuance of tradition. He seeks to portray Jesus as an intelligent and wise child and can only do this authentically by providing an echo of 1 Samuel which he assumes his intended audience will recognise.

It may be of further interest to consider what Luke does not say?

Luke does not outline what the issues are under dispute in the scene. He does not elucidate because it is not the focus of the story. There is just an implied discussion on a point of Torah. This is because whatever the topic under discussion, it is not relevant to Luke’s purposes. When Jesus speaks, it is to his mother, not directly to the teachers. (And, it might be assumed, to the listening audience within the story [and without] – given that the plural form of “you” is used. So, did YOU (i.e. the listening audience) not know that I must be about my father’s business?)

He doesn’t describe the teachers as old, hostile, or menacing towards Jesus. Rather, they are amazed (or astonished) at his knowledge. They are impressed by him.

Luke does not indicate a “winner” of the dispute.

He does not deviate from his description of a Jewish discursive technique.

It is the recognition that the Temple narrative has several recognisable and logically founded functions that leads me to conclude with increasing confidence that the pericope is not centred around a dispute and is certainly not one of confrontation. It is centred around the specialness of the twelve-year-old Jewish Jesus and his destiny within Jewish tradition.

The paintings which depict the elders as hostile or even monstrous (as in the example of Durer’s work of 1506) may influence in turn viewers’ understanding and interpretations of the Lukan Temple scene thus seeing it as one of hostility instead of the positive encounter it was intended to be.

To make the doctors ugly or even demonic is to infer something about Jews and Judaism rather than to interpret the Lukan story. It is in the pictures’ attempts at foregrounding of the differences between the two faith traditions that they begin the process of deviation from the Lukan text. Furthermore, in doing this, they disclose the presence of a much wider discourse of disputation which I believe to be firmly embedded within our culture.

(This post is adapted from my paper given at the Ehrhardt Seminar at the University of Manchester, 27th February 2020)

Unknown fresco circa 1400

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