Luke’s portrait of Jesus: Prophet Elijah and “Saviour” (NT 2.14)

There are a variety of approaches one can take in studying the gospels from an historical or academic perspective. Among them is an approach that looks at the gospels as ancient biographies, with each sketching out a particular portrait of the main protagonist, Jesus. This is a particularly fitting method in studying documents that are explicitly advocating a particular understanding of Jesus (namely the gospels are more interested in what scholars sometimes call the “Christ of faith” rather than the “historical Jesus”, that peasant). One can ask literary questions like what is the main plot of this story, who are the main characters, and how is the main protagonist, Jesus, portrayed?

Previously I have discussed the portrait of Jesus in the gospel of Mark, particularly the centrality of the secrecy of Jesus’ identity and the way in which this identity unfolds at key points in the narrative, when characters in the story, including Jesus himself, identify who he is (suffering Son of Man, Son of God, and Christ): Who is this guy? The Gospel of Mark and the Identity of Jesus. While Mark’s gospel can’t help but have a Jewish Jesus (because Jesus was a Jew in a Judean context), Mark is usually considered a Gentile author writing to a Gentile audience (the author has to explain basic Judean culture).

On the other hand, I have discussed the very Jewish portrait of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel: A very Jewish Jesus: Matthew’s portrait. There Jesus is cast as the new messianic David (anointed king) and the new Moses (prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15), and Jesus repeatedly fulfills scripture and advocates following the Torah (law) to the “t”.

Luke’s portrait of Jesus is likewise heavily indebted to Jewish models, but Luke is also concerned to present Jesus in a way that would make some sense to Greeks and Romans, at least to some degree.

On the Jewish side, Jesus is most emphatically a prophet, and at times the author seems to have in mind the promised prophet like Elijah specifically (see Malachi 4:5-6). The author of Luke chooses to begin Jesus’ adult teaching and healing activity with Jesus reading a passage from Isaiah (61:1-2; Luke 4:14-21). Jesus then goes on to explicitly identify himself with the prophet mentioned in Isaiah, an anointed prophet who will preach good news to the poor, bring freedom to captives, and give sight to the blind. This emphasis on Jesus as a prophet to the socially downtrodden or marginalized continues throughout the gospel, beginning with Jesus healing the blind, casting out demons and hanging out with social outcasts, “sinners” and tax-collectors. Luke preserves or presents many teachings of Jesus focussed on supporting the poor and condemning the rich, and this reversal theme is explicitly linked to his role as the prophet.

Almost immediately after identifying himself as the prophet (of Isaiah), Jesus then goes on to compare his rejection in his hometown as a sign of his affinity with Elijah and Elisha (4:24-30). Not only that, but there are further signs that Luke wants his readers to think of Jesus as the promised Elijah prophet (of Malachi). Jesus, like Elijah (in 1 Kings 17:17-24) raises from the dead the widow’s son, and those who witness this call him a “great prophet” (Luke 7:11-17). Almost immediately after this, as if to underline-and-bold-with-all-caps his point, Luke presents John the Baptist asking Jesus who Jesus is. Jesus’ answer once again echoes the Isaiah passage: “Go tell John what you have seen and heard; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (7:22).

Alongside this emphasis on Jesus as the ultimate Jewish prophet like Elijah who has come to help the poor is the portrayal of Jesus as “Saviour” (John’s gospel does momentarily apply this title to Jesus). No other gospel identifies Jesus in quite this way. In Luke’s gospel to be a saviour is to quite literally save people here and now by giving sight to the blind and healing the lepers. The identification as Saviour comes early, in the birth story, and continues to bubble up at various points in Jesus’ down-to-earth salvation for the sick and the outcasts. The title “Saviour” (soter in Greek) was a very common one to use in the Greco-Roman world for benefactors, especially gods but also emperors and others, who brought safety and security–salvation in down-to-earth terms–on an ongoing basis. Emperors from Augustus on, for instance, could be praised for their good works in the form of the title “saviour and benefactor”.

Here, then, in Luke is a portrait of Jesus that might ring bells for both Jewish and Greek or Roman hearers.

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