Is America a Christian Nation?

This following is a paper I wrote this spring for my History of Christianity class.

One of the ongoing debates in the American “culture wars” revolves around the question of whether or not the U.S. is a “Christian nation.” As is so often the case, the American political scene wants to reduce this to a binary choice, either yes or no. But, as John Fea points out in the preface to his Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, the answer is not quite so simple: “Though I am skeptical of the idea that any society on this side of eternity can be truly called Christian, it does seem that a society can reflect, in a limited sense, Christian principles…” The question of whether or not the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” or whether it was founded as such, has no easy answer.

In order to critically assess the variety of ways in which one can speak of the U.S. as a Christian nation, it is helpful to attempt to answer four questions: first, is the U.S. now a Christian nation? Second, was the nation founded on religious ideals? Third, was the U.S. once united by Christian ideals? And fourth, has Christianity made the U.S. a force for good in the world? While there should be no expectation that critical engagement with these questions will provide a firm answer to our overarching question, certainly tangling with each can give us a clearer understanding of the role of Christianity in the forming and shaping of the United States and its civic arena.

The first question – is the U.S. now a Christian nation? – seems to answer itself by a simple perusal of our modern political and civic sphere. While Christians certainly do play a large, majoritarian role, there is no doubt that non-Christian voices – Jewish, Islamic, secular, and in a more limited way, Buddhist and Hindu – are present and are increasingly making themselves heard. The Pew Religious Landscapes Survey made huge waves recently with its news that people who are religiously unaffiliated had reached their highest numbers in the history of the survey. That same survey also showed growing numbers of adherents to faiths other than Christianity.

On the other hand, the fact that the Pew survey also showed that upwards of 70% of Americans still identify as Christian, in one form or another, went largely unnoticed. Additionally, it is hard to observe the public sphere of American life and not see that Christianity still has the loudest and most prominent voice out there. In 2016, 81% of white Christian evangelicals -who make up a quarter of the electorate- famously voted for Donald Trump for president, the highest support they had ever given one candidate, likely providing the winning margin.

Beyond the obvious forms of Christian civil engagement, so many American institutional ideals are forged upon a Judeo-Christian framework, much as capitalism, patriarchy, and whiteness also provide support for American institutions in many instances. Many of the so-called “Blue Laws” across the nation, restricting activities on Sundays, as well as a variety of legal prohibitions – regarding things like alcohol, drugs, sex and other “vices” – have their roots in Christian temperance and public morality movements. As Kee et al. write, “Disestablishment meant that the religious orientation of the government would be unofficial, an endorsement of Christianity in general.” It is also Christian voices who continue to oppose the women’s choice movement and LGBTQ+ equality, fights that are still successful in implementing across large swaths of the south, midwest, and mountain west. These displays of public and legal morality still shape the political discourse in much of the U.S., determining the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable. Even public holidays are shaped by Christianity: Christmas and Easter are much-longed-for time off opportunities for working Americans of all stripes, celebrated in secular forms by all but a few.

In a more positive sense, some Christians have also led the way on justice issues, especially around race and war and peace issues. As Kee et al. point out in Christianity: A Social and Cultural History, Christians played important roles in the civil rights movement, and the activism against the Vietnam war. That legacy has carried over into the 21st century, with Christians playing important roles in the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as against military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and other global hotspots. Christians have also led some of the response to economic stagnation in the wake of the 2009 recession, the most public form of which has been Rev. William Barber’s Moral Mondays movement.

So, is the U.S. at this time a Christian nation? The question is hard to answer, because the nation is simultaneously at a low-point in individual Christian self-identification, while also seeing Christians on both sides of the political divide driving the conversation on a variety of civic and political issues. Kee et al. quote Paul Tillich, who wrote that “religion is the substance of culture and culture is the form of religion,” an assessment that seems to fit the interplay between American civic culture and the dominant form of religion in America. The U.S. in 2018 is a place where the separation of church and state is certainly being honored more and more, where a variety of forms of religious (and non-religious) expression are increasingly a part of the national conversation; at the same time, Christianity still plays a leading role in much of the country.

Our second question, was the nation founded on religious ideals, sheds more light on the role of Christianity in the United States. Claiming that the Founders were unequivocally Christians, and that they used Christianity in writing the founding documents of the country, is a favorite claim of those who advocate for an understanding of the U.S. as always and forever a distinctly Christian nation. Yet, the historical record is much more mixed than this simplistic account.

Certainly, the Founding Fathers of the Revolutionary generation lived in a cultural milieu that was unmistakably Judeo-Christian culturally. Even for men like Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, none of whom were overtly religious, used language like Creator and God in their writings and speeches. In writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson used overtly religious language, even as he personally flirted with deism. America at the time of Revolution was certainly a religious place; in the northern colonies, Congregationalists were predominant, the descendants of the Puritans; in the middle colonies, Anglicans, Quakers, and Catholics were common; and in the south, Anglicans were also prominent, but newer strains of Christianity like Baptists and Methodists were gaining power. Kee et al. point out that all these various groups of Christians played a role in the revolutionary atmosphere, whether as supporters of separation from Britain, or as loyalists to the Crown.

After the revolution, the question of church and state became a central concern of the Framers of the Constitution. In 1779, Jefferson had drawn up a bill for establishing religious liberty in his home state of Virginia. In it, he wrote into law that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, not shall be enforced, restrained , molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by arguments to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” This same spirit of religious toleration carried over into the drafting of the federal Constitution and its attendant Bill of Rights. Kee et al. write, “The federal Constitution, unlike most of the state constitutions, outlawed any religious test for office, did not mention the word ‘God,’ and rested authority upon ‘We the People.’ In response to complaints that the document needed a Bill of Rights, the new government passed the First Amendment: ‘Congress shall make no law establishing religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’”

It is hard to assess all this, and to believe that it is just coincidental, that despite the plain words written by the Founders of our nation, to then assume they all meant for the U.S. to specifically be a Christian nation. The Establishment and Free Exercises clauses were not written by mistake. While many Founders were indeed practicing Christians, and some even argued for a distinctly religious understanding of the nation, in practice, they embarked on the first grand experiment in total religious toleration by an entire nation. Culturally, the U.S. at the time of its founding was Judeo-Christian, without a doubt. But, legally speaking, religious neutrality was the rule. The later inability of many politicians and commentators to adhere this ideal does not invalidate the intent of the Founders. Surely, James Madison, the drafter of the Bill of Rights and a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, wasn’t being misunderstood when he wrote, in defense of religious freedom, “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.”

Our third question, was the U.S. once united by Christian ideals, is closely related to the second. This assertion takes it for granted there was once a halcyon period of Christianity in America, when all Christians were of similar opinion in matters religious and political. A cursory understanding of American history disproves this simplistic understanding of earlier Americans and their beliefs.

For instance, one only has to look at the Civil War period to see not only the intense split that occurred in American Christianity at that time, but also the preceding fissures that led to that moment, and the groundwork it laid for the divisions that persist to this day. Besides splitting the nation regionally, the war also split northern and southern Christians. For the decades between the Revolution and the Civil War, the nation was consistently split on the issues of slavery and its spread, a split that extended naturally to churches. Several denominations, including Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians, split into northern and southern iterations during the years leading up to war, splits that persist for the latter to this day. Many Christian clergy, including Lyman Beecher, were ardent abolitionists, while some southern clergy were themselves slave owners. Following the war, and into the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, many southern churches became leaders in the efforts for segregation, while black churches, like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, became leaders in the fight for desegregation and equal rights.

Besides issues of slavery and race, the supposed unity of American Christian thought can be perceived in the attitudes of the majority to Catholic immigrants. Opposition to Irish, Italian, Eastern Europe, and Mexican Catholics arose over religious issues as much as ethnic and cultural ones. Especially in the late 19th and early 20th century, the growing presence of the Catholic church in America induced Protestants into fears that the papacy would soon be in control of the levers of democratic governance in America. These fears persisted until at least the 1960s, as it became a prominent talking point for those opposed to the election of John F. Kennedy as the first Catholic president.

Throughout these episodes of American history, a thread runs through: American Christians were anything but united, and certainly not united in setting a single cultural tone for the country. American Christianity has been marked by denominational and doctrinal divisions since the start, to say nothing of cultural and political ones that invariably seeped into churches. As Kee et al. write, “If in government the United States went ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (from one many), in religion is began with many and went to more. The idea of the U.S. as simply a Christian nation falters greatly in light of the history of disunity in American Christianity.

The final question, has Christianity made America a force for good in the world, puts a sharp point on the question of whether or not the U.S. is a Christian nation. In fact, a variety of episodes in American history should make those who proclaim to follow the words and example of Jesus Christ and his message of love want to disassociate the faith with the U.S. For instance, the already-cited example of slavery is a culture-defining institution in American history that is surely as un-Christian as any can be, despite the best efforts of antebellum southern clergy to associate the two. American history is in accordance with the history of any imperial nation, and is thus full of moments of violence, imperialism, war, injustice and human suffering. Whether one looks to the continued legacy of racism, the propensity for the U.S. to initiate preemptive wars and military actions overseas that result in the suffering and deaths of millions of innocents, or the nation’s addiction to guns and violence in the culture, there are a variety of episodes that disprove any notion of the U.S. as Christian in the sense of Jesus (although it could certainly be said to perfectly embody Constantinian Christianity.)

This is not to discount the many good aspects of the U.S., or the variety of positive moments and influences it has had. The U.S. has long been the leading voice for democracy and liberty in the world, if not always in action, at least in word. It has been a leading pioneer in medical advances and the eradication of a variety of diseases around the world, in addition to raising the level of wealth in the world to unprecedented levels (even if that wealth has often failed to trickle down to the world’s neediest.) None of this is deniable, but neither is any of it explicitly Christian, or uniquely rooted in the Christian witness. America did not become a beacon for democracy because of Scripture; instead, democracy in America arose from Enlightenment ideals, many of them rooted in secularism. The rise of technology and improvement of living conditions around the world as a result of innovation are certainly in line with Christian social thinking, but the impetus for this achievement in America was the capitalist ethic, an institution that, despite its great achievements, has also proved itself extremely limited in bringing about just outcomes for the majority of world citizens. Christianity is about more than positive social outcomes, even if some on the far Christian left have reduced it to just that. As Dr. Richard Beck has pointed out, “Cruciform, self-donating love is way, way more than liberal tolerance.”

So, is the U.S. a Christian nation? In the wake of our critical look at the four important questions that make up this query, the answer is still not firmly yes or no. Institutionally, in the sense of establishment, the question is easily no. America was not founded as a Christian nation. Our founders were not writing from a place of Christian witness when they formed our civic sphere. Christians in the U.S. have a long history of disunity and the inability to agree on almost anything, making their ability to claim the U.S. as just Christian nonsensical, just as much as calling it a “Baptist nation” or a “Presbyterian nation” would be.

On the other hand, there is no denying the dominant role Christianity, in its broadest sense, has shaped American culture, both for good and bad. Christians of all different stripes have played central roles in American history, and many have tried to impose their worldview on the nation as a whole. Luckily for us, they failed, but not for a lack of trying. Especially when it comes to the worst instincts of many Christians with regards to worldly power, it is easy to see the influence in the political sphere. America is not a Christian nation, but it has long been gripped by a dominant Judeo-Christian culture, one that is slowly being loosened, against the ardent efforts of those who still insist we are, and always have been, distinctly and solely Christian.


The Partial Success of the Protestant Reformation

This following is a paper I wrote this spring for my History of Christianity class.

The Protestant Reformation is largely understood today as the work of theologians and priests. These religious actos rethought the tenets of Christianity, and envisioned a new way of being the Church, and the process, radically reshaped religious thought and practice in Europe. These theologians and priests weren’t the only leaders of change, however. Kings, queens, emperor, and courtiers also played a large role in the Reformation, and their contributions drove the Reformation to also be movement of political change in Europe. The various wings of the Reformation were all generally successful in forming new ideas on theological and ecclesial matters, and even in forcing the Catholic church to examine itself and make significant changes. However, across Europe, all of the major Reformation movements were eventually co-opted by political interests, and put to work in service of the ongoing wranglings of monarchs and nations. Thus, the Reformation should be viewed as only partly successful: it certainly forced religious reform across Europe, but it failed to make life appreciably, materially better for millions of regular people.

The Late Middle Ages, the time in which the Reformation began, was a time of crisis and struggle for Europe. Ward Holder writes, “These crises were not all religious, but the minds of the people at that time tended to see things religiously.” The Black Death was the primary driver of angst through the 13th and 14th centuries, although drought, plagues, severe winters, and the threat of Islamic invasion also plunged people into insecurity and fear. All these threats challenged what Holder calls the “medieval imagination,” causing people to attribute the troubles to God’s wrath, and more importantly, bringing questions of eternity and salvation to the forefront of people’s minds. “Death seems never to have been more realistically considered than in this era and hardly ever so anxiously feared.”

The idea of purgatory sprung up at this time. Purgatory, in Catholic theology, “was a place reserved for those Christian believers who had failed to make full satisfaction for their sinning during the span of their lives.” People began looking for ways to limit the purgatorial work their souls would have to do after death, and also to lessen the burden of their own loved ones in Purgatory. One way the church proposed to address this was via the selling of indulgences. Indulgences served purportedly to release souls from purgatory, but more temporally, they filled the coffers of the Catholic church, and of its clerics. Indulgences were merely one form of corruption people perceived among their clergy, along with simony, adultery, and absenteeism.

The leading edge of the Reformation was in Germany, led by the monk Martin Luther. Luther, in response to the growing indulgence trade, began to question vital church doctrine. His 95 Theses addressed a variety of theological claims, including his assertion that salvation occurred through faith, not works. Denounced by the pope, Luther refused to recant and eventually become more strident in his denunciations of ecclesial hierarchy and corruption.

In Geneva, John Calvin was the other major figure of the Protestant Reformation. Drawing on humanism and the works of Luther, Calvin issued his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which critiqued traditional theology and ecclesiology in a variety of ways. In Geneva, Calvin was pressured to lead the city as a center of the Reformation. Initially reluctant, Calvin eventually accepted the role, and despite a brief exile, he transformed the city into his image of a Christian city-state, ruled by his firm theological and ethical standards.

Two other major movements characterized the Reformation. In England, King Henry VIII initiated a break with Rome due to his desire for an annulment in his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. After the pope refused (due as much to political considerations as theological), Henry declared himself the head of the church in England. Religious reformers, led by Lord Chancellor Thomas More, seized the opportunity to bring Reformation ideas to England. Although Henry never officially broke with Catholic theology (his Six Articles largely maintained the historical positions of the Church), after his death, the Reformers successfully pushed the child-king Edward VI to embrace Protestantism. Edward died after a short stint as king, and Mary Tudor tried to return England to Catholicism, before her sister Elizabeth I took the throne and reasserted a preference for Protestantism. However, Elizabeth understood the international political implications of the tensions between Catholics and Protestants, and took a policy of appeasement towards English Catholics.

The final major section of the Reformation were the Anabaptists. Arising variously from Bohemia, Moravia, the Swiss cantons, and the Netherlands, Anabaptists clashed theologically with both Catholics and Protestants, and suffered persecution at the hands of both. Anabaptist embraced a theology and ecclesiology far more radical even than the Protestants, proclaiming absolute pacifism, adult baptism, and a separation from worldly affairs. Christians on all sides saw these ideas as dangerous to church and state political arrangements, and consequently suppressed Anabaptists. When Anabaptist reformers finally gained a measure of power, in Munster, they subsequently sank the city into chaos and carnage, causing later Anabaptists to shrink away from the affairs of the state.

The success of Protestant Reformers in seizing the public imagination and providing people with visions of a better society was seen with political leaders as an opportunity to advance their own goals. Consequently, in the years after the initial Reformation movement, the theological and ecclesial goals of the Reformers were subsumed under the political goals of various monarchs and emperors. For the vast majority of common people, this meant that their subsistence form of living was never transformed in any meaningful way, but was instead transferred from one liege to another.

Lutheran shortcomings became evident during the life of Luther himself. Luther himself advocated a strict separation between political and church leadership, but advocated for positive political reform, including “efforts to improve education, social welfare, and the political process.” However, during the Peasants’ War, in 1525, Luther took the side of German princes against peasants who called for political reform to give them more rights and privileges. Luther called on princes to meet the demands of the peasants, but when they failed to do so and the peasants rebelled, Luther called for a violent crackdown on the peasants in his Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.

In Geneva, Calvin also took part in political repression. Driven by his dogmatic belief in church discipline, Calvin used the Consistory, which at times under Calvin became a “moral reign of terror.” Calvin viewed violations of his city rules severely, liberally employing exile and execution against those who stepped out of line.

The English Reformation was tied up in political affairs and monarchical politics from the beginning, with the marriage wishes of Henry VIII being the original precipitating event of reform. As power swung between Protestants and Catholics under his various children’s’ reins, people on both sides of the divide suffered. Most crucially, unlike Luther and Calvin, no form of social reform became a part of the English Reformation. Aside from various changes within church practice and structure, in fact, many English peasants and commoners surely would never have seen much difference in their lives no matter which faction controlled the throne. Whether Protestant or Catholic, the monarchy still ruled and life was still largely bleak and precarious. Social justice of any type was never considered.

Finally, the debacle at Munster showed the limits of social reform in the name of Christianity. Anabaptist leaders instituted radical social change in Munster:

“The property of the expelled citizens was confiscated; food was made public property; real property was declared to be common, although people could continue using what was theirs, with the stipulation that all house doors had to be kept open day and night; the use of money was outlawed; and twelve elders were appointed to oversee the stockpiling of goods and their distribution to the needy.”

Despite all this, political repression was used against Munster citizens who objected to the rule of the Anabaptist leaders, including exile and execution. The Munster experiment was unable to sustain itself against attack by Protestant and Catholic armies, the city eventually fell. Later Anabaptist reformers rejected the attempt to spread their radical view of society very wide, instead choosing separation and distance from the dominant culture.

Overall, Protestantism became an arm of monarchical intrigue at large in Europe. Nations began aligning along Catholic and Protestant lines, creating vast tensions between states representing each faction. Catholic nations like France, Spain, and Portugal, along with the Papal States and the Holy Roman Emperor, clashed with England, German princes, the Dutch and the Swiss. Wars of religion, such the Thirty Years War, killed thousands. Repression and disregard for the masses of people flourished just as much among Protestant leaders as Catholic ones.

Through all four of these loci of Reformation, the good of theological and ecclesial reforms never translated to social reform for the vast majority of people. Consequently, the result of the Protestant Reformation can be viewed only as a partial success. It certainly succeeded in reforming theological and ecclesial thought, especially around the role of the clergy, the nature of the Lord’s Supper, the approach to various forms of corruption, and the relation of the church and the state. However, it failed to embody the justice and mercy of Christ any better than Catholics had done. Crucially, other than in a few Anabaptist outposts, the identification of Christianity with the state continued unabated as it had since the time of Constantine. The focus and emphasis remained on obedience to authority, rather than the bettering of the lives of human beings. In this sense, the Reformation was a failure.

Certainly, none of this was ever a stated goal of reform, and actors who lived hundreds of years before the era of human rights cannot be held to the same moral standard as modernity. But the precepts of Christianity, as laid out in Scripture, are regard for human life, a desire for justice, and a preference for mercy and forgiveness over obedience and punishment. Surely, the failure of Protestant reformers to seize on any of these themes, rather than merely the nature of the Host or the debate between faith and works, is glaring and damning. The Protestant Reformation, then, can fairly be called a partial success for the advancement of human civilization.

The Inauguration of the Kingdom of God in Luke

The following is a paper written last December, for my New Testament class at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. It is an exegesis of Luke 4:14-30.

  1. Introduction

The rejection of Jesus at Nazareth, and the invocation of Isaiah’s prophetic words, is a crucial, tone-setting moment early in Luke’s Gospel. A close reading and analysis of its parts can provide important context to the story of God’s salvific work that Luke is trying to tell. In order to better understand this passage, this paper will explore Luke’s use of Mark and Isaiah, and how he repurposed and shaped elements of both, to tell a story that is programmatic for the entire Luke-Acts story arc.

Ge_Christ_Synagogue_710Occurring in chapter four of the Gospel of Luke, this story is preceded by accounts of Jesus’ family before his birth, his miraculous conception, birth, infancy, and childhood. In chapter three, just prior to this, John proclaims the coming of Christ, Jesus is baptized and anointed by the Holy Spirit, and then tempted in the wilderness for forty days. He is just returning from that temptation to embark upon his Galilean mission, which he inaugurates in his hometown of Nazareth.

  1. Luke’s sources

2.1 Luke’s use of Mark in telling this story

Most Biblical scholars accept that Luke used the narrative of Mark, along with other sources, in crafting his own account of the life and ministry of Jesus. Thus, an analysis of how Luke makes use of Mark in this particular passage is useful. In comparing to Mark, one can see what themes Luke wishes to emphasize or diminish.

Luke appears to draw upon Mark 6:1-6 for this the passage, although it is clear Luke has greatly expanded the story. Additionally, the source of Luke’s inauguration of the Galilean mission in vv. 14-15 is debated amongst scholars. Bock summarizes scholarly opinion well: “Some discussion exists concerning the source of 4:14-15. Many explain the passage as a variation of Mark 1:14-15.” He goes on to detail some of the shaky arguments put forth by scholars to establish linkage, but his conclusion is convincing: “The question of sources is difficult to resolve, but it would seem that either an independent source has been used or Luke has supplied a summary that adequately captures the initial response to Jesus’ early ministry.” Bovon and Johnson both affirm this judgement.

The connection of vv. 16-30 with Mark 6:1-6, on the other hand, is well-established. Luke based his account of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth on the Mark story, but added much to it, giving it a more prominent place in the picture he was painting of Jesus. The question is in what way Luke interacted with the Marcan text to compose his own story. Bock rounds up a variety of hypotheses among commentaries trying to answer this question. The account he accepts, however, is that “Luke knows Mark 6, but choose to use another source for this event.” In other words, the story from Mark is obviously known to Luke, as he is using a text of Mark in his composition, but that he chooses to use a different but similar story or stories to craft vv. 16-30. Mark is certainly a source for Luke, but clearly not the only one.

Bovon sees more dependency on Mark than Bock, writing, “Mark 6:1-6 lends the descriptive setting…” But that this section is “a redactional expansion of Mark 1:14-15.” Evans points out that this expansion is “obviously conflated,” that is, it is several pieces stitched together by Luke. This evidenced by the sometimes clumsy story-telling, such as the multiple reactions to Jesus by the congregation, as Evans, Bovon, and Bock all note.

While there are no doubt similarities in the Lukan and Marcan accounts, Luke chooses to move the account of Jesus’ rejection up considerably in his narrative. In Mark, this story comes after a previous preaching tour of Galilee that stretched across four chapters. Here in Luke, this story initiates Jesus’ ministry. This has a purpose. As Stein notes, Luke’s “orderly presentation of the things Jesus said and did was more important than chronological exactness.” In Luke, this story is “programmatic”, in that is announces “the purpose and content of his mission as the fulfilment of the promises of salvation.” This story is no longer just about Jesus’ rejection at home; it is now his “mission statement” of sorts, the opening declaration of his ministerial purpose.

Evans speculates that Luke had several accounts of Jesus being a regular synagogue preacher, but few or no accounts of the content of that preaching. Thus, he writes one such story, possibly combining several accounts (including Mark) to do so. “And where better than at the opening of the ministry?” As a result, this story – Jesus reading at synagogue in Nazareth, declaring his own fulfillment of the words, and being rejected by the local Jewish population – sets a thematic tone for the rest of Luke’s Gospel. It is impossible to be sure which sources he did bring in along with Mark, whether it was the infamous Q document, a source unique to his situation (“L”) or oral traditions. Whatever the source, Luke clearly used his editorial discretion here by using more than one tradition to create a story that serves a specific purpose in his telling of Jesus’ story.

2.2 The scripture quotation from Isaiah

In making this story Jesus’ programmatic statement of ministry, Luke uses a paraphrase of the Septuagint’s Greek translation of Isaiah 61 and 58. The mashing together of different Isaiah quotes, along with the use of the Greek translation as opposed to Hebrew or Aramaic, indicates that this is a construction of Luke, rather than a historical account. “After all,” Ringe says, “no one would have been following Jesus around like a modern press corps on the trail of a political candidate, taking notes on his speech and the crowd’s response.”

Most the Isaiah quote is drawn from chapter 61:1-2 and, most likely, 58:6, with various restatements and omissions from the original. In Luke’s telling, there are five things Jesus claims to have been “anointed” to do: (1) “bring good news to the poor”, (2) “proclaim release to the captives”, (3) “recovery of sight to the blind”, (4) “to let the oppressed go free”, and (5) “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19, NRSV). Statement 4 is not in the original selection from Isaiah 61, replacing “to bind up the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61:1, NRSV). It is unclear why Luke replaced the original phrase here. Bovon indicates that there are multiple, unconvincing explanations, but seems to settle on a technique of reading the prophets called haphtara, which draws links on passages that share words (which 61:2 and 58:6 do.)

Additionally, the phrase “recovery of sight to the blind” is an alteration of the original Hebrew version of Isaiah 58:6. Whereas the original refers to “the exchange of the darkness of prison for the light of day,” the LXX text takes that figure of speech literally (i.e. as light coming to the eyes of the formerly blind, rather than the light of freedom to those imprisoned.)

Luke also omits “and the day of the vengeance of our God” at the end of verse 19. Scholars indicate this omission serves Luke’s vision of the coming Kingdom of God. The original Isaiah verse is alluding to the Jubilee year ordained in Leviticus 25. A vision emphasizing salvation and grace is Luke’s mission here, not one focused on judgment. As Gonzalez says, “The text from Isaiah is one of comfort and hope. As applied to Jesus, it means that his mission is to bring good news…” Words of judgement and condemnation, obviously, don’t bring much comfort and hope.

  1. The key concepts of Isaiah 61 as quoted in Luke 4:

3.1 “anointing”

One of the chief arguments amongst scholars about this passage is the theological meaning of the word “anointing” in verse 18. Applied to Jesus, the reader would make the connection to the baptism as the anointing event, which had just occurred at the end of chapter 3. But what did that anointing mean? The question comes down to whether Luke intends to mean Jesus has been anointed as a prophet, or as the messiah, by reference to this verse. The interpretation one chooses colors how one sees Jesus in relation to his mission. Is he a continuation of the prophetic tradition, or is he the Messiah?

Fitzmyer provides the strongest case for a prophetic anointing. Jesus, by quoting Isaiah (and later referencing Elijah and Elisha), is put in the line of prophets that Isaiah was a part of. “This passage certainly contains no reference to a Davidic dynasty or a royal function of Jesus…his anointing…is not that of the political, kingly sort.” Fitzmyer sees connections here to the prophetic tradition; the lack of overt kingly language is interpreted as intentional and meaningful.

Several others, on the other hand, believe this is a messianic anointing. Johnson sees the Greek verb used here, chrio, to hold a Messianic meaning because of its close relation to Christos, the Greek word often translated as Messiah. As a result, Johnson regards “Luke’s notion of Messiah as quite literal.” Ringe also references the use of the Greek verb as proof.

The most convincing arguments, however, are for an understanding of “anointing” as indicating both prophetic and messianic connotations. Stein frames it well: “The anointing was not just a prophetic anointing, but a messianic one as well, for Jesus was the bringer, not just the herald, of salvation.” Both strands are present in Jesus, so the understanding one can draw from Jesus’ anointing is all-encompassing.

Bock critiques Fitzmyer’s limited view of the anointing referenced in verse 18. Regarding this reading, he writes, “If one reads the passage without consideration of the larger Lucan literary context, then such a position could be defended.” He goes on: “The infancy narrative, the baptism, and the following section (4:38-41) all strongly emphasize Jesus as the anointed Son and proclaimer of the kingdom.” It is unlikely Luke would intend a limited reading of Isaiah here, when he tries throughout the Luke-Acts narrative to establish Jesus as the fulfilment of Jewish expectations of the Messiah, and of the prophetic cry for justice throughout the ages. Understanding “anointed” to hold both prophetic and messianic connotations makes the most sense in this context.

3.2 “preach good news”

After declaring himself the anointed, Jesus continues in his reading by declaring that he has come to “preach the good news.” The Greek word used her is euangelizomai. Evans points out that this verb is related to the noun euangelion, from which we derive “the Good News” or the “Gospel.” Literally, it means “to announce good tidings.”

Both Fitzmyer and Bock caution against loading the word with too much Christian subtext, however. It is used here in the Isaiah quote, and so still carries a prophetic meaning. “The prophetic function of Jesus’ mission is thus set forth in Deutero-Isaian terms…In the OT it scarcely means the preaching of Jesus or Christian preaching; when put on his lips here, it is not to be assumed that it immediately takes on the full Christian connotation.” Bock adds, “The prophetic role fits nicely with Luke’s emphasis on Jesus as prophet or teacher…(euangelizomai)…puts a note of continuity between Jesus and his forerunner (Isaiah).  

With these cautions in mind, however, based on our analysis of the nature of Jesus’ anointing, it is not outside the realm of reasonableness to acknowledge that Luke is repurposing Isaiah’s term here to add more depth of meaning. Evans points out that Luke uses the term 15 times in Luke-Acts, and has a wide spread of meanings throughout. Luke clearly shows the inclination to make the term his own, and his emphasis on Jesus as salvation certainly brings this usage into inauguratory action here.

3.3 “the poor” and others mentioned in v. 18

The Isaiah quote lists for groups of people that the anointed has come to provide some form of liberation to: the poor, captives, the blind, and the oppressed. The question here is whether these are to be understood as those who are materially poor, physically imprisoned and blind, and politically or socially oppressed, or are these spiritualized terms?

Stein and Bock, especially, propose a “spiritualist” understanding of Jesus’ proclamation. Bock refers to the Greek word for poor here – ptochoi – as a “‘soteriological generalization’ – that is, it refers to those who most often responded to Jesus…and in an invitation context it refers to those who are open to God.” While acknowledging that there are material elements to the poverty Luke references, Bock and Stein believe “the poor” primarily references spiritual deficiencies and needs.

Evans provides a strong counterargument. He first acknowledges that, in the prophets and the Psalms, the use of ptochoi also has connotations of “humble or meek.” However, this term is used often by Luke, and “in all other instances in Luke…it denotes literal poverty.”

Green provides a strong “middle way” between primarily spiritual and primarily material arguments that is quite convincing. “It is thus evident that Jesus mission is directed to the poor-defined not merely in subjective, spiritual or personal economic terms, but in the holistic sense of those who are for any of a number of reasons relegated to positions outside the boundaries of God’s people.” Green spreads this understanding to all four terms here. A holistic understanding of these four terms in reference to the hearers of the Good News allows them to retain a material power, while also bringing in those who may not be materially deficient, but who are spiritually impoverished by their oppression of others.

3.4 the meaning of vv 18–19 as a whole in their context

The use of this Isaiah passage as a whole has strong undertones of the Jewish legal idea of a “Jubilee” year. Bock describes the Jubilee as “interpreted in Judaism as a reference to the dawn of God’s new age.”

It is unlikely that Jesus, in making this reference, was demanding a literal Jubilee year, as laid out in the Law of Moses. Rather, Jubilee likely had a salvific connotation. Gonzalez writes, “There is some debate as to the degree, manner and frequency with which Israel observed the Year of the Jubilee; but there is no doubt that by the first century it had come to be interpreted as an eschatological promise. It is in this sense that we should interpret Jesus’ use of the passage: in him, the fulfillment of the ancient promises has come.” Understanding Jubilee in this way helps explain Jesus’ subsequent claim that “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21, NRSV). If Jesus is the initiator and agent of God’s Kingdom, then the eschatological hope the Jewish people had for God’s great Jubilee is present in him.

  1. The response of the people and Jesus’ interaction with them

Up to this point, we have explored the details of Luke’s use of Isaiah to understand what Jesus was saying about himself at the outset of his evangelizing mission. First, Jesus is the Anointed one, in both a prophetic sense and a messianic sense; he is both the herald and moment of salvation. Next, he is announcing good tidings, not just prophetically, but soteriologically. His Good News is liberation, for all people, both oppressed and oppressor. In this Good News is the fulfilment of the eschatological hope of his hearers, their desire for God’s liberating action in the world. So how does this understanding explain the dual reactions of the congregation to Jesus, first in amazement and then in murderous rage?

It is important to remember that this passage is likely a conflation of several sources, and the two fundamentally different reactions by the crowd here may reflect that. If this is the case, then as Fitzmyer notes, “the climactic buildup of reactions to Jesus reveals a certain artistry in the Lucan story.” As he and several others note, however, literary seams are evident throughout the rest of the passage. This appears to be a case of Luke “making lemonade from lemons,” in that he had lots of material he thought important to use in making his point, and the stitching together was a difficult but necessary process.

Initially, the crowd reacts positively to “the message’s rhetorical power and hopeful character.” They also ask questions of his lineage, aware that he is purportedly the son of Joseph, the local carpenter. How could the son of a lowly artisan be the fulfillment of Jewish prophetic and eschatological hope? Notice that the crowd is not angered by any blasphemy at this point; the words of Jesus may be ponderous, but no one is overly concerned by them.

Jesus then goes into a short parable, about prophets being rejected in their own homes. He ties this to stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, who performed great works not for their own Jewish brothers and sisters, but instead for Gentiles. Stein points out, “For Luke these examples showed that the Jewish people had no exclusivistic claims on Jesus.” This is where the problem arises. The universal nature of Jesus’ mission is not accepted by those who feel they are in the “in crowd.” Their acknowledgment of him being a local boy by noting who is father is probably carries some connotation of favor on their part. Their anger, then, becomes understandable. “The ensuing wrath of the townspeople is thus a fulfillment of the warning that God’s faithfulness always includes God’s freedom to make good on God’s promises in unexpected – even unwanted – ways.” Yet, their wrath is their own downfall. Green writes, “…their inhibiting vision of who he is and what he is to accomplish – stands as a primary obstacle to their receiving through him God’s favor.”

  1. The relation of the story to the concept of the kingdom of God message in Luke

This story is important in the cycle of Luke-Acts. It stands not just as the initiation of Jesus’ mission, but of the mission of the church carried on by the disciples and apostles. As such, it conveys three of Luke’s most important themes: (1) the universality of Jesus’ salvific effect beyond just Jewish people, (2) a concern for social injustice and the Good News’ breaking into the world in the here and now to address them, and (3) Jesus’ rejection by his own people, culminating in Crucixion. As Bock summarizes so well, “In one pericope Jesus’ ministry is outlined.”

And so, the shape of God’s Kingdom that Luke imagines is outlined as well. It is a universal kingdom, not a Jewish one, concerned with a salvation predicated not just on saving souls, but breaking down oppression, and it is not a popular Kingdom, but a subversive one, destined to be misunderstood and misidentified by those who consider themselves to be in the best position to recognize it. Luke deftly weaves together several traditions here in a powerful and memorable way that sets a tone for the remainder of the Luke-Acts cycle.



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Bovon, Francois. Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50. Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Translated by Christine M. Thomas. Edited by Helmut Koester. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.

Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. 6th Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Evans, C.F. Saint Luke. 2nd Ed. London: SCM Press, 2008.

Fitzmyer, Jospeh A, S.J. The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX). The Anchor Bible 28. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc, 1981.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the New Testament. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Gospel of Luke. Sacra Pagina Series 3. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

Nolland, John. Luke 1-9:20. World Biblical Commentary 35A. Dallas: Word Books, 1989.

Ringe, Sharon H. Luke. Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.

Stein, Robert H. Luke. The New American Commentary 24. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1992.