Friday, July 06, 2007

Zechariah's unbelief and early Jewish-Christian relations: the form and structure of Luke 1:5-25 as a clue to the narrative agenda of Luke

Zechariah's unbelief and early Jewish-Christian relations: the form and structure of Luke 1:5-25 as a clue to the narrative agenda of the Gospel of Luke

Steven R. Harmon

The narrative agenda of the Gospel of Luke seeks to move the implied reader (who resembles the "Godfearer" of Acts) from an interest in Judaism to conversion to Christianity. Luke 1:5-25 introduces this agenda by highlighting both continuity and discontinuity between Judaism and Christianity. Use of the Hebrew Bible commissioning narrative form establishes a continuity between Judaism and Christianity, appealing to the implied reader's attraction to Judaism yet suggesting conversion to Christianity as a natural next step. A chiastic structure that focuses on Zechariah's unbelieving response to the announcement of John's birth introduces a discontinuity between Judaism and Christianity, suggesting to the implied reader that the time has come to go beyond Judaism and embrace Christianity.


Post-Holocaust Second Testament scholarship has rightly made the question of anti-Semitism in the Second Testament documents a major topic for inquiry and debate (Dunn 1992, Klassen 1986, Sandmel 1978). An article by Joseph Tyson (1995) makes an important contribution to the burgeoning literature on the problems posed by Luke-Acts. Tyson identifies the opposing conclusions of Jacob Jervell (1972) and Jack Sanders (1987) about the portrayal of Jews and Judaism in Luke-Acts as the basic parameters for contemporary investigation. Jervell offers a positive reading of Luke's attitude toward the Jewish people. Sanders, on the other hand, argues that Luke-Acts is fundamentally an anti-Jewish writing. Both propose that Luke-Acts is in some way a response to controversy in the Lukan community over the relationship of the emerging Christian church to Judaism. The Achilles heel of the approaches of both Jervell and Sanders, according to Tyson, is their reliance on modern diachronic reconstructions of the readership of Luke-Acts (Tyson 1995: 19-23).

Tyson suggests that the impasse between Jervell and Sanders may be resolved by seeking clues to Luke's intentions not in the reconstructed first readers in the hypothetical world behind the text but rather in the reader implicit in the world of the text itself (p. 23). This implied reader, Tyson concludes, "is similar to those characters in Acts that are called `Godfearers,'" represented intratextually by Theophilus, the centurion at Capernaum in Luke 7, the Ethiopian eunuch, and Cornelius (pp. 25-26). The implied reader is "a pious Gentile who has deep affinities with Judaism but has not yet made a total commitment" (p. 26). Luke-Acts is therefore "an evangelistic text addressed to Godfearers" (p. 38). Tyson submits that such a reading of Luke-Acts supports and qualifies the otherwise opposed interpretations of Jervell and Sanders:

The treatment of Jewish religion and people forms part of the rhetorical
strategy used by the implied author in addressing the implied reader.
Positive images of Judaism are consistent with the assumed attitudes of a
Godfearer as he is first addressed. But negative images, which show the
inferiority of Judaism to Christianity and help to explain Jewish rejection
of the Christian message, urge the Godfearer to abandon the philo-Judaism
with which he began [p. 38].
Tyson selects five passages in Luke-Acts as-test cases for his thesis: Luke 1-2 and 9:28-36, and Acts 13:13-52, 15:1-29, and 28:17-28. In his reading of the infancy narratives in Luke 1-2, Tyson includes Zechariah among the positive representatives of Jewish piety in these narratives with whom the implied author hopes the Godfearer to identify (p. 27). Tyson also identifies the speech of Simeon in 2:29-35 as the key passage in the Lukan infancy narratives that anticipates the relation of Christianity to Judaism in the rest of the work (pp. 27-28). This article contends that Tyson's thesis is better supported by a differently nuanced reading of the role of Zechariah and a different identification of the key anticipatory passage in Luke 1-2 in light of a formal and structural analysis of the annunciation pericope in Luke 1:5-25. Interpreting 1:5-25 as a chiastically structured commissioning narrative, while qualifying Tyson's reading of the passage, provides additional exegetical support for Tyson's overall understanding of the narrative agenda of the Gospel of Luke.

The Significance of the Commissioning Narrative Form in Luke 1:5-25

Most studies of the Lukan infancy narratives have concluded that the annunciation story in 1:5-25 is patterned after annunciations or birth oracles in the Hebrew Bible (Loisy 1924: 77; Benoit 1957: 17640; Ruddick 1970: 343-48; Ellis 1974: 67-68; Schweizer 1984: 18-24; Nolland 1989: 18; Evans 1990: 144-45; Johnson 1991: 32, 34-35; Brown 1993: 268-69; Ernst 1993: 52). Formal allusions to Hebrew Bible birth oracles suggest parallels with Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18:1-15), Manoah and the mother of Samson (Judg 13:1-23), and Elkanah and Hannah (1 Sam 1:1-18), thus placing the birth of the messianic forerunner in continuity with the births of important figures in Hebrew salvation-history in the mind of the reader at the outset of the narrative (Brown 1993: 269). Such an identification and interpretation of the form of the pericope would be consistent with Tyson's observations about the role of the infancy narratives in eliciting the implied reader's sympathy for Jewish piety and its messianic expectations (Tyson 1995: 26-28).

Another proposal regarding the form of 1:5-25, however, establishes a more thoroughgoing continuity between Judaism and the nascent Christian movement (proleptically represented by John the Baptizer) than does the putative use of the birth oracle form. Benjamin Hubbard (1977:115) and Terence Mullins (1976: 605) identified 1:5-25 and the following pericope in 1:26-38 as Lukan uses of a Hebrew Bible "commissioning story" form. On the basis of previous studies of the commissioning form in the Hebrew Bible (Oppenheim 1956, Habel 1965, Kuntz 1967, Baltzer 1968, Richter 1970, Long 1972), Hubbard isolated seven formal components which serve as criteria for identifying occurrences of the form in the Second Testament: (1) an introduction, "a brief introductory remark providing circumstantial details"; (2) a confrontation in which "the deity/commissioner appears and confronts the individual to be commissioned"; (3) a reaction "by way of an action expressive of fear or unworthiness"; (4) a commission in which "the individual is told to undertake a specific task which often involves his assuming a new role in life"; (5) protest, a response to the commission with a claim of unworthiness or a questioning of the deity or commissioner; (6) a reassurance in which the deity or commissioner overrules the protest; and (7) a conclusion, often "a statement that the one commissioned starts to carry out his work" (pp. 104-05). Hubbard found twenty-seven commissioning stories in the Hebrew Bible (p. 107). According to Mullins (pp. 605-06), the Second Testament documents contain thirty-seven complete or partial instances of the commissioning narrative form, twenty-seven of which are in Luke-Acts: Luke 1:5-25; 1:26-38; 2:8-20; 5:1-11; 7:20-28; 10:1-17; 15:11-31; 22:7-13; 22:14-38; 24:36-53; Acts 1:1-12; 7:30-36; 9:1-9; 9:10-17; 10:1-8; 10:9-23; 10:30-33; 11:4-17; 12:6-10; 13:1-3; 16:9-10; 22:6-11; 22:12-16; 22:17-21; 23:11; 26:12-20; 27:21-26. Hubbard (p. 122) identified twenty-five occurrences of the form, sixteen of which are in Luke-Acts: 1:5-25; 1:26-38; 2:8-20; 24:36-53; Acts 5:17-21; 9:1-9; 9:10-17; 10:1-8; 10:9-23; 16:9-10; 18:9-11; 22:6-11; 22:17-21; 23:11; 26:12-20; 27:21-26.

The lists of Second Testament commissioning stories compiled by Hubbard and Mullins suggest that the use of this form is a Lukan literary characteristic. It is significant that of the five commissioning narratives in Luke-Acts which include all seven formal elements (Luke 1:5-25; 1:26-38; 5:1-11; Acts 1:1-12; 9:9-18), three appear at the beginning of the crucial narrative openings of Luke and Acts: Luke 1:5-25, Luke 1:26-38, and Acts 1:1-12. The function of a narrative opening, according to Meir Sternberg, is "the sequential manipulation of the reader's attitudes and sympathies, norms and hypotheses" (1978: 96). The use of the commissioning narrative form in the initial pericope of the narrative opening of the Gospel of Luke may therefore provide a clue to Luke's narrative agenda.

In Luke 1:5-25, Luke uses the seven elements of the commissioning narrative form to tell the story of the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptizer. Verses 5-10 serve as the introduction, supplying the reader with circumstantial details. These details seem intended to appeal to the reader's sympathy for Jewish piety. The opening phrase, "It came about in the days of Herod, King of Judea (egeneto en tais hemerais Herodou basileos Ioudaias)," echoes the language of formulae used to place events in the reign of a given king in the Septuagint. Luke thus places these events in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth in continuity with the saving acts of Yahweh in the time of the kings of Judah in the Hebrew Bible (Nolland 1989, p. 25). The identification of Zechariah as a priest and Elizabeth as belonging to a priestly family places them at the center of Jewish religious life and thus representative of it (Schmithals 1980, p. 23). They are "righteous (dikaioi)" and blameless keepers of the commandments (v. 6). Zechariah performs his priestly service at the geographical center of Jewish piety, the temple. Luke has Zechariah ministering not merely at the hieron, the temple complex, but in the naos, the inner sanctuary of the temple restricted to the priests (Marshall 1978, p. 54). Luke thereby locates the events that follow not only at the architectural symbol of God's presence with the people of Israel, but in the very place within that edifice in which Yahweh was believed to manifest his presence. Outside the temple the assembly of people praying represents the present hopes of the Jewish people (Coleridge 1993: 32). The introduction of the commissioning narrative appeals to the sympathy of the implied reader for Judaism and its institutions.

The appearance of the angel in v 11 provides the element of confrontation. Verse 12 reports Zechariah's reaction to the angelic confrontation: "he was terrified and fear fell upon him." The angel reassures Zechariah in v 13a: "Fear not, Zechariah." The commission proper follows in w 13b-17 as the grounds for the reassurance, introduced by a causal conjunction (dioti, "for"). Zechariah is to cease his fearful reaction to the angelic confrontation because of the angel's promise of a son to Zechariah and prophecies of John's impact (he will bring joy to Zechariah and many others), his character (he will he great in God's sight, live a life of special consecration to God, and be filled with the Holy Spirit), and his ministry (he will lead the people to repentance in a role like that of Elijah). Zechariah protests to the angelic commissioner in v 18 that he and Elizabeth are too old for this to be so. Again the angel offers reassurance to Zechariah in vv 19-20 by disclosing his identity as Gabriel, an instrument of eschatological revelation in Daniel 8-12 and later Jewish angelology (Nolland 1989: 32), and promising a sign. Zechariah's inability to speak functions not only as a punishment for his unbelieving protest but also as a reassuring sign that the promise of John's birth "will be fulfilled" (Hubbard 1977: 115). Verses 22-25 constitute the conclusion, which brings closure to the narrative by reporting the fulfillment of the angel's words: Zechariah leaves the temple unable to speak, returns home, and Elizabeth becomes pregnant.

Although the customary formal identification of 1:5-25 as a birth oracle would certainly establish a continuity with Judaism at the outset of Luke's narrative through an implicit allusion to birth oracles in the Hebrew Bible, the classification of the pericope as a commissioning narrative suggests a much more thoroughgoing continuity with the Hebrew salvation-history. There are relatively few birth oracles in the Hebrew Bible. Brown (1993: 269) lists six passages as possible formal referents of 1:5-25 but finds specific allusions only to the birth oracles addressed to Abraham/Sarah and Elkanah/Hannah. The commissioning narrative form, on the other hand, occurs twenty-seven times (Hubbard 1977: 107). By presenting the annunciation of the birth of John in the form of a commissioning narrative, Luke places the beginnings of the immediate antecedent of the Christian movement, viz., the movement of John the Baptizer and his followers, in continuity with and on a par with the divine commissionings of the patriarchs, judges, kings, and prophets of the Hebrew Bible. By doing so in the initial episode of the narrative opening of his Gospel, Luke begins with the religious pre-understanding of the implied reader. The introduction of the pericope explicitly portrays Zechariah and Elizabeth as representatives of the kind of piety to which the Godfearer is attracted. The commissioning narrative form implicitly suggests to the reader familiar with the Septuagint (part of the profile of the implied reader of Luke-Acts proposed by Tyson 1995: 25) an historical and even eschatological matrix for the beginnings of Christianity that stresses its continuity with Judaism.

The Significance of the Chiastic Structure of Luke 1:5-25

If the form of 1:5-25 highlights the continuity of Christianity with Judaism, the structure of the pericope hints proleptically at a discontinuity that will later characterize the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. A structural analysis of the pericope that begins with the main clauses in the Greek text and identifies the structural and conceptual relationships between them reveals that 1:5-25 is structured as a complete six-level chiasm:

A Conflict: Zechariah and Elizabeth are childless (vv 5-7)
B Zechariah serves at the temple (v 8)
C Zechariah enters the temple (v 9)
D The people are praying outside the temple (v 10)
E The angel addresses Zechariah (vv 11-17)
F Zechariah responds to the angel (v 18)
E' The angel answers Zechariah (vv 19-10)
D' The people are waiting outside the temple (v 21)
C' Zechariah exits the temple (v 22)
B' Zechariah completes his service at the temple (v 23)
A' Resolution: Elizabeth conceives (vv 24-25)
The narrative introduction begins with the conflict that serves as the narrative premise of the pericope, the childlessness of Zechariah and Elizabeth despite their righteousness (vv 5-7); the narrative conclusion ends with the miraculous resolution of that conflict, which removes Elizabeth's "reproach (oneidos)" (vv 24-25). The narrative introduction continues by setting the stage at the temple for the annunciation oracle (vv 8-10); the narrative conclusion begins with the aftermath of the annunciation oracle at the temple (vv 21-23). Within vv 8-10 and 21-23, the mention of Zechariah's service at the temple (v 8) is parallel to the completion of his service at the temple (v 23), Zechariah's entrance into the temple (v 9) parallels his exit from the temple (v 22), and the mention of the people praying outside the temple (v 10) is paralleled by the people waiting outside the temple (v 21). These elements of the narrative introduction and conclusion serve as inclusios bracketing the heart of the pericope, the annunciation oracle itself (vv 11-20). The two halves of the oracle (vv 11-17 and 19-20) in turn bracket the response of Zechariah to the oracle, placing Zechariah's response at the structural center of the passage. As the middle element of the inverted parallelism in a chiasm, Zechariah's unbelieving response rather than the narrative conclusion constitutes the conceptual climax of the pericope (Land 1942: 40).

Three other scholars, apparently independently of one another, have also found a chiastic structure in 1:5-25, but with different conclusions. Eduard Schweizer proposed a four-level chiasm with the initial angelic oracle in vv 13b-17 as the central element (1984: 18):

A General situation: Date, place, persons, need (vv 5-7)
B Specific situation: Date, place, persons, appearance of
the angel (vv 8-11)
C Reaction and reassurance (vv 12-13a)
D Promise of birth and its meaning for many (w 131-17)
C' Reaction and angelic sign (vv 18-20)
B' Silence (vv 21-22)
A' Fulfillment, resolution of need (vv 23-25)
Schweizer finds the same structure with identical thematic elements in the following pericope, 1:26-38. The effort to find parallel chiasms in the two pericopes may account for the forced parallel between the specific situation in vv 8-11 and the silence of Zechariah in vv 21-23 (B and B'). The compression of vv 8-11 and 21-23 into one level of the chiasm misses the chiastic parallels between Zechariah's service at the temple and the completion of that service (vv 8 and 23), Zechariah's entrance into the temple and his exit therefrom (vv 9 and 22), and the people praying outside and waiting outside (vv 10 and 21). Most significantly, Schweizer's analysis overlooks the function of the two angelic speeches as an inclusio calling attention to Zechariah's response in v 18 as the central element.

Alberto Casalegno found a three-bevel chiastic structure in 1:5-25, with the dialogue between the angel and Zechariah (vv 11-20) as the central element (1984: 31-32):

A Introduction of the personages of the story (vv 5-7)
B Priestly service, entrance into the temple, prayer of the
people (vv 8-10)
C Appearance of the angel and dialogue with Zechariah
(vv 11-20)
B' Expectation of the people, exit from the holy place, end
of service (vv 21-23)
A' Epilogue (vv 24-25)
Casalegno's conclusions are essentially identical with those proposed in the present article, apart from the location of the central element of the chiasm. While Casalegno identified only three major levels of parallelism in his structural outline, he makes it clear in the course of his discussion that the events included in the second level of the chiasm, B and B', may be subdivided into three additional levels of parallels: vv 8 and 23, vv 9 and 22, and vv 10 and 21. Casalegno also divides the central level, vv 11-20 (C), into four subsections that are not chiastically structured: the appearance of the angel (vv 11-12), the annunciation (vv 13-17), the objection of Zechariah (v 18), and the sub. sequent angelic communication (vv 19-20). He narrowly misses making v 18 the central element of a chiastic structure by separating the appearance of the angel (vv 11-12) from the first half of the angelic oracle (vv 13-17).

Ronald Man, who curiously begins the pericope at v 6 rather than v 5, discovered an eight-level chiasm with the annunciation in vv 13-17 at its center (1984: 149-50):

A Godliness of Zechariah and Elizabeth (v 6)
B Elizabeth barren (v 7)
C Zechariah's priestly service (v 8)
D Zechariah enters the temple (v 9)
E The people outside (v 10)
F Angel standing (v 11)
G Zechariah's fear (v 12)
H The annunciation (vv 13-17)
G' Zechariah's doubt (v 18)
F' Angel who stands (vv 19-20)
E' The people outside (v 21)
D' Zechariah exits from the temple (v 22)
C' Zechariah's priestly service (v 23)
B' Elizabeth pregnant (v 24)
A' God's favor on Elizabeth (and Zechariah) (v 25)
The parallel Man draws between the references to the angel standing in v 11 and vv 19-20 is not convincing. Verse 11 is a narrative reference to the angel standing on the right side of the altar of incense; v 19 is direct discourse in which the angel identifies himself as Gabriel, the one who stands in the presence of God. Verses 19-20 do indeed constitute a level in the second half of the inverted parallelism, but they are concerned primarily with Gabriel's answer to Zechariah rather than with his incidental heavenly posture. As the an. gel's reply, vv 19-20 parallel the initial angelic oracle in vv 13-17 rather than the narration of the circumstances of the angelic epiphany in v 11 and therefore serve as the completion of an inclusio bracketing the response of Zechariah in v 18. Man concludes from his identification of the annunciation in vv 13-17 as the central element that the chiastic structure of 1:5-25 calls attention to the end of four centuries of prophetic silence in Israel, a conclusion that may be an uncritical imposition of a later rabbinical tradition about the cessation of prophecy (Greenspahn 1989).

I contend that 1:5-25 chiastically emphasizes the unbelieving response of Zechariah in order to introduce in the first episode of the narrative opening the recurring motif of the discontinuity of Christianity with Judaism because of Judaism's unbelieving response to Jesus and his movement. The juxtaposition of this passage with the following pericope underscores this theme of discontinuity. Zechariah, a sacerdotal representative of Jewish religious life ministering in the geographical and architectural center of Jewish piety, responds initially to the promise of the beginnings of the fulfillment of Jewish messianic hopes with disbelief. Mary, a representative of the `am ha'arez ("people of the land") on the margins of Jewish religious life, responds with belief and obedience. It is true that Mary's response in 1:34 is also incredulous. Both Zechariah and Mary ask how such a thing could be, and then offer grounds for their questioning--the old age of Zechariah and Elizabeth and the virginal status of Mary. Zechariah, however, is given a punitive sign, while the annunciation to Mary concludes with her pledge of willing submission. The angel calls attention to Zechariah's disbelief in v 20; he does not similarly chastise Mary. The contrast between Zechariah's unbelief and Mary's belief seeks to move the implied reader, the Godfearer, beyond the unbelieving community represented proleptically by Zechariah and toward the believing community represented proleptically by Mary. Zechariah himself does move from unbelief in v 18 to obedience in the naming of John in 1:59-63 and is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies in 1:67-79. Since Luke's portrayal of Zechariah in 1:5-25 both appeals to the implied reader's religious sympathies and seeks to move the reader beyond them, Zechariah's implicit pilgrimage from unbelief to belief may also serve as a paradigm to be followed by the Godfearer.

It may be objected that this chiastic interpretation of Luke 1:5-25 is an artificial literary reconstruction that does not take into account the way in which texts were read/heard in a predominately aural culture. Mark Coleridge (1993), for example, credits Casalegno for calling attention to the role of the twin references to the people outside the temple in flanking the central section of the pericope, but charges that Casalegno's structure "fails to reckon with ... the temporal flow of the narrative, which is not read according to the rhythm of spatial organization that a structure such as the above [Casalegno's chiastic structure] reveals" (p. 32). This objection is satisfactorily answered by Augustine Stock (1984), who in a previous issue of this journal rightly argued that recent criticisms of modern chiastic interpretations of ancient literature fail to take into account the pervasive didactic use of chiasmus in Homeric, Hellenistic, and Roman education that. produced a widespread sensitivity to the presence of chiastic structures in both literature and speech. Ears and eyes trained to be alert for elements of parallelism in oral and written communication could easily have caught Luke's chiastic focus on Zechariah's unbelieving response.


The narrative agenda of the Gospel of Luke, as presented by Tyson, seeks to move the Godfearer from an at. traction and tentative commitment to Judaism to conversion to Christianity. Tyson correctly notes the disclosure of that agenda in Simeon's prophecy of divided Jewish responses to Jesus (2:29-35). I differ, however, with his selection of that pericope as "the key passage in Luke 1-2" which anticipates "the relation of the Christian message to Judaism" (Tyson 1995: 27). The Lukan narrative implicitly introduces its "evangelistic" agenda more comprehensively, more artfully, and much earlier in 1:5-25, the initial episode of the narrative opening of Luke. The formal shaping of the pericope as a commissioning narrative establishes at the outset a continuity between Judaism and Christianity, on the one hand appealing to the religious affinities of the implied reader and on the other hand suggesting conversion to Christianity as the natural next step in his or her religious quest. The chiastic structure of the passage introduces at the outset the discontinuity between Judaism and Christianity which the Jewish rejection of Jesus will later occasion, hinting to the Godfearer that the time has come to go beyond Judaism. Such a supercessionist reading is consistent with the function of Second Testament portrayals of Judaism in the parting of the ways between Christianity and Judaism in the early centuries CE. The question of whether it ought to be sustained in the present is more properly the task of constructive theology and ecumenical dialogue than of the present investigation in biblical theology.

Works Cited

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Tyson, Joseph B. 1995. Jews and Judaism in Luke-Acts: Reading As a Godfearer. NEW TESTAMENT STUDIES 41/1, 19-38.

Steven R. Harmon, Ph.D (Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary), is an Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at Campbell University Divinity School, Post Office Drawer 4050, Buies Creek, NC 27506. E-mail: He is currently working on an annotated translation of Gregory of Nyssa's Oratio Catechetica Magna (Great Catechetica Oration).

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