Some critical scholars have suggested that the “Luke Travel Narrative” (Luke 9:51-19:47) are not historically and geographically correct. This paper will propose a chronological and historical reconstruction of the last six months of the life of the Lord Jesus Christ based on a harmonization of the “Luke Travel Narrative” and the Gospel of John. If this harmonization / chronology is accepted, the parables and discourses that the Lord Jesus gives during this last six months of His life takes on a new meaning. He uses the surrounding topography, flora and fauna and material culture to illustrate the word-pictures in His discourses and parables.
The Historicity of the “Luke Travel Narrative”
Biblical scholars have long been puzzled by Luke’s travel narrative, or “central section” as it is sometimes called. Luke begins this section by stating that Jesus is traveling toward Jerusalem (9:51, 53; 13:22, 33; 17:11; 18:31; 19:11, 28). However, the Biblical geographer has problems tracing the route because Jesus begins by going through Samaria (9:52), is later found in Bethany (10:38-42), then “between Samaria and Galilee” (17:11) and finally at Jericho (19:11). If He is going to Jerusalem, this is not the most direct way!
Critical scholars have picked up on this erratic itinerary and questioned the accuracy of this section. For example, J. A. Robertson wrote: “There is no portion of the writings of Luke which presents a more forbidding obstacle to our acceptance of the claims of the evangelist to be an accurate and orderly historian than the section of the Third Gospel which is sometimes called ‘the Travel Narrative.’ It is the happy hunting ground of the detractors of the historian. And his defenders have sought to gloss over the difficulties that confront us here by suggesting that the ‘order’ in which Luke declares he has arranged his material is logical rather than chronological” (1919:54-55). C. C. McCown suggests that the geography of the Luke travel Narrative contains omissions, inexactitudes, and positive errors. He states, “… for Luke geography and topography serve merely as literary devices. He is not interested in itineraries as were travelers, both Christian and non-Christians, at a slightly later time … His geographical settings were intended to give life and color to the pictures he was drawing. They are a literary artifice like the pastoral scenes of Hellenistic and Roman poets” (1938:56, see also 1932).
I have a problem squaring these statements of the critical scholars with the opening words of Luke’s gospel. Luke states: “In as much as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seems good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed” (1:1-4, all Scripture quotes are from the New King James Version).
The problem can be resolved if a careful examination of the beginning of the Luke Travel Narrative is made. Luke 9:51 says: “
Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him [the Lord Jesus]
to be received up, that He steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem …” Professor David Gooding, in his commentary on Luke’s Gospel, puts this verse in proper perspective. He says: “We should at once notice carefully what the goal of the journey is said to be. It is sometimes stated on the basis of 9:51 that our Lord’s goal on this journey was Jerusalem. But this is not so. Our Lord’s journey certainly lay via Jerusalem; but the goal of the journey was what Luke describes as ‘being received up’. The phrase has the same sense as that given by the early Christian hymn quoted by Paul (I Tim. 3:16) which says that Christ ‘
was believed on in the world, received up in glory’. In other words by ‘being received up’ Luke is referring to Christ’s ascension into heaven. That and no less was the goal of the journey” (1987:179). If Dr. Gooding is correct, and I believe he is, then the Lord Jesus could take three of four journeys to Jerusalem and Luke would be perfectly correct in his chronology and geography.
A Proposed Reconstruction
Harmonies of the gospels are not in vogue in scholarly circles today. I believe they are still valid tools, and therefore, I will attempt to harmonize the Luke Travel Narrative with the Gospel of John, chapters 7-12.
The Pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles via Samaria (Luke 9:51-10:16; Fall AD 29)
The Lord Jesus went secretly up to Jerusalem via Samaria for the Feast of Succoth (Tabernacles) in the Fall of AD 29. [I am assuming an AD 30 crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus in Jerusalem]. This was the fastest, yet potentially more dangerous route to Jerusalem from Galilee. Josephus describes the route via Samaria as being “for rapid travel, it was essential to take that route, by which Jerusalem may be reached in three days from Galilee” (
Life 269; LCL 1:101). The route was dangerous because of the hatred between the Jews and Samaritans. Josephus records elsewhere: “Hatred also arose between the Samaritans and the Jews for the following reason. It was the custom of the Galileans at the time of a festival to pass through the Samaritan territory on their way to the Holy City. On one occasion, while they were passing through, certain inhabitants of a village called Ginae, which was situated on the border between Samaria and the Great Plain, joined battle with the Galileans and slew a great number of them” (
Antiquities 20:118; LCL 10:63. In
Wars 2:232; LCL 2:415, only one Galilean was killed at Gema). The site of Ginae / Gema was known in the Bible as Ein-Gannin (Josh. 19:21) and it situated at modern day Jenin on the edge of the Plain of Esdraelon.
More than likely the Lord Jesus took advantage of the locale to remind His disciples of past Israelite history. As they crossed the Plain of Esdraelon, He pointed westward to the Carmel Range and recounted the encounter between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (II Kings 18). After being rejected in the first Samaritan village (Jenin), two disciples, James and John (“the sons of thunder”), recalled the lesson and said, “
Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:54). The disciples had heard the lesson, but failed to grasp the true meaning and application for their lives.
A little further on the road, the Lord Jesus instructed His disciples on the cost of discipleship. One disciple volunteered to follow the Lord wherever He went, but requested to first say farewell to his family. The Lord Jesus responded, “
No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God” (9:62). In September, one would notice the Samaritan farmer out plowing his field in order to get it ready for the fall planting.
As they walked further on the road, Jesus noticed only a small number of farmers out in the olive groves harvesting the olives. Jesus made an analogy to a spiritual harvest when He said, “The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest” (10:2). The chronology is important at this point. The grain harvest is in May and June and is the one Jesus refers to in John 4:35. But the harvest Jesus had in mind is in the fall, thus the olive harvest. He also reiterates the woes against Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum (10:13-16) to the Galilean pilgrims that were in the caravan heading for Jerusalem. Jesus had given these same woes more than a year earlier in Capernaum (Matt. 11:20-24).
The Feast of Succoth (Tabernacles) in Jerusalem (John 7:14-10:21)
The Lord Jesus arrived in Jerusalem about the middle of the Feast of Succoth. It was during this time He taught in the Temple and had a heated discussion with the Pharisees. He forgave the woman taken in adultery and well as healed a man who was born blind. Lord records nothing of the events that transpired in Jerusalem for the Feast of Succoth.
After the Feast of Succoth in Jerusalem / Bethany (Luke 10:17-11:13, or 12:53)
Jesus, along with His twelve disciples, probably enjoyed the hospitality of Lazarus, Mary and Martha in Bethany while awaiting the return of the seventy disciples that Jesus had sent out to Peraea just prior to Succoth (Luke 10:1). When they did return, they rejoiced that the demons were subject to them. Jesus had to put things in proper perspective and admonished them to not rejoice in the demons being subject to them, but rather, that their names were written in heaven (10:17-20).
The parable of the Good Samaritan (10:23-37) was probably given in the Temple area, maybe even on the “Rabbinic stairs” at the southern entrance of the Temple enclosure. Jesus used the Roman road from Jerusalem to Jericho to illustrate the answer to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” A certain man was going down to Jericho (a 1,000 meter elevation change) and fell among robbers. The rugged terrain of the Wilderness of Judea would be an ideal place for bandits to hide in order to ambush unsuspecting travelers. The priests and Levites would be on this road because they were either going to, or coming from their Temple duties. The rabbinic sources indicate that Jericho was largely inhabited by priests during the Second Temple period.
The “certain village” (10:32) where Mary and Martha resided was Bethany (cf. John 11). The Lord Jesus was praying in a “certain place” when His disciples asked Him to instruct them in prayer (11:1). There is an early church tradition that Jesus instructed His disciples His disciples on the Mount of Olives. Today, the Pater Noster Church preserves this tradition with over 65 tiled panels with the Lord’s Prayer in different languages. It should be pointed out that this instruction is different than the Lord’s Prayer given in the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 6 more than a year and a half earlier. That may be a reflection of the disciple’s short memory!
The First Peraean Ministry (Luke 11:14, or 12:54 – 13:33, note 13:22)
Professor M. Avi-Yonah describes Peraea, the territory east of the Jordan River, as a “long and comparatively narrow stretch of land, extending from Amathus in the north to Machaerus and the River Arnon in the south. Narrow at its northern and southern ends, it widened in the middle where it bordered with Philadelphia. … The fertility of the Jordan Valley meant that settlements were close to each other and hence the units of administration were fairly small. Peraea faced the district of Jericho and parts of Samaria on the west. … Its importance was that it provided a strip of Jewish territory east of the Jordan which could be regarded as being almost in touch with Jewish Galilee. Consequently Jews who wished to avoid the ‘contamination’ of passing through the country of the Samaritans were able to approach Jerusalem by way of Peraea, crossing opposite Jericho and then going up to Jerusalem …” (1974:1:96-97).
In the first phase of Jesus’ Peraean ministry there are a few chronological and geographical indicators that should be pointed out. Jesus instructs the multitudes regarding the “signs of the times” when He says, “
When you see a cloud rising out of the west, immediately you say, ‘A shower is coming’; and so it is” (12:54). This is a reference to the “former (or early) rains” that begin soon after the Feast of Succoth. Probably at the northern most point of Peraea , Jesus turned around and headed back towards Jerusalem, thus the statement: “And He went through the cities and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem” (13:22). As this phase of His Peraean ministry drew to a close, some Pharisees warned Jesus, probably opposite Jericho in Peraea, that Herod Antipas wanted to kill Him (13:31). This statement could only have been made in the territory controlled by Herod Antipas, i.e. Galilee or Peraea. Galilee should be ruled out because He sets His location as two and a half days from Jerusalem (13:33).
The Festival of Hanukkah in Jerusalem (Luke 13:34-14:33; John 10:22-39; December AD 29)
The Lord Jesus visited Jerusalem for the Festival of Hanukkah during the winter of AD 29. This feast was a memorial to the purification and rededication of the Temple by Judas Maccabeus on Kislev 25, 165 BC (Franz 1998:91, 92).
In John’s Gospel, Jesus walked into the Temple, in Solomon’s porch on the outer fringes of the Temple enclosure. Here, the religious leaders surrounded the Lord Jesus and asked Him to tell them plainly whether He was the Messiah or not (10:24). Jesus answered, “
I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father’s name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (10:25-27). Luke describes what takes place after this rejection. Jesus said, “
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; and assuredly, I say to you, you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD’!” (13:34, 35). This was the last time Jesus would be in Jerusalem until He returned for His “Final Week”. On “Palm Sunday” of Passion Week, the crowed quoted Psalm 118:26, “
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” in fulfillment of Jesus’ words four months prior (Matt. 21:9; Mark 11:10; Luke 19:38; John 12:13).
While in Jerusalem for Hanukkah, Jesus gives two parables concerning banquets. One concerns the taking of the lowly place (Luke 14:7-14) and the second is the parable of the Great Supper. The setting or backdrop for these parables could be any of the palatial structures in the Upper City of Jerusalem, some excavated by Nahman Avigad in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City (1980:95-120). After Hanukkah John records that Jesus went “
beyond the Jordan to the place where John was baptizing at first and there He stayed” (10:40). This began the second phase of His Peraean ministry.
The Second Peraean Ministry (Luke 14:34-17:10; John 10:40-42; Winter AD 30)
The Lord Jesus went to Peraea via Jericho. This route is reflected in the reference to salt (Luke 14:34, 35) which would be in abundance in the area because of the Dead Sea. Also the reference to the audience of the three parables that followed: the parable of the lost sheep, coin and sons. Jesus was addressing tax-collectors that would be living in border cities. Jericho was the first city one came to as they entered Judea from Peraea. This locale also provides the setting for the parable of the lost sheep. In this parable, Jesus states, “
What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?” (15:4). The Judean Wilderness, which Jesus and His disciples passed through on the way to Jericho, would be fresh in the minds of His disciples and well known to the audience of tax-collectors in Jericho. Jesus had told a similar story several months earlier in Capernaum (Matt. 18:11-14). In the Galilean setting He talked about the sheep being lost in the mountains. Jesus used the same illustration but adapted it to fit the locale where He was speaking.
From this vantage point in Jericho, the Lord Jesus could also point south toward the community that resided at Qumran when He gave the parable of the unjust steward (16:1-13). In this parable, Jesus makes reference to the “sons of light” (16:8) which, according to the sectarian literature from Qumran, was one of the designations of the inhabitants of Qumran (Flusser 1988: 150-168).
Jesus could also point to Macherus, the summer palace of Herod Antipas in Peraea, when He spoke about divorce (16:18). Within the past year, Herod Antipas had divorced his Nabatean wife and married another divorcee, Herodias. It was here John the Baptizer [Remember, John was not a Baptist, he was a Jews] was beheaded for standing for the truth and condemning Herod for his actions (Mark 6:18; Hoehner 1980: 110-171).
In the account of the rich man and Lazarus, Jericho would be the ideal setting for this event (Luke 16:19-31). Lazarus was begging near the palatial structures that were near Herodian Jericho (2001:40-63).
The Raising of Lazarus in Bethany (John 11:1-53)
After hearing the news of the sickness of His friend Lazarus, [a different Lazarus than the one mentioned in Luke 16], Jesus waited two days before returning to Judea. His disciples warned Him of the possible impending danger that waited Him if He went to Jerusalem. On this occasion, Jesus goes to Bethany, on the back side of the Mount of Olives, and raises Lazarus from the dead. As a result, the religious establishment plotted to put Jesus to death (11:53).
The Retreat to Ephraim (John 11:54-57)
Jesus withdrew to Ephraim, modern day Taiyibeh, some 20 miles (according to Eusebius, but 12 ½ miles as the crow flies) north of Jerusalem to remain in seclusion with His disciples. From Taiyibeh, one could see the range of the Mount of Olives and any movement toward Ephraim if the religious establishment wanted to find Jesus in order to do Him harm. Situated on the edge of the Wilderness of Ephraim sometimes afforded the Lord Jesus the opportunity of solitude and preparation for the Passion Week to follow.
The Last Journey to Jerusalem for the Passover via the Jezreel Valley and Peraea (Luke 17:11-19:27; Matt. 19:1-20:34; Mark 10:1-52)
Rather than going directly into Jerusalem from Ephraim, Jesus went through Samaria to join up with the Galilean pilgrims, probably near Scythopolis (ancient Beth Shan) heading to Jerusalem via Peraea. Luke 17:11 is the pivotal passage in this regards. It states: “
Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.” Plummer grasps the geographical significance of this passage. He states, “It means ‘through what lies between.’ i.e. along the frontier, or simply, ‘between .’ … ‘Through the midst of Samaria and Galilee’ would imply that Jesus was moving
from Jerusalem, whereas we are expressly told that He was journeying
towards it. Samaria, being on the right, would naturally be mentioned first if He was going eastward along the frontier between Samaria and Galilee possibly by the route which ends at Bethshean, near the Jordan” (1981:403). Somewhere in the Jezreel Valley was a “certain village” where ten lepers begged the Lord Jesus to heal them. One of these lepers was a Samaritan who returned and thanked the Lord Jesus for healing him (Luke 17:11-19).
At this point the Synoptic gospels pick up each other and follow the Lord Jesus to Jerusalem. One “apparent contradiction”, concerning the healing of the blind man (men) near Jericho, should be discussed at this point (Matt. 20:29-34; Mark 10:46-32; Luke 18:35-43). Matthew records that two blind men were healed as they left Jericho. Mark mentions only one as they left Jericho. Luke seems to contradict this by saying there was only one who was healed as Jesus entered Jericho. If there were two men healed, then there is at least one man who was healed. Matthew, for his purposes, mentions that there were two. The real problem lies with “leaving” and “entering” Jericho. Edersheim in his monumental
Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah comments on this problem with these words, “But, in regards to the other divergence, as trifling as it is, that St. Luke places the incident at the arrival, the other two evangelists at the departure of Jesus from Jericho, it is better to admit our inability to conciliate these differing notes of time, than to make the clumsy attempts at harmonizing them. We can readily believe that there may have been circumstances unknown to us, which might show these statements to be not really diverging” (1976:II:355). I believe the solution to the problem is now at hand. Based on what we know about Jericho in the Second Temple period we can conclude there were two Jericho’s, one which was populated by Jews and the other by Romans. The Jewish city of Jericho was under the modern town of Jericho, near the city square. Herodian Jericho is situated 1 ½ kilometers to the west on the Roman road leading up to Jerusalem. This was the royal winter place of Herod the Great and was surrounded by villas of the wealthy. The event which follows the healing of the blind man in Luke’s gospel is Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus. He lived in Herodian Jericho because he was a very wealthy man as well as a tax collector. He would not have lived in Jewish Jericho.
The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-44; Matt. 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; John 12:12-19; Sunday, April 2, AD 30)
All four gospels record the triumphal entry into Jerusalem by the Lord Jesus on “Palm Sunday”, thus ended His “Final Journey” to Jerusalem. This week was the most important week in the history of humanity, for it was in this week that the Lord Jesus suffered for the sins of the entire world and rose triumphantly from the grave three days later. It was because of this cross work that He could offer salvation, a home in heaven, His righteousness to any and all who would put their trust in Him alone as their Savior (John 3:16; Eph. 3:8, 9; Phil. 3:9).
I have attempted to harmonize the last six months in the Life of the Lord Jesus Christ as recorded in the accounts in the Luke “travel narrative” as well as the Gospel of John. The critics failed to understand the importance of Luke 9:51, thinking that the final destination intended was Jerusalem. As a result of this misunderstanding they saw geographical problems in the narrative. If we correctly understand the phrase “received up” to refer to the ascension of the Lord Jesus to heaven, the text would allow three or four journeys to Jerusalem that finally ended in the Passion Week and Luke ends his gospel with the ascension of the Lord Jesus from Bethany into Heaven. That, and only that, was the final goal of His journey!
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