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Other readers focus on Luke's ornate narrative context for the Annunciation. Before Mary gets the news, the angel alerts the family of her cousin Elizabeth that she, a barren woman, will bear "a child that will be great in the sight of the Lord"; that is, John the Baptist. After Mary's Annunciation, she visits Elizabeth, and the fetus in Elizabeth's belly miraculously leaps up in recognition of God's promised Messiah. Surrounding this and other subplots are a series of stunning poems, or canticles, which the church later gave Latin names like the Magnificat and the Benedictus. Later Luke will provide a full angelic chorus to accompany Jesus' birth.
Such filagree, scholars concur, would have been foreign to Matthew, who wrote sometime after A.D. 60, a decade or two before Luke. "He would have found it very odd, very goyish, perhaps even offensive," says the University of Texas' White. But that, he contends, is the point. Unlike Matthew, Luke is thought to have been a pagan rather than a Jewish convert to Christianity, writing in fine Greek for other non-Jews and so using references they would find familiar. His version's heraldic announcements, parallel pregnancies, angelic choirs and shepherd witnesses bear a tantalizing resemblance to another literary form, the reverential "lives" being written about pagan leaders in the same period. In such sagas, a hero is not a hero unless his birth reflects the magnificence of his later achievements, and such super-nativities, originally attached to great figures from antiquity like Alexander the Great, were at that point bestowed upon Roman leaders within decades of their actual deaths. Was Luke selling out the Jewish tradition that had helped shape Jesus and Matthew? Hardly. He clearly cared about Judaism, paraphrasing frequently from the Scriptures and setting scenes of Jesus' later youth in the great Jewish temple. But by the time Luke wrote, says John Dominic Crossan, author of The Birth of Christianity, "Christians are competing in a bigger world now, not just a Jewish world ... And in this wider world, Alexander the Great is the model for Augustus and Augustus often becomes the model for Jesus."
THE VIRGIN BIRTH
"Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child/Holy Infant so Tender and mild"
Of all the miracles surrounding the Nativity, the central and essential one is Jesus' birth to a woman who had "never known a man." In Luke, the angel Gabriel explains to Mary about her son's conception as follows: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." Although neither of the Nativities marks a moment for the beginning of her ensuing pregnancy, Christians have long assumed it followed directly upon her "Let it be" response.