The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Luke 1:5-25

The exact nature and composition of the Infancy narrative(s) in the Gospel of Luke has been much discussed and debated by scholars. One of the most certain conclusions is that there is a higher incidence of Semitic coloring and detail in the language and style of chapters 1-2, than in the rest of the Gospel. There are two main explanations for this: (1) it is the result of specific sources (written or oral) used by the author, or (2) it is a product of the influence of the Old Testament (particularly that of the LXX) on the author. Most scholars and commentators today opt for some form of the latter explanation, although the exact place and nature of the ‘hymns’ in Luke 1-2 creates an added complication. One can see the influence of the Scriptures here in a variety of ways:

(a) quotation of verses,
(b) use of similar words and phrases,
(c) use of 1st-cent. B.C/A.D. Jewish phrases (influenced themselves by the OT),
(d) application of OT narrative forms and motifs,  and
(e) parallels drawn between similar characters and scenes.

(a) is relative rare in Luke, being far more common in the Matthean Infancy narratives; it is hard to judge the extent of (c), but (b, d-e) abound in Luke.

Luke 1:5-25

Let us examine this use and influence of the Old Testament in the first Lukan episode: the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25). One can recognize echoes and allusions to several passages:

1. The Birth of Samuel narrative(s) (1 Sam 1-2). The Gospel writer (referred to by his traditional designation as “Luke”) has made extensive use of this section of Scripture; it has shaped the Infancy narratives in a number of ways: sometimes the parallel is made with John the Baptist, other times with Jesus.

Similarities in wording and setting:

Compare for example the wording of Luke 1:5 and 1 Sam 1:1-2 (LXX):

There came to be [i.e. was]… a certain sacred-official [i.e. priest], Zakaryah by name, out of the daily-service (order) of Abiyah, and the woman [i.e. wife] for him was out of the daughters of Aharon, and her name was Elisheba There was a man out of Ramathayim-zophim… and the name for him was Elkanah… and two women for this (man), (the) name of the one (was) Hannah…

Both Elisheba [Elizabeth] and Hannah are without child, though for different reasons: kai\ ou)k h@n au)toi=$ te/knon (“and there was no offspring for them”, Luke 1:7);  kai\ th=| Anna ou)k h@n paidi/on (“and for Hannah there was no child”, 1 Sam 1:2).  Note also the parallel between Luke 1:23-24 and 1 Sam 1:19-20:

  • “and Elkanah went into his house… and Hannah received together (in the womb) [i.e. became pregnant]… and she brought forth a son, and she called his name…
  • “and he [i.e. Zechariah] went from (there) into his house… and Elizabeth received together (in the womb) [i.e. became pregnant…” (the naming is not related until v. 60: “he will be called John”)

Similarities in location: Zakaryah [Zechariah] is officiating in the Temple (Luke 1:8ff); Elkanah sacrifices (1 Sam 1:4ff), and Hannah prays to God (1 Sam 1:9ff) at the Temple.

Similarities in narrative detail: (a) message regarding God’s granting of their request/petition, in the Temple location (Luke 1:13; 1 Sam 1:17); (b) context of the Nazirite, with emphasis on drink, for both the child Samuel and John (Luke 1:15; 1 Sam 1:11, 13-15)

2. Abraham and Sarah (regarding the Birth of Isaac):

  • Abraham/Sarah and Zechariah/Elizabeth are both too old for children (probebhko/te$ e)n tai=$ h(me/rai$/probebhko/te$ h(merw=n, “having advanced forward in days”, Luke 1:7; Gen 18:11). Sarah and Elizabeth were both “barren” (stei=ra); for Sarah a different idiom is used.
  • The (angelic) birth announcement (Luke 1:13f) is formally similar to many Old Testament passages, including those involving Abraham (Gen 16:11; 17:16).
  • At the heavenly announcement that he will receive a son, Zechariah responds in a manner similar to Abraham (Gen 17:16-17; Luke 1:18)—note also the identical wording, in a similar but different context (1:18; Gen 15:8) kata\ ti/ gnw/somai “by what shall I know [this]?”

3. Angelic announcements (often involving the birth of a child). These follow a general pattern in the Old Testament narratives (e.g., Gen 16-18; Ex 3; Judg 6; 13, etc), which is reflected in the Infancy narratives (not only Luke 1:8-20ff and 1:26-38; 2:8-14, but also Matthew 1:18-25; 2:13-15). Luke 1:8-23 follows this pattern relatively closely:

  • The setting for the episode (vv. 8-10), here especially dramatic as: (a) Zechariah is a priest serving in the Temple, (b) he enters the Sanctuary (‘Holy Place’) to offer incense, (c) it is the time of prayer (afternoon/evening offering) and many are praying outside.
  • The appearance of the heavenly Messenger (v. 11)
  • Fear comes upon Zechariah at the sight (v. 12)
  • The Messenger tells him “Do not fear” (v. 13)
  • The Message, addressed to Zechariah by name, with an explanation and promise (including, for birth announcements, the name the child shall be called) (v. 13-17)
  • The fearful response (question) of Zechariah “by what will I know this? for I am old…” (v. 18) (implied is a request for some sign to know that the message will be true)
  • A sign given by the Messenger (often with a rebuke implied)—here the sign can be viewed as a kind of punishment for Zechariah (v. 18-20)
  • The response/effect of the angelic appearance (v. 21-23)

Similarities to other passages:

  • The appearances of Gabriel to Daniel (Dan 8:17ff; 9:20ff; 10:7ff); the appearance in 9:20ff occurs during a time of prayer (Luke 1:10-11)
  • Malachi 3:1, 23-24 [EV 4:5-6]: wording related to Elijah, applied by the heavenly Messenger to the child John in Luke 1:17. This association between John and Elijah occurs at numerous points in the Synoptic Gospels, and will reoccur in the song of Zechariah (‘Benedictus’) in Luke 1:76-79. Cf. also Sirach 48:10.
  • Gen 30:23: Rachel’s response to the ‘miracle’ of becoming pregnant: a)fei=len o( Qeo/$ mou to o&neido$ (“God has taken away my disgrace”, i.e. barrenness as “reproach/disgrace/insult”); compare the response of Elizabeth in Luke 1:25: e)pei=den a)felei=n o&neido/$ mou e)n a)nqrw/poi$ (“He looked upon to take away my disgrace among men [i.e. among people]”).

For a fine summary of most of the points of comparison above, along with additional detail, see R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Anchor Bible Reference Library), 1977, 1993, pp. 270 ff.

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