The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Luke 1:76-79

In the previous article in this series, I discussed verses 68-75 of the Song of Zechariah (the Benedictus), looking at the overall structure as well as the various possible Old Testament quotations and allusions in the poem. Verses 76-79 represent the second part of the Benedictus, and are often considered by critical scholars to be a secondary addition to vv. 68-75; at the very least, vv. 76-77 are typically thought to be a Lukan ‘insertion’, with 78-79 perhaps picking up again the original hymn. With regard to this critical theory, it should be noted that, if one were to remove v. 48b from the Magnificat and vv. 76-77 from the Benedictus, there would be very little indeed to connect the hymns with their context in the Gospel of Luke. This is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of the common critical view; on the other hand, there is really no way to cut apart the text in this fashion, without doing considerable damage to the literary integrity of the narrative. I prefer to look at verses 76-79 as a unit, without prejudice as to whether they were definitely part of the ‘original’ hymn; in any event, they are part of it as the Gospel has come down to us, presented as an oracle by Zechariah.

It is interesting, however, that although Zechariah is said to be ‘prophecying’ in v. 67, only vv. 76ff represent a clear prediction (“foretelling”) of future events. There is some dispute among commentators as to the sense and force of the aorist verb forms in the Benedictus (and Magnificat). If one views the hymns as actually uttered by the putative speakers (Zechariah and Mary, the traditional-conservative view), or even as adaptations of intertestamental Jewish hymns (one critical view), then the aorists probably should be understood as akin to Semitic prophetic perfect forms (declaring what will certainly happen), or perhaps as gnomic aorists (declaring what God [always] does for his people). On the other hand, if these canticles are indeed adaptations of Jewish-Christian hymns (the most common critical view), then the aorists could be taken in their normal sense—as declaring what God has (already) done for his people (through Christ). As I indicated in the previous note, I am here making no judgment as to the origin and composition of the Lukan canticles; but it is important at least for readers to be aware of the questions involved.

Verses 76-79 can be divided into two sets of poetic verses (or stichs):

Vv. 76-77:

Kai\ su\ de/ paidi/on profh/th$ u(yi/stou klhqh/sh|
proporeu/sh| ga\r e)nw/pion kuri/ou e(toima/sai o(dou\$ au)tou=
76And you, child, will be called foreteller [i.e. prophet] of the Highest,
for you will travel before [i.e. ahead] in the eye/face of [i.e. before] (the) Lord to make ready his ways

tou= dou=nai gnw=sin swthri/a$ tw=| law=| au)tou=
e)n a)fe/sei a(martiw=n au)tw=n
77to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in release of/from their sins

On verse 76: There are three points to note:
(1) John was indeed understood in the early Gospel tradition to be a prophet [lit. “foreteller”] (Matt 11:9/Luke 7:26; Mark 11:32 par.), and even as Elijah (by Jesus’ own words, Mark 9:12-13 par.; but note John 1:21, 25).
(2) The phrase “Prophet of the Highest” would seem to have special significance, more than simply indicating one of God’s “holy prophets”. The wording here is a precise parallel to the angelic announcement to Mary regarding Jesus: “he will be called son of the Highest” (Luke 1:32). The phrase also occurs in Testament of Levi 8:15 in a ‘Messianic’ context. There was current in Jewish belief at the time the idea of an eschatological Prophet, often (but not always), identified with Elijah (largely on the basis of Malachi 4:5-6 [3:23-24]). References in the Gospels to “the Prophet” and “Elijah (to come)” seem to assume a similar common figure. In the earliest strands of Christian tradition, Jesus was almost certainly understood as the (Anointed) end-time Prophet (but see his own rather cryptic comments regarding John in Mark 9:12-13 par. and Luke 7:26 par.). The fragmentary text 4Q521 from Qumran describes a coming Elijah-type figure (called Messiah), using language drawn from Psalm 146 and Isa 61, but also containing an allusion to Mal 4:6 [3:24]. Interestingly, in Jn 1:21 John denies that he is either Elijah or “the Prophet”.
(3) The second portion of the verse quotes Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1, the same passages used to introduce John in Gospel tradition (cf. Mark 1:2-3). Mal 4:5-6 [3:23-24] was already applied to John in the angelic announcement to Zechariah (Luke 1:16-17).

On verse 77: This is a prophecy of John’s ministry—cf. Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; also Matthew 3:8, 11, 14f. The word rendered by “release” is usually translated “forgiveness”, and some Christians may be a bit uncomfortable attributing this too directly with the dipping/dunking [i.e. baptizing] performed by John. There is no problem, however, unless one automatically identifies “release/forgiveness” with the idea of salvation in a more developed theological sense. In any event, the thought was very much in the air that the (final) judgment of God was imminent (see Lk 3:7 “the wrath about to come”), according to which repentance beforehand truly would mean salvation. The wording in Luke 3:3, that John went about “proclaiming a dipping/dunking of repentance [lit. change-of-mind] into/unto (the) release of sins” reappears in Jesus’ commission to his followers in 24:47: “repentance into/unto (the) release of sins shall be proclaimed… into/unto all the nations”.

Vv. 78-79:

dia\ spla/gxna e)le/ou$ qeou= h(mw=n
e)n oi!$ e)piske/yetai h(ma=$ a)natolh\ e)c u%you$
78through (the inner) organs of (the) mercy of our God
in which has looked closely upon us a rising (from) out of (the) height

e)pifa=nai toi=$ e)n sko/tei kai\ skia=| qana/tou kaqhme/noi$
tou= kateuqu=nai tou\$ po/da$ h(mw=n ei)$ o(do\n ei)rh/nh$
79to shine upon the (ones) in darkness and (the ones) sitting in (the) shadow of death
to set straight our feet (right down) into (the) way of peace

On verse 78:
(1) splagxna, sometimes translated “bowels, intestines”, more properly refers to the internal organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, etc., imagined as the focal point of human emotion (“heart” in modern English is a rough equivalent); it came to be used to symbolize compassion, especially, and so it appears most often in the New Testament. It only occurs rarely in the LXX, but is used more frequently in later Jewish literature. Cf. Test. Levi 4:4, Test. Zebulun 8:2 for wording (and Messianic/eschatological sense) similar to that in v. 78.
(2) The verb e)piske/ptomai already appeared in verse 68. It primarily means “look closely, examine, inspect”, but can also have the sense of “visit, attend” (for purpose of examination), and occasionally the connotation “look after, care for”. Both the verb and the noun e)piskoph/ came to be used as terms for the “visitation” of God in the (eschatological) day of judgment. Some manuscripts read an aorist (e)peske/yato, as in v. 68), rather than the future (e)piske/yetai); if there is meant to be a specific parallel with vv. 68-71, where aorist forms are used (note the aorist infinitives in v. 79, parallel to those in vv. 72-75), then perhaps the aorist is to be preferred here.
(3) There is some dispute as to the exact meaning of a)natolh/ (a rising, “going up”). Commonly it is used for the rising (dawning) of the sun (or a star): “east” is the place of rising (a)natolh/, see esp. Matt 2:2), and so is the most likely sense here—”rising” as the dawn of a great light. However, a)natolh/ can also refer to something “sprouting” up (such as a root, plant, or horn). Both meanings can be applied in a ‘Messianic’ sense: for a)natolh/ (or a form of the verb a)nate/llw) used for the Davidic branch/shoot (ƒemaµ), see the LXX of Psalm 132:17 [131:17]; Jer 23:5; Zech 3:8; 6:12; also Ezek 29:21; the 15th Benediction (of the Shemoneh Esreh), and further related usage in Test. Naphtali 8:2; Test. Gad 8:1. The most likely background for v. 78, however, would be Isaiah 60:1, along with Mal 4:2 [3:20]. Noteworthy also, is Numbers 24:17 (“a star will rise [a)natelei=] out of Jacob”), part of the Balaam oracles, and a popular Messianic passage in Jewish texts of the period (CD 7:20 A; 1QSb 5:27; 1QM 11:5-7; Test. Levi 18:3; Test. Judah 24:1).
The context may lead one to conclude that John, as “prophet of the Most High”, represents the rising/sprouting from on high. This belief, of John as Elijah or the (Anointed) Prophet, may have been current in some circles; but early Gospel tradition was careful to correct the thought (see especially John 1:7-8, 15, 21, 30ff, etc), and it is certainly not what the Gospel writer here has in mind. The confusion is removed if, according to one critical view, vv. 76-77 are a Lukan insertion, and vv. 78-79 more properly pick up the hymn from vv. 68-75. In any event, the narrative context, which has John’s birth running parallel with that of Jesus, allows us to see clearly what is intended: John’s birth and life signifies the coming of the light (in the person of Jesus).

On verse 79: This line is a clear allusion to Isaiah 9:1 [EV 9:2], part of an oracle traditionally understood as Messianic (cf. vv. 5-6 [6-7] which were discussed at length in a prior note), and elsewhere applied to Jesus (Matthew 4:14-16). Note also the language of Isa 42:6-7 and Psalm 107:10 [LXX 106:10]. The concluding phrase may be an echo of Isa 59:8.

For more on verses 78-79, see the previous note in the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”.

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