“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 2:10-14

Luke 2:10-14

Today’s Christmas Eve note focuses on the famous announcement by the heavenly Messengers (Angels) to the shepherds. This is the third such angelic appearance in the Lukan narrative, and they all follow a basic pattern (cf. the earlier note on Lk 1:26ff). They are also birth announcements, such as we find in Old Testament tradition (Gen 15-18; Judg 13, etc). The birth of Jesus itself is narrated in verses 6-7, parallel to that of John (in 1:57), and using similar wording:

“And it came to be…the days of her producing (a child) were (ful)filled, and she produced [i.e. gave birth to] her son, the first (she) produced…”

It is preceded, of course, by a relatively lengthy introduction in vv. 1-5, which establishes the setting of the scene, and has three main purposes for the author (trad. Luke):

  • It explains why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem
  • It emphasizes the Messianic association with David (and Bethlehem)
  • The mention of the Roman census/enrollment establishes a parallel (and contrast) between Jesus and the Emperor (Augustus), whose birth was celebrated as marking a time of peace and “salvation” for the world. For more on this connection, cf. the upcoming Christmas Day note.

To this may be added another (secondary) purpose:

  • The reference to the caravan resting-place and the feeding-trough (‘manger’) for animals (v. 7), as well as to the shepherds in vv. 8ff, emphasizes the association of Jesus with the poor and lowly in society—a theme given special attention in the Gospel of Luke.

Following the birth of Jesus, the Angelic announcement begins in verse 8, which sets the narrative scene—the outdoor, night setting of shepherds watching their herds (or flocks) in the fields around Bethlehem. Apart from historical concerns, the mention of shepherds almost certainly is meant to reinforce the connection with David and Bethlehem (cf. 1 Sam 16:11; 17:14-15ff). This important motif was introduced in the earlier annunciation to Mary (cf. the note on 1:32-35). Both in 1:26, and here again in 2:4ff, Joseph is said to be from David’s line (the “house of David” [oi@ko$ Daui/d]), the latter reference further emphasizing this fact—”out of the house and father’s line [patri/a] of David”. This Davidic descent of Joseph is confirmed by both of the genealogies recorded in Matthew and Luke, respectively (despite their apparent discrepancies). Moreover, in the ancient Near East, kings and rulers were often described with the name and/or symbols of a shepherd—i.e. as one who leads and protects the people, as a shepherd does his flock (cf. 2 Sam 5:2; Isa 44:28, etc). It was altogether natural, therefore, that the royal Messianic figure-type—the expected future king and deliverer from the line of David—would take on similar shepherd-imagery, such as we see in Micah 5:2-4 (cf. Matt 2:5-6); Ezek 34:23; 37:24; and Zech 10-12.

The annunciation itself begins in verse 9 with the appearance of the “Angel (lit. Messenger) of the Lord”:

“And the Messenger of the Lord stood upon [i.e. near to] them, and the splendor [do/ca] of the Lord put out beams (of light) around them, and they were afraid (with) a great fear [i.e. were truly afraid].”

After the traditional exhortation by the heavenly Messenger (“Do not be afraid [mh\ fobei=sqe]!”), the birth of Jesus is declared:

“For see!—I give you a good message (of) great delight which will be for all the people…” (v. 10)

The verb is eu)aggeli/zomai, which is related to the noun eu)agge/lion (“good message”, i.e. “gospel”). Similarly, the noun xa/ra (from the verb xai/rw, “have/find joy, delight, etc”) is related to xa/ri$ (“favor”, i.e. “grace”)—that is to say, delight comes specifically from the favor shown by God to his people in the birth of Jesus (cf. the note on 1:32-35). The remainder of the announcement in verse 11 utilizes language and terminology which needs to be considered closely:

“…(in) that [i.e. because] there was produced [i.e. has been born] for you today a Savior—which is (the) Anointed (One), (the) Lord—in the city of David!”

The conjunctive particle o%ti gives the reason for the good message of delight which the Angel brings. This clearly is a birth announcement, marking the moment (the day) of the child’s birth—”was produced/born…today [sh/meron]”—and the purpose of the birth is declared as being “for you”, i.e. for those the Angel is addressing (the shepherds, and through them, to all people [v. 10]). Note the chain of names and terms which follow, all of them having Messianic significance:

  • a Savior (sw/thr)
    —the Anointed One (xristo/$)
    —the Lord (ku/rio$)
  • in the city of David (e)n po/lei Daui/d)

The noun sw/thr, derived from the verb sw/zw (“save, protect, preserve [life]”), and related to the noun swthri/a (“salvation”, 1:69, 71, 77), occurs 24 times in the New Testament where it is applied equally to God the Father (Yahweh) and Jesus, most frequently in the (later) writings (the Pastoral letters, 2 Peter, etc). It is surprisingly rare in the Gospels and early Christian tradition—apart from the references in Luke-Acts, cf. Jn 4:42 and Phil 3:20 (where the eschatological context is clear). It was used earlier in the Magnificat (1:47) as a title for the Lord God (Yahweh); the other occurrences are in Acts 5:31; 13:23, and reflect early Christian Gospel preaching (kerygma)—note especially how Jesus’ role as Savior is connected with his resurrection and exaltation in Acts 5:31.

The title xristo/$ (“Anointed [One]”) specifically relates to Jesus as the Messiah (Christ) expected by Israelites and Jews of the time—in particular, the figure-type of the future Davidic ruler who would usher in the end-time Judgment and deliver the faithful among God’s people. I discuss this title at considerable length the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (cf. especially Parts 6-8). The Messianic context is clear—the title is set within the phrase “Savior…in the city of David [e)n po/lei Daui/d]” (cf. the outer pairing, above). The expression “city of David” could apply either to Jerusalem or Bethlehem; here it is certainly the latter.

Paired with xristo/$ is the title ku/rio$ (“Lord”), a noun already used 19 times in the Lukan Infancy narrative, mainly as a title for God the Father (Yahweh, cf. the earlier article). It was first applied to Jesus in 1:43, while v. 76 plays on the dual-meaning and reference among early Christians (cf. the prior note). There are several ways to read the two titles taken together here:

  • As a pair in apposition—”(the) Anointed (One), (the) Lord”, or, perhaps “(the) Anointed (One and) Lord”
  • With xristo/$ essentially functioning as an adjective—”(the) anointed Lord”
  • The variant reading with the genitive kuri/ou—”(the) Anointed of the Lord”, “(the) Lord’s Anointed (One)” (cf. Lk 2:26, etc)

The first option is to be preferred. For an important occurrence of the two titles together, cf. Peter’s Pentecost speech in Acts 2:36 (2:14-40).

The Angelic announcement, like the others previous, concludes with a sign, given by the Messenger, confirming the truthfulness of the message (v. 12). After this we read:

“And (suddenly) without (any) apparent (warning), there came to be, (together) with the Messenger, a multitude of the heavenly Army praising God and declaring…” (v. 13)

This motif of the Angel of the Lord along with the heavenly army goes back to ancient cosmic military imagery, associated with Yahweh/El (cf. the article on Yahweh). Here it serves to emphasize the divine splendor (do/ca) and power of the moment. The short declaration which follows in verse 14 is usually counted as one of the hymns in the Lukan Infancy narrative, and like the others, is known by the first words in Latin (Gloria in Excelsis). It is almost certainly the single most famous verse in the narrative, best known from the King James Version; I translate the Greek here literally:

“Honor in the highest (place)s to God
and upon earth peace among men of eu)doki/a!”

As a hymn it is indeed short—just two parallel lines—but it turns out to be quite difficult to translate and interpret with precision. The main difficulty lies in the first and last words, which are actually related, though this is almost impossible to preserve in English:

  • do/ca (dóxa)—typically rendered as “glory”, but the Greek word itself is better translated “esteem, honor”; as applied to God, in particular, there are two distinct aspects which need to be recognized:
    • the primary sense is the esteem/honor which is due to God from created beings (humans and Angels both)—literally, how we think of Him, considering and recognizing His nature, attributes, and actions (as Creator and on behalf of His people); this is essentially the meaning here in v. 14
    • when referring to God Himself, his greatness, etc, is often depicted visually with light-imagery, and likewise when it is narrated that God appears or manifests Himself to human beings; in such a context, the translation “splendor” is more appropriate, as in verse 9 (cf. above)
  • eu)doki/a (eudokía)—this noun, derived from the verb doke/w and the particle eu), essentially refers to a person considering (something) as good, thinking well of (someone/something), etc. The noun eu)doki/a is found most commonly in the Greek version of the Old Testament, especially in relation to the word /oxr*, indicating something which is acceptable or pleasing to a person. As such, it is frequently used in the religious sense of God showing favor to human beings, and his willingness to do so. Of the eight other occurrences of this word in the New Testament, five refer to God’s purpose and concern with regard to believers, and, in particular, the salvation, etc, he brings to them in the person (and Gospel) of Jesus Christ (Matt 11:26 / Lk 10:21; Phil 2:13; Eph 1:5, 9). On the text-critical question regarding the form of this word, cf. the article “What the Angelic Chorus said…“.

There is thus a definite parallel between the two words and the two lines of verse 14—human begins give praise and honor to God (in heaven) and God shows favor and has good regard for his people (on earth). This is described in spatial terms:

  • e)n u(yi/stoi$ (“in [the] highest [place]s”, i.e. the [highest] heavens)—in 1:78, the light of God’s mercy and salvation comes from “out of (the) height [e)c u%you$]”. God is referred to by the title “Highest” (u%yisto$) in 1:32, 35, 76, reflecting the ancient Semitic title ±Elyôn, and the idea of God as the “Mightiest/Greatest” and “(most) Exalted”.
  • e)pi\ gh=$ (“upon earth”), which qualifies the expression e)n a)nqrw/poi$ (“in/among men”) as parallel to e)n u(yi/stoi$—i.e. “in the places (where) men (dwell) on earth”

The genitive expression in v. 14b (e)n a)qrw/poi$ eu)doki/a$) is most difficult to translate, but a fair approximation would be something like “among men of (His) good will”. Based on similar Hebrew/Aramaic expressions known from the Qumran texts (1QH 4:32-33; 11:9; 4Q545 frag. 3), it would refer to people who are pleasing to God, or who have been favored by him. In traditional, ethnic-religious terms, this would mean the chosen people of Israel—specifically, the faithful ones among them. For the use of eu)doki/a in this context, cf. Psalms of Solomon 8:39 (mid-1st century B.C.). This means that v. 14b is not a promise or blessing of peace for all of humankind (strictly speaking), but rather for those who have been favored by God and are faithful to him. This helps us to understand the Angel’s words in verse 10: “I give to you a good message of great delight which is for all the people“. From an early Christian standpoint, and within the overall context of Luke-Acts, there are two important aspects to observe, whereby the favor of God is extended to “all people”:

  • Salvation through Christ is for Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) alike—that is, for all the “people” (cf. 2:30-32), the people of God (believers in Christ). The book of Acts emphasizes the early mission to the Gentiles (the “Nations”).
  • The Gospel and the early Christian mission is for all demographics, all segments of society—i.e. all the people—with special attention given to the poor and oppressed, etc, those otherwise neglected and marginalized within society (cf. Acts 2:17ff, “all flesh”).

How then should we understand the emphasis on peace (ei)rh/nh) in verse 14? From a traditional religious standpoint, it refers to the blessing, security and protection which comes from God—e.g., Num 6:24-26; Psalm 29:11; 85:8-10; Isa 48:18; 54:10; Jer 16:5; Ezek 34:25-29; 1 Enoch 1:8 (Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 224-5). Peace is an important characteristic of the coming Messianic age, which God’s anointed representative (the Messiah) ushers in—cf. Isa 9:6-7 [Heb vv. 5-6]; 52:7; 55:12; Ezek 37:26; Zech 9:10, etc. According to the traditional portrait, this peace is connected with the judgment and defeat of the (wicked) nations (Ps Sol 17-18; 4Q246 col 2, etc). While early Christians expected Jesus to fulfill something of this aspect of the Messiah’s role upon his (future) return, which coincides with the end-time Judgment, the peace he brings in the Gospels is of a different sort. A blessing of peace comes with acts of healing/saving by Jesus (Lk 7:50; 8:48); similarly, the customary peace-greeting takes on new significance when Jesus (or his representative) appears in the house (Lk 10:5-6; 24:36 par, etc). Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was an opportunity for the people to accept and realize the peace he brings (19:38, 42), but they ultimately rejected him and he was put to death as a criminal rather than accepted as the true Anointed One of God. There is an obvious parallel in language and terminology between the Angelic song in 2:14 and the cry of the crowd in 19:38. The kind of peace expected to be the result of the Messiah’s coming, in socio-political and military terms, was, in fact, realized, to some extent, at the time of Jesus during the reign of the emperor Augustus, commemorated by the famous altar to the Augustan peace (Ara Pacis Augustae, 13-9 B.C.). There can be little doubt that the author of the Gospel is drawing an intentional point of contrast between the birth of Jesus and that of Augustus, whose birthday was also celebrated as a time of “salvation” for the world (cf. above).

Two Deutero-Canonical Texts on the Birth of Jesus

As a special note for Christmas Eve, I will be looking at two texts which reflect two different, but equally creative, traditional ways for interpreting the birth of Jesus.

The first is another example of the tendency of Christians to find types and prophecies of Christ (and his birth) in the most unlikeliest of Scriptures. I have already discussed a number of Old Testament passages (including detailed studies on Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6-7) in prior Advent season notes. Here I will be discussing a deutero-canonical (or “Apocryphal”) passage: Wisdom 8:14-15.

Wisdom 8:14-15:

14As all things had quiet silence (round) about them,
and night was (in) the middle in (its) own swiftness
15Your all-powerful logos from (the) heavens, out of (the) royal throne,
(as) a severe warrior leaped into the middle of the earth (set) for destruction

The book of Wisdom (sometimes known by its pseudepigraphic title “Wisdom of Solomon”) is, along with the book of Sirach (or “Ecclesiasticus”), the most valued and prestigious of the so-called “Apocryphal” (deutero-Canonical) books; virtually every Church Father who mentions or cites from it, treats it essentially as authoritative Scripture. It belongs to the category of Wisdom literature, and is a poetic philosophical discourse, a product of Hellenistic Judaism—combining Biblical and Jewish teaching with Greek philosophy (Stoic and Platonic), in a manner similar to that of Philo a century or so later. The second half of the book (chapters 11-19) comprises a lengthy treatment of the Exodus, contrasting the Israelites who (should) trust in God (thereby walking according to Divine Wisdom) with the Egyptian who rely upon vain idols. The section 18:5-25 covers the tenth plague (destruction of the firstborn); I would outline this section as follows:

a. The infant Moses is saved from the destruction of the Israelite children—in the middle of destruction—in accordance with revelation and the promises made to the Fathers; the juxtaposition of deliverance/punishment is reiterated as a theme (vv. 5-8)

b. Comparison of the children of the virtuous (devout Israel) with the children of Egypt: one united in blessing, the other in common death (vv. 9-12)

c. The people (of Israel) acknowledged to be God’s son (confirmed by the failure of pagan idolatry) (v. 13)

cæ. The Logos/Word of God comes out of heaven carrying the sword of His decree (v. 14-16a)

bæ. Death and destruction brought upon the land of Egypt (vv. 16b-19)

aæ. Death comes upon the Israelites in the wilderness, but Moses intercedes to bring salvation, according to the promises God made to the Fathers; juxtaposition of deliverance/punishment within the people of Israel itself (vv. 20-25)

Above I gave a rather literal translation of vv. 14-15; in order to provide some context for the central passage, I offer here a more fluid rendering of vv. 13-16, with 14-15 in italics (translation by David Winston from the Anchor Bible series, vol. 43, p. 313, [my gloss in square brackets]):

Wholly incredulous thanks to their [i.e. the Egyptians’] magical enchantments, at the destruction of their firstborn they acknowledged your [i.e. God’s] people to be God’s son. While all things were enveloped in peaceful silence and night was midway through her swift course, your all-powerful Logos, out of the heavens, from the royal throne, leaped like a relentless warrior into the midst of the land marked for destruction, bearing your unambiguous decree as a sharp sword. Standing it filled all things with death; it touched the heavens, yet stood poised upon the earth.

Clearly, vv. 14-15 refer to the ‘angel of Death’ that strikes the land of Egypt—a curious passage to apply to the birth of Jesus! Yet there are several factors which prompted Christians to interpret it in this manner:

  1. The reference to “God’s son” at the end of verse 13. Israel as God’s (firstborn) “son” appears in numerous ways throughout the Old Testament, with specific (early) references in Exodus 4:22-23 and Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”)—this last verse is explicitly cited in the Matthean Infancy narrative (2:15).
  2. The occurrence of “Logos“: the concept of the Reason/Word (lo/go$) of God as a (secondary) Divine hypostasis or personification (sometimes identified with Divine Wisdom), with its role in creation, revelation, etc., took on prominence in Hellenistic Jewish philosophy (see especially the interpretive works of Philo). All studious and devout Christians are familiar with it from the famous opening of the Fourth Gospel (John 1:1ff), from whence the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the pre-existent Logos—along with a powerful Logos Christology—was established in Christian thought.
  3. The contextual parallel with Moses—both as the infant child saved from the “violent waters” of destruction (18:5), as as the savior/deliverer who intercedes with God for his people (18:21-22). The Matthean Infancy narrative (especially in chapter 2) clearly draws on the early Exodus story, I believe consciously and intentionally emphasizing a number of parallel details. We have: (a) the infant destined to be savior rescued from death, (b) the wicked king (c) who orders the destruction of newborn male children, (d) the setting of Egypt including an ‘exodus’ out of Egypt. Indeed, the Gospel writer (2:15) applies Hosea 11:1 in a way that similarly takes the original Old Testament passage “out of context”.

Interestingly, a connection between Passover and the birth of Jesus (and so between his birth and death) developed in Christian tradition. This can be seen in dramatic fashion in the Nativity hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, cf. Hymn 4.31-34, 5.14, 27.18-22, etc. Jesus’ birth was thought to have taken place in the month of Conun (December-January), so his conception would have been in Nisan (April). In 5.14, Ephrem specifically identifies the conception with the 10th of Nisan, when the lambs designated for slaughter (four days later) are “closed up” (i.e. in the womb). The traditional imagery of Jesus as the Paschal Lamb, certainly made this a natural association.

By the end of the fourth century A.D. at the latest, Christians had come to understand Wisdom 18:14-15 in terms of the birth of Jesus—cf. Chrysostom’s 2nd Homily on the Gospel of Matthew (for the moment I have not found any earlier occurrence). Eventually the passage came to be used as a reading or lesson (lection) for Christmas, and was influential in establishing the tradition of Jesus’ birth taking place at midnight.

The second text, which I will mention only briefly, comes from the so-called Proto-gospel (Protevangelium) of James.

This is a pseudepigraphic work, which is presented has having been written by “James” (§25)—presumably meant as James the Just, brother of Jesus. Scholars of all stripes agree that the composition is actually considerably later than this, probably dating from the first half of the 2nd century (c. 125-150); as such, it is far less reliable historically than the Lukan and Matthean Infancy narratives, though it may still preserve a few pieces of authentic tradition. The book covers the birth and childhood of Mary (§§1-12), follows by a narrative of Jesus’ birth (§§1-22 + 23-24) which roughly corresponds to that of Matthew/Luke.

By the mid-second century, Gospel tradition had come to be expanded and embellished with many more legendary and/or fanciful details; in particular, there was a pious (albeit speculative) interest in “filling out” pieces of the narrative not found in Matthew/Luke, such as Mary’s background, the childhood years of Jesus, what happened in Egypt (cf. Matt 2:13-15, 19-23), and so forth. The Protevangelium was one of the earliest and most successful of these works; virtually all of the later surviving “Infancy Gospels” appear to be dependent on it in some way. Moreover, it proved to have an enormous (and lasting) influence on Christmas tradition, and in establishing the Catholic/Orthodox legend and traditions of Mary.

Perhaps the most beautiful and striking portion of the Protevangelium is in §18: after finding a cave in which Mary can give birth, Joseph goes out to locate a midwife in the area nearby. Vv. 2ff is written in first-person narrative:

Now I Joseph was walking, and I walked not. And I looked up to the air and saw the air in amazement. And I looked up unto the pole of the heaven and saw it standing still, and the fowls of the heaven without motion. And I looked upon the earth and saw a dish set, and workmen lying by it, and their hands were in the dish: and they that were chewing chewed not, and they that were lifting the food lifted it not, and they that put it to their mouth put it not thereto, but the faces of all of them were looking upward. And behold there were sheep being driven, and they went not forward but stood still; and the shepherd lifted his hand to smite them with his staff, and his hand remained up. And I looked upon the stream of the river and saw the mouths of the kids upon the water and they drank not. And of a sudden all things moved onward in their course. (transl. by M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament [Oxford:1924-]).

A rendering in more contemporary English:

But I, Joseph, was walking, and I was not walking. I looked up into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed. I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still; and the birds of the sky were at rest. I looked back to the earth and saw a bowl laid out for some workers who were reclining to eat. There hands were in the bowl, but those who were chewing were not chewing; and those who were taking something from the bowl were not lifting it up; and those who were bringing their hands to their mouths were not bringing them to their mouths. Everyone was looking up. And I saw a flock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand remained in the air. I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking. Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course. (transl. by Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures [Oxford:2003], p. 69)

An imaginative description, to be sure; but also immensely creative! Even if not historical, in a concrete sense, the image of Jesus’ birth at midnight, when all of creation stands still, is beautiful and apt to touch the soul of believer and unbeliever alike.