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 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).