The Birth of Jesus in the Johannine Writings

The third Day of Christmas (Dec 27) coincides with the holy day (feast) of St. John the Evangelist—this is John the Apostle who is traditionally regarded as author of the Gospel that came to bear his name. The Gospel of John does not contain an Infancy narrative (as in Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2), but begins with the ministry of John the Baptist (as in Mark 1:2ff), to which is joined the marvelous Prologue (John 1:1-18). By an interesting circumstance, however, a number of scribes and theologians in the 2nd century came to understand John 1:13 as a reference to the (virgin) birth of Jesus. Here is the (accepted) Greek text of vv. 12-13, with a literal translation:

o%soi de\ e&labon au)to/n e&dwken au)toi=$ e)cousi/an te/kna qeou= gene/sqai toi=$ pisteu/ousin ei)$ to\ o&noma au)tou= oi^ ou)k e)c ai(ma/twn ou)de\ e)k qelh/mato$ sarko\$ ou)de\ e)k qelh/mato$ a)ndro\$ a)ll’ e)k qeou= e)gennh/qhsan
12but as many (as) received him, to them he gave exousia to become tekna of God—(to) the (ones) trusting into his name, 13the (ones) who, not out of blood [pl.] and not out of the will of flesh, and not out of the will of man, but out of God have come to be (born)

e)cousi/a (exousia) is difficult to render into English literally; it carries the basic meaning of ability to do something, either in the sense of power or permission; often it is translated “authority” or “power”. te/knon (teknon) is also a bit difficult to translate—literally it indicates something brought forth [i.e. often something “born”]; typically the plural (te/kna) is rendered “children”.

This is the reading of all surviving Greek MSS (and virtually all other witnesses). However, at least one Old Latin MS (b), and a few Church Fathers, read the singular relative pronoun and verb in verse 13. To see the difference, look at the two versions side by side (in more conventional translation):

but as many as received him, to them he gave authority to become children of God—to those trusting in his name, they [i.e. believers] who were born not by blood nor by the will of flesh nor by the will of man, but by God but as many as received him, to them he gave authority to become children of God—to those trusting in his name, he [i.e. Christ] who was born not by blood nor by the will of flesh nor by the will of man, but by God

The majority reading connects the relative pronoun back to “as many as…/children of God”; the variant reading, on the other hand, connects it to “his name”, making it refer very much to the birth of Jesus. For more on this variant reading, see the article on Jn 1:13 in the series “The Birth of the Son of God”.

It is interesting to consider the use of the closely related verbs gi/nomai and genna/w in the Gospel of John; both carry the general sense of “become, come to be”, but the latter especially means “come to be born” (passive) or “cause to be born [i.e. beget, bear]” (active). Noteworthy instances of genna/w are:

  • John 3:3-8 (8 times), part of the discourse with Nicodemus; note especially the phrases “born from above” (vv. 3, 7) and “born out of the Spirit” (vv. 5-6, 8)
  • John 8:41: the Jews disputing with Jesus claim to be “children” (te/kna) of Abraham (v. 39) and in answer to Jesus’ rebuke in vv. 39b-41a further state that they were not born “out of fornication” (e)k pornei/a$). Their coming-to-be born (genna/w) is contrasted with Jesus coming (e)rxomai) “out of God” (e)k tou= qeou=, v. 42).
  • John 16:21: Jesus likens the anguish of a man coming-to-be-born to the temporary sorrow of the disciples (in a little while they will see him again) (v. 22)
  • John 18:37: in answer to Pilate, Jesus declares his purpose: “unto this I came to be born {gennaw} and unto this I came {e)rxomai} into the world: that I should witness to the truth; every (one) that is out of [i.e. from] the truth (e)k th=$ a)lhqei/a$) hears my voice”

The verb gi/nomai is used a number of times in relation to the incarnation of Christ. Consider the usage in the Prologue (1:1-18):

  • It occurs 3 times in verse 3 (once again in v. 10), referring to creation (things made), and once in verse 6 (John the Baptist); contrast this with the use of ei)mi in vv. 1-10.
  • In verse 12: those who believe come-to-be {ginomai} children of God, parallel to coming-to-be-born {gennaw} out of God in v. 13 (see the discussion above)
  • Verse 14: “and the Word [lo/go$] came to be [i.e. became] flesh and set up tent [i.e. dwelt] in/among us…”—a central and dramatic reference to the Incarnation (to use the later Christological term)
  • Verse 15: John the Baptist’s testimony: “the (one) coming {e)rxomai} in back of [i.e. after] me came to be {ginomai} in front of me, because he is/was {ei)mi} first (for) [i.e. before] me”—this is a difficult statement; note carefully the three verbs used (a kind of step-parallelism)
  • Verse 17: the Law given {di/dwmi} through Moses is contrasted with “grace/favor and truth” which came-to-be {ginomai} through Jesus Christ

The First Johannine Epistle (1 John) is also traditionally ascribed to John the Apostle, and certainly is written in a language and style very similar to that of the Gospel. In particular the verb gennaw appears ten times, as follows:

  • 7 times in the phrase “born out of God [e)k tou= qeou=]” (1 Jn 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18), just as in John 1:13, as a locution for true believers in God (and Christ), though the second instance in 1 Jn 5:18 is not entirely clear (see below).
  • 2 more times in the phrase “born out of [i.e. from] Him [e)c au)tou=]” (1 John 2:29; 5:1) with the same meaning.
  • One other instance (also in 1 Jn 5:1) uses the active form to speak of God as the one who “caused to be born [i.e. begat]”, again in the same context.

The second occurrence of the phrase “born out of God” in 1 Jn 5:18 is a source of some textual and interpretive difficulty. The verse can be read two ways:

We know that every (one) that has come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but the (one) come to be (born) out of God [i.e. Christ] watches him [i.e. the believer] and the evil does not touch him We know that every (one) that has come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but the (one) come to be (born) out of God [i.e. the believer] watches him(self) and the evil does not touch him

A later scribal emendation reads, for the last half of the verse, “the coming-to-be-born [o( ge/nnhsi$, i.e. the {new} birth] watches him…”. But assuming that the form gennhqei/$ is correct, the textual issue hinges upon the pronoun—whether it is personal (au)ton) or reflexive (e(auton). The reflexive is the majority reading, but there is strong manuscript support as well (A* B 330 614 r vg syrh boh al) for the personal, and this is preferred by most commentators and textual critics today.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: The Temple (Part 1)

The second Day of Christmas (Dec 26) is also the holy day (feast) of St. Stephen—deacon of the earliest church and first Christian martyr (Acts 6:1-8:1f). Sometimes his martyrdom is associated thematically with the “massacre of the Innocents” (Matthew 2:16-20), but otherwise there is little connection between Stephen and the Infancy Narratives. As I am going to be treating Stephen’s speech (or sermon) in detail as part of a series on the Speeches in the Book of Acts; here I will discuss only the theme of the Temple (7:44ff), as the Jerusalem Temple plays a key role in the Lukan Infancy narratives (ch. 1-2).

The view and place of the Temple in early Christianity is an extremely complex question, one particularly complicated by several historical factors:

  • Jews of the period (such as the Community of the Qumran texts), occasionally leveled strong criticism against the current priesthood and Temple cult (though not necessarily the Temple itself); these critiques have a biblical basis, and can already be found in the Old Testament Prophets (see below).
  • The conflicts between Jews and early Christians, often resulted in harsh polemic, some of which is preserved in the Gospels and New Testament itself; this must be judged and analyzed most carefully.
  • Portions of the New Testament were written in the shadow of the Jewish Revolt (66-70 A.D.) and the destruction of the Temple—this event would have a profound effect on Christian views of Judaism in the late-first and early-second centuries (see esp. the Epistle to the Hebrews and the so-called Epistle of Barnabas).

The relationship of Jesus himself to the Temple is also hotly debated in many quarters; however, at least two points are fairly certain (on purely objective grounds):

  • Jesus acted in a symbolic (and shocking) fashion on at least one occasion in the Temple—the so-called “cleansing” of the Temple, recorded in all four Gospels (Mark 11:12-19 par.; John 2:12-22). The precise interpretation and significance of this event is still disputed, with three different explanations offered in the Gospels themselves (Mark 9:17 par.; John 2:[16], 17; and John 2:18-22).
  • Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13:1-2 par.); this is confirmed, presumably from a separate line of tradition, in the Passion narrative of Jesus’ appearance before the high council (Sanhedrin) (cf. Mark 14:57-59; 15:29 and par.). Underlying the charge against him at the ‘trial’ must be a saying akin to that in John 2:19, which implies not only the destruction of the Temple but that Jesus will raise/build it again (“made without [human] hands”, a)xeiropoi/hto$ in the claim of Mark 14:58). Interestingly, Luke does not include this claim (regarding the Temple) in his account of the Sanhedrin session (see below related to this point).

In Stephen’s conflict with the Jewish authorities and crowds, there may have been a similar “threatening” statement regarding the future of the Temple, judging from the claim recorded in Acts 6:13-14; this claim has two parts:

(a) he utters words against [this] Holy Place [i.e. the Temple] and the Law, and
(b) he says that Jesus will

[i.] unloose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this [Holy] Place and
[ii.] alter the customs which Moses has passed down.

This ‘trial’ matches that of Jesus’ before the Sanhedrin in many ways, and the narrative may have been consciously shaped to this end by the author of Acts (trad. Luke). The high priest asks Stephen “if these things (said about you) should be held thus [i.e. are true]?” and this is the setting which introduces the famous speech of chapter 7—a sermon couched within a history lesson. Many scholars have noted that the long summary of Old Testament history is a strange response for such a setting, and, indeed, seems not to answer the high priest’s question in v. 1. However, if one studies the speech itself closely, there is an implicit answer by the time one reaches verse 44. Note the following:

  • The section on Moses (vv. 30-38) presents an entirely positive view of the Law and “customs”, at least as it they are described in v. 38, in light of the Sinai revelation—that Moses “received living words/accounts [lo/gia] to give to us”. This concludes what may be deemed the first (positive) half of the speech, centered upon the Patriarchs (Abraham–Moses).
  • The remainder of the speech (vv. 39-53) emphasizes the negative side of Israelite history, which starts with a failure to obey the revelation given to Moses (v. 39). There are three sections to this half of the speech:
    • The idolatry of Israel in the wilderness (vv. 39-43), which ends with a quotation from Amos 5:25-27
    • The building of the Temple, contrasted with the (divinely ordained) Tent (vv. 44-50), which also ends with a quotation (Isaiah 66:1-2)
    • An extremely harsh condemnation of Israel’s disobedience (vv. 51-53)
  • The concluding words in verse 53 especially make clear that what is at issue is not the Law (of Moses) as such, but the people’s refusal to obey it.

The real difficulty (and ambiguity), however, comes just at the point of verse 44—that is, the place and nature of the Temple. The logic of vv. 43-44 seems to work at two levels:

  • The Tent (Tabernacle) is contrasted with the idol-worship during the wilderness period—both are according to a tu/po$ (“stamp, pattern”): the idols according to the figures [pl.] of pagan deities (v. 43), the Tent (skhnh/) according to the pattern [sing.] which Moses saw revealed by God.
  • The Temple appears to be set parallel to the idol-worship of the wilderness period: just as Israel failed to obey the divinely-established Law and followed after idols (vv. 39-43), so Israel failed to continue with the divinely-established Tent and had (under Solomon) a Temple built (vv. 44-50).

This last point many traditional-conservative commentators would dispute, for it runs contrary to much of the Old Testament with its strong emphasis on the positive, divinely-authorized nature of the Solomonic Temple; and yet a comparison of verses 39-43 and 44-50 would seem imply, at the very least, some sort of criticism against the Temple, especially if one looks at the similar positioning of the two Scripture passages: Amos 5:25-27 (which condemns idolatry and the “shrine” of ‘Moloch’) and Isaiah 66:1-2 (which questions the necessity and value of a “house” for God).

Interestingly, much of this ambiguity surrounding the Temple actually exists within the older strands of Scripture going back (very nearly) to the time of David and Solomon. Consider:

  • In Solomon’s prayer of dedication (cf. esp. 1 Kings 8:27ff), he asks much the same question we see in Isa 66:1-2ff. Only the emphasis in the former passage is one of humility in the face of God’s greatness, requesting the Almighty to condescend to be present with his people on earth. In the latter passage, the very Temple cult or ritual is debased in comparison with the importance of personal character and right behavior before God (see Isa 1:10-17ff for similar themes).
  • The oracle of Nathan in 2 Samuel 7: verses 1-7 appear to oppose the idea of building a permanent ‘house’ for God, while verses 11b-16 seem to support the building of such a house (Temple). Many critical scholars hold that an earlier anti-Temple oracle has been joined with a pro-Temple one, by means of vv. 8-11a to create a harmonious whole. It is a matter of considerable debate; traditional-conservative scholars would tend to accept the harmonious (or harmonizing) view of the ‘final’ text as original and authentic. For a good overview of the classic critical position (and variations thereof), along with some detailed notes, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard:1973, 1997), pp. 241-261.

If one were to read Acts 7:44-50 in light of (the critical interpretation) of 2 Samuel 7:1-16, one would detect a similar emphasis: the Tent as a moveable (and temporary) dwelling was God’s intention, rather than a (permanent) house of cedar and stone. If this is the direction of Stephen’s argument, it may explain a curious textual variant in Acts 7:46 (variation unit in italics):

…David, 46who found favor in the eye/face of [i.e. before] God and asked to find a tent for the house of Jacob

This seems to be the best reading, supported a wide range of early witnesses (Ë74 a* B D sahpt al), while other manuscripts and versions read “…for the God of Jacob“. Most likely, scribes found the idiom “house of Jacob” difficult to understand in this context and “corrected” it to “God of Jacob”. But what does it mean to have a tent “for the house of Jacob”? If one understands “house” as a euphemism for the Temple, an intentional contrast may be at work here—as if to say: the Tent is for the people (of Israel), not for God (who has no need of a tent-dwelling), so that they can worship Him; to make the dwelling permanent (and ornate) may put Israel on the path toward a kind of idolatry. A developed, commercialized Temple ritual only increases the danger for priestly corruption and abuse, which was indeed a common complaint in the New Testament period. When one adds to this the fact that the priests and religious authorities played a role in Jesus’ execution, and were now persecuting his followers, the polemic force of Stephen’s speech here can be appreciated. In a purely Christian sense, spiritualizing the argument, we might say that as believers we ourselves, and together, are the (true) Temple of God (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; also Eph 2:21).

Of the four Gospels, Luke has the most positive overall presentation of the Temple. As indicated above, the Lukan account of Jesus’ ‘trial’ before the Sanhedrin does not include the claim about destroying and rebuilding the Temple, nor does it contain any such saying of Jesus (John 2:19); however it does contain the “cleansing” scene (though much shorter, Luke 19:45-46) and the prediction of destruction (Luke 21:5-6). In between these two episodes, Luke specifically indicates that Jesus taught in the Temple every day (19:47-48, cf. partial parallel in Matt 21:14f, 23 and Mark 13:1 par.). Even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples were in the Temple “through it all (i.e. continually)”, blessing (and praising) God. The apostles are likewise recorded worshiping in the Temple in the early chapters of Acts (Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:20ff), while Jewish Christians in Jerusalem continue to frequent the Temple (Acts 21:26ff).

The Temple plays an even more prominent role in the Lukan Infancy narrative. It is the setting of three major espisodes:

  1. The heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) appears to Zechariah while he serves in the Temple, in the Sanctuary (Holy Place), at the time of prayer (probably during the afternoon/evening sacrifice), to announce the coming birth of John (Luke 1:5-25).
  2. The infant Jesus is ‘presented’ at the Temple, where Mary and Joseph encounter two devout figures (Simeon and Anna) who represent Israel’s faith and ‘Messianic’ hope (of which Jesus is seen as the fulfillment) (Luke 2:22-38).
  3. The boy Jesus in the Temple (“…it is necessary for me to be in/among the [things] of my Father”) (Luke 2:41-50)

The significance of the Temple in the Lukan Infancy Narrative will be discussed in more detail when we come to the key passages in chapter 2—vv. 22ff, 41ff—in subsequent notes.

“And you shall call His Name…”: Matthew 1:23

Matthew 1:23

In the previous note (for Christmas Day) I discussed the structure of the first episode in the Matthean Infancy narrative, 1:18-25—in particular, the actual birth announcement in vv. 20-21 and the declaration (by the Angel) of the child’s name (Yeshua/Jesus). Today, I will be looking at the Scripture cited in vv. 22-23. This is the first such citation formula used by the author (one of at least 11 in the Gospel). Each of the three main sections in the Infancy narrative—1:18-25; 2:1-12, and 2:13-23—contains at least one Scripture quotation (cf. 2:15, 17-18, 23, as well as vv. 5-6) indicating that the events being narrated are a fulfillment of prophecy. The prophecy in this section is part of the oracle in Isaiah 7:1-17. The oracle, properly speaking, occurs in verses 3-9. What follows in vv. 10ff is the sign given by God confirming the truth of the message, much as we see in the Lukan annunciation episodes (Lk 1:19-22, 35-37). Here in Matthew, the Scripture citation functions as a different sort of sign—one which confirms the divinely-guided nature of the event as a fulfillment of God’s word (and promises) to his people in ancient times.

The declaration in Isa 7:14 is justly famous, being applied by early Christians to Jesus as a Messianic prophecy. The Greek of Matthew’s version appears to be an (intentional) adaptation of the original text, whether working from the Hebrew or a Greek translation (such as the LXX). Here is a rendering of Matthew’s version, with the Hebrew (in translation) given below:

“See!—the virgin will (come to) have (a child) in (the) womb,
and she will produce [i.e. bring forth] a son, and they will call his name Immanuel”

“See!—the young (maid)en [hm*l=u*h*] will be(come) pregnant [hr*h*] and she will bring forth [i.e. bear] a son,
and she will call his name ‘(The) Mighty (One) [°E~l, “God”] (is) with us’ [la@ WnM*u!].”

The main difficulty, and a longstanding point of controversy, is the translation of the Hebrew word am*l=u* (±¹lmâ). It is usually translated in Greek by nea=ni$, literally a “young/youthful woman”. However, this does not quite capture the sense of the Hebrew; the particular root <lu signifies something strong, vigorous, virile, etc, and, when applied to a young female, it often connotes a girl who has just (recently) come into sexual awareness and maturity. In the context of ancient Israelite society, such a young woman, at a marriageable age, would typically be a virgin, though am*l=u* does not mean this specifically; indeed a different word (hl*WtB=, b§¾ûl¹h) is used to emphasize virginity. It is significant, then, that the Septuagint (LXX) translates am*l=u* in Isa 7:14 with parqe/no$, rather than nea=ni$. The word parqe/no$ is of uncertain origin, but it came to mean specifically a virgin (male or female), as in 1 Cor 7:25ff; 2 Cor 11:2; Rev 14:4. In only one other place, does the LXX translate am*l=u* this way—in Gen 24:43 (cf. vv. 14, 16). I have discussed the matter extensively in an earlier Christmas series of notes.

It is likely that the word parqe/no$ was used in Isa 7:14 (as in Gen 24:43) to emphasize the purity of the woman and the sacredness of the scene—the special situation attending the child and his birth. Neither in the original Hebrew, nor in the LXX version, is there any clear sense that this is a miraculous birth, let alone a virginal conception. The significance of this child was as a sign confirming the oracle in vv. 3-9. For the various theories regarding the identity of this child, and an overall interpretation of vv. 10ff, cf. the aforementioned Christmas series above. One conclusion is inescapable: the original historical and literary context does not refer to a (distant) future savior/ruler figure, but to something expected to occur in the general time frame of the prophet—the reign of Ahaz and/or his son Hezekiah. Based on the use of the name ±Immanû °E~l in Isa 8:8-10, and a comparison with the language in 2 Kings 18:7, it seems likely that Hezekiah is the immediate point of reference. This is not to say that a Messianic interpretation by Jews and early Christians should be considered invalid, but that it ought to be regarded as a secondary interpretation or application, pointing to events of a future time (such as the birth of Jesus). I would argue strongly that such a view is perfectly compatible with any reasonable and legitimate doctrine of inspiration, and can be amply documented by many Old Testament passages which the New Testament authors have adapted or taken out of their original context (cf. my earlier article on this aspect of Scriptural prophecy).

It is quite possible that the author of the Matthean Infancy narrative (trad. Matthew) is among the first Christians to make an explicit connection between Isa 7:14 and the birth of Jesus, though the passage may be reflected in Lk 1:28, 31 and the Messianic associations in the Lukan narrative as well. There can be no doubt that Matthew emphasizes the miraculous (virginal) nature of Jesus’ conception and birth, stating it even more directly than Luke (cf. below). It is mentioned four times in this opening section (vv. 18, 20, 23, 25). It is also certain that the Angel’s announcement to Joseph (vv. 20b, 21a) follows specifically, and is patterned after, the wording of Isa 7:14 (as cited by Matthew):

  • “the (child)…in her is out of [i.e. from] the holy Spirit
    the virgin will have (a child) in the womb”
  • “and she will produce a son”
    “and she will produce a son”
  • “and you will call his name…”
    “and they will call his name…”

It is hard to say to what extent a Messianic interpretation of Isa 7:14 was current among Jews in the 1st-century B.C./A.D.; it is not particularly attested as such in the surviving Qumran texts and other literature of the period. It would not have been difficult, however, for Jews and early Christians to recognize the possible Messianic significance of the prophecy (as of that in Isa 9:1-7 [Heb 8:23-9:6]). This would be enhanced by the idea that Jesus’ conception was truly miraculous, and the work of the Spirit (cf. Lk 1:35 and the italicized words above).

When we turn to the name ±Immanû °E~l (Greek  )Emmanouh/l), we find a sentence-name or title which includes the divine name-element °E~l (la@, “Mighty [One]”, i.e. “God”); for more background information and detail, cf. my earlier article on °E~l. The explanation the Gospel writer gives in verse 23 generally matches the actual translation of the name, as used in Isa 8:8, 10—”God [°E~l] (is) with us” or “God (be) with us”. In the original context of the prophecy, it is a fitting name for a ruler, indicating the divine protection and aid God brings to his reign and his kingdom (cf. 2 Kings 18:7). The Gospel writer, of course, recognizes something deeper than this, as he sets the name as a precise parallel with Y¢šûa±, a name explained as embodying the help and deliverance (salvation) God is bringing to his people (in the person of Jesus). Indeed, the meaning of the name Immanuel relates to two important aspects of (early) Christian belief:

  • Jesus as the Son of God—his deity manifesting the presence of God himself (“God with you”)
  • The power/work of the Holy Spirit—the abiding presence of God (and Christ) with believers is realized through the Spirit

This latter idea is more prominent in Luke-Acts and the Gospel of John, but note the closing words of Jesus in Matthew (28:20): “I am with you…”.

Birth of the Son of God: Luke 1:26-38

For the days following Christmas, in celebration of the birth of Jesus, I will be exploring New Testament passages related to the theme the birth of the Son of God. Even though on Christmas it is Jesus’ human birth that is in view, early Christians gradually came to understand this birth from a broader Christological perspective; as Ignatius states: “for our God, Jesus the Christ, was carried as an embryo by Mary” (Eph 18:2) [the verb kuofore/w referring both to conception and pregnancy]. It is impossible to avoid the idea of incarnation—God becoming flesh—in this event. Already in the New Testament, within the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, something more than an ordinary human birth is involved. As we shall see, the miraculous, spiritual nature of this birth ultimately extends to believers in Christ as well, who come to be born as “sons (children) of God”.

Luke 1:26-38

Let us begin with the famous annunciation scene in Luke (Lk 1:26-38), which follows the basic pattern of angelic announcements in Old Testament narrative—for birth annunciations, see Genesis 16:7-13; chapters 17-18 (esp. 17:15-21; 18:10-15) and Judges 13, as well as Lk 1:11-20 and Matt 1:20-21 in the infancy narratives. The pattern may be outlined:

    • Appearance of the angel, who addresses the person by name (v. 28)
    • The person is startled (v. 29)
    • Assurance of the angel—”do not fear” (v. 30)
    • Announcement of the coming/impending birth (v. 31)
    • The name which is to be given to the child (v. 31b)
    • Prophecy/announcement of the child’s future (v. 32-33)
    • Question by the person receiving the vision—”how will this be?” (v. 34)
    • The angel’s response, along with a sign (vv. 35-37)
    • Acceptance of the vision (v. 38)

For more detail, cf. R. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] 1993, pp. 155-9, 292-8.

There are three parts to the angel’s message, each followed by Mary’s response:

  • Verse 28—Mary is addressed by name
    • V. 29—Mary is startled by what she sees
  • Verses 30-33—The Message to Mary
    • V. 34—Mary asks “how will this be?”
  • Verses 35-37—Answer to Mary’s question, with a sign
    • V. 38—Mary responds “…may it come to be for me according to your word”

Each part has a theological/christological element:

  • v. 28b—”the Lord is with you”
  • vv. 31ff—”this one will be great and will be called Son of the Highest…”
  • v. 35a—”The Holy Spirit… power of the Highest…
    v. 35b—…(the child) will be called Holy, the Son of God”

These will be discussed in turn.

Luke 1:28b “the Lord is with you”

According to the Old Testament/Jewish background of this episode, the “Lord” (o( ku/rio$) is YHWH, God the Father; but note the use of ku/rio$ to refer to Jesus in Lk 1:43; 2:11, and the more ambiguous reference in Lk 1:76. There can be little doubt that, by the time the Gospel of Luke had been written (around 70 A.D. or a bit later), ku/rio$ was being regularly applied to Jesus in terms of his divine nature or status, connected especially with his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God (Acts 2:36, etc). The expression corresponding to o( ku/rio$ meta\ sou= (“the Lord is with you” or “the Lord be with you”) appears as a pious, but ordinary, greeting in Ruth 2:4. A closer parallel to our passage is found in the angelic annunciation to Gideon in Judg 6:12, as an assurance of God’s support and care. In Lk 1:28, 30, this divine care is described in terms of God’s favor (xa/ri$)—Mary is one who has been favored (kexaritwme/nh) by God (xa/rin para\ tw=| qew=|).

There is a similar instance in the famous prophecy of Isa 7:14, with the name Immanuel (la@ WnM*u!, ±imm¹nû °¢l)—”God with us”. The context of Isa 8:8-10 indicates that this name reflects God’s support and protection of the (righteous) king, connected with peace, prosperity, and the salvation of the land/people from enemies. In terms of the original historical context, the most reasonable identification is with Hezekiah (cf. 2 Kings 18:7). Later on, of course, the passage (along with Isa 9:1-6) came to be interpreted in a (future) Messianic sense, and was applied by Christians to the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:22-23). I discussed these verses in considerable detail in series of advent notes.

There may also be an allusion to Zeph 3:14-17 here in Lk 1:28. Apart from the formal similarity of the opening (xai=re, “be glad / rejoice!” as a greeting) and a possible parallel between Mary and “daughter of Zion” (Jerusalem/Judah personified), note the similar assurance that is offered:

Zeph 3:14-17 LXX

  • v. 15b: ku/rio$ e)n me/sw| sou (“the Lord is in the middle of you [i.e. is in your midst]”)
  • v. 17a: ku/rio$ o( qeo/$ sou e)n soi (“the Lord your God is in/among you”)

Luke 1:28b

o( ku/rio$ meta\ sou=
“the Lord is with you”

In Zeph 3:14-17 it is also a promise of protection and salvation.

Luke 1:31-33 “this one will be… will be called…”

Here, in the angelic message proper, the emphasis is on the Messianic character and status of the child. To begin with, there is the announcement of the conception (“you will receive together [sullh/yh|] in the womb”) and birth (“you will produce [te/ch|]”) a son [ui(o/$] (v. 31a)—this is connected with the favor (xa/ri$) Mary receives from God (vv. 28, 30). In terms of the naming of the child (v. 31b), there may here be an echo of Isa 7:14 LXX (cf. above)—note the similar sequence “will produce” [te/cetai] followed by “will call his name” [kale/sei$ to\ o&noma au)tou]—as is made explicit in Matthew (“you will call his name Yeshua” / “they will call his name Immanuel”, Matt 1:21, 23).

Almost certainly, in this passage there are allusions to 2 Sam 7:8-16—a prophetic announcement regarding the Davidic line, which had come to be interpreted in a Messianic sense by the time the Gospels were written, cf. the Qumran text 4QFlor (174) lines 10-13. Note the following points of correspondence:

    • v. 32a—Jesus’ greatness and his name (2 Sam 7:9)
    • v. 32b—Jesus as God’s son (2 Sam 7:14)
    • v. 33—The throne of David and his kingdom, which will last forever (2 Sam 7:13, 16)

Cf. also Isa 9:5-6 (6-7) and Dan 7:14. I will deal more with the relationship between Jesus as “Son of David” and “Son of God” in subsequent notes. There are two main theological/christological phrases in Lk 1:32 which need to be examined.

e&stai me/ga$ (“he will be great”)—The absolute use of me/ga$ (“great”) in the LXX typically refers to YHWH (Psalm 48:2 [145:3]; 86:10; 135:5); it tends to be qualified when used of human beings, as of John in Lk 1:15 (“he will be great in the eyes of the Lord”)—see also 2 Sam 19:33; Sir 48:22 (cf. Fitzmyer, p. 325). The fact that the Lukan infancy narratives present the births of John and Jesus side by side—with Jesus having the more exalted status—indicates that me/ga$ here means something decidedly greater than when applied to John.

ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai (“he will be called Son of the Highest”)—Here, in context, klhqh/setai (“he will be called“) is parallel and generally synonymous with e&stai (“he will be“); see, for example, the parallel saying of Jesus in Matt 5:9 / Lk 6:35. In ancient (Near Eastern) thought, the name represented the essential identity and character of the person, often in a dynamic, quasi-magical sense. The giving of a name—especially when given by God—confers (and confirms) just who the child is, and what he/she will become. In this respect, it is worth noting the ‘prophetic’ nature of many naming scenes in the Old Testament (Gen 5:29 et al), and in the New Testament as well (Matt 1:21; 16:17-18, etc). Here the specific name is “son of the Highest” (ui(o\$ u(yi/stou)—u(yi/sto$, which is attested in (pagan) Greek usage (of Zeus, etc), is used in the LXX of YHWH, as a translation of Hebrew /oyl=u# ±Elyôn (Gen 14:18; Dan 4:14; cf. also Jubilees 16:18, and note 1 Enoch 9:3; 10:1; 46:7; 60:1, 22). It is used relatively often in Luke-Acts (Lk 1:35, 76; 6:35; 8:28; Acts 7:48; 16:17)—in Lk 1:76, it is said of John, “you will be called Foreteller [i.e. Prophet] of the Highest [profh/th$ u(yi/stou klhqh/sh|]”. Cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 347-8.

Luke 1:35 “…will be called Holy, the Son of God”

In this verse, the prophetic announcement and naming of the child by the angel (Gabriel) comes to a climax with the title “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=). Actually, the syntax of this phrase is somewhat ambiguous, and there are at least two other ways it could be translated: (a) “…(will be) holy (and) will be called Son of God”, or (b) “the holy (child)…will be called Son of God”. It does seem better to read a%gion (as a substantive adjective) and ui(o\$ qeou= as parallel predicates which are generally apposite. As a whole, verse 35 refers to both the conception and birth of the child:

Conception (v. 35a)—with two phrases:

There is a strong poetic quality to the angel’s words and the phrases clearly are in synonymous parallelism: “Holy Spirit / Power of the Highest”, “come upon you / cast shade upon you”). The two-fold image or metaphor reflects both the presence and power of God.

Birth (v. 35b)—here there are likewise two phrases, which follow the general pattern of the announcement in v. 31:

“you will produce a son | and you will call his name Yeshua” (v. 31)
“the (child) coming to be born | will be called Holy, (the) Son of God” (v. 35)

  • “the (child) coming to be (born)” (to\ gennw/menon)—in a few MSS (C* Q f1 33), versional witnesses, and in several Church Fathers, the reading is “the (child) coming to be (born) out of you [e)k sou]”; if the addition was intentional, the purpose may have been to emphasize the full reality of Jesus’ human birth, i.e. that he genuinely partook from Mary’s flesh (contrary to the view of certain “Gnostics”)—for more on this possibility, cf. B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford:1993, p. 139. The fundamental meaning of genna/w, like the cognate verb gi/nomai, is “come to be, become”, though often with the specific denotation of coming to be born. Subsequent notes will provide further exploration of the use of this verb in the New Testament.
  • “will be called Holy, (the) Son of God” (a%gion klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou=)—assuming that this is the correct way to render the syntax of this verse (cf. above), there are two names or titles given to Jesus:
    a%gion (“Holy [One]”), a neuter substantive; Jesus is not often referred to specifically as “holy” (a%gio$) in the New Testament, but there are several key passages where it is used as a substantive appellation (Luke 4:34 par; Jn 6:69; Acts 3:14 [cf. also 4:27, 30]; Rev 3:7). In Luke 1:49, it is used specifically as a name/title of God the Father (YHWH); cf. also Rev 4:8; 6:10.
    ui(o\$ qeou= (“Son of God”), used frequently of Jesus, in various forms, sometimes in the unqualified/absolute form “(the) Son” ([o(] ui(o/$). In the Gospel of John, Jesus often identifies himself as “the Son”, though, throughout the Gospels, the specific title “Son of God” is almost never spoken by Jesus (cf. Jn 5:25 and note Lk 22:70 par), the title “Son of Man” being far more common.

With this climactic point of the angel’s announcement to Mary, the stage is set for our examination of the various passages of the New Testament, which will be presented in the daily notes running on through Epiphany (Jan 6). In exactly what sense should we understand the expression “Son of God” as applied to Jesus in this passage? This will be explored throughout the upcoming notes, always keeping in view the context of Lk 1:26-38. In conclusion, one ought to mention the extraordinary correspondence of several key elements from the annunciation which are found, together, in a text from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls)—4Q246, sometimes referred to as the Aramaic “Son of God” text. The four key phrases in 1:32, 35 are indicated and compared side by side with 4Q246:

aura lu hwhl br[ ] “[he will be] great upon the earth” (I.7)
rmaty la yd hlb “Son of God he will be hailed” (II.1)
hnwrqy /wylu rbw “and Son of the Highest he will be called”
<lu twklm htwklm “his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom” (II.5)
ou!to$ e&stai me/ga$ “this (one) will be great” (Luke 1:32)
klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou= “he will be called | Son of God”
kai\ ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai “and Son of the Highest he will be called” (1:35)
kai\ th=$ basilei/a$ au)tou= ou)k e&stai te/lo$ “and of his kingdom there will not be an end” (1:33)

For more on this remarkable text, see the “Dead Sea Scrolls Spotlight” article.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible [AB] Volume 28 [1981].