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”.
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$)—Mary is one who has been favored (kexaritwme/nh) by God (xa/rin para\ tw=| qew=|).
There is a similar instance in the famous prophecy of Isa 7:14, with the name Immanuel (la@ WnM*u!, ±imm¹nû °¢l)—”God with us”. The context of Isa 8:8-10 indicates that this name reflects God’s support and protection of the (righteous) king, connected with peace, prosperity, and the salvation of the land/people from enemies. In terms of the original historical context, the most reasonable identification is with Hezekiah (cf. 2 Kings 18:7). Later on, of course, the passage (along with Isa 9:1-6) came to be interpreted in a (future) Messianic sense, and was applied by Christians to the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:22-23). I discussed these verses in considerable detail in series of advent notes.
There may also be an allusion to Zeph 3:14-17 here in Lk 1:28. Apart from the formal similarity of the opening (xai=re, “be glad / rejoice!” as a greeting) and a possible parallel between Mary and “daughter of Zion” (Jerusalem/Judah personified), note the similar assurance that is offered:
Zeph 3:14-17 LXX
o( ku/rio$ meta\ sou=
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:
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:
- “(the) Holy Spirit will come upon you” (pneu=ma a%gion e)peleu/setai e)pi\ se)—the verb e)pe/rxomai is used by Luke on a number of occasions (Lk 11:22; 21:26; Acts 1:8; 8:24; 13:40; 14:19); in Acts 1:8 it is specifically used of the Spirit (cf. also Isa 32:15 and 1 Sam 16:13 LXX).
- “(the) power of the Highest will cast shade/shadow upon you” (du/nami$ u(yi/stou e)piskia/sei soi)—there two particularly important uses of the verb e)piskia/zw:
—The cloud of the divine glory filling the Tabernacle (Exod 40:35; Num 9:18, 22); for similar language and imagery, cf. also Exod 25:20; Num 10:34; Deut 33:12; Psalm 91:4; Isa 4:5
—The cloud at the Transfiguration scene (Luke 9:34 par)
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:
- “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 .