SS Christmas Studies: Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:26-38

This is the second episode of the Lukan Infancy narrative. It presents the Angelic announcement of the miraculous conception (and birth) of Jesus, parallel with the announcement of John’s conception/birth in verses 5-25 (discussed in the previous study). In certain respects, it is similar to the announcement scene in the Matthean narrative (1:18-25, see the prior study). Both Gospel writers appear to have fashioned their episode, basing it on an annunciation tradition—an historical tradition, but one that has also been patterned after Old Testament narratives. Though fundamentally different in detail, each author’s annunciation scene shares a common set of features.

Before proceeding to a more detailed study from the standpoint of historical and literary criticism, we should mention briefly the textual situation. There is a small but substantial variant reading at verse 35 (discussed briefly below); otherwise, the Greek text is relatively secure.

The source-critical question in vv. 26-38 is similar to that in vv. 5-25: did the author (trad. Luke) derive the episode from an earlier source (written or oral)? One might posit a source document that provided a rudimentary narrative of Jesus’ birth, even as scholars have supposed the existence a “Baptist source” for the birth of John the Baptist. In my view, a Lukan composition throughout is more likely.

In both episodes, the Gospel writer is working from an established historical tradition, and has developed the narrative, giving shape and texture to it largely through the application of certain Old Testament (and traditional Jewish) narrative patterns. The main difference in vv. 26-38 is that there likely was an established tradition regarding an Angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth, since we find the same in the Matthean narrative. However, since the two scenes (in Luke and Matthew) have such fundamental points of difference, it is unlikely there were many fixed details to the annunciation-tradition that each share.

With regard to the form of the annunciation-tradition, it appears to be patterned after familiar Scriptural examples: 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. This narrative pattern, which applies here in vv. 26-38, may be outlined as follows:

    • 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.

As we turn here to a literary-critical examination, we shall consider the structure of the announcement scene. 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, which is an indication of how the traditional pattern has been developed within the Gospel narrative:

    • 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”

Let us briefly examine each of these in turn, from an exegetical standpoint.

Luke 1:28b “the Lord is with you”

According to the Old Testament/Jewish background of this episode, the “Lord” (ho kýrios) is YHWH, God the Father; but note the use of kýrios 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), kýrios 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 ho kýrios metá 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 (cháris)—Mary is one who has been favored (kecharitœmén¢) by God (chárin pará tœ Theœ¡).

There is a similar instance in the famous prophecy of Isa 7:14, with the name Immanuel (±imm¹nû °E~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).

There may also be an allusion to Zeph 3:14-17 here in Lk 1:28. Apart from the formal similarity of the opening (chaíre, “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 (compare v. 28a with Zeph 3:15b, 17a). In Zephaniah, 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. This aspect was discussed briefly in the previous study, in relation to John the Baptist’s Messianic identity. The Lukan parallelism, effectively comparing John’s birth with Jesus’ birth, emphasizes the superiority of Jesus. This applies also to his Messianic identity.

To begin with, there is the announcement of the conception (“you will receive together in the womb”) and birth (“you will produce”) a son (v. 31a)—this is connected with the favor (cháris) 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” followed by “will call his name” —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 also 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, as can be seen, for example, in 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. In this regard, there are two main theological/christological phrases in Lk 1:32 which need to be examined, since they both relate to Jesus’ Messianic identity (and his superiority to John).

“he will be great” (éstai mégas)—The absolute use of mégas (“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, such as when it is used of John the Baptist in Lk 1:15 (“he will be great in the eyes of the Lord”)—see also 2 Sam 19:33; Sir 48:22 (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 mégas here means something decidedly greater than when applied to John.

“he will be called Son of the Highest” (huiós hypsístou kl¢th¢¡setai)—Here, in context, kl¢th¢¡setai (“he will be called“) is parallel and generally synonymous with éstai (“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” —hypsístos, which is attested in (pagan) Greek usage (of Zeus, etc), is used in the LXX of YHWH, as a translation of Hebrew ±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”. 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” (huiós Theoú). 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 hágion (as a substantive adjective) and huiós Theoú 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 gennœ¡menon)—in a few manuscripts (C* Q f1 33), versional witnesses, and in several Church Fathers, the reading is “the (child) coming to be (born) out of you [ek 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”). The fundamental meaning of gennáœ, like the related verb gínomai, is “come to be, become”, though often with the specific denotation of coming to be born.
    • “will be called Holy, (the) Son of God” —assuming that this is the correct way to render the syntax of this verse (see above), there are two names or titles given to Jesus:
      hágion (“Holy [One]”), a neuter substantive; Jesus is not often referred to specifically as “holy” (hágios) 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.
      huiós Theoú (“Son of God”), used frequently of Jesus, in various forms, sometimes in the unqualified/absolute form “(the) Son”. 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.

At this point, we shall turn the lens of historical criticism back on this passage. As part of our study on the historical background of the announcement scene, 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:

[]rb lhwh ±l °r±° “[he will be] great upon the earth” (I.7)
blh dy °l yt°mar “Son of God he will be hailed” (II.1)
wbr ±lywn yqrwnh “and Son of the Highest he will be called”
mlkwth mlkwt ±lm “his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom” (II.5)
hoútos éstai mégas “this (one) will be great” (Luke 1:32)
kl¢th¢¡setai huiós Theoú “he will be called | Son of God”
kai huiós hypsístou kl¢th¢¡setai “and Son of the Highest he will be called” (1:35)
kai t¢s basileías autoú ouk éstai télos “and of his kingdom there will not be an end” (1:33)

It is doubtful that the Gospel writer was influenced directly by this text. Much more likely, the Lukan Infancy narrative and 4Q246 each are drawing upon established Messianic traditions, involving both specific titles and phrasing, and also a number of shared Scriptural allusions, which had become rooted in Jewish Messianic thought by the first century A.D.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *