SS Christmas Studies: Luke 1:39-45

Luke 1:39-45, 56

This is the third episode in the Lukan Infancy narrative. Following the two annunciation scenes—for the births of John and Jesus, respectively (vv. 5-25, 26-38)—the two parallel strands of the narrative (John/Jesus) come together, uniting briefly in a single episode.

The scene in verses 39-45 is referred to in the parlance of Biblical studies as the Visitation—that is, the visit of Mary to the home of her older relative Elizabeth. The historical-critical aspect is prominent in this passage, centered as it is on this particular historical detail: that Mary and Elizabeth are apparently related, which means that John and Jesus are also relatives. Such a relation between John the Baptist and Jesus is not hinted at anywhere else in the Gospel Tradition, which leads many critical commentators to treat the detail with suspicion.

The entire historical question hinges on a single word in verse 36. As part of the Angelic message (see the previous study), Elizabeth is referred to as Mary’s syngen¢¡s. This noun is difficult to translate literally in English. It means something like “(one who has) come to be (born) together with (another)” —that is, it refers to people who were born and live together in a particular place. However, it can also refer specifically to a blood relative, where the idea of “coming to be (born) together” has a tighter meaning. In the narrative here the term does seem to indicate that Mary and Elizabeth are biologically related (perhaps at the family level of cousin); it is otherwise difficult to explain why Mary would take the trouble of making such a visit to see Elizabeth.

Which leads us to the question of the historicity of this detail. Nowhere else in the Gospel Tradition is there any suggestion that John and Jesus are related, which is almost impossible to explain if the fact were widely known among early believers. In terms of an objective critical study of the New Testament (and the Gospels in particular), scholars give greater weight to the historical veracity and plausibility of a tradition if it is (independently) attested by more than one source. This is called the principle of multiple attestation, and it would lead commentators especially to question a detail, which may seem unlikely on other grounds, and is only mentioned in a single New Testament passage.

Apart from historical considerations, there is a strong literary purpose for emphasizing the relationship (between Mary and Elizabeth, Jesus and John). It allows the author to weave together both birth narratives, and to have the parents of each child come together and meet in a unifying scene. In terms of the structure of the narrative, some commentators have suggested that, originally, the episode in vv. 39-45 (+ v. 56) functioned as a supplement, or appendix, to the Mary scene in vv. 26-38. The inclusion of the Magnificat hymn (vv. 46-55), however, results in a more substantial episode. In the complete narrative as it now stands, the episode clearly has a prominent (and central) place. Consider the following visual outline:

There are good reasons to think that the hymn in vv. 46-55 was inserted into the basic narrative of vv. 39-45, 56.

As noted above, it is perhaps best to view the narrative episode as a Lukan composition, based upon a rudimentary historical tradition. This tradition is rather slight and simple: it is essentially comprised of the opening and closing verses (39f and 56). The action in the episode, as such, is about as simple as one can imagine: Mary visits Elizabeth in her home, and the two exchange greetings. However, the Lukan narrative has developed this underlying tradition in a number of important ways, as a literary-critical study reveals. I would highlight three key themes that are either introduced or developed in this episode:

    • The role of the Holy Spirit
    • The relationship between John and Jesus—in terms of their Messianic identity, and the superiority of Jesus
    • The figure of Mary as representing a point of continuity between the Old and New Covenant
The Role of the Spirit

The central event of the Visitation episode is the inspired proclamation by Elizabeth in vv. 42-45. This is introduced by a narrative statement, written fully in the style of Luke-Acts:

“And it came to be, as Elîsheba’ heard the greeting of Maryam, the infant in her belly jumped, and Elîsheba’ was filled (with the) holy Spirit” (v. 41)

The detail of the baby “jumping” (vb skirtáœ) may be an allusion to Gen 25:22 (LXX). However, in the context of the narrative here, this movement must be understood as inspired, and related to the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Of all the Gospels, Luke contains the most references to the Spirit, a fact which relates to the role of the Spirit in the book of Acts. In many ways, the Gospel references foreshadow the experiences of believers in the book of Acts, and are emphasized to bring out the correspondence. Similar wording is used, describing the relation of the Gospel characters to the Spirit with three primary kinds of expression (for more on these, see my earlier 3-part article “The Spirit in Luke-Acts”):

    1. The Spirit comes upon people, including (and especially) the primary association with baptism.
    2. The Spirit fills people, usually in the context of inspired (prophetic) speech
    3. The Spirit leads/guides people, including passages which use the specific phrase “in the Spirit”

The Gospel contains all three kinds of references, and, indeed, they are all attested in the Infancy narrative. The Spirit was mentioned already in each of the first two episodes. The Angel announces that John will be “filled with the holy Spirit” even while he is in his mother’s womb, and that the Spirit will “come upon” Mary, leading to the conception of Jesus (vv. 15, 35). Now here, too, Elizabeth is “filled” with the Spirit, which results in an inspired utterance, much as the Apostles and other believers would be inspired to speak. Later in the narrative, Simeon, another aged figure representing the faithful ones of Israel, is led by the Spirit and gives an inspired utterance regarding Jesus’ messianic identity and destiny (2:25-27ff).

The Relationship of John to Jesus

This theme is central to the entire Infancy narrative, as the diagram above illustrates. As previous noted, both children—John and Jesus—are Messianic figures, specially chosen (‘anointed’) by God to play key roles in the end-time salvation of His people. However, the Gospel writer makes clear that Jesus is the superior figure. John is the “Elijah” of Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6 who will ‘prepare the way’ for the coming of the Lord, the Davidic Messiah (Jesus). It is Jesus who fills the role as King of Israel in the New Age (the New Covenant), while “Elijah” is his servant.

In emphasizing this relationship, Luke is simply following established early Christian tradition, reflected at many points throughout the Gospels. However, the nature of the Infancy narrative allows the author to express this in a number of unique ways, such as we see here in the Visitation episode. In a colorful and dramatic scene, the unborn child in Elizabeth’s womb “jumps” in response to Jesus’ presence, giving implicit acknowledgement to his status. The inspired declaration by Elizabeth makes the point explicit:

    • The child in Mary’s womb is especially worthy of being blessed and honored by the people, and Mary herself is to be blessed by way of association (v. 42)
    • She refers to the child as “my Lord” (v. 43), a reference to Jesus’ identity as the Davidic Messiah (see below)
    • She reports the response (‘leaping for joy’) of her own child, affirming that it is right and proper (v. 44)
    • She indicates that Mary’s child is a fulfillment of what God has promised, alluding to the child’s miraculous (and Spirit-touched) conception (cf. the Angel’s message in vv. 28-35)

A bit more needs to be said about the honorific question asked by Elizabeth in verse 43:

“And (from) where [i.e. how] (does) this (happen) to me, that the mother of my Lord should come toward me?”

It has been suggested that this may be an allusion to 2 Sam 24:21 (LXX): “(For) what [i.e. why] (is it) that my Lord the king comes toward his servant?” If so, then the expression “my Lord”, which in the Samuel episode refers to David (as the king of Israel), would essentially identify Jesus as a Davidic ruler (i.e., the Messiah). Less plausible (but still possible) is an allusion to 2 Sam 6:9 (LXX): “How (is it that) the box [i.e. Ark] of the Lord shall come toward me?”. This would emphasize Mary as the vessel or container for the presence of God Himself (manifest in the person of Jesus).

The Figure of Mary

I previously noted how the three pairs of figures in the Infancy narratives—Zechariah/Elizabeth, Joseph/Mary, and Simeon/Anna—all represent the righteous and faithful ones of Israel (under the old Covenant), and thus serve to foreshadow (and prefigure) believers in Christ under the new Covenant. But of these figures, Mary holds a special place—for her role in giving birth to Jesus, but also as embodying a point of continuity between the old and new Covenants. I mentioned how the Temple serves a similar purpose in Luke-Acts, and as a symbol is introduced here in the Infancy narrative. The same may be said of Mary.

Her faithfulness and obedience to God is defined primarily in terms of the Old Covenant, through fulfillment of the Torah regulations (2:22ff, 39, 41ff), but also by her trust in the prophetic (and theophanic) message given to her by the Angel (1:38). This same faith and devotion is expressed by the hymn in vv. 46-55 (to be discussed in the next study), representing a manner and style of poetic expression by faithful Israelites and Jews in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

But Mary also anticipates the New Covenant. She herself inaugurates the New Age by bringing Jesus into the world, and it is she, in the Lukan narrative, who first begins to grapple with his true identity. Beginning with the Angel’s message to her (1:28-35), we see this growing awareness depicted at several points in the narrative—2:19, 33-35, 48-51.

Beyond this, there are two key references in Luke-Acts which reflect the special place of Mary among the early believers in Christ. First, there is the Gospel tradition in Mk 3:31-35 par, which has a much different emphasis in the Lukan version (8:19-21). The negative, exclusionary context of the Synoptic episode at this point is all but eliminated in Luke; instead, the climactic saying of Jesus has an inclusive meaning—i.e., Mary and his brothers are included as being among his followers (“those who hear the Word of God and do it”). They are simply unable to come into the room and reach him at this point in the Lukan narrative; however, after the resurrection, Mary is finally there among the disciples of Jesus (i.e. the first believers) in the same room (1:14).

Here in the Visitation episode, Mary’s identity as a believer in Christ is alluded to in Elizabeth’s closing words (v. 44): “and happy [i.e. blessed] (is) the (one hav)ing trusted [vb pisteúœ] that there will be a completion to the (thing)s having been spoken to her (from) alongside (the) Lord”.

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