SS Christmas Studies: Luke 1:57-66

Luke 1:57-66

In this episode is narrated the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist in Lk 1:57-66. Following the Visitation scene in vv. 39-56 (discussed in the prior study), in which the John and Jesus halves of the Infancy narrative come together, the scene shifts back to John’s side, picking up from verse 25. Clearly this episode functions as a fulfillment of the annunciation scene in vv. 8-22, and is given much more attention than the corresponding circumcision/naming of Jesus.

From a source-critical standpoint, this episode stands together with the annunciation scene. Commentators who consider vv. 5-25 to be derived from a “Baptist source”, have much the same view regarding the scene here in vv. 57-66. Other scholars prefer to regard both narratives as free compositions by the Gospel writer (trad. Luke), based upon a rudimentary set of historical information. The use of a written “Baptist” source is questionable, and it seems more likely that the author is dealing with a looser collection of historical tradition, which he has shaped into a distinctive narrative. Much of this literary development involves allusions to the Old Testament, including narrative patterns and phrasing from the Scriptures, as well as thematic points of emphasis that are characteristic of the Gospel as a whole. There are three such points that I wish to examine in this study:

    1. The importance of the Circumcision
    2. The significance of the Naming, and
    3. The Response to these events among the surrounding People

It is important to remember that this episode is primarily a story of John’s birth, which is narrated simply in verse 57:

“And the time for her to produce (a child) was fulfilled for Elisheba, and she caused to be (born) [i.e. gave birth to] a son”.

The verses which follow narrate the circumcision and naming of the child.

1. The Circumcision

In considering the historical background of the passage, the reader may well ask why the author has made a point of mentioning the circumcision of the child John, even has he does for Jesus in the corresponding, parallel episode (2:21ff). This is more than a mundane historical detail. Rather, it reflects the wider theme of the continuity between the Old and New Covenant, that is central to the message of Luke-Acts, and is expressed in a number of ways here in the Infancy narrative.

Circumcision was a customary cultural practice throughout much of the ancient world, and in traditional societies even today. It was scarcely unique or original to Israel; however, there was special significance to the practice for Israelites—it was an essential mark of religious identity, going back to the tradition of its introduction for Abraham (Gen 17:10-14). Indeed, it is called the “sign of the covenant”, an indication that the person belongs to God’s chosen people, and is thus obligated to observe the terms of the agreement (covenant) established by God—namely, the Torah (or Law) as recorded in the Pentateuch (Exodus–Numbers & Deuteronomy). The central importance of circumcision is stated or otherwise indicated numerous times in Scripture (Gen 21:4; 34:15ff; Exod 4:24-26; 12:44ff; Lev 12:3; Deut 10:16; Josh 5:2-8; Jer 4:4; John 7:22-23; Phil 3:5, etc). Its significance in terms of religious identity made it a controversial issue for early Christians, as dramatically illustrated in the book of Acts (10:45ff; 15:1-16:3; 21:21) and the letters of Paul. By ancient tradition, circumcision was to take place on the eighth day, as narrated here in v. 59, and also (for Jesus) in 2:21.

As noted above, this is not merely an incidental detail in the birth narratives, but is of the utmost importance for the author, as it relates to the key theme of Jesus as the fulfillment of the types and forms from the Old Testament and Israelite religion—the New Covenant that fulfills and completes the Old Covenant. This is the primary reason for emphasizing details which show that John and his parents, as well as Jesus and his parents, were devout in religious matters, faithfully observing the commands and precepts of the Torah. As they usher in the new Covenant, John and Jesus also fulfill the old Covenant between God and Israel by being circumcised (cf. Romans 15:8).

2. The Naming

The significance of names and naming in ancient Near Eastern tradition is reflected in the Gospel Infancy narratives, where they play a key role. We saw this already in the prior study on Matthew 1:18-25, and I discuss the entire subject at length in my earlier Christmas series “And You Shall Call His Name…”.

The narrative context suggests that the naming of the child took place at the circumcision. Such a practice is known from later Jewish tradition, but is otherwise unattested in this early period (cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 380). Based on the pattern indicated in the Old Testament, we might expect the naming to occur at the time of birth, rather than eight days later (Gen 4:1; 21:3; 25:25-26, etc). It is possible that the author has taken dramatic license and moved the naming ‘ahead’ to coincide with the circumcision, given the importance of that event to the narrative (cf. above). Apparently, some of the neighbors and relatives were expecting that the child would be named after his father, Zechariah (v. 59b); or, on the assumption that the naming was delayed until the time of circumcision, in lieu of a name, they may have been referring to the child e.g., as “little Zechariah” (Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 380). At this time it was perhaps more common to name a child after his grandfather, rather than his father. In any case, the name spoken by Elizabeth—Yohanan (Greek Iœánn¢s, John)—was, it seems, not one common among the child’s immediate relatives (v. 61).

The meaning of the name Yôµ¹n¹n (“Yah[weh] has shown favor”) was discussed in an  earlier note on vv. 13-17. An old Yahweh-name, dating back to the Kingdom period, it is not especially common in the Old Testament, but is known in priestly circles (Neh 12:13, 42; 1 Macc 2:1f), so it is perhaps not unusual that a priestly family such as Zechariah and Elizabeth might adopt it. As I noted previously, the name can be understood or interpreted three ways:

    • God has shown favor to Zechariah and Elizabeth by giving them a child
    • God has shown them favor due to the special role the child will play in the deliverance of His people
    • God shows favor to His people in the person of Jesus, and the child John will play a key role in “preparing the way” for him

All three aspects are present in the narrative, but especially the latter two, which will be emphasized more clearly in the hymn of Zechariah (the Benedictus) that follows in vv. 67-79.

Names (and the idea of a name) were understood in the ancient world much differently than in our society today. The name was thought to represent and embody the essential nature and character of a person—to know a person’s name was effectively the same as knowing the person. When applied in a religious setting or context, names which include a theophoric element (i.e., a shortened form of a deity’s name), often had a very special significance, usually as a phrase- or sentence-name. It may indicate praise to God for his care, power, etc., in bringing the child into the world and blessing the parents. At the same time, such a name could be invoked over the child as a blessing or prophecy over his/her future life and destiny. This aspect of the name Yôµ¹n¹n is included as part of the Angel’s annunciation, in vv. 15-17, when the name is first declared (by Gabriel) to Zechariah. It is emphasized again here through the detail of Zechariah’s mute silence, and the circumcision and naming of John as marking the moment when his silence ends.

This is important for the structure of the overall narrative and the parallelism between the scenes; note:

    • Annunciation of John’s coming birth to Zechariah (vv. 8-25)
      —with the sign: Zechariah will be mute until it comes to pass
    • Annunciation of Jesus’ coming birth to Mary (vv. 26-38)
      —with the sign: the miracle of Elizabeth conceiving & giving birth

      • The fulfillment: Mary sees Elizabeth’s pregnancy (vv. 39-56)
      • The fulfillment: Zechariah speaks following John’s birth (vv. 57-66)

The order of scenes is inverted when dealing with the fulfillment of the sign given by the Angel, but otherwise the parallel is precise, covering all four scenes in vv. 8-66ff. Interestingly, Zechariah is not yet able to speak at John’s birth, but only after the child’s circumcision and naming takes place. Indeed, it is only when Zechariah himself confirms the name of John (Yohanan), writing it down, that his speech returns.

3. The Response

The return of Zechariah’s speech is narrated as follows: “and his mouth opened up along (that very) moment, and (also) his tongue, and he spoke, giving good account (of) [i.e. blessing/praising] God”. This leads to the reaction by the people narrated in vv. 65-66, which spreads, with the news of the wondrous sign, all throughout the region. Even as Zechariah speaks (laléœ) again, so word and news of this event is spoken throughout (dialaléœ).

Actually, the response of the surrounding people is used as a narrative device to frame the entire episode:

“And the (one)s housing round about [i.e. neighbors], and the (one)s together (with) her [i.e. her relatives], heard that the Lord did (a) great (act of) his mercy with her, and they took delight (in it) together with her.” (v. 58)

“And fear came to be upon all the (one) housing round about them, and in the whole mountain-region of Yehudah {Judea} all these utterances were spoken throughout; and all the (one)s hearing (this) set it in their heart saying, ‘What then will this (little) child be?'” (vv. 65-66)

The first reaction by the people is a response to the miraculous nature of the birth (i.e. to Elizabeth, who was elderly and barren), the second is to the wondrous sign of Zechariah suddenly speaking again. In between is the moment of circumcision and naming. The birth and circumcision of Jesus is also the occasion for the good news to spread throughout to the people in the region (2:15-20, 25ff, 38). This narrative pattern foreshadows the idea of the Gospel (lit. good message) being proclaimed throughout to the people, by the Apostles and other early believers—a thematic emphasis that is clearly central to the work of Luke-Acts as a whole.

With regard to the response of the people in this particular episode, we should mention the two significant notices that close the scene. The first is a question which represents the thoughts of the people: “What then will this child be?” It is a question at the very heart of the child’s identity, as indicated by his name, and the marvelous events surrounding it (and his birth).

The second, final statement is made by the author, almost as though in response to the people’s question: “For indeed the hand of the Lord was with him“. The idiom “hand of the Lord (YHWH)” is familiar from the Old Testament (Exod 9:3; 15:6; 16:3; Num 11:23; Deut 2:15; Josh 4:24; 22:31, etc). It is an anthropomorphic image that primarily refers to God’s power, either to bring judgment on people, or protection and deliverance for his chosen ones. Both aspects will be manifest in the preaching and mission-work of John, as we see depicted in the Gospels (Lk 3:3-20 par).

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

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