SS Christmas Studies: Luke 2:21-38 (continued)

Luke 2:21-38, continued

This final episode of the Lukan Infancy narrative was examined in the previous study. Here I will be looking specifically at the Song of Simeon (the Nunc Dimittis, vv. 29-32ff), in addition to touching briefly on the closing verses of the Infancy narrative (vv. 39-40), with their parallel in 1:80.

The Song of Simeon (vv. 29-32), known by its Latin title (Nunc Dimittis) is usually regarded as one of the Lukan canticles, parallel with the Song of Zechariah (Benedictus, 1:67-79). As such, the same source-critical and historical-critical issues apply—those which were addressed in the studies on the other Lukan hymns. The Song of Simeon appears less viable as an independent hymn, taken out of its narrative context, and so arguments for the adaptation of an existing Jewish (or Jewish Christian) hymn are, in this instance, not as strong.

“Now you release your slave, Master,
according to your word, in peace,
(now) that my eyes saw your Salvation,
which you made ready before the face of all peoples:
Light for the uncovering of the nations
and (the) splendor of your people Israel.”

Compared with the Magnificat (Song of Mary) and Benedictus (Song of Zechariah), the Nunc Dimittis has a much simpler and more straightforward structure, with three stichoi (lines) or couplets. Only in the third line (v. 32) is there any syntactical difficulty.

Before examining each of the six half-lines, it is worth noting that the Old Testament quotations and allusions in the hymn are all from the second (and third) part of the book of Isaiah (Isa 40-55, 56-66)—so-called Deutero- (and Trito-)Isaiah. There are many themes in chapters 40-55, especially, which are appropriate to an exilic setting—a message of comfort, the hope and promise of restoration, and so forth. It is not surprising that these chapters had an enormous influence on Jewish and early Christian thought. Both the Community of the Qumran texts and early Christians of the Synoptic Gospels used Isaiah 40:3 as a central thematic passage (cf. Mark 1:3 par.). The so-called Servant Songs (esp. Isa 52:13-53:12) were applied to Jesus early on and helped to shape the Passion narratives. Dozens of smaller points of contact and influence could be cited.

In terms of the Lukan Infancy narrative here in in this section (Luke 2:25-38), the Isaianic theme is established in the two aged figures which are encountered within the Temple setting:

    • Simeon (vv. 25-35) who: (a) was righteous/just and took good care [to observe the Law, etc] (b) was [looking] toward receiving the parakl¢sis of Israel
    • Anna (vv. 36-38) who: (a) was in the Temple ‘day and night’, serving with fasting and prayer (b) was [with those looking] toward receiving the lytrœsis of Jerusalem

Point (a) speaks to their faithfulness and obedience regarding religious duty and service to God; point (b) to the ‘Messianic’ hope and expectation shared by many devout Jews at the time. Consider the two parallel phrases in (b)—they were among those looking toward receiving [i.e., waiting for]:

    • the parakl¢sis of Israel (v. 25)
    • the lytrœsis of Jerusalem (v. 38)

These phrases form an inclusio to the section. On the meaning of these two terms, see the discussion in the previous study. The word parakl¢sis in this context is usually translated “comfort” or “consolation”. In the second phrase, the parallel noun lytrœsis refers to the payment of ransom (and the corresponding release) for someone in bondage, etc., and is normally translated “redemption”.

The phrase “comfort of Israel” probably finds its origin in the Isaian passages 40:1-2 (which also mentions Jerusalem) and 61:2, cf. also 57:18; 63:4; 66:13. “Redemption of Jerusalem” would seem to be derived from Isa 52:9, which also mentions ‘comfort’ for God’s people. This message of hope and restoration is described in terms of “good news” for Jerusalem (cf. 40:9; 41:27; 52:7). Interestingly, the phrase “redemption of Israel” and “freedom of Jerusalem” are found in documents from the Wadi Muraba’at in the context of the second Jewish Revolt (132-135 A.D.).

Let us now look briefly at each of the six lines in the Song. For those interested in a more detailed study, consult my earlier series of notes on the passage.

Verse 29a: “now you [may] loose your slave from [service], Master” —the verb apolýœ is conventionally translated in English as “release, dismiss”, etc. For similar use of the verb in the Old Testament (LXX) see Genesis 15:2; Numbers 20:29; Tobit 3:6; cf. also Gen 46:30. The use of despót¢s in reference to God is relatively rare in the LXX (Gen 15:2,8, etc) and in the New Testament (Acts 4:24), but is occasionally used of Christ as well (2 Peter 2:1; Jude 4; Rev 6:10). The image is that of a household master releasing his slave from service; since “slave” in English often carries the connotation of abuse and mistreatment, typically doúlos is translated here as “servant”.

Verse 29b: “according to your utterance, in peace” —for the comparable idiom of departing “in peace”, see of Abraham in Gen 15:15 (note also the use in context of despót¢s and apolýœ in Gen 15:2 LXX). r(hma is usually translated “word”, being roughly equivalent to lógos in such contexts; however it is frequently used specifically in instances of a prophetic “utterance”, a slightly more literal translation which captures something of this sense.

Verse 30: “[now] that my eyes have seen your salvation” —this phrase is an allusion to Isaiah 40:5 and/or 52:10 (LXX); see also Psalm 98:3; Gen 49:18; Baruch 4:24; Ps Sol 17:50.

Verse 31: “which you have made ready in the sight of all the peoples” —this, along with verse 30 (above), is drawn largely from Isaiah 52:10. The use of laoi (“peoples”) is interesting (Isa 52:10 uses ethnoi, “nations”); most likely it is meant to encompass both the “nations” (ethnoi) and the “people” (laoi) of Israel in verse 32. The italicized expression (“in the sight of”) is a more conventional rendering of the idiom, which I translated above quite literally as “according(ly) toward the eye/face of”.

Verse 32a: “a light unto uncovering [i.e. revelation] for the nations”
Verse 32b: “and glory for your people Israel”
There has been some question whether do/can is parallel to phœ¡s, or is governed (along with apokálypsin) by the preposition eis; almost certainly the latter is correct—i.e., “a light unto uncovering…and (unto) glory…”. The first phrase is more or less a quotation of Isaiah 49:6b (cf. also Isa 42:6); the second may be derived from Isaiah 46:13b (for the overall image in this verse, see also Isa 60:1). The noun dóxa is actually rather difficult to translate literally into English—the original sense is of a (favorable) opinion, and so indicates the honor, esteem, etc. in which someone or something is held; but just as often it refers to the reputation, dignity, honor, etc. which someone possesses.

How closely should one treat the parallel between apokálypsis and dóxa? It is natural to think this of “revelation” in terms of the truth (the Gospel) being presented to the Gentiles; but I believe the image is rather one of uncovering (i.e. the literal sense of the word) the nations who are in darkness. So, following the parallelism, the light God brings (in the person of Jesus) has a two-fold purpose and effect:

    • It will uncover the nations who are in darkness, shining light upon them
    • It will shine light upon ‘Israel’ (i.e. God’s people), giving to them an honor and esteem which they would not otherwise have

From the standpoint of the Gospel, of course, these are two sides of the same coin, for in Christ all people—whether from Israel or the nations—are the people of God.

The Remainder of the Scene (2:33-38)

The prophetic oracle uttered by Simeon continues in verses 34-35:

“See, this (child) is laid out unto the falling and rising-up of many in Israel, and unto a sign being counted [i.e. spoken] against {…} so that the counting through [i.e. thoughts, reasoning] out of many hearts will be uncovered.”

While it is possible to render this as poetry, it should not be considered part of the hymn in vv. 29-32. It presumably derives from a distinct tradition, the authenticity of which would seem to be guaranteed by the difficulty and apparent obscurity of the utterance (especially difficult to interpret is the prophecy directed to Mary, indicated by the ellipsis and brackets above).

The substance of the prophecy is fairly clear: Christ’s life and presence is set toward (and will lead to) the “falling down and standing up” of “many” in Israel. Are these separate groups of people, or separate conditions in which the same person may find him/herself? Or both? That there is some sort of division intended, I think is certain. And, indeed, throughout Jesus’ ministry, up to his death and resurrection, and for all the centuries thereafter, this prophecy seems to hold. Jesus himself speaks of bringing a “sword” (Matthew 10:34)—his life and teachings, indeed, his very presence, will cause division even between members of a family.

There is a two-fold aspect to the second stanza as well: (a) a sign spoken against, (b) thoughts of many hearts uncovered. The adverb hópœs (used as a conjunction), links the two phrases into a purpose clause—i.e., the sign is spoken against “so as” or “so that” the reckonings of many hearts will be revealed. In other words, speaking against Christ (and what he signifies) is for the purpose of (and results in) the revealing of what is inside the human heart. Why “many” and not “all”? It is possible that the primary emphasis is directed toward believers, not all the people; that is, it is not a blanket expression of judgment, but of the sifting through and revealing of those who will come to believe.

We have come a long way here from the traditional Messianic figure-types (cf. above); the concept of salvation has even shifted from the idea of repentance and salvation from sin to something subtler and more universal—the very thought-process, the mind and thinking, of human beings. The light of Christ reveals the innermost thoughts and feelings of the person. The faithful ones, the believers, will respond to that light (Jn 3:19-21), and so become the true people of God in Christ.

A word on the parenthetical prophecy regarding Mary in verse 35a, which I temporarily left out of the translation of the oracle above (its place is marked by the bracketed ellipsis). It reads as follows:

“and (for you) a sword will come through your own soul”

I have discussed this difficult saying in an earlier note, and will not go into detail on it here. What is important to remember, in terms of the Lukan narrative, is the significance of Mary as a typological or symbolic figure. She embodies a point of contact, and continuity, between the Old and New Covenant. On the one hand, she is among those characters who represent the faithful ones of Israel (under the Old Covenant). At the same time, she stands on the threshold of the New Covenant; and, within the overall framework of the Lukan narrative, she is counted among the first believers in Christ (Acts 1:14). At several points in the Infancy narrative, she is depicted as grappling with the reality (and the revelation) of who Jesus is. The saying in v. 35a, and the image of the “sword” that “comes through her soul”, must be interpreted in light of this thematic emphasis.

On the figure of Anna in vv. 36-38, see the discussion above and in the prior study. Together with Simeon she forms a pair, along with Zechariah/Elizabeth and Joseph/Mary—all representing the righteous ones of Israel, faithful to the (Old) Covenant, who also respond in trust to the revelation that marks the beginning of the New Covenant.

Luke 2:39-40

In the concluding note to the main Lukan Infancy narrative (2:39-40), we find summarized a primary theme which occurs throughout the narrative, but is especially emphasized in 2:21ff (see the previous study):

“And as they [i.e. Jesus’ parents] completed all the (thing)s according to the Law of the Lord, they turned back into the Galîl {Galilee} into their own city Nazaret.” (v. 39)

The fulfillment of the Law is characteristic of the faithful ones of Israel (see above), and Jesus is born into this environment. Verse 40 provides an initial narrative summary of the child’s growth and development; as such, it is the first indication of his fulfilling the destiny marked by his name (and naming). It also concludes the John/Jesus parallel in the narrative (note the comparison with 1:80):

    • John: “And the child grew and (became) strong in (the) spirit…” (1:80)
    • Jesus: “And the child grew and (became) strong…” (2:40)

Lk 2:40 adds the following detail: “…filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him”. There is very much an echo here of the statements of the child Samuel’s growth in 1 Sam 2:21, 26 (cf. also with regard to Moses, in Josephus’ Antiquities 2.228-31). The statement that “the favor of God was upon him” is similar to that regarding John in 1:66— “the hand of the Lord was with him”. There is some question whether the “spirit” (pneúma) in 1:80 refers to the Holy Spirit, the human spirit, or to “spirit” generally. In verse 15, there is a reference to John being filled with the Holy Spirit, but the expression e)n pneúmati (“in [the] spirit”) in verse 16 refers to a special prophetic spirit— “in (the) spirit and power of Elijah“. Most likely, the latter is intended in v. 80, especially in light of the concluding statement: “…and he was in the desert (place)s until the day of his showing up toward Israel”.

In the case of Jesus, there is greater likelihood that the Spirit (of God) is in view. There is often a close connection between Wisdom and the Spirit; note the similarity of language:

    • “he will be filled by the holy Spirit” (1:15)
    • “being filled with wisdom” (2:40)

The two are brought together in the famous Messianic passage of Isa 11:1-4ff (verse 2):

“And the Spirit of YHWH will rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding…”

Thus the wisdom characteristic of Jesus even as a young child is a sign of the presence of the Spirit of God. This is also true, it would seem, with regard to the word “favor” (cháris), which has served as a kind of keyword in the narrative. It is part of the name Yôµ¹n¹n (John), and its meaning: “Yah(weh) has shown favor” (cf. my earlier note on 1:3-17 in the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”). The Greek word cháris (“favor”) is especially prominent in the scene of the Angelic annunciation to Mary (1:32-35). The favor (of God) extends to those touched by Jesus’ birth, beginning with Mary—1:28, 30, and note the underlying idea expressed in vv. 42-43, 45, 48ff; 2:14, etc. It hardly need be pointed out, that the use of cháris (usually translated “grace”) by Paul in his letters reflects a specialized theological understanding of the term. Here we see it used in the wider, more general sense of favor shown by God to human beings.

The concluding notice in Lk 2:40 is repeated in verse 52, following the additional episode from Jesus’ childhood (vv. 41-50):

“And Yeshua cut forward in wisdom and growth, and favor alongside God and men.”

This statement again brings together the keywords “wisdom” (sophia) and “favor” (charis), only now this “favor” is divided into two aspects—before God, and before human beings (i.e. from God and men). It is possible that this is an allusion to Prov 3:1-4ff (verse 4): “And you will find favor…in the eyes of God and man”. Wisdom is emphasized in this chapter of Proverbs, especially beginning in verse 13. Even more than in Lk 2:40, there is a clear allusion to the Samuel narrative (1 Sam 2:26) in verse 52, the birth and childhood of Samuel serving as a pattern for that of Jesus in this Gospel.

The idea that Jesus grew and progressed in wisdom and favor/grace has proven somewhat problematic for Christians accustomed to emphasizing his deity—often to the exclusion of his (full/true) humanity. However, the notices in Lk 2:40, 52 must be taken seriously, as the language used by the author leaves no doubt that he is referring to ordinary (and natural) human growth and development.

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