The Simeon Episode
The concluding episode of 2:22-38 brings together a number of important Lukan themes and motifs, developed throughout the Infancy narrative. Central to this episode is the encounter with Simeon (vv. 25-32). The pair of Simeon and Anna (vv. 36-38) forms a literary match with Zechariah/Elizabeth and Joseph/Mary—all three representing the righteous ones of the Old Covenant who are, with the birth of Jesus, experiencing the end of the Old and the beginning of the New Covenant. They are transitional figures, who embody the Lukan theme of continuity with the Old Covenant; in this regard, the Temple setting, as in the first episode (1:5-25, and the subsequent scene of 2:40-52), is most significant.
The Simeon episode includes a poetic oracle (vv. 29-32), one of four inspired oracles uttered by these characters in the narrative; note the pairings:
There is also a certain thematic symmetry to the oracles, in the context of the narrative:
- Elizabeth—encounter with Mary and the infant Jesus
- Canticles of Mary & Zechariah, expressing the coming of the New Age in terms of the Old
- Simeon—encounter with Mary and the infant Jesus
Simeon’s encounter (with Mary and the child Jesus) parallels that of Elizabeth, but infused with much of the Messianic idiom that fills the intervening canticles by Mary (the Magnificat) and Zechariah (the Benedictus), as well as the Angels’ song in 2:10-14. A number of key Messianic themes also are expressed in this episode—themes which relate to the Old Testament and Jewish traditions regarding the Spirit (cf. the points outlined in Part 1). These include:
- An emphasis on holiness and purity, alluding to the specific idea of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of God’s holiness. This is expressed here by: (a) the Temple location, (b) the Temple-piety of Simeon and Anna (and others like them), and (c) the fulfillment by Joseph and Mary of the Torah regulations (relating to ritual purity), vv. 22-24.
- The coming of God’s Spirit upon prophets and gifted/chosen individuals—here, specifically Simeon, vv. 25-27. The oracle that follows represents his inspired/prophetic announcement, centered on the person of Jesus.
- The role of the Spirit upon God’s people in the New Age. Simeon stands as a transitional figure in this regard (cf. above), fulfilling the Old and prefiguring the New. The onset of the New Age is anticipated by the Messianic expectation of Simeon and Anna, referenced in vv. 25 and 38.
- The figure of Jesus as the Messiah, upon whom the Spirit rests, who ushers in the New Age—a theme substantially expressed in the oracle of vv. 28-32 (cf. also the words to Mary, vv. 34-35)
Let us now consider the three-fold description of Simeon’s experience with the Spirit in 2:25-27. Three aspects are mentioned, one in each verse:
- “…and the holy Spirit was upon him” (v. 25)
- “and (the matter) was declared to him under [i.e. by] the Spirit…” (v. 26)
- “and he came in the Spirit…” (v. 27)
The wording suggests that this was not a one-time event, but rather that Simeon may have had regular experiences of this sort. Two distinct modes of Spirit-experience are mentioned, both of which were introduced earlier in the Infancy narrative, and continue to be developed throughout Luke-Acts.
The first is the Spirit being upon (e)pi/) a person, just as it was said that the Holy Spirit would “come upon” (e)pe/rxomai) Mary (1:35, cf. the prior note). The second mode involves a person going about in (e)n) the Spirit, being led/guided by the Spirit. It was said of John the Baptist that he would go about in the prophetic spirit (1:17, meaning that the Spirit of God would be in/on him). The language for this mode is expressed more directly in the case of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (4:1, 14).
In the middle reference, Simeon is given special information from the Spirit; the verb xrhmati/zw is used, which here indicates a declaration of how certain business (i.e., a particular matter) will come out; it may also imply a decision (by God) regarding the matter. In this particular instance, the content of the message relates precisely to the Messianic expectation of Simeon (cf. above). Through the Spirit, God promises him that he will not die (lit. “is not to see death”) before he sees “the Lord’s Anointed (One)”. This (private) prophetic message is fulfilled by Simeon’s encounter with Jesus, which explains why the Spirit leads him into the Temple precincts at that moment.
He comes into the Temple “in the Spirit”; the expression is also important because it indicates the inspired character of the oracle that he utters in vv. 29-32. It is not said of Simeon specifically that he was filled with the Spirit, but given the parallel with the oracle of Zechariah, this may fairly be assumed. It is possible, however, that the idea of being in the Spirit is indicative of a longer-term experience, rather than a sudden and momentary burst of inspiration. Certainly, the oracle that he utters represents the culmination of a lifetime of faithfulness and devotion to God.
“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.”
With regard to the poetic oracle of Simeon (the Nunc Dimittus), 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.
In terms of the Lukan Infancy narrative here in in this section (Luke 2:25-38), the Isaianic theme is established in the figures of Simeon and Anna, who 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 para/klhsi$ 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 lu/trwsi$ of Jerusalem
The latter point (b) refers to the ‘Messianic’ hope and expectation shared by many devout Jews at the time; consider the parallel phrases in (b)—Simeon and Anna were among those looking toward receiving [i.e., waiting for]:
- the para/klhsi$ of Israel (v. 25)
- the lu/trwsi$ of Jerusalem (v. 38)
The word para/klhsi$ in this context is usually translated “comfort” or “consolation”. In the second phrase, the parallel noun lu/trwsi$ 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 a)polu/w 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 despo/th$ 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 dou/lo$ 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 despo/th$ and a)polu/w in Gen 15:2 LXX). r(h=ma is usually translated “word”, being roughly equivalent to lo/go$ 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 e&qnoi, “nations”); most likely it is meant to encompass both the “nations” (e&qnoi) 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 fw=$ (“light”), or is governed (along with a)poka/luyin) by the preposition ei)$; almost certainly the latter is correct—i.e., “a light unto uncovering…and (unto) glory…”. The first phrase is more or less a quotation of Isaiah 49:6b (cf. also Isa 42:6); the second may be derived from Isaiah 46:13b (for the overall image in this verse, see also Isa 60:1). The noun do/ca is actually rather difficult to translate literally into English—the original sense is of a (favorable) opinion, and so indicates the honor, esteem, etc. in which someone or something is held; but just as often it refers to the reputation, dignity, honor, etc. which someone possesses.
How closely should one treat the parallel between a)poka/luyi$ and do/ca? 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.