SS Christmas Studies: Matthew 2:13-23

Matthew 2:13-23

This study looks at the third (and final) section of the Matthean Infancy narrative—2:13-23. It has a clear structure comprised of three episodes:

    • Angelic Appearance—Call to go into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
      —Joseph’s Response
      —Scripture (Hos 11:1)
    • Slaughter of the Children by Herod (vv. 16-18)
      —Scripture (Jer 31:15)
    • Angelic Appearance—Call to come out of Egypt (vv. 19-23)
      —Joseph’s Response—with added detail
      —Scripture (Isa 4:3 ?)

(On the use of the Angelic appearances and Scripture citations to structure the Infancy narrative as a whole, see the outline in the previous study.)

The section is framed by the two Angelic appearances to Joseph, each narrated in nearly identical wording, and parallel to the earlier appearance in 1:18-25. As in the first appearance scene, Joseph’s faithfulness is indicated by his obedience to the Angel’s message (v. 24). Here, however, this is enhanced by having the description of Joseph’s act match precisely the words of the Angel (2:14-15a, 21f).

Each of the episodes in this section contain a Scripture quotation illustrating how the events were the fulfillment of prophecy. Both of the Angelic appearances relate most directly to the first Scripture cited (Hos 11:1; v. 15)—that is, both episodes, taken together, fulfill the prophecy. The historical and narrative context is established in the central scene, involving the danger posed by Herod (v. 13b) which continues into the last scene in the person of Herod’s son (v. 22).

The narrative itself is clearly patterned after, and corresponds to, the story of Israel’s entry into Egypt (Joseph Narratives) and Exodus out of it (Moses Narratives). The events narrated fulfill Scripture, not only through the specific passages cited, but in their typology and correspondence with the Old Testament narratives. Note the essential structure:

    • Israel goes down into Egypt—Joseph Narratives, with the motif of communication/revelation through dreams
    • Slaughter of the children by the wicked King—Moses’ childhood (Infancy Narrative: Exod 1:15-2:10)
    • Israel comes up out of Egypt—the Exodus under Moses’ leadership

The central Scripture narrative is prominent—the birth of Moses parallel with the birth of Jesus. The correspondence is even more definite and closer if we take into consideration details from later Jewish tradition (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 2.205-223). Beyond this, it is also possible to glimpse in the Matthean episodes three additional scenes from Israel’s history, indicated by the specific Scriptures cited in each:

    • The Exodus—Hos 11:1
    • The Exile—Jer 31:15
    • The Messianic Age and redemption for the faithful Remnant—Isa 4:3 (?), etc

The first theme can be further divided into two main lines of tradition, parallels that are at work in relation to Matthew 2:13-23:

    1. The Birth and early Life of Moses
    2. The theme of the Exodus
1. The Birth and early Life of Moses

Three elements from the narratives in Exodus 1-4 (and related Jewish tradition) can be isolated, each of which relates to the three sections in Matt 2:13-23 and help to define the structure of the passage:

    • A wicked king who seeks to destroy a divine/chosen child who is prophecied to become ruler/savior, and the rescue/escape of the child (vv. 13-15, also vv. 1-9)
    • Newborn children killed by the wicked king (vv. 16-18)
    • Death of the wicked king, which allows the chosen child to return (vv. 19-21[23])

As should be clear from the points above, this narrative structure not only draws from the Exodus stories but reflects an archetypal narrative found in traditional tales (myth/folklore) around the world. This has caused many commentators naturally to question the historicity of the narrative in Matthew. In passing, it may be helpful here to summarize the basic positions which have been taken (in relation to the Exodus/Matthew parallels):

1) They reflect a special historical synchronicity between (entirely factual) events
2) Historical events (in general) have been shaped (by the author or earlier tradition) under the influence of the Exodus stories (in literary detail)
3) The Gospel writer records/adapts an original tradition (of uncertain/questionable historicity) which draws from the Exodus stories
4) The Gospel writer has essentially created an episode of historical fiction, in imitation of the Exodus stories (and related traditions)

Many traditional-conservative scholars would opt for #1, while at least some critical scholars suspect #4; the majority of moderate commentators (on all sides) probably would adopt some form of #2 or 3. On purely objective grounds, #2 would seem the most plausible, but I will leave it to thoughtful and informed readers (believers) in humility to judge the matter for themselves.

a. The Wicked King and Chosen Child (Matt 2:13-15, and vv. 1-9)

Exodus 1:8-22 records that the new Pharaoh feared the increasing Israelite population and eventually sought to cut down their numbers by killing the newborn males (attempts are made by two different means, vv. 15-19 and 20-22). On the face of it, this does not seem to be an especially close parallel to Matthew’s narrative; however, at the time of the New Testament, several details had been added to the Exodus story within Jewish tradition (attested earliest by Josephus):

    • Pharaoh is warned by his “(sacred) scribes” that a child was about to be born who would deliver Israel and bring low the kingdom of Egypt (see Josephus Antiquities II.205)—in subsequent Rabbinic tradition, astrologers advise Pharaoh to drown the Hebrew children (Midrash Rabbah on Exodus I.18, cf. also b.Sanh. 101a); also in some versions of the story, the warning/prophecy is foreseen by Pharaoh’s ‘magicians’ (see b.Sotah 12b), or in a dream which they interpret.
    • The prophecy of this child caused fear and dread for Pharaoh and the Egyptians (Jos. Ant. II.206, 215), a possible parallel to Matt. 2:3. See a second attempt to kill the child Moses, instigated by Pharaoh’s scribes in Ant. II.234ff (cf. also II.255).
    • There is also a legend of a light which appeared at Moses’ birth (Midrash Rabbah on Exodus I.20), and that the stars above gave homage to the ‘light’ of Moses’ birth (cf. Sefer ha-Yashar [67]).

These details bring the Exodus story closer to Matthew’s narrative, and may have been familiar to the Gospel writer and/or its original audience. For more on the Moses story, see my article on the passage in the series “The Birth of the Messiah”.

The escape/rescue of the child (vv. 13-15)—This is narrated in Exodus 2:1-4ff, but note the version as recorded in Josephus (Ant. II.212-216, 219ff), whereby Moses’ father (Amram) is warned and encouraged by God in a dream, after which he takes steps to protect the child (in Ex 2:2-3, Moses’ mother initiates the hiding); all of this, again, brings the story closer to Matthew.

There is a second “escape” of Moses (as an adult) recorded in Exodus 2:15. Note in particular the phrase “he [Pharaoh] sought [ez¢¡tei] to take away [i.e. kill] Moses” (LXX), compared with the angel’s message to Joseph: “Herod is seeking [z¢teín] the child to destroy it” (v. 13). Again Josephus’ narrative is a bit closer overall to that of Matthew, cf. Ant. II.255-256.

b. Newborn children killed by the wicked king (vv. 16-18)

There is here only a general parallel between v. 16 and Exodus 2:22; the lack of corresponding detail could be seen as confirmation of the historicity of vv. 16-18. There is conceivably a faint correspondence between Pharaoh being ‘tricked’ as it were by the midwives (Ex 2:17ff) and Herod provoked to anger at being ‘tricked’ [lit. played with] by the Magi (v. 16). The narrative here is so brief (a single verse) that it is difficult to make a meaningful comparison.

c. Death of the wicked king (vv. 19-21[23])

This provides perhaps the closest parallel between the Exodus and Matthean narratives (precise or close verbal and syntactical parallels are indicated with italics):

Exodus 4:19-20 (LXX)

19But with [i.e. after] these many days the king of Egypt was finished [e)teleu/thsen], and (the) Lord said to Moses in Midan: “Walk! Go from (here) into Egypt! For all the (ones) seeking your soul have died“.

Matthew 2:19-21

19But (at) Herod’s being finished [teleuth/santo$ i.e. having died], see—a Messenger of the Lord shone forth [i.e. appeared] by a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20saying: “Rising, take along the child and his mother and travel into (the) land of Israel, for the (ones) seeking the soul of the child have died.”

20And taking up the woman and the child, Moses put them up upon a (beast) under-yoke [i.e. beast-of-burden] and turned about [i.e. returned] into Egypt… 21And rising, the (man) [i.e. Joseph] took along the child and his mother and came into (the) land of Israel.

Especially noteworthy is the virtually identical Greek phrase in Ex 4:19/Matt 2:20: “for the ones seeking the soul” … “have died” (see below).

2. The theme of the Exodus

This is applied very simply to the narrative of Matt 2:13-23, interwoven through the Moses/Pharaoh paradigm, as can be illustrated by the following chiastic outline:

    • The wicked king seeks to destroy the chosen child (divine announcement [in a dream]), and the rescue/escape of the child—v. 13
      • Entrance into Egypt—v. 14-15
        • Newborn children killed by the wicked king—v. 16-18
      • Return (Exodus) from Egypt—v. 21ff
    • Death of the wicked king (divine announcement [in a dream]), allowing the return of the child—v. 19-20

To emphasize the symmetry here, I have taken the liberty of reversing vv. 19-20 and 21ff above.

It should be noted, of course, that the Exodus theme appears specifically in the Scripture citation in verse 15; indeed, the original context of Hosea 11:1 is simply a reference to the Exodus, with Israel as God’s “son” (in a symbolic/covenantal sense). A common idiom for the Israelites (people of Israel) is “sons of Israel” —almost certainly we should understand a correspondence here between the child Jesus and the sons [children] of Israel (as much as between Jesus and Moses) in the Gospel narrative. For more on this Scripture as it is used here in the Infancy narrative, see my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.

The Slaughter of the Children (Exile theme)

The central scene in this episode (vv. 16-18), the second Herod scene of the narrative (the first being in vv. 1-12, cf. the previous study), deals with an historical tradition—the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem—that many critical commentators have questioned. Their skepticism is based on two points: (a) the lack of any other reference (in Josephus, etc) to the event, and (b) the obvious parallel with the Moses Infancy narrative (see above). There can be no denying the literary parallel, the type-scene of which can be found in literature and folklore worldwide. For more on this subject, and for an examination of the Moses narrative itself, see my earlier article in the series “The Birth of the Messiah”.

At the root of the scene, in the context of the Matthean narrative, is the conflict between the child Jesus as the “King of the Jews” and Herod (the reigning king). This is part of the wider theme of Jesus’ Messianic identity (i.e., as the royal Messiah from the line of David), which I have discussed at length in the earlier studies (cf. the previous study on vv. 1-12).

The Scripture citation for this episode (see above) is Jeremiah 31:15. In applying this Scripture to events surrounding the birth of Jesus, the Gospel writer (as in the case of Isa 7:14, etc) has taken the passage out of its original context. While Matthew treats it as a prophecy of future events, the original passage is an evocation of the prophet’s own time. It is part of a larger section (30:1-33:26) promising future restoration for the people of Israel, with messages specifically directed at the exiled Northern tribes (“Ephraim”) in 30:1-31:40. Even in these two chapters one also finds the message being applied to the Southern kingdom (Judah), by Jeremiah himself or a later (exilic) editor. In any event, the theme of a reunited Israel is prominent, culminating in the famous passage of Jer 31:31-34, where God promises to make a new covenant with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah”.

Rachel, as the mother of Benjamin and Joseph (Ephraim/Manasseh), represents the Northern tribes (closest to Judah); her weeping and mourning is a dramatic and evocative depiction of the (Assyrian) Exile, but it may be an echo (or foreshadowing) of the (Babylonian) exile of Judah (cf. the association of “Ramah” in Jer 40:1). According to Gen 35:16, Rachel died somewhere between Bethel and Ephrath and Jacob set up a pillar at that location, which is confirmed by the reference to “Rachel’s tomb” in 1 Sam 10:2-3. Gen 35:20 has a parenthetical statement (presumably an editor’s gloss) that “Ephrath” is (near) Bethlehem, representing either an scribal mistake or a competing tradition. The Gospel writer clearly identifies this Ramah with Bethlehem.

Rachel’s weeping is actually just the opening setting of this oracle of hope, for vv. 16-17 exhort the mother to cease weeping—her sons will return to their own land. There is no indication that the Gospel writer means to infer the wider context of the prophecy; he rather narrowly applies it to the “massacre” of the newborn males in Bethlehem.

However, it should be noted that he does narrate a return—that of the infant Jesus and his parents out of Egypt back into their own land (2:14-15, 19-21, see below). Consider also the quotation of Isaiah 9:1-2 [8:23-9:1] in Matt 4:14-16: the original prophecy offers the promise of deliverance to the people of the Northern kingdom, now being fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Isaiah 9:6-7 [5-6] are the concluding words of the section 6:1-9:7, and, traditionally, one of the most famous ‘Messianic prophecies’ applied to the birth of Jesus.
(For a text-critical examination of the use of Jer 31:15 in context, see my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.)

The Return from Egypt—the Messianic Age and Redemption

The final scene of the narrative (vv. 19-23)—the third (and final) Angelic appearance to Joseph—draws upon both of the earlier themes noted above (Exodus and Exile), combining them into a narration of Jesus’ return from Egypt.

The parallels with the Moses Infancy narrative have been noted above. Perhaps the clearest example of literary dependence on the Moses narratives is how closely the wording in Matt 2:20 resembles that of Exod 4:19 LXX:

“And after those many days, the king of Egypt completed (his life) [i.e. died], and the Lord said toward Moshe in Midian, ‘You must walk (and) go (away) from (here) into Egypt, for all the (one)s seeking your soul have died‘. And Moshe took up his wife and the children…” (Exod 4:19-20)
“And (with) Herod (hav)ing completed (his life) [i.e. died], see! a Messenger of the Lord appeared by a dream to Yosef in Egypt, saying, ‘Rising…you must travel into the land of Yisrael, for all the (one)s seeking the soul of the child have died. And, rising, he took along the child and his mother…” (Matt 2:19-21)

The italicized words above are nearly identical:

teqnh/kasin ga\r pa/nte$ oi( zhtou=nte/$ sou th\n yuxh/n
“for all the (one)s seeking your soul have died”
teqnh/kasin ga\r pa/nte$ oi( zhtou=nte$ th\n yuxh/n tou= paidi/ou
“for all the (one)s seeking the soul of the child have died”

Moreover, in both narratives we have the common location of Egypt—traveling into and out of the land, though in different directions. Verses 22-23 serve as an additional climactic notice to the return from Egypt:

22but having heard that “‘Chief-of-the-People’ {Archelaus} is king against [i.e. in place of] Herod his father”, he [i.e. Joseph] was afraid to go from (where he was and return) there; but being advised (in the matter) by a dream, he made space again [i.e. turned away/aside] into the parts of Galîl {Galilee}, 23and having come (there) he put down house [i.e. dwelt] in a city counted as [i.e. called/named] Nazaret, so that the (word) uttered by the foretellers might be fulfilled that “he will be called a ‘Nazarean'”.

The Scripture Citation

The quotation “he will be called a ‘Nazarean'” is problematic, in terms of the Scripture-citation pattern of the narrative, since it does not correspond precisely to any specific verse in the Prophets (or the rest of the Old Testament for that matter). This being the case, there are several possibilities:

    • The author (or his source) is citing from a book or passage otherwise unknown to us today. While this is conceivable, it is not especially likely, and should be considered only as a last resort.
    • He is citing a specific (canonical) passage, but in a form quite different from any surviving (Hebrew or Greek) version. Certainly there are a number of quotations in the New Testament (even in Matthew, see Micah 5:2/Matt 2:6) where the wording departs significantly from any known version.
    • It is a free citation, combining more than one passage. Again, this is fairly common in the New Testament, and could be suggested by use of the plural “foretellers [i.e. prophets]”. The references need not be limited to the Prophetic books as we understand them, for conventionally the Psalms and Historical books could come under the general label “Prophets”.
    • The citation is taken from a compendium of ‘Messianic’ prophetic passages (drawn up by early Christians), which the author accepted, but which does not correspond to any specific Scripture. Again, this ought to be considered only as a last resort.

The third option is, I think, fairly close to the mark. The Gospel writer (or an earlier source) has taken a particular verse (probably Isaiah 4:3) and, it would seem, adapted it by means of some subtle and clever wordplay. For detailed discussion of the matter, consult my earlier article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus” and another in the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”.

Given the importance of the theme of Jesus’ Messianic identity, throughout the narrative (and continuing in 4:12-17), it seems likely that there is an intentional wordplay here, relating the place-name designation (“Nazorean/Nazareth”) with similar word-forms. Two, in particular, are worth noting:

    •  n¹zîr (ryz]n`)—The Hebrew means “[one] dedicated/set-apart”, and is often transliterated in English (as a technical term), “Nazirite” —that is, one dedicated or set apart [nzr] to God by a vow [related word ndr]. The legal prescription and details of the Nazirite vow are recorded in Numbers 6:1-21. The most famous Nazirites in the Old Testament are Samuel (1 Sam 1:11) and Samson (Judg 13:4-14), so dedicated from birth; according the Gospel of Luke (Lk 1:15), John the Baptist also seems to have been a Nazirite (from birth).
      The Greek adjective hágios (“holy”) generally corresponds to the Hebrew; and the phrase hágios kl¢th¢¡setai (“he will be called holy”, Isa 4:3, see above) could be given an interpretive translation back into Hebrew as “he will be called a holy (one) [n¹zîr]”. Moreover, n¹zîr could also be transliterated in Greek by Naziraíos, and thus the phrase in question as Naziraíos kl¢th¢¡setai (“he will be called a Nazirite” ), which is reasonably close in form to “he will be called a Nazorean“.

    • n¢ƒer (rx#n@)— “[new] shoot, sprout” (also rendered “root”, “branch”), a word partly synonymous with ƒemaµ (jm^x#, in Isa 4:3, see above). Now n¢ƒer came to be a designation for the Messiah, largely due to Isaiah 11:1ff, which begins: “and a (small) branch will come forth from the stump of Jesse, and a (new) shoot [n¢ƒer] will grow [lit. bear fruit] from his roots; and the spirit of YHWH will rest upon him…”.
      Isaiah 11:1ff was one of several key Messianic passages current in Jewish literature at the time the New Testament was written—see especially the Qumran texts 4QpIsaa, 4Q252, 4Q285, 1QSb 5; cf. also Psalms of Solomon 17-18, Testament of Levi 18, and 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras] 13. The shoot/branch of Isa 11:1 was closely identified with the expression “branch [ƒemaµ] of David” (see esp. Jer 23:5-6; Zech 3:8), a key Messianic designation. It is an intriguing parallel, but it is hard to say whether (or to what extent) the Gospel writer may have had this in mind.

Note—beginning next week, the Saturday Series will return to its weekly (Saturday) format.

SS Christmas Studies: Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

The second episode in the Matthean Infancy narrative—2:1-12—records the visit of the Magoi (ma/goi, i.e. “Magi, Wise Men”) and the homage they pay to the newborn child in Bethlehem. We examined the first episode (1:18-25) in the initial study of this series. The source-critical question was considered, regarding the nature and origin of the Matthean material—whether or not one or more source documents were used. In my view, dependence on written documents is highly questionable. However, a number of commentators have put forth more (or less) plausible theories regarding a ‘pre-Matthean’ narrative that the Gospel writer has developed (see Brown, Birth, pp. 96-119).

I am more inclined to see the Matthean narrative as an original composition, drawing upon several key lines of historical and narrative tradition. There are a range of historical traditions that may be isolated, especially here in the episode of 2:1-12, all of which have been subject to penetrating historical criticism by scholars over the years. We may note:

    • The Star (vv. 2, 7, 9-10). Various attempts have been made to identify this detail which an actual, observable astronomical phenomenon (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 170-3); one possibility, which would well fit the timeframe of the narrative (i.e., the end of Herod’s reign), is a planetary conjunction (of Jupiter and Saturn), in 7-6 B.C., which may have appeared even brighter to due the passing of a third planet (Mars)
    • The Magi (mágoi). Who are they, and from whence did they come? Again, there have been a number of theories, which I discuss briefly in an earlier article. Many commentators have questioned the historicity of the Magi, but there is nothing particularly implausible in the scene of oriental dignitaries visiting a king such as Herod (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 167-70).
    • The Role of Herod. The historical veracity of both episodes in chapter 2, in terms of Herod’s presence and role in these events, has been questioned/doubted by commentators. Josephus writes extensively on Herod’s reign, but gives no hint of such notable events in chapter 2 as having occurred. However, as scholars have pointed out, the events here in the Matthean narrative do represent things that easily could have taken place during Herod’s reign, given what we know of his rule and his personal conduct/behavior as king.
    • The reason why Joseph and Mary are in Bethlehem. Contrary to the Lukan narrative, Joseph and Mary, it seems, were already living in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, and only came to reside in Nazareth after their return from Egypt. This apparent discrepancy is only significant for those who wish to harmonize the Matthean and Lukan accounts.

While these historical-critical issues are of genuine interest, of far greater importance for an understanding of the passage is a study of how the particular historical traditions have been developed by the Gospel writer. This is the literary-critical aspect at the heart of our study.

We begin with the two primary features that define the structure of the Matthean Infancy narrative:

    • The Angelic appearances to Joseph
    • The Scripture citations that punctuate each scene

A simple outline shows how these two elements structure the narrative:

Two episodes involving king Herod are interwoven between a series of three Angelic appearances to Joseph. A featured Scripture citation follows each scene, demonstrating how the (historical) events were foretold by the Old Testament Prophets, and now find their (true) fulfillment in Jesus. Joseph responds in perfect obedience each time the Angel appears to him (in a dream), a fact indicated by the way that the narration (describing Joseph’s action) very nearly repeats verbatim the words of the Angel.

The theme of Jesus’ Messianic identity (that is, the royal Messiah from the line of David) runs through the entire narrative, but it takes on special prominence in the two Herod scenes, of which the first occurs here in 2:1-12. As king of Judea, Herod would naturally feel threatened by the idea of another royal figure (called by the title “King of the Jews,” see below), one whose coming had been prophesied in the sacred Writings, and who might very well come to supplant his rule. This point of conflict gives to the narrative its literary power and strength, and has resulted in a pair of truly memorable scenes, read and visualized every Christmas season.

The Messianic motif is expressed through two important names, or titles, in this episode, which are the subject of two questions—each centered on the basic question “where?” (poú), i.e. “where will we find…?”:

    • By the Magoi: “Where is the one brought forth (as) king of the Yehudeans [i.e. Jews]?” (v. 2)
    • By Herod: “Where (is) the Anointed (one) coming to be (born)?” (v. 4)

“King of the Jews” —In the historical-cultural context of Greek and Roman control over Syria-Palestine, there was a strong nationalistic aspect and significance to the use of this title—as, for example, by the Hasmonean rulers (priest-kings) of the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. (Josephus, Antiquities 14.36, etc). As a semi-independent ruler, under Roman oversight, Herod himself was known by this title (Antiquities 16.311, etc). By the time of Jesus, the Messianic sense of this title would have been recognized and emphasized; consider these two basic elements of its meaning:

    • David‘s kingdom centered in Judah (Jerusalem)
    • The Jewish character of the Messianic king/ruler figure-type—rule centered in Judah/Jerusalem, and spreading/extending to all of Israel and the surrounding nations

This conceptual framework is central to the narrative (in Luke-Acts) of the early Christian mission (cf. Luke 24:46-49ff; Acts 1:4, 8, 12ff; 2:1-12ff, and the overall structure of the book of Acts). There are two passages quoted (or alluded to) in this section (Matt 2:1-12) which were unquestionably given a Messianic interpretation by the time of Jesus and the Gospels:

    • Micah 5:2ff—cited within the action of the narrative (cf. my earlier article for more detail); three main points are brought out in this passage:
      • a ruler is to come out of Bethlehem
      • he will rule over (all) Judah
      • he will shepherd the people of Israel (cf. 2 Sam 5:2)
    • Numbers 24:17—the image of the star and the rod/sceptre (of rule) that will come out of Jacob/Israel. For the use of the star image in Matt 2:1-12 (vv. 2, 7, 9-10), see my detailed discussion in the earlier series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus” and also below. It is interesting that Philo (Life of Moses I.276) refers to Balaam as a Magos (mágos).

The presence of the Magoi offering gifts and coming to Jerusalem to find the “King” may also reflect Psalm 72:10f and Isa 60:6, whereby the wealth of the nations comes to Jerusalem as homage to God (and his Anointed Ruler).

“The Anointed (One)” —This was already featured as the name/title of Jesus in Matt 1:1, 18, very much reflecting the common early Christian usage. I discuss the important title [ho] Christós (“Anointed [One]”)—its background, interpretation and application to Jesus—at considerable length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. See also on Luke 2:11 in the prior study.

The star/sceptre in Num 24:17 was especially prominent as a Messianic symbol (and prophecy) at the time of Jesus. This is best seen in the Qumran texts (CD 7:18-20; 1QM 11:5-7; 1QSb 5:27, etc), but also in other literature of the period, such as the Jewish (or Jewish/Christian) Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Levi 18, Judah 24). Mention should also be made of the early-2nd century A.D. Jewish revolutionary ben Kosiba, who was known as bar Kochba (“son of the Star”)—cf. Justin, First Apology 31.6; j. Ta’anit 4:8, etc—as well as the Aramaic versions (Targums) of the Old Testament (Onkelos, Neofiti I, pseudo-Jonathan, Jerusalem II). Even though Num 24:17 is not cited as such in the New Testament, it is likely that early (Jewish) Christians would have recognized an allusion to it in Matt 2:1-12.

The two titles— “King of the Jews” and “Anointed (One)” —are combined again, at the end of Jesus’ life, during the episodes of his “trial” and death. In the Gospel of Matthew, the references are Matt 26:63; 27:11, 17, 22, 29, 37 (also 42), but there are parallels in all of the Synoptic Gospels, as well as the Gospel of John. These titles, taken together, identify Jesus in no uncertain terms as the Davidic-ruler figure type, otherwise expressed in Gospel tradition by the separate title “Son of David” (cf. Matt 1:1, 20, also 12:23; 21:9, 15; 22:42, etc & par).

The Setting of Bethlehem

The Messianic significance of Bethlehem relates to its association with David, as the “city of David”. This title normally applies to the original citadel of Jerusalem, as taken over and developed by David and his successors; however, in the New Testament, it refers to Bethlehem as David’s hometown (Lk 2:4; cf. Ruth 4:11; 1 Sam 17:12ff). The tradition of Bethlehem as the Messiah’s birthplace, presumably based on a similar interpretation of Micah 5:2ff as in Matt 2:4-6, is attested in John 7:40-42, where certain people express doubt that Jesus, coming out of Galilee, could be the Messiah:

“Does not the (sacred) Writing say that (it is) out of the seed of David, and from Bethlehem the town where David was, (that) the Anointed (One) comes?” (v. 42)

Matt 2:4-6ff sets the stage for the dramatic scene of the slaughter of the children (vv. 16-18) which functions as a parallel to the Moses Infancy narrative (to be discussed in the next study). The connection is much more obvious when we consider elements added to the Exodus narrative (1:8-22) in later Jewish tradition. In Josephus’ Antiquities (2.205) the scribes make known to Pharaoh a prophecy regarding an Israelite leader/deliverer who was about to be born:

“One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events, truly told the king, that about this time there would be born a child to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages” [LOEB translation]

In Matthew’s version of the Micah quotation, the Messianic implications are heightened by every one of the changes made to the text:

    • “land of Judah” instead of “Ephrathah” —this second reference to Judah widens the scope of the scene to the (entire) territory of Judah/Judea; David’s kingdom was centered in Judah and Jerusalem, from which it extended its influence and authority. The coming Messianic rule would follow a similar pattern.
    • “not in one thing least among” instead of “(too) small to be among” —as noted above, the reference to Bethlehem’s ‘smallness’ has been eliminated; the adaptation (or reading) instead emphasizes Bethlehem’s greatness
    • “among the leaders of Judah” instead of “among the clans/thousands of Judah” —the comparison has shifted from clan and territory to the ruler of the territory. The ruler who comes from Bethlehem (i.e. the Davidic Messiah) will be greater than the other rulers of Judah.
    • “who will shepherd by people Israel” —this citation from 2 Sam 5:2 brings in another Messianic association with David: that of shepherd. David had been a shepherd, and, in the ancient Near East, kings and rulers were often referred to as a shepherd over the people, along with relevant symbolism (cf. Isa 44:28, etc). These two elements come together in passages such as Jer 23:1-6; Ezek 34 (esp. vv. 23-24); 37:24ff, which were influential in the development of Messianic thought.

In emphasizing the connection with Judah, one is reminded of the title earlier in v. 2 (“King of the Jews”). We are clearly dealing with the Messianic figure-type of a future ruler from the line of David. Let us consider how this has been brought out in the Matthean Infancy narrative:

    • The genealogy of Joseph (1:1-17), who is descended from David—vv. 1, 5-6, 17. In verse 20, the Angel addresses Joseph as “Son of David”, a (Messianic) title which would be applied to Jesus during his ministry.
      It occurs much more frequently in Matthew than the other Gospels (cf. Matt 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15; 22:42). That this is an authentic historical (Gospel) tradition is confirmed by the fact that the title appears nowhere else in the New Testament outside of the Synoptic Gospels. For the earliest (Messianic) use of the title, cf. Psalms of Solomon 17:23(21) (mid-1st century B.C.)
    • Joseph is established as Jesus’ (legal) father. This occurs through the completion of the marriage and his naming of the child (vv. 18, 20-21, 24-25). As a result, Joseph’s genealogy becomes that of Jesus as well (vv. 1, 16).
    • The birth in Bethlehem (2:1, cf. above)
    • Jesus’ identification as “King of the Jews” (v. 2) and “Anointed One” (v. 4)
    • The Star marking his birth (vv. 2, 7, 9-10)

For more on this Messianic figure-type, and the title “Son of David”, as related to Jesus, cf. Parts 68 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977 / 1993).

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.

SS Christmas Studies: Luke 2:21-38

Luke 2:21-38

This episode is the last of six in the Lukan Infancy narrative. It is essentially parallel with 1:57-79, representing the Jesus-scene corresponding to the John-scene of that earlier episode. There is a strong structural parallelism that runs throughout the passages, even if the individual scenes may differ substantially in form or length:

Birth of John (1:57-58)

    • The surrounding people hear the news and rejoice (v. 58)
Birth of Jesus (2:1-7)

    • The Shepherds in the surrounding fields hear the news, etc (2:8-20)
Circumcision and naming of John (1:59-63) Circumcision and naming of Jesus (2:21)
Scene with Zechariah (1:64-66), and his inspiration (v. 67)

    • Song of Zechariah prophesying John’s future destiny (vv. 68-79)
Scene with Simeon, who is inspired by the Spirit (2:22-28)

    • Song of Simeon prophesying Jesus’ future destiny (vv. 29-32ff)

There is little to note in this passage from a text-critical standpoint. And much of the source- and historical-criticism that would relate to it has more or less been discussed in the prior studies. One of the main historical-critical issues involves the author’s treatment of the Torah regulations (in vv. 22-24); in particular: (a) whether he accurately understands the detail of the regulations, and (b) whether the presence of Joseph and Mary (with Jesus) in the Temple precincts is historically reliable on this basis, or simply represents a literary device. The latter question is impossible to answer on purely objective grounds. The Torah regulations certainly function within the narrative as a ‘literary device’, establishing the reason why they would be in the Temple precincts at that particular time. However, the detail could be historically reliable and still function as a literary device.

As far as the Torah regulations themselves are concerned, they have a thematic significance within the narrative that goes beyond any question of historicity. If we include the reference to the circumcision in verse 21, then there are three specific regulations and traditions in the Old Testament Law (of Moses), which the Gospel (of Luke) narrates together in just four verses (Luke 2:21-24). These are as follows:

    1. The Circumcision of Jesus
    2. The Purification of Mary
    3. The Presentation/Redemption of the firstborn Jesus

I have examined these in some detail in an earlier article, and will here summarize the matter more briefly.

1. The Circumcision of Jesus (Luke 2:21)

“And when (the) eight days were filled up for his being cut-around [i.e. circumcised], (then) also his name was called Yeshua {Jesus}, the (name) called under [i.e. by] the Messenger before his being received together [i.e. conceived] in the womb”.

In more conventional English, the verse would be:

“and when (a period of) eight days were completed, he was circumcised and he was given the name ‘Jesus’, the name given by the Angel before he was conceived in the womb”.

I have already discussed how the Lukan narrative develops the theme of continuity between the Old and New Covenant, and how Jesus represents the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, even as he ushers in the New. Circumcision is the sign of the Covenant between God and His people Israel, and thus the circumcision of Jesus is of genuine significance here and is not merely an incidental detail. We may further define the the birth and coming of Jesus (prefigured by that of John) as representing a three-fold fulfillment, of:

(a) the Old Testament law
(b) the promises of God to His people
(c) the (Messianic) hopes and expectations of Israel

We can see this presented in the thematic structure of the narrative:

    • Fulfillment of the Law by Jesus’ parents—v. [21], 22-24, 27
      cf. also the same faithfulness prefigured in John’s parents (1:6, 59, etc)

      • Simeon—was (v. 25-26)
        (a) just and took good care [to observe the law, etc]
        (b) [looking] toward receiving the ‘comfort’ [parakl¢sis] of Israel

        • The song of Simeon (vv. 29-32) reflecting the promise of salvation (and revelation) to Israel (and the nations)
          —uttered as he held the child Jesus in his arms (as fulfillment of the promise, v. 28)
        • A prophecy of Simeon for the child in relation to Israel (vv. 33-35)
      • Anna—was (vv. 36-38)
        (a) in the Temple precincts, worshiping, praying and praising God day and night
        (b) [was with those looking] toward receiving the ‘redemption’ [lutrœsis] of Jerusalem
    • Fulfillment of the Law by Jesus’ parents—v. 39

2. The Purification of Mary &
3. The Presentation/Redemption of the Firstborn (Luke 2:22-24)

“And when the days of their cleansing were filled up according to the Law of Moses, they led him up into Jerusalem” (verse 22)

Note the similar formula as in verse 21. Then follows a pair of phrases governed by infinitives of purpose, after each of which is a citation from Scripture:

    • to stand (him) alongside the Lord” (parast¢¡sai tœ kyríœ)
      • “even as it is written in the Law of the Lord…”
    • “and to give sacrifice” (kai tou doúnai thysían)
      • “according to what has been said in the Law of the Lord…”

There are several difficulties in the passage, most notably:

  • The plural pronoun (“their cleansing”), which is the best reading. There are three possible interpretations:
      • The purification applies to both parents (Joseph and Mary), contrary to the regulation, which applies only to the mother; however, this seems to be the most straightforward (and best) sense of the phrase.
      • The purification applies to Mary and Jesus; this, again, is contrary to the regulation, and results in extremely confusing syntax, since the subsequent they clearly refers to Mary and Joseph.
      • The pronoun functions as a subject—i.e., their (his parents) bringing the child for cleansing, etc. This seems most unlikely.

The best explanation is that the author simply anticipates the main clause “they (Joseph and Mary) led him up…”, and by attraction, the plural extends to the earlier phrase—in other words, the presence of the plural pronoun is literary-grammatical rather than historical.

  • While the initial religious concept underlying the law of the ‘redemption’ of the firstborn did involve offering the child to God, it was acted out in practice by purchasing the child back (symbolically) with a payment to the Sanctuary. There is no indication that the child had to be brought to the sanctuary, and this certainly does not seem to have been a normal practice. Also, though the Scripture passage refers to the ‘redemption’, no mention is made of any payment at the Temple. It is sometimes been thought that the author here is confused on the details of the Law.

The two regulations involved are: Leviticus 12:1-8 and Exodus 13:1-2, 11-12 (see also Numbers 18:15-16). It is this latter law which is at issue in Luke 2:22-24. I suggest that there are likely three strands at work in the narrative:

    1. Fulfillment of the ‘redemption’ regulation by Joseph and Mary (historical); this would not need to have taken place at the Temple.
    2. Interpretation of the ‘redemption’ regulation in terms of the (original) idea of consecration of the firstborn to God; this would occur at the level of tradition and/or the author of the Gospel, but may also be connected with a (historical) visit to the Temple (more or less as narrated in 2:22ff).
    3. Application of this sort of interpretation in light of the birth/childhood narratives of Samuel—see 1 Sam 1:21-28; given the many echoes of 1 Sam 1-2 in the Lukan Infancy narrative, it is likely that the author has it in mind here as well. The child Samuel was offered by his mother (Hannah) to serve God always in the Temple.

There are additional theological and literary reasons why the infant Jesus should be in the Temple, apart from historical considerations in the narrative:

    • The Temple is the setting for the encounters with Simeon and Anna which follow; there is every reason for the author to keep Jesus (and his parents) there, combining together what may have been separate events as though they all took place at the same time.
    • The Infancy Narrative concludes with the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-51), climaxing with the famous words: “did you not know that it is necessary for me to be in/among the (things) of my Father?” This ties back powerfully to the earlier ‘presentation’ to the Lord in verse 22, and to the idea that the child is dedicated (consecrated) entirely to God.

The Scene with Simeon (2:25-28ff)

Verses 25-26 introduce the Simeon episode, following vv. 22-24 and also continuing the important Temple-setting of the Lukan narrative. With regard to the figure of Simeon, there is a definite parallel with Zechariah, as there is between the hymn of Zechariah (Benedictus, 1:67-79) and the Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis, 2:29-32). Here are the main points in common:

    • Devout, aged men who serve in the Temple or frequent it (1:8-9ff; 2:25-27)
    • Each is specifically referred to as “just/righteous” (díkaios) (1:6; 2:25)
    • Each man is touched/filled by the Spirit and utters an inspired oracle (1:67; 2:27)
    • Each oracle includes a prophecy regarding the destiny of the respective child (John/Jesus) and the role he will play in God’s deliverance of His people (1:76-79; 2:30ff, 34-35)
    • In the narrative, each man is associated with a corresponding female figure (Elizabeth/Anna) who also is inspired or functions as a prophet (1:5, 41ff; 2:36ff)
    • Linguistically, their names have a similar meaning:
      • Z§½aryâ[hû]— “Yah(weh) has remembered”
      • Šim®±ôn, presumably shortened for Š§ma±-°E~l or Š§ma±-Yah— “El/Yah has heard”

Indeed, both pairs of aged figures—Zechariah/Elizabeth and Simeon/Anna—represent faithful Israel of the Old Covenant (1:6; 2:25, 37), those who are waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises (see above). Looking more closely at verse 25, we find three significant characteristics of Simeon:

    • “just/righteous [díkaios] and taking good (care) [eulab¢¡s] (i.e. in religious matters)”
    • “(look)ing toward receiving the parákl¢sis of Israel”
    • “the holy Spirit was upon him”

These three phrases may be further explained or summarized:

    • Faithfulness to the Torah and the religion of Israel—the Old Covenant
    • Expectation of the coming Anointed One (Messiah) and the restoration of Israel—the Messianic Age
    • Foreshadowing of the new Age of the Spirit—the New Covenant in Christ

These are then three aspects—past, present and future—of God’s saving work and relationship with his people. Simeon stands at a transition point between the old (Torah) and new (Christ), a meeting which takes places as he holds the child Jesus in his arms, in the precincts of the Temple.

The word parákl¢sis, which literally means “calling [someone] alongside”, is parallel to the word lýtrœsis in v. 38; note how this fills out the Simeon/Anna parallel (cp. with Zechariah/Elizabeth):

    • V. 25—Simeon was “(look)ing toward receiving the parákl¢sis of Israel”
    • V. 38—Anna was “(look)ing toward receiving the lýtrœsis of Jerusalem”

Both terms refer to a belief in God’s coming (future/end-time) deliverance of his people—parákl¢sis meaning “help, aid, assistance” more generally, and lýtrœsis specifically as the “redemption” (payment, etc) made to free his people from debt/bondage (the word literally refers to a “loosing” from bondage). Both expressions stem from portions of (Deutero-)Isaiah—40:1; 52:9; 61:2; 66:12-13—which came to be interpreted in a Messianic sense in Jewish and early Christian tradition. The Song of Simeon likewise makes use of several such passages from Isaiah. Simeon and Anna essentially function like the Isaian herald, announcing the good news for God’s people (cf. Isa 40:9; 41:27; 52:7).

The Messianic context of the scene here in Luke comes clearly into view in verse 26:

“And the matter was made (known) to him, under the holy Spirit, (that he was) not to see death until he should see the Anointed of the Lord.”

This is the second occurrence in Luke of the title “Anointed (One)” (Christós), the first being in the Angel’s annunciation to the shepherds in 2:11 (cf. the note on 2:10-14). Each word of that brief declaration carries Messianic significance, especially the names and titles involved. The titles “Anointed One” and “Lord” are combined also here in v. 26, but in the more traditional genitive/construct expression “Anointed (One) of the Lord” (Christos [tou] Kyriou). As previously discussed, early Christians could use the title Kýrios (“Lord”) equally of God the Father (Yahweh) and Jesus. Such usage, in and of itself, does not necessarily indicate a specific view of Jesus’ deity, which was understood by early Christians in a variety of ways. In the early preaching of Acts (2:36), for example, the titles Christós and Kýrios are applied to Jesus in terms of his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. Eventually, both titles virtually became second names of Jesus (Acts 11:17; 15:26; 20:21; 28:31, et al), reflecting both his identity as the Messiah (Christ) and his (divine) nature and status as the Son of God.

The use of Christós here in Lk 2:26 should be understood strictly in the sense of the expected ruler (from the line of David) who would deliver God’s people and bring about the restoration of Israel. Many Jews at the time would have viewed this in terms of a socio-political and cultural restoration (cf. Acts 1:6; Ps Sol 17-18), much as we see expressed in the hymn of Zechariah. There the Messiah (to be identified with Jesus) is referred to as a “horn of salvation” raised up by God, by which God has “made redemption [lýtrœsis, see above]” for his people (vv. 68-69). This deliverance is described first in terms of rescue from human enemies (vv. 71ff), but, by the end of the hymn, this has shifted to the idea of salvation from sin (vv. 77ff).

Based on the Zechariah-Simeon parallel, I am inclined to see the Song of Simeon (2:29-32) as corresponding generally with the last strophe (vv. 76-79) of the Benedictus. In particular, verses 78-79 have a good deal in common with 2:30-32. The Song of Simeon will be examined in the next study.

SS Christmas Studies: Luke 2:1-20

Luke 2:1-20

The narrative of Jesus’ birth is surely the most famous section of the Lukan Infancy narrative, and represents the pinnacle of the literary artistry of the work. However, before proceeding to a literary-critical and exegetical study of the birth episode in vv. 1-20, it is necessary to consider first the other critical aspects of the passage.

Textual Criticism

The Greek text of 2:1-20 is reasonably secure, with only one variant reading of note, involving the form of the noun eudokía in the Angel’s song (the Gloria in Excelsis) in v. 14. I have discussed the text-critical issue at length in an earlier article.

Source Criticism

With the narrative of Jesus’ birth in 2:1-20, we find the same source-critical question that we addressed in the earlier studies on Matt 1:18-25 and Lk 1:5-25. The evidence for the use of a specific written source (i.e., a Birth Narrative source) is slight. In my view, these episodes are best understood as compositions by the Gospel writer, based a relatively small set of historical and traditional information. In the case of the birth of Jesus, much of this information is shared by the Matthean narrative (1:18-25ff), and can be summarized as follows:

    • The names of Jesus’ parents (Joseph/Mary)
    • Their marital relationship at the time of Mary’s pregnancy
    • Joseph’s Davidic ancestry, and
    • That the birth took place in Bethlehem, with its implied connection to the Davidic Messiah (Micah 5:2, and subsequent tradition)

The fact that the Lukan and Matthean narratives are so different otherwise suggests that there were very few fixed details to the tradition, allowing each author to develop and shape the narrative in a unique way. This is to be contrasted with the remainder of the Gospel, many of the episodes of which had already been well-shaped, as part of the wider Synoptic Tradition, and the original contribution by the particular Gospel writer was thereby limited.

In terms of the details that are original to the Lukan narrative of Jesus’ birth, any attempt to ascertain a specific source involves a high degree of speculation. Critical scholars have plausibly theorized that the Lukan canticles—especially the Magnificat and Benedictus—are derived from existing Jewish (or Jewish Christian) hymns. This seems much less likely in the case of the Gloria in Excelsis, which is quite brief by comparison, and is integral to the action of the narrative.

Historical Criticism

There are a number of significant (and controversial) historical-critical issues involving this passage, which have been (and continue to be) discussed and debated at length by commentators. It is not possible to solve all of the questions and difficulties in a satisfactory manner, and certainly not within the space of a single article. Here I will simply summarize the key points:

    • The cultural and chronological marker established by the author in verse 1, coordinating the time of Jesus’ birth with the reign of Augustus (as Roman emperor).
    • The mention in vv. 2ff of the provincial census undertaken by Quirinius (6-7 A.D.), a detail that is apparently at odds with the dating of Jesus’ birth “in the days of Herod” (1:5, compare Matt 2:1ff). By all accounts, Herod died in 4 B.C., with the Judean census occurring after the deposition and exile of his son Archelaus (when Judea was annexed into an Imperial province). There have been many different attempts to work around or resolve this apparent discrepancy, none of which are especially convincing.
    • The manner in which the census was conducted, which, as indicated by the author, involved each provincial inhabitant traveling to his ancestral land (vv. 3-4). There is no real evidence that Roman provincial censuses were ever conducted this way.
    • The journey to Bethlehem, which is required (in the Lukan narrative) by the curious circumstances of the census. This is at odds with the version of the birth narrative in Matthew, which makes no mention of such a journey. In the Matthean narrative, Joseph and Mary were apparently already living in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. The way the story is told in Matt 2:19-23 strongly suggests that Joseph and Mary come to Nazareth for the first time on their return from Egypt. If the Lukan information, that they lived in Nazareth prior to Jesus’ birth, is accurate, then the Matthean Gospel writer seems to have been entirely unaware of this detail.

For further study on these historical-critical issues, consult any reputable critical commentary or scholarly article on the subject(s). A good introductory treatment can be found in Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 339-406, and also Brown, Birth, pp. 394-6, 412-18, 513-16, 547-56.

However one judges the historical accuracy of the details in vv. 1-5, what is most important is the way that the Gospel writer makes use of the information in shaping his narrative. There is literary and theological significance in each of the details mentioned above, and they play a key role in the thematic development of the Lukan Gospel.

Literary Criticism & Exegesis

We begin with the literary structure of the episode, which may be outlined as follows:

    • Historical setting and introduction (vv. 1-5)
    • The Birth of Jesus (vv. 6-7)
    • Angelic Announcement of the Birth (vv. 8-14)
    • Reaction of the People to the ‘Good News’ (vv. 15-20)
Historical setting and introduction (verses 1-5)

All of the problematic details noted above occur in this opening section. Let us consider how the author (trad. Luke) utilizes this historical information to develop the literary and theological fabric of his narrative. The introduction in vv. 1-5 has three main purposes for the author:

    • It explains why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem
    • It emphasizes the Messianic association with David (and Bethlehem)
    • The mention of the Roman census/enrollment establishes a parallel (and contrast) between Jesus and the Emperor (Augustus), whose birth was celebrated as marking a time of peace and “salvation” for the world.

The mention of Augustus in verse 1 has a purpose which transcends the simple information that is recorded. It establishes a world-wide setting (i.e., the Roman Empire) that will prove to be important for the work of Luke-Acts as a whole. In the book of Acts, the disciples of Jesus go out (from Judea) to proclaim the Gospel (the “good message”) all throughout the Roman Empire. This theme is foreshadowed here in the Infancy narrative. A comprehensive, world-wide setting is further enhanced by the phrasing in verse 1, with the expression “all the inhabited world [oikoumén¢]”.

For more on the significance of Augustus, in the context of Jesus’ birth, see my earlier article “The Births of Augustus and Jesus”. Here I will briefly summarize the following points of comparison between Augustus and Jesus:

    1. Son of God. Gaius Octavius was the adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar (so, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus); upon the deification of Caesar (recognized as ‘god’, Jan 1, 42 B.C.), Octavianus effectively became “son of god” (divi filius). This status only increased in strength as he was proclaimed emperor (Imperator, ratified 29 B.C.) and given the title Augustus (27 B.C.).
    2. Bringer of Peace. Augustus pacified much of the Empire, as detailed in his own account (cf. Res gestae divi Augusti II.12-13 [34-45]) and that of other Roman historians. The shrine of Janus in the capital, open in time of war, was finally closed during Augustus’ reign, and the ‘peace of Augustus’ (Pax Augusta) was proclaimed (the famous altar ara pacis augustae).
    3. Savior. Augustus was called “savior” (sœt¢¡r)—e.g. “savior of the whole world” in an inscription from Myra.

I have also highlighted three key phrases from a now-famous decree, in which the birth(day) of Augustus is described in the following terms:

“his birthday spells the beginning of life and real living…”
Providence…. has granted us and those who will come after us [a Saviour] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order…
with the result that the birthday of our God signalled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him

The Birth (verses 6-7)

The birth of Jesus itself is narrated in verses 6-7, parallel to that of John (in 1:57), and using similar wording:

“And it came to be…the days of her producing (a child) were (ful)filled, and she produced [i.e. gave birth to] her son, the first (she) produced…”

The reference to the caravan resting-place (katályma) and the feeding-trough (phatn¢¡, ‘manger’) for animals (v. 7), in connection with appearance of the shepherds in vv. 8ff, emphasizes the association of Jesus with the poor and lowly in society—a theme given special attention in the Gospel of Luke.

The Angelic Announcement (verses 8-14)

Following the birth of Jesus, the Angelic announcement begins in verse 8, which sets the narrative scene—the outdoor, night setting of shepherds watching their herds (or flocks) in the fields around Bethlehem. Apart from historical concerns, the mention of shepherds almost certainly is meant to reinforce the connection with David and Bethlehem (cf. 1 Sam 16:11; 17:14-15ff). This important motif was introduced in the earlier annunciation to Mary (1:32-35). Both in 1:26, and here again in 2:4ff, Joseph is said to be from David’s line (the “house of David”), the latter reference further emphasizing this fact— “out of the house and father’s line [patría] of David”. This Davidic descent of Joseph is confirmed by both of the genealogies recorded in Matthew and Luke, respectively (despite their apparent discrepancies).

Moreover, in the ancient Near East, kings and rulers were often described with the name and/or symbols of a shepherd—i.e. as one who leads and protects the people, as a shepherd does his flock (cf. 2 Sam 5:2; Isa 44:28, etc). It was altogether natural, therefore, that the royal Messianic figure-type—the expected future king and deliverer from the line of David—would take on similar shepherd-imagery, such as we see in Micah 5:2-4 (cf. Matt 2:5-6); Ezek 34:23; 37:24; and Zech 10-12.

The annunciation itself begins in verse 9 with the appearance of the “Angel (lit. Messenger) of the Lord”:

“And the Messenger of the Lord stood upon [i.e. near to] them, and the splendor [dóxa] of the Lord put out beams (of light) around them, and they were afraid (with) a great fear [i.e. were truly afraid].”

This annunciation in Lk 2:9-14 generally matches the birth announcement pattern (drawn from Old Testament tradition) in Luke 1-2 (cf. Lk 1:11-20, 26-38):

    • Appearance of the Angel (v. 9a)
    • The person is startled (v. 9b)
    • Assurance by the Angel “do not fear” (v. 10a)
    • The Angel’s message—announcing the birth of a child (vv. 10b-11a)
      —including the naming (v. 11b)—here a pair of titles which came to be applied to the name “Jesus” in early tradition (already in Jesus’ own lifetime, according to Gospel tradition)
    • The sign given (v. 12) (no question by the shepherds)

Verses 13-14 (with the Gloria of the angelic chorus) break from the pattern, which is fitting for the exalted character of the birth of Jesus. The “good news” (euangelízomai, “I bring you a good message [good news]”) of a birth announcement (vv. 10-11) has become the good news of the Gospel (v. 14).

After the traditional exhortation by the heavenly Messenger (“Do not be afraid!”), the birth of Jesus is declared:

“For see!—I give you a good message (of) great delight which will be for all the people…” (v. 10)

As mentioned above, the Lukan narrative may well intend to emphasize a parallel to the birth of Augustus (v. 1) as a Savior-figure who brings peace to the world. Even more significant, from the standpoint of the Old Testament (Deutero-Isaian) background of the Infancy narrative, is the famous birth announcement in Isa 9:5-6 (6-7)—cf. also the “good news” of Isa 52:7ff; 61:1, passages which both have traditional messianic associations.

In Luke 2:10, the keyword is chará (“gladness, joy, delight”), which is also related to cháris (“favor”, i.e. the favor or ‘grace’ one receives from God). This gladness is qualified as mégas (“great”), implying a connection to God (cf. Lk 1:15, 32, 49, 58), and with the accompanying phrase “which will be for all the people“. In context, the “people” (laós) is Israel, but this widens in the Gospel to include Gentiles (“the peoples [laoí]”, cf. 2:31-32).

“…(in) that [i.e. because] there was produced [i.e. has been born] for you today a Savior—which is (the) Anointed (One), (the) Lord—in the city of David!”

The conjunctive particle hóti gives the reason for the good message of delight which the Angel brings. This clearly is a birth announcement, marking the moment (the day) of the child’s birth— “was produced/born… today” —and the purpose of the birth is declared as being “for you”, i.e. for those the Angel is addressing (the shepherds, and through them, to all people [v. 10]). Note the chain of names and terms which follow, all of them having Messianic significance:

    • a Savior (sœt¢¡r)
      —the Anointed One (christós)
      —the Lord (kýrios)
    • in the city of David (en pólei Dauíd)

Here the “city of David” is Bethlehem; at the death/resurrection of Jesus, it is Jerusalem. In this regard, it is important to note a fascinating parallel between the angelic announcement of Luke 2:14 and the exclamation by the people upon Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Lk 19:38):

In one, heavenly beings declare peace to those on earth; in the other, earthly beings declare (or affirm) peace for those in heaven. One may perhaps compare this with the request from the Lord’s prayer that God’s will be done “as in heaven, (so) also upon earth” (Matt 6:10b [not in the Lukan version]). The emphasis on peace, in a Messianic context, is an important aspect of the portrait in Luke-Acts (Lk 1:79; 2:29; 19:42; 24:36; Acts 10:36).

The Angelic announcement, like the others previous, concludes with a sign, given by the Messenger, confirming the truthfulness of the message (v. 12). After this we read:

“And (suddenly) without (any) apparent (warning), there came to be, (together) with the Messenger, a multitude of the heavenly Army praising God and declaring…” (v. 13)

This motif of the Angel of the Lord along with the heavenly army goes back to ancient cosmic military imagery, associated with Yahweh/El. Here it serves to emphasize the divine splendor (dóxa) and power of the moment. The short declaration which follows in verse 14 is usually counted as one of the hymns in the Lukan Infancy narrative, and like the others, is known by the first words in Latin (Gloria in Excelsis). It is almost certainly the single most famous verse in the narrative, best known from the King James Version; I translate the Greek here literally:

“Honor in the highest (place)s to God
and upon earth peace among men of eudokía!”

For the meaning of eudokía and the text-critical issue involving that word, please consult my earlier article on the subject, which I noted above. This use of eudokía in context means that v. 14b is not a promise or blessing of peace for all of humankind (strictly speaking), but rather for those who have been favored by God and are faithful to him. This helps us to understand the Angel’s words in verse 10: “I give to you a good message of great delight which is for all the people“. From an early Christian standpoint, and within the overall context of Luke-Acts, there are two important aspects to observe, whereby the favor of God is extended to “all people”:

    • Salvation through Christ is for Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) alike—that is, for all the “people” (cf. 2:30-32), the people of God (believers in Christ). The book of Acts emphasizes the early mission to the Gentiles (the “Nations”).
    • The Gospel and the early Christian mission is for all demographics, all segments of society—i.e. all the people—with special attention given to the poor and oppressed, etc, those otherwise neglected and marginalized within society (cf. Acts 2:17ff, “all flesh”).

How then should we understand the emphasis on peace (eir¢¡n¢) in verse 14? From a traditional religious standpoint, it refers to the blessing, security and protection which comes from God—e.g., Num 6:24-26; Psalm 29:11; 85:8-10; Isa 48:18; 54:10; Jer 16:5; Ezek 34:25-29. Peace is an important characteristic of the coming Messianic age, which God’s anointed representative (the Messiah) ushers in—cf. Isa 9:6-7; 52:7; 55:12; Ezek 37:26; Zech 9:10, etc. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was an opportunity for the people to accept and realize the peace he brings (19:38, 42), but they ultimately rejected him and he was put to death as a criminal rather than accepted as the true Anointed One of God. There is an obvious parallel in language and terminology between the Angelic song in 2:14 and the cry of the crowd in 19:38, as noted above.

The kind of peace expected to be the result of the Messiah’s coming, in socio-political and military terms, was, in fact, realized, to some extent, at the time of Jesus during the reign of the emperor Augustus, commemorated by the famous altar to the Augustan peace (Ara Pacis Augustae, 13-9 B.C.). There can be little doubt that the author of the Gospel is drawing an intentional point of contrast between the birth of Jesus and that of Augustus, whose birthday was also celebrated as a time of “salvation” for the world (cf. above).

The Response of the People (verses 15-20)

The Shepherds respond with wonderment at the Angel’s message, much as the people react to the miraculous events surrounding the birth and naming of John in the parallel episode (1:58, 65-66, cf. the prior study). There is also a general parallel with the episode of the Magi in the Matthean Infancy narrative (2:1-12)—having seen a wonder in the skies (vv. 2, 9-10), they, like the Lukan Shepherds, go to find the newborn child. In the wider context of Luke-Acts, the Shepherds who receive the “good news”, and then travel out to proclaim it to the surrounding population, function as a figure-type that foreshadows the first generation of believers in Christ. Note, in particular, the similarities in wording between verse 20, and the description of the disciples following the resurrection (24:52f; Acts 1:12ff).

Another Lukan theme that we have noted in these studies, is the special role played by Mary. She represents and embodies both the faithful ones of Israel (under the Old Covenant) and believers in Christ (in the New Covenant [cf. Acts 1:14]). The dawning of the New Covenant with the birth of Jesus, and a growing awareness (in Mary) of his true identity, is suggested here in verse 19a:

“And Maryam kept these things [lit. utterances/words] (close) together, throwing (them) together [i.e. trying to make sense of them] in her heart”

This theme will be developed further in the next episode of the Infancy narrative (2:21-38), which we will examine in the next study.

SS Christmas Studies: Luke 1:67-79 (continued)

Luke 1:67-79, continued

The main point of difference between the Benedictus and the Magnificat, in terms of the thematic development of the Lukan Infancy narrative, is the Messianic emphasis that runs through the hymn. This was touched on in the previous study, but it needs to be examined further as part of our literary analysis and exegesis.

Let us begin with verse 69, which needs to be understood in tandem with v. 68b, as parallel declarations regarding what God has done:

    • He looked upon and made the release for his people
    • He raised a horn of salvation for us

The three verbs (in italics) are all aorist indicative forms, normally used to described past action or events. In verse 69, the verb is:

egeírœ (“raise, rise, lift [up]”)—this common verb of motion was frequently used in reference to God’s raising of Jesus from the dead. Here it is used in the general (figurative) sense of causing a situation to come about, of bringing a person into prominence or a position of power, etc. The object of the verb is the expression “horn of salvation”, making the phrase parallel to the prior one in v. 68— “he raised…salvation” = “he made release/redemption”.

This expression “horn of salvation” (kéras sœthrías) is an idiom taken from the Old Testament, in which the horn (kéras) refers to that of a strong adult (male) animal, such as a bull. It signifies both power and prominence, and, as such, is a fitting symbol for a strong and virile king or ruler. The specific expression is found in Psalm 18:2 (2 Sam 22:3), where it refers to God (Yahweh) as a powerful protector. In Psalm 132:17, God declares:

“I will make a horn sprout for David, I have set in place a light for my anointed (one)”

This declaration of blessing and protection for the (Davidic) king, came to be understood in a future (Messianic) sense, such as we see already in Ezekiel 29:21. By the time of the New Testament, the idea was already well-established, as indicated by the 15th of the Eighteen Benedictions (Shemoneh Esreh) in Jewish tradition. The specific idea of “raising” the horn (of salvation) most likely alludes to 1 Sam 2:10, in the song of Hannah, upon which the earlier Magnificat was patterned (at least in part):

“He [i.e. the Lord] will judge the ends of the earth,
and he will give strength to his king
and will raise the horn of his anointed (one)”

The Messianic context in the Benedictus is confirmed by the qualifying phrase “in the house of David his child [país]”. The Greek word país can also mean “a (young) servant”, but here it is best to retain the literal sense, as it alludes both to (1) the king (or Messiah) as God’s “son”, and (2) the narrative setting of Jesus’ birth. The Messianic type of Davidic ruler—i.e. future king from the line of David—is clearly in view, being introduced already in the Angelic announcement to Mary (vv. 27, 32-33).

While the hymn (with its aorist verb forms) begins with God’s past saving action, the focus is ultimately on his impending future action on Israel’s behalf. When we turn to the final strophe of the hymn (vv. 76-79), we see the future aspect come more clearly into view. The strophe functions as an oracle (or prophecy) regarding the child John’s destiny and the (Messianic) role he will play in God’s deliverance of his people:

“And even you, (little) child—
you will be called Foreteller [i.e. Prophet] of the Highest,
and you will travel before [i.e. ahead, in front] in the sight of the Lord”

Here John is identified specifically as a prophet—literally, proph¢¡t¢s means “(one who) tells (things) before”, i.e. “foreteller”, but here the prefixed particle pro (“before”) should be understood not so much in terms of time (speaking beforehand), but rather of position (speaking ahead of, in front of). Here we run into the dual-meaning of the title “Lord” (kýrios) for early Christians. While it most commonly was used in reference to God the Father (Yahweh), it also came to be used as a title for Jesus. Psalm 110:1, and a Messianic interpretation of the passage (as applied to Jesus), was highly influential in establishing this two-fold application of the title Kýrios.

Almost certainly, this wordplay, at the literary level, is intentional. The author, if not the speaker (Zechariah), was certainly aware of the dual-meaning and plays on it. John will function as God’s spokesperson (prophet), declaring His word before the people, preparing them for His impending manifestation (Judgment) at the end-time, fulfilling the prophecy in Malachi 3:1ff. At the same time, according to the Messianic interpretation of this passage by early Christians, John will precede and “prepare the way” for Jesus, the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) who serves as God’s (Divine) representative to usher in the Judgment and rescue/deliver the faithful ones among God’s people. For more on this subject, see the articles in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

In verse 76, John is called “prophet of the Highest“. This adjective (hýpsistos, “high[est]”), as a substantive and title (or name) for God, was already used, in reference to Jesus, in verse 32. There can be no doubt of a parallel here—as well as a definite point of contrast—between the two children, Jesus and John. Note the similarity of expression:

“he [i.e. Jesus] will be called son of the Highest” (v. 32)
“you [i.e. John] will be called prophet of the Highest” (v. 76)

We have already discussed the John-Jesus parallel that runs throughout the Infancy narrative, and an important aspect of this parallelism is the superiority of Jesus, in terms of his Messianic status and role. Jesus as “son” emphasizes the royal, Davidic (Messianic) role, according to the interpretation given to Scriptures such as 2 Sam 7 and Psalm 2. The Davidic king and Anointed ruler (i.e. Messiah) was called by the title “Son”—that is, God’s son, primarily in a figurative sense. Early Christians, of course, recognized in Jesus something more than this, but the author of the Gospel (trad. Luke), I would maintain, is not giving readers the full picture here in the Infancy narrative. He leaves something in reserve, to be ‘discovered’ as one proceeds through the Gospel and into the book of Acts. What is prefigured in the narrative here, and in the hymn of Zechariah, is not so much the deity of Christ, but rather his role as Savior.

Along these lines, it is worth pointing out the way John’s role is characterized and described in vv. 76-77, with a pair of infinitives expressing purpose (and result):

    • “to make ready [hetoimásai] his ways” —i.e. the ways of the Lord (cf. Mal 3:1ff; Isa 40:3ff)
    • “to give [doúnai] knowledge of salvation to his people” —which is further qualified by the phrase “in (the) release [i.e. forgiveness] of their sins”

This salvation (sœt¢ría), which must be understood along with the salvation and loosing/redemption (lýtrœsis) mentioned in vv. 68-69 (cf. above), is qualified by the phrase “in the release of their sins”. Thus God’s people will be delivered and loosed, not from bondage to human captors—i.e. nations such as the Roman Empire who would dominate and enslave them—but from bondage to the power of sin. This differs markedly from the traditional role of the Messiah as one who will judge and defeat the nations, and more properly fits the work of both John and Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels.

Each of the phrases and expressions in verse 78-79 builds upon the earlier imagery of the hymn, and continues the Messianic association (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 388-9):

“And you also, (little) child—
you will be called Foreteller of the Highest
and you will travel before [i.e. ahead] in the sight of the Lord
to make ready his ways
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in (the) release of their sins
through (the) inner-organs of (the) mercy of our God
in which a rising-up out of the height will look upon us
to shine light upon the (one)s sitting in darkness and (the) shadow of death
(and) to put down our feet straight into (the) way of peace

    • The saving work of God takes place through, and as a result of, “the inner-organs [splángchna]” of his mercy. This is a Semitic idiom which associates mercy and compassion with the internal organs (heart, lungs, liver, etc).
    • The verb episképtomai (“look upon”) from verse 68 is repeated here (cf. above). There is some difference in the manuscripts as whether it should be read as an aorist (“[has] looked upon”, as in v. 68) or future (“will look upon”) form. The context seems to favor the future form (episképsetai), since the subject is not God himself, but the “rising” light that is about to come upon his people.
    • The word anatol¢¡ (“rising up”) can refer either (a) to the sprouting up of a plant (or horn, cf. above), or (b) to the rising of the sun or a star. It is used in reference to the star in Matt 2:2 (“his star in the [place of its] rising up”). A number of Scriptures or passages which came to be understood in a Messianic sense, make use of similar light imagery—cf. Num 24:17; Isa 60:1; Mal 4:2 [Heb 3:20]. At the same time, the image of a “branch” or “horn” was also associated with the (Davidic) Messiah (cf. Isa 11:1; Zech 3:8; 6:12; Testament of Judah 24:4).
    • The expression “out of the height” is related to the divine title “Highest” in verse 76. For the significance of “Highest” as a name of God, cf. the earlier article on the ancient name ±Elyôn. Help from God is often seen as coming “from high” (Ps 102:19; 144:7, etc).
    • The first phrase in verse 79—”to shine light upon the ones sitting in darkness and the shadow of death”—blends together several Scripture passages, namely Isa 9:2 and Psalm 107:10 (cf. also Isa 42:6-7). The first of these was applied to Jesus, as a Messianic prophecy, already in early Christian tradition (Matt 4:14-16), and came to be associated specifically with his birth (cf. my earlier notes on Isa 9:5-6).
    • The second phrase introduces the theme of peace—”to set our feet down straight into the way of peace”. The expression “way of peace” may allude to Isa 59:8, while the verb kateuthýnœ probably derives from the idea in Isa 40:3 of “making straight” (i.e. making clear) the way for the Lord when he comes. This passage, along with Mal 3:1ff, was connected with John the Baptist’s role in preparing the people of Israel for the coming of Jesus (Lk 3:4-6 par, etc). The theme of peace in relation to the Messiah, and the coming Messianic age, will be discussed in the next study (on Lk 2:1-20).

The summary statement in verse 80, which brings the John-side of the Infancy narrative to a close, will be be discussed in tandem with 2:39-40, in an upcoming study.

SS Christmas Studies: Luke 1:67-79

Luke 1:67-79

The Song of Zechariah (the Benedictus) is the second of the two great hymns in the Lukan Infancy narrative. It is parallel to the Song of Mary (the Magnificat, vv. 46-55), discussed in the prior study. It is part of the parallelism that runs through the narrative, with John-episodes alternating with Jesus-episodes. There are several ways that this parallelism may be outlined; in terms of the position of the two hymns, I would note the following parallel structure:

The angelic appearance (of Gabriel) to Zechariah, following the basic Old Testament pattern for such appearances, with announcement of the (miraculous) birth of a child (John) to come—1:5-25 The angelic appearance (of Gabriel) to Mary, following again the Old Testament pattern, with the annunciation of the (miraculous) conception and coming birth of a child (Jesus)—1:26-38
The birth and circumcision/naming of John, with a visit of neighbors and relatives to the house of Zechariah, a word from Elizabeth, and the miracle of Zechariah’s speech returning —1:56-66 Elizabeth is pregnant with John, and receives a visit from her relative Mary in “the house of Zechariah”, and miracle of the baby John leaping in the womb (and Elizabeth giving a word of blessing)—1:39-45
The Song of Zechariah—1:67-79 The Song of Mary—1:46-54

There is also a separate parallelism between the Song of Zechariah and the Song of Simeon (to be discussed)—those two hymnic oracles hold the same place within the narrative structure, each announcing the future destiny of the child following his circumcision and naming (see the setting of the episode in vv. 57-66, discussed in the previous study).

In the study on the Magnificat, I mentioned the critical theory that the hymns—the Magnificat and Benedictus, at least—were adapted from existing Jewish (or Jewish Christian) hymns. This can be seen by the thematic points of emphasis that the Lukan canticles share with these contemporary Jewish works. In general, the Magnificat and Benedictus draw from two different (albeit related) sets of motifs:

    1. The Magnificat emphasizes God showing mercy on the poor and lowly, raising them up (to take place of the rich and powerful) and blessing them by His own power and faithfulness.
    2. The Benedictus (especially, vv. 68-75) emphasizes more directly the salvation (or redemption) which God provides for His (oppressed) people, delivering them from the hand of their enemies. The salvation is the result of His “raising” up a Savior-figure (“horn of salvation”, v. 69a; cf. also vv. 78-79).

In this regard, the Magnificat especially is often related to so-called Anawim piety—±¦n¹wîm (with the parallel term °e»yônîm),  that is, the “poor/afflicted” as a kind of self-designation for certain Jewish groups in the Second Temple period. The Qumran community identified themselves with these terms (see in the Hodayot [1QH], and e.g., 1QM 11:9; 4QpPs 37, etc); moreover, “the poor” held an important place in the teaching of Jesus, and it may have been used, in both a literal and symbolic sense, for early Christians in Jerusalem (cf. the early communalism in Acts [2:43ff; 4:32ff], Paul’s collection project [Gal 2:10], the epistle of James [2:2ff], etc).

The Benedictus-hymn appears abruptly, following the narrative episode in vv. 57-66, and yet the Gospel writer has prepared a dramatic setting for it with the return of Zechariah’s ability to speak (v. 64, “his mouth opened up…”). The hymn is introduced simply in v. 67:

“And Zakaryah his father was filled (with the) holy Spirit and foretold [i.e. prophesied], saying…”

The two points are significant. First, that Zechariah, like his wife Elizabeth, was “filled with the holy Spirit” and give forth an inspired utterance. On the importance of the role of the Spirit as a Lukan theme in the Infancy narrative, see the earlier study on vv. 39-45. Second, the hymn is prophetic, foretelling the future destiny of the child (John), and his Messianic role in the end-time deliverance God has planned for His people.

A literary-critical analysis must focus on the form and style of the poetry. Like the Magnificat, it is a hymn of praise to God, in the manner of a number of the Psalms,  but utilizing a  less precise bicolon/couplet format. Its lines are greatly influenced by the Scriptures, both in thought and wording. The overall structure of the hymn is relatively straightforward, and may be outlined as follows:

    • An opening line, a declaration of praise to God (v. 68a)
    • First Part [Strophe 1] (vv. 68b-71)
      —A declaration of God’s actions on behalf of his people, marked by a series of aorist indicative verb forms
    • Second Part [Strophe 2] (vv. 72-75)
      —A declaration of the purpose of God’s saving action, marked by a series of infinitives
    • Third Part [Strophe 3] (vv. 76-79)
      —A declaration of the child John’s future role in God’s saving action, marked by an initial future verb form followed by a series of infinitives

Verses 68-75, which syntactically are a single sentence in Greek, can be divided into two roughly parallel strophes (as indicated above). Vv. 68-71 are connected by (aorist active) indicative verb forms, vv. 72-75 by infinitives. A number of scholars think that, according to a critical view of the text, verse 70 is a Lukan addition or insertion into the hymn; it does seem to upset the balance of the composition slightly, but the same could be said of the construction in vv. 73b-75. As with the Magnificat, the Benedictus contains many quotations or allusions to Old Testament passages:

    • Well spoken of is [i.e. blessed/praised be] the Lord the God of Israel (v. 68):
      A common opening or ending (doxology) of hymns, prayers, etc., presumably used throughout Israelite-Jewish history; for the same wording, see Psalm 41:13; 72:18; 106:48 [LXX 40:14; 71:18; 105:48]; 1 Kings 1:48; also 1QM 14:4, etc.
    • he looked closely upon… [epesképsato]:
      This verb (often translated “visited”), more literally means “look/examine closely, inspect, etc.”, but sometimes has the sense of “look after, help, care for, etc.” In the LXX, sometimes is God the subject, either in a positive (Gen 21:1; Deut 11:12, etc) or negative (Ex 32:34, et al.) sense, or both (Zech 10:3). By the time of the New Testament, it was a term (along with the related noun episkop¢¡) used to signify the eschatological day of salvation/judgment (Luke 1:78; 7:16; 19:44; Acts 15:14; 1 Pet 2:12).
    • Made ransom/redemption for his people:
      See Psalm 111:9 [LXX 110:9]: “he sent forth from (him) ransom/redemption for/to his people”.
    • Raised [¢¡geiren] a horn of salvation (v. 69):
      “Horn” (Gk. kéras) is used in a salvific and/or ‘Messianic’ sense, most notably in 1 Sam 2:10 (“he will lift high the horn of his Anointed”), as well as Psalm 132[131]:17 (see below) and Ezek 29:21 (“I will make rise a horn”, using forms of the verb anatéllœ [cf. anatol¢¡ in Luke 1:78]). The phrase “horn of salvation” occurs in Psalm 18:2 [LXX 17:3], and in early Jewish liturgy (the 15th of the “Eighteen Benedictions” [Shemoneh Esreh]).
    • House of David:
      This phrase occurs frequently in the Old Testament; as a reference to the Davidic king and family line, it would come to have a Messianic connotation—as an interesting connection to the Infancy narratives, it specifically appears in Isa 7:13. The “horn” (of salvation) is often referenced in connection with David, as indicated above (Psalm 132:17; Fifteenth Benediction).
    • Through the mouth of… holy foretellers [i.e. ‘prophets’] (v. 70):
      “Through the mouth of” is a poetic/dramatic way to describe speech (2 Chron 36:21-22; Ezra 1:1; Jer 44:26; Acts 1:16; 3:18, 21; 4:25). Similarly, the phrase “holy prophets” appears in common usage by the time of the New Testament (Wisdom 11:1; Acts 3:21; 2 Pet 3:2, etc).
    • Salvation (out of) the hand of our enemies… hating us (v. 71):
      This is similar to the wording in Psalm 18:17; 106:10 [LXX 17:18; 105:10].
    • Mercy with our fathers… remember his holy agreement [i.e. ‘covenant’] (v. 72):
      The line as a whole seems to echo Psalm 106:45 [LXX 105:45], with the first phrase (along with v. 73) also similar to Micah 7:20. Here I have translated diath¢¡k¢ in the sense of Hebrew b®rî¾ (“agreement”, often translated “covenant”), though the Greek word (something “set/arranged [in order]”) more typically means “disposition, testament, will/contract”, etc. The idea of God “remembering” his agreement with Abraham and the “Fathers” appears in numerous places in the OT (e.g., Ex 2:24; Lev 26:42; Psalm 105[104]:8ff; 106[105]:45, etc).
    • The oath which he swore to Abraham… (v. 73):
      A phrase parallel to that in v. 72 (some might question if it should be treated as a separate line), see esp. Gen 26:3 for the precise wording.
    • Rescued… enemies (v. 74):
      See on verse 71 above. The theme of rescue/deliverance from enemies appears often in Scripture, most dramatically in the Psalms (e.g., 18:17 [LXX 17:18]).
    • Do service for him in holiness and justice… for all our days (v. 74-75):
      The phrase “holiness and justice” is perhaps an echo of 1 Kings 9:4 (LXX: “…walk… in holiness and straightness [i.e. uprightness]”); see also Joshua 24:14 (LXX: “… do service for him in straightness and in justice”). There is an relatively close parallel to vv. 74-75 in the Thanksgiving Hymns (Hodayot) from Qumran: “…you [protect] the ones who serve you loyally, [so that] their posterity is before you all the days” (1QH IV [formerly XVII] 13-14 [transl. García Martínez & Tigchelaar, Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition 1997/2000 p.149]).

As in the Magnificat hymn, salvation is a central theme, characterizing the action (and promises) of God on behalf of his people. In the Benedictus, his action is marked by as series of aorist verbs—indicating past action, though this can mean immediate action, i.e. occurring just prior to the time of the speaker’s words. In other words, God’s past actions for his people now come to be fulfilled in a new way at the present moment. This is expressed initially (and summarized) in verse 68b with a (two-fold) aorist pair:

episképsato kai epoí¢sen
“He looked upon and made/did”

The principal object of the these verbs is “His people” (ho laós autoú), though the positioning after the second verb turns this into an indirect (dative) object—i.e. “He looked upon (his people) and made/did…for his people”. The immediate direct object (of the second verb) is the noun lýtrœsis, which is ultimately derived from the verb lýœ (“loos[en]”), and signifies the act or means by which a person is loosed from bondage, debt, etc. It can refer specifically to the payment (i.e. ransom, redemption price) made in order to free the person from his/her bond. Here, as in 2:38, it is used with the figurative meaning of the deliverance God will bring to his people, especially in the eschatological context of the coming of the Messiah at the end-time. Thus, while the hymn (with its aorist verb forms) begins with God’s past saving action, the focus is ultimately on his impending future action on Israel’s behalf.

Thus, there is a strong Messianic emphasis in the Benedictus, much more so than in the Magnificat. It fits the context, in which Zechariah declares the future destiny of the child, which includes his Messianic role of “Elijah” (vv. 16-17). This thematic aspect will be examined in the next study, as we continue our literary analysis of the Benedictus.

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).

SS Christmas Studies: Luke 1:46-55

Luke 1:46-55

Verses 46-55, which are included as part of the episode in vv. 39-45, 56 (see the previous study), represent the first of the canticles in the Lukan Infancy narrative. Traditionally, these are known by their Latin titles:

    • The Song of Mary (Magnificat)—Luke 1:46-55
    • The Song of Zechariah (Benedictus)—Luke 1:68-79 (some would view vv. 76-79 as a separate oracle)
    • The Angels’ Song (Gloria)—Luke 2:14 (cf. also vv. 10-12)
    • The Song of Simeon (Nunc dimittis)—Luke 2:29-32 (cf. also the separate oracle in vv. 34-35)

The Magnificat and the Benedictus are substantial hymns, and should probably considered separately from the other two smaller pieces. The unique character and style of these hymns have led to serious questions regarding their origin and composition. The situation with the canticles in the Lukan Infancy narrative is akin to the sermon-speeches in the book of Acts, which I have discussed at length in an earlier series. There are three basic views regarding these hymns:

    • They are what they appear to be—a faithful record (allowing for translation and a modicum of editing) of what the person actually said at the time, under the oracular inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is more or less the traditional-conservative view.
    • They are Lukan compositions, modeled after the Old Testament Psalms and contemporary Jewish hymns.
    • The Gospel writer has adapted existing Jewish (or Jewish Christian) hymns, including them at appropriate points in the narrative, where they serve to express the thought and sentiment of characters (Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon) who are representative of the faithful/righteous ones in Israel.

Clearly these touch on many points of source-, historical-, and literary-criticism. It will not be possible to address them at length in this study. The third option above seems quite plausible and fits the evidence reasonably well. The similarities in thought and wording, between the Magnificant/Benedictus and certain Jewish hymns from the first centuries B.C./A.D. (see below) would tend to support this view. Another argument in its favor is the fact that the Lukan canticles contain very little detail that is specific to the situation of the character in the narrative. With minimal modification, the hymns could be lifted out and treated as separate, independent compositions; nor do the surrounding narratives lose their coherence if the poems are removed. In the case of the Magnificat, only verse 48 is directly applicable to the situation in the narrative; but even then it is only loosely connected—the verse could apply to Elizabeth just as well as Mary (see below).

I will not attempt to make any definitive judgment on this the major source- and historical-critical question on vv. 46-55. The Semiticized Greek of the hymns could be explained on the basis of any of the three critical views presented above. The Semiticisms are primarily due to reliance upon the Septuagint (LXX), or upon a comparable translation of the Old Testament Hebrew into Greek. Indeed, it is the Scriptural quotations and allusions (see the notes below) which give to the Magnificat much of its language and style.

In terms of literary form and genre, the Magnificat is a hymn of praise, written in a manner similar to a number of the Old Testament Psalms (cf. 33, 47, 48, 113, 117, 135; Fitzmyer, p. 359). More recent hymns, from Jewish writings in the first centuries B.C./A.D., such as occur in 1 Maccabees, Judith, 2 Baruch, and 2/4 Esdras, may also have exerted some influence (Brown, p. 349). Of these hymns, perhaps the closest parallels are to be found in the Qumran “Thanksgiving Hymns” (Hodayot [1QH]). One may note especially in the way that the author identifies himself (along the other faithful/righteous ones) as the “poor”, and praises God for the help and deliverance He gives to them. The most direct literary influence, however, comes from the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10; there are several clear allusions, which are noted below.

The Magnificat tends to follow the parallel bicolon (couplet) format that is typical of ancient Semitic poetry (including most of the Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament). It is possible to divide the hymn into two main sections (or strophes)—vv. 48-50 and 51-53—with an introductory couplet (vv. 46-47) and a closing quatrain (vv. 54-55).

Since the Scriptural allusions are central to the thought and poetic form of the hymn, our literary analysis must be governed by a study of these references. I provide this below, in summary form; for a more detailed comparative study of the Greek text, cf. my article in the earlier series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.

Vv. 46-47:
“My soul makes great [i.e. magnifies] the Lord
and my spirit leaped (for joy) upon God my Savior”

This first line appears to echo 1 Sam 2:1: “my heart is made firm in [the] Lord, my horn is raised high [i.e. exalted] in my God”. The second line (v. 47) is very close to Hab 3:18: “I will leap [for joy] in the Lord, I will rejoice upon God my Savior”. Cf. also Psalm 35:9 [LXX 34:9].

v. 48 (vv. 48-50 are often considered together as a strophe, as noted above):
“that [i.e. because] he looked upon the lowliness of his handmaid [lit. slave-girl]—
for see! from now (on) all (the) generations (of women) will call me happy [i.e. blessed]”

This particular stich is close to the words of Leah in Gen 29:32 (“because [the] Lord has seen my lowliness…”) and 30:13 (“happy am I, that [i.e. because] the women call me happy…”). V. 48a is also very close to the words of Hannah in 1 Sam 1:11 (translating conventionally): “Lord… if only you might look upon the lowliness of your handmaid…”. See also the similar thought and wording in 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras] 9:45.

v. 49:
“that [i.e. because] the Powerful (One) has done great (things) for me
and Holy is His name”

The first line is close to Deut 10:21: “this is your God who has done the great [things] in you”. The second line may reflect Psalm 111[110]:9b: “Holy and fearful [i.e. awesome] is His name”.

v. 50:
“and His mercy (is) into generation and generation to the (ones) fearing Him”

This line is quite close to Psalm 103:17 [LXX 102:17]: “but the mercy of the Lord [is] from the Age and until the Age upon the [ones] fearing Him”

v. 51 (vv. 51-53 are usually considered a [second] strophe):
“He has done [i.e. shown] might in his arm
he has scattered the overly-shining [i.e. haughty/arrogant] (ones) throughout in the thoughts [lit. thinking through] of their hearts

This stich may echo Psalm 89:10 [LXX 88:11]: “you have made lowly the haughty/arrogant (ones) as a wounded (man),  and in the arm of your power you have scattered your enemies throughout“. The original Hebrew reads quite differently, especially in the first half of the verse.

v. 52:
“He has taken down the powerful (ones) from (their) thrones,
and has lifted high the lowly (ones)”

There are general similarities to a number of passages, but no precise quotations or allusions: 1 Sam 2:4, 7ff; Ezek 21:26 [LXX v. 31]; Job 12:19. The closest wording is perhaps to be found in Sirach 10:14: “[the] thrones of chiefs the Lord has taken down and has seated [the] meek against them [i.e. in their place]”.

v. 53:
“The hungry (ones) he filled with good (things)
and the rich (ones) he sent out from (here) empty”

The first line is nearly identical with second part of Psalm 107:9 [LXX 106:9]: “because he satisfies the empty soul, and the soul of the hungry he fills with good things“. Cf. also a similar juxtaposition in the Lukan Beatitudes (Luke 6:21, 25).

“He took (hold) of Israel his child (to help) in remembrance of [lit. to remember] mercy
even as he spoke toward our fathers—to Abraham and to his seed—into the Age.

There are possible allusions here to a number of passages: e.g., Psalm 98:3 [LXX 97:3]; Micah 7:20; Isaiah 41:8-9; cf. also the Psalms of Solomon 10:4.

In the previous study, I noted how Mary (like Elizabeth and Zechariah) embodies the faithfulness and devotion of the righteous ones in Israel (under the Old Covenant). It is thus appropriate that she should utter an oracle that reflects this piety, drawing upon a number of Scriptural allusions, and weaving them together as a hymn of praise to God. Like the righteous poet of the Psalms, she gives praise for the manner in which God (YHWH, the Lord) has acted to help His people. In the context of the Infancy narrative, this theme of salvation is applied to the child Jesus (and his servant/prophet John). However, this connection is not directly made in the Magnificat; instead, Jesus is seen as a fulfillment of what God has already done for Israel (in the Old Covenant). The point is made by way of allusion, the New Covenant fulfillment being understood as implicit in the various passages of Scripture.

We would be remiss if we did not mention the main text-critical issue in vv. 46-55. In three Latin manuscripts (a b l*), supported by the witness of several Church Fathers, the speaker of the Magnificat is not Mary, but Elizabeth. This would certainly seem to the be more difficult reading (scribes being much more like to change the text from “Elizabeth” to “Mary” than the other way round), and might be preferred on the principle of lectio difficilior potior (“the more difficult reading is preferable”). On the other hand, the textual evidence for reading “Mary” in v. 46 is overwhelming (including all Greek MSS).

A few notable scholars have been inclined to accept the minority reading of “Elizabeth”, under the presumption that copyists early on modified it, attributing the Magnificat to the much more well-known (and revered) figure of Mary. More plausible is the idea that the original reading of the text was “she said”, without the subject being specified. Scribes naturally would wish to clarify the situation, most of them inserting the name “Mary”, but a few opted for “Elizabeth” instead. This is an interesting solution, which might explain the rise of both readings. In any case, the evidence strongly suggests that the Gospel writer intends us to understand that Mary is the speaker of the hymn. The literary pattern of the narrative also confirms the point:

    • Zechariah receives the Angel’s message (vv. 5-25)
      • Mary receives the Angel’s message (vv. 26-38)
      • Mary utters a hymn of praise to God (vv. 46-55)
    • Zechariah utters a hymn of praise to God (vv. 67-79)

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977, 1993).
References marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 28 (1981).



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”.