January 5 (Luke 2:32)

Luke 2:32

This is the last of four daily notes on the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). Today’s note explores the third, concluding line (bicolon) of the Song (in bold below).

“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.”

Here is a slightly more literal rendering of v. 32:

  • Light unto (the) uncovering of the nations
    • and (unto the) splendor of your people Yisrael

The Greek is as follows:

  • fw=$ ei)$ a)poka/luyin e)qnw=n
    • kai\ do/can laou= sou )Israh/l

In all three parts (bicola) of the hymn, the initial word establishes and governs the line. In verse 29, it is the temporal particle nu=n (“now”); in vv. 30-31, it is the conjunctive particle o%ti (“[now] that”); and here in v. 32, it is the noun fw=$ (“light”). The structure of this line is the simplest of the three:

  • light unto
    • (the) uncovering of the nations
      —and
    • (the) splendor of your people Israel

The conjunction kai/ (“and”) is at the center of the line; its significance will be discussed below. There has been some question among commentators as to whether do/ca (“honor/splendor”) is parallel with fw=$ (“light”) or a)poka/luyi$ (“uncovering”). If the former, then the structure would be:

  • light unto the uncovering of the nations
    —and
  • honor/splendor (for) your people Israel

I have opted for the latter parallel, which I feel is more accurate to the syntax and theme of the hymn.

fw=$ (“light”)—The word, in the initial position, builds upon the motif of seeing in vv. 30-31. The reason why people are able to see the salvation God brings is that is light. The importance of light-imagery in the Old Testament and as a religious symbol is so widespread as to scarcely require comment. For more detail on the background, cf. my discussion on revelation in the series “Gnosis and the New Testament” (soon to be posted here). Though the noun fw=$ does not occur elsewhere in the Lukan Infancy narrative, light-imagery plays a significant role, including the scenes of heavenly/angelic manifestation (shining forth)—cf. 1:11, 28ff; 2:9-14. It is in the Song of Zechariah (esp. vv. 77-79), which, in many ways, functions parallel to the Song of Simeon, that we find corresponding imagery and similar language (in italics):

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 (there) has looked upon us a springing-up out of the height [i.e. from on high], to shine light upon the (one)s sitting in darkness and (the) shadow of death and set our feet down straight into (the) way of peace.”

Mention should also be made of the famous star in the Matthew narrative (2:2ff). While the light (fw=$) of salvation should be understood in the context of the entire line in verse 32, it may also be said to relate specifically to the nations of the first half, according to the Isaian allusions—cf. Isa 42:6; 49:6. That it also relates to the people of Israel (the second half of the line) is clear from a comparison with Isa 49:9; 60:1ff, etc, and the citation of Isa 9:1-2 in Matt 3:15-16.

ei)$ (“unto”)—According to the structure outlined above, the preposition ei)$ (“into, unto”) governs both halves of v. 32. That is to say, the light is unto both the uncovering of the nations and the splendor of Israel. There are two aspects of the preposition which apply here: (a) for the purpose of, and (b) leading toward the goal of, i.e. the result of. More concretely, it can be understood as something which points in the direction of these results for the nations and Israel respectively—the light shines toward them both, and, more importantly, into the darkness (cf. the Isaian passages referenced above).

a)poka/luyin (“[the] uncovering”)—The noun a)poka/luyi$, from the verb a)pokalu/ptw, literally means “taking (the) cover away from”—i.e., “uncovering”. In this case, the motif relates to removing darkness, through the shining of light (Lk 1:77-79; Matt 3:15-16, etc). The noun and verb both are used frequently in the New Testament, often in reference to God’s revelation to his people (believers) in the person and work of Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel. Cf. again the discussion on revelation in the series “Gnosis and the New Testament” (to be posted here).

e)qnw=n (“of [the] nations”)—The genitive of this noun may be understood two ways: (1) the light is revealed (uncovered) for the nations, or (2) the nations themselves are uncovered/revealed by the light. Probably the former is more readily in mind here in the hymn, but the latter cannot be excluded, especially in the context of the Lukan theme of the identity/inclusion of Gentile believers as the people of God (cf. below).

kai/ (“and”)—This simple conjunctive particle here has special significance, since it emphasizes that both Israel and the nations (Gentiles) will experience the light of salvation manifest in the person of Jesus. If the structure of the line is understood differently (cf. above), then the emphasis of the conjunction would be on salvation in terms of both (i) light for the Gentiles and (ii) splendor for Israel. However, the theme (and theology) throughout Luke-Acts strongly favors the structure I am following, whereby the emphasis is squarely on Jewish and Gentile believers together making up the people of God.

do/can (“[unto the] splendor”)—My interpretation (cf. above) assumes that both nouns a)poka/luyi$ (“uncovering”) and do/ca (“splendor”) are governed by the preposition ei)$ (“unto”). To reiterate:

  • unto
    • (the) uncovering of the nations
    • (the) splendor of your people Israel

The noun do/ca is actually difficult to render accurately in English. Typically it is translated “glory”, but this can be rather misleading. Fundamentally, it refers to the esteem or honor which is accorded to someone or something—that is, how a person is considered, acknowledged, recognized, etc. In the case of God, the honor which is due to him involves his essential nature and character, as the Holy One and (all-powerful) Creator, and so forth, which is traditionally described and depicted with light-imagery. Thus the do/ca of God is envisioned as a brilliant and effulgent splendor surrounding him. In the LXX, do/ca generally translates the Hebrew dobK*, which has the basic meaning “weight”—i.e., the honor and reverence which must be given to God due to the greatness, etc, of His nature. The word has a somewhat different nuance and emphasis when applied to human beings; generally, it is best rendered as “honor” or “splendor”, depending on the context. Here, if do/ca is parallel to “light” (fw=$) then it is perhaps better understood as “honor”—i.e. revelation (light) for the nations, honor/esteem for Israel. However, if it is parallel with “uncovering”, then it is particularly important to preserve the element of light-imagery. The light of salvation then has two (related) effects—(1) it shines in the darkness, revealing/uncovering the nations, and (2) it causes the people Israel to shine with splendor. Light and splendor (do/ca) are juxtaposed in Isa 60:1, and splendor/honor/glory in connection with salvation specifically in Isa 46:13.

laou= sou  )Israh/l (“of your people Israel”)—that is, God’s people, referring primarily to Israel as the elect/chosen people, with whom God (YHWH) established a special relationship and agreement (covenant). The singular noun lao/$ (“[a collective] people”), used together with the plural e&qnh (“nations”), emphasizes the point of contrast—Israel was selected among all the different tribes/nations of the worlds to be the distinct people of God. The plural laoi/ (“peoples“) is often synonymous with e&qnh (“nations”), though in Acts 4:25-27 it seems to refer to Israel (i.e. Israelites and Jews), perhaps in the sense of the various groups which make up “Israel” at the time of Jesus. The significance of the terminology in this passage in Acts (citing Ps 2:1-2) likely runs deeper, however; note the possible contrast:

  • In their opposition to Jesus, Israel becomes like the nations—”peoples” (laoi/, plural) instead of the true “people” (lao/$, singular) of God
  • In trusting in Christ, both “peoples”—Israelites/Jews and Gentiles—become a single “people” (lao/$), the people of God

This helps to explain the use of the plural laoi/ (“peoples”) in line 2 of the Song of Simeon (v. 31). The expression “all the peoples” (par with “all flesh” in Lk 3:6) refers to those (believers) among all of humankind—Jews and Gentiles both—who respond to the Gospel (the “light” of salvation) and come to faith in Jesus Christ. This becomes a principal theme of the book of Acts. Note especially the words of James in 15:14:

“…how God looked upon (it/us) to take out of the nations a people for/unto His name”

This precedes the (modified) quotation from Amos 9:11-12 in verses 16-17, in which Gentile believers are identified as part of the “remnant” (i.e. the true/faithful Israel) who will seek the Lord, and so respond by trusting in Jesus. Paul, of course, as the “apostle to the Gentiles” draws heavily upon this theme, though often in a complex (and somewhat controversial) manner. Note, in particular, the discussion in Romans 9-11 which is vital to the overall emphasis (in Romans) on the unity of Jewish and and Gentile believers in Christ. For a more concise, similar, statement elsewhere in the New Testament, cf. 1 Peter 2:9-10.

The theme itself goes back into the Old Testament, especially in (Deutero-)Isaiah and the later Prophets, continuing on through Jewish literature and tradition. Isa 42:6 was a cornerstone verse, and is alluded to here in the Song; but there are many passages which might express either of two basic, related ideas: (1) that God’s revelation (his Law, salvation, etc) will go out from Jerusalem (and the Temple) into all the nations, and (2) that the nations from all around Jerusalem will come to the Temple and worship God there. For this latter image, cf. especially Isa 56:6-8, cited by Jesus in the Synoptic tradition (the Temple ‘cleansing’ scene, Lk 19:46 par). That the converted/faithful Gentiles would become part of the people of God is also expressed (or implied) in several places, most notably Zechariah 2:10-11, which refers to a future/eschatological moment when the Lord will come and dwell in the midst of his people in Zion, and

“many nations will be (inter)twined [i.e. joined] to YHWH in th(at) day, and they will be unto [i.e. as] a people for me [i.e. my people], and I will set (up my) tent [i.e. dwell] in your midst…” (v. 11)

The two themes mentioned above are both present in the central Pentecost scene of Acts 2—(1) Israelites/Jews from among the nations come to Jerusalem, along with believers miraculously speaking in the languages of all the nations; and (2) Christian missionaries go out (from Jerusalem) in the surrounding parts of Judea, and, subsequently, into the nations all around (cf. Acts 1:8, etc). Yet it may be said that this is already prefigured and foreshadowed here in the Infancy narrative, in the Song uttered by Simeon as he stands in the Temple, holding the savior Jesus in his arms. It is by the inclusion of the Gentiles within the people of God, that the chosen ones (believers) of Israel, along with Simeon, acquire true honor and splendor.

Birth of the Son of God: Jn 16:21; 18:37; Rom 8:22-23

As part of this series of notes on the “Birth of the Son of God”, today I will be looking at Jesus’ birth in terms of the suffering and pain associated with childbirth. The severe pains accompanying the birth process go back to the very beginnings of human history (cf. the ancient tradition in Gen 3:16ff), and are often used as a symbol, representative of human suffering and misfortune as a whole. Prior to modern times, childbirth could be quite dangerous as well, often resulting in the death of the child or the mother. The suffering it signified also could be connected with sin in various ways, as in the narrative of Genesis 3. For traditional Old Testament imagery of labor pains related to human suffering and sin, see Isa 13:8; 21:3; 26:17; 42:14; Jer 4:31; 6:24; 13:21; 22:23; 48:41; 49:22, 24; 50:43; Hos 13:13; Mic 4:9-10; to this should be added the expression “born of a woman” to indicate the human condition in its suffering (Job 14:1; 15:14; 25:4; also Gal 4:4 [cf. below]). Sometimes birth pains are contrasted with the joy and relief experienced when the child is born (Gen 35:16-17; John 16:21, cf. also Isa 65:23; Mic 5:3). The pain of childbearing was such that birth without pain could serve as an image of God’s special blessing or as characteristic of an idealized future age (cf. Isa 66:7-8). Painlessness has been ascribed to Jesus’ birth in Christian tradition (e.g., Gregory of Nyssa’s Homily on the Nativity [late 4th cent.]), sometimes connected with the idea of the virgin birth in partu (already indicated in the mid-2nd cent. Protevangelium §19-20); however, there is no evidence for this in the Gospel accounts themselves. On historical and literary grounds, we may fairly assume that Jesus’ birth was accompanied by the ordinary pains of childbirth, though it does raise an interesting Christological question regarding the extent to which Jesus participated in the human condition (see esp. Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3; 2 Cor 5:21).

In the New Testament, labor pains are used to symbolize two related ideas:

  • The suffering associated with the end-time Judgment (Mark 13:8 par; 1 Thess 5:3), drawn from Old Testament imagery related to the Day of YHWH (Isa 13:8, etc). In Jewish tradition, the time of distress preceding the (Messianic) restoration/redemption of Israel came to be referred to as “the birth-pains of the Messiah” (jyvmh ylbj).
  • The suffering of believers (John 16:21—also the imagery in Gal 4:19; Rom 8:22-23)

These two aspects were already combined in the Qumran hymn 1QH 3 [1QHa column XI lines 7-18]. The distress of the Community is compared with that of a woman in labor, who eventually gives birth to a ‘Messianic’ figure called the “wonderful counsellor” (after Isa 9:5). This birth is contrasted with another woman who bears a wicked “viper” (hupa)—the fate of this latter offspring is destruction. The Community of the Qumran texts appears to have applied eschatological imagery, just as early Christians did, to their own situation.

The Synoptic narrative framework sets Mark 13:8 par (the Olivet/eschatological discourse) generally in the context of Jesus’ own suffering and death—note also the sayings in Mark 14:21b par and John 16:21 (cf. below) as well as the eschatological imagery in the saying of Luke 23:28-29 on the way to the cross. Suffering is not specifically mentioned of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament (Gal 4:4 is the closest, cf. above); however, as I have demonstrated in several prior notes, there a number of points of contact between Jesus’ birth and death within the Gospels (including the Infancy narratives). In this regard, it is worth examining briefly an interesting parallel between John 16:21 and 18:37.

John 16:21; 18:37

Within the structure of the Gospel, both of these passages occur shortly before Jesus’ death and must be understood in that context:

  • John 16:21—part of the great series of discourses (Jn 13:31-17:26) set between the ‘Last Supper’ (13:1ff) and the arrest of Jesus (chapter 18); the immediate context of 16:16-24 refers to the sorrow which the disciples will experience at Jesus’ death/departure.
  • John 18:37—part of Jesus’ first dialogue with Pilate (Jn 18:33-38) set during the Roman ‘trial’ (18:28-19:16) on the day of his crucifixion (cf. the recent discussion on 18:37).

Let us look at the main points of similarity:

Jn 16:21:

  • gegnnh/sh| “she causes to be (born) [i.e. gives birth to] the child”
  • e)gennh/qh…ei)$ to\n ko/smon “a man comes to be born into the world

Jn 18:37: e)gw/ w($ tou=to (“unto this I…”)—statement of ultimate purpose:

  • gege/nnhmai “I have come to be (born)
  • “I have come into the world [ei)$ to\n ko/smon]”

—this verse refers primarily to the birth and incarnation of Jesus; however, note two additional details which relate to the overall idea of “the birth of the Son of God”:

  • “every one being [i.e. who is] out of [i.e. from] the truth…”—parallel to the spiritual birth of believers (Jn 3)
  • “…hears my voice”—allusion to resurrection (Jn 5), i.e., ‘birth’ from the dead

Another passage related to the “birth” of believers (as sons/children of God), specifically involving labor pains, is Romans 8:22-23:

Romans 8:22-23

“…all creation groans together [sustena/zei] and is in pain together [sunwdi/nei]; and not only this, but also (we our)selves, holding the beginnings from (the harvest) of the Spirit, we also groan [stena/zomen] in (our)selves, looking to receive from (God) placement as son(s) [ui(oqesi/an]—the ransom/redemption of our bod(ies)”

Here we have the idea, also expressed (in similar terms) in Galatians 4:4-7, the “adoption” (lit. setting/placement as son) of believers, i.e. as sons (or children) of God. Clearly, this is connected ultimately with the salvation/redemption at the end-time—which occurs by way of the (physical/bodily) resurrection. This must be understood along with two other verses from Rom 8:18-30:

V. 19—Creation eagerly “looks to receive from (God) the uncovering [i.e. revelation] of the sons of God

V. 29—”the (one)s whom He knew before(hand) He also marked (out) [i.e. appointed/determined] before(hand) (as being) in form together (with) His Son, unto his being [i.e. so Christ might be] the first-produced [i.e. firstborn] among many brothers

Believers, then, are sons (together) with Christ, here principally in terms of the resurrection—i.e. Jesus as “firstborn from the dead” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5).

Lastly, it is necessary to discuss (however briefly) the famous and enigmatic vision of the woman with child in Revelation 12.

Revelation 12

Interpretation of the complex and colorful visions of the book of Revelation is notoriously difficult, varying greatly—from the contextually plausible to the outrageously fanciful (and everything in between). One major problem is that the author makes use of many multivalent symbols—that is, different images and traditional elements are combined into a single scene or figure—and commentators make a grave mistake when they try to limit interpretation to a single corresponding meaning. The woman of Rev 12:1ff may perhaps best be summarized or described as the “Daughter of Zion”, generally representing the People of God, but presented in an exalted manner using cosmic symbolism. The narrative vision of this woman can be divided into two parts:

  • Verses 1-6—here I take the woman to represent Israel leading up to the birth (and death/resurrection) of Jesus; she is described as pregnant and in severe labor pains (v. 2), indicative of both the suffering of the people and the (eschatological) distress presaging the end (cf. above). The messianic character of the male child she delivers is clear from the allusion to Psalm 2:9 in verse 5.
  • Verses 13-17—here the woman (with her offspring) is best understood as representing the Christian Community, forced to dwell in the wilderness for a period of 3 1/2 years (or 1260 days), which I take to be generally symbolic of the period between the earliest days of the Church (characterized by persecution, cf. Acts 4-8) and the imminent/impending end time (marked by the last judgment and return of Christ).

In both sections, the woman (and her child/children) is threatened by the great serpent/dragon, identified with Satan (v. 9). In between (vv. 7-12) there is a interlude depicting a cosmic battle between two sets of angels in heaven—one group led by Michael, the other by the Dragon. The imagery of this scene is drawn from Jewish tradition, influenced largely by Daniel 10-12. There is a chiastic quality to this triptych:

  • Israel and Christ (the Son of God) threatened by the Dragon (vv. 1-6)
    • Victory of the Sons of God (Michael and the Angels & the Saints) in heaven over Satan (vv. 7-12)
  • (Spiritual) victory of believers (sons of God) over the Dragon/Satan (vv. 13-17 [verse 17b])

The central scene in heaven serves as a source of hope and encouragement for believers facing persecution.

January 4 (Luke 2:30-31)

Luke 2:30-31

Today’s note is the third of four in this series on the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). In it I will be examining the second line (bicolon) of the Song (in bold below).

“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.”

Previously, I have treated verses 30-31 as separate lines, but, in terms of the structure of the hymn, they represent a single unit. A slightly more literal rendering is as follows:

  • (in) that my eyes saw your salvation
    • which you made ready against [i.e. in front of] the face of all the peoples

The Greek is:

  • o%ti ei@don oi( o)fqalmoi/ mou to\ swth/rio/n sou
    • o^ h(toi/masa$ kata\ pro/swpon pa/ntwn tw=n law=n

As in the case of the first line (v. 29), an initial particle (o%ti) governs vv. 30-31, though here it is a conjunctive particle, connecting it with the earlier line. It gives the reason why the speaker (Simeon) may now be released from his service to God. I have translated it literally as “(in) that”, i.e. “because”, though it is probably better to retain the temporal sense, as I do in the poetic rendering above—”(now) that”, i.e. “since”. The (chiastic) parallelism of the line is also expressed somewhat differently that that of v. 29; note the structure here:

  • my eyes saw
    —your salvation
    ——which
    —you made ready
  • {before} the face of all the peoples

The framing motif is that of seeing—Simeon now sees what God has prepared for all people, and which soon will become visible/apparent to all. What he sees is clarified by the “inner” pairing of the line—”your salvation which you made ready”. The relative particle o% (“[that] which”) is at the center of the line (on this, cf. below). I will now briefly discuss each of the key words or phrases in vv. 30-31.

ei@don (“[they] saw”)—In English this is usually translated as though it were a perfect form (“have seen”), but it is actually an aorist form, suggesting an action which is completed or occurs (just) prior to the person’s speaking, i.e. “my eyes now (have) see(n)…”. This is the principal verb governing vv. 30-31, with the emphasis on seeing. The same emphasis (and verb) is found, twice, in the explanation given by the author in verse 26:

“it was given (as) information to him, under [i.e. by] the holy Spirit, (that he was) not to see [i&dein] death before he should see [i&dh|] the Anointed (One) of the Lord”

Almost certainly we should recognize an allusion to Gen 46:30. Simeon had been waiting, looking toward the coming of the “help of Israel” and (with Anna) the “redemption of Jerusalem”—both expressions referring to the deliverance (salvation) God will bring about for his people through the coming of the Anointed One (Messiah) at the end-time.

oi( o)fqalmoi/ mou (“my eyes”)—Instead of saying simply “I saw”, the hymn uses the more colorful (and dramatic) Semitic idiom “my eyes saw”, which gives greater emphasis, and a strong personal dimension, to the act and experience of seeing. The expression “my eyes” is used in this manner frequently in the Old Testament (more than 70 times), especially in a poetic setting (in the Psalms, Prophets and Wisdom writings). The idiom is relatively rare in the New Testament, but note the important saying of Jesus in Luke 10:23 par (cf. also 1 Cor 2:9; 1 Jn 1:1). To have one’s sight restored, or suddenly be able to see, is occasionally described as having “the eyes opened” (Mk 8:25; Matt 9:30 etc); while the expression “lift the eyes” means to look and see something (Lk 6:20; 16:23, etc). In Acts 26:18, as in the citation of Isa 6:9-10 (Acts 28:27, etc), opening the eyes is connected with experiencing or realizing salvation.

to\ swth/rio/n sou (“your salvation”)—Interestingly, while the noun swth/ria (“salvation”) is fairly common in the New Testament, the related neuter substantive [to\] swth/rion occurs only three times, all in Luke-Acts—here, and in Lk 3:6; Acts 28:28. All three times it is part of the expression “the salvation of God”, by which is meant, not God being saved, but rather the salvation/deliverance/protection which God brings. This is indicated by the neuter form with the definite article; it could relate abstractly to the means or act of saving, but also to a specific person who might serve as savior/protector. Here, of course, it is connected with the child Jesus in Simeon’s arms. Within the context (and theology) of Luke-Acts, the expression refers specifically to the salvation of the nations (i.e. the Gentiles) through the proclamation of the Gospel. This point will be discussion in the next note (on verse 32).

o% (“which”)—The use of this relative particle is important, both for the flow of the line, but also, more significantly, as a way to connect Jesus (the means of salvation which Simeon now sees) with the deliverance promised to God’s faithful ones (his people) in the Scriptures. It is particularly the prophecies in the latter chapters of Isaiah (40-66) which are in view here in the Song of Simeon, as throughout the other hymns of the Lukan Infancy narrative. There is a clear allusion to Isa 40:5 in vv. 30-31, as well as to 46:13; 49:6b, and 52:10. One may also note the reference to seeing salvation in the deutero-canonical Baruch 4:24. The revelation of salvation—i.e., its becoming visible to humankind—is part of Jewish eschatological and Messianic thought, as we see in a number of the Qumran texts (e.g., CD 20:20, 34; 1 QM 5).

h(toi/masa$ (“you made ready”)—There is a distinct theological sense of the verb e(toima/zw (“make ready, prepare”) in the New Testament. It is frequently used of God, in an eschatological context—i.e. of what God has prepared (ahead of time) for the faithful, and also for the wicked, at the end (following the final Judgment). For its occurrence in sayings by Jesus, cf. Mk 10:40 par; Matt 22:4; 25:34ff; Jn 14:2-3. On God preparing blessing/reward for believers, cf. also 1 Cor 2:9; Heb 11:16; Rev 21:2. The eschatological sense is especially prominent in the book of Revelation (8:6; 9:7, 15; 12:6; 16:12; 19:7). In the Gospel tradition, and particularly in Luke, the verb is related to the idea of “preparing the way of the Lord”—i.e. of the messenger who prepares God’s people (and humankind) for His coming (in Judgment) at the end time. This eschatological and Messianic tradition was strong in Judaism and early Christianity, combining the language and symbolism from Isa 40:3ff and Mal 3:1ff. According to the early Christian interpretation, John the Baptist was identified as the messenger who prepares the way for the coming of Christ (the Lord), as in Luke 3:4 par. The two Old Testament traditions are combined specifically in Mark 1:2-3, but also, less directly, here in Luke. Note especially the language in Luke 1:16-17 and 76-77ff. It is in the Song of Zechariah (Benedictus) that salvation in the person of Christ (vv. 76-79) is tied back to the promised deliverance of God’s people (vv. 68-75), representing the two halves of the song respectively. For more on the parallel between Simeon and Zechariah, cf. my previous note.

kata\ pro/swpon (“against [the] face”)—Concretely, the preposition kata/ would here indicate something God brings down on the face, but more properly means “against” in the sense of “before, in front of, in the sight of”. The use of the noun “face” (pro/swpon, lit. “toward [the] eye[s]”) continues the motif of seeing in this line. The expression “against/before the face” is a Semitic idiom which means “in the presence of”, but also indicates something directed right at a person (cf. Gal 2:11), as in English we might say “right to his face” or “in his face”. Thus, there are two aspects which should be isolated here: (1) that God has prepared this salvation in the presence of all the peoples, i.e. during their history and lifetimes, and (2) that it is directed at the peoples, i.e. made ready for them and their benefit. Also, there is likely a foreshadowing of the idea that this salvation will soon become visible to all people, through the life and work of Jesus, and, subsequently, in the proclamation of the Gospel.

pa/ntwn tw=n law=n (“of all the peoples”)—There is allusion in vv. 30-31 to Isa 52:10 (cf. above); note the parallel, citing the LXX:

“against [i.e. in front of] the face of all the peoples” (v. 31)
“in the sight [e)nw/pion] of all the nations” (Isa 52:10a)

Interestingly, however, the Gospel writer (and/or Simeon as the speaker), uses “peoples” (laoi/) instead of “nations” (e&qnh). The parallel use of the plural “peoples” in Acts 4:25-27 might suggest that the reference here is to the Jewish people (i.e. Israelites/Jews). It seems best to understand the term in the context of what follows in v. 32, were two groups are mentioned in tandem—(a) the nations (e&qnh), that is, Gentiles or non-Jews, and (b) the people (lao/$) Israel. These two comprise the “peoples” in v. 31—in other words, all humankind (that is, all believers), Jew and Gentile both. The expression “all the peoples” should be understood as synonymous with “all flesh” (pa=$ sa/rc) in Luke 3:6 (again citing Isa 52:10): “all flesh will see the salvation of God”.

Saturday Series: John 1:51

John 1:51

Today I want to continue on in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, with a verse that is one of the most difficult to interpret in the entire book—the saying of Jesus in Jn 1:51. Unlike the situation in verses 18 and 34 (discussed on prior Saturdays), there is no question about the text of the verse. The Greek is secure and there really are no significant variant readings. But this only raises a different sort of critical question: how does one proceed when we are sure of the text, but the passage is still difficult to understand? Consider the saying itself as I give it here in a (literal) translation:

“And (Jesus) says to him [i.e. Nathanel]. ‘Amen, amen, I say to you (that) you [pl.] will see the heaven opened up and the Messengers of God stepping up and stepping down upon the Son of Man’.”

This saying has proven sufficiently difficult and obscure for commentators throughout the years, resulting in a wide range of possible interpretations. To what, exactly, is Jesus referring here?

A fundamental question is whether the saying should be taken as a concrete prediction (of a future event), or a symbolic picture. If the former, then one must ask to which specific event or episode it refers; there are three possibilities—(1) a supernatural event witnessed by the disciples (similar to the Transfiguration), but otherwise unrecorded, (2) the resurrection and/or ascension, or (3) the future/end-time appearance of Christ. Given the similarities with key eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Synoptics, the third option makes most sense. Heavenly “Messengers” (i.e., Angels) are present in both the eschatological Son of Man sayings (Mk 13:26-27; Matt 13:41; 25:31, etc) and the resurrection/ascension scenes (Mk 16:5; Lk 24:23, etc; Acts 1:10f). However, neither of these seem to fit the context where the saying is set in John. If we are to understand the saying primarily as a symbolic picture—whether by the Gospel writer or Jesus himself—then there a number of possible associations or allusions which may be in mind.

An important part of Biblical criticism involves examining the intent of the author, as far as this can be determined. In order to do this, we must explore the verse from two vantage points, much as we did in studying the text of Jn 1:18 and 34. These two aspects are: (1) the specific language and terminology (i.e. the Greek words and syntax) used, and (2) the context—both the immediate context, and that of the Gospel as a whole. Today I will examine (1) the language and terminology, leaving (2) the context for next Saturday.

1. The language and terminology used in the saying

Interpretation should always be based on a careful study of the original language (here the Greek of the NT)—the specific words and phrases, and how they are used in the passage (i.e. the grammar and syntax). I will look briefly here at the significant words and phrases, in the order they appear in the verse.

[Amen, amen]—The Greek am¢n (a)mh/n) is a transliteration of the Hebrew °¹m¢n (/m@a*), an adverb which means something like “surely, certainly, truly”. As a Semitic idiom, it was used frequently by Jesus, and is often preserved in its Hebrew/Aramaic form in the Gospels (41 times in Matthew, 13 in Mark, and 6 in Luke). It occurs 25 times in John, always in the double form (“amen, amen…”) we see in 1:51. In this form, it tends to be used by Jesus when addressing his disciples (or would-be disciples) and declaring to them something of the utmost importance. A comparable form of address in English idiom might be something like: “You may be sure of this…”, “I tell you the truth when I say that…”, etc. The formula introduces key sayings in the Johannine Discourses of Jesus, and often are central to the theological (and Christological) points being made by Jesus in his exposition (cf. Jn 3:3, 5, 11; 5:19, 24-25; 6:26, 32, etc).

[you will see]—The Greek verb optanomai (o)pta/nomai) in the future tense commonly means “see”, though its concrete, fundamental meaning would be something like “look with (open) eyes”. The motif of seeing, especially the idea of seeing Jesus, has special theological (and Christological) significance in the Gospel of John. Typically it refers to something more than the ordinary (sensory) experience of sight. There are too many passages to cite them all here—e.g., 1:14, 33-34; 3:3, 36; 6:36, 46, 62; 9:37ff; 11:9, etc. The future form (of optanomai) occurs 9 times elsewhere in the Gospel, the first being in 1:39, where it relates to the basic idea of the disciple encountering Jesus, and realizing something of his true identity. In 3:36 the context is the experience of salvation (i.e. eternal life) through faith/belief in Jesus. The context of 11:40 (the miracle of raising Lazarus) indicates that it primarily refers to witnessing the splendor of God manifest in the person of Jesus, by way of his life-giving (and miracle-working) power. The four occurrences in 16:16-22 are more difficult to decipher, due to the wordplay and dual-layered meaning running throughout the passage: of the disciples encountering Jesus (a) after his resurrection and/or (b) in the future, following his return to the Father.

[the heaven opened up]—The wording here is an echo of the earlier baptism scene (vv. 29-34). Even though John does not describe the heaven “opening up”, the Gospel writer (trad. John the Apostle) almost certainly was aware of the historical tradition (vv. 32-33). In the Synoptic account (Mk 1:10), we find the specific image, including the same verb (anoigœ, a)noi/gw, “open up”) in Luke’s version (3:21) as used here in v. 51. Elsewhere in John, this verb is often used in the idiom “open up (one’s) eyes”, as a reference again to the important theme of seeing.

[the Messengers of God]—”Messenger” is the proper translation of the Greek angelos (a&ggelo$), which is usually transliterated into English as “Angel”. Here, of course, it refers to God’s heavenly Messengers (Angels) rather than human messengers. As noted above, in the Gospels, Angels are associated both with the resurrection/ascension of Jesus (as in Jn 20:12), as well as a number of the eschatological Son of Man sayings in the Synoptics (cf. Mk 8:38; 13:26 par; Matt 16:27, etc). However, there is also here likely an allusion to Genesis 28:12.

[stepping up and stepping down]—The Greek verbs anabainœ (a)nabai/nw) and katabainœ (katabai/nw) are usually translated “ascend” and “descend”, but literally mean “step up” and “step down”, respectively. Both verbs are used frequently in the Gospel of John, and often with special theological (and Christological) significance. This will be discussed when addressing the context of v. 51 next Saturday. This is the first occurrence in the Gospel of anabainœ, but katabainœ was used earlier in the description of the Baptism scene (vv. 32-33), of the Spirit descending (lit. “stepping down”) upon Jesus. These two verbs are also used in the Greek (Septuagint) version of Gen 28:12, of the Angels ascending and descending upon (the ladder). This makes an allusion to that Old Testament tradition here all but certain.

[upon]—The preposition epi (e)pi/) here again relates to both the Baptism of Jesus (the Spirit descending upon him, vv. 32-33) and to the Gen 28:12 tradition.

[the Son of Man]—This is a translation of the Greek ho huios tou anthrœpou (o( ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou). The expression is a Semitic (Hebrew/Aramaic) idiom which is generally synonymous with “Man”, referring to human beings or humankind, sometimes in the specific sense of human nature or the human condition. Jesus makes use of the expression in several special ways, which have been preserved in the Gospels. Two fundamental groups of “Son of Man” sayings relate to: (1) Jesus’ suffering and death, and (2) his appearance in glory at the end-time. Similarly, in the Gospel of John these two aspects are found in the (twelve) Son of Man sayings, though expressed in language and imagery that has special meaning in the context of the Johannine theology (and Christology). A number of Son of Man sayings involve the very verbs—anabainœ and katabainœ—used in this verse.

Next week we will be examining the context of this verse more closely. In the meantime, I would recommend that you continue to study and meditate on Jesus’ saying. Based on what we have done so far—studying the specific words and phrases that are used—does this offer you any new insights on the meaning and significance of the verse? You may wish to write these down, or at least keep them in mind as we continue…and I will see you next Saturday.

“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 2:29-32

Luke 2:29-32

Today’s note is on Luke 2:29-32, the Song of Simeon. I am dealing with this passage extensively in a series of daily notes. Here I will be looking it from the standpoint of the Messianic expectation, common among Jews and Christians of the period, and how it has been modified in the Lukan Infancy narrative, being reflective of early Christian belief and expression. The last two lines of the Song of Simeon (vv. 31-32), in particular, manifest this new understanding, much as we see also in the last lines of the hymn of Zechariah (the Benedictus, 1:78-79). The early Christian (and Lukan) interpretation is rooted in the use of certain key passages from the book of Isaiah, especially the so-called “Servant songs” of Deutero-Isaiah (chaps. 40-55, etc).

In yesterday’s note, I mentioned again the parallels between Zechariah and Simeon, and the two oracle-hymns (Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis) attributed to each. It will be helpful to examine the relevant (concluding) lines of each hymn, to gain a better sense of how this Messianic expectation was applied to Jesus. There were a number of Messiah figure-types known from the Qumran texts and other writings of the period, but two were especially prominent in the Gospel tradition (cf. the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, to be posted here):

  1. The Prophet like Elijah who would appear prior to the great Judgment, bringing God’s people to repentance—drawn primarily from Malachi 3:1ff and the interpretation in 4:5-6 [Heb 3:23-24].
  2. A coming Ruler (King) from the line of David who will judge/subdue the nations, deliver God’s people, and bring about the restoration of Israel. For the Scriptural background of this figure, cf. Part 6 of the aforementioned series.

By the time the Gospels came to be written, early Christian tradition had identified these two figure-types as being fulfilled by John the Baptist and Jesus, respectively. Here in the Lukan Infancy narrative, the hymn of Zechariah focuses on John the Baptist, while the Song of Simeon is centered on the child Jesus.

In Luke 1:76 John the Baptist is clearly identified as the Messenger (Elijah, cf. verse 17) who prepares the way before the Lord, as we see well-established in the Gospel tradition (Mk 1:2-3ff par; Lk 7:27; Jn 1:19-23ff). Through his preaching and ministry of baptism, John turns the hearts and minds of people back to God, preparing them for the coming of the Lord, the Anointed One (Christ). This emphasis on repentance introduces the motif of salvation from sin—”to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the release [i.e. forgiveness] of their sins” (v. 77). The religious (and eschatological) background of this idea of salvation is very much related to the coming Judgment—only those who repent and return to God will escape (i.e. be saved from) the anger and judgment of God upon humankind. In verse 78, however, the emphasis shifts to salvation as an expression of God’s mercy; for similar wording, cf. the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Zebulun 8; Levi 4). The judgment imagery and vocabulary is transformed, centered here on the verb e)piske/ptomai (“look [carefully] upon”), which came to be a technical term for the end-time appearance (visitation) of God, both to help/save his people and to bring the Judgment. Only now, a different sort of visitation is described—of a revelatory light from heaven, shining upon human beings (God’s people) trapped in darkness. As previously discussed (cf. the note on vv. 69, 78-79) the “rising up” (a)natolh/) is best understood by the image of a sun or star which gives the light (of God) from out of heaven (Num 24:17; Isa 60:1ff; Mal 4:2, etc). The image of people—God’s people—sitting in darkness and shadow comes primarily from Isaiah 9:2; 42:6-7 (cf. also Psalm 107:9-10).

Similarly, in the Simeon episode, the child Jesus is identified as the Anointed One (2:26)—that is, the Messianic figure-type of the end-time ruler from the line of David (cf. 1:32-33, 69; 2:11). An interesting shift has taken place, however; instead of the idea of salvation from the wicked nations (the enemies of Israel, cf. 1:70-71) etc, this figure is now identified with salvation itself. Note the similarity of language between 2:26 and 30:

“…until he should see the Anointed of the Lord
“…my eyes have seen your Salvation

Two parallel expressions are involved:

    • the Anointed (One) [xristo/$] of the Lord
    • the Salvation [swthri/a] of the Lord

In other words, the salvation which the Lord (Yahweh) brings for his people is embodied in the person of the Anointed One (Jesus). The “Lord” in vv. 29ff is referenced, not by the regular Greek term ku/rio$ (ky¡rios), but by the less common despo/th$ (despót¢s). This word more properly means “master, owner”, and better fits the master-slave motif in verse 29. However, it is generally synonymous with the Hebrew °¹dôn (cf. the earlier article on this title), and, occasionally, like ku/rio$, was used to render the divine name YHWH (cf. the prior note on v. 29 and the article on Yahweh). Earlier in the hymn of Zechariah (v. 69), the Messiah (Jesus) was described as a “horn of salvation” raised up by the Lord—not just the means of deliverance, or the one who accomplishes it, but salvation itself, from the power of sin enslaving all of humankind. This reflects the essential meaning and character of the name Yeshua/Jesus (Matt 1:21 [note], and cf. Luke 2:11).

There are two aspects of this salvation-theme in verses 31-32 (cp. 1:77-79):

  • Light/Darkness imagery, and
  • The people (of God) / peoples on earth

Light—specifically light to/for the nations (Isa 42:6; 49:6; 52:10), an extension of the basic image in 1:78-79 (Isa 9:2ff, cf. Matt 4:15-16). This clearly relates to the early Christian motif of revelation through the proclamation of the Gospel (2 Cor 4:1-6). I have discussed the subject in considerable detail in another article (to be posted), with an extensive listing of relevant Scripture references. In particular, note the strong identification of Jesus himself as light in the Gospel (and letters) of John—Jn 1:4-9; 3:19-21; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46; 1 Jn 1:5-7; 2:8-10.

People(s)—In the Old Testament and Israelite religious tradition, the original idea of the “people of God” was based on the ethnic-religious premise that God chose Israel out of all the peoples (nations) on earth, and established a special covenant with them. That the Messiah (i.e. the Davidic ruler) would come out of Israel—that is, out of Judah (the line of David), to rule over all Israel—was axiomatic, and would scarcely have been questioned by anyone at the time. This meant that salvation and deliverance comes out of Israel (Isa 46:13; Rom 4:5; Jn 4:22, etc), and, in the traditional religious sense, was intended primarily, if not exclusively, for the faithful among God’s people (Israel). In the (later) Prophets, however—and, especially, in the second half of the book of Isaiah (‘Deutero-Isaiah’)—the idea becomes more prevalent that this covenant relationship will reach outward to the surrounding nations, and that other peoples will come to join Israel as part of God’s people (cf. Isa 49:6, 22; 56:3-8; 60:3-7; 66:18ff, etc).

This shift in focus was an important element of early Christian thought, associated with the mission to the Gentiles—cf. throughout the book of Acts, and, especially, in two key passages: (1) Paul’s statement regarding the inauguration of his mission to the Gentiles (13:46ff, citing Isa 49:6), and (2) the declaration by James in 15:14-17 (citing Amos 9:11-12). The reference to “all the peoples” in Lk 2:31 is parallel to the expression “all flesh” in 3:6: “all flesh will see the salvation of God” (cf. Isa 40:5). Thus it is declared that the nations will join with Israel—and this is to Israel’s honor/glory (v. 32)—to become the people of God. This new religious identity is no longer ethnic, but multi-national and trans-ethnic—it belongs to Jews and Gentiles equally, and is based on trust/belief in Jesus Christ. This, of course, will be developed considerably throughout the Gospel and Acts (not to mention the letters of Paul), but is foreshadowed and foretold by Simeon here. From the standpoint of the (historical) narrative, the process of people coming to trust in Christ begins with the people of Israel (Israelites and Jews). This is the basis of the second part of Simeon’s oracle in vv. 34-35:

“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.”

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.

The Birth of Jesus and the Odes of Solomon

There are some notable and important (extra-canonical) early Christian works which have come down to us from the period 90-150 A.D. (the so-called ‘Apostolic Fathers’); however, in my view, most of them pale in comparison beside the mysterious Odes of Solomon. This collection of 42 poems (or hymns) survives nearly complete in two Syriac manuscripts (N and H), with five of the Odes also preserved in Coptic, and one (Ode 11) as well in Greek. Early on, they came to be ascribed to Solomon and are usually grouped together with the Psalms of Solomon (a separate, unrelated Jewish text)—an example of the pseudepigraphy that often attends many works which are otherwise anonymous. There is a range of opinion regarding the date (mid-1st century to late 3rd century), original language (Greek or Aramaic/Syriac) and provenance (Jewish, Jewish-Christian, Syrian-Christian, Gnostic) of these poems. With regard to the date, there is now a general consensus that they were produced sometime between 100 and 125 A.D.; as for the original language, scholars and specialists are divided, with current opinion perhaps favoring Greek. The Odes can probably best be described as Jewish-Christian, having most likely been composed in Syria (perhaps in the region of Antioch).

Given the tremendous beauty and power of these poems, it is somewhat surprising that they are not cited or mentioned more often in Christian literature and in the manuscript tradition. There is no definite citation of them prior to Lactantius (c. 300 A.D.), and not much thereafter; and, as indicated above, they survive in just four manuscripts. However, they appear in at least two canonical lists (6th-9th century), paired with the Psalms of Solomon, under the category of “disputed” books (antilegomena); so it is likely that they were regarded as authoritative Scripture, for a time at least, in parts of the Church. Their association with “Gnostic”-sounding language and ideas is probably the main reason for their relative disappearance from Church history. So-called Gnostics almost certainly did value and use the Odes, but the label “Gnostic” is anachronistic—for the Odes have at least as much, if not more, in common with the Gospel of John and the letters of Ignatius. They also reflect Jewish thought from the 1st century B.C./A.D., such as we find in the Qumran texts (especially the Thanksgiving Hymns [Hodayot, 1QH] and the Manual of Discipline [1QS]), and in apocalyptic literature of the period. The “Gnosticism” of the Odes is still relatively close to the orthodox “Gnosis” of the Johannine writings and 2nd-century Church Fathers such as Ignatius and Clement of Alexandria.

Although the Odes do not cite the New Testament explicitly, quotations and allusions abound. With regard to the birth of Jesus, the clearest reference can be found in Ode 19. As these intense, almost mystical poems can be extremely difficult to translate in places, I here present three standard English versions:

Harris-Mingana (1916)

1 A cup of milk was offered to me;
And I drank it in the sweetness of the delight of the Lord.

2 The Son is the cup,
And He who was milked is the Father;
And He who milked Him is the Holy Spirit.

3 Because His breasts were full;
And it was not desirable that His milk should be spilt to no purpose.

4 And the Holy Spirit opened His bosom
And mingled the milk of the two breasts of the Father,

5 And gave the mixture to the world without their knowing:
And those who take (it) are in the fulness of the right hand.

6 The womb of the Virgin took (it)
And she received conception and brought forth:

7 And the Virgin became a mother with great mercy;

8a And she travailed and brought forth a Son without incurring pain:
8b For it did not happen without purpose;

9 And she had not required a midwife,
For He delivered her.

10 And she brought forth, as a man, by (God’s) will:
And she brought (Him) forth with demonstration
And acquired (Him) with great dignity;

11 And loved (Him) in redemption;
And guarded (Him) kindly;
And showed (Him) in majesty.

Hallelujah.

Charlesworth (1977)

1 A cup of milk was offered to me,
And I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.

2 The Son is the cup,
And the Father is He who was milked;
And the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him;

3 Because His breasts were full,
And it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released.

4 The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom,
And mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.

5 Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing,
And those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand.

6 The womb of the Virgin took it,
And she received conception and gave birth.

7 So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies.

8 And she labored and bore the Son but without pain,
Because it did not occur without purpose.

9 And she did not require a midwife,
Because He caused her to give life.

10 She brought forth like a strong man with desire,
And she bore according to the manifestation,
And she acquired according to the Great Power.

11 And she loved with redemption,
And guarded with kindness,
And declared with grandeur.

Hallelujah.

Lattke (2009)
translated from the German

1a A cup of milk was offered to me,
1b and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.
2a The Son is the cup,
2b and he who was milked, the Father,
2c and [the one] whoa milked him, the Spirit of holiness.

3a Because his breasts were full
3b and it was not desirable that his milk should be poured out/discharged for no reason/uselessly,
4a the Spirit of holiness opened his [viz., the Father’s] bosom
4b and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
5a And she/it gave the mixture to the world, while they did not know,
5b and those who receive [it] are in the pl¢rœma of the right [hand].

6a The womb of the Virgin caught [it],
6b and she conceived and gave birth.
7a And the Virgin became a mother in great compassion
7ba and she was in labor and bore a son.

7bb And she felt no pains/grief,
8 because it was not useless/for no reason.
9a And she did not require a midwife,
9b|10aa because he [viz., God] kept her alive | like a man.

10ab She brought forth by/in the will [of God]
10b and brought forth by/in [his] manifestation
10c and acquired by/in [his] great power
11a and loved by/in [his] salvation
11b and guarded by/in [his] kindness
11c and made known by/in [his] greatness.

Hallelujah.

This remarkable poem can be divided into two main parts:

  • Vv. 1-5: The Father “gives birth”, i.e. pours out the Son (by means of the Spirit)
  • Vv. 6-11: The Virgin mother receives (the Son) and gives birth

The first part contains the unusual, almost shocking, image of God the Father as a female being milked by the Holy Spirit (lit. Spirit of Holiness). His two breasts are full and the mixture of the milk (from the two breasts) is poured in to the ‘cup’ of the Son and given to the world. Verse 5 seems to echo something of the Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18, cf. especially vv. 9-13).

It is possible that Odes 19:1-5 and 6-11 represent two separate poems that have been joined together; if so, this connection is clearly seen in v. 5b-6a:

5b: those [i.e. believers] who receive it [i.e. the milk/cup]
6a: the Virgin received/caught it [and conceived…]

One may also see here a conscious parallel being drawn:

  • God the Father brings forth the Son like a woman (vv. 1-5)
  • The Virgin mother brings forth the Son like a man (vv. 6-11)

This may seem strange, but it rather reflects the oft-repeated (theological) dictum that Jesus was begotten in eternity by the Father (without a mother), and was born on earth by a mother (without a father).  We can, I think, qualify the parallel:

  • In bringing forth the Son, God is both Father and Mother (the Spirit [fem.] only assists the milking), even to the point having ‘full breasts’
  • The Virgin experiences none of the normal pain and travail of childbirth, as this is all governed according to the will and power of God

There can be no doubt that the traditional Virgin Birth is assumed here, though applied in a spiritual-symbolic, rather than biological-historical, sense.

Verses 6-7 of this Ode were quoted by Lactantius (Institutes 4:12), though the Latin differs noticeably in the translation of the first two verbs in v. 6.

For other passages which either allude to the birth of Jesus, or use language drawn from the Lukan Infancy narrative, see Odes 28:1-2, 17; 29:11; 32:3; 41:10, 13ff

Birth of the Son of God: Philippians 2:6-11

“God sent His Son”

An important aspect of the Birth of the Son of God (the theme of these Christmas season notes) is the idea of God (the Father) sending Jesus. For a key reference in early Christian preaching, see Acts 3:26 (v. 20 apparently being to Jesus’ future appearance). It also appears numerous times related to Jesus’ earthly ministry (in his own words, as preserved in Gospel tradition)—Mark 9:37 par; Matt 15:24; Luke 4:18 (citing Isa 61:1), 43; 10:16—often in the specific context of salvation (cf. Acts 13:26). In the sayings of Jesus, there is a (reciprocal) parallel to his sending of the disciples (Mark 9:37 par; Lk 10:16; John 13:20; 17:18ff; 20:21, also Matt 10:16; Lk 10:3; 22:35; Jn 4:38). In the Gospel of John, there are dozens of instances where Jesus refers to himself (or “the Son”) being sent by the Father (several of which have already been mentioned):

Jn 4:34; 5:23-24, 30, 36-37; 6:38-39, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28-29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42; 12:42-45, 49; 13:16, 30; 14:24; 15:21; 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25; 20:21

A number of these strongly suggest divine pre-existence of the Son (cf. Jn 1:1ff; 8:58), while others indicate, at the very least, being sent prior to his (human) birth.

Among the most important references to Jesus (as God’s Son) being sent are Galatians 4:4 and Romans 8:3, both of which have been discussed in detail in prior notes (cf. in Advent season and on “Paul’s view of the Law in Romans” [soon to be posted here]):

o%te de\ h@lqen to\ plh/rwma tou= xro/nou e)cape/steilen o( qeo\$ to\n ui(o\n au)tou= geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$ geno/menon u(po\ no/mon
“but when the fullness of time came, God set forth out from (him) his Son, coming to be out of a woman, coming to be under the Law…” (Gal 4:4)

o( qeo\$ to\n e(autou= ui(o\n pe/mya$ e)n o(moiw/mati sarko\$ a(marti/a$ kai\ peri\ a(marti/a$ kate/krinen th\n a(marti/an e)n th=| sarki/, i%na to\ dikai/wma tou= no/mou plhrwqh=| e)n h(mi=n
“…God, sending his own Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh] and about [i.e. for the sake of] sin, judged against sin in the flesh, (so) that the just/right (thing) of the Law should be filled up [i.e. fulfilled] in us” (Rom 8:3b-4a)

 There is a similar passage in John 3:16-17 and the parallel 1 John 4:9-10 (v. 14) which also emphasize Jesus’ sacrificial (and salvific) death—God sends his Son as Savior, through his death and resurrection. Indeed, according to at least one strand of early Gospel preaching (as preserved in the book of Acts), it is specifically through his resurrection (and exaltation) that Jesus was understood to be ‘born’ as Son of God (see esp. the use of Psalm 2:7 in Acts 13:32-33). These two aspects—his death and resurrection—provide the defining structure to the so-called “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11.

Philippians 2:6-11

This famous passage, which, according to the view of many scholars, is part of an earlier hymn that Paul makes use of in his letter, begins with Jesus’ divine status/position/nature in verse 6—”beginning under [i.e. being/subsisting] in the form of God [e)n morfh=| qeou=]”. It is not possible to examine this difficult phrase in detail, but it certainly indicates some manner of pre-existence. The second phrase of the verse is even more problematic (and controversial), but I interpret the basic idea to be that Jesus did not take the opportunity of seizing equality (lit. “did not lead seizure [for himself] to be equal”) to God—which can be understood several different ways (cf. my earlier note on this passage). More important in terms of Paul’s purpose is the fact that Jesus willingly “emptied [e)ke/nwsen] himself”—a kind of self-sacrifice, referred to in theology as kenosis (from Greek ke/no$, “empty”). This is connected to the doctrine of incarnation—the divine Christ/Son taking on human form, which, of course, cannot be separated from the reality of his (human) birth. Note the phrases which follow in vv. 7-8:

  • morfh\n dou/lou la/bwn “taking the form of a slave” (par. to “the form of God” in v. 6)
  • e)n o(moiw/mati a)nqrw/pwn geno/meno$coming to be in the likeness of men” (note the similar use of gi/nomai as in Jn 1:14; Gal 4:4; Rom 1:3, and of “likeness [o(moi/wma]” in Rom 8:3)
    kai\ sxh/mati eu(reqei\$ w($ a&nqrwpo$ “and being found having (the) shape/appearance as a man”
  • geno/meno$ u(ph/koo$ me/xri qana/toucoming to be obedient [lit. hearing under] until death…” (v. 8)

The clause “he lowered himself” (e)tapei/nwsen e(auto\n) beginning verse 8 is parallel to “he emptied himself” (e(auto\n e)ke/nwsen) at the start of verse 7. In traditional theological/christological language, this emptying/lowering is referred to as the humiliation of Christ—the first of two so-called “states of Christ”. It is followed by the second state—his exaltation—in vv. 9-11:

  • V. 9a: “God lifted/raised him high” (o( qeo\$ au)to\n u(peru/ywsen)
    —V. 9b: “and showed favor [e)xari/sato] to him (with) the name th(at is) over every name”
  • V. 10-11: this powerful compound clause depicts Jesus’ exalted status in heaven—as ruler/judge

There is a clear Christological chiasm expressed in these verses—moving from divine/heavenly (pre-)existence, and back to an exalted status (as God/Lord) in heaven:

  • God sends his Son from him (i.e. from heaven)
    • to be born (lit. come to be) of a woman (Gal 4:4)
      • into the suffering/slavery of the human condition (v. 7a)
      • suffering/death on the cross (v. 8)
    • through the resurrection, Jesus is “born” (i.e. firstborn of the dead)
  • God exalts him to heaven, at his right hand, as Son of God (cf. Ps 2:7 / Acts 13:32-33) and Lord

This same sequence is indicated, in simpler form, by the four main aorist verbs that guide the syntax of the passage:

  • e)ke/nwsen (“he [Jesus] emptied [himself]”)—his ‘departure’ from heaven and birth/incarnation as a human being
  • e)tapei/nwsen (“he lowered [himself]”)—his suffering and death
  • u(peru/ywsen (“[God] lifted [him] high”)—Jesus’ resurrection and ascension/exaltation
  • e)xari/sato (“[God himself] showed favor [to him]”)—”with the name over every name”, as Lord and (Son of) God in heaven

Phil 2:9-11 shows the importance of Jesus’ name and titles—which, according to the ancient/traditional mindset, indicate and represent his essential identity. In this regard, the name and titles used in the Lukan Infancy narratives are especially significant:

  • Jesus/Yeshua ( )Ihsou=$)—v. 10; Luke 1:31; 2:21 (cf. Matt 1:21 for the traditional etymological association with salvation)
  • Lord (ku/rio$)—traditionally used to render YHWH, and almost certainly the “name” granted to Jesus in vv. 9-10; cf. Luke 1:43, 76; 2:11
  • Son of God (o( ui(o\$ qeou=)—Luke 1:32, 35; not used in Phil 2:6-11, but note the parallel to Gal 4:4; Rom 1:3-4 and the general context of vv. 6, 9
  • Anointed (xristo/$)—Luke 2:11 (also v. 26); note the traditional juxtaposition of “Anointed” and Jesus/Yeshua at the end of v. 5, right before vv. 6-11 (the relative pronoun o%$ [“who”] at the start of v. 6 refers specifically to “[the] Anointed Yeshua”)

Finally, it is worth noting the association of the expression “coming to be (born) of a woman” (Gal 4:4; cf. similar use of gi/nomai [“come to be”] in Rom 1:3; Jn 1:14 and here in Phil 2:7) in terms of the suffering of the human condition, including a specific connection with sin. This is a most sensitive point, to be discussed in upcoming notes. In Phil 2:6-11, this is referred to under the common Pauline motive of slavery (“taking the form of a slave“, v. 7). Consider the parallel (and at least partly synonymous) expressions:

  • “under the Law” (Gal 4:4)—”God sent forth his Son, coming to be… under the Law”
  • “in the likeness of flesh of sin” (Rom 8:3)—”…sending His own Son in the likeness of flesh of sin” (cf. also 2 Cor 5:21)

However we may interpret these difficult passages—i.e. in terms of the connection between Jesus’ incarnate human nature and sin—they must be understood primarily from the standpoint of Jesus’ sacrificial and atoning death. This is also the context of the occurrence of genna/w (“come to be born”, cognate with gi/nomai) in John 18:37, in his dialogue with Pilate prior to the crucifixion (cf. the recent discussion): “unto this have I come to be (born), and unto this have I come into the world.” Here, as in several other passages which we have looked at in these Christmas season notes, the birth and death of the Son of God come together—two sides of the same Gospel message.

January 3 (Luke 2:29)

Luke 2:29

In the previous daily note, I discussed the overall background and setting of the Song of Simeon (2:29-32); beginning today, the next three notes will discuss the Song in detail. The hymn is comprised of three lines (distychs or bicola), which I render here somewhat conventionally, to preserve the poetic rhythm and feel:

“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.”

Today I examine the first line (bicolon) in verse 29, which I now translate more literally:

  • Now you loose your slave from (his bond), O Master,
    • according to your utterance, in peace

The corresponding Greek is:

  • Nu=n a)polu/ei$ to\n dou=lo/n sou, de/spota
    • kata\ to\ r(h=ma/ sou e)n ei)rh/nh|

Each of the key words will be discussed in turn, beginning with the particle nu=n (“now”). This temporal particle functions as an adverb, governed by the verb which follows. It is set in emphatic position at the beginning of the line—i.e., “now you loose your slave…”. This emphatic particle sets the hymn in motion. Note the important (chiastic) symmetry of the remainder of the line:

  • you loose from (bondage/service)
    —your slave
    ——Master
    —according to your word
  • in peace

This structure reflects the precise word order of the line, and should be kept in mind when studying the verse in detail.

a)polu/ei$ (“you loose from [bondage/service]”)—the verb a)polu/w literally means “(set) loose from”, i.e. from bondage or service (as a slave); in English idiom we would say “release from”, i.e. from the obligation. The reference is to the period of service for a slave, who could be released (set free) from that bond only by permission of the master, or when an agreed upon time of service had elapsed. Here it is also used as an idiom for the end of a person’s life, marking the end of his/her (earthly) service to God, often implying hard work and suffering (i.e. bondage). Death is viewed as a release, a loosing from bondage—cf. Gen 15:2; Num 20:29; Tobit 3:6; 2 Macc 9:9.

to\n dou=lo/n sou (“your slave”)—the word dou=lo$ (“slave”) is typically translated “servant” in order to soften the expression, and to avoid comparisons with the more oppressive/abusive forms of slavery known from U.S. history and elsewhere. Simeon considers himself a slave (or servant) of God, just as Paul, along with other early Christians, called themselves slaves of God, or of Christ (cf. Rom 1:1; 6:16ff; 1 Cor 7:22; 2 Cor 4:5; Gal 1:10, etc).

de/spota (“[O] Master”)—here the word should be understood in its literal sense of owner, i.e. one who possesses and has authority over a slave (1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9; 1 Pet 2:18). It was often used in the broader sense of “master, lord”, etc., and could apply as an honorific title of address for any ruler. It translates the Hebrew /wda* (“lord”), and occasionally is used in the LXX in place of the divine name YHWH (Prov 29:25, cf. Isa 1:24; Jon 4:3). The author of the Gospel uses it again in a similar context in Acts 4:24. It is applied as a title of Christ in Jude 4, and is found in the context of believers as slaves of God (and Christ) in 2 Tim 2:21; 2 Pet 2:1. According to the structure indicated above, the vocative de/spota (“O Master”) is at the center or heart of the line.

kata\ to\n r(h=ma/ sou (“according to your utterance”)—r(h=ma, usually translated “word”, properly means something which is spoken out, uttered by a person. Here it relates to the authority the master/owner has over the slave. A casual reading of the line would indicate that the focus is on the slave being released by the word of the master. And yet, the structure of the line (cf. above) rather suggests that the emphasis is on the authority (and ownership) the master has over the slave; note again the parallel:

    • your slave…
    • …according to your word

Because the master has authority over the slave, only his word—that is, an agreement or command declared by him—can release the slave. The narrative context of verse 26 relates this to a promise by God to Simeon, made through the Holy Spirit:

“and (the) information had been (giv)en to him, under [i.e. by] the holy Spirit, (that he was) not to see death before he should see the Anointed (One) of the Lord”

This is the explanation or interpretation given by the author.

e)n ei)rh/nh| (“in peace”)—Again, if we consider the structure of the line (cf. above), this phrase qualifies the primary verb:

    • you loose (him) from (service)…
    • …in peace

This reflects the basic idea of blessing—of a person departing, or being sent off in peace. As an idiom for death, cf. Gen 15:15. Very likely, there is also an allusion here to the Joseph narrative (Gen 46:30), where the elderly Jacob (Israel) declares that he can die (i.e. in peace) now that he has seen his son (Joseph) again:

“from now [nu=n] (on) I shall [i.e. I can] die away, since I have seen your face (and) that you still live!”

Jacob, like Simeon, is one who is waiting for the deliverance (salvation) of God (49:18). Returning to the interpretation in Lk 2:26, Simeon’s desire, in terms of Messianic expectation, should be related to Messianic (Jewish) thought of the period. In the so-called Psalms of Solomon (17:50), we find the idea that the person is truly blessed who is able to witness the coming of the Messianic Age and the deliverance of God’s people (cf. also Lk 10:23-24). Ps Sol 17:34 draws upon the same Isaiah traditions as the Song of Simeon (vv. 30-32), which will be discussed in the next two notes. There is also a strong Messianic motif involving the bringing and establishment of peace—cf. Psalm 72:7; Isa 9:5-6; Zech 8:12, etc. The birth of the Messiah (Jesus) in the Lukan narrative is accompanied by an announcement of peace on earth (Lk 2:14), so that those who serve God (i.e. believers) may now do so in peace (cf. 1:74). The transition from the old covenant (e.g. Simeon) to the new (believers in Christ) takes place in a moment of peace, as the aged Israelite, standing in the Temple, holds the baby Jesus in his arms.

January 1/2 (Luke 2:29-32)

Luke 2:29-32

To commemorate the New Year, over the next four days I will be presenting a short series of notes on Luke 2:29-32, the “Song of Simeon”. The first note (today) will focus on the hymn as a whole, its setting, background, etc, before examining each line in detail in the three successive notes. I have discussed this passage on several occasions before, including during prior Christmas seasons (cf. the recently posted articles here).

One of the most distinctive features of the Infancy Narrative in Luke (chapters 1-2), is the sequence of canticles, or hymns, which punctuate the account. There are four such hymns, each of which came to be part of the Christian liturgy and known by its Latin title (the first word[s] as rendered in Latin)—Magnificat (1:46-55), Benedictus (1:68-79), Gloria in Excelsis (2:14), and Nunc Dimittis (2:29-32). The Gloria, part of the Angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth, is extremely brief; but the other three are substantial hymns, which, in the narrative context, are presented as inspired oracles by the speaker—Mary (or, possibly, Elizabeth), Zechariah, and Simeon. In the case of Zechariah and Simeon, the oracle properly includes a prophetic pronouncement regarding the future of the child (John / Jesus).

The narrative setting for the Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis) is established in verses 22-28. In all likelihood, the author (trad. Luke) has combined the Simeon tradition (beginning in v. 25) with a separate notice in vv. 22-24 which serves two basic purposes: (a) it explains how Mary and Joseph came to be in the Temple with the child Jesus, and (b) it depicts Jesus’ parents as faithful Israelites who are fulfilling the religious obligations of the Law. Indeed, it may be said that these two elements—the Temple setting and fulfillment of the Law—are both essential themes within the Lukan Infancy narrative, and the work of Luke-Acts as a whole. Consider:

  • Mary and the child (along with Joseph) fulfill the requirements of the Law (vv. 22-24). Two basic laws are mentioned, apparently combined or conflated by the author:
    (i) the sacrifice for purification (from uncleanness) for the mother following childbirth (vv. 22, 24; cf. Lev 12:6-8)
    (ii) the consecration (redemption) of the firstborn son (v. 23, cf. Exod 13:1-2, 11-13; Num 18:15-16)
    At the same time, Simeon functions as a prophet who also cites the Old Testament Prophets (as will be discussed), applying them to Jesus. Thus, here in the narrative, it can be said that Jesus “fulfills the Law and the Prophets” (cf. Luke 16:16; 24:44; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 28:23)
  • The Temple setting is likewise a key motif in Luke-Acts, and is found in three different scenes in the Infancy Narrative (here, and in Lk 1:8-23; 2:41-50). Probably the author has in mind Malachi 3:1ff, with the idea of the Lord coming to the Temple. This distinctive prophecy, also related to John the Baptist as the Messenger who prepares the way (Lk 1:16-17, 76-77; cf. 3:4ff) for the Lord, is, in a sense, fulfilled by Jesus already as a child.

There is another important connection between the Temple scenes in 1:8-23 and here in 2:25ff, involving the parallelism between the births of John the Baptist and Jesus which runs all through the narrative. There is a specific parallel between Zechariah, father of John, and Simeon; both are:

  • 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” (di/kaio$) (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] (Why]r=k^z+)—”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. This latter theme becomes more specific with Simeon/Anna, but it is foreshadowed already with Zechariah/Elizabeth in the earlier portions of the narrative—note the motifs of waiting and expectation (1:13, 20-21, 24-25, 57ff, 70-76). There can be no doubt that Messianic expectation—i.e., awaiting the coming of God’s Anointed (Messiah) who will rescue/deliver his people at the end-time—is associated with the faith/devotion of Simeon and Anna. Two parallel phrases (in vv. 25 and 38) make this clear:

  • V. 25—Simeon was “(look)ing toward receiving the para/klhsi$ of Israel”
  • V. 38—Anna was “(look)ing toward receiving the lu/trwsi$ of Jerusalem”

The same verb prosde/xomai is used, which indicates a person who is waiting with eagerness or readiness, looking forward to (lit. “toward”, pro$) receiving someone or something. In the case of Simeon, this expectation is related directly to his righteousness and devotion. The two parallel expressions are especially worth noting here:

  • “the para/klhsi$ of Israel“—the noun para/klhsi$ (parákl¢sis) derives from the verb parakale/w, literally to “call (someone) alongside”, often in the sense of offering help and encouragement, etc. It is difficult to translate with a single word in English, and is typically rendered “comfort” or “consolation”, but the idea of offering help is paramount here—i.e., the aid God will give to his people in rescuing/delivering them.
  • the lu/trwsi$ of Jerusalem“—the noun lu/trwsi$ (ultimately derived from lu/w, “[to set] loose”) relates to the process by which someone is loosed (i.e. set free) from bondage or debt, etc. It generally refers to the paying of ransom/redemption (lu/tron), i.e. the price paid to loose/redeem a person from bondage, and is often translated as “redemption”.

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. This is important to keep in mind when studying the Song of Simeon itself, which 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).

Returning to the parallel between Zechariah and Simeon, in at least one respect the author draws a contrast:

  • Zechariah is unable to deliver the (priestly) blessing to the people (1:22)
  • Simeon does pronounce a blessing, on Mary & Joseph (2:34a)

Simeon actually speaks a two-fold blessing, introducing each of the two portions of his oracle with a blessing—one addressed to God (v. 28) which precedes the Song, and one addressed to Mary (and Joseph) prior to prophecy in vv. 34-35. This act of blessing—literally, to “give a good account”, i.e. speak good (words) to, or over, a person—should be considered alongside the Song and prophecy, as part of the inspiration given to Simeon through the Holy Spirit. This is the notice at the end of verse 25: “…and the Holy Spirit was upon him”. In fact, there are three references to the Spirit in vv. 25-27, each of which is important in light of the theme of the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts:

  • “the holy Spirit was upon [e)pi] him” (v. 25)
  • “it was given (as) information to him under [u(po] the Spirit” (v. 26)
  • “he came in [e)n] the Spirit…” (v. 27)

Note the similar references to the Spirit in relation to Jesus in Lk 3:22; 4:1, 14, and also to the first believers in Acts 1:8; 2:4, 17ff, etc. This may be a subtle way by which the author transitions from the old faith of Israel to the new covenant centered on the person of Jesus. As Simeon encounters the child Jesus (in the Temple, the point of contact between old and new, v. 27), holding him in his arms (v. 28), this new covenant is glimpsed and realized, at least for a moment. At any rate, it is the Spirit which inspires the Song which follows in vv. 29-32, and it is to the first line of the song that I will turn in the next daily note.

For an excellent overview and discussion of the passage, which I have found most helpful in preparing these notes, cf. 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), pp. 436-60.

Birth of the Son of God: Luke 2:10-14

Today’s Christmas season note looks at the famous angelic announcement to the shepherds in Luke 2:10-14.

Luke 2:10-14

As discussed in previous notes, Jesus’ “birth” as the Son of God in early tradition appears to have been associated primarily with the resurrection (cf. especially the use of Psalm 2:7 in Acts 13:32ff, also Romans 1:3-4, etc). Along these lines, there is an interesting connection between the announcement of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:10-14 and his death—based on his role as Davidic ruler (“Messiah”) and Savior.

To begin with, it is worth pointing out the way in the which the 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” (eu)aggeli/zomai, “I bring you a good message [good news]”) of the birth announcement (vv. 10-11) has become the good news of the Gospel (v. 14). 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 (cf. the earlier note on this topic). 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 xara/ (“gladness, joy, delight”), which is also related to xa/ri$ (“favor”, i.e. the favor or ‘grace’ one receives from God). This gladness is qualified as me/ga$ (“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 [panti\ tw=| law=|]”. In context, the “people” (lao/$) is Israel, but this widens in the Gospel to include Gentiles (“the peoples [laoi/]”, cf. 2:31-32).

This message contains two interlocking “Messianic” constructs or pairs:

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).

Luke 19:38

Jesus’ (triumphal) entry into Jerusalem is narrated in all four Gospels, with the image of a Messiah-figure entering Jerusalem, utilizing symbolism drawn from Zechariah 9 and Psalm 118. Luke 19:38 depicts the crowds greeting Jesus and quoting Psalm 118:26:

eu)loghme/no$ o( e)rxo/meno$…e)n o)no/mati kuri/ou [LXX]
“blessed [lit. of good account, well-spoken of] (is) the one coming… in the name of (the) Lord”
Hebrew: hw`hy+ <v@B= aB*h^ EWrB*

Two specific phrases identify the person:

  • “the (one) coming [i.e. the Coming One]” (o( e)rxo/meno$)
  • “in the name of the Lord” (e)n o)no/mati kuri/ou)

For the first expression, see Matt 11:3*; 23:39 (also citing Ps 118:26); John 1:27; 6:14*; 11:27*—the references with asterisks indicating a definite eschatological and/or Messianic context. On “Lord” (ku/rio$)—otherwise applied to YHWH—related to Jesus’ birth in the Lukan Infancy narratives, cf. Luke 1:43, 76; 2:11, and also 1:15, 28, 32, 38; 2:9, 26. Psalm 118:26 is quoted by the crowd in all four Gospel accounts; the greeting for Jesus may be compared as follows:

Mark 11:9-10

  • Hosanna!
    —”blessed is the one coming…” [Psalm 118:26]
    —”blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David”

Matthew 21:9

  • Hosanna to the son of David!
    —”blessed is the one coming…” [Psalm 118:26]

Luke 19:38

  • “Blessed is the one coming—the king…” [Psalm 118:26]

John 12:13

  • Hosanna!
    —”blessed is the one coming… [Psalm 118:26], the king of Israel”
  • Hosanna in the high(est) places!

 

  • Hosanna in the high(est) places!

 

  • In heaven, peace, and glory in the high(est) places!

 

 

Originally, Psalm 118 described the entry of the king into Jerusalem (all the way into the Temple), following victory over his enemies (by the aid/strength of God, vv. 10-18). Within the context of Psalm itself, this procession came to have a ritual/liturgical function (vv. 23-29, cf. also 2 Sam 6:17-18), eventually being used as a greeting for pilgrims entering Jerusalem for the Feast (Passover or Sukkoth/Tabernacles). As for the exclamation Hosanna, that is an anglicized transliteration of Aramaic an` uv^oh (hôša±-n¹°), Hebrew an` u^yv!oh (hôšîa±-n¹°)—”Save, O…!” (from uvy), a supplication/entreaty to God (or the king), cf. Psalm 20:10; 2 Sam 14:4; 2 Kings 6:26. It came to be used as a formal greeting, comparable to something like “God save the king!” in English (cf. J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXII, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 28A, pp. 1250-1).

The Messianic context of Psalm 118 (and Zech 9) here is unmistakable, despite the fact that neither passage was interpreted this way in the surviving texts from Qumran—indeed, there is no evidence for such use of Zech 9 in Jewish writings prior to the New Testament (for its appearance in Rabbinic literature, cf. b. Sanh. 98a, etc). But note how, in each of the Gospel accounts, the citation of Ps 118:26 is connected in some way to “king/kingdom” and “David” (i.e. a coming Davidic ruler):

  • Mark 11:10—adds the parallel phrase “blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David
  • Matthew 21:9—expands the initial greeting: “Hosanna to the son of David
  • Luke 19:38—inserts “the king” into the citation of Ps 118:26 (“the one coming, the king“, or “the coming king“)
  • John 12:13—adds “the king of Israel” to the citation of Ps 118:26

Following the triumphal entry, in the Synoptics, Jesus proceeds to enter the Temple—just like the king in the original context of Ps 118 (cf. also Mal 3:1). The Lukan Infancy narrative also concludes with Jesus in the Temple (2:46-50), the last of three important Temple-scenes (1:8-23; 2:22-38). There is also an interesting parallel between the triumphal entry, as narrated by John (with the mention of palm-branches, Jn 12:13), and the subsequent Temple “cleansing” episode in the Synoptics. In Jewish tradition, palm-branches were associated with the celebrations of Tabernacles and Dedication (Hanukkah)—the latter, of course, being connected with the Maccabean “cleansing” and re-dedication of the Temple (1 Macc 13:51; 2 Macc 10:7). By coincidence, Hanukkah corresponds generally with the traditional time given for the birth of Jesus, in winter (Dec 12-20 in 2017).

Finally, one may note a particular detail from the prophecy in Zech 9—after the announcement of the victorious king, coming to Jerusalem on a donkey (v. 9), there is a declaration of his rule (v. 10) in which he “shall speak peace to/for the nations”. As remarked above, in the Lukan narrative, peace is specifically mentioned in both the angelic annunciation (at Jesus’ birth) and the exclamation by the crowds at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (19:38, associated with his suffering and death, v. 42).