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
    • (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
  • 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.

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
    —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”.

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
    —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.

Two Deutero-Canonical Texts on the Birth of Jesus

As a special note for Christmas Eve, I will be looking at two texts which reflect two different, but equally creative, traditional ways for interpreting the birth of Jesus.

The first is another example of the tendency of Christians to find types and prophecies of Christ (and his birth) in the most unlikeliest of Scriptures. I have already discussed a number of Old Testament passages (including detailed studies on Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6-7) in prior Advent season notes. Here I will be discussing a deutero-canonical (or “Apocryphal”) passage: Wisdom 8:14-15.

Wisdom 8:14-15:

14As all things had quiet silence (round) about them,
and night was (in) the middle in (its) own swiftness
15Your all-powerful logos from (the) heavens, out of (the) royal throne,
(as) a severe warrior leaped into the middle of the earth (set) for destruction

The book of Wisdom (sometimes known by its pseudepigraphic title “Wisdom of Solomon”) is, along with the book of Sirach (or “Ecclesiasticus”), the most valued and prestigious of the so-called “Apocryphal” (deutero-Canonical) books; virtually every Church Father who mentions or cites from it, treats it essentially as authoritative Scripture. It belongs to the category of Wisdom literature, and is a poetic philosophical discourse, a product of Hellenistic Judaism—combining Biblical and Jewish teaching with Greek philosophy (Stoic and Platonic), in a manner similar to that of Philo a century or so later. The second half of the book (chapters 11-19) comprises a lengthy treatment of the Exodus, contrasting the Israelites who (should) trust in God (thereby walking according to Divine Wisdom) with the Egyptian who rely upon vain idols. The section 18:5-25 covers the tenth plague (destruction of the firstborn); I would outline this section as follows:

a. The infant Moses is saved from the destruction of the Israelite children—in the middle of destruction—in accordance with revelation and the promises made to the Fathers; the juxtaposition of deliverance/punishment is reiterated as a theme (vv. 5-8)

b. Comparison of the children of the virtuous (devout Israel) with the children of Egypt: one united in blessing, the other in common death (vv. 9-12)

c. The people (of Israel) acknowledged to be God’s son (confirmed by the failure of pagan idolatry) (v. 13)

cæ. The Logos/Word of God comes out of heaven carrying the sword of His decree (v. 14-16a)

bæ. Death and destruction brought upon the land of Egypt (vv. 16b-19)

aæ. Death comes upon the Israelites in the wilderness, but Moses intercedes to bring salvation, according to the promises God made to the Fathers; juxtaposition of deliverance/punishment within the people of Israel itself (vv. 20-25)

Above I gave a rather literal translation of vv. 14-15; in order to provide some context for the central passage, I offer here a more fluid rendering of vv. 13-16, with 14-15 in italics (translation by David Winston from the Anchor Bible series, vol. 43, p. 313, [my gloss in square brackets]):

Wholly incredulous thanks to their [i.e. the Egyptians’] magical enchantments, at the destruction of their firstborn they acknowledged your [i.e. God’s] people to be God’s son. While all things were enveloped in peaceful silence and night was midway through her swift course, your all-powerful Logos, out of the heavens, from the royal throne, leaped like a relentless warrior into the midst of the land marked for destruction, bearing your unambiguous decree as a sharp sword. Standing it filled all things with death; it touched the heavens, yet stood poised upon the earth.

Clearly, vv. 14-15 refer to the ‘angel of Death’ that strikes the land of Egypt—a curious passage to apply to the birth of Jesus! Yet there are several factors which prompted Christians to interpret it in this manner:

  1. The reference to “God’s son” at the end of verse 13. Israel as God’s (firstborn) “son” appears in numerous ways throughout the Old Testament, with specific (early) references in Exodus 4:22-23 and Hosea 11:1 (“out of Egypt I called my son”)—this last verse is explicitly cited in the Matthean Infancy narrative (2:15).
  2. The occurrence of “Logos“: the concept of the Reason/Word (lo/go$) of God as a (secondary) Divine hypostasis or personification (sometimes identified with Divine Wisdom), with its role in creation, revelation, etc., took on prominence in Hellenistic Jewish philosophy (see especially the interpretive works of Philo). All studious and devout Christians are familiar with it from the famous opening of the Fourth Gospel (John 1:1ff), from whence the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the pre-existent Logos—along with a powerful Logos Christology—was established in Christian thought.
  3. The contextual parallel with Moses—both as the infant child saved from the “violent waters” of destruction (18:5), as as the savior/deliverer who intercedes with God for his people (18:21-22). The Matthean Infancy narrative (especially in chapter 2) clearly draws on the early Exodus story, I believe consciously and intentionally emphasizing a number of parallel details. We have: (a) the infant destined to be savior rescued from death, (b) the wicked king (c) who orders the destruction of newborn male children, (d) the setting of Egypt including an ‘exodus’ out of Egypt. Indeed, the Gospel writer (2:15) applies Hosea 11:1 in a way that similarly takes the original Old Testament passage “out of context”.

Interestingly, a connection between Passover and the birth of Jesus (and so between his birth and death) developed in Christian tradition. This can be seen in dramatic fashion in the Nativity hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, cf. Hymn 4.31-34, 5.14, 27.18-22, etc. Jesus’ birth was thought to have taken place in the month of Conun (December-January), so his conception would have been in Nisan (April). In 5.14, Ephrem specifically identifies the conception with the 10th of Nisan, when the lambs designated for slaughter (four days later) are “closed up” (i.e. in the womb). The traditional imagery of Jesus as the Paschal Lamb, certainly made this a natural association.

By the end of the fourth century A.D. at the latest, Christians had come to understand Wisdom 18:14-15 in terms of the birth of Jesus—cf. Chrysostom’s 2nd Homily on the Gospel of Matthew (for the moment I have not found any earlier occurrence). Eventually the passage came to be used as a reading or lesson (lection) for Christmas, and was influential in establishing the tradition of Jesus’ birth taking place at midnight.

The second text, which I will mention only briefly, comes from the so-called Proto-gospel (Protevangelium) of James.

This is a pseudepigraphic work, which is presented has having been written by “James” (§25)—presumably meant as James the Just, brother of Jesus. Scholars of all stripes agree that the composition is actually considerably later than this, probably dating from the first half of the 2nd century (c. 125-150); as such, it is far less reliable historically than the Lukan and Matthean Infancy narratives, though it may still preserve a few pieces of authentic tradition. The book covers the birth and childhood of Mary (§§1-12), follows by a narrative of Jesus’ birth (§§1-22 + 23-24) which roughly corresponds to that of Matthew/Luke.

By the mid-second century, Gospel tradition had come to be expanded and embellished with many more legendary and/or fanciful details; in particular, there was a pious (albeit speculative) interest in “filling out” pieces of the narrative not found in Matthew/Luke, such as Mary’s background, the childhood years of Jesus, what happened in Egypt (cf. Matt 2:13-15, 19-23), and so forth. The Protevangelium was one of the earliest and most successful of these works; virtually all of the later surviving “Infancy Gospels” appear to be dependent on it in some way. Moreover, it proved to have an enormous (and lasting) influence on Christmas tradition, and in establishing the Catholic/Orthodox legend and traditions of Mary.

Perhaps the most beautiful and striking portion of the Protevangelium is in §18: after finding a cave in which Mary can give birth, Joseph goes out to locate a midwife in the area nearby. Vv. 2ff is written in first-person narrative:

Now I Joseph was walking, and I walked not. And I looked up to the air and saw the air in amazement. And I looked up unto the pole of the heaven and saw it standing still, and the fowls of the heaven without motion. And I looked upon the earth and saw a dish set, and workmen lying by it, and their hands were in the dish: and they that were chewing chewed not, and they that were lifting the food lifted it not, and they that put it to their mouth put it not thereto, but the faces of all of them were looking upward. And behold there were sheep being driven, and they went not forward but stood still; and the shepherd lifted his hand to smite them with his staff, and his hand remained up. And I looked upon the stream of the river and saw the mouths of the kids upon the water and they drank not. And of a sudden all things moved onward in their course. (transl. by M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament [Oxford:1924-]).

A rendering in more contemporary English:

But I, Joseph, was walking, and I was not walking. I looked up into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed. I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still; and the birds of the sky were at rest. I looked back to the earth and saw a bowl laid out for some workers who were reclining to eat. There hands were in the bowl, but those who were chewing were not chewing; and those who were taking something from the bowl were not lifting it up; and those who were bringing their hands to their mouths were not bringing them to their mouths. Everyone was looking up. And I saw a flock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand remained in the air. I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking. Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course. (transl. by Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures [Oxford:2003], p. 69)

An imaginative description, to be sure; but also immensely creative! Even if not historical, in a concrete sense, the image of Jesus’ birth at midnight, when all of creation stands still, is beautiful and apt to touch the soul of believer and unbeliever alike.

The Birth of Jesus and the Sibylline Oracles

Early Christians, having found evidence for Jesus Christ in any number of Old Testament passages (see prior Advent notes and articles), began to look toward other writings—Jewish and pagan—for signs which foretold the coming of Christ. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman empire, more such material became increasingly known and made available. A large portion of this Jewish literature comes under the umbrella term “Pseudepigrapha”—a rather unfortunate label which has nonetheless been almost universally adopted (for more on the meaning and use of this term, see the explanatory article on Pseudepigraphy and Pseudonymity).  These writings draw heavily upon the Old Testament books (thereby the qualifier Old Testament Pseudepigrapha), but are typically kept distinct from other writings of the period which also rely upon the OT Scriptures, namely: (a) the Dead Sea Scrolls, (b) works of Jewish philosophers and historians (such as Philo and Josephus), (c) the New Testament books, (d) similar works which draw upon the NT (in imitation of OT Pseudepigrapha), and (e) works of Rabbinic Judaism (Mishnah, Talmud and Midrashim). The Pseudepigrapha are primarily the product of Hellenistic and Greco-Roman Judaism, most being written in Greek (with some originally in Hebrew or Aramaic). They cover a wide range of material, with dates spanning from the 3rd century B.C. to the 7th century A.D. (or later). The standard critical collection (in English) is the 2-volume set edited by J. H. Charlesworth (1983), originally published as part of the Anchor Bible Reference Library.

It is mainly due to the efforts of Christian scribes (whatever their intentions), that the Pseudepigrapha have come down to us today. This fact of transmission and preservation has created additional complications for analyzing these writings. With regard to their relationship to Christianity, one may outline four distinct situations—works which are:

  1. Entirely Jewish (or very nearly so)
  2. Primarily Jewish, but which contain significant passages considered to be Christian interpolations
  3. Primarily Christian, but which are most likely built upon earlier Jewish material
  4. Entirely Christian, composed in imitation of Jewish models

In terms of Pseudepigraphal works which provide (apparent) prophecies of Christ, including prophecies of his birth, the so-called Sibylline Oracles are perhaps the most noteworthy. The Sibyls were ancient prophetesses described in Greco-Roman literature; already in the Classical-period (5th-4th centuries B.C.) they were shrouded in legend, and it is difficult to say to what extent they represent real historical persons. However, their purported oracles were widely consulted and referenced, and a number of collections were drawn up over the centuries, the most notable being the official collection kept in Rome (lost in a fire 83 B.C.). The set of fourteen ‘books’ of the surviving Sibylline Oracles is itself a mixture of pagan, Jewish and Christian material, dating variously between the 2nd century B.C. and sometime after 500 A.D. The following oracles (or books) are generally regarded as Christian productions or adaptations:

  • Book 6: A short hymn to Christ of 28 lines, cited by Lactantius (c. 300 A.D.) in the 4th book of his Divine Institutes.
  • Book 7: A set of oracles touching upon world history and prophesying the coming Judgment (lines 29-39, 64-75 explicitly speak of Christ); also cited by Lactantius.
  • Books 1 (and 2): A Christian expansion/adaptation of a Jewish oracle spanning Biblical history (see below)
  • Book 8: An extensive Christian expansion upon a (Jewish?) anti-Roman oracle. In addition to the famous acrostic (lines 217-50), there are two lengthy sections on the life of Christ (see below); this oracle is cited by Lactantius (Institutes bk 7, etc), and the acrostic poem in Augustine’s City of God (18:23).

The principle passages (abridged) which speak of the birth (or incarnation) of Christ are:


Then indeed the son of the great God will come,
incarnate, likened to mortal men on earth….
331Christ, the son of the most high, immortal God….
334Priests will bring gifts to him, bringing forward gold,
myrrh, and incense….


The one who has believed in him will have eternal life.
For he will come to creation not in glory, but as a man,
pitiable, without honor or form, so that he might give hope to the faithless,
and he will fashion the original man,….
269Mindful therefore of this resolution, he will come to creation
bearing a corresponding copy to the holy virgin,….


In the last times he changed the earth and, coming late
as a new light, he rose from the womb of the Virgin Mary.
Coming from heaven, he put on a mortal form…
469….A word flew to her womb.
In time it was made flesh and came to life in the womb,
and was fashioned in mortal form and became a boy
by virgin birth. For this is a great wonder to men,
but nothing is a great wonder for God the Father and God the Son.
The joyful earth fluttered to the child at its birth.
The heavenly throne laughed and the world rejoiced.
A wondrous, new-shining star was venerated by Magi.
The newborn child was revealed in a manger to those who obey God:
cowherds and goatherds and shepherds of sheep.
And Bethlehem was said to be the divinely named homeland of the Word.

Besides the Sibylline Oracles, one should also note the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs: a Jewish collection of prophecies, patterned after Genesis 49, composed for the most part sometime during the late (?) 2nd century B.C. (there are fragments of similar ‘Testaments’ among the Qumran texts, most notably 4QTLevi ar). The work as a whole underwent a Christian redaction at some point, for there are a dozen or so passages which would seem to be Christian modifications or interpolations. Since the Jewish material already contained a number of ‘Messianic’ passages, it is somewhat difficult to determine definitively all of the Christian changes. In terms of prophecies of the birth of Jesus, the most significant passages are (in abridged form):

Testament of Levi 18:

2And then the Lord will raise up a new priest….
3And his star shall rise in heaven like a king;
kindling the light of knowledge as day is illumined by the sun.
And he shall be extolled by the whole inhabited world.
This one will shine forth like the sun in the earth;
he shall take away all darkness from under heaven,
and there shall be peace in all the earth.

Testament of Joseph 19:8-12:

And I saw that a virgin was born from Judah, wearing a linen stole; and from her was born a spotless lamb….
9And the angels and mankind and all the earth rejoiced over him…
11….will arise the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world, and will save all the nations, as well as Israel.
For his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom which will not pass away…

Other passages from the Pseudepigrapha which describe in some fashion the birth or coming of Christ:

Ascension of Isaiah 11; Testament of Isaac 3:18; Testament of Adam 3:3; Testament of Solomon 23:20; Ladder of Jacob 7; Treatise of Shem; 2 Enoch 71 (J); 4 Baruch 9:15ff; History of the Rechabites 12:9a ff; note also Apocalypse of Adam 7:9ff.
See also Pseudo-Philo (Biblical Antiquities) 9:9ff (on the birth of Moses), 42 (on the birth of Samson); Lives of the Prophets 2:8ff.

Translations above of the Sibylline Oracles are by J. J Collins, those of the Testaments are by H. C. Kee (both from the Charlesworth edition V.1, pp. 318ff and 776ff).

The Sibylline Oracles will be discussed in more detail in an upcoming “Ancient Parallels” article.

The acrostic poem from the Sibylline Oracles 8:217-50, cited by Augustine in the City of God (18:23), made its way into the Christian liturgy as the “Song of the Sibyl” (better known by its Latin title Iudicii signum). Accompanied by a pseudo-Augustinian homily, the Song became part of a lesson chanted in the night office (matins) for Christmas (eve), until it was eventually banned as part of the Council of Trent’s liturgical reforms. It continues to be performed today, especially in the popular Catalan version. A reference to the Sibyl remains in the Dies Irae: the “day of wrath”, which was prophesied by both “David and the Sybil” (teste David cum Sibylla), a reflection of that interest in pagan lore—side by side with Christianity—which, having first appeared in the early Church, resurfaced powerfully during the Renaissance.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Luke 1:76-79

In the previous article in this series, I discussed verses 68-75 of the Song of Zechariah (the Benedictus), looking at the overall structure as well as the various possible Old Testament quotations and allusions in the poem. Verses 76-79 represent the second part of the Benedictus, and are often considered by critical scholars to be a secondary addition to vv. 68-75; at the very least, vv. 76-77 are typically thought to be a Lukan ‘insertion’, with 78-79 perhaps picking up again the original hymn. With regard to this critical theory, it should be noted that, if one were to remove v. 48b from the Magnificat and vv. 76-77 from the Benedictus, there would be very little indeed to connect the hymns with their context in the Gospel of Luke. This is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of the common critical view; on the other hand, there is really no way to cut apart the text in this fashion, without doing considerable damage to the literary integrity of the narrative. I prefer to look at verses 76-79 as a unit, without prejudice as to whether they were definitely part of the ‘original’ hymn; in any event, they are part of it as the Gospel has come down to us, presented as an oracle by Zechariah.

It is interesting, however, that although Zechariah is said to be ‘prophecying’ in v. 67, only vv. 76ff represent a clear prediction (“foretelling”) of future events. There is some dispute among commentators as to the sense and force of the aorist verb forms in the Benedictus (and Magnificat). If one views the hymns as actually uttered by the putative speakers (Zechariah and Mary, the traditional-conservative view), or even as adaptations of intertestamental Jewish hymns (one critical view), then the aorists probably should be understood as akin to Semitic prophetic perfect forms (declaring what will certainly happen), or perhaps as gnomic aorists (declaring what God [always] does for his people). On the other hand, if these canticles are indeed adaptations of Jewish-Christian hymns (the most common critical view), then the aorists could be taken in their normal sense—as declaring what God has (already) done for his people (through Christ). As I indicated in the previous note, I am here making no judgment as to the origin and composition of the Lukan canticles; but it is important at least for readers to be aware of the questions involved.

Verses 76-79 can be divided into two sets of poetic verses (or stichs):

Vv. 76-77:

Kai\ su\ de/ paidi/on profh/th$ u(yi/stou klhqh/sh|
proporeu/sh| ga\r e)nw/pion kuri/ou e(toima/sai o(dou\$ au)tou=
76And you, child, will be called foreteller [i.e. prophet] of the Highest,
for you will travel before [i.e. ahead] in the eye/face of [i.e. before] (the) Lord to make ready his ways

tou= dou=nai gnw=sin swthri/a$ tw=| law=| au)tou=
e)n a)fe/sei a(martiw=n au)tw=n
77to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in release of/from their sins

On verse 76: There are three points to note:
(1) John was indeed understood in the early Gospel tradition to be a prophet [lit. “foreteller”] (Matt 11:9/Luke 7:26; Mark 11:32 par.), and even as Elijah (by Jesus’ own words, Mark 9:12-13 par.; but note John 1:21, 25).
(2) The phrase “Prophet of the Highest” would seem to have special significance, more than simply indicating one of God’s “holy prophets”. The wording here is a precise parallel to the angelic announcement to Mary regarding Jesus: “he will be called son of the Highest” (Luke 1:32). The phrase also occurs in Testament of Levi 8:15 in a ‘Messianic’ context. There was current in Jewish belief at the time the idea of an eschatological Prophet, often (but not always), identified with Elijah (largely on the basis of Malachi 4:5-6 [3:23-24]). References in the Gospels to “the Prophet” and “Elijah (to come)” seem to assume a similar common figure. In the earliest strands of Christian tradition, Jesus was almost certainly understood as the (Anointed) end-time Prophet (but see his own rather cryptic comments regarding John in Mark 9:12-13 par. and Luke 7:26 par.). The fragmentary text 4Q521 from Qumran describes a coming Elijah-type figure (called Messiah), using language drawn from Psalm 146 and Isa 61, but also containing an allusion to Mal 4:6 [3:24]. Interestingly, in Jn 1:21 John denies that he is either Elijah or “the Prophet”.
(3) The second portion of the verse quotes Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1, the same passages used to introduce John in Gospel tradition (cf. Mark 1:2-3). Mal 4:5-6 [3:23-24] was already applied to John in the angelic announcement to Zechariah (Luke 1:16-17).

On verse 77: This is a prophecy of John’s ministry—cf. Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; also Matthew 3:8, 11, 14f. The word rendered by “release” is usually translated “forgiveness”, and some Christians may be a bit uncomfortable attributing this too directly with the dipping/dunking [i.e. baptizing] performed by John. There is no problem, however, unless one automatically identifies “release/forgiveness” with the idea of salvation in a more developed theological sense. In any event, the thought was very much in the air that the (final) judgment of God was imminent (see Lk 3:7 “the wrath about to come”), according to which repentance beforehand truly would mean salvation. The wording in Luke 3:3, that John went about “proclaiming a dipping/dunking of repentance [lit. change-of-mind] into/unto (the) release of sins” reappears in Jesus’ commission to his followers in 24:47: “repentance into/unto (the) release of sins shall be proclaimed… into/unto all the nations”.

Vv. 78-79:

dia\ spla/gxna e)le/ou$ qeou= h(mw=n
e)n oi!$ e)piske/yetai h(ma=$ a)natolh\ e)c u%you$
78through (the inner) organs of (the) mercy of our God
in which has looked closely upon us a rising (from) out of (the) height

e)pifa=nai toi=$ e)n sko/tei kai\ skia=| qana/tou kaqhme/noi$
tou= kateuqu=nai tou\$ po/da$ h(mw=n ei)$ o(do\n ei)rh/nh$
79to shine upon the (ones) in darkness and (the ones) sitting in (the) shadow of death
to set straight our feet (right down) into (the) way of peace

On verse 78:
(1) splagxna, sometimes translated “bowels, intestines”, more properly refers to the internal organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, etc., imagined as the focal point of human emotion (“heart” in modern English is a rough equivalent); it came to be used to symbolize compassion, especially, and so it appears most often in the New Testament. It only occurs rarely in the LXX, but is used more frequently in later Jewish literature. Cf. Test. Levi 4:4, Test. Zebulun 8:2 for wording (and Messianic/eschatological sense) similar to that in v. 78.
(2) The verb e)piske/ptomai already appeared in verse 68. It primarily means “look closely, examine, inspect”, but can also have the sense of “visit, attend” (for purpose of examination), and occasionally the connotation “look after, care for”. Both the verb and the noun e)piskoph/ came to be used as terms for the “visitation” of God in the (eschatological) day of judgment. Some manuscripts read an aorist (e)peske/yato, as in v. 68), rather than the future (e)piske/yetai); if there is meant to be a specific parallel with vv. 68-71, where aorist forms are used (note the aorist infinitives in v. 79, parallel to those in vv. 72-75), then perhaps the aorist is to be preferred here.
(3) There is some dispute as to the exact meaning of a)natolh/ (a rising, “going up”). Commonly it is used for the rising (dawning) of the sun (or a star): “east” is the place of rising (a)natolh/, see esp. Matt 2:2), and so is the most likely sense here—”rising” as the dawn of a great light. However, a)natolh/ can also refer to something “sprouting” up (such as a root, plant, or horn). Both meanings can be applied in a ‘Messianic’ sense: for a)natolh/ (or a form of the verb a)nate/llw) used for the Davidic branch/shoot (ƒemaµ), see the LXX of Psalm 132:17 [131:17]; Jer 23:5; Zech 3:8; 6:12; also Ezek 29:21; the 15th Benediction (of the Shemoneh Esreh), and further related usage in Test. Naphtali 8:2; Test. Gad 8:1. The most likely background for v. 78, however, would be Isaiah 60:1, along with Mal 4:2 [3:20]. Noteworthy also, is Numbers 24:17 (“a star will rise [a)natelei=] out of Jacob”), part of the Balaam oracles, and a popular Messianic passage in Jewish texts of the period (CD 7:20 A; 1QSb 5:27; 1QM 11:5-7; Test. Levi 18:3; Test. Judah 24:1).
The context may lead one to conclude that John, as “prophet of the Most High”, represents the rising/sprouting from on high. This belief, of John as Elijah or the (Anointed) Prophet, may have been current in some circles; but early Gospel tradition was careful to correct the thought (see especially John 1:7-8, 15, 21, 30ff, etc), and it is certainly not what the Gospel writer here has in mind. The confusion is removed if, according to one critical view, vv. 76-77 are a Lukan insertion, and vv. 78-79 more properly pick up the hymn from vv. 68-75. In any event, the narrative context, which has John’s birth running parallel with that of Jesus, allows us to see clearly what is intended: John’s birth and life signifies the coming of the light (in the person of Jesus).

On verse 79: This line is a clear allusion to Isaiah 9:1 [EV 9:2], part of an oracle traditionally understood as Messianic (cf. vv. 5-6 [6-7] which were discussed at length in a prior note), and elsewhere applied to Jesus (Matthew 4:14-16). Note also the language of Isa 42:6-7 and Psalm 107:10 [LXX 106:10]. The concluding phrase may be an echo of Isa 59:8.

For more on verses 78-79, see the previous note in the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Luke 1:68-75

The Song of Mary (Magnificat, 1:46-54) and the Song of Zechariah (Benedictus, 1:67-79) are the longest of the hymns (or canticles) in the Lukan Infancy narrative, and are the two most commonly considered by critical scholars to be adaptations of existing Jewish-Christian (or Jewish) hymns. They also play an important role in the structure of chapters 1-2. Note the parallelism:

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 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

The Song of Zechariah—1:67-79

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

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 Mary—1:46-54

The main reason many critical scholars hold that the Magnificat and Benedictus are Jewish (or Jewish-Christian) hymns adapted by Luke, is that they show many similarities to hymns in Jewish literature from the Second Temple period (such as those in 1-2 Maccabees, Judith, Sirach, the Psalms of Solomon, 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras], and especially the ‘Thanksgiving Hymns’ [Hodayot, 1QH] from Qumran). This involves both similar themes and use of earlier Old Testament passages. However, since these Jewish hymns and the Lukan canticles both draw from the same Old Testament language, imagery and motifs, these similarities may be coincidental—they certainly could apply as well to inspired (Jewish) speakers from the time of Mary and Zechariah. 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).

As I have already examined possible Old Testament passages reflected in the Magnificat (see previous article), I will here briefly look at the Benedictus. This I will do first by presenting the structure of verses 68-75, highlighting some of the key phrases which may be derived from earlier passages (both the Old Testament and deutero/extra-canonical works).

Eu)logeto\$ ku/rio$ o( qeo\$ tou=  )Israh/l
Well-spoken of is [i.e. blessed/praised be] (the) Lord, the God of Israel (v. 68a)

o%ti e)peske/yato kai\ e)poi/hsen lu/trwsin tw=| law=| au)tou=
that [i.e. because] he has looked closely upon and has made ransom/redemption for his people (v. 68b)
poih=sai e&leo$ meta\ tw=n pate/rwn h(mw=n kai\ mnhsqh=nai diaqh/kh$ a(gi/a$ au)tou=
to do mercy with our fathers and to remember his holy agreement [i.e. ‘covenant’] (v. 72)
kai\ h&geiren ke/ra$ swthri/a$ h(mi=n e)n oi&kw| Daui\d paido\$ au)tou=
and has raised a horn of salvation for us in (the) house of David his child [i.e. servant] (v. 69)
kaqw\$ e)la/lhsen dia\ sto/mato$ tw=n a(gi/wn a)p’ ai)w=no$ profhtw=n au)tou=
even as he spoke through the mouth of his holy foretellers [i.e. prophets] from (the) Age [i.e. of old] (v. 70)
o%rkon o^n w&mosen pro\$  )Abraa\m to\n pate/ra h(mw=n
(the) oath which he swore toward Abraham our father (v. 73)
swthri/an e)c e)xqrw=n h(mw=n kai\ e)k xei=ro\$ pa/ntwn tw=n misou/ntwn h(ma=$
salvation out of [i.e. from] our enemies and out of the hand of all the (ones) hating us (v. 71)
tou= dou=nai h(mi=n a)fo/bw$ e)k xeiro\$ e)xqrw=n r(usqe/nta$
to give to us (that), without fear, being rescued out of (the) hand of (our) enemies (v. 73-74)
latreu/ein au)tw=| e)n o(sio/thti kai\ dikaiosu/nh| e)nw/pion au)tou= pa/sai$ tai=$ h(me/rai$ h(mw=n
to do service for him in holiness and justice in his eyes [i.e. before him] for all our days (v. 74-75)

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 (see above), 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 (see the italicized words and phrases in the translation above):

  • 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… [e)peske/yato]:
    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 it often translates dqp, and 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 e)piskoph/) 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” (a)pe/steilen instead of e)poi/hsen).
  • Raised [h&geiren] a horn of salvation (v. 69):
    “Horn” (Gk. ke/ra$) 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 and Ezek 29:21 (“I will make rise a horn”, using forms of the verb a)natellw [cf. a)natolh 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).
    There is a parallel to vv. 68-69 as a whole in the Cairo Damascus Document (CD) 1:5ff: “…He visited them and caused… to rise up…”, language which is applied to the so-called “Righteous Teacher” of the community (cf. Brown, Birth of the Messiah [1977, 1993], p. 386).
  • 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 diaqhkh is the sense of Hebrew tyrb (“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]).

I will discuss verses 76-79 briefly in the next study.

“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 1:32-35

Luke 1:32-35

Having discussed the Angelic appearance to Zechariah in the last two notes, today I will be looking at the parallel appearance to Mary in Lk 1:26-38. This annunciation pattern was outlined in the prior note. In both episodes, the “Messenger [a&ggelo$] (of the Lord)” who appears is named Gabriel. This is established in the narrative introduction to the scene (v. 26):

“And in the sixth month, the Messenger Gabrîel was se(n)t forth from God into a city of the Galîl {Galilee} (with the) name (of) Nazaret…”

The mention of the sixth month connects this episode with the prior notice of Elizabeth’s pregnancy in vv. 24-25 (i.e. the sixth month of her pregnancy). The parallel between Mary and Elizabeth is obvious, and, according to verse 36, the two women were also related. The main difference between them has to do with the reason that each was unable to bear a child at the time of the Angel’s appearance—Elizabeth was both sterile/barren (stei=ra) and past the normal age (v. 7); while Mary was a virgin (parqe/no$) and still in the period of engagement (°¢rûsîn) when, presumably, she was not yet living with Joseph (v. 27).

Even more significantly, there is a thematic shift from prophetic motifs (Elijah, Isaiah, Daniel, etc) to Davidic royal imagery (from 1-2 Samuel, etc). This is indicated right away with the notice (in v. 27) that Joseph was from the “house of David” (oi@ko$ Daui/d). In referring to Mary specifically as a virgin (parqe/no$) there may be an echo of the famous ‘Messianic’ reference in Isa 7:14 [LXX], as also by the phrasing in v. 28b. It is possible that there is also a (Messianic) allusion to Zeph 3:14-17 [LXX] in vv. 28ff, with the parallel greeting “Rejoice [xai=re]…daughter of Zion” (cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 345). The use of xai=re (chaíre) as a greeting in v. 28 is of greater importance for establishing the keyword motif of favor (xa/ri$, cháris) in the passage. It should be recalled the occurrence of this theme in the prior appearance to Zechariah, in which the Angel (Gabriel) appears on the right-hand side of the altar, indicating that God is responding with favor to Zechariah and Elizabeth. The very name Yôµ¹n¹n ( )Iwa/nnh$, i.e. John) means “Yah(weh) as shown favor [µnn]”. The same Hebrew word is at the root of the name Hannah („annâ, hN`j^), the mother of Samuel (1 Sam 1-2), who serves as an Old Testament type/pattern for Mary, both in this scene and the hymn (Magnificat) which follows in vv. 46-55. The Samuel narrative was already alluded to in the prior vv. 23-24 (cf. 1 Sam 1:19-20).

This favor (xa/ri$) is, after the initial greeting (xai=re), expressed in two statements by Gabriel to Mary:

  • “Favored one [kexaritwme/nh], the Lord (is) with you” (v. 28b)
  • “You have found favor [xa/ri$] (from) alongside God” (v. 30b)

These are essentially parallel statements expressing the same idea, given two-fold emphasis. The phrase “the Lord (is) with you” may allude to the name Immanuel from Isa 7:14, which will be discussed in the upcoming note on Matt 1:23. There can be little doubt that the announcement which follows in vv. 31-35 introduces a number of titles with Messianic (and theological) significance, beginning with the declaration of the name Yeshua (Jesus):

“See! you will take/receive together in the womb and will produce a son, and you shall call his name Yeshua.” (v. 31)

The statement contains the three key elements of the birth process: conception, the birth itself, and the giving of a name. Y¢šûa±, like Yôµ¹n¹n, is a Yahweh-name (cf. the earlier article), related to the idea of God’s salvation/deliverance of his people; it will be discussed in detail in the note on Matt 1:21. With regard to the titles in verses 32-33 and 35, there are two important passages which help to elucidate their Messianic and theological significance—(i) from the Old Testament, 2 Samuel 7, and (ii) the Qumran text 4Q246, which was inspired/influenced by the book of Daniel. I set forth the parallels from 2 Samuel 7 (following Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 338) here:

  • “a great name” (v. 9)
  • “the throne of his kingdom” (v. 13)
  • “he will be my son” (v. 14)
  • “your house and your kingdom” (v. 16)

That 2 Sam 7:11-14 was understood in a Messianic sense—that is, as a prophecy of a future Anointed ruler in the Davidic line—is confirmed by the Florilegium text (4Q174[Flor], lines 7-12) from Qumran, along with other writings of the period. On the Messianic Davidic-ruler type, and the early Christian understanding of Jesus as its fulfillment, cf. the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (Parts 6-8). I have discussed the important Qumran text 4Q246 in considerable detail in other notes and articles; the parallels of expression with Luke 1:32-35 are striking indeed.

In verses 32-33, we find a sequence of five statements by Gabriel regarding the child Jesus’ identity and (future) destiny; they are each governed by a verb in the future tense:

  • “he will be great [me/ga$]”
  • “he will be called son of the Highest [ui(o\$ u(yi/stou]”
  • “the Lord God will give him the ruling-seat of David his father”
  • “he will rule as king upon [i.e. over] the house of Jacob into the Ages”
  • “there will be no end/completion of his kingdom”

The last two statements are parallel, expressing the same basic idea—that Jesus will rule as king, and that his kingdom will last forever. This eternal aspect of his kingdom marks it as having the character of the Kingdom of God, with the expression “into the Age(s)” being the traditional Greek idiom related to the Hebrew word ±ôl¹m (<l*ou). For the Hebrew term as a name or title of God (±Ôl¹m, “The Ancient/Eternal One”), cf. my earlier discussion in the article on ±Elyôn.

The third statement defines Jesus’ kingship in traditional Messianic terms—i.e., as a future/eschatological ruler from the line of David. In early Christian tradition, this came to be expressed by the use of the title “Son of David” for Jesus; for more on its occurrence in the New Testament, cf. Part 8 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

The first two statements (in v. 32a) are fundamental with regard to Jesus’ identity and future role in God’s plan of salvation. They govern not only the sequence in vv. 32-33, but also what follows in verse 35—that is, of the two halves of the annunciation taken together:

  • “he will be great“—Son of David (Messiah), i.e. ruling as God’s Anointed king upon the earth (vv. 32-33)
  • “he will be called son of the Highest“—Son of God (v. 35), i.e. with God in the highest places

The two implied spatial aspects (on earth / in the highest [heavens]) are expressed in the later Angelic announcement in 2:14 (to be discussed in a subsequent note). At the theological level, the titles Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) and Son of God are the two elements that make up the core early Christian understanding of Jesus (e.g. in Peter’s confession, esp. Matt 16:16 [par Luke 9:20]). Let us consider each of the titles that appear in Lk 1:32a:

“Great” (me/ga$)—The absolute use of this adjective is applied to God himself in the LXX (cf. Ps 48:1 [145:3]; 86:10; 135:5), while it is qualified when used of human beings (e.g., 2 Sam 19:33; Sir 48:22), as in its application to John the Baptist in Lk 1:15 (cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 347). Almost certainly a comparison between Jesus and John is intended here. That the title Great (One) essentially refers to God is also confirmed by the (likely) fundamental meaning of the old Semitic word °E~l, “Mighty (One)” (cf. the earlier article). Underlying the expression “Lord God” (ku/rio$ o( qeo/$) in verse 32b, is the ancient Israelite (religious) identification of Yahweh (the Lord [°Adôn]) with °E~l—that is, as the one true Creator God. This connects Jesus back past the time of David to that of the Patriarchs and the origins of Israel. The ancient God of Israel—the God of the Fathers—is the one who gives to Jesus kingship and the everlasting throne.

“Highest” (u%yisto$)—This Greek word translates, and, as a divine title, corresponds with, Hebrew ±Elyôn (/oyl=u#). On this ancient title, and its relation to °E~l, cf. the earlier article on ±Elyôn. It is at least partly synonymous with °E~l in the basic meaning “Mighty, Great, Exalted”, and of the plural °E_lœhîm used as an intensive (“Mightest, Greatest,” etc). In the Greco-Roman world, u%yisto$ was used as a title Zeus, just as “High/Exalted, Highest” might be applied to any deity associated with the Sky. Beyond the occurrences in the Old Testament (LXX) and New Testament, it is also used of Yahweh frequently in pre-Christian Jewish literature (Jubilees 16:18; 1 Enoch 9:3; 10:1; 46:7; 60:1, 22; 1QapGen 12:17; 20:12, 16, etc; cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 347-8).

Verse 35 in the second part of the Annunciation, following Mary’s question (“how will this be?”), relates to this latter name “Most High, Highest” and to Jesus as the Son of God. Note the pair of statements:

  • “the holy Spirit will come upon you”
  • “the power of the Highest will cast shade upon you”

Again, this reflects two aspects of one event or moment—the conception of the child Jesus (cf. verse 31). The declaration in v. 35b combines both aspects as well, in terms of the child’s birth and name (that is, his essential nature and identity):

  • “the (child) coming to be (born)…will be called”
    • “Holy”—i.e. Holy (One), related to the Holy Spirit (of God)
    • “Son of God”—son of the Highest

God as the Holy One, and his holiness, are emphasized frequently in the Scriptures, going back to the fundamental statement in Lev 19:2. The expression “Holy (One)” as a divine title will be discussed further in the note on 1:46ff. The title “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=) relates back to key passages such as Psalm 2 and 2 Sam 7 (cf. above), especially as they came to be interpreted in a Messianic sense by Jews and Christians. I discuss the Messianic significance of the title, and its application to Jesus, at length in another article (“Yeshua the Anointed” Part 12). Eventually, orthodox Christians came to understand the divine Sonship of Jesus in a metaphysical sense, but there is little clear evidence of this developed Christology in the New Testament itself. In the book of Acts, Jesus is understood as “Son of God” primarily in terms of his resurrection and exaltation to heaven (at the right hand of the Father). However, in the Gospel, this identity is established from the very beginning of his earthly life (cf. also Lk 3:22 par). The relationship between Jesus and God the Father (Yahweh) will be examined further in the next note (on 1:43).

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

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Luke 1:46-55

The hymns (or canticles) in the Lukan Infancy narrative are among the most beautiful parts of the Gospel, but they also present a difficulty with regard to their origin and place in the composition of the narrative. The traditional-conservative view would see them as inspired oracles spoken more or less exactly as they are recorded; critical scholars, on the other hand, tend to see them as separate existing poems placed into the mouths of the characters by the author (traditionally, Luke). From the critical viewpoint, there is the additional question as to whether Luke composed the poems, or whether he inherited them as early (Jewish-)Christian hymns. Much the same set of questions apply to the speeches in the book of Acts. It is a difficult and sensitive point of interpretation: on the one side, there is the weight of tradition and orthodox sentiment, on the other, a more natural (one may say ‘realistic’) process of composition. It rather depends on one’s understanding of the nature of the inspiration of Scripture.

For these Advent season notes, I will attempt no judgment on the matter, allowing the text to speak for itself. However, in examining the use and influence of the Old Testament on these canticles, it will be necessary at times to touch upon the critical points. There are four such canticles, or hymns, in the Lukan Infancy narratives, better known by their Latin titles:

The Song of Mary, if not as familiar as the Angels’ Song, it certainly the most often recited, having been a cherished part of the Catholic liturgy for many centuries. Virtually every famous Western composer in the late-Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical periods wrote at least one setting of the Magnificat. So familiar is it that one often does not study the verses in detail; such a study would reveal that this short hymn is actually a dense network of Old Testament quotations and allusions. Let us look briefly at each line (OT and Deutero-canonical passages cited according to the LXX):

Vv. 46-47:
Megalu/nei h( yuxh/ mou to\n ku/rion
My soul makes great [i.e. magnifies] the Lord
kai\ h)galli/asen to\ pneu=ma/ mou e)pi\ tw=| qew=| tw=| swth=ri/ mou
and my spirit leaped (for joy) upon God my Savior

This stich appears to echo at least two Old Testament passages:
(1) 1 Sam 2:1: e)sterew/qh h( kardi/a mou e)n kuri/w| u(yw/qh ke/ra$ mou e)n qew=| mou (“my heart is made firm in [the] Lord, my horn is raised high [i.e. exalted] in my God”)
(2) Hab 3:18: e)gw\ e)n tw=| kuri/w| a)gallia/somai xarh/somai e)pi\ tw=| qew=| tw=| swth=ri/ mou (“I will leap [for joy] in the Lord, I will rejoice upon God my Savior”)
In particular, Luke 1:47 is very close to Hab 3:18b. Cf. also Psalm 35:9 [LXX 34:9].

V. 48 (vv. 48-50 are often considered together as a strophe):
o%ti e)pe/beyen e)pi\ th\n tapei/nwsin th=$ dou/lh$ au)tou=
that [i.e. because] he looked upon the lowliness of his handmaid [lit. slave-girl]—
i)dou ga\r a)po\ tou= nu=n makariou=si/n me pa=sai ai( geneai/
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 (dio/ti ei@de/n mou ku/rio$ th\n tapei/nwsin, “because [the] Lord has seen my lowliness…”) and 30:13 (makari/a e)gw/ o%ti makari/zousi/n me ai( gunai=ke$, “happy am I, that [i.e. because] the women call me happy…”). V. 48a is also very close to the words of Hannah in 1 Sam 1:11 (translating conventionally): “Lord… if only you might look upon the lowliness of your handmaid…” [e)pible/yh|$ e)pi\ th\n tapei/nwsin th=$ dou/lh$ sou]). Cf. also the similar thought and wording in 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras] 9:45.

V. 49:
o%ti e)poi/hse/n moi mega/la o( du/nato$
that [i.e. because] the Powerful (One) has done great (things) for me
kai\ a%gion to\ o&noma au)tou=
and Holy is His name

The first line is close to Deut 10:21: ou!to$ qeo/$ sou o%sti$ e)poi/hsen e)n soi ta\ mega/la (“this is your God who has done the great [things] in you”). The second line may reflect Psalm 111[110]:9b: a%gion kai\ fobero\n to\ o&noma au)tou= (“Holy and fearful [i.e. awesome] is His name”).

V. 50:
kai\ to\ e&leo$ au)tou= ei)$ genea\$ kai\ genea\$ toi=$ foboume/noi$ au)to/n
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]: to\ de\ e&leo$ tou= kuri/ou a)po\ tou= ai)w=no$ kai\ e%w$ tou= ai)w=no$ e)pi\ tou\$ foboume/nou$ au)to/n (“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):
e)poi/hsen kra/to$ e)n braxi/oni au)tou=
He has done [i.e. shown] might in his arm
diesko/rpisen u(perhfa/nou$ dianoi/a| kardi/a$ au)tw=n
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 [e)n tw=| braxi/oni th=$ duna/mew/$ sou] you have scattered your enemies throughout [diesko/rpisa$ tou\$ e)xqrou/$ sou]”. The original Hebrew reads quite differently, especially in the first half of the verse.

V. 52:
kaqei=len duna/sta$ a)po\ qro/nwn kai\ u%ywsen tapeinou/$
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: qro/nou$ a)rxo/ntwn kaqei=len o( ku/rio$ kai\ e)ka/qisen praei=$ a)nt’ au)tw=n (“[the] thrones of chiefs the Lord has taken down and has seated [the] meek against them [i.e. in their place]”).

V. 53:
peinw=nta$ e)ne/plhsen a)gaqw=n kai\ ploutou=nta$ e)cape/steilen kenou/$
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 [yuxh\n peinw=san e)ne/plhsen a)gaqw=n]”. Cf. also a similar juxtaposition in the Lukan Beatitudes (Luke 6:21, 25).

V. 54:
a)ntela/beto  )Israh\l paido\$ au)tou= mnhsqh=nai e)le/ou$
He took (hold) of Israel his child (to help) in remembrance of [lit. to remember] mercy
kaqw\$ e)la/lhsen pro\$ tou\$ pate/ra$ h(mw=n tw=|  )Abraa\m kai\ tw=| spe/rmati au)tou= ei)$ tw=n ai)w=na
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.

For a tabular summary of Old Testament parallels, with the Greek text compared, see J. M. Creed, The Gospel According to St. Luke (1957), pp. 303-4; cf. also R. E. Brown, Birth of the Messiah (1977, 1993), pp. 358-360.

Having gone through the Canticle, it is worth mentioning several Old Testament parallels in the declaration by Elizabeth in vv. 42-44, which functions as a similar sort of inspired poem.

Verse 42. The opening words by Elizabeth take the form of a poetic line, with two parallel phrases, each beginning with the passive participle eu)loghme/no$. The verb eu)loge/w literally means “give a good account (of), speak well (of)”, which, when used in a religious context, is usually translated “bless”. The perfect passive participle form, “(having been) given a good account”, “(having been) spoken well of” functions as an attribute or characteristic of the person being addressed—a formula of honor, praise or blessing.

  • “well spoken of [i.e. blessed] (are) you among women” (eu)loghme/nh su\ e)n gunaici/n). This may be an echo of Judges 5:24 (LXX): “well spoken of [i.e. blessed] (is) Ya’el {Jael} among women” (eu)loghqei/h e)n gunaici\n Iahl). A more contemporary parallel is to be found in Judith 13:18, most likely influenced by the narrative in Judges. Judith, like Mary, also utters a hymn of praise to God (chap. 16).
  • “well spoken of [i.e. blessed] (is) the fruit of your belly” (eu)loghme/no$ o( karpo\$ th=$ koili/a$ sou). The expression “fruit of (the) belly [i.e. womb]” is a common Semitic idiom for pregnancy and childbirth (Gen 30:2; Lam 2:20, etc). However, this specific phrase is likely drawn from Deut 28:4. It is part of the blessing promised to those who remain faithful and obedient to the covenant God established with Israel. Here, too, Mary is faithful and obedient to God (1:38, 45).

Verse 43: “And (from) where [why/how] (does) this (happen) to me, that the mother of my Lord should come toward me?”. The reference to the child as “my Lord” reflects a basic belief among early Christians of Jesus’ divine status and position (as Messiah and Son of God), largely influenced by the wording of Psalm 110:1. The actual question by Elizabeth resembles that of two passages in the David narratives of 2 Samuel:

  • 2 Sam 6:9: “How shall the box/chest [i.e. Ark] of the Lord come in toward me?” (LXX)
  • 2 Sam 24:21: “(For) what [i.e. why] (is it) that my Lord the king came toward his servant/slave?”

Taken together, these provide a distinctive kind of theological and Messianic significance to Elizabeth’s words.

Verse 44. The reference to the baby (John) reacting within the womb of Elizabeth as a loose parallel with the words of Rebekah in Genesis 25:22f. As here, the LXX of Gen 25:22 uses the verb skirta/w, often translated “jump/leap”, but more properly referring to the wild/restless movement of animals (esp. the galloping of horses, etc). The idea of the child “kicking” in the womb may be in view. The joyful reaction of John certainly contrasts with the violent struggle of the children (Esau and Jacob) in Gen 25:22. More significant, however, is the way that the reaction in the womb reflects the future destiny of the child(ren) (Gen 25:23).


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 text-critical grounds (lectio difficilior potior); on the other hand, the textual evidence for reading “Mary” in v. 46 is overwhelming (including all Greek MSS). A few scholars have posited the reading “she said”, without the subject being specified. This is an interesting solution, which might explain the rise of both readings; however, without additional textual evidence for corroboration, the majority reading is to be preferred.