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…”.

“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 1:69, 78-79

Luke 1:69, 78-79

In the previous note, I looked at the hymn of Zechariah (the Benedictus, vv. 67-79), focusing especially on the opening lines (v. 68) and the beginning of the third part (vv. 76-77) dealing specifically with John the Baptist. Today, I will continue and supplement that study, examining the verses which follow—v. 69 and 78-79, respectively.

To set verse 69 in context, here is the opening line (v. 68a), along with the first section (or strophe), vv. 68b-71:

“Well-counted [i.e. worthy of a good account] is the Lord God of Yisrael!
in that [i.e. because] He looked upon and made (the) release for His people
and raised a horn of salvation for us in the house of Dawid His child
even as He spoke through (the) mouth of His holy Foretellers from (the) Age—
Salvation out of our hostile (foe)s(‘ grasp)
and out of the hand of all the (one)s hating us”

Verse 69 is parallel to the declaration in 68b:

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

The three verbs (in italics) are all aorist indicative forms, normally used to described past action or events. The two verbs, used in tandem in v. 68b, are:

e)piske/ptomai (“look upon”)—this compound verb carries the sense of examining something closely or carefully, often in the context of an authority figure coming to examine or inspect a situation. In Jewish and early Christian tradition, it is sometimes used in a specific theological sense—of God manifesting himself to give help to his people (Lk 7:16; Acts 15:14), sometimes in a distinctive eschatological (and/or Messianic) context as here in the hymn. The related noun e)piskoph/ carries a similar meaning in Lk 19:44 and 1 Pet 2:12. For more, cf. on verse 78 below.

poie/w (“make, do”)—the common action verb here is used with the noun lu/trwsi$, which refers to action which effects the release (lit. “loosing”) of a person from debt or bondage. Typically it would indicate the payment made to free a person from his/her bond. The word is rare in the New Testament, occurring only three times (here and in Lk 2:38; Heb 9:12), always referring to the salvation or deliverance worked by God (through Christ) for his people.

In verse 69, the verb is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

When we turn to verses 78-79, the focus of the hymn has shifted to the newborn child John. For commentators who hold that these Lukan hymns are earlier productions which the author (trad. Luke) has adapted and incorporated into the narrative, verses 76-77, which relate specifically to John, must be secondary. However, taking the hymn as it stands, these verses work to form a vital third section (or strophe) which makes a fitting conclusion. I translate the section here, with vv. 78-79 marked in italics:

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

The future role and work of John are described in verse 77, by the two verbal infinitives—”to make ready” (the ways of the Lord) and “to give knowledge” (of salvation to his people). This salvation (swthri/a), which must be understood along with the salvation and loosing/redemption (lu/trwsi$) mentioned in vv. 68-69 (cf. above), is qualified by the phrase “in the release [a&fesi$] of their sins”. Thus God’s people will be delivered and loosed, not from bondage to human captors—i.e. nations such as the Roman Empire who would dominate and enslave them—but from bondage to the power of sin. This differs markedly from the traditional role of the Messiah as one who will judge and defeat the nations, and more properly fits the work of both John and Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels.

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

  • The saving work of God takes place through, and as a result of, “the inner-organs [spla/gxna]” of his mercy. This is a Semitic idiom which associates mercy and compassion with the internal organs (heart, lungs, liver, etc). There is similar phrasing (and Messianic/eschatological context) in the Jewish Testament of Zebulun 8:2 (cf. also the Christianized Testament of Levi 4:4).
  • The verb e)piske/ptomai (“look upon”) from verse 68 is repeated here (cf. above). There is some difference in the manuscripts as whether it should be read as an aorist (“[has] looked upon”, as in v. 68) or future (“will look upon”) form. The context seems to favor the future form (e)piske/yetai), since the subject is not God himself, but the “rising” light that is about to come upon his people.
  • The word a)natolh/ (“rising up”) can refer either (a) to the sprouting up of a plant (or horn, cf. above), or (b) to the rising of the sun or a star. It is used in reference to the star in Matt 2:2 (“his star in the [place of its] rising up”). A number of Scriptures or passages which came to be understood in a Messianic sense, make use of similar light imagery—cf. Num 24:17; Isa 60:1; Mal 4:2 [Heb 3:20]. At the same time, the image of a “branch” or “horn” was also associated with the (Davidic) Messiah (cf. Isa 11:1; Zech 3:8; 6:12; Testament of Judah 24:4, and note also the references cited above).
  • The expression “out of the height” (e)c u%you$) is related to the divine title “Highest” (u%yisto$) in verse 76 (and cf. the note on vv. 32, 35). For the significance of “Highest” as a name of God, cf. the earlier article on the ancient name ±Elyôn. Help from God is often seen as coming “from high” (Ps 102:19; 144:7, etc).
  • The first phrase in verse 79—”to shine light upon the ones sitting in darkness and the shadow of death”—blends together several Scripture passages, namely Isa 9:2 and Psalm 107:10 (cf. also Isa 42:6-7). The first of these was applied to Jesus, as a Messianic prophecy, already in early Christian tradition (Matt 4:14-16), and came to be associated specifically with his birth (cf. my earlier notes on Isa 9:5-6).
  • The second phrase introduces the theme of peace—”to set our feet down straight into the way of peace”. The expression “way of peace” may allude to Isa 59:8, while the verb kateuqu/nw probably derives from the idea in Isa 40:3 of “making straight” (i.e. making clear) the way for the Lord when he comes. This passage, along with Mal 3:1ff, was connected with John the Baptist’s role in preparing the people of Israel for the coming of Jesus (Lk 3:4-6 par, etc). The theme of peace in relation to the Messiah, and the coming Messianic age, will be discussed in the note on Lk 2:10-14.

In verses 68 and 78 we find two words which, if not exactly proper names, certainly would have been understood as Messianic titleske/ra$ (“horn”) and a)natolh/ (“rising/sprout[ing]”). Interestingly, the early Christian writer Justin Martyr (mid-2nd century) seems to have understood a)natolh/ in v. 78 as a kind of name (i.e. Anatol¢); in this he may be following Zech 3:8; 6:12 LXX (cf. Dialogue with Trypho §121.2).

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

“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 1:68, 76-77

Luke 1:68, 76-77

The next two notes in this series deal with the hymn of Zechariah in Lk 1:67-79, the Benedictus. It is the second of four hymns in the Lukan Infancy narrative, and, like the Magnificat (vv. 46-55), is best known from the title based on its opening words (in Latin). I addressed the critical question of the origin and composition of these hymns briefly in the earlier note on vv. 46ff. The hymns of Mary and Zechariah run very much in tandem, as part of the larger John-Jesus parallel in the narrative. The hymn is spoken by the person who received the Angelic announcement of the child’s coming birth, and each hymn ultimately relates to the child in question—Jesus and John, respectively. As even a casual reading (in translation) will make clear, the two hymns have much in common, both in terms of outlook, religious sentiment, and language, drawing heavily on verses and phrases from the Old Testament Scriptures. There is also a parallel to the Benedictus in the Song of Simeon (2:29-32). If we were to combine the Magnificat with the Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis), the result would be a hymn (related to Jesus) of similar scope as the Benedictus (related to John). One finds an echo of the Magnificat already in verse 58, in the use of the verb megalu/nw (“make [something] great”, or “show [something] to be great”), and in the reference to the mercy (e&leo$) of God (cf. vv. 46, 50).

The setting of the Benedictus is particularly dramatic in the narrative context, as it follows immediately after Zechariah’s speech is restored, marking the fulfillment of the sign given by God (through the Angel) regarding the miraculous nature of John’s conception and birth. The text indicates that the hymn uttered by Zechariah is a divinely-inspired poem: “And his [i.e. John’s] father Zecharyah was filled by the holy Spirit” (v. 67). It is also characterized as an oracle or prophecy—”and he foretold [i.e. prophesied]”. This returns to the prophetic theme which characterized the birth announcement in vv. 13-17.

The overall structure of the hymn is relatively straightforward, and may be outlined as follows:

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

Today I want to look briefly at the opening line (v. 68a) and the initial statement in vv. 76-77 regarding John’s destiny. Verse 68 begins:

“Well-counted [eu)loghto/$] is the Lord God of Yisrael”

This verb eu)loge/w was discussed in the earlier note on verse 43; it means “give a good account, i.e. speak well of (someone)”. Here it is the related adjective eu)loghto/$, which, when used in a religious context, in addressing God, should be understood in the more exalted sense of giving honor or praise—i.e. “Worthy of praise is the Lord God of Israel”, “Praise be to the Lord God of Israel”, etc. The specific expression “the Lord God of Israel” (ku/rio$ o( qeo\$ tou=   )Israh/l), like the shorter “the Lord God” (ku/rio$ o( qeo/$) in verse 32 (cf. also vv. 46-47), reflects the ancient Israelite religious identification of Yahweh (YHWH) as the one true God (cf. the earlier article on this divine Name). The expression itself is found in passages such as Psalm 41:13; 72:18; 106:48, and 1 Kings 1:48. It goes back to the older formula °E~l °E_lœhê Yi´ra¢l (“°E~l God of Israel”, Gen 33:20) and the identification of Yahweh with the Creator God °E~l (“[the] Mighty [One]”). Yahweh is not only the one true God (worshiped by Abraham and the Patriarchs), he is also specifically Israel’s God. There is a general parallel here to the opening line of the Magnificat (vv. 46-47), where praise is given to “the Lord…God the Savior”.

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

e)piske/yato kai\ e)poi/hsen
“He looked upon and made/did”

The principal object of the these verbs is “His people” (o( lao\$ au)tou=), though the positioning after the second verb turns this into an indirect (dative) object—i.e. “He looked upon (his people) and made/did…for his people”. The immediate direct object (of the second verb) is the noun lu/trwsi$, which is ultimately derived from the verb lu/w (“loos[en]”), and signifies the act or means by which a person is loosed from bondage, debt, etc. It can refer specifically to the payment (i.e. ransom, redemption price) made in order to free the person from his/her bond. Here, as in 2:38, it is used with the figurative meaning of the deliverance God will bring to his people, especially in the eschatological context of the coming of the Messiah at the end-time. Thus, while the hymn (with its aorist verb forms) begins with God’s past saving action, the focus is ultimately on his impending future action on Israel’s behalf. This will be discussed further in the next note (on v. 69).

When we turn to verses 76-77, we see the future aspect come more clearly into view. This last strophe (vv. 76-79) functions as an oracle (or prophecy) regarding the child John’s destiny and the role he will play in God’s deliverance of his people:

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

Here John is identified specifically as a prophet—literally, profh/th$ means “(one who) tells (things) before”, i.e. “foreteller”, but here the prefixed particle pro/ (“before”) should be understood not so much in terms of time (speaking beforehand), but rather of position (speaking ahead of, in front of). Here we run into the dual-meaning of the title “Lord” (ku/rio$) for early Christians. While it most commonly was used in reference to God the Father (Yahweh), it also came to be used as a title for Jesus. As previously discussed, Psalm 110:1, and a Messianic interpretation of the passage (as applied to Jesus), was highly influential in establishing this two-fold application of the title Ku/rio$. Almost certainly, this wordplay, at the literary level, is intentional. The author, if not the speaker (Zechariah), was certainly aware of the dual-meaning and plays on it. John will function as God’s spokesperson (ay!bn`, prophet), declaring His word before the people, preparing them for His impending manifestation (Judgment) at the end-time, fulfilling the prophecy in Malachi 3:1ff. At the same time, according to the Messianic interpretation of this passage by early Christians, John will precede and “prepare the way” for Jesus, the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) who serves as God’s (Divine) representative to usher in the Judgment and rescue/deliver the faithful ones among God’s people. For more on this subject, cf. in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

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

ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai (v. 32)
“he [i.e. Jesus] will be called son of the Highest”
profh/th$ u(yi/stou klhqh/sh| (v. 76)
“you [i.e. John] will be called prophet of the Highest”

Within each phrase, the corresponding words ui(o/$ (“son”) and profh/th$ (“foreteller, prophet”) are in the first (emphatic) position. It is tempting to see here an emphasis on the greater, more exalted position of Jesus in relation to God (The Highest); however, while this is certainly true, I am not so sure that it is the main point of contrast the author is making. Rather, Jesus as “son” emphasizes the royal, Davidic (Messianic) role, according to the interpretation given to Scriptures such as 2 Sam 7 and Psalm 2. The Davidic king and Anointed ruler (i.e. Messiah) was called by the title “Son”—that is, God’s son, primarily in a figurative sense. Early Christians, of course, recognized in Jesus something more than this, but the author of the Gospel (trad. Luke), I would maintain, is not giving readers the full picture here in the Infancy narrative. He leaves something in reserve, to be ‘discovered’ as one proceeds through the Gospel and into the book of Acts. What is prefigured in the narrative here, and in the hymn of Zechariah, is not so much the deity of Christ, but rather his role as Savior. This will be discussed further in the next note (tomorrow) on the Benedictus. In closing, however, it is worth pointing out the way John’s role is characterized and described in vv. 76-77, with a pair of infinitives expressing purpose (and result):

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

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.