October 10: Revelation 12:1-6

Revelation 12-13

An intriguing aspect of the book of Revelation, following a common Apocalyptic literary model, is the way that visions develop one out of the other, often overlapping in detail and outlook, restating the same message in different and creative ways. In the first half of the book, the visions, for the most part, were relatively straightforward, expressed either in terms of: (a) scenes of worship and ritual in Heaven, or (b) vivid pictures of the Judgment which is coming upon the earth. While these aspects continue in the remainder of the book, they are presented within a more complex visionary narrative. The main theme of this narrative may be summarized as: conflict between the people of God and the wicked nations. Expressed in more traditional dualistic terms, we might better say—conflict between the people of God and the peoples/nations of Satan. This is the primary matrix in which nearly all of chapters 12-19 are set. The central theme of conflict was present throughout the opening chapters, but only begins to take a definite literary/narrative shape in chapter 11. Now in chapters 12 and 13, it is woven out in a visionary tableau, which establishes: (1) the history of the conflict (chap 12), and (2) the current manifestation in the time of distress (chap 13).

Chapter 12 has a fairly straightforward (and symmetric/chiastic) structure, which I would outline as follows:

    • Vv. 1-6: Conflict on earth—The woman and her child are threatened by the dragon
      —Vv. 7-9: War in heaven—Victory of Michael and the (good) Angels
      —Vv. 10-12: War in heaven—Victory Hymn, with praise and warning
    • Vv. 13-17: Conflict on earth—The woman and her children are threatened by the dragon

The outer portions (vv. 1-6, 13-17) refer to conflict on earth, in which a mythical dragon-being attacks a woman and her children. The inner section (vv. 7-12) narrates a parallel conflict in heaven, in which the dragon is understood as a heavenly being. The main difference is that the conflict in heaven ends in victory, while the conflict on earth remains to be fought (chap. 13).

Revelation 12:1-6

The opening words establish a new kind of vision:

“And a great sign [shmei=on] was seen in the heaven…”

The word shmei=on occurs only in the second half of the book (chapters 12-19, seven times). This marks the distinctive character of these visions, different from those in the preceding chapters. Even though the sign appears in heaven, what it describes and narrates takes place on earth. Actually, two signs appear, indicating the conflict which will take place between the two (symbolic) figures:

    • A Woman
      • cast about [i.e. clothed/draped] with the sun
      • down under her feet (is) the moon
      • a crown of twelve stars upon her head
      • she holds a child in her stomach [i.e. is pregnant]
    • A Great Fabulous (Serpent)
      • the color of red
      • having seven heads and seven horns
      • (royal cloth) bound around each of the seven heads
      • his tail drags down a third of the stars to the earth

The point of conflict between the two clearly involves the child she is bearing:

    • “being in pain and (be)ing tormented, she cried (out) to produce (the child) [i.e. to give birth]” (v. 2)
    • “the fabulous (serpent) stood in sight of the woman being about to produce (the child), (so) that it might gobble down the product [i.e. child/offspring] when she should produce (it)” (v. 4)

I have kept the translation above excessively literal, to make clear the verbal relationship between the child (“product/offspring”, te/knon) and the act of giving birth (“produce”, ti/ktw). The point is that the woman is in the process of bringing forth a child, and the ‘dragon’ stands by waiting during it all. The conflict between woman and dragon begins (in earnest) once the child is born. The reason is made clear in verse 5, where the special nature of the child is described:

“And she produced [e&teken] a male son, who is about to shepherd the nations in [i.e. with] an iron staff. And her offspring [te/knon] was seized/taken (up) toward God and toward His ruling-seat [i.e. throne].”

The words in italics, of course, derive from Psalm 2:9, blended with the Messianic shepherd-imagery taken from passages such as Ezek 34:23. It is possible that Micah 5:2-4 is specifically in mind here, with its combination of elements:

    • The coming forth of God’s chosen ruler (v. 2)
    • The motif of a woman in labor (v. 3)
    • The ruler as a Shepherd who will be great over all the earth (v. 4)

The use of Mic 5:2ff in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2), with its description of Herod’s attempts to kill off a new-born Messiah, certainly seems relevant as well. However, it is by no means clear that a reference to this specific Gospel tradition is intended. The narrative motif of the wicked ruler seeking to kill a chosen (male) child as soon as he is born, is found in many traditional tales and legends worldwide. It is perhaps enough to view the motif here as indicating that the ‘dragon’ wishes to destroy the child before he can exercise his chosen position of rule; the implication being that the ‘dragon’ is already (currently) exercising rule over the nations, or may have the opportunity to do so.

Despite the rather clear allusion to Jesus‘ birth in v. 5, the imagery in the vision is more complex than a simple history of his life. Consider how this is expressed in verse 6:

“And the woman fled into the desolate (land), where she holds a place there having been made ready from God, (so) that there they might nourish her for a thousand two-hundred (and) sixty days.”

This does not correspond with anything in the Gospel narratives per se; rather, like many of the visions in the book of Revelation, it represents a blending of elements:

    • The woman fleeing from attack—believers fleeing from persecution (cf. below)
    • The desert location—traditionally the place where people encounter God, experiencing suffering and deprivation along the way
    • The place “made ready”—Messianic language from Isa 40:3; Mal 3:1
    • A place of refuge coming from God—The righteous/believers find security and salvation from God alone
    • The strengthening of the woman—a time of growth and testing for the people of God
    • The time frame of 1,260 days (= 3½ years)—symbolic designation of the end-time period of distress

The reference to the 1,260 days is perhaps a bit misleading, as though there are two periods of 3½ years being referenced. The book of Revelation, it would seem, conceives of a single 3½-year period which represents the time of suffering and distress which is to come upon the world at the end-time Judgment. The motif of 3½ years, expressed variously in the book, ultimately comes from Daniel (7:25; 9:27; 12:7). The woman is in the desert, ready for the time of distress, but the 1,260 days themselves do not take place until verse 14, after the vision of heavenly warfare in vv. 7-12. If we are to attempt an historical approximation, it would be as follows:

    • Vv. 1-6: The period from the conception/birth of Jesus to the present time (i.e. time of the author and his audience)
      Interlude: Vision of the warfare in Heaven (vv. 7-12)
    • Vv. 13-17: The present time through the period of distress (“3½ years”)
Symbols of the Woman, Child, and Dragon

Like nearly all of the visionary figures in the book of Revelation, the Woman (gunh/), Child (te/knon), and Fabulous Serpent (dra/kwn), all function as symbols with a wider meaning than a simple identification with specific/historical personages. I would suggest the following line of interpretation:

    • Woman—the people of God, in both a heavenly and earthly aspect; that is to say, as a figure, it has a broader meaning than “Israel” or even “believers in Christ”
    • Child—this child, the product/offspring of the people of God, has a two-fold meaning:
      (1) the (first) male son—Jesus Christ, in his human/earthly life
      (2) the other children (v. 17)—Believers in Christ
    • Dragon/Serpent—the forces/powers of evil and wickedness; like the Woman (people of God), it has both heavenly and earthly aspects.

A bit more perhaps should be said regarding the dra/kwn, a word typically rendered by the transliteration in English as “dragon”, but which more properly refers to a creature with a fabulous/fascinating appearance; it is usually understood as a (hybrid) creature resembling a serpent. Various forms of this sort of creature are attested in myths and legends worldwide. The multi-headed serpent also appears in many traditions, but is especially familiar to Greek readers from writings such as Apollonius’ Argonautika 4.153ff. The most famous such monster is the Typhon/Typhoeus (Hesiod Theogony 821ff; Plutarch Moralia 359E, 362F, etc); though more relevant to the context here in the book of Revelation is the Python-serpent, opponent of the god Apollo, which sought to kill his mother Leto (Hyginus, Fabulae 140; Koester, p. 545).

Legendary serpent-creatures are also mentioned in the Old Testament, based on ancient Near Eastern concepts and terminology—cf. Psalm 73:13-14; Job 7:12; 26:13; 41:1; Isa 27:1; Ezek 32:2; Jer 51:34. They did not represent evil as such; rather, they tended to symbolize chaos and disorder, including the destruction connected with warfare (e.g., Jer 51:34; Psalms of Solomon 2:25; Sibylline Oracles 5:29). The Jewish and early Christian association of the serpent/dragon with evil, was largely due to the role of the snake/serpent in the Creation narrative (Genesis 3), acting as one who tempts people to sin and disobedience against God. In the vision of the warfare in Heaven (vv. 7-12), the book of Revelation specifically identifies the dra/kwn with the figure of Satan (i.e., the Devil); a similar identification is made in 20:2. The Genesis narrative also refers to a conflict between the serpent and the woman (and her children), 3:15, which may well be in view here in chap. 12.

In the next daily note, we will examine the vision of warfare in heaven (vv. 7-12), before returning to the woman/dragon conflict in vv. 13-17.

April 10 (3): Luke 2:34-35

In the year 2016, Good Friday coincided with the Annunciation—the celebration of the Angelic announcement to Mary. In most years the Annunciation comes close in time to Lent and/or Holy Week. This connection between the death of Christ on the cross, and his conception in the womb of Mary, may seem strange to most of us. We are perhaps not accustomed to meditating upon these two aspects together, but Church Fathers such as Ephrem the Syrian certainly were aware of the connection (especially the association with Passover):

Moses shut in the lamb in April
On the tenth day—a symbol of the Son
Who came into the womb and closed Himself up
On the tenth day…
(Hymn 5 on the Nativity st. 14, translation Kathleen E. McVey; cf. also Hymn 4 st. 31-34, etc)

The conception here is coordinated with the 10th of Nisan, at the time when the lambs are set aside in preparation of slaughtering for Passover (4 days later), cf. Exodus 12:3-6. Indeed, it may be most profitable on this day to consider the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary (Luke 1:26-38), both the prophecy (arranged chiastically):

    • ou!to$ e&stai me/ga$ kai\ ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai
      • kai\ dw/sei au)tw=| ku/rio$ o( qeo\$ to\n qro/non Daui\d tou= patro/$ au)tou=
      • kai\ basileu/sei e)pi\ to\n oi@kon  )Iakw\b ei)$ tou\$ ai)w=na$
    • kai\ th=$ basilei/a$ au)tou= ou)k e&stai te/lo$

“This (one) shall be great and called Son of the Highest
and the Lord God shall give him the throne of David his father
and he shall be king upon the house of Jacob into the Ages
and of his Kingdom there shall not be an end” (vv. 32-33)

and the answer to Mary’s question:

    • pneu=ma a%gion e)peleu/setai e)pi\ se
      • kai\ du/nami$ u(yi/stou e)piskia/sei soi:
    • dio\ kai\ to\ gennw/menon a%gion
      • klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou=

“(The) Holy Breath [i.e. Holy Spirit] shall come upon you
and (the) Power of the Highest will cast shadow upon you
through which the (one) coming-to-be (born) is holy
called the Son of God”
[the last portion can also be rendered as:]
through which the (one) coming-to-be (born)
shall be called holy, the Son of God” (v. 35)

However, I would like to look briefly here at another episode from the Lukan Infancy Narratives involving Mary: namely, the encounter with Simeon in the Temple (Luke 2:25-35), since it has traditionally been associated with the Passion of Christ. There are four parts to the narrative: (a) the purification of Mary / presentation of Jesus [2:22-24], (b) the introduction and Canticle of Simeon [2:25-32], (c) the Prophecy of Simeon [2:33-35], and (d) the presence of the prophetess Anna in the Temple [2:36-38], along with a concluding notice by Luke [2:39-40]. The Canticle of Simeon (known by its Latin translation as the Nunc Dimittis) is one of the most beautiful and cherished of New Testament hymns, and quickly became a fixed part of the liturgy: traditionally sung as part of the Daily Office (at Compline), as well as in funeral services, it holds a special place in the Holy Week Office.

I wish to focus on the second part of the Simeon episode, the prophecy (vv. 34-35). For the moment, I leave out the parenthetical prophecy regarding Mary, so that it is easier to see the prophecy in context:

i(dou\ ou!to$ kei=tai ei)$ ptw=sin kai\ a)na/stasin
    pollw=n e)n tw=|   )Israh/l
kai\ ei)$ shmei=on a)ntilego/menon
{prophecy regarding Mary}
  o%pw$ a*n a)pokalufqw=sin e)k pollw=n kardiw=n dialogismoi/

“See, this (one) is laid (down) unto the falling (down) and standing up
of many in Israel
and unto a sign being counted (i.e. spoken) against
{prophecy regarding Mary}
so that the countings-through (i.e. reasonings/reckonings) out of many hearts might be uncovered”

[or, in smoother, conventional translation:]

“See, this (one) is set for the falling and rising
of many in Israel
and for a sign to be spoken against
{prophecy regarding Mary}
so that the thoughts of many hearts might be uncovered”

The prophecy is fairly clear: Christ’s life and presence is set toward (and will lead to) the “falling down and standing up” of “many” in Israel. Are these separate groups of people, or separate conditions in which the same person may find him/herself? Or both? That there is some sort of division intended, I think is certain. And, indeed, throughout Jesus’ ministry, up to his death and resurrection, and for all the centuries thereafter, this prophecy seems to hold. Jesus himself speaks of bringing a “sword” (Matthew 10:34)—his life and teachings, indeed, his very presence, will cause division even between members of a family. There is a two-fold aspect to the second stanza as well: (a) a sign spoken against, (b) thoughts of many hearts uncovered. The adverb o%pw$ (used as a conjunction), links the two phrases into a purpose clause—i.e., the sign is spoken against “so as” or “so that” the reckonings of many hearts will be revealed. In other words, speaking against Christ (and what he signifies) is for the purpose of (and results in) the revealing of what is inside the human heart. Why “many” and not “all”? It is possible that the primary emphasis is directed toward believers, not all the people; that is, it is not a blanket expression of judgment, but of the sifting through and revealing of those who will come to believe.

What then of the difficult prophecy regarding Mary which is embedded in the oracle? The Greek reads:

kai\ sou= [de\] au)th=$ th\n yuxh\n dieleu/setai r(omfai/a
“[and] also of you (your)self a sword will go through your heart”

The precise meaning of the statement is difficult to determine. Traditionally, it has been seen as a prophecy of the suffering Mary will experience when she sees Jesus put to death on the cross—this is the popular “Sorrowful mother” (mater dolorosa) of the Stabat Mater and Pieta in Christian art. Some would treat this more generally in terms of the suffering and rejection Mary would experience (vicariously through Christ) or in her own person. Many scholars today tend to focus more specifically on Mary’s role elsewhere in Luke-Acts: she does not appear in the Passion scene at all; also several of the scenes in which she appears (2:19, 33, 51) in the Infancy narrative emphasize that she “treasured” [suneth/rei, lit. “guarded/kept together”] and “pondered” [sumba/llousa, lit. “threw/put together”] in her heart the things she has witnessed (v. 19). This, along with the position of the statement—right before “so that the thoughts of many might be uncovered”—has suggested that the “sword” is actually one of discernment or discrimination: that is, Mary herself will come to understand the reality of who Christ is, but only with struggle and difficulty. However, in the only other (Scriptural) reference to a sword “going through” (Ezekiel 14:17), it is clearly an invading sword of judgment, “cutting off” man and beast, leaving only a remnant to survive. Is it possible that Mary here is meant as a symbol (the “mother”) of all Israel (or at least the “many”), and the sword passing through her represents the very same judgment and uncovering of thoughts that will divide the people, leaving “alive” only a believing remnant?

Mary does, of course make an appearance at the cross in the Gospel of John (19:25-27), and this becomes the basis for her traditional role in the Passion. Both Byzantine and Western art, the image of the Mary and the “Beloved Disciple” (John) flanking the cross became standard.


However, in the West, by the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, a more popular image was the Mater Dolorosa at the foot of the cross, after the deposition, holding the dead body of Jesus (the Pieta). The visceral imagery and sheer pathos of the scene made it a favorite in Renaissance art, the most famous, of course, is that of Michelangelo.


Returning to the juxtaposition of the birth and death of Jesus, one should mention a type of combination icon which developed in Byzantine tradition—on one side, Mary with the baby Jesus (here the Virgin Hodegetria type), on the other, Jesus as the “Man of Sorrows”.

April 8 (3): Mark 14:3-9 par

Traditionally, the anointing of Jesus at Bethany inaugurates the Passion as celebrated during Holy Week. In addition to its poignancy, and spiritual teaching, the episode (or episodes) are immensely instructive for studying the ways in which the Gospel writers may have dealt with early tradition. Each Gospel contains an Anointing episode: Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8. The account in Matthew and Mark, occurring after Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem, is virtually identical; John’s account is similar, but is placed prior to Jesus’ Entry; Luke’s account is, in most respects, quite different, and is set earlier in Jesus’ ministry. A strict traditional-conservative approach might end up positing three separate events, but this is quite improbable; the choice, rather, is between one event, or two. Many critical scholars posit a single incident which branched off in early tradition to form the kernel of the Gospel narratives we have now. A more reasonable critical approach, I think, is to assume two historical episodes: one matching Matthew/Mark and John, one matching that found in Luke. Very straightforward; however, the situation is actually more complicated than that. For, despite the very different setting of Luke’s account, there are details which curiously match John’s account (against Matthew/Mark), and even several which match the account in Matthew/Mark (against John). I offer some comparisons here below; since Matthew and Mark are nearly identical, I will use Mark’s account for comparison.

Details common to Mark/Matthew and John:

    1. Setting in Bethany, near the time of Passover, in proximity to the time of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Mark 14:1, 3; John 12:1, 9ff)
    2. A woman (apparently a disciple: in John it is Mary of Bethany) pours perfume on Jesus as he reclines (Mark 14:3; John 12:2)
    3. The perfume is very costly (Mark 14:3; John 12:2; John and Mark use almost exact language: perfume of costly “pure nard”)
    4. The disciples (in John it is Judas Iscariot) decry the waste (Mark 14:4-5; John 12:4-5)
    5. Mention is made of the cost, and that the money could be sold and given to the poor (Mark and John use almost identical language, including mention of the price [“300 denari”])
    6. Jesus rebukes the disciples and mentions that the perfume was intended to be used for his burial (Mark 14:6, 8; John 12:7)
    7. The saying “For the poor you always have with you…” (Mark 14:7; John 12:8)

Details common to John and Luke:

    1. The anointing/wetting is of the feet (John 12:3; Luke 7:38), instead of the head (Mark 14:3)
    2. Mention is specifically made of “anointing” (form of a)lei/fw, John 12:3; Luke 7:38), instead of “pouring [out]” (kataxe/w, Mark 14:3)
    3. Mention is made of wiping Jesus feet with her hair (however, in Luke the woman wipes her tears; in John, apparently, she wipes the perfume [?])

Details common to Mark/Matthew and Luke:

    1. The name of the man hosting the feast is, apparently, Simon (Mark 14:3; Luke 7:40ff)—apparently, two different men with the same name [?]
    2. Mention is made of the woman carrying an “alabaster box/jar” [a)la/bastron] (Mark 14:3; Luke 7:37)

How does one explain so many coincidental details across two very different story settings (Matthew/Mark & John vs. Luke)? Critical scholars generally assume details have been transferred/distorted during transmission (presumably in the early oral stage); but I wonder, at least in the case of Luke. It is noteworthy that Luke contains no Passion-week Anointing scene, which is strange, if, as many scholars assume, he knew and made use of Mark’s Gospel. It also seems most unlikely that he could have confused the story he records in 7:36-50 with the later Bethany scene. This, perhaps, could be seen as evidence that Luke did not use Mark; but, I think it at least possible that Luke has intentionally omitted the Bethany scene (from whatever common tradition he knew), and has merged details from it into his own account set earlier in the ministry. This might explain the curious detail of anointing Jesus’ feet (v. 38): tears falling on his feet makes more sense, but pouring perfume on the feet? Yet the author had to know as well how odd this might appear—either, then, he simply records an unusual fact, or he purposefully includes the detail from the Bethany scene in the context of the sinful woman. Even harder to explain is John’s mention of anointing the feet, since the parallel account in Matthew/Mark specifically mentions anointing the head (not the feet). Is it possible that John has intentionally modified his narrative, just as Luke has, but in the opposite direction?— details from the anointing by the ‘sinful Woman’ (which John does not record) have merged into his account of the Anointing at Bethany. Whether accidental (in early transmission) or intentional (by the Gospel writer), details between the two stories have somehow merged together. Is it justifiable or proper to read the texts this way?

From the standpoint of Church Tradition, of course, such a ‘merging’ clearly occurred. For the “Mary” of John’s account (who is Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus), became joined together with the “Sinful Woman” of Luke’s account, in the figure of Mary Magdalene. Under the influence of Luke 8:2 (and Mark 16:9), which states that “seven daimons went out of” her, the traditional story developed of Mary’s former life as a prostitute, from which she repented and became a follower of Jesus. When she appears at the tomb, the perfume she carries (for anointing Jesus’ body) is the same with which she anointed him once before!

Perhaps we should at least consider meditating on both women at the same time: the devout disciple (Mary) who anoints Jesus’ head (and feet?) as an act of worship and consecration; with the (anonymous) “sinful” woman who wipes tears and anoints Jesus’ feet as an act of worship and repentance. “Righteous and Sinner at the same time”, in Luther’s famous phrase (simul iustus et peccator). John’s Gospel sums up the scene (and result) of this offering beautifully: h( de\ oi)ki/a e)plhrw/qh e)k th=$ o)smh=$ tou= mu/rou, “and the house was filled of the smell of perfume” (12:3).

For more on the Anointing scene, see the notes on this episode in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

The image of the repentant Magdalene came to be very popular in the West, a symbol of penitence and the ascetic ideal—a visceral image to be sure, very suited to individual dynamism of the Renaissance (one thinks immediately of Donatello’s great sculpture, see right). The story of her life as prostitute, her conversion, repentance, and appearance at the tomb on Easter, expanded in legend over the years, culminating with her appearance (along with Martha and Lazarus) in southern France. The Magdalene story would go on to maintain a position in both art and ritual for centuries in the Western Church.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 2 (Acts 1:14 etc)

In the last several notes, I have been looking at the main Gospel traditions involving the family and relatives of Jesus. These early traditions occasionally put Jesus’ relatives in something of a negative light—suggesting a certain misunderstanding of who he is and the nature of his mission, and, at times, even reflecting opposition toward him. Such traditions soon would disappear; we can actually see this process at work, by noting that there is nothing corresponding to Mark 3:20-21 in either Matthew or Luke—the episode described briefly in those verses has ‘dropped out’ of the Gospel Tradition. At the same time, Jesus’ family came to achieve a revered position and status in the early Church. While we know virtually nothing of Jesus’ sisters (mentioned in Mk 6:3), his mother (Mary) and at least some of his brothers began to feature prominently in early Christian tradition by the end of the first century. Something of this is reflected already in the New Testament, and must, on objective grounds, go back to authentic (historical) tradition. Here I will briefly examine the New Testament references (1) to Mary, (2) to James, and finally (3) the important Lukan description in Acts 1:14.

1. Mary, the mother of Jesus

It is scarcely necessary to mention the revered position of Mary, as Jesus’ mother, well-established (with traditions full of fabulous details), by the early 2nd century A.D. It has always been somewhat surprising to Christians that the New Testament, on the whole, has so little to say about her. If we separate out the Infancy Narratives of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, she is mentioned by name in just one passage—Mark 6:3 (par Matt 13:55). In several other places she is referred to as “his mother”, or otherwise indirectly (Mark 3:31-32ff par; John 2:3ff; 19:25-27; Gal 4:4). Given the importance of the virgin birth for Christians past and present, it is worth pointing out that even the birth of Jesus is scarcely mentioned in the New Testament, apart from the Infancy narratives.

Mary appears in the Matthean Infancy narrative , but it is really Joseph who is featured most prominently in those passages (1:16, 18-25; 2:13-15, 19-23). On the other hand, in the Gospel of Luke, Mary takes center stage. It is she who receives the Angelic message (1:26-38), is honored by Elizabeth (1:39-45), utters the Magnificat hymn [according to most MSS] (1:46-55), has a central place in the birth scene (2:5-7, 16-19), and in the purification ritual that brings the family to the Temple (2:22-24), and is addressed directly within Simeon’s oracle (2:34-35). I have discussed the Infancy narratives in considerable detail in several study series for Advent and Christmas season (“And you shall call His Name…“, “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus“); here I will point out several verses in the Lukan narrative which indicate Mary’s faith, and, if we may say, her spiritual growth:

  • At the Angel’s initial appearance and greeting (1:28-29), Mary is thoroughly disturbed (vb. diatara/ssw) but also “gathers things through” (dialogi/zomai), i.e. in her mind. This use of dialogi/zomai is significant.
  • Following the Angel’s message, Mary responds with trust and obedience—”See, (I am) the slave-girl of the Lord; let it come to be for me according to your utterance [i.e. your word]” (v. 38)
  • Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary contains the declaration: “and happy [i.e. blessed] (is she) the one trusting that there will be a completion [i.e. fulfillment] to the (thing)s spoken to her (from) alongside the Lord” (v. 45). Again, this indicates Mary’s faith/trust in God.
  • After the birth of Jesus, and following the visit of the shepherds announcing the miraculous things they had seen and heard (i.e. Angels’ message, 2:10-14), it is said of Mary in verse 19, that “she kept all these (thing)s (close) together, throwing (them) together, in her heart”. This suggests that Mary is beginning to ponder the true nature and identity of the child born to her. The two verbs used here are parallel to the two in 1:29, following the Angel’s announcement:
    • diatara/ssw (pass. “[be] stirred/disturbed through[out]”)
      dialogi/zomai (“gather [i.e. consider] [things] through”)
    • sunthre/w (“keep [things] together”)
      sumba/llw (“cast/throw [things] together”, i.e. in one’s mind)
  • In 2:21-24, along with v. 39 and 41ff, Mary and Joseph are depicted as faithful in observing the religious requirements and regulations set down in the Old Testament/Jewish Law.
  • The statement by Simeon, in his oracle, addressed directly to Mary (in v. 35a): “and a sword also will come/go through your heart”. As I discussed in an earlier note, this declaration may possibly allude to Ezekiel 14:17, and the sword of God’s Judgment that will pass through the land. If Mary represents the people of Israel, at the transition point between the Old and New Covenants, then the sword that separates and divides (cf. the context of vv. 34-35) will also pass through Mary (her own heart). She, too, will have to come to terms with Jesus’ identity.
  • In the following episode (the child Jesus in the Temple, vv. 41-50), it is illustrated that Mary still does not fully understand who Jesus is—his true identity (as God’s Son) and the nature of his mission (to be in/among “the things of God”), cf. verses 48-49.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ mother (not mentioned by name) appears in two episodes. The first is the miracle at Cana (2:1-12), in which she requests Jesus to perform a miracle for the wedding party. This narrative, on objective grounds, has all the earmarks of an early (authentic) tradition, though one which is unique to John. There are also certain similarities between this episode and that of Luke 2:41-50. Each includes a question/request by Mary, and a response by Jesus, illustrating that his mother does not truly understand the nature and purpose of his mission. The second scene occurs at the crucifixion (19:25-27). Critical scholars are more likely to question the historicity of this tradition, since it would seem to have the (apologetic) purpose of giving prominence to the “disciple whom (Jesus) loved”, and is otherwise absent from the well-established Gospel traditions surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus. It is sometimes thought to have symbolic significance—e.g., Mary as the “mother” of the disciples (i.e. the Church, represented by the beloved Disciple). However, I find it much more likely that the significance is literary, in terms of the overall structure of the Fourth Gospel. The two episodes involving Jesus’ mother are set at the very beginning and end of his ministry on earth, respectively—his first public miracle (in Galilee) and his death (in Jerusalem). In view of the portrait of Jesus in this Gospel—as the eternal Son of God who was sent to earth (as a human being)—Mary was only his mother during the short time of his incarnation and earthly ministry. At the time of Jesus’ death, it was necessary to transfer that (human) sonship to another—the one closest to him, the beloved Disciple.

2. James, the Brother of Jesus

In Mark 6:3 (and the parallel in Matthew), four of Jesus’ brothers are named, including Ya’aqob (Heb. bq)u&y~), transliterated into Greek as Ia/kwbo$, and into English as “Jacob” (the corresponding James comes into English through the Latinized form Iacomus). This is the only mention of James in the Gospels. It is not certain if he is to be counted among the brothers of Jesus in Mk 3:31ff par, or the ‘relatives’ in 3:21 (cf. the earlier note on these traditions). Jesus’ brothers are also part of the tradition recorded in Jn 7:1-9 (also discussed in an earlier note). If James was among the brothers mentioned in these passages, it would indicate that he did not understand or believe in Jesus, at least during the Galilean period of ministry.

The earliest New Testament tradition regarding James would appear to be Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:7, of a resurrection appearance by Jesus to James. Paul cites this as a well-established tradition, passed down to him (vv. 1-3ff), and the way he phrases vv. 3-7 would indicate a relatively fixed (traditional) formula, in place by at least 50 A.D. (if not earlier). In Galatians, Paul does not cite traditions but (his own) memory of recent events in Jerusalem and Antioch. The date of the letter, and the events recorded in chapters 1-2, have varied somewhat among commentators. Style and subject matter suggests a date (for the letter) around the same time as Romans and 2 Corinthians (i.e. early-to-mid-50s). At around 50 A.D., James was an important leader in the Jerusalem Church (1:19; 2:9), whom Paul associates with his Jewish(-Christian) opponents at Antioch and elsewhere (2:12). This generally relates to the controversy addressed at the so-called Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15). In Gal 1:19, Paul refers to James specifically as “the brother of the Lord”.

In the book of Acts, probably written around 70 A.D., but certainly containing many older (historical) traditions, James is mentioned as a leader of the Jerusalem Christians in 12:17. He is also featured in the Jerusalem Council episode (15:13-21), and is associated directly with the letter sent to believers in the region around Antioch (vv. 22-29). What is noteworthy for the author of Acts (trad. Luke) is that Peter and James both speak out in favor of allowing Gentile coverts to be considered part of the Church without requiring their observance of the Old Testament Law (with the exception of the points made in vv. 20-21 and 29). James thus plays a central role in the central episode of the book. After chapter 15, the Jerusalem Church gives way in the narrative to Paul’s missionary work. James does appear in one more episode (21:17-25), which confirms the validity of Paul’s work, but yet still declares the validity of the Law for Jews (and, by extension, Jewish believers). I have dealt with this topic extensively in my earlier series “The Law and the New Testament” (cf. the articles on Paul’s view of the Law, and the Law in Luke-Acts [soon to be posted on this site]).

Later Christian writers preserve additional traditions regarding James, who was surnamed “the Righteous/Just”. Eusebius (Church History 2.1, 23) cites a (lost) writing by Hegesippus which recorded several such traditions, including (a) the great virtue of James, (b) that he was a Nazirite, (c) spent time in the Holy Place of the Temple (dressed in priestly clothing), (d) that Jesus gave special instruction to him following the resurrection appearance (cf. 1 Cor 15:7), and (e) that he was clubbed to death on the parapet of the Temple sanctuary. James’ death is also reported by Josephus in his Antiquities 20.200. Both Eusebius and Jerome (Lives of Illustrious Men 2) consider James to have been Jesus’ half-brother (cf. Mk 15:40 par), and regard him as the first bishop of Jerusalem. James the brother of Jesus is also thought, by most commentators to be the “James” of the New Testament letter, whether such attribution is considered genuine (the traditional-conservative view) or pseudonymous (most critical scholars). Similarly, the “Jude” of the New Testament letter, called “brother of James”, is thought to refer to another of Jesus’ brothers (Mk 6:3 par).

3. Acts 1:14

That at least some of Jesus’ brothers (whether full-brothers, half-brothers, or cousins) had achieved a level of prominence in the early Church is indicated by Paul’s references in Gal 1:19 and 1 Cor 9:5. The latter reference indicates that they were thought of as distinct from the apostles (the Twelve, and others). Yet the brothers of Jesus appear in just one passage of the New Testament, outside of the Gospels—in Acts 1:14. Verses 12-14 are a narrative summary which serves as a transition between the ascension of Jesus (vv. 8-11) and the assembly of the (120) disciples in Jerusalem (vv. 15ff). We read that the disciples who witnessed the ascension returned to Jerusalem, to the (upper) room in which they were staying. Those present were: (a) the Twelve (minus Judas, i.e. Eleven), (b) the women who followed Jesus (cf. Lk 8:2-3; 23:49, 55), (c) his mother Mary, and (d) his brothers. These are precisely the characters who appear in the key section 8:1-21 of the Gospel (vv. 1-3, 19-21). In that passage, Jesus mother and brothers were contrasted with the (close) disciples of Jesus (in vv. 1-3ff). His mother and brothers want to come to Jesus, to meet him and be with him, but are unable to enter the room where he and his disciples are gathered (vv. 19-20)—they remain outside. In Acts, this situation has changed. Now the disciples of Jesus and his family (mother/brothers) are inside, together in the same room. The Jesus’ disciples and his natural family together form a single unified family of faith, a most beautiful picture which essentially fulfills the words of Jesus in Lk 8:21—”my mother and my brothers–these are the ones hearing and doing the word of God!”

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 2 (Matt 12:46-50; Lk 8:19-21)

In the previous note, I discussed the two episodes in Mark 3:20-21 and 31-35, in which Jesus’ natural family and relatives are contrasted with the true family of his faithful disciples. I mentioned how Matthew and Luke do not contain anything corresponding to the first episode, but each has a version of the second—in Matthew 12:46-50 and Luke 8:19-21, respectively.

Matthew 12:46-50

Matthew’s version has a very different setting. Not only is the scene from Mk 3:20-21 absent, but the “Beelzebul controversy” episode (12:22-32) is kept separate from the scene contrasting Jesus’ natural and true family (12:46-50). This is the result of the ‘insertion’ of three sections of teaching (vv. 33-37, 38-42, 43-45) in between. The last two sections are part of the so-called “Q” material, found also in Luke, in a slightly different location and order (Lk 11:29-32, 24-26). Overall, the inclusion of vv. 22-45 makes the section function as a condemnation of the faithlessness and wickedness of the Age—including the cities and towns (of Galilee) in which Jesus has been preaching and working miracles. This narrative block begins with verses 15-21, and the Scripture citation of Isaiah 42:1-4 (vv. 18-21), which holds a similar place in Matthew’s narrative as does the citation of Isa 61:1 in Luke 4:17-21. Many people have not responded as they should to God’s Chosen One, who has been marked (and anointed) by the Spirit. It is by the Spirit of God that Jesus works miracles and casts out demons (12:28). This emphasis in v. 28 is one of the Matthean additions (Q material, cf. Lk 11:20) to the core Synoptic tradition, along with verses 22-23 and 30. They also give the section a stronger eschatological orientation—i.e., Jesus’ miracles are a sign that the Kingdom of God has come.

We can see how these additions, along with their distinctive emphasis, has modified the sense of the episode in verses 46-50 as well. There is the same contrast as in Mark—Jesus’ natural family vs. his true/spiritual family—but it yields a different implication in the Matthean context. The idea seems to be that not even Jesus’ own (natural) family will escape the Judgment, on the basis of their family ties; rather, only those who follow him faithfully (to the end) will be saved. There is an echo of this teaching (with a similar contrast) earlier in 10:34-39, and it is almost certainly implied in vv. 46-50 as well. Matthew’s version of the scene is presented in a more public, dramatic fashion; note some key differences (compared with Mark’s version):

    • Jesus is speaking to the crowd (v. 46a); this serves to join the narrative to the ‘inserted’ blocks of teaching in vv. 33-45.
    • It is narrated specifically that Jesus’ mother and brothers were seeking him out to speak with him (v. 46b).
    • The double use of the pronoun ti$ (“who”) in Jesus’ rhetorical question (v. 48) gives it a more solemn, formal sound.
    • Jesus delivers an emphatic gesture—stretching out his hand to those around him (v. 49, Mk has “looking around”). The gesture is also directed specifically toward his disciples.
    • In the final declaration (v. 50) Jesus uses “My Father (in the heavens)” instead of “God”; this gives added emphasis to the family aspect of the scene (cp. Lk 2:48-49).

Luke 8:19-21

The Lukan narrative context is different again. Not only is the scene of Mk 3:20-21 absent, but the “Beelzebul controversy” episode has been set in an entirely different location, at a later point in the narrative (Lk 11:14-23). As in Matthew, this episode is connected with the teaching on the “return of the unclean spirit” (vv. 24-26; Matt 12:43-45) and the “sign of Jonah” (vv. 29-32; Matt 12:38-42), and may reflect a traditional ordering of the “Q” material used by both Gospels. In any event, the Beelzebul scene, with its hostility toward Jesus’ ministry, has been removed completely from the context of 8:19-21. Another major change is that the parable of the Sower has been placed ahead of the scene in 8:19-21, contrary to the (Synoptic order) of Mark/Matthew. Luke has also added the important narrative summary in 8:1-3. Let us see how these changes have altered the outline of the narrative (in relation to vv. 19-21):

    • 8:1-3—Summary of the ministry work of Jesus (preaching the Good News and working healing miracles), and of the close disciples (the Twelve and others) who are following him. Luke uses the very language of Mk 3:14 (the calling of the Twelve), stating that these disciples were with him (met’ au)tou=).
    • 8:4-15—The Parable of the Sower, including the traditional elements:
      —vv. 4-8: The parable itself
      —vv. 9-10: The statement that the “secrets of the Kingdom” are only given to his (close) disciples
      —vv. 11-5: An explanation of the parable
    • 8:16-18—The Parable/illustration of the Lamp, with the two-fold (eschatological) warning in vv. 17-18
    • 8:19-21—The Scene/Saying regarding Jesus’ mother and brothers

Very little remains of the stark contrast presented in Mk 3:20-35; instead, the emphasis is primarily on the disciples of Jesus, their faithfulness to him, and the reward that will result from it. Several small, but significant, changes to the episode in 8:19-21 follow this general theme:

    • In verse 19, Jesus’ mother and brothers themselves desire to come to Jesus and meet with him (using the vb. suntugxa/nw). They are physically unable to reach him “through the crowd”.
    • Luke retains the image of Jesus’ mother and brothers “standing outside”, but their purpose is not merely to “speak” to Jesus, but to meet/be together with him (v. 19) and to see him (v. 20). The motif of seeing Christ is important in the Gospel of Luke (2:26, 30; 3:6, etc), as also in the Gospel of John, and frequently has theological/Christological significance.
    • The formulation of Jesus’ declaration (v. 21) is different. In Mark/Matthew, Jesus looks/motions to his disciples, and says regarding them:
      See, (here are) my mother and my brothers!” (Mk 3:34).
      The saying in v. 35 follows:
      [For] whoever would do the will of God—this (one) is my brother and sister and mother

Luke’s version of the climactic declaration, on the other hand, has largely removed (or has avoided) the basic contrast between Jesus’ natural and true/spiritual family, through a simple modification/abridgment of the saying:

“My mother and my brothers—these are the ones hearing and doing the account [i.e. word] of God”

This allows one to understand the saying to include Jesus’ mother and brothers as being among the faithful ones. We will see how this relates to the overall portrait of Jesus’ mother (Mary) and brothers in Luke-Acts in an upcoming note.

Luke 11:27-28

As it happens, there is a parallel saying of Jesus in Luke which preserves a bit more of the original contrast found in Mk 3:20-35 par. In Luke 11:27-28, a simple tradition is recorded, in which a woman utters a blessing (macarism) to Jesus (v. 27):

“Happy the belly [i.e. womb] carrying you and the nipples that you (have) sucked!”

Jesus responds with a blessing of his own (v. 28):

“(Indeed) but then (all the more) happy (are) the (one)s hearing the account [i.e. word] of God and guarding (it)!”

The woman’s blessing refers to Jesus’ mother in a concrete physical/biological sense. While Jesus does not exactly reject this statement, he certainly downplays its significance and redirects it. This is done with the compound particle menou=n(ge), which is rather difficult to render in English; it probably should be understood as something like “yes, but then all the more…” or “indeed, but now, truly…” Natural family ties mean relatively little compared with faithfulness to God (and Jesus). It is possible that the expression “the account [i.e. word, lo/go$] of God” from this saying, along with the specific idea of hearing the word of God, has been used to modify the (Lukan) form of the earlier, parallel saying in 8:21. A version of the saying in 11:27-28 has also been preserved in the “Gospel of Thomas” (§79), which likely is derived from Luke (along with 23:29).

Before proceeding to the episode at Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6a par), it is necessary to examine one rare passage in the Gospel of John which seems to have some relationship to the Synoptic traditions in Mk 3:20-21 and 31-35 par. This will be discussed in the next note.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: The Temple (Part 3)

In the previous portion (Part 2) of this article, I discussed the first of three episodes in the Lukan Infancy narrative which have the Jerusalem Temple as their setting:

  1. The Angelic Appearance to Zechariah (1:8-23)
  2. The Encounter with Simeon (2:25-38)
  3. The Boy Jesus in the Temple (2:41-51)

2. The Encounter with Simeon (Lk 2:25-38)

I have discussed this episode (especially the Song of Simeon, vv. 29-32) at length in prior Advent/Christmas notes; here we will examine specifically the Temple setting, according to several key themes and topics: (a) the ritual setting and parallel with the earlier Zechariah episode, (b) the character of Simeon (and Anna), (c) the eschatological/Messianic significance of the Temple, and (d) the possible symbolic association of Mary with the Temple.

a. The ritual setting and narrative outline. This scene shared with the earlier Zechariah episode a similar ritual context—one aspect of a larger set of parallels. Note:

    • The revelation (through Gabriel) comes while Zechariah is in the Temple performing his priestly duties (1:8-10)
    • The revelation (through Simeon) comes while Joseph and Mary are in the Temple performing their religious duties (2:22-24, 27)

In both instances, the performance of sacrificial ritual in the Temple is a reflection of the righteousness of the parents (of John and Jesus, respectively). This righteousness, defined in terms of faithfulness in observing the Torah, is stated explicitly for Zechariah and Elizabeth (v. 6, “they were just/righteous [di/kaio$]”). In the case of Joseph and Mary, this has to be inferred by the repeated references to their fulfilling the Law (2:21-24, 27, 39, 41); however, in the Matthean narrative, Joseph is specifically called di/kaio$ (1:19).

In the narrative, it is suggested that Joseph and Mary are in the process of fulfilling the required ritual (v. 27), which happens be twofold:

Almost certainly, there is an intentional parallel being made with the Samuel narrative, which explains the consecration (and presence) of the infant Jesus in the Temple precincts, which otherwise would not be required for fulfillment of the redemption law. For more on the Samuel background of the Lukan Infancy narrative, cf. the earlier notes and articles in this series (and note esp. the language used in 2:40, 52).

The narrative parallel between the Zechariah and Simeon episode is particularly striking:

  • Ritual duty in the Temple by the righteous/devout parent(s)—Zechariah | Joseph/Mary [1:8-10; 2:22-24, 27]
    • Revelation occurs for the aged, righteous figure—Zechariah | Simeon [1:11-20; 2:25-26f]
      coming by way of an Angel (to Zechariah) and the Holy Spirit (to Simeon), respectively
    • This person comes to utter an inspired prophetic hymn (though only Simeon does so in the Temple) [1:67-79; 2:29-32]
      —which includes a notice of the destiny of the child (John/Jesus)
      —with strong Messianic language and imagery, filled with Scriptural allusions
  • Completion of the ritual duty—the parent(s) depart the Temple and return home [1:23; 2:39]

b. The Character of Simeon (and Anna). Somewhat in contrast to Zechariah (and Joseph/Mary), Simeon is not in the Temple precincts for the purpose of fulfilling the sacrificial ritual (nor, apparently, is Anna). These two aged figures serve a different sort of purpose (and symbolism). I regard them, from the standpoint of the Lukan narrative, as transitional figures, between the Old Covenant (with its ritual observance) and the New Covenant in Christ. And, as it happens, the Temple setting represents the very point of transition, much as it does in the subsequent episode in vv. 41-51 (cf. below).

Both Simeon and Anna reflect a shift in the Temple’s role and purpose (see the discussion in Part 2), shared by early Christians, in which the Temple serves as a place of gathering for worship, emphasizing Spirit-inspired prayer, teaching, and prophecy. Simeon appears to foreshadow the early Christians primarily through the dynamic of the Holy Spirit; three aspects relate to the role of the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts:

    • The Spirit was upon him [e)p’ au)ton] (v. 25)
    • He was led, or moved, in the Spirit [e)n tw=| pneu/mati] (v. 27)
    • The Spirit gave special revelation to him [regarding Jesus] (v. 26)

Anna (vv. 36-38) reflects early Christian devotion and piety in other ways. She was always spending time in the Temple (cf. Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 5:42, etc), involved in prayer and fasting (Acts 13:2-3; 14:23, etc). Beyond this, we have the specific detail that she was a female prophet, something which distinguished early Christianity (Acts 2:17ff; 21:9; 1 Cor 11:5ff), at least for a time.

c. Eschatological/Messianic significance of the Temple. The allusion to Malachi 3:1ff in the Zechariah episode was discussed earlier in Part 2. I mentioned there the possibility that the Gospel writer (trad. Luke) may have had this (Messianic) prophecy in mind here in 2:22-24ff—”the Lord…will come to his Temple”—i.e. Jesus (the Lord) coming to the Temple (as a child) foreshadows his future appearance (Mk 11:15-18 par). As there was Messianic/eschatological significance to his later appearance in Jerusalem (and the Temple), so there is in his first appearance as a child.

It is enough to point out the importance of the Temple in Jewish eschatological and Messianic thought, where it is often tied to the idea of the (end-time) restoration of Israel. A rebuilt/renewed Temple is part of the restored kingom/people of Israel, centered at Jerusalem; and, at the end-time, many from among the nations (Gentiles) will join Israel, worshiping and serving God in His Temple. The roots of this tradition go back to the Old Testament prophets, and, in particular, the book of Isaiah (esp. chaps 40-66, the so-called Deutero-Isaiah). Among the key passages are: Micah 4:1-5 (Isa 2:2-5); Isa 56:6-7 [cited Mk 11:17 par]; 60:4-7, 10-14; 66:20; and, in subsequent Jewish writings, cf. Tobit 14:5-6; Jubilees 1:17; 2 Macc 2:18; 1 Enoch 90:28f; 91:13; 11QTemple 29:8-10; Testament of Benjamin 9:2.

Both Simeon and Anna are specifically described in the narrative (vv. 25, 38) as being among those devout ones in Israel holding to this (Messianic) expectation for the end-time restoration/deliverance, and this is almost certainly related to the reason they have been spending time in the Temple. There are several allusions to Deutero-Isaian prophecies in the Song of Simeon (vv. 29-32) which draw upon these Messianic and eschatological themes—Isa 40:5; 42:6; 46:13; 49:6; 52:9-10. The presence of Jesus in the Temple precincts may be seen as, in a sense, fulfilling these prophecies.

d. Mary and the Temple. It is also possible that there is intended a symbolic association between Mary and the Temple. As the mother of Jesus, she bears/bore the Son of God (1:32, 35) within her, just as the presence of God would reside (or become manifest) within the confines of the Temple. There are several possible allusions which should be considered:

i. “Daughter of Zion”. Commentators have noted the similarity of language between Lk 1:28 and Zeph 3:14ff, which I cite here from the Greek (LXX) for comparison:

  • xai=re sfo/dra qu/gater Ziwnku/rio$ o( qeo/$ sou e)n soi
    Rejoice (with) eagerness, daughter of Zion…the Lord your God (is) among you” (Zeph 3:14, 17)
  • xai=re kexaritwme/nh o( ku/rio$ meta\ sou
    Rejoice, favored (one), (for) the Lord (is) with you” (Lk 1:28)

The expression “daughter of Zion” occurs numerous times in the Old Testament, including passages with a strong redemptive message and which could be read in an eschatological or Messianic sense: Isa 52:2; 62:11; Mic 4:8ff; Zech 2:10; 9:9. It is essentially a personification of Jerusalem and its inhabitants, as with the use of “Zion” (/oYx!, ‚iyyôn) alone. However, originally, the term referred more properly to the most ancient hilltop site, i.e. the hill on which the Temple stood.

ii. The overshadowing Cloud. The use of the verb e)piskia/zw (“cast shade over, overshadow”) in Lk 1:35 brings to mind the cloud of God’s presence which overshadowed the Tabernacle (Exod 40:35 LXX; cf. also Num 9:18ff; Isa 4:5). The verb also occurs in the LXX at Psalm 91:4 in a similar sense (cf. also Ps 140:7). Three of the remaining four occurrences in the New Testament are in the versions of the Transfiguration scene (Mk 9:7; Matt 17:5; Lk 9:34), where again it refers to the Divine Presence, drawing upon Old Testament traditions of the Exodus and Sinai Theophany.

iii. The Ark. The golden chest (or “ark”) in the Tabernacle/Temple served as the (symbolic) throne of God (YHWH), marking his Presence in the Sanctuary. He would become manifest, or reside, between the winged figures (“cherubim”) which decorated the top of the chest (Exod 25:20-22; 1 Chron 28:18, etc). There are two intriguing verses from the David narratives of 2 Samuel, both connected with the Ark (in different ways), where the language has a resemblance to the words of Elizabeth to Mary in Lk 1:43 (note the words in bold and italics):

“and (from) where [po/qen] (does) this (happen) to me, that the mother of my Lord should come toward me [e&lqh/pro/$ me]?” (Lk 1:43)

“How [pw=$] shall the box [i.e. Ark] of the Lord come in toward me [ei)seleu/setai pro/$ me]?” (2 Sam 6:9b LXX)
“(For) what [i.e. why] (is it) that my Lordcomes toward [h@lqenpro/$] his servant..?” (2 Sam 24:21a LXX)

3. The Boy Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:41-51)

The Temple also features in the closing episode of the Lukan Infancy narrative. I discuss this passage (vv. 41-51) at length in other notes (esp. on verse 49), but it is worth considering it at least briefly here. It functions as a kind of Appendix to the Infancy narrative, set at a time when Jesus was a twelve-year old boy. Famously, this is the only (canonical) Gospel tradition regarding the childhood of Jesus. In many ways, the Temple setting—indeed, the episode itself—serves as a compendium summary of a number of themes running through the earlier narrative. These themes include:

  • The faithfulness of Jesus’ parents (Joseph/Mary) in fulfilling the religious ritual required by the Torah (cf. above and in Part 2)—here, it is the observance of the Passover in Jerusalem (vv. 41-42). As in the earlier Simeon episode, Jesus’ presence in the Temple relates to the fulfillment of the Old Covenant.
  • In the setting for this episode, Jesus is among his relatives (vv. 43-44)—i.e. Israelites who live under the Covenant established with them by God (cf. Rom 15:8 and Gal 4:4 [“under the Law”]). The entire Infancy narrative involves Jesus relatives (his parents, his cousin John, and John’s parents, etc).
  • The Temple represents the heart of Israelite religion (i.e. the center of the Old Covenant), the place where God’s presence is manifest and divine revelation is set forth. The revelation in the first two Temple episodes (1:13-20; 2:26-35) involves Jesus’ identity (as Messiah and Son of God [“Lord”]).
  • Jesus’ presence in the Temple symbolically marks his identity, and, in particular, his relationship to God the Father (YHWH), as confirmed in the oracles of Simeon (vv. 29-32, 34-35).

The first two points relate to the first half of the narrative (i.e., the narrative setting/introduction in vv. 41-45), while the second two points more properly relate to the core of the narrative (vv. 46-50), centered around the saying of Jesus in v. 49. This famous saying reads as follows:

“For what [i.e. why] (is it) that you search (for) me? Had you not seen [i.e. did you not know] that it is necessary for me to be in/among the (thing)s of my Father?”

The italicized portion represents the core saying. The last portion is often translated “…in my Father’s house”, but this is rather inaccurate. The word corresponding to “house” (i.e. Grk oi@ko$) is not present, and so, we should be cautious about reading in a reference to the Temple as God’s “house” without warrant. More accurate would be the translation “…in my Father’s household“; however, the Greek literally reads e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou (“in/among the [thing]s of my Father”). For more on this, cf. the earlier discussion. It is not the Temple building, as such, which is emphasized, but rather the activity taking place in the Temple (teaching and study of the Torah), and those who are engaged in this activity (those devoted to the Torah and the things of God). There is a clear contrast between “the things of God” and the “things of (his) relatives and neighbors” (v. 44)—Joseph and Mary search for Jesus among the latter, but they find him among the former:

  • e)n toi=$ suggeneu=sin kai\ toi=$ gnwstoi=$ (v. 44)
  • e)n toi=$ tou= patro/$ mou (v. 49)

Thus, here, in this episode, the Temple setting has what we might call a Christological significance—it relates to Jesus’ unique relationship to God the Father, as the Anointed One and Son of God. In the prior Temple scene his identity as the Anointed One (Messiah) of God is confirmed (vv. 26ff); here, it is his identity as God’s Son.

Birth of the Son of God: Luke 1:26-38

For the days following Christmas, in celebration of the birth of Jesus, I will be exploring New Testament passages related to the theme the birth of the Son of God. Even though on Christmas it is Jesus’ human birth that is in view, early Christians gradually came to understand this birth from a broader Christological perspective; as Ignatius states: “for our God, Jesus the Christ, was carried as an embryo by Mary” (Eph 18:2) [the verb kuofore/w referring both to conception and pregnancy]. It is impossible to avoid the idea of incarnation—God becoming flesh—in this event. Already in the New Testament, within the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, something more than an ordinary human birth is involved. As we shall see, the miraculous, spiritual nature of this birth ultimately extends to believers in Christ as well, who come to be born as “sons (children) of God”.

Luke 1:26-38

Let us begin with the famous annunciation scene in Luke (Lk 1:26-38), which follows the basic pattern of angelic announcements in Old Testament narrative—for birth annunciations, see Genesis 16:7-13; chapters 17-18 (esp. 17:15-21; 18:10-15) and Judges 13, as well as Lk 1:11-20 and Matt 1:20-21 in the infancy narratives. The pattern may be outlined:

    • Appearance of the angel, who addresses the person by name (v. 28)
    • The person is startled (v. 29)
    • Assurance of the angel—”do not fear” (v. 30)
    • Announcement of the coming/impending birth (v. 31)
    • The name which is to be given to the child (v. 31b)
    • Prophecy/announcement of the child’s future (v. 32-33)
    • Question by the person receiving the vision—”how will this be?” (v. 34)
    • The angel’s response, along with a sign (vv. 35-37)
    • Acceptance of the vision (v. 38)

For more detail, cf. R. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] 1993, pp. 155-9, 292-8.

There are three parts to the angel’s message, each followed by Mary’s response:

  • Verse 28—Mary is addressed by name
    • V. 29—Mary is startled by what she sees
  • Verses 30-33—The Message to Mary
    • V. 34—Mary asks “how will this be?”
  • Verses 35-37—Answer to Mary’s question, with a sign
    • V. 38—Mary responds “…may it come to be for me according to your word”

Each part has a theological/christological element:

  • v. 28b—”the Lord is with you”
  • vv. 31ff—”this one will be great and will be called Son of the Highest…”
  • v. 35a—”The Holy Spirit… power of the Highest…
    v. 35b—…(the child) will be called Holy, the Son of God”

These will be discussed in turn.

Luke 1:28b “the Lord is with you”

According to the Old Testament/Jewish background of this episode, the “Lord” (o( ku/rio$) is YHWH, God the Father; but note the use of ku/rio$ to refer to Jesus in Lk 1:43; 2:11, and the more ambiguous reference in Lk 1:76. There can be little doubt that, by the time the Gospel of Luke had been written (around 70 A.D. or a bit later), ku/rio$ was being regularly applied to Jesus in terms of his divine nature or status, connected especially with his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God (Acts 2:36, etc). The expression corresponding to o( ku/rio$ meta\ sou= (“the Lord is with you” or “the Lord be with you”) appears as a pious, but ordinary, greeting in Ruth 2:4. A closer parallel to our passage is found in the angelic annunciation to Gideon in Judg 6:12, as an assurance of God’s support and care. In Lk 1:28, 30, this divine care is described in terms of God’s favor (xa/ri$)—Mary is one who has been favored (kexaritwme/nh) by God (xa/rin para\ tw=| qew=|).

There is a similar instance in the famous prophecy of Isa 7:14, with the name Immanuel (la@ WnM*u!, ±imm¹nû °¢l)—”God with us”. The context of Isa 8:8-10 indicates that this name reflects God’s support and protection of the (righteous) king, connected with peace, prosperity, and the salvation of the land/people from enemies. In terms of the original historical context, the most reasonable identification is with Hezekiah (cf. 2 Kings 18:7). Later on, of course, the passage (along with Isa 9:1-6) came to be interpreted in a (future) Messianic sense, and was applied by Christians to the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:22-23). I discussed these verses in considerable detail in series of advent notes.

There may also be an allusion to Zeph 3:14-17 here in Lk 1:28. Apart from the formal similarity of the opening (xai=re, “be glad / rejoice!” as a greeting) and a possible parallel between Mary and “daughter of Zion” (Jerusalem/Judah personified), note the similar assurance that is offered:

Zeph 3:14-17 LXX

  • v. 15b: ku/rio$ e)n me/sw| sou (“the Lord is in the middle of you [i.e. is in your midst]”)
  • v. 17a: ku/rio$ o( qeo/$ sou e)n soi (“the Lord your God is in/among you”)

Luke 1:28b

o( ku/rio$ meta\ sou=
“the Lord is with you”

In Zeph 3:14-17 it is also a promise of protection and salvation.

Luke 1:31-33 “this one will be… will be called…”

Here, in the angelic message proper, the emphasis is on the Messianic character and status of the child. To begin with, there is the announcement of the conception (“you will receive together [sullh/yh|] in the womb”) and birth (“you will produce [te/ch|]”) a son [ui(o/$] (v. 31a)—this is connected with the favor (xa/ri$) Mary receives from God (vv. 28, 30). In terms of the naming of the child (v. 31b), there may here be an echo of Isa 7:14 LXX (cf. above)—note the similar sequence “will produce” [te/cetai] followed by “will call his name” [kale/sei$ to\ o&noma au)tou]—as is made explicit in Matthew (“you will call his name Yeshua” / “they will call his name Immanuel”, Matt 1:21, 23).

Almost certainly, in this passage there are allusions to 2 Sam 7:8-16—a prophetic announcement regarding the Davidic line, which had come to be interpreted in a Messianic sense by the time the Gospels were written, cf. the Qumran text 4QFlor (174) lines 10-13. Note the following points of correspondence:

    • v. 32a—Jesus’ greatness and his name (2 Sam 7:9)
    • v. 32b—Jesus as God’s son (2 Sam 7:14)
    • v. 33—The throne of David and his kingdom, which will last forever (2 Sam 7:13, 16)

Cf. also Isa 9:5-6 (6-7) and Dan 7:14. I will deal more with the relationship between Jesus as “Son of David” and “Son of God” in subsequent notes. There are two main theological/christological phrases in Lk 1:32 which need to be examined.

e&stai me/ga$ (“he will be great”)—The absolute use of me/ga$ (“great”) in the LXX typically refers to YHWH (Psalm 48:2 [145:3]; 86:10; 135:5); it tends to be qualified when used of human beings, as of John in Lk 1:15 (“he will be great in the eyes of the Lord”)—see also 2 Sam 19:33; Sir 48:22 (cf. Fitzmyer, p. 325). The fact that the Lukan infancy narratives present the births of John and Jesus side by side—with Jesus having the more exalted status—indicates that me/ga$ here means something decidedly greater than when applied to John.

ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai (“he will be called Son of the Highest”)—Here, in context, klhqh/setai (“he will be called“) is parallel and generally synonymous with e&stai (“he will be“); see, for example, the parallel saying of Jesus in Matt 5:9 / Lk 6:35. In ancient (Near Eastern) thought, the name represented the essential identity and character of the person, often in a dynamic, quasi-magical sense. The giving of a name—especially when given by God—confers (and confirms) just who the child is, and what he/she will become. In this respect, it is worth noting the ‘prophetic’ nature of many naming scenes in the Old Testament (Gen 5:29 et al), and in the New Testament as well (Matt 1:21; 16:17-18, etc). Here the specific name is “son of the Highest” (ui(o\$ u(yi/stou)—u(yi/sto$, which is attested in (pagan) Greek usage (of Zeus, etc), is used in the LXX of YHWH, as a translation of Hebrew /oyl=u# ±Elyôn (Gen 14:18; Dan 4:14; cf. also Jubilees 16:18, and note 1 Enoch 9:3; 10:1; 46:7; 60:1, 22). It is used relatively often in Luke-Acts (Lk 1:35, 76; 6:35; 8:28; Acts 7:48; 16:17)—in Lk 1:76, it is said of John, “you will be called Foreteller [i.e. Prophet] of the Highest [profh/th$ u(yi/stou klhqh/sh|]”. Cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 347-8.

Luke 1:35 “…will be called Holy, the Son of God”

In this verse, the prophetic announcement and naming of the child by the angel (Gabriel) comes to a climax with the title “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=). Actually, the syntax of this phrase is somewhat ambiguous, and there are at least two other ways it could be translated: (a) “…(will be) holy (and) will be called Son of God”, or (b) “the holy (child)…will be called Son of God”. It does seem better to read a%gion (as a substantive adjective) and ui(o\$ qeou= as parallel predicates which are generally apposite. As a whole, verse 35 refers to both the conception and birth of the child:

Conception (v. 35a)—with two phrases:

There is a strong poetic quality to the angel’s words and the phrases clearly are in synonymous parallelism: “Holy Spirit / Power of the Highest”, “come upon you / cast shade upon you”). The two-fold image or metaphor reflects both the presence and power of God.

Birth (v. 35b)—here there are likewise two phrases, which follow the general pattern of the announcement in v. 31:

“you will produce a son | and you will call his name Yeshua” (v. 31)
“the (child) coming to be born | will be called Holy, (the) Son of God” (v. 35)

  • “the (child) coming to be (born)” (to\ gennw/menon)—in a few MSS (C* Q f1 33), versional witnesses, and in several Church Fathers, the reading is “the (child) coming to be (born) out of you [e)k sou]”; if the addition was intentional, the purpose may have been to emphasize the full reality of Jesus’ human birth, i.e. that he genuinely partook from Mary’s flesh (contrary to the view of certain “Gnostics”)—for more on this possibility, cf. B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford:1993, p. 139. The fundamental meaning of genna/w, like the cognate verb gi/nomai, is “come to be, become”, though often with the specific denotation of coming to be born. Subsequent notes will provide further exploration of the use of this verb in the New Testament.
  • “will be called Holy, (the) Son of God” (a%gion klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou=)—assuming that this is the correct way to render the syntax of this verse (cf. above), there are two names or titles given to Jesus:
    a%gion (“Holy [One]”), a neuter substantive; Jesus is not often referred to specifically as “holy” (a%gio$) in the New Testament, but there are several key passages where it is used as a substantive appellation (Luke 4:34 par; Jn 6:69; Acts 3:14 [cf. also 4:27, 30]; Rev 3:7). In Luke 1:49, it is used specifically as a name/title of God the Father (YHWH); cf. also Rev 4:8; 6:10.
    ui(o\$ qeou= (“Son of God”), used frequently of Jesus, in various forms, sometimes in the unqualified/absolute form “(the) Son” ([o(] ui(o/$). In the Gospel of John, Jesus often identifies himself as “the Son”, though, throughout the Gospels, the specific title “Son of God” is almost never spoken by Jesus (cf. Jn 5:25 and note Lk 22:70 par), the title “Son of Man” being far more common.

With this climactic point of the angel’s announcement to Mary, the stage is set for our examination of the various passages of the New Testament, which will be presented in the daily notes running on through Epiphany (Jan 6). In exactly what sense should we understand the expression “Son of God” as applied to Jesus in this passage? This will be explored throughout the upcoming notes, always keeping in view the context of Lk 1:26-38. In conclusion, one ought to mention the extraordinary correspondence of several key elements from the annunciation which are found, together, in a text from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls)—4Q246, sometimes referred to as the Aramaic “Son of God” text. The four key phrases in 1:32, 35 are indicated and compared side by side with 4Q246:

aura lu hwhl br[ ] “[he will be] great upon the earth” (I.7)
rmaty la yd hlb “Son of God he will be hailed” (II.1)
hnwrqy /wylu rbw “and Son of the Highest he will be called”
<lu twklm htwklm “his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom” (II.5)
ou!to$ e&stai me/ga$ “this (one) will be great” (Luke 1:32)
klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou= “he will be called | Son of God”
kai\ ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai “and Son of the Highest he will be called” (1:35)
kai\ th=$ basilei/a$ au)tou= ou)k e&stai te/lo$ “and of his kingdom there will not be an end” (1:33)

For more on this remarkable text, see the “Dead Sea Scrolls Spotlight” article.

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

“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 1:46ff

Luke 1:46ff

Today’s note will examine the famous hymn of Lk 1:46-55, the Magnificat. This is the first of the four hymns which punctuate the Lukan Infancy narrative, each of which came to be part of the Christian liturgy and are best known from the first word(s) of their rendering in Latin. When studying these hymns, there are three basic theories regarding their origin and composition (cf. also the article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”):

  • They are inspired poetic works, more or less as uttered by the speaker, according to the context of the narrative. While there may be some translation and editing, etc, by the author (and/or the underlying tradition), the attribution in the text is accepted and taken at face value. This would generally be the traditional-conservative view.
  • The author (trad. Luke) has incorporated earlier Jewish (Christian) hymns, adapting them and setting them in the mouth of the individual character within the context of the narrative. This is probably the dominant critical view.
  • The hymns are free/original compositions by the author, in imitation of similar Psalms and hymns in the Old Testament, which he has likewise integrated into the narrative. Many critical scholars tend toward this view as well, or at least grant it as a possibility.

In my view, only the first two are legitimate, viable options, and both need to be taken seriously by commentators and students. On objective grounds, the evidence perhaps favors the second view, but each interpreter will have differing opinions on the weight of the evidence, and how it relates to a particular understanding of the nature and extent of inspiration, as well as other factors. It is not possible to go into this subject in any detail in this brief article. Also, for the purposes of this study, I am assuming the majority reading which attributes the hymn to Mary (cf. “Did You Know?” below).

The structure of the hymn has been analyzed and divided various ways. I prefer to view it in two parts:

  • Vv. 46-50—A (personal) praise to God for what he has done (i.e. for the speaker)
  • Vv. 51-55—Praise for what God has done on behalf of His people (Israel)

Some commentators feel that verse 48 is of Lukan composition, having been inserted into the hymn, based on the theory (cf. above) that the author has adapted and made use of a pre-existing Jewish Christian (or Jewish) hymn. It must be admitted that v. 48 does seem to interrupt the rhythm and flow of the poetry somewhat; on the other hand, it fits the personal context of the opening lines, at v. 48a at least could easily have been part of an earlier hymn. Only v. 48b specifically requires the setting established in the narrative.

It is the first half (or strophe) of the hymn which I want to examine in this note, especially the opening couplet (vv. 46-47) which sets the tone and theme for the hymn—beginning with the personal viewpoint of the speaker (i.e. Mary):

“My soul declares (the) great(ness of) the Lord,
and my spirit leaps (for joy) upon God my Savior”

There is a precise parallelism in this couplet; note each of the three elements:

My soulmakes/declares greatthe Lord
My spiritleaps (for joy) uponGod my Savior

The third element involves names and titles of God—specifically, Lord (ku/rio$) and Savior (swth/r). If we combine the two expressions here the result would be: “(the) Lord God my Savior”. We have already seen the combination Lord God (ku/rio$ o( qeo/$) in verse 32 (cf. the earlier note), where, as I discussed, the expression stems from the ancient Israelite (religious) identification of Yahweh with the (one) Creator God °E~l. Here Yahweh the God of Israel is also identified in the role of Savior of his people. This is essentially the theme of the hymn which follows, and draws upon the various episodes in Israelite history and tradition (as narrated in the Old Testament) where God acted to save/deliver his people. In fact, there a good number of Old Testament allusions in the hymn, beginning with the opening lines. Two passages, in particular, should be noted:

  • 1 Sam 2:1-2—The opening lines of Hannah’s hymn, upon which the Magnificat was patterned (at least in part). The Lukan Infancy narrative draws heavily upon the Samuel birth narrative (1 Sam 1-2), with Hannah serving as a type/pattern for Mary (and perhaps Elizabeth as well).
  • Hab 3:18—There is a more precise formal parallel in expression here:
    “I will leap (for joy) in YHWH, I will spin (joyfully) in the God of my salvation”

Mention should also be made of Psalm 35:9. If we were to blend together and distill these three passages, we would end up with wording not too different from that in Lk 1:46-47.

The title Savior (Swth/r) is especially significant as a thematic keyword, since it relates to the very name of Jesus (Yeshua)—the person through whom God will act to save his people. This aspect of Jesus as Savior will be discussed in more detail in the upcoming notes on Matt 1:21 and Luke 2:11. The word swth/r is actually rather rare in the New Testament, occurring just 24 times, and, somewhat surprisingly, only 5 times in the Gospels and Acts. Four of these occurrences are in Luke-Acts (the other being Jn 4:42)—Acts 5:31; 13:23, and here in the Infancy narrative (Lk 1:47 and 2:11). Much more common is the verb sw/zw, indicating the action of saving, delivering, protecting, etc, and which is used in the explanation of the name Yeshua in Matt 1:21. There is also the noun swthri/a (“salvation”) which occurs three times in the hymn of Zechariah (1:69, 71, 77), the Benedictus, a hymn which has many points in common with the Magnificat.

Turning to verse 49, we find, embedded in the line, another couplet which may be viewed as parallel to vv. 46-47:

“the Powerful (One) did great (thing)s for me,
and Holy is His name”

There are three adjectives in this verse which need to be examined:

“Great” (me/ga$)—It was previously stated of Jesus that he will be great [me/ga$] (v. 32, and cp. the qualified use with John the Baptist in v. 15). As I discussed in the note on v. 32, the absolute use of this adjective (as a descriptive title) is essentially reserved for God and reflects the fundamental meaning of the word °E~l (“Mighty One,” i.e. “God”). Here the reference is to the mighty and miraculous things God has done—i.e. his deeds and actions (cf. Deut 10:21)—using the prolonged (neuter) form mega/la as a substantive (“great [thing]s”). Applied to Mary, of course, it relates to the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus, and to his identity as Messiah, Son of God, and Savior.

“Powerful” (dunato/$)—Here the adjective is used as a substantive, with the definite article (“the Powerful [One]”), and is virtually synonymous with the title “Mighty (One)”, presumed to be the fundamental meaning of the name °E~l. Probably there is an allusion here to Zeph 3:17, where the Hebrew roBG] (“strong”) is translated in the LXX as dunato/$: “The Lord your God is in/among you, (the) Powerful (One) will save you”. In the New Testament, dunato/$ frequently refers to God’s ability to work miraculously on behalf of Christ (and through him), as well as other believers—e.g., Mk 10:27 par; 14:36; Acts 2:24; Rom 4:21.

“Holy” (a%gio$)—As an adjective, holy (Heb vdq, Grk a%gio$) is commonly used in reference to God, going back to the fundamental statement of Israelite religious life and identity in Leviticus 19:2. God’s holiness is frequently emphasized in the Scriptures, but vodq* (q¹dôš, “holy”) as a specific title is rather less common. Most likely there is an allusion here to Psalm 111:9, but see also Ps 99:3: “Let them raise hand(s) to [i.e. praise] your great and frightening Name—it is Holy [Q¹dôš]”. It is not entirely clear whether such references mean that God’s name (Yahweh) is holy, or that “Holy (One)” is to be regarded as a name/title of God. Later Israelites and Jews would likely have assumed the former, but, in the ancient context of the Psalms, the latter is a distinct possibility as well. Q¹dôš (or something equivalent) is known as a separate name, or as the name of a separate deity, in the Semitic world. The Greek a%gio$ (“Holy”) was used as a name for Jesus in Lk 1:35—”he will be called (the) Holy (one), the son of God”.

These words—”Powerful” and “Holy”—also occur in tandem, as a (synonymous) pairing, in verse 35 (cf. the earlier note). Recall the words of the Angel to Mary:

“the holy [a%gio$] Spirit will come upon you
and the power [du/nami$] of the Highest will cast shade upon you”

This surely is no coincidence, for the terms and attributes are essential to an understanding of God and his manifestation to human beings (His people). They come together most completely, and perfectly, in the person of Jesus Christ, the child born of Mary. Consider the concrete idiom used to express the conception of Jesus: “you will take/receive together [sullh/myh|] in the womb”. This same conception is described in verse 35—the holiness and power of God come upon Mary, and she conceives (in the womb) the holy child who is called the Son of God.

In a few (Latin) manuscripts (a b l) and writings (or translations) of the Church Fathers, the Magnificat is attributed in v. 46 not to Mary, but to Elizabeth. A few commentators have accepted this as the original reading, on the assumption that scribes were much more likely to change the text from “Elizabeth” to “Mary”, rather than the other way around. More plausible, in my view, is the theory that originally no name was specified, with the text reading simply “she said” (ei@pen). If one were to accept this premise, the specification of Mary as the speaker should still be regarded as an authoritative tradition, even if not part of the original text. However, based on the overwhelming evidence of the Greek MSS, it is probably best to maintain “Mary said” as the most likely original reading.

“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 1:43

Luke 1:43

Following the annunciation scenes in 1:8-23 and 26-38, the Gospel writer brings together the two narrative strands—related to John the Baptist and Jesus respectively—into a single episode (vv. 39-56). It may be outlined as follows:

  • Narrative introduction, establishing the unifying motif—Elizabeth and Mary in the same house (vv. 39-40)
  • Elizabeth’s reaction and blessing (vv. 41-45)
  • Mary’s hymn of praise to God (vv. 46-55)
  • The narrative conclusion, with a notice of Mary’s separation from Elizabeth (v. 56)

There is a wonderful symmetry—in between the two short narrations, Elizabeth and Mary, while they are together, each are depicted uttering inspired (hymnic) poetry, as befitting the grand and lofty occasion established by the narrative context. Today I will be looking at the first portion—the words of Elizabeth—before turning to the hymn of Mary (the Magnificat) in the next note. Elizabeth’s reaction is described in verse 41:

“And it came to be, as Elisheba heard the welcome of Maryam, the baby in her belly jumped and Elisheba was filled by the holy Spirit”

The dramatic character of the scene is increased as the description continues in verse 42:

“and she raised up (her) voice (with) a great cry, and said…”

Elizabeth utters a two-fold blessing to Mary, in vv. 42 and 45. The first is a blessing proper, addressed both to Mary and her child:

  • “Well counted [eu)loghme/nh] are you among women,
    and well counted [eu)loghme/no$] is the fruit of your belly!”

The verb eu)loge/w means “to give a good account (of someone), speak well (of him/her)”. In a religious or ritual context, it commonly refers to giving praise and honor (in speech) to God; or, in the reverse direction, it can indicate God showing favor to (i.e. speaking blessing upon) a person. The idea of praise and honor (given to Mary) is certainly present in the use of the verb—she will be spoken well of and highly regarded, by both God and His people. Moreover, it relates specifically to the favor (xa/ri$) which God has shown to Mary (cf. the Angelic annunciation in vv. 28ff), by the conception of Jesus within her (“the fruit of [her] belly”). The second blessing in verse 45 is more generalized, but certainly relates to Mary’s words in v. 38; it uses the parallel adjective maka/rio$ (“happy”):

“and happy [makari/a] (is) the (one) trusting that there will be a completion [i.e. fulfillment] to the (thing)s spoken to her (from) alongside the Lord!”

The blessed and favored status of Mary has touched Elizabeth as well. According to the narrative, both women have experienced a miraculous conception, and each will give birth to a child who will play a major role in God’s plan of salvation for His people. The reason for Elizabeth’s inspired reaction is expressed in verse 43, with wonder and amazement:

“how has this (happened) to me, that the mother of my Lord should come toward me?”

The specific phrase “the mother of my Lord” (h( mh/thr tou= kuri/ou mou) is of utmost significance in the context of the passage, and must be examined in more detail.

The word ku/rio$ (“lord”) has already been used 10 times in the Lukan Infancy narrative to this point (vv. 6, 9, 11, 15-17, 25, 28, 32, 38), but always in reference to God the Father, the God of Israel (Yahweh). This is the first time that the title (“Lord”) is used of Jesus. In the earlier article on Yahweh, I discussed the traditional use of °A_dœn¹y (yn`d)a&), “My Lord”, as a divine name, substituting for the name hwhy (YHWH, Yahweh). This is literally what Elizabeth says here—o( ku/rio$ mou (“my Lord”). Yet one must be cautious about assuming that Jesus is being identified here with God the Father. The only other occurrences of the specific phrase “my Lord” in either the Synoptic Gospels or Luke-Acts as whole involve the citation of Psalm 110:1 (Luke 20:42 par; Acts 2:34). There can be little doubt that Psalm 110 was highly influential on the early Christian use of the title “Lord” (Ku/rio$) for Jesus. The Greek text (LXX) of verse 1 reads:

ei@pen o( ku/rio$ tw=| kuri/w| mou
eípen ho kýrios tœ¡ kyríœ mou
“The Lord said to my lord…”

The same word (ku/rio$) is used twice, creating an obvious wordplay (as well as potential confusion). However, the original Hebrew reads:

yn]d)al^ hwhy <a%n+
N®°¥m YHWH la°dœnî
“Utterance of YHWH to my lord:”

The LXX version is the result of the standard substitution, when reciting the Psalm, of °A_dœn¹y (“My Lord”) in place of YHWH. In the original context of the Psalm, the “lord” (°¹dôn) was understood as referring either to David, or to the reigning king (in the Davidic line). Eventually, in Jewish tradition, it came to be interpreted in a Messianic sense, of a future Davidic ruler who would deliver God’s people and judge the nations at the end-time. Jesus himself treats Ps 110:1 this way in the Synoptic tradition (Lk 20:41-44 par). The two main ‘Messianic’ passages from the Psalms utilized by Christians from the beginning were Ps 2:7 and 110:1—the first establishing Jesus as Son of God, the second as Lord. In this regard, believers went beyond the standard Messianic interpretation. The earliest Gospel preaching (kerygma), as recorded in the book of Acts, understands Jesus as Lord and Son of God specifically in terms of his resurrection and exaltation to heaven at the right hand of God (Acts 2:24-36; 13:33ff). Even in the Gospel of John, which otherwise has a more developed Christological sense of Jesus as God’s Son, the expression “my Lord” occurs in a setting after the resurrection (Jn 20:13, 28). Luke 1:43 is unique in the Gospels in applying the title to Jesus prior to his death—indeed, before his very birth.

In what sense should the child Jesus be understood as “my Lord” here as uttered by Elizabeth (v. 43)? In my view, we do not yet have a clear sense of Jesus’ deity in view at this point in the narrative, even though Christians reading or hearing the Gospel would naturally make the association. This will be discussed further in the note on 1:76ff. More likely, the use of ku/rio$ here is meant primarily in a Messianic sense (cf. the earlier article on Lk 1:46-55 in “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”). This would seem to be confirmed by two parallels in the Old Testament from 2 Samuel, both involving David (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 344-5):

  • 2 Sam 6:9—In the narrative of the transportation of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (vv. 1-4ff), in the midst of celebration, the sudden death of Uzzah (who had unintentionally touched the Ark), brought fear upon the people (vv. 5-9a), as well as with David who exclaimed: “How shall the box {Ark} of YHWH come to me?”. The Greek of v. 9b is reasonably close to Elizabeth’s wording in Lk 1:43.
  • 2 Sam 24:21—At God’s command, David visits Araunah the Jebusite to purchase his threshing-floor and erect an altar to the Lord there. Upon David’s approach, Araunah asks “(For) what reason does my Lord the king come to his servant?”. Again, there is a formal similarity in the Greek to Elizabeth’s words.

Given the parallels between 2 Sam 7 and the pronouncement by Gabriel in vv. 32-33 (cf. the previous note), the likelihood increases that there is an allusion here to the earlier episode in 2 Sam 6. The primary reference would be to Jesus as the Anointed Davidic ruler (Messiah) who would deliver God’s people. Even so, the context of the Ark of the Covenant, like the use of the title ku/rio$ (“Lord”), implies something deeper as well—the manifestation and presence of God Himself. This will be discussed in upcoming notes as we progress through the narrative.

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 1:32-35

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).