September 9: Revelation 1:7-8

Revelation 1:7-8

The introduction to the epistle-book of Revelation concludes with a pair of statements; the first is a Scriptural citation (by the author), and the second is a divine declaration repeating the triadic formula in verse 4 (cf. the previous note). We begin with the Scripture citation(s) in verse 7:

“See—he comes with the clouds, and every eye will look at him, even the (one)s who stabbed him (through), and they will beat (themselves) over him, all the (people)s arising (together out) of the earth. Yes, Amen.”

Two different Scripture passages are combined here:

    • Daniel 7:13:
      “And see! with the clouds of (the) heavens (one) like a son of man, coming (near), was (present)…”
      LXX: “And see—upon the clouds of heaven (one) as a son of man came…”
    • Zechariah 12:10 (along with v. 12)
      “…and they shall look closely [vb. fb^n`] to me whom they pierced [vb. rq^D*], and they shall wail (in mourning) upon [i.e. over] him, like (one) wailing upon th(eir) only (child)… “
      LXX: “…and they will look (closely) toward me, against [i.e. concerning] the (one) whom they danced over [impl. vb. dq^r*], and they will beat (themselves) over him, as (one) beating (themselves) over a (be)loved (child)…”

The association of these two Scriptures is not original to the book of Revelation; we find it also in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ “Eschatological Discourse” (24:30). Both Scriptures were also connected, in different ways, with Jesus death (Mark 14:62 par; John 19:37), giving the Passion narrative an eschatological dimension, at least in part. It is easy to see how early Christians would have interpreted Zech 12:10 in terms of Jesus’ death, by crucifixion, which would entail the “piercing” of his hands and feet. In the original context, the reference seems to have that of one killed in battle (“pierced” or run through with a sword, etc). In this regard, the use of it in the Gospel of John is somewhat more applicable, as the author associates it with the puncturing of Jesus’ side by a soldier’s spear (19:34).

The precise significance of Zech 12:10 in the Gospel of John is uncertain. It is by no means clear that the author intends it in the same sense as Matt 24:30 or here in Rev 1:7. The purpose of the citation in Jn 19:37 is to show that the puncturing of Jesus’ side, with its release of “blood and water”, was the fulfillment of prophecy. Overall, however, though it is not emphasized in the Gospel of John, an eschatological interpretation of the passage for early Christians remains the most plausible. This is certainly how the author of the book of Revelation understands it. By compressing the citation to include part of verse 12, the author gives special emphasis to the visible appearance of Jesus (in glory) at the end-time. It is somewhat difficult to decide how the symbolism of mourning should be understood. The original context of the passage suggests that it refers to mourning for the death of someone; but this does not fit the application to the return of the risen/exalted Jesus. There are several possibilities:

    • Mourning over sin and wickedness (i.e. the connection of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin)—this entails the idea of repentance.
    • The people mourn over their role/responsibility for Jesus’ death—this may or may not indicate repentance. If the sense is that of mourning for Jesus’ sacrificial death on their behalf, then some measure of true repentance is in view.
    • The nations (“tribes of the earth”, not only the tribes of Israel), in their wickedness, mourn and lament over Jesus’ appearance which signifies the coming of God’s Judgment upon them.

Arguments can be made in favor of each of these, but it is the first (or some combination of the first two) which best seems to fit the context of the book. On the motif of the conversion of the nations, cf. Rev 5:5, 9; 7:9; 11:13; 21:24; 22:2 (Koester, p. 219).

The early Christian use of Daniel 7:13 will be addressed in upcoming articles of the current series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”; I have already dealt with in some detail in an earlier study. Here it follows the Gospel Tradition, going back to the words of Jesus (Mark 13:26; 14:62 par) associating it with the end-time appearance of Jesus (the “Son of Man”).

As indicated above, verse 8 repeats the phrasing in v. 4, though here the three-fold divine title (in italics) is part of a declaration by God Himself:

“I am [e)gw/ ei)mi] the Alpha [a)] and the w@ [Omega], says the Lord God, the (One) being and the (One who) was and the (One) coming, the All-mighty.”

The use of e)gw/ ei)mi (“I am…”) is a standard component of divine revelation and manifestation (theophany), both in the Old Testament (LXX) and in other Greco-Roman literature. It can be traced back to the fundamental passage, introducing the name YHWH, in Exodus 3 (v. 14), being repeated numerous times in Scripture (e.g., Deut 32:39, etc). Especially noteworthy is the Prophetic usage, particularly in the book of Isaiah—cf. 43:25; 45:22; 46:9; 47:8ff; 51:12. The formula here is reasonably close in sense to that in Isa 41:4; 44:6; 48:12.

The use of the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet (alpha [a] and omega [w]) functions as a comprehensive symbol—”first and last” (Isa 41:4, etc)—indicating both completeness and, we may assume, transcendence. God transcends all of creation (and time), encompassing and filling all things. It is also possible that there is here a play on the name YHWH (hw`hy+, Yahweh), which, in Greek transliteration, could be rendered Iaw, including both alpha and omega. Cf. Koester, p. 220.

Two other divine names/titles appear in this declaration, and are worth noting:

    • ku/rio$ o( qeo/$ (“[the] Lord God”)—This reflects the Hebrew conjunction of Yahweh (hwhy) and Elohim (<yh!ýa$), first appearing in Gen 2:4b, and subsequently many times in the Old Testament. It establishes the fundamental religious (and theological) principle that the Deity worshiped by Israel (YHWH) is the one true (Creator) God.
    • o( pantokra/twr (“the All-mighty”)—This title, combining pa=$ (“all”) and kra/to$ (“strength, might”), occurs 9 times in the book of Revelation, but only once (2 Cor 6:18) in the rest of the New Testament. It is known in Greek literature, as a divine attribute, essentially meaning (“ruler of all [things]”), and is relatively frequent in the Greek version (LXX) of the Old Testament. There it typically renders the expression toab*x=, part of an ancient (sentence) title, toab*x= hwhy—Yahweh as the one who “causes the (heavenly) armies to be”, i.e. creates all the heavenly bodies and beings.

Thus, the Hebrew background of both titles emphasizes God (YHWH) as the Creator of all things. We will want to keep this background in mind as we proceed to verses 9ff, and the divine attributes and titles which are given to the risen/exalted Jesus in first vision of the book.

References marked “Koester” above, and throughout these notes, are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38A (Yale: 2014).

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: The Temple (Part 2)

In an earlier article, I discussed the Temple in relation to Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 (in commemoration of the 2nd day of Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day). The references to the Temple, and use of the Temple theme in that sermon-speech, reflect, in various ways, early Christian views of the Jerusalem Temple and how it relates to the new religious identity of believers in Christ. This second article will look at the Temple as it appears in the Infancy narratives, more directly related to the birth of Jesus. The Temple is mentioned only in the Lukan narrative(s), as the setting/locale for three different episodes:

    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)

Each of these episodes is discussed in considerable detail in other Christmas season notes and articles. Here I will focus specifically on the role and significance of the Temple in the Lukan narrative.

1. The Angelic Appearance to Zechariah (Lk 1:8-23)

To begin with, it is importance to notice the close connection between the Temple setting and John the Baptist’s parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were of priestly lineage. In particular, Zechariah was an active priest assigned to periodic service in the Temple (vv. 5, 8-9, 23). The events which occur in the Temple in this episode take place during Zechariah’s time of service. Thus, here the Temple ritual itself plays an important role in the narrative. This leads to an important thematic (and theological) observation, which is essential to the message of Luke-Acts as a whole. The Gospel records divine revelation manifest in the midst of the Temple ritual. From an early Christian standpoint, this theme can be stated more generally:

The New Covenant is manifest in the midst of the Old, the New being the fulfillment of the Old Covenant.

Let us see how the details of the narrative relate to this thematic principle.

a. The ritual setting. As mentioned above, Zechariah was a priest, and a member of a long-established priestly tradition and lineage whose duties included service in the Temple; on this, cf. 1 Chron 23:6; 24:1ff; Neh 12:1-7; 13:30; Josephus Antiquities 7.365-6; Against Apion 2.108. The particular service Zechariah performs here in the narrative involves the daily sacrifice, and, in particular, the burning of incense at the altar in the sanctuary and tending to the related matters within the sanctuary (vv. 8-9). This duty goes back to the Torah regulations and the tradition of the Tabernacle (Exod 30:7-8; cf. also Mishnah tractate Tamid 5:2-6:3). This detail relates not only to Zechariah’s priestly service, but also to the more important motif that John’s parents were among the faithful ones in Israel, being di/kaio$ (“just, right[eous]”)—which means, primarily, being faithful in observing/performing the regulations of the Torah (v. 6). In addition to the offering of incense, as an officiating priest, Zechariah would also have delivered the priestly blessing to the people as part of his duty (Num 6:24-26; m. Tamid 7:2). This would have taken place upon his leaving the sanctuary and entering into the outer precincts of the Temple, as the setting of vv. 10, 21-22 indicates. Note, then, how this all is expressed clearly in the outline of the narrative:

    • Ritual Duty: Offering incense at the altar within the Sanctuary (vv. 8-10)
      • The Divine Revelation (vv. 11-20)
    • Ritual Duty: The Blessing to the people outside the Sanctuary (vv. 21-22)

b. The offering of incense. The particular sacrificial offering performed by Zechariah in the sanctuary also has a special significance in the Lukan narrative, and for early Christians as a whole. The burning of incense takes on a symbolic meaning for Christians which is twofold: (i) an association with prayer, and (ii) as a form of sacrifice entirely separate from that of animal offerings (with the shedding of blood, etc). The first point—the association of incense with prayer—goes back to Old Testament and Jewish tradition, most notably the statement in Psalm 141:2. Moreover, the time of the evening (afternoon) sacrifice, was traditionally regarded as a time/hour for prayer—cf. Dan 9:21; Josephus Antiquities 13.282; Acts 3:1, etc. That is certainly the setting indicated in verse 10; and there is likely a conscious allusion to Daniel 9:20-21ff (cf. below). The identification of burning incense with prayer is perhaps strongest in the visions of the book of Revelation (5:8; 8:3-4).

In Jewish and early Christian thought, prayer begins to take the place of the ritual offering, taking on the characteristics of sacrifice. We see that they occur simultaneously at the hour of sacrifice/prayer (v. 10). God is also said to respond favorably to the prayer of the righteous, in a manner similar to the divine response to the ritual offering; this is reflected in the idea of a person’s prayer ascending (like smoke) up to God (Psalm 141:2; Lk 1:13; Acts 10:4 etc). This first level of separation—i.e. prayer from the concrete ritual of sacrifice—takes on greater meaning for early Christians, who themselves began to view the entire role of the Temple in a new light. This rethinking of the Temple goes back to Gospel tradition and the sayings of Jesus (see esp. Matt 12:6-7; Mk 11:17 par [Isa 56:7]). With the exception of the episode in Acts 21, neither Jesus, the disciples, nor other early Christians are depicted in the New Testament participating in the sacrificial ritual of the Temple. Rather, the Temple serves primarily as a place for teaching and prayer, or for worship generally—cf. Lk 2:46-47; 18:10-11ff; 19:46 par; 24:53; Acts 2:46; 5:20ff, 42; 22:17; Rev 11:1. The spiritualization of the Temple and the sacrificial offerings can be seen vividly in Paul’s letters (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; also Eph 2:21), for example, and definitely precedes the destruction of the Temple building itself.

At times, the Christian view of the Temple turned toward actual opposition of the cultus and the ritual apparatus, as we examined in the case of Stephen’s sermon-speech (Part 1). Again, this can be seen as going back to Jesus and the Gospel tradition—i.e., the Temple action and saying of Jesus (Mk 11:12-17; 13:1-2; 14:58 pars; Jn 2:18-21). At the very least, we see a contrast between the ritual purpose of the Temple and the new purpose revealed in the person and work of Christ. With the destruction of the Temple building in 70 A.D., its role for Christians became increasingly spiritualized, existing as a symbol of God’s presence, holiness (i.e. the Holy Spirit) and the religious devotion of believers.

c. The Temple as a place of vision and revelation. The Angelic appearance to Zechariah is in accordance with Old Testament and Jewish tradition, in which the Temple, representing the presence of God and meeting-place for God and His people, is a suitable location for the experience of visions and divine revelation. This idea goes back to the early traditions related to the Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting, where Moses (and others) had a direct experience of the Divine Presence. Perhaps the most famous visionary scene set in the Temple is that of Isaiah in 6:1-4ff. For other references to visionary/revelatory experiences in the Temple, see e.g., Acts 22:17ff; Josephus Antiquities 13.282-3. Even more relevant to the Lukan narrative here is the occurrence of Divine (Angelic) revelation at the afternoon time of sacrifice/prayer—Dan 9:20-21; Acts 10:3ff. For the possible influence of Daniel on the Lukan narrative, cf. my earlier article in this series.

d. The specific location of the revelation. In verse 11, we read that

“…the Messenger of the Lord was seen by him [i.e. Zechariah] standing out of the giving (side) [i.e. on the right side] of the place of (ritual) sacrifice [i.e. altar] of smoking (incense)”

The right hand side is the “good” and favored side (lit. the giving [decio/$] side), i.e. a propitious sign of God’s favor. Moreover, the sanctuary and the altar mark the presence of God—the place where human beings encounter the Divine Presence. These images and associations reflect a parallel to the Throne/Temple of God in heaven, surrounded by heavenly beings (Isa 6; Rev 4-5; 7:9ff; 11:1ff, 19, etc). In the New Testament and early Christian tradition, the exalted Jesus is seen as standing at the right hand of God on His throne (Mk 14:62 par; Acts 2:33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34, et al). In early Old Testament tradition, the “Messenger of the Lord” was essentially a way of referring to the presence of God (YHWH) himself, as manifest to his people in history. By the time of the New Testament, the expression “Messenger of the Lord” typically referred to a distinct heavenly/angelic being, here identified as Gabriel.

The location of the altar is especially important in light of the theme discussed above, suggesting the idea of ritual sacrifice being replaced by vision/revelation for believers in the New Covenant of Christ.

e. The Old Testament Context of the Revelation. The revelation given to Zechariah by the Messenger Gabriel is Messianic and eschatological. It refers primarily to the role that the child John will play in the end-time redemption God has prepared for his people. As discussed in the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”, the name Yôµanan ( )Iwa/nnh$, “John” v. 13) literally means “God (Yahweh) has shown favor”, alluding to the favor God will show to his people in bring salvation for them, an idea also implied in v. 14. The delight people will have at John’s birth is a foreshadowing of the role he will play (vv. 15-17) in the coming redemption.

The key phrase is found in verse 17:

“and he [i.e. John] will travel before in His [i.e. God’s] sight, in the spirit and power of °Eliyyah {Elijah}…”

It is an allusion to Malachi 3:1ff, a passage of profound eschatological/Messianic significance for Jews of the time. Already in the book of Malachi itself, the “Messenger” is identified as “Elijah” (4:5-6), an association which was highly influential in development of the belief that Elijah would appear at the end-time, before the coming Judgment, to lead God’s people to repentance, as stated here in v. 17b (cf. also Sirach 48:10, for an earlier occurrence of the tradition). I discuss the Messianic figure-type of Elijah at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed” (soon to be posted here).

Early Christian tradition came to identify John the Baptist with “Elijah” who will appear at the end time, and this identification is expressed several times in the Infancy narrative—both here and in 1:76-77—and, of course is essential to the early Gospel tradition (Mk 1:2, 6-7 par [but note Jn 1:21]; 9:12-13 par; Matt 11:14). Early Christians gave to Mal 3:1ff a distinct interpretation: John (the Messenger/Elijah) prepares the way for the coming of Jesus (the Lord). According to this line of interpretation, the words in Mal 3:1 (“the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple“) would similarly refer to Jesus coming to the Temple in Jerusalem. This idea would, of course, be fulfilled in Mk 11:15-18 par, but it may also be in the Gospel writer’s mind in Luke 2:22-27ff. I will discuss this episode, along with that of Lk 2:41-51, in the concluding portion (Part 3) of this article.

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

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

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

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

Vv. 76-77:

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

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

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

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

Vv. 78-79:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 1:69, 78-79

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

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

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

Verse 69 is parallel to the declaration in 68b:

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

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

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

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

In verse 69, the verb is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 1:68, 76-77

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 1:57-66

Luke 1:57-66

As we continue through a study of the Infancy Narratives, we come now to the episode of the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist in Lk 1:57-66. Following the Visitation scene in vv. 39-56, in which the John and Jesus halves of the Infancy narrative come together, in v. 57 the scene shifts back to John’s side, picking up from verse 25. Clearly this episode functions as a fulfillment of the annunciation scene in vv. 8-22, and is given much more attention than the corresponding circumcision/naming of Jesus. The birth of John itself is narrated simply in verse 57:

“And the time for her to produce (a child) was fulfilled for Elisheba, and she caused to be (born) [i.e. gave birth to] a son”.

The verses which follow narrate the circumcision and naming of the child—this event is framed by two notices which establish the significance of the scene:

“And the (one)s housing round about [i.e. neighbors], and the (one)s together (with) her [i.e. her relatives], heard that the Lord did (a) great (act of) his mercy with her, and they took delight (in it) together with her.” (v. 58)

“And fear came to be upon all the (one) housing round about them, and in the whole mountain-region of Yehudah {Judea} all these utterances were spoken throughout; and all the (one)s hearing (this) set it in their heart saying, ‘What then will this (little) child be?'” (vv. 65-66)

The first reaction by the people is a response to the miraculous nature of the birth (i.e. to Elizabeth, who was elderly and barren), the second is to the wondrous sign of Zechariah suddenly speaking again. In between is the moment of circumcision and naming.

Circumcision was a customary cultural practice throughout much of the ancient world, and in traditional societies even today. It was scarcely unique or original to Israel; however, there was special significance to the practice for Israelites—it was an essential mark of religious identity, going back to the tradition of its introduction for Abraham (Gen 17:10-14). Indeed, it is called the “sign of the covenant”, an indication that the person belongs to God’s chosen people, and is thus obligated to observe the terms of the agreement (covenant) established by God—namely, the Torah (or Law) as recorded in the Pentateuch (Exodus–Numbers & Deuteronomy). The central importance of circumcision is stated or otherwise indicated numerous times in Scripture (Gen 21:4; 34:15ff; Exod 4:24-26; 12:44ff; Lev 12:3; Deut 10:16; Josh 5:2-8; Jer 4:4; John 7:22-23; Phil 3:5, etc). Its significance in terms of religious identity made it a controversial issue for early Christians, as dramatically illustrated in the book of Acts (10:45ff; 15:1-16:3; 21:21) and the letters of Paul. By ancient tradition, circumcision was to take place on the eighth day, as narrated here in v. 59, and also (for Jesus) in 2:21. This is not merely an incidental detail in the birth narratives, but is of the utmost importance for the author, as it relates to the key theme of Jesus as the fulfillment of the types and forms from the Old Testament and Israelite religion—the New Covenant that fulfills and completes the Old Covenant. This is the primary reason for emphasizing details which show that John and his parents, as well as Jesus and his parents, were devout in religious matters, faithfully observing the commands and precepts of the Torah.

The narrative context suggests that the naming of the child took place at the circumcision. Such a practice is known from later Jewish tradition, but is otherwise unattested in this early period (cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 380). Based on the pattern indicated in the Old Testament, we might expect the naming to occur at the time of birth, rather than eight days later (Gen 4:1; 21:3; 25:25-26, etc). It is possible that the author (trad. Luke) has taken dramatic license and moved the naming ‘ahead’ to coincide with the circumcision, given the importance of that event to the narrative (cf. above). Apparently, some of the neighbors and relatives were expecting that the child would be named after his father, Zechariah (v. 59b); or, on the assumption that the naming was delayed until the time of circumcision, in lieu of a name, they may have been referring to the child e.g., as “little Zechariah” (Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 380). At this time it was perhaps more common to name a child after his grandfather, rather than his father. In any case, the name spoken by Elizabeth—Yohanan ( )Iwa/nnh$, John)—was, it seems, not one common among the child’s immediate relatives (v. 61).

I discussed the meaning of the name Yôµ¹n¹n (/n`j*oy) in the earlier note on vv. 13-17. It means “Yah(weh) has shown favor”. As such, it is an old Yahweh-name, dating back to the Kingdom period; it is not especially common in the Old Testament, but is known in priestly circles (Neh 12:13, 42; 1 Macc 2:1f), so it is perhaps not unusual that a priestly family such as Zechariah and Elizabeth might adopt it. As I noted previously, the name can be understood or interpreted three ways:

  • God has shown favor to Zechariah and Elizabeth by giving them a child
  • God has shown them favor due to the special role the child will play in the deliverance of His people
  • God shows favor to His people in the person of Jesus, and the child John will play a key role in “preparing the way” for him

All three aspects are present in the narrative, but especially the latter two, which will be emphasized more clearly in the hymn of Zechariah (the Benedictus) that follows in vv. 67-79.

In the Introduction to this series, I discussed the way in which names (and the idea of a name) were understood in the ancient world, much differently than in our society today. The name was thought to represent and embody the essential nature and character of a person—to know a person’s name was effectively the same as knowing the person. When applied in a religious setting or context, names which include a theophoric element (i.e. a shortened form of a deity’s name), often had a very special significance, usually as a phrase- or sentence-name. It may indicate praise to God for his care, power, etc., in bringing the child into the world and blessing the parents. At the same time, such a name could be invoked over the child as a blessing or prophecy over his/her future life and destiny. This aspect of the name Yôµ¹n¹n is included as part of the Angel’s annunciation, in vv. 15-17, when the name is first declared (by Gabriel) to Zechariah (see the earlier note). No such explanation is given by Elizabeth in v. 60, but it is emphasized again in the hymn of Zechariah (vv. 76-77ff), as will be discussed in the next note.

Also important to the structure of the narrative is the moment when Zechariah’s (mute) silence ends and he speaks again (v. 64). Keep in mind the basic outline and note the parallelism:

  • Annunciation of John’s coming birth to Zechariah (vv. 8-25)
    —with the sign: Zechariah will be mute until it comes to pass
  • Annunciation of Jesus’ coming birth to Mary (vv. 26-38)
    —with the sign: the miracle of Elizabeth conceiving & giving birth
    • The fulfillment: Mary sees Elizabeth’s pregnancy (vv. 39-56)
    • The fulfillment: Zechariah speaks following John’s birth (vv. 57-66)

The order of scenes is inverted when dealing with the fulfillment of the sign given by the Angel, but otherwise the parallel is precise, covering all four scenes in vv. 8-66ff. Interestingly, Zechariah is not yet able to speak at John’s birth, but only after the child’s circumcision and naming takes place. Indeed, it is only when Zechariah himself confirms the name of John (Yohanan), writing it down, that his speech returns: “and his mouth opened up along (that very) moment, and (also) his tongue, and he spoke, giving good account (of) [i.e. blessing/praising] God”. This leads to the reaction by the people narrated in vv. 65-66 (cf. above), which spreads, with the news of the wondrous sign, all throughout the region. Even as Zechariah speaks (lale/w) again, so word and news of this event is spoken throughout (dialale/w).

Two significant notices close this scene. The first is a question which represents the thoughts of the people: “What then will this child be?” It is a question at the very heart of the child’s identity, as indicated by his name, and the marvelous events surrounding it (and his birth). The second, final statement is made by the author, almost as though in response to the people’s question: “For indeed the hand of the Lord was with him“. The idiom “hand of the Lord (YHWH)” is familiar from the Old Testament (Exod 9:3; 15:6; 16:3; Num 11:23; Deut 2:15; Josh 4:24; 22:31, etc). It is an anthropomorphic image that primarily refers to God’s power, either to bring judgment on people, or protection and deliverance for his chosen ones. Both aspects will be manifest in the preaching and mission-work of John, as we see depicted in the Gospels (Lk 3:3-20 par).

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

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

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

The angelic appearance (of Gabriel) to Zechariah, following the basic Old Testament pattern for such appearances, with announcement of the (miraculous) birth of a child (John) to come—1:5-25

The birth and circumcision/naming of John, with a visit of neighbors and relatives to the house of Zechariah, a word from Elizabeth, and the miracle of Zechariah’s speech returning —1:56-66

The Song of Zechariah—1:67-79

The angelic appearance (of Gabriel) to Mary, following again the Old Testament pattern, with the annunciation of the (miraculous) conception and coming birth of a child (Jesus)—1:26-38

Elizabeth is pregnant with John, and receives a visit from her relative Mary in “the house of Zechariah”, and miracle of the baby John leaping in the womb (and Elizabeth giving a word of blessing)—1:39-45

The Song of Mary—1:46-54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Well spoken of is [i.e. blessed/praised be] the Lord the God of Israel (v. 68):
    A common opening or ending (doxology) of hymns, prayers, etc., presumably used throughout Israelite-Jewish history; for the same wording, see Psalm 41:13; 72:18; 106:48 [LXX 40:14; 71:18; 105:48]; 1 Kings 1:48; also 1QM 14:4, etc.
  • he looked closely upon… [e)peske/yato]:
    This verb (often translated “visited”), more literally means “look/examine closely, inspect, etc.”, but sometimes has the sense of “look after, help, care for, etc.” In the LXX it often translates dqp, and sometimes is God the subject, either in a positive (Gen 21:1; Deut 11:12, etc) or negative (Ex 32:34, et al.) sense, or both (Zech 10:3). By the time of the New Testament, it was a term (along with the related noun e)piskoph/) used to signify the eschatological day of salvation/judgment (Luke 1:78; 7:16; 19:44; Acts 15:14; 1 Pet 2:12).
  • Made ransom/redemption for his people:
    See Psalm 111:9 [LXX 110:9]: “he sent forth from (him) ransom/redemption for/to his people” (a)pe/steilen instead of e)poi/hsen).
  • Raised [h&geiren] a horn of salvation (v. 69):
    “Horn” (Gk. ke/ra$) is used in a salvific and/or ‘Messianic’ sense, most notably in 1 Sam 2:10 (“he will lift high the horn of his Anointed”), as well as Psalm 132[131]:17 and Ezek 29:21 (“I will make rise a horn”, using forms of the verb a)natellw [cf. a)natolh in Luke 1:78]). The phrase “horn of salvation” occurs in Psalm 18:2 [LXX 17:3], and in early Jewish liturgy (the 15th of the “Eighteen Benedictions” [Shemoneh Esreh]).
  • House of David:
    This phrase occurs frequently in the Old Testament; as a reference to the Davidic king and family line, it would come to have a Messianic connotation—as an interesting connection to the Infancy narratives, it specifically appears in Isa 7:13. The “horn” (of salvation) is often referenced in connection with David, as indicated above (Psalm 132:17; Fifteenth Benediction).
    There is a parallel to vv. 68-69 as a whole in the Cairo Damascus Document (CD) 1:5ff: “…He visited them and caused… to rise up…”, language which is applied to the so-called “Righteous Teacher” of the community (cf. Brown, Birth of the Messiah [1977, 1993], p. 386).
  • Through the mouth of… holy foretellers [i.e. ‘prophets’] (v. 70):
    “Through the mouth of” is a poetic/dramatic way to describe speech (2 Chron 36:21-22; Ezra 1:1; Jer 44:26; Acts 1:16; 3:18, 21; 4:25). Similarly, the phrase “holy prophets” appears in common usage by the time of the New Testament (Wisdom 11:1; Acts 3:21; 2 Pet 3:2, etc).
  • Salvation (out of) the hand of our enemies… hating us (v. 71):
    This is similar to the wording in Psalm 18:17; 106:10 [LXX 17:18; 105:10].
  • Mercy with our fathers… remember his holy agreement [i.e. ‘covenant’] (v. 72):
    The line as a whole seems to echo Psalm 106:45 [LXX 105:45], with the first phrase (along with v. 73) also similar to Micah 7:20. Here I have translated diaqhkh is the sense of Hebrew tyrb (“agreement”, often translated “covenant”), though the Greek word (something “set/arranged [in order]”) more typically means “disposition, testament, will/contract”, etc. The idea of God “remembering” his agreement with Abraham and the “Fathers” appears in numerous places in the OT (e.g., Ex 2:24; Lev 26:42; Psalm 105[104]:8ff; 106[105]:45, etc).
  • The oath which he swore to Abraham… (v. 73):
    A phrase parallel to that in v. 72 (some might question if it should be treated as a separate line), see esp. Gen 26:3 for the precise wording.
  • Rescued… enemies (v. 74):
    See on verse 71 above. The theme of rescue/deliverance from enemies appears often in Scripture, most dramatically in the Psalms (e.g., 18:17 [LXX 17:18]).
  • Do service for him in holiness and justice… for all our days (v. 74-75):
    The phrase “holiness and justice” is perhaps an echo of 1 Kings 9:4 (LXX: “…walk… in holiness and straightness [i.e. uprightness]”); see also Joshua 24:14 (LXX: “… do service for him in straightness and in justice”). There is an relatively close parallel to vv. 74-75 in the Thanksgiving Hymns (Hodayot) from Qumran: “…you [protect] the ones who serve you loyally, [so that] their posterity is before you all the days” (1QH IV [formerly XVII] 13-14 [transl. García Martínez & Tigchelaar, Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition 1997/2000 p.149]).

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

“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 1:19-20, 26

Luke 1:19-20, 26ff

Today’s note continues the previous study on the Angelic birth-announcement to Zechariah (vv. 13-17). It is worth pointing out again the close similarities between the Angelic appearances to Zechariah and Mary, both of which follow a similar pattern from the Old Testament narratives (on this, cf. the discussion in Brown, Birth, pp. 155-8, 292-8). Apart from the basic parallel between Zechariah/Elizabeth and Joseph/Mary (related to the wider John/Jesus parallel), which includes the element of childlessness—in each case the woman is incapable of conceiving at the time of the announcement—note the common elements in the two accounts:

  • Appearance of the Angel to the person (vv. 11, 26-28a)
  • The person is troubled/afraid (vv. 12, 29)
  • The Angel responds “Do not be afraid [mh\ fobou=]” and addresses the person by name (vv. 13a, 30a)
  • There is a declaration that God has heard/chosen (i.e. shown favor to) the person (vv. 13a, 30b)
  • An announcement of the child’s conception and coming birth, using a similar formula, and including a declaration of the child’s name (vv. 13b, 31)
  • Statement regarding the future destiny and (divine) role for the child (vv. 15-17, 32-33)
  • Question from the person as to how this can be, in light of the current condition of childlessness (barrenness/virginity) (vv. 18, 34)
  • Response by the Angel involving a sign confirming the message (vv. 19-20, 35-37)
  • A faithful response by the person to the announcement (vv. 21-25, 38)

The heavenly/angelic appearance to Zechariah draws upon, or echoes, three appearances in the Old Testament narratives:

The appearance to Mary brings in elements of the Samuel narrative (1 Sam 1-2), with Hannah serving as a type/pattern for Mary. There is an interesting sort of progression in the narratives cited above:

  • Gen 17 (also chap. 15)—it is God Himself (YHWH) who appears to Abraham
  • Gen 18—God Himself appears to Abraham (v. 1), it would seem, in the form of three Messengers (“three men”, v. 2)
  • Judg 13 (cf. also Gen 16:7-13)—it is the “Messenger of YHWH” (hwhy Ea^l=m^), i.e. the “Messenger/Angel of the Lord” (Greek a&ggelo$ kuri/ou)
  • Dan 9:21-24—the Angel who appears is Gabriel

The chronology of these traditions matches the (historical) development of Israelite/Jewish thought and theology regarding the relationship between God and the other heavenly beings (i.e. Angels). The Lukan narrative most clearly follows that of Judg 13:2ff and Dan 9:21-24—the being who appears to Zechariah (and then to Mary) is first called “the Messenger of the Lord” (v. 11), and then identified as Gabriel (v. 19):

“…the Messenger said to him, ‘I am Gabrîel, the (one) having stood alongside in the sight of God, and I was se(n)t forth to speak toward you and to give you the good message (regarding) these (thing)s’.”

The name Gabriel is a simplified transliteration of the Hebrew Ga»rî°¢l (la@yr!b=G~), a name which otherwise occurs in the Scriptures only in the book of Daniel (8:16; 9:21). In the post-exilic period, and subsequently in Jewish tradition, names were assigned (or recognized) for various heavenly beings (Angels) which had always been nameless in earlier tradition. Two other Angels are named in the (later) Scriptures—Michael (Dan 10:13; 12:1) and Raphael (deutero-canonical Tobit 3:17). Four others were added to these three, resulting in the traditional number of seven chief Angels, or beings, who stand in the presence of God (Tobit 12:15; 1 Enoch 20; Rev 8:2). For more on the basic idea of Angels standing in God’s presence, cf. Job 1:6; Dan 7:16; Ezek 9:2; and the Testament of Levi 8 (Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 327-8). All of these Angels bear °E~l-names, which ultimately derive from old Israelite (and Semitic) tradition (cf. the earlier article on °E~l).

The name Ga»rî°¢l is a phrase- or sentence-name made up of two elements: (a) the noun ge»er (rb#G#), essentially referring to a strong (mighty, vigorous, successful) young man, i.e. a warrior or hero, and (b) the divine name °E~l (la@), “Mighty (One)”, i.e. “God”. It should probably be translated something like “My Strong One [i.e. Warrior] is God [°E~l]”. As an old °E~l-name, it reflects ancient warrior imagery associated with Yahweh/El, especially in relation to ritual warfare and the “holy war” tradition. The heavenly bodies (sun, moon, stars, etc) were seen as moving together (‘marching’) as an army (the “hosts” of heaven). God himself would come with the clouds, controlling the wind and rain, thunder and lightning, etc. According to the religious (and mythic) traditions of the ancient Near East, all of these natural and meteorological phenomena could be utilized by God fighting on behalf of his people. So it was, in truth, for Israel in their understanding of Yahweh/El, and this is expressed various ways in Scripture, especially in older poetry (Exod 15:1ff; Judg 5:4-5, 20, etc); for other references, cf. the article on the names ‘Adôn/Baal. Eventually this warrior-imagery was reinterpreted and cast in a different theological light (in the Prophets, etc), but would resurface in later Jewish eschatology and Messianic tradition, such as in the writings from Qumran (the War Scroll, etc). The military role tended to be associated more with Michael, rather than Gabriel (cf. Dan 10:21; 12:1; Jude 9; Rev 12:7); yet Gabriel continued to have a prominent place in Jewish writings of the period, such as in the book of Enoch (9:1, 9-10; 20:7; 40:2, 9; 54:6; cf. Brown, Birth, p. 262).

Returning to the scene of Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah, adding the details from verses 19-20ff, we may construct the following dramatic (chiastic) outline:

  • Zechariah serving as priest in the Temple sanctuary (vv. 8-10ff)
    • Gabriel is sent to speak “these things” (tau=ta) to him (v. 19)
      • He gives the good news (eu)aggeli/sasqai)
    • Zechariah will be unable to speak until “these things” (tau=ta) happen (v. 20)
  • Zechariah comes out of the sanctuary (to give the priestly blessing) (vv. 21-22)

It is possible that this scene, with its Temple setting, reflects a traditional motif of receiving a revelation in the Temple, as, for example, in Isaiah 6:1-5ff (cf. also Josephus, Antiquities 18.282f, etc). In the case of Isaiah, his vision also involves a transformative touching of the mouth (the lips). Isaiah, like John the Baptist, is divinely appointed and gifted to speak the word of God (cf. the use of Isa 40:1-5 in Lk 1:76-77; 3:4-6 par, etc). By contrast, Zechariah is rendered mute and unable to speak (1:20), until after the birth of John and the declaration of his name (vv. 57-64). As a result, he is unable to deliver (speak) the priestly blessing to the people waiting outside in the Temple court (vv. 21-22, cf. Num 6:24-26; Mishnah Tamid 7:2). In the overall context of Luke-Acts, this blessing is ultimately fulfilled by Jesus at the end of the Gospel (Lk 24:50-51). There is thus, perhaps, a greater symbolic importance to verse 23 than the simple narrative statement would suggest:

“And it came to be, as the days of his working in service (to God) were (ful)filled, he went (away) from (there) [i.e. from the Temple] into his own house [i.e. back home].”

It is the child Jesus who will, in a sense, take over in the Temple, serving in the house of God his Father (2:49).

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

“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 1:13-17

Luke 1:13-17

Having discussed the introduction to John the Baptist’s parents (Zechariah and Elizabeth) in the previous note, today I will be looking at the appearance of the heavenly Messenger, announcing the coming birth of John, in Lk 1:8-17—in particular, the words of the Messenger in vv. 13-17.

The setting of the Temple, so important as a symbol in the narrative, is featured in the introduction to the scene (vv. 8-12). Zechariah, as one of the priests designated to perform periodic service in the Temple (v. 5, cf. the prior note), was fulfilling his duty, which, on this occasion, involved serving in the sanctuary at the altar of incense. This was a privilege which was granted to priests by the casting of lots (cf. the description in the Mishnah, Tamid 5-6). Verses 9-10 indicate that it is the time of the evening (afternoon) sacrifice (Exod 30:7-18; cf. also Dan 9:21), perhaps around 3:00 pm (Acts 3:1). As Zechariah performs his duties in the sanctuary (the Holy place, but not the innermost shrine), we read in verse 11:

“And (the) Messenger of the Lord [a&ggelo$ kuri/ou] was seen by [i.e. appeared to] him, having stood out of (the) giving [i.e. right-hand] (side) of the place of sacrifice [i.e. altar] of the (fragrant) smoke”

This is the second occurrence in the Lukan narrative of the word ku/rio$ (“Lord”), here referring specifically to the divine name Yahweh (cf. the earlier article on this name), through the corresponding Old Testament expression hwhy Ea^l=m^ (mal°a½ YHWH), “Messenger of Yahweh” (Gen 16:7-13; 21:17; 22:10-18; 31:11-13; Exod 3:2-6; 14:19-24; Judg 2:1-5, etc; cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 324-5). In the earliest strands of tradition, this figure was largely theophanous—that is, representing the manifestation of God (Yahweh/El) himself to his people, through a kind of intermediary. Subsequently, in Israelite and Jewish tradition, it referred more precisely to a distinct heavenly being (i.e. Angel). In the Lukan narrative, the figure is identified as the Angel Gabriel (vv. 19, 26), best known from the book of Daniel, to which the Infancy narrative alludes at several points. The word decio/$, meaning the right-hand (side), I translate above literally as the “giving” side—the right-hand being regarded as the propitious or favored side. The Angel’s appearance to the right of the altar indicates that God is showing favor to Zechariah. The Zechariah’s fear in response (v. 12) is typical of such Angelic appearances in the Old Testament, and is part of a definite (literary) annunciation pattern adopted in the Gospel (for more on this, cf. especially Brown, Birth, pp. 155-8, 292-8). The presence of the “Messenger of the Lord” recalls the Samson narrative (Judg 13:3ff); the wife of Manoah, like Elizabeth, was also barren.

The words of the Angel which follow (vv. 13-17) may be divided into four parts, beginning the primary birth announcement in v. 13:

“Do not be afraid, Zecharyah, through (the reason) that your need [i.e. request] has been heard [i.e. listened] into (by God), and your wife Elisheba will cause a son to be (born) for you—and you shall call his name Yohanan.”

It is not entirely clear what Zechariah’s need or request (de/hsi$, i.e. prayer/petition) was; certainly he would have prayed for a child, but, given the notice regarding Zechariah’s devotion and righteous character (vv. 5-6), it is also possible that he had been praying for the future blessing and fortune of Israel. The name which the Angel directs should be given to the child is Yôµ¹n¹n (/n`j*oy), transliterated in Greek as  )Iwa/nnh$, and simplified again into English typically as “John”. It is a sentence-name, incorporating the divine name Yahweh (the hypocoristic “Yah[û]”, cf. the earlier article), and meaning “Yah(weh) has shown favor”. This favor (or “grace”), indicated already by the Angel’s appearance on the right-hand side of the altar (cf. above), may be understood three ways:

  • God granting to Zechariah and Elizabeth a long-awaited child (a son)
  • That the son would have a special status and role to play in God’s plan, and
  • That the child would be the means by which God would show favor to His people Israel

John’s salvific role, with regard to the last two points, of course, is due to his close connection with Jesus, as indicated by the overall structure of the narrative, intercutting the birth accounts of John and Jesus, respectively. The next three parts of the Angel’s message follow the initial announcement, and may be outlined as follows:

  • The effect of the (good) news of the child’s birth (v. 14)—”And there will be delight for you and leaping (for joy), and many will take delight upon his coming to be (born)”
  • Declaration of the child’s role and destiny (vv. 15-16), which involves four components:
    (i) the statement “he will be great in the sight of the Lord” (compare with v. 32)
    (ii) his designation as a Nazirite (Num 6:3; Judg 13:4 [another connection with the Samson narrative, cf. above])
    (iii) that “he will be filled with the holy Spirit” from his moment of his conception
    (iv) his mission will be to “turn many of the sons of Israel (back) upon [i.e. to] (the) Lord their God”
  • The child’s role and destiny as a fulfillment of prophecy (v. 17)

The specific prophecy referenced by the Angel in verse 17 is that of Malachi 3:1ff, as interpreted by the ‘appendix’ of 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24], in which the Messenger who will go ahead and “prepare the way” for the coming of the Lord is identified with the figure of Elijah. John the Baptist, too, was certainly identified with this Messenger (and Elijah) in early Gospel tradition (Mark 1:2-3 par, etc). The Lukan Infancy narrative draws upon this same tradition; according to the account here, it was established by the Angel of the Lord in the very announcement of John’s coming birth. This will be discussed further in the note on Lk 1:76ff. I have discuss the original context, and interpretation, of Mal 3:1ff in an article in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Particular mention should be made of the name Elijah, which, like Yôµ¹n¹n, was also a Yahweh-name. In Hebrew it is °E~lîy¹h[û] ([W]hY`l!a@), “Yah(weh) is (my) God [°E~l]”. This name would have had special significance at the time of great 9th-century B.C. Prophet, when the worship of Yahweh (identified with the Creator God °E~l [“Mighty One”]) was being challenged by Canaanite religious beliefs and practices centered on the deity Haddu (called Ba±al, “Lord, Master”). For more on this, cf. the earlier article on the name Yahweh, as well as the article on °Adôn/Ba±al. Though Baal-worship, as such, was no longer an issue for Israel by the time of the New Testament, the language and emphasis of the old Prophets (such as Elijah) is echoed here in the Angel’s words. Note especially the wording of verse 16:

“…and many of the sons of Israel he [i.e. John] will turn (back) upon the Lord their God”

This relates primarily to the prophecy in Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6 (note the similar wording in 4:6; cf. also Sirach 48:10), though there may be allusions to other passages such as 2 Sam 7:24 (cf. Exod 19:10-11). The expression “the Lord their God” (o( ku/rio$ o( qeo/$ au)tw=n), though obscured somewhat in translation, actually refers to the ancient religious point mentioned above—namely, that Yahweh (the Lord [ku/rio$]) is our God (°E~l/°E_lœhîm [qeo/$]). That is to say, Yahweh is the one true (Creator) God, and he is our God, i.e. the one we recognize and worship. It is this God who will ultimately show favor to His people through the person of Jesus Christ.

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

“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 1:5-6

Luke 1:5-6

Today’s article begins the second part of the Advent/Christmas series, in which a specific verse or passage in the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke will be discussed each day. I begin with the Lukan narrative, and the opening verses Lk 1:5-6:

“It came to be, in the days of Herod king of Yehudah {Judea}, (that there was) a certain sacred-official [i.e. priest] with (the) name Zecharyah, out of the regular (priestly) turn of Abiyah, and the wife [lit. woman] for him (was) out of the daughters of Aharôn {Aaron} and her name (was) Elisheba. And both of them were just [i.e. righteous] in front of God, walking in all the (thing)s placed on (them by God) and (the) just (command)s of the Lord, without fault.”

As most Christians and students of the New Testament are aware, in the Gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus is set parallel to the birth of John the Baptist, with the two accounts intertwined and connected throughout the narrative. The parallelism is more or less clear and precise, as for each figure (John and Jesus) there is:

  • A heavenly (Angelic) announcement of the child’s conception and impending birth, which includes a pronouncement regarding the child’s future destiny and role in God’s plan, following the pattern of similar scenes in the Old Testament
  • A miraculous birth
  • News of the birth being spread to neighbors and people in the surrounding area
  • Mention of the child’s circumcision and application of his name (given previously by the Angel)
  • An inspired oracle-hymn (or hymns), drawing heavily upon Old Testament imagery, which declares the child’s future role in God’s deliverance of his people
  • A notice regarding the child’s early growth, patterned after the Old Testament Samuel narrative

Other details only confirm and enhance these essential points. The Lukan narrative begins with John and his parents (Zechariah and Elizabeth), here in vv. 5-6ff, which sets the scene for the Angelic announcement. The section 1:5-25 may be divided into four parts:

  • Introduction of John’s parents (5-7)
  • The Angelic announcement to Zechariah, Part 1—Of the child’s birth and destiny (8-17)
  • The Angelic announcement to Zechariah, Part 2—The sign of the birth (18-23)
  • The Fulfillment: Elizabeth becomes pregnant (24-25)

From the standpoint of this series, the mention of John’s parents in vv. 5-6 is also significant as they are essentially the first names which appear in the narrative. They are venerable Hebrew names which ought to be examined briefly:

  • Zechariah—Hebrew [W]hy`r=k^z= (Z§½ary¹h[û]), transliterated in Greek as Zaxari/a$ (Zacharías). It is a sentence-name, which essentially means “Yah(weh) (has) remembered”; as such, it is one of many Hebrew (and Aramaic) names, still in use at the time, which contain a hypocoristic (shortened) form of the divine name (cf. the recent article on Yawheh). There are at least thirty men with this name mentioned in the Old Testament (and deutero-canonical books), including the famous 5th-century Prophet and an earlier priest who was stoned to death in the Temple court (2 Chron 24:20-22; cf. Luke 11:51 par) on the order of the king.
  • Elizabeth—Hebrew yb^v#yl!a$ (°E_lîše»a±), likewise transliterated into Greek— )Elisa/bet (Elisábet). The meaning of her name is a bit harder to determine; typically it has been rendered “God [°E~l] is my oath (i.e. the one to swear by)”, but it possibly could mean something like “My God [°E~l] is the one who satisfies, brings satisfaction”. In any case, it too is a sentence-name incorporating the divine name °E~l (“Mighty [One]”, i.e. “God”); cf. the earlier article. It is an ancient Hebrew/Israelite name, but found only once in the Old Testament (the wife of Aaron, Exod 6:23 [cf. below]).

It is unlikely that the author of the Gospel (trad. Luke) intended to convey the significance of these (Hebrew) names to his Greek readers, though he may have been familiar with their basic meaning. However, the underlying (historical) tradition he records tells us something important about the family background of Zechariah and Elizabeth. We may note two key points:

  • Indication of religious devotion in the worship of the (one) Creator God, Yahweh/El
  • A connection with the priestly line

Both points are made clear by the author in vv. 5-6. To begin with, Zechariah is specifically described as a priest, among those who served at regular periods in the Temple. In the case of Elizabeth, her lineage is identified even more precisely when she is referred to as one “from [lit. out of] the daughters of Aaron“, that is, a descendant of Aaron, bearing the same name as Aaron’s wife. Both of John’s parents should thus be regarded as coming from the Aaronid priestly line.

Concerning the first point, while one might assume that men and women from priestly families are (or at least ought to be) devout persons, the Gospel writer makes this quite clear for Zechariah and Elizabeth personally, in verse 6. The first clause (6a) states: “And they were both just/right(eous) in front of God”. The adjective di/kaio$ (“just, right[eous]”), used frequently throughout the New Testament, becomes an important keyword in Luke-Acts, appearing as a title of Jesus in Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14. It is also used of Simeon (Lk 2:25), a character sharing many features in common with Zechariah. The “righteousness” of Zechariah and Elizabeth is explained in 6b; note the chiastic structure of the clause, following the Greek word order exactly:

  • walking
    —in all
    ——the (thing)s placed on (them)
    ——the just (thing)s
    —of God
  • without fault

The participle poreuo/menoi (“traveling, walking”) carries the sense of regular, habitual behavior. This “walking”—that is, a particular way of life and conduct—is said to be “without fault” (a&mempto$) in “all the (thing)s…of the Lord” (e)n pa/sai$…tou= kuri/ou). These “things of the Lord” are specified by two nouns:

  • e)ntolh/—usually translated “command(ment)”, but rendered above more literally as something “placed on” a person, i.e. a charge or duty which is expected to be observed or carried out. It refers here (in the plural) primarily to the various commands, injunctions, precepts, etc, in the Old Testament Law (Torah) which Israelites were to observe, in faithfulness to the covenant established with them by God.
  • dikai/wma—this noun, related to the adjective di/kaio$ (“just, right[eous]”), refers essentially to something which is regarded or declared to be right and just. Here, in the plural, it is parallel with e)ntolh/, referring to all of the commands, etc, in the Torah (the Old Covenant) which God has declared for his people, and which were to be fulfilled.

The adjective a&mempto$ (“without fault”) does not mean that Zechariah and Elizabeth were perfect or sinless, but that there was nothing wicked or improper in their daily life—their ethical and religious conduct—which was in clear violation of the Torah or God’s Law. All of this detail in verses 5-6 serves two main purposes for the author in terms of the narrative which follows:

  1. It introduces the important motif of the faithful/righteous ones in Israel, who remain obedient to God and patiently await the fulfillment of His promises.
  2. It establishes the Temple setting of the annunciation scene (i.e., explaining what Zechariah would be doing there), which likewise becomes a vital theme, both in the Infancy narrative, and throughout Luke-Acts. The Temple setting takes on even greater prominence in the episode(s) in Lk 2:22-38 (cf. also vv. 41-50).

A subsidiary (narrative) purpose is to clarify the notice in verse 7 regarding the childlessness of Zechariah and Elizabeth. For a woman to be barren, or a family to be without children, was unusual and regarded as a reason for shame in the ancient world (cf. verse 25). The Gospel writer is essentially making clear that Zechariah and Elizabeth being childless was not the result of any specific sin or impiety on their part.