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

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

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

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

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

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

V. 48 (vv. 48-50 are often considered together as a strophe):
o%ti e)pe/beyen e)pi\ th\n tapei/nwsin th=$ dou/lh$ au)tou=
that [i.e. because] he looked upon the lowliness of his handmaid [lit. slave-girl]—
i)dou ga\r a)po\ tou= nu=n makariou=si/n me pa=sai ai( geneai/
for see! from now (on) all (the) generations (of women) will call me happy [i.e. blessed]

This particular stich is close to the words of Leah in Gen 29:32 (dio/ti ei@de/n mou ku/rio$ th\n tapei/nwsin, “because [the] Lord has seen my lowliness…”) and 30:13 (makari/a e)gw/ o%ti makari/zousi/n me ai( gunai=ke$, “happy am I, that [i.e. because] the women call me happy…”). V. 48a is also very close to the words of Hannah in 1 Sam 1:11 (translating conventionally): “Lord… if only you might look upon the lowliness of your handmaid…” [e)pible/yh|$ e)pi\ th\n tapei/nwsin th=$ dou/lh$ sou]). Cf. also the similar thought and wording in 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras] 9:45.

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

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

V. 50:
kai\ to\ e&leo$ au)tou= ei)$ genea\$ kai\ genea\$ toi=$ foboume/noi$ au)to/n
and His mercy (is) into generation and generation to the (ones) fearing Him

This line is quite close to Psalm 103:17 [LXX 102:17]: to\ de\ e&leo$ tou= kuri/ou a)po\ tou= ai)w=no$ kai\ e%w$ tou= ai)w=no$ e)pi\ tou\$ foboume/nou$ au)to/n (“but the mercy of the Lord [is] from the Age and until the Age upon the [ones] fearing Him”)

V. 51 (vv. 51-53 are usually considered a [second] strophe):
e)poi/hsen kra/to$ e)n braxi/oni au)tou=
He has done [i.e. shown] might in his arm
diesko/rpisen u(perhfa/nou$ dianoi/a| kardi/a$ au)tw=n
he has scattered the overly-shining [i.e. haughty/arrogant] (ones) throughout in the thoughts [lit. thinking through] of their hearts

This stich may echo Psalm 89:10 [LXX 88:11]: “you have made lowly the haughty/arrogant (ones) as a wounded (man),  and in the arm of your power [e)n tw=| braxi/oni th=$ duna/mew/$ sou] you have scattered your enemies throughout [diesko/rpisa$ tou\$ e)xqrou/$ sou]”. The original Hebrew reads quite differently, especially in the first half of the verse.

V. 52:
kaqei=len duna/sta$ a)po\ qro/nwn kai\ u%ywsen tapeinou/$
He has taken down the powerful (ones) from (their) thrones, and has lifted high the lowly (ones)

There are general similarities to a number of passages, but no precise quotations or allusions: 1 Sam 2:4, 7ff; Ezek 21:26 [LXX v. 31]; Job 12:19. The closest wording is perhaps to be found in Sirach 10:14: qro/nou$ a)rxo/ntwn kaqei=len o( ku/rio$ kai\ e)ka/qisen praei=$ a)nt’ au)tw=n (“[the] thrones of chiefs the Lord has taken down and has seated [the] meek against them [i.e. in their place]”).

V. 53:
peinw=nta$ e)ne/plhsen a)gaqw=n kai\ ploutou=nta$ e)cape/steilen kenou/$
The hungry (ones) he filled with good (things) and the rich (ones) he sent out from (here) empty

The first line is nearly identical with second part of Psalm 107:9 [LXX 106:9]: “because he satisfies the empty soul, and the soul of the hungry he fills with good things [yuxh\n peinw=san e)ne/plhsen a)gaqw=n]”. Cf. also a similar juxtaposition in the Lukan Beatitudes (Luke 6:21, 25).

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

There are possible allusions here to a number of passages: e.g., Psalm 98:3 [LXX 97:3]; Micah 7:20; Isaiah 41:8-9; cf. also the Psalms of Solomon 10:4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In three Latin manuscripts (a b l*), supported by the witness of several Church Fathers, the speaker of the Magnificat is not Mary, but Elizabeth. This would certainly seem to the be more difficult reading (scribes being much more like to change the text from “Elizabeth” to “Mary” than the other way round), and might be preferred on text-critical grounds (lectio difficilior potior); on the other hand, the textual evidence for reading “Mary” in v. 46 is overwhelming (including all Greek MSS). A few scholars have posited the reading “she said”, without the subject being specified. This is an interesting solution, which might explain the rise of both readings; however, without additional textual evidence for corroboration, the majority reading is to be preferred.

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