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.

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