The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Luke 2:21-24

Traditionally, in the liturgical calendar, January 1 is the date commemorating the circumcision of Jesus. In this Christmas season article, I will be looking at three separate episodes, related to regulations and traditions in the Old Testament Law (of Moses), which the Gospel (of Luke) narrates together in just four verses (Luke 2:21-24). These are as follows:

  1. The Circumcision of Jesus
  2. The Purification of Mary
  3. The Presentation/Redemption of the firstborn Jesus

1. The Circumcision of Jesus (Luke 2:21)

This is told very simply: “and when (the) eight days were filled up for his being cut-around [i.e. circumcised], (then) also his name was called Yeshua {Jesus}, the (name) called under [i.e. by] the Messenger before his being received together [i.e. conceived] in the womb”. The temporal clause as translated is misleading (the proper sense is “after eight days he was…”); and the articular infinitive + accusative construct (frequent in Luke) is difficult to render literally in English, and can be translated two ways—”for his being circumcised” or “for him to be circumcised”, etc. In more conventional English, the verse would be: “and when (a period of) eight days were completed, he was circumcised and he was given the name ‘Jesus’, the name given by the Angel before he was conceived in the womb”.

Circumcision, in various forms, is attested all over the world, and was not invented or introduced as an original rite in Abraham’s time; it was, however, introduced and given special meaning by God to Abraham (Genesis 17:10ff) as a sign of the agreement (covenant) between them, to be applied to descendents of Abraham—i.e. the people of Israel (cf. also Gen 21:4; 34:15ff; Ex 4:26; Josh 5:2ff). The legal formulation of circumcision is found in Leviticus 12:3 (including the tradition of the eighth day), but otherwise the rite is mentioned in the Law only in passing (Exodus 12:44, 48). Circumcision came to be used also in a metaphorical and ethical sense, to indicate true faith and obedience, in the Prophets (Jer 4:4; 9:25) and later in the New Testament as well (Rom 2:25-29; 4:9ff; Phil 3:3; Col 2:11, etc).

The notice of Jesus’ circumcision (and naming) is so brief and general that any special theological import is out of the question. I will discuss something of the purpose of its inclusion in the narrative down below; but it is worth mentioning the possibility that, having received a tradition on the birth and naming of John (including the circumcision), the Gospel writer (trad. Luke) sought to fill out the parallelism (between Jesus and John) by adding a corresponding notice on Jesus’ circumcision. The brevity of the statement, along with the highly Lukan style in the verse, would seem to confirm this. That there is a clear (and intentional) parallelism between the birth narratives of John and Jesus should be obvious from even a casual reading of chapters 1-2; however, it might be helpful here to illustrate again the various points of contact—in each narrative there is:

  • An announcement of the birth (conception) of the child, by a heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) to the parent (Zechariah, Mary), giving the child’s name, and foretelling his destiny—Luke 1:5-25, 26-38.
  • A visitation scene in the house of Zechariah, involving Elizabeth, which is the setting for a canticle—Luke 1:39-45
  • A poem or hymn (canticle) presented as spoken by the parent (Mary, Zechariah), which connects the child to be born with the mighty acts of God on behalf of His people—Luke 1:46-55, 67-79
  • The birth of the child is narrated (briefly), followed by the reaction of those nearby (relatives, shepherds)—Luke 1:57-58; 2:6ff
  • The circumcision is narrated (briefly), along with the naming of the child; shortly thereafter an aged devout person (Zechariah, Simeon) speaks and prophesies under the inspiration of the Spirit—Luke 1:59-67; 2:21, 25-32ff
  • There is a notice describing the child’s growth—Luke 1:80; 2:40 (and 52)

This cannot be coincidental. Even if one accepts the historicity/factuality of the narratives without question, they still have been shaped (by the author, presumably) to draw out the points of contact. Some commentators treat verse 21 as part of the prior birth narrative (Luke 2:1-20), largely to maintain the parallelism with the birth/circumcision of John (1:57-59). However, I consider it better to group verse 21 with what follows.

A major theme of Luke 2:21-38 (and of the larger Infancy narrative) is that the birth and coming of Jesus (prefigured by that of John) represents a three-fold fulfillment, of:

(a) the Old Testament law
(b) the promises of God to His people
(c) the (Messianic) hopes and expectations of Israel

We can see this presented in the thematic structure of the narrative:

  • Fulfillment of the Law by Jesus’ parents—v. [21], 22-24, 27
    cf. also the same faithfulness prefigured in John’s parents (1:6, 59, etc)
    • Simeon—was (v. 25-26)
      (a) just and took good care [to observe the law, etc]
      (b) [looking] toward receiving the ‘comfort’ [paraklhsi$] of Israel
      • The song of Simeon (vv. 29-32) reflecting the promise of salvation (and revelation) to Israel (and the nations)
        —uttered as he held the child Jesus in his arms (as fulfillment of the promise, v. 28)
      • A prophecy of Simeon for the child in relation to Israel (vv. 33-35)
    • Anna—was (vv. 36-38)
      (a) in the Temple precincts, worshiping, praying and praising God day and night
      (b) [was with those looking] toward receiving the ‘redemption’ [lutrwsi$] of Jerusalem
  • Fulfillment of the Law by Jesus’ parents—v. 39

2. The Purification of Mary &
3. The Presentation/Redemption of the Firstborn (Luke 2:22-24)

The narrative proper is found in the bulk of verse 22:

“And when the days of their cleansing were filled up according to the Law of Moses, they led him up into Jerusalem”

Note the similar formula as in verse 21. Then follows a pair of phrases governed by infinitives of purpose, after each of which is a citation from Scripture:

to stand (him) alongside the Lord” (parasth=sai tw=| kuri/w|)

“even as it is written in the Law of the Lord…”

“and to give sacrifice” (kai\ tou= dou=nai qusi/an)

“according to what has been said in the Law of the Lord…”

The verses, therefore, show a careful structure, which rather belies the apparent confusion regarding two very different (and separate) regulations in the Law. There are several difficulties in the passage, most notably:

  • The plural pronoun (au)tw=n, “their cleansing”), which is the best reading. There are three possible interpretations:
    • The purification applies to both parents (Joseph and Mary), contrary to the regulation, which applies only to the mother; however, this seems to be the most straightforward (and best) sense of the phrase.
    • The purification applies to Mary and Jesus; this, again, is contrary to the regulation, and results in extremely confusing syntax, since the subsequent they clearly refers to Mary and Joseph.
    • The pronoun functions as a subject—i.e., their (his parents) bringing the child for cleansing, etc. This seems most unlikely.

The best explanation is that the author simply anticipates the main clause “they (Joseph and Mary) led him up…”, and by attraction, the plural extends to the earlier phrase—in other words, the presence of the plural pronoun is literary-grammatical rather than historical.

  • While the initial religious concept underlying the law of the ‘redemption’ of the firstborn did involve offering the child to God, it was acted out in practice by purchasing the child back (symbolically) with a payment to the Sanctuary. There is no indication that the child had to be brought to the sanctuary, and this certainly does not seem to have been a normal practice. Also, though the Scripture passage refers to the ‘redemption’, no mention is made of any payment at the Temple. It is sometimes been thought that the author here is confused on the details of the Law.

The two regulations involved are:

Leviticus 12:1-8—The woman remains unclean for 40 days (in case of a male child), after which she must offer a sacrifice of a lamb (for a whole burnt offering) and a pigeon/dove (for a sin offering); then the priest makes atonement for her and she is clean. This law is more or less accurately depicted in Luke 2:22-24, including the provision for a poor family to offer two birds if they could not afford a lamb. Verse 24 cites this provision (Lev 12:8).

Exodus 13:1-2, 11-12—All firstborn (males) are dedicated/consecrated to God; according to the ancient near eastern law of consecration (µerem), that which was dedicated to God belonged to Him, represented either by slaughter (sacrifice) or use in the service of God (in the Temple). In the case of the firstborn of Israel, a third option came to be used in practice, as outlined in Numbers 18:15-16: the firstborn males (including those of clean animals) shall be redeemed—that is, purchased back—by a payment to the Sanctuary. Luke cites Ex 13:2 loosely, but renders literally the Hebrew idiom describing the firstborn as that which “opens the womb”.

It is this latter law which is at issue in Luke 2:22-24. I do not always discuss historical-critical questions in detail in these articles, but here I will suggest that there are likely three strands at work in the narrative:

  1. Fulfillment of the ‘redemption’ regulation by Joseph and Mary (historical); this would not need to have taken place at the Temple.
  2. Interpretation of the ‘redemption’ regulation in terms of the (original) idea of consecration of the firstborn to God; this would occur at the level of tradition and/or the author of the Gospel, but may also be connected with a (historical) visit to the Temple (more or less as narrated in 2:22ff).
  3. Application of this sort of interpretation in light of the birth/childhood narratives of Samuel—see 1 Sam 1:21-28; given the many echoes of 1 Sam 1-2 in the Lukan Infancy narrative, it is likely that the author has it in mind here as well. The child Samuel was offered by his mother (Hannah) to serve God always in the Temple.

There are additional theological and literary reasons why the infant Jesus should be in the Temple, apart from historical considerations in the narrative:

  • The Temple is the setting for the encounters with Simeon and Anna which follow; there is every reason for the author to keep Jesus (and his parents) there, combining together what may have been separate events as though they all took place at the same time.
  • The Infancy Narrative concludes with the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-51), climaxing with the famous words: “did you not know that it is necessary for me to be in/among the (things) of my Father?” This ties back powerfully to the earlier ‘presentation’ to the Lord in verse 22, and to the idea that the child is dedicated (consecrated) entirely to God.

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