The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Luke 2:29-32

The Sunday after Christmas (this season coinciding with January 1) traditionally celebrates the ‘presentation’ of Jesus at the Temple (Luke 2:22-24ff). I have discussed this episode in the previous Christmas season note, and have also treated details of the prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:34-35) in an article during Holy Week. For today’s note I will be looking at the song (canticle) of Simon,  especially in relation to possible motifs and allusions from the Old Testament.

Luke 2:29-32

The Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis):

  • nu=n a)polu/ei$ to\n dou=lo/n sou de/spota
    Now you (may) loose your slave from (service), Master,
    • kata\ to\ rh=ma/ sou e)n ei)rh/nh|
      according to your utterance, in peace,
  • o%ti ei@don oi( o)fqalmoi/ mou to\ swth/rio/n sou
    (now) that my eyes have seen your salvation
    • o^ h(toi/masa$ kata\ pro/swpon pa/ntwn tw=n law=n
      which you have made ready according(ly) toward the eye/face of all the peoples—
  • fw=$ ei)$ a)poka/luyin eqnw=n
    a light unto uncovering for (the) nations
    • kai\ do/can laou= sou  )Israh/l
      and doxa for your people Israel.

Compared with the Magnificat (Song of Mary) and Benedictus (Song of Zechariah), the Nunc Dimittis has a much simpler and more straightforward structure, with three stichoi (lines) or bicola. Only in the third line (v. 32) is there any syntactical difficulty. Before examining each of the six half-lines, it is worth noting that the Old Testament quotations and allusions in the hymn are all from the second (and third) part of the book of Isaiah (Isa 40-55, 56-66)—so-called Deutero- (and Trito-)Isaiah. There is an enormous range of scholarly opinion on the composition of this large and many-faceted book: the standard critical view is that Deutero- and Trito-Isaiah are products of the exilic and early post-exilic period, while the traditional-conservative view tends to see the entire book as more or less the work of Isaiah himself; of course, many commentators take moderating positions somewhere in-between. Certainly there are themes in chapters 40-55, especially, which are appropriate to an exilic setting—a message of comfort, the hope and promise of restoration, and so forth. It is not surprising that these chapters had an enormous influence on Jewish and early Christian thought. Both the Community of the Qumran texts and early Christians of the Synoptic Gospels used Isaiah 40:3 as a central thematic passage (cf. Mark 1:3 par.). The so-called Servant Songs (esp. Isa 52:13-53:12) were applied to Jesus early on and helped to shape the Passion narratives. Dozens of smaller points of contact and influence could be cited.

In terms of the Lukan Infancy narrative here in in this section (Luke 2:25-38), the Isaianic theme is established in the two aged figures which are encountered within the Temple setting:

  • Simeon (vv. 25-35) who:
    (a) was righteous/just and took good care [to observe the Law, etc]
    (b) was [looking] toward receiving the paraklhsi$ of Israel
  • Anna (vv. 36-38) who:
    (a) was in the Temple ‘day and night’, serving with fasting and prayer
    (b) was [with those looking] toward receiving the lutrwsi$ of Jerusalem

Point (a) speaks to their faithfulness and obedience regarding religious duty and service to God; point (b) to the ‘Messianic’ hope and expectation shared by many devout Jews at the time. Consider the two parallel phrases in (b)—they were among those looking toward receiving [prosde/xomai, i.e. waiting for]:

  • the paraklhsi$ of Israel (v. 25)
  • the lutrwsi$ of Jerusalem (v. 38)

These phrases form an inclusio to the section. In the first, the noun para/klhsi$ is derived from the verb parakalew (lit. “call alongside”) and indicates calling someone to come near for help/instruction/encouragement, etc., just as the noun para/klhto$ (‘paraclete’) refers to someone called alongside to give help/instruction/encouragement, etc. The word in this context is usually translated “comfort” or “consolation”. In the second phrase, the parallel noun lutrw/si$ refers to the payment of ransom (and the corresponding release) for someone in bondage, etc., and is normally translated “redemption”. The phrase “comfort of Israel” probably finds its origin in the Isaian passages 40:1-2 (which also mentions Jerusalem) and 61:2, cf. also 57:18; 63:4; 66:13. “Redemption of Jerusalem” would seem to be derived from Isa 52:9, which also mentions ‘comfort’ for God’s people. This message of hope and restoration is described in terms of “good news” for Jerusalem (cf. 40:9; 41:27; 52:7). Interestingly, the phrase “redemption (hL*a%G+) of Israel” and “freedom of Jerusalem” are found in documents from the Wadi Muraba±at in the context of the second Jewish Revolt (132-135 A.D.).

Now let us look at each of the six half-lines in the song:

Verse 29a: nu=n a)polu/ei$ to\n dou=lo/n sou de/spota (“now you [may] loose your slave from [service], Master”)—the verb a)polu/w is conventionally translated in English as “release, dismiss”, etc. For similar use of the verb in the Old Testament (LXX) see Genesis 15:2; Numbers 20:29; Tobit 3:6; cf. also Gen 46:30. The use of despo/th$ in reference to God is relatively rare in the LXX (Gen 15:2,8, etc) and in the New Testament (Acts 4:24), but is occasionally used of Christ as well (2 Peter 2:1; Jude 4; Rev 6:10). The image is that of a household master releasing his slave from service; since “slave” in English often carries the connotation of abuse and mistreatment, typically dou=lo$ is translated here as “servant”.

Verse 29b: kata\ to\ r(h=ma/ sou e)n ei)rh/nh| (“according to your utterance, in peace”)—for the comparable idiom of departing “in peace”, see of Abraham in Gen 15:15 (note also the use in context of despo/th$ and a)polu/w in Gen 15:2 LXX). r(hma is usually translated “word”, being roughly equivalent to lo/go$ in such contexts; however it is frequently used specifically in instances of a prophetic “utterance”, a slightly more literal translation which captures something of this sense.

Verse 30: o%ti ei@don oi( o)fqalmoi/ mou to\ swth/rio/n sou (“[now] that my eyes have seen your salvation”)—this phrase is an allusion to Isaiah 40:5 and/or 52:10 (LXX); see also Psalm 98:3; Gen 49:18; Baruch 4:24; Ps Sol 17:50.

Verse 31: o^ h(toi/masa$ kata\ pro/swpon pa/ntwn tw=n law=n (“which you have made ready in the sight of all the peoples”)—this, along with verse 30 (above), is drawn largely from Isaiah 52:10. The use of law=n is interesting (Isa 52:10 uses e)qnw=n); most likely it is meant to encompass both the “nations” (e)qnw=n) and the “people” (laou=) of Israel in verse 32. The italicized expression (“in the sight of”) is a more conventional rendering of the idiom, which I translated above quite literally as “according(ly) toward the eye/face of”.

Verse 32a: fw=$ ei)$ a)poka/luyin e)qnw=n (“a light unto uncovering [i.e. revelation] for the nations”)
Verse 32b: kai\ do/can laou= sou  )Israh/l (“and glory for your people Israel”)
There has been some question whether do/can is parallel to fw=$, or is governed (along with a)poka/luyin) by the preposition ei)$; almost certainly the latter is correct—i.e., “a light unto uncovering…and (unto) glory…”. The first phrase is more or less a quotation of Isaiah 49:6b (cf. also Isa 42:6); the second may be derived from Isaiah 46:13b (for the overall image in this verse, see also Isa 60:1). The noun do/ca is actually rather difficult to translate literally into English—the original sense is of a (favorable) opinion, and so indicates the honor, esteem, etc. in which someone or something is held; but just as often it refers to the reputation, dignity, honor, etc. which someone possesses. How closely should one treat the parallel between a)poka/luyi$ and do/ca? It is natural to think this of “revelation” in terms of the truth (the Gospel) being presented to the Gentiles; but I believe the image is rather one of uncovering (i.e. the literal sense of the word) the nations who are in darkness. So, following the parallelism, the light God brings (in the person of Jesus) has a two-fold purpose and effect:

  • It will uncover the nations who are in darkness, shining light upon them
  • It will shine light upon ‘Israel’ (i.e. God’s people), giving to them an honor and esteem which they would not otherwise have

From the standpoint of the Gospel, of course, these are two sides of the same coin, for in Christ all people—whether from Israel or the nations—are the people of God.

New Year’s day (January 1) in ancient Rome was known as the kalends of January, a religious holy-day (Janus being the two-faced god of ‘openings and beginnings’). Celebration of the new year was accompanied by feasting, games, theatre and other public entertainments, as well as the giving of gifts (strenae)—all very much akin to modern celebrations of Christmas and New Year’s day, and much of it, one might think, rather harmless. However, the early Church Fathers often spoke out in no uncertain terms against Christians participating in these pagan practices—see, for example, the broad condemnation of Tertullian in On Idolatry §13-14. Augustine likewise delivers an impassioned plea against Christian involvement in several of his sermons (see esp. Ben. no. 196 and 198). Their words reflect, to some extent, a different time and ethic; however, the issue of the relationship between Christians and the surrounding culture is just as relevant (and urgent) today as it was in Augustine’s time.

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