The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: Luke 2:52

For the first Sunday after Epiphany, and to conclude this series of Advent and Christmas season notes, I will discuss the final section of the Lukan Infancy narrative, which consists of two main parts:

    1. The episode of the boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-51), and
    2. The concluding summary verse (Luke 2:52)

As I dealt with the section 2:41-51 in some detail (especially the difficult saying in verse 49) in an earlier article, today I will look specifically at the concluding verse.

The concluding Summary verse (Luke 2:52)

This verse is clearly parallel to v. 40, which concludes the Infancy narratives proper—Luke has added a story of Jesus as a boy (in the Temple), creating a kind of doublet:

  • Infant Jesus in the Temple (having come with his parents according to the Law [purification/redemption-of-firstborn]), and is among pious and devout representatives of Israel (Simeon, Anna) (2:22-38)
    • A return to Nazareth is summarized, re-emphasizing the family’s obedience to the Law (2:39)
    • A summary statement on the child Jesus’ growth (2:40)
  • Boy Jesus in the Temple (having come with his parents according to the Law [Passover]), and is among the teachers of Israel and “among the (things/ones) of my Father” (see above) (2:41-50)
    • A return to Nazareth is summarized, emphasizing Jesus’ obedience to his parents (2:51)
    • A summary statement of the child Jesus’ growth (2:52)

It is worth comparing verses 40 and 52 side by side:

V. 40:

But the child grew and became strong, being filled with wisdom and the joy/favor of God was upon him.
To\ de\ paidi/on hu&canen kai\ e)krataiou=to plhrou/menon sofi/a| kai\ xa/ri$ qeou= h@n e)p’ au)to/.

V. 52:

And Jesus struck forward [in] wisdom and age and favor alongside God and men.
Kai\  )Ihsou=$ proe/kopten [e)n th=|] sofi/a| kai\ h(liki/a| kai\ xa/riti para\ qew=| kai\ a)nqrw/poi$.

Verse 40 is virtually identical to the description of the child John’s growth in 1:80:

V. 40:

But the child grew and became strong…
To\ de\ paidi/on hu&canen kai\ e)krataiou=to


But the child grew and became strong in spirit
To\ de\ paidi/on hu&canen kai\ e)krataiou=to pneu/mati

A wide range of manuscripts include pneu/mati (“in [the] spirit”) for verse 40 (on this, see below); if original, then the text matches precisely that in 1:80. Compare these verses also with 1 Samuel 2:21, 26 (LXX):

1 Sam 2:21b:
kai\ e)megalu/nqh to\ paida/rion Samouhl e)nw/pion kuri/ou
“and the child Samuel became great [i.e. grew] in the eye/face of [i.e. before] the Lord”

1 Sam 2:26:
kai\ to\ paida/rion Samouhl e)poreu/eto kai\ e)megalu/neto kai\ a)gaqo\n kai\ meta\ kuri/ou kai\ meta\ a)nqrw/pwn
“and the child Samuel passed/went on and became great [i.e. continued to grow] and (was) good both with the Lord and with men”
Note: the LXX here, especially in v. 26, renders the Hebrew quite literally

It is interesting that there are two notices of Samuel’s development, just as there are two for Jesus (Lk 2:40, 52), the latter being rather close in form and sense (if not actual vocabulary) to 1 Sam 2:26. This is hardly surprising, given the influence of the Samuel birth narrative on Luke 1-2 (discussed in prior Advent/Christmas season notes). However, one can draw more specific parallels between 1 Sam 2:21, 26 and Lk 2:40, 52 (that is between the two notices):

1 Sam 2:21 / Lk 2:40:

  • A specific statement of growth: e)megalu/nqh (“became great”) / hu&canen kai\ krataiou=to (“grew and became strong”). The Lukan phrase is more precise as a reflection of natural human growth—it could almost be viewed as an explanatory gloss on the verb in Samuel.
  • A reference to the child’s relationship to God: e)nw/pion kuri/ou (“[became great] in the eyes of the Lord”) / xa/ri$ qeou= h@n e)p’ au)to/ (“[the] favor of God was upon him”). Again it could be said that Luke has ‘interpreted’ the phrase from Samuel, in the light of Jesus, adding—(1) wisdom (sofi/a) which fills him, and (2) grace/favor (xa/ri$) which is upon him.

1 Sam 2:26 / Lk 2:52:

  • A specific statement of progress: e)poreu/eto kai\ e)megalu/neto (“went on and became strong”) / proe/kopten (“struck forward”). The first verb in Samuel (poreu/omai) has the basic sense of “passing on (ahead), traveling”; the Lukan verb literally means “cut/strike forward”—in English idiom we might say “he made his way ahead”, i.e. “advanced, progressed”.
  • A reference to the child’s relationship to both God and men (i.e. other people): kai\ meta\ kuri/ou kai\ meta\ a)nqrw/pwn (“both with the Lord and with men”) / para\ qew=| kai\ a)nqrw/poi$ (“alongside God and men”). If Luke is genuinely adapting Samuel here, there may be two points in which it is being interpreted and applied to Jesus: (1) instead of the verb “became strong” [repeated from 1 Sam 2:21], the ‘progress’ of Jesus is qualified by the prepositional phrase “in wisdom and age” [repeating from Lk 2:40]; (2) in the other direction, the adjective “good” (a)gaqo$) [“was good with…”] is modified as “grace/favor” (xari$) [again repeating from Lk 2:40], and connected with the prior phrase “advanced in wisdom and age and grace/favor with…”. Notably, Jesus’ age/stature is positioned in between “wisdom” and “grace/favor”.

Textual Note on Luke 2:40:

As mentioned above, a significant number of Greek manuscripts (and several versions) read pneu/mati (“the child grew and became strong in spirit“), which would make the notice of Jesus’ growth there identical to that of John in Lk 1:80. Many commentators regard this as simply a harmonization with 1:80, but I am not certain that it should be dismissed so easily. An important question is whether Luke in 1:80 is referring to the human spirit or the Spirit of God (Holy Spirit); if the latter, then 1:80 would be translated “…became strong in the Spirit“. This is certainly possible, given the references to John (and his parents) being “filled with the Spirit” (Luke 1:15, 41, 67); however, I think that Lk 1:17 is perhaps a closer parallel “in the spirit… of Elijah”. Even if Luke did not refer here to the Holy Spirit, it is possible that later scribes had this in mind and deleted pneu/mati from Luke 2:41, to draw a clear distinction between John and Jesus (who as Son of God would not need to grow in the Spirit). I tend to think that the shorter reading in Luke 2:40 is, in fact, correct, and that the author chooses to emphasize the “wisdom and grace/favor” of Jesus over against the prophetic “spirit” of John. Yet I would not blithely ignore the variant reading here.

During this next week, I will offer a series of short exegetical and expository notes on Luke 2:52, exploring each word and phrase in detail.

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