June 24: Luke 1:16-17, 76-77

June 24 is the traditional date commemorating the birth of John the Baptist—six months prior to the birth of Jesus, according to Luke 1:26. Just as the traditional date for the Jesus’ birth corresponds generally to the winter solstice, so John’s birth corresponds to the summer. This synchronicity symbolizes the relationship between John and Jesus in the Gospel and early Christian tradition. There are a number of ways this relationship might be studied, ranging from the historical to the theological-christological; I will be looking at it here, over several daily notes, according to one aspect, centered around the figure of Elijah.

With regard to John’s birth, apart from a generic (and proverbial) reference in Matt 11:11 / Lk 7:28, it is treated only in the Lukan Infancy narratives (Lk 1) and there in significant detail. In fact, within Lk 1-2, the births of Jesus and John are presented as parallel and overlapping (or intercut) narratives (sometimes referred to as a narrative “diptych”); the parallelism is clear and striking—each contains:

    • An angelic appearance (by Gabriel) announcing the child’s birth—with a prophecy/declaration of the child’s future—to one of the parents (Zechariah/Mary), patterned after similar Old Testament annunciations (Lk 1:8-23, 26-38)
    • A short narrative with an utterance by Elizabeth (Lk 1:24-25, 39-45)
    • A canticle by one of the parents (Mary/Zechariah), of a similar character and style drawing heavily upon Old Testament imagery (Lk 1:46-55, 67-79)
    • A narrative of the birth of the child, involving the reaction by people nearby (Lk 1:57-66; 2:1-20)
    • A notice of the naming and circumcision of the child (Lk 1:59-60; 2:21)
    • A statement regarding the child’s growth and development, patterned after the Samuel narrative in the OT (Lk 1:80; 2:40, 52)

This prominence is offset by the fact that, upon the start of Jesus’ ministry, John disappears more completely from Luke than in the other Gospels—Luke has eliminated the flashback narrative of John’s arrest and execution (Mk 6:14-29 and Matt par), and, more significantly, reduced the narrative of Jesus’ baptism (Lk 3:21-22), removing any specific mention of John’s role. Perhaps there is implicit here what is made explicit in Jn 3:30.

There are two passages in the Infancy narratives which are prophetic of John’s relationship to Jesus—one in the angel’s announcement to Zechariah (Lk 1:16-17) and one in the canticle of Zechariah (Lk 1:76-77)—both involve the motif of John as Elijah (or a prophet like Elijah).

Luke 1:16-17

The prediction or prophecy by the heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) begins in verse 14, extending through verse 17. There are actually two separate predictions: (1) in vv. 14-16 and (2) in v. 17. For the first prediction, the points mentioned are—

    • You (Zechariah) will have joy and leaping (for joy), v. 14a
    • Many will rejoice upon the child’s birth, v. 14b
    • The child will be great (me/ga$) in the eyes/sight of the Lord, v. 15a
      (note the similar statement regarding Jesus in Lk 1:32, “he will be great [me/ga$]”, and cf. Lk 7:28)
    • He will not [i.e. is not to] drink wine or beer/liquor, v. 15b—presumably as a ‘Nazirite’, like Samuel and Samson, two figures for whom there also were heavenly birth announcements (cf. Judg 13:4-5)
    • He will be filled with the holy Spirit from his mother’s womb, v. 15c—perhaps echoing similar phrasing of Samson as a ‘Nazirite’ from his mother’s womb (Judg 13:7; 16:17)
    • He will turn many of the sons of Israel back to [lit. e)pi/ upon] the Lord their God, v. 16

Verse 16 is a clear reference to John’s role as a prophet—one whose preaching and proclamation (often warning of impending judgment) sought to bring about repentance and a return to faithfulness among the people. In this regard, the prophet himself was often understood as having an eschatological role or status (cf. for example, Hos 3:5). This, in turn, points toward the association of John with the messenger of Malachi 3-4, which is specified clearly in verse 17:

“And he will go before in His [i.e. the Lord’s] eyes/sight in (the) spirit and power of Eliyyah [i.e. Elijah], to turn the hearts of (the) fathers (back) upon (their) offspring, and (the) unpersuaded [i.e. unbelieving/disobedient] in [i.e. unto] (the) thoughtfulness of (the) just/righteous (ones), to make ready for the Lord a people packed down fully [i.e. properly equipped, prepared].”

Note the specific phrases:

    • He will “go before” the Lord, as the Messenger in Mal 3:1 “looks over (and prepares) the way before” the Lord. The Greek expressions [pro] e)nw/pion (in Lk 1:17) and pro prosw/pou (Mal 3:1), though slightly different, have generally the same meaning (“before the face/sight of”). This may also be reflected in the earlier v. 15a.
    • “(the) spirit and power of Elijah”—the identification of the prophet/messenger with “Elijah”, as in Mal 4:5 [3:23 Hebrew].
    • “turn the hearts of (the) fathers (back) upon (their) offspring”—this same idea is expressed in Mal 4:6 [3:24 Hebr], though with slightly different language. Again this would seem to be reflected in the earlier v. 15 (use of the same verb e)pistre/fw “turn back upon”, i.e. “return”).
    • “make ready for the Lord a people ‘prepared’ [kataskeuasme/non]”—that this is taken from Mal 3:1 is confirmed by the citation in Lk 7:27, where we see the same verb kataskeu/azw (lit. “pack down [fully]”, but in conventional English something like “prepare/equip properly”). For the phrase “make ready (e(toima/zw) a people”, cf. 2 Sam 7:24 [LXX 2 Kingdoms 7:24]; Sir 49:12.

The author of the Gospel (trad. Luke) may also have been familiar with Sirach 48:10, which cites Mal 4:6 in an eschatological context. For more on the Messianic interpretation of Mal 3:1ff, cf. Part 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, along with a supplementary study on the subject.

Luke 1:76-77

These verses represent a strophe in the hymn or canticle of Zechariah (the Benedictus, Lk 1:67-79). Verses 67-75 extol the faithfulness and power of God in dealing with his people—his mercy and mighty works—much as we see in the parallel canticle of Mary (the Magnificat, Lk 1:46-55). Verses 76-77, however, are addressed (prophetically) to John:

“But also you, (little) child—you will be called Foreteller [i.e. Prophet] of the Highest,
for you will pass/travel before in the eyes/sight of the Lord to make ready His ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to His people in [i.e. by] the release [i.e. forgiveness] of their sins”

Again we see here a citation from Mal 3:1 (cf. also Isa 40:3), which was, in Gospel tradition, generally understood as applying to John the Baptist (as will be discussed in the next day’s note). It is worth noticing the Jesus/John parallelism in the titles used:

    • John: “he will be great in the eyes/sight of the Lord” (e&stai me/ga$ e)nw/pion [tou=] kuri/ou), Lk 1:15
      Jesus: “he will be great” (e&stai me/ga$), Lk 1:32
    • John: “(you) will be called prophet of the Highest” (profh/th$ u(yi/stou klhqh/sh|), Lk 1:76
      Jesus: “(he) will be called son of the Highest” (ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai), Lk 1:32

This raises the somewhat difficult question of the meaning of ku/rio$ (“Lord”) when passages such as Mal 3:1 are applied to John—is the “Lord” Yahweh or Jesus? Presumably, in Lk 1:15-17, 76 it is God the Father (Yahweh) that is meant, in keeping with the Old Testament usage, as well as the literary context. However, Luke, like nearly all early Christians, would also understand “Lord” immediately has a title for Jesus, and this is certainly implicit here as well (involving literary foreshadowing). That there was some interpretive confusion is indicated by the textual variants which cropped up occasionally in such passages. It is safest to assume that Luke primarily intends to depict John as a Prophet who goes before the Lord (YHWH), in fulfillment of Old Testament tradition; but secondarily these verses are prophetic of John as the forerunner of the Lord (Jesus). This secondary meaning is hinted at in the evocative, though somewhat ambiguous, language of the strophe which closes the Benedictus (vv. 78-79):

“…through the (inner) organs of (the) mercy of our God,
in which a rising [a)natolh] out of (the) height has looked upon us,
to shine (forth) upon the (one)s sitting in darkness and (the) shadow of death,
to straighten down our feet into (the) way of peace.”

Here the mercy of God, depicted in vv. 67-75, culminates in a “rising up” (probably best understood as a rising sun/light), drawing from key Old Testament passages such as Psalm 107:9-10; Isa 9:1; 42:6-7; 60:1; Mal 4:2 [3:20 Hebr]; cf. also Num 24:17 (and later passages such as in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Zebulun 8:2; Levi 4:4; 18:3; Judah 24:1).

Images with Jesus and John the Baptist together as infants represented a popular theme in Renaissance painting, etc, part of a rich corpus of devotional, Marian art (such as in the Madonna d’Alba by Raphael [on right, and also used in the header above]). The Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke proved to be a prime source of thematic material for Western/Catholic artists in the Medieval and Renaissance periods (much more so than for the Eastern/Orthodox traditions); these included, especially—the Annunciation to Mary, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the journey of the Holy Family, and the boy Jesus in the Temple, as well as scenes from extra-canonical tradition (Infancy Gospels and Marian legends).

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