SS Christmas Studies: Luke 1:46-55

Luke 1:46-55

Verses 46-55, which are included as part of the episode in vv. 39-45, 56 (see the previous study), represent the first of the canticles in the Lukan Infancy narrative. Traditionally, these are known by their Latin titles:

    • The Song of Mary (Magnificat)—Luke 1:46-55
    • The Song of Zechariah (Benedictus)—Luke 1:68-79 (some would view vv. 76-79 as a separate oracle)
    • The Angels’ Song (Gloria)—Luke 2:14 (cf. also vv. 10-12)
    • The Song of Simeon (Nunc dimittis)—Luke 2:29-32 (cf. also the separate oracle in vv. 34-35)

The Magnificat and the Benedictus are substantial hymns, and should probably considered separately from the other two smaller pieces. The unique character and style of these hymns have led to serious questions regarding their origin and composition. The situation with the canticles in the Lukan Infancy narrative is akin to the sermon-speeches in the book of Acts, which I have discussed at length in an earlier series. There are three basic views regarding these hymns:

    • They are what they appear to be—a faithful record (allowing for translation and a modicum of editing) of what the person actually said at the time, under the oracular inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is more or less the traditional-conservative view.
    • They are Lukan compositions, modeled after the Old Testament Psalms and contemporary Jewish hymns.
    • The Gospel writer has adapted existing Jewish (or Jewish Christian) hymns, including them at appropriate points in the narrative, where they serve to express the thought and sentiment of characters (Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon) who are representative of the faithful/righteous ones in Israel.

Clearly these touch on many points of source-, historical-, and literary-criticism. It will not be possible to address them at length in this study. The third option above seems quite plausible and fits the evidence reasonably well. The similarities in thought and wording, between the Magnificant/Benedictus and certain Jewish hymns from the first centuries B.C./A.D. (see below) would tend to support this view. Another argument in its favor is the fact that the Lukan canticles contain very little detail that is specific to the situation of the character in the narrative. With minimal modification, the hymns could be lifted out and treated as separate, independent compositions; nor do the surrounding narratives lose their coherence if the poems are removed. In the case of the Magnificat, only verse 48 is directly applicable to the situation in the narrative; but even then it is only loosely connected—the verse could apply to Elizabeth just as well as Mary (see below).

I will not attempt to make any definitive judgment on this the major source- and historical-critical question on vv. 46-55. The Semiticized Greek of the hymns could be explained on the basis of any of the three critical views presented above. The Semiticisms are primarily due to reliance upon the Septuagint (LXX), or upon a comparable translation of the Old Testament Hebrew into Greek. Indeed, it is the Scriptural quotations and allusions (see the notes below) which give to the Magnificat much of its language and style.

In terms of literary form and genre, the Magnificat is a hymn of praise, written in a manner similar to a number of the Old Testament Psalms (cf. 33, 47, 48, 113, 117, 135; Fitzmyer, p. 359). More recent hymns, from Jewish writings in the first centuries B.C./A.D., such as occur in 1 Maccabees, Judith, 2 Baruch, and 2/4 Esdras, may also have exerted some influence (Brown, p. 349). Of these hymns, perhaps the closest parallels are to be found in the Qumran “Thanksgiving Hymns” (Hodayot [1QH]). One may note especially in the way that the author identifies himself (along the other faithful/righteous ones) as the “poor”, and praises God for the help and deliverance He gives to them. The most direct literary influence, however, comes from the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10; there are several clear allusions, which are noted below.

The Magnificat tends to follow the parallel bicolon (couplet) format that is typical of ancient Semitic poetry (including most of the Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament). It is possible to divide the hymn into two main sections (or strophes)—vv. 48-50 and 51-53—with an introductory couplet (vv. 46-47) and a closing quatrain (vv. 54-55).

Since the Scriptural allusions are central to the thought and poetic form of the hymn, our literary analysis must be governed by a study of these references. I provide this below, in summary form; for a more detailed comparative study of the Greek text, cf. my article in the earlier series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.

Vv. 46-47:
“My soul makes great [i.e. magnifies] the Lord
and my spirit leaped (for joy) upon God my Savior”

This first line appears to echo 1 Sam 2:1: “my heart is made firm in [the] Lord, my horn is raised high [i.e. exalted] in my God”. The second line (v. 47) is very close to Hab 3:18: “I will leap [for joy] in the Lord, I will rejoice upon God my Savior”. Cf. also Psalm 35:9 [LXX 34:9].

v. 48 (vv. 48-50 are often considered together as a strophe, as noted above):
“that [i.e. because] he looked upon the lowliness of his handmaid [lit. slave-girl]—
for see! from now (on) all (the) generations (of women) will call me happy [i.e. blessed]”

This particular stich is close to the words of Leah in Gen 29:32 (“because [the] Lord has seen my lowliness…”) and 30:13 (“happy am I, that [i.e. because] the women call me happy…”). V. 48a is also very close to the words of Hannah in 1 Sam 1:11 (translating conventionally): “Lord… if only you might look upon the lowliness of your handmaid…”. See also the similar thought and wording in 4 Ezra [2/4 Esdras] 9:45.

v. 49:
“that [i.e. because] the Powerful (One) has done great (things) for me
and Holy is His name”

The first line is close to Deut 10:21: “this is your God who has done the great [things] in you”. The second line may reflect Psalm 111[110]:9b: “Holy and fearful [i.e. awesome] is His name”.

v. 50:
“and His mercy (is) into generation and generation to the (ones) fearing Him”

This line is quite close to Psalm 103:17 [LXX 102:17]: “but the mercy of the Lord [is] from the Age and until the Age upon the [ones] fearing Him”

v. 51 (vv. 51-53 are usually considered a [second] strophe):
“He has done [i.e. shown] might in his arm
he has scattered the overly-shining [i.e. haughty/arrogant] (ones) throughout in the thoughts [lit. thinking through] of their hearts

This stich may echo Psalm 89:10 [LXX 88:11]: “you have made lowly the haughty/arrogant (ones) as a wounded (man),  and in the arm of your power you have scattered your enemies throughout“. The original Hebrew reads quite differently, especially in the first half of the verse.

v. 52:
“He has taken down the powerful (ones) from (their) thrones,
and has lifted high the lowly (ones)”

There are general similarities to a number of passages, but no precise quotations or allusions: 1 Sam 2:4, 7ff; Ezek 21:26 [LXX v. 31]; Job 12:19. The closest wording is perhaps to be found in Sirach 10:14: “[the] thrones of chiefs the Lord has taken down and has seated [the] meek against them [i.e. in their place]”.

v. 53:
“The hungry (ones) he filled with good (things)
and the rich (ones) he sent out from (here) empty”

The first line is nearly identical with second part of Psalm 107:9 [LXX 106:9]: “because he satisfies the empty soul, and the soul of the hungry he fills with good things“. Cf. also a similar juxtaposition in the Lukan Beatitudes (Luke 6:21, 25).

“He took (hold) of Israel his child (to help) in remembrance of [lit. to remember] mercy
even as he spoke toward our fathers—to Abraham and to his seed—into the Age.

There are possible allusions here to a number of passages: e.g., Psalm 98:3 [LXX 97:3]; Micah 7:20; Isaiah 41:8-9; cf. also the Psalms of Solomon 10:4.

In the previous study, I noted how Mary (like Elizabeth and Zechariah) embodies the faithfulness and devotion of the righteous ones in Israel (under the Old Covenant). It is thus appropriate that she should utter an oracle that reflects this piety, drawing upon a number of Scriptural allusions, and weaving them together as a hymn of praise to God. Like the righteous poet of the Psalms, she gives praise for the manner in which God (YHWH, the Lord) has acted to help His people. In the context of the Infancy narrative, this theme of salvation is applied to the child Jesus (and his servant/prophet John). However, this connection is not directly made in the Magnificat; instead, Jesus is seen as a fulfillment of what God has already done for Israel (in the Old Covenant). The point is made by way of allusion, the New Covenant fulfillment being understood as implicit in the various passages of Scripture.

We would be remiss if we did not mention the main text-critical issue in vv. 46-55. In three Latin manuscripts (a b l*), supported by the witness of several Church Fathers, the speaker of the Magnificat is not Mary, but Elizabeth. This would certainly seem to the be more difficult reading (scribes being much more like to change the text from “Elizabeth” to “Mary” than the other way round), and might be preferred on the principle of lectio difficilior potior (“the more difficult reading is preferable”). On the other hand, the textual evidence for reading “Mary” in v. 46 is overwhelming (including all Greek MSS).

A few notable scholars have been inclined to accept the minority reading of “Elizabeth”, under the presumption that copyists early on modified it, attributing the Magnificat to the much more well-known (and revered) figure of Mary. More plausible is the idea that the original reading of the text was “she said”, without the subject being specified. Scribes naturally would wish to clarify the situation, most of them inserting the name “Mary”, but a few opted for “Elizabeth” instead. This is an interesting solution, which might explain the rise of both readings. In any case, the evidence strongly suggests that the Gospel writer intends us to understand that Mary is the speaker of the hymn. The literary pattern of the narrative also confirms the point:

    • Zechariah receives the Angel’s message (vv. 5-25)
      • Mary receives the Angel’s message (vv. 26-38)
      • Mary utters a hymn of praise to God (vv. 46-55)
    • Zechariah utters a hymn of praise to God (vv. 67-79)

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977, 1993).
References marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 28 (1981).



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