SS Christmas Studies: Luke 2:21-38

Luke 2:21-38

This episode is the last of six in the Lukan Infancy narrative. It is essentially parallel with 1:57-79, representing the Jesus-scene corresponding to the John-scene of that earlier episode. There is a strong structural parallelism that runs throughout the passages, even if the individual scenes may differ substantially in form or length:

Birth of John (1:57-58)

    • The surrounding people hear the news and rejoice (v. 58)
Birth of Jesus (2:1-7)

    • The Shepherds in the surrounding fields hear the news, etc (2:8-20)
Circumcision and naming of John (1:59-63) Circumcision and naming of Jesus (2:21)
Scene with Zechariah (1:64-66), and his inspiration (v. 67)

    • Song of Zechariah prophesying John’s future destiny (vv. 68-79)
Scene with Simeon, who is inspired by the Spirit (2:22-28)

    • Song of Simeon prophesying Jesus’ future destiny (vv. 29-32ff)

There is little to note in this passage from a text-critical standpoint. And much of the source- and historical-criticism that would relate to it has more or less been discussed in the prior studies. One of the main historical-critical issues involves the author’s treatment of the Torah regulations (in vv. 22-24); in particular: (a) whether he accurately understands the detail of the regulations, and (b) whether the presence of Joseph and Mary (with Jesus) in the Temple precincts is historically reliable on this basis, or simply represents a literary device. The latter question is impossible to answer on purely objective grounds. The Torah regulations certainly function within the narrative as a ‘literary device’, establishing the reason why they would be in the Temple precincts at that particular time. However, the detail could be historically reliable and still function as a literary device.

As far as the Torah regulations themselves are concerned, they have a thematic significance within the narrative that goes beyond any question of historicity. If we include the reference to the circumcision in verse 21, then there are three specific 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

I have examined these in some detail in an earlier article, and will here summarize the matter more briefly.

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

“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”.

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”.

I have already discussed how the Lukan narrative develops the theme of continuity between the Old and New Covenant, and how Jesus represents the fulfillment of the Old Covenant, even as he ushers in the New. Circumcision is the sign of the Covenant between God and His people Israel, and thus the circumcision of Jesus is of genuine significance here and is not merely an incidental detail. We may further define the the birth and coming of Jesus (prefigured by that of John) as representing 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’ [parakl¢sis] 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’ [lutrœsis] 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)

“And when the days of their cleansing were filled up according to the Law of Moses, they led him up into Jerusalem” (verse 22)

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” (parast¢¡sai tœ kyríœ)
      • “even as it is written in the Law of the Lord…”
    • “and to give sacrifice” (kai tou doúnai thysían)
      • “according to what has been said in the Law of the Lord…”

There are several difficulties in the passage, most notably:

  • The plural pronoun (“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 and Exodus 13:1-2, 11-12 (see also Numbers 18:15-16). It is this latter law which is at issue in Luke 2:22-24. I 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.

The Scene with Simeon (2:25-28ff)

Verses 25-26 introduce the Simeon episode, following vv. 22-24 and also continuing the important Temple-setting of the Lukan narrative. With regard to the figure of Simeon, there is a definite parallel with Zechariah, as there is between the hymn of Zechariah (Benedictus, 1:67-79) and the Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis, 2:29-32). Here are the main points in common:

    • Devout, aged men who serve in the Temple or frequent it (1:8-9ff; 2:25-27)
    • Each is specifically referred to as “just/righteous” (díkaios) (1:6; 2:25)
    • Each man is touched/filled by the Spirit and utters an inspired oracle (1:67; 2:27)
    • Each oracle includes a prophecy regarding the destiny of the respective child (John/Jesus) and the role he will play in God’s deliverance of His people (1:76-79; 2:30ff, 34-35)
    • In the narrative, each man is associated with a corresponding female figure (Elizabeth/Anna) who also is inspired or functions as a prophet (1:5, 41ff; 2:36ff)
    • Linguistically, their names have a similar meaning:
      • Z§½aryâ[hû]— “Yah(weh) has remembered”
      • Šim®±ôn, presumably shortened for Š§ma±-°E~l or Š§ma±-Yah— “El/Yah has heard”

Indeed, both pairs of aged figures—Zechariah/Elizabeth and Simeon/Anna—represent faithful Israel of the Old Covenant (1:6; 2:25, 37), those who are waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises (see above). Looking more closely at verse 25, we find three significant characteristics of Simeon:

    • “just/righteous [díkaios] and taking good (care) [eulab¢¡s] (i.e. in religious matters)”
    • “(look)ing toward receiving the parákl¢sis of Israel”
    • “the holy Spirit was upon him”

These three phrases may be further explained or summarized:

    • Faithfulness to the Torah and the religion of Israel—the Old Covenant
    • Expectation of the coming Anointed One (Messiah) and the restoration of Israel—the Messianic Age
    • Foreshadowing of the new Age of the Spirit—the New Covenant in Christ

These are then three aspects—past, present and future—of God’s saving work and relationship with his people. Simeon stands at a transition point between the old (Torah) and new (Christ), a meeting which takes places as he holds the child Jesus in his arms, in the precincts of the Temple.

The word parákl¢sis, which literally means “calling [someone] alongside”, is parallel to the word lýtrœsis in v. 38; note how this fills out the Simeon/Anna parallel (cp. with Zechariah/Elizabeth):

    • V. 25—Simeon was “(look)ing toward receiving the parákl¢sis of Israel”
    • V. 38—Anna was “(look)ing toward receiving the lýtrœsis of Jerusalem”

Both terms refer to a belief in God’s coming (future/end-time) deliverance of his people—parákl¢sis meaning “help, aid, assistance” more generally, and lýtrœsis specifically as the “redemption” (payment, etc) made to free his people from debt/bondage (the word literally refers to a “loosing” from bondage). Both expressions stem from portions of (Deutero-)Isaiah—40:1; 52:9; 61:2; 66:12-13—which came to be interpreted in a Messianic sense in Jewish and early Christian tradition. The Song of Simeon likewise makes use of several such passages from Isaiah. Simeon and Anna essentially function like the Isaian herald, announcing the good news for God’s people (cf. Isa 40:9; 41:27; 52:7).

The Messianic context of the scene here in Luke comes clearly into view in verse 26:

“And the matter was made (known) to him, under the holy Spirit, (that he was) not to see death until he should see the Anointed of the Lord.”

This is the second occurrence in Luke of the title “Anointed (One)” (Christós), the first being in the Angel’s annunciation to the shepherds in 2:11 (cf. the note on 2:10-14). Each word of that brief declaration carries Messianic significance, especially the names and titles involved. The titles “Anointed One” and “Lord” are combined also here in v. 26, but in the more traditional genitive/construct expression “Anointed (One) of the Lord” (Christos [tou] Kyriou). As previously discussed, early Christians could use the title Kýrios (“Lord”) equally of God the Father (Yahweh) and Jesus. Such usage, in and of itself, does not necessarily indicate a specific view of Jesus’ deity, which was understood by early Christians in a variety of ways. In the early preaching of Acts (2:36), for example, the titles Christós and Kýrios are applied to Jesus in terms of his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. Eventually, both titles virtually became second names of Jesus (Acts 11:17; 15:26; 20:21; 28:31, et al), reflecting both his identity as the Messiah (Christ) and his (divine) nature and status as the Son of God.

The use of Christós here in Lk 2:26 should be understood strictly in the sense of the expected ruler (from the line of David) who would deliver God’s people and bring about the restoration of Israel. Many Jews at the time would have viewed this in terms of a socio-political and cultural restoration (cf. Acts 1:6; Ps Sol 17-18), much as we see expressed in the hymn of Zechariah. There the Messiah (to be identified with Jesus) is referred to as a “horn of salvation” raised up by God, by which God has “made redemption [lýtrœsis, see above]” for his people (vv. 68-69). This deliverance is described first in terms of rescue from human enemies (vv. 71ff), but, by the end of the hymn, this has shifted to the idea of salvation from sin (vv. 77ff).

Based on the Zechariah-Simeon parallel, I am inclined to see the Song of Simeon (2:29-32) as corresponding generally with the last strophe (vv. 76-79) of the Benedictus. In particular, verses 78-79 have a good deal in common with 2:30-32. The Song of Simeon will be examined in the next study.

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