“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 2:23

Luke 2:23

Verses 22-24 follow v. 21 (cf. the previous note), continuing the theme of fulfilling the requirements, etc, of the Law. Verse 22 begins with the same opening formula, marking the particular time—”when the days of their cleansing were (ful)filled”. Here, the “days” being referenced are the forty days after childbirth (for a male child) when the mother is in a state of impurity (Lev 12:2-8). The plural pronoun “their” (au)tw=n) probably anticipates the verbal phrase which follows—”they [i.e. Jesus’ parents] brought him up into Jerusalem”. It is unlikely that the Gospel writer thought that both Joseph and Mary required cleansing in connection with childbirth. The period of time completes the “days” of verse 21—7 days before circumcision, 33 before purification. This detail also serves the narrative purpose of explaining why Joseph and Mary would be in Jerusalem at the Temple. Indeed, mention of the purification ritual frames the episode (vv. 22 and 24); in between, in verse 23, the focus is on the reason/purpose of Jesus’ presence in the Temple. This verse almost has the appearance of a secondary insertion; note how vv. 22 and 24 would otherwise join together:

“And when the days of their cleansing were (ful)filled, they brought him [i.e. Jesus] up into Yerushalem, to stand (him) alongside the Lord…
…and to give a (ritual) slaughtering [i.e. sacrifice] according to the (regulation) stated (by God) in the Law of the Lord…”

This literary device creates the impression that the author has confused or conflated two different Torah laws—(1) those related to the mother’s purification after childbirth (the sacrifice is part of this regulation), and (2) the redemption of the firstborn male child (Num 3:44-51; 18:15-16). Yet it is never stated that the latter command was fulfilled at the Temple. Some commentators believe that the author had the mistaken idea that the firstborn male needed to be presented in Jerusalem (at the Temple). But, if this were the case, there would be little reason for him to confuse matters by introducing the detail of the purification ritual for Mary. In my view, it is much more likely that the author used the occasion of the purification ritual to introduce the motif of the consecration of the firstborn within that setting and context. The result is somewhat awkward, and certainly open to misunderstanding, but it very much suits the author’s creative purpose—of blending together several different fulfillment themes: (a) fulfillment of the Law, (b) fulfillment of Scripture, and (c) Jesus as the fulfillment of the types and patterns of the Old Testament.

The specific Scripture quoted in v. 23 is a adaptation of Exod 13:2 (cf. also v. 15b, Num 18:15). The centrality of this quotation puts the emphasis of the scene, not on the purification ritual, but rather the tradition of the consecration of the firstborn male child—as one dedicated to (religious/priestly) service to God. In Israelite religion and society, this role was taken over by the tribe of Levi (as a kind of priestly caste or class), with the 5-shekel payment (redemption) made to them in exchange. The passages in the Torah dealing with this issue (and its underlying theological principle) are Exod 13:1-2, 11-16; 22:29b-30; Lev 27:26-27; Num 3:11-13, 44-51; 8:14-18; 18:15-16ff.

This consecration motif is expressed by the author in the narrative as a presentation of the child before God (at the Temple), in a manner similar to that of Samuel in 1 Sam 1:22-24ff. The priority of this is indicated by the syntax in Lk 2:22-24, the two purpose infinitives:

  • parasth=sai tw=| qew=| “to stand (him) alongside God”
  • dou=nai qusi/an “to give sacrifice”

Both verbal phrases reflect religious offerings to God. The second (“give sacrifice”) refers to the sacrificial (burnt) offering of two doves/pigeons which completes the purification process for the mother (Mary) following childbirth (cf. above). The second is a separate (voluntary) offering of the child, dedicating it to the service of God. There is almost certainly an allusion to the Samuel Infancy narrative here, as already noted. In 1 Sam 1:22, Hannah declares her intention to bring the child to the Temple in Jerusalem, so that “he may be seen (before) the face of YHWH, and sit down [i.e. dwell/remain] there until (the most) distant (time) [i.e. for ever]”. This she fulfills at the appropriate time, according to vv. 24-28. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we find a similar use of the verb pari/sthmi (“stand/place alongside”) in the sacrificial sense of believers presenting themselves before God as holy offerings (cf. Rom 6:13-19; 12:1; 2 Cor 11:2; Col 1:22, 28; Eph 5:27).

Looking at the central verse 23 a bit more closely, one finds three key elements which make up its structure, and which I would arrange as a chiastic outline:

  • “written in the Law of the Lord”—Scripture/Law (cp. “Law of Moses”, v. 22)
    —”every male child opening…”—the (physical) birth of the firstborn male child
  • “will be called holy to the Lord”—dedication/consecration of the child (naming)

The expression “will be called holy” (a%gion klhqh/setai) points back to the words of the Angel to Mary in 1:35: “the (child) coming to be (born) will be called Holy [a%gion klhqh/setai], (the) Son of God”. It is essentially a title of Jesus, as we see in the Gospel and early Christian tradition (Acts 2:27; 13:35 [both citing Ps 16:10]; Luke 4:34 par; John 6:69; 1 Jn 2:20; Rev 3:7; 16:5). It reflects an ancient Divine name or title—i.e. “Holy (One)” (vodq*, Q¹dôš)—that is, of Yahweh/El as the “Holy One (of Israel)”, cf. 2 Kings 19:22; Job 6:10; Psalm 71:22; 78:41; 89:18; Isa 1:4; 5:19, etc. There is an echo of this in the Magnificat (Lk 1:49, cf. Psalm 99:3). I would also mention again the theory, discussed in a recent note, that the Scripture cited in Matt 2:23 essentially is Isa 4:3 (“he will be called [a] holy one”), with wordplay involving the substitution Nazîr—”he will be called a Nazîr” (Nazirite–Nazorean). The Nazirite association may seen unusual at first, until one realizes that it is an element of both the Samuel and Samson birth narratives (1 Sam 1:9-15; Judg 13:4-7; 16:17), which find an echo in the Lukan narrative (e.g. Lk 1:13-15). Parallels with the Samuel story have already been mentioned here (above), and will be discussed again in the remaining notes.

The fundamental meaning of the root verb rz~n` (n¹zar) is to separate or “keep apart (from)”, often in a religious or ritual context. It is thus synonymous, to some extent, with the verb vd^q* (q¹daš), and a n¹zîr, a separated/consecrated person, can also be called q¹dôš (“holy one”). John the Baptist was set apart and consecrated to God (“filled by the holy Spirit”) from the womb (1:15), using language from the birth of Samson. Similarly, Jesus could be called “the Holy One” from even before the moment of his conception (1:32, 35), and was dedicated to God in the Temple, following the pattern of Samuel.

“And you shall call His Name…”: Luke 1:46ff

Luke 1:46ff

Today’s note will examine the famous hymn of Lk 1:46-55, the Magnificat. This is the first of the four hymns which punctuate the Lukan Infancy narrative, each of which came to be part of the Christian liturgy and are best known from the first word(s) of their rendering in Latin. When studying these hymns, there are three basic theories regarding their origin and composition (cf. also the article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”):

  • They are inspired poetic works, more or less as uttered by the speaker, according to the context of the narrative. While there may be some translation and editing, etc, by the author (and/or the underlying tradition), the attribution in the text is accepted and taken at face value. This would generally be the traditional-conservative view.
  • The author (trad. Luke) has incorporated earlier Jewish (Christian) hymns, adapting them and setting them in the mouth of the individual character within the context of the narrative. This is probably the dominant critical view.
  • The hymns are free/original compositions by the author, in imitation of similar Psalms and hymns in the Old Testament, which he has likewise integrated into the narrative. Many critical scholars tend toward this view as well, or at least grant it as a possibility.

In my view, only the first two are legitimate, viable options, and both need to be taken seriously by commentators and students. On objective grounds, the evidence perhaps favors the second view, but each interpreter will have differing opinions on the weight of the evidence, and how it relates to a particular understanding of the nature and extent of inspiration, as well as other factors. It is not possible to go into this subject in any detail in this brief article. Also, for the purposes of this study, I am assuming the majority reading which attributes the hymn to Mary (cf. “Did You Know?” below).

The structure of the hymn has been analyzed and divided various ways. I prefer to view it in two parts:

  • Vv. 46-50—A (personal) praise to God for what he has done (i.e. for the speaker)
  • Vv. 51-55—Praise for what God has done on behalf of His people (Israel)

Some commentators feel that verse 48 is of Lukan composition, having been inserted into the hymn, based on the theory (cf. above) that the author has adapted and made use of a pre-existing Jewish Christian (or Jewish) hymn. It must be admitted that v. 48 does seem to interrupt the rhythm and flow of the poetry somewhat; on the other hand, it fits the personal context of the opening lines, at v. 48a at least could easily have been part of an earlier hymn. Only v. 48b specifically requires the setting established in the narrative.

It is the first half (or strophe) of the hymn which I want to examine in this note, especially the opening couplet (vv. 46-47) which sets the tone and theme for the hymn—beginning with the personal viewpoint of the speaker (i.e. Mary):

“My soul declares (the) great(ness of) the Lord,
and my spirit leaps (for joy) upon God my Savior”

There is a precise parallelism in this couplet; note each of the three elements:

My soulmakes/declares greatthe Lord
My spiritleaps (for joy) uponGod my Savior

The third element involves names and titles of God—specifically, Lord (ku/rio$) and Savior (swth/r). If we combine the two expressions here the result would be: “(the) Lord God my Savior”. We have already seen the combination Lord God (ku/rio$ o( qeo/$) in verse 32 (cf. the earlier note), where, as I discussed, the expression stems from the ancient Israelite (religious) identification of Yahweh with the (one) Creator God °E~l. Here Yahweh the God of Israel is also identified in the role of Savior of his people. This is essentially the theme of the hymn which follows, and draws upon the various episodes in Israelite history and tradition (as narrated in the Old Testament) where God acted to save/deliver his people. In fact, there a good number of Old Testament allusions in the hymn, beginning with the opening lines. Two passages, in particular, should be noted:

  • 1 Sam 2:1-2—The opening lines of Hannah’s hymn, upon which the Magnificat was patterned (at least in part). The Lukan Infancy narrative draws heavily upon the Samuel birth narrative (1 Sam 1-2), with Hannah serving as a type/pattern for Mary (and perhaps Elizabeth as well).
  • Hab 3:18—There is a more precise formal parallel in expression here:
    “I will leap (for joy) in YHWH, I will spin (joyfully) in the God of my salvation”

Mention should also be made of Psalm 35:9. If we were to blend together and distill these three passages, we would end up with wording not too different from that in Lk 1:46-47.

The title Savior (Swth/r) is especially significant as a thematic keyword, since it relates to the very name of Jesus (Yeshua)—the person through whom God will act to save his people. This aspect of Jesus as Savior will be discussed in more detail in the upcoming notes on Matt 1:21 and Luke 2:11. The word swth/r is actually rather rare in the New Testament, occurring just 24 times, and, somewhat surprisingly, only 5 times in the Gospels and Acts. Four of these occurrences are in Luke-Acts (the other being Jn 4:42)—Acts 5:31; 13:23, and here in the Infancy narrative (Lk 1:47 and 2:11). Much more common is the verb sw/zw, indicating the action of saving, delivering, protecting, etc, and which is used in the explanation of the name Yeshua in Matt 1:21. There is also the noun swthri/a (“salvation”) which occurs three times in the hymn of Zechariah (1:69, 71, 77), the Benedictus, a hymn which has many points in common with the Magnificat.

Turning to verse 49, we find, embedded in the line, another couplet which may be viewed as parallel to vv. 46-47:

“the Powerful (One) did great (thing)s for me,
and Holy is His name”

There are three adjectives in this verse which need to be examined:

“Great” (me/ga$)—It was previously stated of Jesus that he will be great [me/ga$] (v. 32, and cp. the qualified use with John the Baptist in v. 15). As I discussed in the note on v. 32, the absolute use of this adjective (as a descriptive title) is essentially reserved for God and reflects the fundamental meaning of the word °E~l (“Mighty One,” i.e. “God”). Here the reference is to the mighty and miraculous things God has done—i.e. his deeds and actions (cf. Deut 10:21)—using the prolonged (neuter) form mega/la as a substantive (“great [thing]s”). Applied to Mary, of course, it relates to the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus, and to his identity as Messiah, Son of God, and Savior.

“Powerful” (dunato/$)—Here the adjective is used as a substantive, with the definite article (“the Powerful [One]”), and is virtually synonymous with the title “Mighty (One)”, presumed to be the fundamental meaning of the name °E~l. Probably there is an allusion here to Zeph 3:17, where the Hebrew roBG] (“strong”) is translated in the LXX as dunato/$: “The Lord your God is in/among you, (the) Powerful (One) will save you”. In the New Testament, dunato/$ frequently refers to God’s ability to work miraculously on behalf of Christ (and through him), as well as other believers—e.g., Mk 10:27 par; 14:36; Acts 2:24; Rom 4:21.

“Holy” (a%gio$)—As an adjective, holy (Heb vdq, Grk a%gio$) is commonly used in reference to God, going back to the fundamental statement of Israelite religious life and identity in Leviticus 19:2. God’s holiness is frequently emphasized in the Scriptures, but vodq* (q¹dôš, “holy”) as a specific title is rather less common. Most likely there is an allusion here to Psalm 111:9, but see also Ps 99:3: “Let them raise hand(s) to [i.e. praise] your great and frightening Name—it is Holy [Q¹dôš]”. It is not entirely clear whether such references mean that God’s name (Yahweh) is holy, or that “Holy (One)” is to be regarded as a name/title of God. Later Israelites and Jews would likely have assumed the former, but, in the ancient context of the Psalms, the latter is a distinct possibility as well. Q¹dôš (or something equivalent) is known as a separate name, or as the name of a separate deity, in the Semitic world. The Greek a%gio$ (“Holy”) was used as a name for Jesus in Lk 1:35—”he will be called (the) Holy (one), the son of God”.

These words—”Powerful” and “Holy”—also occur in tandem, as a (synonymous) pairing, in verse 35 (cf. the earlier note). Recall the words of the Angel to Mary:

“the holy [a%gio$] Spirit will come upon you
and the power [du/nami$] of the Highest will cast shade upon you”

This surely is no coincidence, for the terms and attributes are essential to an understanding of God and his manifestation to human beings (His people). They come together most completely, and perfectly, in the person of Jesus Christ, the child born of Mary. Consider the concrete idiom used to express the conception of Jesus: “you will take/receive together [sullh/myh|] in the womb”. This same conception is described in verse 35—the holiness and power of God come upon Mary, and she conceives (in the womb) the holy child who is called the Son of God.

In a few (Latin) manuscripts (a b l) and writings (or translations) of the Church Fathers, the Magnificat is attributed in v. 46 not to Mary, but to Elizabeth. A few commentators have accepted this as the original reading, on the assumption that scribes were much more likely to change the text from “Elizabeth” to “Mary”, rather than the other way around. More plausible, in my view, is the theory that originally no name was specified, with the text reading simply “she said” (ei@pen). If one were to accept this premise, the specification of Mary as the speaker should still be regarded as an authoritative tradition, even if not part of the original text. However, based on the overwhelming evidence of the Greek MSS, it is probably best to maintain “Mary said” as the most likely original reading.