Birth of the Messiah: Micah 5:2

Micah 5:1 [2]:
The Messianic Bethlehem Tradition

The strongest passage in the New Testament regarding the birth of the Messiah is the treatment of the Bethlehem tradition in the Matthean Infancy narrative (2:1-12)—in particular, the citation of Micah 5:1 [2] within the narrative (vv. 4-6). The tradition regarding Jesus‘ birth in Bethlehem is quite strong, on objective grounds; it is one of the few elements of the Infancy narrative shared by Matthew and Luke (though presented quite differently). Only Matthew relates it to the prophecy in Micah 5:1 [2], and in such a way as to indicate that it was regarded as a Messianic prophecy prior to its application to Jesus. Here is how the Gospel writer frames the citation:

And (hav)ing brought together all the chief sacred officials and (expert)s on the writings [i.e. scribes] of the people, he [i.e. Herod] inquired (from) alongside of them where the Anointed (One) comes to be (born). And th(ey) said to him, “In Beth-Lehem of Yehudah—for so it has been written through the Foreteller: ‘And you, Beth-lehem, land of Yehudah, not even one (bit the) least are you among the leaders of Yehudah; (for) out of [i.e. from] you will come out a leader who will shepherd my people Yisra’el'”.

The Matthean Infancy narrative in chapter 2 may be divided into two halves—the second having a tri-partite structure:

    1. The visit of the Magi (vv. 1-12)
    2. The Flight to Egypt—a triad with a Scripture citation in each part:
      • The Dream of Joseph, warning of Herod, and flight into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
        “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1)
        • Herod’s killing of the infants in Bethlehem (vv. 16-18)
          “A voice was heard in Ramah…” (Jeremiah 31:15)
      • The Dream of  Joseph speaking/warning of Herod, and return from Egypt (vv. 19-21[23])
        [“He shall be called a Nazarene” (citation uncertain)]

It is also possible to separate it into two halves, each with a bi-partite structure (containing a main and secondary Scripture passage):

    • The visit of the Magi to the child Jesus in Bethlehem, in the threatening shadow of Herod (vv. 1-12)
      “And you O Bethlehem…” (Micah 5:2)
      • The Dream of Joseph and flight into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
        “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1)
    • Herod, ‘tricked’ by the Magi, slaughters the children in Bethlehem (vv. 16-18)
      “A voice was heard in Ramah…” (Jer 31:15)
      • The Dream of Joseph and return from Egypt (vv. 19-21[23])
        [“He shall be called a Nazarene”]

One might also add 1:18-25 to create three-part structure for the entire Infancy Narrative, each with a central Scripture passage and dream ‘visitation’:

The Scripture citations are central to the narrative, as also to the identification of Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Savior of Israel. Unlike the other citations (1:22-23; 2:15, 17-28, 23), here the Scripture is quoted by a character (priests and scribes together) in the narrative, rather than as an aside by the author. Critical scholars would still view this as a Matthean citation, little different from the others in the Gospel; however, if we are to accept the narrative at face value, along with the underlying historical tradition, then Micah 5:1 [2] would have been understood as having Messianic significance at the time of the events recorded (end of the 1st century B.C.), prior to being applied by early Christians to Jesus decades later. To be sure, the original context of the passage (cf. below) is much closer to having an actual ‘Messianic’ connotation than the other Scriptures cited by Matthew (Isa 7:14; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:15; and those underlying Matt 2:23). Even so, there is (as yet) no direct evidence for a Messianic interpretation of Micah 5:1 [2] in the first centuries B.C./A.D., outside of the New Testament itself.

If one looks honestly at the original historical context of Isa 7:14 [see the previous note and earlier articles on this passage]; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:15, etc., it must be admitted that they have little to do with a future Messiah-figure. It is conceivable that Isa 7:14 could have been understood in this way, but there is no real evidence for it in Jewish literature contemporaneous or prior to the New Testament. The case may be somewhat different for Micah 5:1 [2], based on the following factors:

    • Unlike the oracles of Isaiah 7:10-17 and 9:1-7, which are presented in a relatively precise historical context (the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah, the Syro-Ephraimitic crisis and impending invasion by Assyria, c. 740-701 [esp. 735-732] B.C.), Micah 5:1-6 [MT 4:14-5:5] has a rather more general setting of coming judgment (military attack implied) followed by restoration. The themes (as well as language and style) of the these oracles in Micah are quite similar to those of Isaiah, but without some of the accompanying historical detail.
    • Assyrian invasion is mentioned in 5:5[4], and is presumably the source of judgment to hit Judah and the Northern kingdom (there is no clear indication Samaria has yet fallen, 722-721 B.C.); however, there is nothing like the precise (imminent) timing found in the predictions of Isa 7:15-17; 8:4. The implication of Micah 5:5-6 would seem to be that the Davidic ruler of 5:2 will lead (Judah’s) troops against the Assyrian invasion, which will lead to the gathering in of the remnant of Jacob (the Northern kingdom?). There is thus a closer parallel to the oracle in Isa 9:1-7, which is also more plausibly ‘Messianic’ (in its original context) than Isa 7:10-17.
    • The reference in Micah 5:3 [2] that God will give Israel/Judah up to judgment “until the one giving birth has given birth” is far more general (and symbolic, cf. the reference in 4:10) than that of the virgin/woman of Isaiah 7:14 (or Isa 8:3); this fact, in and of itself, makes application of the passage to an archetypal or future ruler much more natural.
    • The reference to Bethlehem (in Judah), while possibly intended (originally) to refer to a specific coming ruler in Micah’s own time, also makes likely an archetypal reference to the Davidic line (cf. also references to the “house of David” and “throne of David”, Isa 7:13; 9:7, etc).
    • While one can consider the language in 5:2b as similar to the exalted honorific titles given to ancient Near Eastern rulers (see my notes on Isaiah 9:6-7 in this regard), there is a dynamic, almost ‘mythological’ quality to the phrasing, which, when removed from the immediate context, would certainly suggest divine origin. Once the specific ritual sense of king as God’s “son” (cf. Psalm 2) has ceased to be relevant in Israelite history, the way is paved for the idea of a future/Messianic ruler as “son of God”.

Matthew’s citation of Micah 5:2 differs in several respects from both the Hebrew (MT) and Septuagint (LXX) versions:

Hebrew (MT) [5:1]

And you, House-of-Lµm {Bethlehem} of Ephrath,
Small to be (counted) with the ‘thousands’ [i.e. clans] of Yehudah {Judah},
From you shall come forth for/to me
(One) to be ruling/ruler in Yisra°el {Israel},
And his coming forth is from ‘before’ [<d#q#]
—from (the) days of ‘long-ago’ [<l*ou]

LXX

And you, Beth-lehem, house of Ephrathah
Are little to be in/among the thousands of Yehudah;
(Yet) out of [i.e. from] you will come out for/to me
The (one) to be unto (a) chief [a)rxwn] in Yisra’el,
And his ways out are from (the) beginning [a)rxh]
—out of [i.e. from] (the) days of (the) Age

Matthew 2:6

And you, Beth-lehem, land of Yehudah,
Not even one (bit the) least are you in/among the leaders of Yehudah;
(For) out of [i.e. from] you will come out a leader
Who will shepherd my people Yisra’el

There are three major differences (and one minor) between Matthew’s citation and that of the LXX and Hebrew MT:

      • Instead of the reference to Ephrath(ah), Matthew specifies “land of Judah”; this may be an intentional alteration to avoid mention of an unfamiliar clan name (though the place name Ramah is retained in the citation of Jer 31:15 [Matt 2:18]).
      • Instead of calling Bethlehem small/little [LXX o)ligosto$], Matthew uses the expression “not even one (bit the) least” [ou)damw$ e)laxisth, i.e. ‘not at all’, ‘by no means’]—in other words, Bethlehem is actually great. Is this a variant reading (from a lost Hebrew or Greek version), or an intentional alteration (by the Gospel writer)?
      • Instead of the ‘thousands’ [or clans] of Judah, Matthew reads “leaders [h(gemwn]” of Judah. This is a relative minor difference, and may conceivably reflect a different reading of the consonantal Hebrew text; or it may be an attempt to emphasize rule (rather than the constitution) of Judah.
      • Matthew has omitted the final bicolon (“and his coming forth…”), inserting at the end of the prior line (replacing “of Israel”): “who will shepherd my people Israel”. This appears to be a quotation from 2 Samuel 5:2 (LXX): “you will shepherd my people Israel”, joined to Mic 5:2. The inclusion of this Scripture would strengthen the citation as a reference to the Davidic ruler figure-type.

Messianic Interpretation of Micah 5:1 [2]

The historical tradition in Matt 2:4-6 evinces a belief, or expectation, by Jews of the time, that the Anointed One (that is, the Davidic Messiah) would be born in Bethlehem. There can be little doubt that this underlies the core Gospel traditions in the Infancy narratives. Both the Matthean and Lukan narratives emphasize the association with David, though this is stronger and more pervasive in Luke (cf. Matt 1:1ff, 17, 20; Lk 1:27, 32-33, 69ff; 2:4, 8ff, 11). The historical detail of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is part of this Davidic Messianic tradition. The fact that the Bethlehem tradition is presented so differently within the two narratives demonstrates that it pre-dates both of them.

Indeed, there is evidence that the Bethlehem tradition (and also Micah 5:1 [2]) had been independently applied to the Messiah, in Judea, prior to the writing of the Gospels. This can be inferred fairly from John 7:41-42:

“Others said [i.e. regarding Jesus], ‘This is the Anointed (One)’, and (yet) others said, ‘No, for the Anointed (One) does (not) come out of the Galîl {Galilee}, (does he)? (Has) not the Writing said that out of the seed of Dawid and from Beth-Lehem the Anointed (One) comes?'”

The historical context in John at this point is ambiguous enough to virtually guarantee that we are dealing with a Jewish (rather than early Christian) tradition. It could be derived simply from the historical details surrounding David’s life, but more than likely the reference in Micah 5:2 is assumed as well. The tradition of the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem is established in the subsequent Rabbinic literature—most notably, Jerusalem Talmud Berakot 5a [2:4], and the Midrash Rabbah to Lamentations §51 (on Lam 1:16). However, these passages are considerably later than the first century, and evidence from the first centuries B.C./A.D. is scant indeed. Sadly, the surviving fragments of the Qumran Commentary (Pesher) on Micah (1Q14) do not cover the relevant portion of the book (4:14-5:5 [5:1-6]). A separate text, 4Q168, with two small fragments, may be a similar Micah pesher (the surviving portion deals with 4:8-12), but too little is preserved to provide much by way of interpretation.

According to Origen, in his work Against Celsus (1.51), Jewish scholars in his time (and prior) had removed or suppressed the Bethlehem tradition—i.e., the expectation that the (Davidic) Messiah would be born in Bethlehem—to avoid giving support for the Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah. However accurate this bit of apologetic may (or may not) be, it could be seen as providing independent confirmation of the Bethlehem tradition by perhaps the mid-2nd century A.D. Around the same time may be dated the Aramaic Targum (Jonathan) on the Prophets, which glosses/paraphrases Micah 5:1 [2] to say specifically that the Messiah comes out of Bethlehem. Unfortunately, the Jewish evidence cannot be dated, reliably at least, any earlier than this. Even within the later Rabbinic writings, the Bethlehem tradition is not very widespread; there is, for example, no reference to Bethlehem in the Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 52a where the Messiah’s birth is alluded to. This may be partly because of the complex character of the Messianic figure-types, alternating between ordinary human and supernatural/heavenly figures, sometimes even suggesting a (re)incarnation of David or Elijah himself. In the New Testament we actually have more detail regarding the birth of Jesus as the Messiah than we typically find elsewhere in Jewish tradition regarding the Messiah.

Birth of the Messiah: Isaiah 7:14; 9:5-6

The Immanuel Prophecies in Isaiah:
A uniquely Christian adaptation of Messianic Tradition

Isaiah 7:14 is one of the most familiar verses of the Old Testament, mainly due to its association with the birth of Jesus, an application which goes back to at least the time of the composition of the Gospels (c. 70-80), if not several decades prior, for the Gospel of Matthew cites it explicitly (1:22-23). Similarly famous are the words of Isaiah 9:5-6 [EV 6-7], forever immortalized (for English speakers at least) thanks to Handel’s oratorio The Messiah, and appearing in any number of situations each Christmas season. I have dealt at length with Isaiah 7:14 in a previous four-part study, and also 9:5-6 in a two-part study; this article draws upon the results of those studies, and is divided a follows:

    • Survey of Isaiah 7:14
    • Survey of Isaiah 9:5-6 [6-7]
    • Messianic Application and Interpretation in the first centuries B.C./A.D.

The first point to note is that the verses of both passages, in being applied to the birth of Jesus, are generally taken out of their original context, as a careful study will make clear. It may be useful to outline and summarize the overall context of this material in the book of Isaiah:

    • Isa 6:1-13: The “call” and commission of Isaiah, accompanied by a vision of God in the Temple, said to have occurred the year of king Uzziah’s death (c. 740/39 B.C.). The words of commission (vv. 9-10 cited famously by Jesus [Mark 4:10-12 par.]) are harsh and foreboding: Isaiah’s preaching will only harden the people, leading to judgment, destruction and exile, but with a final promise—that which is left standing in them is “the seed of holiness” (v. 13).
    • Isa 7:1-9: The alliance of Aram-Damascus and the Northern kingdom of Israel (Ephraim), along with their attack on Jerusalem, is summarized (vv. 1-3). What follows is set in the face of the (impending) siege: Isaiah is called to meet the young king Ahaz (grandson of Uzziah), bringing along his own son (named “a remant will return”), with a message for the king not to be afraid but to trust in God, for YHWH will not allow their attack to succeed. A time indicator for the destruction of Ephraim appears in v. 8-9, but the text here may be corrupt or a later gloss. The setting of this scene would be c. 735-4 B.C.
    • Isa 7:10-17: A second scene between Isaiah and Ahaz, which may have occurred at a different time (though the same basic setting c. 735-4 B.C. is implied). This section, and especially v. 14, has been discussed extensively in the prior studies. It is a similar message: that Ahaz should trust God in the face of attack, for within 2-3 years YHWH will bring judgment on Aram and Ephraim through the king of Assyria. This prediction essentially came to pass by 732 B.C.
    • Isa 7:18-25: A separate oracle of judgment: God will ‘whistle’ for the king of Assyria to come and ‘shave’ the land in humiliating fashion. Assuming the position of the oracle in its overall context, the target is most likely the Northern Kingdom, which would suffer greatly under the advances of Tiglath-pileser III (734-2 B.C.) before being conquered and destroyed finally in 722.
    • Isa 8:1-4: A sign-oracle with some remarkable parallels to that of 7:10-17 (esp. vv. 3-4 with 7:14-17), involving: (1) conception and birth of a child [from “the prophetess” instead of “the maiden/virgin”], (2) a temporal indicator based on the early growth of the infant [i.e. within a year or two], and (3) a prophecy of judgment against Aram-Damascus involving the king of Assyria. A setting again of roughly 734 B.C. is implied.
    • Isa 8:5-10: A compact oracle with several different interlocking levels: (a) judgment against the Northern kingdom in its alliance with Aram-Damascus [v. 6], (b) warning against the leaders and people of Judah who would save themselves by submitting to Aram-Damascus [v. 6-8], (c) the destructive advance of the king of Assyria [v. 7-8], and (d) a message of hope and promise for Judah/Jerusalem [with a warning to the nations], set around the name la@ WnM*u! “God-with-us”:
      • “God-with-us” [end of v. 8]
        • O nations—”come together”, “gird yourselves” and “be shattered” [v. 9]
        • (Your) counsel will break apart, your word [i.e. plan] will not stand [v. 10]
      • For “God-with-us” [end of v. 10]
    • Isa 8:11-15: A message to Isaiah himself to trust YHWH and not to follow the fearful way of the people.
    • Isa 8:16-22: A symbolic scene, involving: (1) testimony and instruction from Isaiah which has bound/sealed for safekeeping, (2) his sons [presumably the two mentioned in 7:3; 8:1,3; but does this include “Immanuel”?], (3) a warning to trust in the message and signs given by God to Isaiah rather than various kinds of divination commonly practiced in the ancient world [vv. 18-22]. Some commentators would divide vv. 16-18 and 19-22 into separate scenes.
    • Isa 8:23-9:6: Best understood as a prosodic introduction (v. 23), followed by a poem (9:1-6), though it is also possible to treat 8:23b-9:6 as a single poetic oracle (applying 8:23a to the previous section).

Isaiah 7:14

As noted above, the original setting of Isaiah 7:14—and of the larger section 6:1-9:6—is the so-called Syro-Ephraimite crisis of 735-4 B.C.:

Threatened by Assyrian advances (under Tiglath-Pileser III), Aram-Damascus (led by king Rezin) and the Northern Kingdom of Israel (“Ephraim”, led by the usuper Pekah [“son of Remalyah”]) formed an alliance (along with the city of Tyre) in hopes of repulsing Assyria, similar to the coalition which resisted Shalmaneser III at the battle of Qarqar a century earlier. It was most likely for the purpose of forcing the Southern Kingdom of Judah (led by Aµaz) into joining the alliance, that Rezin and Pekah marched and laid siege to Jerusalem (Isaiah 7:6 indicates that they planned to set up a new king, “son of Tab±al“). Isa 7:1 states that they were “not able to do battle against” Jerusalem, perhaps in the sense of being unable to prevail/conquer in battle (so the parallel account in 2 Kings 16:5, but 2 Chronicles 28:5ff tells rather a different story).

Isaiah 7:3-9 and 10-17ff should be understood as taking place prior to the main event summarized in verse 1. Verses 10-17, in fact, need to be read in tandem with vv. 3-9, and in context with the larger section 6:1-9:6. Here is a fairly literal translation of vv. 10-17:

10And YHWH continued to speak to Aµaz, saying 11“Ask for you(rself) a sign from YHWH your God—made deep (as) Sheol or made high (as) from above [i.e. the sky]”. 12And Aµaz said, “I will not ask and will not test YHWH.” 13And he [i.e. Isaiah] said, “Hear ye, house of David: (is it) a small (thing) from you to make men weary, that you would also make weary my God? 14Thus (the) Lord himself will give for you a sign—See! the ±almâ (becoming) pregnant will bear a son and (she) will call his name ‘God-with-us‘. 15Curds and honey he will eat to (the time of) his knowing to refuse by the evil and to choose by the good; 16for by (the time) before the youth knows to refuse by the evil and choose by the good, the land, which you dread from the faces of her two kings, shall be forsaken! 17YHWH will bring upon you—and upon your people and upon the house of your father—days which have not come from [i.e. since] the day (of) Ephraim’s turning (away) from alongside Judah—the king of Assyria!”

Note that I have translated the name la@ WnM*u! (±immanû °¢l), and have temporarily left untranslated the word hm*l=u^ (±almâ). This latter word has been variously translated “virgin” or “young girl”, etc.—a point of longstanding dispute and controversy, which I have discussed (along with the identity of the ±almâ) as part of the earlier study (Parts 2 & 3). As neither “virgin” nor “young girl” quite captures the meaning of the Hebrew hm*l=u^, I have opted for “maiden” as the best solution, and one which can serve as an accurate enough translation.

Apart from the overall historical context, a number of details in the passage speak clearly against the child as a (messianic) figure coming only in the (distant) future:

    • It is meant to be a sign for the “house of David” (that is, the kings of Judah) which they, and presumably Ahaz in particular, would be able to recognize (in their lifetime)—v. 11, 13-14.
    • The use of the definite article (hm*l=u^h*, the ±almâ), would seem to indicate a woman already known to Isaiah and/or Ahaz—v. 14
    • The interjection hN@h! (“see/behold!”), as well as the construction td#l#)yw+ hr*h* (verbal adjective + Qal participle) seem to imply an immediacy (i.e. “see! the ±almâ, being pregnant, is about to bear…”)
    • The key temporal detail of the prophecy vv. 15-16, would seem to specify that within 2-3 years of the child’s birth, the main event will take place.
    • The event so indicated has a two-fold reference:
      a) The land of the ‘two kings’, which (currently) causes you dread, will be forsaken (“the land” primarily in reference to Aram-Damascus)—v. 16
      b) YHWH will bring the king of Assyria (with special reference to judgment on the Northern Kingdom [“Ephraim”])—v. 17
      This prediction was fulfilled, to large degree, in 732 B.C. (that is, within 2-3 years), with the fall of Damascus and the effective loss of much of the Northern kingdom (conquest of territory, deportations, installment of a puppet king, etc.)

What of this name “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u! ±immanû-°¢l)? Some believers may feel that such a momentous name could only apply to a Messianic (or even Divine) figure, rather than an ‘ordinary’ human (king). However, theologically significant names were common in Hebrew, often using “God” (°El) or Yahweh (shortened or hypocoristic form “Yah[u]”). This is more or less obscured in English translations, where names are typically given an anglicized transliteration rather than translated. For example, Isaiah (Why`u=v^y+, Y§sha±y¹hu) ought to be rendered “Yah-will-save” or “May-Yah-save!”; similarly, Ahaz is probably a shortened form of Jehoahaz (zj*a*ohy+, Y§hô°¹µ¹z) and would mean something like “Yah-has-seized” or “Yah-has-grasped [hold]!”. So, a name such as “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u!) could certainly be applied to a significant person or ruler (though at this time, Yah-names are much more common than El-names). Isaiah himself gave elaborate symbolic names for his two (other) sons: bWvy` ra*v= (Sh§°¹r-y¹shû», “[a] Remnant will return”, Isa 7:3), and zB^ vj* ll*v* rh@m^ (Mah¢r-sh¹l¹l-µ¹sh-baz, “Hurry [to] seize booty! hasten [to] take spoil!”, or something similar)—both names relating to the impending/future judgment on Israel.

In the historical context, the name “God-with-us” has a very specific meaning: Ahaz and the southern Kingdom faced an imminent attack by Aram-Damascus and the Northern Kingdom, along with the looming specter of an Assyrian invasion. From a practical political-diplomatic view, the young king had two options: submit to the Syria-Ephraim alliance, or seek aid from Assyria to fend of the attack (effectively becoming an Assyrian vassal or tributary). Judging from the account in 2 Kings 16:7ff (and the rather different parallel in 2 Chron 28:16ff), as well as the Assyrian annals (cf. ANET, 282-4), Ahaz appears to have chosen the latter. Isaiah’s counsel in chapter 7 was to trust in God, for God is with Jerusalem and his people in Judah, and within just a year or two the threat from Aram-Ephraim will be eliminated. The use of the name “God-with-us” in Isa 8:5-10 is even more dramatic and telling, for the warning (and promise) of ±Immanû °El (vv. 8, 10) extends to all the surrounding nations (even to the Assyrian Empire): “take counsel (for) counsel and it will break apart, give word (to) a word and it will not stand! For God (is) with us!”. In this final exclamation, we have moved clearly from the sign (the child) to what it signifies—that God Himself is with us. Little wonder that early Christians would have applied this name (and this passage) to the person of Jesus Christ: “and the Word [logo$] came-to-be flesh and set-up-tent [i.e. dwelt] among us…” (John 1:14a); cf. further below.

Isaiah 9:5-6 [EV 6-7]

While there are certain textual questions involving the opening of the section (8:23 [9:1], cf. below and in the earlier study), the lines of the main oracle poem (vv. 1-6 [2-7]) are relatively straightforward and may be outlined as follows:

    • V. 1: Light shines for those in darkness
    • V. 2: Joy will be increased, with two-fold motif: (a) harvest, (b) army dividing spoils
    • V. 3: Three connected symbols of oppression—yoke, cross-bar, and rod/whip—will be smashed
    • V. 4: The signs and remains of warfare and conquest (shoes, blood-caked garments) will be burned
    • V. 5: Announcement of the birth of a child (son), along with symbol(s) of government and (royal) titles
    • V. 6: A promise to establish/maintain the greatness and (eternal) rule of the Davidic kingdom

With regard to this poem, critical scholars have given various dates to it, ranging from Isaiah’s own time (c. 730-700 B.C.) down to the post-exilic period. An exilic or post-exilic date would make a Messianic orientation much more plausible (cf. below), but I find little evidence in these verses for such a setting. The closer one comes to Isaiah’s own time, the much less likely a future (Messianic) interpretation would be as the primary sense of the passage. This is particularly true if we take seriously the overall context of Isa 6:1-9:6, which is set rather securely in the period c. 740-732 B.C. Assuming this context still applies to 8:23, the regions mentioned (Zebulon, Naphtali, Transjordan [Gilead], Galilee and the northern coastal plain [“way of the sea”]) represent areas which suffered under Assyrian attack 734-732 B.C., and were effectively annexed to become Assyrian provinces. The message of 9:1-6 is directed, in part, to the Northern kingdom (“the people who walk in darkness”)—there is no indication that Samaria has fallen completely yet. Of course, Assyria still threatened the Southern kingdom of Judah, and would launch a devastating attack some years later (this will become the central event of the remainder of the first half of the book [up to ch. 39]). Here God promises (expressed in the prophetic perfect: “he has increased joy”, “he has smashed”, etc.) to deliver Israel/Judah from her enemies, bringing a renewed period of peace and prosperity.

Assuming the historical setting of Isa 6:1-9:6 to be the years leading up to 732 B.C. (and prior to 722), can we then identify the child with a particular historical figure? The grandeur of the titles in v. 5, and reference to the “throne of David” in v. 6, would require, at the very least, a king of Judah (that is, from the Davidic line). The only person from Isaiah’s own time (c. 735-700) who seems to fit is Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. The birth and/or accession of a new king could be a time of great hope and promise, but also of tremendous danger, as princes and vassals may see the moment as an opportune time for revolt (cf. Psalm 2). Following the reign of his father, Ahaz (who “did not do what was right in the eyes of YHWH”), Hezekiah is a positive figure, even under the withering judgment of the book of Kings (2 Kings 8:3ff: he finally removed the “high places”, which his ancestors failed to do). He will also become a central figure in the book of Isaiah, and focal point of the key historical moment: the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem under Sennacherib in 701 B.C.

Some scholars would identify Hezekiah also as ±Immanû-°¢l (“God-with-us”) of the prophecy in 7:10-17 (also 8:5-10, cf. above). Arguments in favor would be: (a) parallel with 9:5-6, as both prophecy the birth of portentous children containing a promise of salvation; (b) the name is suggestive of the words of 2 Kings 8:7 (“and YHWH was with him…”); (c) the subsequent use of the name/phrase in 8:8,10. Arguments against: (a) there is nothing in the two passages which specifically identifies the two children; (b) the other symbolic names in chs. 7-8 still seem to be real names applied to specific children, so Immanuel, if a real name, most likely belongs to a different child than Hezekiah; (c) Immanuel as a child of Isaiah (or even as a purely symbolic/collective name) remains a possibility. I am by no means convinced that Immanuel, even if a child of Ahaz, is the same as the (royal) child of 9:5-6. In some ways there is even a closer parallel between the child of 7:14-17 and Isaiah’s child in 8:1-4, but few (if any) commentators would equate the two.

As far as arguments against identifying Hezekiah with the child of 9:5-6, three are especially significant:

    1. The message of deliverance and restoration in vv. 1-4 was not fulfilled in Hezekiah’s reign, particularly not for the Northern kingdom (the territories mentioned in the setting of 8:23). And, while Hezekiah was a good and faithful ruler (according to the testimony of 2 Kings 8:3-7ff), achieved some military success (2 Kings 8:8), and stood against Assyria (2 Kings 8:7, 13–chap. 19 and par.), an appraisal of his reign would not seem to match the glowing language of Isa 9:6. Indeed, in 2 Kings 20:16-19 [par. Isa 39:5-8], Isaiah himself prophecies the future Babylonian captivity—there will be only limited “peace and security” (20:19, contrasted with Isa 9:6). However, these points are weakened somewhat if one considers the character of the oracle in 9:1-6, which does not seem to carry the same predictive force found earlier in chapters 7-8: there are almost no specific historical details, no time indicator, indeed no clear sign of an immediate fulfillment. The perfect verbal forms, typically understood as prophetic perfects (indicating the certainty of what God will do), could also have a gnomic sense (indicating what God always does).
    2. It has been said that the weighty titles listed in Isa 9:5 are too lofty to be applied to a human king. However, similarly lofty, theologically significant names and titles were regularly applied to rulers in the ancient Near East. The most extensive evidence comes from Egypt, and the names applied to the Pharaoh during enthronement rituals (some of which are roughly parallel to those in Isa 9:5). No similar ritual is recorded as such for kings of Israel/Judah in the Old Testament, but there are a few hints in the Psalms and elsewhere; Psalm 2 is perhaps the most striking example, a setting similar to that in the Egyptian ritual, where the Deity addresses the new ruler as His “son” (Ps 2:7). For more on this Psalm, see below.
    3. The very lack of specific historical details (see point 1 above) could be taken as a strong argument against identifying the child with Hezekiah. Certainly, it could apply at least as well to later rulers (such as Josiah) or a future Messiah. If one accepts the basic interpretation of 9:5-6 as reflecting the enthronement/accession of a new king (that is, the language and symbolism of it), it has a timeless quality which could apply to any anointed king (the same is true of Psalm 2, etc). Only the historical context of the passage (c. 730-700 B.C.) would make it apply specifically to Hezekiah.

What of the titles or names in Isaiah 9:5? There are four: the first two have nouns in juxtaposition, the second two are effectively construct forms:

    • Ju@oy al#P# (pele° yô±¢ƒ), typically translated “Wonderful Counsellor”
    • roBG] la@ (°¢l gibbôr), typically “Mighty God”

However, the English rendering is a bit misleading, as if the first words were adjectives modifying the second. The nouns juxtaposed are not related syntactically in quite this way. The noun al#P# refers to something extraordinary, i.e. a wonder, marvel, miracle, etc. The relation between the nouns is perhaps better expressed by a comma, or hyphen: “Wonder, Counsellor” or “Wonder–Counsellor”. The noun roBG] refers to a strong (man) or warrior. la@, usually translated “God” (El), has an original meaning something like “mighty” (“Mighty [one]” = “God”); the plural form <yh!l)a$ (Elohim) is probably an intensive plural, roughly “Mightiest”. “God Warrior” is a fairly accurate rendering of the second name, or, translating even more literally “Mighty One, Warrior”.

    • du^yb!a& (°¦»î±ad), familiar translation “Everlasting Father”
    • <olv*Árc^ (´ar-sh¹lôm), “Prince of Peace”

In the third name, the two words have been joined (without a maqqeph [‘hyphen’]), the second of which is difficult to translate. du^ indicates, more or less literally, the passing or advancing of time, either in the sense of (a) into the distant past, (b) into the [distant] future, or (c) in perpetuity [i.e. continually]. As such, it is roughly synonymous with the word <lou (see v. 6). “Everlasting” is not especially accurate, but it is hard to find an English word that is much better. In the context of a royal title, something along the lines of “long life” is probably implied (similar to Egyptian titles, i.e. “living forever”, “good in years”, etc). This would create a parallel with the two names: “Father of ‘Long-life'”, “Prince of Peace”—two aspects of the promised time of renewal. However, there is a sense of du^ which also indicates “ancient” or “eternal” (Hab 3:6, etc) as long as one is careful not to infuse the latter rendering with an exaggerated theological meaning.

These four titles are included under the formula: “and he/they will call [or has called] his name…” Let us also consider the prior three elements of verse 5:

    • Wnl*ÁdL^y% dl#y# yK! (“For a child has been born to/for us”)—the etymological connection of dly is lost in translation: “a (thing) born has been born”, “a (thing) brought-forth has been brought-forth”. The particle yK! clearly connects vv. 5-6 with 1-4, but in what way precisely? Is the birth of the child (or accession of the king) the means by which God will bring about the things detailed in vv. 1-4? Are 8:23-9:4 the reason for the birth? Or are the events of vv. 1-4 juxtaposed with the birth as parallel aspects of God’s action?
    • Wnl*Á/T^n] /B@ (“a son has been given to/for us”)—a point of poetic parallelism with the previous phrase.
    • omk=v!Álu^ hr*c=M!h^ yh!T=w~ (“and the rule has come to be upon his shoulder”)—the exact meaning of hr*c=m! is uncertain, it may be related to rc^ (translated “prince”, see in the fourth title at end of the verse). This phrase is parallel to the fourth: “and he has called his name [or he/they will call his name]…”—the name and the ‘rule’ (probably in the sense of symbolic emblem[s] of rule) being two ritualized aspects of sovereignty.

Messianic Interpretation

Given the importance of these Isaian passages for the early Christian understanding of Jesus as the Messiah (cf. below), we might expect to find a similar Messianic interpretation and application in other Jewish writings of the period. However, this is not the case, at least in terms of the texts that have come down to us, both from Qumran (the Dead Sea scrolls) and elsewhere. Indeed, I am aware of no direct citation or allusion to either Isa 7:14 or 9:5-6, in a Messianic context, in these writings. The situation would likely be different if the relevant portions of the Qumran Commentary (Pesher) on Isaiah had survived, but, unfortunately, this is not so. The closest we have are the highly fragmentary comments on 8:7-8ff in 4Q163 fragment 2; sadly, the text breaks off just when the commentary is being introduced (“the interpretation [pesher] of the word upon [i.e. concerning]…”). We may gain some sense of the missing interpretation by comparing the citation of Isa 8:11 in the Florilegium text (4Q174), a chain of Scriptures which are given a Messianic and eschatological interpretation—relating to the deliverance of the righteous (the Qumran Community) and the defeat/judgment of the wicked in the last days (Fragment 1, col. i, lines 15ff). The surviving fragments of the Isaiah Commentary text 4Q163 pick up again at Isa 9:11, but much of the specific interpretation of the passage, in context, remains missing.

There is an allusion to 9:5 [6] in the “Thanksgiving Hymns” (Hodayot) 1QH. In Hymn 11 [XI, formerly III], the author compares his distress to that of a woman giving birth (verse 7ff): “9and the woman expectant with a boy is racked by her pangs, for through the breakers of death she gives birth to a male, and through the pangs of Sheol there emerges, 10from the «crucible» of the pregnant woman a wonderful counsellor with his strength, and the boy is freed from the breakers”. He goes on to contrast the (righteous) birth of a boy with the (wicked) birth of a serpent (verse 12ff), a reflection of the strong ethical dualism found in many of the Qumran texts. This is not a Messianic use of the passage per se, but it may related to the eschatological tradition of the end time as a period of suffering and persecution for the righteous, prior to the great Judgment, and known in Jewish tradition as “the birth pains of the Messiah” (cp. Mark 13:8 par, and the context of Rev 12:2-6, 13-17).

The Gospel of Matthew, of course, in the Infancy narrative (Matt 1:22-23) cites Isa 7:14, applying the verse specifically to the (virgin) birth of Jesus. He also makes use of the name “God-with-us” (la@ WnM*u! ±immanû-°¢l). This application is generally Messianic, however the emphasis is more properly on the identity of Jesus as the Savior of his people (1:21). This theme of salvation is very much part of the original oracles in Isa 7-9 (cf. above). Matthew does not use Isa 7:14 to identify Jesus with the Davidic Messiah—that is achieved primarily through the quotation of Micah 5:2 (along with 2 Sam 5:2) in 2:5-6.

It is interesting to see how (and where) the Gospel writer introduces the prophecy: it follows directly after the heavenly Messenger’s announcement to Joseph. Note the similarity in language in v. 21: “she will bring forth a son and you will call his name Yeshua± [Jesus]”, which is nearly identical to that of Isa 7:14 (cf. the similar pronouncements in Gen 16:11 and Judg 13:5). Many critical scholars would hold that Matthew has shaped the angelic announcement to fit Isa 7:14; however, it is certainly possible that, seeing the similarity in language, the writer was led to include the Isaiah prophecy at this point. Indeed, this sort of “catchphrase bonding” abounds in the New Testament, and was a prime technique used by early Christians to join Scriptures and traditions together. The writer is also careful to distinguish the two passages: while “call his name Jesus” and “call his name Immanuel” are parallel, they are not identical—this is probably why the third person plural “they shall call” is used in the citation; it is a small adaptation, but it has an interesting effect. Joseph (the “you” of v. 21) calls him “Jesus” (v. 25), but “they” (people of Israel, believers, those who encounter Jesus) will call him “Immanuel”.

It is also in Matthew’s Gospel that the Isa 8:23-9:6 [9:1-7] oracle is referenced. Even though Isa 9:5-6 is not cited specifically (nor anywhere else in the New Testament), 8:23-9:1 [EV 9:1-2] are quoted in 4:15-16, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee; and, though not specified, an identification of Jesus with the child in 9:5-6 would seem to be implied. This is certainly how early Christians would come to understand the passage (Justin is perhaps the earliest surviving witness [c. 140-160], cf. First Apology §33 and Dialogue §76). More broadly, it would come to carry a Messianic interpretation, though there is little surviving pre-Christian Jewish evidence of this, as noted above. A comparison of Isa 9:1-6 [esp. vv. 5-6] with Psalm 2 (discussed in the previous article) is noteworthy:

    • Both passages are understood (in their original context) as relating to the enthronement/accession of a new (Davidic) king. The positive side of the event (light, joy, deliverance from [current] oppression) is stressed in Isa 9:1-6, the negative side (danger from rebellious princes/vassals/allies) in Ps 2.
    • Both speak of a birth (Isa 9:5; Ps 2:7). This may mean that the ‘birth’ in Isa 9:5 is symbolic of the king’s accession/enthronement, rather than a literal physical birth.
    • Both speak of (the king) as a son. The king as God’s son (i.e., “son of God” though the phrase is not used) is explicit in Psalm 2 (cf. also 2 Sam 7:14), while only implied, perhaps, in Isa 9:5-6.
    • Following the ‘announcement’ of birth/sonship, both passages have God’s declaration of royal inheritance and sovereignty (Isa 9:6; Ps 2:8-12)
    • Both passages came to be understood as Messianic prophecies, and were applied to Jesus by early Christians—Ps 2 (along with Ps 110) already, on several occasions, in the New Testament itself.

The Lukan Infancy narrative may allude to both Isa 7:14 and 9:5[6], by way of the wording of the Angelic announcements in 1:28 and 2:11, respectively; however, this is not entirely certain. In any case, the use of such passages is instructive for understanding how the language and imagery of the Old Testament developed over time, from the original historical context and meaning, to a broader symbolism related to the idea of the Davidic kingship and covenant; then follows the hope/promise of a restoration of Davidic rule (in the post-exilic period) under a new Anointed figure (Messiah), traditions of which are preserved and transmitted in Jewish thought and belief, until the time of Jesus Christ (Yeshua the Anointed [Messiah]).  In the light of this new (incarnate) revelation, new meanings and applications of the Scriptures were opened up to believers—it is hardly surprising that at least a few of these would appear to relate so beautifully to the marvelous birth of our Savior.

Believers, including the earliest Christians (and the inspired Gospel writer), have, for example, applied Isaiah 7:14 to the (virgin) birth of Jesus, even though the original context of the passage relates to the Syrian-Ephraimite crisis facing Ahaz and the kingdom of Judah in c. 735-4 B.C. I regard this as one of the great wonders and beauties of the sacred Writings: that prophet and people, author and hearer (or reader) alike respond to the word[s] of God and the work of the Holy Spirit as part of a profound creative process. The eternal Word, stretching from the 8th-century crisis facing the people of Israel, touching those who experience the miracle and mystery of Jesus’ birth, reaching all the way down to us today—all who are united in the Spirit of God and Christ—speaks that remakable, nearly unexplainable phrase, that one name: la@ WnM*u! “God-with-us”.

* * * * * * *

There is a rough extrabiblical parallel to the “God-with-us” prophecy of Isaiah 7:10ff, from earlier in the 8th century (c. 785): the Zakkur (or Zakir) stele. Another ruler (of Hamath in Syria [“Aram”]) is besieged by an enemy force, and the seers deliver a message from the deity to the king which reads, in part: “Do not fear, for I have made you king, and I shall stand by you and deliver you” (transl. from ANET, 501-2).

December 31: Luke 1:32, 35

This note continues our examination of the development in early Christian thought, in terms of an awareness of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. By the time the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written—and their Infancy narratives, in particular (c. 70-80 A.D.?)—this Christological awareness extended all the way back to Jesus’ birth as a human being, encompassing his entire life. This meant that the earlier association with his resurrection (and exaltation to heaven) was expanded to include many aspects of his earthly life and ministry, especially with regard to the salvation it brings. It is this aspect of Jesus as the Savior of his people (Matt 1:21ff) which informs the only reference to Jesus as God’s Son in the Matthean narrative (2:15, citing Hosea 11:1). This was discussed in the previous note, and now we turn to the Lukan narrative, where there is also a reference to Jesus as the Son of God—it is a two-fold reference, part of the Angelic announcement to Mary (1:32, 35).

Luke 1:32, 35

The famous annunciation scene in Luke (Lk 1:26-38) follows the basic pattern of angelic announcements in Old Testament narrative—for birth annunciations, see Genesis 16:7-13; chapters 17-18 (esp. 17:15-21; 18:10-15) and Judges 13, as well as Lk 1:11-20 and Matt 1:20-21 in the infancy narratives (for more on this, cf. the article in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”). There are three parts to the angel’s message, each followed by Mary’s response:

    • Verse 28—Mary is addressed by name
      • V. 29—Mary is startled by what she sees
    • Verses 30-33—The Message to Mary
      • V. 34—Mary asks “how will this be?”
    • Verses 35-37—Answer to Mary’s question, with a sign
      • V. 38—Mary responds “…may it come to be for me according to your word”

Each part has a theological/christological element:

    • v. 28b—”the Lord is with you”
    • vv. 31ff—”this one will be great and will be called Son of the Highest…”
    • v. 35a—”The Holy Spirit… power of the Highest…
      v. 35b—…(the child) will be called Holy, the Son of God”

The fundamental emphasis of these phrases is unquestionably Messianic. With the regard to the first phrase in v. 28b, it is reminiscent of the wording in the famous prophecy of Isa 7:14 (cited in the Matthean Infancy narrative), with the name Immanuel (la@ WnM*u!, ±imm¹nû °¢l)—”God with us”. The context of Isa 8:8-10 indicates that this name reflects God’s support and protection of the (righteous) king, connected with peace, prosperity, and the salvation of the land/people from enemies. In terms of the original historical context, the most reasonable identification is with Hezekiah (cf. 2 Kings 18:7). Later on, of course, the passage (along with Isa 9:1-6) came to be interpreted in a (future) Messianic sense, and was applied by Christians to the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:22-23). I discussed these verses in considerable detail in series of advent notes.

There may also be an allusion to Zeph 3:14-17 here in Lk 1:28. Apart from the formal similarity of the opening (xai=re, “be glad / rejoice!” as a greeting) and a possible parallel between Mary and “daughter of Zion” (Jerusalem/Judah personified), note the similar assurance that is offered:

Zeph 3:14-17 LXX

    • v. 15b: ku/rio$ e)n me/sw| sou (“the Lord is in the middle of you [i.e. is in your midst]”)
    • v. 17a: ku/rio$ o( qeo/$ sou e)n soi (“the Lord your God is in/among you”)

Luke 1:28b

o( ku/rio$ meta\ sou=
“the Lord is with you”

In Zeph 3:14-17 it is also a promise of protection and salvation. According to the Old Testament/Jewish background, the “Lord” (o( ku/rio$) is YHWH, God the Father; but note the use of ku/rio$ to refer to Jesus in Lk 1:43; 2:11, and the more ambiguous reference in Lk 1:76. There can be little doubt that, by the time the Gospel of Luke had been written (around 70 A.D. or a bit later), ku/rio$ was being regularly applied to Jesus in terms of his divine nature or status, connected especially with his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God (Acts 2:36, etc, cf. the earlier notes in this series). The expression corresponding to o( ku/rio$ meta\ sou= (“the Lord is with you” or “the Lord be with you”) appears as a pious, but ordinary, greeting in Ruth 2:4. A closer parallel to our passage is found in the angelic annunciation to Gideon in Judg 6:12, as an assurance of God’s support and care. In Lk 1:28, 30, this divine care is described in terms of God’s favor (xa/ri$)—Mary is one who has been favored (kexaritwme/nh) by God (xa/rin para\ tw=| qew=|).

The emphasis on the Messianic character and status of the child continues in vv. 31-33. To begin with, there is the announcement of the conception (“you will receive together [sullh/yh|] in the womb”) and birth (“you will produce [te/ch|]”) a son [ui(o/$] (v. 31a)—this is connected with the favor (xa/ri$) Mary receives from God (vv. 28, 30). In terms of the naming of the child (v. 31b), there may here be an echo of Isa 7:14 LXX (cf. above)—note the similar sequence “will produce” [te/cetai] followed by “will call his name” [kale/sei$ to\ o&noma au)tou]—as is made explicit in Matthew (“you will call his name Yeshua” / “they will call his name Immanuel”, Matt 1:21, 23).

Almost certainly, in this passage there are allusions to 2 Sam 7:8-16—a prophetic announcement regarding the Davidic line, which had come to be interpreted in a Messianic sense by the time the Gospels were written, cf. the Qumran text 4QFlor (174) lines 10-13. Note the following points of correspondence:

      • v. 32a—Jesus’ greatness and his name (2 Sam 7:9)
      • v. 32b—Jesus as God’s son (2 Sam 7:14)
      • v. 33—The throne of David and his kingdom, which will last forever (2 Sam 7:13, 16)

Cf. also Isa 9:5-6 (6-7) and Dan 7:14. There are two main theological/christological phrases in Lk 1:32:

e&stai me/ga$ (“he will be great”)—The absolute use of me/ga$ (“great”) in the LXX typically refers to YHWH (Psalm 48:2 [145:3]; 86:10; 135:5); it tends to be qualified when used of human beings, as of John in Lk 1:15 (“he will be great in the eyes of the Lord”)—see also 2 Sam 19:33; Sir 48:22 (cf. Fitzmyer, p. 325). The fact that the Lukan infancy narratives present the births of John and Jesus side by side—with Jesus having the more exalted status—indicates that me/ga$ here means something decidedly greater than when applied to John.

ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai (“he will be called Son of the Highest”)—Here, in context, klhqh/setai (“he will be called“) is parallel and generally synonymous with e&stai (“he will be“); see, for example, the parallel saying of Jesus in Matt 5:9 / Lk 6:35. In ancient (Near Eastern) thought, the name represented the essential identity and character of the person, often in a dynamic, quasi-magical sense. The giving of a name—especially when given by God—confers (and confirms) just who the child is, and what he/she will become. In this respect, it is worth noting the ‘prophetic’ nature of many naming scenes in the Old Testament (Gen 5:29 et al), and in the New Testament as well (Matt 1:21; 16:17-18, etc). Here the specific name is “son of the Highest” (ui(o\$ u(yi/stou)—u(yi/sto$, which is attested in (pagan) Greek usage (of Zeus, etc), is used in the LXX of YHWH, as a translation of Hebrew /oyl=u# ±Elyôn (Gen 14:18; Dan 4:14; cf. also Jubilees 16:18, and note 1 Enoch 9:3; 10:1; 46:7; 60:1, 22). It is used relatively often in Luke-Acts (Lk 1:35, 76; 6:35; 8:28; Acts 7:48; 16:17)—in Lk 1:76, it is said of John, “you will be called Foreteller [i.e. Prophet] of the Highest [profh/th$ u(yi/stou klhqh/sh|]”. Cf. Fitzmyer, pp. 347-8.

Luke 1:35 “…will be called Holy, the Son of God”

In this verse, the prophetic announcement and naming of the child by the angel (Gabriel) comes to a climax with the title “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=). Actually, the syntax of this phrase is somewhat ambiguous, and there are at least two other ways it could be translated: (a) “…(will be) holy (and) will be called Son of God”, or (b) “the holy (child)…will be called Son of God”. It does seem better to read a%gion (as a substantive adjective) and ui(o\$ qeou= as parallel predicates which are generally apposite. As a whole, verse 35 refers to both the conception and birth of the child:

Conception (v. 35a)—with two phrases:

There is a strong poetic quality to the angel’s words and the phrases clearly are in synonymous parallelism: “Holy Spirit / Power of the Highest”, “come upon you / cast shade upon you”). The two-fold image or metaphor reflects both the presence and power of God.

Birth (v. 35b)—here there are likewise two phrases, which follow the general pattern of the announcement in v. 31:

“you will produce a son | and you will call his name Yeshua” (v. 31)
“the (child) coming to be born | will be called Holy, (the) Son of God” (v. 35)

    • “the (child) coming to be (born)” (to\ gennw/menon)—in a few MSS (C* Q f1 33), versional witnesses, and in several Church Fathers, the reading is “the (child) coming to be (born) out of you [e)k sou]”; if the addition was intentional, the purpose may have been to emphasize the full reality of Jesus’ human birth, i.e. that he genuinely partook from Mary’s flesh (contrary to the view of certain “Gnostics”)—for more on this possibility, cf. B. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford:1993), p. 139. The fundamental meaning of genna/w, like the cognate verb gi/nomai, is “come to be, become”, though often with the specific denotation of coming to be born. Subsequent notes will provide further exploration of the use of this verb in the New Testament.
    • “will be called Holy, (the) Son of God” (a%gion klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou=)—assuming that this is the correct way to render the syntax of this verse (cf. above), there are two names or titles given to Jesus:
      a%gion (“Holy [One]”), a neuter substantive; Jesus is not often referred to specifically as “holy” (a%gio$) in the New Testament, but there are several key passages where it is used as a substantive appellation (Luke 4:34 par; Jn 6:69; Acts 3:14 [cf. also 4:27, 30]; Rev 3:7). In Luke 1:49, it is used specifically as a name/title of God the Father (YHWH); cf. also Rev 4:8; 6:10.
      ui(o\$ qeou= (“Son of God”), used frequently of Jesus, in various forms, sometimes in the unqualified/absolute form “(the) Son” ([o(] ui(o/$). In the Gospel of John, Jesus often identifies himself as “the Son”, though, throughout the Gospels, the specific title “Son of God” is almost never spoken by Jesus (cf. Jn 5:25 and note Lk 22:70 par), the title “Son of Man” being far more common.

In conclusion, one ought to mention the extraordinary correspondence of several key elements from the annunciation which are found, together, in a text from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls)—4Q246, sometimes referred to as the Aramaic “Son of God” text. The four key phrases in 1:32, 35 are indicated and compared side by side with 4Q246:

aura lu hwhl br[ ] “[he will be] great upon the earth” (I.7)
rmaty la yd hlb “Son of God he will be hailed” (II.1)
hnwrqy /wylu rbw “and Son of the Highest he will be called”
<lu twklm htwklm “his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom” (II.5)
ou!to$ e&stai me/ga$ “this (one) will be great” (Luke 1:32)
klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou= “he will be called | Son of God”
kai\ ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai “and Son of the Highest he will be called” (1:35)
kai\ th=$ basilei/a$ au)tou= ou)k e&stai te/lo$ “and of his kingdom there will not be an end” (1:33)

For more on this remarkable text, see the “Dead Sea Scrolls Spotlight” article.

In exactly what sense should we understand the expression “Son of God” as applied to Jesus in this passage? Based on both the Jewish background, parallels with the Matthean Infancy narrative, and the immediate context in Luke, the primary significance is Messianic—that is, based on the idea that the anointed king is God’s “son” (cf. Psalm 2:7), in a figurative or symbolic sense. This takes on sharper meaning in a developed Messianic interpretation, such as we see the Gospels of Matthew and Luke c.70 A.D., since the Anointed figures, who are to appear at the end-time, are God’s divinely appointed emissaries, who represent God Himself in a more concrete sense. Beyond this, the Lukan use of the title “Son of God” has an even deeper significance, based on two key factors that are present in the passage:

    • The application of the title “Lord” (ku/rio$) to Jesus, part of a dual-use of the word by early Christians—using it equally, and often interchangeably, for both God the Father (YHWH) and Jesus.
    • The presence of the Spirit of God in relation to Jesus’ conception. The wording and imagery in the Lukan annunciation (v. 35, cf. above) goes beyond the basic idea of a supernatural (virginal) conception, and even beyond the declaration regarding the Holy Spirit in Matt 1:18, 20; it alludes to the manifest presence of God (YHWH) Himself, as expressed in Old Testament tradition.

In my view there is no clear evidence for a belief in the divine pre-existence of Jesus in Luke-Acts; however, the factors mentioned above shows the Lukan form of the Gospel Tradition as pointing in that direction. It finds full-fledged expression in the Johannine Gospel, as well as at several other points in the later writings of the New Testament. This we will explore in the next daily note.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, Anchor Bible [AB] Volume 28 [1981].

December 30: Matthew 2:15

In the previous note, we explored the development of early Christian thought regarding Jesus—how an awareness of his identity as the Son of God was extended back to his birth as a human being, covering the entire period of his earthly life. Paul alludes to Jesus’ birth several times in his letters (Galatians 4:4 and Rom 1:3-4, cf. also Rom 8:3), but otherwise there is almost no mention of it elsewhere in the New Testament (cf. Rev 12:2-5), with the notable exception of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In their written form, these narratives are considerably later, it would seem, than the Pauline references, and they also show indication of being the product of a period of development—that is, the historical traditions surrounding Jesus’ birth were developed and shaped over a number of years.

The Matthean and Lukan narratives are quite different, and yet they clearly share a common historical tradition, with at least three main components: (1) the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, (2) a supernatural (virginal) conception involving the Holy Spirit, and (3) an Angelic announcement of the coming birth to the parents (Joseph/Mary). Otherwise, however, the specific historical and literary details are thoroughly different; indeed, most of the information and detail in Matthew is not found in Luke at all (or is divergent), and vice versa.

One thing the two narratives share relates to the way that the early Christian view of Jesus has been encapsulated and expressed within the context of his birth. This includes three key elements involving Jesus’ identity and (divine) origin—viz., his identity as: (1) the Anointed One (Messiah), according to the Davidic Ruler figure-type; (2) the Savior, i.e. one who will save his people; and (3) the Son of God. The first two are primary (and most prominent) in the Infancy narratives:

Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is less clearly expressed, being found in just two locations, one in each Gospel: (a) the citation of Hosea 11:1 in Matt 2:15, and (b) the Angelic declaration to Mary in Luke 1:32, 35. Let us consider each of these briefly; today’s note will focus on the first (Matt 2:15).

Matthew 2:15

(This section largely reproduces an earlier Christmas-season article; cf. also the discussion in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.)

The citation of Hos 11:1b punctuates the flight into Egypt (vv. 14-15a), following the angelic appearance in a dream to Joseph, warning him (v. 13). The citation-formula follows in verse 15b:

“…(so) that it might be (ful)filled, the (thing) uttered by (the) Lord through the Foreteller [i.e. Prophet], saying ‘Out of Egypt I called my Son'”

The Gospel writer cites Hos 11:1b in a form closer to the Aquila version rather than the Septuagint (LXX), and is generally an accurate rendering of the Hebrew:

Hos 11:1b

yn]b=l! yt!ar*q* <y]r^x=M!m!W
“and from Egypt I called ‘My Son'”

Matt 2:15b

e)c Ai)gu/ptou e)ka/lesa to\n ui(o/n mou
“out of Egypt I called my Son”

The Hebrew verb ar*q*, like the Greek kale/w, can mean “call” either in the sense of summoning a person or giving a name to someone; it is possible that both meanings of arq are played on in Hosea 11:1, as I indicate above with the use of quote marks.

In considering the expression “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=), as well as the plural “Sons of God” (ui(oi\ qeou=), in the New Testament, early Christians appear to have drawn upon the three primary ways it is used in the Old Testament and ancient tradition:

    1. Of divine/heavenly beings, especially in the plural (“Sons of God”)
    2. Of the king as God’s “son” in a symbolic or ritual sense
    3. Of the people of Israel (collectively) as God’s “son”

The focus here is on the third of these—Israel as the “son of God”. There are several passages in the Old Testament where Israel is referred to (collectively) as God’s son, most notably in Exod 4:22, but see also Isa 1:2f; 30:1, 9; Jer 31:9; Mal 1:6, and here in Hos 11:1. Admittedly the title “son of God” does not appear in the Hebrew Old Testament in such a context, but the Greek ui(o\$ qeou= is used of Israel in the deutero-canonical Book of Wisdom (Wis 18:13, for more on this passage cf. below). Interestingly, the Prophetic references above draw upon a basic thematic construct:

    • Israel as a disobedient son
      • Disobedience brings punishment (i.e. exile)
        • God ultimately will restore his son, bringing him (repentant/obedient) back out of exile

This is very much the context of Hos 11. A number of the oracles in Hosea are messages of judgment couched in brief and evocative summaries of Israelite history, such as we see in chapter 11:

    • Israel/Ephraim as a disobedient child (vv. 1-4), with disobedience understood primarily in terms of idolatry, involving elements of pagan Canaanite religion
    • Disobedience leads to punishment (vv. 5-7), understood as a return to “Egypt”, i.e. conquest and exile into Assyria
    • (verses 8-9, in colorful anthropomorphic terms, depict God as being torn between whether or not to proceed with the judgment)
    • God ultimately will bring his son back out of exile (vv. 10-11)

All of this, of course, is foreign to the Gospel writer’s use of the passage, except in terms of the general framework of Exodus and Return from Exile. Certainly, he would not have seen Jesus as a disobedient son, though he likely does have in mind a connection with Jesus (as Savior) and the sin of disobedient Israel (Matt 1:21, and cf. below). It would seem that the author (and/or the tradition he has inherited) really only has first verse of Hosea 11 in view, taking it more or less out of context and applying it to Jesus. There are four elements in the verse which might lead to it being used this way:

    • Israel as a child—Jesus is a child (infant)
    • The context of the Exodus narrative, especially the birth and rescue of Moses (Exod 1:15-2:10), for which there is a clear historical/literary correspondence and synchronicity with Matt 2:13-23
    • The mention of Egypt—coming out of “Egypt” is symbolic of both the Exodus and a Return from exile (in Assyria); note the exile context of Jer 31:15 as well—these themes have been applied in Matt 2:13-23 and influenced the shaping of the narrative
    • Israel as God’s son (“My Son”)

It is also possible that the birth of Israel (as God’s people, i.e. his “son”) is implied in Hos 11:1b. If we consider v. 1a as a kind of setting for the oracle—literally, “For Israel (was) a youth [ru^n~] and I loved him”, however the force of the syntax is best understood as a temporal clause: “When Israel was a youth/child, I loved him…” The context of vv. 2-4, as in Isa 1:2ff; 30:1, 9, suggests a child being raised (by God), who comes to be disobedient, unwilling to heed the guidance and authority of his Father. If so, then v. 1b could indicate the initial stages of life, i.e. the birth and naming of the child, in a metaphorical sense. Israel was “born” in Egypt (cf. Exod 4:22 and the death of the firstborn motif), passing through the waters (i.e. crossing the Sea), into life (the Exodus), being “raised” during the wilderness period and thereafter. It is in just such a context that God calls Israel “My Son”. Consider, in this regard, the naming associated with the conception/birth of Jesus in the angel’s announcement to Mary (to be discussed in the next note):

    • “he will be called ‘Son of the Highest’ [ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai]” (Lk 1:32)
    • “(the child)…will be called…’Son of God’ [klhqh/setai ui(o\$ qeou=]” (Lk 1:35)
    • “I called (him) ‘My Son’ [yn]b=l! yt!ar*q* e)ka/lesa to\n ui(o/n mou]” (Hos 11:1 / Matt 2:15)

There is an interesting connection here with the reference to Israel as “Son of God” (ui(o\$ qeou=) in Wisdom 18:13, mentioned above. There, too, the setting is the Exodus, and specifically the death of the firstborn motif—beginning with the rescue of Moses (v. 5a), which is set in parallel with the tenth plague, involving the Passover celebration and the death of the Egyptian firstborn, which directly precedes and initiates the Exodus (cf. Exod 11-12). This is narrated in Wisdom 18:5b-12, after which we find the statement in verse 13b:

“upon the destruction of their first(born) offspring, as one [i.e. together] they counted (your) people to be (the) son of God”

The death of the firstborn is narrated again, even more powerfully, in vv. 14-19. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, verses 14-15 came to be associated with the incarnation and birth of Jesus, the Latin (Vulgate) rendering of Wis 18:14f becoming part of the Roman Catholic liturgy (Introit for the Sunday in the Octave of Christmas). On the one hand, this may be the ultimate example of Christians taking a Scriptural passage out of context, since, originally these verses referred to the coming of the (Messenger of) Death out of heaven (cf. Exod 11:4; 12:29). In the Exodus narrative, it is YHWH himself who comes bringing death, traditionally understood as taking place through a Messenger (“Angel”) of Death. In Wis 18:14-15, it is the personified “Word” (lo/go$) of God that comes out of heaven, and this is certainly the main reason for its application to the person of Christ. The highly evocative midnight setting was doubtless what caused it to be associated specifically with the night-time birth of Jesus. More properly, of course, Wisdom 18:5-19 would be better applied to the episode narrated in Matt 2:13-23—the “Slaughter of the Innocents”—but only insofar as both passages deal with the “death of the firstborn” motif from Exodus. In any event, it is striking that there are three different passages which combine: (a) the Exodus setting, (b) the death of the firstborn motif, and (c) Israel as “son of God”—Exodus 4:22; Wisdom 18:13; and Hosea 11:1 (as used by Matthew).

Thus, it would seem, that the reference to Jesus as God’s Son in Matt 2:15 is to be understood primarily in terms of the idea of Jesus as the Savior of his people (Israel). The major narrative themes in the Matthean Infancy narrative all point in this direction—the Angelic pronouncement of Jesus’ role as Savior (in the context of the Isa 7:14 citation), the parallel with Moses as Israel’s deliverer, and the context of Hosea 11:1 itself, with its emphasis on the sin/disobedience and restoration of Israel. In the Lukan Infancy narrative, by contrast, we find the declaration of Jesus as “Son of God” in a way that corresponds more closely with the early Christian use of the title. It is this that we will examine in the next daily note (on Luke 1:32, 35).

December 29: Galatians 4:4

Jesus as the Son of God: His Human Birth

In the previous notes, we saw how the earliest Christian belief in Jesus as the Son of God was related directly to his resurrection (and exaltation to heaven), as the moment when he was “born” as God’s Son (cf. Acts 13:33, citing Psalm 2:7; cp. Heb 5:5). With the development of the early Gospel tradition, Christians were able to give expression to the growing awareness that Jesus must have been God’s Son even before the resurrection—that is, all during the period of his earthly ministry, beginning with his baptism (Mk 1:11; Lk 3:22 par, again drawing upon Psalm 2:7). It followed naturally that this belief would be extended to the entire period of Jesus’ earthly life, beginning with his physical/biological birth as a human being. The tradition of the supernatural (virginal) conception, recorded clearly enough in the Matthean and Lukan Infancy Narratives (Matt 1-2, Luke 1-2), effectively testifies to Jesus’ character as the Son of God. The Infancy narratives, while drawing on earlier historical traditions, etc, were almost certainly the last portion of the Gospel narrative to be developed. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the birth of Jesus is scarcely mentioned at all anywhere else in the New Testament. There are two allusions in Paul’s letters, both of which are earlier in time than the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (and their Infancy narratives).

Galatians 4:4

The clearest Pauline reference is in Galatians 4:4:

“…but when the fullness of time came, God set (forth) out from (Himself) [i.e. sent out] His Son, coming to be out of a woman, coming to be under (the) Law”

The key phrase in italics is geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$, “coming to be out of a woman”; it is similar to the phrase in Rom 1:3 (cf. the prior note on v. 4):

“…the (one) coming to be out of (the) seed of David according to (the) flesh”

The participial phrase “coming to be out of the seed of David” is generally equivalent with “coming to be out of a woman”. In some manuscripts (and ancient versions) of both passages, it is the participle gennw/menon (from genna/w) instead of geno/menon (from gi/nomai). The verbs gi/nomai and genna/w are related, and both essentially mean “come to be, become”; each can also mean specifically “come to be born“, but this is more commonly denoted by genna/w rather than gi/nomai. The participle gennw/menon thus may be intended to make more clear that it is the birth of Jesus (a real human birth) that is being referenced.

Both in Rom 1:3 and here in Gal 4:4, Paul’s wording suggests that Jesus was God’s Son prior to his birth. Even if Rom 1:3-4 represents an older Christological formula adopted by Paul (as many commentators think), the opening words of v. 3, leading into the formula, likely are Paul’s own: “about His Son…”. In Galatians 4:4, the theological orientation is more clearly expressed: “God sent out His Son…”; a more literal rendering of the verb e)cape/steilen would be “set (forth) out from”, i.e. out from Himself, or out from where He is. At the very least, this suggests a heavenly origin for Jesus as God’s Son, much as we see in the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2:6-11. The same sort of wording occurs in Romans 8:3:

“For the (thing that it was) without power for the Law (to do), in which it was without strength through the flesh, God (did by) sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and, about [i.e. regarding] sin, He brought down judgment on sin in the flesh.”

A different verb is used—the more common pe/mpw (“send”)—but the idea is essentially the same: God sent His Son to be born as a human being. If we combine the key phrasing of Rom 1:3, Gal 4:4, and Rom 8:3 together, it results in a snapshot of Pauline theology (and Christology):

    • “coming to be out of the seed of David” (Rom 1:3)—Jesus as the Messiah
    • “coming to be out of a woman” (Gal 4:4)—the human birth of Jesus
    • “coming to be under the Law” (Gal 4:4)—joining with humankind under bondage to the Law
    • “…in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom 8:3)—sharing in humankind’s bondage under the power of sin

The last point is potentially problematic for orthodox Christology; Paul was no doubt aware of this (in his own way), and he states he matter carefully (compare with 2 Cor 5:21). His emphasis is not on Jesus’ relation to sin as a human being, but on the fact that, as a result of his life and work on earth (as a human being), the ruling power of sin in the flesh is condemned. The verb katakri/nw literally means “bring down judgment” or “judge against”, a legal term indicating the passing of a sentence against crime, etc, including the idea of punishment and of rendering a person unable to pursue evil. The influence of sin in the “flesh” is not entirely removed for human beings (believers), but its ruling power is ended.

Galatians 4:4ff and Romans 8:3ff also share the important theme that Jesus’ Sonship, and his saving work as a human being, is the basis for the sonship of believers—our own identity as sons/children of God. In particular, Rom 8:12-17 is very close in thought to Gal 4:4-7; this will be touched on further in an upcoming note in this Christmas series.

The many similarities in subject matter and thought, between Galatians and Romans, suggests that they were written at roughly the same time, perhaps no more than a few years apart—according to the best estimates, during a period c. 54-58 A.D. Indeed, these allusions to Jesus’ birth would seem to derive from an earlier time than that of the Infancy narratives (c. 70-80?). To judge from the surviving material, there was little interest in the details of Jesus’ birth in the earliest period (c. 30-60 A.D.); indeed, his human birth and childhood does not appear to have been part of the early Gospel preaching at all (compared with his baptism, ministry, death and resurrection). This is also confirmed by the way the Gospel narratives themselves developed, with no Infancy narrative in either the core Synoptic Tradition (as represented by Mark) or the Johannine.

Eventually, however, historical and literary traditions regarding Jesus’ birth were included as part of the Gospel. By at least 80 A.D. (if not earlier) the Matthean and Lukan Infancy narratives had been composed. The major differences between these narratives, along with the fact that they share certain core (historical) traditions, suggests that a period of development in the tradition was involved, spanning a number of years (c. 50-70 A.D.?). It is also worth noting that nearly all of the themes from the earlier Gospel tradition are present, in some form, in the Infancy narratives, including the fundamental belief in Jesus as the Son of God. It is important to consider how this is expressed in the Matthean and Lukan narratives; this we will do in the next daily note.

Birth of the Messiah: Exodus 2:1-10

Moses’ Birth in Exodus 2:1-10:
A Pattern for the Birth of the Messiah

This is the first in a series of articles to run between Christmas and Epiphany. Each article will explore Scripture passages and traditions related to the Birth of the Messiah. As such, it is not a study of the birth of Jesus, except insofar as his birth is connected with Messianic traditions, and, in particular, traditions regarding the Messiah’s birth. It should be admitted from the outset that this study is made difficult by two factors: (1) the paucity of references to the Messiah’s birth, especially of traditions which may be plausibly dated as early as the first centuries B.C./A.D., and (2) the fact that there were a number of different Messianic figure-types in Judaism at the time. I have discussed the second point at length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. In addition to the more commonly recognized Davidic ruler figure-type, there were several Anointed Prophet types, Messianic Priest-figures, and Heavenly-deliverer types, all attested variously in the writings of the period. Different traditions may be associated with each of these figure-types.

We begin with what could be considered the earliest Scriptural tradition related to the birth of the Messiah: the birth of Moses, as narrated in Exodus 2:1-10. The Messianic aspect of this narrative may not be immediately apparent; it can be established, at least for early Christians, on the basis of two pieces of evidence: (1) the association of Jesus with Moses in early tradition, and (2) the fact that the Matthean Infancy narrative was influenced by the Moses narratives in the early chapters of Exodus.

These two areas of study will structure this article; here is the outline I follow:

    • Jesus and Moses: The Messianic Prophet to Come
    • Similarities between the (Matthean) Infancy Narrative and Moses Narratives
    • Parallels with contemporary Jewish versions of the Exodus tradition
    • Exodus 2:1-10 and the Archetypal Narrative

Jesus and Moses: The Prophet to Come

As I have already dealt with this subject extensively in Parts 2 and 3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, I will here summarize the results of that study with the following discussion. Christians are not accustomed to thinking of Jesus as a Prophet, but in the Gospel tradition—at least in terms of his time of ministry (prior to the final journey to Jerusalem)—this is the ‘Messianic’ designation that best applies to him. In the Synoptic narrative, which divides neatly between Jesus’ ministry [in Galilee and the surrounding regions] (Mark 1-9 par) and the time in Jerusalem (Mark 11-16 par), there are virtually no references to Jesus as a Davidic ruler or ‘Messianic’ king (cf. Matt 9:27) during the period of ministry. Even references to “the Anointed One” [o( xristo/$] are quite rare, and almost non-existent prior to Peter’s confession (“you are the Anointed One…”, Mk 8:29 par). There are considerably more references to Jesus as “the Anointed One” in the Gospel of John (Jn 1:41; 3:28; 4:25, 29; 7:26-27, 31, 41-42; 10:24; 11:27), but, apart from the explicit identification in Jn 7:42, it is by no means clear that “Anointed One” in these passages always refers to a ‘Messiah’ of the Davidic-ruler type. There is actually better evidence for Jesus as a Messianic Prophet, though it takes a bit of detective work to see the extent of this:

It should be noted that the idea of Jesus as a Prophet is entirely based on early Gospel tradition, and is really only found in the Gospel narratives themselves. Apart from Acts 3:18-24 (cf. also 7:37), it does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament, and is virtually non-existent in early Christian doctrine and theology as well. All of this is strong evidence for the historical veracity of the Gospel references, on entirely objective grounds—the identification of Jesus as a Prophet is not something the early Church would have invented.

The specific identification of Jesus with Moses—that is, an Anointed Prophet according to the type of Moses—is derived from the tradition that a “Prophet like Moses” will appear (at the end-time), who will instruct the faithful just as Moses did. This tradition clearly comes from Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (cf. also Deut 34:10-12).

In the Old Testament, especially in Deuteronomic tradition, Moses is viewed as a Prophet—indeed as the ideal and greatest Prophet (Deut 34:10-12). In Deuteronomy 18:15ff we find the famous prediction that another Prophet will (eventually) arise who is like Moses and who will take his place. In the same manner, Elisha took the place of Elijah, being anointed by his predecessor (1 Kings 19:16) and possessing his spirit and character (2 Kings 2:9, 15). Eventually, this prediction was given a future, eschatological interpretation—at the end-time, a Prophet-like-Moses would arise to instruct the faithful of Israel. This expectation probably underlies the notice in 1 Maccabees 14:41 (“…until a trustworthy Prophet should arise”), as well as the reference to “the unique Prophet” in Testament of Benjamin 9:2. In the Qumran texts, Moses was clearly regarded as a Prophet, as in the “Apocryphon of Moses/Pentateuch” writings—cf. especially 4Q375 column 1 (in line 7 the phrase “trustworthy prophet” appears); in 4Q377 column 2, line 5, Moses is referred to as God’s “Anointed (One)” [jyvm]. Deut 18:18-19 is cited in 4QTestimonia [4Q175] lines 5-8, in what is likely an eschatological/Messianic context. The expected Prophet of 1QS 9:11 (“…until the coming of the Prophet and the Anointed [Ones] of Aaron and Israel”) presumably draws upon this Moses tradition as well.

The same may be said of passages in the New Testament which contain a reference to “the Prophet” (Jn 1:21, 25; 6:14; 7:40; Luke 7:16, 36 v.l. etc); in Jn 1:21-25, “the Prophet” seems to be understood as a separate figure from “Elijah”, possibly an indication that the Moses-tradition is involved. John the Baptist explicitly denies being “the Prophet” (Jn 1:21), but that Jesus was thought to be so by people on numerous occasions is indicated by several of the references above. In Acts 3:18-24 (sermon-speech of Peter), Jesus is identified specifically with the coming “Prophet like Moses” of Deut 18:15ff (cf. also Acts 7:37). Within early Christian tradition, Jesus is identified or associated with Moses in a number of ways:

    • Parallels with the birth of Moses (and the Exodus) in the Matthean Infancy narrative (Matt 2:1-21, cf. below)
    • Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness (Matt 4:2 par) just as Moses was on Sinai for 40 days (Exod 24:18); in the arrangement of Matthew’s narrative, Jesus likewise returns to deliver/expound the Law/Torah (Matt 5:17ff)
    • The association with Moses in the Transfiguration scene (on this, cf. below)
    • In various ways, Jesus’ words and actions followed the type/pattern of Moses:
      • Cf. the detailed summary of Moses’ life in Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:17-44) and its parallel to Jesus (7:45-53)—cp. “this Moses” (7:35, 37, 40) with the frequent use of “this Jesus” in Acts (1:11; 2:23, 32, 36; 4:11; 6:14 etc)
      • Moses and the ‘bronze serpent’ as a pattern of Jesus’ death (and exaltation), Jn 3:14
      • Moses and the manna (Jesus as the “bread from heaven”), Jn 6:32ff
      • Moses and the rock in the wilderness (Christ as the rock), 1 Cor 10:2-5

Elsewhere in the New Testament, we also find a juxtaposition contrasting Jesus and Moses—e.g., John 1:17; 5:45-46 (cf. Lk 16:29-31); 9:28-29; 2 Cor 3:13ff; Heb 3:2-5. Interestingly, these points of contrast are still based on a similarity between Jesus and Moses, the emphasis being on Jesus’ superiority or on how he fulfills/completes the “Old Covenant” represented by Moses.

Finally, in the Transfiguration episode in the Synoptic Gospels (also mentioned in 2 Peter 1:16-18)—Jesus is associated directly (and at the same time) with both Moses and Elijah. It is customary and popular for Christians to interpret Moses and Elijah here as representing “the Law and the Prophets”—that is, Jesus as the fulfillment of Scripture. However, this does not seem to be correct. For one thing, Elijah is not an especially appropriate figure to represent the written books of the Prophets, since he apparently wrote nothing, and did not utter any ‘Messianic’ prophecies that might be fulfilled by Jesus. At the same time, Moses, in addition to his connection with the Law (Torah), was viewed as perhaps the greatest of Prophets (cf. above)—indeed, Moses and Elijah together represent: (a) the two great Prophet figures of Israel’s history, and (b) each served as the type of a end-time Prophet-to-Come. Secondarily, perhaps, one might note that Moses and Elijah each experienced a special manifestation of God (theophany) on Mt. Sinai/Horeb, and that there are clear echoes and allusions to the Sinai theophany in the Gospel narrative of the Transfiguration (esp. in Luke’s version).

The Matthean Infancy Narrative and the Moses Narratives

There are clear similarities between the Matthean Infancy narrative (chaps. 1-2) and the Moses narratives in the early chapters of Exodus (1-4), as can be seen even by a casual reading and comparison of the two. Whatever this may say about the historicity of the events recorded in the Gospel narrative, there can be little doubt that the Exodus traditions have shaped the literary narrative in Matthew. One must be careful not to confuse or confound the historical and literary aspects of any Scripture passage. And, from a literary standpoint, there is every reason to think that the Gospel writer has consciously shaped his narrative in light of the earlier story of Moses birth, etc. The similarities between Exodus and the Infancy narratives are:

    • Pharaoh and the people of Egypt come to fear Israel and the threat it poses; Moses is among the many children being born to the Israelites (Exod 1:9-12)
      Herod and the people of Jerusalem were frightened at the prophetic news of the Messiah’s birth (Matt 2:2)
    • The king’s plan to thwart their strength by putting the male infants to death when they are born (Exod 1:15-16ff, 22)
      Herod’s attempt to thwart the Messiah by putting the male infants to death (Matt 2:8, 13ff, 16-20)
    • Moses is born of a Levite woman (Exod 2:1)
      While not specified in Matthew, the Lukan narrative suggests Mary is also from the line of Levi (Lk 1:5, 36)
    • Reference to the conception and birth by the woman (Exod 2:2; Matt 1:20, 25)
    • Saving the child from being put to death by the wicked king (Exod 2:2b-3ff; Matt 2:13-15ff)
    • Moses’ flight and return, par. to that of Jesus and his parents (Exod 2:15, 23; 4:19-20; Matt 2:14-15, 19-20ff)

Perhaps the clearest example of literary dependence on the Moses narratives is how closely the wording in Matt 2:20 resembles that of Exod 4:19 LXX:

“And after those many days, the king of Egypt completed (his life) [i.e. died], and the Lord said toward Moshe in Midian, ‘You must walk (and) go (away) from (here) into Egypt, for all the (one)s seeking your soul have died‘. And Moshe took up his wife and the children…” (Exod 4:19-20)
“And (with) Herod (hav)ing completed (his life) [i.e. died], see! a Messenger of the Lord appeared by a dream to Yosef in Egypt, saying, ‘Rising…you must travel into the land of Yisrael, for all the (one)s seeking the soul of the child have died. And, rising, he took along the child and his mother…” (Matt 2:19-21)

The italicized words above are nearly identical:

teqnh/kasin ga\r pa/nte$ oi( zhtou=nte/$ sou th\n yuxh/n
“for all the (one)s seeking your soul have died”
teqnh/kasin ga\r pa/nte$ oi( zhtou=nte$ th\n yuxh/n tou= paidi/ou
“for all the (one)s seeking the soul of the child have died”

Moreover, in both narratives we have the common location of Egypt—traveling into and out of the land, though in different directions.

Contemporary Versions of the Exodus Tradition

The similarities between the Matthean Infancy narrative and the Moses story are even closer when one considers the developed Jewish versions of the story that would have been in circulation around the time that the Gospel of Matthew was written. Two versions, in particular may be noted—those found in the Antiquities of Josephus, and the Biblical Antiquites of Pseudo-Philo—both likely composed c. 70 A.D., roughly the same time as Matthew’s Gospel.

Josephus’ Antiquities

The portion in the Antiquities corresponding to Exod 2:1-10 is book 2 sections 205-237. A considerable amount of legendary material has been added to the Scriptural narrative, most of which is likely traditional, rather than being simply the invention of Josephus. Here are the most noteworthy details, in relation to the Matthean Infancy narrative (cf. also Brown, pp. 114-6):

    • A prophecy of Moses’ birth, forewarning that a Deliverer of the people Israel would be born; in particular, it was the king’s sacred scribes that made this known to Pharaoh (2.205, 234-5)
    • In a subsequent development to the tradition, those who advise Pharaoh are specifically designated as Magi-astrologers—Babylonian Talmud, b. Sotah 12b, Sanhedrin 101a; Exodus Rabbah 1.18 (on Exod 1:22); cf. also Philo Life of Moses I.92.
    • Pharaoh’s alarm at this news (2.206, 215)
    • God appears to Amram, the child’s father, in a dream, warning him (2.212, 215-6)
    • Note also the reference to Moses’ growth (2.230-1) which resembles, in some of its basic thought and vocabulary, the notice in Luke 2:47, 52.
Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities

The expanded version of Old Testament/Israelite history in Pseudo-Philo likewise contains much additional information and legendary detail. The portion corresponding to Exod 2:1-10 is in chapter 9. The parallels with the Gospel Infancy narratives are:

    • Emphasis on Amram (the father)’s prophetic foresight and action (9:3ff)
    • God’s declaration of the special status of Moses as His servant (9:7-8), suggestive of a Messianic character
    • There is an Angelic appearance to Miriam similar to the Lukan annunciation to Mary (9:9-10; cp. Lk 1:26-38); it also involves the Spirit of God coming upon her; “Miriam” and “Mary”, of course, are essentially the same name (Grk Maria/m)
    • The Angel’s announcement includes a declaration of Moses as one who will save his people (9:10, cp. Matt 1:21); also, the statement that he will have a position of “leadership always” may remind one of Lk 1:32-33

The Archetypal Narrative

Beyond the specifics of the Scriptural narrative itself, the Moses traditions follow an archetypal story-pattern which would naturally apply to the Messianic figure-types. It may be referred to as the “abandoned hero” motif. There are many stories worldwide involving a chosen (and/or divine) hero who, upon his birth, was threatened by an authority figure who attempted to kill the child, or, under similar circumstances, the infant was left helpless amid the forces of nature (e.g., on a mountain top, in a river, etc). In most versions of these stories, the ‘abandoned’ child was rescued and reared/adopted by good or noble parents.

For western readers, perhaps the best known versions are the Greek hero-myths surrounding figures such as Hercules, Perseus, and Oedipus. A bit closer in detail to the Moses narrative is the Roman tale of Romulus and Remus, legendary founders of the city of Rome. After being thrown into the river Tiber by a wicked usurper to the kingship, the twin babes washed ashore, eventually to be discovered by the royal herdsman who raised them as his own. From far-off India, similar colorful tales surround the deity-hero Krishna. It was prophesied to the wicked ruler Kansa that he would be slain by a child born from his female relative (Devaki); as a result of attempts to kill both the mother and all her children, the infant Krishna ended up being raised by the herdsman Nanda and his wife.

Most Old Testament scholars (and many students) are aware of the birth legend of Sargon, famous king of Akkad and founder of the early Akkadian dynasty (c. 2300 B.C.) in Mesopotamia. It is presented as an autobiography, but the text as we have it likely does not come from Sargon himself. It is preserved in much later documents, four tablets from the Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian imperial periods; the lack of evidence makes it very difficult to determine how old the underlying traditions might be. It is a Semitic tale, sharing certain key details with the Moses birth narrative in Exod 2:1-10. The portion dealing with Sargon’s origin and birth is in lines 1-11 (of tablet K.3401); I give the translation here, from Joan Goodnick Westenholz, Legends of the Kings of Akkade (Eisenbrauns: 1997), pp. 38-41:

“Sargon, the mighty king, king of Akkade, am I.
My mother was an en-priestess(?), my father I never knew.
My father’s brother inhabits the highlands.
My city is Azupiranu, which lies on the banks of the Euphrates.
She conceived me, my en-priestess mother, in concealment she gave me birth,
She set me in a wicker basket, with bitumen she made by opening water-tight,
She cast me down into the river from which I could not ascend.
The river bore me, to Aqqi the water-drawer it brought me.
Aqqi the water-drawer, when lowering his bucket, did lift me up,
Aqqi the water-drawer did raise me as his adopted son,
……”

The close similarity with the details in Exod 2:2-3ff hardly requires comment.

It is not entirely clear why the infant Sargon is hidden away and then put into the river in a basket. Perhaps it has to do with his apparently illegitimate birth; while this detail is foreign to the Moses narrative, it has an interesting sort of parallel with the story of Jesus’ birth. The notice in Matthew 1:19 alludes to the irregular character of Jesus’ birth, and the tension/conflict it would have produced in Israelite society. There may have been rumors of illegitimacy surrounding his birth; while there is little or no mention of them in the New Testament itself, they seem to have been preserved, to some extent, in Jewish tradition (for example, b. Sabbath 104b, Sanhedrin 67a; t. Hullin 2.22-23; j. Aboda Zara 40d, Sabbath 14d; cf. Brown, p. 536), and Christians felt it necessary to address them on occasion (e.g., Origen Against Celsus 1.28, 32, 69; Tertullian De Spectaculis 30:6).

Another story worth mentioning is told of Cyrus, founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. His grandfather king Astyages of the Medes was warned via dreams that his grandson Cyrus would eventually take over his throne. The wicked king thus sought to have the child put to death, ultimately to be abandoned on a mountain and left to die; however, the herdsman Mithradates rescued the infant , taking it home to raise as his own son. Cf. Sarna, p. 267.

Since Jesus, in the Matthean Infancy narrative, is always with his parents, there is no abandonment-motif; however, the motif of the wicked tyrant who wishes to kill the chosen/prophesied child is very much present—at least that much of the archetypal story-pattern applies to the birth of Jesus. To avoid misunderstanding, I feel it necessary to repeat here that the fulfillment of an archetypal pattern, in and of itself, says nothing about the historical reliability of the Gospel narrative; it merely indicates that the historical tradition has been shaped by the story pattern. The critical point is literary, not historical.

Conclusion

There are thus three primary factors which indicate that the Gospel Infancy narrative (esp. the Matthean narrative) is specifically meant to record the Birth of the Messiah, and that the Moses birth-narrative influenced how this story was told. Beyond any instance of historical verisimilitude, we can be sure of this literary influence because of these three factors:

    • The Messianic association between Jesus and Moses in the Gospel (and early Christian) tradition
    • The many clear parallels between the Matthean narrative and Exodus 2:1-10, as well as developed forms of the Moses story in contemporary Jewish tradition—these later versions bring the Moses birth story into closer alignment with Messianic tradition and the archetypal hero-myth pattern
    • The archetypal story-pattern of the threatened/abandoned hero is fitting for the Messiah, especially for the Davidic ruler and Heavenly deliverer figure-types; the Moses narrative happens to be the most immediate (and relevant) example from Old Testament and Jewish tradition

Interestingly, while there is a clear parallel between Jesus and Moses in the Matthean Infancy narrative, the emphasis is not on Jesus as an Anointed Prophet (cp. John the Baptist in the Lukan narrative), nor even on the Prophet-to-Come like Moses. Instead, the Scriptures cited (Isa 7:14 and Micah 5:2 / 2 Samuel 5:2) clearly identify Jesus as a royal Messiah—i.e. an Anointed end-time ruler from the line of David—just as he is in the Lukan Infancy narrative. The association with Moses primarily has to do with Jesus as a savior, one who will deliver his people from bondage, even as Moses did for the Israelites in Egypt.

References above marked “Brown” are to Raymond E. Brown, 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). Those marked “Sarna” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus twm?, Commentary by Nahum Sarna (Jewish Publication Society: 1991).

Notes on Prayer: Luke 11:1-13

As we continue this survey of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, having already explored the core Synoptic traditions, as well as the passages and references unique to the Gospel of Matthew, we now turn to the Gospel of Luke. In considering the Lukan evidence, one is first struck by the emphasis given to prayer as a detail in the narrative, where it is mentioned, by the author (trad. Luke), quite apart from any specific traditions he has inherited. This will be touched on further in a future study on prayer in the book of Acts, but here it suffices to point out how this emphasis on prayer is expressed in the Gospel narrative.

First, prayer is associated with the Temple at several key points in the Infancy narrative (chaps. 1-2). The angelic appearance to Zechariah in the opening episode takes place, in the Temple sanctuary, at a time when people are praying in the precincts, coinciding with the evening (afternoon) sacrifice and the offering of incense (1:10). This is the same public “hour of prayer” which serves as the narrative setting in Acts 3:1ff. Moreover, the angel’s visitation is said to be in response to Zechariah’s own prayer to God (1:13). In a later episode, we read of the aged prophetess Anna, that she was regularly in the Temple precincts (2:37), doing service to God with fasting and prayer (de/hsi$, request, petition, supplication). These details are important in establishing the idea of the Temple as a place for worship, prayer, and teaching—rather than for cultic ritual and sacrificial offerings (see also 18:10ff). While this is part of the wider Synoptic tradition (cf. the discussion in Parts 6 and 7 of “Jesus and the Law”), it is given special emphasis in Luke-Acts, where the early believers in Jerusalem are portrayed as continuing to frequent the Temple (24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:20ff, 42; cf. also the article on “The Law in Luke-Acts”). This new, purified role and purpose for the Temple (in the New Covenant) provides a point of contact between early Christianity and the finest elements of Israelite/Jewish religion in the Old Covenant (as represented by the figures of Zechariah/Elizabeth, Joseph/Mary, and Simeon/Anna in the Infancy narratives).

Second, the Lukan Gospel provides a number of introductory/summary narrative statements which include the detail that Jesus was engaged in prayer, indicating that it was typical of his practice during the period of his ministry. The pattern of these notices, while again related to the wider Gospel tradition, is distinctively Lukan:

    • Lk 3:21—Of all the Gospel descriptions of the Baptism of Jesus (Mk 1:9-11 par), only Luke includes the detail that Jesus was praying when the Spirit descends, etc:
      “And it came to be, in the dunking of all the people, and Yeshua also being dunked and speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], and (at) the opening up of the heaven…”
    • Lk 5:16—Curiously, in 4:42f which is parallel to the Synoptic Mk 1:35ff there is no mention of Jesus praying; this detail is given separately, at 5:16, following the call of the disciples and cleansing of the Leper (par Mk 1:16-20, 40-45):
      “and he was making space (for himself) down under in the desolate places, and (was) speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying]”
    • Lk 6:12—Only Luke mentions Jesus praying on the mountain at the time of his selecting the Twelve disciples/apostles (Mk 3:13ff par):
      “And it came to be in those days, with his going out onto the mountain to speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray], he was spending (time all) through the night in th(is) speaking out toward God.”
    • Lk 9:18—Again it is only Luke who mentions Jesus in prayer prior to his question to the disciples regarding his identity (Mk 9:27ff par):
      “And it came to be, in his being down alone speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], his learners [i.e. disciples] were (there) with him and…”
    • Lk 9:28-29—Similarly, in the Transfiguration episode (Mk 9:2-8 par), Luke is alone in stating that the purpose in going up on the mountain was to pray:
      “And it came to be, as if [i.e. about] eight days after these sayings, [and] (with) his taking along (the) Rock {Peter} and Yohanan and Ya’aqob, he stepped up onto the mountain to speak out toward God [i.e. pray]. And it came to be, in his speaking out toward (God)…”
      As in the Baptism narrative, the divine manifestation (and voice) comes after Jesus has been praying.
    • Lk 11:1—The narrative introduction prior to Jesus’ teaching on prayer (cf. below).

Luke 11:1-13

The major section in the Lukan Gospel dealing with Jesus’ teaching on prayer is 11:1-13. It includes the famous Lord’s Prayer, which I discussed in detail in earlier notes in this series. I will not repeat that study here, but will make mention of place of the Lord’s Prayer in the section of the Gospel as we have it. This may be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative Introduction, with a request by the disciples (v. 1)
    • The Lord’s Prayer (vv. 2-4)
    • A Parable illustrating the need for boldness in prayer (vv. 5-8)
    • Additional sayings on prayer [Q material] (vv. 9-13)

The narrative introduction is entirely Lukan in style and vocabulary; moreover, it evinces an interest in prayer (and the background detail of Jesus engaged in prayer) that is distinct to Luke among the Synoptics (cp. the passages noted above).

Verse 1

“And it came to be, in his being in a certain place (and) speaking out toward (God) [i.e. praying], as he ceased [i.e. finished], one of his learners [i.e. disciples] said to him, ‘Lord, teach us (how) to speak out toward (God), even as Yohanan also taught his learners’.”

In spite of the Lukan syntax and specific prayer-emphasis, there is an important matrix of traditional Gospel elements here in this narrative summary:

    • Jesus in the (regular) act of prayer (see above)
    • His disciples observing him, wishing to follow his example (i.e. to pray like he does)
    • The significance of disciples following the pattern of religious behavior established by their master is emphasized by mention of John the Baptist
    • The reference to John the Baptist teaching his disciples how to pray (cf. 5:33 par) indicates the importance of (a certain manner of) prayer within Jewish tradition

This positioning of prayer within the wider Jewish (religious) tradition, is comparable to the teaching on prayer in Matthew 6:5-15 (cf. the previous study), which also contains a version of the Lord’s Prayer. While Jesus’ instruction on prayer generally continues the Jewish tradition—indeed, there is very little that is distinctively ‘Christian’ in the Lord’s Prayer, etc—he gives to it a number of different points of emphasis and interpretation. This was perhaps more clearly evident in the Matthean teachings (in the Sermon on the Mount), but it is very much at work in this Lukan passage as well.

Verses 2-4

(On the Lord’s Prayer, consult the notes, for both the Matthean and Lukan versions, previously posted as part of this Notes on Prayer series.)

Verses 5-8

This parable is unique to Luke’s Gospel (so-called “L” material). It may well have been told on a separate occasion originally, and included here by way of the thematic association (prayer); either way, in its Lukan context, it serves to illustrate further the disciples’ request on how they should pray. If the Lord’s Prayer presented the proper form and content of prayer, this parable in vv. 5-8 stresses the need for boldness in prayer, regardless of the circumstances. Several points or details in this parable are worth noting:

    • The characters involved are not strangers, but friends—people dear (fi/lo$) to each other, at least to some extent (v. 5, 8)
    • The person making the request does not do so for himself (cp. the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, v. 3), but on behalf of another friend (v. 6)
    • The request is made at an inopportune time (“the middle of the night”), otherwise there would be no problem in meeting the request; moreover, the house is locked up and everyone is in bed (v. 7)
    • Commentators question the significance of the scenario depicted in verse 7, especially the householder’s statement to his friend that “I am not able, standing up (out of bed), to give (anything) to you”; how would this relate to God the Father? The details of the parable should not be pressed so far; it functions as a qal wahomer illustration—if a human being will respond this way, how much more so will God do so for his friends!

In verse 8, Jesus brings out the point of his illustration:

“I relate to you, if he will not even give to him, standing up (to do so), through being [i.e. because he is] his dear (friend), yet through his lack of respect [a)nai/deia], rising he will give to him as (many thing)s as he needs.”

The key word is a)nai/deia, which I translated as “lack of respect”, but it could be rendered even more forcefully as “(being) without shame, shameless(ness)”. Respect for the time and situation ought to have prompted the person making the request to wait until a more appropriate time (i.e. in the morning), yet he went ahead, regardless of the situation, and woke up is friend in the middle of the night to make his request—which, one might add, was not particularly urgent. Thus, contrary to the way this parable is portrayed by many commentators, the stress is not on persistence in prayer (cp. with 18:1-8), but, rather on boldness—or, perhaps, better, that we should be willing to make our request to God without concern for the situation or what people would consider proper. This is surely to be regarded as an aspect of faith in prayer. We ought never to imagine that God is too ‘busy’ or that it might be better to wait until a more opportune moment; rather, when there is a need at hand, we should make our request boldly, at that very moment.

Verses 9-13

The sayings on prayer in these verses have their parallel in Matthew (Sermon on the Mount, 7:7-11), and thus are part of the so-called “Q” material common to both Gospels. Despite the difference in location, these sayings almost certainly stem from a single historical tradition, though, possibly, they may represent separate sayings combined (by theme) at a very early point in the collection of Gospel traditions. I tend to think that, in this particular instance, they were probably spoken together by Jesus.

The saying in vv. 9-10 corresponds with Matt 7:7-8:

“(You must) ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened up for you; for everyone asking receives, and the one seeking finds, and for the one knocking it [will be] opened up.”

The two versions are identical; the only difference being whether the final verb in Luke’s version is present (“it is opened up”) or future (“it will be opened up”, as in Matthew). The message is clear enough: God will answer those who pray to him. The three-fold idiom only emphasizing this point. God’s faithfulness in responding to prayer is further indicated through the illustration in vv. 11-12 (= Matt 7:9-10):

“And for what (one) out of you will the son ask the father (for) a fish and, in exchange for a fish, will give over a snake? or also—will he ask (for) an egg, and (the father) will give over a stinging (creature) [i.e. scorpion] (instead)?”

Here the emphasis is on a father giving a son what he needs (and would naturally ask for), i.e. food and sustenance (cp. the petition of the Lord’s Prayer, v. 3). The point is driven home through exaggeration—the father not only not giving the son what he needs, but giving what is actually harmful (and deadly) for him! Clearly, no human father would behave this way; most would genuinely wish to give their children what they need and request (much like the friend in the previous parable). In Matthew’s version the illustration is a bit different, though the basic point is certainly the same; the first comparison is a rock instead of bread, while the second is the same as the first Lukan comparison (a snake instead of a fish).

In verse 13 (Matt 7:11), Jesus explains the illustration in vv. 11-12 (as if the explanation and application were not obvious enough). It is here that the Lukan version differs most significantly from the Matthean; I give Matthew’s version first:

“So if you, being evil, have seen [i.e. known] (enough) to give good gifts to your offspring, how much more will your Father in the heavens give good (thing)s to the (one)s asking Him!”

Here the emphasis is on God giving “good (thing)s” (a)gaqa/), or “good gifts” (do/mata a)gaqa/), in a general sense. God will answer requests in prayer, by giving people what they need and which is truly beneficial for them. The Lukan version follows the Matthean rather closely, but there are a couple of key differences (points of difference indicated by italics):

“So if you, beginning under (as) evil, have seen [i.e. known] (enough) to give good gifts to your offspring, how much more will your Father out of heaven give the holy Spirit to the (one)s asking Him!”

It is worth considering each of these points of difference:

1. For the descriptive participle, Luke uses the verb u(pa/rxw (u(pa/rxonte$) instead of the verb of being ei)mi (o&nte$). It is possible that u(pa/rxw was used to soften the implication that the disciples of Jesus were called “evil” (ponhro/$). Literally, the verb means “begin under”, i.e. begin under a particular situation or condition, etc. Frequently it was used in an existential sense, of a person (or thing) coming into being, or for an existing condition, etc. As such, the verb could also be used, loosely, as an equivalent for the ordinary verb of being. Luke appears to have been particularly fond it, as more than half of the New Testament occurrences (31 out of 46) are in Luke-Acts (7 in the Gospel, 24 in Acts). Possibly the use here may relate to the idea of the disciples as human beings (who, generally speaking, are “evil”), without implying that they, specifically, are evil in character.

2. The description of God the Father in Luke’s version is “out of heaven” (e)c ou)ranou=), while in Matthew it the more proper title “the (One) in the heavens” (o( e)n toi=$ ou)ranoi=$). This latter title is virtually unique to Matthew’s Gospel (5:16, 45; 6:1, 9; 7:21, etc), and, as such, likely reflects the distinctive Matthean vocabulary and style (nearly half of all NT occurrences of the expression “in the heavens [pl.]” are in Matthew). If the wording were characteristic of the wider Gospel tradition (in Greek) of Jesus’ sayings, we would expect to see more evidence of it in the other Gospels (it is found elsewhere only at Mk 11:25).

While it is possible that the expression in the Lukan version (“out of heaven”, e)c ou)ranou=) reflects a stylistic difference (in Greek), it seems much more likely that it is meant to stress that the “good gifts” God the Father gives to Jesus’ disciples (believers) come from out of heaven. The manuscript tradition shows some uncertainty in this regard, with some key witnesses including a definite article (Ë75 a L 33), and others not. The presence of a definite article would indicate that the expression should be understood as a title (as in Matthew), i.e. “the Father the (One giving) out of Heaven”, or, perhaps even o( path\r o( as an abbreviation for “the Father the (One in Heaven)”. The lack of a definite article would best be understood as the source/origin for the Holy Spirit—the Father gives the Spirit from out of Heaven.

3. Most notably, Luke’s version makes specific (“[the] holy Spirit”) what is general in Matthew’s version (“good [thing]s”). If both sayings stem from a single historical tradition, as seems likely, it is hard to see how they both could accurately reflect what Jesus said (at the same time). Most critical commentators would regard the Lukan version as an interpretive or explanatory gloss (by the author), reflecting the idea of the Holy Spirit as the “gift” (do/ma) sent by the Father (Acts 2:38; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17; Lk 24:49; cf. also John 4:10), and which, in turn, is the source of all (spiritual) “gifts” for believers (1 Cor 12; 14:1ff, etc). The Lukan evidence (from Acts), in particular, is strong confirmation for the critical view. This does not necessarily contradict a sound view of the Gospel’s inspiration, since it is simple enough to consider the Lukan version here as preserving an inspired interpretation of Jesus’ original words. Many similar such examples could be cited, both in Luke and elsewhere.

This emphasis on the Holy Spirit is significant for Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, in a number of ways:

    • It signifies the climax of this teaching—i.e., for the disciples of Jesus who remain faithful, and continue in prayer, following Jesus’ example and instruction, the end result will be the gift of the Spirit.
    • Ultimately, it is the Spirit (of God and Christ) that should be the focus of our prayer, i.e. it is the Spirit (its power, manifestation, etc) that we should be requesting from God the Father (cf. John 15:16, 26, etc); this is a key lesson, one which here is presented in terms of the initial sending of the Spirit (to the first believers).
    • The statement in verse 13, in its literary context, connects back to the Lord’s Prayer, and the request for the coming of God’s Kingdom. As I have noted previously, on several occasions, the framework of Luke-Acts associates the Kingdom with the coming of the Spirit and the proclamation of the Gospel (cf. especially Acts 1:6-8). There is also the interesting variant reading of Lk 11:2 which reads (or glosses) the coming of the Kingdom as the coming of the Spirit.

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).

May 22: Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18, 20

In this series of daily notes on the Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition, it is now time to turn our attention to the Holy Spirit references in Luke-Acts. As we shall see, the Spirit is such an important theme, developed throughout the two-volume work, that it is important to study the Gospel and Acts in tandem. However, it is necessary first to begin with the Holy Spirit in relation to the key tradition of Jesus’ miraculous birth (properly, his conception).

The Conception/Birth of Jesus (Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18, 20)

It is generally agreed by commentators that the Infancy narratives in Matthew 1-2 & Luke 1-2 represent a later level of Gospel tradition than, for example, the Passion and Resurrection narratives or most of the sayings/parables of Jesus, etc. This does not mean that they are unhistorical, only that the traditions likely were collected, developed and given basic written/narrative form at a slightly later point in time. As a basic estimate, if the core Passion narrative took shape c. 30-40 A.D., then the Infancy narrative(s), by comparison, may have developed c. 50-60 A.D. This would seem to be confirmed by the fact that no reference is made to the birth of Jesus in early preaching recorded in the book of Acts (at the historical level, c. 30-50+ A.D.), and is scarcely mentioned in the letters of Paul, etc. The story of Jesus’ birth would seem to have played little or no role in the earliest Christian preaching and instruction. Despite this fact, it is clear that both Matthew and Luke draw upon a common set of basic traditions regarding Jesus’ birth, which must pre-date by a number of years the written Gospels (i.e. sometime before 70 A.D.). A central tenet and belief in this Gospel tradition is the role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ birth. This is recorded in three verses—twice in Matthew’s narrative, and once in Luke (part of the famous Angelic annunciation to Mary):

Matthew 1:18—Following an introductory genealogy (vv. 1-17), the Infancy narrative proper begins in verse 18:

“The coming-to-be [i.e. birth] of Yeshua (the) Anointed was thus: His mother Maryam being called to mind (for marriage) [i.e. betrothed/engaged] to Yôseph, (but) before their coming together, she was found holding (child) in (the) womb out of [i.e. from] (the) holy Spirit.”

Matthew 1:20—Verse 19 briefly narrates Joseph’s character (di/kaio$, “just/right[eous]”) and his decision to loose Mary from the engagement quietly/secretly. In verse 20, a Messenger of the Lord (i.e. Angel) appears to Joseph in a dream and makes the following declaration:

“Yôseph, son of Dawid, you should not fear to take along Maryam (as) your woman [i.e. wife]: for the (child) coming to be (born) in her is out of [i.e. from] (the) holy Spirit.”

Both passages use the specific phrase “out of the holy Spirit” [e)k pneu/mato$ a(gi/ou]. For the idea of being born out of the Holy Spirit, see the important references in John 3:5-6, 8, where it is applied to believers. Here it refers to Jesus, and to his actual (physical/biological) birth. When we turn to the Lukan narrative, we find the reference to the Holy Spirit in a very similar context—as part of an Angelic announcement, but to Mary rather than Joseph.

Luke 1:35—This is part of the famous Annunciation passage (Lk 1:26-38), which we may outline as follows:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 26-27)—summarizing the setting for the heavenly Messenger Gabriel’s appearance to Mary
    • The Angel’s Greeting (v. 28)
      —Mary’s response: surprise and uncertainty (v. 29)
    • The Angel’s announcement (vv. 30-33), prefaced by the traditional assurance (“Do not fear…”)
      —Mary’s response: question (“How will this be so…?” v. 34)
    • The Angel’s response: the sign (vv. 35-37)
      —Mary’s response: acceptance (v. 38)
    • Narrative conclusion (v. 38b)

This follows the basic narrative pattern in the Old Testament for Angelic appearances (including birth announcements), as I have discussed in prior notes (and cf. R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL]: 1977, 1993,  pp. 155-60, 296-8). The core announcement of verses 30-33 may further be divided:

    • Assurance (v. 30)—”Do not fear, Maryam, for you have found favor alongside [i.e. before] God”
    • Birth announcement (v. 31)—”And, see! you will take/receive together in (the) womb and you will produce a son, and you will call his name ‘Yeshua'”
    • Fivefold promise/prophecy of the child’s future (vv. 32-33)—
      • “he will be great”
      • “he will be called ‘Son of the Highest'”
      • “the Lord God will give to him the (ruling) seat of his father Dawid”
      • “he will rule as king upon [i.e. over] the house of Ya’aqob into the Age”
      • “there will be no completion [i.e. end] of his kingdom”

There are unquestionable Messianic phrases and concepts in the prophecy of vv. 32-33. Mary’s response (question) relates to the apparent impossibility of her having a child: “How will it be so, seeing (that) I do not know a man?” (v. 34). Here the verb “know” preserves a Semitic idiom for sexual relations, and expresses the tradition of Mary’s virginity prior to bearing Jesus (also found in Matt 1:18 [above]). In verses 35-37 the Messenger gives a three-fold sign, explaining or confirming the truthfulness of the announcement:

    • Prophecy regarding the Divine source of Jesus’ conception (v. 35)
    • The miraculous conception by Elizabeth, who (being old/barren) similarly could not naturally bear a child (v. 36)
    • A declaration of the power of God to bring about anything he has uttered, i.e. through His Messenger (v. 37)

The reference to the Holy Spirit is in the prophecy of verse 35:

“The holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Highest will cast shade upon you—therefore the (child) coming to be (born) also will be called Holy, (the) Son of God”

The first part of the verse presents two synonymous phrases in (poetic) parallel:

  • The holy Spirit—will come upon [e)pi] you
    The power of the Highest—will cast shade upon [e)pi] you

Despite an orthodox tendency to relate these two phrases with different members of the Trinity (“power” being associated with the Son), there can be little doubt that “holy Spirit” and “power of the Highest” are more or less synonymous expressions here. In Old Testament and Israelite tradition, the Spirit was not so much a distinct person as a manifestation of the presence and (life-giving) power of God (YHWH). This is important in light of how the concept and theme of the Holy Spirit is developed throughout Luke-Acts. The Infancy narratives preserve much of the Old Testament/Jewish background from which the new Faith (Christianity) would come forth—indeed, Jesus is the fulfillment of all the important religious forms and patterns found in Old Testament tradition. The reference in Matt 1:18, 20 (“out of the holy Spirit”) simply indicates the divine source of Jesus’ conception, without saying anything about how this takes place. By contrast, in Luke’s account, the Angel provides vivid and colorful imagery—but how exactly should we understand these two verbs (e)pe/rxomai [“come upon”], e)piskia/zw [“cast shade upon”]) as they are used here?

e)pe/rxomai (“come upon”)—of the nine New Testament occurrences of this verb, seven are in Luke-Acts, most notably a parallel reference to the Holy Spirit coming upon believers in Acts 1:8. This prophecy by Jesus, similar and with a position in Acts comparable to the prophecy of Gabriel, will be discussed in an upcoming note. The verb can have the sense of something literally (physically) coming upon a person, but more commonly in the general sense of something happening (i.e. coming near) which will dramatically affect the person. It is used several times in the Old Testament in a sense similar to that of Acts 1:8 (cf. 1 Sam 11:7; Isa 32:15 LXX).

e)piskia/zw (“cast shade upon”)—this verb really only occurs 3 times in the New Testament (with two parallel references), including twice in Luke-Acts in a context that is especially relevant to its use here:

  • Luke 9:34 par—the cloud in the Transfiguration scene is said to “cast shade/shadow upon” the three disciples; this image, of course, alludes to the Old Testament theophany of YHWH at Sinai and in the Desert (cf. Exod 13:21ff; 19:9, 16). For the verb used of the divine Cloud in the LXX, cf. Exod 40:34f.
  • Acts 5:15—it is related that Peter’s shadow was thought (by the people) to bring healing to the sick when it “cast shade/shadow upon” them. It is not clear from the context of the narrative whether this genuinely took place, or reflects a popular belief associated with Peter.

These two occurrences inform its use in Lk 1:35; the basic meaning is two-fold, as a vivid expression for the manifestation to human beings of (a) the presence of God (i.e. the Cloud), and (b) the power of God. It is unwise to read anything further than this into the text. The result of this divine “overshadowing”, of course, is declared in the last portion of verse 35: “therefore the (child) coming to be (born) also will be called Holy, the Son of God”. It is probably best to read the adjective a%gio$ (“holy”) as a substantive in apposition to “Son of God”, both being predicate to the verb “will be called”; in other words, we have here two names or titles which (will) belong to Jesus:

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 2 (Acts 1:14 etc)

In the last several notes, I have been looking at the main Gospel traditions involving the family and relatives of Jesus. These early traditions occasionally put Jesus’ relatives in something of a negative light—suggesting a certain misunderstanding of who he is and the nature of his mission, and, at times, even reflecting opposition toward him. Such traditions soon would disappear; we can actually see this process at work, by noting that there is nothing corresponding to Mark 3:20-21 in either Matthew or Luke—the episode described briefly in those verses has ‘dropped out’ of the Gospel Tradition. At the same time, Jesus’ family came to achieve a revered position and status in the early Church. While we know virtually nothing of Jesus’ sisters (mentioned in Mk 6:3), his mother (Mary) and at least some of his brothers began to feature prominently in early Christian tradition by the end of the first century. Something of this is reflected already in the New Testament, and must, on objective grounds, go back to authentic (historical) tradition. Here I will briefly examine the New Testament references (1) to Mary, (2) to James, and finally (3) the important Lukan description in Acts 1:14.

1. Mary, the mother of Jesus

It is scarcely necessary to mention the revered position of Mary, as Jesus’ mother, well-established (with traditions full of fabulous details), by the early 2nd century A.D. It has always been somewhat surprising to Christians that the New Testament, on the whole, has so little to say about her. If we separate out the Infancy Narratives of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, she is mentioned by name in just one passage—Mark 6:3 (par Matt 13:55). In several other places she is referred to as “his mother”, or otherwise indirectly (Mark 3:31-32ff par; John 2:3ff; 19:25-27; Gal 4:4). Given the importance of the virgin birth for Christians past and present, it is worth pointing out that even the birth of Jesus is scarcely mentioned in the New Testament, apart from the Infancy narratives.

Mary appears in the Matthean Infancy narrative , but it is really Joseph who is featured most prominently in those passages (1:16, 18-25; 2:13-15, 19-23). On the other hand, in the Gospel of Luke, Mary takes center stage. It is she who receives the Angelic message (1:26-38), is honored by Elizabeth (1:39-45), utters the Magnificat hymn [according to most MSS] (1:46-55), has a central place in the birth scene (2:5-7, 16-19), and in the purification ritual that brings the family to the Temple (2:22-24), and is addressed directly within Simeon’s oracle (2:34-35). I have discussed the Infancy narratives in considerable detail in several study series for Advent and Christmas season (“And you shall call His Name…“, “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus“); here I will point out several verses in the Lukan narrative which indicate Mary’s faith, and, if we may say, her spiritual growth:

  • At the Angel’s initial appearance and greeting (1:28-29), Mary is thoroughly disturbed (vb. diatara/ssw) but also “gathers things through” (dialogi/zomai), i.e. in her mind. This use of dialogi/zomai is significant.
  • Following the Angel’s message, Mary responds with trust and obedience—”See, (I am) the slave-girl of the Lord; let it come to be for me according to your utterance [i.e. your word]” (v. 38)
  • Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary contains the declaration: “and happy [i.e. blessed] (is she) the one trusting that there will be a completion [i.e. fulfillment] to the (thing)s spoken to her (from) alongside the Lord” (v. 45). Again, this indicates Mary’s faith/trust in God.
  • After the birth of Jesus, and following the visit of the shepherds announcing the miraculous things they had seen and heard (i.e. Angels’ message, 2:10-14), it is said of Mary in verse 19, that “she kept all these (thing)s (close) together, throwing (them) together, in her heart”. This suggests that Mary is beginning to ponder the true nature and identity of the child born to her. The two verbs used here are parallel to the two in 1:29, following the Angel’s announcement:
    • diatara/ssw (pass. “[be] stirred/disturbed through[out]”)
      dialogi/zomai (“gather [i.e. consider] [things] through”)
    • sunthre/w (“keep [things] together”)
      sumba/llw (“cast/throw [things] together”, i.e. in one’s mind)
  • In 2:21-24, along with v. 39 and 41ff, Mary and Joseph are depicted as faithful in observing the religious requirements and regulations set down in the Old Testament/Jewish Law.
  • The statement by Simeon, in his oracle, addressed directly to Mary (in v. 35a): “and a sword also will come/go through your heart”. As I discussed in an earlier note, this declaration may possibly allude to Ezekiel 14:17, and the sword of God’s Judgment that will pass through the land. If Mary represents the people of Israel, at the transition point between the Old and New Covenants, then the sword that separates and divides (cf. the context of vv. 34-35) will also pass through Mary (her own heart). She, too, will have to come to terms with Jesus’ identity.
  • In the following episode (the child Jesus in the Temple, vv. 41-50), it is illustrated that Mary still does not fully understand who Jesus is—his true identity (as God’s Son) and the nature of his mission (to be in/among “the things of God”), cf. verses 48-49.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ mother (not mentioned by name) appears in two episodes. The first is the miracle at Cana (2:1-12), in which she requests Jesus to perform a miracle for the wedding party. This narrative, on objective grounds, has all the earmarks of an early (authentic) tradition, though one which is unique to John. There are also certain similarities between this episode and that of Luke 2:41-50. Each includes a question/request by Mary, and a response by Jesus, illustrating that his mother does not truly understand the nature and purpose of his mission. The second scene occurs at the crucifixion (19:25-27). Critical scholars are more likely to question the historicity of this tradition, since it would seem to have the (apologetic) purpose of giving prominence to the “disciple whom (Jesus) loved”, and is otherwise absent from the well-established Gospel traditions surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus. It is sometimes thought to have symbolic significance—e.g., Mary as the “mother” of the disciples (i.e. the Church, represented by the beloved Disciple). However, I find it much more likely that the significance is literary, in terms of the overall structure of the Fourth Gospel. The two episodes involving Jesus’ mother are set at the very beginning and end of his ministry on earth, respectively—his first public miracle (in Galilee) and his death (in Jerusalem). In view of the portrait of Jesus in this Gospel—as the eternal Son of God who was sent to earth (as a human being)—Mary was only his mother during the short time of his incarnation and earthly ministry. At the time of Jesus’ death, it was necessary to transfer that (human) sonship to another—the one closest to him, the beloved Disciple.

2. James, the Brother of Jesus

In Mark 6:3 (and the parallel in Matthew), four of Jesus’ brothers are named, including Ya’aqob (Heb. bq)u&y~), transliterated into Greek as Ia/kwbo$, and into English as “Jacob” (the corresponding James comes into English through the Latinized form Iacomus). This is the only mention of James in the Gospels. It is not certain if he is to be counted among the brothers of Jesus in Mk 3:31ff par, or the ‘relatives’ in 3:21 (cf. the earlier note on these traditions). Jesus’ brothers are also part of the tradition recorded in Jn 7:1-9 (also discussed in an earlier note). If James was among the brothers mentioned in these passages, it would indicate that he did not understand or believe in Jesus, at least during the Galilean period of ministry.

The earliest New Testament tradition regarding James would appear to be Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:7, of a resurrection appearance by Jesus to James. Paul cites this as a well-established tradition, passed down to him (vv. 1-3ff), and the way he phrases vv. 3-7 would indicate a relatively fixed (traditional) formula, in place by at least 50 A.D. (if not earlier). In Galatians, Paul does not cite traditions but (his own) memory of recent events in Jerusalem and Antioch. The date of the letter, and the events recorded in chapters 1-2, have varied somewhat among commentators. Style and subject matter suggests a date (for the letter) around the same time as Romans and 2 Corinthians (i.e. early-to-mid-50s). At around 50 A.D., James was an important leader in the Jerusalem Church (1:19; 2:9), whom Paul associates with his Jewish(-Christian) opponents at Antioch and elsewhere (2:12). This generally relates to the controversy addressed at the so-called Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15). In Gal 1:19, Paul refers to James specifically as “the brother of the Lord”.

In the book of Acts, probably written around 70 A.D., but certainly containing many older (historical) traditions, James is mentioned as a leader of the Jerusalem Christians in 12:17. He is also featured in the Jerusalem Council episode (15:13-21), and is associated directly with the letter sent to believers in the region around Antioch (vv. 22-29). What is noteworthy for the author of Acts (trad. Luke) is that Peter and James both speak out in favor of allowing Gentile coverts to be considered part of the Church without requiring their observance of the Old Testament Law (with the exception of the points made in vv. 20-21 and 29). James thus plays a central role in the central episode of the book. After chapter 15, the Jerusalem Church gives way in the narrative to Paul’s missionary work. James does appear in one more episode (21:17-25), which confirms the validity of Paul’s work, but yet still declares the validity of the Law for Jews (and, by extension, Jewish believers). I have dealt with this topic extensively in my earlier series “The Law and the New Testament” (cf. the articles on Paul’s view of the Law, and the Law in Luke-Acts [soon to be posted on this site]).

Later Christian writers preserve additional traditions regarding James, who was surnamed “the Righteous/Just”. Eusebius (Church History 2.1, 23) cites a (lost) writing by Hegesippus which recorded several such traditions, including (a) the great virtue of James, (b) that he was a Nazirite, (c) spent time in the Holy Place of the Temple (dressed in priestly clothing), (d) that Jesus gave special instruction to him following the resurrection appearance (cf. 1 Cor 15:7), and (e) that he was clubbed to death on the parapet of the Temple sanctuary. James’ death is also reported by Josephus in his Antiquities 20.200. Both Eusebius and Jerome (Lives of Illustrious Men 2) consider James to have been Jesus’ half-brother (cf. Mk 15:40 par), and regard him as the first bishop of Jerusalem. James the brother of Jesus is also thought, by most commentators to be the “James” of the New Testament letter, whether such attribution is considered genuine (the traditional-conservative view) or pseudonymous (most critical scholars). Similarly, the “Jude” of the New Testament letter, called “brother of James”, is thought to refer to another of Jesus’ brothers (Mk 6:3 par).

3. Acts 1:14

That at least some of Jesus’ brothers (whether full-brothers, half-brothers, or cousins) had achieved a level of prominence in the early Church is indicated by Paul’s references in Gal 1:19 and 1 Cor 9:5. The latter reference indicates that they were thought of as distinct from the apostles (the Twelve, and others). Yet the brothers of Jesus appear in just one passage of the New Testament, outside of the Gospels—in Acts 1:14. Verses 12-14 are a narrative summary which serves as a transition between the ascension of Jesus (vv. 8-11) and the assembly of the (120) disciples in Jerusalem (vv. 15ff). We read that the disciples who witnessed the ascension returned to Jerusalem, to the (upper) room in which they were staying. Those present were: (a) the Twelve (minus Judas, i.e. Eleven), (b) the women who followed Jesus (cf. Lk 8:2-3; 23:49, 55), (c) his mother Mary, and (d) his brothers. These are precisely the characters who appear in the key section 8:1-21 of the Gospel (vv. 1-3, 19-21). In that passage, Jesus mother and brothers were contrasted with the (close) disciples of Jesus (in vv. 1-3ff). His mother and brothers want to come to Jesus, to meet him and be with him, but are unable to enter the room where he and his disciples are gathered (vv. 19-20)—they remain outside. In Acts, this situation has changed. Now the disciples of Jesus and his family (mother/brothers) are inside, together in the same room. The Jesus’ disciples and his natural family together form a single unified family of faith, a most beautiful picture which essentially fulfills the words of Jesus in Lk 8:21—”my mother and my brothers–these are the ones hearing and doing the word of God!”