- General Observations on the Lucan Gospel and Infancy Narrative
- The Lucan Gospel
Since Luke's Greek is the best of the four evangelists, it is highly probable that his native language was Greek. And with the absence of Hebrew words, Palestinian color, and reference to the Hebrew text of the OT, one imagines that his audience was composed almost exclusively of Christians from the Gentile world, perhaps from a church founded by Paul. And according to a tradition of the 2nd century (the canon of Muratori, Irenaeus), the evangelist would be named Luke, a companion of Paul, who would have produced his work in Greece around the year 80.
Luke's gospel does not have an apologetic aim, as can be found in Matthew, who has to defend himself against his orthodox Jewish brothers. The mission to the Gentiles does not come from the failure of the mission to Israel, but is part of God's plan from the beginning. Even the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem saw the harmony between the mission to the Gentiles and the mission to Israel (see Acts 15:25). To express all this, Luke uses geographical markers: the gospel is centered on this long march to Jerusalem, the center of Judaism, and even the appearances of the resurrected Jesus will only take place in Jerusalem; but with the Acts of the Apostles, it is the long march from Jerusalem to the center of the universe, i.e. Rome. Luke's interest in the whole universe is expressed in the multiple references to the Roman emperors in both the infancy narrative and the body of the gospel. And the atmosphere of the gospel is one of kindness expressed by many scenes that feature women, including the infancy narrative centered on Mary, whereas Matthew is centered on Joseph.
Before turning to the infancy narrative itself, let's immediately make two points about its historical value.
- Some have thought that they could support its historical value by invoking the links between the gospel of Luke and the gospel of John (e.g., the miraculous fishing in Jn 21 and Lk 5) as a case of multiple attestation. While it is true that Luke and John may have had access to common written or oral traditions, their use of them is so different that it is clear that the two evangelists did not know each other and never had access to each other's work. And there is no valid argument that the beloved disciple was John son of Zebedee, and that he lived with Mary for a number of years, from which he would have had access to privileged information about the birth of Jesus.
- The preface of the gospel must be interpreted carefully ("I too, having been informed of everything from the beginning, have decided to write a detailed account for you, based on what has been handed down to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the Word...", Lk 1:2-3). Some see this as an argument for the historicity of his infancy narrative. This overlooks the fact that "eyewitnesses" refers primarily to Jesus' companions and apostolic preachers, and has nothing to do with people who were eyewitnesses to Jesus' birth. Moreover, when he uses the adverb "exactly", it is not a question of chronological accuracy, but of logical accuracy. For example, there are a number of chronological inaccuracies in his Acts of the Apostles. On the other hand, he allows himself some literary freedom in order to present a more logical account than Mark's, for example by reversing the order of Mk 1:16-31 on the calling of the disciples to first tell of the miracles of Jesus before the calling of the disciples.
- The Lucan Infancy Narrative
- The Relation of Chs. 1-2 to the Rest of Luke/Acts
Let us begin with the question: Did Luke write his gospel beginning with the infancy narrative? In our analysis of Matthew, we concluded that the evangelist began writing his work with the infancy narrative. But in the case of Luke, the evidence leads us to the opposite conclusion: the infancy narrative was added after the completion of his two works, i.e., the gospel and Acts. Here are the main arguments.
- Lk 3:1-2 ("In the fifteenth year of the principate of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, Philip his brother was tetrarch of the land of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, under the pontificate of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah, in the wilderness) appears as a true beginning of the Gospel
- Starting the gospel with John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus is the normal starting point of a gospel as we see in Mark and John
- Acts 1:22 (Peter's speech: "...beginning with the baptism of John until the day he was taken from us") limits the gospel to the period of Jesus' ministry
- The genealogy of Jesus placed in ch. 3 would be easily explained if this chapter were the beginning of the first version of the gospel
- No element of the infancy narrative is echoed in the rest of the gospel: the infancy narrative could be removed and it would have no impact on the whole gospel.
This being said, there is no doubt that Luke himself added the infancy narrative to his gospel after the fact. This raises a new question: were these two chapters of the child's story composed entirely by Luke, or are they dependent on a number of sources? This is what we will try to clarify in the following analysis.
- The theological relationship of ch. 1 - 2 with the rest of the Gospel-Acts
If the theological connection is strong, then Luke was forced to alter his source material to fit his view. If it is not, then the theory of a pre-Lukan source becomes the plausible explanation for the discrepancies between the infancy narrative and the rest of the gospel. This latter case is supported by some biblical scholars.
But our analysis leads us rather to conclude that Luke's infancy narrative is a true introduction to the major themes of his gospel. In this respect, it plays the same role as the first two chapters of the Acts of the Apostles in relation to the rest of the work: the latter provide a transition between the period of Jesus and the period of the Church, and the apostles provide this link between the two, while the Holy Spirit intervenes after Jesus' departure to ensure continuity. A similar role is played by the infancy narrative, which provides the transition between the story of Israel (represented by Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna and Mary's hymn about the little remnant of Israel) and the story of Jesus (represented by John the Baptist and Jesus).
Thus, if Luke composed his infancy narrative after completing his entire gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, it is understandable that he might have wanted to replicate somewhat his introduction to Acts in his infancy narrative, so that the latter detracts somewhat from the rest of his gospel (while it is forced to follow the pattern of Mark and Document Q), and more closely resembles the atmosphere found in Acts, i.e.
- the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:126.96.36.199; 2:25-27) as at Pentecost or after Pentecost,
- the hymns that play the same role as the discourse of the Acts to explain the events,
- the angelic apparitions (Lk 1:11,26; 2:9) which disappear during Jesus' ministry and reappear in Acts (5:19; 8:26; 10:3; 12:7; 27:23)
- the title "Christ (Messiah) Lord" given by the angels (Lk 2:11), which is repeated in Acts (2:36)
- the parallelism between Jesus and John the Baptist, which repeats the parallelism between Peter and Paul in Acts
The infancy narrative truly reflects a Lucan motif.
- The nature and scope of possible sources
What sources did Luke use? There is a plurality of sources. The sources proposed by biblical scholars can be grouped into three types:
- There would be a special source for the canticles or hymns, i.e., the Magnificat (1:46-55), the Benedictus (1:67-79), the Gloria (2:13-14) and the Nunc Dimitis (2:29-32). They have their own poetic style and some, like the Magnificat and the Benedictus, are hardly Christian, and could have come from Jewish as well as from Christian Jewish circles.
- Sources for one or more units of ch. 2, i.e. 2:1-20 (the birth of Jesus and the announcement to the shepherds); 2:22-39 (the presentation of Jesus in the temple and the prophecies of Simeon and Anna); 2:41-51 (the young Jesus in the temple). This ch. 2 is totally different from ch. 1 and could exist without it: it has its own introduction and ignores the virginal conception and the identity of Jesus' parents as well as the person of John the Baptist, and seems to have a conclusion in 2:40, so that the account of the young Jesus in the temple (2:41-51) seems an afterthought.
- sources for the ch. 1 narratives around John the Baptist and Jesus. Several biblical scholars propose that the tradition around the Baptist came from his disciples. And some even go so far as to assert that even the material of ch. 1 such as the Magnificat was originally spoken by Elizabeth, that the annunciation was first addressed to Elizabeth (in parallel to the announcement to Zechariah), and that even the presentation in the temple (2:22-39) was initially about John the Baptist (an echo of the Nazarene in Samuel).
All these proposals will be discussed when we comment on the specific passages.
- The language of presumed sources
To detect the use of a source by an evangelist, one can resort either to content analysis or to linguistic analysis. Unfortunately, the linguistic analysis of Luke's infancy narrative, which has a more Semitic color than the rest of his gospel, has given rise to a fierce debate among biblical scholars without reaching a consensus: for some Luke had recourse to an oral or written tradition, either Aramaic or Hebrew, for others Luke deliberately used the Semitic style of the Septuagint. So we will use the content of the narrative and its thought pattern to detect Luke's sources.
Let us begin with ch. 1. We believe that some elements of the narrative came to Luke in the form of a tradition, for example the names of John the Baptist's parents. Long before Luke, there was a tendency to compare the birth of Jesus to the way the OT presents the conception of certain salvific figures through the use of motifs like the annunciation or the virginal conception. Luke's art was to sew together these various traditions, to flesh them out, to integrate into them faith forms and portraits of John the Baptist and Mary gleaned from the gospel account of Jesus' ministry. It was his sense of parallelism that led him to parallel the conception of John the Baptist with that of Jesus, while taking care theologically to place one below the other. To construct the figures of Zechariah and Elizabeth, he used those of Abraham and Sarah so that the infancy narrative would be a bridge between Israel and Jesus. Once the outline of ch. 1 was completed, Luke would have added and adapted two hymns, the Magnificat and the Benedictus, both of which may have come from a Jewish-Christian community.
The composition of ch. 2 could be explained by the theory of a source. For example, 2:41-51 (Jesus with the temple teachers) could come from a popular tradition of wonderful things happening before Jesus' ministry, similar to the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-11). The core of the story following the birth of Jesus seems to come from a source in the form of a series of reflections that Matthew also had access to and that Luke dramatized in his own way: there is a similarity in the story line and theology. In order to connect these various sources, Luke has created connections with his pen (the idea of a census, 2:1-5; the incomprehension of the parents at Jesus' escape from the temple, 2:40; the circumcision of the child and the purification of Mary, 2:21-24). Finally, Luke has added the Gloria and the Nunc Dimittis to this whole.
- The Internal Organization of Chs. 1-2
Biblical scholars disagree about the structure of the first two chapters. This disagreement probably stems from the failure to recognize that there were two stages in the writing of the infancy narrative in Luke: first a basic narrative written by Luke, and then some later additions by Luke. In analyzing the structure, the following must be taken into account:
- Basically, there are seven episodes: 1) the annunciation concerning John the Baptist; 2) the annunciation concerning Jesus; 3) the visitation; 4) the birth/circumcision/choosing of the name of John the Baptist; 5) the birth/circumcision/choosing of the name of Jesus; 6) the presentation in the temple; 7) the discovery of Jesus in the temple
- All agree that Luke wanted to draw a parallel between John the Baptist and Jesus. The closest parallelism is between episodes 1 and 2 (the two announcements), and between episodes 4 and 5 (the two births)
- Episode 3 (the visitation), which establishes a link between the mother of John the Baptist and that of Jesus, escapes this parallelism.
- There is no parallel in John the Baptist for episodes 6 and 7.
- There are references to the growth and progress of the child in episodes 4, 6 and 7, the first concerning John the Baptist, the other two concerning Jesus
- The hymns fit awkwardly into this analysis
- The second canticle (Benedictus) refers to John the Baptist, while the first (Magnificat) and the fourth (Nunc Dimittis) refer to Jesus
- There is a strong parallel between the Magnificat and the Benedictus, but they belong to episodes (3 and 4) that are not parallel
- On the level of episodes, the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis are close to each other and are all prophetic canticles after the birth of the child and referring to his destiny
- The Gloria is more general than the others
As we have proposed, Luke would have composed his infancy narrative in two stages. The first step was to draw a parallel between John the Baptist and Jesus, hence this structure:
- Two Announcements of Conception
- Annunciation of John the Baptist (1: 5-23) and the pregnancy of Elizabeth and a praise to God (1: 24-25)
- Annunciation about Jesus (1: 26-38) and Elizabeth's praise of Mary's pregnancy (1: 39-45.56)
- Two birth stories / circumcision / naming and announcement of future greatness
- Narrative about John the Baptist (1:57-66) and transitional statement about his future ministry
- Narrative about Jesus (2:1-27, 34-39) and transitional statement about his future ministry (2:40)
The first diptych consists of two sections of equal length. It culminates in Elizabeth's praise of Mary as the mother of Jesus, an indication that the future greatness of Jesus is superior to that of John. The second diptych makes this superiority of Jesus more explicit: it is no longer a question about the identity of John the Baptist ("What will this child be?"), but a proclamation by an angel that identifies him as Messiah and Lord, followed by a prophecy of Simeon filled with the Holy Spirit.
In a second stage, Luke added important material, but which broke the balance of the whole, especially the diptych motif. The canticles are very beautiful, but awkward in relation to the structure. It was during this second stage that the episode of the young Jesus found in the temple was added, forcing the addition of a second conclusion (2:52).
- The Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist
Translation of Luke 1, 5-25
5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zechariah who belonged to the division of Abijah. He had a wife descended from Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 In God's sight they were both upright, blamelessly observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. 7 Yet they had no children, inasmuch as Elizabeth was barren and both were on in year.
8 Now, while Zechariah was serving as priest, during the time that his division was on Temple duty in God's presence, 9 there were lots cast according to the custom of the priesthood; and he won the privilege of entering the sanctuary of the Lord to burn the incense. 10 At this hour of incense the whole multitude of the people was there, praying outside. 11 There appeared to Zechariah an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 On seeing him Zechariah was startled, and fear fell upon him. 13 However, the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard.
13d And your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son,
13e and you will call his name John.
14a And you will have joy and gladness,
14b and many will rejoice at his birth.
15a For he will be great before the Lord,
15b and he will drink no wine or strong drink.
15c And he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb,
16 and he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God.
17a And he will go before Him
17b in the spirit and power of Elijah
17c to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children
17d and the disobedient unto the wisdom of the just,
17e to make ready for the Lord a prepared people."
18 But Zechariah said to the angel, "How am I to know this? I am an old man, and my wife is on in years." 19 The angel responded, "I am Gabriel; I stand in the presence of God. I have been sent to speak to you and announce to you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be reduced to silence and unable to speak until the day that these things will happen, because you did not believe my words which, nevertheless, will be fulfilled in due time."
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, astonished at his delay in the Temple sanctuary. 22 And when he did come out, he was not able to speak to them; so they realized that he had seen a vision in the Temple sanctuary. For his part, Zechariah communicated with them by signs, remaining mute. 23 When his time of priestly service was completed, he went back to his home.
24 Afterwards Elizabeth his wife conceive, and for five months she kept herself in seclusion. 25 "The Lord has dealt with me in this way," she reflected, "in the days when He looked to take away my disgrace among men."
- "In the days of Herod, king of Judea". The expression "in the days of" is a Semitism, as in Mt 2:1. Biblical scholars agree that this refers to Herod the Great, who was not only king of Judea, but of all Palestine. Luke probably refers to a part of the whole, just as today we might refer to Holland, a province, as the whole of the Netherlands (see Lk 7:17 and Acts 10:37).
- "a certain (tis) priest". The mention of an indefinite priest removes any possibility of seeing a high priest, as does the Protevangelium of James.
- "named Zechariah". Literally: "by name", an expression that appears 25 times in the Gospel of Luke and Acts. In the two books of Chronicles, the name Zechariah appears 7 times as a priest or Levite. The most famous Zechariah is this prophet (son of Berechiah, 6th century BC) who belongs to the list of the twelve minor prophets in the OT. Note that Luke does not make the same mistake as Mt 23:15, who confused this prophet with another Zechariah (son of the priest Jehoiada, 9th c. BC; see 2 Chr 24:20-21), as we see in Lk 11:51. This confusion of the two Zechariahs is found in the Protogevangelium of James and in Origen. The latter adds this story where Zechariah defends Mary when she goes to the temple and joins the virgins, for which he will be killed between the temple and the altar. This story has played an important role in the patristic tradition on the continuity of Mary's status as a virgin.
- "who belonged to the division (ephēmeria)". The word ephēmeria can refer either to the period of priestly service (Neh 13:30), or as here a division of serving priests (1 Chr 23:6). Originally there were 24 divisions of priests, but only 4 divisions will return from exile (Ezra 2:36-39; 10:18-22). But it must be assumed that these 4 divisions were later subdivided into 24. According to Josephus (Against Apion II 8 #108), each division contained over 5,000 men. The biblical scholar Jeremias (Jerusalem, 198-206) estimates that there were about 18,000 priests and Levites in Palestine at the time of Jesus. "
- "a wife descended from Aaron". Literally: "wife of the daughters of Aaron". It was not obligatory for a priest to be married to a woman of priestly lineage (priest or Levite), but the rabbinic sources are severe on women of priestly lineage who do not marry a priest.
- "and her name was Elizabeth". Literally: "and her name, Elizabeth", an unusual construction in Luke which is also found in Lk 1:27: "the name of the virgin, Mary". In the OT, the only mention of an Elizabeth is the wife of the high priest Aaron (Ex 6:23).
- "In God's sight". For Luke, although for many infertility was a sign of some sin or guilt ("my disgrace among men", Lk 1:25), it is not so in the eyes of God.
- "upright, blamelessly observing all the commandments and ordinances". Literally: "upright, walking in all things...". We are faced with "Semiticised" Greek expressions, an echo of the Septuagint (1 Kings 8:61). Zechariah and Elizabeth are presented in the same way that Matthew presents Joseph as an upright man who makes it his duty to observe the Law.
- "of the Lord". In Luke's gospel "Lord" refers to both God and Jesus. But in the OT atmosphere of the infancy narrative, only two occurrences refer to Jesus (1:43; 2:11).
- "Yet (kai)". Literally: "and", but it is an adverse "and", because they had no children despite their piety.
- "inasmuch as (kathoti)". kathoti is an exclusively Lucan word throughout the NT and means: according to that, because, inasmuch as."
- "both were on in year". Literally: "advanced in days", a Hebrew expression. Technically, this is not the reason why they did not have children, but Luke simply means that this is no longer possible.
- "while Zechariah was serving as priest (hierateuō)". Literally: "while Zechariah in his priesting", a grammatical construction found in Lk 3:21.
- "the time that his division was on Temple duty". Each of the 24 divisions was on duty for one week every half year.
- "there were (egeneto) lots cast ...and he won (lagchanō)". Literally: "it happened he won by lots". This sentence structure, which begins with egeneto (it happened) followed by a verb in the finite tense (22 times) or kai (and) with a verb (12 times) in Luke's gospel, is a form of semitism. The verb can mean: to draw lots, or to win by lot. Our translation has tried to combine these two meanings. Let us note that during the service period of a division, the distribution of tasks was done by drawing lots. There were four in the morning, i.e. for the burnt offering, for the meal offering, for the incense offering and for the maintenance of the candelabra. In the afternoon there was only the casting of lots for the incense, to fulfill the commandment of Ex 30:7-8 ("Aaron shall burn incense there; morning by morning, when he arranges the lamps").
- "the privilege ...to burn the incense". We have added the word "privilege" to facilitate the understanding of the text. In fact, offering incense was a great privilege that happened only once in a lifetime, because the one who had been chosen by lot to do so became ineligible for the next selection until all the others had had the chance to do so.
- "entering the sanctuary (naos) of the Lord". The naos refers to the holy place, as opposed to the various courts of the temple and the Holy of Holies where only the high priest entered on the Day of Atonement (see a diagram of the temple at the bottom of the Jerusalem map). The priest would take incense in a bowl and sprinkle it on glowing coals (Mishnah, Tamid 3: 6.9; 6: 3).
- "the whole multitude (plēthos) of the people was there". plēthos (multitude) is a stereotypical expression from Luke (25 times) that makes it difficult to imagine the number. Some biblical scholars have deduced that it must refer to the evening incense offering (3:00 p.m.), called the "hour of prayer" by Acts 3:1 and corresponding to the appearance of Gabriel in the OT (Dan 9:21) at the evening sacrifice.
- "praying outside". It must therefore be assumed that the smoking of incense was the signal for the beginning of the prayer. People stood in either the men's court or the women's court, both of which were separated from the sanctuary by the court of the priests (see a diagram of the temple at the bottom of the Jerusalem map). But it is not clear that Luke was familiar with the geography of the temple.
- "There appeared".. Literally: "was seen (ōphthē)". We are faced with a very Lucan expression, but one that gives little clue as to the manner or reality of the appearance.
- "an angel of the Lord". It is a familiar figure in all the annunciation stories. As mentioned in Mt 1:20, it is not usually a person, an intermediary being between God and men, but a way of describing the divine presence among men. However, Lk 1:19 will identify this character with Gabriel, which corresponds to the postexilic period of angelology where it is now a personal being. This is a new concept, accepted by the Pharisees, rejected by the Sadducees.
- "the right side of the altar of incense". This altar is described in Ex 30:1-0; 37:25-29. Since the temple faced east, the right side of the altar, the place of honor, was on the south side, between the altar and the golden candelabra (see a diagram of the temple at the bottom of the Jerusalem map)
- "was startled, and fear fell upon him". We are facing a standard reaction to the presence of the divine (Ex 15: 16; Judith 15: 2; Mt 28: 4; Lc 2: 9; Acts 19: 17).
- "Do not be afraid". This is one of the items in the standard patterns in biblical birth announcements where the person making the revelation invites not to be afraid (Mt 1:20; Lk 1:30; 2:10).
- "your prayer is heard". The reference here is to the unspoken prayer of Zechariah and Elizabeth mentioned in vv. 6-7. Indirectly, since the child will bring the sons of Israel back to his Lord, it is also Israel's prayer.
- "And your wife Elizabeth". The style of this part of the text is semi-poetic and we have divided it into three strophes: the first is about the participation and reaction of others, the second announces what the child will be, and the third repeats some themes from the second strophe.
- "you will call his name John". We are faced with a Semitism that reappears in 1:31 (see Mt 1:21). The name Yehoḥanan or Yoḥanan ("Yahweh has given grace") was quite common in this period; it is found in the family of priests of the Maccabees (e.g., the grandfather of Judas Maccabees in 1 M 2:2 and John Hyrcanus).
- "before (enōpios) the Lord". The idea comes from Mal 3:1: "Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me (Heb.: lĕpānāy, LXX : pro prosōpou mou)". By using the preposition enōpios (37 times in Luke-Acts), Luke deviates a bit from Malachi, but he will do the same in 7:27, a clue to his loose composition.
- "wine or strong drink". It is a pairing that we find in the OT (Lev 10:9; Judg 13:4; Prov 20:1; Mi 2:11). The term "strong drink" refers to alcohols that do not come from grapes, such as cider or beer.
- "filled with the Holy Spirit". The phrase "filled with" occurs 22 times in Luke/Acts, compared to only once in Mark and Matthew respectively. Note that the Greek term for "Holy Spirit" has no definite article ("a Holy Spirit"), so we are far from a Trinitarian concept. In his gospel, the expression is usually without an article (1:15, 35, 41, 67; 2:25), the exception being 2:26; in Acts (18 times without an article, 23 times with one).
- "even from his mother's womb". It is a Semitism that can refer to the period of pregnancy (Judg 13:3-5) or to the moment of birth (Ps 22:11). Here it refers to the period of pregnancy.
- "go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah". Elijah was known for his ability to perform miracles and his gift of the prophetic spirit, which he would pass on to Elisha (2 Kings 9:15). Just as the phrase "before the Lord" in v. 15 was an echo of Mal 3:1, so our v. 17 is an echo of Mal 3:23 ("Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before (pro) the day of the Lord comes"). The pronoun "Him" refers to God, not to Jesus: even if for Luke John the Baptist preceded Jesus, he could not announce through the voice of Gabriel that John the Baptist would precede Jesus when he has not yet informed his reader of the birth of the messiah; he is content with a vague reference to the prophet Malachi where the Lord refers to God.
- "to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children". Luke borrows the expression from Malachi 3:24 and Sir 48:10. He shows a certain freedom from the text of Malachi (the differences from Luke have been underlined), especially with regard to the singular and plural:
|Lk 1, 17||Mal 3: 24 (Hebrew)||Mal 3: 24 (Septuagint)|
|to turn the hearts of the fathers to (epi) the children||He will turn (the) heart of the fathers to (the) sons||Who will reunite (the) heart of the father toward (pros) (the) son|
- "the disobedient unto (en) the wisdom of the just". The Greek preposition en is normally translated as: in. But because of the parallelism with epi (to) at the beginning of the verse, it should be translated: unto the wisdom of the righteous. The mention of wisdom is surprising, because one would have expected a change of behavior, i.e. from disobedience to obedience to the Law. But in the postexilic atmosphere, wisdom has come to be identified with the Law (Baruch 4:1).
- "to make ready ...a prepared people". Grammatically, it is likely that "to prepare" in v. 17e should be read in parallel with v. 17c ("to turn"), and that these two verbs make explicit v. 17a: "he will go before Him". The verb "to prepare" is typical of the Septuagint (2 Sam 7:24; Sir 49:12), but the use of it with "a people who are ready" is odd and can only be explained by a desire to echo Malachi 3:1 applied to John the Baptist, as Luke will do in Lk 7:27.
- "Gabriel". This name means: "man of God", or "God showed himself strong". In the OT he appears only in the book of Daniel (8:15-16; 9:21) where he is described as a man. In the apocryphal book of 1 Enoch he is described as one of the four presences (40:2) that look down on the earth from heaven (9:1); he is a holy angel (20:7), above the powers (40:9), in charge of paradise, the dragons and the Cherubim (20:7), with the power to destroy the wicked (9:9-10; 54:6)
- "I stand in the presence of God". There are said to be a total of seven angels in the presence of God (Uriel, Raphael, Raguel, Michael, Sariel, Gabriel, Remiel, see 1 Enoch 20); see Testament of Levi 8; Ezek 9:2; Tit 12:15; Rev 8:2, 6. On the idea of standing before God, see Job 1:6; Dan 7:16.
- "I have been sent". Note that the Hebrew word for "angel" is mălʾāk, which means: messenger.
- "announce to you this good news (euangelisasthai)". Literally: "to evangelize you". The verb euangelisasthai is related to the word euangelion which gave us the name "gospel", i.e. good news. The birth of John the Baptist is part of the good news.
- "And behold (idou)". The expression idou occurs ten times in Luke's infancy narrative, including four times in the form kai idou (and behold) (1:20.31.36; 2:25), an indication of Semitism.
- "you will be reduced to silence". It seems that he became deaf as well as dumb, because he had to be communicated with by signs (Lk 1:62).
- "my words which (hostis)". Luke uses the relative pronoun hostis (which often denotes a characteristic quality) as if it were an ordinary relative pronoun.
- "fulfilled". The same formula as Matthew to express the fulfillment of the prophecies.
- "in due time (kairos)". The word kairos refers to the time chosen by God.
- "astonished at his delay". Luke might want to put some pathos into the scene here, unless he wants to reflect the ancient legend of the old man who went to the temple every year with Simon the righteous (high priest around 300 BC) for the Day of Atonement offering, and when one day he did not come out of the temple, Simon knew that his death was near. The Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 39b) requires that the priest not linger in the temple sanctuary.
- "in the Temple sanctuary". See note on v.9.
- "he was not able to speak to them". Normally, Zechariah would have pronounced Aaron's blessing (Num 6:24-26) with the assistant priest on the steps of the sanctuary (Mishnah, Tamid 7:2). Luke's account assumes that Zechariah is alone.
- "they realized that he had seen a vision in the Temple sanctuary". Such a statement would seem illogical if there were not already a tradition of appearancens in the sanctuary (see e.g. Josephus, Antiquities, XIII x 3; #282-83, who speaks of divine revelation to the high priest John Hyrcanus while offering incense in the temple sanctuary).
- "his time of priestly service". The conclusion of the story of the Annunciation returns to the motives that introduced the story.
- "he went back". Literally: "it happened (egeneto)...that he went back (aperchesthai)". The construction with egeneto is the same as that of v. 9. The theme of departure ends six of the seven scenes of the infancy narrative.
- "to his home". A city of Judea in the hill country (1:39)
- "Afterwards". Literally: "after these days".
- "for five months she kept herself in seclusion". The usual way of calculating the time of pregnancy at that time was by lunar months, for a total of ten months (Wis 7:2-3), i.e. 40 weeks or 280 days. Thus, Elizabeth is in her 6th (lunar) month when the annunciation is made to Mary (1:36) and Mary will remain with her for three (lunar) months (1:56), with time left to return home before the child is born. According to the Protevangelium of James, it is Mary who must isolate herself during these three months from the children of Israel, because she is known to be a consecrated virgin.
- "The Lord". Literally: "That (hoti), so to me did (the) Lord". The conjunction hoti (that) is to be interpreted here as an introduction to a citation.
- "He looked to take away my disgrace among men". Some translations complete "He looked" with "on me", or anticipate the object of the second verb: "He looked on my disgrace to remove it".
It is a complete account of God's announcement of John the Baptist's conception and could be structured as follows:
|1: 5-7 :||Introduction of the dramatis personae|
|1: 8-23 :||Annunciation of the conception, delivered by an angel of the Lord (Gabriel) to Zechariah in the Temple sanctuary:|
|1: 24-25||Epilogue concerning Elizabeth's pregnancy and her praise of God|
The structure and stylistic characteristics of the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist and that of Jesus are so similar (see the comparative table) that they cannot be accidental. Thus, there are various positions among biblical scholars: 1) Luke would have first composed the account of the annunciation of the birth of Jesus, and on this basis he would have created the account of the birth of John the Baptist; 2) Luke would have first composed the account of the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist, and the account of the annunciation of the birth of Jesus would have been composed on this basis; 3) the two accounts would have been composed simultaneously. The last two positions open the door to another question: did Luke invent the information about John the Baptist, or did he receive it in whole or in part from a tradition? And would this tradition be complete or would it contain only bits and pieces of information?
- Introduction (1: 5-7)
In this introduction, four pieces of information are provided:
- The time: during the reign of Herod the Great
- The name of the Baptist's parents: Zechariah and Elizabeth
- They are all of priestly descent
- They are old and Elizabeth is barren
Did Luke invent this information, or does it come from tradition (historical or not)? Let's start with the first item, time: that Jesus' birth was near the end of Herod's reign seems quite plausible. But items two and three are more problematic.
Some biblical scholars have proposed that the association of Zechariah with the priestly lineage comes from the fact that the book of Malachi, to which Luke often refers in speaking of John the Baptist, is addressed to priests and is immediately preceded by the book of Zechariah, while the name Elizabeth comes from the fact that Aaron's sister was named Elizabeth. These arguments are not convincing, especially since Matthew and Mark also use the book of Malachi to speak of the Baptist, but ignore this priestly lineage altogether; and this does not explain certain details, such as the fact that Zechariah was of the division or class of Abia, or the procedures concerning the incense offering.
It is more likely that this tradition about the names of John the Baptist's parents and their priestly lineage, as well as the Herodian date, come from a tradition (historical or non-historical) to which Luke had access. Let us remember that Luke mentions the existence of a group of followers of John the Baptist who continued to exist after the death of Jesus (Acts 19:1-7) and that the Christians in Jerusalem continued to frequent the temple (Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:21,42; 21:23-26), that among the converts there were priests (Acts 6:7). Traditions about John the Baptist, his priestly lineage and the cult may have been known in these circles.
This being said, Luke does not offer any elaboration on the fact that John the Baptist was a priest. His only interest was that this was a time of preparation for him. Indeed, in his theology, Luke sees the institutions of Judaism as having enabled people to be receptive to the Jesus event. Of course, by the time he writes his gospel, the temple has been destroyed, and its destruction was seen as God's punishment. But for Luke, if there was a conflict between the Jewish authorities and Jesus, this does not mean that there is an intrinsic opposition between Judaism and the Christian faith; on the contrary, there is continuity. This is why he insists on the Jewishness of Zechariah and Elizabeth, respectful of all Jewish laws and traditions, and of Joseph and Mary. And it is to them, representatives of the best in Israel, that the good news will be announced, a good news that includes both John the Baptist and Jesus, who both belong to the new era.
What about the information that the Baptist's parents were old and that Elizabeth was barren? Here we are probably looking at Luke's theological work that reuses well-known themes around two sets of OT parents. Let us remember that Luke presents John the Baptist as a Nazirite, who will not drink wine or strong drink (1:15). Now a famous OT Nazirite is Samuel and Luke draws a parallel between Samuel's parents and the parents of the Baptist:
|Lk 1: 5||1 Samuel 1: 1-2|
|there was a certain priest named Zechariah... He had a wife... and her name was Elizabeth||
there was a man... his name was Elkanah... He had two wives: one was called Hannah|
Hannah, like Elizabeth, is barren. Elkanah and Hannah are very religious and go to the temple every year. One day, during one of these pilgrimages, while Hannah is praying in the temple, the priest Elijah gives her the revelation that her prayer has been heard. The story of Samuel will recur in the two chapters of the infancy narrative in Luke.
The other set of parents is Abraham and Sarah (Gen 18). Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Abraham and Sarah are elderly (Gen 18:11). And like Elizabeth, Sarah is also a barren woman. Moreover, as in our story, the divine revelation will be addressed to the father.
Thus, Luke has linked the annunciation story of the birth of John the Baptist with the early history of Israel, especially with the book of Genesis. This is a way of emphasizing continuity: the Jesus event is not a break, but a renewal of the covenant made with the patriarchs.
- The Annunciation (1:8-23)
The appearance of the angel takes place in the sanctuary: for Luke, it is important that the good news of the beginning of God's plan of salvation be announced in the place of God's presence.
- Echoes of Daniel in the Appearance of Gabriel
The figures of Zechariah and Elizabeth evoke those of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis, the first book of Jewish Scripture. The figure of the angel Gabriel evokes the book of Daniel, the last book of Jewish Scripture, where he appears for the last time (Dan 8:16ff; 9:21ff). If Luke was aware of this, then the choice of Zechariah and Gabriel as characters in his narrative was intended to cover the whole of Israel's holy history, from beginning to end.
What is clear is that in his description of the appearance of the angel Gabriel, Luke intends to evoke the atmosphere of Daniel.
- Lk 1:22 ("they realized that he had seen a vision in the Temple sanctuary") speaks of vision (optasia), a word used six times in Dan 9-10
- In Lk 1:10-11 ("At this hour of incense...") as well as in Dan 9:20-21 ("...the hour of the evening sacrifice") Gabriel appears at the time of the liturgical prayer
- In 1:13 ("your prayer is heard...") Zechariah expresses a prayer of distress like Daniel in Dan 9:20 ("...as I prayed... as I cried out for mercy before the Lord my God...")
- In 1:12 ("...fear fell upon him") as in Dan 8:17 ("while he was coming I was struck with fear..."; also 10:7) the appearance of Gabriel causes fear
- In 1:19 Gabriel says: "I have been sent to speak to you", just as he says in Dan 10:11: "... understand the words I speak to you... I have been sent to you".
- In 1:13 ("Do not be afraid") and in Dan 10:12 ("Do not be afraid") the visionary is invited not to fear
- In 1:20.22 ("Behold, you will be reduced to silence") and in Dan 10:15 ("I fell on my face to the ground and was filled with fear") the visionary is silenced
Luke takes up the theme of the 70 weeks of Dan 9:24-27 ("Seventy weeks have been appointed for your people and for the holy city, that sin may be ended, that sins may be abolished...") and uses it as a background for Gabriel's annunciation to Zechariah; for him, the time when sin is abolished and eternal righteousness established has now arrived. He takes the eschatological atmosphere of Daniel to create the setting for the annunciation to Zechariah.
- The Message(13-17)
- The First strophe (v. 13-14).
This strophe is about the birth announcement and the reaction it will elicit not only from Zechariah, but from many. Earlier, we have presented the typical structure of birth announcement stories, and the one about John the Baptist is one of the most complete, especially in terms of the content of the message:
|John Baptist||Standard message structure|
|13b Zechariah||a. The visionary is addressed by name|
|b. A qualifying phrase describing the visionary|
|13b Do not be afraid||c. The visionary is urged not to be afraid|
|d. A woman is with child or is about to be with child|
|13d And your wife... will bear you a son||e. She will give birth to the (male) child|
|13e and you will call his name John||f. The name by which the child is to be called|
The angel evokes the joy and gladness that his birth will bring. This joy and gladness is the same as that linked to the resurrection of Jesus ("And as they rejoiced...", Lk 24:41; "So my heart rejoiced and my tongue was glad...", Acts 2:26). As we have mentioned, the Christology attached to the resurrection has been transposed into the infancy narrative.
- The Second strophe (v. 15-16)
This verse is about the future ministry of the child and what he will do. All that is stated here does not require a special source, but refers to what is already known from his ministry:
- "He will be great" (15a) is simply an echo of "I tell you, there is none greater than John among the children of women" (Lk 7:28)
- "before the Lord" (15a) is an echo of "Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you to prepare your way before you" (Lk 7:28), a reference to Mal 3:1
- "he will drink no wine or strong drink" (15b) is an echo of "John the Baptist came indeed, neither eating bread nor drinking wine" (Lk 7:33), and a reference to Judg 13:4-5 where an angel asks Samson's mother not to drink wine or strong drink, for she will bear a son who will be a Nazirite, a reference also to 1 Sam 1:9-15 where Samuel's mother prays before the Lord and promises that, if God gives her a son, he will be consecrated to Him, and that she did not drink wine or strong drink
"And he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb" (15c). This is the Holy Spirit associated with all the prophets: it is the Spirit who came upon Saul (1 Sam 10:10), through whom David spoke (2 Sam 23:2), and with whom Elijah and Elisha were filled (2 Kings 2:9-16). For Luke, John the Baptist is a prophet, even the greatest of the prophets (Lk 7:28-20:6). In the OT, another way of expressing that the Holy Spirit is given to a prophet is when the word of God is said to have come to someone: "In the second year of the reign of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah, son of Berechiah" (Zech 1:1; see also Isa 2:1; Jer 1:2; Joel 1:1). Luke also uses this expression for John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry: "In the fifteenth year of the principate of Tiberius Caesar ... the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah" (Lk 3:1-2).
"he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God" (16). To speak of "bringing back" or "turning" to the Lord is a standard way in the OT of speaking of repentance and conversion (Deut 30:2; Hos 3:5; 7:10). Thus, the prophetic activity of John the Baptist will have an impact on Israel, a statement also found in John 1:31: "I came to baptize in water for the purpose of his manifestation to Israel.
- The Third strophe (v. 17)
"And he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah". This would be an anticipation of a theme common to the synoptics (Mk 9:13: "Well, I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him whatever they wanted to do, according to what is written about him"); it is likely that for Mark this word on Jesus' lips refers to John the Baptist. Moreover, the way he describes his clothing refers to a prophet like Elijah, and his presentation of the Baptist in opposition to Herod and Herodias is similar to Elijah's opposition to Ahab and Jezebel. Finally, the whole of v. 17 can be seen as an allusion to Elijah.
|Luke 1: 17||Malachi 3: 1||Malachi 3: 23-24||Sirach 48: 10|
|17a And he will go before Him
17b in the spirit and power of Elijah
17c to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children
17d and the disobedient unto the wisdom of the just,
17e to make ready for the Lord a prepared people
|I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His Temple
||I send you Elijah the prophet
before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.
He will turn the heart of the fathers toward the children,
and the heart of the children toward the fathers,
lest I come and smite the land with a curse.
|[Elijah], it is written, you are destined in time|
to put and end to wrath before [...]
to turn the heart of the fathers toward the children and to restore the tribes of Jacob.
For Malachi, the messenger who is sent to smooth the way before God (3:1) is Elijah (3:23). The role that Malachi and Sirach assign to Elijah is that of reconciliation before the day of judgment. When Mark 1:2-4 first introduces the person of John the Baptist ("Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you to prepare your way. A voice cries out in the wilderness"), he combines Mal 3:1 ("Behold, I send my messenger...") and Isa 40:3 ("The voice of one crying in the wilderness is heard: Make ready the way of the Lord"). Luke does exactly the same here in his infancy narrative ("to prepare for the Lord a people who are ready", 17). But it is this combination of two texts that makes the sentence a bit awkward.
Vs. 17c and 17d are more difficult to understand. To shed some light on them, remember that strophes two and three provide a clarification to the preceding strophe.
|Statement of strophe 2||Clarification of strophe 3|
|15a For he will be great before the Lord||17ab And he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah|
|16 and he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God||17cd to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the disobedient unto the wisdom of the just,|
Another problem with vv. 17cd is that one would have expected a better parallelism, as in Mal 3:24 ("turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, the hearts of the sons to their fathers"), whereas Luke writes instead: "to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the disobedient unto the wisdom of the just". Who are the disobedient? Who are the justs? One possible solution is to associate the disobedient with the children, and the just with the fathers, so that the verse could be written: "to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the disobedient (children) to the wisdom of the justs (fathers)"; the idea would be to see in this a form of chiasmus or semantic inclusion, where the last character (righteous) corresponds to the first character (father), and the penultimate character (disobedient) corresponds to the second one (child).
But a more normal solution would be to associate the disobedient with the fathers and the wise with the just in order to respect the parallelism of the sentence which begins with the "good" and ends with the "bad". For in Luke's theology of salvation history, most of the Jews, the patriarchs or fathers, rejected Jesus, while many of the Gentiles, the children of Abraham, welcomed him (Acts 28:25-28). And the evangelist puts these words into Jesus' mouth as he addresses the crowd: "Do not say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father. For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones" (3:8). In the same vein, in Lk 7:31-35 Jesus reproaches the Pharisees and the lawyers for not having welcomed John the Baptist and says to them: "To whom then shall I compare the men of this generation? To whom can they be compared? ...For John the Baptist came, he ate no bread, he drank no wine, and you say, 'He is out of his mind ... But Wisdom was recognized as just by all his children." So the welcoming of John the Baptist produces a new generation that possesses the wisdom of the just.
- Zechariah's Response (18-20) and the Conclusion (21-23)
Zechariah's response fits the standard structure of birth announcements, specifically step 4: An objection from the visionary as to how it will happen or a request for a sign. The scene is strongly colored by the OT. Here Luke repeats Abraham's objection ("How will I know?", Gen 15:8), which refers to his and Sarah's old age. To understand the angel's answer, we must refer to the prophet Daniel, where the angel Gabriel identifies himself (Dan 8:16; 9:21) and mentions that he is standing in the presence of God (Dan 7:16). The sign of being reduced to silence evokes Dan 10:15. Also, the recognition that the angel Gabriel's response to Zechariah reproduces the atmosphere of the book of Daniel makes the question superfluous: why was Zechariah punished in his objection, while a very similar objection on the part of Mary is not punished; the parallel with Daniel required a sign, and Luke found that of becoming mute to copy what happened to Daniel.
The conclusion (vv. 21-23) brings us back to the atmosphere of the temple. The angel Gabriel had promised a positive and a negative thing. The positive thing, the birth of the child, will come true later, while the negative thing, becoming mute, is happening now. The mention that the people were waiting, and that Zechariah was unable to speak, could suggest that Zechariah was unable to pronounce the blessing on the people. If so, Luke offers us an extraordinary symmetry between the beginning of his gospel, where the priestly blessing cannot be given, and the end of his gospel, where the blessing will finally be given by Jesus, who raises his hands to bless his prostrating disciples before being taken up to heaven (Lk 24:50-52). This ending in Luke picks up on Sirach 50:19-23, which presents Simon son of Onias, the ideal high priest, descending the steps of the sanctuary and raising his hands to bless the congregation of Israel as they bowed down. Now the risen Jesus has replaced the temple and its priests.
- The Epilogue (1: 24-25)
Various theories have circulated among biblical scholars to clarify these two verses: Luke may have had a source on John the Baptist that he split into segments, or he may have omitted parts of his source. Yet everything can simply be explained by Luke's pen and his theology.
First, it is not strange that the announcement of John the Baptist's birth is addressed only to Zechariah, leaving out Elizabeth: this is exactly the case in the Abraham/Sara story. And the transition from v. 23 to v. 24 ("he went back to his home, and Elizabeth his wife conceive..."), which seems too abrupt, is in fact an echo of the story of Samuel's parents: "then he went back home to Ramah, and the Lord remembered Hannah, and she conceived" (1 Sam 1:19-20). Finally, the mention of Elizabeth's five months of isolation is not so obscure: it is not to hide from her entourage, when the pregnancy is not apparent; rather, Luke wants to prepare the sign that the angel will give to Mary: "And behold, your relative Elizabeth, despite her old age, has also conceived a son; indeed, this is the sixth month for a woman who was deemed barren." (1:36). Thus, since Elizabeth's pregnancy was not known, it is the angel who will reveal it to Mary, and this will be a sign for her.
In short, the epilogue that follows the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist is a Lucan composition and does not presuppose any source.
- The Relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus
If Luke composed the infancy narrative using a few pieces of information, why did he place the annunciation narrative of John the Baptist's birth before Jesus'? To answer this question, we need to reconstruct the history of the respective ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Historically, we know that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and then for a time he was a disciple of John the Baptist, continuing his baptismal ministry. It was only after the arrest of the Baptist that Jesus went his own way in his preaching and healing ministry. Thus, in the Palestine of the late 20s, there were two salvific figures, each proclaiming the imminence of God's eschatological action, and each having died a martyr, after a number of contacts during their ministry and showing a certain harmony in their thinking.
This harmony between the two prophets has created uneasiness in Christian circles because of the risk of confusion. Some have sought to eliminate the memory of the Baptist completely. Others preferred to reinterpret their respective ministries, subordinating one to the other, so that the Baptist became the forerunner of Jesus. From then on, John the Baptist was assigned the role of Elijah through an exegesis of Malachi 3:1.23 ("Behold, I send my messenger...; Behold, I will send you Elijah") combined with Isaiah 40:3 ("A voice cries out in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'". This exegesis not only helped to better situate one in relation to the other, but also to try to convince the still unconverted disciples of John the Baptist. Unfortunately, over time, some of John the Baptist's unconverted followers became hostile to the Christian movement, which accentuated the effort among Christians to subordinate John the Baptist to Jesus. This effort is very clear in John's gospel, which states that the Baptist is not the light (1:8), that he is neither the messiah nor Elijah (1:20-21), and that he must decline while Jesus grows (3:30). His role is simply to bear witness to Jesus (1:7, 30-31).
This development of theological reflection on John the Baptist is reflected in Luke's infancy narrative where he becomes the one who prepares the way for the conception of Jesus. He remains subordinate to Jesus, for Jesus' conception will be greater than his, since it includes the miraculous element of a conception without male parents, whereas in John the Baptist's parents are only old and the mother only barren. When the two mothers meet, Elizabeth praises Mary as "mother of my Lord" and John the Baptist in the womb bears witness with his joy (1:41-46). On the other hand, there is no rivalry between the two prophets, for it is the same angel Gabriel who announces the two conceptions. While the evangelist John makes John the Baptist a proto-Christian, Luke will do something similar by making the Baptist a relative of Jesus on his mother's side, a detail incompatible with Jn 1:33 where John the Baptist says he was completely unaware of Jesus' existence beforehand. Luke's assertion of such a kinship is incomprehensible on the level of genealogy and history, but it becomes intelligible on the level of Luke's symbolic etiology: the movement of the Baptist and that of Jesus are not incompatible, but point in the same direction, and are therefore kin, and the followers of the Baptist and those of Jesus should experience some form of kinship.
- The Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus
Translation of Luke 1: 26-38
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee known as Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man of the House of David whose name was Joseph, and the virgin's name was Mary. 28 He came and addressed her thus: "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you." 29 Now she was startled at what he said and wondered what such a greeting might mean. 30 But the angel said to her: "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.
31a And behold, you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son,
31b and you will call his name Jesus.
32a He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.
32b And the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David;
33a and he will be king over the House of Jacob forever,
33b and there will be no end to his kingdom."
34 However, Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have had no relations with a man?" 35 The angel responded,
35b "The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
35c and power from the Most High will overshadow you.
35d Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy - Son of God.
36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth, despite her old age, has also conceived a son; indeed, this is the sixth month for a woman who was deemed barren. 37 Nothing said by God can be impossible." 38 Mary answered, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it happen to me according to your word." Then the angel went away, leaving her.
- "In the sixth month". This is Elizabeth's pregnancy (see v. 24). Since she isolated herself for the first half of her pregnancy, no one knew about it until it was revealed to Mary.
- "to a city of Galilee known as Nazareth". For Matthew, the annunciation to Joseph took place in Bethlehem, where the family was living, and it was only on their return from Egypt that the family moved to Nazareth. On Nazareth, see Mt 2: 23.
- "to a virgin betrothed (mnēsteuein) to a man ...whose name was Joseph". Both Luke and Matthew use the verb mnēsteuein to describe Mary's marital status. Although Luke is less explicit than Matthew in defining the meaning of the verb, the fact that Mary is both virgin and betrothed means that consent has been exchanged with Joseph, but cohabitation has not yet begun. For an explanation of the custom, see note on Mt 1: 18.
- "a man of the House of David". Matthew clearly specifies that Joseph was of Davidic lineage (Mt 1:20). Here the sentence is less clear, because if we move the punctuation we would have: "a virgin, betrothed to a man, from the house of David", and then "from the house of David" could refer to the virgin. This is what Origen understood, while John Chrysostom attributes the Davidic lineage to both. Grammatically, it is the word "man" that is closest to "house of David", and besides, if Luke intended to designate Mary, he would not have felt the need to reintroduce her in the proposition that follows ("and the virgin's name is Mary"). And elsewhere, it is always David who is of Davidic lineage (Joseph goes to Bethlehem "because he was of the house and lineage of David", Lk 2:4).
Thus, one would look in vain for data in the NT to support the idea that Mary was of Davidic lineage. Besides, Luke, in making Mary a relative of Elizabeth, makes her rather someone from the house of Levi or Aaron (1:5.36). The church fathers were divided on the subject. The various statements about either the Davidic or the Levitical lineage of Mary are primarily theological. For example, non-Jewish authors did not understand how Jesus could be of Davidic lineage when it was not Joseph who fathered him, and therefore felt compelled to see Mary as belonging to the Davidic lineage. On the other hand, those who saw Jesus as a priest looked for Levite ancestors. We have no idea where the Protevangelium of James found the names of Joachim and Anna as Mary's parents; the account in 1 Samuel 1:2 where Anna is the mother of Samuel may have played a role.
- "and the virgin's name was Mary". See note on v. 5.
- "Hail, (Chaire), O favored one (kecharitōmenē)". These two Greek verbs have the same root. Chaire refers to the noun chara: joy. Kecharitōmenē comes from the verb charitoō, a transitive verb that requires a complement to perform its action: to favor someone, to give someone grace; it is the same root as charis: grace, favor. If one assumes a knowledge of Hebrew in the narrative, then kecharitōmenē virtually translates the name Hannah (ḥannâ), which means: filled with grace.
- "the Lord is with you". Literally: "The Lord with you". When the author does not use a verb as here, the sentence has the meaning of a declaration, not a wish: I declare that the Lord is with you. But this sentence should not be interpreted to mean that Jesus is already in her womb.
- "she was startled (diatarassō)". The expression is a bit stronger than that of 1:12 (tarassō), which was also translated as "being startled." Luke's intention is not to give us a snapshot of Mary's psychology, but to follow the standard pattern of a birth announcement narrative (see step 2 of the standard structure of birth announcements); Mary's reaction is to the great grace or favor the angel announces to her.
- "might mean".
Literally: "might be", with a verb in the optative. This is a tense that only Luke uses repeatedly, even with indirect speech.
- "you have found favour (charis) with God". On charis, see note on v. 28.
The expression "find favour" is a Semitism; e.g., "Noah found favour with the Lord God," LXX: Gen 6:9).
- "And behold". See note on 1: 20.
- "you will conceive".The participial form in Hebrew in a birth announcement can be understood as a present (already pregnant) or as a future. In Luke, the meaning is a future as in 1:35.
- "you will call his name". This is a Semitism as in 1:13; see note on Mt 1:21. It is a command, not a simple prophecy of what will happen. Whereas in Mt 1:21.23 it is Joseph who gives Jesus his name, here it is Mary. But there are precedents in the OT for women giving names: Hagar (Gen 16:11), Leah (Gen 30:13), Samson's mother (Judg 13:34), and Samuel's mother (1 Sam 1:20).
- "Jesus". See note on Mt 1: 21.
- "will be called ". "To be called" expresses the identity of a person, and therefore means: what he or she will be. The following two phrases are equivalent and interchangeable: "They will be called sons of God" (Mt 5:9) and "you will be sons of the Most High" (Lk 6:35).
- "Most High". In the NT, this way of referring to God is found especially in Luke (1:35.76; 6:35; Acts 7:48; etc.).
- "How can this be...?". This question is omitted by some manuscripts such as old Latin of the 4th or 5th century, probably due to a copyist who saw in it a lack of faith on the part of Mary.
- "since (epei)". This causal conjunction appears only here in Luke. But this is no reason to consider it as non-lucan. It is infrequent in all the evangelists (Mt = 3; Mk = 1; Lk = 1; Jn = 2; Acts = 0). Luke on the other hand uses its synonym five times: epeidē (Mt = 0; Mk = 0; Lk = 2; Jn = 0; Acts = 3).
- "I have had no relations (ginōskō) with a man (anēr)". Literally, "I do not know a man. The verb "to know" (ginōskō) is a semitism for sexual relationship (see Mt 1:25: "He did not know her until she bore a son"). The verb "I do not know" is a present tense, but it is a state resulting from past behavior, hence our translation: "I have had no relations." As for the word anēr, it refers to the male, the husband, as opposed to anthrōpos, the generic man. But here we should not translate anēr as husband, for Luke has a more general purpose: Mary knew no man, and therefore she is a virgin (1:27).
- "The Holy Spirit". In the Greek, the name has no article. See note on Mt 1:18 for the justification of the addition of the article in the translation.
- "will come (eperchomai) upon you". The verb eperchomai (to come upon) is a Lucan word that appears seven times in Lk/Acts, and only twice in the rest of the NT. In Acts 1:8 it describes the anticipation of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples. This is a common way of translating God's action: "until the spirit is poured out on us from on high" (Isa 32:15); "and the spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day on" (1 Sam 16:13). There is nothing sexual.
- "power (dynamis)". This is a very Lucan word: Mt = 15; Mk = 10; Lk = 17; Jn = 0; Acts = 10. The combination of power and Holy Spirit is also very Lucan (Lk 1:17; 4:14; Acts 1:8; 6:5.8; 10:38). Power and Holy Spirit are synonymous here.
- "will overshadow you (episkiazō)". In the commentary, we will discuss the use of episkiazō (to shade, to cover with shadow) in the OT to describe God's presence in the sanctuary, and in the transfiguration account to express the fact that a cloud of glory covers the figures with its shadow.
- "Therefore (dio kai)". Literally: "And that is why". The expression dio kai appears nine times in the NT, including three times in Lk/Acts. It expresses a certain causality.
- "the child to be born (gennōmenon)". Literally: 'the to be born'. Gennōmenon is the verb gennaō in the neuter passive present participle. It means: to beget, when the subject is a man; to give birth, when the subject is a woman. See note on Mt 1: 1.16 and on Mt 1: 20. In Matthew, the point of view in the conception is that of Joseph, in Luke it is that of Mary, and therefore we must speak of "giving birth." Even if the verb is a present participle, its meaning refers to the future, hence our translation "to be born". Why is the participle in the neuter tense? Perhaps the neuter noun tecknon (child) is meant.
- "will be called holy - Son of God". See note on v. 32 where we said that the expression "he will be called" is equivalent to "he will be", and therefore his identity as Son of God begins with his conception. This verse is difficult to translate because the adjective holy can either qualify the subject ("The holy child to be born will be called the Son of God") or play the role of predicate ("The child to be born (will be) holy; he will be called the Son of God"). But a close analysis leads us to consider "holy" as a predicate: earlier, in v. 32 we find two predicates (great, son of the Most High), just as we have two predicates here (holy, Son of God). And logically, the child must be called "holy" because the Spirit came upon Mary. Later, the word "holy" will also be used as a predicate for children ("Every male who opens the womb will be holy to the Lord", 2:23). This is also found in the Septuagint (Isa 4:3: LXX "all that are appointed to life in Jerusalem, shall be called holy.").
- "And behold". See note to v. 20: this is the exact parallel to what we have here.
- "your relative Elizabeth (suggenē)". The word suggenē is very vague about the degree of relatedness. It was the English biblical scholar John Wycliffe (14th century) who came up with the idea of "cousin". On this topic, see section: The Relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus.
- "despite her old age ...deemed barren". Both of these factors were mentioned in 1:7 in connection with Elizabeth, but in his objection Zechariah refers only to age.
- "this is (kai outos)". For this construction, see Lk 16:1; 20:28.
- "Nothing said by God can be impossible". Literally, "For it will not be impossible from God every word (rēma)". This maxim from the OT (Gen 18:14; Job 42:2; Zech 8:6) contains several semitisms, such as the double negation and the use of the Greek word rēma (word) to reflect the Hebrew dābār (word, thing).
- "handmaid" (doulē)". Doulē is the feminine form of doulos: servant; see Acts 2:18.
- "Let it happen to me". The verb tense is the optative, the expression of a wish. See note on v. 29.
- "according to your word (rēma)". The same word rēma as in v. 37.
- "the angel went away, leaving her". This is a common formula in angelic accounts of appearances, since such a presence from heaven is temporary (Judg 6:21; Acts 12:10). But it is also a Lucan motif to signal the end of a scene in the infancy narrative. See note on 1: 23.
- The Structure and the Annunciation Pattern
Let's first compare the two annunciation stories.
|Comparative table of the two annunciations|
|5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zechariah who belonged to the division of Abijah. He had a wife descended from Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 In God's sight they were both upright, blamelessly observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. 7 Yet they had no children, inasmuch as Elizabeth was barren and both were on in year.
8 Now, while Zechariah was serving as priest, during the time that his division was on Temple duty in God's presence, 9 there were lots cast according to the custom of the priesthood; and he won the privilege of entering the sanctuary of the Lord to burn the incense. 10 At this hour of incense the whole multitude of the people was there, praying outside.
|26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee known as Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man of the House of David whose name was Joseph, and the virgin's name was Mary.|
|11 There appeared to Zechariah an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 On seeing him Zechariah was startled, and fear fell upon him. 13 However, the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer is heard.
||28 He came and addressed her thus: "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you." 29 Now she was startled at what he said and wondered what such a greeting might mean. 30 But the angel said to her: "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.|
13d And your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son,
13e and you will call his name John.
14a And you will have joy and gladness,
14b and many will rejoice at his birth.
31a And behold, you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son,
31b and you will call his name Jesus.
15a For he will be great before the Lord,
15b and he will drink no wine or strong drink.
15c And he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb,
16 and he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God.
17a And he will go before Him
17b in the spirit and power of Elijah
17c to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children
17d and the disobedient unto the wisdom of the just,
17e to make ready for the Lord a prepared people."
32a He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.
32b And the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David;
33a and he will be king over the House of Jacob forever,
33b and there will be no end to his kingdom."
|18 But Zechariah said to the angel, "How am I to know this? I am an old man, and my wife is on in years." 19 The angel responded, "I am Gabriel; I stand in the presence of God. I have been sent to speak to you and announce to you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be reduced to silence and unable to speak until the day that these things will happen, because you did not believe my words which, nevertheless, will be fulfilled in due time."
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, astonished at his delay in the Temple sanctuary. 22 And when he did come out, he was not able to speak to them; so they realized that he had seen a vision in the Temple sanctuary. For his part, Zechariah communicated with them by signs, remaining mute. 23 When his time of priestly service was completed, he went back to his home.
|34 However, Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have had no relations with a man?" 35 The angel responded,
35b "The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth, despite her old age, has also conceived a son; indeed, this is the sixth month for a woman who was deemed barren. 37 Nothing said by God can be impossible." 38 Mary answered, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it happen to me according to your word." Then the angel went away, leaving her.
35c and power from the Most High will overshadow you.
35d Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy - Son of God.
Let's take the two stories and analyze them as a diptych (for the numbering of the stages, see the standard structure of birth announciations).).
|1: 5-25||1: 26-45.56|
|Annunciation about John the Baptist||Annunciation about Jesus|
|Introduction of the dramatis personae: Zechariah and Elizabeth, of priestly family, aged, barren (5-7)
||The angel Gabriel sent to Mary, a virgin betrothed to Joseph of the House of David (26-28)|
|Annunciation of the conception of John the Baptist delivered by an angel of the Lord (Gabriel) to Zechariah in the Temple (8-23)
||Annunciation of the conception of Jesus delivered by Gabriel to Mary in Nazareth.|
|Setting (8-10): The priestly customs: Zechariahs turn to offer incense.
|1. Angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah
||1. Gabriel came to Mary|
|2. Zechariah was startled
||2. Mary was startled|
|3. The message:
||3. The message:|
||b. Favored one|
|c. Do not be afraid
||c. Do not be afraid|
||d. You will conceive|
|e. Elizabeth will bear you a son
||e. and give birth to a son|
|f. You will call his name John
||f. You will call his name Jesus|
|h. He will be great before the Lord, etc. (15-17)
||h. He will be great, etc. (32-33)|
|4. How am I to know this?
The angel's response (19)
|4. How can this be?|
The angel's response (35)
|5. The sign: Behold you will be reduced to silence
||5. The sign: Behold your relative has conceived.|
|Conclusion (21-23): Zechariah emerged from the Temple unable to speak. He went back home.
||Mary responded with acceptance and the angel went away.|
|Epilogue: Elizabeth conceived; she reflected in seclusion in praise of the Lord (24-25).
||Epilogue: Mary went to the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth, who was filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaimed the praise of the mother of the Lord. Mary returned home (39-45.56).|
Let's comment on the diptych starting with the right side, i.e. the annunciation of the birth of Jesus.
- There is no real introduction, equivalent to 1: 5-7: the presentation of the characters and the setting is reduced to a minimum
- There is no detailed conclusion as in 1:21-23
- There is no atmosphere of the book of Daniel where the appearance takes place in the temple at the hour of prayer
- On the other hand, the epilogue has been expanded with the insertion of the magnificat to become a scene in itself with the visitation
- The real parallel is limited to the angel's message.
What to conclude? The annunciation around Jesus has a simpler structure, and the real parallel is between the core of the annunciation around John the Baptist (1:11-20) and the whole annunciation around Jesus (1:26-38). This suggests that the annunciation itself to Zechariah was created by Luke by analogy to the annunciation of Jesus' birth.
When we now consider the core of the annunciation narrative in the diptych in relation to the standard structure of birth annunciations, we notice that all the stages are present: 1) angel appearance; 2) fear; 3) message; 4) objection; 5) sign. In the message, seven out of the eight items are present (only item "g)" concerning the etymology of the child's name is absent).
From this adherence to the standard structure, two observations can be drawn.
- This literary structure explains the entire annunciation narrative, except for the virginal conception, the description of the future fulfillment of the child (32-33.35), and the portrait of Mary (34.38).
- Adherence to such a structure raises the question of the historical value of the narrative. If Luke only had a general idea of a birth proclamation, he could have created an entire narrative by incorporating this idea into the standard structure of the OT without the aid of historical data. This would be all the more understandable if in pre-Lucan circles a tradition about the birth of Jesus had developed. We have argued instead that Matthew made use of a pre-Gospel tradition of announcing the birth of Jesus as the Davidic messiah, and Luke may also have had access to this tradition. Thus each evangelist may have developed this tradition in his own way, Matthew developing his story around Joseph because he had a tradition based on the patriarch Joseph and baby Moses in Egypt, Luke developing his story around Mary because he saw the symbolic possibilities of representing the "poor" remnant of Israel (in Hebrew, the anawim), unless the Jewish legend (mentioned by Pseudo-Philos, Biblical Antiquities, 1st c. modern) about Moses played a role. of the modern era) about Miriam, sister of Moses, who receives an angelic appearance in a dream that informs her that through the unborn child (Moses) of her parents God will save his people.
At this point, let's make one thing clear. Just because the appearance of an angel to Mary is not part of a historical tradition does not mean that some divine revelation of the birth of Jesus should be rejected. Since there are elements that cannot be explained by recourse to the literary structure of birth announcement, such as the virginal conception, we must look for other sources, which may have historical value. Mary may have had some form of experience of divine revelation. To translate all this, Luke would have used what the OT offered him.
- The Virginal Conception (1:34)
Twice in v. 27 Luke tells us that Mary was a virgin. Yet there is nothing in the literary structure of the annunciation narratives from the OT figures to suggest such an idea: they will speak of an old or barren person, but never of a virgin. It is time to address this question, not historically (that will be dealt with in Appendix IV), but in terms of Luke's intention in writing his account.
- Does the Present Account Contain a Virginal Conception?
When one reads Luke's account for itself, forgetting the text of Matthew, all the details of his account can be explained in the context of a normal birth, for Luke, unlike Matthew 1:25, does not explicitly say that Mary did not have sexual relations after the annunciation. Theoretically, if Mary and Joseph had sexual relations and the child was naturally conceived, this would not prevent Luke from seeing Jesus' conception as the work of the Holy Spirit on the basis that the angel foretold this conception and that the child would have a unique role as God's son.
However, there is a consensus among biblical scholars that Luke intends to present a virginal conception. First, let us recall that all the evangelists agree that John the Baptist preceded Jesus in their respective ministries, but at the same time they subordinate him to Jesus. Luke has extended this perspective into the infancy narrative with a birth announcement of the Baptist that precedes that of Jesus: one comes first, but the other surpasses him.
- John the Baptist is "great before the Lord" (1:15a), but Jesus is absolutely great (1:32a: no qualifier)
- John the Baptist is "filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb" (1:15c), but the conception of Jesus itself involves the Holy Spirit "coming upon" Jesus' mother (1:35b)
- John the Baptist "prepares a ready people for the Lord" (1:17) but Jesus will reign over the house of Jacob/Israel and has an eternal kingdom (1:33a.b)
But such a demonstration of Jesus' superiority would fall apart completely if Jesus had been conceived normally. Let us remember that Elizabeth was old and barren, and the power of God was manifested in spite of this obstacle by a normal birth. What would be the obstacle for a young and not barren woman who would require God's intervention? It is to a virginal conception that Elizabeth refers when she says to Mary: "Yes, blessed is she who has believed in the fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord" (1:45); a normal birth would not have required this faith of which Elizabeth speaks.
A study of the literary motifs of the two annunciation narratives also points to a virginal conception. In the first annunciation, Zechariah says, "How shall I know? I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years" (1:18); this is a reference to the obstacle that God's power must overcome. In the second annunciation, Mary says, "How can this be, since I have not had relations with a man? (1:34); this is a reference to the obstacle of her virginity already mentioned twice in 1:27 and which the power of God must overcome. Finally, let us mention a detail from Lk 3:23 ("Jesus, in his early years, was about thirty years old. He was the son, it was believed, of Joseph"). This "believed" would have no meaning if for Luke Jesus was the natural son of Joseph.
- Did the Original Account Contain a Virginal Conception?
The question arises because some biblical scholars have suggested that Luke's original account did not mention the virginal conception, and that it was added after the fact: thus in the original account we go from v. 33b ("and there will be no end to his kingdom") to v. 36 ("And behold, your relative Elizabeth..."), and only later in a second phase were vv. 34-35 added ("However, Mary said to the angel, "How can this be..the child to be born will be called holy - Son of God").
This suggestion does not hold water.
- The main reason is that vv. 34-35 belong to an essential stage in the standard structure of the annunciation narratives, stage 4, which we have called the objection. Moreover, the absence of vv. 34-35 would destroy the parallelism with the annunciation to Zechariah, which also contains the objection stage. And it is also implausible that Luke would have suddenly added a whole new theological notion and managed to harmonize it with his whole narrative.
- The proponents of the addition think that this solves the problem: why was Zechariah punished by his objection and not Mary? The problem disappears when we admit that we are dealing with a Lucan composition, that for Zechariah he used the setting of the book of Daniel where the latter is silenced, and that for Mary he used the figure of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, whose hymn (1 Sam 2) will be used for the composition of the Magnificat, and therefore afflicting her with anything did not serve his purpose
- the supporters of the addition have also invoked the presence of a different Christology in v. 35 ("son of God") compared to v. 32-33 ("son of the Most High"). But in fact the two titles are synonymous, as shown by an Aramaic fragment from Qumran (4Q243) where they are paralleled. To speak first of sons of the Most High and then of sons of God merely reproduces the sequence of the first creeds, as we see for example in Romans 1:3-4.
One conclusion is obvious: the whole annunciation story was composed by Luke and vv. 34-35 were always part of it.
- The Logic of Mary's Question in 1:34
The various proposals of biblical scholars to explain the question of Mary can be grouped into two categories.
- Psychological explanations
In the stages of marriage in Palestine (see Mt 1:18), Mary has already passed the stage of commitment, awaiting cohabitation. But when the angel tells her that she will bear a son, why does she ask the question "how? Where is the difficulty? Shouldn't she assume that the conception will take place at the time of cohabitation, eliminating of course the naive idea that the question would come from the fact that Mary had had no sexual education?
An old answer is to assume that Mary had already taken the vow of virginity and to rephrase the question: how is this possible, since I will not have sexual relations with a man? This theory has been popular in circles that believe that Mary was a virgin all her life. This theory assumes that her marriage to Joseph was a marriage of convenience in which he committed himself to her vow of virginity and to protect her from possible suitors. Supporting this theory is the image of Joseph as an elderly widower. This theory was very popular at the time when many Christian women entered ascetic and monastic orders to live a celibate life, especially in the 4th century when the persecutions ceased and a new way of living the requirement of martyrdom was sought. The earliest evidence for this theory comes from the East through Gregory of Nyssa in 386, but it appeared in the West through Ambrose and Augustine, and became the classic way of interpreting Lk 1:34. But although such an interpretation makes Mary's reaction intelligible, it is not plausible in the context of Palestinian Judaism: nothing can explain why a twelve-year-old girl would have wanted to enter into a marital contract with the intention of preserving her virginity, and thus not having a child, especially when one knows that not having a child was a "disgrace" (1:25) at the time.
Other biblical scholars have tried to defend the theory of Mary's vow of virginity by referring to the sect at Qumran that placed a high value on virginity and celibacy. In fact, the Qumran scrolls say very little on the subject, and the description of Essene celibacy comes from authors like Josephus, Philo and Pliny, and what is inferred is simply that their celibacy is an extension of the abstinence required of priests before offering sacrifices in the temple. All this is temporary, and the priority remains to produce children to preserve the Zadokite lineage. In any case, all this does not shed any light on the vow of virginity of a village girl who has already entered into a matrimonial contract.
Some biblical scholars have proposed that Mary meditated on Isaiah 7:14 ("Behold, the young woman is with child and will bear a son, and she will call his name Emmanuel"), and understood that the Messiah must be born of a virgin. This explanation is not plausible: first of all, there is no allusion to Isa 7:14 in Lk 1:34, secondly, there is no evidence that the Jews read this passage in a messianic perspective, and thirdly, the passage contains no allusion to a virginal conception.
While rejecting the theory of Mary's vow of virginity, some biblical scholars have proposed that v. 31 is a present tense verb: "you are conceiving and giving birth to a son," and that Mary's question becomes, "How can this be? I have not had sexual relations with a man". Although the verbs with the participial form in Hebrews in the annunciation narratives can be understood as present or future tense, in Luke the verbs are clearly in the future tense. And here, to imagine a present tense would violate Luke's intention to subject Jesus' conception to Mary's free acceptance.
Another proposal by biblical scholars is to imagine that in an original account Mary was simply an unmarried virgin. In such a context Mary's question about the possibility of conceiving in such a situation is self-evident. But Luke would have had an independent tradition in hand, reflected in 2:4-5 (where Joseph is of the House of David, and Mary is his betrothed), and so would have modified the original account, in particular by adding in v. 27: "to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David". All this would have made Mary's reaction in v. 34 incomprehensible, whereas everything was understandable before. Such a proposal poses more problems than it solves: why would Luke have introduced a story related to the Davidic lineage, when it was not mentioned in the original story? This proposal also destroys the parallelism between the two announcements where the objection is part of the basic structure and offers a sign.
In short, neither of these propositions is really acceptable.
- Literary explanation
This explanation assumes that Mary's response can be clearly explained with the actual text, and it abolishes any response based on the psychological and historical dialogue between the angel Gabriel and Mary. It assumes that we are dealing with a composition by Luke that intends to inform, not Mary, but the reader how the child was conceived and what his identity is.
Vs. 34-35 reflect the standard structure of birth announcements, especially steps 4 and 5 (the objection and the reassurance by a sign). And so the "how" in Mary's mouth and the angel's response is Luke's way of explaining the identity of the Davidic Messiah whose birth has just been announced in vv. 31-33, i.e., son of God begotten by the power of the Holy Spirit. V. 34 vocalizes in Mary's mouth the objection of the reader who has learned in v. 27 that Mary was a virgin; the idea is to invoke a human impossibility that God must overcome. What guides Luke in the writing of his account is the tradition that he receives where the divine plan excludes a human conception of the child. And so, with the conjunction "since" ruling out human intervention, Luke can explain the intervention of God's creative force. Thus, both Mary and the angel are spokespersons for Luke's Christological message and offer us the portrait of the conception of the Messiah as the son of God, a conception not by sexual intercourse (which Mary explains), but the Holy Spirit (which Gabriel explains).
The annunciation of a Davidic Messiah and a son of God by the action of the Holy Spirit is part of a pre-Gospel tradition. It is possible that it was the popular tradition of a Davidic Messiah that later became the vehicle for a Christological affirmation of the begetting of the son of God. In any case, it is from such a tradition that Matthew and Luke composed their birth narratives, each elaborating it in their own way.
- The Future Accomplishments of the Child (1:32.33.35)
We have argued that Luke follows the standard structure of the annunciation narratives which explain much of his composition. At the same time, we have argued that there are elements that cannot come from this structure, in particular the idea of a virginal conception. Now we must consider another element that cannot be explained by this structure, i.e. the details of the child's future accomplishments. Let us say at once that if Matthew insisted above all on Jesus as the son of David, and that he was not conceived physically through Joseph, of Davidic lineage, but through the action of the Holy Spirit, who made him Emmanuel or son of God (Mt 2:15), Luke does a little of the same, but speaking rather of a Davidic Messiah (vv. 32-33) and, in a clearer way than Matthew, of "son of God" (v. 35).
- The Davidic Messiah (32-33)
The pre-evangelical tradition that Luke uses probably already contained the theme of the birth of the Davidic messiah, inspired by 2 Samuel 7:8-10, the promise of the prophet Nathan to David, which served as the basis for the messianic expectation. Let us compare Luke's text with Samuel's, underlining the crucial phrases.
|Luke 1: 32-33||2 Samuel 7|
|32a He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.
||9 I shall make for you a great name...|
|32b And the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David;
||13 I shall establish the throne of his kingdom forever.|
|33a and he will be king over the House of Jacob forever,
||14 I shall be his father, and he will be my son...|
|33b and there will be no end to his kingdom."
||16 And your house and your kingdom will be made sure forever.|
This promise to David is echoed in several royal psalms concerning the coronation and lineage of a Davidic king: Ps 2:7 (which Luke applies to Jesus in 3:22); Ps 89:30 (29): "I will establish his dynasty forever, and his throne for the duration of heaven.
It is possible that the annunciation of a Davidic messiah existed in pre-Christian Judaism, as evidenced by this pesher (interpretation of Scripture) found at Qumran. We have placed the selected text of 2 Sam 7 and the Qumran commentary side by side.
|2 Samuel 7||4Q174, line 10-13|
|11. The Lord declares that He will build you a House. 12 I shall raise up your lineage after you. 13 I shall establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I shall be his father, and he will be my son.||The "he" is the Shoot [ṣemaḥ] of David who will arise with the Interpreter of the Law who [will rule] in Zion in the last days. At is it written, "I shall raise up the fallen hut of David" [Amos 9:11] -- the "fallen hut of David" is he who shall arise to save Israel.|
As can be seen, the Qumran interpretation shifts the emphasis from a succession of kings to a single Davidic king, the messianic seed that will arise in the last days; likewise, it is no longer a succession of endless reigns, but an eschatological description of the last days. Luke does the same thing, but for him it is Jesus who is this seed. In a way, vv. 32-33 are not particularly Christian, except that the expected Messiah is Jesus.
- The Son of God through the Power of the Holy Spirit (35)
It is in the answer to Mary's question that Luke gives us the most Christological aspect of Jesus' identity:
35b The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
35c and power from the Most High will overshadow you.
35d Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy - Son of God
Here again we have echoes of the OT such as Isa 11:1-2 ("A branch will come forth from the stump of Jesse...upon it will rest the Spirit of the Lord...") or Isa 4:2-3 ("In that day, what the Lord will cause to sprout...the survivors of Jerusalem will be called holy...). But Luke combines all these ideas to take us beyond the Jewish expectation into the world of early Christian faith. For the Holy Spirit and the power of the Most High do not come upon a Davidic king, but upon his mother; it is no longer a question of God's adoption of a son at the time of the king's coronation, but of the conception of a son in Mary's womb by the creative power of God.
These are the first creeds that can shed light on what Luke intends to express here, such as Rom 1:3-4
3 Born of the seed of David according to the flesh,
4 designated Son of God in power according to the Holy Spirit [Spirit of Holiness] as of resurrection from [of] the dead.
Here Paul takes up a pre-Pauline formula. The movement goes from Davidic descent to conclude with "son of God", just as in Luke it goes from the Davidic Messiah (v. 32-33) to conclude with "son of God". In both Paul and Luke the same group of words appear: son of God, power, Holy Spirit. All this is not by chance. For Paul, the Christological moment when Jesus is recognized as the son of God takes place at the moment of his resurrection from the dead, but by the time the gospels are written, this Christological moment has shifted to begin with the baptism of Jesus with the same words (power, Holy Spirit, son of God; see Acts 10:37-38). And now, in his infancy narrative, Luke has moved this Christological moment to begin at Jesus' conception with the same words. However, there is a significant difference: whereas the enthronement of Jesus either at the resurrection or at his baptism involved a symbolic begetting, here in the birth narrative the begetting is more literal: by covering Mary with his shadow the Holy Spirit really begets the child as the son of God. There is nothing sexual about this begetting and the Holy Spirit does not replace the male principle in a sexual relationship with Mary; rather, it is the creative power of God.
When we compare the annunciation to Zechariah and to Mary, the contrasts are striking.
- Elizabeth is barren and God cooperates with the husband to give birth to the child, while Mary is not barren, but rather is a virgin, and thus God's action will be totally her own.
- The annunciation to Zechariah the priest takes place in the temple, in continuity with Jewish institutions, while the annunciation to Mary will take place in Nazareth, a place where there is no expectation in the OT, a sign of the newness of what God is undertaking
- The prophetic spirit filled John the Baptist from his mother's womb, while the Spirit comes upon Mary much as the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters in the creation story, when the earth was deserted and empty, but this time the Spirit fills the emptiness of Mary's womb with a child who is His Son
- In the annunciation to Zechariah, God answers the prayer of the elderly couple who wanted a child, while with Mary, still a virgin, there is no expectation of a child, and so we are faced with the free initiative of God
- The annunciation to Zechariah mentions the evil of not believing ("you did not believe in my words", 1, 17d), while the announcement to Mary is only positive, reflecting a good creation by the Creator
There is, however, an expression in the Christological formulations that has not been mentioned when referring to the Christological moment of Jesus' resurrection or baptism: "will overshadow you". However, the expression appears in Luke's account of the transfiguration (9:34ff. and par.) where the cloud signals the divine presence that covers those present and a voice from heaven: "This is my Son". It is a parallel story to that of the baptism of Jesus: in one case a cloud covers, in the other the Holy Spirit descends; but in both cases the divine voice gives the same message. The baptism reveals to the reader the Christological mystery of divine sonship, while the transfiguration reveals it to chosen disciples. Both accounts offer an alternative way of expressing how God is active in establishing and confirming this sonship. Thus, Luke is correct in placing the two images in parallel: 1:35b and 1:35c.
Thus, for Luke, not only is Jesus the Davidic Messiah who became son of God at his resurrection as Paul asserts, he was son of God from birth.
- The Portrait of Mary as Handmaid (1:38)
Mary reacts to the angel's response with these words: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it happen to me according to your word". There is no equivalent in the parallel annunciation to Zechariah. And this is not part of the standard structure of a birth announcement. What then did Luke rely on to introduce these words of Mary? The answer lies in what the account of Jesus' ministry says about her.
There is only one real scene in the synoptic tradition in which Mary plays a role, reported by Mark and repeated by Luke and Matthew. Let us compare the text of Mark and Luke, underlining the words in common and italicizing what is particular to each evangelist.
|Mark 3: 20-21.31-35||Lk 8: 19-21|
|20 And he came to (the) house and the crowd gathered there again, so that they could not even eat bread.21
And when they heard, his own people went out to seize him, for they said, "He is out of his mind.|
|31 And come and his mother and his brothers and, standing outside, they sent him (someone) to call him. ||19
Now came near him his mother and his brothers, and they could not reach him because of the crowd.|
And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, "Behold, your mother and your brothers and your sisters, outside, are looking for you. " 33
And answering them, he said, "Who is my mother, and my brothers?"||20
He was told, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside desiring to see you."|
And looking at those who sat in a circle around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers: 35 he who does the will of God, that one is my brother and (my) sister and (my) mother."||21
He, responding, said to them, "My mother and brothers, are those who hear the word of God and do it.|
Mark's presentation of Jesus' family is very harsh: they think he has lost his mind, a way of saying that they are not believers. And Mark in vv. 32-35 creates a kind of opposition between the family of Jesus, who remained outside, and those inside, sitting in a circle around him and on whom Jesus looks, saying: "Here are my mother and my brothers". This replacement of the natural family by the spiritual family could be seen as a rejection, especially when we see that later on Mark (6:4) will have this scene where Jesus complains that a prophet "is despised only in his own country, in his own kindred and in his own house".
Luke, who has this text of Mark in front of him, modifies it completely. First of all, he omits vv. 20-21, where Jesus' family judges that he has lost his mind. He also omits the question in v. 33 of Mark ("Who is my mother, and my brothers?"). In short, he has omitted everything that creates an opposition between Jesus' family and those who believe in him. For Luke, "my mother and my brothers" who listen to the word of God include his natural family. And of course, when he takes up Mk 6:4 (the prophet despised in his homeland, his kinship and his house) in Lk 4:24, he completely eliminates the allusion to kinship and house, so that Jesus only complains that a prophet "is not well received in his homeland". Similarly, when he describes the prayer meeting of the young Christian community of 120 people, he logically includes "Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers." (Acts 1:14).
It is in this context that we must understand why Luke has put these words of our v. 35 on Mary's lips: she is one of those who "listen to the word of God and do it". It is not necessary to assume a special source from which Luke drew: he had only to reflect his description of the only appearance Mary makes in his gospel. He also speaks for a Christian intuition that the virginal conception was the beginning of Mary's confrontation with God's mysterious plan. And in this first confrontation, Luke assures us that Mary showed herself to be the ideal disciple: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it happen to me according to your word".
The whole of vv. 36-38 also sheds light on Mary's reaction. In v. 36 we return to the theme of the six months during which Elizabeth was isolated, so that her pregnancy is a sign and good news revealed to Mary. And Luke returns with a reference to Abraham and Sarah, for when Sarah heard the announcement that she would be pregnant, she laughed, skeptical; then the Lord said, "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" (Gen 18:14). This is echoed by Gabriel in v. 37: "Nothing said by God can be impossible". In this context, Luke presents Mary's opposite response to Sarah, a response he borrows in part from that of Hannah, the mother of Samuel: "May your servant find favor in your sight" (1 Sam 1:18). With great art, by ending this scene with an allusion to Samuel's mother, Luke prepares us for the Magnificat, a narrative that parallels Hannah's hymn in 1 Sam 2:1-10.
- Mary and Old Testament Symbolism
Since the annunciation of Jesus' birth is made to a female figure in Luke, and not to a male figure as in Matthew, some biblical scholars have tried hard to see a symbolism from the OT. Let's take a closer look.
- Daughter of Zion in the Old Testament
Before speaking of Mary as "daughter of Zion", we must first know the meaning of the word. Let us recall that Zion was originally the name of the fortified hill south of pre-Israelite Jerusalem; David's first feat of arms was to conquer the "fortress of Zion" (2 Sam 5:6-10). As the city expanded northward, the name Zion came to designate the hill on which the temple is located, and later it designated the western hill. For practical purposes, Zion could be said to refer to all of Jerusalem.
Now, the expression "daughter of" in a geographical context refers to a subdivision, whether of a country, a city or a village. Thus the cities of a country are the daughters of the country ("daughters of Judah," Ps 97:8; "daughters of the Philistines," Ezek 16:27), just as the daughters of a city or village are suburbs ("Heshbon and its daughters," Num 21:25; "Bethshan and its daughters," Jos 17:11).
The expression "daughter of Zion" appears for the first time in Micah 1:13 (around 700 BC), and would designate a new district of Jerusalem, north of the temple, where refugees had fled from the Northern Kingdom after the fall of Samaria in 721 BC. These were poor and displaced people in need of the prophet Micah's encouragement and message of hope. Eventually, as a part can refer to the whole, "daughter of Zion" came to personify all of Jerusalem, and even all of Judah or Israel. But the connotation of poor and miserable people remained.
Before returning to Mary, we need to examine the term "virgin" as applied to Zion in the OT. The ravaging of nations and cities by foreign conquerors was often compared to the rape of a virgin, and most OT references to Israel or Zion as a virgin refer to a state of oppression, and even misguidance of a person giving in to the love desires of strangers and unfaithful to God.
Therefore, we can conclude that the passages concerning a virgin of Zion or of Israel are quite inappropriate as a background to Luke's description of Mary as a virgin. It is true that she may be one of the poor, but she is not an oppressed woman, and she is totally faithful to the word of God.
- The Salutation in 1:28
While abandoning the reference to the virgin in the OT, a number of biblical scholars nevertheless see a reference to the "daughter of Zion" in the annunciation to Mary, especially in the greeting of v. 28, interpreted in the light of vv. 30-31.
|v. 28||v. 30-31|
|Chaire ("Hail") = "Rejoice"||"Do not be afraid"|
|kecharitōmenē ("favored one") = "Full of grace"||"You have found favor (charis) with God|
|"The Lord is with you"||"You will conceive in your womb"|
Let's analyze each of these three lines.
- Chaire as "Rejoice"
It is true that the verb chairein literally means: to rejoice. But in the everyday life of the Greek world Luke addresses, it means: hail, hello, good day, greetings, and has been translated in Latin as ave, in Syriac of the Peshitta as the equivalent of "peace" (the equivalent of the Hebrew "shālôm" for greeting).
Despite all this, some biblical scholars are adamant about translating chaire as "rejoice". According to them, Luke should have used eirēnē (peace; Heb. shālôm) if he had meant to express a simple greeting, since this is the usual formula in a milieu with a Semitic background. To this we must reply that Luke understands very well the difference between chaire and eirēnē: when he uses eirēnē in 10:5 and 24:36, the vocabulary comes from a source that speaks of peace; but when he is in a free composition, as in the annunciation to Mary, he chooses the standard meaning of chaire in the Greek world.
Proponents of "rejoice" use Zephaniah 3:14-17 especially as an argument. Let us take a selection from the text of Zephaniah against the text of Luke.
|LXX Zephaniah 3: 14-17||Luke 1: 28.30-31|
|Rejoice (chaire), O Daughter of Zion,...||Rejoice (chaire), O favored one,|
|The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst (en mesō sou)||the Lord is with you (meta sou)|
|Take heart, Zion...||Do not be afraid, Mary,|
|The Lord your God is in you (en soi);||for you have found favor with God...|
|the Mighty One will save you.||You will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son.|
We make this connection because the text of Zephaniah with "the Lord is in your midst" and "the Lord is in you" evokes the "Lord is with you" of Luke and the fact that Mary has a child in her womb. But the first question to ask is: when hearing Gabriel's greeting to Mary, would the Greek reader of Luke have perceived a link with the text of Zephaniah which does not speak of the birth of a child at all? In the Septuagint, the verb chaire does not always have a salvific meaning, and the Greek reader of Luke hears this word every day with the meaning of "hail", "hello". To take a contemporary example, if someone says "Goodby" today, will the reader see in it the religious connotation of the word's origin, i.e. God be with you? If Luke really wanted to evoke messianic joy, why did he not use a non-ambiguous verb like euphranein (to rejoice), as he does in 15:32 or Acts 2:26, a verb used by Zechariah 2:14-15 ("Rejoice [euphranein] O Daughter of Zion, for behold I come and dwell in your midst [en mesō sou], says the Lord").
In short, the Zephaniah text's argument with "rejoice" is too flimsy to think that Luke had this passage in mind or that he was thinking of Mary as a daughter of Zion. The verb that follows (kecharitōmenē) evokes God's favor through the Messiah and thus may evoke an atmosphere of joy, but this religious joy comes from the whole context, not from chaire.
- "The Lord is with you"
One of the arguments of proponents of the connection between the greeting to Mary and the Zephaniah text is the expression "the Lord is in your midst (en mesō sou)" (Zep 3:15). But this connection is extremely dubious. In Zephaniah it is a reference to the Lord in the temple or to His presence with the forces of His people (Ex 34:9). In Luke, on the other hand, it is an ordinary greeting, as in Ruth 2:4 ("Now Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, "The Lord be with you!"); its purpose is simply to reassure Mary that the divine visit is benevolent and that there is nothing to fear. If Luke intends to evoke a passage from the OT, it is rather Judg 6:12: "The angel of the Lord appeared to him (Gideon) and said, 'The Lord is with you, valiant warrior!", a context similar to that of Mary.
- Kecharitōmenē as "full of grace"
The discussion around this verb is not related to the phrase "daughter of Zion," but it does illustrate the tendency to want to extract from 1:28 every last drop of theology or Mariology. Of course, kecharitōmenē, which we have translated as "favored," carries a theological significance: it is usual for a birth announcement narrative to give attributes to the visionary in connection with the message being conveyed. For example, the differences in rank between Ishmael and Isaac is announced by qualifiers such as "Hagar, Sarah's handmaid" (Gen 16:8), and "Sarah, your wife" (Gen 17:15), or "son of David" attributed to Joseph in Mt 1:20, or "valiant warrior" attributed to Gideon (Judg 6:12). Thus, kecharitōmenē says something about the annunciation that follows.
Kecharitōmenē is the verb charitoō in the passive participle, a verb derived from the noun charis: grace, favor, charm. It means that Mary was favored by God, i.e. God did her a favor. This explains Mary's subsequent question as to what all this means. The angel's answer goes in the same direction: "You have found favor with God". And as the reader will learn, this grace or favor is that of conceiving the son of God.
Thus, the emphasis is on the favor granted by God, not on any intrinsic quality of Mary. This is why the translation of kecharitōmenē as "full of grace," which has come down to us in Latin as gratia plena, is too strong and has given rise to all sorts of derivations: that Mary would have possessed all the possible perfections of a creature. This is not Luke's message in the account of the annunciation.
- The Ark of the Covenant in 1:35?
Many biblical scholars who believe that Luke presented Mary as the "daughter of Zion" also believe that Luke also saw in Mary the Ark of the Covenant or the Tent of Divine Glory. Their argument is the phrase: "power from the Most High will overshadow you [episkiazein]" (1:35c). We saw earlier that "to overshadow" is a parallel expression to "the Holy Spirit will come upon you," an echo of the early Christology that appears at Jesus' baptism and transfiguration. Now, at the transfiguration, in addition to the cloud that covers the figures, there is Peter's proposal to build tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. All this evokes the cloud of God's glory that covered the Tent of God's presence in the desert (Ex 40:35; Num 9:18. 22), where the cloud that covered Mount Zion and the festive gatherings of the people (Isa 4:5), the cloud that covered the Israelites when they left their camps in the wilderness (Num 10:34); similarly, God covered his chosen ones with his shadow (Deut 33:12; Ps 91:4), and in the temple, the cherubim covered the ark of the covenant with their wings (Ex 25:20; 1 Chr 28:18)..
So, to imagine that Luke, by using the verb episkiazein (to overshadow) here about Mary, would propose to see in her the Tent or Ark of the Covenant which the divine presence covers with its shadow, or which contains that divine presence, is all pure supposition. In the OT, it is the cherubim, not God, who cover the Ark of the Covenant with their shadow, not to mention that the Ark and the Tent are not the only places that God covers with his presence..
We do not intend to deny the influence of the OT on Luke. On the contrary, we believe that his presentation of Mary as a mother who gives birth to a son is deeply influenced by OT figures, such as Hannah whose name means: filled with grace. Moreover, by emphasizing Mary's willing acceptance of God's word, Luke begins to associate her with the "poor" (anawim) of Israel who are totally dependent on God's support. This is what he will develop with the Magnificat.
- The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth
Translation of 1: 39-56
39 At that time Mary arose and went hastily into the hill country to a Judean city. 40 There she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 and when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby jumped in her womb; and she was filled with the Holy Spirit,
42 Elizabeth proclaimed with a loud cry:
42b "Blessed are you among women,
42c and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
43a Who am I
43b that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
44a For behold the moment your greeting sounded in my ears,
44b the baby in my womb jumped with gladness,
45a Fortunate is she who believed
45b that the Lord's words to her would find fulfillment."
46 And Mary said:
46b "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
47 and my spirit has found gladness in God my Savior:
48a Because He has regarded the low estate of His handmaid -
48b for behold, henceforth all generations will call me fortunate,
49a Because He who is mighty has done great things for me.
49b And holy is His name,
50a and His mercy is from generation to generation
50b on those who fear Him.
51a He has shown His strength with His arm;
51b He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52a He has put down the mighty from their thrones
52b and has exalted those of low degree.
53a He has filled the hungry with good things,
53b and the rich He has sent away empty.
54a He has helped His servant Israel
54b in remembrance of His mercy,
55a as He spoke unto our fathers,
55b to Abraham and his posterity forever."
56 Now Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned home.
- "At that time". Literally: "in those days". This chronological indication is less well defined than the opening of the previous section with "in the days of Herod". But it is comparable with "in those days" in Lk 2:1 and is typically Lucan.
- "arose (anistanai) and went. Luke uses anistanai three times as often as the rest of the NT. Here the verb has no specific meaning, except to mark the beginning of the action.
- "hastily". Why the hurry? Various psychological reasons have been suggested (to prevent the neighbors in Nazareth from knowing she is pregnant, or to show her determination), forgetting that we must put ourselves in Luke's perspective: to reflect Mary's obedience to the word revealed by the angel, a plan that includes Mary's pregnancy.
- "into the hill country to a Judean city". Luke has already mentioned that Zechariah did not live in Jerusalem (1:23). It is estimated that only one-fifth of the priests lived in Jerusalem; many lived in Judean cities (Neh 11:3; 1 Mac 2:1). Some biblical scholars find it implausible that a young girl would have undertaken a journey of several days from the hills of Galilee to the plain of Esdrelon, then to the mountains of Samaria before arriving in the hills of Judea. This is to forget that in Luke Judea sometimes means all of Palestine ("Herod, king of Judea", 1:5; "Jesus preached in the synagogues of Judea", 4:44), and therefore includes Galilee.
Luke literally writes: "in a city Judah" (eis polin Iouda), without the name of the city being in the genitive, i.e., noun complement (one would have expected instead eis polin tēs Ioudaias: "in a city of Judah"); Judah is here in an indeclinable form. Biblical scholars have proposed various explanations (a pre-Lucan source, a source translated from Hebrew, the name of a district of Jerusalem). In our opinion, Luke probably had only vague information about John the Baptist's parents, such as the fact that they were of a priestly class and that many priests lived in the vicinity of Jerusalem. He combined all of this with what certain passages in the OT said, such as 2 Sam 2:1: ("Shall I go to one of the cities of Judah? - eis mian tōn poleōn Iouda) where Judah is also in an indeclinable form, or 1 Sam 1:1 ("There was in the mountains of Ephraim") which speaks of the place of residence of Samuel's parents. This dependence on the OT would explain why Luke calls the region Judah, rather than Judea.
Tradition has refused to keep this city anonymous. Since the legend mistakenly made Zechariah a high priest (see note 1: 5), and since the high priests had a palace near Jerusalem, which the pilgrims of the 6th century identified with the town of Ain Karim, then tradition made this settlement about 5 miles west of Jerusalem the residence of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
- "the house of Zechariah". Some have suggested that this is a translation of the Hebrew Beth-zechariah, a city mentioned in 1 Mac 6:32, about 12 miles south of Jerusalem. This hypothesis presupposes that Luke is using a Semitic source, which we reject.
- "the baby jumped (skirtan) in her womb". The sentence begins with egeneto as Luke often does: "And it came to pass as ... the baby jumped" (see note 1:9). Some biblical scholars have seen the word skirtan (to jump) as a medical term for the movement of the baby in the womb, and thus would confirm that Luke was a physician (Col 4:14) and author of the gospel. But this verb is a general term for jumping, hopping, like sheep in a field, and it is applied to the baby in the womb in Gen 25:22.
- "she was filled with the Holy Spirit". In 1:15, Gabriel promised that John the Baptist would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb. That moment has arrived. Note that in Greek the word spirit has no definite article (see note 1: 15).
- "proclaimed (anaphōrein) with a loud cry". Literally: "she cried out with a great cry". Luke has allowed himself a form of tautology to translate the feeling of overflowing joy. The poetic parallelism of the first two lines (42bc) suggests that we are dealing with Elizabeth's canticle, a hymn of praise, to be followed by Mary's response, the Magnificat. This idea is supported by the fact that the Septuagint regularly uses the verb anaphōrein (to proclaim) in reference to liturgical music (1 Chr 15:28; 16:4.5.42).
- "Blessed (eulogēmenos) are you among women".
There are two groups of biblical words that must be kept distinct even though they both refer to the blessing of God
- The passive participial form: in Hebrew bārûk, in Greek eulogētes or eulogēmenos, in Latin benedictus, in English: blessed.
- The adjectival form: in Hebrew ʾāšrē, in Greek makarios, in Latin beatus, in English: fortunate or happy or blessed
The phrases in the NT where the adjectival form of the word occurs are called: beatitudes or macarisms (from the Greek makarios). They do not confer a blessing, but recognize an existing state of happiness or blessing; it is a proclamation that approves a situation, often meaning that eschatological joy has arrived. This is the case in Lk 1:45.48. But with eulogēmenos we have the passive participial form where God is usually addressed to be blessed by a human being. When this blessing extends to human beings, it takes the form of a wish for them to receive divine favor. Here, in v. 48, the Holy Spirit enables Elizabeth to recognize that this blessing or favor has already been granted by God to Mary. Note that Luke does not write: "more than other women", but "among women", because the same thing can happen to other women (Judg 5:24; Jdt 13:18).
- "blessed (eulogēmenos) is the fruit of your womb". As at the beginning of the verse, we have the passive participial form. The expression "fruit of the womb" is a Hebraism (Gen 30:2; Lam 2:20).
- "Who am I". Literally: "Whence this to me?
- "the mother of my Lord (kyrios)". The title kyrios undoubtedly refers to Jesus. See note on 1: 17.
- "For (gar) behold (idou)". We have already discussed the general use of idou in note on 1:20. Here we have the expression idou gar, which occurs six times in Luke, and only once in the rest of the NT (2 Cor 7:11). Of the six occurrences, three belong to the infancy narrative (here, and in 1:48; 2:10).
- "with gladness (agalliasis)". We do not have the word chara (joy) here, but agalliasis. The two words appear together in the promise to Zechariah in 1:14: "And you will have joy and gladness" (see Acts 2:26).
- "Fortunate (makarios)". On the difference between makarios and eulogēmenos (or the adjective eulogētos), see note on 1: 42. Macarisms are frequent in Luke and Matthew.
- "believed that the Lord's words to her would find fulfillment (teleiōsis)". Literally: "believed that that there would be a completion to the things spoken to her by the Lord". It is also possible to translate: "believed because there will be a completion," a translation promoted by the Vulgate and the Reformers. Even if the words were spoken by an angel, they are considered to have come from the Lord. The noun teleiōsis comes from the verb telein (to complete, to finish). Note that in 1:20, to describe the fact that the angel's promise will be fulfilled despite Zechariah's unbelief, Luke instead uses the verb plēroun (to fill, to fulfill), which is much more common to speak of the fulfillment of Scripture. But telelein and its synonym teleioun are also used (Jn 19:28).
- "And Mary said". The majority of the manuscripts support the "Mary" reading. But some of them present rather the reading "Elizabeth". More precisely:
- The old Latin a, b, l (the original version) from the 4th to the 8th century
- A manuscript of Irenaeus, Against the Heretics IV vii 1.
- Jerome's Latin translation of Origen's In Lucam Homiliae 7 (the mention of Elizabeth may come from Jerome rather than Origen)
- Niceta of Remesiana (Serbia), De psalmodiae bono (or De utilitate hymnorum), bishop around the year 400 would be the earliest witness to this reading and would confirm that this version of the Magnificat would be restricted around Italy
The textual witnesses are so limited to the Latin world that they would not have received much attention except for the support of a number of biblical scholars over the past 100 years. It has been suggested that the original text of Luke simply said, "And she said," and the majority of scribes would have interpreted this as referring to Mary, while others would have understood it to mean Elizabeth.
To resolve this issue, consider the following.
- Some lines of the Magnificat are more appropriate for Elizabeth ("regarded the low estate" = barren state, "He who is mighty has done great things for me"), while others are more appropriate for Mary ("His handmaid", "blessed" refers to "blessed is she who has believed"). This is not decisive, since it is likely that originally this was a general hymn for the oppressed of Israel, which Luke would have adapted to the present context in v. 48, and this verse fits better with Mary than with Elizabeth
- The mention of Mary in v. 46 and the repetition of her name after the Magnificat in v. 56 is strange; the sequence would be more harmonious if in v. 46 it were Elizabeth's name that appeared. But then Elizabeth would be mentioned twice in a row in vv. 41-42 and 46. The solution will be presented in our commentary: the Magnificat would have been introduced by Luke in a second stage and that originally v. 45 was followed by v. 56.
- Why did Luke place the Magnificat during the visit to Elizabeth, and not after the annunciation to Mary or after the birth of Jesus? This is probably a literary approach where Mary's hymn is a response to Elizabeth's hymn of praise.
- The Magnificat uses Hannah's song in 1 Samuel 2 as a model. One might think that Hannah's barren situation is closer to Elizabeth's. But then why did Luke omit 1 Sam 2:5 ("So the barren woman gives birth seven times, and the fruitful mother withers") which would have clearly referred to Elizabeth's situation? The whole of Hannah's hymn may describe Mary's situation.
- Proponents of Elizabeth argue that, textually, it is easier to understand that copyists would have replaced Elizabeth's name with that of Mary, who was the object of devotion, than vice versa. But this argument loses all its force if the original text was: "And she said".
- The strongest argument for assigning the Magnificat to Mary derives from the fact that in the second stage of his editing, Luke would have inserted both the Magnificat and the Benedictus. His intention was probably to attribute these two hymns of praise to the two recipients of the annunciations, Mary and Zechariah. Why was the Magnificat not inserted after the birth of Jesus, as the Benedictus was after the birth of John the Baptist? It is because the birth of Jesus is already greeted by the angelic canticle, the Gloria, and by the canticle of Simeon, the Nunc Dimitis.
In short, the question is difficult, but the best answer is the one where Luke assigns the Magnificat to Mary.
- "My soul (psychē)... and my spirit (pneuma)". Although psychē and pneuma represent two different components of the person in Hebrew and Greek anthropology, here in this parallelism they are identical and mean: "I" (see Job 12:10 "Has he not in his hand the life [psychē] of all that exists and the breath [pneuma] of every man?" and Wis 15:11 "because he has disregarded Him who created him, who endowed him with a creative soul [psychē], who inspired him with the spirit [pneuma] of life").
- "proclaims the greatness (megalunein)". Literally: "magnify", as in Ps 69:31 ("I will be able ... to magnify him with thanksgiving") and Sir 43:31 ("Who will magnify him to the extent that he is?").
- "has found gladness (agallan)". The verb agallan (to find joy, to rejoice) is here in the aorist tense (past tense and completed), whereas "to magnify" in the previous verse was in the present tense. See note on gladness in v. 44.
- "God my Savior (sōtēr)". In the Septuagint, sōtēr is applied far more often to God (35 times) than to men (5 times). See Ps 24:5 ("For you, O God, are my Savior, and I have waited for you all day") and Isa 12:2 ("This is my God and my Savior; in him I will put my trust").
- "Because (hoti)". For proponents of a Hebrew origin to the Magnificat, the conjunction hoti would translate the Hebrew kî, a conjunction used by several psalms to present the list of reasons to praise God.
- "low estate (tapeinōsis)". Other translations of tapeinōsis are possible: humility, humiliation, poverty, barrenness. In the OT, the word often describes the persecution or oppression from which God delivers his people (e.g., Deut 26:7; Ps 136:23). In 1 Samuel 1:11 (the story of Hannah), which is almost certainly the background to the Magnificat, tapeinōsis translates the Hebrew ʿŏnî, a word related to the concept of Anawim.
- "handmaid". A repetition of Mary's self-description in v. 38.
- "for behold". A very Lucan expression. See 1: 44.
- "henceforth (apo tou nyn)". Literally: "from now on". This expression appears six times in Luke/Acts and only once elsewhere (2 Cor 5:16). In most cases it refers to the moment of salvation (12:52; 22:18; 22:69; Acts 18:6).
- "call me fortunate (makarizein)".
The verb makarizein (to esteem happy, proclaim or call blessed) is related to the noun makarios; see note on v. 42.
- "He who is mighty (dynatos)". In the Septuagint dynatos often refers to a human being, but in Zeph 3:17 the Lord is given this title in the sense of "Mighty Warrior", translating the Hebrew Gibbôr.
- "great things (megala)". The word megala belongs to a set of expressions for God's marvelous achievements in the exodus (Deut 10:21; 11:7; Judg 2:7).
- "holy (hagios) is His name".
Although hagios here is an adjective, it could be translated as a noun: the Holy One. The God of Israel is holy (Lev 11:44-45; 1 Pet 1:16).
- "His mercy (eleos)".
Eleos is the Greek translation of the Hebrew ḥesed, the love of the covenant God who chose Israel as a partner without merit on his part (Ex 34: 6; 2 Sam 7: 15).
- "from generation to gen".
This Greek expression eis geneas kai geneas is not found as it is in the Septuagint, but only in the Testament of Levi 18:8.
- "those who fear Him". Fear is the fundamental reaction of the OT in recognizing the sovereignty of God.
- "He has shown His strength". Literally: "has made strength", an expression that is not of Greek origin. This phrase should be read as a parallel to God's other actions: "He scattered the proud", "He brought down the mighty", etc. The beneficiaries of God's power are those who fear him. This strength does not only consist in saving the poor, but also in punishing the enemies.
- "with His arm". This is a common Semitic expression for the great deeds of God in liberating Israel from Egypt: "I will deliver you with an outstretched arm" (Ex 6:6; Deut 4:34).
- "the proud (hyperēphanos)". The proud person is the one who looks down on others, because he does not want to look up to God, and in the Bible the proud person is constantly presented as the enemy of God (Isa 13:11).
- "in the imagination of their hearts". The ability to reason is located in the heart (1 Chr 29:18), and therefore it can be the seat of pride: "The pride of your heart had made you drunk" (Obadiah 1:3).
- "the mighty (dynatēs)". Dynatēs can mean "potentate, prince" (Gen 50:4); and they can be rivals of God who is "the only Dynatēs" in 1 Tim 6:15, and whom Luke has called "mighty" (dynatos) in v. 49.
- "the rich He has sent away empty". It is a common idea in the Bible that the wealth of the rich will be taken away (Job 15:29; Jeremiah 17:11). Rather than saying that the rich have been impoverished, their emptiness is mentioned here to contrast with the good things given to the poor in the previous line. The contrasts in Hannah's hymn are more balanced by speaking of the hungry and the full, the poor and the rich. Luke uses the expression "sending away empty" in the parable of the murderous vinedressers (Lk 20:10-11).
- "He has helped (antilambanein)". The image behind antilambanein is that of taking hold of someone in order to sustain him. The same verb is used to describe God taking hold of his servant Israel from the ends of the earth (Isa 41:8-9).
- "His servant (pais) Israel". For the state of being a servant, pais is used here, rather than doulos as in v. 38 and 47. This is the term for Jacob or Israel in the servant songs in Deutero-Isaiah (41:8; 44:1; 45:4; etc.).
- "in remembrance (mimnēkein) of His mercy". Literally: "to remember his mercy"; the verb is in the infinitive. The same verb in the infinitive is also used in the Benedictus in v. 72 to define the help given. This could be a Semitic turn of phrase. On mercy, see note on v. 50.
- as He spoke unto (pros) our fathers. The fact that here we have the preposition pros followed by "fathers" in the accusative, and that the sentence that follows has Abraham in the dative instead, has raised doubts among some biblical scholars that 55a and 55b are really parallel. But Luke sometimes makes such variations.
- "about three months". The chronology is for Elizabeth's pregnancy, and this number must be added to the six months of 1:26,36. The calculation is based on a presumed pregnancy of ten lunar months (see note to 1:24), so Mary leaves just before the birth mentioned in 1:57.
- "returned (hypostrephein)". The verb hypostrephein is Lucan and occurs 33 times in Luke/Acts, compared to four times in the rest of the NT. For the theme of leaving to end a scene in the infancy narrative in Luke, see note on 1: 23.
- "home". At the time of the annunciation, Mary had not yet had sexual relations with Joseph, her betrothed, and therefore the cohabitation had not yet begun. If the annunciation took place in her home, and she then went in haste to Elizabeth's house, this means that she returned, not to Joseph's house, but to her parents' house. Luke never specifies when the cohabitation with Joseph began, although he mentions in 2:5 that she traveled with Joseph. It is not certain that Luke was familiar with the matrimonial customs of Palestine, those described in the note to Mt 1:18..
- The Structure and Composition of the Scene
We have already noted that Luke composed the two annunciation scenes as a well-balanced diptych (see the parallel structure). The visitation scene breaks this balance, unless we eliminate the Magnificat, which appears as a foreign body: then we would have the whole of 39-45.56 (Mary visits Elizabeth and she proclaims the praise of the Lord's mother) which becomes an epilogue to the narrative of the annunciation to Mary, in parallel to the epilogue to the annunciation to Zechariah. We have therefore proposed that the Magnificat was added to the narrative in a second stage of composition. With this proposal, we reject two approaches put forward by some biblical scholars.
- We reject the thesis of a pre-Lucan source on John the Baptist which would have begun in 1:5-25 and continued with the scene of the visitation: this thesis has no convincing argument. Apart from the Magnificat, the whole style is Lucan. And the dominant theme of Elizabeth with baby John the Baptist paying homage to Mary and Jesus is part of Luke's theology.
- We reject the thesis that there were pre-Lucan hymns to Mary in the early Church. First of all, no serious biblical scholar accepts the idea that the Magnificat was composed by Mary herself. Moreover, with the exception of v. 48, which is thought to be an addition by Luke, there is no reference to Mary in the Magnificat, which instead describes Israel, specifically the poor and oppressed remnant. It was Luke's idea to take this independent hymn and put it in the present context, because he judged that Mary belonged to the poor group. The situation is a little different for the hymn that Elizabeth addresses to Mary. Some biblical scholars have seen it as a pre-Lucan hymn that the early Christians sang in honor of Mary. Unfortunately, this is totally unlikely. For one thing, according to the earliest writings we have, Paul never names Mary or shows any interest in her, and Mark's only scene about her is not very favorable. On the other hand, the text is very Lucan and merely reflects his account of Jesus' ministry (see Lk 11:27-28: "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts you sucked...").
- The Visitation (1:39-45.56)
- Introduction: v. 39-41
The visitation begins in v. 40 with Mary's greeting to Elizabeth that ends her isolation. Just as it was by revelation that Mary had learned of Elizabeth's pregnancy, it is also by revelation that Elizabeth learns of Mary's situation, i.e. the action of the baby in her womb jumping of joy, greeting the beginning of the messianic age. Filled with the Holy Spirit, this is the first prophetic action of John the Baptist. This allows Elizabeth to perceive that not only is Mary carrying a child, but that this child is the Messiah. Indeed, had she not learned from the angel that her child would walk before the Lord? So the joy of her child can only be explained if she is the mother of her Lord. Now, as each mother has received the revelation of what God has done for the other, Luke puts in the mouths of each a song of praise, while respecting the superiority of Jesus over John the Baptist, as he did in the two annunciations: what God has done for Mary is greater than what he does for Elizabeth and Zechariah.
- Elizabeth's canticle: v. 42 and 45
Here we have echoes of OT motifs as well as an anticipation of the motifs that will appear in the gospel.
- "Blessed are you among women" (42b)
We have similar blessings for women in Israel's history. In her song, the prophetess Deborah proclaims, "Blessed be Yael among women" (Jdg 5:24); similarly, Uzziah proclaims to Judith, "Blessed be you, my daughter...among all the women who are on the earth" (Jdt 13:18). Yael and Judith are blessed because God used physically weak people to destroy a powerful enemy.
- "and blessed is the fruit of your womb" (42c)
This blessing is subordinate to the previous one: Mary is blessed among women in that the fruit of her womb is blessed. This reflects the blessing promised by Moses to Israel if Israel is faithful to the voice of God (like Mary to the word of her Lord, 1:38): "Blessed shall be the fruit [LXX: child] of your womb" (Deut 28:1.4). This suggests that this blessing is not only personal, for in conceiving the Messiah, Mary's role will have the dimension of a whole people.
- "Fortunate is she who believed" (45a)
This phrase anticipates what Luke will write in 11:27-28: "(a woman in the crowd said), 'Blessed is she who bore you and nursed you,' but Jesus said, 'Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.'" Like the woman in the crowd, Elizabeth first praised the mother who physically gives birth to the messiah (42bc). But just as Jesus corrected the woman in the crowd by locating the true bonds at the level of faith, so Elizabeth now raises her praise to the level of faith: blessed is she who has believed, i.e. who hears and observes the word of God. This faith concerns the virginal conception, the work of God's unique creative action, without the physical participation of a man. Faith is Mary's contribution, in contrast to Zechariah's initial attitude.
- "Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (v. 43)
The expression "mother of my Lord" indirectly evokes Ps 110:1: "The Lord said to my Lord". Luke mentions this psalm both in 24:41-44 and in Acts 2:34. According to the belief in Israel, it was David who wrote this psalm. Now the figure of Elizabeth may have evoked for Luke another scene that features David in 2 Samuel 6, a scene that also takes place in the mountainous region of Judea, as in the visitation. Having asked to bring the ark of the covenant to the outskirts of Jerusalem, David was suddenly afraid, remembering that it had caused the death of a man who had touched it, and he said, "How can the ark of the Lord come to me?" (2 Sam 6: 9). This question is similar to that of Elizabeth, especially since David decided to put the ark in a man's house for three months, just as Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months.
- For behold the moment your greeting sounded in my ears, the baby in my womb jumped with gladness" (v. 44)
This sentence is a repetition of what we learned in the introduction. It is a typical Lucan technique that we have seen in the two annunciation stories (v. 18 repeats v. 7; v. 34 repeats v. 27). It allows Luke to emphasize and remind us that it is through the prophetic action of John the Baptist in her womb that Elizabeth knows that Mary is the mother of her Lord. In doing so, Luke picks up on a familiar theme from the OT where babies in the womb anticipate their destiny (see Jacob and Esau in Gen 25:22-23). As a baby, the Baptist has already begun his ministry, the ministry as Luke knows it from the tradition reported by Mark.
- Conclusion: "Now Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned home" (v. 56)
We have already discussed the fact that, in an early stage of the infancy narrative, v. 56 followed 39-45 (Elizabeth's hymn). This very brief scene of Mary staying with Elizabeth for three months before returning home has given rise to much speculation by biblical scholars who have adopted a historical and psychological perspective: it is hard to understand why Mary abandoned Elizabeth when she was about to give birth and needed her, unless she rushed back to Joseph to avoid scandalous rumors about the origin of the baby, given that she was three months pregnant. This perspective completely ignores Luke's scenic dramatization of his theology: it is important that Mary disappear from the scene before the birth of John the Baptist is told. For the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus have their own well-balanced storyline, featuring both parents and the newborn child; having Mary in the scene of the Baptist's birth would have broken this balance. So why did Luke create this visitation scene? We saw that the evangelist wanted John the Baptist to be a parent of Jesus in order to fit him into the framework of Christian theology. The visitation allows him to dramatize this kinship.
- The Lucan Canticles in General
The Magnificat cannot be approached in isolation from all the other Lucan canticles: the Benedictus (1:67-79), the Gloria in Excelsis (2:13-14), and the Nunc Dimittis (2:28-32).
- The Composition of the Canticles
For now, let's set aside the Gloria for our discussion. In the debate about the origin of the hymns, there are four competing theories.
- The hymns would have been composed by those who proclaim them: the Magnificat by Mary, the Benedictus by Zechariah, the Nunc Dimittis by Simeon. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that these completed poetic works were composed on the spot by ordinary people. No serious biblical scholar supports this naive hypothesis.
- The hymns would have been composed by Luke at the same time as the whole infancy narrative. Unfortunately, this hypothesis is implausible, for the style of the hymns is too different from the rest of the narrative, and removing them would not only not detract from the flow of the narrative, but would make it more harmonious. Few biblical scholars support this hypothesis.
- The hymns were composed by Luke, but added in a second stage to the existing narrative. Several serious biblical scholars support this hypothesis.
- The hymns were not composed by Luke, but Luke added them as a second step to the existing narrative. In this hypothesis it is debated whether these hymns originated in Jewish or Jewish-Christian circles, and whether they were composed in the Greek or Semitic language. Many biblical scholars have adopted this hypothesis. For our part, we believe that these hymns are a Jewish Christian composition.
These hymns are reminiscent of the speeches found in the Acts of the Apostles where Luke gives the floor to Peter or Paul in certain scenes in order to clarify the action. This should not be seen as pure fiction, for Luke is trying to represent a certain type of piety that the hymn will express. Thus, he writes in 1:40 that Mary greeted Elizabeth, without giving us any words; the words will be given to us with the Magnificat. In 1:64 he writes that Zechariah began to praise God, without giving us any words; the words will be given to us with the Benedictus. In 2, 34-35 he writes that Simeon blessed the parents and spoke to Mary, the content of what was said appears rather with the Nunc Dimittis.
When we compare the hymns with each other, we note similarities and differences. Among the similarities we can say that they evoke a lot of the OT and certain intertestamental passages, so that we can speak of a mosaic of pieces taken from the OT that have been glued together. On the other hand, the poetic style varies a lot, whereas one finds much more poetic parallelism in the Magnificat than in the Benedictus. On the whole, the style is very Semitic, different from that of Luke, except for particular verses (1:48; 1:76-77).
The connection of the hymn with its context is remarkable, for it is almost independent of it. Indeed, the Benedictus does not apply specifically to the situation of Zechariah or John the Baptist, just as the Magnificat does not apply specifically to the situation of Mary or Jesus. For example, how do phrases like "showed his strength with his arm" (51a), or "he scattered the proud" (51b), or "he brought down the mighty from their thrones" (52a) apply to the conception of a child? If Luke had composed the hymns, he would have ensured greater overall harmony.
The most satisfactory solution to their origin is that these hymns were composed in a non-Lukean circle and were originally intended to praise God's salvific action without specific reference to the events of which Luke speaks in his infancy narrative. When Luke became aware of these hymns, he thought he could integrate them into his main plot with the minimum of effort, especially since the piety and the concept of salvation found in them corresponded to what could be expected from his main characters; all he had to do was add some fairly rough stitches.
Can we be more specific about the circle of writers behind these canticles? One can see a parallel between these hymns and the Jewish hymns and psalms in the literature that stretches from 200 BC to 100 AD, i.e., 1 Maccabees, Judith, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, the thanksgiving psalms at Qumran. Since these hymns exist in both Greek and Hebrew, it is difficult to determine whether those who composed the Lucan hymns were Greek or Hebrew speaking. For example, at times the Magnificat and the Benedictus seem to depend on the Septuagint; this may mean either that they were composed in Greek or that someone familiar with the Septuagint translated them from Hebrew.
- The Canticles and the Jewish Christian Anawim
Let us try to be more precise by proposing that these hymns would have come from Christian Jewish circles, particularly those marked by the piety of the Anawim. Recall that the word Anawim is the plural of the Hebrew word ʿānāw (poor, humble, afflicted), and related to the more generic word ʿŏnî (poverty, humiliation). Originally, the word may have referred to those who were physically poor, but it expanded to include those who no longer put their trust in their own strength, but in God's: the humble, the poor, the sick, the afflicted, the widows and orphans.
In the history of Israel, the Anawim have also been associated with the "small remnant". When the Northern Kingdom, called Israel, was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BC, the Southern Kingdom, called Judah, considered itself to be this small remnant. When the elite of the Southern Kingdom were sent into captivity to Babylon, first in 598 BC and then in 587 BC, those who remained in Palestine tended to consider themselves the small remnant. Eventually, under the impact of multiple defeats and persecutions, the small remnant was redefined not in tribal or historical terms, but in terms of piety and way of life. It is to them that a psalm such as Ps 149:4 refers: "For the Lord favors his people; he adorns the lowly (ʿănāwîm) with victory."
The Qumran community can be considered a sectarian group of Anawim. We first hear of them in 1 Maccabees 2:42 when some Hasideans (Ḥasîdîm or "pious") joined Mattathias, father of Judas Maccabees, outraged at the blasphemy of a Syrian king and his Hellenized Jewish allies. But the Hasideans distanced themselves from the Maccabees who had political ambitions to establish a dynasty, while their interest was above all religious. The rupture, recounted by 1 Mac 7:9-16, took place around 162 BC, and it seems that around 150 BC, after the Maccabees had usurped the role of high priest (which was to belong only to the Zadokite lineage), a group of Hasideans took refuge at the Dead Sea under the leadership of the Master of Justice, and became what we call the Qumran community. This sectarian group went off on a different tangent from the other Jewish Anawim by having their own interpretation of the Law under the direction of the Master of Justice, by living their community life apart, by opposing the Temple of Jerusalem, by changing their messianic hope to a Messiah of the House of Aaron, in addition to the Davidic Messiah. Nevertheless, this group had in common with the Anawim the sharing of goods, intense piety and the feeling of being persecuted. Among their writings are the Hodayoth (Psalms of Thanksgiving), in which the author describes himself as "the poor man" (perhaps the founder of the sect), and which has a great deal of stylistic kinship with the Lucan hymns. For example: "You have, O Lord, given assistance to the soul of the poor and needy against him who is stronger than He. You have redeemed my soul from the hand of the powerful" (1QH v 13-14).
It is possible, therefore, that Luke obtained these hymns from a similar Jewish Anawim community that had converted to the Christian faith. Unlike the Qumran community, it would have remained faithful to the temple and to Davidic messiaship. Considering the figure of Jesus who blessed the poor, the hungry, the afflicted, the persecuted, having been persecuted itself and having decided to put itself in God's hands until death, the Anawim community would have seen in this figure the fulfillment of messianic expectations. The hymns would then have served to express their gratitude to God for what he had accomplished in Jesus. This whole setting sheds light on the meaning of the Magnificat and the Benedictus. It should be noted that there is no deep Christology in these hymns, but only a truly basic Jewish concept of salvation.
Thus, Luke would have taken some of these hymns joyfully celebrating salvation in Jesus and inserted them into his infancy narrative, giving them a specificity that was not the original author's intention: the joy has been moved to apply now to the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist. Luke was all the more justified in his decision because his main characters embodied the piety of the Anawim: Mary is the servant of the Lord, faithful to his word and believing in the fulfillment of what was said to her; Zechariah was an upright priest of the temple who observed without fail the commandments and ordinances of the Lord with his wife, despite the ordeal of being childless; Simeon was an upright and devout older man, waiting for the consolation of Israel.
We should not think that these Jewish Christian Anawim are purely hypothetical. They are the ones Luke describes when he speaks of the Jewish community in Jerusalem (Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-37): they sold their possessions to give to the needy, they were assiduous in prayer and went regularly to the temple, they praised God without ceasing. The fact that the four hymns are proclaimed in the vicinity of Jerusalem perhaps gives us a clue to their place of composition.
Are we to conclude that the hymns are ancient hymns that would have been composed in the Semitic language, i.e. Aramaic or Hebrew, the language of the first Christians in Jerusalem? Not necessarily. The epistle of James is revealing in this regard, for it is a very Jewish text, marked by the mentality of the Anawim, but written in Greek quite late in the first century; it testifies that the poor man's attitude observed at the beginning among the Christians of Jerusalem continued in the churches of Diaspora Judaism until late in the first century and for whom James, a leader in Jerusalem, represented the authority. So it is not impossible that when Luke wrote his gospel in the second third of the first century, he got hold of hymns from a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian community, but influenced by the Jerusalem community.
- The Magnificat (1:46-55)
- The structure
Using the way biblical scholars categorize the psalms, the Magnificat is very similar to the hymns of praise. These are usually structured as follows:
- An introduction praising God
- The bordy of the hymn listing the motives ("for" or "because") of praise: His deeds for Israel or for the individual, and His attributes (power, wisdom, mercy)
- The conclusion that recapitulate some of the motives
The Magnificat has an introduction (46b-47) that proclaims the praise of God. The body of the hymn (48-53) lists the reasons for praise. But since v. 48 is probably an addition by Luke to make the hymn more specific to Mary, and where his vocabulary appears ("His servant," "for behold," "blessed"), the body of the original hymn begins instead in v. 49. The motives for praise include both God's attributes (mighty, holy, merciful) in vv. 49-50, and his deeds in vv. 51-53; thus the body of the hymn can be divided into two strophes. Finally, the conclusion summarizes what has been said in v. 59-53. The whole is put under the heading of the fulfillment of God's promises to the fathers.
Note the parallelism in these poetic lines, illustrated by this table with two columns:
|46b "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,||47 and my spirit has found gladness in God my Savior:|
|51a He has shown His strength with His arm;||51b He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.|
|52a He has put down the mighty from their thrones||52b and has exalted those of low degree|
|53a He has filled the hungry with good things,||53b and the rich He has sent away empty.|
- The Contents
We have already mentioned that the Magnificat resembles a mosaic made up of pieces from the OT and intertestamental literature. Before going into the details of the content, we must first establish this background represented by the following table.
|The Background of the Magnificat|
|46b My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord|
47 and my spirit has found gladness in God my Savior
|Ps 35: 9||Then my soul will find gladness in the Lord;|
it will take pleasure in His salvation.
|1 Sam 2: 1-2||(Hannah's humn):|
My heart is strengthened in the Lord;
my horn is exalted in my God...
I delight in your salvation.
|Hab 3: 18||(Habakkuk's humn)|
I shall find gladness in the Lord;
I shall rejoice in God my Savior.
|48a Because He has regarded the low estate of His handmaid|
|1 Sam 1: 11||(Hannah praying for a child)|
O Lord of Hosts, if you will look on the low estate of your handmaid,
|Gen 29: 32||(Leah after a childbirth)|
Because the Lord has regarded my low estate.
|IV Ezra 9: 45||(Zion speaking as a barren woman)|
God heard your handmaid and regarded my low estate,
and considered my distress and gave me a son.
|48b for behold, henceforth all generations will call me fortunate,|
|Gen 30, 13||(Leah after a childbirth)|
Fortunate am I, for all women call me fortunate.
|49a Because He who is mighty has done great things for me.|
|Deut 10: 21||(Moses to Israel)|
He is your God who has done great things in you.
|Zeph 3: 17||The Lord your God is in you, |
a Mighty One will save you.
|49b And holy is His name,|
|Ps 111: 9||Holy and awesome is His name.|
|50a and His mercy is from generation to generation|
50b on those who fear Him.
|Ps 103: 17||But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting|
upon those who fear Him
|Ps. of Solomon 13: 11||His mercy upon those who fear Him.|
|51a He has shown His strength with His arm;|
51b He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52a He has put down the mighty from their thrones
52b and has exalted those of low degree.
53a He has filled the hungry with good things,
53b and the rich He has sent away empty.
|1 Sam 2: 7-8||(Hannah's hymn)|
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
He reduces to lowliness and He lifts up.
He lifts the needy from the earth,
and from the dung heap He raises up the poor
to seat them with the mighty,
making them inherit a throne of glory.
|Ps 89: 11||(a hymn praising God's action for the Davidic king)|
You have reduced the proud to lowliness like a wounded thing;
and by your powerful arm you have scattered your ennemies.
|Sir 10: 14||He has put down the thrones of princes|
and has seated the humble before them
|Job 12: 19||He has overthrown the mighty.|
|1QM xiv 10-11||You have raised the fallen by your strength,|
and have cut down the high and mighty.
|Ezek 21: 31 (26)||Having reduced the proud to lowliness,|
and having exalted the man of low degree.
|Ps 107: 9||He has filled the soul of the hungry with good things.|
|54a He has helped His servant Israel|
54b in remembrance of His mercy,
55a as He spoke unto our fathers,
55b to Abraham and his posterity forever."
|Isa 41: 8-9||You, O Israel,|
my servant Jacob whom I chose,
seed of Abraham who I loved,
whom I have helped from the ends of the earth.
|Ps 98: 3||He has remembered His mercy to Jacob|
and His goodness to the House of Israel.
|Ps. of Solomon 10: 4||And the Lord will remember His servants in mercy.|
|Mic 7: 20||You will give truth to Jacob and mercy to Israel,|
as you have sworn to our fathers from days of old.
|2 Sam 22: 51||(David's hymn at the end of his life) |
Showing mercy to His anointed one,
to David and to his posterity forever.
- Introduction (46b-47)
The original hymn, said to have been composed by a Jew who became a Christian, celebrated the general salvation in Jesus Christ. The author probably believed that what the prophet Habakkuk (3:18) was looking for had now been realized. Luke, on the other hand, put this hymn on Mary's lips because he considered her to have been the first Christian disciple and spokesperson for the Anawim. He probably felt justified because he could find several precedents in the OT, such as Hannah, the mother of Samuel, who sang the Anawim hymn. And he could also let Mary speak of salvation, for once associated with the death/resurrection of Jesus, this salvation was now associated with the birth of Jesus. As a representative of the Anawim, she can proclaim the presence of the Messiah, a truth revealed to her. Even though Luke gives Mary much prominence with all these first person verbs, he never loses sight of the fact that this prominence is a gift from God: Mary has "found favor with God".
- First strophe (48-50)
Let us begin with v. 48. We have already pointed out that this verse is an insertion by Luke into the original hymn, where he reuses its vocabulary, such as servant (v. 38) or blessed (v. 45), which is also found in Hannah's hymn. The term "lowly estate" is usually applied in the OT to the barren woman, but Luke applies it to Mary who is not barren, but a virgin. For Luke, it is similar, because both situations represent an obstacle to having children (it is necessary to avoid projecting onto virginity the noble status that it will have in later Christianity). With the terms "handmaid" (i.e. a female slave) and low status, Luke associates Mary with all those poor people in the OT who can only rely on God's strength, whether they are childless women or oppressed people.
In vv. 49-50 we find the traditional language of the Anawim, e.g., "the Mighty One (ho dynatos)". In the OT, as seen in Zephaniah 3:17, God shows his power as a warrior in the battle to save Israel. For the Jewish Christian Anawim, this saving power was manifested in Jesus in his actions in his ministry (Acts 2:22). In the words of Mary, this power refers to the power of the Most High who overshadowed her in the conception of Jesus. All this illustrates the angel's statement: "Nothing said by God can be impossible" (1:38).
Another example of reinterpretation is v. 49b: "And holy is His name". In the OT, the perception that God is holy (Ps 111:9) comes from a statement of the God of the covenant (Lev 11:44-45). For the Jewish Christian Anawim, Jesus crucified and risen was the embodiment of God's holiness (Acts 3:14; 4:27,30). To Mary this holiness was revealed when she was told that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her and that she would bear a son, and he would therefore be holy.
As for the statement "and His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him", a common theme in the OT, Mary can testify to this through her personal experience.
- Second strophe (51-53)
In the second strophe, the motives for praising God are less personal and become more general. Vv. 52-53 have a certain proximity to the song of Hannah (1 Sam 2), which perhaps explains the parallelism of the verses (the powerful versus the lowly, the hungry versus the rich) with a form of Semitic inclusion. V.51 escapes this parallelism somewhat, for it extends v.50 ("those who fear Him") to speak of the situation of the Anawim who rely on God to show the strength of his arm, and thereby oppose the proud.
It is surprising that all the verbs are in the past tense (aorist in Greek), as if the salvation had taken place, even though Jesus had not yet been born. It should be remembered that this is a composition of a Jewish Christian Anawim after the death and resurrection of Jesus, expressing his feelings about the power of God who has scattered the proud and the powerful, the rulers and the princes who had gathered against his anointed one, i.e. the Messiah, and has exalted him to his right hand (Acts 4:24-27). By putting these words on Mary's lips, Luke projected onto Jesus' conception the post-paschal soteriological vision: with Jesus' conception, the victory had already begun.
Poverty and hunger are primarily spiritual in the Magnificat. But they are also physical, as the first Christians attest. The first followers of Jesus were from Galilee, the land that suffered from the lack of landowners, and the breeding ground for the first revolts against the oppression of occupation and the burden of taxation. The first Christian communities in Jerusalem were so poor that Paul had to organize a collection to help them (Gal 2:10; 1 Cor 16:1-4). An echo of the Christians of the Jewish Diaspora comes to us from the epistle of James who denounces the rich (5:1-6). For his part, Luke is the evangelist who most addresses the question of wealth (6:24-26; 12:19-20; 16:25; 21:1-4), an echo no doubt of his own community. With the Magnificat, he anticipates a number of themes in his gospel where wealth and power are not real values before God. By introducing it as a leitmotif, he already begins to speak of the scandal of the cross as part of the good news. And since he has made Mary the model of discipleship, it is only fitting that he places this hymn in the mouth of the one who described herself as a "handmaid", i.e. a slave woman.
- Conclusion (54-55)
It is now clear that the Jewish Christian Anawim sees himself as belonging to the new remnant of Israel that God has rescued, in memory of his covenant of mercy. This is consistent with the theme at the beginning of the hymn where Mary proclaims praise for her Savior. For this Anawim, "Abraham and his descendants" represents all of Israel. But Luke expands this notion of the sons of Abraham when the prophet John the Baptist, who jumped of joy in his mother's womb, proclaims: "God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones" (3:8); henceforth, the sons of Abraham include all peoples.
Thus ends this scene where two great figures met. Elizabeth's shorter song praised Mary as mother, and Mary's longer song transferred the praise to God who plays the main role in the drama of salvation. And this scene also confirmed the respective destinies of John the Baptist and Jesus.
- The Birth and Naming of John the Baptist; Zechariah's Prophecy
Translation of Luke 1: 57-80
57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 When her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown His great mercy to her, they rejoiced together with her.
59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60 "No, you don't," his mother intervened, "He is to be called John!" 61 But they argued with her, "There is no one in your family with that name." 62 So they made signs to the father to find out what he would want the child called. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and astonished all by inscribing, "John is to be his name." 64 With that, Zechariah was able to open his mouth; and with his tongue at last freed, he began to speak in praise of God. 65 This brought fear upon all their neighbors, and all these events were the talk of the whole hill country of Judea. 66 All stored up what they heard in their hearts, wondering "What then is this child going to be?" For the hand of the Lord was with him.
67 But Zechariah his father was filled with the Holy Spirit, so that he uttered this prophecy:
(in italic what was probably added by Luke to the hymn)
|68a|| "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel:|
|68b|| Because He has visited|
|68c|| and accomplished the redemption of His people,|
|69a|| and has raised up for us a horn of salvation|
|69b|| in the House of David His servant,|
|70|| as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old:|
|71a|| salvation from our enemies|
|71b|| and from the hand of all those who hate us,|
|72a|| Showing mercy to our fathers|
|72b|| and remembering His holy covenant,|
|73|| the oath which He swore to our father Abraham,|
To grant us 74 that, without fear,
Delivered from the hands of our enemies,
We might serve Him 75 in holiness and justice,
Before Him all the days of our live.
| || |
|76a|| But you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High;|
|76b|| for you will go before the Lord to make ready His ways,|
|77a|| to grant to His people knowledge of salvation|
|77b|| in the forgiveness of their sins.|
| || |
|78a|| Through the heartfelt mercy of our God|
|78b|| by which there has visited us a rising light from on high,|
|79a|| appearing to those who sat in darkness and the shadow of death,|
|79b|| guiding our feet into the way of peace.|
80 And as the child grew up, he became strong in Spirit, He stayed in the desert until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
- "the time came for Elizabeth to give birth". Literally: "for Elizabeth the time of her bearing was fulfilled". The Semitism "the days of her bearing were fulfilled" is used in Gen 25:24 to describe Rebekah giving birth to Jacob and Esau, and also by Lk 2:6 to describe the birth of Jesus. The time mentioned here is after Mary's three-month stay (1:56). On the ten lunar months of pregnancy, see note on 1: 24.
- "bore (gennan) a son. The same verb gennan is used in the promise to Zechariah in 1:13.
- "her neighbors and relatives heard". Elizabeth's pregnancy was unknown, because she had isolated herself (1:24) and only Mary learned of it by revelation after six months (1:36).
- "the Lord had shown His great (megalunein) mercy to her". Literally: "the Lord magnified his mercy to her". This is the same verb that is used at the beginning of the Magnificat and that we have translated as: "proclaim the greatness" (1:46). Luke's description could be an echo of Lot when he proclaims in Gen 19:19: LXX "Your servant has found mercy before you, and you have magnified your justice which you have done for me".
- "they rejoiced together with her". Both with her and for her. See Gen 21:6 on Sarah's laughter.
- "On the eighth day". Although circumcision may have originally been performed at puberty, the biblical law specifies the eighth day (Gen 17:12). This practice was observed for Isaac (Gen 21:4) and for Paul (Phil 3:5). According to what is known of the Jewish custom, witnesses were required and a blessing was pronounced.
- "they came to circumcise". Literally, "It happened (egeneto) ...they came". Another construction with egeneto (see note on 1: 9). Circumcision could be performed by a man or a woman (Ex 4:25).
- "the child (paidion)". The word paidion is used four times in this section (59, 66, 76, 80).
It is used for the newborn in Gen 17:12; 21:8, and also in Mt 2 (see note on Mt 2: 8) for Jesus - see Lk 2: 17.27.40.
- "to name him ...after his father". Literally: "to call him by the name of his father". The use of the preposition epi (by) with the verb kaloun (to name, to call) is attested in the Septuagint text of Neh 7:63. It is not known whether it was customary to name the child on the occasion of circumcision at that time, although this seems to be the case for Moses in the rabbinic tradition. In patriarchal times, the child was named at birth (Gen 4:1; 1:3; 25:25-26), but even then the naming and circumcising of the child was done in close proximity (Gen 17:5 and 10; 21:3 and 4). The custom of naming the child after the father is attested in the second century CE according to the legal documents of Wadi Murabba'at.
- "his mother intervened". In the patriarchal era, the mother as well as the father could give his name to the child (see note on Mt 1: 21), but in NT times this was usually the right of the father. The indication that Mary would give the name Jesus to her child because of the virginal conception is an understandable exception (see 2:21).
- "He is to be called John". Since Zechariah is mute, he could not inform Elizabeth about the angel's request. Luke probably wants his reader to see this as a spontaneous decision by Elizabeth and a confirmation of God's wonderful plan.
- "no one in your family with that name". Yet the name John is well known in priestly circles (John, the grandfather of Judas Maccabees, John Hyrcanus), and Elizabeth was of priestly lineage (1:5).
- "they made signs ". Luke assumes that Zechariah is not only mute, but also deaf (1: 22.64).
Indeed, since Zechariah was deaf, he did not hear Elizabeth say his name, so people were surprised when he chose the same name as his wife.
- "With that" (parachrēma)". This word parashrēma (immediately) is typically Lucan (17 occurrences out of a total of 19 in the NT).
- "Zechariah was able to open his mouth; and with his tongue at last freed". Literally: "His mouth was opened and his tongue". This is a zeugma, i.e. a figure of speech where the verb affects two words that are not on the same semantic level; for the verb "to open" is not appropriate for a tongue.
- "he began to speak in praise of God".
Zechariah regains the use of speech, and his first action is to praise God, which is appropriate in the circumstances.
- "This brought fear ". Literally: "fear came". Luke not only likes this Greek construction, but also this theme. Along with Zechariah (1:12) and Mary (1:30), he mentions fear in the face of an impressive divine intervention.
- "all their neighbors ...all these events ...the whole hill country". Luke wants to emphasize the magnitude of the events (the surprising name given to the child and the father regaining speech), as he demonstrates by inserting a hymn of praise. A similar reaction will follow the birth of Jesus (2:17-20). On "hill country", see note 1: 39).
- "were the talk of (dialalein)". The verb dialalein appears only here and in 6:11 throughout the NT.
- "All stored up what they heard in their hearts". Literally: "All who heard stored them up". This is a typically Lucan theme (2:19; 3:15; 5:22); a similar formula is found in 1 Sam 21:13; Dan 1:8; Mal 2:2.
- "What then is this child going to be?"
The use of the neuter "what" rather than "who" suggests that the issue is the child's role. The conjunction "then" (ara) is common in Luke.
- "the hand of the Lord was with him". The expression "hand of the Lord" is a particularity of Luke (see Acts 11:21).
- "But Zechariah his father". Luke contrasts Zechariah with "all who heard" and wondered what the child would be; Zechariah knows. Luke again identifies Zechariah as the subject, which is consistent with the thesis that Luke adds in vv. 67-79 in a second stage of his editing.
- "filled with the Holy Spirit". In Greek, "spirit" has no article here (see note 1: 15).
- "Blessed be (eulogētos)". Literally: "Blessed".
Elizabeth's hymn began with the verb eulogēmenos, while Zechariah begins with the adjective eulogētos (see note on 1: 42 for the translation). Since the hymn is addressed to God, the blessing is an exhortation, and so the meaning is: "blessed be", rather than "blessed is".
- "Because (hoti)". The conjunction hoti introduces the motif of praise, as in the Magnificat (see note on 1: 48).
- "visited (episkeptesthai)". The verb episkeptesthai (to examine) may have the connotation of inspecting and supervising; but in biblical Greek it refers to God's gracious visit, helping his people. This usage is frequent in the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (Levi 4:4; Judah 23:5; Asher 7:3), a work that betrays Jewish Christian influence with a vocabulary parallel to the Benedictus.
- "accomplished the redemption of His people". Literally: "he made redemption", a Semitism, though the expression is not found in the biblical Greek. It must be assumed that redemption is from enemies (71a) or "from the hand of enemies" (74).
- "raised up (egeirein) for us a horn of salvation". A raised horn is an OT metaphor probably derived from the image of the ox or bull standing alert in all its strength, and subsequently referring to the horned helmet of the victorious warrior. This fits well with the Jewish expectation of a triumphant messiah from the house of David. To express the idea of raising a horn, the Septuagint uses the verbs hypsoun (to lift), epairein (to raise), exanatellein (to spring up), whereas here we have the verb egeirein (to awaken, to rise), used in the imagery of God raising people (judges, priests and kings). Its use in the Jewish Christian canticle suggests that the "horn of salvation" was personified in Jesus the Savior whom God raised up (Lk 7:16; Acts 4:10,12). There is a parallel here with the Magnificat (1:47). The variations around "savior" and "salvation" (sōtēr, sōtēra, sōtērion) is peculiar to Luke and frequent in the infancy narrative.
- "David His servant". In the Bible, the pais (servant) of God is Israel, as in the Magnificat (1:54). The only other instance where David is called a servant is in Acts 4:25. Nevertheless, this is well attested in Judaism contemporary with the early Christians, especially in the prayers (1 Mac 4:30; 4 Ezra 3:23; the fifteenth blessing of the Shemoneh Esreh). It continues in the Christian liturgy used by the Didache ix 2.
- "by the mouth". The use of this expression to designate an oracle in the OT appears in 2 Chr 36:22, in reference to the words of Jeremiah. In the NT, it is a peculiarity of Luke and is attested in particular in the speeches associated with the primitive community of Jerusalem (Acts 1:16; 3:18.21; 4:25).
- "holy prophets from of old". This is good Greek style and sounds like Acts 3:21. Luke likes the adjective "holy," and the phrase "of old" appears elsewhere in the NT only in Acts (3:21; 15:18; see LXX Gen 6:4). The phrase "holy prophets" is found only in the late Septuagint (Wis 11:1); see also 2 Baruch 85:1.
- "Showing mercy ...remembering". Literally: "to make mercy ...to remember". These two infinitive verbs without an article in the Greek define God's help and present it primarily as a result, rather than an intention; this reflects a Semitic construction (see note on 1:54). The phrase "to make mercy with" reflects a Hebrew expression for goodness (ḥesed) in God's covenant, which here and in 1:50 is translated into Greek as "mercy."
- "remembering His holy covenant". With ḥesed, the Hebrew also uses the verb "to keep" in addition to "to make." The words "mercy" and "covenant" reflect two facets of the same reality: it is within his covenant that God expresses his mercy or goodness. The expression "holy covenant" begins to appear only in the intertestamental period (1 Mac 1:15.63). The parallelism with the following verse indicates that it refers to the covenant with Abraham and his descendants.
- "oath". As in the Magnificat (note 1:55), the grammar does not reflect the parallelism between "oath" (accusative) and "covenant" (genitive), yet they are indeed in apposition. For the oath is part of the covenant with Abraham (Gen 17:4). God took an oath (Gen 22:16-18), and the words that follow simply recall that oath (Gen 26:3; Deut 7:8). See also the parallelism between "covenant" and "oath" in reference to David in Ps 89:4.
- "to grant". This infinitive is accompanied by the article and interrupts the sequence of infinitives without article begun in v. 72 (see note on v. 72). We have here rather an explanatory infinitive to express the content of the oath (see LXX Jer 11:5 where this time the oath concerns the promised land).
- "without fear (aphobōs)". This adverb precedes and modifies the two verbs "delivered" and "we might serve".
- "Delivered". This past participle modifies the underlying subject "we" of the infinitive verb (serve), a correct Greek construction.
- "enemies". See note on v. 71.
- "We might serve (latreuein)". Literally: "to serve". Unlike the verb doulein, the verb latreuein in the Septuagint and the NT often carries a religious note and a note of cultic service (Ex 3:12), especially in relation to the God of the covenant (Deut 11:13).
- "in holiness and justice".
This pair of names appears in Wis 9:3, an echo of the Hebrew ʾemet and tāmîm, an expression often translated as "truth and justice." (Jos 24: 14; Judg 9: 16.19). These are attributes of the covenant.
- "before (enōpion) him". The verb "to serve" governs both the pronoun "him" in v. 74 and the expression "before him".
The preposition inōpion in the Gospels is almost exclusively Lucan.
- "called". Or "acknowledged as", because the name expresses what the child is (see 1: 32.35).
- "the Most High". See note on 1: 32. The phrase "prophet of the Most High" does not appear in the OT, but in the Testament of Levi 8:15 in reference to a king "who shall arise in Judah and establish a new priesthood after the manner of the Gentiles". Since this scripture has Jewish Christian features, it could be Jesus.
- "go before the Lord ". This is what was promised to John the Baptist in 1:15, 17.
- "to make ready". We have here an infinitive without article, which will be followed in v. 77 by an infinitive with an article (to grant), the same construction as in v. 79 ("appearing... guiding"). The verbs are complementary, describing the same basic action.
- "knowledge of salvation". This is not a phrase from the OT where it would be knowledge of God. "Knowledge" here is defined as "experience"; salvation is the experience of forgiveness of sins.
- "forgiveness of their sins". Again, this is not a phrase from the OT, although it does speak of forgiveness. The clearest parallels are found in Qumran. This expression is very Lucan (8 occurrences out of a total of 11 in the NT). These verses display too much Christian language for the song to come from the non-Christian circle of disciples of John the Baptist.
- "heartfelt mercy (splanchna)". Literally: "the innermost parts of mercy". The word splanchna, often translated as "the bowels of mercy", refers to the upper inner parts of the body, i.e. the heart, lungs and liver, which were thought to be the seat of emotional control. The idea is that this mercy is really felt deep in the heart. The expression is found in the Testament of Zebulun 7:3; 8:2; Col 3:12 presents a similar idea with "sincere mercy". What has been done by sincere mercy? It seems to be all of the above.
- "has visited (episkeptesthai)". On the verb episkeptesthai, see note on v. 68. The problem here lies in the textual criticism between a verb in the past tense ("has visited") and a verb in the future tense ("will visit"). In support of the past tense there is a very large number of manuscripts, among them: the codex Sinaiticus 2nd correction, Alexandrinus, Ephraemi Rescriptus, Bezae, etc., the old Latin, the Byzantine lectionary. In support of the future we find some important codices like the original version of the Sinaiticus, the Vaticanus, and a great number of minuscules. In textual criticism, the most difficult reading is the one usually preferred. Now, the difficult reading is that of the verb in the past tense, because being still in Mary's womb, Jesus cannot have already visited us. It is this reading that should be preferred, because it is easier to imagine that a copyist has modified a verb originally in the past tense by a future tense, noting that Jesus cannot have already visited us, and perhaps also under the influence of the two verbs in the future tense that precede, than to imagine that a copyist has modified for an unknown reason a verb originally in the future tense to introduce a verb in the past tense.
- "a rising light (anatolē) from (ex) on high (hypsous)".
The Greek phrase anatolē ex hypsous can also mean: "a Messiah from the Most High [God]," i.e. sent from the Most High.
The word anatolē (the arising, the rising) may be a name for the Messiah as witnessed by LXX Zech 3:8 6:12, whereas the Hebrew speaks of the "branch" or "shoot of David" (ṣemaḥ).
However, the term anatolē literally means: the rising, just as we see in Mt 2:2 with the expression: "his star at his rising." (see note on Mt 2: 2). The attribute "from above" and the reference to darkness in the next line, which suggests a contrast with light, leads us to think that Luke intends to describe the light of heaven at its rising; and Matthew's analogy suggests a star at its rising. Of course, ultimately it is about the Messiah. Some Psalms (102:20; 144:7) use the expression "from above" to describe the highest heaven from which God intervenes to offer help to those on earth.
- "appearing (epiphainein)... guiding (kateuthynein)". The verb epiphainein has given us the word: epiphany. Both verbs are in the infinitive, the first without an article, the second with an article; this is the same combination as in v. 76 ("to make ready... to grant"). They express the result of the visitation by the Messiah.
- "Spirit". It is difficult to determine whether this is really the Holy Spirit. But so far John the Baptist has been so closely associated with the Holy Spirit that the capital letter seems appropriate.
- "day of his public appearance (anadeixis)". The verb anadeixis means: "to reveal" and "to appoint", and thus there is an atmosphere of appearance that God prescribed to John the Baptist. The use of the word "day" to designate a period of time reflects the Semitic style.
As in the two annunciations, we have in the two births of John the Baptist and Jesus a diptych with parallel motifs: the circumcision/attribution of the name is accompanied by the announcement of the future greatness of the child, in relation in the case of the Baptist to the wonders surrounding the choice of the name, in relation to his birth in the case of Jesus. This beautiful balance is somewhat broken by the hymns added in a second stage, the Benedictus for John the Baptist, the Nunc Dimittis for Jesus.
- The Birth and Naming (1:57-66.80)
The birth of John the Baptist is concentrated in two verses marked by the OT atmosphere of barren wives to whom God gives the joy of fertility. V. 57 echoes the birth of Esau and Jacob by Rebekah (Gen. 25:24), while v. 58 echoes the aftermath of Isaac's birth by Sarah: "God gave me cause to laugh" (Gen. 21:6); Mary was the first to learn of the pregnancy and came to greet Elizabeth, and it is now the turn of the other parents to come and rejoice with her.
In vv. 59-66, Luke emphasizes that the conception and birth of John the Baptist is a divine work. He does this in two ways.
- The marvelous events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist
While Zechariah knows from the angel Gabriel that the birth of John the Baptist is the work of God, those around him do not know. How do they find out? First, through the miraculous event where Zechariah, deaf and dumb, and therefore not having heard his wife's choice of name, chooses the same name for the child (for the reader of Luke, there is also the fact that Elizabeth gives the child the same name that Gabriel asked for, even though Zechariah was unable to communicate this information to her). Then, by the miraculous event where Zechariah who regains speech.
- Everything that the angel Gabriel announced is coming true
|Annunciation by Gabriel||It has been fulfilled|
|13e and you will call his name John.||60b He is to be called John|
|14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth||58b they (relatives and neighbors)
rejoiced with her.|
|20 you will be reduced to silence and unable to speak until the day these things happen||64 Immediately, Zechariah
could open his mouth; and, his tongue finally freed, he began to speak|
In v. 80 Luke gives us a stereotypical summary of John the Baptist that is only semi-biographical. About the Baptist, he knows that he began his career in the wilderness, and so he says of him, "he remained in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance." He knows that he played a semi-prophetic role during his ministry, and so "he became strong in the Spirit" to prepare for that role. Luke's presentation echoes passages in the OT, such as the one about Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah, about whom it is said, "the child grew" (Gen 21:8), such as the one about Samson about whom it is said, "the child grew, and the Lord blessed him, and the Spirit of the Lord began to accompany him" (Judg LXX 13:24-25), such as the one about Samuel about whom it is said, "the child grew up in the presence of the Lord" (1 Sam 2:21). For Luke, John the Baptist relives the history of Israel.
- The Benedictus (1:67-79)
Like the Magnificat, the Benedictus most likely comes from a circle of Christian Jews who share with their Jewish brethren the military language of the Psalms and even that of the Qumran War Scroll (1QM), except that now God has intervened, and the Messiah has come. This circle has the same mentality of the Anawim as the one who composed the Magnificat: they are hated by their enemies (71, 74), they sat in darkness and the shadow of death (79), and God's deliverance is the sign of his merciful covenant with his people (72-73), for they are the "remnant" who have remained faithful in holiness and righteousness (75). There is no developed Christology in the hymn that will appear later in the NT. Several clues lead us to situate this circle in the Christian community in Jerusalem, the one described by Luke in Acts 2, a community filled with the Holy Spirit and with an emphasis on prophecy.
- The Setting and the Structure
- The Setting
We have already noted that the Benedictus appears as an addition by Luke in a second stage of his gospel writing. If the hymn were omitted, the whole of 1:57-66 would end smoothly with v. 80. Another clue to the addition is that in v. 64 Zechariah opens his mouth to praise God, but the content of this praise does not appear until v. 67.
The scene was composed with a certain parallelism with the scene of the Magnificat.
The scene ends with a hymn of praise for what God has done, a hymn sung by Mary who received the announcement of Jesus' birth
||The scene ends with a hymn of praise for what God has done, a hymn sung by Zechariah who received the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist|
|Luke adds a few lines to the hymn to make it appropriate to the present context (Mary as a handmaid), with a verb in the future tense about the role of the figure mentioned in the previous scene ("all generations will call me fortunate", 48)
||Luke adds a few lines to the hymn to make it appropriate to the present context with a verb in the future tense about the role of the figure mentioned in the previous scene ("you will go before the Lord to make ready his ways", 76)|
|It is by being filled with the Holy Spirit that Elizabeth was able to perceive the grace with which Mary was favored
||It is while being filled with the Holy Spirit that Zechariah pronounces his prophecy about John the Baptist|
|Mary is praised for her preparatory role in the coming of Jesus
||John the Baptist is praised for his preparatory role in the coming of Jesus|
We mentioned that the whole of vv. 57-66 was intended to show that what the angel Gabriel had announced was now coming true. The hymn will refer to another of the angel's annunciations that is coming true, that of John the Baptist's role to "prepare for the Lord a people who are ready"; now Zechariah knows that it is now a matter of preparing the way for Jesus.
- The Structure
Like the Magnificat, the Benedictus resembles a hymn of praise, and thus has three parts:
- An introduction praising God (68a)
- The body of the hymn giving a list of reasons for praise, beginning with "because" (68b), continuing with two well-balanced strophes (6b-71b; 72a-75), and a third strophe added in reference to John the Baptist (76a-77b)
- The conclusion in 78a-79b that recapitulates some of the motifs of the hymn
Despite the similarities with the Magnificat, the Benedictus does not appear to be by the same author, and grammatically it is a long sentence with the main verbs in vv. 68-69 ("has visited", "has accomplished the redemption", "has raised up a horn of salvation"). It is only at the level of the parallelism of ideas that we can make a division into two main strophes, each beginning with the reminder of God's mercy for the people or the fathers, and then continuing with what he has done for us, in fidelity to his promises to David and to Abraham. After this evocation of the OT, Luke mentions John the Baptist who is the bridge between the OT and Jesus. The hymn ends with the eulogy of Jesus (78-79) through which the theme of God's visitation, with which the first strophe began, and the theme of God's mercy, which began the second strophe, are realized.
While Luke borrowed this hymn from the Anawim circle in Jerusalem that celebrated in Jesus the fulfillment of OT expectations, he added vv. 76-77 to apply it to the context of John the Baptist's birth. But he added it to the hymn in such a way as to respect the order: the OT, John the Baptist, Jesus; John the Baptist ends the cycle of the Law and the Prophets, he precedes Jesus, but the climax is reached with the Messiah who ends the hymn for which the Baptist only prepares the coming.
- The Contents
Like the Magnificat, the Benedictus is a mosaic whose pieces are inspired by the biblical and intertestamental background. Here is a list of them.
|The Background of the Benedictus|
|68a Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel:|
|Ps 41, 14; 72, 18; 106, 48||(Ending of three books of the psalter)|
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
|1 Rois 1, 48||(David, after Solomon's enthronization)|
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who today has placed one of my offspring upon my throne
and has allowed my eyes to see it.
|1QM xiv 4-5||("Hymn of Return" after victory):|
Blessed be the God of Israel,
who keeps mercy toward His covenant
and the appointed times of salvation
with the people He has redeemed
|68b and accomplished the redemption of His people, |
69a and has raised up for us a horn of salvation
69b in the House of David His servant,
|Document of Damascus i 5-12||Three hundred and ninety years after He had given them into the hand of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, He visited them and caused a root of a plant to spring from Israel and Aaron to inherit His land... He raised up for them a Teacher of Righteousness to guide them in the way of His heart.|
|Ps 111: 9||He sent redemption to His people.|
|Judg 3: 9||And the Lord raised up a savior for Israel.|
|Ps 132: 16-17||I shall clothe her priests with salvation...|
I shall make a horn to sprout for David.
|Ezek 29: 21||On that day I shall make a horn sprout for all the House of israel.|
|1 Sam 2: 10||(Hannah's hymn)|
He will exalt the horn of His anointed [Messiah]
|Ps 18: 3||M God...the horn of my salvation.|
|Shemone Esreh (1st c. AD)||(15th Benediction)|
Let the shoot of David (your servant) speedily spring up
And raise his horn in Your Salvation...
May you be blessed, O lord, who les the horn of salvation flourish
|70 as He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old:|
|2 Chr 36: 22||That the word of the Lord through the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord raised up the spirit of Cyrus the Persian king.|
|Wis 11: 1||She made their affairs prosper through the holy prophet.|
|II Baruch 85: 1||In former times and in generations of old our fathers had helpers, righteous men and holy prophets.|
|71a salvation from our enemies |
71b and from the hand of all those who hate us,
|Isa 49: 6||(to the Servant of the Lord)|
I have placed you as a covenant with the people,
as a light to the nations,
that ou should serve for salvation to the ends of the earth.
|Ps of Solomon 10: 9||The salvation of the Lord be upon the House of Israel.|
|Ps 106: 10||(in reference in "our fathers" in Egypt)|
He saved them from the hands of those who hated
and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.
|Ps 18: 18||He delivered me from my strong enemies|
and from those who hate me.
|1QM xviii 7-11||You have kept your covenant with us from of old|
and opened the gates of salvation many times.
For the sake of the covenant you have removed our misery...
causing the enemy to fall back.
|72a Showing mercy to our fathers |
72b and remembering His holy covenant,
73 the oath which He swore to our father Abraham,
To grant us...
|Mic 7: 20||You will show fidelity to Jacob and mercy to Abraham,|
as you have shown to our fathers from days of old.
|Ex 2: 24 (cf Lv 26: 42)||God has remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.|
|Ps 106: 45||And for their sake He remembered His covenant|
and relented according to the aboundance of His mercy.
|Gen 26: 3||(God to Isaac, giving his Canaan)|
I shall stand by my oath which I swore to your father Abraham.
|Ps 105: 8-9.11||He is forever mindful of His covenant...|
the covenant which He made with Abraham
and His oath to Isaac...
saying, I shall grant to you the land of Canaan.
|Jer 11: 5||That I may stand by the oath which I swore to your fathers|
to grant them a land flowing with milk and honey...
|Ps 89: 4||I have made a covenant with my chosen one;|
I have sworn to David my servant.
|74 ...that, without fear,|
Delivered from the hands of our enemies,
We might serve Him 75 in holiness and justice,
Before Him all the days of our live.
|Ps 18: 18||He will deliver me from my mighty enemies.|
|Jos 24: 14||Fear the Lord and serve Him in truth and justice.|
|1QH xvii 13-14||Those corrected by Your judgment You will deliver|
that they may serve You in fidelity,
so that their posterity may be before You all their days.
|1 Kings 9: 4-5||If you will walk before me as David your father walked, in holiness of heart and uprightness,...I shall establish your royal throne over Israel forever.|
|Isa 38: 20||The Lord is our savior;|
we shall sing to stringed instruments
in the house of the Lord
all the days of our lives.
|78a Through the heartfelt mercy of our God |
78b by which there has visited us a rising light from on high,
|Testament of Zebulun 8: 2||Because in the last days God will send his heartfelt compassion on the earth; and where he finds heartfelt mercy, there He will dwell.|
|Testament of Levi 4: 4||His star will arise as of a king,|
giving light, the light of knowledge.
|Isa 60: 1||Be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for your light has come;|
and the glory of God has arisen upon you.
|Mal 3: 20||For you who fear My name, there will arise|
the sun of justice with its healing rays.
|Num 24: 17||A star will arise from Jacob,|
and a man will stand forth from Israel.
|Testament of Levi 18: 3||(Christian passage?)|
His star will arise as of a king,
giving light, the light of knowledge.
|79a appearing to those who sat in darkness and the shadow of death, |
79b guiding our feet into the way of peace.
|Isa 42: 6-7||(to the Servant of the Lord)|
A light to the nations
to open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement
and from the dungeion, those who sit in darkness.
|Isa 9: 1||O people walking in darkness, you will see a great light;|
O dwellers in the region and shadow of death, a light will shine upon you.
|Ps 107: 9-10||He fills the hungry soul with good things,|
those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
|Isa 59: 8||They do not know the way of peace.|
|Testament of Judah 24: 1||Then there will arise for you a star from Jacob in peace,|
and a man from my seed will stand forth,
as a sun of justice, walking with men in meekness and justice.
Let's take a look at each of the components of the Benedictus.
- Introduction (68a)
In terms of content, the Benedictus is a prophecy, but in literary terms it is a hymn of praise. And even though it celebrates something new, it refers to a continuity with what God has accomplished in the past, in particular the promise of a Davidic messiah, of a salvation in fidelity to his covenant. That is why, like the Psalms, 1 Kings 1:48 and the Qumran War Scrolls proclaim that we must bless the Lord.
- Strophe One (68b-71b)
This strophe reflects the same mentality that is found in the Qumran writings where God visits his people by raising up a leader. To speak of this leader, the Benedictus uses traditional liturgical language that evokes the horn or strength of the anointed one, i.e. the Messiah. As we see in Peter's speech in Acts (3:21), God's final action is seen in the context of a long line of prophets who have set the stage. It is an action of deliverance from enemies, enemies who represent every form of persecution, such as that evoked by the figure of the servant in Deutero-Isaiah.
- Strophe Two (72-75)
After presenting salvation as God's faithfulness to the promises made to David through the prophets, the Benedictus now focuses on the covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The strophe begins with the qualities of God as one of the covenant partners, and ends with the qualities of the other partner, the people. The purpose of salvation is to be able to serve God in holiness and righteousness, language that has a liturgical flavor and would be appropriate to Jerusalem Christians and their temple piety; thus, God's intervention is seen as a renewal or revitalization of the old covenant (this will not be the case later when Christians see it as a new covenant or replacement of the old covenant).
Jewish tradition speaks of oaths, covenants and the covenantal qualities of God's dealings with both Abraham and David. Also, the two strophes are very similar and evoke the two figures who were most often part of the Christian preaching as predecessors of Jesus.
- Strophe Three (76-77)
This strophe would not be part of the original hymn, for it repeats the narrative of vv. 59-66, and like those verses, it is a composition of Luke. It is intended to answer the question of v. 66: "What then will this child be? ". V. 76 repeats v. 17 ("And he will go before him... to prepare for the Lord a people who are ready") which was part of the angel's message to Zechariah, a message that echoes Lk 3:4 ("Voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord'"), an amalgam of Isa 40:3 and Mal 3:1.33. The expression "prophet of the Most High" articulates Jesus' sentiments in Lk 7:26: "A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet."
In v. 77, the hymn states that John the Baptist will grant "knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of their sins," which is never stated directly in the account of his ministry. Nevertheless, Luke is the only one to relate that John the Baptist gave specific instructions on how to repent (3:10-14), which is a way of sharing the knowledge of salvation. Moreover, in 3:3, Luke tells us that John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance "for the remission of sins".
- Conclusion (78-79)
A conclusion recapitulates what has been said. Now, the first strophe mentioned God's visitation, the second God's covenant of mercy, the third John the Baptist who precedes the Lord to prepare his ways, and now the conclusion speaks of the "rising light (anatolē) from above" by which God "visited us" and showed his "mercy," i.e. Jesus whom John the Baptist will precede. Among Greek-speaking Jews, the word anatolē (the rising) was used to describe the expected Davidic king, and among early Christians it will be associated with the Messiah. Thus, the Benedictus evokes two great symbols, the horn of salvation in the house of David (v. 69) and the rising light from on high, two symbols that are brought together in the prophet Ezekiel: "In that day I will raise a horn for the house of Israel."
The image of the rising light calls to mind those who "sit in darkness and the shadow of death". Here, the Benedictus evokes Ps 107:9-10: "For he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things. Some sat in darkness and in gloom". The Magnificat had taken up the first part of this citation, the Benedictus takes up the second part. All this confirms that the hymn comes from the circle of the Anawim.
We have already introduced v. 80, but it is worth making a final remark about a literary technique used by Luke, that of making one character disappear in order to give all the space to another. This is what happens, for example, in ch. 3, where he describes the ministry of John the Baptist, including his imprisonment by Herod, before telling us that Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist; this is completely illogical, for how can the Baptist baptize if he is in prison? But this is typical of Luke's literary technique: removing one character from the scene before focusing on another. This is the same technique we find here in v. 80: he tells of John the Baptist's growth and his stay in the desert before telling of Jesus' birth, even though only a few months separate these two births; it is Luke's way of signaling a change in our attention, by making John the Baptist disappear from the scene, to make room for Jesus.
- The Birth and Naming of Jesus
Translation of Luke 2: 1-21
1 At that time an edict went out from Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken of the whole world (2 This was the first census under Quirinius as governor of Syria.) 3 And so all went to be inscribes in the census, each to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, into Judea to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to have himself inscribed in the census with Mary, his betrothed, who was pregnant.
6 Now while they were there, the time came for her to give birth; 7 and she gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him down in a manger, since there was no place for them in the lodgings.
8 In that same region there were shepherds, pasturing their flock and taking turns watching over it by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, so that they were filled with great fear. 10 "Do not e afraid," the angel told them. "For behold, I announce to you good news of a great joy which will be for the whole people: 11 To you this day there is born in the city of David a Savior who is Messiah and Lord. 12 And this will be your sign: you will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger!"
13 Then suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heaven host praising God, saying:
14a "Glory in the highest heavens to God,
15 When the angels had gone from them back into heaven, the shepherds urged one another, "Now let us go over to Bethlehem and see the event that has taken place, as the Lord has made known to us." 16 And setting forth with haste, they found Mary and Joseph, with the baby lying in the manger. 17 Having seen this, they made known the event as it was told them concerning this child. 18 All who heard were astonished at what the shepherds told them; 19 but Mary kept with concern all these events, interpreting them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as He had told them.
14b and on earth peace to those favored (by Him)."
21 Now eight days later when the time came to circumcise the child, he was called Jesus, the name by which the angel called him before he was conceived in the womb.
- "At that time". Literally: "In those days"; compare with "in these days" in 1:39 and "in the days of Herod, king of Judah" in 1:5.
- "an edict (dogma)".
If Luke gives a technical meaning to dogma, then it is an action taken after consultation with the Roman senate, distinct from psēphisma,
a vote of the people's assembly.
- "went out". Literally: "It happened an edict went out", a Semitized Greek expression, probably under the influence of the Septuagint. On egeneto, see note on Lk 1: 9.
- "Caesar Augustus". It is Octavian, the grand-nephew of Julius Caesar, who was joined by Mark Antony after the assassination of Julius in 44 BC to punish and defeat Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 BC. Initially forming a triumvirate with Lepidus and Antony, Octavian became the sole leader after subduing Lepidus (36 BC) and defeating Antony and Cleopatra at Actium (31 BC). He received the title of Augustus from the Senate and the people in 27 BC. He died in 14 CE, having appointed Tiberius Caesar, his son-in-law, as his successor; it was in the fifteenth year of his reign that Jesus began his ministry (Lk 3:1).
- "that a census should be taken (apographein)". Literally, "for the wholeworld to present itself for enrollment," if the verb is to be understood in the middle (reflexive) form, not the passive form. The verb apographein and the noun apographē, even though they generally mean "to enroll," or "registration," serve more specifically to translate the Latin terminology around census. The purpose of this alleged census would be for taxation, rather than for military service from which the Jews were exempt.
- "the whole world (oikoumenē)". The Greek word oikoumenē means: orbis terrarum, the entire civilized world under the control of the Roman emperor (see Acts 11:28 for the same expression). Since no census is known from the time of Augustus, some biblical scholars have suggested that this might be a census in a province, forgetting that Luke uses the word gē, not oikoumenē to refer to a province (see 4:25).
- "This was the first (prōtos) census under". Greek syntax and textual variants allow for other translations: 'The first census was under'; or 'This census was earlier than the one under'; or 'This census was before the governorship of'. The last two translations substitute the comparative proteros (earlier than) or adjective proteros (earlier) or the preposition pro (before) for our adjective prōtos (first), for the sole purpose of protecting Luke's accuracy by putting forward the unproven assumption that there would have been several censuses under Quirinius. The reality is that the census is called "first" because no census took place in Judea before Quirinius' census in 6-7 CE (a census that Luke erroneously assigns to the time of King Herod the Great by association with 1:5 ("In the days of Herod, king of Judea").
- "Quirinius". Publius Sulpicius Quirinius became legate of Syria in 6 CE and was in charge of restructuring Judea as a Roman province, after deposing Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great (Mt 2:22), who reigned from 4 BC to 6 CE.
- "as governor (hēgemoneuein) of Syria". The verb hēgemoneuein, like the noun hēgemonos, was used to translate Roman offices, such as that of legatus and procurator, with Syria having a legatus, and Judea a prefectus (or later a procurator).
- "And so". V. 3 follows v. 1, whereas v. 2 was only a parenthesis.
- "all". After the phrase "the whole world" in v. 1, this word should refer to the entire population of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, our evidence from the reign of Augustus indicates that separate censuses were taken for Roman citizens and non-Roman inhabitants of provinces, such as Syria. Historically, the census of 6-7 CE was limited to Judea.
- "each to his own city". Although Joseph's "own city" refers to his ancestral city of Bethlehem, Nazareth is called "their own city" in 2:39 to refer to their place of residence. For Roman censuses, we really have no evidence of a practice of registering in one's ancestral city (see note on v. 4).
- "went up (anabainein)". The verb anabainein is the standard expression of the Septuagint, taken up by the NT, to translate the ascent to the mountainous region of Judea, more particularly to Jerusalem (see Mk 10:32; Jn 2:13; Lk 2:42).
- "from Galilee". Luke assumes that the census also covers Galilee; but we know that the first Roman census under Quirinius in 6-7 CE covered only Judea, after Archelaus was deposed (Galilee remained a tetrarchy under the control of Herod Antipas, the "Herod" of Jesus' ministry).
- "from the city of Nazareth". The city where Joseph and Mary lived (2:39), a statement that contradicts Mt 2:11, which states instead that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem.
- "into Judea ...Bethlehem". See note on Mt 2: 1.
- "to the city of David". The expression normally refers to Jerusalem, as in 2 Sam 5:7.9. Bethlehem was David's home town (1 Sam 16) to which he returned for family events (20: 6.28-29).
- "because he was". The old Syriac version (Sinaiticus) reads "because both of them", assuming that Mary was also of Davidic lineage; see note on 1: 27.
- "of the house (oikos) and lineage (patria) of David". Here, as in 1:27, Luke asserts that Joseph is of Davidic lineage, a claim found elsewhere in both genealogies and in Mt 1:20. Is there a difference between oikos (house) and patria (lineage)? It doesn't seem so. Some biblical scholars have thought that these terms might mean that Joseph had a residence (oikos) or property (patria) in Bethlehem, and that he would have gone to Nazareth only to fetch Mary, overlooking Luke's clear expression in 2:39: "their own city of Nazareth."
- "with Mary". What are we to understand here? Did Mary also have to register for the census (not an impossibility in Roman practice), or are we to think that Mary accompanied Joseph so that they could be together at the birth of the child? The motive is not clear. But the theory that Joseph brought Mary with him to dispel suspicions of illegitimacy and to recognize the child as his own, a theory born of an effort to harmonize with Matthew, must be totally rejected; in Luke there is no hint of any suspicion of illegitimacy.
- "his betrothed". On Luke's use of the word, see note on 1: 27, and on its meaning, see note on Mt 1: 18. Some manuscripts like the old Latin and the old Syriac (Sinaiticus) offer rather the reading: his wife. The question is therefore: did the original text read with "betrothed" that copyists would have modified, or the opposite? One could argue that the word "spouse" would make more sense, since Joseph and Mary now seem to be living together, which was not the case earlier in 1:27:24. If they were not living together, how could they travel together? But this argument presupposes that Luke had a good understanding of the stages of marriage in the Jewish world, an understanding that is not made explicit here (as Mt 1:24-25 does). And one can very well assume that Luke is simply reiterating without much thought the word "betrothed" that he had used earlier in 1:27 to refer to Mary. Therefore, it is quite possible that Jewish copyists assumed that Mary and Joseph were living together, since they were traveling together, or that Gentile copyists did not understand that in the Jewish world true marriage began with the betrothal and would have been scandalized by the situation of traveling together, and so in both cases these copyists would have replaced "betrothed" by "wife". In short, all the hypotheses are well defended. Our final decision is based on the fact that the best manuscripts favor the original reading of "betrothed".
- "who was pregnant". Some biblical scholars add "because she was pregnant" to justify the journey together. Unfortunately, the "because" is not in the original text, and this makes the story too psychological. Rather, Luke wants to prepare the reader for the birth story that follows.
- "while they were there". Luke places Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem for some time before the birth of the child. In the Protevangelium of James 18:1, the child is born in a cave before reaching Bethlehem.
- "the time came for her to give birth". Literally, "It happened (egeneto) while they were there that the days (hemera) of her giving birth were fulfilled." On constructions with egeneto in Luke, see note on 1:9. A similar birth description is found with Elizabeth in 1:57, this time with the word "time" (chronos). Both passages are an echo of Rebekah's giving birth to Jacob and Esau in Gen 25:24.
- "and she gave birth (tiktein)". This is the same verb tiktein that is used in the promise to Mary in 1:31; see note on 1: 57 on the use of gennan (give birth) in the case of Elizabeth.
- "to a son, her firstborn (prōtotokos)". Although prōtotokos is sometimes equivalent to monogenēs (only begotten), as in Psalms of Solomon 13:8; 18:4; 4 Ezra 6:5, many biblical scholars see it more as meaning "firstborn among many." Since the time of Helvidius (380 AD), this verse has given rise to lively discussions about whether Jesus was an only child or whether Mary had other children after Jesus (the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in Mk 6:3); see the note to Mt 1:25. Why does Luke speak of "firstborn"? Clearly, prōtotokos means that there is no child before Jesus, and so according to the OT, Jesus shares the privilege of the firstborn (Ex 13:2; Num 3:12-13; 18:15-16). Thus, Luke simply wants to prepare the reader for the consecration of Jesus as firstborn in 2:22-23. And one can be firstborn while being an only child, as evidenced by this inscription on a tomb near Leontopolis in Egypt around 5 BC: "In the pains of giving birth to a firstborn, Fate brought me to the end of my life." In short, prōtotokos in Luke cannot serve as an argument for or against Mary's birth of multiple children.
- "She wrapped (sparganoun) him in strips of cloth". Literally, "She swaddled him". The Greek verb sparganoun is derived from the noun sparganon, one of the cloths or strips of fabric used to wrap newborns. Swaddling a baby is a sign of parental care (Wis 7:4), and neglecting swaddling expresses neglect in the allegorical description of Jerusalem in Ezek 16:4. Note that the very fact that it is Mary herself who swaddles the child does not at all prove that the birth was miraculous or painless.
- "and laid him down in a manger (phatnē)". The Greek word phatnē refers to a "stall" for tethering animals, or a "manger," i.e., a trough for feeding them. A stall may be external or internal; the latter case is assumed in Lk 13:15 where a man unties his animals from the phatnē to bring them to drink. A feeding trough may be a movable trough placed on the ground, or in a small rock cavity. Luke does not give us enough details to be definite. The swaddling of the baby and the laying down of the baby suggests a cradle-type feeding trough. Christmas scenes with the cradle were popularized by St. Francis of Assisi who fixed the type of manger. The ox and donkey were introduced into the nativity scene by combining the reference to the phatnē (the stall and manger presuppose the presence of animals) and the lamentations of God in the Septuagint text of Isaiah 1:3: "The ox knows his owner, and the donkey the phatnē of its lord [kyrios as in Lk 2:11], but Israel has not known me."
- "since there was no place". The phrase "no place" is ambiguous. Does it mean that there was no room for the family at all (so they were outside the lodging), or that there was no "appropriate" room for the child (so they are in the lodging). The first case seems more likely, but it all depends on what "lodging" means.
- "in the lodgings (katalyma)". In the Septuagint, katalyma translates five different Hebrew terms and is difficult to translate. By itself, the term refers to the place where the traveler deposits (katalyein) his luggage and makes a stopover on his journey. In 1 Sam 1:18 (LXX), Elkanah and Hannah stay in a katalyein when they visit the holy place of Shiloh where Hannah's prayer for a child will be answered. Luke's context of a trip to Bethlehem, an ancestral city that is not his home, is consistent with the idea of a traveler's stopover. In the scene of the feeding of the crowds where the disciples suggest that Jesus send the crowd away to find lodging for the night, Luke uses the verb katalyein (Lk 9:12; also 19:7). Sometimes the synagogue could offer rooms in the main building for hospitality.
Basically, there are three proposals among biblical scholars for interpreting katalyma in Luke.
- A private home.
This custom of travelers staying in a private house is attested to by 2 Kings 4:8-10. But by using a definite article ("the" lodgings), Luke seems to rule out the idea of an unidentified house. And Luke would certainly have given more information about a relative's refusal to accommodate them.
- A room in an unidentified place.
In Lk 22:11 we have an example of a room where Jesus wants to eat with his disciples. And this proposal has often been linked to that of a cradle hanging from the ceiling, due to lack of space in the room. But in Greek, such a hammock is designated by aiōra, not phatnē. And the fact that "dwelling" is preceded by the definite article rules out the idea of an indefinite place.
- An inn at or near Bethlehem.
The inns of the time were not comfortable places, but resembled caravansery where large groups of travelers were housed under one roof; people slept in cots or slightly raised platforms, with the animals on the floor sharing the same room. According to Jer 41:17 there was such a caravansery near Bethlehem. Unfortunately, when Luke speaks of an inn in the account of the good Samaritan who brings the greatly injured man to the inn (Lk 10:34), he uses the word pandocheion, not katalyma.
This is why, given the impossibility of being more precise, we have opted for the general translation of "lodging".
While Luke is imprecise about the type of dwelling, he is also imprecise about the place where Jesus was born. Subsequent tradition has fixed the site in a cave. The tradition was well established by the 4th century for Constantine to build a basilica in the year 325 over a series of caves in Bethlehem. St. Jerome (347 - 420) lived in a cave adjacent to the one attributed to the birth of Jesus. This tradition of a cave may have come in part from Luke's mention of a phatnē, which is an animal stall or feeder, and the shepherds for whom the caves served as animal shelters or stores. This is found in Justin, Dialogue, lxxviii 5. For the Protevangelium of James 17-18, Joseph chose a cave to hide the shame of the birth of an illegitimate child. But for Luke, all these details are irrelevant.
- "In that same region (chōra)". The Greek word chōra means: open country. Today, the fields we refer to as the "Shepherds' Fields" are located two miles from Bethlehem toward the Dead Sea. Those who believe Luke's information to be historical have sought to pinpoint the date of Jesus' birth to the time when the shepherds bring their animals to graze in the fields, so they have come up with the theory of a birth on May 20 or April 20. But it is unlikely that a reliable tradition about the exact date of Jesus' birth has survived.
- "taking turns watching over it by night". Literally: "watching the watches of the night". Luke likes cognate combinations. It is this passage that was used to establish the birth of Jesus in the night. And midnight was suggested by Wis 18:14-15: "When all things were in quiet silence, and the night in its swift course was half spent, Your all-powerful word leaped down from heaven's royal throne."
- "an angel of the Lord". Luke is right to use the expression "angel of the Lord", because in v. 15 the message comes from the Lord. See note to Mt 1: 20.
- "appeared (ephistēmi)". The verb ephistēmi is a favorite verb in Luke (18 occurrences out of the total 21 in the NT). See note to 1: 11.
- "filled with great fear".
Literally: "feared a great fear," another case of related wordplay. Fear is the standard reaction to an angelic apparition (1: 12-13.29-30).
- "For behold". See note to 1: 44.
- "I announce to you good news (euangelizesthai)". Literally, "I evangelize you". Euangelizesthai (related to the noun euangelion, "gospel"), is another favorite word of Luke's (10 occurrences out of the total of 11 in the Gospels). He also used this verb for the birth of John the Baptist in 1:19.
- "for the whole people". In Greek, the expression "all the people" is in the dative, which is common in Luke after the verb "to be". What people are we talking about? The present context of a Davidic savior suggests that it is only the people of Israel (see Lk 3:21; 7:29 8:47 etc.).
- "To you". We can assume that these are the shepherds and the people.
- "this day (sēmeron)". Sēmeron is one of Luke's favorite words (20 occurrences), and expresses his vision of a realized eschatology, i.e., within reach. It may be noted that such an expression would be perfectly appropriate for a celebration of Christ's birth, but such a celebration is not attested so early.
- "the city of David". See note on 2: 4.
- "a Savior (sōter)". Earlier (1:47) Luke used this term to apply to God, but in 1:69 Jesus was already referred to as "a horn of salvation".
Neither Matthew nor Mark uses sōter to refer to Jesus; see John 4:42.
- "Messiah (christos) and Lord (kyrios)". The combination christos kyrios (literally: "Christ, Lord", without an article) appears nowhere else in the NT; other possible translations are "Christ the Lord" and "the Anointed Lord". Elsewhere, it appears once in the Septuagint in a mistranslation of Lamentations 4:20 and Psalms of Solomon 17:36. There have been several proposals to explain this unusual expression: a mistranslation of a Hebrew phrase of constructed form that should be "Anointed or Messiah of the Lord" (as in 2:26), or a scribal error. In any case, Luke is the only evangelist to use the name "Lord" so often to designate Jesus (14 occurrences, while Matthew and Luke use it only once).
- "your sign". Literally: "a sign to you". This reading is supported by the Codex Vaticanus, while several other manuscripts such as the Codex Bezae present the reading: "the sign for you". The presence of the definite article is undoubtedly borrowed from Ex 3:12; 1 Sam 2:34; 14:10; 2 Kings 19:29; 20:9; Isa 37:30 38:7).
- "a baby (brephos)". The term brephos (here and in v. 16) refers to a newborn child. See the use of paidion (child) in v. 17.
- "and lying". The verb is omitted by the codex Sinaiticus and Bezae.
- "Then suddenly (egeneto)". Another construction with egeneto. See note to 1: 9.
- "with the angel". The old Syriac version of Sinaiticus adds: "with him". This variant and the one at the beginning of v. 15 in relation to the angels point to the awkwardness of 13-14 in the present context. In my commentary I will suggest that this is another hymn added by Luke in a second stage in his edition of the infancy narrative.
- "a multitude". The heavenly army is innumerable; the multitude here does not exhaust their number.
- "praising (ainoun)". The verb ainoun is another favorite word in Luke (six or seven occurrences, compared to two occurrences elsewhere in the NT). The verb is a plural participle that modifies a singular noun (multitude), a rough construction; the word order perhaps bears the mark of a Semitic influence.
- "Glory". In 2:9 the "glory of the Lord" has the connotation of a manifestation of the divine majesty; here "glory" is rather the honor that men and angels must give to God.
- "in the highest heavens". The traditional expression: "Glory to God in the highest" is sometimes mistakenly understood to mean: "in the highest degree", which the Greek text does not say.
- "and on earth peace to those (anthrōpois) favored (eudokia) [by Him]". What meaning should we give to eudokia? According to the dictionary this word means: goodwill, favor, pleasure, wish, desire. But the question is: is this reality human or divine? Note that the best manuscripts give us a word in the genitive (noun complement): men of eudokia. The Syriac version of the Peshitta and Tatian interpret this verse as a reference to those who are the object of the esteem or favorable opinion of their fellow men. The Vulgate and Catholic tradition have translated the phrase as "men of good will". Today, biblical scholars tend instead to view eudokia as a divine reality, and thus must add "by him" to the text to make it intelligible, as the Coptic Sahidic version did. The RSV translated: "Among men with whom He is pleased." A parallel with the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that eudokia refers to the will or favor of God in choosing people. In Lk 10:21, Jesus will praise his Father, the Lord of heaven, for revealing himself to the little ones, "for such is your eudokia." This meaning of eudokia conveys the idea that the peace granted by God extends also to the people he has chosen, just as in Solomon's Psalm 8:39 (33): "For us and our children forever (you reserve) your lovingkindness (hē eudokia): Lord, our savior, we shall not stagger any more, even to the end of time. "
Now consider the whole sentence. There are no verbs, suggesting a Semitic pattern. The phrase "Glory (be) to God" appears to be more of an exhortation than a simple statement ("God is glorified"): the way in which God has manifested his glory and brought peace is to be proclaimed and acknowledged on this day. Two models of versification have been proposed for this verse.
- a tricolon
Glory in the highest to God,
and on earth peace,
(and) among men divine favor.
The words or expressions are grouped into three categories: a noun in the nominative (underlined), i.e. "glory" and "peace"; the expression of a location (double underlined), i.e. "in the highest", "on earth"; a phrase that expresses a direction (underlined in the form of a wave), i.e. "to God", "among men". The first verse has three elements, the second and third two each. A nominative noun appears in each line, the directional phrase in the first line is paired with the directional phrase in the third line, and the location phrase in the first line is paired with the location phrase in the second line. This model requires that eudokia (divine favor) be in the nominative, which is found in the Syriac and Coptic Boharic version, as well as in the majority of later Greek manuscripts, such as the one known to Luther and the committee that produced the King James translation. Unfortunately, most biblical scholars consider that the nominative of eudokia was introduced by a copyist to make it consistent with the other two words in the nominative ("glory," "peace"), especially since the genitive of the original text, an echo of a Semitic turn of phrase, appeared to be a barbarism.
- a bicolon
Glory in the highest to God,
and on earth peace among men favored (by Him).
In this structure, each verse has three elements: a nominative noun (underlined), a locational expression (double underlined), and a directional expression (underlined as a wave). Unfortunately, the parallelism is imperfect, as the second verse is longer than the first (some biblical scholars believe it was Luke who added the word "favored" to the original text, causing the verse to become unbalanced). Here, eudokia is in the genitive (noun complement), a version supported by the best Greek manuscripts and the old Latin and Coptic Sahidic versions. The Dead Sea Scrolls have revealed equivalent texts in both Hebrew (children of His good will, 1QH iv 32-33; xi 9) and Aramaic (a man of His good will, 4Q 18). A final argument in favor of this bicolon versification is given by the parallel with Lk 19:38 which will be discussed in our commentary.
- "When (egeneto hōs) ...heaven, the shepherds". Another Lucan construction with egeneto. See note to 1: 9. Literally, "And it happened that when ... heaven, the shepherds". The time conjunction hōs appears 58 times in Lk/Acts.
- "the angels had gone". Many old Latin manuscripts have the singular; See note to v. 13.
- "urged". Literally: "kept saying".
- "go over (dierchesthai)". The verb dierchesthai occurs three times more frequently in Lk/Acts than in the rest of the entire NT.
- "see the event (rēma)". It is a Semitism: the word rēma means "word"; but here and in vv. 17 and 19 it translates the double connotation of the Hebrew word dābār, "word, deed." Here it is a deed that speaks.
- "the Lord". In fact, it was an "angel of the Lord" who made the revelation; see note to 2: 9 and 1: 45.
- "with haste (speudein)". Literally: "to hasten". Luke is the only one to give this verb an intransitive meaning, so that it takes the form of an adverb accompanying a verb. This haste implies the immediate obedience of the shepherds to the revelation. See note to 1: 39.
- "found (aneuriskein)".
The verb aneuriskein is found elsewhere in the NT only in Acts 21:4; it is the cognate verb euriskein (find) that was used in v. 12.
- "Mary and Joseph". The old Syriac version of the Sinaiticus reverses this order. Placing Mary first could reflect a great respect for the mother of the Messiah, as in Mt 2:11 in the scene of the magi: "They saw the child with Mary his mother.
- "seen this". What they saw was the baby in the manger, which was the sign the angel had given them (v. 12) and the event they wanted to see.
- "they made known".
It seems that it is not only the parents who are targeted here, but also the audience first mentioned in the next verse.
- "the event". See note to v. 15.
- "this child (paidion)".
The vocabulary changes from brephos ("baby," vv. 12 and 16) to paidion (here and 2: 27.40), the diminutive of pais ("boy, servant").
Mt 2:11 uses paidion in a similar scene.
- "All who heard". Until now, there has been no mention of the presence of an audience at the birthplace. The same expression was used in 1:66 after the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist, but by then we were prepared by the information that neighbors and relatives were present and that the news had spread to "the whole hill country" (1:58.65). The two accounts of birth and naming are interrelated.
- "were astonished". The Greek verb is typically Lucan, and this same reaction occurs in 1:21.63 and 2:33.
- "but Mary". Luke continues his description of the reactions of the cast of characters: the shepherds (17), those who heard (18), and now the mother. In the other ten occurrences in the infancy narrative, Mary's name appears in its Hebrew form Mariam, but here several manuscripts have Maria (as in 1:41).
- "kept with concern (synterein)". Luke uses the verb synterein here, and diaterein in the parallel scene of 2:51. What is being expressed is more than just the memory of events, for synterein is to be understood in connection with the verb that follows, symballein (to meditate): the difficult events that have occurred are to be remembered for the purpose of interpreting them correctly.
- "all these events (rēma)". The plural of rēma (note to v. 15). The position of "all" is emphatic.
- "interpreting (symballein) them". The verb symballein, often translated as "to converse with, to reflect on, to meditate on, to compare, to encounter", literally means: "to throw side by side". It thus expresses the idea of seeking to interpret obscure events, often finding an answer with divine help.
- "in her heart". The expression is related to the verb symballein (interpreting). But the equivalent expression in Gen 37:11 (LXX: "as for the father, he kept (diaterein) these things (rēma)") leads us to think that the scope of the expression also includes the preceding verb.
- "the shepherds returned". About verbs of departure to end a scene in the infancy narrative, see note to 1: 23.
- "and praising... all".
The combination of "glorifying" and "praising" appears in the Septuagint of Dan 3:26.55. This combination was already associated with the heavenly host in 2:13-14.
- "Now (kai)...when (hote)". This "kai hote" structure appears 22 times in Lk/Acts, but only three times in the rest of the NT.
- "eight days later". The circumcision of John the Baptist was dated "on the eighth day"; see note to 1: 59.
The same dating is used by Luke 9:28 for the transfiguration (as opposed to six days in Mark 9:2), but this seems purely coincidental.
- "when the time came to circumcise the child". Literally: "when the eight days were fulfilled to circumcise him. The expression "the days were fulfilled" is also found in the account of Jesus' birth (v. 6) and purification (v. 22), and it is Luke's way of linking the three events. But it is a rather awkward expression, because it could also mean that the time for circumcising the child had passed. But in v. 6 the expression clearly means that the time for giving birth had arrived, and this seems to be the case also in v. 22. The verb "circumcise" is introduced in the Greek by a genitive article, and such a structure plays the role of a consecutive proposition, i.e. it describes the result of the eight days being fulfilled; this is a structure that Luke uses quite often. According to the best manuscripts, it is a circumcision of "him". To remove any ambiguity, several copyists clarified the phrase by changing "him" to paidion (child), as we have done here.
- "he was called Jesus, the name".
Literally and tautologically: "his name was called Jesus", as in 1:31: "you shall call his name Jesus"; for this Semitism, see note to Mt 1: 21. The statement about Jesus after his circumcision practically combines the statements made by the two parents of John the Baptist after his circumcision: "He must be called John" (1:60), and "John will be his name" (1:63).
- "before he was conceived in the womb".
Again, Luke deliberately evokes the wording of the angel's message in 1:31: "You will conceive in your womb.
- The Structure of the Story in 2:1-40
Just as he presented the two annunciations in the form of a diptych, Luke also presents the two births in the form of a diptych.
(first stage of lucan composition)
| || |
|1: 57-66.80||2: 2-12.15-27.34-40|
|Birth/Naming/Greatness of JBap||Birth/Naming/Greatness of Jesus|
| || |
|Notice of Birth: rejoicing by neighbors (57-58)
||Scene of Birth (1-20) :
Setting (1-7): Census involving the two parents; birth at Bethlehem|
|Scene of Circumcision/Naming (59-66)
- Two parents involved in wonders surrounding the naming, indicating the future greatness of the child
Annunciation (8-12) : *
- Angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds nearby
- Shepherds filled with fear
- The message
- Do not be afraid; great joy
- This day there is born in the city of David
- A Savior who is Messiah and Lord
Reactions (15-20) :
- The sign: a baby wrapped and lying in a manger
- Shepherds went to Bethlehem, saw the sign; made known the event;
- All astonished;
- Zechariah spoke praising God;
- All the neighbors feared;
- All who heard stored the events up in their heart.
Notice of Circoncision / Naming
- Hearers astonished
- Mary keeps these events in her heart;
- Shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God
Scene of Presentation in Temple (22-27.34-38);
- Setting (22-24): Purification of parents; consecration of firstborn, according to the Law
- Greeting By Simeon (25-27.34-35); moved by the Holy Spirit, Simeon blessed
parents, and prophesied the child's future
- Greeting by Anna (36-38)
- Refrain on growth of the child.
- His stay in the desert.
|Conclusion (39-40) :
- Return to Galilee and Nazareth
- Refrain on growth of the child
* See table on steps in the birth annunciation
The general sequence of this diptych is clearly similar: the birth/circumcision/naming sequence is followed by audience reactions and ends with a refrain about the growth of the child, a transition to their ministry. But it is in the detail that we note a number of discrepancies: the scene about John the Baptist focuses on the circumcision and naming, with the parents present, while the scene about Jesus focuses on his birth with the parents present; the reaction of the entourage occurs at the circumcision of John the Baptist, while it occurs at the annunciation of his birth by the angel in the scene about Jesus. This last point supports the idea that the focus is not on the birth of Jesus, but on the angelic annunciation interpreting the meaning of this birth for the shepherds, and their reaction to this good news.
In this perspective, the sequence of the story can be presented as follows.
- Setting (1-7):
- The occasion of the census brings Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem (1-5)
- While there, Mary gives birth to Jesus; she swaddles him and lays him in a manger (6-7).
- Annunciation (8-14):
- Nearby, an angel of the Lord announces to shepherds the birth of the Savior, Messiah, and Lord, giving them the sign of the baby in the manger (8-12)
- A multitude of the heavenly host appears and recites the Gloria (13-14)
- Reactions (15-20):
- The shepherds go to Bethlehem to see the sign; and finding it verified, they make known what was told them (15-17)
- The hearers are astonished; Mary keeps these events in her heart; the shepherds return, glorifying and praising God (18-20).
The climax of the scene is in the third part when all the characters of the first part (Joseph, Mary, baby) are joined by those of the second part (the shepherds) who praise God for having fulfilled his word for them. But it is in the second part that heaven and earth meet, and the significance of the birth in Bethlehem is interpreted by the angels.
If we are to look for a true parallel to the annunciation to the shepherds, we will find it in the account of the Magi in Mt 2:1-12. In both evangelists, after a first chapter in which one of the parents is informed about the upcoming birth of Jesus, the second chapter presents the same sequence of events:
- a brief mention of the birth in Bethlehem,
- the revelation of this birth to a group that was not present (the shepherds, the magi),
- the arrival of the group in Bethlehem guided by a revelation
- the discovery of the child with Mary (and Joseph),
- a recognition on their part of what God has accomplished
- the return to the place where they came from
This group that receives a revelation is the central point of the story, because the birth of Jesus is a Christological moment. We have already explained that for the young Christian community, the resurrection of Jesus was the Christological moment, with the apostles as the first recipients, who proclaimed the good news of salvation and provoked a double reaction: acceptance/homage or rejection/persecution. Much later, this Christological moment was moved to the birth of Jesus himself. The recipients of the good news are now another group (magi, shepherds). The revelation is made through another channel: a star for the magi, the angelic announcement for the shepherds. This revelation provokes a double reaction: on the one hand, the welcome and the expression of homage on the part of the magi and the shepherds, on the other hand, the rejection and persecution on the part of Herod, the priests, the scribes as well as on the part of these events announced by Simeon.
- The Setting at Bethlehem (2:1-7)
- The Census of the Whole World (1-5)
Luke begins his account with a census of the entire world ordered by the emperor Augustus, and conducted by Quirinius, which forced Joseph to leave Nazareth in Galilee and go to his ancestral town of Bethlehem. This provided the opportunity for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem at the time of Herod the Great, king of Judea. See Appendix VII for an analysis of the historically questionable value of this information. It is sufficient to note two important points here.
- There is no evidence of any census under Emperor Augustus that covered the entire empire, nor of a census that required people to register in their home town
- The only census conducted by Quirinius, then legate of Syria, occurred around 6 or 7 CE, ten years after the death of Herod the Great
What does this mean? Writing more than 80 years after the birth of Jesus, Luke may not have been aware that there had been two troubled periods related to the kings of Judea, one at the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, the other at the death of his son Herod Archelaus in 6 CE, when the Jews revolted against the census of Quirinius.
Why does Luke resort to this confused memory to create the setting for Jesus' birth? He probably felt compelled to find a way to explain Joseph and Mary's move to Bethlehem, since he assumed that the couple were residents of Nazareth in Galilee (for Matthew, Mary and Joseph were residents of Bethlehem, not Nazareth). But is this his unique and most important motivation? Why did he choose the occasion of a census? Here are four possible answers that are not mutually exclusive.
- A solemn beginning
When the gospels were written, the Christological moment, i.e., the recognition of Jesus as Christ and Lord, originally located at the time of Jesus' resurrection, had moved to the beginning of Jesus' ministry. Mark will emphasize the solemnity of this moment by quoting Isa 40:3 ("A voice proclaims, 'In the wilderness make a way for the Lord' ") which greeted the realization of the dream of the return from exile. John 1:19 emphasizes the beginning of the great trial that summarizes his gospel by bringing in John the Baptist as the first witness. Luke, for his part, will underline this great moment of the beginning of Jesus' ministry by situating it in the context of the great rulers of the world and the local rulers (the emperor Tiberius Caesar, the prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate) who will be involved in the great changes that are coming. With his infancy narrative, Luke now shifts the Christological moment to the conception and birth of Jesus. And he then proceeds in the same way by placing this event in the context of world and local leaders (the emperor Augustus Caesar, the Syrian legate Quirinius).
- Augustus, the peaceful savior
If Luke emphasizes that Jesus was born during the reign of Augustus, it is because he probably remembered that it was the emperor who had pacified the world. Indeed, Augustus had succeeded in putting an end to the internal wars following the assassination of Julius Caesar, so that in the year 29 BC the doors of the sanctuary of Janus, which had been opened in times of war, were closed. In the pacification by Augustus, we saw the realization of the mystical promise described by Virgil in his fourth Eglogue (see appendix IX). Also between the year 13 and 9 BC, a monument was erected propagating the ideals of Augustus, a monument, with an altar and an inscription (Ara Pacis Augustae), which still exists today in Rome. Meanwhile, in the Greek cities of Asia Minor, they adopted September 23, the date of birth of Augustus, as the first day of the year, designating the emperor as "savior of the world. It is not by chance that Luke presents the birth of Jesus with this background: for him, true peace for the world is brought by Jesus; the testimony of the pax Christi is not that of the altar made with human hands, but that proclaimed by the heavenly host to those chosen by God; the birth that marks the beginning of the new times did not take place in Rome, but in Bethlehem; the inscription of Priene ("The birth of god marked the beginning of the good news to the world") was reinterpreted by: "I announce to you good news of a great joy which will be for the whole people: To you this day there is born in the city of David a Savior who is Messiah and Lord".
- Memories evokd by the census
For those who know the OT, there is a famous census that has attracted attention, the one ordered by King David (2 Sam 24), despite the opposition of his general Joab. Once the census was completed, David was punished by God for having encroached on his sovereignty: the plague devastated the country and stopped in Jerusalem, in the place that would become the temple. For Luke, the memory of this census was perhaps associated with the city of David and the temple. Quirinius' census for tax purposes must also have left its mark on his imagination, for it triggered the rebellion of Judas the Galilean, the founder of the Zealot and ultranationalist movement that would culminate in the Jewish revolt against Rome, bloodily suppressed with the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. When the Gospels were written, the Jewish messianic movement had bad press in the Roman world. This sensitive political situation has left its mark on Luke's passion narrative: he insists on Jesus' innocence of any political ambition, and three times he puts in Pilate's mouth (23: 4.14.22) the affirmation of Jesus' innocence of the charges against him, in particular that of refusing to pay the tax. Is it in continuity with this debate that Luke presents the parents of Jesus as obeying the same census that led to the revolt of Judas the Galilean, thus disassociating Jesus from any form of rebellion? According to this perspective, Luke would contrast two censuses: the first that causes a disaster, the second that brings the Savior of the world.
- The census in Ps 87: 6
The question remains: what led Luke to associate the census with the birth of Jesus theologically? It may be Psalm 87, which describes with joyful exaggeration how people from different nations come to Jerusalem and get to know the Lord, who in turn enrolls them as citizens of Zion, so that everyone finds a spiritual home there. Ps 87:6 says more explicitly: "The Lord writes in the book of the people: 'In this place such and such a man was born'". But there is a Greek translation, which was part of Origen's Hexapla, called Quinta (referring to the 5th column of the Greek versions), and reported by Eusebius of Caesarea (Commentary on the Psalms), which reads this verse as "In the census of the peoples, this one will be born there." Since the Septuagint speaks of the birth of princes and the Aramaic version of the psalm speaks of the raising of a king, the "this one" in the Quinta version could be interpreted as the prophecy of the future birth of the messianic king in a census of the people. Since this basic version of the Quinta shows great affinities with a revised version of the Septuagint that biblical scholars date to the 1st century CE, it can be hypothesized that Luke knew the Quinta, as witnessed by Acts 2:18. Thus, Ps 87:6, in the version of the Quinta, happening to announce the birth of the messiah during the census, may have been the catalyst in Luke for associating the birth of Jesus with the census of Quirinius (accidentally associated with the evil king Herod), and with a touch of exaggeration, extending it to the entire universe.
- The Birth, the Swaddling, and the Manger (6-7)
The description of Jesus' birth is very brief: while Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to give birth, and she gave birth to a firstborn. Curiously, Luke's interest is more focused on what she does with her baby: she swaddles him and lays him in a manger, a detail he will repeat in vv. 12 and 16. This detail must be significant. Unfortunately, perhaps under the influence of the custom of the Christmas crib popularized by St. Francis of Assisi, famous for his love of poverty, popular piety has seen in this scene the expression of the destitution and poverty of Jesus' parents and the insensitivity of some innkeeper. This is not the meaning that Luke intends to give to this scene.
What is the significance of the manger? Let us remember that the angel presented it as a sign (v. 12). The answer to this question probably comes to us from the Septuagint version of Isa 1:3: "The ox knows his owner, and the donkey the manger (phatnē) of his master; for Israel he has misunderstood me, and my people have not known me." Luke's point is that this phrase of Isaiah is no longer valid, because through the shepherds who went to the manger to find their Lord and began to praise God, it was the whole people who recognized the manger of their Lord.
The significance of the lack of lodging can be illuminated by Jer 14:8, a plea to the Lord and Savior of Israel, "Why do you behave like a stranger in the land, like a traveler who dwells in lodging (katalyma)?". Now the Lord and Savior no longer dwells in a traveler's lodging.
The significance of swaddling is reflected in Wis 7:4-5 in which Solomon, the richest of the kings of Judah says, "I was carefully swaddled and cared for. No king started out differently at birth". The swaddling may be a sign that Israel's Messiah is not an outcast among his people, but one who is welcomed and cared for.
In short, Jesus was born in the city of David, not in a dwelling like a stranger, but in a manger where God supports his people. His swaddling does not contradict his royal role.
- The Annunciation to the Shepherds (2:8-14)
- The Symbolism of the Shepherds (8)
Today, shepherds in infancy narratives project an idyllic image of kind and noble people. Yet, in Judaism, they were considered dishonest, lawless people who let their flocks encroach on other people's territory, so they were ineligible to be witnesses or judges. But what role does Luke want them to play?
The Mishnah Shekalim 7:4 tells us that the animals found between Jerusalem and Migdal Eder (near Bethlehem) were used for temple sacrifices. Now, Midgdal Eder, "Tower of the Flock," could be the key that ties the shepherds and their flock together in the Bethlehem area. Let us remember that the angel in his message refers to the city of David where a Savior who is Messiah and Lord was born, and in their response the shepherds urge each other to go to Bethlehem to see the event that has just happened. This tradition of the Messiah being born in Bethlehem is mentioned in Jn 7:42: "Does not the scripture say that he will be of the lineage of David and that he will come from Bethlehem, the little town from which David came?" This is probably a reference to Micah 5:1 ("And you, Bethlehem... from you shall come forth for me the one who is to rule Israel"). It is therefore worthwhile to look at Micah chapters 4 and 5, since they seem to provide the background for understanding the shepherd scene in Luke.
Micah's setting is first the humiliation of Jerusalem/Zion by the Babylonian armies, but while it is thought to be doomed, the prophet predicts that its sufferings are in fact those of a woman in labor and that the Lord will come to its aid in the face of its enemies, and the final result will be that the nations will come to the mountain of Jerusalem/Zion, and there, the place of the "Tower of the Flock" (Migdal Eder), the kingdom of old will be restored. This final victory will be assured by a leader from the city of David, Bethlehem. Several motifs from Micah are found in Luke. Mary experiences the pains of a woman in labor as Micah evokes. Augustus' census brings a movement of peoples similar to that spoken of in Micah about Jerusalem; thus Joseph "goes up" from Galilee to Bethlehem, the same vocabulary for the ascents to Jerusalem. But by calling Bethlehem "city of David", the traditional name for Jerusalem, Luke changes Micah's reference to Jerusalem to "the mountain of the Lord's house" which is now Bethlehem; it is now to Bethlehem that one must go to see the Lord. In this context, the reference to shepherds feeding their flocks in the Bethlehem area could reflect his understanding of Migdal Eder, Micah's "Tower of the Flock," which is now in the vicinity of Bethlehem, rather than in Jerusalem. This is indeed possible when one considers that Jewish tradition could read Micah 4:8 and Micah 5:1 in parallel.
|Mic 4: 8||Mic 5: 1|
|And you, O Migdal Eder,|
hill of the daughter of Zion,
to you will come back the former dominion,
the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem
|And you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,|
small to be asmong the clans of Judah;
from you there will come forth for me
one who is to be a ruler in Israel
Thus, the city of David and the Tower of the Flock constituted the city from which a leader would come and where the kingdom would be restored. An echo of a messianic reading of these texts comes from the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (which could be from the first century CE) on Gen 35:21: "The Tower of the Sheep, the place where it will happen that the King Messiah will be revealed at the end of days.
In his infancy narrative, Matthew explicitly quotes Mic 5:1 when King Herod inquires about the birthplace of the Messiah. Luke does not quote directly from Micah, but he borrows several of his motifs, including the restoration of the former kingdom in the vicinity of the Tower of the Sheep by a leader from Bethlehem. Thus God reveals to shepherds tending their flock that a savior is born to them in Bethlehem.
- The Annunciation by the Angel of the Lord (9-12)
In this annunciation story, the main steps of the standard structure of annunciation stories are present, even if some steps are missing (see the diptych with the numbered steps): the appearance of an angel, the fear of the shepherds, the instruction not to be afraid. Some changes were necessary to the content of the message, because the context is no longer that of a promise, but of the realization of a promise. However, the gift of a sign and the departure of the angel(s) remain.
The core of the message is good news: "To you this day there is born in the city of David a Savior who is Messiah and Lord". Since one of the backgrounds of the title Savior is that of the Roman emperor, this announcement takes the form of an imperial proclamation. But Isa 9:5 is probably the most important background: "For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given". The context of Isaiah is that of the heir to the throne of David, to whom the prophet attributes a number of titles: "Wonderful Counselor, Divine Hero, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace". While taking up this annunciation from Isaiah, Luke modifies the titles in favor of the Christian kerygma: Savior, Messiah (Christ), Lord. These titles, which were born with the faith in the resurrection of Jesus and the Parousia (see Phil 3:20: "For our city is in heaven, from which we expect the Lord Jesus Christ as our savior"), are now placed by Luke at the time of Jesus' birth. The expression "this day" is the same today as Ps 2:7 ("You are my son; today I have begotten you"), a verse at the resurrection of Jesus in Acts 13:32, applied by Luke to the birth of Jesus.
It is therefore very likely that it was the prophet Isaiah who guided Luke in writing the message of the good news, and it is in the light of Isaiah 52:7 (the good news of peace and the reign of God addressed to Jerusalem / Zion that Luke redirects to Bethlehem) or 61:1 ("The Lord has indeed made me a messiah; he has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted") that the announcement of the angel to the shepherds must be understood.
- The Canticle of the Heavenly Host (13-14)
With vv. 13-14 the context suddenly changes: it is no longer that of the angel of the Lord, but that of the heavenly host, i.e. the spirits who dwell in the presence of God in heaven or in the temple, singing his praises. The literary genre is no longer that of an annunciation but that of a theophany. Luke had prepared us for this in v. 9 with "the glory of the Lord shone around them", a typical feature of theophanies.
The hymn of the heavenly host probably has as its antecedent that passage of Isaiah where the prophet, before the divine presence in the temple, hears the Seraphim sing: "Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Sabaot, his glory fills the whole earth." In the Jewish literature of the time, we find the idea that when the angels saw what God had done in creation, they sang a hymn of praise. The "this day" mentioned by the angel in Luke is the equivalent of a new creation.
The hymn of the heavenly host, added by Luke in a second edition of his gospel, was probably composed by the Jewish Christian community of the Anawim, just as the Anawim of Qumran composed hymns to be sung by angels. Like the Magnificat and the Benedictus, the hymn begins with praise to God, just as we see in the Jerusalem community described in Acts 2:47. The second line offers a parallel very close to that found in the Qumran literature, for both groups of Anawim consider themselves chosen by God and the object of his favor. In Lk/Ac the closest parallel to the Gloria is found in the acclamation of Jesus on his entry into Jerusalem (Lk 19:38) where only Luke has the following expression in the mouth of the multitude of disciples:
Peace in heaven
and glory in the highest heavens.
Thus, while the hymn that the multitude of the heavenly host proclaims peace on earth, the multitude of the disciples in Jerusalem proclaims peace and glory in heaven: the two songs answer each other. These hymns are born of the Christological moment of Jesus' resurrection, but Luke moves them to insert them into Jesus' career. What the multitude of the heavenly host sings in v. 14 will only be discovered after Jesus' resurrection.
- The Reaction as the Shepherds Go to Bethlehem (2:15-20)
All the characters in the story now find themselves in front of the manger, whose symbolism evokes Isa 1:3: "The ox knows his owner, and the donkey the manger (phatnē) of his master; for Israel he has misunderstood me, and my people have not known me." The focus is on the various reactions around the manger. The first reaction is expressed in v. 18: "All who heard were astonished". This is a parallel to the circumcision scene of John the Baptist, but at that point Luke adds that they held these events in their hearts. Here there is no such thing, so perhaps Luke intends to associate them with those in the parable of the sower who hear the word with joy, but have no roots (8:15).
The shepherds, for their part, glorify and praise God for all they have heard and seen (v. 20). Their mission is now over, and they return to their flock. They are not called to be part of the apostolic community, but simply represent the future believing community that glorifies and praises God for what they have heard and seen. In this respect, they are like the magi in Matthew who are not said to have kept all these events in their hearts; that will be a task accomplished much later.
Between the large group of listeners and the shepherds is Mary, whom Luke says "kept with concern all these events, interpreting them in her heart" (v. 19). It would be a mistake to interpret this verse as supporting the idea that Mary was an eyewitness to the infancy narrative. Luke's point is to present Mary as a believer and disciple, and therefore able to grasp the deeper meaning of the events and the sign that was given. For Luke's key words about Mary are "interpreting" and "events". Let us consider some parallels to Luke's description:
- Gen 37:11 (after a mysterious dream in which a revelation is hidden under celestial symbols representing the members of his family), the author writes: "but his father kept with concern the event".
- Dan 4:28: LXX (after Daniel's interpretation of the dark dream of a tree, the author writes: "Nebuchadnezzar kept with concern these words in his heart".
- Testament of Levi 6:2: After the angel opened the gates of heaven and showed Levi the holy temple and the throne of glory of the Most High, and after Levi was guided to find the mysterious shield, it is said of him that he kept with concern these events in his heart
Mary is therefore faced with confusing events that she keeps in her heart. She will be able to interpret them correctly when Jesus completes his ministry at his heavenly enthronement. Then, with the community gathered to receive the gift of Jesus' Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:14), she will hear the proclamation of the glorified Jesus as "Lord, Messiah, Savior (Acts 2:36; 5:31), and will be able to fully understand the meaning of what the shepherds said.
Another background for understanding Lk 2:19 is that of sapiential literature. For to keep in one's heart also means to put into practice in one's life the message heard. This is the meaning of several passages such as Sirach 39:1-3 (keep the parables, prophecies and mysterious words in order to reflect on them and put them into practice), Prov 3:1 (the wise man "keeps my words in his heart"), Ps 119:11 addressed to God ("In my heart I keep your commands so as not to sin against you"). All of this applies to Mary, and it anticipates her attitude during Jesus' ministry, so that she will be one of those about whom Jesus says: "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it."
- The Circumcision and the Naming (2:21)
Circumcision is central to the birth of John the Baptist, with a prominent role for the parents. Nothing of the sort in the case of Jesus, and the parents are not even named; one has the impression of being faced with a secondary notice. But this is a very Lucan composition. The fact that three times he uses the expression "the time came" to give birth (2:6), to circumcise the child (2:21) and to purify them (2:22) indicates a carefully planned motive: circumcision is the intermediary between birth and purification.
Biblical scholars have tried to give theological significance to Jesus' circumcision as an expression of Jesus' solidarity with human nature, or with Judaism. One would look in vain for a clue in this sense in Luke. The evangelist simply wants to show that calling the child "Jesus" fulfilled the angel's command; for the angel had asked Mary to call him that, and she answered: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it happen to me according to your word". Thus, Jesus' parents are obedient to the word of God, and the next section will show that they are also obedient to the Law.
- The Presentation; Simeon and Anna Prophesy about Jesus
Translation of 2: 22-40
Now when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, the parents brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord - 23 as it is written in the Law of the Lord: "Every male child who opens the womb will be considered consecrated to the Lord" - 24 and to offer a sacrifice, according to what is dictated in the Law of the Lord: "A pair of doves or two young pigeons."
25 And behold, it happened that in Jerusalem there was a man by the name of Simeon who was upright and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel. The Holy Spirit was upon him; 26 and it had been disclosed to him by this Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. 27 And so, led by the Spirit, Simeon came into the Temple court. When the parents brought in Jesus to perform for him what was customary according to the Law, 28 Simeon embraced the child in his arms and blessed God, saying:
29a "Mighty Master, now you may let your servant depart
29b in peace, since you have kept your word.
30 For my eyes have seen this salvation
31 that you made ready in the sight of all the peoples:
32a a light to be a revelation to the Gentiles
32b and to be a glory for your people Israel."
33 The father and mother were astonished at these things which were said about the child. 34 Simeon blessed them and said to Mary the mother:
34c "Behold, he is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel
34d and for a sign to be contradicted -
35a indeed, a sword will pass through your own soul -
35b so that the inmost thoughts of many may be revealed."
36 There was also a prophetess, Anna daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher, who was well on in years; for the she had married as a young girl and lived with her husband seven years, 37 and then by herself as a widow for eighty-four years. She never left the Temple courts; day and night she worshiped God, fasting and praying. 38 Now at this very moment she too came on the scene and gave thanks to God; and she spoke about the child to all those waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 Then, when they had finished all their duties according to the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee and their own city, Nazareth. 40 And the child grew up and became strong, filled with wisdom and favored by God.
- "when the time came". Literally: "when the days were fulfilled". This expression may mean that the time for purification has passed; but the same formula in 1:57; 2:6,21 (see note to v. 21) indicates that Luke simply means that the time designated for impurity is over and that the time for purification has arrived. It was birth, not conception, that made the woman unclean, and so for Luke the virginal conception does not remove the need for her to be cleansed.
- "their purification". The possessive adjective "their" indicates that Joseph must also be purified, even though there is no Jewish tradition of purifying the father. Some copyists saw the problem and changed "their" to "her" (e.g., Codex Bezae, Old Syriac Sinaiticus, some Old Latin), but the best manuscripts do have "their.
- "the parents...Jesus". Literally: "they... him". We have anticipated the identification of the characters in v. 27.
- "Jerusalem (Hierosolyma)". The name of the city has two spellings in the NT: Hierousalēm, which is a transliteration of the Hebrew, and Hierosolyma which has a more properly Greek form. The Gospel according to Luke shows a marked preference for Hierousalēm (26 times) over Hierosolyma (4 times); in Acts, the occurrences are more equal (39 times and 25 times respectively). One would look in vain for any logic in these seemingly non-deliberate variations.
- "written...'Every'". Literally, "it is written... that (hoti) 'Every'". The conjunction hoti could have a causal meaning (because). See note to 1: 25.
- "in the Law of the Lord". Literally: "in the law of the Lord". The noun "law" has no article here, whereas in the other four cases (2: 188.8.131.52) the article is present. This detail is too insignificant to see the trace of another hand.
- "Every male child who opens the womb". Luke's citation is a mixture of the Septuagint text of Ex 13:2,12,15 and perhaps Num 8:15-18. The phrase simply refers to a firstborn. Some Roman Catholic biblical scholars have felt the need to assert defensively that this verse does not contradict the church's doctrine that the birth of Jesus kept Mary's physical virginity intact, the hymen not having been broken, and thus the womb not having been opened (see Appendix IV). To this we must reply that it is likely that Luke did not even ask himself this question, and that if he had really wanted to refer to a miraculous birth, he would not have used an expression like "opening his mother's womb".
- "considered consecrated". Literally: "shall be called holy". It is the same expression used in 1:35 that Luke intends to echo.
- "A pair of doves or two young pigeons". The phrase comes from the Septuagint of Lev 12:8. These are the only birds permitted by the Law for sacrifice; and pigeons were sold in the Temple court for this purpose (Mk 11:15; Jn 2:14). Rock pigeons are a year-round variety in Palestine, to be distinguished from the seasonal species. Doves are a smaller variety of pigeon.
- "And (kai) behold (idou), it happened (egeneto)". We find the expression kai idou (see note to v. 1: 20) plus the pattern with egeneto (see note to 1: 9).
- "Jerusalem (Hierousalēm)". Here we have the spelling Hierousalēm, rather than Hierosolyma from v. 22 (see note to v. 22).
- "a man by the name of Simeon". The style of the Greek text indicates that an unknown character is being introduced to the reader, making it impossible to identify him with Simeon, the famous son of Hillel and father of Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder. In the second century the Protevangelium of James made him a high priest successor of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist (on this subject see note to 1:5). There is no indication in Luke's description that Simeon was a Levite priest, despite the fact that he blesses the parents in v. 34. His presence in the Temple is presented as purely coincidental, unlike Zechariah's, who was there to fulfill his priestly duties. The mention in the Nunc Dimittis that he is ready to die suggests that he was old.
- "upright (dikaios)". This is the same adjective used for the parents of John the Baptist in Lk 1:6 and for Joseph in Mt 1:19; dikaios is variously translated as "upright, pious, holy. The characters in the infancy narrative who do not appear in the rest of the gospel are presented as possessing the piety of Israel.
- "devout (eulabēs)". This adjective, which appears only in Lk/Acts in the whole NT, denotes attention to religious duties.
- "waiting for the consolation of Israel". Lk 23:50-51 will describe Joseph of Arimathea as a man "good and upright...who was waiting for the kingdom of God," so that Simeon is his equivalent before Jesus' ministry. Another parallel to this description is the audience of the prophetess Anna who is said to have been "waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem" (2:38).
- "The Holy Spirit". Literally: "Spirit was holy". The noun has no article here and the adjective is separated from the noun by a verb. This is the same construction as in Mt 1:18,20 and Lk 1:184.108.40.206 (see note on Mt 1:18 and Lk 1:15). The use of the expression "Holy Spirit" in the next verse shows that Luke intends to refer to the Holy Spirit, but it is not clear whether he sees a difference between the gift of the Holy Spirit before and after Easter.
- "disclosed (chrēmatizein)". This verb designates a divine oracle or answer; for example, in Acts 10:22 Luke uses it when an angel gives Cornelius the direction to go to a place.
- "by this Holy Spirit".
Literally: "by the Holy Spirit". This is the first time Luke uses the article in reference to the Holy Spirit in the infancy narrative. See note on 1: 15.
- "not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah". Luke plays with the theme of sight to prepare us for Nunc Dimittis: "For my eyes have seen this salvation" (2:30). The expression "Messiah of the Lord" also appears in Psalms of Solomon 18:7.
- "before (prin ē an)".
This expression with a verb in the subjunctive appears only here in the entire NT; the normal form would be the accusative with a verb in the infinitive.
- "led by the Spirit". Literally: "in the Spirit". The word "Spirit" is preceded by the article. Luke intends to present the encounter with Jesus' parents as prepared by God.
- "the Temple court". Luke knows the difference between hieron (the Temple or Temple court) and naos (the Temple sanctuary where only priests enter), which he used in 1:9. 21-22. As Simeon meets Mary, he must be either in the court of the Gentiles or the court of the women. Later Christians imagined that he was a priest, and therefore wrongly portrayed him and his parents as being in the temple sanctuary.
- "Jesus". Literally: the child, a term we will use in the next verse. See note to 2: 17.
- "to perform for him". In Greek, "for him" modifies the phrase "what was customary according to the Law".
- "embraced (dechomai)". Literally, "he received" the child in his arms. From this verse, Simeon became known in Christian hagiography as Theodochos, "receiver of God."
- "Mighty Master (despotēs)". The term despotēs is uncommon in the NT for God, but used by the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew 'ādôn. The term reappears in Acts 4:24 in the prayer of the Christian community in Jerusalem, a community that may ultimately be the source of this hymn.
- "you may let". The verb is indicative and declarative; it is not an imperative or an imprecation.
- "servant (doulos)". The term doulos refers to both slave and servant. Because of the use of despotēs in the verse to express God's absolute control over death, the translation "slave" would be appropriate here. However, because of the history of black slavery in America, a very different situation from slavery in the Greco-Roman world, we have opted for the translation "servant," echoing Mary's title of "handmaid."
- "depart (apolyein)". The verb apolyein (to untie, to release, to deliver) is an euphemism for "to die" as in the Septuagint of Num 20:29, perhaps in the sense of being freed from the cares of life (Tobit 3:6.13).
- "my eyes have seen". It is not an expression to be taken literally, as some have done by imagining that Simeon was blind, as Zechariah was mute, and that his healing led him to sing this hymn.
Three of the four uses of sōtērios in the NT come from Luke. In 3:6 and Acts 28:28 he refers to God's salvation.
- "made ready (hetoimazein)". This verb was used for John the Baptist in 1:17.76 (and will be used in 3:4).
- "in the sight of all the peoples". In Is 52:10, which is the inspiration for this hymn, it speaks rather of "all nations", i.e. the Gentiles. Why did the Nunc Dimittis prefer the word "peoples"? This word in the plural appears elsewhere in the NT only in Acts 4:25-27 to designate Israel and is contrasted with "nations" (the Gentiles). Whatever the meaning of "peoples" may have been in the pre-Lucanian stage of the hymn, it is more plausible to think that by "peoples" Luke includes here the two groups mentioned in the next verse, i.e., the Gentiles (nations) and the people of Israel, both of whom Luke considers to be the people of God.
- "a light to be a revelation". Literally: "light unto revelation". The noun "light", which is in apposition to "salvation", is the object of the verb: made ready. What is the relationship of the nouns "light" and "revelation" to the noun "glory" in the next line? It is likely that "glory" is in apposition to "revelation," so that revelation to the Gentiles or pagans and glory to Israel are both equivalent aspects of the salvation and light that God has prepared. Neither is subordinate to the other.
- "to the Gentiles (ethnos)". Literally: "revelation of the Gentiles", with the word "Gentiles" in the genitive (noun complement), and so the genitive could mean "by": the Gentiles reveal the light, or "of", the Gentiles are revealed under the light, or "for", the Gentiles receiving a revelation from the light. This last possibility seems most appropriate in the context, for the next line also has a genitive for the word "people": "glory for your people Israel".
- "The father".
Some copyists substituted the name "Joseph" for "father" because they felt that using the word "father" contradicted the virginal conception.
- "were astonished".
The expression is typically Lucan, and we have the same reaction in 1:21.63; 2:18. This reaction to a divine revelation is a stereotype found everywhere.
- "Simeon blessed them". This action contributed to the theory that Simeon was a priest (See note to v. 25).
- "is set (keimai)". The verb keimai can mean "to be placed, to lie"; but the image is not associated with the position of the child in Simeon's arms, but with the stones of a building.
- "rise (anastasis)". Usually anastasis refers to resurrection, but here the word is opposed to destruction. The combination of the two nouns "fall and rise" (like "day and night" and "fast and pray" in v. 37) is a Lucan characteristic.
- "of many in Israel". Jesus will have an impact on the whole nation. As in Mk 14:24, the word "many" is not to be taken as an exception to "all" but is used to emphasize the extent of Jesus' influence.
- "to be contradicted (antilegomenos)". The verb antilegomenos is a present participle, but refers to a future. Luke has a predilection for words with the prefix "anti". Compare, for example, Lk 21:15 ("which none of those who oppose [antikeimai] you will be able to thwart [anthistēmi] or contradict [antilegō]") with Mk 13:11 ("but what will be given to you in that hour, say [laleō] ; for it is not you who will speak [laleō], but the Holy Spirit"), and with Mt 10:19-20 ("whatever you have to say [laleō ] will be given to you in that hour, for it is not you who will speak [laleō], but the Spirit of your Father who will speak [laleō] in you"). Of the ten occurrences of antilegomenos in the NT, six are from Luke.
- "indeed". The verse literally begins with: "And (kai) from you (sou) then (from)". Luke used the same construction in 1:76 (Luke's addition to the Benedictus). We have translated the sou as "your own", and kai... de as "indeed". The idea is that what was stated in v. 34 is clarified here: Mary will also be affected by the sign of contradiction that Jesus will be.
- "a sword". There are some Syriac versions that have the "spear" reading instead, probably under the influence of Jn 19:34, since Jn 19:25-27 was seen as the fulfillment of Simeon's prediction.
- "pass through (dierchesthai)". The verb dierchesthai appears 42 times in the NT, three-fourths of them in Lk/Acts. The Septuagint rarely uses it to describe the action of a weapon, hence the importance of Ezek 14:17 which will be explained in our commentary.
- "soul (psychē)". The psychē was the seat of emotions and affections, the heart.
- "so that (hopōs an)". While the phrase hopōs an can have a causal meaning ("with the result that"), it usually has a final meaning ("in view of"). The purpose could be to fulfill the Scriptures (see Mt 13:13-15). This subordinate clause is governed by the verb "he is set " in v. 34c. Is it also governed by the verb "will pass through"? The answer depends on a decision about whether v. 35a is a parenthesis. Indeed, the particle an introduces a hypothetical element: intimate thoughts will be revealed, but the precise timing is not specified.
- "inmost thoughts (dialogismos)". The 13 occurrences of dialogismos in the NT all have a negative connotation: bad thoughts, vain thoughts, doubts. In Luke, the other five occurrences refer to hostile thoughts about Jesus or questioning him. The word dialogismoi of 35b continues the idea of the contested sign of 34d, for the contestation will be expressed with hostile thoughts.
- "a prophetess". Apart from the perverse Jezebel "who calls herself a prophetess" (Rev 2:20), Anna is the only woman in the NT to be given this title, even though there are numerous references to women who prophesy in the Christian community (Acts 2:17; 21:9; 1 Cor 11:5). In the OT women called prophetesses include Miriam, Deborah, Huldah and the wife of Isaiah (Ex 15:20; Jdg 4:4; 2 Kgs 22:14; Isa 8:3).
- "of the tribe of Asher". The identification of this tribe is problematic, since the Israelites in Jerusalem were mainly from Judah (hence the word "Jew") or Benjamin, or Levi. The women called Anna in the Bible belong to the northern tribes: Samuel's mother was an Ephraimite (1 Sam 1:1-2), and Tobit's wife was from the tribe of Naphtali (Titus 1:1.9), a Galilean neighbor of Asher, and an associate according to Gen 49:20-21 and Deut 33:23-24. The tribe of Asher was not important, for Asher was the last of the sons of Jacob/Israel in Moses' list of blessings on the tribes (Deut 33:24). Some biblical scholars have proposed that the names have a symbolic meaning: Asher means: fortunate, and the name Phanuel (father of Hannah) means: face of God. It is interesting to note that Leah's exclamation at the birth of Asher ("Fortunate am I! For all the women call me fortunate", Gen 30:13) served as a Lucan background in 1:42b.48b.
- "well on in years". This is an even more emphatic form of the expression used to describe Zechariah and Elizabeth in 1:7 (See note on this verse).
- "she had married as a young girl".
Literally: "from her virginity". It is to be assumed that she was a young girl of about twelve years of age at the time of her marriage.
- "and then by herself (autē)".
This translation reads autē as an intensive pronoun (autos), not as a simple personal pronoun, despite its frequent use in Luke.
- "as a widow for eighty-four years". Literally: "a widow until eighty-four years". Does the 84 years refer to her time of widowhood or to her total age. If it is the former, then she would be 105 years old (12 years at marriage plus 7 years of marriage).
- "never left the Temple courts (hieron)". Again, Luke is talking about hieron, not naos. (See note to v. 27).
- "day and night". The Greek text literally says "night and day" (see Acts 26:7). We cannot be sure that Luke is reflecting here the Hebrew way of calculating where the day begins with sunset. For both names, see note to v. 34.
- "worshiped (latreuein)". The verb latreuein is very popular in Luke and is intended here to mean his participation in the hours of sacrifice and observance of the weekly fasts.
- "at this very moment". Literally: "at that same hour", an expression that appears 9 times in Lk/Acts and is typically Lucan.
- "came on the scene (ephistanai)". Of the 21 occurrences of ephistanai in the NT, 18 are Lucan.
- "spoke". In Greek, the tense is in the imperfect tense: "she was talking".
- "waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem". We have a similar description in v. 25 about Simeon "waiting for the consolation of Israel"; in both cases reference is made to messianic deliverance. Any attempt to interpret these words in a purely nationalistic setting, i.e. a political liberation of Jerusalem from the Romans, clashes with the idealism of the Anawim and Simeon's prayer for the Gentiles.
- "they had finished (telein)". The old Syriac version of Sinaiticus specifies "Joseph and Mary" as the subject, which is certainly Luke's intention, even though the next "they" includes the child. The verb telein (to complete) conveys a sense of accomplishment, and will be extended in the next verse with the verb pleroun (to fill, fulfill).
- "they returned". On the use of departure verbs to end a scene in the infancy narrative, see note to 1: 23.
- "their own city, Nazareth". Bethlehem was "his city" for Joseph in 2:3.
- "the child grew up and became strong". This is word for word what is said about John the Baptist in 1:80.
- "favored by God". Literally: "the favor of God was upon him".
- The Sequence and Internal Structure
- The Sequence
In discussing the diptych of the birth of the Baptist and Jesus, we noted several differences in the events that follow these births. Here are the highlights of the two structures.
|Proclamation of Destiny (Angels)|
|Circumcision and Naming||Circumcision and Naming|
|Proclamation of Destiny (Zechariah)||Proclamation of Destiny (Simeon)|
Several questions are raised when analyzing the purification and presentation scene:
- Why is there a second proclamation about the greatness and future destiny of Jesus, after the one from the angel to the shepherds?
- Why are the parents astonished about the child's future, when they have been informed by the shepherds of the angel's message?
- How can Mary, who received a revelation in 1:32-35, be astonished?
- Why in 2:27 are Joseph and Mary called the parents of Jesus, and why in 2:33 is Joseph called the father of Jesus, if Jesus was indeed conceived virginally?
- All this leads to a final question: would not the account of Simeon have taken shape in a pre-Lucanic context that presupposes neither Gabriel's annunciation to Mary nor the angel's annunciation to the shepherds? Wouldn't we have three independent narratives: the annunciation to Mary, the angelic annunciation to the shepherds, and Simeon's oracle to the parents, each narrative containing a divine revelation about the identity and future of the child?
Despite the appearance of a collection of scattered scenes for the whole of 2:1-40, there are close theological and Christological links between them. For the angelic annunciation to the shepherds concerns the identity of Jesus in the context of Israel's expectation (2:10-11), while Simeon's Nunc Dimittis concerns the destiny of the child "before all peoples," including the Gentiles; there is no duplication between the two proclamations, but a development.
We have already indicated that the story of the shepherds has the same function as the story of the magi, since both represent the displacement of the Christological moment to the conception and birth of Jesus. But the shepherds' story lacked 1) the faith and adoration of the Gentiles found in the magi, and this is exactly what is found here in the Nunc Dimittis; the shepherds' story also lacked 2) the rejection of the newborn king by the powerful of Israel (Herod, the chief priests), and this is what is found in Simeon's oracle in vv. 34-35, which speaks of the fall of many in Israel and the contested sign. Thus, theologically, 2:1-40 is very similar to the account of the magi in Mt 2:1-13. Despite the different narratives, the same theological message is found, and thus 2:1-40 is not a juxtaposition of scattered material.
One of the leitmotifs of 2:22-40 is that Scripture, summarized by the Law and the prophets, is fulfilled in Jesus. What passage of Scripture serves as the background for this section? It would be the prophets Malachi and Daniel. We have already seen that Mal 3:1 was used to introduce John the Baptist in Lk 1 as the one to whom the phrase, "Behold, I send my messenger. He will make straight the way before me". The rest of the verse says: "Suddenly he will enter his temple, the master you seek... Who will stand the day of his coming? Who will stand when he appears?" Also, in Lk 2, it is not by chance that after being greeted as Lord (2:11), the child Jesus comes to the Temple to be recognized by Simeon who was waiting for the consolation of Israel. And Simeon points out that his coming to the Temple signals the beginning of his role as a contested sign, so that many will fall, or to use Malachi's words, they will not be able to stand the day of his coming.
Daniel 9:21-24 also influenced Luke to include some scenes of Jesus in the Temple. We have already mentioned the scene in the Temple at evening prayer with the angel Gabriel, which was the background to the scene of Zechariah in the Temple. In Dan 9:24, Gabriel's appearance marks the end of the 70 weeks of years, and the moment when the Holy of Holies will be anointed. It is possible that for Luke this Holy of Holies is a person, that is, the one whom Gabriel in his appearance to Mary called "holy", the child who is now brought to the Temple to be consecrated (holy) to the Lord (2:23).
- The Internal Structure
This section can be divided into four parts.
|v. 22-24||The setting where Joseph and Mary bring the baby Jesus to the Temple at Jerusalem|
|v. 25-35||he greeting of the child by by Simeon and his two oracles about the child's destiny|
|v. 36-38||The greeting of the child by the prophetess Anne|
|v. 39-40||The conclusion involving a return to Galilee and Nazareth, and a refrain on the growth of
- The setting refers to the purification and presentation spoken of in Deuteronomy, but these two elements will not play a prominent role later on.
In the section on Simeon, the canticle of Nunc Dimittis (v. 29-32) would have been added in a second stage of the gospel edition, as we have already suggested, so that originally v. 27 ("When the parents brought in Jesus...") was followed by v. 34 ("Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, the mother...").
- the greeting by Anna seems to be a duplication of Simeon's greeting. Why would Luke add this scene where the prophetess does not speak a word? The reason probably stems from the evangelist's desire to balance the temple scene with a man and a woman, just as he did at the beginning of the infancy narrative with Zechariah and Elizabeth.
The conclusion brings together two verses that do not seem to be related, no doubt a sign of material of different origin.
- The Setting Supplied by the Law (2:22-24)
Two Israelite customs provide the background for the Temple scene. Just as the census brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, the cleansing and presentation brought them to Jerusalem and the Temple. Let us examine these two customs separately, for Luke seems to confuse them.
- The consecration or presentation of the child to the Lord.
Ex 13:1 and 13:11f require the dedication of all firstborn males to the Lord. This practice is traditionally related to the fact that the Lord spared the Israelite firstborn when he struck down the Egyptian firstborn. Normally, these firstborns consecrated to the Lord would have remained in the temple to ensure its service, but eventually the practice was that this firstborn could be redeemed for a sum of 5 shekels, thus 20 denarii (20 days' wages), while the tribe of Levi would devote itself entirely to the service of the Temple. This practice will be confirmed by Num 8:15-16. The sum was to be paid to the Temple, but there was no obligation to go to the Temple for this presentation or redemption.
- The purification of the mother after the birth of a child.
The book of Leviticus 12:1s specifies that a woman must be considered ritually unclean for seven days before the circumcision of the male child, and 33 days afterwards, for a total of 40 days (for a girl, the total is 80 days) during which she may not go to the sanctuary. And at the end, she must bring to the gate of the Temple (Nicanor's gate, see Temple map) the offering of a lamb, and a young pigeon or a dove. If she could not afford a lamb, she could offer two pigeons or doves.
In vv. 22-24 Luke is thinking mainly of the purification of the mother: the mention of the period leading to purification (v. 22) and the gift of the two birds (v. 24), allusions to Lev. 12:6-8. However, he combines all this with the reference to the consecration of the firstborn in vv. 22b-23 and v. 27. All this results in inaccuracies.
- Luke seems to think that Joseph also needs purification ("their" purification in v. 22) by slightly modifying Lev 12:6
- He seems to think that the reason for going to the temple is the consecration or presentation of Jesus (v. 27), whereas only the law of the purification of the mother required it, and even there the custom seems to have fallen into disuse in the NT era
- He does not mention anything about the five shekels required for the redemption of the firstborn, and seems to confuse this requirement with the two birds required for the purification of the mother.
What does this mean? Either Luke has misinterpreted a tradition that was bequeathed to him, or he has created a setting based on an incorrect reading of the laws of the OT. We opt for the latter case, because
In short, Luke has only a general knowledge of Judaism, ignoring a number of details, a sign that he is not from Palestine or a Jewish background.
- there is little connection between this setting and the verses that follow;
- it is a similar situation as we have encountered with the census where the setting was meant to explain the geographical displacement of Joseph and Mary;
- Luke goes to the trouble of quoting the laws of Leviticus
It is possible that these inaccuracies are introduced for theological reasons. First, since Luke wants to set the scene in the Temple, the law of purification then provides the reason he needs to force Joseph and Mary to go to Jerusalem. Second, the presentation of Jesus allows him to create this encounter with Simeon and the prophetess Anna. What is Luke looking for in all this? To take up the motives he finds in the story of Samuel. For the young Samuel was presented at the sanctuary in Shiloh, but then left the sanctuary without the required redemption. Inaccurate knowledge and the influence of Samuel's story would explain the confusion in our account.
Let us take a closer look at the parallels between Luke's scenes and those around young Samuel in 1 Sam 1 - 2.
|After Samuel's presentation, the parents Hannah and Elkanah meet Eli, an elderly priest (1:25)
||Mary and Joseph meet Simeon, an elderly person|
|Eli blesses Hannah and Elkanah (2:20)||Simeon blesses Mary and Joseph (34)|
|Women officiate at the door of the sanctuary (2, 22)||
The prophetess Hannah never left the Temple courts; day and night she worshipped God, fasting and praying (37)|
"The little Samuel grew before the Lord" (2: 21); "As for the little Samuel, he grew in stature and favor before the Lord and also before men" (2: 26)||"And the child grew and became strong, full of wisdom and blessed by God.|
It is clear that the story of young Samuel and his parents Hannah and Elkanah was a source of inspiration for his entire infancy narrative. For example, the Magnificat is modeled on Hannah's hymn, just as the account of John the Baptist's conception was modeled on Samuel's conception, and the figures of Elizabeth and Zechariah, as well as those of Mary and Joseph, bear the influence of the figures of Hannah and Elkanah. Without going so far as to make a simple identification between these figures, Luke rather uses certain pigments to color his own scenes. In addition to the influence of 1 Samuel, we also mentioned earlier that of the prophet Daniel.
- Simeon Greets the Child and Prophesies (2:25-35)
- The Characterization and Symbolism of Simeon
Luke speaks of the Law three times in vv. 22-24, and continues this theme in vv. 27 and 39, when the scene is focused on Jesus' future greatness. For him, this future greatness was made possible by obedience to the Law of Moses, which is in fact the Law of the Lord. Similarly, the (Holy) Spirit is present throughout the infancy narrative, and it is this Spirit that makes prophecy possible: under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Elizabeth greets Mary, the mother of her Lord, Zechariah proclaims the Benedictus, Simeon proclaims the Nunc Dimittis; without explicit mention of the Spirit, however, Anna is called a prophetess. For Luke, the Law and the Prophets refer to the whole heritage of Israel, and it is in this context that he wants to situate the career of Jesus.
We have proposed that the various hymns found in the infancy narrative were composed in the circle of the Anawim, those pious Jewish Christians totally dependent on God who recognized in Jesus the fulfillment of God's promises to sustain them. Now, Simeon and Anna embody the figure of these Anawim who await the consolation of Israel and the redemption of Jerusalem. And like the Anawim, they are inhabited by the piety of the Temple, and so it is in the Temple that Simeon will see the consolation of Israel, and Anna did not leave the Temple, fasting and praying there day and night; they are the forerunners of the first Christian community in Jerusalem.
Now, with the Law and the Prophets, and then the Temple, the whole setting is complete to celebrate the greatness of the child Jesus. The one who was called "holy" is now in the holy place of Israel, which the Temple theologians considered to be the residence of the glory of God. The light has come to him, and the revelation that Simeon receives now allows him to bless the child's parents, whereas Zechariah had been unable, at the beginning of the infancy narrative, to offer his blessing in the temple. He also announces the revelation to the Gentiles, which will be the glory of the people of Israel, and thus the realization of what the prophet Isaiah had predicted (2:2-3).
The prophet Isaiah is part of the background of the figure of Simeon (especially chs. 40-55 and 56-66), e.g., that line by which "he looked forward to the consolation (paraklēsis) of Israel." Just before the passage associated with John the Baptist in Is 40:3 ("voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord"), we read in 40:1: LXX "Console, console (parakalein) my people, says the Lord; Priests, speak to the heart of Jerusalem; console her, for her humiliation has been filled out." Similarly, Is 66:12-13 speaks of the glory of the Gentiles: LXX "Like a mother console (parakalein) her child, and I will console you, and in Jerusalem you will be consoled". The same is true of the figure of Hannah "who waited for the redemption (lytrōsis) of Jerusalem", an echo of Is 52:9: "for the Lord consoles his people, he redeems Jerusalem".
- The Problem of the Two Oracles
There are two oracles pronounced by Simeon about Jesus, the Nunc Dimittis (29-32) and the oracle addressed to Mary (34c-35). We encountered the same situation earlier with Elizabeth's song of praise (1:42b-45) coupled with the Magnificat (1:46-55), the Gospel proclamation to the shepherds (2:10-12) coupled with the Gloria (2:13). In all these cases, we have proposed that the first hymn was the work of Luke, and the second was the addition of a source in a later stage of the edition of the gospel. Here it would be the other way around: the Nunc Dimittis is a later addition, and the second oracle of Simeon is a composition of Luke.
The fact that the two oracles have a similar introduction (in each case Simeon makes a blessing before beginning to speak) suggests their composite character. Here are the arguments supporting the idea that the Nunc Dimittis (28-33) is an addition to Luke's original account.
- If we remove section 28-33 (Nunc Dimittis), we obtain a smooth transition from v. 27 to v. 28: "When the parents brought in Jesus to perform for him what was customary according to the Law... Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, the mother.
- The Nunc Dimittis has affinities with the preceding hymns, characterized as added in a second stage of composition, both for its vocabulary and for its themes: God is praised not in relation to the conception or birth of Jesus, but to the general work of salvation that has already taken place. It is a hymn that a devout member of the Anawim might have uttered after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus: "My eyes have seen this salvation that you made ready in the sight of all peoples".
- On the other hand, the second oracle of Simeon (34c-35) does not resemble the other canticles. Its poetry is much rougher, and rather than referring to salvation in general, it focuses on the future of the one who has not yet begun his ministry, and thus constitutes a prophecy in a birth context. This is a composition by Luke. In fact, on the level of vocabulary, we find here lucanisms similar to those belonging to the first phase of Luke's composition.
But why did Luke not add the Nunc Dimittis at the end of his narrative, as he did for the Magnificat and the Benedictus? The answer stems from his vision of salvation history: it is first a question of praising God for his work in the history of Israel, which is what the Nunc Dimittis does, before turning one's attention to the child whose birth is being celebrated, which is what the second oracle does; moreover, it is necessary to proclaim this salvation offered to all peoples, to the Gentiles and to Israel, as the Nunc Dimittis does, before emphasizing that not all Israel will welcome it, as the second oracle does.
- Simeon's Nunc Dimittis (29-32)
- The Structure
It is a very short hymn that can be divided into three strophes of two lines each:
29a "Mighty Master, now you may let your servant depart
29b in peace, since you have kept your word.
30 For my eyes have seen this salvation
31 that you made ready in the sight of all the peoples:
32a a light to be a revelation to the Gentiles
32b and to be a glory for your people Israel."
Note the parallelism of the third stanza with the second.
- The theme of the watchman
The theme of the watchman who expresses his joy at being relieved of his task at the arrival of the one for whom he was watching has something universal about it (see Aeschylus' Agamemnon, 1-30). This theme in Simeon is combined with that of the elderly person at the end of life, as in Gen 15:15, where God promises Abraham: "You shall join your fathers in peace and be buried after a happy old age". This combined theme of the watchman and the elderly is found in Jacob/Israel's affirmation after finding his lost son Joseph: "This time, after seeing your face again, I am willing to die because you are still alive" (Gen 46:30).
- A messianic context
This context is understandable in the Judaism of Jesus' time. It is described in Psalms of Solomon 17:44: "Blessed are those who live in those days, for they shall see the good fortune of Israel in the assembly of the tribes which God shall call together". And the reference to leaving in peace is an echo of Ps 72:7 when God will restore the Davidic king: LXX "In his days justice will arise with the fullness of peace" (see also Zech 8:12 and Is 9:5-6). If Simeon can leave in peace, it is not because he has completed his tasks, but rather because God has fulfilled his word.
- The influence of Isaiah and the OT
The following is a list of passages from Isaiah that form the background to the Nunc Dimittis (the translation is based on the Hebrew text, except for the lines with an asterisk where the Septuagint seems to better reflect the Nunc Dimittis).
Isa 52: 9-10:
The Lord has comforted His people;
He has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has revealed His holy arm
in the sight of all the Gentiles,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation that come from our God.
Isa 49: 6:
It is insufficient for you to be my servant,
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and to recover the diaspora of Israel;
I shall give you as a light to the Gentiles
*That you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.
Isa 46: 13:
I shall put salvation within Zion,
and give to Israel my glory.
Isa 42: 6:
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the Gentiles.
Isa 40: 5:
Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
*and all flesh will see the salvation of God.
The themes of seeing salvation in the sight of all peoples, a light for the Gentiles, and glory for Israel in the Nunc Dimittis is almost a pastiche of passages from Isaiah. At the same time, these are themes that are also found elsewhere in the OT: Ps 98:3 ("He has remembered his faithfulness, his loyalty, to the house of Israel. To the ends of the earth they have seen the victory of our God"), Bar 4:24 ("The neighbors... of Zion will soon see the salvation that will come from your God: it will come to you with the bright glory and splendor of the Lord").
- The Universalism of Salvation
In the Isaiah passages, salvation has a universal perspective, but this universality is subordinated to Jerusalem, for Israel remains the people of God. But in Nunc Dimittis, the expression "the peoples" covers Israelites and Gentiles, so that the latter are also part of God's people. In his hymn, Zechariah (1:68) said that God "has visited and accomplished the redemption of his people". The perspective of Nunc Dimittis is much broader about God's redemption, for now is fulfilled what the prophet Zechariah had said about the Temple and Jerusalem: "For here I am, I am coming to dwell among you - the Lord's oracle. Many peoples (ethnē) shall cleave to the Lord in that day. They will become my own people" (2:14-15). Thus, with Simeon, Luke introduces a theme that Matthew had introduced with the magi. His understanding of salvation will later be expressed through the figures of Peter and Paul. Indeed, in Acts 15:14, we read, "Simeon has just reminded us how God, from the beginning, was careful to choose from among the Gentile nations (ethnē) a people for his name." What is affirmed by Peter will reach its conclusion at the end of Acts, "Know this, then: to the Gentiles this salvation of God has been sent" (28:28).
- Simeon's Second Oracle (34c-35)
- "Behold" (34c). This beginning signals a change in tone and thought. The Nunc Dimittis had spoken of messianic peace, but Luke reports this about peace: "Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on, if there are five people in a house, they will be divided: three against two and two against three. They will be divided father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law." (Lk 12:51-53). The second oracle will be marked by division.
- "he is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel" (34c). Jesus' discrimination is not a casual role, but one that he has been assigned ("set for") to play. The terms "fall" and "rise" are intended to refer to two distinct groups among the Jews. There are those for whom the Christian message is a stumbling block and they fall (Isa 8:14), and there are those for whom it becomes a foundation stone on which to build a house (Ps 118:22; Isa 28:16). The negative aspect of the stone has been used as an arsenal in Christian circles to explain why Israel rejected Jesus, while the Gentiles welcomed him (Rom 9:30-32; 1 Pet 2:8). The order "fall" and then "rise" is based on this very chronology.
- "and for a sign to be contradicted" (34d). This is an echo of the Davidic oracles of Isaiah. In 7:14, the prophet announces that the young girl will conceive and bear a son, who will be called Emmanuel, a sign given by God to the house of David, but a little further on (Isa 8:14) he tells us that this child will be "a stone to be struck and a rock to be stumbled over". Thus, in v. 34d Luke goes further than the expression "fall and rise", he is a source of contradiction or quarrel, an echo of the place where Israel rebelled against its God, and which will be called "the water of contradiction" (Num 20:13; Deut 32:51). Simeon anticipates the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish authorities during his ministry and passion, and the rejection of the Christian mission by Israel in Acts.
- "a sword will pass through your own soul" (35a). This obscure phrase has been the subject of much debate among church fathers and biblical scholars, and many of these proposals are based on faulty methodology using non-Lutan material. Here is a list of implausible propositions.
- According to Origen (Homilies on Luke 17), the sword would designate Mary's doubts, scandalized during the passion of Jesus. One would look in vain for a biblical clue in this sense, because on the contrary for Luke Mary is a model disciple (8:21) and she will be a member of the believing community after the ascension (Acts 1:14).
- According to Epiphanius (Heresies lxxviii 11), the sword would designate Mary's violent death. There is no evidence that Mary died violently.
- According to popular Marian piety, the sword would denote suffering (as in Ps 22:21), and this sword would have passed through Mary's soul at Calvary, when the mater dolorosa stood at the foot of the cross and saw her son die. Unfortunately, only John mentions Mary at the foot of the cross in a highly symbolic scene where she is precisely not the mater dolorosa. There is no indication that Luke or his community thought that Mary was at the foot of the cross.
- A variation on the previous proposal is that Mary as the mother of the Messiah would have suffered the same fate as her son, including rejection and contestation. But there is no evidence in Luke for this, especially since his gospel makes no reference to a sword that pierced Jesus' soul.
- The sword through the soul would be the equivalent of the contested sign of v. 34d, and thus would have been ranted against Mary because of questions of legitimacy related to Jesus' conception. This proposal introduces a motif from Mt 1:18-19 that is completely foreign to Luke's account.
- Ambrose (In Lucam II 61) suggests that the sword represents the word of God. Even if this symbolism has biblical support, it is totally absent from Lucan usage. And at what point would this word of God have pierced Mary's soul?
- The "protevangelium" on Gen 3:15 refers to the hostility between the serpent and the woman, and between their two seeds. This proposal assumes that Gen 3:15 was interpreted in a messianic context, which is not found in either the Lucanian or non-Lucan tradition. Moreover, this interpretation does not do justice to the idea of v. 35a where Mary does not appear as a positive figure in opposition to a negative one, but where division seems to have been brought into her soul.
To properly interpret this verse, it is best to begin by examining the image of the sword that will pass through. The best OT parallel for vocabulary is Ezek 14:17 where the Lord exercises judgment and says, "Let the sword pass through this land, that I may cut off man and beast." This is an oracle that had been remembered, for it is found in Greek with some adaptation in the Sibylline Oracles, III 316) to describe Antiochus Epiphanes' invasion of Egypt (circa 170 BC): 'For a sword shall pass through the midst of you'. The image is that of a sword of selective judgment that is able to discriminate, destroying some and sparing others. This image is in harmony with v. 34c where the child "is set for the fall or rise of many in Israel", and in harmony with Lk 12:51-53 ("Do you think that this is peace... but rather division"); it is worth remembering that the source of Lk 12:51-53 is Document Q which Matthew also knows and quotes thus: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace but the sword" (Mt 10:34-36).
Thus, in Lk 12:51-53 Luke did not retain the word "sword" which may have been in Document Q, preferring to use it here in 2:35a, but with the same idea of a division between father and son, mother and daughter. This gives us the key to understanding how the sword passed through Mary. For there is a common tradition in the gospels of contrasting the natural family of Jesus with the family of the disciples created by the proclamation of the reign of God. In Mark (3:31-35), the mother and brothers of Jesus are replaced by a new family of mothers and brothers and sisters who do the will of God. Luke modifies this tradition received from Mark to include the natural family in this new family of disciples because they have passed the test of listening to God's will. All this means that having natural ties to him does not guarantee that one will be judged favorably in this discrimination brought by Jesus. Among those who are included in the fall and rise of many in Israel, Mary stands with the few who are part of the rise, but only because she passed the test and knew how to recognize the sign. Her test, when the sword passed through her soul, was to recognize that the demands of Jesus' heavenly Father are more important than any human attachment between him and his mother, a lesson she will begin to learn in the next verse.
- This is the reason why the "sword" of Mary is so important: "so that the inmost thoughts of many may be revealed" (35b). What is the connection of this sentence with what precedes it, i.e. the sword that goes through Mary's soul? Indeed in order to be a connection, i.e., for 35b to be a continuation of 35a, a positive interpretation would have to be given to "inmost thoughts" (dialogismoi kardiōn), as Mary positively passed the test of discrimination. Unfortunately, all the data we have associate "inmost thoughts" with thoughts hostile to Jesus, thoughts of unbelievers, thoughts that doubt (see the note to v. 35). We must conclude, then, that there is no direct connection between 35b and 35a, and that the phrase about Mary is a parenthesis; rather, 35b is a continuation of 34d: the child will be a contested sign, since for the majority of people, as they encounter him, the hostility of their innermost thoughts toward him will be revealed. This is similar to what Jesus said to the Pharisees: "Nothing is hidden that will not be revealed, nothing is secret that will not be known" (Lk 12:2).
- Anna Greets the Child (2:36-38)
After the revelation of the hostile thoughts mentioned by Simeon, the story around the prophetess Anna allows Luke to end this section on a positive note with the revelation of the child to all those who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. The style is thoroughly Lucan and the atmosphere is similar to that of the first chapters of the Acts of the Apostles: by her piety, her prayer, her fasting, Anne resembles the figure of the Anawims of the Jerusalem community, she is a prophetess, anticipating the atmosphere of Pentecost ("Then in the last days, says God, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, your sons and daughters will be prophets", Acts 2:17), she is with Simeon a clone of Elizabeth and Zechariah.
To what extent do the details Luke gives us about Anna have a symbolic value? He may have wanted to create a type of Anawim piety, or to present a memorable figure among the Jewish Christian Anawim of Jerusalem. But what is particularly interesting is Luke's insistence on her widowhood of 84 years. For it is possible that Luke had in mind the place of Christian widows in the Pauline communities (Acts 6:1; 9:39.41). Compare the description given in 1 Tim 5 with Anna.
|1 Tim 5||Anna|
|v. 9 "A woman shall not be enrolled in the widows' group unless she is at least sixty years old.||
She is about 103 years old (married for 7 years to 12 years, then widowed for 84 years)|
|v. 5 "who remained completely alone", without remarrying||"then alone as a widow for 84 years"|
|v. 5 "persevere night and day in supplications and prayers"||
"day and night she worshiped God, fasting and praying"|
|v. 9 "had only one husband".||
"she had married as a young girl and lived with her husband for seven years, then alone as a widow".|
But it is possible that the tradition about widows came to the Christian community through the tradition of the Jewish Anawim, as reflected in the book of Judith (2nd century BC). For the heroine, Judith, whose name means Jewess, personifies Judaism. She is a widow from the tribe of Simeon who did not remarry when her husband died, observing the Law and fasting (8: 1-8). After delivering Israel, she gave thanks to God with a song of praise (15:14-16:17), just as Anna gave thanks to God before all those who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. Judith continued her widowhood until she was 105 years old (16:23), which is almost the age of Anna.
- The Conclusion (2:39-40)
V. 39 ends the preceding scene, and v. 40 ends the original infancy narrative (what follows would have been added in a second edition). V. 39 has two aspects: first, an inclusion with 2:22-24 about keeping the Law, and second, a shift to Nazareth. The same aspects are found in the conclusion of the story of Elkanah and Hannah in 1 Sam 2:20. And Luke's conclusion has the same characteristics as Matthew's: both are to provide a transition to the beginning of the ministry in Galilee.
V. 40 is part of the diptych of John the Baptist and Jesus.
|1: 80 "And the child grew up and became strong in Spirit."||2: 40 "And the child grow up and became strong, filled with wisdom and favored by God."|
On John the Baptist, as we have noted, the background is Gen 21:8 concerning Isaac ("the child grew...") and Judg 13:24 concerning Samson (LXX "the child grew strong"). For Jesus, the background is 1 Sam 2:21 ("little Samuel grew before the Lord") and 1 Sam 2:26 ("little Samuel grew in stature and favor before the Lord and also before men").
It is remarkable that Luke does not copy for Jesus the mention that John the Baptist became stronger in the Spirit. It is possible that he could not conceive of the Spirit growing in someone conceived by the Holy Spirit. Instead, he opted for the idea of wisdom. In fact, the concept of wisdom is not far from the concept of the Spirit (see Isa 11:2 concerning the Messiah: "On him will rest the Spirit of the Lord, the spirit of wisdom and discernment". And Luke is the evangelist who has most closely linked the figure of Jesus with those of God's wisdom ("Therefore the Wisdom of God himself said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles, and they will kill and persecute them,' " Lk 11:49).
Mentioning that Jesus was "favored by God" is a way of bridging the gap with Jesus' ministry where people "marveled at the message of grace that came from his mouth" (Lk 4:22).
- The Boy Jesus in the Temple Speaks
Translation of Luke 2: 41-52
41 Now every year Jesus' parents used to go to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, 42 And when he was twelve years old and they had gone up to the feast as usual, 43 and when they had completed the festival days and were returning home, the boy Jesus remained in Jerusalem, unknown to his parents. 44 Thinking he was in the traveling party, they had gone a day's journey before they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him.
46 Finally, after three days, they found him in the Temple precincts, seated in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. 47 All who heard him were astounded at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw Jesus, they were amazed. "Child," his mother said to him, "why have you done this to us? Behold, your father and I have been so worried looking for you." 49 "Why were you looking for me?" he said to them. "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" 50 But they did not understand the event of which Jesus spoke to them.
51 Then he went back down with them to Nazareth and was obedient to them. His mother kept with concern all these events in her heart. 52 And Jesus made progress in wisdom, and favour before God and men.
- "every year (kat'etos)".
This is the only occurrence of kat'etos in the entire NT, even though half of the 49 occurrences of etos (year) in the NT are found in Lk / Acts.
- "Jesus' parents".
Literally: his parents. Although the narrative may have been independent of the rest of the infancy narrative, in its present form it assumes that Jesus' parents are known.
- "used to go (poreuesthai)". The verb poreuesthai is here in the imperfect tense; it is a favorite verb of Luke who uses it more often (49 times in his gospel) than all the other evangelists together.
- "to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover". Here and in 2:45 the spelling is Ierousalēm (see the note on 2:22). The phrase "the feast of the Passover" does not appear in the Septuagint, and in the NT the usual expression is simply "the Passover," without mention of the feast. It is possible that the expression we have here, also present in Jn 13:1, is a clarification for non-Jewish readers. For a long time this feast was joined to that of unleavened bread, so that together with the Feast of Weeks and Tents it was one of the three feasts which were the object of a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem (Ex 23:17; 34:23). It was an obligatory feast for men who had to bring an offering. As for the women and children, it is not clear whether they were subject to the same obligations. And it is not known to what extent the law of the three feasts was observed at the time of Jesus: Jews outside Palestine could come on pilgrimage only once in their lives, just as Palestinian Jews could come only once a year.
- "he was (ginesthai) twelve years old". Literally, "when he had become twelve years old". According to the Talmud, the child became a man on his thirteenth birthday. At the same time, it was recognized that a child could understand the meaning of the commandments and be subject to them before that age, i.e., the age for taking vows was sometimes set at twelve (Talmud of Babylon, Nazir 29b). The age for being capable of discrimination was between twelve and thirteen (Talmud of Babylon, Kethuboth 50a). But it is not known whether in Jesus' day these later Talmudic ideas were applicable, let alone the even later practice of Bar Mitzvah. Finally, it is not known whether Jesus at the age of twelve was obliged to go to Jerusalem. In any case, there is no indication that Luke was thinking of an obligation; rather, for him Jesus was the example of Temple piety.
- "and they had gone up (anabainein)". On anabainein, see note on 2: 4. In Greek, the verb is a present participle in the genitive, and it is paired in a awkward way with the verb "completed" which is an aorist (past) participle in the genitive, and both are subordinate to the verb of the main proposition: to remain. In any case, the idea of subordination to the main proposition must be kept: the emphasis is not on the pilgrimage or on the departure of the parents, but on Jesus' action of staying in Jerusalem.
- "to the feast". Literally: "according to the custom of the feast".
- "as usual". The expression kata to ethos is peculiar to Luke in the NT (1:9; 22:39).
- "completed (teleioun)". Here is another verb in the participle. To speak of completion of a specified time in 1:23 and 2:6,21,22 ("the time came") Luke uses the verb pimplanai. Here the verb is teleioun which only reappears in 13:32: "Behold, I cast out demons and perform healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day it is completed."
- "the festival days". Literally: "the days". The Passover was celebrated on the evening that ended the 14th day of Nisan, and the seven days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread began on the 15th day, for a total of eight days of feasting (Lev 23:5-6). The law did not specify how long the pilgrims were to stay in Jerusalem, other than that they were to sleep one night and could not leave until the morning of the second day. If Luke knew precisely how long the feast lasted, he would seem to suggest that the parents stayed in Jerusalem for the eight days of the feast.
- "the boy Jesus (pais)".
Jesus is now a pais, whereas until now he has been referred to by the diminutive paidion (2, 17.27.40).
- "remained". It is pointless to speculate whether Jesus' staying in Jerusalem was the result of an accident (he was forgotten, or he got lost) or a deliberate action. Luke does not mean to imply that the parents left earlier and that Jesus stayed behind in a pious effort to complete the feast days. Jesus' action and that of the parents are intended by Luke to achieve the purpose of his narrative.
- "Thinking (nomizein)". Luke likes the verb nomizein (to think, believe, estimate); nine times in Lk/Acts, compared to six times elsewhere in the NT).
- "traveling party (synodia)". This synodia consists at least of relatives and friends from Nazareth. Acts 9:7 uses the verb form of the word (the only other use in the NT) to describe the group accompanying Paul on the road to Damascus.
- "a day's (hēmeras) journey (hodon)". The same expression (but rather with the order: hodon hēmeras) appears in the Septuagint in Num 11:31 and 1 Kings 19:4. A day's march is estimated to be 32 kilometers, based on the distance between the relays from Jerusalem according to Mishna Maaser Sheni 5:2. From the plateau of Galilee, the distance between Nazareth and Jerusalem was around 130 kilometers, thus a journey of three to four days, even taking the direct route through Samaria.
- "before they began to search". Literally, "and they were searching"; Luke does not mean that the parents spent a whole day looking for him in the long caravan, but rather their search began after a day's walk.
- "relatives and acquaintances".
As in 2, 34c.37 ("fall" and "rise", "night and day", "fasting and prayer") the structure of the double expression is a lucanism.
- "Finally... they found". Literally, "It happened (egeneto)...they found him; here is another construction with egeneto as we explained in the note to 1: 9. It marks the beginning of the main part of the story.
- "after three days". Luke probably meant that the discovery of the child took place at the end of the third day after their departure from Jerusalem, calculated as follows: one day's walk from Jerusalem, one day's return, one day's search for him in Jerusalem.
- "the Temple precincts (hieron)". On hieron, see note on 2: 27.
- "seated in the midst of the teachers (didaskalos)". Although in the gospel Jesus is often called "master" (didaskalos), that is not how he is presented here. It is true that Luke writes that he is seated, a typical position for a teacher (Mt 23:2; 26:55), and Lk 5:3 describes Jesus thus: "Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. But the sitting position is also appropriate for the disciple and the pupil, for example Paul at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). It is remarkable that Luke describes these Jewish leaders as "teachers," while elsewhere in his gospel he considers them "legists" (nomikos) or "scribes" (grammateus). It is possible that by the time Luke wrote his gospel the Jewish legists and scribes had become hostile to Jesus and the Christians, but that for the time of the young Jesus Luke saw fit to use a more neutral term. The scene has a certain plausibility according to Jewish customs where the young people learned their duties and the commandments of the elders.
- "All who heard". This includes, but does not focus on, teachers.
- "were astounded (existanai)". This is the first occurrence of existanai, a verb that Lk/Acts uses 11 times (more than double its usage in the rest of the NT). In the classical Greek, the word is very strong ("out of one's mind"), but in the NT the meaning has been toned down to a form of amazement in the face of what is miraculous or extraordinary. Luke has already remarked on the astonishment (thaumazein) at the things said about the child (2:18.33).
- "his understanding (synesis)". The attribute of synesis includes insight and intelligence, but not necessarily religious in nature; for example, Act 13:7 ("an intelligent man") it is used to describe Sergius Paulus. The emphasis is on insight rather than knowledge. Luke sees this synesis as an example of sophia (wisdom), which he emphasizes in 2:40.52. David prays that the Lord would deign to give Solomon sophia and synesis in 1 Chr 22:12, both of which are desired gifts for the king in Isa 11:2.
- "his answers". In v. 46 we are told that Jesus was asking questions. The word "answers" does not necessarily imply that Jesus was teaching the teachers. The expression "his understanding and his answers" could be another example in Luke of double expressions.
- "his parents". Literally: "they"; grammatically, "they" should refer to what immediately precedes, i.e., "all who heard him" in v. 47. But here Luke is careless, for it is clear that he is referring to the parents of Jesus last mentioned in v. 46.
- "were amazed (ekplēssein)". The verb ekplēssein appears four times in Lk/Acts, out of a total of thirteen occurrences in the NT. It is doubtful that it carries a greater intensity than "they were astonished".
- "Child (tecknon)". See note on "boy" in v. 43.
- "Behold (idou)". Luke has already used idou nine times in the infancy narrative; the formula kai idou (see note on 1: 20) and idou gar (see note on 1: 44) have a certain importance. Here the use is more trivial.
- "worried (odynasthai)". The verb odynasthai appears four times in Lk/Acts and nowhere else in the NT.
It involves both mental and spiritual pain and sorrow, and in Lk 16:24-25 and Acts 20:38 the anguish concerns life itself.
- "Why were". Literally: "How (is it) that".
- "for me". The personal pronoun "me" in the question and the personal pronoun "I" in the next question occupy an emphatic position in Greek, appearing only at the end of each question.
- "he said to them... you".
The plural "you" tells us that Jesus is not only answering his mother's question, but the astonishment and concern of both parents.
- "in my Father's house". The Greek text en tois tou patros mou literally translates: "in the ...of my father," with the plural definite article "the" playing the role of a noun. What does "the" mean and what should it be translated as? Here is a list of proposals in decreasing order of probability.
- "In the dwelling-place (house) of my (heavenly) Father". The context of the parents seeking the whereabouts of the child makes it appropriate that the answer will include a place name. Moreover the plural neuter definite article (the) coupled with the preposition en (in) is well attested to mean: "the dwelling place of", e.g., the Septuagint in Job 18:19: "Strangers shall dwell in his place (en tois autou)"; Esther 7:9: "A gallows was set up in Haman's house (en tois Aman)". An important parallel can be found in Josephus (Contra Apion I 18: #118): 'which is in the place (temple) of Zeus (en tois tou Dios)'. Thus the Greek expression en tois has the meaning of the French expression: "chez". The identification of "place" with "house" is encouraged by the fact that the scene takes place in the temple, a place often referred to as "house (oikos) of God" (see Lk 19:46; Jn 2:16).
- "In or about the things (business, affairs) of my (heavenly) Father". Since the context is Jesus in the Temple precincts and sitting among the teachers, listening and asking questions, it makes sense that "the" refers to the name of an activity, and that Jesus would be answering the question, "Why were you seeking me?". Thus, being the son of God, the parents should have known that he would be involved in his Father's business, such as discussing the Law and asking religious questions, and so they should not have been concerned. Unfortunately, such logic is a bit forced, and it is grammatically weak: the phrase einai en (to be in) can hardly mean "to be concerned about, to be about". Moreover, one would look in vain for a biblical parallel where "en tois" would mean "the business of". It is true that the neuter plural article "tois" can mean "things, affairs" (Mk 8:33; 1 Cor 7:32-34), but never coupled with the preposition en (in).
- "In or among the household (relatives) of my (heavenly) Father". The fact that the parents looked for Jesus among relatives and acquaintances (en tois syngeneusin), and thus among the household of Jesus' earthly father, makes it plausible that "the" refers to a noun designating persons. So in his response Jesus would tell his parents that they should have looked among the parents or household of his heavenly Father (en tois tou patros mou). In Luke (8:19-21; 11:27-28), there are other scenes where Jesus contrasts the earthly family with the eschatological family composed of disciples in relationship with God. The use of the definite article as a noun is attested in this sense in Rom 16:10-11: "Greet those of (tous ek) the household (tōn) of Aristobulus (Aristoboulou)... Greet those of (tous ek) the household (tōn) of Narcissus (Narkissou)". Unfortunately, the insurmountable obstacle to this interpretation is the impossibility that Jesus could have considered the teachers of the Law in the Temple as "the household (family) of my Father."
- "they did not understand (synienai)". Here we have the verb form of the noun synesis encountered in v. 47. Thus, Luke creates a sharp contrast between the parents' lack of intelligence and the child's amazing intelligence. To avoid implicating Mary in the lack of intelligence, who had received a revelation from the angel, biblical scholars have put forward various hypotheses: 1) the lack of intelligence would concern only Joseph; 2) the lack of intelligence would concern only the audience; 3) the lack of intelligence would concern another word of Jesus absent from the narrative; 4) the lack of intelligence would concern a word of Jesus spoken before their departure, explaining that he was staying in Jerusalem. All these hypotheses are not serious, because the text is very clear: it is the parents who do not understand, and the object of their lack of understanding is what Jesus said in v. 49.
- "the event of which Jesus spoke to them". Again, Luke uses rēma with the double meaning of "word, event," as in 2:15 (see the note); 2:17.19). This time, more directly than in the previous occurrences, the word means: word; however, to translate rēma in this way would hide from the reader the connection with its previous use. Moreover, the parents' lack of intelligence does not only refer to the words of Jesus' question, but to his entire action that led to this situation.
- "he went back down ...to Nazareth". Literally, "he went down... and came to Nazareth". The action of going down is the opposite of that of going up in 2:42; the phrase "he came to Nazareth" is opposed to "they used to go to Jerusalem" in v. 41. On Luke's use of departure verbs to end a scene in the infancy narrative, see note on 1: 23.
- "was obedient (hypotassein) to them". Literally: "he was being obedient". The construction with the verb "to be" followed by the present participle of hypotassein emphasizes a situation of continuity. This last verb is common in the Pauline corpus to express subordination to the family. But Luke does not intend here to describe the psychology of Jesus, but to show the contrast between the fact that, being the son of God, he nevertheless submitted to his human parents; moreover, he wants to explain how, although he had already revealed his divine messiahship, he did not publicly begin his mission until he was baptized.
- "kept with concern all these events". See note to 2: 19.
- "in her heart". This is omitted by the old version of Sinaiticus.
- "made progress (prokoptein)". This is the only use of this verb in the Gospels.
- "in wisdom... and favor". Wisdom and favor were mentioned in the description of Jesus' growth in 2:40; the word "maturity," inserted between the two, is quite new. The three words are well coordinated and one is not more emphasized than the other.
- "maturity (hēlikia)". The noun hēlikia can have two meanings: lifespan (age) and size (stature). The first meaning is more common in the Septuagint and Philo of Alexandria, and is attested in the Latin Vulgate. Luke uses the word twice more, first in 12:25 ("And who among you can by his anxiety prolong his life span to add an hour? "), then 19:3 ("He sought to see who Jesus was, and he could not because of the crowd, for he was of small size"). Luke probably intends to express a general maturation of his being a man that would involve both number of years and stature.
- "before (para) God and men". The preposition para with the genitive can mean "with, alongside," and "before." Both ideas are attested by the Septuagint: the preposition meta (with, alongside) refers to "the Lord and men" in 1 Sam 2:26 ("he (Samuel) was good with the Lord and with men"), while enōpion (before, in front of) refers to the same expression in Prov 3:4 ("And think of the good before the Lord and men").
What is the relationship of this scene of Jesus being twelve years old to what has gone before? Matthew ends his infancy narrative when the parents bring their child to Nazareth; why did Luke create this interlude that depicts Jesus as a young boy?
- Structure, Christology, and Outline
Biblical scholars have proposed various structures to link 2:41-52 to the infancy narrative, without much success. The best solution is to admit that 2:41-52 was not part of the original diptych structure of the infancy narrative, which ended with 2:40. We are therefore faced with an independent section, added by Luke in a second stage of composition of his gospel. Nevertheless, he sought to match the beginning and end of 2:41-52 with the beginning and end of 2:22-40.
All this can be supported by a number of observations.
- Chronologically, located twelve years after the birth of Jesus and before the beginning of his ministry, this section is no longer part of the infancy narrative
- The content and tone are more a part of the hidden life of Jesus which was the fertile ground of the apocryphal writings
- The section does not presuppose anything of the above: the narrative considers Joseph as the natural father of Jesus, unaware of the virginal conception; the parents do not understand what their child tells them, ignoring the announcements to Mary and the shepherds, as well as the predictions of Simeon
Thus, we have an independent account. Luke may have had a source of some sort, but he has rewritten it completely.
What is the function of such a story? First of all, it provides a chronological transition between the childhood and the ministry of Jesus. But more profoundly, it offers us a transition from the revelation made about Jesus by others (angels, Simeon), to a revelation proclaimed by Jesus himself. We argued earlier that the key to understanding the infancy narrative is Christology: the understanding of Jesus as Christ and Lord obtained at Easter has been displaced to the moment of his conception. The scene of Jesus' hidden life is another illustration of this shift: the Christological moment is placed at a time when Jesus is a young boy, at a time when he is conscious enough to express who he is in word and action. The insight that this movement expresses is that Jesus did not become the son of God at his baptism, but that this event was merely the revelation of what he already was. This is what the apocryphal writings on the birth of Jesus try to express, albeit in a fanciful way.
Here we have a universal motif about all the great figures in history: Buddha in India, Osiris in Egypt, Cyrus in Persia, Alexander the Great in Greece, Augustus in Rome. At the time of the New Testament, there were Jewish legends about Moses that attributed to him an extraordinary knowledge as a young boy, and explained how God had given him a gift of intelligence and superior size and maturity. The Jewish historian Josephus relates that the young boy Samuel began to act as a prophet at the end of his twelfth year (Antiquities, V x 4: #348). According to the Septuagint of Susanna (v. 45), the young Daniel ("at twelve years of age" according to the Syrohexaplar) received the spirit of understanding that made him wiser than the ancients.
In this universal motif, both wisdom and the work of the adult person are anticipated. Both aspects are present in Luke, even if wisdom is less important. For the heart is not the boy's intelligence but his reference to God as his Father in v. 49. This is a Christological affirmation: Jesus says of himself what the voice from heaven will affirm at his baptism. The story could be characterized as an apophthegm, i.e. a short narrative centered on a memorable word.
But we cannot use v. 49 ("Do you not know that I must be in my father's house?") to say that the young Jesus knew that he was a son of God. Of course, it is safe to say that Jesus had a childhood and an adolescence. But Luke places in this framework an understanding that comes from faith after Easter. And to resort to reminiscences that would come from Mary has no biblical basis and biases Luke's intention. The same is true of v. 52 ("Jesus grew in wisdom, maturity and favor"), a standard description of growth. The point is that Luke's Christology did not prevent him from asserting that Jesus grew in wisdom and in God's favor, or that he was already a son of God as a young boy. Nor can v. 50 ("they did not understand the event") be used to make a historical claim: for it is an account that may have circulated independently and was ignorant of the virginal conception, but Luke saw no problem in inserting it into his gospel, no doubt seeing it as another standard case of misunderstanding in the face of a parabolic revelation or prophetic statement; it is a stylized reaction in the gospel literature that tells us nothing about Mary's history or psychology.
Here is one possible way to structure this story.
General Statement about the growth of Jesus, his wisdom and God's favor (40)
Setting: The parents have lost Jesus and searching for him (43-45)
Geographical introduction: Jesus and parents had gone up to Jerusalem (41-42)
Core of the Story: The parents found the child and were amazed; Jesus answered them by stressing his Father's claim (45-50)
Geographic conclusion: Jesus went down with his parents to Nazareth (51)
General Statement about Jesus' progress in wisdom, maturity and favor (52)
We have included v. 40 in this structure, even though it served as a conclusion to the original infancy narrative, because it also serves to introduce section 2:41-52, which then becomes an illustration of how Jesus "grew up and became strong, full of wisdom and favored by God. And v. 52, a clone of v. 40, becomes the verse that transitions to Jesus' ministry at age thirty.
- The Introduction and the Setting (2:41-45)
Within the general setting of vv. 40-52, Luke presents the setting of a geographical introduction (41-42) and a conclusion (51a), i.e., the ascent to Jerusalem, and at the end the descent back to Nazareth. We have here a typical example of Luke's geographical theology that structures his gospel and Acts. This geographical theology was present in the infancy narrative that begins in the Temple of Jerusalem and ends in the same place, a form of inclusion to "wrap up" the infancy narrative. By adding the interlude of the twelve-year-old boy at the Temple in Jerusalem, Luke preserves some of this inclusion. This theological geography will also continue with the gospel that also ends at the Temple in Jerusalem (24:53), so that the whole gospel is wrapped up in the Temple.
Another element of geographical theology is highlighted when he writes that the family left Nazareth in Galilee to go up to Jerusalem for the Passover. This anticipates the main plot of Luke's gospel, the long journey that begins in 9:51 and ends in Jerusalem at Passover in 19:28.
Why this insistence on the Temple? In the infancy narrative and here, Jesus' parents are the figure of Jewish piety and Judaism: they fulfill their legal and religious obligations; they belong to this transitional phase towards the new era that Jesus will open. At the end of the gospel the Temple will play another role: that of a transition to the Acts of the Apostles and the starting point of the Christian community.
Vs. 43-45 provide the setting. Although the Christian midrashic tradition has seized on the details of this setting (the discovery of the child's absence after a day's walk, his search among the relatives and the return to Jerusalem), Luke shows no interest in these details: for him, they are merely a literary device to create drama and heighten the anxiety of the parents.
- The Core of the Story (2:46-50)
The story itself does not begin until his parents find Jesus. For the drama arises from the circumstances (illustration of his wisdom) in which the child is found and what he tells them (Christological claim).
- Jesus Is Found in the Midst of the Teachers (46-48a)
This section begins with a time indication: "after three days". Some biblical scholars have seen this as an allusion to the resurrection of Jesus. However, while Luke uses the phrase "the third day" six times in reference to the resurrection, this is not the case here. The other two times he uses the expression "after three days" (Acts 25:1; 28:17), it is simply to demarcate the time. But if the story existed in pre-Lucan tradition, it is possible that at that time the symbolism of the three days had an Easter significance.
This leads us to mention a curious parallel with the story of the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-12), which may have begun as a pre-Johannine story about the hidden life of Jesus. Indeed, it is a story about the young Jesus before he begins his ministry and still living in the family home. The scene takes place in the vicinity of Nazareth, when Jesus has not yet made Capernaum his headquarters. His mother and brothers are still present. There is a certain similarity with the apocryphal writings on the hidden life of Jesus where the extraordinary miracles he performed are told. At Cana Jesus produces the equivalent of 400 liters of wine to save a family friend from embarrassment. Within this setting of a pre-Johannine account of Jesus' hidden life, the mention of "the third day" (2:1) would be a reminder that the understanding of Jesus' identity would have come after Easter. The same might be true if the account of Jesus with the Temple teachers had first belonged to a pre-Lukan tradition.
With the Temple teachers (v. 46), Jesus listens and asks questions, showing himself to be curious about religious matters, anticipating his later involvement in the debates around the Law. In v. 47, the mention of Jesus' intelligence is intended to illustrate his wisdom which punctuated the two summaries (v. 40 and 52). And the astonishment of the audience at this intelligence anticipates the astonishment that will greet his teaching when he begins his ministry (Lk 4:32) and the astonishment of the scribes at his answers (20:26).
Jesus' parents also experience amazement, not only at his intelligence and his answers, but also at finding him in the Temple doing what he was doing. If this story existed independently as a pre-Lucan tradition, then it would express how Jesus' parents discovered his identity and vocation as a son of God.
- The Mother's Question Leads Jesus to Speak about His Father (48b-50)
The question of Jesus' mother ("Why have you done this to us?") conveys a form of reproach, and might appear to contradict Luke's earlier statements about Mary. Of course, if the original story was a pre-Lukean tradition without all the annunciation and revelation stories about Jesus, we can understand Mary's reaction. But how can Luke dare to present Mary reproaching the son of the Most High, who was conceived virginally? The answer may be found in v. 51a, where Mary keeps all this in her heart, thus preserving her image as the servant of the Lord.
Jesus answers with a question, "Why were you looking for me?". The tone is one of sorrow that his parents knew him so little, and hints at the statement in v. 50 where "they did not understand". The climax of the story and the heart of this apophthegm is reached at the end of Jesus' second question: "Do you not know that I must be in my father's house?" The emphasis of this answer is that his presence in the Temple and his listening to the teachers is an indicator of his vocation, i.e. to be at the service of God who is his Father, and not to be at the disposal and mercy of his natural family. The verb "I must" (Greek dei) expresses a sense of obligation and necessity that recurs elsewhere in Luke's gospel, especially when Jesus speaks of the role the Father has given him to fulfill: "But I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the next day, for it is not possible for a prophet to perish outside Jerusalem" (13:33; see also 4:43; 9:22; 17:25; 22:37; 24:7, 26).
A close parallel to Jesus' response to Mary is found in John's account of Cana when he says, "Woman, what does your concern have to do with me? My hour has not yet come". For John, Jesus' hour is determined by his relationship to the Father. If the story of Cana was originally a tradition about the hidden life of Jesus, John has turned it into a statement that indicates Jesus' vocation, a vocation over which his natural family has no control. It is the same kind of statement that we find in Mk 3:31-35, where Jesus distances himself from his natural family and says: "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.
In the pre-Lucan narrative, independent of all the annunciations, the parents' lack of understanding when Jesus reveals his divine filiation is quite logical, for this understanding will only come after Easter. But placed in the context of the whole infancy narrative, and thus after the annunciation narratives, the parents' incomprehension takes on a new color: it is no longer a question of the incomprehension of his divine filiation, but what this implies, i.e., the distancing of family ties, because the Father must have priority. The same type of incomprehension will appear throughout Jesus' ministry, for example: "But they did not understand this word; it remained veiled from them so that they did not grasp its meaning; and they were afraid to ask him about it" (Lk 9:45; see also 18:34).
- The Conclusion (2:51-52)
" and was obedient to them" (51b). Placing this statement in the context of parents not understanding and Jesus prioritizing his mission to the Father creates a dramatic effect. But this obedience is required to explain why his divine filiation was not known until several years later at his baptism and why the Galilean villagers did not suspect that he was anything other than Joseph's son. The motive of piety also runs through the scene: Jesus goes to Jerusalem with his parents out of respect for the obligations of the festivals, and by his obedience to his parents he observes the commandment to honor his father and mother.
"His mother kept with concern all these events in her heart" (51c). This statement softens the portrait of Mary following her astonishment and reproach for her son as well as her misunderstanding: she remains open to the mystery that surrounds her. And her misunderstanding is not permanent, for the fact that she keeps these events in her heart prepares the moment of her understanding as a member of the first community of believers (Acts 1:14). With this presentation, Luke reflects history: it is only after Easter that the Christological dimension of his person as son of God will be understood. Moreover, he shows the continuity between the Jesus of history and the risen one: already during his earthly life people like Mary had the intuition to be in front of a reality that was beyond them, and this intuition will know its full expression only at the resurrection.
V. 52 repeats in part v. 40, which in turn repeats in part 1:80 about John the Baptist.
|1: 80 (JBap)||2: 40 (Jesus)||2: 52 (Jesus)|
|And as the child grew up, he became strong in Spirit||And the child grew up and became strong, filled with wisdom and favored by God.||And Jesus made progress in wisdom, and favour before God and men.|
Verse 2:40 takes 1:80 and expands it, just as verse 2:52 takes 2:40 and expands it. We have already pointed out that the stories about Isaac, Samson and Samuel form the background to these summaries, and in particular the story of Samuel, which presents two summaries: "the little Samuel grew up before the Lord" (1 Sam 2:21), and "As for the little Samuel, he grew in size and favor before the Lord and also before men". Now, we have already pointed out that the first version of the infancy narrative ended with 2:40, which was not only a conclusion, but also a transition to the ministry of Jesus. When he added the account of the young Jesus in the Temple, Luke preferred to leave as is the conclusion of 2:40 and add a second conclusion in 2:52, possibly feeling justified by the precedent of Samuel. And the two conclusions mentioning the wisdom of Jesus form an inclusion around a narrative emphasizing Jesus' Christological understanding.
V. 52 repeats the terms "wisdom" and "favor" from v. 40. What is new is the term "maturity" (hēlikia: age, stature), an appropriate term to describe the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Another new aspect is to no longer simply speak of being filled with wisdom and favor, but of making progress in these qualities. Again, this description is very appropriate: Jesus at twelve had already shown wisdom, now it is a matter of making further progress before his ministry as an adult; as for progress in favor, this is probably related to his obedience to his parents, if we rely on Prov 3:1-14: "You will find favor and be well advised in the eyes of God and men." The word charis (favor, grace) refers to the basic goodness manifested in a life in harmony with God's commandments.
The accounts of Matthew and Luke are very different. The two evangelists did not know each other and were unaware of each other's work. Therefore, it is impossible to harmonize the two accounts to create a continuous narrative. But behind all these differences and irreconcilable points, a common understanding of the birth of the Messiah emerges.
- There is a common effort to link the birth to what came before in the history of Israel
- One tried to develop the Christological meaning of the birth, and thus to show the beginning of what will be manifested in the gospels.
In short, the infancy narrative is the place where the OT and the gospel meet.
It is Matthew who has created this link in the most obvious way with methodical pedagogy. His genealogy runs through the entire history of Israel, from Abraham to Jesus, but its conclusion opens with the novelty of the conception of the Messiah, without the intervention of a man. His infancy narrative is based on a source that takes up the story of the patriarch Joseph and the young Moses, to which he adds citations from Scripture, emphasizing the great events and places in the history of Israel that Jesus finds himself reliving. Matthew's composition wants to assure his reader that everything was part of God's plan: the name of the Messiah, his conception of a virgin, and the fact that he was born in Bethlehem but came from Nazareth.
This is less clear in Luke. His genealogy does not appear at the beginning of his gospel, but at the time of the baptism of the adult Jesus. His allusions to Scripture are less direct and more subtle. His pedagogy is primarily that of well-balanced scenes (the diptychs) with messages conveyed by key characters. Luke seems to have composed the infancy narrative himself from beginning to end, using here and there pieces of information or popular tradition, with the exception of the hymns and the scene of the young Jesus in the temple, which would have been external compositions that he would have added in a second stage. His sources of inspiration in the OT are not the same as Matthew's, while he is more interested in certain patriarchal couples like Abraham and Sarah, or in heroes like Samson and Samuel, or in the postexilic piety of the Anawim. While Matthew preferred to dramatize the figure of Joseph, who does not appear in the gospel except as the name of Jesus' father, Luke chose Mary and John the Baptist. And since he uses many more characters than Matthew, he can distribute the roles of the people open to the revelation about the son of God more widely; one gets the impression that all the pious Jews immediately welcomed Jesus.
The attitude to Jesus is much more contrasted in Matthew. Rejection is more clearly seen in the figures of Herod, the chief priests and the scribes. This is undoubtedly an echo of Matthew's own time and milieu where there was conflict with Pharisaic Judaism, and so he intends to say that this conflict began in the early days of the Messiah. In Luke, even though Simeon predicted that the child would be there for "the fall and rise of many in Israel", he does not present any scene of rejection, except in the Acts of the Apostles. In the triangle of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem, the whole atmosphere is favorable to the Messiah (in Matthew, Jerusalem is negatively affected by the birth of the Messiah). Thus, for Luke, all the Jews recognize in Jesus the fulfillment of the Law, the prophets and the cult. On them the Holy Spirit was poured out (Mary, Zechariah, Simeon), anticipating the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. In short, Luke wanted to establish the continuity of the Christian movement with Israel, and so he chose Mary to embody this continuity, she a representative of the Anawim, totally obedient to the word of God, the model of the disciple, and who would be a member of the first Christian community.