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December 2018

December 31: Luke 2:21

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Luke 2:21

Today’s Christmas season note will look at the circumcision and naming of Jesus, parallel to that which was narrated of John in Lk 1:59ff. In the case of Jesus, it is told simply, in a single sentence (2:21). Actually, the circumcision is mentioned primarily to establish the time at which the naming took place:

“And when the eight days of his (be)ing circumcised were (ful)filled…”

The Greek syntax, rendered quite literally here, can be misleading. The reference, of course, is to the period of eight days, after birth, before the male child was to be circumcised.

For more on the naming of a child taking place in connection with circumcision, cf. the earlier note on 1:57-66. The naming of John is given with greater detail due to the importance of the sign attached to his birth (Zechariah’s inability to speak); the naming of Jesus, by contrast, is told with virtually no detail at all:

“…(then) also his name was called Yeshua, the (name) called under [i.e. by] the Messenger before his [i.e. Jesus’] being received together in the belly (of his mother)”

The naming took place in fulfillment of the Angel’s directive (1:31), with no specific action by either parent being mentioned; the emphasis is rather on the heavenly origin of the name (given by the Angel) and that it had been given prior to Jesus’ conception. This is narrated in the passive, and there is no indication of which parent did the naming (cp. Matt 1:21, 25). Possibly this is meant to suggest or allude to a “divine passive”, where God is the implied actor, perhaps even as a foreshadowing of the scene in 2:41-50 (vv. 48-49).

Between the initial mention of the name by the Angel and the naming recorded here, the theme of salvation has been developed, primarily in the two hymns of Mary and Zechariah (the Magnificat and Benedictus). God is referred to as “Savior” (Swth/r) in 1:47, at the opening of the Magnificat, while the word “salvation” (swthri/a) occurs three times in the Benedictus (vv. 69, 71, 77). Lk 1:77 is close to the idea expressed in Matt 1:21, but the Lukan Gospel does not deal directly with the meaning (or interpretation) of the name Yeshua (Y¢šûa±). However, the child Jesus is called by the title Swth/r (“Savior”) in 2:11, in a context where the Messianic vocabulary is especially clear and prominent (cf. the note on 2:10-14). For more detail on the etymology and meaning of the name Yeshua, consult the recent note on Matt 1:21.

Circumcision—The mention of circumcision (lit. “cutting around”) here, and in 1:59, is important for the author’s theme of Jesus as the fulfillment of the types and patterns of the Old Testament (the Old Covenant). Joseph and Mary, like John’s parents Zechariah and Elizabeth, are said (and shown) to have been faithful in observing the commands and regulations of the Torah. Circumcision, as the principal sign (or mark) of the covenant between God and Israel, was in many ways the most important rite and religious-cultural practice in the Torah. Both children—John and Jesus—were circumcised according to the requirements laid down in the Law.

The circumcision of Jesus is not otherwise mentioned directly in the New Testament, but Paul, who addressed the issue of circumcision numerous times in his letters (esp. Galatians and Romans), gives a definite soteriological dimension to Jesus’ fullment/observance of the Law. The passage is Galatians 4:4-5, which also happens to refer to the birth of Jesus. Paul states that Jesus came to be “under the Law”—note how this is set parallel to his (human) birth:

  • “God se(n)t forth his Son”
    • “coming to be (born) out of a woman” (geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$)
    • “coming to be under the Law” (geno/menon u(po\ no/mon)

The purpose of Jesus’ birth and human life was to purchase out (of bondage) the ones who are “under the Law”. Paul’s unique (and controversial) view of the ultimate function and purpose of the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah) is too complex to address here. I recommend the interested reader consult the articles on Paul’s View of the Law (part of the series “The Law and the New Testament”), which also includes a discussion of Gal 4:1-11. Paul frequently describes ‘salvation’ in terms of human beings (believers) set free from bondage (slavery) to the the power of sin—where sin is depicted as a hostile ruler or tyrant. Similarly in the Lukan Infancy narrative, in the Benedictus, the image of salvation/redemption starts in the conventional, dramatic context of human powers (i.e. enemies of Israel, Lk 1:71, 74), but is transferred to salvation from sin by the end of the hymn (1:77, cf. Matt 1:21). These same two aspects relate to the idea of redemption as part of the Messianic expectation of the period (2:25-26, 38).

More relevant to the Lukan Infancy narrative perhaps is Romans 15:8ff:

“The Anointed One {Christ} came to be a servant of circumcision over [i.e. on behalf of] the truth of God, to confirm the promises to the Fathers, and over (his) mercy (for) the nations to honor/glorify God…”

Here “circumcision” (peritomh/) is a shorthand for those who have been circumcised—i.e. Israelites and Jews. This would certainly imply that Jesus himself had been circumcised, especially when taken together with Gal 4:4 (cf. above). A major emphasis for Paul throughout Romans is the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ. Salvation from the power of sin, common to all human beings, is realized through faith in Christ. The thrust of this section has a general parallel with the Song of Simeon (Lk 2:29-32). Moreover, one of the Scriptures Paul cites (in v. 12) is from a passage (Isaiah 11) that was regularly given a Messianic interpretation. Isa 11:10 is similar to the first line of the prior (and related) oracle (vv. 1-9)—for a discussion of verse 1, cf. the previous note on Matt 2:23. We can see how this relates to the portrait of Jesus in the Lukan Infancy narrative:

  • He is the Anointed One (Messiah) and Savior of God’s people (2:11)
    • He is born and lives among the people Israel
      —He is under the Law—circumcised, etc—fulfilling God’s covenant
    • The Good News (Gospel) goes out to the nations
  • The salvation he brings is for all people—Jews and Gentiles both, as the people of God (v. 10)

This will be discussed further in the remaining notes of this series.

December 30: Matthew 2:23

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Matthew 2:23

Today’s note will explore the third episode of section 2:13-23 (vv. 19-23), the second of two Angelic dream-appearances to Joseph (vv. 13-15, cf. also 1:18-25). On the pattern of Israel’s entry into Egypt and the Exodus (cf. the earlier note on verse 15), this episode corresponds with the Exodus. This reflects the overall theme of the Moses/Jesus parallel and the Moses Infancy narrative. Indeed, the Angel’s words in verse 20 match closely those in Exod 4:19—the death of Herod corresponding to the death of the Pharaoh. Just as Moses returned to lead his people out of Egypt, so Jesus (with his parents) returns from out of Egypt to “save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). The parallel between the two Angelic appearances is nearly exact, giving great literary (and dramatic) symmetry to the section.

The purpose of the added detail in vv. 22-23 would seem to be to explain how it was that Jesus came to live in Nazareth, a well-established Gospel tradition. Contrary to the scenario in the Lukan Infancy narrative, there is no indication in the Matthean account itself that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth prior to the birth of Jesus. Whether or not this is the understanding of the Gospel writer (trad. Matthew), he is not giving us simple geographical information here; rather, the introduction of this detail, with the Scripture citation, serves another purpose as well—as a foreshadowing of the Messianic associations with which the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is narrated (3:11-12, 17, and, especially, 4:15-16). The next reference to Nazareth is in 4:13, just prior to the quotation from Isa 9:1-2, a (Messianic) passage also interpreted by Christians as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth (vv. 6-7 [Heb vv. 5-6]). It is most improbable that the Scripture (in v. 23) is cited merely as a prophecy that Jesus would live in Nazareth. In all likelihood, there is a play on words involved here, though it is difficult to determine this with precision, as there is considerable uncertainty regarding which Scripture is being quoted. Verse 23b reads:

“…how that [i.e. so that] the (thing) uttered through the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] might be fulfilled, that ‘he will be called a Nazoraean’.”

This declaration does not correspond with anything in the Prophets, nor elsewhere in the Old Testament Scripture. In light of this, there are four main possibilities which need to be considered, and which scholars have addressed in various ways:

  • The author is quoting from a book (or section) which is not part of the Old Testament as it has come down to us
  • He is using a form or version of an existing Scripture which is otherwise unknown to us
  • He is adapting, combining, or otherwise interpreting an existing Scripture (or Scriptures) in light of the context and his purpose
  • It is not a direct quotation; rather, the author is referring indirectly to one or more Scripture passages which would support the interpretation of events which he gives

In my view, only the last two can seriously be considered as viable options. Which Scripture, or Scriptures, is the author quoting (directly) or alluding to (indirectly)? I would highlight four passages which are legitimate candidates (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 211-13). I will discuss them each in turn.

Isaiah 4:3 (and Judges 16:17)

R. E. Brown (Birth, pp. 223-25) makes a strong case for a combination of two verses—Isaiah 4:3 and Judges 16:17. The Hebrew of Isa 4:3a reads (in translation):

“And it will be (that for) the (one) remaining in ‚iyyôn {Zion} and the (one) left over in Yerushalaim it will be said of him ‘(He is) holy [vodq* q¹dôš]”

In the Greek LXX it is rendered:

“And it will be (that) the (one) left under [i.e. back] in ‚iyyôn and the (one) left down [i.e. behind] in Yerushalaim (they) will be called holy [a%gioi klhqh/setai]”

Judges 16:17 record the words of Samson:

“I (have been one) consecrated [ryz!n` n¹zîr] of [i.e. by/to] God from the belly of my mother”

There are two variations in the Greek LXX (MSS A and B):

“I am a Nazîr [nazirai=o$] of God (from) out of my mother’s belly” (A)
“I am a holy (one) [a%gio$] of God (from) out of my mother’s belly” (B)

There is thus known at least one instance where the Hebrew word for a Nazirite (n¹zîr) is both transliterated as Naziraíos and translated as “Holy (One)”. A similar substitution may have been made in Isa 4:3, whereby “he will be called (a) holy (one)” is modified to read “he will be called a Nazir”. In Greek Nazirai=o$ (Naziraíos) is close enough to Nazwrai=o$ (Nazœraíos) to make the wordplay possible.

Isaiah 11:1

The Hebrew of this verse is rendered as follows:

“And a (fresh) twig [rf#j) µœ‰er] will come up from the stump of Yishay {Jesse},
a (green) branch [rx#n@ n¢ƒer] from his roots will (grow and) bear fruit”

The wordplay would be between the noun n¢ƒer and the proper name Naƒra¾ or N¹ƒr¹y¹, etc (i.e. “Nazareth”). Isaiah 11:1-9 was an influential Messianic passage at the time of Jesus, though it is not used directly in early Christian tradition as recorded in the New Testament (cf. Rom 15:12 [citing Isa 11:10]); note Rev 22:16, and somewhat later, Justin’s Dialogue 126:1. Tree imagery, and the use of words such as µœ‰er, n¢ƒer, and ƒemaµ—all of which refer to a new/fresh growth (i.e. branch, shoot, bud, etc)—were often applied in a royal context, to a new or coming ruler (cf. Collins, Scepter, pp. 25-6). The word ƒemaµ (jm^x#) had clearer Messianic associations, due mainly to the prophecies in Jer 23:5-6; 33:14-16—the Qumran community, for example, refers to the Messiah-figure of the Davidic ruler type as the “Branch of David”.

There was definite use of Isa 11:1-4ff in a Messianic sense, by the mid-1st century B.C., as evidenced by quotations or allusions to it in the Psalms of Solomon 17:21-25ff; 18:6-8, and the Qumran texts 4QpIsa[Commentary on Isaiah]a frag. 7; 4Q285 frag. 5; 1QSb 5:21; from the 1st century B.C., cf. also 1 Enoch 49:3-4; 62:2-3; and 2/4 Esdras 13:10. At Qumran, the word n¢ƒer was used, not only of a Messiah figure, but for the Community itself, the “holy ones” (1QH xiv.15; xv.19; xvi.6, 8, 10; cf. Isa 60:21). In a similar way, perhaps, Christians came to be known as Nôƒ®rîm (“Nazoreans”)—cf. Acts 24:5; b. Sanh 43a.

Isaiah 42:6 / 49:6

A different root nƒr is found in Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6, both passages being among the so-called “Servant Songs”, oracles which lend themselves well for interpretation as Messianic prophecies. The verb n¹ƒar has the meaning “keep, protect, preserve, watch”. Compare the two verses in translation:

“I YHWH have called you…and I will keep you, and I will give you to (be) a covenant for the people, a light for the nations” (42:6)
“…for you to be (called) my Servant, to cause the staffs [i.e. tribes] of Jacob to stand (again), and to make the (one)s kept/preserved [n§ƒûrê] of Israel to (re)turn, and I will give you to (be) a light for the nations” (49:6)

From the standpoint of Israelites and Jews in the post-exilic period, this would be interpreted in many circles as a prophecy of the Messianic Age and the restoration of Israel. The ones who are kept/preserved are the “holy ones” (cf. above), the faithful remnant, as in Isa 4:3. The expression “light to/for the nations” occurs in the Lukan Infancy narrative, in the Song of Simeon (Lk 2:32), where there is an allusion to one or both of these passages.

Jeremiah 31:6-7

The verb nƒr also is found in Jer 31:6, where the remnant motif is even clearer:

“For there (is indeed) a day (when the one)s keeping (watch) [nœƒ®rîm] will call (out) in the mount(ains) of Ephraim, ‘Stand (up)! and let us go up Zion to YHWH our God!'”

The remnant of Israel is introduced in vv. 7b and following. Note the interesting parallel with Matt 1:21:

“and (you shall) say, “YHWH save your people, the (ones) left behind [i.e. the remnant] in Israel!'” (Jer 31:7)
“and you shall call his name Yeshua, for he will save his people…” (Matt 1:21)


The problem with the last three options above is that the wordplay involves the underlying Hebrew text, and would have been lost on many, if not most, of the readers of the Greek Gospel. The first option is the only one which is at all feasible as a wordplay in Greek. On the other hand, Isa 11:1 would be much more appropriate as a Messianic prophecy applied to Jesus. Jerome, at least, was a Christian who had no difficulty making the connection between Hebrew n¢ƒer and “Nazorean” in the verse, and claims that it is the Scripture cited in Matt 2:23, “from his root will grow a Nazorean” (Letter 57.7, to Pammachius). Isaiah 11:1 also has the advantage of the overall context in the book, the parallels with 7:14; 9:1-7, which were interpreted as (Messianic) prophecies applied to Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. If any, or all, of the passages suggested above are in the mind of the Gospel writer, it is possible to recognize two primary aspects which are likely at work:

  • Salvation for the remnant of God’s people, the holy ones, which the Messiah will bring
  • The Messiah (Christ) as the Holy One of God, chosen to bring about the salvation of his people

References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977 / 1993). Those marked “Collins, Scepter” are to John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1995).

December 29: Matthew 2:5-6, 16ff

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Matthew 2:5-6, 16ff

By all accounts, the tradition that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem stems from an interpretation of Micah 5:2ff, just as we see in the Matthean Infancy narrative. In the text, Herod brings together the leading religious officials (priests) and scribes (those learned in the Scriptures) and inquires of them “Where (is) the Anointed (One) [i.e. Messiah] to be born?” (Matt 2:4). Their answer (“in Bethlehem of Judea”), as presented in the narrative, is followed by a modified citation of Micah 5:2 [Heb v. 1]:

“And you, Bethlehem, (in) the land of Yehudah {Judah},
are not (in) one thing least among the leaders of Yehudah;
for (one) who leads [i.e. a leader] shall come out of you
who will shepherd my people Yisrael {Israel}.” (v. 6)

The portions in italics indicate points where the citation in Matthew differs from both the Hebrew (Masoretic) text and the Greek Septuagint (LXX). The last line is the result of joining 2 Sam 5:2 to the quotation from Micah. The differences otherwise are relatively slight, except for the first half of line 2, which alters entirely the sense of the original. It is hard to know whether this reflects a variant reading or an intentional change by the author; certainly, an early Christian such as the Gospel writer would be inclined here to emphasize the importance of Bethlehem.

The Messianic significance of Bethlehem relates to its association with David, as the “city of David”. This title normally applies to the original citadel of Jerusalem, as taken over and developed by David and his successors; however, in the New Testament, it refers to Bethlehem as David’s hometown (Lk 2:4; cf. Ruth 4:11; 1 Sam 17:12ff). The tradition of Bethlehem as the Messiah’s birthplace, presumably based on a similar interpretation of Micah 5:2ff as in Matt 2:4-6, is attested in John 7:40-42, where certain people express doubt that Jesus, coming out of Galilee, could be the Messiah:

“Does not the (sacred) Writing say that (it is) out of the seed of David, and from Bethlehem the town where David was, (that) the Anointed (One) comes?” (v. 42)

Matt 2:4-6ff sets the stage for the dramatic scene of the slaughter of the children (vv. 16-18) which functions as a parallel to the Moses Infancy narrative (cf. the previous day’s note). The connection is much more obvious when we consider elements added to the Exodus narrative (1:8-22) in later Jewish tradition. In Josephus’ Antiquities (2.205) the scribes make known to Pharaoh a prophecy regarding an Israelite leader/deliverer who was about to be born:

“One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events, truly told the king, that about this time there would be born a child to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages” [LOEB translation]

In Matthew’s version of the Micah quotation, the Messianic implications are heightened by every one of the changes made to the text:

  • “land of Judah” instead of “Ephrathah”—this second reference to Judah widens the scope of the scene to the (entire) territory of Judah/Judea; David’s kingdom was centered in Judah and Jerusalem, from which it extended its influence and authority. The coming Messianic rule would follow a similar pattern.
  • “not in one thing least among” instead of “(too) small to be among”—as noted above, the reference to Bethlehem’s ‘smallness’ has been eliminated; the adaptation (or reading) instead emphasizes Bethlehem’s greatness
  • “among the leaders of Judah” instead of “among the clans/thousands of Judah”—the comparison has shifted from clan and territory to the ruler of the territory. The ruler who comes from Bethlehem (i.e. the Davidic Messiah) will be greater than the other rulers of Judah.
  • “who will shepherd by people Israel”—this citation from 2 Sam 5:2 brings in another Messianic association with David: that of shepherd. David had been a shepherd, and, in the ancient Near East, kings and rulers were often referred to as a shepherd over the people, along with relevant symbolism (cf. Isa 44:28, etc). These two elements come together in passages such as Jer 23:1-6; Ezek 34 (esp. vv. 23-24); 37:24ff, which were influential in the development of Messianic thought.

In emphasizing the connection with Judah, one is reminded of the title earlier in v. 2 (“King of the Jews”). We are clearly dealing with the Messianic figure-type of a future ruler from the line of David. Let us consider how this has been brought out in the Matthean Infancy narrative:

  • The genealogy of Joseph (1:1-17), who is descended from David—vv. 1, 5-6, 17. In verse 20, the Angel addresses Joseph as “Son of David”, a (Messianic) title which would be applied to Jesus during his ministry. It occurs much more frequently in Matthew than the other Gospels (cf. Matt 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15; 22:42). That this is an authentic historical (Gospel) tradition is confirmed by the fact that the title appears nowhere else in the New Testament outside of the Synoptic Gospels. For the earliest (Messianic) use of the title, cf. Psalms of Solomon 17:23(21) (mid-1st century B.C.)
  • Joseph is established as Jesus’ (legal) father. This occurs through the completion of the marriage and his naming of the child (vv. 18, 20-21, 24-25). As a result, Joseph’s genealogy becomes that of Jesus as well (vv. 1, 16).
  • The birth in Bethlehem (2:1, cf. above)
  • Jesus’ identification as “King of the Jews” (v. 2) and “Anointed One” (v. 4)
  • The Star marking his birth (vv. 2, 7, 9-10)

For more on this Messianic figure-type, and the title “Son of David”, as related to Jesus, cf. Parts 68 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

That Joseph was a descendant of David should be considered completely reliable on objective grounds. If early Christians had been inclined to accept or “invent” a fictitious (Davidic) origin for Jesus, for doctrinal reasons, they likely would have made Mary a descendant of David. And, indeed, this is precisely what happened subsequently in Christian tradition (cf. already in Ignatius Trallians 9:1; also Smyrneans 1:1; Ephesians 18:2; 20:2). The distinction of a genealogy based on legal, rather than biological, paternity was soon lost for Christians, especially as the faith spread out into the wider Greco-Roman world. Quite contrary to later developments, there is no indication in the Gospels whatever that Mary was herself a descendant of David. If the information in Lk 1:5, 36 is regarded as historically accurate, then it is more likely that Mary came from the line of Levi, rather than Judah. The only New Testament reference which might suggest otherwise is Romans 1:3, especially when compared with Gal 4:4. It has been popular in traditional-conservative circles, as a way to harmonize the apparent discrepancies between the two lists, to treat the genealogies in Matthew and Luke as being that of Joseph and Mary, respectively. However, such a solution is flatly contradicted by the text itself—both genealogies belong to Joseph (Matt 1:16; Luke 3:23).

December 28: Matthew 2:15

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Matthew 2:15

Today’s note looks at the third section of the Matthean Infancy narrative—2:13-23. It has a clear structure comprising three episodes:

  • Angelic Appearance—Call to go into Egypt (vv. 13-15)
    —Joseph’s Response
    —Scripture (Hos 11:1)
  • Slaughter of the Children by Herod (vv. 16-18)
    —Scripture (Jer 31:15)
  • Angelic Appearance—Call to come out of Egypt (vv. 19-23)
    —Joseph’s Response—with added detail
    —Scripture (Isa 4:3 ?)

The section is framed by the two Angelic appearances to Joseph, each narrated in nearly identical wording, and parallel to the earlier appearance in 1:18-25 (cf. the prior note on 1:21). As in the first appearance scene, Joseph’s faithfulness is indicated by his obedience to the Angel’s message (v. 24). Here, however, this is enhanced by having the description of Joseph’s act match precisely the words of the Angel (2:14-15a, 21f). Each of the episodes in this section contain a Scripture quotation illustrating how the events were the fulfillment of prophecy. Both of the Angelic appearances really relate most directly to the first Scripture cited (Hos 11:1; v. 15)—that is, both episodes, taken together, fulfill the prophecy. The historical and narrative context is established in the central scene, involving the danger posed by Herod (v. 13b) which continues into the last scene in the person of Herod’s son (v. 22).

The narrative itself is clearly patterned after, and corresponds to, the story of Israel’s entry into Egypt (Joseph Narratives) and Exodus out of it (Moses Narratives). The events narrated fulfill Scripture, not only through the specific passages cited, but in their typology and correspondence with the Old Testament narratives. Note the essential structure:

  • Israel goes down into Egypt—Joseph Narratives, with the motif of communication/revelation through dreams
  • Slaughter of the children by the wicked King—Moses’ childhood (Infancy Narrative: Exod 1:15-2:10)
  • Israel comes up out of Egypt—the Exodus under Moses’ leadership

The central Scripture narrative is prominent—the birth of Moses parallel with the birth of Jesus. The correspondence is even more definite and closer if we take into consideration details from later Jewish tradition (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 2.205-223). Beyond this, it is also possible to glimpse in the Matthean episodes three additional scenes from Israel’s history, indicated by the specific Scriptures cited in each:

  • The Exodus—Hos 11:1
  • The Exile—Jer 31:15
  • The Messianic Age and redemption for the faithful Remnant—Isa 4:3 (?), etc

In considering the main scripture cited in the first episode (Hosea 11:1; v. 15), it is interesting to note that the quotation matches the underlying Hebrew, instead of the LXX; as cited by Matthew it is:

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

This quotation serves as a guiding theme for all three episodes, including the interpretation of them as scenes/periods of Israel’s history (cf. above):

In the Gospel of Matthew, as in the other Gospels, Jesus essentially never refers to himself by the title “Son of God”; rather, he uses the distinct Semitic expression “Son of Man” (on this title, cf. Part 10 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). However, Jesus is called the Son of God by others, or at least the title is used by others regarding him (Matt 3:17 [17:5]; 4:3, 6; 8:29; 14:33; 16:16; 26:63; 27:40, 43, 54 and pars). It occurs somewhat more frequently in Matthew. On several occasions, Jesus refers to himself with the absolute “the Son” (11:27; 24:36 par; 28:19), a self-reference which is far more common in the Gospel of John, and virtually always related to (God) the Father. In early Christian tradition, the title “Son of God” came to be regularly applied to Jesus, and was connected with the title “Anointed One” (Messiah/Christ). Note, for example, the first verse of the Markan Gospel (Mk 1:1), as well the conjunction of these titles in Acts 9:20-22; Rom 1:3-4; 1 Cor 1:9; 2 Cor 1:19; Gal 2:20; Jn 11:27; 20:31, etc. This association was influenced, to a large extent, by a uniquely Christian application of the Messianic interpretation for Psalm 2:7—cf. Acts 13:33; Heb 1:5; 5:5, and the variant reading in Luke 3:22. Initially, in the earliest Christian preaching, Jesus was identified as God’s Son in connection with his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. Eventually, however, believers came to recognize this Sonship for Jesus in a more fundamental sense, going back to the Transfiguration scene, the Baptism, the Infancy Narratives, and even to the idea of his pre-existent (eternal) relation with the Father (John 1:1ff; Heb 1:2ff). It may be possible to glimpse something of this development in early Christian thought by examining the different versions of Peter’s confession. Mark’s is the simplest (8:29):

“You are the Anointed (One)”

In Luke (9:20) it is a bit longer:

“(You are) the Anointed (One) of God

Matthew’s version (16:16), however, is the most extensive:

“You are the Anointed (One), the Son of the living God

Interestingly, in the scene of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, the question of the High Priest, as recorded in Matthew (26:63), is nearly identical to Peter’s confession:

“according to the living God…(tell us) if you are the Anointed (One), the Son of God

There can be little doubt that the Gospel writer (trad. Matthew) would have understood Jesus as the Son of God even within the context of the Infancy Narrative, just as we see in Luke (cf. the note on Lk 1:32). However, this identification is not made explicit until later in the Gospel (at the Baptism), just as in the main Synoptic tradition. For more on the title “Son of God”, cf. Part 12 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

December 28 is the traditional date in the West commemorating the killing of the children in Bethlehem (The Slaughter/Massacre of the Innocents) as narrated in Matt 2:16-18. In Christian tradition they came to be regarded as the first Martyrs, those put to death for their faith in Christ. Their numbers increased considerably over the years, from 14,000 (in Greek Orthodox tradition) to 64,000, and even higher. However, if we accept the basic historicity of the narrative, then, at the historical level, the number of male children at the ages indicated may not have been more than two or three dozen. For the Old Testament background of this passage and the Scripture (Jer 31:15) cited in verse 18, cf. my earlier Christmas season note.

December 27: Matthew 2:2, 4

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Matthew 2:2, 4

The next section in the Matthean Infancy narrative—2:1-12—records the visit of the Magoi (ma/goi, i.e. “Magi, Wise Men”) and the homage they pay to the newborn child in Bethlehem. There are two important names, or titles, in this narrative, which are the subject of two questions—each centered on the basic question “where?” (pou=), i.e. “where will we find…?”:

  • By the Magoi:
    “Where is the one brought forth (as) king of the Yehudeans [i.e. Jews]?” (v. 2)
  • By Herod:
    “Where (is) the Anointed (one) coming to be (born)?” (v. 4)

Each of these titles will be discussed in turn.

“King of the Jews” ([o(] basileu\$ tw=n )Ioudai/wn)

In the historical-cultural context of Greek and Roman control over Syria-Palestine, there was a strong nationalistic aspect and significance to the use of this title—as, for example, by the Hasmonean rulers (priest-kings) of the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. (Josephus, Antiquities 14.36, etc). As a semi-independent ruler, under Roman oversight, Herod himself was known by this title (Antiquities 16.311, etc). By the time of Jesus, the Messianic sense of this title would have been recognized and emphasized; consider these two basic elements of its meaning:

  • David‘s kingdom centered in Judah (Jerusalem)
  • The Jewish character of the Messianic king/ruler figure-type—rule centered in Judah/Jerusalem, and spreading/extending to all of Israel and the surrounding nations

This conceptual framework is central to the narrative (in Luke-Acts) of the early Christian mission (cf. Luke 24:46-49ff; Acts 1:4, 8, 12ff; 2:1-12ff, and the overall structure of the book of Acts). There are two passages quoted (or alluded to) in this section (Matt 2:1-12) which were unquestionably given a Messianic interpretation by the time of Jesus and the Gospels:

  • Micah 5:2ff—cited within the action of the narrative; three main points are brought out in this passage:
    • a ruler is to come out of Bethlehem
    • he will rule over (all) Judah
    • he will shepherd the people of Israel (cf. 2 Sam 5:2)
  • Numbers 24:17—the image of the star and the rod/sceptre (of rule) that will come out of Jacob/Israel. For the use of the star image in Matt 2:1-12 (vv. 2, 7, 9-10), cf. my earlier Christmas season note and also below. It is interesting that Philo (Life of Moses I.276) refers to Balaam as a Magos (ma/go$).

The presence of the Magoi offering gifts and coming to Jerusalem to find the “King” may also reflect Psalm 72:10f and Isa 60:6, whereby the wealth of the nations comes to Jerusalem as homage to God (and his Anointed Ruler).

“The Anointed (One)” (o( xristo/$)

This was already used as the name/title of Jesus in Matt 1:1, 18, very much reflecting the common early Christian usage. I have discussed the important title [o(] xristo/$ (“Anointed [One]”)—its background, interpretation and application to Jesus—at considerable length in my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed“. Cf. also the recent note on Luke 2:11.

The star/sceptre in Num 24:17 was especially prominent as a Messianic symbol (and prophecy) at the time of Jesus. This is best seen in the Qumran texts, esp. CD 7:18-20; 1QM 11:5-7; 1QSb 5:27, but also in other literature of the period, such as the Jewish (or Jewish/Christian) Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Levi 18, Judah 24). Mention should also be made of the early-2nd century A.D. Jewish revolutionary ben Kosiba, who was known as bar Kochba (“son of the Star”)—cf. Justin, First Apology 31.6; j. Ta±anit 4:8, etc—as well as the Aramaic versions (Targums) of the Old Testament (Onkelos, Neofiti I, pseudo-Jonathan, Jerusalem II). Cf. Brown, Birth, p. 195; Collins, Sceptre, pp. 202-3. Even though Num 24:17 is not cited as such in the New Testament, it is likely that early (Jewish) Christians would have recognized an allusion to it in Matt 2:1-12.

The other Scripture cited in the passage, Micah 5:2ff (+2 Sam 5:2), is quoted in response to Herod’s question. Herod the Great was of Idumean lineage, and so, to a large extent, would have been considered a foreigner by many Jews. He would have felt especially threatened by the Davidic ruler idea; and, indeed, there is a rough parallel to the Matt 2 episode in Josephus’ Antiquities 17.43 (cf. also Ant. 17.174-8; War 1.660; Brown, Birth, pp. 227-8), which, at the very least, illustrates his paranoid and violent character. There is a kind of irony expressed in Matt 2:8, where Herod, under a deceptive guise, declares his intention to give homage to this child, this new ruler.

The star marks both the time and place of the Messiah’s birth (vv. 2, 7, 9-10), specifically fulfilling the prophecy (or prophecies) mentioned above. For similar ideas and parallels in Greco-Roman myth and literature, see e.g., Aeneid 2.694; Suetonius Augustus 94; and note especially the prophecy mentioned by Josephus in War 6.310ff (cf. also Tacitus, Histories 5:13). Cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 170-1.

The two titles—”King of the Jews” and “Anointed (One)”—are combined again, at the end of Jesus’ life, during the episodes of his “trial” and death. In the Gospel of Matthew, the references are Matt 26:63; 27:11, 17, 22, 29, 37 (also 42), but there are parallels in all of the Synoptic Gospels, as well as the Gospel of John. These titles, taken together, identify Jesus in no uncertain terms as the Davidic-ruler figure type (cf. Parts 6-8 of “Yeshua the Messiah”), otherwise expressed in Gospel tradition by the separate title “Son of David” (cf. Matt 1:1, 20, also 12:23; 21:9, 15; 22:42, etc & par). This title will be examined in more detail in the upcoming notes of this series.

References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977 / 1993). Those marked “Collins, Scepter” are to John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1995).


December 26: Matthew 1:23

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Matthew 1:23

In the previous note (for Christmas Day) I discussed the structure of the first episode in the Matthean Infancy narrative, 1:18-25—in particular, the actual birth announcement in vv. 20-21 and the declaration (by the Angel) of the child’s name (Yeshua/Jesus). Today, I will be looking at the Scripture cited in vv. 22-23. This is the first such citation formula used by the author (one of at least 11 in the Gospel). Each of the three main sections in the Infancy narrative—1:18-25; 2:1-12, and 2:13-23—contains at least one Scripture quotation (cf. 2:15, 17-18, 23, as well as vv. 5-6) indicating that the events being narrated are a fulfillment of prophecy. The prophecy in this section is part of the oracle in Isaiah 7:1-17. The oracle, properly speaking, occurs in verses 3-9. What follows in vv. 10ff is the sign given by God confirming the truth of the message, much as we see in the Lukan annunciation episodes (Lk 1:19-22, 35-37). Here in Matthew, the Scripture citation functions as a different sort of sign—one which confirms the divinely-guided nature of the event as a fulfillment of God’s word (and promises) to his people in ancient times.

The declaration in Isa 7:14 is justly famous, being applied by early Christians to Jesus as a Messianic prophecy. The Greek of Matthew’s version appears to be an (intentional) adaptation of the original text, whether working from the Hebrew or a Greek translation (such as the LXX). Here is a rendering of Matthew’s version, with the Hebrew (in translation) given below:

“See!—the virgin will (come to) have (a child) in (the) womb,
and she will produce [i.e. bring forth] a son, and they will call his name Immanuel”

“See!—the young (maid)en [hm*l=u*h*] will be(come) pregnant [hr*h*] and she will bring forth [i.e. bear] a son,
and she will call his name ‘(The) Mighty (One) [°E~l, “God”] (is) with us’ [la@ WnM*u!].”

The main difficulty, and a longstanding point of controversy, is the translation of the Hebrew word am*l=u* (±¹lmâ). It is usually translated in Greek by nea=ni$, literally a “young/youthful woman”. However, this does not quite capture the sense of the Hebrew; the particular root <lu signifies something strong, vigorous, virile, etc, and, when applied to a young female, it often connotes a girl who has just (recently) come into sexual awareness and maturity. In the context of ancient Israelite society, such a young woman, at a marriageable age, would typically be a virgin, though am*l=u* does not mean this specifically; indeed a different word (hl*WtB=, b§¾ûl¹h) is used to emphasize virginity. It is significant, then, that the Septuagint (LXX) translates am*l=u* in Isa 7:14 with parqe/no$, rather than nea=ni$. The word parqe/no$ is of uncertain origin, but it came to mean specifically a virgin (male or female), as in 1 Cor 7:25ff; 2 Cor 11:2; Rev 14:4. In only one other place, does the LXX translate am*l=u* this way—in Gen 24:43 (cf. vv. 14, 16). I have discussed the matter extensively in an earlier Christmas series of notes.

It is likely that the word parqe/no$ was used in Isa 7:14 (as in Gen 24:43) to emphasize the purity of the woman and the sacredness of the scene—the special situation attending the child and his birth. Neither in the original Hebrew, nor in the LXX version, is there any clear sense that this is a miraculous birth, let alone a virginal conception. The significance of this child was as a sign confirming the oracle in vv. 3-9. For the various theories regarding the identity of this child, and an overall interpretation of vv. 10ff, cf. the aforementioned Christmas series above. One conclusion is inescapable: the original historical and literary context does not refer to a (distant) future savior/ruler figure, but to something expected to occur in the general time frame of the prophet—the reign of Ahaz and/or his son Hezekiah. Based on the use of the name ±Immanû °E~l in Isa 8:8-10, and a comparison with the language in 2 Kings 18:7, it seems likely that Hezekiah is the immediate point of reference. This is not to say that a Messianic interpretation by Jews and early Christians should be considered invalid, but that it ought to be regarded as a secondary interpretation or application, pointing to events of a future time (such as the birth of Jesus). I would argue strongly that such a view is perfectly compatible with any reasonable and legitimate doctrine of inspiration, and can be amply documented by many Old Testament passages which the New Testament authors have adapted or taken out of their original context (cf. my earlier article on this aspect of Scriptural prophecy).

It is quite possible that the author of the Matthean Infancy narrative (trad. Matthew) is among the first Christians to make an explicit connection between Isa 7:14 and the birth of Jesus, though the passage may be reflected in Lk 1:28, 31 and the Messianic associations in the Lukan narrative as well. There can be no doubt that Matthew emphasizes the miraculous (virginal) nature of Jesus’ conception and birth, stating it even more directly than Luke (cf. below). It is mentioned four times in this opening section (vv. 18, 20, 23, 25). It is also certain that the Angel’s announcement to Joseph (vv. 20b, 21a) follows specifically, and is patterned after, the wording of Isa 7:14 (as cited by Matthew):

  • “the (child)…in her is out of [i.e. from] the holy Spirit
    the virgin will have (a child) in the womb”
  • “and she will produce a son”
    “and she will produce a son”
  • “and you will call his name…”
    “and they will call his name…”

It is hard to say to what extent a Messianic interpretation of Isa 7:14 was current among Jews in the 1st-century B.C./A.D.; it is not particularly attested as such in the surviving Qumran texts and other literature of the period. It would not have been difficult, however, for Jews and early Christians to recognize the possible Messianic significance of the prophecy (as of that in Isa 9:1-7 [Heb 8:23-9:6]). This would be enhanced by the idea that Jesus’ conception was truly miraculous, and the work of the Spirit (cf. Lk 1:35 and the italicized words above).

When we turn to the name ±Immanû °E~l (Greek  )Emmanouh/l), we find a sentence-name or title which includes the divine name-element °E~l (la@, “Mighty [One]”, i.e. “God”); for more background information and detail, cf. my earlier article on °E~l. The explanation the Gospel writer gives in verse 23 generally matches the actual translation of the name, as used in Isa 8:8, 10—”God [°E~l] (is) with us” or “God (be) with us”. In the original context of the prophecy, it is a fitting name for a ruler, indicating the divine protection and aid God brings to his reign and his kingdom (cf. 2 Kings 18:7). The Gospel writer, of course, recognizes something deeper than this, as he sets the name as a precise parallel with Y¢šûa±, a name explained as embodying the help and deliverance (salvation) God is bringing to his people (in the person of Jesus). Indeed, the meaning of the name Immanuel relates to two important aspects of (early) Christian belief:

  • Jesus as the Son of God—his deity manifesting the presence of God himself (“God with you”)
  • The power/work of the Holy Spirit—the abiding presence of God (and Christ) with believers is realized through the Spirit

This latter idea is more prominent in Luke-Acts and the Gospel of John, but note the closing words of Jesus in Matthew (28:20): “I am with you…”.

December 25: Matthew 1:21

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Matthew 1:21

Having examined the Lukan Infancy narrative in considerable in the articles of this series so far, here on Christmas day I will now turn to the narrative in Matthew. Following the genealogy of Jesus (through Joseph), in Matt 1:1-17, the Infancy narrative proper begins with verse 18 (“Jesus’ coming to be [born] was [i.e. happened] this [way]”) . By comparison with Luke’s account, that in Matthew has a much simpler structure. In place of the inter-cutting John and Jesus narrative, with their rich language and imagery drawn from the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, we have a more concise sequence of short dramatic episodes with a single narrative arc. Each episode is inspired by the Old Testament, drawing upon the Scriptures in two ways:

  • The Matthean scene is patterned after one or more passages, by which it acts out and fulfills Scripture dramatically in the narrative
  • Specific verses are quoted, by the author, using a citation formula found throughout the Gospel, stating that the episode (or elements of it) are a fulfillment of prophecy

We can see both of these aspects at work in the first episode in 1:18-25. The relatively simple structure of Matthew’s narrative can be seen by the following outline:

  • Narrative introduction (vv. 18-19)—establishes the character of Joseph (parallel to Zechariah/Elizabeth in Luke)
  • The Angelic appearance and announcement (vv. 20-21)
  • Scripture–Fulfillment of Prophecy (vv. 22-23)
  • Narrative conclusion/summary (vv. 24-25)—the character of Joseph in his response to the message

In verse 19, Joseph is described as “just, right(eous)” (di/kaio$), the same adjective applied to Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke 1:6. There is a definite similarity in the portrait painted by both authors. In this context, di/kaio$ should be understood in traditional religious terms—relating to observance of the commands and regulations of the Torah, such as we see depicted by Luke (1:6ff, 59; 2:21-24, 39, 41ff). Here in Matthew, Joseph’s righteousness is illustrated in his observance of the regulations involving marital infidelity (v. 19, cf. Deut 24:1-4). He sought to be merciful to Mary in his observance of the Law, and to divorce her ‘quietly’ with as little attention as possible (cp. Num 5:11-31; Deut 22:20-21). Quite understandably, he was thinking heavily upon the matter (note the verb e)nqume/omai, meaning to be in deep/passionate thought, etc, about something), and this sets the scene for the Angel’s appearance:

“…see!—(the) Messenger of the Lord shone forth to him according to [i.e. through] a dream, saying: ‘Yoseph, son of Dawid, you should not be afraid to take alongside (of you) Maryam your wife [lit. woman]—for the (child) coming to be (born) in her is out of [i.e. from] the holy Spirit!'” (v. 20)

This Angelic (birth) announcement is similar to those in Luke—to Zechariah and to Mary (Lk 1:8-23, 26-38)—and follows a basic pattern from episodes in the Old Testament (cf. the earlier note on 1:26ff, and Brown, Birth, pp. 155-9). Formally, the wording in 1:20-21 is closest to Lk 1:13, and to Gen 17:19 in the Old Testament. The distinct detail here in Matthew—that the Messenger of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream—may well be an allusion to the Joseph narratives in Genesis.

The scene here (involving Joseph) is very much parallel to the Annuciation to Mary in Luke. The Angel’s words in v. 20b are similar to those in Lk 1:35—as a response/sign to confirm the miraculous message:

“for the (thing [i.e. child]) coming to be (born) [to\ gennhqe/n] in her is out of the holy Spirit

Compare with Luke 1:35 (for more detail, cf. the earlier note):

“the holy Spirit will come upon you…the (thing [i.e. child]) coming to be (born) [to\ gennw/menon] will be called Holy”

Thus we have comparable statements by the Angel of the Lord to Joseph and Mary, respectively. The birth announcement proper occurs in verse 21; there are three elements to the declaration, each of which has a different subject:

  • birth—”she {Mary} will produce [i.e. bring forth] a son”
  • name—”you {Joseph} shall call his name Yeshua”
  • explanation of the name—”he {Jesus} will save his people…”

In contrast to the Lukan narrative, in which the names Yohanan (John) and Yeshua (Jesus) are explained indirectly in the announcement scenes, or through the language and imagery of the hymns, etc, here in Matthew, the significance of the name is stated explicitly by the Angel. In the Introduction to this series, I discussed the importance of names in the Ancient Near East, and how they were understood, especially when utilizing divine names and titles. Many ancient names were phrase- or sentence-names which incorporate a hypocoristic (shortened) form of a divine name. Most commonly in ancient Israel, these involved the names °E~l (cf. the article) and Yahweh (article). The name given by the Angel here is a Yaweh (Yah) name—Hebrew/Aramaic Y¢šûa± (u^Wvy@), a shortened form of Y§hôšûa± (u^Wvohy+), best known in connection with the early Israelite commander and successor to Moses (i.e. Joshua). This name is best translated as the divine name Y¹h(û) and an imperative of the verb šw± (uwv), “(seek, cry for) help”, and would mean something like “Yah(weh) give help!” The context of the cry of a mother during childbirth may be intended (cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 347), and, indeed, salvation was often described in terms of the suffering of the human condition as like the pains of a woman in labor. Deliverance and new life comes at the end of a short time of intense pain and trouble.

The explanation by the Angel involves a play on words—the name Y¢šûa± sounds like the word y§šû±¹h (hu*Wvy+), derived from a different root yš± (uvy), “save, deliver, (make) free”, and thus essentially meaning “salvation”. The theme of salvation was prominent in the hymns of the Lukan narrative (1:46-47ff, 68-69ff) and Jesus was called by the title “Savior” (swth/r) in 2:11 (cf. 1:47). Here, however, the association is made more explicit and precise, tied to Jesus’ very name—and, thus, according to the ancient sense of names, to his essential character and identity, i.e. as one who saves:

“…and you shall call his name Yeshua, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21)

A similar (popular) interpretation of the name Yeshua (Jesus/Joshua) is known from the time of the New Testament, in Philo, On the Change of Names §121. Note also the important declaration in Acts 4:12: “there is not salvation in any other (name); for indeed there is no different name under heaven, given among men, in which it is necessary (for) us to be saved”. For early Christians, salvation and protection—including healing from disease and infirmity—were connected closely with the name Jesus/Yeshua. And this is another way of saying that salvation is found and experienced through the person of Jesus, rather than simply by a magical recitation of his name. As in Luke 1:77 (cf. verse 69), here salvation is understood in terms of deliverance/release from sin (and the power of sin). The plural “sins” refers to individual personal misdeeds and failings, but from the standpoint of the people (“his people”) taken collectively. In the Matthean narrative at this point, “people” still refers exclusively, or primarily, to the people of Israel (Israelites and Jews), while in Luke the author is already extending the word to include others (believers) from among the nations. The presence of the Magoi in Matthew 2 may represent a similar widening of God’s revelation into the Gentile world; this is not certain, though it is likely, if one accepts an allusion to Psalm 72:10-11; Isa 60:6 in the passage.

In the annunciation scenes from Matthew and Luke, the command to give the name Yeshua to the child is directed at Joseph and Mary, respectively. While this naturally would fit either or both of the parents, here in Matthew there is special significance to Joseph as the one giving the name. It establishes his legal paternity, thus making Jesus legitimately a “son of David” (v. 20; cf. Lk 1:27; 2:4). The importance of this association is confirmed by the preceding genealogy (vv. 1-17). The Davidic aspect of Jesus’ identity will be discussed further in the upcoming note on Matt 2:2, 4.

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

December 24: Luke 2:10-14

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Luke 2:10-14

Today’s Christmas Eve note focuses on the famous announcement by the heavenly Messengers (Angels) to the shepherds. This is the third such angelic appearance in the Lukan narrative, and they all follow a basic pattern (cf. the earlier note on Lk 1:26ff). They are also birth announcements, such as we find in Old Testament tradition (Gen 15-18; Judg 13, etc). The birth of Jesus itself is narrated in verses 6-7, parallel to that of John (in 1:57), and using similar wording:

“And it came to be…the days of her producing (a child) were (ful)filled, and she produced [i.e. gave birth to] her son, the first (she) produced…”

It is preceded, of course, by a relatively lengthy introduction in vv. 1-5, which establishes the setting of the scene, and has three main purposes for the author (trad. Luke):

  • It explains why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem
  • It emphasizes the Messianic association with David (and Bethlehem)
  • The mention of the Roman census/enrollment establishes a parallel (and contrast) between Jesus and the Emperor (Augustus), whose birth was celebrated as marking a time of peace and “salvation” for the world. For more on this connection, cf. my previous Christmas note.

To this may be added another (secondary) purpose:

  • The reference to the caravan resting-place and the feeding-trough (‘manger’) for animals (v. 7), as well as to the shepherds in vv. 8ff, emphasizes the association of Jesus with the poor and lowly in society—a theme given special attention in the Gospel of Luke.

Following the birth of Jesus, the Angelic announcement begins in verse 8, which sets the narrative scene—the outdoor, night setting of shepherds watching their herds (or flocks) in the fields around Bethlehem. Apart from historical concerns, the mention of shepherds almost certainly is meant to reinforce the connection with David and Bethlehem (cf. 1 Sam 16:11; 17:14-15ff). This important motif was introduced in the earlier annunciation to Mary (cf. the note on 1:32-35). Both in 1:26, and here again in 2:4ff, Joseph is said to be from David’s line (the “house of David” [oi@ko$ Daui/d]), the latter reference further emphasizing this fact—”out of the house and father’s line [patri/a] of David”. This Davidic descent of Joseph is confirmed by both of the genealogies recorded in Matthew and Luke, respectively (despite their apparent discrepancies). Moreover, in the ancient Near East, kings and rulers were often described with the name and/or symbols of a shepherd—i.e. as one who leads and protects the people, as a shepherd does his flock (cf. 2 Sam 5:2; Isa 44:28, etc). It was altogether natural, therefore, that the royal Messianic figure-type—the expected future king and deliverer from the line of David—would take on similar shepherd-imagery, such as we see in Micah 5:2-4 (cf. Matt 2:5-6); Ezek 34:23; 37:24; and Zech 10-12.

The annunciation itself begins in verse 9 with the appearance of the “Angel (lit. Messenger) of the Lord”:

“And the Messenger of the Lord stood upon [i.e. near to] them, and the splendor [do/ca] of the Lord put out beams (of light) around them, and they were afraid (with) a great fear [i.e. were truly afraid].”

After the traditional exhortation by the heavenly Messenger (“Do not be afraid [mh\ fobei=sqe]!”), the birth of Jesus is declared:

“For see!—I give you a good message (of) great delight which will be for all the people…” (v. 10)

The verb is eu)aggeli/zomai, which is related to the noun eu)agge/lion (“good message”, i.e. “gospel”). Similarly, the noun xa/ra (from the verb xai/rw, “have/find joy, delight, etc”) is related to xa/ri$ (“favor”, i.e. “grace”)—that is to say, delight comes specifically from the favor shown by God to his people in the birth of Jesus (cf. the note on 1:32-35). The remainder of the announcement in verse 11 utilizes language and terminology which needs to be considered closely:

“…(in) that [i.e. because] there was produced [i.e. has been born] for you today a Savior—which is (the) Anointed (One), (the) Lord—in the city of David!”

The conjunctive particle o%ti gives the reason for the good message of delight which the Angel brings. This clearly is a birth announcement, marking the moment (the day) of the child’s birth—”was produced/born…today [sh/meron]”—and the purpose of the birth is declared as being “for you”, i.e. for those the Angel is addressing (the shepherds, and through them, to all people [v. 10]). Note the chain of names and terms which follow, all of them having Messianic significance:

  • a Savior (sw/thr)
    —the Anointed One (xristo/$)
    —the Lord (ku/rio$)
  • in the city of David (e)n po/lei Daui/d)

The noun sw/thr, derived from the verb sw/zw (“save, protect, preserve [life]”), and related to the noun swthri/a (“salvation”, 1:69, 71, 77), occurs 24 times in the New Testament where it is applied equally to God the Father (Yahweh) and Jesus, most frequently in the (later) writings (the Pastoral letters, 2 Peter, etc). It is surprisingly rare in the Gospels and early Christian tradition—apart from the references in Luke-Acts, cf. Jn 4:42 and Phil 3:20 (where the eschatological context is clear). It was used earlier in the Magnificat (1:47) as a title for the Lord God (Yahweh); the other occurrences are in Acts 5:31; 13:23, and reflect early Christian Gospel preaching (kerygma)—note especially how Jesus’ role as Savior is connected with his resurrection and exaltation in Acts 5:31.

The title xristo/$ (“Anointed [One]”) specifically relates to Jesus as the Messiah (Christ) expected by Israelites and Jews of the time—in particular, the figure-type of the future Davidic ruler who would usher in the end-time Judgment and deliver the faithful among God’s people. I have discussed this title at considerable length in my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed” (cf. especially Parts 6-8). The Messianic context is clear—the title is set within the phrase “Savior…in the city of David [e)n po/lei Daui/d]” (cf. the outer pairing, above). The expression “city of David” could apply either to Jerusalem or Bethlehem; here it is certainly the latter.

Paired with xristo/$ is the title ku/rio$ (“Lord”), a noun already used 19 times in the Lukan Infancy narrative, mainly as a title for God the Father (Yahweh, cf. the earlier article). It was first applied to Jesus in 1:43, while v. 76 plays on the dual-meaning and reference among early Christians (cf. the prior note). There are several ways to read the two titles taken together here:

  • As a pair in apposition—”(the) Anointed (One), (the) Lord”, or, perhaps “(the) Anointed (One and) Lord”
  • With xristo/$ essentially functioning as an adjective—”(the) anointed Lord”
  • The variant reading with the genitive kuri/ou—”(the) Anointed of the Lord”, “(the) Lord’s Anointed (One)” (cf. Lk 2:26, etc)

The first option is to be preferred. For the important occurrence of the two titles together in Acts 2:36, cf. my earlier article and notes on Peter’s Pentecost speeach in Acts (2:14-40).

The Angelic announcement, like the others previous, concludes with a sign, given by the Messenger, confirming the truthfulness of the message (v. 12). After this we read:

“And (suddenly) without (any) apparent (warning), there came to be, (together) with the Messenger, a multitude of the heavenly Army praising God and declaring…” (v. 13)

This motif of the Angel of the Lord along with the heavenly army goes back to ancient cosmic military imagery, associated with Yahweh/El (cf. the article on Yahweh). Here it serves to emphasize the divine splendor (do/ca) and power of the moment. The short declaration which follows in verse 14 is usually counted as one of the hymns in the Lukan Infancy narrative, and like the others, is known by the first words in Latin (Gloria in Excelsis). It is almost certainly the single most famous verse in the narrative, best known from the King James Version; I translate the Greek here literally:

“Honor in the highest (place)s to God
and upon earth peace among men of eu)doki/a!”

As a hymn it is indeed short—just two parallel lines—but it turns out to be quite difficult to translate and interpret with precision. The main difficulty lies in the first and last words, which are actually related, though this is almost impossible to preserve in English:

  • do/ca (dóxa)—typically rendered as “glory”, but the Greek word itself is better translated “esteem, honor”; as applied to God, in particular, there are two distinct aspects which need to be recognized:
    • the primary sense is the esteem/honor which is due to God from created beings (humans and Angels both)—literally, how we think of Him, considering and recognizing His nature, attributes, and actions (as Creator and on behalf of His people); this is essentially the meaning here in v. 14
    • when referring to God Himself, his greatness, etc, is often depicted visually with light-imagery, and likewise when it is narrated that God appears or manifests Himself to human beings; in such a context, the translation “splendor” is more appropriate, as in verse 9 (cf. above)
  • eu)doki/a (eudokía)—this noun, derived from the verb doke/w and the particle eu), essentially refers to a person considering (something) as good, thinking well of (someone/something), etc. The noun eu)doki/a is found most commonly in the Greek version of the Old Testament, especially in relation to the word /oxr*, indicating something which is acceptable or pleasing to a person. As such, it is frequently used in the religious sense of God showing favor to human beings, and his willingness to do so. Of the eight other occurrences of this word in the New Testament, five refer to God’s purpose and concern with regard to believers, and, in particular, the salvation, etc, he brings to them in the person (and Gospel) of Jesus Christ (Matt 11:26 / Lk 10:21; Phil 2:13; Eph 1:5, 9). On the text-critical question regarding the form of this word, cf. my earlier article “What the Angelic Chorus said…”.

There is thus a definite parallel between the two words and the two lines of verse 14—human begins give praise and honor to God (in heaven) and God shows favor and has good regard for his people (on earth). This is described in spatial terms:

  • e)n u(yi/stoi$ (“in [the] highest [place]s”, i.e. the [highest] heavens)—in 1:78, the light of God’s mercy and salvation comes from “out of (the) height [e)c u%you$]”. God is referred to by the title “Highest” (u%yisto$) in 1:32, 35, 76, reflecting the ancient Semitic title ±Elyôn, and the idea of God as the “Mightiest/Greatest” and “(most) Exalted”.
  • e)pi\ gh=$ (“upon earth”), which qualifies the expression e)n a)nqrw/poi$ (“in/among men”) as parallel to e)n u(yi/stoi$—i.e. “in the places (where) men (dwell) on earth”

The genitive expression in v. 14b (e)n a)qrw/poi$ eu)doki/a$) is most difficult to translate, but a fair approximation would be something like “among men of (His) good will”. Based on similar Hebrew/Aramaic expressions known from the Qumran texts (1QH 4:32-33; 11:9; 4Q545 frag. 3), it would refer to people who are pleasing to God, or who have been favored by him. In traditional, ethnic-religious terms, this would mean the chosen people of Israel—specifically, the faithful ones among them. For the use of eu)doki/a in this context, cf. Psalms of Solomon 8:39 (mid-1st century B.C.). This means that v. 14b is not a promise or blessing of peace for all of humankind (strictly speaking), but rather for those who have been favored by God and are faithful to him. This helps us to understand the Angel’s words in verse 10: “I give to you a good message of great delight which is for all the people“. From an early Christian standpoint, and within the overall context of Luke-Acts, there are two important aspects to observe, whereby the favor of God is extended to “all people”:

  • Salvation through Christ is for Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) alike—that is, for all the “people” (cf. 2:30-32), the people of God (believers in Christ). The book of Acts emphasizes the early mission to the Gentiles (the “Nations”).
  • The Gospel and the early Christian mission is for all demographics, all segments of society—i.e. all the people—with special attention given to the poor and oppressed, etc, those otherwise neglected and marginalized within society (cf. Acts 2:17ff, “all flesh”).

How then should we understand the emphasis on peace (ei)rh/nh) in verse 14? From a traditional religious standpoint, it refers to the blessing, security and protection which comes from God—e.g., Num 6:24-26; Psalm 29:11; 85:8-10; Isa 48:18; 54:10; Jer 16:5; Ezek 34:25-29; 1 Enoch 1:8 (Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 224-5). Peace is an important characteristic of the coming Messianic age, which God’s anointed representative (the Messiah) ushers in—cf. Isa 9:6-7 [Heb vv. 5-6]; 52:7; 55:12; Ezek 37:26; Zech 9:10, etc. According to the traditional portrait, this peace is connected with the judgment and defeat of the (wicked) nations (Ps Sol 17-18; 4Q246 col 2, etc). While early Christians expected Jesus to fulfill something of this aspect of the Messiah’s role upon his (future) return, which coincides with the end-time Judgment, the peace he brings in the Gospels is of a different sort. A blessing of peace comes with acts of healing/saving by Jesus (Lk 7:50; 8:48); similarly, the customary peace-greeting takes on new significance when Jesus (or his representative) appears in the house (Lk 10:5-6; 24:36 par, etc). Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was an opportunity for the people to accept and realize the peace he brings (19:38, 42), but they ultimately rejected him and he was put to death as a criminal rather than accepted as the true Anointed One of God. There is an obvious parallel in language and terminology between the Angelic song in 2:14 and the cry of the crowd in 19:38. The kind of peace expected to be the result of the Messiah’s coming, in socio-political and military terms, was, in fact, realized, to some extent, at the time of Jesus during the reign of the emperor Augustus, commemorated by the famous altar to the Augustan peace (Ara Pacis Augustae, 13-9 B.C.). There can be little doubt that the author of the Gospel is drawing an intentional point of contrast between the birth of Jesus and that of Augustus, whose birthday was also celebrated as a time of “salvation” for the world (cf. above).

December 23: Luke 1:69, 78-79

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Luke 1:69, 78-79

In the previous note, I looked at the hymn of Zechariah (the Benedictus, vv. 67-79), focusing especially on the opening lines (v. 68) and the beginning of the third part (vv. 76-77) dealing specifically with John the Baptist. Today, I will continue and supplement that study, examining the verses which follow—v. 69 and 78-79, respectively.

To set verse 69 in context, here is the opening line (v. 68a), along with the first section (or strophe), vv. 68b-71:

“Well-counted [i.e. worthy of a good account] is the Lord God of Yisrael!
in that [i.e. because] He looked upon and made (the) release for His people
and raised a horn of salvation for us in the house of Dawid His child
even as He spoke through (the) mouth of His holy Foretellers from (the) Age—
Salvation out of our hostile (foe)s(‘ grasp)
and out of the hand of all the (one)s hating us”

Verse 69 is parallel to the declaration in 68b:

  • He looked upon and made the release for his people
  • He raised a horn of salvation for us

The three verbs (in italics) are all aorist indicative forms, normally used to described past action or events. The two verbs, used in tandem in v. 68b, are:

e)piske/ptomai (“look upon”)—this compound verb carries the sense of examining something closely or carefully, often in the context of an authority figure coming to examine or inspect a situation. In Jewish and early Christian tradition, it is sometimes used in a specific theological sense—of God manifesting himself to give help to his people (Lk 7:16; Acts 15:14), sometimes in a distinctive eschatological (and/or Messianic) context as here in the hymn. The related noun e)piskoph/ carries a similar meaning in Lk 19:44 and 1 Pet 2:12. For more, cf. on verse 78 below.

poie/w (“make, do”)—the common action verb here is used with the noun lu/trwsi$, which refers to action which effects the release (lit. “loosing”) of a person from debt or bondage. Typically it would indicate the payment made to free a person from his/her bond. The word is rare in the New Testament, occurring only three times (here and in Lk 2:38; Heb 9:12), always referring to the salvation or deliverance worked by God (through Christ) for his people.

In verse 69, the verb is:

e)gei/rw (“raise, rise, lift [up]”)—this common verb of motion was frequently used in reference to God’s raising of Jesus from the dead. Here it is used in the general (figurative) sense of causing a situation to come about, of bringing a person into prominence or a position of power, etc. The object of the verb is the expression “horn of salvation”, making the phrase parallel to the prior one in v. 68—”he raised…salvation” = “he made release/redemption”.

This expression “horn of salvation” (ke/ra$ swthri/a$) is an idiom taken from the Old Testament, in which the horn (ke/ra$) refers to that of a strong adult (male) animal, such as a bull. It signifies both power and prominence, and, as such, is a fitting symbol for a strong and virile king or ruler. The specific expression is found in Psalm 18:2 (2 Sam 22:3), where it refers to God (Yahweh) as a powerful protector. In Psalm 132:17, God declares:

“I will make a horn sprout for David, I have set in place a light for my anointed (one)”

This declaration of blessing and protection for the (Davidic) king, came to be understood in a future (Messianic) sense, such as we see already in Ezekiel 29:21. By the time of the New Testament, the idea was already well-established, as indicated by the 15th of the Eighteen Benedictions (Shemoneh Esreh) in Jewish tradition. The specific idea of “raising” the horn (of salvation) most likely alludes to 1 Sam 2:10, in the song of Hannah, upon which the earlier Magnificat was patterned (at least in part):

“He [i.e. the Lord] will judge the ends of the earth,
and he will give strength to his king
and will raise the horn of his anointed (one)”

The Messianic context in the Benedictus is confirmed by the qualifying phrase “in the house of David his child [pai=$]”. The Greek word pai=$ can also mean “a (young) servant”, but here it is best to retain the literal sense, as it alludes both to (1) the king (or Messiah) as God’s “son”, and (2) the narrative setting of Jesus’ birth. The Messianic type of Davidic ruler—i.e. future king from the line of David—is clearly in view, being introduced already in the Angelic announcement to Mary (vv. 27, 32-33).

When we turn to verses 78-79, the focus of the hymn has shifted to the newborn child John. For commentators who hold that these Lukan hymns are earlier productions which the author (trad. Luke) has adapted and incorporated into the narrative, verses 76-77, which relate specifically to John, must be secondary. However, taking the hymn as it stands, these verses work to form a vital third section (or strophe) which makes a fitting conclusion. I translate the section here, with vv. 78-79 marked in italics:

“And you also, (little) child—
you will be called Foreteller of the Highest
and you will travel before [i.e. ahead] in the sight of the Lord
to make ready his ways
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in (the) release of their sins
through (the) inner-organs of (the) mercy of our God
in which a rising-up out of the height will look upon us
to shine light upon the (one)s sitting in darkness and (the) shadow of death
(and) to put down our feet straight into (the) way of peace

The future role and work of John are described in verse 77, by the two verbal infinitives—”to make ready” (the ways of the Lord) and “to give knowledge” (of salvation to his people). This salvation (swthri/a), which must be understood along with the salvation and loosing/redemption (lu/trwsi$) mentioned in vv. 68-69 (cf. above), is qualified by the phrase “in the release [a&fesi$] of their sins”. Thus God’s people will be delivered and loosed, not from bondage to human captors—i.e. nations such as the Roman Empire who would dominate and enslave them—but from bondage to the power of sin. This differs markedly from the traditional role of the Messiah as one who will judge and defeat the nations, and more properly fits the work of both John and Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels.

Each of the phrases and expressions in verse 78-79 builds upon the earlier imagery of the hymn, and continues the Messianic association (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 388-9):

  • The saving work of God takes place through, and as a result of, “the inner-organs [spla/gxna]” of his mercy. This is a Semitic idiom which associates mercy and compassion with the internal organs (heart, lungs, liver, etc). There is similar phrasing (and Messianic/eschatological context) in the Jewish Testament of Zebulun 8:2 (cf. also the Christianized Testament of Levi 4:4).
  • The verb e)piske/ptomai (“look upon”) from verse 68 is repeated here (cf. above). There is some difference in the manuscripts as whether it should be read as an aorist (“[has] looked upon”, as in v. 68) or future (“will look upon”) form. The context seems to favor the future form (e)piske/yetai), since the subject is not God himself, but the “rising” light that is about to come upon his people.
  • The word a)natolh/ (“rising up”) can refer either (a) to the sprouting up of a plant (or horn, cf. above), or (b) to the rising of the sun or a star. It is used in reference to the star in Matt 2:2 (“his star in the [place of its] rising up”). A number of Scriptures or passages which came to be understood in a Messianic sense, make use of similar light imagery—cf. Num 24:17; Isa 60:1; Mal 4:2 [Heb 3:20]. At the same time, the image of a “branch” or “horn” was also associated with the (Davidic) Messiah (cf. Isa 11:1; Zech 3:8; 6:12; Testament of Judah 24:4, and note also the references cited above).
  • The expression “out of the height” (e)c u%you$) is related to the divine title “Highest” (u%yisto$) in verse 76 (and cf. the note on vv. 32, 35). For the significance of “Highest” as a name of God, cf. the earlier article on the ancient name ±Elyôn. Help from God is often seen as coming “from high” (Ps 102:19; 144:7, etc).
  • The first phrase in verse 79—”to shine light upon the ones sitting in darkness and the shadow of death”—blends together several Scripture passages, namely Isa 9:2 and Psalm 107:10 (cf. also Isa 42:6-7). The first of these was applied to Jesus, as a Messianic prophecy, already in early Christian tradition (Matt 4:14-16), and came to be associated specifically with his birth (cf. my earlier notes on Isa 9:5-6).
  • The second phrase introduces the theme of peace—”to set our feet down straight into the way of peace”. The expression “way of peace” may allude to Isa 59:8, while the verb kateuqu/nw probably derives from the idea in Isa 40:3 of “making straight” (i.e. making clear) the way for the Lord when he comes. This passage, along with Mal 3:1ff, was connected with John the Baptist’s role in preparing the people of Israel for the coming of Jesus (Lk 3:4-6 par, etc). The theme of peace in relation to the Messiah, and the coming Messianic age, will be discussed in the note on Lk 2:10-14.

In verses 68 and 78 we find two words which, if not exactly proper names, certainly would have been understood as Messianic titleske/ra$ (“horn”) and a)natolh/ (“rising/sprout[ing]”). Interestingly, the early Christian writer Justin Martyr (mid-2nd century) seems to have understood a)natolh/ in v. 78 as a kind of name (i.e. Anatol¢); in this he may be following Zech 3:8; 6:12 LXX (cf. Dialogue with Trypho §121.2).

References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977 / 1993).

December 22: Luke 1:68, 76-77

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Luke 1:68, 76-77

The next two notes in this series deal with the hymn of Zechariah in Lk 1:67-79, the Benedictus. It is the second of four hymns in the Lukan Infancy narrative, and, like the Magnificat (vv. 46-55), is best known from the title based on its opening words (in Latin). I addressed the critical question of the origin and composition of these hymns briefly in the earlier note on vv. 46ff. The hymns of Mary and Zechariah run very much in tandem, as part of the larger John-Jesus parallel in the narrative. The hymn is spoken by the person who received the Angelic announcement of the child’s coming birth, and each hymn ultimately relates to the child in question—Jesus and John, respectively. As even a casual reading (in translation) will make clear, the two hymns have much in common, both in terms of outlook, religious sentiment, and language, drawing heavily on verses and phrases from the Old Testament Scriptures. There is also a parallel to the Benedictus in the Song of Simeon (2:29-32). If we were to combine the Magnificat with the Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis), the result would be a hymn (related to Jesus) of similar scope as the Benedictus (related to John). One finds an echo of the Magnificat already in verse 58, in the use of the verb megalu/nw (“make [something] great”, or “show [something] to be great”), and in the reference to the mercy (e&leo$) of God (cf. vv. 46, 50).

The setting of the Benedictus is particularly dramatic in the narrative context, as it follows immediately after Zechariah’s speech is restored, marking the fulfillment of the sign given by God (through the Angel) regarding the miraculous nature of John’s conception and birth. The text indicates that the hymn uttered by Zechariah is a divinely-inspired poem: “And his [i.e. John’s] father Zecharyah was filled by the holy Spirit” (v. 67). It is also characterized as an oracle or prophecy—”and he foretold [i.e. prophesied]”. This returns to the prophetic theme which characterized the birth announcement in vv. 13-17.

The overall structure of the hymn is relatively straightforward, and may be outlined as follows:

  • An opening line, a declaration of praise to God (v. 68a)
  • First Part [Strophe 1] (vv. 68b-71)
    —A declaration of God’s actions on behalf of his people, marked by a series of aorist indicative verb forms
  • Second Part [Strophe 2] (vv. 72-75)
    —A declaration of the purpose of God’s saving action, marked by a series of infinitives
  • Third Part [Strophe 3] (vv. 76-79)
    —A declaration of the child John’s future role in God’s saving action, marked by an initial future verb form followed by a series of infinitives

Today I want to look briefly at the opening line (v. 68a) and the initial statement in vv. 76-77 regarding John’s destiny. Verse 68 begins:

“Well-counted [eu)loghto/$] is the Lord God of Yisrael”

This verb eu)loge/w was discussed in the earlier note on verse 43; it means “give a good account, i.e. speak well of (someone)”. Here it is the related adjective eu)loghto/$, which, when used in a religious context, in addressing God, should be understood in the more exalted sense of giving honor or praise—i.e. “Worthy of praise is the Lord God of Israel”, “Praise be to the Lord God of Israel”, etc. The specific expression “the Lord God of Israel” (ku/rio$ o( qeo\$ tou= )Israh/l), like the shorter “the Lord God” (ku/rio$ o( qeo/$) in verse 32 (cf. also vv. 46-47), reflects the ancient Israelite religious identification of Yahweh (YHWH) as the one true God (cf. the earlier note on this divine Name). The expression itself is found in passages such as Psalm 41:13; 72:18; 106:48, and 1 Kings 1:48. It goes back to the older formula °E~l °E_lœhê Yi´ra¢l (“°E~l God of Israel”, Gen 33:20) and the identification of Yahweh with the Creator God °E~l (“[the] Mighty [One]”). Yahweh is not only the one true God (worshiped by Abraham and the Patriarchs), he is also specifically Israel’s God. There is a general parallel here to the opening line of the Magnificat (vv. 46-47), where praise is given to “the Lord…God the Savior”.

In both hymns, salvation is a central theme, characterizing the action (and promises) of God on behalf of his people. In the Benedictus, his action is marked by as series of aorist verbs—indicating past action, though this can mean immediate action, i.e. occurring just prior to the time of the speaker’s words. In other words, God’s past actions for his people now come to be fulfilled in a new way at the present moment. This is expressed initially (and summarized) in verse 68b with a (two-fold) aorist pair:

e)piske/yato kai\ e)poi/hsen
“He looked upon and made/did”

The principal object of the these verbs is “His people” (o( lao\$ au)tou=), though the positioning after the second verb turns this into an indirect (dative) object—i.e. “He looked upon (his people) and made/did…for his people”. The immediate direct object (of the second verb) is the noun lu/trwsi$, which is ultimately derived from the verb lu/w (“loos[en]”), and signifies the act or means by which a person is loosed from bondage, debt, etc. It can refer specifically to the payment (i.e. ransom, redemption price) made in order to free the person from his/her bond. Here, as in 2:38, it is used with the figurative meaning of the deliverance God will bring to his people, especially in the eschatological context of the coming of the Messiah at the end-time. Thus, while the hymn (with its aorist verb forms) begins with God’s past saving action, the focus is ultimately on his impending future action on Israel’s behalf. This will be discussed further in the next note (on v. 69).

When we turn to verses 76-77, we see the future aspect come more clearly into view. This last strophe (vv. 76-79) functions as an oracle (or prophecy) regarding the child John’s destiny and the role he will play in God’s deliverance of his people:

“And even you, (little) child—
you will be called Foreteller [i.e. Prophet] of the Highest,
and you will travel before [i.e. ahead, in front] in the sight of the Lord”

Here John is identified specifically as a prophet—literally, profh/th$ means “(one who) tells (things) before”, i.e. “foreteller”, but here the prefixed particle pro/ (“before”) should be understood not so much in terms of time (speaking beforehand), but rather of position (speaking ahead of, in front of). Here we run into the dual-meaning of the title “Lord” (ku/rio$) for early Christians. While it most commonly was used in reference to God the Father (Yahweh), it also came to be used as a title for Jesus. As previously discussed, Psalm 110:1, and a Messianic interpretation of the passage (as applied to Jesus), was highly influential in establishing this two-fold application of the title Ku/rio$. Almost certainly, this wordplay, at the literary level, is intentional. The author, if not the speaker (Zechariah), was certainly aware of the dual-meaning and plays on it. John will function as God’s spokesperson (ay!bn`, prophet), declaring His word before the people, preparing them for His impending manifestation (Judgment) at the end-time, fulfilling the prophecy in Malachi 3:1ff. At the same time, according to the Messianic interpretation of this passage by early Christians, John will precede and “prepare the way” for Jesus, the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ) who serves as God’s (Divine) representative to usher in the Judgment and rescue/deliver the faithful ones among God’s people. For more on this subject, cf. especially my earlier note in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

In verse 76, John is called “prophet of the Highest” (profh/th$ u(yi/stou). This adjective (u%yisto$, “high[est]”), as a substantive and title (or name) for God, was already used, in reference to Jesus, in verse 32 (cf. the earlier note). There can be no doubt of a parallel here—as well as a definite point of contrast—between the two children, Jesus and John. Note the similarity of expression:

ui(o\$ u(yi/stou klhqh/setai (v. 32)
“he [i.e. Jesus] will be called son of the Highest”
profh/th$ u(yi/stou klhqh/sh| (v. 76)
“you [i.e. John] will be called prophet of the Highest”

Within each phrase, the corresponding words ui(o/$ (“son”) and profh/th$ (“foreteller, prophet”) are in the first (emphatic) position. It is tempting to see here an emphasis on the greater, more exalted position of Jesus in relation to God (The Highest); however, while this is certainly true, I am not so sure that it is the main point of contrast the author is making. Rather, Jesus as “son” emphasizes the royal, Davidic (Messianic) role, according to the interpretation given to Scriptures such as 2 Sam 7 and Psalm 2. The Davidic king and Anointed ruler (i.e. Messiah) was called by the title “Son”—that is, God’s son, primarily in a figurative sense. Early Christians, of course, recognized in Jesus something more than this, but the author of the Gospel (trad. Luke), I would maintain, is not giving readers the full picture here in the Infancy narrative. He leaves something in reserve, to be ‘discovered’ as one proceeds through the Gospel and into the book of Acts. What is prefigured in the narrative here, and in the hymn of Zechariah, is not so much the deity of Christ, but rather his role as Savior. This will be discussed further in the next note (tomorrow) on the Benedictus. In closing, however, it is worth pointing out the way John’s role is characterized and described in vv. 76-77, with a pair of infinitives expressing purpose (and result):

  • “to make ready [e(toima/sai] his ways”—i.e. the ways of the Lord (cf. Mal 3:1ff; Isa 40:3ff)
  • “to give [dou=nai] knowledge of salvation to his people”—which is further qualified by the phrase “in (the) release [i.e. forgiveness] of their sins”