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December 20: Luke 1:46ff

By | Exegetical/Study Series, Note of the Day | No Comments

Luke 1:46ff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My soul makes/declares great the Lord
My spirit leaps (for joy) upon God my Savior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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