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Hymns in the Infancy Narrative

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”

December 20: Luke 1:46ff

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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.

Note of the Day – December 8 (Luke 2:32)

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Luke 2:32

This is the last of four Advent notes on the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). Today’s note explores the third, concluding line (bicolon) of the Song (in bold below).

“Now you release your slave, Master,
according to your word, in peace,
(now) that my eyes saw your Salvation,
which you made ready before the face of all peoples:
Light for the uncovering of the nations
and (the) splendor of your people Israel.”

Here is a slightly more literal rendering of v. 32:

  • Light unto (the) uncovering of the nations
    • and (unto the) splendor of your people Yisrael

The Greek is as follows:

  • fw=$ ei)$ a)poka/luyin e)qnw=n
    • kai\ do/can laou= sou )Israh/l

In all three parts (bicola) of the hymn, the initial word establishes and governs the line. In verse 29, it is the temporal particle nu=n (“now”); in vv. 30-31, it is the conjunctive particle o%ti (“[now] that”); and here in v. 32, it is the noun fw=$ (“light”). The structure of this line is the simplest of the three:

  • light unto
    • (the) uncovering of the nations
      —and
    • (the) splendor of your people Israel

The conjunction kai/ (“and”) is at the center of the line; its significance will be discussed below. There has been some question among commentators as to whether do/ca (“honor/splendor”) is parallel with fw=$ (“light”) or a)poka/luyi$ (“uncovering”). If the former, then the structure would be:

  • light unto the uncovering of the nations
    —and
  • honor/splendor (for) your people Israel

I have opted for the latter parallel, which I feel is more accurate to the syntax and theme of the hymn.

fw=$ (“light”)—The word, in the initial position, builds upon the motif of seeing in vv. 30-31. The reason why people are able to see the salvation God brings is that is light. The importance of light-imagery in the Old Testament and as a religious symbol is so widespread as to scarcely require comment. For more detail on the background, cf. my discussion on revelation in the series “Gnosis and the New Testament“. Though the noun fw=$ does not occur elsewhere in the Lukan Infancy narrative, light-imagery plays a significant role, including the scenes of heavenly/angelic manifestation (shining forth)—cf. 1:11, 28ff; 2:9-14. It is in the Song of Zechariah (esp. vv. 77-79), which, in many ways, functions parallel to the Song of Simeon, that we find corresponding imagery and similar language (in italics):

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 (there) has looked upon us a springing-up out of the height [i.e. from on high], to shine light upon the (one)s sitting in darkness and (the) shadow of death and set our feet down straight into (the) way of peace.”

Mention should also be made of the famous star in the Matthew narrative (2:2ff). While the light (fw=$) of salvation should be understood in the context of the entire line in verse 32, it may also be said to relate specifically to the nations of the first half, according to the Isaian allusions—cf. Isa 42:6; 49:6. That it also relates to the people of Israel (the second half of the line) is clear from a comparison with Isa 49:9; 60:1ff, etc, and the citation of Isa 9:1-2 in Matt 3:15-16.

ei)$ (“unto”)—According to the structure outlined above, the preposition ei)$ (“into, unto”) governs both halves of v. 32. That is to say, the light is unto both the uncovering of the nations and the splendor of Israel. There are two aspects of the preposition which apply here: (a) for the purpose of, and (b) leading toward the goal of, i.e. the result of. More concretely, it can be understood as something which points in the direction of these results for the nations and Israel respectively—the light shines toward them both, and, more importantly, into the darkness (cf. the Isaian passages referenced above).

a)poka/luyin (“[the] uncovering”)—The noun a)poka/luyi$, from the verb a)pokalu/ptw, literally means “taking (the) cover away from”—i.e., “uncovering”. In this case, the motif relates to removing darkness, through the shining of light (Lk 1:77-79; Matt 3:15-16, etc). The noun and verb both are used frequently in the New Testament, often in reference to God’s revelation to his people (believers) in the person and work of Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel. Cf. again the article on revelation in the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”.

e)qnw=n (“of [the] nations”)—The genitive of this noun may be understood two ways: (1) the light is revealed (uncovered) for the nations, or (2) the nations themselves are uncovered/revealed by the light. Probably the former is more readily in mind here in the hymn, but the latter cannot be excluded, especially in the context of the Lukan theme of the identity/inclusion of Gentile believers as the people of God (cf. below).

kai/ (“and”)—This simple conjunctive particle here has special significance, since it emphasizes that both Israel and the nations (Gentiles) will experience the light of salvation manifest in the person of Jesus. If the structure of the line is understood differently (cf. above), then the emphasis of the conjunction would be on salvation in terms of both (i) light for the Gentiles and (ii) splendor for Israel. However, the theme (and theology) throughout Luke-Acts strongly favors the structure I am following, whereby the emphasis is squarely on Jewish and Gentile believers together making up the people of God.

do/can (“[unto the] splendor”)—My interpretation (cf. above) assumes that both nouns a)poka/luyi$ (“uncovering”) and do/ca (“splendor”) are governed by the preposition ei)$ (“unto”). To reiterate:

  • unto
    • (the) uncovering of the nations
    • (the) splendor of your people Israel

The noun do/ca is actually difficult to render accurately in English. Typically it is translated “glory”, but this can be rather misleading. Fundamentally, it refers to the esteem or honor which is accorded to someone or something—that is, how a person is considered, acknowledged, recognized, etc. In the case of God, the honor which is due to him involves his essential nature and character, as the Holy One and (all-powerful) Creator, and so forth, which is traditionally described and depicted with light-imagery. Thus the do/ca of God is envisioned as a brilliant and effulgent splendor surrounding him. In the LXX, do/ca generally translates the Hebrew dobK*, which has the basic meaning “weight”—i.e., the honor and reverence which must be given to God due to the greatness, etc, of His nature. The word has a somewhat different nuance and emphasis when applied to human beings; generally, it is best rendered as “honor” or “splendor”, depending on the context. Here, if do/ca is parallel to “light” (fw=$) then it is perhaps better understood as “honor”—i.e. revelation (light) for the nations, honor/esteem for Israel. However, if it is parallel with “uncovering”, then it is particularly important to preserve the element of light-imagery. The light of salvation then has two (related) effects—(1) it shines in the darkness, revealing/uncovering the nations, and (2) it causes the people Israel to shine with splendor. Light and splendor (do/ca) are juxtaposed in Isa 60:1, and splendor/honor/glory in connection with salvation specifically in Isa 46:13.

laou= sou  )Israh/l (“of your people Israel”)—that is, God’s people, referring primarily to Israel as the elect/chosen people, with whom God (YHWH) established a special relationship and agreement (covenant). The singular noun lao/$ (“[a collective] people”), used together with the plural e&qnh (“nations”), emphasizes the point of contrast—Israel was selected among all the different tribes/nations of the worlds to be the distinct people of God. The plural laoi/ (“peoples“) is often synonymous with e&qnh (“nations”), though in Acts 4:25-27 it seems to refer to Israel (i.e. Israelites and Jews), perhaps in the sense of the various groups which make up “Israel” at the time of Jesus. The significance of the terminology in this passage in Acts (citing Ps 2:1-2) likely runs deeper, however; note the possible contrast:

  • In their opposition to Jesus, Israel becomes like the nations—”peoples” (laoi/, plural) instead of the true “people” (lao/$, singular) of God
  • In trusting in Christ, both “peoples”—Israelites/Jews and Gentiles—become a single “people” (lao/$), the people of God

This helps to explain the use of the plural laoi/ (“peoples”) in line 2 of the Song of Simeon (v. 31). The expression “all the peoples” (par with “all flesh” in Lk 3:6) refers to those (believers) among all of humankind—Jews and Gentiles both—who respond to the Gospel (the “light” of salvation) and come to faith in Jesus Christ. This becomes a principal theme of the book of Acts. Note especially the words of James in 15:14:

“…how God looked upon (it/us) to take out of the nations a people for/unto His name”

This precedes the (modified) quotation from Amos 9:11-12 in verses 16-17, in which Gentile believers are identified as part of the “remnant” (i.e. the true/faithful Israel) who will seek the Lord, and so respond by trusting in Jesus. Paul, of course, as the “apostle to the Gentiles” draws heavily upon this theme, though often in a complex (and somewhat controversial) manner. Note, in particular, the discussion in Romans 9-11 which is vital to the overall emphasis (in Romans) on the unity of Jewish and and Gentile believers in Christ. For a more concise, similar, statement elsewhere in the New Testament, cf. 1 Peter 2:9-10.

The theme itself goes back into the Old Testament, especially in (Deutero-)Isaiah and the later Prophets, continuing on through Jewish literature and tradition. Isa 42:6 was a cornerstone verse, and is alluded to here in the Song; but there are many passages which might express either of two basic, related ideas: (1) that God’s revelation (his Law, salvation, etc) will go out from Jerusalem (and the Temple) into all the nations, and (2) that the nations from all around Jerusalem will come to the Temple and worship God there. For this latter image, cf. especially Isa 56:6-8, cited by Jesus in the Synoptic tradition (the Temple ‘cleansing’ scene, Lk 19:46 par). That the converted/faithful Gentiles would become part of the people of God is also expressed (or implied) in several places, most notably Zechariah 2:10-11, which refers to a future/eschatological moment when the Lord will come and dwell in the midst of his people in Zion, and

“many nations will be (inter)twined [i.e. joined] to YHWH in th(at) day, and they will be unto [i.e. as] a people for me [i.e. my people], and I will set (up my) tent [i.e. dwell] in your midst…” (v. 11)

The two themes mentioned above are both present in the central Pentecost scene of Acts 2—(1) Israelites/Jews from among the nations come to Jerusalem, along with believers miraculously speaking in the languages of all the nations; and (2) Christian missionaries go out (from Jerusalem) in the surrounding parts of Judea, and, subsequently, into the nations all around (cf. Acts 1:8, etc). Yet it may be said that this is already prefigured and foreshadowed here in the Infancy narrative, in the Song uttered by Simeon as he stands in the Temple, holding the savior Jesus in his arms. It is by the inclusion of the Gentiles within the people of God, that the chosen ones (believers) of Israel, along with Simeon, acquire true honor and splendor.

 

In Roman Catholic tradition, December 8 commemorates the conception of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus—her birth (by related tradition) taking place nine months later on Sept 8. The doctrine of Mary’s “immaculate” conception developed over a number of centuries, taking shape in the latter Middle Ages. It is ultimately related to the doctrine of Jesus’ sinlessness. In order to preserve the idea of his sinlessness as a human being, it was thought necessary that Mary herself (i.e. her flesh) must also have been pure from sin (from birth). This underlying logic doubtless seems unnecessary or extreme to many impartial observers today, but it fit with a certain theological mode of thinking regarding the transmission of sin, etc. For the role of Mary in Luke 2:22-38, cf. my earlier notes on vv. 22-24 and on the oracle of Simeon in vv. 34-35.

Note of the Day – December 7 (Luke 2:30-31)

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Luke 2:30-31

Today’s note is the third of four in this Advent series on the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). In it I will be examining the second line (bicolon) of the Song (in bold below).

“Now you release your slave, Master,
according to your word, in peace,
(now) that my eyes saw your Salvation,
which you made ready before the face of all peoples:
Light for the uncovering of the nations
and (the) splendor of your people Israel.”

Previously, I have treated verses 30-31 as separate lines, but, in terms of the structure of the hymn, they represent a single unit. A slightly more literal rendering is as follows:

  • (in) that my eyes saw your salvation
    • which you made ready against [i.e. in front of] the face of all the peoples

The Greek is:

  • o%ti ei@don oi( o)fqalmoi/ mou to\ swth/rio/n sou
    • o^ h(toi/masa$ kata\ pro/swpon pa/ntwn tw=n law=n

As in the case of the first line (v. 29), an initial particle (o%ti) governs vv. 30-31, though here it is a conjunctive particle, connecting it with the earlier line. It gives the reason why the speaker (Simeon) may now be released from his service to God. I have translated it literally as “(in) that”, i.e. “because”, though it is probably better to retain the temporal sense, as I do in the poetic rendering above—”(now) that”, i.e. “since”. The (chiastic) parallelism of the line is also expressed somewhat differently that that of v. 29; note the structure here:

  • my eyes saw
    —your salvation
    ——which
    —you made ready
  • {before} the face of all the peoples

The framing motif is that of seeing—Simeon now sees what God has prepared for all people, and which soon will become visible/apparent to all. What he sees is clarified by the “inner” pairing of the line—”your salvation which you made ready”. The relative particle o% (“[that] which”) is at the center of the line (on this, cf. below). I will now briefly discuss each of the key words or phrases in vv. 30-31.

ei@don (“[they] saw”)—In English this is usually translated as though it were a perfect form (“have seen”), but it is actually an aorist form, suggesting an action which is completed or occurs (just) prior to the person’s speaking, i.e. “my eyes now (have) see(n)…”. This is the principal verb governing vv. 30-31, with the emphasis on seeing. The same emphasis (and verb) is found, twice, in the explanation given by the author in verse 26:

“it was given (as) information to him, under [i.e. by] the holy Spirit, (that he was) not to see [i&dein] death before he should see [i&dh|] the Anointed (One) of the Lord”

Almost certainly we should recognize an allusion to Gen 46:30. Simeon had been waiting, looking toward the coming of the “help of Israel” and (with Anna) the “redemption of Jerusalem”—both expressions referring to the deliverance (salvation) God will bring about for his people through the coming of the Anointed One (Messiah) at the end-time.

oi( o)fqalmoi/ mou (“my eyes”)—Instead of saying simply “I saw”, the hymn uses the more colorful (and dramatic) Semitic idiom “my eyes saw”, which gives greater emphasis, and a strong personal dimension, to the act and experience of seeing. The expression “my eyes” is used in this manner frequently in the Old Testament (more than 70 times), especially in a poetic setting (in the Psalms, Prophets and Wisdom writings). The idiom is relatively rare in the New Testament, but note the important saying of Jesus in Luke 10:23 par (cf. also 1 Cor 2:9; 1 Jn 1:1). To have one’s sight restored, or suddenly be able to see, is occasionally described as having “the eyes opened” (Mk 8:25; Matt 9:30 etc); while the expression “lift the eyes” means to look and see something (Lk 6:20; 16:23, etc). In Acts 26:18, as in the citation of Isa 6:9-10 (Acts 28:27, etc), opening the eyes is connected with experiencing or realizing salvation.

to\ swth/rio/n sou (“your salvation”)—Interestingly, while the noun swth/ria (“salvation”) is fairly common in the New Testament, the related neuter substantive [to\] swth/rion occurs only three times, all in Luke-Acts—here, and in Lk 3:6; Acts 28:28. All three times it is part of the expression “the salvation of God”, by which is meant, not God being saved, but rather the salvation/deliverance/protection which God brings. This is indicated by the neuter form with the definite article; it could relate abstractly to the means or act of saving, but also to a specific person who might serve as savior/protector. Here, of course, it is connected with the child Jesus in Simeon’s arms. Within the context (and theology) of Luke-Acts, the expression refers specifically to the salvation of the nations (i.e. the Gentiles) through the proclamation of the Gospel. This point will be discussion in the next note (on verse 32).

o% (“which”)—The use of this relative particle is important, both for the flow of the line, but also, more significantly, as a way to connect Jesus (the means of salvation which Simeon now sees) with the deliverance promised to God’s faithful ones (his people) in the Scriptures. It is particularly the prophecies in the latter chapters of Isaiah (40-66) which are in view here in the Song of Simeon, as throughout the other hymns of the Lukan Infancy narrative. There is a clear allusion to Isa 40:5 in vv. 30-31, as well as to 46:13; 49:6b, and 52:10. One may also note the reference to seeing salvation in the deutero-canonical Baruch 4:24. The revelation of salvation—i.e., its becoming visible to humankind—is part of Jewish eschatological and Messianic thought, as we see in a number of the Qumran texts (e.g., CD 20:20, 34; 1 QM 5).

h(toi/masa$ (“you made ready”)—There is a distinct theological sense of the verb e(toima/zw (“make ready, prepare”) in the New Testament. It is frequently used of God, in an eschatological context—i.e. of what God has prepared (ahead of time) for the faithful, and also for the wicked, at the end (following the final Judgment). For its occurrence in sayings by Jesus, cf. Mk 10:40 par; Matt 22:4; 25:34ff; Jn 14:2-3. On God preparing blessing/reward for believers, cf. also 1 Cor 2:9; Heb 11:16; Rev 21:2. The eschatological sense is especially prominent in the book of Revelation (8:6; 9:7, 15; 12:6; 16:12; 19:7). In the Gospel tradition, and particularly in Luke, the verb is related to the idea of “preparing the way of the Lord”—i.e. of the messenger who prepares God’s people (and humankind) for His coming (in Judgment) at the end time. This eschatological and Messianic tradition was strong in Judaism and early Christianity, combining the language and symbolism from Isa 40:3ff and Mal 3:1ff. According to the early Christian interpretation, John the Baptist was identified as the messenger who prepares the way for the coming of Christ (the Lord), as in Luke 3:4 par. The two Old Testament traditions are combined specifically in Mark 1:2-3, but also, less directly, here in Luke. Note especially the language in Luke 1:16-17 and 76-77ff. It is in the Song of Zechariah (Benedictus) that salvation in the person of Christ (vv. 76-79) is tied back to the promised deliverance of God’s people (vv. 68-75), representing the two halves of the song respectively. For more on the parallel between Simeon and Zechariah, cf. my previous note.

kata\ pro/swpon (“against [the] face”)—Concretely, the preposition kata/ would here indicate something God brings down on the face, but more properly means “against” in the sense of “before, in front of, in the sight of”. The use of the noun “face” (pro/swpon, lit. “toward [the] eye[s]”) continues the motif of seeing in this line. The expression “against/before the face” is a Semitic idiom which means “in the presence of”, but also indicates something directed right at a person (cf. Gal 2:11), as in English we might say “right to his face” or “in his face”. Thus, there are two aspects which should be isolated here: (1) that God has prepared this salvation in the presence of all the peoples, i.e. during their history and lifetimes, and (2) that it is directed at the peoples, i.e. made ready for them and their benefit. Also, there is likely a foreshadowing of the idea that this salvation will soon become visible to all people, through the life and work of Jesus, and, subsequently, in the proclamation of the Gospel.

pa/ntwn tw=n law=n (“of all the peoples”)—There is allusion in vv. 30-31 to Isa 52:10 (cf. above); note the parallel, citing the LXX:

“against [i.e. in front of] the face of all the peoples” (v. 31)
“in the sight [e)nw/pion] of all the nations” (Isa 52:10a)

Interestingly, however, the Gospel writer (and/or Simeon as the speaker), uses “peoples” (laoi/) instead of “nations” (e&qnh). The parallel use of the plural “peoples” in Acts 4:25-27 might suggest that the reference here is to the Jewish people (i.e. Israelites/Jews). It seems best to understand the term in the context of what follows in v. 32, were two groups are mentioned in tandem—(a) the nations (e&qnh), that is, Gentiles or non-Jews, and (b) the people (lao/$) Israel. These two comprise the “peoples” in v. 31—in other words, all humankind (that is, all believers), Jew and Gentile both. The expression “all the peoples” should be understood as synonymous with “all flesh” (pa=$ sa/rc) in Luke 3:6 (again citing Isa 52:10): “all flesh will see the salvation of God”.

Note of the Day – December 6 (Luke 2:29)

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Luke 2:29

In the previous Advent note, I discussed the overall background and setting of the Song of Simeon (2:29-32); beginning today, the next three notes will discuss the Song in detail. The hymn is comprised of three lines (distychs or bicola), which I render here somewhat conventionally, to preserve the poetic rhythm and feel:

“Now you release your slave, Master,
according to your word, in peace,
(now) that my eyes saw your Salvation,
which you made ready before the face of all peoples:
Light for the uncovering of the nations
and (the) splendor of your people Israel.”

Today I examine the first line (bicolon) in verse 29, which I now translate more literally:

  • Now you loose your slave from (his bond), O Master,
    • according to your utterance, in peace

The corresponding Greek is:

  • Nu=n a)polu/ei$ to\n dou=lo/n sou, de/spota
    • kata\ to\ r(h=ma/ sou e)n ei)rh/nh|

Each of the key words will be discussed in turn, beginning with the particle nu=n (“now”). This temporal particle functions as an adverb, governed by the verb which follows. It is set in emphatic position at the beginning of the line—i.e., “now you loose your slave…”. This emphatic particle sets the hymn in motion. Note the important (chiastic) symmetry of the remainder of the line:

  • you loose from (bondage/service)
    —your slave
    ——Master
    —according to your word
  • in peace

This structure reflects the precise word order of the line, and should be kept in mind when studying the verse in detail.

a)polu/ei$ (“you loose from [bondage/service]”)—the verb a)polu/w literally means “(set) loose from”, i.e. from bondage or service (as a slave); in English idiom we would say “release from”, i.e. from the obligation. The reference is to the period of service for a slave, who could be released (set free) from that bond only by permission of the master, or when an agreed upon time of service had elapsed. Here it is also used as an idiom for the end of a person’s life, marking the end of his/her (earthly) service to God, often implying hard work and suffering (i.e. bondage). Death is viewed as a release, a loosing from bondage—cf. Gen 15:2; Num 20:29; Tobit 3:6; 2 Macc 9:9.

to\n dou=lo/n sou (“your slave”)—the word dou=lo$ (“slave”) is typically translated “servant” in order to soften the expression, and to avoid comparisons with the more oppressive/abusive forms of slavery known from U.S. history and elsewhere. Simeon considers himself a slave (or servant) of God, just as Paul, along with other early Christians, called themselves slaves of God, or of Christ (cf. Rom 1:1; 6:16ff; 1 Cor 7:22; 2 Cor 4:5; Gal 1:10, etc).

de/spota (“[O] Master”)—here the word should be understood in its literal sense of owner, i.e. one who possesses and has authority over a slave (1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9; 1 Pet 2:18). It was often used in the broader sense of “master, lord”, etc., and could apply as an honorific title of address for any ruler. It translates the Hebrew /wda* (“lord”), and occasionally is used in the LXX in place of the divine name YHWH (Prov 29:25, cf. Isa 1:24; Jon 4:3). The author of the Gospel uses it again in a similar context in Acts 4:24. It is applied as a title of Christ in Jude 4, and is found in the context of believers as slaves of God (and Christ) in 2 Tim 2:21; 2 Pet 2:1. According to the structure indicated above, the vocative de/spota (“O Master”) is at the center or heart of the line.

kata\ to\n r(h=ma/ sou (“according to your utterance”)—r(h=ma, usually translated “word”, properly means something which is spoken out, uttered by a person. Here it relates to the authority the master/owner has over the slave. A casual reading of the line would indicate that the focus is on the slave being released by the word of the master. And yet, the structure of the line (cf. above) rather suggests that the emphasis is on the authority (and ownership) the master has over the slave; note again the parallel:

  • your slave…
  • …according to your word

Because the master has authority over the slave, only his word—that is, an agreement or command declared by him—can release the slave. The narrative context of verse 26 relates this to a promise by God to Simeon, made through the Holy Spirit:

“and (the) information had been (giv)en to him, under [i.e. by] the holy Spirit, (that he was) not to see death before he should see the Anointed (One) of the Lord”

This is the explanation or interpretation given by the author.

e)n ei)rh/nh| (“in peace”)—Again, if we consider the structure of the line (cf. above), this phrase qualifies the primary verb:

  • you loose (him) from (service)…
  • …in peace

This reflects the basic idea of blessing—of a person departing, or being sent off in peace. As an idiom for death, cf. Gen 15:15. Very likely, there is also an allusion here to the Joseph narrative (Gen 46:30), where the elderly Jacob (Israel) declares that he can die (i.e. in peace) now that he has seen his son (Joseph) again:

“from now [nu=n] (on) I shall [i.e. I can] die away, since I have seen your face (and) that you still live!”

Jacob, like Simeon, is one who is waiting for the deliverance (salvation) of God (49:18). Returning to the interpretation in Lk 2:26, Simeon’s desire, in terms of Messianic expectation, should be related to Messianic (Jewish) thought of the period. In the so-called Psalms of Solomon (17:50), we find the idea that the person is truly blessed who is able to witness the coming of the Messianic Age and the deliverance of God’s people (cf. also Lk 10:23-24). Ps Sol 17:34 draws upon the same Isaiah traditions as the Song of Simeon (vv. 30-32), which will be discussed in the next two notes. There is also a strong Messianic motif involving the bringing and establishment of peace—cf. Psalm 72:7; Isa 9:5-6; Zech 8:12, etc. The birth of the Messiah (Jesus) in the Lukan narrative is accompanied by an announcement of peace on earth (Lk 2:14), so that those who serve God (i.e. believers) may now do so in peace (cf. 1:74). The transition from the old covenant (e.g. Simeon) to the new (believers in Christ) takes place in a moment of peace, as the aged Israelite, standing in the Temple, holds the baby Jesus in his arms.

December 6 is the traditional date in the West commemorating St. Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra (in Lycia, Asia Minor) who, through an unusual set of circumstances, came to be the basis for the figure of Santa Claus. Nicholas was among the bishops present at the landmark council at Nicea, but otherwise we have very little reliable information about his life, though, of course, numerous legends have been preserved. Of the many familiar Christmas customs, it is perhaps only the practice of placing gifts in stockings which may be said to relate back directly to the old Nicholas traditions.

 

Note of the Day – December 5 (Luke 2:29-32)

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Luke 2:29-32

To commemorate the beginning of Advent, over the next four days I will be presenting a short series of notes on Luke 2:29-32, the “Song of Simeon”. The first note (today) will focus on the hymn as a whole, its setting, background, etc, before examining each line in detail in the three successive notes. I have discussed this passage on several occasions before, including during prior Christmas seasons (cf. from Jan 1 2017 & 2018).

One of the most distinctive features of the Infancy Narrative in Luke (chapters 1-2), is the sequence of canticles, or hymns, which punctuate the account. There are four such hymns, each of which came to be part of the Christian liturgy and known by its Latin title (the first word[s] as rendered in Latin)—Magnificat (1:46-55), Benedictus (1:68-79), Gloria in Excelsis (2:14), and Nunc Dimittis (2:29-32). The Gloria, part of the Angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth, is extremely brief; but the other three are substantial hymns, which, in the narrative context, are presented as inspired oracles by the speaker—Mary (or, possibly, Elizabeth), Zechariah, and Simeon. In the case of Zechariah and Simeon, the oracle properly includes a prophetic pronouncement regarding the future of the child (John / Jesus).

The narrative setting for the Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis) is established in verses 22-28. In all likelihood, the author (trad. Luke) has combined the Simeon tradition (beginning in v. 25) with a separate notice in vv. 22-24 which serves two basic purposes: (a) it explains how Mary and Joseph came to be in the Temple with the child Jesus, and (b) it depicts Jesus’ parents as faithful Israelites who are fulfilling the religious obligations of the Law. Indeed, it may be said that these two elements—the Temple setting and fulfillment of the Law—are both essential themes within the Lukan Infancy narrative, and the work of Luke-Acts as a whole. Consider:

  • Mary and the child (along with Joseph) fulfill the requirements of the Law (vv. 22-24). Two basic laws are mentioned, apparently combined or conflated by the author:
    (i) the sacrifice for purification (from uncleanness) for the mother following childbirth (vv. 22, 24; cf. Lev 12:6-8)
    (ii) the consecration (redemption) of the firstborn son (v. 23, cf. Exod 13:1-2, 11-13; Num 18:15-16)
    At the same time, Simeon functions as a prophet who also cites the Old Testament Prophets (as will be discussed), applying them to Jesus. Thus, here in the narrative, it can be said that Jesus “fulfills the Law and the Prophets” (cf. Luke 16:16; 24:44; Acts 13:15; 24:14; 28:23)
  • The Temple setting is likewise a key motif in Luke-Acts, and is found in three different scenes in the Infancy Narrative (here, and in Lk 1:8-23; 2:41-50). Probably the author has in mind Malachi 3:1ff, with the idea of the Lord coming to the Temple. This distinctive prophecy, also related to John the Baptist as the Messenger who prepares the way (Lk 1:16-17, 76-77; cf. 3:4ff) for the Lord, is, in a sense, fulfilled by Jesus already as a child.

There is another important connection between the Temple scenes in 1:8-23 and here in 2:25ff, involving the parallelism between the births of John the Baptist and Jesus which runs all through the narrative. There is a specific parallel between Zechariah, father of John, and Simeon; both are:

  • Devout, aged men who serve in the Temple or frequent it (1:8-9ff; 2:25-27)
  • Each is specifically referred to as “just/righteous” (di/kaio$) (1:6; 2:25)
  • Each man is touched/filled by the Spirit and utters an inspired oracle (1:67; 2:27)
  • Each oracle includes a prophecy regarding the destiny of the respective child (John/Jesus) and the role he will play in God’s deliverance of His people (1:76-79; 2:30ff, 34-35)
  • In the narrative, each man is associated with a corresponding female figure (Elizabeth/Anna) who also is inspired or functions as a prophet (1:5, 41ff; 2:36ff)
  • Linguistically, their names have a similar meaning:
    • Z§½aryâ[hû] (Why]r=k^z+)—”Yah(weh) has remembered”
    • Šim®±ôn, presumably shortened for Š§ma±-°E~l or Š§ma±-Yah—”El/Yah has heard”

Indeed, both pairs of aged figures—Zechariah/Elizabeth and Simeon/Anna—represent faithful Israel of the Old Covenant (1:6; 2:25, 37), those who are waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. This latter theme becomes more specific with Simeon/Anna, but it is foreshadowed already with Zechariah/Elizabeth in the earlier portions of the narrative—note the motifs of waiting and expectation (1:13, 20-21, 24-25, 57ff, 70-76). There can be no doubt that Messianic expectation—i.e., awaiting the coming of God’s Anointed (Messiah) who will rescue/deliver his people at the end-time—is associated with the faith/devotion of Simeon and Anna. Two parallel phrases (in vv. 25 and 38) make this clear:

  • V. 25—Simeon was “(look)ing toward receiving the para/klhsi$ of Israel”
  • V. 38—Anna was “(look)ing toward receiving the lu/trwsi$ of Jerusalem”

The same verb prosde/xomai is used, which indicates a person who is waiting with eagerness or readiness, looking forward to (lit. “toward”, pro$) receiving someone or something. In the case of Simeon, this expectation is related directly to his righteousness and devotion. The two parallel expressions are especially worth noting here:

  • “the para/klhsi$ of Israel“—the noun para/klhsi$ (parákl¢sis) derives from the verb parakale/w, literally to “call (someone) alongside”, often in the sense of offering help and encouragement, etc. It is difficult to translate with a single word in English, and is typically rendered “comfort” or “consolation”, but the idea of offering help is paramount here—i.e., the aid God will give to his people in rescuing/delivering them.
  • the lu/trwsi$ of Jerusalem“—the noun lu/trwsi$ (ultimately derived from lu/w, “[to set] loose”) relates to the process by which someone is loosed (i.e. set free) from bondage or debt, etc. It generally refers to the paying of ransom/redemption (lu/tron), i.e. the price paid to loose/redeem a person from bondage, and is often translated as “redemption”.

Both expressions stem from portions of (Deutero-)Isaiah—40:1; 52:9; 61:2; 66:12-13—which came to be interpreted in a Messianic sense in Jewish and early Christian tradition. This is important to keep in mind when studying the Song of Simeon itself, which likewise makes use of several such passages from Isaiah. Simeon and Anna essentially function like the Isaian herald, announcing the good news for God’s people (cf. Isa 40:9; 41:27; 52:7).

Returning to the parallel between Zechariah and Simeon, in at least one respect the author draws a contrast:

  • Zechariah is unable to deliver the (priestly) blessing to the people (1:22)
  • Simeon does pronounce a blessing, on Mary & Joseph (2:34a)

Simeon actually speaks a two-fold blessing, introducing each of the two portions of his oracle with a blessing—one addressed to God (v. 28) which precedes the Song, and one addressed to Mary (and Joseph) prior to prophecy in vv. 34-35. This act of blessing—literally, to “give a good account”, i.e. speak good (words) to, or over, a person—should be considered alongside the Song and prophecy, as part of the inspiration given to Simeon through the Holy Spirit. This is the notice at the end of verse 25: “…and the Holy Spirit was upon him”. In fact, there are three references to the Spirit in vv. 25-27, each of which is important in light of the theme of the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts:

  • “the holy Spirit was upon [e)pi] him” (v. 25)
  • “it was given (as) information to him under [u(po] the Spirit” (v. 26)
  • “he came in [e)n] the Spirit…” (v. 27)

Note the similar references to the Spirit in relation to Jesus in Lk 3:22; 4:1, 14, and also to the first believers in Acts 1:8; 2:4, 17ff, etc. This may be a subtle way by which the author transitions from the old faith of Israel to the new covenant centered on the person of Jesus. As Simeon encounters the child Jesus (in the Temple, the point of contact between old and new, v. 27), holding him in his arms (v. 28), this new covenant is glimpsed and realized, at least for a moment. At any rate, it is the Spirit which inspires the Song which follows in vv. 29-32, and it is to the first line of the song that I will turn in the next daily note.

For an excellent overview and discussion of the passage, which I have found most helpful in preparing these notes, cf. 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), pp. 436-60.

Note of the Day – November 2 (Luke 2:29-32)

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Luke 2:29-32

An interesting passage which connects salvation with knowledge and revelation is the “Song of Simeon” in Luke 2:29-32. Like the hymn of Zechariah (the Benedictus, Lk 1:67-79), it functions in the narrative as a prophetic oracle. There are actually two oracles uttered by Simeon, the other being addressed to Mary in vv. 34-35. All of the canticles, or hymns, in the Lukan Infancy narrative, draw heavily upon the Old Testament Scriptures, quoting or alluding to various passages in nearly every line. The very poetry, and the underlying mode of expression, has assimilated the language of the Old Testament Songs, Psalms and poetic oracles of the Prophets. The Song of Simeon is comprised of four lines. In the first line (v. 29), Simeon addresses himself to God:

“Now you (can) loose your slave from (his bonds), O Master, according to your utterance, in peace”

The second line (v. 30), in the context of the narrative, relates to Simeon’s revelatory experience of seeing the child Jesus:

“(in) that [i.e. because] my eyes saw your salvation”

The third line (v. 31) connects this revelation back to the prophecies and promises in the Old Testament, the (old) covenant between God and his people:

“which you made ready down upon the face [i.e. in the presence] of all the people”

The fourth line (v. 32) indicates the goal and purpose of this revelation:

“a light unto the uncovering of the nations, and (the) honor/splendor of your people Yisrael”

The theme of salvation is emphasized in the first two lines:

“Now you (can) loose your slave from (his bonds), O Master, according to your utterance, in peace,
(in) that [i.e. because] my eyes saw your salvation [swthri/a]”

The narrative context would associate the words a)polu/w (“loose from [bondage]”) and dou=lo$ (“slave”) with Simeon’s earthly life, lived in service to God (YHWH) as his Lord/Master (despo/th$), that is, the lord/master of the house who is the owner of the slave. However, the hymn itself can (and should) also be read more generally in terms of salvation from slavery to sin, etc, which is otherwise associated with the birth of Jesus in Lk 1:77, and more directly in Matt 1:21. The mention of peace [ei)rh/nh] also well fits the idea of salvation.

In the last two lines the theme of revelation is emphasized:

“which you made ready down upon the face [i.e. in the presence] of all the people:
a light unto the uncovering of the nations, and (the) honor/splendor of your people Yisrael”

This is already suggested by the use of ei&dw (“see”) and o)fqalmoi/ (“eyes”) in v. 30; the verb ei&dw (oi@da) in Greek is essentially interchangeable with ginw/skw (“know”) and often indicates knowing as well as seeing. The expression kata\ pro/swpon (“down on the face”, i.e. “before the face”) also suggests something that is seen; the word translated “face” (pro/swpon) literally means “toward the eye”, i.e. before one’s eyes, facing, and so the face or “appearance” of a person, etc. For the words fw=$ (“light”) and a)poka/luyi$ (“taking the cover from”, “uncovering”) used for revelation, cf. Part 2 of the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”. The noun do/ca refers to the esteem or honor which a person receives, or which is due to that person (especially God), often described in terms of visual splendor (light-imagery, etc); it is frequently associated with divine revelation in the New Testament. For more on the connection between salvation and revelation, cf. Part 3 in “Gnosis and the New Testament”.

I will be returning to the Song of Simeon at the start of Advent season, when I will discuss each verse (each line) in considerable detail.

As my translation above is an extremely literal (glossed) rendering, the rhythm and feel of the poetry has been obscured; here below, in closing, is a more poetic rendering:

“Now, Master, you can release your slave, according to your word, in peace,
(now) that my eyes have seen your salvation
which you prepared before the face of all (the) people—
a light to uncover (for) the nations,
and (the) splendor of your people Israel.”

Note of the Day – January 2

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Today’s Christmas season note looks at the famous angelic announcement to the shepherds in Luke 2:10-14.

Luke 2:10-14

As discussed in previous notes, Jesus’ “birth” as the Son of God in early tradition appears to have been associated primarily with the resurrection (cf. especially the use of Psalm 2:7 in Acts 13:32ff, also Romans 1:3-4, etc). Along these lines, there is an interesting connection between the announcement of Jesus’ birth in Luke 2:10-14 and his death—based on his role as Davidic ruler (“Messiah”) and Savior.

To begin with, it is worth pointing out the way in the which the annunciation in Lk 2:9-14 generally matches the birth announcement pattern (drawn from Old Testament tradition) in Luke 1-2 (cf. Lk 1:11-20, 26-38):

  • Appearance of the Angel (v. 9a)
  • The person is startled (v. 9b)
  • Assurance by the Angel “do not fear” (v. 10a)
  • The Angel’s message—announcing the birth of a child (vv. 10b-11a)
    —including the naming (v. 11b)—here a pair of titles which came to be applied to the name “Jesus” in early tradition (already in Jesus’ own lifetime, according to Gospel tradition)
  • The sign given (v. 12) (no question by the shepherds)

Verses 13-14 (with the Gloria of the angelic chorus) break from the pattern, which is fitting for the exalted character of the birth of Jesus. The “good news” (eu)aggel/zomai, “I bring you a good message [good news]”) of the birth announcement (vv. 10-11) has become the good news of the Gospel (v. 14). The Lukan narrative may well intend to emphasize a parallel to the birth of Augustus (v. 1) as a Savior-figure who brings peace to the world (cf. my note on this topic last Christmas season). Even more significant, from the standpoint of the Old Testament (Deutero-Isaian) background of the Infancy narrative, is the famous birth announcement in Isa 9:5-6 (6-7)—cf. also the “good news” of Isa 52:7ff; 61:1, passages which both have traditional messianic associations.

In Luke 2:10, the keyword is xara/ (“gladness, joy, delight”), which is also related to xa/ri$ (“favor”, i.e. the favor or ‘grace’ one receives from God). This gladness is qualified as me/ga$ (“great”), implying a connection to God (cf. Lk 1:15, 32, 49, 58), and with the accompanying phrase “which will be for all the people [panti\ tw=| law=|]”. In context, the “people” (lao/$) is Israel, but this widens in the Gospel to include Gentiles (“the peoples [laoi/]”, cf. 2:31-32).

This message contains two interlocking “Messianic” constructs or pairs:

Here the “city of David” is Bethlehem; at the death/resurrection of Jesus, it is Jerusalem. In this regard, it is important to note a fascinating parallel between the angelic announcement of Luke 2:14 and the exclamation by the people upon Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Lk 19:38):

In one, heavenly beings declare peace to those on earth; in the other, earthly beings declare (or affirm) peace for those in heaven. One may perhaps compare this with the request from the Lord’s prayer that God’s will be done “as in heaven, (so) also upon earth” (Matt 6:10b [not in the Lukan version]). The emphasis on peace, in a Messianic context, is an important aspect of the portrait in Luke-Acts (Lk 1:79; 2:29; 19:42; 24:36; Acts 10:36).

Luke 19:38

Jesus’ (triumphal) entry into Jerusalem is narrated in all four Gospels, with the image of a Messiah-figure entering Jerusalem, utilizing symbolism drawn from Zechariah 9 and Psalm 118. Luke 19:38 depicts the crowds greeting Jesus and quoting Psalm 118:26:

eu)loghme/no$ o( e)rxo/meno$e)n o)no/mati kuri/ou [LXX]
“blessed [lit. of good account, well-spoken of] (is) the one coming… in the name of (the) Lord”
Hebrew: hw`hy+ <v@B= aB*h^ EWrB*

Two specific phrases identify the person:

  • “the (one) coming [i.e. the Coming One]” (o( e)rxo/meno$)
  • “in the name of the Lord” (e)n o)no/mati kuri/ou)

For the first expression, see Matt 11:3*; 23:39 (also citing Ps 118:26); John 1:27; 6:14*; 11:27*—the references with asterisks indicating a definite eschatological and/or Messianic context. On “Lord” (ku/rio$)—otherwise applied to YHWH—related to Jesus’ birth in the Lukan Infancy narratives, cf. Luke 1:43, 76; 2:11, and also 1:15, 28, 32, 38; 2:9, 26. Psalm 118:26 is quoted by the crowd in all four Gospel accounts; the greeting for Jesus may be compared as follows:

Mark 11:9-10

  • Hosanna!
    —”blessed is the one coming…” [Psalm 118:26]
    —”blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David”
  • Hosanna in the high(est) places!

Matthew 21:9

  • Hosanna to the son of David!
    —”blessed is the one coming…” [Psalm 118:26]
  • Hosanna in the high(est) places!

Luke 19:38

  • “Blessed is the one coming—the king…” [Psalm 118:26]
  • In heaven, peace, and glory in the high(est) places!

John 12:13

  • Hosanna!
    —”blessed is the one coming… [Psalm 118:26], the king of Israel”

Originally, Psalm 118 described the entry of the king into Jerusalem (all the way into the Temple), following victory over his enemies (by the aid/strength of God, vv. 10-18). Within the context of Psalm itself, this procession came to have a ritual/liturgical function (vv. 23-29, cf. also 2 Sam 6:17-18), eventually being used as a greeting for pilgrims entering Jerusalem for the Feast (Passover or Sukkoth/Tabernacles). As for the exclamation Hosanna, that is an anglicized transliteration of Aramaic an` uv^oh (hôša±-n¹°), Hebrew an` u^yv!oh (hôšîa±-n¹°)—”Save, O…!” (from uvy), a supplication/entreaty to God (or the king), cf. Psalm 20:10; 2 Sam 14:4; 2 Kings 6:26. It came to be used as a formal greeting, comparable to something like “God save the king!” in English (cf. J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXII, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 28A, pp. 1250-1).

The Messianic context of Psalm 118 (and Zech 9) here is unmistakable, despite the fact that neither passage was interpreted this way in the surviving texts from Qumran—indeed, there is no evidence for such use of Zech 9 in Jewish writings prior to the New Testament (for its appearance in Rabbinic literature, cf. b. Sanh. 98a, etc). But note how, in each of the Gospel accounts, the citation of Ps 118:26 is connected in some way to “king/kingdom” and “David” (i.e. a coming Davidic ruler):

  • Mark 11:10—adds the parallel phrase “blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David
  • Matthew 21:9—expands the initial greeting: “Hosanna to the son of David
  • Luke 19:38—inserts “the king” into the citation of Ps 118:26 (“the one coming, the king“, or “the coming king“)
  • John 12:13—adds “the king of Israel” to the citation of Ps 118:26

Following the triumphal entry, in the Synoptics, Jesus proceeds to enter the Temple—just like the king in the original context of Ps 118 (cf. also Mal 3:1). The Lukan Infancy narrative also concludes with Jesus in the Temple (2:46-50), the last of three important Temple-scenes (1:8-23; 2:22-38). There is also an interesting parallel between the triumphal entry, as narrated by John (with the mention of palm-branches, Jn 12:13), and the subsequent Temple “cleansing” episode in the Synoptics. In Jewish tradition, palm-branches were associated with the celebrations of Tabernacles and Dedication (Hanukkah)—the latter, of course, being connected with the Maccabean “cleansing” and re-dedication of the Temple (1 Macc 13:51; 2 Macc 10:7). By coincidence, Hanukkah corresponds generally with the traditional time given for the birth of Jesus, in winter (Dec 12-20 in 2017).

Finally, one may note a particular detail from the prophecy in Zech 9—after the announcement of the victorious king, coming to Jerusalem on a donkey (v. 9), there is a declaration of his rule (v. 10) in which he “shall speak peace to/for the nations”. As remarked above, in the Lukan narrative, peace is specifically mentioned in both the angelic annunciation (at Jesus’ birth) and the exclamation by the crowds at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (19:38, associated with his suffering and death, v. 42).