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John the Baptist

January 4: Luke 2:40, 52

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Luke 2:40, 52

In the concluding note to the main Lukan Infancy narrative (2:39-40), we find summarized a primary theme which occurs throughout the narrative, but is especially emphasized in 2:21ff (cf. the earlier note):

“And as they [i.e. Jesus’ parents] completed all the (thing)s according to the Law of the Lord, they turned back into the Galîl {Galilee} into their own city Nazaret.” (v. 39)

The fulfillment of the Law is characteristic of the faithful ones of Israel, and Jesus is born into this environment. Verse 40 provides an initial narrative summary of the child’s growth and development; as such, it is the first indication of his fulfilling the destiny marked by his name (and naming). It also concludes the John/Jesus parallel in the narrative (note the comparison with 1:80):

  • John: “And the child grew and (became) strong in (the) spirit…” (1:80)
  • Jesus: “And the child grew and (became) strong…” (2:40)

Lk 2:40 adds the following detail: “…filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him”. There is very much an echo here of the statements of the child Samuel’s growth in 1 Sam 2:21, 26 (cf. also with regard to Moses, in Josephus Antiquities 2.228-31). The statement that “the favor of God was upon him” is similar to that regarding John in 1:66—”the hand of the Lord was with him”. There is some question whether the “spirit” (pneu=ma) in 1:80 refers to the Holy Spirit, the human spirit, or to “spirit” generally. In verse 15, there is a reference to John being filled with the Holy Spirit, but the expression e)n pneu/mati (“in [the] spirit”) in verse 16 refers to a special prophetic spirit—”in (the) spirit and power of Elijah“. Most likely, the latter is intended in v. 80, especially in light of the concluding statement: “…and he was in the desert (place)s until the day of his showing up toward Israel”.

In the case of Jesus, there is greater likelihood that the Spirit (of God) is in view. There is often a close connection between Wisdom and the Spirit; note the similarity of language:

  • “he will be filled by the holy Spirit” (1:15)
  • “being filled with wisdom” (2:40)

The two are brought together in the famous Messianic passage of Isa 11:1-4ff (verse 2):

“And the Spirit of YHWH will rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding…”

Thus the wisdom characteristic of Jesus even as a young child is a sign of the presence of the Spirit of God. This is also true, it would seem, with regard to the word “favor” (xa/ri$), which has served as a kind of keyword in the narrative. You may recall that it is part of the name Yôµ¹n¹n (/n`j*oy), and its meaning: “Yah(weh) has shown favor” (cf. the earlier note on vv. 13-17). The Greek word xa/ri$ (“favor”) is especially prominent in the scene of the Angelic annunciation to Mary (cf. the note on 1:32-35). The favor (of God) extends to those touched by Jesus’ birth, beginning with Mary—1:28, 30, and note the underlying idea expressed in vv. 42-43, 45, 48ff; 2:14, etc. It hardly need be pointed out, that the use of xa/ri$ (usually translated “grace”) by Paul in his letters reflects a specialized theological understanding of the term. Here we see it used in the wider, more general sense of favor shown by God to human beings.

The concluding notice in Lk 2:40 is repeated in verse 52, following the additional episode from Jesus’ childhood (vv. 41-50):

“And Yeshua cut forward in wisdom and growth, and favor alongside God and men.”

This statement again brings together the keywords “wisdom” (sofi/a) and “favor” (xa/ri$), only now this “favor” is divided into two aspects—before God, and before human beings (i.e. from God and men). It is possible that this is an allusion to Prov 3:1-4ff (verse 4): “And you will find favor [/j@]…in the eyes of God and man”. Wisdom is emphasized in this chapter of Proverbs, especially beginning in verse 13. Even more than in Lk 2:40, there is a clear allusion to the Samuel narrative (1 Sam 2:26) in verse 52, the birth and childhood of Samuel serving as a pattern for that of Jesus in this Gospel.

The idea that Jesus grew and progressed in wisdom and favor/grace has proven somewhat problematic for Christians accustomed to emphasizing his deity—often to the exclusion of his (full/true) humanity. However, the notices in Lk 2:40, 52 must be taken seriously, as the language used by the author leaves no doubt that he is referring to ordinary (and natural) human growth and development. The verb au)ca/nw in verse 40 is a primary verb meaning “grow”, used especially in the sense of trees/vegetation growing and bearing fruit. In verse 52, the verb is proko/ptw, literally “cut forward”, i.e. advance, progress, often in a social, professional or educational context; note the similar usage in Gal 1:14. Jesus’ growth and development (his “cutting forward”) is explained and stated carefully, according to three elements:

  • sofi/a (“wisdom”)—this would seem to indicate growth in (human) understanding and discernment, especially in religious matters related to God (cf. vv. 46-47ff); however, wisdom also is a mark of the Spirit and presence of God, especially in light of a Messianic passage such as Isa 11:2 (cf. above)
  • h(liki/a (“growth”)—that is, ordinary physical growth, either in the sense of age or of size/stature (Lk 12:25 par; 19:3; Jn 9:21ff).
  • xa/ri$ (“favor”)—this word also refers to the effect (or result) of Jesus’ growth and progress; even as God increasingly showed favor to him, so also did his fellow human beings (cf. 2:47; 4:22)

With regard to the last point, the scene (4:16-30) of Jesus’ return to his hometown (Nazareth) is important for a correct understanding and interpretation. As a guest speaker, he reads and comments on the Scripture (Isa 61:1-2), and, initially at least, the response of the congregation would seem to be positive:

“And all witnessed about him, and wondered upon the words of favor [xa/ri$] traveling out of his mouth…” (4:22)

Here we see both sides of the “favor”—what he is able to say, and the impression it leaves on other people (note also the reference in v. 15). However, a different kind of favor is given emphasis in the scene, represented by the initial words quoted from the Scripture (a Messianic passage): “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, on account of which he has anointed me…” (Isa 61:1f, verse 18). The reference to the Spirit ties back to the idea of Wisdom, but also to the person of Jesus, who, at this point in his life, after his baptism (3:21-22) and time in the desert (4:1-13), now returns to Galilee “in the power of the Spirit” (v. 14, cf. also verse 1). This certainly reflects some manner of growth and development, though just how one defines it is a matter of some dispute. At the very least, the Synoptic tradition records two threshold events—Jesus’ baptism and his temptation in the desert. Neither of these takes place until Jesus had reached a certain point in life—a particular age and level of growth. Luke, among all the Gospels, gives to this a relatively high degree of realistic detail (3:1-2, 23ff; 4:15, 16ff) which should not be ignored.

For more detail on the text of Lk 2:40 & 52, cf. my earlier Christmas note on these verses.

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 21: Luke 1:57-66

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Luke 1:57-66

As we continue through a study of the Infancy Narratives, we come now to the episode of the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist in Lk 1:57-66. Following the Visitation scene in vv. 39-56, in which the John and Jesus halves of the Infancy narrative come together, in v. 57 the scene shifts back to John’s side, picking up from verse 25. Clearly this episode functions as a fulfillment of the annunciation scene in vv. 8-22, and is given much more attention than the corresponding circumcision/naming of Jesus. The birth of John itself is narrated simply in verse 57:

“And the time for her to produce (a child) was fulfilled for Elisheba, and she caused to be (born) [i.e. gave birth to] a son”.

The verses which follow narrate the circumcision and naming of the child—this event is framed by two notices which establish the significance of the scene:

“And the (one)s housing round about [i.e. neighbors], and the (one)s together (with) her [i.e. her relatives], heard that the Lord did (a) great (act of) his mercy with her, and they took delight (in it) together with her.” (v. 58)

“And fear came to be upon all the (one) housing round about them, and in the whole mountain-region of Yehudah {Judea} all these utterances were spoken throughout; and all the (one)s hearing (this) set it in their heart saying, ‘What then will this (little) child be?'” (vv. 65-66)

The first reaction by the people is a response to the miraculous nature of the birth (i.e. to Elizabeth, who was elderly and barren), the second is to the wondrous sign of Zechariah suddenly speaking again. In between is the moment of circumcision and naming.

Circumcision was a customary cultural practice throughout much of the ancient world, and in traditional societies even today. It was scarcely unique or original to Israel; however, there was special significance to the practice for Israelites—it was an essential mark of religious identity, going back to the tradition of its introduction for Abraham (Gen 17:10-14). Indeed, it is called the “sign of the covenant”, an indication that the person belongs to God’s chosen people, and is thus obligated to observe the terms of the agreement (covenant) established by God—namely, the Torah (or Law) as recorded in the Pentateuch (Exodus–Numbers & Deuteronomy). The central importance of circumcision is stated or otherwise indicated numerous times in Scripture (Gen 21:4; 34:15ff; Exod 4:24-26; 12:44ff; Lev 12:3; Deut 10:16; Josh 5:2-8; Jer 4:4; John 7:22-23; Phil 3:5, etc). Its significance in terms of religious identity made it a controversial issue for early Christians, as dramatically illustrated in the book of Acts (10:45ff; 15:1-16:3; 21:21) and the letters of Paul (on this, cf. my earlier articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”). By ancient tradition, circumcision was to take place on the eighth day, as narrated here in v. 59, and also (for Jesus) in 2:21. This is not merely an incidental detail in the birth narratives, but is of the utmost importance for the author, as it relates to the key theme of Jesus as the fulfillment of the types and forms from the Old Testament and Israelite religion—the New Covenant that fulfills and completes the Old Covenant. This is the primary reason for emphasizing details which show that John and his parents, as well as Jesus and his parents, were devout in religious matters, faithfully observing the commands and precepts of the Torah.

The narrative context suggests that the naming of the child took place at the circumcision. Such a practice is known from later Jewish tradition, but is otherwise unattested in this early period (cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 380). Based on the pattern indicated in the Old Testament, we might expect the naming to occur at the time of birth, rather than eight days later (Gen 4:1; 21:3; 25:25-26, etc). It is possible that the author (trad. Luke) has taken dramatic license and moved the naming ‘ahead’ to coincide with the circumcision, given the importance of that event to the narrative (cf. above). Apparently, some of the neighbors and relatives were expecting that the child would be named after his father, Zechariah (v. 59b); or, on the assumption that the naming was delayed until the time of circumcision, in lieu of a name, they may have been referring to the child e.g., as “little Zechariah” (Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 380). At this time it was perhaps more common to name a child after his grandfather, rather than his father. In any case, the name spoken by Elizabeth—Yohanan ( )Iwa/nnh$, John)—was, it seems, not one common among the child’s immediate relatives (v. 61).

I discussed the meaning of the name Yôµ¹n¹n (/n`j*oy) in the earlier note on vv. 13-17. It means “Yah(weh) has shown favor”. As such, it is an old Yahweh-name, dating back to the Kingdom period; it is not especially common in the Old Testament, but is known in priestly circles (Neh 12:13, 42; 1 Macc 2:1f), so it is perhaps not unusual that a priestly family such as Zechariah and Elizabeth might adopt it. As I noted previously, the name can be understood or interpreted three ways:

  • God has shown favor to Zechariah and Elizabeth by giving them a child
  • God has shown them favor due to the special role the child will play in the deliverance of His people
  • God shows favor to His people in the person of Jesus, and the child John will play a key role in “preparing the way” for him

All three aspects are present in the narrative, but especially the latter two, which will be emphasized more clearly in the hymn of Zechariah (the Benedictus) that follows in vv. 67-79.

In the Introduction to this series, I discussed the way in which names (and the idea of a name) were understood in the ancient world, much differently than in our society today. The name was thought to represent and embody the essential nature and character of a person—to know a person’s name was effectively the same as knowing the person. When applied in a religious setting or context, names which include a theophoric element (i.e. a shortened form of a deity’s name), often had a very special significance, usually as a phrase- or sentence-name. It may indicate praise to God for his care, power, etc., in bringing the child into the world and blessing the parents. At the same time, such a name could be invoked over the child as a blessing or prophecy over his/her future life and destiny. This aspect of the name Yôµ¹n¹n is included as part of the Angel’s annunciation, in vv. 15-17, when the name is first declared (by Gabriel) to Zechariah (see the earlier note). No such explanation is given by Elizabeth in v. 60, but it is emphasized again in the hymn of Zechariah (vv. 76-77ff), as will be discussed in the next note.

Also important to the structure of the narrative is the moment when Zechariah’s (mute) silence ends and he speaks again (v. 64). Keep in mind the basic outline and note the parallelism:

  • Annunciation of John’s coming birth to Zechariah (vv. 8-25)
    —with the sign: Zechariah will be mute until it comes to pass
  • Annunciation of Jesus’ coming birth to Mary (vv. 26-38)
    —with the sign: the miracle of Elizabeth conceiving & giving birth

    • The fulfillment: Mary sees Elizabeth’s pregnancy (vv. 39-56)
    • The fulfillment: Zechariah speaks following John’s birth (vv. 57-66)

The order of scenes is inverted when dealing with the fulfillment of the sign given by the Angel, but otherwise the parallel is precise, covering all four scenes in vv. 8-66ff. Interestingly, Zechariah is not yet able to speak at John’s birth, but only after the child’s circumcision and naming takes place. Indeed, it is only when Zechariah himself confirms the name of John (Yohanan), writing it down, that his speech returns: “and his mouth opened up along (that very) moment, and (also) his tongue, and he spoke, giving good account (of) [i.e. blessing/praising] God”. This leads to the reaction by the people narrated in vv. 65-66 (cf. above), which spreads, with the news of the wondrous sign, all throughout the region. Even as Zechariah speaks (lale/w) again, so word and news of this event is spoken throughout (dialale/w).

Two significant notices close this scene. The first is a question which represents the thoughts of the people: “What then will this child be?” It is a question at the very heart of the child’s identity, as indicated by his name, and the marvelous events surrounding it (and his birth). The second, final statement is made by the author, almost as though in response to the people’s question: “For indeed the hand of the Lord was with him“. The idiom “hand of the Lord (YHWH)” is familiar from the Old Testament (Exod 9:3; 15:6; 16:3; Num 11:23; Deut 2:15; Josh 4:24; 22:31, etc). It is an anthropomorphic image that primarily refers to God’s power, either to bring judgment on people, or protection and deliverance for his chosen ones. Both aspects will be manifest in the preaching and mission-work of John, as we see depicted in the Gospels (Lk 3:3-20 par).

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

December 19: Luke 1:43

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Luke 1:43

Following the annunciation scenes in 1:8-23 and 26-38, the Gospel writer brings together the two narrative strands—related to John the Baptist and Jesus respectively—into a single episode (vv. 39-56). It may be outlined as follows:

  • Narrative introduction, establishing the unifying motif—Elizabeth and Mary in the same house (vv. 39-40)
  • Elizabeth’s reaction and blessing (vv. 41-45)
  • Mary’s hymn of praise to God (vv. 46-55)
  • The narrative conclusion, with a notice of Mary’s separation from Elizabeth (v. 56)

There is a wonderful symmetry—in between the two short narrations, Elizabeth and Mary, while they are together, each are depicted uttering inspired (hymnic) poetry, as befitting the grand and lofty occasion established by the narrative context. Today I will be looking at the first portion—the words of Elizabeth—before turning to the hymn of Mary (the Magnificat) in the next note. Elizabeth’s reaction is described in verse 41:

“And it came to be, as Elisheba heard the welcome of Maryam, the baby in her belly jumped and Elisheba was filled by the holy Spirit”

The dramatic character of the scene is increased as the description continues in verse 42:

“and she raised up (her) voice (with) a great cry, and said…”

Elizabeth utters a two-fold blessing to Mary, in vv. 42 and 45. The first is a blessing proper, addressed both to Mary and her child:

  • “Well counted [eu)loghme/nh] are you among women,
    and well counted [eu)loghme/no$] is the fruit of your belly!”

The verb eu)loge/w means “to give a good account (of someone), speak well (of him/her)”. In a religious or ritual context, it commonly refers to giving praise and honor (in speech) to God; or, in the reverse direction, it can indicate God showing favor to (i.e. speaking blessing upon) a person. The idea of praise and honor (given to Mary) is certainly present in the use of the verb—she will be spoken well of and highly regarded, by both God and His people. Moreover, it relates specifically to the favor (xa/ri$) which God has shown to Mary (cf. the Angelic annunciation in vv. 28ff), by the conception of Jesus within her (“the fruit of [her] belly”). The second blessing in verse 45 is more generalized, but certainly relates to Mary’s words in v. 38; it uses the parallel adjective maka/rio$ (“happy”):

“and happy [makari/a] (is) the (one) trusting that there will be a completion [i.e. fulfillment] to the (thing)s spoken to her (from) alongside the Lord!”

The blessed and favored status of Mary has touched Elizabeth as well. According to the narrative, both women have experienced a miraculous conception, and each will give birth to a child who will play a major role in God’s plan of salvation for His people. The reason for Elizabeth’s inspired reaction is expressed in verse 43, with wonder and amazement:

“how has this (happened) to me, that the mother of my Lord should come toward me?”

The specific phrase “the mother of my Lord” (h( mh/thr tou= kuri/ou mou) is of utmost significance in the context of the passage, and must be examined in more detail.

The word ku/rio$ (“lord”) has already been used 10 times in the Lukan Infancy narrative to this point (vv. 6, 9, 11, 15-17, 25, 28, 32, 38), but always in reference to God the Father, the God of Israel (Yahweh). This is the first time that the title (“Lord”) is used of Jesus. In the earlier article on Yahweh, I discussed the traditional use of °A_dœn¹y (yn`d)a&), “My Lord”, as a divine name, substituting for the name hwhy (YHWH, Yahweh). This is literally what Elizabeth says here—o( ku/rio$ mou (“my Lord”). Yet one must be cautious about assuming that Jesus is being identified here with God the Father. The only other occurrences of the specific phrase “my Lord” in either the Synoptic Gospels or Luke-Acts as whole involve the citation of Psalm 110:1 (Luke 20:42 par; Acts 2:34). There can be little doubt that Psalm 110 was highly influential on the early Christian use of the title “Lord” (Ku/rio$) for Jesus. The Greek text (LXX) of verse 1 reads:

ei@pen o( ku/rio$ tw=| kuri/w| mou
eípen ho kýrios tœ¡ kyríœ mou
“The Lord said to my lord…”

The same word (ku/rio$) is used twice, creating an obvious wordplay (as well as potential confusion). However, the original Hebrew reads:

yn]d)al^ hwhy <a%n+
N®°¥m YHWH la°dœnî
“Utterance of YHWH to my lord:”

The LXX version is the result of the standard substitution, when reciting the Psalm, of °A_dœn¹y (“My Lord”) in place of YHWH. In the original context of the Psalm, the “lord” (°¹dôn) was understood as referring either to David, or to the reigning king (in the Davidic line). Eventually, in Jewish tradition, it came to be interpreted in a Messianic sense, of a future Davidic ruler who would deliver God’s people and judge the nations at the end-time. Jesus himself treats Ps 110:1 this way in the Synoptic tradition (Lk 20:41-44 par). The two main ‘Messianic’ passages from the Psalms utilized by Christians from the beginning were Ps 2:7 and 110:1—the first establishing Jesus as Son of God, the second as Lord. In this regard, believers went beyond the standard Messianic interpretation. The earliest Gospel preaching (kerygma), as recorded in the book of Acts, understands Jesus as Lord and Son of God specifically in terms of his resurrection and exaltation to heaven at the right hand of God (Acts 2:24-36; 13:33ff). Even in the Gospel of John, which otherwise has a more developed Christological sense of Jesus as God’s Son, the expression “my Lord” occurs in a setting after the resurrection (Jn 20:13, 28). Luke 1:43 is unique in the Gospels in applying the title to Jesus prior to his death—indeed, before his very birth.

In what sense should the child Jesus be understood as “my Lord” here as uttered by Elizabeth (v. 43)? In my view, we do not yet have a clear sense of Jesus’ deity in view at this point in the narrative, even though Christians reading or hearing the Gospel would naturally make the association. This will be discussed further in the note on 1:76ff. More likely, the use of ku/rio$ here is meant primarily in a Messianic sense. This would seem to be confirmed by two parallels in the Old Testament from 2 Samuel, both involving David (cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 344-5):

  • 2 Sam 6:9—In the narrative of the transportation of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (vv. 1-4ff), in the midst of celebration, the sudden death of Uzzah (who had unintentionally touched the Ark), brought fear upon the people (vv. 5-9a), as well as with David who exclaimed: “How shall the box {Ark} of YHWH come to me?”. The Greek of v. 9b is reasonably close to Elizabeth’s wording in Lk 1:43.
  • 2 Sam 24:21—At God’s command, David visits Araunah the Jebusite to purchase his threshing-floor and erect an altar to the Lord there. Upon David’s approach, Araunah asks “(For) what reason does my Lord the king come to his servant?”. Again, there is a formal similarity in the Greek to Elizabeth’s words.

Given the parallels between 2 Sam 7 and the pronouncement by Gabriel in vv. 32-33 (cf. the previous note), the likelihood increases that there is an allusion here to the earlier episode in 2 Sam 6. The primary reference would be to Jesus as the Anointed Davidic ruler (Messiah) who would deliver God’s people. Even so, the context of the Ark of the Covenant, like the use of the title ku/rio$ (“Lord”), implies something deeper as well—the manifestation and presence of God Himself. This will be discussed in upcoming notes as we progress through the narrative.

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 17: Luke 1:19-20, 26

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Luke 1:19-20, 26ff

Today’s note continues the previous day’s study on the Angelic birth-announcement to Zechariah (vv. 13-17). It is worth pointing out again the close similarities between the Angelic appearances to Zechariah and Mary, both of which follow a similar pattern from the Old Testament narratives (on this, cf. the discussion in Brown, Birth, pp. 155-8, 292-8). Apart from the basic parallel between Zechariah/Elizabeth and Joseph/Mary (related to the wider John/Jesus parallel), which includes the element of childlessness—in each case the woman is incapable of conceiving at the time of the announcement—note the common elements in the two accounts:

  • Appearance of the Angel to the person (vv. 11, 26-28a)
  • The person is troubled/afraid (vv. 12, 29)
  • The Angel responds “Do not be afraid [mh\ fobou=]” and addresses the person by name (vv. 13a, 30a)
  • There is a declaration that God has heard/chosen (i.e. shown favor to) the person (vv. 13a, 30b)
  • An announcement of the child’s conception and coming birth, using a similar formula, and including a declaration of the child’s name (vv. 13b, 31)
  • Statement regarding the future destiny and (divine) role for the child (vv. 15-17, 32-33)
  • Question from the person as to how this can be, in light of the current condition of childlessness (barrenness/virginity) (vv. 18, 34)
  • Response by the Angel involving a sign confirming the message (vv. 19-20, 35-37)
  • A faithful response by the person to the announcement (vv. 21-25, 38)

The heavenly/angelic appearance to Zechariah draws upon, or echoes, three appearances in the Old Testament narratives:

The appearance to Mary brings in elements of the Samuel narrative (1 Sam 1-2), with Hannah serving as a type/pattern for Mary. There is an interesting sort of progression in the narratives cited above:

  • Gen 17 (also chap. 15)—it is God Himself (YHWH) who appears to Abraham
  • Gen 18—God Himself appears to Abraham (v. 1), it would seem, in the form of three Messengers (“three men”, v. 2)
  • Judg 13 (cf. also Gen 16:7-13)—it is the “Messenger of YHWH” (hwhy Ea^l=m^), i.e. the “Messenger/Angel of the Lord” (Greek a&ggelo$ kuri/ou)
  • Dan 9:21-24—the Angel who appears is Gabriel

The chronology of these traditions matches the (historical) development of Israelite/Jewish thought and theology regarding the relationship between God and the other heavenly beings (i.e. Angels). The Lukan narrative most clearly follows that of Judg 13:2ff and Dan 9:21-24—the being who appears to Zechariah (and then to Mary) is first called “the Messenger of the Lord” (v. 11), and then identified as Gabriel (v. 19):

“…the Messenger said to him, ‘I am Gabrîel, the (one) having stood alongside in the sight of God, and I was se(n)t forth to speak toward you and to give you the good message (regarding) these (thing)s’.”

The name Gabriel is a simplified transliteration of the Hebrew Ga»rî°¢l (la@yr!b=G~), a name which otherwise occurs in the Scriptures only in the book of Daniel (8:16; 9:21). In the post-exilic period, and subsequently in Jewish tradition, names were assigned (or recognized) for various heavenly beings (Angels) which had always been nameless in earlier tradition. Two other Angels are named in the (later) Scriptures—Michael (Dan 10:13; 12:1) and Raphael (deutero-canonical Tobit 3:17). Four others were added to these three, resulting in the traditional number of seven chief Angels, or beings, who stand in the presence of God (Tobit 12:15; 1 Enoch 20; Rev 8:2). For more on the basic idea of Angels standing in God’s presence, cf. Job 1:6; Dan 7:16; Ezek 9:2; and the Testament of Levi 8 (Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 327-8). All of these Angels bear °E~l-names, which ultimately derive from old Israelite (and Semitic) tradition (cf. the earlier article on °E~l).

The name Ga»rî°¢l is a phrase- or sentence-name made up of two elements: (a) the noun ge»er (rb#G#), essentially referring to a strong (mighty, vigorous, successful) young man, i.e. a warrior or hero, and (b) the divine name °E~l (la@), “Mighty (One)”, i.e. “God”. It should probably be translated something like “My Strong One [i.e. Warrior] is God [°E~l]”. As an old °E~l-name, it reflects ancient warrior imagery associated with Yahweh/El, especially in relation to ritual warfare and the “holy war” tradition. The heavenly bodies (sun, moon, stars, etc) were seen as moving together (‘marching’) as an army (the “hosts” of heaven). God himself would come with the clouds, controlling the wind and rain, thunder and lightning, etc. According to the religious (and mythic) traditions of the ancient Near East, all of these natural and meteorological phenomena could be utilized by God fighting on behalf of his people. So it was, in truth, for Israel in their understanding of Yahweh/El, and this is expressed various ways in Scripture, especially in older poetry (Exod 15:1ff; Judg 5:4-5, 20, etc); for other references, cf. the article on the names ‘Adôn/Baal. Eventually this warrior-imagery was reinterpreted and cast in a different theological light (in the Prophets, etc), but would resurface in later Jewish eschatology and Messianic tradition, such as in the writings from Qumran (the War Scroll, etc). The military role tended to be associated more with Michael, rather than Gabriel (cf. Dan 10:21; 12:1; Jude 9; Rev 12:7); yet Gabriel continued to have a prominent place in Jewish writings of the period, such as in the book of Enoch (9:1, 9-10; 20:7; 40:2, 9; 54:6; cf. Brown, Birth, p. 262).

Returning to the scene of Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah, adding the details from verses 19-20ff, we may construct the following dramatic (chiastic) outline:

  • Zechariah serving as priest in the Temple sanctuary (vv. 8-10ff)
    —Gabriel is sent to speak “these things” (tau=ta) to him (v. 19)
    ——He gives the good news (eu)aggeli/sasqai)
    —Zechariah will be unable to speak until “these things” (tau=ta) happen (v. 20)
  • Zechariah comes out of the sanctuary (to give the priestly blessing) (vv. 21-22)

It is possible that this scene, with its Temple setting, reflects a traditional motif of receiving a revelation in the Temple, as, for example, in Isaiah 6:1-5ff (cf. also Josephus, Antiquities 18.282f, etc). In the case of Isaiah, his vision also involves a transformative touching of the mouth (the lips). Isaiah, like John the Baptist, is divinely appointed and gifted to speak the word of God (cf. the use of Isa 40:1-5 in Lk 1:76-77; 3:4-6 par, etc). By contrast, Zechariah is rendered mute and unable to speak (1:20), until after the birth of John and the declaration of his name (vv. 57-64). As a result, he is unable to deliver (speak) the priestly blessing to the people waiting outside in the Temple court (vv. 21-22, cf. Num 6:24-26; Mishnah Tamid 7:2). In the overall context of Luke-Acts, this blessing is ultimately fulfilled by Jesus at the end of the Gospel (Lk 24:50-51). There is thus, perhaps, a greater symbolic importance to verse 23 than the simple narrative statement would suggest:

“And it came to be, as the days of his working in service (to God) were (ful)filled, he went (away) from (there) [i.e. from the Temple] into his own house [i.e. back home].”

It is the child Jesus who will, in a sense, take over in the Temple, serving in the house of God his Father (2:49).

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

December 16: Luke 1:13-17

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Luke 1:13-17

Having discussed the introduction to John the Baptist’s parents (Zechariah and Elizabeth) in yesterday’s note, today I will be looking at the appearance of the heavenly Messenger, announcing the coming birth of John, in Lk 1:8-17—in particular, the words of the Messenger in vv. 13-17.

The setting of the Temple, so important as a symbol in the narrative, is featured in the introduction to the scene (vv. 8-12). Zechariah, as one of the priests designated to perform periodic service in the Temple (v. 5, cf. the prior note), was fulfilling his duty, which, on this occasion, involved serving in the sanctuary at the altar of incense. This was a privilege which was granted to priests by the casting of lots (cf. the description in the Mishnah, Tamid 5-6). Verses 9-10 indicate that it is the time of the evening (afternoon) sacrifice (Exod 30:7-18; cf. also Dan 9:21), perhaps around 3:00 pm (Acts 3:1). As Zechariah performs his duties in the sanctuary (the Holy place, but not the innermost shrine), we read in verse 11:

“And (the) Messenger of the Lord [a&ggelo$ kuri/ou] was seen by [i.e. appeared to] him, having stood out of (the) giving [i.e. right-hand] (side) of the place of sacrifice [i.e. altar] of the (fragrant) smoke”

This is the second occurrence in the Lukan narrative of the word ku/rio$ (“Lord”), here referring specifically to the divine name Yahweh (cf. the earlier article on this name), through the corresponding Old Testament expression hwhy Ea^l=m^ (mal°a½ YHWH), “Messenger of Yahweh” (Gen 16:7-13; 21:17; 22:10-18; 31:11-13; Exod 3:2-6; 14:19-24; Judg 2:1-5, etc; cf. Fitzmyer, Luke, pp. 324-5). In the earliest strands of tradition, this figure was largely theophanous—that is, representing the manifestation of God (Yahweh/El) himself to his people, through a kind of intermediary. Subsequently, in Israelite and Jewish tradition, it referred more precisely to a distinct heavenly being (i.e. Angel). In the Lukan narrative, the figure is identified as the Angel Gabriel (vv. 19, 26), best known from the book of Daniel, to which the Infancy narrative alludes at several points. The word decio/$, meaning the right-hand (side), I translate above literally as the “giving” side—the right-hand being regarded as the propitious or favored side. The Angel’s appearance to the right of the altar indicates that God is showing favor to Zechariah. The Zechariah’s fear in response (v. 12) is typical of such Angelic appearances in the Old Testament, and is part of a definite (literary) annunciation pattern adopted in the Gospel (for more on this, cf. especially Brown, Birth, pp. 155-8, 292-8). The presence of the “Messenger of the Lord” recalls the Samson narrative (Judg 13:3ff); the wife of Manoah, like Elizabeth, was also barren.

The words of the Angel which follow (vv. 13-17) may be divided into four parts, beginning the primary birth announcement in v. 13:

“Do not be afraid, Zecharyah, through (the reason) that your need [i.e. request] has been heard [i.e. listened] into (by God), and your wife Elisheba will cause a son to be (born) for you—and you shall call his name Yohanan.”

It is not entirely clear what Zechariah’s need or request (de/hsi$, i.e. prayer/petition) was; certainly he would have prayed for a child, but, given the notice regarding Zechariah’s devotion and righteous character (vv. 5-6), it is also possible that he had been praying for the future blessing and fortune of Israel. The name which the Angel directs should be given to the child is Yôµ¹n¹n (/n`j*oy), transliterated in Greek as  )Iwa/nnh$, and simplified again into English typically as “John”. It is a sentence-name, incorporating the divine name Yahweh (the hypocoristic “Yah[û]”, cf. the earlier article), and meaning “Yah(weh) has shown favor”. This favor (or “grace”), indicated already by the Angel’s appearance on the right-hand side of the altar (cf. above), may be understood three ways:

  • God granting to Zechariah and Elizabeth a long-awaited child (a son)
  • That the son would have a special status and role to play in God’s plan, and
  • That the child would be the means by which God would show favor to His people Israel

John’s salvific role, with regard to the last two points, of course, is due to his close connection with Jesus, as indicated by the overall structure of the narrative, intercutting the birth accounts of John and Jesus, respectively. The next three parts of the Angel’s message follow the initial announcement, and may be outlined as follows:

  • The effect of the (good) news of the child’s birth (v. 14)—”And there will be delight for you and leaping (for joy), and many will take delight upon his coming to be (born)”
  • Declaration of the child’s role and destiny (vv. 15-16), which involves four components:
    (i) the statement “he will be great in the sight of the Lord” (compare with v. 32)
    (ii) his designation as a Nazirite (Num 6:3; Judg 13:4 [another connection with the Samson narrative, cf. above])
    (iii) that “he will be filled with the holy Spirit” from his moment of his conception
    (iv) his mission will be to “turn many of the sons of Israel (back) upon [i.e. to] (the) Lord their God”
  • The child’s role and destiny as a fulfillment of prophecy (v. 17)

The specific prophecy referenced by the Angel in verse 17 is that of Malachi 3:1ff, as interpreted by the ‘appendix’ of 4:5-6 [Hebrew 3:23-24], in which the Messenger who will go ahead and “prepare the way” for the coming of the Lord is identified with the figure of Elijah. John the Baptist, too, was certainly identified with this Messenger (and Elijah) in early Gospel tradition (Mark 1:2-3 par, etc). The Lukan Infancy narrative draws upon this same tradition; according to the account here, it was established by the Angel of the Lord in the very announcement of John’s coming birth. This will be discussed further in the note on Lk 1:76ff. I have discussed the original context, and interpretation, of Mal 3:1ff in an earlier article in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”.

Particular mention should be made of the name Elijah, which, like Yôµ¹n¹n, was also a Yahweh-name. In Hebrew it is °E~lîy¹h[û] ([W]hY`l!a@), “Yah(weh) is (my) God [°E~l]”. This name would have had special significance at the time of great 9th-century B.C. Prophet, when the worship of Yahweh (identified with the Creator God °E~l [“Mighty One”]) was being challenged by Canaanite religious beliefs and practices centered on the deity Haddu (called Ba±al, “Lord, Master”). For more on this, cf. the earlier article on the name Yahweh, as well as the article on °Adôn/Ba±al. Though Baal-worship, as such, was no longer an issue for Israel by the time of the New Testament, the language and emphasis of the old Prophets (such as Elijah) is echoed here in the Angel’s words. Note especially the wording of verse 16:

“…and many of the sons of Israel he [i.e. John] will turn (back) upon the Lord their God”

This relates primarily to the prophecy in Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6 (note the similar wording in 4:6; cf. also Sirach 48:10), though there may be allusions to other passages such as 2 Sam 7:24 (cf. Exod 19:10-11). The expression “the Lord their God” (o( ku/rio$ o( qeo/$ au)tw=n), though obscured somewhat in translation, actually refers to the ancient religious point mentioned above—namely, that Yahweh (the Lord [ku/rio$]) is our God (°E~l/°E_lœhîm [qeo/$]). That is to say, Yahweh is the one true (Creator) God, and he is our God, i.e. the one we recognize and worship. It is this God who will ultimately show favor to His people through the person of Jesus Christ.

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

December 15: Luke 1:5-6

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Luke 1:5-6

Today’s article begins the second part of the Advent/Christmas series, in which a specific verse or passage in the Infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke will be discussed each day. I begin with the Lukan narrative, and the opening verses Lk 1:5-6:

“It came to be, in the days of Herod king of Yehudah {Judea}, (that there was) a certain sacred-official [i.e. priest] with (the) name Zecharyah, out of the regular (priestly) turn of Abiyah, and the wife [lit. woman] for him (was) out of the daughters of Aharôn {Aaron} and her name (was) Elisheba. And both of them were just [i.e. righteous] in front of God, walking in all the (thing)s placed on (them by God) and (the) just (command)s of the Lord, without fault.”

As most Christians and students of the New Testament are aware, in the Gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus is set parallel to the birth of John the Baptist, with the two accounts intertwined and connected throughout the narrative. The parallelism is more or less clear and precise, as for each figure (John and Jesus) there is:

  • A heavenly (Angelic) announcement of the child’s conception and impending birth, which includes a pronouncement regarding the child’s future destiny and role in God’s plan, following the pattern of similar scenes in the Old Testament
  • A miraculous birth
  • News of the birth being spread to neighbors and people in the surrounding area
  • Mention of the child’s circumcision and application of his name (given previously by the Angel)
  • An inspired oracle-hymn (or hymns), drawing heavily upon Old Testament imagery, which declares the child’s future role in God’s deliverance of his people
  • A notice regarding the child’s early growth, patterned after the Old Testament Samuel narrative

Other details only confirm and enhance these essential points. The Lukan narrative begins with John and his parents (Zechariah and Elizabeth), here in vv. 5-6ff, which sets the scene for the Angelic announcement. The section 1:5-25 may be divided into four parts:

  • Introduction of John’s parents (5-7)
  • The Angelic announcement to Zechariah, Part 1—Of the child’s birth and destiny (8-17)
  • The Angelic announcement to Zechariah, Part 2—The sign of the birth (18-23)
  • The Fulfillment: Elizabeth becomes pregnant (24-25)

From the standpoint of this series, the mention of John’s parents in vv. 5-6 is also significant as they are essentially the first names which appear in the narrative. They are venerable Hebrew names which ought to be examined briefly:

  • Zechariah—Hebrew [W]hy`r=k^z= (Z§½ary¹h[û]), transliterated in Greek as Zaxari/a$ (Zacharías). It is a sentence-name, which essentially means “Yah(weh) (has) remembered”; as such, it is one of many Hebrew (and Aramaic) names, still in use at the time, which contain a hypocoristic (shortened) form of the divine name (cf. the recent article on Yawheh). There are at least thirty men with this name mentioned in the Old Testament (and deutero-canonical books), including the famous 5th-century Prophet and an earlier priest who was stoned to death in the Temple court (2 Chron 24:20-22; cf. Luke 11:51 par) on the order of the king.
  • Elizabeth—Hebrew yb^v#yl!a$ (°E_lîše»a±), likewise transliterated into Greek— )Elisa/bet (Elisábet). The meaning of her name is a bit harder to determine; typically it has been rendered “God [°E~l] is my oath (i.e. the one to swear by)”, but it possibly could mean something like “My God [°E~l] is the one who satisfies, brings satisfaction”. In any case, it too is a sentence-name incorporating the divine name °E~l (“Mighty [One]”, i.e. “God”); cf. the earlier article. It is an ancient Hebrew/Israelite name, but found only once in the Old Testament (the wife of Aaron, Exod 6:23 [cf. below]).

It is unlikely that the author of the Gospel (trad. Luke) intended to convey the significance of these (Hebrew) names to his Greek readers, though he may have been familiar with their basic meaning. However, the underlying (historical) tradition he records tells us something important about the family background of Zechariah and Elizabeth. We may note two key points:

  • Indication of religious devotion in the worship of the (one) Creator God, Yahweh/El
  • A connection with the priestly line

Both points are made clear by the author in vv. 5-6. To begin with, Zechariah is specifically described as a priest, among those who served at regular periods in the Temple. In the case of Elizabeth, her lineage is identified even more precisely when she is referred to as one “from [lit. out of] the daughters of Aaron“, that is, a descendant of Aaron, bearing the same name as Aaron’s wife. Both of John’s parents should thus be regarded as coming from the Aaronid priestly line.

Concerning the first point, while one might assume that men and women from priestly families are (or at least ought to be) devout persons, the Gospel writer makes this quite clear for Zechariah and Elizabeth personally, in verse 6. The first clause (6a) states: “And they were both just/right(eous) in front of God”. The adjective di/kaio$ (“just, right[eous]”), used frequently throughout the New Testament, becomes an important keyword in Luke-Acts, appearing as a title of Jesus in Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14. It is also used of Simeon (Lk 2:25), a character sharing many features in common with Zechariah. The “righteousness” of Zechariah and Elizabeth is explained in 6b; note the chiastic structure of the clause, following the Greek word order exactly:

  • walking
    —in all
    ——the (thing)s placed on (them)
    ——the just (thing)s
    —of God
  • without fault

The participle poreuo/menoi (“traveling, walking”) carries the sense of regular, habitual behavior. This “walking”—that is, a particular way of life and conduct—is said to be “without fault” (a&mempto$) in “all the (thing)s…of the Lord” (e)n pa/sai$tou= kuri/ou). These “things of the Lord” are specified by two nouns:

  • e)ntolh/—usually translated “command(ment)”, but rendered above more literally as something “placed on” a person, i.e. a charge or duty which is expected to be observed or carried out. It refers here (in the plural) primarily to the various commands, injunctions, precepts, etc, in the Old Testament Law (Torah) which Israelites were to observe, in faithfulness to the covenant established with them by God.
  • dikai/wma—this noun, related to the adjective di/kaio$ (“just, right[eous]”), refers essentially to something which is regarded or declared to be right and just. Here, in the plural, it is parallel with e)ntolh/, referring to all of the commands, etc, in the Torah (the Old Covenant) which God has declared for his people, and which were to be fulfilled.

The adjective a&mempto$ (“without fault”) does not mean that Zechariah and Elizabeth were perfect or sinless, but that there was nothing wicked or improper in their daily life—their ethical and religious conduct—which was in clear violation of the Torah or God’s Law. All of this detail in verses 5-6 serves two main purposes for the author in terms of the narrative which follows:

  1. It introduces the important motif of the faithful/righteous ones in Israel, who remain obedient to God and patiently await the fulfillment of His promises.
  2. It establishes the Temple setting of the annunciation scene (i.e., explaining what Zechariah would be doing there), which likewise becomes a vital theme, both in the Infancy narrative, and throughout Luke-Acts. The Temple setting takes on even greater prominence in the episode(s) in Lk 2:22-38 (cf. also vv. 41-50).

A subsidiary (narrative) purpose is to clarify the notice in verse 7 regarding the childlessness of Zechariah and Elizabeth. For a woman to be barren, or a family to be without children, was unusual and regarded as a reason for shame in the ancient world (cf. verse 25). The Gospel writer is essentially making clear that Zechariah and Elizabeth being childless was not the result of any specific sin or impiety on their part.

Note of the Day – May 22

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The saying of John the Baptist regarding Jesus and the Holy Spirit is found five times in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts, as discussed in the previous note—three times as part of the triple tradition (Mark 1:7-8 / Matt 3:11 / Luke 3:16) and twice as a saying of Jesus in Acts (Acts 1:5; 11:16). It is also preserved independently in the Gospel of John.

John 1:26-27, 30, 33

The Fourth Gospel’s account of Jesus’ Baptism is unique in that it is only narrated indirectly as part of John the Baptist’s testimony regarding Jesus (1:19-34ff). Interestingly, the saying corresponding to Mark 1:7-8 par is presented as two (separate) sayings by the Baptist, in verses 26-27 (also v. 30) and 33:

John 1:26-27 John 1:33
“I dunk you with water; (but) in your midst has stood (one) whom you have not seen [i.e. known], the (one) coming behind me, of whom I am not worth (enough) to loosen the straps of the (shoe) bound under (his) feet.” “And I did not see [i.e. know/recognize] him, but the (one) sending me to dunk in water, that one said to me, ‘(the one) upon whom you should see the Spirit stepping down and remaining upon him—this is the (one) dunking in (the) holy Spirit’.”

This may indicate that separate sayings have been combined together in the Synoptic tradition. The first saying has different wording in John, but it shares with Mark (and Matthew) especially the phrase “the one coming [o( e)rxo/meno$] behind me [o)pi/sw mou]”. The use of o)pi/sw mou (“behind me”) has suggested to some commentators that the historical Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist prior to embarking on his own ministry. However, the context of the Gospel narratives as they now stand indicates no more than that Jesus appeared in public later than John, and with less prominence. The Synoptic version(s) of the saying emphasize the actual superiority of Jesus three ways:

  • The declaration that Jesus is stronger/mightier [i)sxuro/tero$] than John
  • John’s admission that he is not (worthy) enough [i(kano/$] to handle the shoes of Jesus
  • The contrast (me\nde/ construct in Matthew/Luke) between John baptizing in water, and Jesus baptizing in the holy Spirit

The Johannine version of the sayings include all three as well, though it is the first that is emphasized, with quite different language. Instead of the (comparative) adjective “stronger/mightier [i)sxuro/tero$]”, it is stated that neither John the Baptist nor the people in the crowds have seen (i.e. recognized) Jesus. This is important, for it indicates that only by way of divine revelation is Jesus’ identity (and his presence) realized (cf. Matt 16:16-17 for a comparable passage in the Synoptics). This revelation is narrated in verse 33, followed by the Baptist’s testimony “I have seen and have witnessed…” (v. 34). The saying in verses 26-27, in which John declares the superiority of Jesus, is repeated in modified form in verse 30 (also earlier in v. 15), again using different language:

“The (one) coming [e)rxo/meno$] behind me has come to be in front of me, (in) that [i.e. because] he was first (ahead) of me” (v. 15)
“A man comes [e&rxetai] behind me who has come to be in front of me, (in) that [i.e. because] he was first (ahead) of me” (v. 30)

Here the saying has been given a deeper theological (and Christological) interpretation. This involves a sequence of three key verbs:

  • “he comes [e&rxetai] behind me”
  • “he has come to be [ge/gonen] in front of me”
  • “he was [h@n] first (ahead) of me”

I have discussed this construction in some detail in an earlier note; here I will simply point out the essential significance of these verbal phrases in the context of the Johannine view of the person of Jesus:

e&rxetai (“comes”)—there are two aspects to note:

(1) The Gospel of John frequently refers to Jesus as one who has come (using the vb. e&rxomai) from God; specifically, in the Johannine prologue it is used for the divine Logos coming into the world (Jn 1:9), which primarily means the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. Within the Gospel context, his public life and ministry begins with his baptism by John.
(2) The wider Gospel tradition inherited the Messianic title of “the one coming [o( e)rxo/meno$]”, drawn largely from Malachi 3:1ff (cf. also Psalm 118:26) and applied it to Jesus. This is at the center of the question of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus in early Gospel tradition, which I have discussed in an earlier article. Its use in the Baptism scene identifies Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah), i.e. God’s representative (Prophet/Messenger) whose appearance will precede and usher in the end-time Judgment. In the later scene of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where Psalm 118:26 is cited, the title signifies Jesus as an Anointed King and Ruler from the line of David.

ge/gonen (“has come to be”)—in the Johannine prologue (Jn 1:1-18) the verb gi/nomai (“come to be, become”) is used exclusively in the sense of created beings coming into existence (esp. being born); as applied to the pre-existent person of Christ, the divine Logos, it refers to his incarnation (“the Logos came to be [e)ge/neto] flesh”, Jn 1:14).

h@n (“was”)—again, in the prologue, the verb of being ei)mi is used essentially in relation to the life and presence of God (esp. Jn 1:1-2); within the content of Johannine Christology, it is a keyword indicating the deity of Jesus.

The portion of the saying dealing with Jesus dunking (baptizing) in the Holy Spirit differs from the Synoptic in two ways:

  • There is no mention of fire (Matt/Luke “…in the holy Spirit and fire“); indeed John has virtually removed the eschatological context of God’s coming Judgment (Mark 1:2-4; Matt 3:7-10, 12 par) from the narrative.
  • It follows directly after the reference to the Holy Spirit coming down upon Jesus (to be discussed in the next daily note). This emphasizes the presence of the Spirit (“coming down and remaining upon him”) in relation to Jesus’ identity—as Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God (v. 34).

Interestingly, it is only in the Gospel of John that we actually read of Jesus doing anything like baptizing his followers in the Spirit; this is in Jn 20:19-23, the climactic scene of Jesus with his disciples after the resurrection:

“…even as the Father has set me forth from (Him), so I (am) send(ing) you. And saying this, he blew [i.e. breathed] in/on (them) and said to them: ‘Receive (the) holy Spirit…'” (vv. 21b-22)

This should be taken as indicating what the Gospel writer (and/or his tradition) understood by ‘dunking/baptizing in the Spirit’. However, there are several other passages in the Gospel where Jesus refers to the Spirit in the context of water, and which may involve the symbolism of baptism. In Jn 4:7-26 and 7:37-39 Jesus declares that he is the source of living/eternal water, which may be identified with the Spirit (4:23-24; 7:39); here the emphasis is on the believer drinking of the water/Spirit. More directly relevant, perhaps, is Jn 3:5-6, where Jesus brings together the idea of being born out of water and out of the Spirit. Many commentators have seen here a reference to baptism—the believer is baptized both by water (the baptism ritual) and the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 8:12-17, 38-39 v.l.; 10:44-48; 11:15-17; 19:2-7). I am inclined to give somewhat more weight to the specific narrative context of the passage, i.e. as referring to a contrast between physical birth out of the mother’s womb (i.e. out of water) and spiritual birth (cf. Jn 1:12-13). Even so, the water/Spirit parallel is clear enough, and the person of Jesus—his teaching, work, and life-giving power—is specifically associated with the giving of God’s Spirit.

 

Note of the Day – May 21

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The first passage referring to the (Holy) Spirit in the Synoptic Tradition comes from a saying/declaration by John the Baptist (Mark 1:7-8 par), which is certainly among the very oldest/earliest to be preserved in Christian tradition. The age (and authenticity) of the saying is confirmed by the fact that it is recorded no fewer than six times in the Gospels and Acts, having been transmitted independently in at least two (or more) strands of tradition. Moreover, while John the Baptist has a central place in the earliest Gospel narrative, he soon disappeared from Christian tradition generally—he is never mentioned in the New Testament outside of the Gospels and Acts, and only once in the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers (c. 90-150 A.D.), as part of a simple Gospel/creedal formula (Ignatius, Smyrneans 1:1, cf. Rom 1:3-4). Thus the prominence of John in the primitive Gospel narrative and kerygma is virtually a guarantee of authenticity.

Mark 1:7-8 (par Matthew 3:11; Luke 3:16)

Mark’s short account of John the Baptist and his ministry (Mk 1:2-8), which precedes the Baptism of Jesus (vv. 9-11), climaxes with the core saying in vv. 7-8:

“The (one) stronger than me comes behind me, of whom I am not (worthy) enough to bend (down) to loosen the straps of (the shoe)s bound under his (feet). I dunked you in water, but he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit [e)n pneu/mati a(gi/w|].”

Matthew and Luke provide a more extensive account, including additional sayings and teachings by John:

  • His words to the crowds (Matt 3:7-10 / Luke 3:7-9), exhorting them to repentance; in Matthew this is directed specifically to Pharisees and Sadducees in the crowd (v. 7).
  • The ethical instruction in Luke 3:10-14
  • The saying in Matt 3:12 / Lk 3:17 (cf. below).

The saying corresponding to Mk 1:7-8 is in Matt 3:11 / Lk 3:16. Here the three versions are presented side-by-side for comparison, with the main elements in Matthew/Luke which differ from Mark indicated by italics:

Mark 1:7-8 Matthew 3:11 Luke 3:16
“The (one) stronger than me comes behind me, of whom I am not (worthy) enough to bend (down) to loosen the straps of the (shoe)s bound under his (feet). I dunked you in water, but he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit.” “I dunk you in water into a change-of-mind [i.e. repentance]; but the (one) coming behind me is stronger than me, of whom I am not (worthy) enough to bear/carry the (shoe)s bound under (his feet)—he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit and fire.” “I dunk you in water; but the (one) stronger than me comes, of whom I am not (worthy) enough to loosen the straps of the (shoe)s bound under his (feet)—he will dunk you in (the) holy Spirit and fire.”

The main difference between Mark and Matthew/Luke is twofold:

First, the syntax of the saying in Matthew/Luke sets the reference to Jesus as the one coming (who is greater than John) in the middle of the contrast between baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit:

  • I dunk you in water
    —the one who comes (who is stronger)
  • He will dunk you in the Holy Spirit (and fire)

This contrast is further establish by the use of a me\nde/ construct (i.e., “on the one hand…on other hand…”), which I did not especially bring out in the translation(s) above. The result of this framework, by implication, is that baptism in the Spirit is based on the superiority of the person of Jesus as “the one (who is) coming”. For more on this, cf. below.

Secondly, Matthew and Luke both add “and (in) fire [kai\ puri/]”. This emphasizes the coming/future Judgment of God upon humankind (cf. Matt 3:7ff par), and leads in to the added saying in Matt 3:12 / Lk 3:17 (cf. below). It also results in the thematic triad:

WaterSpiritFire

all of which are associated with purification and cleansing in Old Testament tradition. Cleansing by water is common enough (Num 8:7; 19:12; Ps 51:2; Ezek 16:4; 36:25; Zech 13:1, etc), and the imagery is occasionally extended to the (symbolic) pouring out of the Spirit of God (Isa 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:25-26). Fire is also used as a symbol of purification; in addition to the idea of burning up garbage and refuse, there is the metallurgic imagery, whereby base metal is refined and its impurities removed through fire—cf. Psalm 12:6; Isa 4:4-5; 48:10; Dan 11:35; 12:10; Zech 13:9; Mal 3:2-3. Offerings and objects consecrated to God are also burned with fire (Ex 29:18, 34, etc; Deut 13:16; Josh 6:24). These three elements (water, fire, and the Holy Spirit) are combined in the text 1QS 4:20-21 from Qumran (cf. J. A. Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX [AB vol. 28], p. 474); note the relevant details:

  • It will occur at the (end) time of God’s visitation—i.e., an eschatological setting
  • God will purge the deeds of humankind by His Truth
    • refining (by fire) a portion of humankind (i.e., the righteous/chosen ones)
    • removing every evil spirit from their flesh
    • cleansing them from wickedness with (the) holy Spirit
    • sprinkling them with the Spirit (as with water)
  • The righteous ones are cleansed with the Spirit of Truth

The fire in Matt 3:12 / Lk 3:17 more properly refers to the coming Judgment. The threshing/winnowing separates the righteous and the wicked—perhaps more accurately it separates the wicked from the righteous (cf. 2 Kings 13:7; Prov 20:8, 26; Isa 21:10; 27:12; 30:24; 41:16; Hos 13:3; Mic 4:12-13; Hab 3:12; Jer 4:11; 15:7; Dan 2:35). The ominous closing reference to being burned up “with fire unquenchable” (puri\ a)sbe/stw|) is likely an allusion to Isa 66:24 (cf. Mark 9:43, 48 par). It may draw upon the image of the garbage-burning and furnaces of the Ge-Hinnom (Valley of Hinnom).

The importance of the saying in Mark 1:7-8 par ultimately lies in the identification of Jesus as the (end-time) figure through whom God will visit His people and bring Judgment upon humankind. This is marked by three elements in the passage:

  • Jesus is the one who comes [e&rxetai] (or the one coming [o( e)rxo/meno$]). This almost certainly derives from Malachi 3:1ff, which proved to be a central Messianic passage in the early Gospel tradition. I have discussed this in some detail in prior notes and articles.
  • He is greater/mightier [i)sxuro/tero$] than John. Luke sets the saying by John (Lk 3:16-17) in the narrative context of questions by the people as to whether John might be the Anointed One (Xristo/$, “Christ/Messiah”). As I have discussed previously, the term “Anointed One” here likely refers to an end-time Prophet according to the type of Elijah, who will precede the visitation and Judgment of God (Mal 3:1ff; 4:5-6). Vv. 16-17 are said to be John’s answer to this (cf. Jn 1:19-27).
  • He will baptize people with the Holy Spirit. Already in the Old Testament Prophets, the pouring out of God’s Spirit upon His people is seen as a mark of the coming New Age (Isa 44:3; Joel 2:28-29; Ezek 39:29; cf. also Zech 12:10). For the association with the Judgment of God, cf. above. In Acts 2:14-21, the prophecy of Joel 2:28-29 is said to have been fulfilled with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost.

It should be noted that the saying by John the Baptist is recorded twice more, in Acts 1:5 and again in Acts 11:16, though in both these passages it is presented as a saying of Jesus, which would seem to indicate a separate tradition:

“…that Yohanan {John} dunked in water, but you will be dunked in (the) holy Spirit after not many of these days [i.e. in a few days].” (Acts 1:5)

(Peter speaking) “and I remembered the utterance of the Lord as he said, ‘Yohanan dunked in water, but you will be dunked in (the) holy Spirit’.” (Acts 11:16)

This raises the intriguing question as to whether (or to what extent) the words attributed to John in Mark 1:7-8 par in the Gospel narrative have been shaped by a saying of Jesus. Unfortunately, it is not possible to delve into this possibility in these notes; I leave it as something to ponder.

Finally, the Baptist’s saying is also attested in the Gospel of John, but with important differences, which will be dealt with in the next daily note.