Luke Chapter 1:12-23

As the scene opens, we are with Zacahrias inside the temple sanctuary where he is holding conversation with a herald of God. It did not occur to me before, but presumably (obviously?) this is the Temple in Jerusalem. This would mean that Zacharias is at least a few rungs up on the socio-economic scale. The priests were well-t0-do, because all God’s friends were rich, an attitude that, unfortunately, too many still share today. And it wasn’t just among Jews, either. The pagans felt much the same way. That is a very important bit of knowledge to carry in your head as we progress through this gospel.

12 καὶ ἐταράχθη Ζαχαρίας ἰδών, καὶ φόβος ἐπέπεσεν ἐπ’ αὐτόν.

13 εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς αὐτὸν ὁ ἄγγελος, Μὴ φοβοῦ, Ζαχαρία, διότι εἰσηκούσθη ἡ δέησίς σου, καὶ ἡ γυνή σου Ἐλισάβετ γεννήσει υἱόν σοι, καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰωάννην.

And disturbed was Zacharias seeing, and fear fell upon him. (13) And said towards him the herald, “Do not fear, Zacharias, because your need was heard, and your woman Elisabeth will bring forth a son, and you will call the name to him John”.

First of all, let’s look at the last bit. “You will call the name to him…”  Sort of reminds me of  <<καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν>>. That is Matthew 1:21; here we have << καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰωάννην>>. The two are verbatim with the obvious exception of the name. This is not part of Q by anyone’s definition, or edition. Now, one can suggest that this is a standard expression, and that would be a valid statement. But…In both cases, we have an angel announcing a miraculous birth to a man, whether Joseph in Matthew, or here to Zacharias. Granted, perhaps this one is not quite as miraculous, because this baby has a human father. That detail aside, the two scenarios, and the words used, are remarkably similar, verbally and thematically. It’s this latter that is virtually ignored in the discussion about Q and whether Luke used Matthew. Here we have Luke doing everything he can to evoke those verses of Matthew when Joseph is told a son has been conceived within Mary. Oh, and the angel also tells Joseph “Don’t be afraid”. And yet, I’ve never seen this discussed in regard to Q. Why not? Part of it is that the Q people have set the terms of the debate for the past century, and those terms are the order and placement of material in Matthew vs. Luke. IOW, the debate is virtually without real substance.

While looking into this in the commentaries, I came across a really interesting interpretation. And it was not put out by just one commentator, but by several. They suggest that Zacharias and Elisabeth had reconciled themselves to being childless, especially given their advanced years. So, their entreaty–this is not the standard word for “prayer”–was not for a child. The couple had, we are told, given up on that years before; rather, the entreaty was for the kingdom of God. Have to say, that seems a bit of a stretch. It’s the sort of thing that comes up after a topic has been debated endlessly for decades; I’m betting that this interpretation is post-Reformation, so the debate was one of decades rather than centuries. 

12 et Zacharias turbatus est videns, et timor irruit super eum.

13 Ait autem ad illum angelus: “ Ne timeas, Zacharia, quoniam exaudita est deprecatio tua, et uxor tua Elisabeth pariet tibi filium, et vocabis nomen eius Ioannem.

14 καὶ ἔσται χαρά σοι καὶ ἀγαλλίασις, καὶ πολλοὶ ἐπὶ τῇ γενέσει αὐτοῦ χαρήσονται:

15 ἔσται γὰρ μέγας ἐνώπιον [τοῦ] κυρίου, καὶ οἶνον καὶ σίκερα οὐ μὴ πίῃ, καὶ πνεύματος ἁγίου πλησθήσεται ἔτι ἐκ κοιλίας μητρὸς αὐτοῦ,

16 καὶ πολλοὺς τῶν υἱῶν Ἰσραὴλ ἐπιστρέψει ἐπὶ κύριον τὸν θεὸν αὐτῶν.

“And there will be joy to you and rejoicing, and many upon the birth of him will rejoice. For he will be great before the lord, and wine and strong drink he will not drink, and  with the sacred breath he will be filled already from the womb of his mother, (16) and he will turn many of the sons of Israel towards the lord their God.”

Anyone who claims that the early church was embarrassed by Jesus’ connexion to John should be made to explain this passage, and this whole section. Far from being swept under the rug, which is what you do with embarrassing things, John is being elevated here, to a very dizzying height. We are told he will induce many in Israel–more properly, Judea–to repent of their sins and turn back to God. This is extremely high praise.

A word while we’re on the subject of Israel. Strictly speaking, the Kingdom of Israel ceased to exist after its conquest by Assyria. The successor kingdom, centered on Jerusalem was just that: a successor state. It was assuredly not a continuation of the earlier state of Israel. This latter had remained largely a pagan state, which is why the kings so often did evil in the sight of YHWH. Israel and her kings worshipped other gods because they had not really accepted YHWH as it’s chief–let alone sole–god. And yet, because Israel had been a large state that ruled some of the richer land in the area, the successors in Jerusalem wished to portray themselves as the legitimate heirs of the older kingdom. This is why they elevatated their bandit-in-chief David to the purely mythological throne of the United Kingdom. As such, the kings who sat in Jerusalem maintained their dynastic pretensions for centuries, until “Israel” became a spiritual kingdom inherited by the Christians, or until the State of Israel was resurrected in 1948. Even after all those centuries, the regime in Jerusalem still insisted that the whole of the land from Dan to Beersheba was their heritage. That’s not intended to be anti-Zionist; rather, it’s a commentary on the power of a foundation myth. 

One thing I have to comment on is Luke’s vocabulary. It’s pretty remarkable. The man was erudite. He sort of coins a lot of words, by giving older words new forms. I’m not sure what to make of this quite yet; or, rather, I’m not quite sure how to fit this into the overall interpretation of the gospel, but presumably this will work itself out.

14 Et erit gaudium tibi et exsultatio, et multi in nativitate eius gaudebunt:

15 erit enim magnus coram Domino et vinum et siceram non bibet et Spiritu Sancto replebitur adhuc ex utero matris suae

16 et multos filiorum Israel convertet ad Dominum Deum ipsorum.

17 καὶ αὐτὸς προελεύσεται ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ ἐν πνεύματι καὶ δυνάμει Ἠλίου, ἐπιστρέψαι καρδίας πατέρων ἐπὶ τέκνα καὶ ἀπειθεῖς ἐν φρονήσει δικαίων, ἑτοιμάσαι κυρίῳ λαὸν κατεσκευασμένον.

18 Καὶ εἶπεν Ζαχαρίας πρὸς τὸν ἄγγελον, Κατὰ τί γνώσομαι τοῦτο; ἐγὼ γάρ εἰμι πρεσβύτης καὶ ἡ γυνή μου προβεβηκυῖα ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις αὐτῆς.

19 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ ἄγγελος εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ἐγώ εἰμι Γαβριὴλ ὁ παρεστηκὼς ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ, καὶ ἀπεστάλην λαλῆσαι πρὸς σὲ καὶ εὐαγγελίσασθαί σοι ταῦτα:

“And he will go forward before him in the spirit and the power of Elijah, converting hearts of the fathers upon the children and disbelief in the prudence of the just, to have made ready the people of the lord having been prepared. (18) And Zacharias said to the herald, “According to what will I know this? For I am old, and my wife is advanced in years”. (19) And answering the herald said to him, “I am Gabriel the one standing beside in front of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to announce these things to you.

Quick note: the Greek for “announce” in the last sentence is “euangelizai”. This includes the announcing and the glad tidings all in one word. That is impossible in English. Or, I couldn’t come up with a solution, anyway.

Did I mention that, far from being swept under the rug, John was being elevated here? For he will have the spirit and the power of Elijah, and in Jewish circles Elijah was pretty much the pinnacle of human accomplishment. Of course, by elevating John, Jesus will be elevated even further. And here, again, I think, we see an example of Luke following Matthew’s lead, and then expanding upon it. For this is what Matthew did with the announcement of the (unnamed) angel to Joseph: he elevated Jesus to the divine level. Here, (spoiler alert!) not only will we get an announcement to Mary about Jesus, but we get the announcement about Jesus’ forerunner, who could also be called an “angelos”, a “herald”. In this way, Luke raises the playing field even further. We are truly talking about cosmic-scale, divine-level actions here. In a way, it reminds me of the Prologue in Heaven that we find at the opening of Goethe’s Faust, or even the conversation between God and the slanderer (ho diabolos) at the beginning of Job.

As an aside, this is really interesting. In Job 1:6, we are told that

ἦλθον οἱ ἄγγελοι τοῦ θεοῦ παραστῆναι ἐνώπιον τοῦ κυρίου, / καὶ ὁ διάβολος ἦλθεν μετ᾽ αὐτῶν.

There came the angels of God standing beside before the lord, / and the slanderer came with them…

The (very clumsy) expression “standing beside before the lord” is pretty much exactly what we got from Gabriel. The participle is “standing”, but with the prefix for “beside”, so the entire verb is “standing beside”, which is then followed by a preposition for “before”, as in “before the lord”. So the image is a bit of a foreshadow of The Apocalypse of John, with all the elders seated around the throne of God, “before” him in the sense of being in his presence. So the point is that I suspect that Luke deliberately meant to evoke this quote, and I also suspect that it’s something of a standardized formula that appears in various places throughout the LXX, replacing an underlying formula in the Hebrew.

One final note about this quote from Job. Several translations, including the KJV, translate “angeloi” as “sons” of God. There is a good lesson here for not using the same stock word to translate a word in Greek, or Hebrew. In the context, I actually think “sons” might be closer to the sense of the Greek, even if it is a bit more poetic. In fact, the Vulgate renders it as “filii”, which is the standard Latin word for “sons”.

Also, the idea of “standing beside in front of God” is a bit of a foreshadow of some later ideas that will evolve into the Gnostic/Hermetic ideas of the Emanations. The idea that there is a Power at the centre, and then slightly lesser beings around that, spreading out in concentric circles. The Creator is a level–or several, depending on the source–removed from the centre. Yes, this is a bit of a stretch, perhaps, but only a bit. Ideas are fluid things that eddy and swirl about and within each other. And that poetic element should never, ever be forgotten. Because what English so clumsily conveys as “poetry”–a bunch of words strung together that may or may not rhyme–is itself a poor and dulled reflection of the Greek “poesis”. This contains both the idea of doing, as in doing a task, as well as creating a long poem meant to explain the Nature of Things (de Rerum Natura, Epictetus).

And I think Zacharias’ questions to the messenger sort of indicate that the “entreaty” back in Verse 13 was indeed, about a child. I suppose that these questions are natural enough given the news, but we also need to be careful, I think, about reading too much into this. Of course the parallel to Abraham is too obvious to need mention, but then I just did. The conception of Isaac was miraculous, and so is the conception of John. But, while miraculous, they are also human-scale miracles, where the child–the son, always a son–conceived has two human parents.

Finally, just want to stress the idea that this angel has a name. Here we have such a classic example of the growth of legend that it’s worth dwelling on for a moment or two. This is exactly how legends grow. Matthew added the angel, Luje gave the angel a name, and later thinkers would ascribe roles and adventures to the angels. The same happened with the Twelve; once created, they had to have names. Then, once named, they had to have stories and adventures, and so these sprang up, just the way Arthur became surrounded by a host of knights, all of them with their own tale. So this further development of the story is, I firmly believe, another example of how Luke expanded on Matthew’s edifice, which was itself an expansion of the foundation laid by Mark. And here is where the Q people, and the whole Q debate goes so horribly wrong: instead of nitpicking over the order of the placement of the (alleged) Q material, look at the storied told as separate entities that each complement, rather than repeat or supersede the previous one. There is nothing about an angel in the Q material, which starts with the preaching of John. So where did Luke get the idea? Is this parallel development? It could be. But that is where you have to start looking at the numbers of incidents, how many times does Luke pick up a theme from Matthew and run with it? To that end, I’m going to be taking notes. Because one of the big “arguments” (I’m being kind) for Q is that Luke is never aware of Matthew’s additions to Mark. Well, we have an example here of Luke being well aware of an addition of Matthew.

Second finally, the whole idea of finding precedents from the HS is another example. Matthew added references to texts from the HS; Luke appears to be doing the same thing here, borrowing a line from Job (which may also appear elsewhere).

17 Et ipse praecedet ante illum in spiritu et virtute Eliae, ut convertat corda patrum in filios et incredibiles ad prudentiam iustorum, parare Domino plebem perfectam ”.

18 Et dixit Zacharias ad angelum: “ Unde hoc sciam? Ego enim sum senex, et uxor mea processit in diebus suis ”.

19 Et respondens angelus dixit ei: “ Ego sum Gabriel, qui adsto ante Deum, et missus sum loqui ad te et haec tibi evangelizare.

20 καὶ ἰδοὺ ἔσῃ σιωπῶν καὶ μὴ δυνάμενος λαλῆσαι ἄχρι ἧς ἡμέρας γένηται ταῦτα, ἀνθ’ ὧν οὐκ ἐπίστευσας τοῖς λόγοις μου, οἵτινες πληρωθήσονται εἰς τὸν καιρὸν αὐτῶν .

21 Καὶ ἦν ὁ λαὸς προσδοκῶν τὸν Ζαχαρίαν, καὶ ἐθαύμαζον ἐν τῷ χρονίζειν ἐν τῷ ναῷ αὐτόν.

22 ἐξελθὼν δὲ οὐκ ἐδύνατο λαλῆσαι αὐτοῖς, καὶ ἐπέγνωσαν ὅτι ὀπτασίαν ἑώρακεν ἐν τῷ ναῷ: καὶ αὐτὸς ἦν διανεύων αὐτοῖς, καὶ διέμενεν κωφός.

23 καὶ ἐγένετο ὡς ἐπλήσθησαν αἱ ἡμέραι τῆς λειτουργίας αὐτοῦ ἀπῆλθεν εἰς τὸν οἶκον αὐτοῦ.

“And behold, may you being silent and not able to speak until the days that these things become, before which not believing the my words, which will be fulfilled in their season (i.e., proper time)”. (21) And there were people expecting Zacharias, and they marveled at the time he being in the Temple. (22) Coming out, he was not able to speak to them, and they knew that a vision he had seen in the temple. And he gestured to them, and he remained mute. (23) And it became as fulfilled the days of his liturgies, he went to his home.

The first thing that strikes me is that God will punish your disbelief. OK. That shouldn’t surprise me, and it doesn’t, but it still strikes me as interesting. That’s the problem with being a rationalist, I suppose. These sorts of actions seem rather arbitrary, or even whimsical; but mainly, they seem rather petty and beneath the dignity of a God that laid the foundations of the cosmos.

The second thing is that this is a very perceptive lot of fellow priests. They knew that he had seen a vision inside. But then, maybe this sort of thing happened frequently? Who’s to say? The word I translated as “liturgies” is actually more or less a transliteration. “Leitourgious” would be the exact translation, so the relation should be obvious. Were I truly a biblical scholar, I would be able to explain the rotation of the priests more effectively, but it’s simply not that important. What matters more is whether his home was in Jerusalem–at least, the Greater Jerusalem Metro Area? I would suspect so. We’ll see if, or how much, this matters in the next section.

20 Et ecce: eris tacens et non poteris loqui usque in diem, quo haec fiant, pro eo quod non credidisti verbis meis, quae implebuntur in tempore suo ”.

21 Et erat plebs exspectans Zachariam, et mirabantur quod tardaret ipse in templo.

22 Egressus autem non poterat loqui ad illos, et cognoverunt quod visionem vidisset in templo; et ipse erat innuens illis et permansit mutus.

23 Et factum est, ut impleti sunt dies officii eius, abiit in domum suam.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on January 21, 2017, in Chapter 1, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke's Gospel, Matthew's Gospel, Q, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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