Luke Chapter 1:67-80

This is the end of Chapter One. The whole of this section is given over to the prophecy uttered by Zacharias about his son, and the state of the cosmos as a whole. It’s not a section I’m terribly familiar with, but having been raised in the Roman Rite, reading the Bible was not emphasized, and there are chunks of it with which I’m not familiar. With the NT, these are relegated mostly to some of the lesser epistles-James, Peter, Jude & such–and odd corners of the gospels, like this one.

The sections are going fairly quickly. I attribute this to the high level of “literary” content; since there is so much material devoted to the setting the scene, and since the scenes themselves are quite long and are woven tightly into a cohesive unit, there is a great deal of supporting detail that doesn’t really need to be broken out. This section is a good example: it’s the prophecy of Zacharias, all of it following a single theme. As a result, there are not a lot of different aspects requiring comment.

67 Καὶ Ζαχαρίας ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ ἐπλήσθη πνεύματος ἁγίου καὶ ἐπροφήτευσεν λέγων,

68 Εὐλογητὸς κύριος ὁ θεὸς τοῦ Ἰσραήλ, ὅτι ἐπεσκέψατο καὶ ἐποίησεν λύτρωσιν τῷ λαῷ αὐτοῦ,

And Zacharias the father of him was filled with sacred breath and he prophesied, saying

“Blessed is the lord the God of Israel, that visited and made ransom for his people…” 

Have to break in here for a moment. First of all, there are about three words in here that are forms, if not unique, then are very narrowly used by NT authors, Luke being the primary example. Greek is a fluid language that allows for creation and manipulation of the forms of verbs, in particular.

But the real point here is the “ransom”. To begin with, this is one of the variant forms, appearing twice in the NT, once in the LXX, and once by Plutarch, which gives the word validity. Interestingly enough, Plutarch was more or less contemporary with Luke, so the use by the two authors perhaps indicates a) that the word was in general circulation in the late First Century; and b) that perhaps Luke had a literary background and pretensions. The standard form of the word is “lutron”, and is used as such by both Mark and Matthew–and no one else in the NT.

But to the real point is the theology of the word. We are so accustomed to the terms “redemption” and “redeemer”–or “Redeemer” that the underlying concept is a bit lost. It’s the idea of ransom; in the ancient and Mediaeval world, the capture of an enemy of means meant holding him for ransom, a payment of cash, the more noble the captive, the higher the net worth. Hence the term “king’s ransom”. In modern terms, it’s usually the price paid to kidnappers for the release of the victim, but the idea is the same. It also means to redeem a pledge with a pawnbroker; that is, to pay off the fee to get something back from a pawnbroker. In the ancient world it was used as the term for the price paid to free a slave. In all these cases, the underlying concept is the same: a cash payment in exchange for the release of someone or something. So I want to bring that meaning to the forefront instead of using ‘redeemer’, a word so specialized that we don’t even think of it. How many “Holy Redeemer” schools or churches have you encountered in your lifetime? So it’s a case of giving the reader a bit of a jolt by using a non-standard word in translation. We need these jolts; otherwise we get complacent in our “understanding” of the Bible.

But to the theology. The idea of ransom requires that we ask the question: To whom was the ransom paid?” This creates all sorts of sticky theological wickets. Why does a Triple-O God (omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent) have to pay anything to anyone? God has to pay off the devil? Or the Devil? Or Satan? That implies that God has to cut a deal and give the devil some tangible benefit so that the devil does something in return. Which means God is not omnipotent, which doesn’t square with the Greek philosophy definition of God; but it does fit very nicely with a polytheistic view of things in which the gods have powers over each other. Zeus, for example, could not simply intervene in the dispute of Demeter/Ceres and Hades/Pluto over the fate of the former’s daughter Persephone, and compel Hades to let her go. There were rules that bound even Zeus, so a ransom was paid for the release of Persephone for at least part of the year.  A God of Israel, who is one tribal god among many, could find himself in a situation where he would have to pay ransom to another, equal god, for the release of the former’s people from some sort of bondage, or predicament. This is just a great insight as to how the idea of God for the writer’s of the NT was markedly different from God as conceived by later Mediaeval theologians who filtered their ideas through the lens of Greek philosophy. The two ideas are not the same.

Finally, as a bit of a side note, let’s not overlook that Zacharias was filled with sacred breath. God, IOW, breathed into Zacharias, a concept perfectly captured by the word “inspire”, which has that exact literal meaning. Not everyone gets filled with this; it’s a rare mark of God’s favour. That God chose Zacharias for such an honour is another red flag to the audience that this is a big deal. And I’ve been holding back on this for most of the chapter, but it needs to be mentioned here, even if we go into it in more detail a bit later. This is a great example of how foolish and how ridiculous it is to claim that the early church, or the prot0-church was embarrassed by Jesus’ connexion to the Baptist. They have it exactly backwards. The early communities, or the communities that came a bit later did everything in their power to expand the role of the Baptist in Jesus’ life.  In each gospel, John has become ever-more important to the story. Mark mentions him; Matthew gives him dialogue; Luke gives him a genealogy. But more on this later.

67 Et Zacharias pater eius impletus est Spiritu Sancto et prophetavit dicens:

68 “Benedictus Dominus, Deus Israel, / quia visitavit et fecit redemptionem plebi suae

69 καὶ ἤγειρεν κέρας σωτηρίας ἡμῖν ἐν οἴκῳ Δαυὶδ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ,

70 καθὼς ἐλάλησεν διὰ στόματος τῶν ἁγίων ἀπ’ αἰῶνος προφητῶν αὐτοῦ,

71 σωτηρίαν ἐξ ἐχθρῶν ἡμῶν καὶ ἐκ χειρὸς πάντων τῶν μισούντων ἡμᾶς:

72 ποιῆσαι ἔλεος μετὰ τῶν πατέρων ἡμῶν καὶ μνησθῆναι διαθήκης ἁγίας αὐτοῦ,

73 ὅρκον ὃν ὤμοσεν πρὸς Ἀβραὰμ τὸν πατέρα ἡμῶν, τοῦ δοῦναι ἡμῖν

74 ἀφόβως ἐκ χειρὸς ἐχθρῶν ῥυσθέντας λατρεύειν αὐτῷ

75 ἐν ὁσιότητι καὶ δικαιοσύνῃ ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ πάσαις ταῖς ἡμέραις ἡμῶν.

“And he has raised a horn of salvation for us in the house of David, his child, (70) accordingly he has spoken through the mouths of his holy prophets forever, (71) salvation from our enemies and the hand of all hating us. (72) To have made mercy with our fathers, and to be remembered by his holy covenant (73) the oath (subject of the sentence) he swore to Abraham our father, that given to us (74) fearlessly from the hand of enemies having delivered to serve him (75) in holiness and justification before him for all of our days.

FYI, this speech is composed of a number of quotes from a number of books from the HS; there is Genesis, Numbers, Psalms, Malachi and others. By this point someone has been scouring the HS for all the possible places where the HS could possibly have been contorted into being relevant to the arrival of the Messiah, the Redeemer, the Savior. The reference to Abraham is particularly apt here, since Zacharias is, in a sense, a second Abraham, one whom God favoured by giving him a son in his old age, to a wife who was past normal child-bearing years. With all this OT context in mind, note the way “salvation” is used. It’s very literal, referring to one’s physical life on earth. There are no implications of a salvation in the afterlife here, nor should we expect that. One of the really interesting things I’ve seen is how these concepts from the HS are sort of changed via sleight of hand into a slightly different meaning. One that’s the same, but different. We saw this with “redeemer”, and it’s especially evident here with saviour. Another example is “psyche”; while that is not a term nor a concept from the HS, it gradually comes to have a specific meaning that was not necessarily the primary use of the word.

76 Καὶ σὺ δέ, παιδίον, προφήτης ὑψίστου κληθήσῃ, προπορεύσῃ γὰρ ἐνώπιον κυρίου ἑτοιμάσαι ὁδοὺς αὐτοῦ,

77 τοῦ δοῦναι γνῶσιν σωτηρίας τῷ λαῷ αὐτοῦ ἐν ἀφέσει ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν,

78 διὰ σπλάγχνα ἐλέους θεοῦ ἡμῶν, ἐν οἷς ἐπισκέψεται ἡμᾶς ἀνατολὴ ἐξ ὕψους,

79 ἐπιφᾶναι τοῖς ἐν σκότει καὶ σκιᾷ θανάτου καθημένοις, τοῦ κατευθῦναι τοὺς πόδας ἡμῶν εἰς ὁδὸν εἰρήνης.

80 Τὸ δὲ παιδίον ηὔξανεν καὶ ἐκραταιοῦτο πνεύματι, καὶ ἦν ἐν ταῖς ἐρήμοις ἕως ἡμέρας ἀναδείξεως αὐτοῦ πρὸς τὸν Ἰσραήλ.

“And you, child, will be called prophet of the most high, for you will go forward before the lord to prepare his road, (77) the having given knowledge of the salvation of his people in remittance of our sins, (78) through the bowels of the mercy of our God, in which will visit us the east (= dawn) from on high, appearing to them sitting in the darkness and shadow of death, of the directing our steps to the road of peace. (80) The child will grow and be strong in the spirit, and the one in the desert until the days showing him to Israel”.

Yes, that says “bowels”. Apparently in Hebrew thought, the bowels were the seat of the tender emotions. That’s what I read, anyway, and I can neither confirm nor deny this. Other than that, this entire prophecy is really just directed to make us understand the divine mission and the divine purpose of John. By building up John like this, who was “merely” the herald of Jesus, Luke is building up Jesus.

See, here’s the thing. Building up Jesus was begun by Matthew. Here, Luke not only follows suit, but he takes it to the next level. Just as Matthew sought to elevate the Jesus described in Mark, so Luke wants to elevate even more the Jesus described by Matthew. And the kicker is that the stuff of Q is not at all about Jesus as divine. Quite the contrary, in fact. So where did Luke get this idea of raising up Jesus? To be fair, we could–and should–ask exactly the same question about Matthew: where did he get it? We can’t answer either one. The Q people would simply say that this all came from the ubiquitous oral tradition, thereby making the question unanswerable. Actually, that’s not accurate. Citing the oral tradition allows one to answer the question howsoever one wishes it to be answered. Whatever answer we provide cannot be authenticated against the oral tradition, so who can say that our answer is wrong? No one. But let’s talk probabilities. Is it more likely, or less, that Luke would have chosen this path of elevating Jesus by elevating the Baptist if he knew that Matthew had already started down that road? I would think it more likely. So again, not even close to smoking gun, but a bump in that direction. We have to count up these little bumps and see where we are at the end.

69 et erexit cornu salutis nobis / in domo David pueri sui,

70 sicut locutus est per os sanctorum, / qui a saeculo sunt, prophetarum eius,

71 salutem ex inimicis nostris / et de manu omnium, qui oderunt nos;

72 ad faciendam misericordiam cum patribus nostris / et memorari testamenti sui sancti,

73 iusiurandum, quod iuravit ad Abraham patrem nostrum, / daturum se nobis,

74 ut sine timore, de manu inimicorum liberati, / serviamus illi

75 in sanctitate et iustitia coram ipso / omnibus diebus nostris.

76 Et tu, puer, propheta Altissimi vocaberis: / praeibis enim ante faciem Domini parare vias eius,

77 ad dandam scientiam salutis plebi eius / in remissionem peccatorum eorum,

78 per viscera misericordiae Dei nostri, / in quibus visitabit nos oriens ex alto,

79 illuminare his, qui in tenebris et in umbra mortis sedent, / ad dirigendos pedes nostros in viam pacis”.

80 Puer autem crescebat et confortabatur spiritu et erat in deserto usque in diem ostensionis suae ad Israel.


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 February 5, 2017, in Chapter 1, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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