Luke Chapter 2:21-38

Again we have another long section. This time, it’s the adventures of the Holy Family in Jerusalem. This episode is completely unique to Luke. None of the material here appears anywhere else in any form. So it must–simply must!–have been part of the oral tradition, so for sure this can be traced back to the time of Jesus! IOW, this is all another way of saying, it’s stuff that “they say”, and we all know how that works. Honestly, given that Luke adds this after coming up with the backstory of John, the Annunciation, and reworking the birth narrative, and that he will add a number of stories like the Prodigal Son, and provide the only account of the Ascension, which is the only explanation of what happened to Jesus after he was raised from the dead, doesn’t it make sense to conclude that Luke created all of these stories? I’m not a textual analyst, I haven’t much expertise in examining word usage and such and determining thereby whether different pieces are the work of the same author. But it is much more economical, and much simpler–which makes it much more likely–to assume that Luke wrote them all.

The appeal of ascribing thing to the oral tradition is that, by squinting really hard and sticking ones’s fingers in one’s ears and saying “la-la-la, I can’t hear you”, one can fool oneself that there is some possibility that these stories trace back to Jesus, or at least his time. But think about the implications of having these stories come from different sources. Does that really help the case? Think about how adamantly scholars cling to Q; part of the reason they do so because they understand that having one source increases the likelihood of an uninterrupted line of transmission. Multiple sources telling different stories likely indicate that different people were making up different stories, which increases the likelihood that some of them are just that: made up. And no doubt people did make up stories, things that, if they weren’t true, they should have been; this is called a myth in the real sense of that word. The situation changed dramatically when the evangelists started writing the stories down, thereby helping to set a reasonably cohesive, if not terribly internally consistent set of beliefs. None of this really proves that Luke is actually the author of all this new material, but let’s keep going back to motivation. Why does someone sit down to write a new gospel? Because he or she believes he or she has something to say. As it turns out, the author of Luke had a lot to say. The author of John did, too.

In any case, these sections seem to go by pretty quickly. They are really difficult to break into pieces, but that means that truly microscopic analysis isn’t often required. This is more like gross anatomy than molecular biology.

21 Καὶ ὅτε ἐπλήσθησαν ἡμέραι ὀκτὼ τοῦ περιτεμεῖν αὐτόν, καὶ ἐκλήθη τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦς, τὸ κληθὲν ὑπὸ τοῦ ἀγγέλου πρὸ τοῦ συλλημφθῆναι αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ κοιλίᾳ.

22 Καὶ ὅτε ἐπλήσθησαν αἱ ἡμέραι τοῦ καθαρισμοῦ αὐτῶν κατὰ τὸν νόμον Μωϋσέως, ἀνήγαγον αὐτὸν εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα παραστῆσαι τῷ κυρίῳ,

23 καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν νόμῳ κυρίου ὅτι Πᾶν ἄρσεν διανοῖγον μήτραν ἅγιον τῷ κυρίῳ κληθήσεται,

24 καὶ τοῦ δοῦναι θυσίαν κατὰ τὸ εἰρημένον ἐν τῷ νόμῳ κυρίου, ζεῦγος τρυγόνων ἢ δύο νοσσοὺς περιστερῶν.

And then the eighth day of cutting around (basically an exact translation, Latin form = circumcision) and they called his name Jesus, the name from the messenger before the conception in the womb. (22) And then days of purification according to the law of Moses having been fulfilled, they carried him (Jesus) to Jerusalem to be stood before/beside the lord. (23) according as it was written in the law of the lord that “All male children opening the womb (i.e., the firstborn being a son) will be called holy by the lord, (24) and the one giving sacrifice according to the thing that has been said in the law of the lord, a yoke of turtledoves or two young doves.

Not being an ornithologist (I converted), I won’t pretend to know the difference between two turtledoves and two young doves. Apparently, they are of approximate value. And these are the sort of things that were sold in the Temple itself, so it would have been things like this that Jesus upset when he (allegedly) cleansed the Temple.

Firstborn children that are males are the best. That’s the lesson that we have from part of this. The bit about “opening” the womb is a bit poetic, indicating the desirability of numerous children. OK, the womb’s open! Come on down! sort of thing. Also in here is the idea of purification of the mother; the whole menstrual/childbirth thing was really sort of mysterious and frightening and was decidedly not something that men back then wanted to deal with. I suspect that there is some connexion to the idea of the circumcision taking place eight days later. Many of these sorts of religious traditions do have some basis in medical practice; sheer trial and error may have told the Jews to wait eight days for whatever reasons. I really don’t know, never having had male children, the issue never came up for me.

Perhaps the most interesting, and uncommented aspect of this is that the family’s connexion to Jerusalem is much stronger here in Luke than it was even in Matthew. In both the latter and Mark, the trip to Jerusalem that resulted in Jesus’ death is the only time we are told he went to Jerusalem. But here we have him going as a babe, and then we will get a second when he is twelve; that one is coming up shortly. And in John, Jesus travels to Jerusalem at least twice, and I believe more often. After all, in John he cleanses the Temple twice. Jerusalem, of course, was the centre of the Jewish cult, and, indeed, the Jewish world. Jesus, in the eyes of pagan converts came to be seen as superseding (that is spelled correctly) the Temple authorities, especially as they faded from memory in the second and third decade after its destruction. As such, we get Luke and later John putting Jesus in Jerusalem more frequently in order to demonstrate that Jesus is the successor of the Temple authorities in the eyes of what we can now call Christians. These are the sorts of  progressions that are not discussed overmuch in the Q debates. The situation has changed decidedly from the world of Mark, and even from the world of Matthew; Luke is telling us this. Jesus is not a marginalised Jew stuck in the hinterlands of Galilee, but someone who is at home in the very focus of Jewish life. This will be made even more clear in the next section, or the one after that.

We assume that the Jesus of Mark and Matthew was circumcised; it was, rather a sine qua non for Jewish males. We just aren’t told if it was done in Jerusalem. Nor do I know whether it was done outside the Temple; it must have been. Many Jews live more than an eight-day journey from the Temple, so many Jews were simply unable to make that trip. But what about Jews living in Galilee? Did one bundle up a newborn and schlep him to Jerusalem? I don’t know. One thing about the birth story is that Bethlehem is closer to Jerusalem than Caphernaum is; the trip would have been much more practicable. So this trip to Jerusalem is another way in which Luke builds on Matthew. The latter put Jesus’ birth in the hometown of David, the founder of the state of Judah, even if he did not found Israel. Luke continues that tradition, keeping Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and then amplifies it by adding the extra trips to Jerusalem to indicate how integrated Jesus was into the whole of Jewish cult and life. So again, it seems that Luke does follow Matthew, implicitly if not explicitly. And the latest connexion is the use of Herod the Great as a terminus post quem. 

21 Et postquam consummati sunt dies octo, ut circumcideretur, vocatum est nomen eius Iesus, quod vocatum est ab angelo, priusquam in utero conciperetur.

22 Et postquam impleti sunt dies purgationis eorum secundum legem Moysis, tulerunt illum in Hierosolymam, ut sisterent Domino,

23 sicut scriptum est in lege Domini: “ Omne masculinum adaperiens vulvam sanctum Domino vocabitur ”,

24 et ut darent hostiam secundum quod dictum est in lege Domini: par turturum aut duos pullos columbarum.

25 Καὶ ἰδοὺ ἄνθρωπος ἦν ἐν Ἰερουσαλὴμ ᾧ ὄνομα Συμεών, καὶ ὁ ἄνθρωπος οὗτος δίκαιος καὶ εὐλαβής, προσδεχόμενος παράκλησιν τοῦ Ἰσραήλ, καὶ πνεῦμα ἦν ἅγιον ἐπ’ αὐτόν:

26 καὶ ἦν αὐτῷ κεχρηματισμένον ὑπὸ τοῦ πνεύματος τοῦ ἁγίου μὴ ἰδεῖν θάνατον πρὶν [ἢ] ἂν ἴδῃ τὸν Χριστὸν κυρίου.

27 καὶ ἦλθεν ἐν τῷ πνεύματι εἰς τὸ ἱερόν: καὶ ἐν τῷ εἰσαγαγεῖν τοὺς γονεῖς τὸ παιδίον Ἰησοῦν τοῦ ποιῆσαι αὐτοὺς κατὰ τὸ εἰθισμένον τοῦ νόμου περὶ αὐτοῦ

28 καὶ αὐτὸς ἐδέξατο αὐτὸ εἰς τὰς ἀγκάλας καὶ εὐλόγησεν τὸν θεὸν καὶ εἶπεν,

And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem by the name Simeon, and this man was just and holding fast (to his faith; i.e., devout), awaiting the <consolation> of Israel, and the sacred breath was in him. (26) And the was to him an oracular response from the sacred breath that he would not die before he might see the anointed of the lord. (27) And he came in the breath to the Temple, and in the to have come in the parents of the child Jesus of the making according to the custom of the law about him (Jesus), and he (Simeon) saw him (Jesus) in the arms (of the parents) and (Simeon) praised God and said:

[ Here is a more readable translation of the last verse: (27) And he came into the Temple in the spirit, and Simeon saw Jesus in the arms of his parents as they entered (the Temple) to fulfill the custom of the Law regarding their firstborn son. Then Simeon praised God and said, ... ]

We are going to freeze frame leaving Simeon with his mouth open and ready to praise God. What follows is the second famous prayer from the early pages of Luke, and we’ll get to that in a moment.

There are several things to note here. First, let me mention that Verse 26 provides a bit of a challenge to my insistance on rendering the phrase “sacred breath”. The idea hear is that it was revealed to Simeon via an inspiration (breathing into) of the sacred breath that he would not die before seeing the anointed. The translation “oracular response” is how the word was used in Classical Greek. My crib translations use “revealed”, for which the Greek is “apocalypsos”; as such, I think that puts the wrong shade on the idea, but this may just be me being pedantic. It wasn’t a revelation so much as an inspiration; however, one can certainly argue that this is a distinction without a difference. To that I would say that the concept of the Holy Spirit revealing to him is rather different from my idea of Simeon being inspired via the sacred breath being breathed into him. It’s a subtle difference, IMO. Regardless, I have written what I have written. This insistence on my part may become a bit more problematic when we see Simeon entering the Temple “in the breath”. However, this is due more to my too-literal rendering of “en pneumati”; this does, literally, mean “in the breath”, but it could–and probably should–be rendered as “the breath in him”. The participles in Greek are very flexible’; they have to be since there aren’t as many of them in Greek as there are in English, and getting them correct can be one of the bigger challenges in getting the meaning of a segment of text. It requires being flexible, in trying out several possible meanings before settling on the one felt to be “best”. 

And–spoiler alert!–this is not the only old, wise Jew who understands the ways of the lord. I think I will leave my comment on this until after the second encounter with which this section closes.

25 Et ecce homo erat in Ierusalem, cui nomen Simeon, et homo iste iustus et timoratus, exspectans consolationem Israel, et Spiritus Sanctus erat super eum;

26 et responsum acceperat ab Spiritu Sancto non visurum se mortem nisi prius videret Christum Domini.

27 Et venit in Spiritu in templum. Et cum inducerent puerum Iesum parentes eius, ut facerent secundum consuetudinem legis pro eo,

28 et ipse accepit eum in ulnas suas et benedixit Deum et dixit:

29 Νῦν ἀπολύεις τὸν δοῦλόν σου, δέσποτα, κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου ἐν εἰρήνῃ:

30 ὅτι εἶδον οἱ ὀφθαλμοί μου τὸ σωτήριόν σου

31 ὃ ἡτοίμασας κατὰ πρόσωπον πάντων τῶν λαῶν,

32 φῶς εἰς ἀποκάλυψιν ἐθνῶν καὶ δόξαν λαοῦ σου Ἰσραήλ.

33 καὶ ἦν ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἡ μήτηρ θαυμάζοντες ἐπὶ τοῖς λαλουμένοις περὶ αὐτοῦ.

34 καὶ εὐλόγησεν αὐτοὺς Συμεὼν καὶ εἶπεν πρὸς Μαριὰμ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ, Ἰδοὺ οὗτος κεῖται εἰς πτῶσιν καὶ ἀνάστασιν πολλῶν ἐν τῷ Ἰσραὴλ καὶ εἰς σημεῖον ἀντιλεγόμενον

35 {καὶ σοῦ [δὲ] αὐτῆς τὴν ψυχὴν διελεύσεται ῥομφαία}, ὅπως ἂν ἀποκαλυφθῶσιν ἐκ πολλῶν καρδιῶν διαλογισμοί.

“Now you dismiss your slave in peace, Master, according to your writings; (30) that my eyes have seen your salvation, (31) which you have made ready before the faces of all the people, (32) a light to reveal to the nations and show your people Israel”. (33) And there was his (Jesus) father and his mother marveling upon the things having been spoken about him (Jesus). (34) And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother, “Behold he is ordained to the fall and the standing up of many in Israel and to be a sign having been contradicted (35)  {and your soul a sword will pass through} as how the considerations may have been revealed from the hearts of many.” 

Note that the part about the sword is not in all the textual traditions. That means it may not have been included in the original text as written by the author. Based on my rather poor understanding of the grammar, it is my considered opinion that this is an interpolation that was added later. The syntax gave me some problems, and it wasn’t until I disregarded the {bracketed} insertion that it unravelled in a comprehensible manner. However, this observation is not something that should be given very much credence. I’m not expert enough to have an opinion that is worth heeding. That being said, I also think that the sense of the passage works better without the insertion. This is a prophecy about the people of Israel and the peoples of the world–the non-Jews. As such, I don’t think that something so personal about Mary is really appropriate for the context and the general sense of the passage. But again, this is the sort of textual criticism about which the opinions of the Q people would be more valueable than mine; this is, after all, the sort of thing that they are trained to do. It’s their area of expertise. 

Back to the main thread, this prayer of Simeon is the Nunc Dimittis. If you glance down at the Latin below, you will see that these are the first two words of Verse 29. The literal meaning of this, and the Greek, is “now you dismiss”. It is an indicative, not an imperative, so it’s not “now dismiss”. This, like the Magnificat, is a prayer that has been recited and sung and chanted for two millennia; I personally have heard it sung countless times in the eight years since my oldest daughter joined the church choir. Given that both of these prayers have lodged so firmly in the mind of the subsequent church, does this make it more, or less, likely that the same hand composed them both?

As for the content of the prayer, I don’t think a lot of comment is required. The promise of YHWH has been fulfilled and that fulfillment is Jesus. Now, the thing is, I’m not entirely sure when or where that promise was made, nor exactly what the promise entailed, but that’s largely because I’m not versed enough in the HS. Or is it? One thing that I’ve been noticing is that not infrequently when the “scriptures are fulfilled”, there is no specific cite involved. And a lot of the cites that are there refer to very late prophets like Malachi. The implication of this is that whatever messianic expectations actually existed, they did not run all that deeply into Jewish tradition. Rather, a good deal of this probably arose with the coming of the Seleucids, especially the later Seleucids. We are told, frequently, of the “messianic fervor” of the times in which Jesus lived, but I’m not all that sure that Josephus really bears this out. In particular, the period covered by the reign of Tiberius seemed to be fairly quiescent. There were disturbances after the death of Herod the great, but that was, presumably, before Jesus was born. Then came the problem with Caligula, but that was, traditionally, some years after Jesus was already dead. For the period in between, Josephus doesn’t describe much more than garden-variety restiveness. The Jews had not been subject to the Romans all that long; people alive when Jesus was alive would have had parents, or certainly grandparent who remembered the time before the coming of Pompeius Magnus in the 60s BCE, so they had yet to settle into the reality of being occupied–which they did after the bar Kochba revolt in 132 CE. But this is a bit off-the-cuff; I really need to read Josephus again to make sure that I’m correct–or more likely to be correct than to be wrong–about this.

The “salvation” that Simeon has seen is also interesting. As we have seen, this word often means the saving of one’s corporeal life, rather than salvation in later, standard Christian usage. What does it mean here? That is hard to pin down, I think. But it is probably closer to our understanding of the word than it is to “saving one’s life”. That’s how it feels to me.

The last point I want to mention concerns the interpolation. The word used is “psyche”; Mary’s psyche will be pierced by a sword. If you will recall, the word sort of vacillates between “soul” and “life”. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is intended. In this case, I have rendered it as “soul”, which agrees with all four of my crib translations. I tried to use “life”, but it just doesn’t work. The Latin is “anima”, which became the standard word for “soul” in Western Christianity; in English, of course, our word “soul” is derived from German, “seele”. But if you think about it, “soul”, in the later, standard, Christian sense doesn’t really fit here, either. In English, we would say something more on the lines of “your heart will be pierced”, referring to the seat of the emotions rather than the immortal soul that will go to Heaven or Hell. So here we get a fairly subtle use of the word “psyche” by Luke, a usage that conveys the ambiguity in the Greek term. This comes hard on the heels of the ambiguous “psyche”, so Luke seems to have a native speaker’s comfort with multiple senses of a single word. Luke’s Greek is, by far, the most sophisticated that we have encountered. 

29 “Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, / secundum verbum tuum in pace,

30 quia viderunt oculi mei / salutare tuum,

31 quod parasti / ante faciem omnium populorum,

32 lumen ad revelationem gentium / et gloriam plebis tuae Israel”.

33 Et erat pater eius et mater mirantes super his, quae dicebantur de illo.

34 Et benedixit illis Simeon et dixit ad Mariam matrem eius: “ Ecce positus est hic in ruinam et resurrectionem multorum in Israel et in signum, cui contradicetur

35 — et tuam ipsius animam pertransiet gladius — ut revelentur ex multis cordibus cogitationes”.

36 Καὶ ἦν Αννα προφῆτις, θυγάτηρ Φανουήλ, ἐκ φυλῆς Ἀσήρ: αὕτη προβεβηκυῖα ἐν ἡμέραις πολλαῖς, ζήσασα μετὰ ἀνδρὸς ἔτη ἑπτὰ ἀπὸ τῆς παρθενίας αὐτῆς,

37 καὶ αὐτὴ χήρα ἕως ἐτῶν ὀγδοήκοντα τεσσάρων, ἣ οὐκ ἀφίστατο τοῦ ἱεροῦ νηστείαις καὶ δεήσεσιν λατρεύουσα νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν.

38 καὶ αὐτῇ τῇ ὥρᾳ ἐπιστᾶσα ἀνθωμολογεῖτο τῷ θεῷ καὶ ἐλάλει περὶ αὐτοῦ πᾶσιν τοῖς προσδεχομένοις λύτρωσιν Ἰερουσαλήμ.

And there was a prophetess Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser. She had proceeded in many days (was older), living with her husband seven years after her being a virgin. (37) And she was a widow of eighty-four years, who did not leave the Temple, fasting and praying and worshipping night and day. (38) And at the hour having stood upon, she praised God and spoke about him to all those waiting of the redemption of Israel.  

There is quite a bit of stuff packed into three fairly short verses. First note that we get her lineage, which is a bit rare where women are concerned. In some ways, that Luke tells us this is more remarkable than that she is a prophetess. [Note: I’m a bit on the fence with the -ess endings, like “actress”. But in gender-specific languages, which is most of the Indo-European languages except English, it really is appropriate since the words have gender-specific endings.] Then he tells us about her marriage and subsequent long widowhood. We didn’t get anything like either of these details about Simeon; so why her? Part of it, of course, is that Luke has been interested in filling in the backstories of his characters, so we get that here. It’s part of the novelist’s impulse.

But here is the real significance. One of the “arguments” used by Q people to “prove” that Luke hadn’t read Matthew is the absence of the Magoi in Luke. The latter, we are assured, is very Gentile-friendly, so of course he would never, ever, possibly leave out the recognition of Jesus by the Gentile Magoi. So, there you go, iron-clad, smoking-gun proof. Or not. The thing is, the addition of Simeon and Anna sort of take the place of the Magoi. No, they aren’t pagans the way the astrologers were; they are both Jews. But once again, Luke has mimicked Matthew, thereby reinforcing Matthew’s account without repeating it. Luke throughout has reinforced what Matthew has said by using the same themes–Joseph, angels, Bethlehem, virgin–but in a complementary fashion. He follows Matthew’s lead, but doesn’t just parrot what he finds. He fills it out, provides sort of an alternative version that does not contradict Matthew in any significant way (we have one of those coming up, however). So here. Simeon and Anna replicate the role of the Magoi while providing a distinct take on the theme. And that they are Jews, I think, is important. Think ahead to the the Road to Emmaus story, where Jesus is discussing the HS, describing the passages that foretell the coming of the anointed; it would really be nice to have the cites, but, alas, it’s not to be. As mentioned earlier, the cites don’t come all that often. So here, too, Luke is tying Jesus more securely into the Jewish tradition. He did the same with the story of the Visitation, setting Mary into a kinship relationship with a priest of the Temple. It may be that, by the time of Luke, the ties to Judaism had been weakened considerably, so Luke found it necessary, or at least expedient, to re-establish these connexions to fix Jesus more firmly into that ancient tradition. So here, two aged individuals, both wise, one a prophetess no less, see Jesus and recognize him for what he is: the ransom of Israel

Which is the last point: we get that word again. As a reminder, the base meaning is ransom, the fee paid to free someone captured by enemies, or bandits, or kidnappers. It has become blandly ‘redemption’, but the soteriological connotations have overborne the more practical ones, so that we forget the actual meaning. Jesus, essentially, got us out of hock by paying back the loan, thereby redeeming the pawn ticket given to…God…by…the Devil? Yes, the concept causes some problems.

36 Et erat Anna prophetissa, filia Phanuel, de tribu Aser. Haec processerat in diebus multis et vixerat cum viro annis septem a virginitate sua;

37 et haec vidua usque ad annos octoginta quattuor, quae non discedebat de templo, ieiuniis et obsecrationibus serviens nocte ac die.

38 Et haec ipsa hora superveniens confitebatur Deo et loquebatur de illo omnibus, qui exspectabant redemptionem Ierusalem.


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 22, 2017, in Chapter 2, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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