Saturday, December 19, 2009


Like the narratives of the angelic annunciations, the birth of John and Jesus, are obviously told in parallel. The two prominent Roman Catholic scholars, Brown and Fitzmyer, both believed that Luke did not include these stories in his original gospel. They were added later as parallel narratives for two reasons: Luke’s purpose was to show that John was the prophetic forerunner of the Messiah, as described in Luke 3:1-22. Secondly, he sought to indicate the supremacy of Jesus over John.

A large part of the story of John’s birth concerned an apparent conflict over the name of the child. Included in it is the fulfillment of the angel’s announcement to and apparent punishment of Zechariah for his disbelief of what the angel told him. (1:18-20) Unclear is how Elizabeth learned that the angel’s instructions the child’s name would be John.

A solution to that puzzle lies in Zechariah’s actions at the time of the child’s circumcision. When neighbours and relatives protested that the child would be named after his father and Elizabeth insisted he be named John against their objections,
Zechariah gestured for a writing tablet and confirmed that the child would be called John. Banal though the suggestion may be, Elizabeth could have learned before that incident of Zechariah’s intention in the same way. On the other hand, Brown held that Luke probably intended his audience to believe that Elizabeth’s assertion was “a spontaneous and marvelous confirmation of God’s plan.”

Luke also featured the element of fear in both the annunciation to Mary and the birth of John to Elizabeth(1:12-13; 65). Mary also received reassurance lest she fear during her encounter with Gabriel (1:30). Old Testament authors made frequent reference to “the fear of the Lord.” In most instances, this meant a deep awareness of some holy moment or reverence in the event of awesome divine intervention. Luke obviously had something similar in mind (1:66).

We have already noted that the Benedictus or Zechariah’s song of blessing (1:67-79), like the Magnificat (1:46-55), the Gloria (2:13-14) and the Nunc Dimittis (2:29-32) were likely additions to the narrative in the final rendition of the infancy narratives. That they were hymns of early Christian communities based on Jewish antecedents is entirely plausible.

Similar examples exist in certain martial psalms and the important document from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Zechariah’s psalm has a sense of something already accomplished about it rather than of expectation. This would be natural in a Christian context. Brown detected some correspondence with apostolic sermons in Acts with “the atmosphere of prophecy uttered by one filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Again 1:80 we have a parallel to the ending to the narrative of Jesus’ birth. Unlike his younger kin, John did not develop good social relations. He became an isolate living in the wilderness. In later Christian centuries, numerous monastics adopted similar behaviour designed to enhance holiness. Such separation for the world is still practiced in many Christian communities.

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