Friday, January 1, 2010


Unlike the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist in 1:59-66, which are a main feature of that narrative, the circumcision and naming of Jesus seems almost perfunctory. Actually it links the birth with section of the story about the purification of Mary and presentation of Jesus in the temple.

Some scholars also see a significance in calling attention to Jesus’ humanity and his Jewishness. As Paul wrote in Gal. 4:4, “He was born under the Law.” R. E. Brown believed that the true linkage was to the angelic command in 1:31, as the latter part of 2:21 indicates. In other words, Jesus’ parents were being obedient to God’s word. The next part of the story shows that they are also obedient to the Law.

While circumcision made the child a member of the sacred covenant, a ritual of purification was also required of his parents. Childbirth had rendered Mary impure according to the Law. (See Exod. 13:12,15.) However, there was no tradition for the purification of the father. His role was to provide for the appropriate sacrifice. (See Lev. 12:6-8.)

On the other hand, some doubt that both these rituals were still practiced extensively in the 1st century CE. Luke may either have got his facts wrong or created a situation for what was to follow. While the purification necessitated going to Jerusalem, the presentation of Jesus in the temple led to the encounter with the two prophets. Simeon and Anna. This reflects the story of Hannah and Elkanah who brought the child Samuel and left him with the aged priest Eli at the sanctuary of Shiloh as told in 1 Sam. 1:21-28.

It can be no accident that Luke made three separate references to the Law in 1:22-24 and then three references to the Spirit in vss. 25-27. This is surely Luke’s way of clarifying the continuity and discontinuity of the Jewish and Christian traditions. That was an important issue in Luke’s time when Jewish Christians were being expelled from their synagogues following the declarations of the Synod of Jamnia, ca. 85 CE.

The law and the prophets formed the major part of the Hebrew scriptures, embodied by Simeon and Anna. Pious representatives of the old tradition, they also looked for the long promised fulfillment of the messianic hope. Inspired by the Spirit, they saw their hopes realized in the infant Jesus. Equally significant was the fact that this happened in the temple precincts.

We have already seen that Simeon’s Song, also known as the Nunc Dimittis from the Latin of its first words, was probably not original to Luke’s narrative. Like the other canticles, it may have originated as a hymn of the earliest Jewish Christian community. It also draws extensively on OT references such as Gen. 46:30; Isa. 52:9-10; 49:6; 46:13; 40:5; Zech. 1:68; 2:10-11. All this introduces the Gentiles into Luke’s narrative in the same way as do the magi in Matthew.

Simeon also uttered a second, much more pessimistic prophecy directed toward Mary. This emphasis reflected a post-resurrection experience of the church which John wrote about in his passion narrative. Tradition held that Mary lived with John, son of Zebedee, in Ephesus late into the 1st century. A sense of judgment for Israel and all unbelievers also comes to the fore in anticipating the rejection of Jesus. Anna’s greeting and praise of the child provided a more fitting, hopeful ending than Simeon’s reference to a sword passing through Mary’s soul. He may have adapted this from Ezek. 14:17.

As we have seen with much of both nativity narratives, OT references seemed to guide Matthew and Luke in their composition of the story we tend to conflate.

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