The Christmas Story (VII). Luke: Gabriel, Zacharias/Elizabeth, and John

[Part 6 is here. Part 8 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

Matthew doesn’t tell anything about John’s nativity. He pops onto the scene baptizing. He’s part of the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. John (the Evangelist) puts him in his Gospel in a very weird way. He’s talking about Jesus existing before creation and all of a sudden he inserts the Baptist into the narrative. It’s a powerful part of the message for him.

You have to introduce John the Baptist because he’s a proxy for Elijah, Elijah is to come back and reunite the generations, and Luke has him doing that act by proxy in a sense. It’s all very abstractly Mormon. The Evangelists see the Baptist as both figure of the Old Testament and New. He is, in Joseph Smith’s term: ELIAS the forerunner of the LORD, and ELIJAH, uniter of worlds. For Joseph, this was priesthood office and the Baptist filled it, as did Joseph himself. You have to have a restorer. In Joseph’s revelation of 1832 (section 84:27-8) the Baptist was ordained by the angel (probably Gabriel, eh? I mean it takes one Elias to know one, right?) at eight days.

Elijah and priests of Baal. Window at St. Matthew's Lutheran, Charleston, SC. (Image: Wikipedia)

Elijah and priests of Baal. Window at St. Matthew’s Lutheran, Charleston, SC. (Image: Wikipedia)

Joseph uses the Greek form (Elias) to distinguish the dual missions of Elijah. The revelation has him overthrowing the kingdom, but this doesn’t happen literally. In the revelation’s view, John takes the kingdom and transfers it to the Messiah. And he does this by baptism. Of course, early Christians don’t betray any knowledge of this. At least, they remain faithful Jews (cf. the end of Luke) until Stephen’s death, Paul’s frustration, and Peter’s revelation stir the pot with radical consequence and the Jews finally end out as pariahs in a Christian dominated world when fellowship became hatred.[1]

Now, Zacharias enters the temple to burn incense. The “whole multitude” of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. The temple is a house of prayer. And the language gives us the impression of a people prepared. John is working his magic even before he is born.

And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the alter of incense.

We find that the angel has a name: Gabriel. Gabriel appears once in the Old Testament, in the book of Daniel, the man of the last times. Gabriel comes and interprets a vision of Daniel’s. It’s obscure stuff. But Luke is doing something interesting with his narrative. He juxtaposes Abraham, the beginning of Israel, with Daniel, the closing of the Old Testament (the ending of Israel).

Gabriel in a 14th century fresco. The (Image: Wikipedia)

Gabriel in a 14th century fresco from a Georgian Orthodox Cathedral. The floating speech scroll is a part of his words to Mary I think, but I don’t know for sure. (Image: Wikipedia)

Luke surrounds the whole of the Law and the Prophets and he follows this pattern with Mary. Gabriel comes to Mary and says: “Don’t be afraid.” Really. The angel says the same thing to the shepherds. “Fear not.” Gabriel calls people by name. Certifying that he really is in the right place speaking to the right person, you may have faith (think Joseph Smith here). Gabriel to Zacherias:

Your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth shall bear a son, and you shall call his name John. And you shall have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice at his birth.

This is the patriarchal pattern, naming people before they are born. It’s a way of saying that the child has a prepared destiny, a whole life is planned out. “John” means “Yahweh gives grace.” And this predicts the rest of the declaration: joy and gladness, many will rejoice because of John. There are two kinds of deliverance present here. One is the traditional thing from the Old Testament. For much of the Old Testament, there is no evidence of belief in an afterlife. When God declares Adam and Eve will die, that’s it. They will End. It’s only near the end of the Old Testament when an afterlife becomes a more universal idea. (Mormons would offer that elites clearly had knowledge of preexistence, which as Joseph Smith forcefully argued, guaranteed a post-existence. But this was not the view historically in general.)

How then can one live on, if there is no afterlife? Through children. Any knowledgeable Jew (or Mormon) could answer the question, what is the first commandment of God? It is to multiply. In that sense there is continuity (and whether one believes in an afterlife of not, this is still true). The commandment anticipates the disobedience. For a woman to die childless in such a mindset was a terrible loss. God responds to the yearning of Elizabeth. She’s going to get pregnant. And of course, she does. It’s blushingly literal. As Matthew has Joseph, a just and observant man, Luke has Zacharias and Elizabeth, just, priestly, observant people who are blessed with great joy. Luke does not intend to explain the world here. It’s God’s act and intervention and it just is.

With Mary the situation is distressingly different in some ways. She’s a young woman, not married though betrothed, not expecting or praying for anything like this, not NOW. But Gabriel shows up and tells her she’s going to have a child and it’s not going to be Joseph’s. She hasn’t wished or dreamed of anything like this. It’s a total shock. It mirrors in a clear way the shocking grace of Gethsemane. Unexpected. There are two kinds of grace: prayed for, yearned for, and shockingly unexpected, unwished for, perhaps even with implied danger, etc.

Gabriel goes on: John will be great before the LORD, he shall drink no wine or strong drink (like Samson, Samuel, Nazarites set aside for the LORD from birth, they don’t live ordinary lives) and Jesus describes John through the words of others: he’s an ascetic, he is in some ways a kind of monk, self-discipline for religious reasons. Luke may be puffing his story here by adding in what he knows about John from the Jesus tradition he has before him. Like Jeremiah, John is set apart from his mother’s womb. As Luke puts it, John is filled with the Holy Ghost even inside the womb. John will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.

Zacharias: “how shall I know this?” God can do anything, is the answer. And Gabriel makes him mute. Gabriel did the same thing to Daniel. It’s the end of things as it were—the end of a world. When the prediction comes to pass, Zacharias can speak again—it’s a new world. The people at the circumcision ask Zacharias about the name of the child, and he signs “John.” He’s released from his prison of silence. “And fear came on all,” the neighbors know there is something to do with God here. It’s frightening and rumors spread. When Zacharias exits the temple after his interview with the angel he’s supposed to bless the people, but he can’t do it—he can’t speak. Luke doesn’t forget this, because at the end of his Gospel, Jesus blesses the disciples and they go back to the temple. Everything is fulfilled.

There’s one more thing about naming John that Luke sort of subtly inserts into the story. Elizabeth knows the name of the child before Zacharias signs the name. It’s pretty clear that Luke wants us to see that there were TWO revelations, one to Elizabeth, one to Zacharias. Read the account, and see what you think.

Importantly, Joseph Smith’s revelation (Doctrine and Covenants section 27) introduces Gabriel as (an) Elias too, as forerunner (see the next post), and this is a key part of Mormon angelology: Gabriel was once a human being. Noah. All angels once were, are now, or will be, mortal humans. This is a very different view from the Old Testament, where beings from heaven can procreate with human women, but what other ways they link with humanity is unclear. The Angel of the LORD for Moses is God himself. The apocryphal literature exposes a more explicit angelology (I’ve mentioned it a bit). It’s a curious business, but beyond the scope of this post.[2]

Next time: more Luke.

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[1] The theological place of John the Baptist is one of Joseph Smith’s favorite sermon topics, which he uses to debate various positions of the day. Search here if you wish. On Elias, Elijah and the splitting of identies for Joseph Smith, see Samuel M. Brown, “The Prophet Elias Puzzle,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 39, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 1-17.

[2] Benjamin Park, “A Uniformity so Complete: Early Mormon Angelology,” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 2 (2010): 1-37. I think it’s clear that Joseph was familiar with the Apocrypha (and see Doctrine and Covenants 91).

Comments

  1. Nice write up. With regard to angels, it doesn’t take much a leap to theorize that particularly good humans would become celestial beings in the afterlife–whether you call them angels, saints, boddhisatvas, or something else is just a detail.

    The interesting part is that, as you note, the Old Testament is unusual in this respect, in that it doesn’t postulate any sort of celestial position for worthy humans. But then, as you also note, the Old Testament doesn’t postulate any sort of afterlife for any humans, at all. So it makes sense that the OT wouldn’t link angels and humans (except in a more, ahem, “biblical” sense.)

    What’s curious about the OT is how unusual it is in not offering an afterlife. Virtually ever ancient religion offers some sort of life after death, whether through resurrection, or reincarnation, or eternal drinking and fighting in the halls of Valhalla. Its the classic appeal of religion, the promise of survival. But the OT doesn’t offer that. Which could explain why, according to the OT itself, the ancient israelites kept turning to other gods…