The Christmas Story (IX). Luke: Mary, Elizabeth, and Prayers/Hymns of the Early Church

[Part 8 is here. Part 10 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

Luke has given us two traditions, one about Zacharias and Elizabeth, one about Mary, and both involve Gabriel and angelic announcements. Now Luke is going to bring them together by telling us about a visit Mary makes to Elizabeth. This cements the blood relationship between Jesus and John. Luke is the only one of the Evangelists who knows about this, and he uses this to blend the two traditions.

Now that Luke has this backstory of John and Jesus, what does he do with it? Essentially nothing, directly, at least. The other Gospel writers seem ignorant of it, and in the Gospel of John, the Baptist actually says that he never knew Jesus! So this is a little like the infancy stories in general. They create this backstory of Jesus, they provide an Israelite foundation, there are these spectacular events: stars, wise men, murder of children, shepherds who tell the story of angels, and then no one knows about this at all later on. It’s as though Zacharias and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, never see each other again. The story of this linkage comes to us and then disappears.

Mary travels to where Elizabeth lives and this was not too far, Zacharias is a priest, and the priestly families lived near the temple. When they meet, Luke inserts some early Christian hymns into the text and I think this is a good place to stop and consider the hymns that appear in these two chapters.

Elizabeth and Mary. Holy women, miracle babies. (Image: Wikipedia)

Elizabeth and Mary. Holy women, miracle babies. (Image: Wikipedia)

Perhaps the most famous among the hymns that Luke inserts into the birth story is also the shortest, the one the angels sing for the shepherds. Luke says, “the multitude of the heavenly host” and gives the impression that there is not just a quartet here. It’s a huge heavenly choir, “the multitude” as though everyone is there. After the message about the birth in the “city of David” and a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, then they sing: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.” This is not the KJV version, it is the RSV and it may grind on our habits a bit, but it is correct. There are two contrasting things: in Heaven, Glory to God, and on earth peace among the chosen. This is called a hymn or psalm, but more likely it began as a prayer. (Think Mormon here, people. “The song of the righteous . . . ” [Doctrine and Cov. 25])

Early Christian prayers were Jewish prayers. Christians prayed the way Jews prayed, because they *were* Jews. The foundational Jewish prayer is the “Shema.” (There’s a guttural at the end, ultimate accent—shay-MA.) Hebrew, for “hear.” It stands for this: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one.” The idea is, other nations have their god(s), our god is the One God. In the Gospel of Mark (Mark is writing to Gentiles) in chapter 7, Mark tries to explain something about Jews and their customs, washings, etc. His audience doesn’t know about Jewish practice. And when Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, what do you have to do? Mark has it begin with, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”[Mark 12:29] That is, the preaching to the Gentiles was teaching these Jewish prayers and hymns (the thought has been that Mark largely registers as concatenated sermons–preaching—though narrative criticism has taken things differently[1]) well into the 60s AD. Not something you find in the first discussion today. These early Christians had no thought that they were leaving their Judiasm behind. That doesn’t happen for some considerable period. You can start to see it in John’s Gospel (ca. 95(?) or so). Christians probably worked out their own prayers in the patterns they knew from their Jewish heritage. The pattern was to construct prayers from Old Testament passages, phrases. In some sense we have such prayers/hymns in the modern LDS temple endowment where words and phrases are repeated together. This is a pattern through all these episodes and caches of worship/devotion/liturgy.

The Gloria prayer/hymn is very short, but it may be that it is truncated from a longer prayer/hymn, and that a second portion of the hymn is found in Luke 19, where Jesus enters Jerusalem and Luke adds something not found in the other Gospels: “peace in Heaven, and glory in the highest.” It sounds something like another verse from this hymn. Later singing of the hymns developed as antiphony, a part of the worshipers chant one portion, another part chant a succeeding portion. Something like this:

group 1: Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace (angels to earth)
group 2: Peace in Heaven, and glory in the highest (earth to angels)

The idea is that Luke uses the early prayer/hymn in the narrative of his Gospel, filling in portions of the story where only perhaps a suggestion or hint existed regarding some event. This is not by any means an unknown practice and it wouldn’t have been seen as irreverent.

But on with Mary’s hymn. When Mary and Elizabeth meet, Elizabeth has a revelation, prompted by the baby in her belly “leaping.”–he’s a prophet even before birth (again, think Jeremiah), and the spiritual power that evoked this is upon Elizabeth and she has this revelation. And Elizabeth can’t hold this revelation back, she exclaims with a loud cry, “blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why is it granted that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” She has had revealed to her the Christological message. Now there is a parallel in Luke’s Gospel to this as well. There’s a woman in a crowd during the ministry that exclaims this: “Blessed [fortunate] is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you.”[ESV Luke 11:27][2]

All these hymns have this feel of being inserted into the story, there is some slight awkwardness where Luke places them. It’s believed that Luke had a kind of hymn collection that came from an earlier community of Christians, and he’s added a number of these to the story. They are not Luke’s compositions, at least not much, but they are likely not the compositions of the people who speak them in the story either. The hymns Luke uses fit the devotion of the persons to whom they are attached, but they don’t really fit the story line well. You can see this in Mary’s hymn/prayer that Luke places as a response to Elizabeth:

46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is on those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
52 he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”

The hymn is called the “Magnificat” (Latin) for the line, “my soul magnifies the Lord.” [Magnificat anima mea Dominum: et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.] Notice the first part is certainly relevant to Mary (and it is very like, a version of, the song of Hannah at Samuel’s birth, but the rest is somewhat odd. It’s not a comment on Mary or what Elizabeth said. And this is one signal that Luke has these hymns mostly at hand, which he uses and modifies to kind of pad the narrative.[3]

The hymns Luke uses have a common style. Hymns and prayers of the era can be seen in other contemporary sources, in the books of the Maccabees and the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). What people have found from the DSS is that Luke's hymns conform rather precisely to a Jewish pattern of hymn construction, indeed the process is Mathean in a sense. Every phrase, line, word combination is drawn from somewhere in the Psalms, Prophets, Histories, somewhere in the Hebrew Bible.[4] These hymns come from people who have read/heard these texts so often that the parts and pieces are on the tip of the tongue so to speak. It became a work of artistry to create from this sea of clauses and phrases these hymns and prayers of hope and praise.

That's all I'll say about this episode, but in the final post of the series, I'll give some samples of modern musical settings for Luke's ancient hymns. I think they are beautiful and the ancient hymns also find expression in many of our more modern carols. And these hymns reflect a process that paralleled the gradual exit of Christianity as a species of Judaism. The hymns become more Christ-centered than God-centered–that's one way to think of it. [Try Philippians 2:5-11.]

Next: Scenes from Jesus' birth.

[1] On the swing to narrative critical views and perhaps back, see R. Alan Culpepper, "Mark 6:17-29 in its Narrative Context: Kingdoms in Conflict," in Iverson, et al. eds. Mark as Story: Retrospect and Prospect, 163.

[2] These kinds of declarations are not unknown in the Bible, for example Judges “Most blessed of women be Ja-el . . . blessed above all women” and in Judith “And when they raised him up he fell at Judith’s feet, and knelt before her, and said, ‘Blessed are you in every tent of Judah! In every nation those who hear your name will be alarmed.'” Jesus takes it further from the woman in the crowd by saying that the real blessing occurs with the person who hears the word, “does” it. On the Mary/Elizabeth relationship, etc., see Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 330-66.

[3] This is not at all unusual in histories and annals written prior to modern theories of historiography and professional historians, and in fact we can see elements of it in the histories composed by Latter-day Saints about the early church and Joseph Smith’s life and preaching. One particularly appropriate example is the way early Mormons created *their* hymns. For the story of that, I recommend Michael Hicks, Mormonism and Music: A History (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1989). As far as early prayers are concerned maybe the best example of what Luke is doing is found in Zacharias’ words. His prayer/hymn is an Old Testament one, except one small part that almost feels like it was added on:

68 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people,
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies,
and from the hand of all who hate us;
72 to perform the mercy promised to our fathers,
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath which he swore to our father Abraham,
74 to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 through the tender mercy of our God,
when the day shall dawn upon us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of
death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Almost every line is sectioned from somewhere in the Old Testament. This is the way early Christians prayed in fellowship. It’s inspiring stuff.

[4] Joseph Smith’s preaching follows such patterns in many cases. His preaching to the apostles July 2, 1839 is a fairly typical instance. In some sections, nearly every phrase is some modified version of a passage from the Bible. Another example is his sermon of May 12, 1844.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this.

    If anyone is interested, here is a translation fo the Magnificat I did back in 2008:

  2. I would be REALLY interested to know what Luke’s sources were for some of this stuff. Were these stories circulating right after Jesus’ death, or did it take some time for them to develop? Did Luke simply record the stories, or did he edit them to try to make a cohesive whole?

  3. Luke uses Mark and probably whatever Matthew was working with, and then something else, given the extra parables. Jesus was a country preacher, his teaching is almost all in rural contexts, he didn’t hang out in towns. It’s unlikely that people wrote down what he said. So it’s all oral tradition, it’s part of the preaching after Jesus’ death by both eyewitnesses and then post resurrection converts. Luke molds his sources to fit his purpose and probably felt free to add, subtract, form the stories for his purpose. I say a little more on this in the next part.

    Kevin, I missed the link to your translation. I’m inserting it in the OP.

  4. New Iconoclast says:

    I have always loved the Magnificat. My mother had an album (like, a vinyl 33 1/3 LP record album) of a Catholic (I think – we were Catholic, but she got music from a number of Charismatic Movement sources in the early ’70s) vocal group which included a beautiful arrangement of it that never fails to bring me back to my most comforting earliest Christmases.

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