Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changin', Part 2: Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)


The towering figure of Hans Conzelmann loomed large over the scholarly study of Luke's Gospel from 1954, when he published his seminal redaction-critical study of Luke's theology entitled Die Mitte der Zeit, until at least the publication of Joseph Fitzmyer's 2-volume Anchor Bible commentary on the Gospel in 1982 and 1985. Central to Conzelmann's thesis was that Luke had transformed the primitive kerygma ("proclamation") he inherited from Mark into a piece of history—indeed, salvation-history (Heilsgeschichte)—and that Jesus' ministry constituted the central act (hence, Die Mitte der Zeit) of a tripartite drama that can be summarized in terms of Israel, Jesus, and the church (he likewise argued that Luke transformed the early Christian expectation of the imminent parousia [i.e., Jesus' return at any time, implicitly in the near future] to establish the kingdom into a theory of an unfolding of Christian history in progressive stages).

Part and parcel of Conzelmann's thesis was a historical/theological separation between the ministries of Jesus and his predecessor, John the Baptizer (pp. 18-27). John, in his view, was relegated by Luke to the period of Israel. To do this, however, Conzelmann had to dislodge Luke's infancy narratives from the pride of place and hermeneutical significance a more narrative-sensitive interpretation would suggest they should be given. For in these narratives the births of John and Jesus are set in parallel and, indeed, intertwined to an extent that they mutually are designed to interpret each other. Better is the analysis of François Bovon. Bovon demonstrated that Luke's infancy narrative is structured around the principle of parallelism and interchange, with the definitive linkage shown in the middle through the meeting of their respective mothers, Elizabeth and Mary (1:39-56) (cf. F. Bovon, Das Evangelium nach Lukas, vol. 1: Luke 1,1-9,50 [EKKNT; Zurich: Benzinger/Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1989] 46-47):


a          declaration of the birth of John (1:5-25)
a'                      declaration of the birth of Jesus the Messiah (1:26-38)

b          meeting between Mary and Elizabeth (1:39-56)

c          birth of John the Baptist (1:57-80)
c'                      birth of Jesus the Messiah (2:1-40)

The numerous parallels between Luke 1 and 1 Samuel 1 also cast light on the Old Testament background of the Gospel story. Simply put, John plays Samuel to Jesus' David. The reader with eyes to see and ears to hear immediately perceives Luke's implicit (and in places [e.g., 1:32-33] explicit) theological point, viz., that Jesus is the new David, the one whose kingdom would have no end (see 2 Sam 7). It is in this context that Luke, after narrating the meeting of the two mothers-to-be and Elizabeth's blessing of the coming child and "mother of [her] Lord" (1:39-45), provides a narrative "time out," as it were, in the form of a song uttered by Mary, commonly known as the "Magnificat" after the song's initial word found in the Latin Vulgate's version of it. Luke's purpose in providing this "time out" is, as Joel Green says, "hermeneutical": "to ensure that we understand the significance of the angel's annunciation to Mary" (The Gospel of Luke [NICNT; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1997] 98). The text of the hymn reads as follows:
46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
    of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
    holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
    from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
    but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
    just as he promised our ancestors.”

As all scholars recognize, Mary's Magnificat bears striking resemblance to certain contemporary Qumran hymns and the slightly earlier Psalms of Solomon. Even closer parallels may be found in the Psalms of Praise in the Psalter, particularly such as are found in Psalms 33, 47, 48, 113, 117, 135, and 136. But by far the closest parallel—in context one would not be mistaken to regard it as its model—is the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. In her "hymn," Mary extols the Lord both for the special favor he had bestowed upon her individually (1:46-49; cf. 1:28, where the angel refers to her as kecharitōmenē, "having been shown favor") and that shown upon the remnant of the nation who "feared" him, that is, who had acknowledged God's sovereignty and ordered their lives accordingly (1:50-53). A number of elements in the hymn are significant in terms of the topic "The Times They Are A-Changin':


First, as Raymond Brown noted, the Magnificat is, for all practical purposes, a cento or mosaic of Old Testament allusions to God's gracious dealings with Israel (The Birth of the Messiah [2nd ed.; New York: Doubleday, 1993] 357; Brown conveniently lays out the parallels, line by line, in English, on pp. 358-60 in his commentary). The point of this barrage of allusions, not to mention the echo of Hannah's song of praise, is to situate Mary's pregnancy and the birth of Jesus squarely in the story of God's historical and salvific dealings with his people Israel. "Continuity" this certainly is, but Luke intends more than this ...


Second, Luke theologically interprets the conception and birth of Jesus, and the consequences of these events (1:51-53), as the long-awaited fulfillment of his covenant promises to Abraham (1:54-55). This, in other words, is what the entire narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures was pointing towards. The eschaton had indeed arrived, if only in incipient form. A number of elements of the hymn likewise point in this direction:

  • Mary herself sees her pregnancy as a watershed event: "from now on" (apo de nyn) all people would consider her fortunate (1:48). This phrase, found only once in the non-Lukan NT writings (2 Cor 5:16), is often used by the Evangelist in reference to the "eschatological" divide precipitated by the Christ event (Luke 12:52; 22:18, 69; acts 18:6).
  • Mary sees these events as examples of the "mercy" God showers on those who "fear" him (1:50). "Mercy" in this context almost certainly reflects the Hebrew term ḥesed, which refers to God's loyal love manifested to those with whom he was in covenant relationship.
  • The reference to God's "arm" unmistakably points back to God's prior mighty act of delivering Israel from the clutches of Egypt by his "outstretched arm" (Exod 6:6; Deut 4:34).
  • Luke speaks of God's loyal, covenantal acts as continuing "forever" (eis ton aiōna; 1:55), i.e., to the culmination of the eschatological age set in motion by Jesus' conception.

Mention of the messianic age raises two distinct issues, those of the timing involved and the character of its blessings, that now must be discussed in turn.

Third, Luke portrays the messianic fulfillment of the Abrahamic promises as already having been inaugurated when Mary uttered her Magnificat. This is most striking in his use of the aorist tense for the verbs in verses 51-52, which he also moves to the front of each short, crisp clause for added emphasis. Mary, reflecting on her good fortune, praises God in that he has already performed mighty acts, scattered the proud, deposed the oppressive rulers, and exalted the humble. This has caused no small discussion in the commentariat. Brown, followed by Fitzmyer and a host of others, has attributed the aorist tenses to tradition-historical origins: Luke has simply retained the perspective of the Jewish Christian source from which he lifted the hymn, in which the Christ event had effected the reversals enumerated. The Jewish Christian source for the hymn notwithstanding (which I consider at least possible), certainly Luke was a better editor than Brown supposes. No. In its narrative context, The Evangelist intends to make a different, more profound theological point: the conception of Jesus set in motion the eschatological events in which God would finally fulfill all the covenant promises he had made to Abraham and the patriarchs. The simple aorist tenses, similar to how Paul used the aorist tense in Romans 8:30 to speak of the believer's past (!) glorification, convey the absolute confidence he (and Mary!) had that the ultimate consequences mentioned in the hymn would eventually take place by virtue of the inaugurated fulfillment which had occurred in the conception of the coming King and Lord. The times, they have a-changed indeed!

Fourth, Luke portrays the ultimate effects of Jesus' conception and birth in terms of "eschatological reversal." The Christ event would, in other words, issue in a massive, socio-economic transposition wherein the haughty, powerful, and rich who had oppressed the pious poor would be brought low as the latter were permanently elevated and vindicated by their king. This, of course, raises the question as to how such a reversal should be interpreted. Some, especially in more Reformed circles (one thinks, e.g., of William Hendriksen), tend to spiritualize the covenantal benefits uttered by Mary. And one does well to recognize the unmistakable spiritual dimension to the promises involved. Indeed, the humble and the hungry whose fortunes are reversed are explicitly identified as "those who fear [God]" in verse 50. Mary, by Elizabeth's clear reference to her cousin's belief in God's promise (1:45), is portrayed by Luke as an exemplar of the faith and socio-economic humiliation (tapeinōsis [1:48]) of the remnant who would be delivered in the eschaton.

On the other hand, the "salvation" of which Mary speaks (1:47) is contextually tied to the fulfillment of the national promises made to Abraham and the Patriarchs and the socio-political and economic deliverance of the pious poor Israelites oppressed by both their Gentile overlords and the impious of their own people. It is contextually and theologically illegimate to restrict the benefits experienced by this remnant to the so-called "spiritual" sphere of "salvation" narrowly understood. If, as all realize, the poverty and oppression of the lowly are the direct result of systemic evil, the covenantal deliverance of God's people from sin will also deliver them from the ramifications of the structural evil that helped cause and perpetuate their poverty and social humiliation. Most importantly, Luke asserts with the utmost clarity that the age in which this reversal is to take place has already burst on the scene, despite the death rattles of the present evil age that, as Luke well knew, would only be finally and totally overcome at Jesus' parousia. But if so, this has inescapable ramifications for the witness and mission of God's covenant people in this age of kingdom inauguration. Many so-called "progressive" Christians, who unfortunately downplay Paul's theology of the cross and underemphasize the purely "spiritual" dimension of salvation, recognize this. Unfortunately, many of us who identify as "evangelical Christians" don't, being perfectly satisfied in being the progressives' mirror image. That is a shame, and we have no excuse.


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