Reading the Benedictus with the Magnificat

For those following the Revised Common Lectionary, this year will allow us to focus on Luke’s gospel. It is often claimed that Luke emphasises the gospel for the poor, or that he focusses on women and their roles, in particular the contribution of the wealthy women in Luke 8.1 who contribute to the financial underwriting of the ministry of Jesus and his entourage.

In fact, Luke is rather more subtle than that. Felix Just offers this helpful table of parallel stories of men and women in Luke’s gospel. They are listed as a pair in the order the they occur, rather than putting the stories and texts about men in one column and the stories and texts about women in the other, so we can see that sometimes the men come first, whilst at others the women come first. In the pairing of Mary and Zechariah, there is a kind of chiasm, in that the narrative of Zechariah comes before the story of Mary, but Mary’s canticle of praise comes before Zechariah’s.

Angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah (1:8-23 – L)Angel Gabriel appears to Mary (1:26-38 – L)
Canticle of Mary (Magnificat; 1:46-55 – L)Canticle of Zechariah (Benedictus; 1:68-79 – L)
Simeon encounters the infant Jesus & his parents
in the Jerusalem Temple (2:25-35 – L)
Anna thanks God & prophesies about Jesus
in the Jerusalem Temple (2:36-38 – L)
Widow of Zarephat & Israelite widows (4:25-26 – L)Naaman the Syrian & Israelite lepers (4:27 – L)
Exorcism of a Demoniac at Capernaum (4:31-37 – Mk)Healing of Simon’s mother-in-law at Capernaum (4:38-39 – Mk)
Centurion’s slave is healed (7:1-10 – Q)Widow of Nain’s son raised from the dead (7:11-17 – L)
Naming of the twelve apostles of Jesus (6:12-16 – Mk)Naming of women who accompanied Jesus (8:1-3 – L)
Jairus’ daughter is raised to life (8:41-42, 49-56 – Mk)Bleeding woman is healed (8:43-46 – Mk)
Parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37 – L)Examples of Martha and Mary (10:38-42 – L)
A neighbor asks for bread at midnight (11:5-8 – L)A widow asks for justice persistently (18:1-11 – L)
A woman in a crowd shouts out to Jesus,
Blessed is the womb that bore you…” (11:27 – L)
A man at a dinner tells Jesus, “Blessed is anyone
who will eat bread in the kingdom of  God!” (14:15 – L)
The Queen of the South (11:31 – Q)The Ninevites (11:32 – Q)
A crippled woman is healed (13:10-17 – L)A lame man is healed (14:1-6 – L)
Daughter of Abraham” reference (13:16 – L)Son of Abraham” reference (19:9 – L)
Parable of a man planting a mustard seed (13:18-19 – Mk)Parable of a woman mixing yeast & flour (13:20-21 – Q)
Parable of a shepherd looking for a lost sheep (15:3-7 – Q)Parable of a woman looking for a lost coin (15:8-10 – L)
Example of two men together asleep (17:34 – Q)Example of two women grinding meal (17:35 – Q)
A servant girl questions Peter (22:56-57 – Mk)Two men also question Peter (22:58+59 – Mk/L)
Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross (23:26 – Mk)Jesus meets women on the way to Calvary (23:27-29 – L)
Joseph of Arimathea buries Jesus’ body (23:50-53 – Mk)Women see where Jesus is buried (23:55-56 – Mk)
Women find Jesus’ tomb empty (24:1-11 – Mk)Two disciples journey to Emmaus (24:13-35 – L)

Literary Sources:  L = only in Luke;  Q = Luke and Matthew, but not Mark;  Mk = from Mark (and usually also in Matthew)

But more noteworthy is the fact that, of these 21 paired stories, nine have both halves unique to Luke (designated by an ‘L’), and a further seven have one half unique to Luke, making a total of 16. Of the remaining five, three are pairs of stories also found in Mark, and the other two are combinations of Mark, Luke and Matthew. In other words, most of this ‘pairing’ phenomenon is distinctive to Luke and (we may infer) part of his deliberate organisation of his source material gathered from his research (Luke 1.1).

This certainly means that, when reading or preaching on these stories, we should look for the connections with the other half of the pair, and explore either points of commonality or points of difference between the two. And it means that for Luke the gospel isn’t ‘merely’ for the poor, the woman, the marginal—it is for rich and poor alike, for women and men alike, for the marginal and the central alike, and for the religiously respectable and religiously scandalous alike. This is a both/and gospel, and not an either/or gospel.

One particular example is the first in this list, the pairing of Zechariah and Mary. It is not uncommon to hear exposition of the contrasts, which flow naturally out of the common verbal response to Gabriel ‘How can I be sure of this/How can this be?’ (Luke 1.18, 34) which turns out to be a statement of doubt for Zechariah but a statement of faith for Mary. But it is less common to compare the Magnificat (from now on referred to as M) with the Benedictus (referred to as B), to see any points in common and any contrasts of focus. Given Luke’s concern with pairings, surely this is a good idea. (I am not aware of any other comparative studies of the two canticles; do let me know in comments if you have come across one.)

It is first worth noting the things that the two canticles have in common. The most obvious is the language of ‘remembering’ and the mention of Abraham. Both canticles also draw extensively on Old Testament texts and ideas, though in rather different ways. Joel Green (in his NIGTC p 101) notes the links in the Magnificat with the Songs of Moses (Ex 15.1–18), Miriam (Ex 15.19–21), Deborah (Judges 5.1–31), Asaph (1 Chron 16.8–36) and especially Hannah (1 Sam 2.1–10). ‘As others have noted, Mary’s song is a virtual collage of biblical texts’. See here a list of the echoes of scripture in the Benedictus—though this analysis doesn’t note the differences introduced (like the ‘forgiveness of sins’) and so presses the text too much into a political framework. And clearly the Benedictus is not simply making a collage in the way that the Magnificat is.

And now we begin to see some of the differences. At first sight, M is much more personal, focusing on what God has done for Mary as an individual. To this extent, it echoes the language of the personal psalms of victory and celebration, and repeatedly follows their structure of first articulating praise and then going on to give the reason for that praise (‘My soul glorifies…for he has…’). By contrast, B focusses on what God is doing for his people Israel, and to that extent is more corporate and more formal in its celebration. The contrast is not quite so simple though: M does lead from the personal to the corporate, ending with a celebration of what God has done for Israel; and B moves in the opposite direction, in the (widely recognised) second half moving to what God will achieve through the particular individual John, Zechariah’s promised son.

This leads to two further observations about the difference. We repeat the M so often that we might not realise the strangeness of the tenses: all of the action is set in the aorist (past) tense, and is a celebration of what God has already done. If you don’t think that is odd, just remember where in the wider narrative of Luke this comes! Strictly speaking, God hasn’t yet done very much! Jesus has not yet been born, and in a context of high infant mortality, this is no mere detail! In her song, Mary’s understanding of God’s deliverance is highly realised, and she sees the pattern of God’s redemption as already anticipated in his gracious dealing with her. It is rather startling that (in contrast to B) there is absolutely no mention of what this promised child will do. Mary here becomes less of a means of God’s saving action, and instead a pattern and a model for it. By contrast, B is largely focussed on the future; God has done something (‘raised up for us a horn of salvation/mighty saviour’) but this is with the intention of enacting salvation, which has not yet happened. The second half, focussing on John, is all in the future tense. So God’s action here is less a pattern of salvation and more a means by which salvation will come.

The second thing flowing from this basic difference in orientation is the different focus. M takes up a frequent theme in the psalms and the wisdom literature, that of justice in Israel and God’s reversal of the current order of rich and poor. Although there is ‘help [for] his servant Israel], that ‘help’ is all about the reforming and reneweal of the people; the focus is internal. But in B, the focus is outward; salvation comes to give Israel security from those who threaten and oppress her, to allow the nation to worship God in peace. There is a shared focus on God’s strength, and both draw on the theological tradition of God as warrior. But in M God is a warrior in Israel on behalf of the poor and opposing the oppressor within the nation; in B God is a warrior for Israel, rescuing her from her external enemies. Both canticles include the idea of covenant renewal, but they have quite distinct elements of that covenant in view.

Finally, both include themes that will be picked up and elucidated further in Luke’s gospel. Mary’s theme of reversal occurs most notable in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes (Luke 6.20–26), and the theme of feeding the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty is most dramatically illustrated in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16.19–31). The connections in B are harder to spot but equally important: the language about God ‘coming’ to his people and the dawn from on high ‘coming’ to us both use the verb episkeptomai ‘to visit’. This visitation brings blessing if received—but judgement if refused. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem in Luke 19.44 because the people ‘did not recognise the time of God’s visitation (episkope)’.

So, in this ‘both/and’ gospel, salvation is both personal and corporate. It renews God’s people in justice and righteousness, and it saves them from their enemies. It is both realised and yet to come, both incorporating and adapting God’s promises from of old. It brings both grace and (if that grace is refused) judgement, focussing both on God’s own initiative and the invitation to respond. And it is recognised by an old, priestly man and a young lay woman. Let us celebrate all of these this Christmas.

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20 thoughts on “Reading the Benedictus with the Magnificat”

  1. I love how Luke does this pairing. If we look carefully we see often see the bloke making a bit of a hash of it (e.g. Zechariah irritating the angel), and the women being the ideal disciple. Luke’s heroes of faith were women, highlighting the best models of following Jesus. The men tend to be the ones where we learn from their mistakes as well as what they did right.

    Oh, and the links to the resources are very helpful. They’re now linked in my zotero system. Thanks.

      • A bald reading of the words could be read that they are similar, but it’s obvious that Zechariah irritated the angel and Mary didn’t. A good movie director and actors would think it through and come up with a way of portaying one as problematic and the other not.
        However it’s done, its clear that Luke, as author, was showing that Zechariah’s response was somewhat short of ideal whilst Mary’s wasn’t. (We could posit that the angel was an irracscible type and was grumpier than he should have been witih Zechariah, but that’s certainly reading outside the text).
        As I say, Luke tends to show the woman acting as a model of discipleship to be emulated in comparison to a bloke who messes it up a tad.

        • Angels are not free agents, so any ‘positing’ about angelic anger management issues should be kicked into the long grass. Perhaps the point was that as a priest Zechariah should have been familiar with the numerous biblical stories of old couples becoming parents. As for Mary, perhaps we should take 1.27 as proleptic of 2.5; i.e., Mary wasn’t yet betrothed to Joseph, otherwise her response to Gabriel’s message would have been, ‘So Joseph and I are going to have a son, the Messiah!” As for ‘blokes making a bit of a hash of it and women being the ideal disciple in Luke’, I don’t really see that gender contrast in Luke. There are plenty of positive depictions of men (and a few negative ones) in the specifically Lucan material.

          • Some of the comparisons include
            Mary (good response to the angel) cf Zechariah whose response irritates the angel.
            Simeon who says “Thanks God, I can now die in peace” and Anna who says “Thanks God” and sets out to tell everyone who would listen.
            Simon the pharisee host who is a rubbish host versus the women who does all the things a host should have (e.g. washing Jesus feet) with marked reverence.
            The 12 were with Jesus, the women disciples were also with Jesus, but more than this were also supporting the group out of their own means.
            The “rich” giving out of excess, the poor women who gives everything
            The 12 male disciples desert Jesus, the women disciples are there at the cross and at the burial
            The women give witness to the resurrection whilst the 12 male disciples don’t believe them

            In Luke, if someone is making a mistake in discipleship, its almost always a male (Martha is the exception here). Women are multiple times presented as the ideal of discipleship, men less so. Luke continually points to women as being worthy of emulating. Those he presents where he wants us to learn lessons from their mistakes are almost invariably men.

  2. 1. How far should we say these canticles reflect actual words of Zechariah and Mary?

    2. How far do they reflect the actual liturgical practice of the (Jerusalem?) church?

    • On your first question, Brian, a close friend of my former Archdeacon was a government official who visited the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in the Pacific Ocean some years ago. He made a speech there, carried out various duties, and returned to Great Britain. 4 years later, he went back to the islands and was amazed to find that whole sections of his speech were quoted back to him verbatim. Non-literary societies are accustomed to preserving accurate records of spoken words over a considerable time.

      My best guess is that Luke got his information first hand from Mary while he researched and compiled his Gospel and Acts during Paul’s two-year Caesarea imprisonment. So I think it likely that the Magnificat and the Benedictus are substantially accurate records of what was said at the time.

      To say nothing, of course, of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as divine custodian of the trustworthiness of Scripture.

      • There are two main objections to the idea that these are the words of Mary and Zechariah: their composition; and their transmission.

        In relation to composition, it is objected that a ‘simple peasant girl’ could not have composed such a piece. But if Mary was part of the expectant ‘Nazorean’ community, steeped in the Scriptures and in messianic expectation, I don’t think this is a serious problem.

        And John addresses the issue of transmission above.

        • Or perhaps the Magnificat and the Benedictus were translations of scripture-based compositions used in the Jerusalem church, analogous to the Todoth hymns used by the Qumran sectaries, and traditionally (and rightly) linked with Zechariah and Mary? We know from Acts 1 that Mary was part of the Jerusalem church, though that is the last we hear of her. I don’t know what to make of the tradition that she lived in the care of St John and ended up in Ephesus (and yes, I’ve been to ‘her’ house there!). Whether Mary was still alive and still in Pales- oops, the Holy Land in AD 57, I have no idea.

  3. Ian, are you suggesting that “forgiveness of sins” in the Benedictus is not a political idea? The assurance of the forgiveness of Israel’s sins is part of the allusion to Malachi 3:1, which is certainly a political text. That there is a political dimension to forgiveness in the Old Testament is apparent from eg., Ps. 85:2 (“You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin”); Is. 1:14; Dan. 9:9; and many other texts. There are prominent political themes running through the Benedictus. And the next reference to forgiveness in Luke is John’s proclamation of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”, which is explained by reference to Isaiah 40:3-5: the expected forgiveness of sins is like the return from exile. I agree that the corporate renewal of Israel had personal implications (Israel’s sins are committed by people), but it seems to me that the political narrative is at every point in the foreground in the passage.

    • Thanks Andrew–yes I think I would suggest it is not ‘merely’ a political idea. Perhaps it depends on what you mean by political. Certainly, it is connected with the restoration of the nation in the texts you mention, but I think we need to recognise both the irreducible connection with restored relation to God, and the way that forgiveness of sins is mentioned in the rest of the gospel, with personal, spiritual and therapeutic dimensions and not merely ‘political’ ones.

      • I see the distinction, but my understanding would be that the “personal, spiritual and therapeutic dimensions” to forgiveness are concrete and prophetic expressions of the framing “political” transformation. The terminology is a problem, but by “political” I mean that it has to do, in the first place, with the experience of Israel as a nation—in particular, with the prospect of war and destruction in view. So not just a matter of “political” sins.

        This, after all, appears to have been Zechariah’s overriding concern: the God of Israel has visited and redeemed his people (as a people), has raised up a Davidic king who will deliver them from their enemies, so that Israel as a priestly people might serve God in peace; and John will give knowledge of salvation to his people (as a people) in the forgiveness of their sins.

        Put that way, however, Zechariah didn’t get what he wanted. So perhaps the point is that the sins of Israel as a nation—”political” Israel, the Israel represented by the Pharisees and Sadducees, et al.—were not forgiven, but the sins of many of the poor and marginalised, the tax collectors and sinners, were, and they became the seed of the renewed people of God.

  4. No, I don’t think Luke is saying women make better disciples than men. Simeon isn’t being compared unfavourably with Anna, otherwise his canticle wouldn’t have been preserved by the church, presumably for worship. What is depicted rather is the more limited social world that Jewish women occupied then, as wives, mothers and widows. They didn’t live independent lives, all the less so in a traditional agricultural and fishing society. It is difficult, for example, to think of a woman inviting a man to dine in ‘her’ home. Women on the margins in such a world were more likely to face poverty through widowhood (cf. Luke 18.1-8) or to have ended up in prostitution or to be suffering from chronic illness, including mental illness, without family support. It is clear from Luke’s Gospel that Jesus warmly welcomed those on the margins and the outcast and they reciprocated (Luke 13.10-17). This goes for men on the margins, renegade Jews like Zacchaeus and Samaritans, as well as suffering women.

    • But Luke also presents members of the religious elite in a favourable light too.

      ‘In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.’ Luke 1.5–6

      • Yes – the attempt (common in leftish Catholic circles) to make Luke into a proponent of socialist liberation theology never seemed that convincing to me, although you still find Catholics who talk as if the Magnificat was a communist manifesto avant la lettre. Catholic Marxists have to recruit Mary for the cause, I suppose. I don’t see many things in Luke-Acts that challenge the Roman empire and some things in it that affirm it.

  5. Despite the aorist tense, Mary seems to be reflecting upon what God will do through the Messiah; he will bring down the haughty from their thrones and lift up the lowly. So too with Zechariah: God will defeat Israel’s enemies and allow His people to live and worship in peace.

    This all sounds very similar to David’s administration of Israel—he defeated Israel’s enemies and judged righteously among the people (2 Samuel 2:25, 7:1). Since Luke doesn’t actually narrate how Jesus achieved this, how ought we interpret such militaristic language? Or does Jesus even renounce such aspirations?

  6. I had always thought that when Mary asked the question, “How”, she was concerned about the moral aspect as she was a virgin; whereas Zechariah’s question showed he was not holding on to faith that his own prayers (for a child) would be answered.

    • That’s fair comment: Luke 1.13 says he had prayed for a child and the angelic appearance and message confirmed that his prayer had been granted; so he should have believed.
      John Nolland in his Word commentary argues that Luke 1.27 is proleptic of Luke 2.5 and that Mary at that time was not yet betrothed to Joseph – which is what the words suggest on first reading.

  7. I think that it is magnificent in itself that all of you have taken so much time to study the words of these two prominent characters in the story of our Savior’s life here on the earth. I am intrigued with many of the notions that you all present and defend. In my heart it is principles of these presentations of the gospel that need special note for in the principles we find the sustenance of the gospel of Jesus Christ as a means of changing hearts and lives. Whether or not Luke made women prominent or whether he paired stories whether political or personal, the fact that he loved the Lord and told about men and women, rich and poor, doubters and believers who were converted gives hope for all that they too may come unto Christ and be forgiven of their sins and use this knowledge of His love for all no matter how low or high in station no matter how faithful in the beginning to build hope for salvation and exaltation for all who love the Lord and follow in his footsteps. ” Be it unto me according to thy words”, rings true in each of the lives of all who consider themselves devout followers of Jesus Christ. Principles, principles principles whereby we may “live a life” that more closely emulates His path to perfection through his blessed atonement for our sins.


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