What happens when we read the Magnificat with the Benedictus?


The lectionary gospel reading for Advent 4 in Year C is Luke 1.39-45, with the option of reading on to Luke 1.46-55. Do please take the option of reading the Magnificat; reading the first half without the second would be like going to a Michelin-starred restaurant for dinner and leaving after the starter!

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.

(Previously posted in 2018. The picture at the top is The Annunciation by Fra Angelico from around 1445.)


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63 thoughts on “What happens when we read the Magnificat with the Benedictus?”

  1. That’s quite a list Ian!

    I think that verse 46 is extremely important – for two reasons:

    – it shows that it isn’t appropriate to think of Mary as another mediator between us and God – Mary is not sinless (she refers to Jesus as her saviour).

    – the verse is one of a couple of places where our spirit and our soul are shown to be two different things. I want to focus on this.

    I believe that scripture shows that our soul is everything which makes us alive. And that our spirit is everything which makes us alive to God. I will show some of my reasons for that below.

    There is a view in Pharisaical Christendom (any context where there is much focus on the word and little on the need to welcome and experience the presence, leading and empowering of Jesus) that our spirit and our soul are the same. This is very serious because it amounts to thinking that it isn’t possible to divide ideas about God from the presence of God. Which allows God to be considered present whenever ideas about him are present – and whether or not we EXPERIENCE him to be present. If we believe our mind and our spirit are one then we will inevitably live as Pharisees.

    If our spirit and soul were one then verse 46 would use either the word spirit or the world soul but not both. However if there is any doubt about that Hebrews 4:12 puts that doubt to rest:
    ESV
    For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

    The spirit (which Romans 8:16 says receives from the Spirit) is not subject to the flesh – implied in this verse:
    Galatians 5:17 ESV
    For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.

    But the soul – our mind, emotions, will – are flesh.

    The reason why we are able to ultimate gain victory over the fallenness of mind, emotions and will is because the spirit – led and empowered by the Spirit – which is not fallen – is able to be supervisor. It sits above mind, emotions and will, informing as to when they can be trusted – and when they are out of order. The mind, emotions and will can sometimes inform us of the need to review what God has revealed to our spirit – for example our mind can point out that God cannot be telling us both A and the opposite of A – and our emotions can for example reveal that we may be failing to welcome Jesus’ humanity – and in order to begin a Spirit to spirit relationship with God we must make a whole of life choice with our will (even if that decision is only possible because of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to our spirit, mind, emotions and will – it’s complicated!). But generally it’s what is on top supervising what’s below – not below informing or enabling what’s on top.

    As a sign that our spirit is distinct from our body we see Jesus – as he dies – offering God his spirit – the part of him that continues to live – after his body dies.

    I had things wrong in an important way that God had to correct (and he did so literally last night – I was left to simply laugh when I saw which passage Ian’s article was about) – I mention it to show how its easy to have an anti-spiritual or anti-physical outlook. I had human beings divided as follows:
    mind – intellectual
    heart – emotional
    spirit – relational
    will – volitional

    But this is wrong because this makes our heart, spirit and will not part of our relating to God. None of the three is relationship with God on its own – but all are part of relating to God. Returning to v46 we see this with Mary – who is relating to God with her soul:
    “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord”. So my error in the division above is that ALL FOUR are relational – the spirit being separate only in SUPERVISING the other three in respect of relationship with God.

    I also have concluded that it’s not helpful to use the word heart for emotions or if we do to realise that what translations term the heart in scripture isn’t merely our emotions – it also includes our will. Though not the mind – see the verse below:
    Jeremiah 17:9 ESV
    The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind,…”

    Reply
    • Forgive the words “anti-spiritual” and “anti-physical”. Or at least specifically the word “anti-physical”. It’s not helpful to think of our flesh as physical if our flesh includes our mind, emotions and will – none of these are material when we are creatures of a creator. I just couldn’t think of a better word to describe what is immaterial but not the spirit. Suggestions welcome!

      Reply
        • Some comments from Derek Kidner’s *Genesis* commentary and based upon chapter 2 verse 7 might be of value here: “Note that man neither ‘has’ a soul nor ‘has’ a body, although for convenience he may be analysed into two or more constituents (e.g. I Thess. 5:23). The basic truth is: he is a unity. *Nephesh* , translated *being* (RSV) or *soul* (AV) [NIV – *living being*] is often the equivelant of life —-“.
          In other words, man is a psychomatic unity. In both Testaments, such terms as * spirit* or *body* should be seen as particular perspectives on that totality and completeness of our humanity.
          PS As the commentary was produced before the more modern biblical versions, the NIV inclusion is my addition.
          Apologies for inclusion suggesting “ageism”!

          Reply
    • In most languages there seem to be three words for our totality. In English these are body, soul and spirit. The problem is that different languages divvy us up in different ways. The important thing is to work out the division in the two languages of the Bible and in the language it is translated into. This is a seriously difficult task.

      Reply
      • Hi Anton,

        Thanks for reading my long comment!

        I think the reason we are able to understand what would otherwise remain hidden in scripture is that we come to it as those who as a result of our obedience have constraints (“the truth cannot lie over there – I’ve discovered that by obeying”) and direction (“as a result of acting on it I now need to ask scripture this”). Without these constraints and direction arising from our obedience we will always get it wrong.

        If we are submitted to God he is – through the ministry of the Holy Spirit and using the word of God – constantly seeking to teach us – this will include his working to separate spirit and soul. This means that when we approach scripture even if our intellectual framework is limited we can at least see it come together due to our feeling compelled to make sense of our experience. (I realise that sometimes it is the reverse – that scripture causes us to revise what we have concluded from our experience).

        Is it not the intention of God to express some truths in scripture so they can only be found by those whose obedience enables them to find them – to have need of them – and to ensure that those who don’t obey do not find them? I believe it is.

        I really like how the following verses (in neighbouring chapters!) reveal this “obedience leads to understanding leads to obedience” process:

        John 7:16 ESV
        So Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.

        John 8:31 ESV
        So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

        Reply
  2. I was struck this advent studying these texts, how both the M & B sing of God’s mercy 2x
    Mercy is also what the townsfolk celebrate when they hear of Elizabeth’s pregnancy
    so 5x in the opening scenes we have God’s mercy praised. I wonder if this motif is intentionally offered us by Luke as a key to understand Jesus; even if the word is not mentioned by Luke again, except in the parable of the Good Samaritan who is said to have ‘shown mercy’.

    Reply
  3. Why is Mary’s reply to the angel “How shall this be, since I know not a man?” rather than “How shall this be, since my fiance does not occupy a most high position?” It is not big news for a woman soon to be married that she will bear a child. It *is* big news that her child will be exalted – but her caveat is about her virginity. Is there something in the angel’s greeting that suggests that she will become pregnant very soon, before her marriage?

    Reply
      • Good question!

        It’s really the same question as – why are evangelicals evangelicals?

        The best answer is NOT that historical documents show that Jesus rose from the dead – proving that he is God – and therefore since he believed the Old Testament was the word of God – and since he promises to reveal his word through his disciples – who in scripture refer to the letters of other writers as scripture – that the Bible is therefore the word of God. But that’s one answer.

        And the best answer isn’t that the Bible – as Jordan Peterson recently reminded his followers – is an extraordinarily hyperlinked book – with a mesmerising series of interconnections which would make its fabrication impossible. But that’s another answer.

        Before I say what I believe is the best answer let me point out that there are plenty of Pharisees who call themselves evangelicals who will only feel comfortable expressing their reasons for believing the Bible is the word of God by using one of the two intellectual proofs above. They will do so because their faith is really the result of their first judging God worthy of worship.

        Here then is what I believe to be the best answer. The reason the evangelical should give for why he or she believes the Bible is the word of God is because God used – and continues to use – scripture to teach them things about themselves which they were unable to see without his help. This leaving them with no choice but to turn to God – to his Spirit and his word FIRST – allowing him to speak to them – without their first judging his word. It follows from this that it is impossible to understand the Bible without first coming to it as a disciple.

        The Pharisee believes the order below is the order people are converted (repentance comes last so that he can first judge God worthy of worship):
        God’s holiness, justice, mercy, grace, REPENTANCE

        The liberal on the other hand wants God to judge HIS version of Jesus (which is really himself) worthy before submitting to God.

        The correct order – which reflects the fact that we are obligated to submit to God immediately after a revelation of his holiness and justice – and which is consistent with the fact that if we don’t respond to God’s holiness and justice alone we will never get to see or experience his mercy and grace – is:
        God’s holiness, justice, REPENTANCE, mercy, grace.

        I’m not saying we must preach the gospel in this order – I am not sure how we would do this. I’m saying that God opens the truth to the person being saved in the order I listed. What we can say when preaching is that those who don’t repent on the basis of their sin and God’s holiness and justice alone – who don’t make this the foundation of their faith instead of mercy and grace – the latter not obligating us (if someone gives us a million pounds and we don’t have any reason to deserve it that isn’t a reason why we are bound to that person) we will never have insight into – or experience – his mercy and grace. As was the case with the thief on the cross – and as the prodigal story reflects.

        So everyone who is saved considers themselves obligated – not invited. God’s holiness and justice enslaves the convert – mercy then makes that enslavement freedom, and grace makes it overflowing joy.

        Reply
      • I am addressing my question to those who accept the words.

        To those who don’t, why stop at questioning Mary’s words? Why not doubt the words of Jesus, the reports of the Resurrection and indeed the whole Bible?

        Reply
        • Hi Anton

          Your position is an all or nothing. All and nothing are two extremes. Extremes are less likely than less-extreme positions to be accurate, by and large, in most walks of life.

          Also, secondly, one rarely finds a situation in life that actually is all or nothing.

          Reply
          • Christopher,
            How do you judge that Anton’s comment is “extreme”? What is your criterion for making this assessment; especially since you go on to say that extremes are “less likely” to be accurate than “less extreme positions”? Where then does truth lie?
            When Jesus said:” I am the Way, the Truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father but by me” ; is this not a rather “extreme” position to adopt?

          • May I simply direct the attention of others to my original question? Why did Mary say, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” rather than “How will this be, since my fiance is not somebody most high?” She was surely expecting to conceive after marrying Joseph. What in the angel’s words made her think she would conceive sooner?

          • Hi Colin.

            Truth is absolute. So assertions are absolutely true or absolutely untrue. That is one example of the extremes being where it’s at.

            However, in the present case, we are dealing with a combination of multiple thousand assertions, since there are multiple thousands of things in the various biblical documents that can be tested/questioned. The overall idea is that either each item/unit will be true or each will be false. But these 2 scenarii are among the least likely, precisely because of their extremity. (I leave aside the implication that if one of these 2 scenarii is incorrect, then the other will be correct – that is bonkers: ‘going from one extreme to the other’). So this example, by contrast, is one where the truth is much more likely to lie somewhere in the middle.

          • Or, to simplify, if we were dealing with only one assertion, then it would be absolutely true or absolutely false, which is very extreme. If we are dealing with multiple assertions, as we are in the present case, then each of these individually is absolutely true or absolutely false, which is also very extreme. Clearly therefore the real world is full of extremity, and that is a good thing. However, if we expect all of the multiple assertions to be true, or all false, that’s 2 highly unlikely scenarii. Each is either true or false; we cannot always ourselves tell whether ‘true’ or ‘false’ obtains in a given case.

          • I am sick and tired of the kind of attitude displayed in this thread by one of the participants (wasn’t that clever of me – if the person who is responsible really has no idea it’s them they will not feel confronted – and if they do know it’s them – they should repent). I see how it leads to people who interact with the person feeling angry and sad – why should that be the result for anyone who comes to this forum. So just stop it – or be called out by name.

      • ‘how do we know what the exact words to Mary were?’ Because Mary ‘treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2.19), and then Luke interviewed her, either when he was with Paul was in Miletus in Acts 20 or in Jerusalem in Acts 21.

        Reply
          • Andrew – well, Luke did not provide us with a bibliography or list of sources (as you would find, for example, in a history book by Norman Davis), but he did state clearly that he was trying to give a trustworthy account and he seems to have been respected as a historian.

            Of all the gospels written, only four survived the scrutiny of the early fathers and were passed down.

            We know that Mary was alive at least at the time of the crucifixion – so if she Luke’s source, she would have been reasonably close to Luke’s source.

            There are huge swathes of Holy Scripture where the words of the song `the things that you’re liable to read in the bible it ain’t necessarily so’ seem directly applicable, but I don’t really see that Luke’s account is one of them – since he did claim to be providing a trustworthy account and, in this matter, he clearly had the possibility to get back pretty close to source.

            Anton asked a very good question – and I don’t really think we can get round it by saying, `well, the recall might not have been completely accurate, perhaps this isn’t exactly how the interview between the angel and Mary went’. There is an important issue here, which is that if Mary was already with child at the time that the interview took place, then she didn’t exactly have much of a choice in the matter.

            (I think my second answer to Anton is probably more plausible than the first and it raises serious issues. I can’t think of any other possibility).

            A footnote – Martin Hengel takes the view (The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ) that the gospels were early and that they pretty much go back to source – and interestingly he thinks that Luke’s gospel was written with the Pauline epistles in view; Paul should be read through Luke.

          • It is not at all likely that Luke met Mary. The reason is that Mary would probably figure in the sources in the years appreciably after the resurrection had she still been around. But she does not figure beyond the immediate aftermath,Luke’s floruit begins twenty years later, in 50AD, when he may have been around 20.

            Luke had Mark as one of his closest associates, and it was in Mark’s house that the Jerusalem community, which did include or had include Mary, met – maybe from the very start but certainly from within a decade of the resurrection.

          • Jock, you say that of all the gospels written, only four survived the scrutiny of the early fathers and were passed down. But…
            (1) in terms of date, there are only four early ones anyway (first century);
            (2) this particular date puts them in the timeframe wherein eyewitnesses and those who had spoken to eyewitnesses were still alive;
            (3) there are only four works written in this genre anyway. You might call the later gospels ”gospels”, but besides being later, it is in addition true that none of them, as a writing, looks anything like the four main gospels.

          • I think a further complexity with the Luke interviewed Mary hypothesis is that Luke does not mention Mary in the genealogy whereas Matthew does. There would seem little reason for Luke to omit her name if he had specifically interviewed her as an eyewitness.

          • Andrew, Christopher – yes – I concede that – the Luke-interviewed-Mary-directly hypothesis doesn’t hold water. He probably had access to some of the disciples though – Mary tells Jesus, Jesus tells the disciples, the disciples tell Luke, Luke writes it down.

          • And a further complication is that Matthew mentions an angelic visitation to Joseph, which Luke does not record. Had Luke interviewed Mary she would surely have mentioned such a visitation to her husband. Unless of course that visitation as Matthew recorded didn’t ever happen…..
            Thank you Jock for the book recommendation. Richard Burridge has also written a book with a similar title.

          • Andrew – in fact, it’s only in Matthew’s gospel that we get the killer punch – that the child isn’t biologically Joseph’s. This may be implicit in Luke, but it isn’t explicit stated – and if it weren’t for Matthew’s account, I’m not sure that Luke’s account would have been understood in this way.

          • Andrew – by the way – if there is a discrepancy between Matthew and Luke for historical accuracy, then I probably prefer Luke. He does much more at the beginning of his gospel to convince the reader that he is trying to give an account that is accurate in his details. The origins of Matthew’s gospel seem to be much less well understood.

          • Whilst it’s not wrong to wonder how Luke comes to write down Mary’s words (though we have to admit that often questions like this don’t lead to anyone loving God any more than they did before considering the issue) isn’t it great that the believer can throughout say “Thank God that you ensured that Luke got Mary’s words”!.

            If we see signs that anyone is struggling to respond in this way – that they find it difficult to welcome Jesus’s words along with him – we should for their sake save our ponderings for a time when it will not be inconsiderate to them. This is what the mature believer does – always limits their behaviour for the benefit of those who are weak.

            It isn’t just the welfare of the person who struggles to receive Jesus’ words which is at stake – it’s also the welfare of the person whose flesh lives for the opportunity to “correct” – who only needs the slightest justification to be launched into action – and who has no intention of writing a single word which will lift up and include instead of knock down and exclude.

          • Philip – well, there is clearly something you don’t like about the current discussion, but I can’t really see what it is.

            It was very useful for me, because Andrew Godsall put me in the diretion of the book by Richard Burridge, which I looked up on amazon – and now I have it on order. It looks very promising and interesting – and many thanks to Andrew!

            Anton raised a very good question, the possible answers to which raise even more interesting questions. Andrew raised another very good question – and exploring the possible answers to these questions was interesting and useful.

            Anyone looking in on this discussion will see serious people thinking through serious issues. I don’t see how this is unhelpful to an unbeliever – unless we’re trying to pretend that Scriptures present no apparent discrepancies whatsoever (in which case why four gospel accounts instead of a single account?) and unless we’re trying to portray Christians as swivel-eyed unthinking automatons.

          • Before I justify behaviour which is unduly harsh to the Pharisee let me point out that his behaviour is only indirectly his fault. He has failed to repent in response to God’s holiness and justice – instead insisting on judging God worthy of worship (making himself the ultimate judge). And that has these consequences:
            – his holiness is maintained by his mind instead of fellowship with God – causing it to quickly become distorted – self-righteousness
            – his justice is also distorted for the same reason – becoming petty
            – because he fails to repent IMMEDIATELY in response to God’s holiness and justice he never gets to see or gain access to God’s mercy and grace. So his heart is to exclude and he is unable to reach out.
            He literally CANNOT do any of these things right. There is therefore not much good that will come from belting him over the head for behaving like this (I am not yet succeeding to not do this – to love with a big enough love – the extent to which I fail is the extent to which I am a Pharisee).

          • Hi Jock,
            Thanks for your reply.
            If my words are out of turn here then I ask that you receive them only in respect of how they apply generally.
            I didn’t think it would be unhelpful to post them – I don’t think it would be too radical a statement to say that we are as a forum pulling out of non-productive contempt – the liberal for the Pharisee – and the Pharisee for the liberal. And I want to ensure that we go the whole way – which includes more than simply having civil conversations – but more than that – acting for the BEST welfare of the weaker person.
            Thanks.

          • Philip – well, I’d probably say that the discussion we’ve been having on this thread is more-or-less irrelevant as far as the central gospel message is concerned. The precise transaction between Mary and the angel is irrelevant to the fact that Jesus was the Son of God, as is any discussion as to which of the gospel authors presented a more accurate picture. Perhaps we are in danger of entering the territory of `the empty philosophies of men’ rather than `the Word of God’ – and I wouldn’t put much of this discussion into a sermon that was intended to convict people of their sins, bring judgement upon them and bring them to repentance and belief – because I see it as more or less irrelevant and tangential to this.

            It is notable that John didn’t mention the human origins of Jesus, or precisely *how* God became man and dwelt upon us – the important point is that he *did* become man and, in so doing, reached into the fundamental ontological depths of our being and, in the crucifixion, confronted sin – our sin – head on on our behalf – and, by his resurrection we know that he conquered sin on *our* behalf so that we are `more than conquerors’ in Him.

            At the same time, the bible (the whole bible) was given to us for a reason – and the discussion we have been having has all been about very interesting points – which are inevitably raised by a serious reading of Scripture. Although I wouldn’t recommend including the material we have been discussing here in a sermon, I don’t think that God intended us to overlook these issues and I don’t see anything wrong with discussing it – particularly not on a forum such as this.

            Of course, if Ian Paul disagrees then we stop, because it’s his blog – but right now it looks like a good discussion (at least from my point if view).

          • Philip: your question is one that was put to me when I started studying theology over 45 years ago. It is: how do you reconcile study of theology with having a faith? Doesn’t all this study cause you to doubt rather than increase your faith? It’s a question put in good faith but is seriously unhelpful. The study of theology helps us discover the depths of God’s word.

          • I LOVE your comment Andrew! It takes us to the heart of the matter – to the logical endpoint.
            The person who considers the study of theology as always destructive makes perfect sense – WITHIN THEIR WORLDVIEW. The part they are missing is that the person who has had God speak to them through his word in respect of their own blindness – and who repents – now approaches the Bible as one both compelled to look first to God and his word – BUT ALSO – WHEN DOING SO – HAVING NO CHOICE BUT TO HUNT FOR THE TRUTH AS ONE WILLING TO OBEY. This means never treating the POSSIBILITY of the Bible being wrong as if it has any consequences (keeping in mind that for it be wrong it must stand in the way of what it claims to be – which is the means by which we can RELATE TO GOD). If we are forced to believe the Bible is not true – and we are free to go around TRYING to prove it CANNOT be true even while we are followers of Jesus – it means also having to doubt to the point of denying their initial conversion – to decide that God did not reveal to us that we were not enlightened – we were mistaken.

          • I simply don’t understand comments about the bible being true or not true I’m afraid. Poetry and other story telling literature can’t be described as true. It is a category mistake to think of much of the bible in that way. It can certainly convey deep truths however.
            The bible is faith history. It’s a compelling story of God’s dealings with his people as they understand those dealings. And their understanding is always limited because they are human.
            Thank you!

          • Hi Andrew,
            I said in my post what true means. It means “being able to be relied upon entirely as a means of knowing God and doing his will”. That definition allows each literary type to be honoured as its own form of communication.
            I hope that one of my pre-occupations of recent days – that we won’t be able to understand scripture – or even discern its purpose – unless we come to it either willing to obey the Holy Spirit – or having already chosen to – is beginning to penetrate. We NEVER have a reason to approach God as if he has said nothing and must prove himself to have said something before he is entitled to our allegiance. His love revealed in creation is enough to make that attitude sin (although not to erase the need to be questioning when approaching the Bible).

          • Philip: forgive me but I’ve put a search on this webpage for “being able to be relied upon entirely as a means of knowing God and doing his will” but I’m afraid that the only thing that comes up is what you have just posted. So I don’t at all see where you said that. And as Ian has said several times, your posts are overly long and that alone makes them pretty impossible to respond to. I’d also prefer that you didn’t use capitals as it signifies your shouting.
            Other than that, I think your point is a helpful one. Thank you again.

          • Hi Andrew

            Search for this:

            “keeping in mind that for it be wrong it must stand in the way of what it claims to be – which is the means by which we can RELATE TO GOD”

            But there’s no need – the issue is whether you believe creation reveals the love of God in a way which is sufficient to ensure that people should come to him humbly – looking to respond to him – instead of to contradict him (this attitude is POTENTIALLY not inconsistent with TRYING to prove the Bible is wrong – since God has not promised in creation that the Bible is his word – however this attitude is ALWAYS inconsistent with considering the POSSIBILITY that the Bible is not the word of God reason not to seek and respond to God).

    • Anton – well, you know, it’s possible that Joseph’s equipment wasn’t in working order and that Mary knew about this. Otherwise, I dunno. It certainly is a theological teaser.

      Reply
      • That thought shot through my head while I was typing, but I discounted it because her family would never have let her marry him in that case.

        Is there something in that “Behold!” (IDOU) preceding “You will conceive” which indicates it is on the point of happening?

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        • Anton – if we take the view (as I do) that Luke has narrated exactly the discussion between Mary and the angel, then I think there is one other explanation – which is that the pregnancy had already started – and that the angel’s words explained to her the symptoms she was experiencing (which didn’t have any other apparent cause).

          Reply
          • Anton – hmmm …. yes ….. but your original point therefore still stands all the more. She is betrothed and will soon be married – the natural meaning of the angel’s words of Luke 1v31 would be `you will conceive at some point in the future after you are married’. So why is Mary’s overriding concern that she is still a virgin? There is nothing in the conversation, up to this point, between the angel and Mary to suggest that it must happen immediately and at once and before she marries Joseph. If we take Luke 1v35 out of context, completely on its own, then the angel could easily be telling her that after she had conceived (quite naturally with Joseph), the Holy Spirit would come upon her so that the child was extraordinary. After all, when the angel is explaining things to her, he gives Elizabeth as an example (and nobody is suggesting that John the Baptist isn’t the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah).

            So I guess I uphold your original point.

  4. If someone colleagues from time to time with important information but found that they seldom bother reading all of it I could throw in a line like “there is a chocolate bar in the filing cabinet under ‘c’. First person to get this far is the winner!”
    The truth is only true for one person and the one who set it up. Biblical truth is similar. It is true experientially and personally. It is designed by God to draw people into a plan. Theology, it seems to me, chases the Easter egg hunt after the party is over, so to speak. The question should be “How can I have a deeper relationship? How can I participate in God’s plan the next time I hear His voice?”
    For me, Mary’s recorded words ring true. She got the biscuit! I don’t want to participate in a hunt for evidence of a chocolate bar.

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  5. Christopher (putting it here because we’ve run out of reply buttons) Luke tells us, at the beginning of his gospel, that many had undertaken to write an account (grammatically in the same sense as many have undertaken to decorate a tree – lots of different trees – lots of different accounts), so there were many at the time that Luke wrote.

    Hengel argues that only gospels with apostolic authority `got through’. He also thinks they are presented in some generalised sense in the order in which they were written. The `generalised sense’ applies to Matthew – where he thinks there was probably some proto-Matthew which came in first – and was then subject to a very serious revision and expansion. Mark (he argues) goes back to Peter (Mark basically putting down what Peter told him to put down), John – was by John bar Zebedee and Luke’s gospel derives its apostolic authority from Luke’s association with Paul.

    As far as Mary goes – you’re absolutely right that there is no mention of her – and this is somewhat odd if she really was alive and involved. To me this is somewhat strange, because I’d have thought that her death would have been worth a mention. On the other hand, if we take the view that she died reasonably soon after the resurrection, then we can infer that she was not miraculously taken to heaven (since such an event certainly would have been recorded – at least in Acts).

    Hengel dates all the gospels to sometime well before AD 70.

    Reply
    • Hi Jock

      Thanks for that. You are inaccurate on your main points, as follows:

      (1) This Hengel book dates none of the gospels ‘well before 70’. It tentatively dates Mark 69-70, Luke 75-85, and Matt in the 90s. John is on the later side of all this, he thinks.

      (2) He does not at all think John son of Zebedee wrote the fourth gospel. He thinks (a) it was written by Papias’s Elder John, (b) that Papias’s Elder John was a disciple of the Apostle John, and (c) that the Beloved Disciple merges the two. My verdicts are (a) yes, (b) unclear, (c) largely the BD is John son of Zebedee, but we do find some merging in ch20 and in the overall structuring.

      On Mary I agree with you.

      On Luke’s many, he certainly knew of 3 and used them all. It is hard to think that all that many people successfully wrote full gospels of this nature. Their structuring is rather intricate. In addition, because each has a ‘master’ OT passage and Christological title, the appropriate ones would be and were quickly exhausted by four gospels never mind by more than 4. Lastly, Luke’s use of sources and OT templates does not allow for more sources than the ones we already know, since there is no further material to be accounted for. Least of all, therefore, are any further continuous full gospels in view as sources for Luke.

      Mark was retained and survived despite being fully absorbed into Matthew, so this speaks well of the tendency to preservation.

      Reply
      • Christopher – thanks for this – it’s a while since I read Hengel’s book – and I misremembered. He certainly had them all before 100 AD. (It may have been JAT Robinson who dated John – and indeed pretty much most of the NT writing – well before AD 70 – on the grounds that otherwise the destruction of Jerusalem would have been alluded to more clearly).

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        • Christopher – what I do remember clearly, though from Hengel, was the idea of apostolic authority – that if a gospel made it through to the canon, then there was some apostolic authority behind it. Why should Mark get through even though it was fully absorbed into Matthew? Yes, speaks well of preservation, but Hengel thought that a key reason why they kept it (other than Irenaeus being very fond of the number 4) was that it did go back to Peter. With Luke, Hengel did point out the association with Paul – and for him this was in some sense key. For the fourth gospel, he certainly thought that it had the authority of the apostle behind it (following through his logic for the others). I don’t really understand why these guys (Hengel et. al.) have to go fooling about with lots of different Johns when the hypothesis that John bar Zebedee was responsible seems (a) reasonably obvious and (b) reasonably natural and (c) fits in with most things other than the fact that the Greek of the fourth gospel seems different from the Greek of Revelation.

          Reply
          • OK. There was no issue of ‘made it through to the canon’, since there were no other gospels. Some writings of a *different* sort turned up *later*, long after people with significant memories had died, but it is not clear to me why you are viewing any of these in the same category. It seems to be a picture derived from the Da Vinci Code and popular mythology concerning Constantine, which is almost the last place one should look.

            Secondly, on the issue of the Johns we are blessed by having both Hengel and Bauckham in our aid – what better? Any judgment on this would need to be based on their detailed arguments rather than initial impressions. The factors involved are very numerous. Some of the books on it (e.g. Drummond) are huge. My 1999 paper at BNTC gave 4 additional arguments for preferring Hengel’s picture over Bauckham’s and agreeing that John Zebedee is the beloved disciple. However, Bauckham is the one of the two that makes more headway.

            On apostolic authority, this would only come into play if the claims of some gospels needed to be asserted against the claims of others. But that is not how it was. Or by the time it was that way, there had never been any idea that there were other writings to take into consideration when the fourfold gospel had been well known both in the first century and in the second (it is the presupposition of the work of Tatian).

            Robinson dated the NT before 70, as an exercise in seeing how far an hypothesis could possibly be stretched. Dennis Nineham told me that the idea of trying out this experiment was inherited from his father – or possibly his uncle Armitage Robinson, I forget. I think he was only half right. I think 13 books are pre-70, 13 from the period 71-c100, and about James I am not sure, but it seems to be near the cusp.

          • But you are right re Peter’s preaching and recollections lying behind a lot of Mark (not all of Mark).

          • Christopher – that is interesting, because I was always under the impression that there *was* an issue about which writings were canonical and which weren’t – and that there was a fairly rigorous selection procedure; I was under the impression that this was generally accepted. Also, if it was considered that texts had some sort of authority about them, then they did not undergo multiple editing, but were passed on.

            I’m pretty much new to this blog – but it seems to me that the comments you put below the line (where there are already more than 50 comments) are very good and deserve more visibility. Is Ian Paul prepared to let you post this above the line? And would you be prepared to do this? The replies you have made to me wouldn’t need much editing or expansion.

          • Hi Jock
            When commenting, I am writing very fast and without much attention to detail.
            Re editing, any textual changes had to have come in exceptionally early since our NT MSS family trees are so vast and early and particular as to debar that possibility, virtually. There is one other way of showing the extreme excellence of the transmission of one book in particular, but that is something I am currently working on.
            There was large agreement on the main core of writings and then there were fuzzy edges. Only a few writings vied for co-canonicity. There are several good books on the canon’s development: Metzger, LM McDonald, Bruce, Charles Hill.
            It would not have mattered if they did so, since no 2nd century writing is going to have much chance of equal acceptance with 1st century writings, which all 27 NT books are, given that the interrelationship shows that the Pastorals predate Ignatius and Polycarp and can be used as core material by the time the latter 2 were written.

  6. Per Christopher Shell – thanks for that interesting insight. However, I would argue that a logical position is only as sound as the Premises on which it is based. Any point of view which is related to , for example, a belief system cannot only be seen in objective terms; it must have a subjective dimension. Terms such as “extreme”, “moderate” etc have to be linked to the systematic foundations . Thus when Jesus says” I am the Way, the Truth and the life -“, I see this as an, absolute; but others who do not accept the premises would possibly view it as misguided or wrong. I would see it as the truth even though the proposition undergirding it could easily be seen by many as “extreme”.

    Reply
    • As I said, extreme things are very often true. Every meaningful assertion is entirely true or entirely false, so extremity is just everywhere.

      Reply
      • Thanks Christopher! If I may be so bold as to paraphrase Descartes : Cogito Ergo Sum – I think therefore I am extreme. Blessings of the season to you!

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  7. Meanwhile, back to Ian’s essay! Generally speaking, I find it a first class exposition of the material. In particular 2 points from the final paragraph stand out (a) the stress on the nature of salvation as wholistic ; not simply the “spiritual” manifestation (still seemingly beloved by many), but embracing the whole of life! How the world is looking for a God who addresses the psychological, socio/political crises of the age! And (b) that salvation “is both realised and yet to come”. Based as they are upon OT prophetic understanding, we need to see the Benedictus and the Magnificat through “bifocals” rather than “monochromatic lenses”.
    Nevertheless, in the light of this (pardon the pun) I would add the following caveats:
    (1) Judgement [Luke 19:44] is not (necessarily) the same as rejection [Luke 13:35] – (c.f. penultimate paragraph) – and even where rejection is pronounced [Hosea 9: 4b] that can be “reverse” [Hosea 14:4]. Romans 11, in my estimation, makes that abundantly clear.
    (2) As Ian has indicated, what Zechariah has declared re God’s redeeming activity, “is a celebration of what God has already done”! Hence it is complete, yet still to be exercised. In other words there are still OT promises that have yet to find their fulfilment, even though that fulfilment can only be realised through Jesus Christ! Once again, biblical truth often exists in a tension between past, present and future.
    I could pursue this further, but I will conclude by recommending readers of this post to “read ,mark, learn and inwardly digest” what was written in the first place.
    Every good wish and blessing to all through Him who alone provides real joy!

    Reply

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