This is HARDLY a comprehensive New Testament blog, though that is something I would like to do some day. But inasmuch as the LDS Gospel Doctrine course of study is New Testament this year, I wanted to at least have a venue where I could post some links, resources, excerpts from other things I have written, and, as the title suggest, "thoughts."

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Magnificat and Luke's Other Canticles

The Canticles in Luke
(See Good Tidings of Great Joy, 58-59)

            Whereas Matthew’s Infancy Narrative is characterized by his frequent use of Old Testament scripture, Luke’s is distinctive for its use of poetic interludes that his characters utter at pivotal points in the story. These are generally known as “canticles,” a word which comes from the Latin term canticulum, a diminutive meaning “song.”  The term is generally used in the liturgies of some churches for any religious song taken from a biblical passage, usually from the Old Testament, other than the psalms. The name is also applied to four passages in Luke’s Infancy Narrative that are known by traditional Latin titles that reflect their opening lines: the Magnificat (Mary, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” 1:46–55), the Benedictus (Zacharias, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” 1:68–79),  the Gloria in Excelsis (the angels, “Glory to God in the Highest,” 2:14), and the Nunc Demittis (Simeon, “Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace,” 2:29–32, emphasis added).
            While Luke wrote in Greek—and indeed, elsewhere in his Gospel and Acts his writing is the most literary Greek in the New Testament—the canticles reflect significant Semitic influence, meaning that they reveal Hebrew or Aramaic influences or prototypes behind the Greek text. This, together with the question of how Luke could have known the exact words that characters uttered at those particular moments, has raised important compositional questions. What were Luke’s sources?  Did he simply translate verbatim reports of the songs of Mary, Zacharias, the angels, and Simeon that were somehow reported to him, or did he exercise creative license in crafting the canticles as they now appear?  Further, all of the canticles echo important Old Testament passages, suggesting that either the original characters, Luke’s sources, or Luke himself knew these passages and applied them to the situations that Luke describes.
Many scholars suggest that the canticles were preexisting Hebrew songs that Luke simply translated and adapted to his story. Their reasons for this theory are because the canticles interrupt the context, use different vocabulary than the surrounding narrative, exhibit a poetic style that is more Hebrew than Greek, and sometimes seem to be only loosely connected to the story that Luke is telling. This theory suggests that the themes of deliverance and God’s coming salvation would have been common in the first century, and Jewish groups could have used Old Testament scripture to craft prayers or songs.[1] While this is possible, it is just as likely that the characters whom Luke describes, who are all righteous Israelites, would have known the same scriptural passages and had those same aspirations and hopes. As a result, the basic sense of the canticles could, in fact, have originated with the characters themselves, even if their utterances were subsequently rephrased and even elaborated as they were retold by early Christians, who became the Hebrew or Aramaic sources for Luke, who then translated them into Greek.
Regardless of their compositional history, the canticles as we have them today play an important and powerful role in Luke’s narrative. They effectively illustrate the feelings of the characters, draw the reader into the story, and movingly teach broader doctrine. Like Matthew’s formula quotations, Luke’s canticles connect his story with the Old Testament past and draw upon its promises. Clearly inspired, they witness that the same spirit that moved the original Old Testament authors, likewise filled Luke’s characters, the early Christians who passed on the stories, and Luke himself as he wrote.

[1] Brown, Birth of the Messiah, 346–55; Reid, Choosing the Better Part, 75; Vermes, The Nativity, 137–38.

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