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LUKE - Chapter 1

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Luke 1

Supplemental Commentary:

Note.  Only those parts of the Third Gospel that are peculiar to it are commented on here.  For all other parts the reader should consult the Commentaries on the parallel passages in the other Gospels.

Prologue  1, 1-4

In a single well-balanced sentence St. Luke gives an introduction to his book in a style that is very much like the classical elegance of Greek and Roman writers.  In the rest of the Gospel Luke generally follows the ordinary style of the Synoptics.  In this prologue the author states the occasion, sources, method and purpose of his history.  For the sense of these verses, see the paragraphs on sources, scope and structure in the introduction above.

1.  Have undertaken: literally, "have put their hand to, have taken in hand to, have tried their hand at"; this expression of itself says nothing as to the outcome of their efforts, but in Acts 9, 29; 19, 13 (the only other occurrences in the New Testament) St. Luke uses this word in the sense of unsuccessful attempts.  Fulfilled: more than merely "occurred"; these events had been foretold by the prophets.    3.  All things: Luke aims at completeness.  But the matter and form of the Synoptic tradition were already fixed.  Hence his account is not really a complete life of Christ.  Most excellent: a title of respect ordinarily used only of high officials in the Roman Empire, equivalent to our modern expression, "Your Excellency" (cf. Acts 23, 26; 24, 3; 26, 25).  Theophilus means "God's friend."  Possibly this was not a man's real name but was used for the purpose of concealing his identity.  A definite individual is meant, probably a noble Roman converted by St. Luke.  But the Evangelist naturally has a much larger audience in mind.    4.  Instructed: the Greek verb, from which our word "catechesis" is derived, signifies "to teach orally by having the pupil 're-echo' the words of the teacher."  Luke presumes therefore that Theophilus already knew by heart the basic facts of "all the Jesus did and taught" (Acts 1, 1).

Prelude:  The Coming of the Savior  1, 5 -- 2, 52

This account is entirely independent of the account of the birth and infancy of Jesus as recorded in the First Gospel.  But there are no contradictions involved and the two accounts harmonize perfectly.  There is not the slightest textual ground for questioning the authenticity of these two chapters of Luke's Gospel.  It is true that there is a more pronounced Hebrew tone to the Greek here than there is in the rest of the Gospel, but this can easily be explained as due to the original source, whether oral or written, that the Evangelist used for this section.  It is very probable that Luke's ultimate source of information here was the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Probably the Evangelist met her personally during his stay in Palestine.

1, 5-25:  Annunciation of the Baptist.    5.  On Herod the Great, see article on The New Testament Background; cf. also Matt. 2.  Zachary means "The Lord is mindful."  Abia: cf. 1 Par. 24, 10; 2 Esd. 12, 4.17.  Elizabeth was also the name of Aaron's wife (Ex. 6, 23).    8.  In the order of his course: there were twenty-four courses; that of Abia was the eighth.  Each course officiated twice a year for one week at a time.    9.  The temple: here the naos, the "holy place," the edifice proper which was the house of God.    10.  Outside: in the court of the temple.  The hour of incense: either at the morning or at the evening sacrifice.    11.  Angelic apparitions play an important part both in the Third Gospel and in Acts.  In all these apparitions the angel undoubtedly appeared in human form.

13.  Thy petition: from the following words it would seem that this refers to the prayers which Zachary had made for a son while he still had hope to obtain one; others understand this of his prayers for the coming of the Messias.  The child is to be called John because this name means "The Lord is gracious," i.e., he is God's answer to their prayers.    14.  The key-note of holy joy is struck at once.    15.  Great: cf. 7, 28.  He shall drink no wine or strong drink: cf. 7, 33.  This was one of the requirements for a Nazirite (cf. Num. 6) and apparently John is to be a Nazirite for life (cf. Jdgs. 13, 2-5), but there is no mention here of the other requirements for a Nazirite, that the hair of his head and the face must not be cut.  Strong drink as distinct from wine means distilled liquor.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, etc.: cf. 41.    16.  John is to fulfill the prophecy of Mal. 4, 5 f; cf. Matt. 11, 14; 17, 10-13.  The fathers are the Patriarchs, who had turned away from their descendants, the Jews, because of the unworthy conduct of the latter; but now the second Elias is to bring back the children of Israel to a way of life worthy of their ancestors (cf. the full prophecy in Malachias).  The incredulous: literally in Greek, "those who cannot be persuaded," i.e., the disobedient.  To prepare for the Lord: cf. Mal. 3, 1.  A perfect people: more exactly, "a people made ready," i.e., to receive Him worthily.    20.  Zachary's deprivation of speech was a punishment for his incredulity; it was also a sign that he had asked for (18), and was necessarily unpleasant to Zachary in order to insure his co-operation in John's conception.

21.  They wondered at his tarrying: the priests were accustomed to fulfill their functions and then leave the Holy Place as soon as possible; if they delayed too long the people began to fear that they had been struck dead for not offering the incense according to the prescribed ritual (cf. Lev. 16, 13).    24 f.  Since Elizabeth's sterility had been a reproach to her, we might expect her to glory in the fact that she had conceived; but on the contrary she secluded herself, perhaps "in order to prevent comments on the part of her neighbors" (Lagrange).  No doubt her seclusion lasted during the whole period of her pregnancy, but Luke mentions "five months" because he is about to speak of what happened in the sixth month of her pregnancy (26).

1, 26-38:  Annunciation of the Savior.    26.  Nazareth: see Commentary on Matt. 2, 23.    27.  Luke, like Matthew, emphasizes the fact that Mary was a virgin; the Greek word that is used here signifies a virgin in the strict sense, not merely "a young woman."  Betrothed: on the Jewish marriage customs and the status of Mary and Joseph at the time of the Annunciation, see Commentary on Matt. 1, 18.  According to the structure of this sentence the phrase of the house of David refers to Joseph rather than to Mary, but according to the common opinion Mary also was a descendant of David.    28.  Had come to her: literally, "had entered to her"; this shows that Mary was at this time in a house.  This was the house of her parents or her guardians, certainly not that of Joseph.  Relying on the authority of the apocryphal gospels, the Greek Church places the scene of the Annunciation at the public fountain of Nazareth.  Hail: the word used by Luke was the ordinary form of greeting among the Greeks, but perhaps it is used here in its original sense of "Rejoice!"  Many of the Greek Fathers understood it in this sense and compared the whole greeting of the angel with Soph. 3, 14-17; cf. also Joel 2, 21 f; Zach. 9, 9.  The phrase full of grace represents a single word in the Greek text but is a correct translation according to the sense.  The angel explains this word in 30 as Thou has found grace with God.  The words Blessed art thou among women are not part of Luke's original text in this passage.  According to the best Greek manuscripts they were spoken by Elizabeth (42).  Apparently the custom of combining the words of Gabriel with those of Elizabeth to form a prayer to our Lady goes back to a very early period in the Church and was the cause of some enlarging by an early copyist on Gabriel's greeting.  Grammatically it is possible to translate, "The Lord be with thee"; but tradition has always understood this as a statement of fact, not a wish; cf. Soph. 3, 14 f: "Rejoice, daughter of Sion . . . the Lord is in thy midst."    29.  The words When she had seen him are not in the best Greek manuscripts.  Mary was disturbed not by the sight of an angel but by the strange nature of his greeting.

V.31 is almost identical with Isa. 7, 14 and was undoubtedly intended to signify that this was the fulfillment of the great prophecy of the virgin-birth of the Messias.    32.  Called: i.e., acknowledged as.    34.  According to some commentators Mary understood the words thou shalt conceive as referring to the immediate future; hence, since several months were still to elapse before the final marriage ceremony between her and Joseph, she asks the angel for further instructions.  But the traditional interpretation takes her last words in the sense of "since I shall not know man," and argues from this that Mary had a vow or at least a firm resolution to remain a virgin forever.  In any case the fact of her perpetual virginity is absolutely certain, whatever might have been the state of her mind at this time.

35.  Although the Incarnation, as sometime extrinsic to the Godhead, is a work common to all three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, it is appropriated to the Holy Spirit, perhaps because it is above all a work of love or because He is the living Spirit of God that "gives life" (Nicene Creed; cf. also Rom. 8, 11; 1 Cor. 15, 45; 2 Cor. 3, 6).  The word overshadow is used of the Shekinah or cloud of glory that indicated God's presence (Ex. 40, 32 ff), and of the bright cloud that appeared during the Transfiguration (9, 34).  It therefore signifies here the special presence and action of God in Mary.    36.  Although Mary did not ask for a proof, yet the angel gives her a sign to confirm his utterance, to increase her joy and to give her an opportunity of visiting her cousin Elizabeth.    38.  In deep humility and loving obedience Mary accepts the dignity and responsibility of the divine maternity.  Handmaid: literally "slave-girl."  It is commonly believed that as soon as she pronounced these words the Son of God took upon Himself our human nature in her immaculate womb.

1, 39-56:  The Visitation.    39.  In those days: i.e., shortly after the Annunciation.  Mary hardly went alone on this journey of several days but was probably accompanied by some older woman.  It seems certain, however, that Joseph was not with her at the Visitation.  Arose and went: a Hebraism signifying that a person starts on a journey only after some deliberation; cf. the use of the same expression in 15, 18.20; Acts 10, 19.  With haste: because of her desire to share her joy with Elizabeth and also to be of aid to her elderly kinswoman.  Since almost all of Judea was hill country, this item does not help us identify the town of Juda where Elizabeth lived.  Luke probably noted the rugged nature of the country for the benefit of his Gentile readers, in order to show the arduous nature of Mary's journey.  The nearest point in the region that was anciently assigned to the tribe of Juda was about ninety miles south of Nazareth.  If the house of Zachary was in the priestly city of Hebron, as some of the Fathers thought, her journey would have been about twenty-five miles longer.  A rather late tradition identifies this town of Juda with modern Ain Karem, a village about five miles west of Jerusalem.    41.  The babe in her womb leapt: i.e., for joy (44).  According to the common opinion John was sanctified in his mother's womb at that moment (cf. 15).  This was the effect of Mary's greeting, and thus the first grace of God was poured out to man through the Blessed Virgin.  Filled with the Holy Spirit: i.e., the following words were uttered under the special inspiration of God (cf. 67).    42.  Note the parallelism of this Semitic poetry: Blessed . . . blessed . . .     44.  The words For behold show that it was through the Holy Spirit's action upon the babe in her womb that God revealed to Elizabeth the fact of Mary's divine maternity.    45.  She who has believed is Mary; apparently the contrast is with Zachary who doubted.

46-55:  In this incomparable canticle of holy joy and thanksgiving, known from the first word of its Latin translation as the Magnificat, Mary reveals her intimate knowledge of the Books of the Old Testament, especially the hymn of Anna (1 Kgs. 2, 1-10) and the Psalms.  On the main thoughts of Mary's hymn, see the note to the text.    46 f.  Soul and spirit are here used synonymously in this poetic parallelism.  With her entire being Mary joyfully praises God, her Lord and Savior.    48-50.  God's goodness is shown not only in His regard for Mary's lowliness but also in His kindness to the poor and afflicted of all generations.    51-53.  The tense of the verbs used in these verses probably represents the Semitic use of the verb in general statements which are true of the past, present and future.    56.  About three months: i.e., until the birth of Elizabeth's child.  Because Mary's departure is mentioned here before the Evangelist  speaks of John's birth, some commentators conclude that Mary was not present at this event.  But if she visited her cousin in order to be of assistance to her, this was precisely the time when she was needed most of all.  Moreover, Luke's knowledge of what took place at the birth of the Baptist seems to come ultimately from Mary, who probably therefore was present at these events.  Luke sometimes abandons the strictly chronological order for the sake of finishing the narrative of one episode before beginning another (cf. 1, 80; 3, 19 f).

1, 57-80:  Birth of the Baptist.    59.  On the eighth day: cf. Gen. 17, 12; Lev. 12, 3.    60.  It is possible that Elizabeth also had received a divine revelation concerning the name of her son, but it seems more likely that Zachary had made this known to her in writing.    62.  From this it would seem that at the time Zachary was deaf and dumb.  But perhaps, since he had to make signs in order to be understood, people were naturally led to answer him in a sort of sign-language even though he could have understood them if they spoke to him.    63.  A writing-tablet: at that time the ordinary material used for writing down little items of no permanent value was a flat piece of wood painted or stained a dark color and covered with wax.  The writing was done with a metal stylus.  When covered with writing, the tablet was rewaxed.    67.  Prophesied: i.e., spoke under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

68-79:  Zachary's hymn of thanksgiving and joy is known from the first word of its Latin translation as the Benedictus.    74.  Delivered from the hand of our enemies: if Zachary shared the popular idea of a Messias who would bring political independence, he at least thought of this merely as a means of serving God more perfectly.    77.  Here Zachary shows that he understands the true nature of the Messianic salvation, i.e., a spiritual salvation from the slavery of sin.  Forgiveness of sins was later the theme of the Baptist's preaching (cf. 3, 3).    79.  Peace here is much more than earthly peace and freedom from wars; it is essentially peace with God, the only true basis of genuine peace on earth (cf. 2, 14; 19, 38).    80.  Luke finishes his account of John's early life before beginning his account of the Savior's birth.  Note the contrast between John's youth and that of Jesus (2, 40.52).  The Baptist is a stern ascetic even as a boy.

Confraternity Bible:

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to draw up a narrative concerning the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 even as they who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, 3 I also have determined, after following up all things carefully from the very first, to write for thee, most excellent Theophilus, an orderly account, 4 that thou mayest understand the certainty of the words in which thou hast been instructed.

Annunciation of the Baptist  5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a certain priest named Zachary, of the course of Abia; and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.  6 Both were just before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord.  7 But they had no son, for Elizabeth was barren; and they were both advanced in years.

8 Now it came to pass, while he was officiating in the order of his course as priest before God, 9* according to the custom of the priest's office, that he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord to burn incense.  10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.  11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right of the altar of incense.  12 And Zachary, seeing him, was troubled, and fear fell upon him.

13 But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zachary, for thy petition has been heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son and thou shalt call his name John.  14 And thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.  15 For he shall be great before the Lord; he shall drink no wine or strong drink, and shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb.  16 And he shall bring back to the Lord their God many of the children of Israel, 17 and he shall himself go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just; to prepare for the Lord a perfect people."

18 And Zachary said to the angel, "How shall I know this?  For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years."

19 And the angel answered and said to him, "I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God; and I have been sent to speak to thee and to bring thee this good news.  20 And behold, thou shalt be dumb and unable to speak until the day when these things come to pass, because thou hast not believed my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time."

21 And the people were waiting for Zachary, and they wondered at his tarrying so long in the temple.  22 But when he did come out he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple.  And he kept making signs to them, but he remained dumb.

23 And it came to pass, when the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house.  24 Now after these days Elizabeth his wife conceived, and she secluded herself for five months, saying, 25* "Thus has the Lord dealt with me in the days when he deigned to take away my reproach among men."

Annunciation of the Savior  26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary.  28 And when the angel had come to her, he said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed are thou among women."  29 When she had heard him she was troubled at his word, and kept pondering what manner of greeting this might be.

30 And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God.  31 Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus.  32 He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, 33 and he shall be king over the house of Jacob forever;  and of his kingdom there shall be no end."

34* But Mary said to the angel, "How shall this happen, since I do not know man?"

35 And the angel answered and said to her, "The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee; and therefore the Holy One to be born shall be called the Son of God.  36 And behold, Elizabeth thy kinswoman also has conceived a son in her old age, and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month; 37 for nothing shall be impossible with God."

38 But Mary said, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word."  And the angel departed from her.

The Visitation  39 Now in those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town of Juda.  40 And she entered the house of Zachary and saluted Elizabeth.  41 And it came to pass, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe in her womb leapt.  42 And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb!  43 And how have I deserved that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  44 For behold, the moment that the sound of thy greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leapt for joy.  45 And blessed is she who has believed, because the things promised her by the Lord shall be accomplished."

46 And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;

48 Because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid; for, behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed; 

49 Because he who is might has done great things for me, and holy is his name;

50* And his mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear him. 

51 He has shown might with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. 

52* He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly. 

53* He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 

54 He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of his mercy---

55* Even as he spoke to our fathers---to Abraham and to his posterity forever."

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her own house.

Birth of the Baptist  57  Now Elizabeth's time was fulfilled that she should be delivered, and she brought forth a son.  58 And her neighbors and kinsfolk heard that the Lord had magnified his mercy towards her, and they rejoiced with her.  59 And it came to pass on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to call him, by his father's name, Zachary.  60 And his mother answered and said, "Not so, but he shall be called John."

61 And they said to her, "There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name."  62 And they kept inquiring by signs of his father what he would have him called.  63 And asking for a writing-tablet he wrote the words, "John is his name."  And they all marvelled.  64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak, blessing God.  65 And fear came on all their neighbors; and all these things were spoken abroad in all the hill country of Judea.  66 And all who heard them laid them up in their heart, saying, "What then will this child be?"  For the hand of the Lord was with him.  67 And Zachary his father was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying,
68* "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has visited and wrought redemption for his people,

69* And has raised up a horn of salvation for us, in the house of David his servant,

70* As he promised through the mouth of his holy ones, the prophets from of old;

71* Salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us,

72 To show mercy to our forefathers and to be mindful of his holy covenant,

73* Of the oath that he swore to Abraham our father, that he would grant us,

74 That, delivered from the hand of our enemies, we should serve him without fear,

75 In holiness and justice before him all our days. 

76* And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Most High, for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways,

77* To give his people knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of their sins,

78* Because of the loving-kindness of our God, wherewith the Orient from on high has visited us,

79* To shine on those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and was in the deserts until the day of his manifestation to Israel.


9: It was customary for the priestly class whose week it was to serve in the temple, to cast lots daily for the performance of the various functions.  To offer incense upon the altar in the holy place was considered a singular privilege.

25: Among the Jews childlessness was considered a reproach.

34: Mary did not doubt, as did Zachary, that the angel's words would be fulfilled, but prudently inquired how this would be accomplished, since she had firmly resolved to remain a virgin.

50: Ps. 102, 17.

52: Ps. 74, 8.

53: Ps. 33, 11.

55: Gen. 17, 9; Ps. 131, 11.

68: Ps. 73, 12.

69: Ps. 131, 17. --- A horn of salvation: i.e., a powerful and mighty Savior.  The horn was a symbol of power and strength.

70: Jer. 23, 6; 30, 10.

71: Ps. 105, 10.

73: Gen. 22, 16; Jer. 31, 33.

76: Mal. 3, 1.

77: Mal. 4, 5.

78: The Orient: Just as the natural sun rises over the earth and dissipates darkness, so too the spiritual sun, Jesus Christ, has come to dispel the darkness of error and sin.

79: Isa. 9, 2.