Mary as the New Israel: An Exegesis of Luke 1:46-55

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By Andrea Vasquez, University of Dallas

Luke’s juxtaposition of the infancy narrative detailed in the first two books of his gospel with events from Jesus’ public ministry is a distinctive feature of his work. This thirty year jump is stark and, even though the majority of Luke’s work is dedicated to relating the miraculous events of the public ministry, it only further implies the significance to be found in the inclusion of the initial two chapters and especially the Magnificat. Mary’s song functions as a prelude to the Lucan theme of reversal, the gospel itself hinging on the reversal of life over death and the Magnificat thus giving us a foretaste of the greatest reversal of all, Jesus’s resurrection (Wilson, 81). Luke accomplishes this by presenting in the first two chapters of his gospel particularly devout characters and their corresponding circumstances, for they, along with numerous Old Testament allusions, give his narrative its sense of emergence from Israel’s long history. The Magnificat can be understood to have a similar function which, through its evocation of the past of Israel, presents the fulfillment of God’s promise in a new way while also providing insight into Mary’s role in this process amidst it all.

First what must be considered is the composition of the Magnificat itself and how it may have come to exist as the version we read in our Bibles today. Many commentators believe that it was not a Lucan composition and was instead only developed by the evangelist from a pre-Christian hymn of praise. Mary’s canticle closely resembles this genre, with such a psalm typically beginning with an introductory invitation to praise God or a general statement praising him (Fitzmyer, 359), and the Magnificat’s initiation taking the form of the latter with Mary’s exaltation: “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Lk 1:46-47, NABRE). Next follows the psalm’s body which provides the reasons for or context of the praise; this is usually introduced by the Hebrew ki, meaning “because, for” (360), seen in verses 48 and following of the Magnificat in which God’s might and reversals are detailed. Lastly, in these hymns of praise can be found a concluding section often repetitive of the body (360), with Mary’s song and the details of God’s merciful acts therein culminating in her identification of all of this with the God of Israel and consequently his promise to Abraham and all of his descendants (1:54-55). Luke’s inclusion of these elements certainly roots this infancy narrative in the Jewish tradition, and yet it seems to be lacking significant elements specifically referring to Mary’s circumstances as a newly expectant mother and visitor to her cousin, Elizabeth.

The fact that the Magnificat seemingly fits so loosely into the narrative’s present context only favors the argument against it being a completely Lucan composition. The verses are often compared to speeches in Acts “in which largely Lucan compositions give utterance to ideal sentiments of the speakers involved” (Fitzmyer, 359). While this could technically be said of Mary’s praises, some argue that because Mary praises God’s salvific activity in generic, Old Testament terms with just about no details tying the praise back to Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, “it could be omitted without anything essential being lost to the narrative of the visitation itself” (359). In fact, other Old Testament influences can be found therein and consequently support this theory, particularly regarding the Magnificat’s similarity to Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel. In the Magnificat’s parallel introductory verses to Hannah’s song, “Mary, like Hannah of 1 Sam 2:1-10, extols Yahweh’s greatness and recognizes in him her Savior,” (360) and Hannah too dedicated the majority of her song to contemplating and delighting in the reversals that characterize God’s might and mercy. Thus, such a heavy use of scriptural allusions has resulted, for many, in a “ponderous piece of poetry with little originality or imagination” (Karris, 123) that only further propels discussion regarding Luke’s inclusion of it and of the infancy narrative as a whole into his gospel.

Continuing in this vein of source criticism is the consideration of variant attribution theories. The Magnificat’s “heavy dependence on the Greek Old Testament [has already made] it evident that it is a…mosaic of Old Testament expressions drawn from the LXX,” (Fitzmyer, 359) but further study of the narrative contents of the passage at hand similar to those of 1 Samuel mentioned before have incited theories that attribute the Magnificat to Elizabeth rather than Mary. “Both Hannah and Elizabeth have been childless for a long period of their married life; both dedicated their child as a Nazirite; both bear a child who will “anoint” a future king” (Karris, 123). Hannah accompanied her husband on pilgrimages to Shiloh to worship and offer sacrifices to the Lord year after year, (1 Sam 1:3) forced to wallow in her grief each time that her husband’s other wife used the trip as an opportunity to remind Hannah of her being left barren by the Lord (1:6-7). Similarly righteous but nonetheless barren were Elizabeth and Zechariah in addition to their older age (Lk 1:6-7). Of course, Elizabeth comes to miraculously conceive John the Baptist following the announcement by the angel Gabriel and particularly under the conditions set by the angel (1:15). The child is effectively dedicated as a Nazirite, for John goes on to uphold the three vows of abstaining from drink or other products of the grape (Num 6:3-4), allowing his hair to grow untempered by razor (Num 6:5), and avoiding coming near a dead body to avoid defilement (Num. 6:6), just as Samuel had in accordance with his mother’s promises (1 Sam 1:11). Samuel was eventually sent to Bethlehem by the Lord to anoint a king amongst Jesse’s sons in light of the rejection of Saul (16:1), and similarly the Son of God comes to John at the Jordan seeking and receiving baptism (Matt 3:13-17).

While a few manuscripts attribute the Magnificat to Elizabeth, “the structure of parallel scenes describing the annunciation and birth of John and Jesus favors the traditional reading that the Magnificat is Mary’s answer to the words of Elizabeth” (Culpepper, 55). The evangelist is making a distinct effort to ground Jesus and his mother in the ministry and life of Israel not just by the way its structure invokes psalms of praise familiar to the Israelites but also by his framing of the Magnificat with devout, Israelite characters and stories. This traditional reading is also supported by the gospel writer’s inclusion of verse 48 which stands out as a seeming Lucan composition possibly inserted to “bring the otherwise generic praise of Yahweh in the hymn into reference to Mary herself” (Fitzmyer, 360). In this verse, we see Mary refer to herself as a handmaid whose loneliness the Father has looked upon (Lk 1:48), a role Luke had already cast her in by her response to the annunciation: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (1:38). Thus, the inclusion of this verse weaves the seemingly conventional Magnificat into the whole of the narrative elements surrounding it and is part of the process of Luke’s characterization of Mary.

In this Lucan insert, “[Mary] is made to contrast her humble station with Yahweh’s greatness, might, holiness, and mercy” (Fitzmyer, 360). In fact, it is through Mary’s response and her juxtaposition of their thoroughly distinct natures that their roles as Savior and saved are concretely established. Just as Mary’s “soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord” (Lk 1:46), so will her response to her cousin’s praise of her own character be used as an opportunity to only further glorify God her savior (1:47). In fact, this process of increasing specificity of praise culminating in the Magnificat’s poetic declaration of praise to God mirrors the increasing spatial specificity in the previous scene detailing Mary’s journey to Elizabeth. “The opening and closing words of the scene again describe a coming and going, this time Mary’s. As in the previous scene, Mary’s approach to Elizabeth moves the reader into the dialogue between Mary and Elizabeth by shifting from general to increasing specific spatial references: She went to the hill country, to a village of Judea, to the house of Zechariah, to Elizabeth,” (Culpepper, 54). Mary’s role is to communicate to others the mercy and might of the Lord as exemplified in her life just as it had been in the lives of her ancestors.

Mary does exactly this in the body of the psalm discussed previously in which various couplets are presented that are examples of the dramatic reversal that is the signature of God’s mighty acts. Specifically, the character of the language used to narrate God’s mighty works is action-oriented and paints him as a thoroughly engaged Creator who is concerned for His people and through whom the arrogant are dispersed and the powerful are deposed and, by contrast, the lowly are exalted and the hungry are fed. According to the promises, the Lord has helped Israel to remember God’s mercies (Lk 1:51-55). The Magnificat makes clear the pattern of God’s activity, and once again, in every line there are echoes of the Scriptures of Israel (Culpepper, 55). Thus, through Luke’s characterization of Him, “God appears as the Mighty One; yet he exercises his power most of all in caring for the needy…one must be in need to be saved, one must be blind to be given light by God” (Karris, 123).  Even further emphasizing the role God plays, especially for the lowly and downtrodden, is Mary’s identification of Him as “savior” in her introductory statement (1:47). The confession “Savior” expresses the desperate need of the lowly, the poor, the oppressed, and the hungry. “Those who have power and means, privilege and position have no need sufficient to lead them to voice such a term that is itself a plea for help. “Savior” gives evidence of one’s sense of need greater than one’s own strength” (Culpepper, 56). Thus, this diachronic and synchronic analysis of the Magnificat and its surrounding contexts reveals the special role Mary plays in mankind’s redemption. “Like the infancy section as a whole, Mary’s song…introduces a number of the themes that are distinctive of Luke’s gospel as a whole and thus provides a prologue for the characterization of Jesus, his deeds, and his works” (Carruth, 345). But it is specifically because Luke chose to communicate these themes from the lips of Mary that we understand her special task to “translate this news into a message for the lowly and the hungry and woe for the powerful and the rich” (Brown, 77-8). In Luke’s gospel, Mary might even be seen as the first proclaimer of the good news (Carruth, 345), and her response, because of its Old Testament allusions, gives hope that God’s promise to the patriarch Abraham will finally find its “yes” in her son Jesus (Farmer, 1374). In the conclusion of the Magnificat, Mary recognizes that the salvation that is to come through the birth, life, and career of her Son is the continuation of the covenant made by God with Abraham of old. The nation of Israel, God’s servant, is recalled, as are the patriarchs. “The remnant of Israel is to have a new meaning, for it is to be reconstituted in a way that will extend the promises of old to others not under the law” (Fitzmyer, 361). By being rooted in the ministry and life of Israel, Mary aids Christ in extending this promise to the contemporary audience and those outside the covenant and consequently in the salvation of the world. Our very reliable advocate, Mary’s action in Luke’s gospel via her proclamation of the Magnificat establishes her as a key figure who is blessed because of her faith that she encourages us all to pursue, this very faith exemplified in her own situation and yes to God. She moves from her own circumstances to God’s action in the wider scope of salvation history, from God’s relationship with her, a humble Jewish woman, to God’s relationship with Israel and consequently the world (Wilson, 81). Mary provides us with a template for prayer, certainly not of wishful thinking but of faith, for through it we see God’s promise fulfilled for Mary and consequently for all of Israel through the birth of her Son, giving readers consolation in the reality of God’s love and mercy having the last word (Mathavan, 11).

Bibliography of Sources

Brown, E. Raymond. “The Gospel According to Luke,” in An Introduction to the New Testament. Yale University Press, 1997. pp. 77-78.

Carruth, Shawn. “A Song of Salvation: The Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55.” Bible Today 50, no. 6 (November 2012): 345–49.

Culpepper, R. Alan. “The Gospel of Luke”. The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX. Abingdon, 1994. pp. 54-56.

Farmer, R. William. “Luke,” in the International Bible Commentary. D. Dungan, A. Levoratti, S. McEvenue, editors; The Liturgical Press, 1998. pp. 1370-1371, 1374.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Gospel According to Luke: I-IX.  The Anchor Bible. Doubleday, 1985. pp. 358-362.

Karris, Robert J., O.F.M. “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary. R. Brown, J. Fitzyer, and R. Murphy, editors; 44:36. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1968.

Mathaven, Krish. “Response.” Compass (10369686) 48, no. 4 (Summer 2014): 11–13.

Wilson, Brittany E. “Between Text and Sermon Luke 1:46-55.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible & Theology 71, no. 1 (January 2017): 80–82.

New American Bible, Revised Edition. Ed. Carolyn Osiek. Anselm Academic, 2015.

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