The true meaning of Luke’s Christmas, part 4

The Benedictus of Zechariah (Lk. 1:68-79), like Mary’s Magnificat, is a pastiche of Old Testament phrases and imagery celebrating the fact that the God of Israel is acting to transform the socio-political circumstances of his people. A previous commentary post from Christmas 2006 lists the most obvious points of reference. Psalm 106 is especially important. It recounts God’s faithfulness towards his disobedient people at the time of the exodus and entry into Canaan. His anger is kindled against them; he “gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them”; their enemies oppressed them; nevertheless, he “remembered his covenant” and had mercy on them (Ps. 106:40-46).

Zechariah speaks of the present “salvation” in just these terms. It is framed as deliverance “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” in keeping with the promise made to Abraham (1:71-72), in order that the priestly people of Israel (cf. Ex. 19:5-6) might “serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (1:74-75).

This hope is not to be allegorized or spiritualized, as though some pure theological juice is to be squeezed from the tough, fibrous, indigestible fruit of historical context. Nothing in the text points in this direction. What Zechariah has in mind are the obstacles and hazards that foreign occupation presented to Israel’s religious life and practice.

A couple of incidents may be mentioned briefly by way of illustration. In the year before the death of King Herod—that is, around the time of the birth of John—two Jews, Judas and Matthias, highly respected teachers of the Law, abseiled from top of the temple and hacked down the image of a guilded eagle that Herod had installed over the great gate. The image, of course, was a violation of Jewish Law, but it was also a blatant sign of pagan occupation. Herod had the young men and their followers burned alive (Josephus, War, 1:648-55).

When Pontius Pilate became prefect, he ordered standards with the bust of Caesar on them to be brought by night into Jerusalem. A large number of Jews followed Pilate back to Caesarea to protest this shocking contravention of their Law. When Pilate threatened to have them all executed, “the Jews, as it were at one signal, fell down in vast numbers together, and exposed their necks bare, and cried out that they were sooner ready to be slain, than that their law should be transgressed”. Josephus records that Pilate was astonished at their “prodigious superstition” and ordered that the standards be removed from Jerusalem (Josephus, War, 169-174).

This is the state of affairs from which Zechariah desires to be saved—not personal sin or the prospect of hell. As modern readers we struggle to grasp just how restricted the scope of such accounts of “salvation” is. James Barr has famously highlighted the problem of semantic “illegitimate totality transfer”, which he defines as the “error that arises, when the ‘meaning’ of a word (understood as the total series of relations in which it is used in the literature) is read into a particular case its sense and implication there”.1 In other words, the meaning of a word in any particular context is not the sum of its meanings in all other contexts.

But we do something very similar routinely at a conceptual level in our traditional reading of scripture. We notice, for example, that Zechariah uses such familiar language as “salvation” and “forgiveness of their sins”, and we uncritically assume that an entire “Christian” theology of salvation and forgiveness can be read back into the text, in total disregard of how the particular narrative context might constrain the meaning of these terms.

Zechariah speaks only of the salvation of Israel, only of salvation from the political-religious consequences of its disobedience towards YHWH, only of the forgiveness of Israel’s sins, and only of a coming way of peace for Israel free from fear of enemies.

The question we are then left with is this: How did Israel find such peace? I think the answer comes in the form of a rather long story. It begins with the demonstration, through the resurrection of Jesus, that Rome cannot finally control a people faithful to God through the fear of death. The peace with God that comes through Jesus Christ, which is found not least in the midst of eschatological suffering (cf. Rom. 5:1), is a climax to Israel’s history of conflict with YHWH. But I think the story runs through to the eventual victory of reconstituted Israel over the pagan empire—the point at which, in the unfolding narrative, the people of God were finally free from their enemies and from the hand of all who hated them.

  • 1. J. Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (SCM Press, 1961), 218.