Monday, January 17, 2022

Luke 4:14-21 and Isaiah 61

This passage is found in the RCL, Epiphany Season, Year C (Most recently: January 2022)  It is also found in the narrative lectionary year of Luke.

Summary:  Home run point, here but it will take a full count to get there...Most times the New Testament quotes from the Greek version of the Old Testament.  On rare, rare occasions, the New Testament writers seem to be quoting from the Old Testament Hebrew in their own translations (Proverbs 10:12 vs 1 Peter 4:8 eg).  In this case, Jesus seems neither to be translating directly from the Old Testament Hebrew, nor is he reading directly from the Greek.  He is intentionally adding to the Word of God.  This is a bold move.  He does so, I would argue, out of a Trinitarian conception of his mission, whereby the people will be brought into the mission of God.  (If you are saying to yourself, this is too much for a sermon, the basic point remains:  The Spirit of the Lord on Jesus is also the Spirit of the Lord on the church!)

Three little Greek appetizers before the main course:
φημη (pheme, meaning "fame," 4:14)   The word for "news" is "pheme" or perhaps better in English "fama." This is the root of our word fame. Jesus is famous!

δοξαζομενος (from δοξαζω, doxaz-oo, meaning "praise", 4:15)  The people "praise" Jesus. Interestingly, in the rest of the Gospel, the only one praised is God. This is the only instance of Jesus being praised in the Gospels.

δυναμις ("dynamis" meaning "power") and εδιδασεν (from διδασκω, meaning "teach", 4:15):  Luke tells us that Jesus began to teach; what I want to draw attention to is that the POWER of the Spirit is fueling Jesus' teaching ministry.  One cannot truly separate the teaching of the faith -- the ministry of the Word, from the Spirit.  This is good theology -- the Spirit enables the teaching and proclaiming of the Word.  (Lutheran theology heavily focuses on the proclamation of the Word.  Unfortunately, it often leaves it implicit rather than explicit that the Spirit drives proclamation.  But here Luke focuses on the POWER of the Spirit.   δυναμις (power)comes into English as dynamic or dynamite.  Is our teaching dynamic and dynamite?  A teaching ministry should be fueled by the Spirit and provide power for the rest of the ministry.

Digging into 4:18-19 vs Isaiah 61:1-2

First, before we get into the differences between the Old and New Testament:

Where does Jesus power come from?  The Spirit!
- Jesus words and the OT begin the same. The Spirit of the Lord (πνενμα κυριου) is upon me; he has annointed (εχρισεν, ie "Christed") me. It does well to remember the Hebrew words here: Ruach Adonai (רוח אדני) for Spirit of the Lord and Messiah (משך) for annoint.

Who is the ministry for:  The downtrodden!
- "captive" which comes from the Greek "αιχμαλωτος" which means "spear." Literally, those who are speared. This word is only used once in the New Testament. In the Old Testament it is used quite often in conjunction with those who were forced into the Babylonian exile.  See note at the end
- oppressed (τεθραυσμενους, participle form of θραυω) is only used once in the NT and literally means "shattered." I wonder who in our congregations feels speared and shattered?  All of these blessings Jesus is to bestow focus on the downtrodden.  Also, all of the blessings have an obvious material/physical aspect.

Now, let's get into the differences.

A quick comparison show that Jesus is not reading right from the Septuagint or the Hebrew.  Here is a literal translation, in each case I have underlined what is different in each version, not due to any linguistically subtle changes.

Luke 4:18-19 (Greek)
a) The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
b)  because he has anointed me
c)  to bring good news to the poor.
d)  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
e)  and recovery of sight to the blind
f)  to send the oppressed in freedom,
g)  to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Isaiah 61:1-2 (Hebrew)
a)  The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me
b)  because the LORD has anointed me
c)  to bring good news to the oppressed/poor
??)  and bind up the brokenhearted
d) to proclaim release to the captives
f') to release to the prisoners/bound up (from darkness?)
g) to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor,

To summarize:  If Jesus were reading from the Hebrew, he has

  • added in"recover of the sight of the blind"
  • taken out binding up the brokenhearted
  • changed "release the prisoners/bound up" to "sending the oppressed in freedom"

Isaiah 61:1-2 (LXX, Greek translation of Hebrew)
a) The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
b)  because the LORD has anointed me
c) to bring good news to the poor
??) he has sent me to heal the crushed in spirit/heart
d)  to proclaim release to the captives,
e)  and recovery of sight to the blind
g) to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor

To summarize, if Jesus is reading from the Septuagint, he has

  • added in "sending the oppressed in freedom"
  • taken out "binding up the brokenhearted"
  • changed the order significantly.

This presents an obvious textual problem -- what is Jesus actually reading?  I am not sure we can ever answer this question, so I would like to assume that Jesus knows he is changing things and doing so for a reason.  So let's ponder the changes:

A) In the OT, Isaiah never talks about sight to the blind. Jesus does (the Septuagint does also).

B) Isaiah (in both the Hebrew and LXX) plays on the idea of binding -- the broken-hearted are bound; those bound are released. Jesus alters this image.  Jesus focuses on "freeing the captives" and "letting the oppressed go free." Jesus, thus, seems to by-pass the image of repairing/releasing the broken-hearted, instead choosing to include the idea of sending the oppressed.  This actually comes from Isaiah 58:6 where the prophet says, "To send the oppressed in freedom."

C) Jesus puts in the idea that he is sent to send others.  The word send in fact, appears twice, "He sent send."  The phrase "to let the oppressed go free" literally reads, "to send those shattered, in forgiveness; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." The translators are combining the phrase "send in forgiveness" into a single verb "free."  This makes sense in that to free someone is to send them in release.  But I think this misses something going on in the Greek.  The Father has sent the Son, who through the Spirit is sending others.  In fact, depending on how one links the infinitives, one could argue that those who are sent out are those sent to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.  Regardless of these grammar dynamics, the overarching theme of Luke's Gospel is that Jesus has come to send those who are oppressed, in forgiveness, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. 

Again, this whole grammar translation may seem to technical for a sermon.  But it fits more broadly into the case Luke makes in Luke-Acts, that the work of the Spirit is to bring us into the triune Mission of God.

D) Jesus drops the line immediately following this passage in Isaiah (...a year of the Lord's favor and day of vengeance). Here the LXX does not use such striking language, but in any case, Jesus avoids this idea all together.

What do we make of all of this?  Jesus is Lord of Scripture.  The Spirit is inspiring him.  The fulfillment of the old means something new!  Let me know what you think!


More on captives:  αιχμαλωτος typically refers to those in Exile (mostly it appears in Isaiah and Exile).  However, the Hebrew word 'underneath' αιχμαλωτος refers to both those in exile and those in other places who were captured in battle.  Regardless of whether one wants to focus on the exile or more broadly any time of military produced captivity, the word prisoners would likely have a modern connotation (someone who has gone through a criminal justice system) that would not be a helpful translation at this point. ...Unless someone wanted to make a point about the criminal justice system!


Holy Communion said...

Thanks for this Blog!
Not being good at languages myself,
I've been looking for something like this for-ever!


RJM said...

Glad to be of assistance!

Marilu Thomas said...

I found this link in David Lose's blog In The Meantime. I am very grateful to have someone point the way in the Greek or Hebrew so I can dig deeper. Thank you for your work!
from Charlottesville, Virginia