Luke 1:5-25

Mar 25, 2024

Luke 1:5-25.pdf

The Annunciation of the Theotokos is an annual feast celebrated in the Orthodox Church every March 25th, which is nine months before Nativity (Christmas).

On this day, the church celebrates announcement of good news by the archangel Gabriel to Mary that she would become the mother of the Christ (“the mother of my LORD” = God, as Elizabeth later says). In this way, the incarnation of the Son of God, whom we celebrate on Nativity, was revealed. There is a separate post on this blog regarding the Annunciation.

Yet, many readers have noted the parallels between the annunciation to Mary and the previous angelic announcement to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. That section of Luke is the subject of this post. Some have been puzzled because they observe very different outcomes to what at first may seem to be very similar responses. Why is Zechariah given a disciplinary sign while Mary is praised?  What is the difference between Zechariah’s response and Mary’s response?

To cut to the chase, the difference is one of unbelief vs belief in the good news communicated by the angel Gabriel.

In Luke 1:19, Zechariah did not believe the good news that the angel Gabriel brought about his wife Elizabeth conceiving a son in her old age.

Yet, Mary did believe the angelic announcement about the virgin birth of the Christ. Elizabeth makes this clear in Luke 1:45, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Rather than create my own explanation, I will quote Steven Harmon, who has an interesting take on this chiastic structure within the context of Luke’s overall strategy. If interested, the title is: Zechariah’s Unbelief and Early Jewish-Christian Relations: The Form and Structure of Luke 1:5-25 as a Clue to the Narrative Agenda of the Gospel of Luke. 

Harmon explains:

“I contend that 1:5-25 chiastically emphasizes the unbelieving response of Zechariah in order to introduce in the first episode of the narrative opening the recurring motif of the discontinuity of Christianity with Judaism because of Judaism’s unbelieving response to Jesus and his movement. The juxtaposition of this passage with the following pericope underscores this theme of discontinuity.

Zechariah, a sacerdotal representative of Jewish religious life ministering in the geographical and architectural center of Jewish piety, responds initially to the promise of the beginnings of the fulfillment of Jewish messianic hopes with disbelief. Mary, a representative of the ‘am ha’arer (“people of the land”) on the margins of Jewish religious life, responds with belief and obedience.

It is true that Mary’s response in 1:34 is also incredulous. Both Zechariah and Mary ask how such a thing could be, and then offer grounds for their questioning - the old age of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and the virginal status of Mary. Zechariah, however, is given a punitive sign, while the annunciation to Mary concludes with her pledge of willing submission. The angel calls attention to Zechariah’s disbelief in v 20; he does not similarly chastise Mary.

The contrast between Zechariah’s unbelief and Mary’s belief seeks to move the implied reader, the Godfearer, beyond the unbelieving community represented proleptically by Zechariah and toward the believing community represented proleptically by Mary. Zechariah himself does move from unbelief in v 18 to obedience in the naming of John in 1:59-63 and is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies in 1:67-79. Since Luke’s portrayal of Zechariah in 13-25 both appeals to the implied reader’s religious sympathies and seeks to move the reader beyond them, Zechariah’s implicit pilgrimage from unbelief to belief may also serve as a paradigm to be followed by the Godfearer.”

Since Harmon has observed many of the same features of the chiastic structure as depicted in this blog, I will allow him to continue:

“The narrative introduction begins with the conflict that serves as the narrative premise of the pericope, the childlessness of Zechariah and Elizabeth despite their righteousness (w 5-7); the narrative conclusion ends with the miraculous resolution of that conflict, which removes Elizabeth’s “reproach (oneidos)”(v 24-25). The narrative introduction continues by setting the stage at the temple for the annunciation oracle (w 8-10); the narrative conclusion begins with the aftermath of the annunciation oracle at the temple (vv 21-23). Within v 8-10 and 21-23, the mention of Zechariah’s service at the temple (v 8) is parallel to the completion of his service at the temple (v 23), Zechariah’s entrance into the temple (v 9) parallels his exit from the temple (v 22), and the mention of the people praying outside the temple (v 10) is paralleled by the people waiting outside the temple (v 21). These elements of the narrative introduction and conclusion serve as inclusios bracketing the heart of the pericope, the annunciation oracle itself (vv 11-20). The two halves of the oracle (v 11-17 and 19-20) in turn bracket the response of Zechariah to the oracle, placing Zechariah’s response at the structural center of the passage. As the middle element of the inverted parallelism in a chiasm, Zechariah’s unbelieving response rather than the narrative conclusion constitutes the conceptual climax of the pericope (Lund 1942: 40).”

I did want to make a comment about the parallel of Zechariah’s entrance and exit from the temple. On one hand, this feature of Luke’s structure seems to be puposefully placed among the other (interestingly, seven) main terms of the chiasm.  On the other hand, when trying to prove there is a rhetorical parallel structure, it is wise not to depend solely on geographical necessities. This is because one might argue that, of course, what goes up, must comes down. What goes in, often by necessity, comes out.  

Harmon also interacts (and somewhat disagrees) with Ronald E. Man’s structural proposal for this pericope in “The Value of Chiasm for New Testament Interpretation” by Ronald E. Man (Bibliotheca Sacra) Spring 1984. From my own viewpoint, they are both fine for the outer portion of the structure. So, here is Man’s Outline:


A. Godliness of Zechariah and Elizabeth (v 6)

B. Elizabeth barren (v 7)

C. Zechariah’s priestly service (v 8)

D. Zechariah enters the temple (v 9)

E. The people outside (v 10)

F. Angel standing (v 11)

G. Zechariah’s fear (v 12)

H. The annunciation to Zechariah (w 13-17)

G’ Zechariah’s doubt (v 18)

F’ Angel who stands (w 19-20)

E’ The people outside (v21)

D’ Zechariah exits from the temple (v 22)
C’ Zechariah’s priestly service(v23)
B’ Elizabeth pregnant (v 24)
A’ God’s favor on Elizabeth (and Zechariah) (v 25)

Note that Man’s version of the structure is very similar to my own, except for the most interior portions, which is where (I believe) the Lord has revealed a bit more of the St. Luke’s rhetoric to your’s truly. Please take a moment to look carefully at how the specifics of Gabriel’s announcment are mirrored in Zechariah’s response (1:11-20). Perhaps it may be coincidental, but Man's 1984 journal article is what first stimulated my interest in chiastic structures in the Bible. So, this being 2024, adds up to forty years of continuous interest and discovery! Blessed is God, who has mercy on us and nourishes us from his bountiful gifts! 

Here are just a few brief observations based on the structure, especially in Luke 1:11-20. 

First, regarding the parallel of the the angel standing (vs 11 “on the right side of the altar of incense” / vs 19 “who stands before or in front of God”). Recall that the location of the altar of incense in the temple was within the Holy Place, directly in front of the Holy of Holies (where God was enthroned). So, Gabriel was standing in the same earthly location as correlated with his heavenly location before God. The altar of incense is associated with the prayers of God’s people: "Let my prayer be directed before you as incense, the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice" (Ps 140:2 LXX). So, it is no coincidence that Gabriel’s first assurrance to Zechariah is based on Gabriel’s position before God. He thus had first hand knowledge that Zechariah's prayer (singular) had been answered. Let us not forget that, by our prayers, we have recourse to this same altar in heaven:

Rev. 8:2 Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them.

Rev. 8:3 And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne,

Rev. 8:4 and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.

Second, the middle of the chiasm (the two G terms of vs 14) is artfully, yet simply crafted to be not only a focal point of joy, gladness & rejoicing in the good news, but also a transition from John in relation to Zechariah to John in relation to all Israel.

Third, the one occurrence of the word “for” in this pericope (vs 15) signals the reasons for rejoicing in a small chiastic structure.  The first parallel in that structure is that John will be great before (that is, in the eyes of) the Lord. Regarding his greatness, Christ told his disciples in Luke 7:28,  "I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” John was the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. He as the forerunner of Christ, had the greatest of responsibilities ahead of him - to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of Christ, that is, to lead them to repentance and obedience to God’s covenant.

Fourth, the parallel I have generally characterized under the concept of “influence” is interesting (vs 15b-17a). St. Luke introduces the concept by a negation - that John must not be under the influence of alcoholic drink. This is followed by the statement that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit.  Recall that Luke accompanied St. Paul in his missionary journeys. It is not so hard to imagine that St. Paul’s admonition in Eph. 5:18, "And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” arose from Luke’s research and the influence of his Gospel. That John would be thus filled with the Spirit, “even from his mother’s womb” will soon be proved true. For, when When Mary visits Elizabeth, in vs 41 Elizabeth, now six months pregnant (the time when babies often begin to kick) testified that, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy."

One last parallel to mention, which is the B terms (Elizabeth was barren vs 7/ Elizabeth conceived vs 24). Notice that 1:7 mentions they were both in old age after singling out Elizabeth as being barren. The question might be asked, why did Elizabeth keep herself hidden for five months after she conceived? One might think she would finally have just cause to be proud and display this wondrous miracle of God, who blessed her at an old age. She certainly wasn’t trying to hide her pregnancy in the first five months when it was so easily concealable without being hidden away. The answer is related both to what she says (to herself) in vs 25 and also to what is mentioned in the parallel in vs 7 regarding their old age.

It is not just modern society who understand that women who are older than 35 have a higher risk of miscarriage than younger women. I think Elizabeth was ever so mindful of her "reproach among men” (vs 25) such that she took every precaution to wait until she was secure in her pregnancy. (Probably rightfully) she thought she would suffer worse reproach if she come out as miraculously pregnant early on, but then suffered a miscarraige.