The Magnificat, a Jewish Text and Its Christian Implications

Magnificat anima mea Dominum is one of the most oft recited texts in Christendom. Traditionally ascribed to Mary of Nazareth, this powerful song captures the exuberant joy of a mother who was the first to receive the Good News and the spirit of a people hopeful for deliverance. The Magnificat functions on many levels. As a Jewish hymn sung by a Jewish woman of the first century, it echoes the sentiments of the people of Israel, yearning for justice under the oppressive burden of an occupying power. As a Christian hymn, it manifests the hopeful anticipation of salvation promised by God through the birth of Jesus Christ. The song of Mary then bridges the call for justice and deliverance in the Tanakh and the promise of salvation through Christ in the Gospels. The implications of this text, already radical in its day, are even more profound today. As social commentary, the Magnificat catalyzes a universal call for justice and provides hope to the oppressed that has resounded throughout history and is in need of an audience today.

Origins of the Text

The Magnificat can be found in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the first part of a two-volume work, which originally included the Acts of the Apostles. Written in approximately 80 to 90 C.E., the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles together make up the longest work of the New Testament, accounting for more than 25% of its length (Brown, 1997, p. 225). The early church has traditionally attributed this Gospel to Luke, a physician from Antioch and a companion of Paul of Tarsus (Colossians 4:14), although the work itself is anonymous. From the writing style and language of this Gospel, we can surmise that the author was highly educated and was familiar with the Septuagint, the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Luke, writing in the same Koine Greek of the Septuagint, addressed the early churches touched by Paul’s missionary journeys, especially the communities in Greece and Syria.

The words of the Magnificat have traditionally been assigned to Mary of Nazareth during her visit to Elizabeth, her cousin, shortly after conceiving Jesus (Luke 1:26-38). There has been some controversy regarding who may have originally proclaimed this hymn, with some scholars arguing for Elizabeth as the cantor. Stephen Benko (1967) detailed the controversy regarding who proclaimed the Magnificat and listed scholarship in support of both Mary and Elizabeth. Benko noted that in Roman Catholic scriptural scholarship, the cantor of the Magnificat was definitively settled in favor of Mary with the Commissio de re Biblica on June 26, 1912 (as cited in Benko, 1967, pp. 267-268). In Protestant circles, the debate continued. Francis Crawford Burkitt and Adolf von Harnack argued for Elizabeth as the cantor citing early Latin manuscripts, while others, such as Theodor Zhan, John Gresham Machen, and Alfred R. C. Leaney, favored Mary (Benko, 1967, pp. 268-272). Leaney pointed out that if the Magnificat were to be a “hymn of Messianic joy to be sung by the nation of Israel,” as some scholars have posited, then Mary is the only appropriate option since Luke already described her as “the handmaid (servant) of the Lord,” a traditional representation of Israel (Benko, 1967, p. 272). Interestingly, Benko himself concluded that the original text of the Magnificat, possibly taken from pre-existing Maccabean psalms available to Luke, was originally intended for Elizabeth but was quickly ascribed to Mary in an early redaction of Luke’s Gospel (Benko, 1967, p. 275). Regardless of who may have originally “sung” the Magnificat, it becomes clear that this powerful text looks back to Jewish roots while anticipating the promise of Jesus’s birth and its implications for the Christian people.

The Magnificat has many antecedents in Hebrew Scripture. Raymond Brown asserted that the four canticles’ stylistic similarities and “poetic polish” are further proof that these were not the inspired utterances of the individuals proclaiming them, Mary, Zachariah, and Simeon, but rather that they were taken from a common pre-Lucan source, especially Jewish hymnody from the period between 200 B.C.E to 100 C.E. (1988, pp. 49-51). These Jewish hymns were of a composite, or mosaic, structure, “where almost every phrase and line is taken from the earlier poetry of Israel, i.e. the Psalms, the Prophets, and hymns in the Pentateuch and the Historical Books” (Brown, 1988, p.51). This structure is reflected in the Magnificat and the other Lucan canticles. As mentioned earlier, the opening lines of the hymn, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior,” follows a standard formula for the acclamation of one’s joy and trust in God’s fidelity, as can be seen in Isaiah 61:10 and Hannah’s canticle (1 Samuel 2:1), among others. Some scholars also point to the book of Judith as inspiration for the text of the Magnificat (Benko, 1967, p. 268). Furthermore, the role reversals found in the Magnificat (Luke 1:51-53) echo verses present in the Hoyadot, or the Dead Sea Thanksgiving Scrolls (Brown, 1988, p. 52). The composite nature of these canticles is so stylistically distinct from the surrounding text, that were these canticles to be excised from the main body of Luke’s Gospel, the reader would not presume that anything was removed. Brown asserted that Luke 1:56 follows the previous section prior to the Magnificat smoothly and without interruption (Brown, 1988, p. 50).

Despite the Magnificat’s Jewish and extra-Scriptural origins, Luke adapted the canticles and made additions in order to make the text appropriate for the narrative and the characters proclaiming them. An example of the author’s addition to the Magnificat is Luke 1:48, “For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.” In addition to referencing verses from the Hebrew Scriptures, this verse uses motifs found earlier in Luke’s Gospel (“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” from 1:38 and “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” from 1:42) in order to make the canticle suitable to Mary’s character (Brown, 1988, p. 50). Similar additions were made to the Benedictus and the Nunc Dimittis, the canticles of Zachariah and Simeon.

Hope for the Oppressed

If Luke did indeed take the text of the Magnificat from Jewish hymnody of the period, he did so in order to give a voice that was reflective of the hopes and sentiments of the early Jewish-Christian community, who may have been familiar not only with the source of the canticle, but also the implications of its message of deliverance and salvation (Brown, 1988, pp. 52 – 54). In addition to appropriating text from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Magnificat gives voice to the character of Mary in a way that recalls the prophetic voices of female Jewish leaders (especially Miriam from Exodus, Hannah from 1 Samuel, and Judith) and also identifies her with the poverty of the early Jewish-Christian community and their anticipation of the Gospel message. Of the four canticles found in Luke, only the Magnificat moves beyond the hopeful waiting of figures from the Hebrew Scriptures, here represented by Zachariah and Simeon, to foreshadow the ministry of Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation and deliverance to the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed (Brown, 1988, p54).

The Magnificat anticipates the version of the Beatitudes found in Luke, not only in its reversal of social structures, but also in its explicitly political and material focus (Reuther, 1993, pp. 155-158). The fact that the Magnificat omits any reference to the spiritually poor, as does Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, indicates that the message of Luke’s Gospel is not about a vague, spiritualized understanding of poverty, but about justice for those who are genuinely materially poor, destitute, and politically oppressed. The Magnificat highlights God’s preferential option for the poor – a care and solicitude for the poor, not because the poor themselves are holy, but because they are marginalized and oppressed by the haughty, the power, and the rich and thus totally reliant on God for deliverance. It is God’s loving justice that delivers the poor, not the “charity and noblesse oblige” of the rich (Reuther, 1993, p. 157). This view is corroborated by the other Lucan canticles, especially the Gloria, in which the angels of the Lord announce the Good News directly to the poor shepherds of Bethlehem. This promise of deliverance for the poor, the hungry, and the oppressed is especially significant when the one singing the text, Mary, is herself a member of the class for whom she has claimed God’s salvation, the anawim. Mary as anawim is representative of myriad groups who were disenfranchised and oppressed because of their “gender, age, cultic impurity, illness, or economic status” (Hoppe, 2004, p. 150). In addition, the irregular nature of her pregnancy put her in a highly volatile situation, since she was liable to stoning under Mosaic Law. Thus, Mary’s poverty is not only material and spiritual (though her dependence on God), but also social, religious, and political as well. She is the consummate anawim who, in the biblical tradition, enjoys God’s favor and protection (Hoppe, 2004).

The poetic word traditionally given to signify Mary’s status as anawim, “handmaid,” does not capture the depth of meaning present in the literal translation of the original Greek, the feminine form of “slave” (Brown, 1988, p. 68). A more accurate and appropriate word is “servant,” which ties Mary to the great leaders of the Hebrew Scriptures, especially Moses, David, and Isaiah, the servants of the Lord (Kurz, 2013, pp. 805-806). Like these figures in the Jewish texts, Mary exalted God (Luke 1:46), acknowledged her dependence on the Lord (Luke 1:48), and promised deliverance through the reversal of social structures (Luke 1:50-53). Furthermore, by recalling Abraham, the great patriarch of the Jewish people in verse 54 and 55, Luke explicitly connected Mary, through her Son, as the fulfillment of God’s promise made in Genesis 13:16-17 and reiterated in Exodus 32:13.

The servant-hood of Mary can also be understood in the historical context of the early Christians and the sensitivity of their situation in the Roman Empire. Reports indicated that when Pliny began to investigate this new, strange Jewish sect, he looked among slave women because of the presence of Christians within that demographic (Brown, 1988, p. 68). Thus to the early Christians, the term “servant” would have identified Mary as one of them, a Christian anawim dependent upon God for sustenance and for deliverance. Her canticle captures the poignant spirituality of the anawim, an “attitude of opening up to God, the ready disposition of one who hopes for everything from the Lord” (Gutiérrez, 1973, p. 305). Schaberg and Ringe posited that the Magnificat’s strong identification with the poor, and its radical call for justice and the transformation of the prevailing social order, indicate that the hymn may have been written by Jewish or Jewish-Christian anawim (2012, p. 504). However, though the Magnificat uses the voice and the concern of the anawim, it is ultimately a song that “proclaims liberation with tough authority” (Schaberg & Ringe, 2012, p. 504). The strength of the Magnificat’s message lies in Mary’s total trust and reliance on God.

If the Magnificat is Jewish in its affirmation of a God who listens to the cries of the poor and delivers them through justice, it is also thoroughly Christian because of its faith in a God of paradox and reversal (Connelly, 2014, p.8). From a Christian lens, the Magnificat makes manifest God’s action through the lowly, the hungry, the poor, and through Mary herself. Mary is among “the humiliated ones who have been lifted up, the hungry ones who have been filled with good things” (Ruether, 1993, p. 155). This paradox is a specifically Christian message, which will be reiterated in the Beatitudes and will be developed more fully and explicitly, as it pertains to the personhood of Jesus Christ, in the idea of kenosis, found in the Pauline Epistles. The self-emptying of the Divine, incarnated through the person of Jesus Christ, is reflected in the self-abasement of Mary, who renders herself open and totally receptive to God’s salvific action. Thus, by humbling herself as the “servant of the Lord,” Mary becomes a conduit for God’s action to humanity. This is a transformative action, rooted in the paradox of a God who loves the poor and uses the lowly and oppressed as the medium for salvation. Additionally, the transformative action of grace and justice expounded in the Magnificat indicate an action begun in history and still on going. Yes, God “has shown the might of his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart,” but God continues to do so today!

Contemporary Implications

Brown asserted that Mary’s canticle, which gives comfort to the lowly, the hungry, and the oppressed, is the “translation” of the Good News of Jesus’s birth received by Mary through her experience with the angel Gabriel (1997, p. 232). Likewise, Jesus, after hearing God’s voice in the river Jordan, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22), made a similar “translation” of the Good News to the poor, the hungry, the mourning, and the persecuted (Brown, 1997, p. 233). For Brown, Mary exemplified the ideal response of discipleship: “After hearing the word of God and accepting it, we must share it with others, not by simply repeating it but by interpreting so that they can see it truly as good news” (1988, p.70). Thus, Mary’s discipleship was not about conversion, but rather faithfulness (Brown, 1988, 63). Her discipleship to Christ resulted from her continued faithfulness to God, a “Yes” to Christ born out of a “Yes” to God, which had concrete and resonating consequences. This has implications for those aspiring towards Christian discipleship today.

The Magnificat is at once familiar and challenging, beautiful but daunting. It is one of the most popular prayers, recited daily as part of the Divine Office and with a privileged place in the Liturgy during the Advent season. Because of this ubiquity, the Magnificat has taken on a pious, gentle gloss that belies the fiery radicalism of its message (Yoder, 1994, p. 21). It is a radicalism that has led to the song being banned by various totalitarian regimes and unjust organizations throughout history (Connelly, 2014, p. 8). The reversal of power called for by Luke, placed in the mouth of the mother of Jesus, is tantamount to a battle cry for deliverance from unjust social, political, and economic structures. It is a call for a conversion of hearts that results in an actual shift in our social structures and relationships. In effect, the text calls for revolution!

As a religious, I have a special affinity for the Magnificat as a reminder of the intimate relationship all are called to have with the Divine. Mary acknowledged, with beautiful humility, her love and reliance on God, who in turn exulted her and delivered her from her oppressors in fulfillment of the Covenant. The Magnificat is an open invitation for all to share in this profound encounter. Our own sharing in this union with the Divine calls us to transformation and conversion. Moreover, our partaking in this transformative encounter with God necessitates our participation in the salvific act, as we are now called to help bring about justice by “lifting up the lowly” and “filling the hungry with good things” (Luke 1: 52-53). Luke’s insistence on the manifestation of Divine deliverance in explicitly economic and political terms is meant to engender a sense of achievability and accessibility, here and now, for those who have the desire to make this encounter. Divine deliverance is not rooted in pious prattle and a saccharine “Jesus and Me” spirituality, but rather in a harsh encounter with those on the periphery, which necessitates from us a response of solicitude and a call to action and justice.

This realization has numerous implications on Christians in the world today. We are called to encounter the poor and the oppressed and to participate in the Divine action of showing mercy. This will require us to ask, “Who among us are the poor and the oppressed?” We will realize that the poor and the oppressed are not merely limited to the economically and politically disadvantaged, but that the anawim include all who are marginalized and abandoned, by society and by the Church. The Magnificat calls us to work for justice through the elimination of structures and systems that oppress the poor, the vulnerable, and those whom we keep out of the sheepfold. This part of the equation can sometimes cause anger and division, especially when polemics replace one injustice with another. However, the “casting down of rulers from their thrones” and the “sending of the rich away empty” (Luke 1: 52-53) are not meant to incur violent retribution for those who currently have authority, money, and might. Rather, this part of the text points to a leveling-off of station, wherein the rich and powerful, who have much, are lowered while their brothers and sisters, who have little, are increased. The rich will not be given more because they already have the resources, rights, and protections they need to survive. The poor and the oppressed, who are destitute, wanting, and exposed, will receive the necessary sustenance and recourse to justice to reclaim their dignity and humanity. Thus, the Magnificat is about a restoration of right relationships among the children of God through the establishment of a just and equitable society, wherein all may come to the table of the Lord on the same footing. Finally, the “dispersion of the arrogant of mind and heart” (Luke 1:51) calls for a realization of God’s power and loving presence for all, especially the lowly. This awareness of a genuine encounter with the Most High will surface in our consciousness to engender a humble, enduring conversion through love.

The Magnificat poses a daunting challenge for today. By analyzing the origins of this text and by placing it within the framework of Luke’s Gospel, we can appreciate the richness of its message, as it was heard by the early Jewish-Christians of the first century and as it applies to us today. This powerful text transcends the superficial barriers of tradition, economic status, and politics to deliver an urgent call for justice and right relationship, placing all of us, rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed, on the same level. Mary’s song breaks down oppressive structures that promote injustice and alienation and calls us to affection and solicitude for the other, thereby restoring our dignity and humanity, as God has always faithfully done.

Music from Cançoner de Barcelona: The Barcelona Songbook by Cor de Cambra Diapason.

References

Benko, S. (1967). The Magnificat: A History of the Controversy. Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 86, No. 3, pp. 263-275. Retrieved from http://ezp.lndlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezp.lndlibrary.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000711874&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Brown, R. E. (1988). A Coming Christ in Advent: Essays on the Gospel Narratives Preparing for the Birth of Jesus (Matthew 1 and Luke 1). Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
Brown, R. E. (1997). An Introduction to the New Testament. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Connelly, S. (2014). The Magnificat as Social Document. Compass, Vol. 48, No. 4, pp. 8-11. Retrieved from http://ezp.lndlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezp.lndlibrary.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=101440588&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Gutiérrez, G. (1973). A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Hoppe, L. J., (2004). There Shall Be No Poor Among You: Poverty in the Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Kurz, W. S., (2013). Mary, Woman, and Mother in God’s Saving New Testament Plan. Nova et Vetera, English Edition, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 801-818. Retrieved from http://ezp.lndlibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.ezp.lndlibrary.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=vah&AN=CPLI0000581932&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Ruether, R. R. (1993). Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Schaberg, J. D., & Ringe, S. H. (2012). Gospel of Luke. In Newsom, C. A., Ringe, S. H., & Lapsley, J. E. (Eds.), Women’s Bible Commentary, 3rd Edition (pp. 493-516). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
Yoder, J. H. (1994) The Politics of Jesus (2nd Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


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