Semitic Poetic Techniques in the Magnificat: Luke 1:46-47, 55

By Méndez, Hugo | Journal of Biblical Literature, October 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Semitic Poetic Techniques in the Magnificat: Luke 1:46-47, 55


Méndez, Hugo, Journal of Biblical Literature


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The Magnificat (Luke 1:46b-55) imitates the form and content of various biblical psalms and odes, including the Song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10). But to what extent does it show flashes of its own poetic sophistication? How convincing is the pastiche? In this article, I will address these questions through the lens of two grammatical peculiarities in the hymn that are generally dismissed as nonstandard Greek usage. The first aligns two verbs in a synonymous parallelism but sets them in diffferent tenses (vv. 46b-47). The second references the same object through two different object constructions (v. 55).

An earlier study has already argued that the first alternation finds a background in Hebrew poetry.1 In this article I will elaborate on this thesis and discuss the literary merits of this technique in the broader hymn. In turn, I will apply a poetic analysis to the second construction as well. I believe the two anomalies are comparable and can be classed together as stylistic or nonsemantic grammatical alternations. This category of poetic devices is amply attested in the Hebrew Bible and evidently plays a vital role in the marked language of this hymn as well. When one adds these techniques to the inventories of the hymn's poetic features, the skill of its poet stands out in stronger relief.2

I. Tense Alternation (Luke 1:46b-47)

A. Analysis of the Greek

In the opening couplet of the Magnificat, a present-tense verb (µεγαλ?νει, "magnifies," v. 46b) stands opposite an aorist (?γαλλ?ασεν, "rejoiced," v. 47) in a synonymous parallelism:

Luke 1:46b-47

...

My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoiced in God my savior.

The juxtaposition of these tenses has attracted considerable attention in secondary literature. Since for most interpreters, the immediate occasion of Mary's song justifies the present tense of µεγαλ?νει, those treatments focus almost exclusively on the choice of an aorist form in verse 47.

Interpretations of the Aorist in Verse 47

One set of approaches identifies ?γαλλiασεν with one of several non-past uses of the aorist. BDF, for instance, identifies ?γαλλiασεν as a gnomic aorist.4 This type, rare in Hellenistic Greek, is associated with aphorisms and statements of general fact. Since the motive clauses following this couplet identify Mary's rejoicing as a reaction to particular events of her recent experience (vv. 48-49), however, a gnomic sense is unlikely in this instance. It is still less likely when one compares ?γαλλ?ασεν to the true gnomics in verses 51-53.5 The aorist in verse 47 differs considerably from these verbs, which include "features of proverbial statement, such as nouns with generic articles, indefinite noun or pronoun reference," and an eye toward "universal occurrences of the event."6

An alternative explanation would identify ?γαλλ?ασεν as one of the few New Testament examples of a dramatic aorist, or an "aorist of present state."7 A dramatic aorist here would represent a Hebraism, capturing qualities of the stative perfect (a type emphasizing a present condition resulting from a past, completed action).8 The LXX translates some 47 percent of Hebrew perfects with a present or future value as aorists.9 Four such verbs appear in the first line of the Song of Hannah, an obvious template for the phrasing of Luke 1:46b-47:10

1 Sam [LXX 1 Kgdms] 2:1

...

My heart has been made to exult in the Lord.

My horn has been exalted in my God.

My mouth has been enlarged against my enemies,

Because I have been gladdened in your salvation.

Although this comparison provides a compelling explanation for the aorist form in verse 47, it ignores the fundamental difficulty of verses 46b-47, namely, the shiftin tense. Why does the poet11 of the Magnificat use a different tense in each line? Why not render both verbs as dramatic aorists, especially with 1 Sam 2:1 as a model? …

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