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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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MAGNIFICAT. The hymn Magnificat ( Luke 1:46-55 ) has been well described as ‘something more than a psalm, and something less than a complete Christian hymn’ (Liddon). It is the poem of one who felt nearer to the fulfilment of the promises than any writer of the OT. But no Evangelist of the NT could have failed to speak of Christ by His human name, writing after His Death and Resurrection.

In the TR [Note: Textus Receptus.] the hymn is ascribed to the Virgin Mary, but there is a variant reading ‘Elisabeth’ which demands some explanation. ‘Mary’ is the reading of all the Greek MSS, of the great majority of Latin MSS, and of many Early Fathers as far back as Tertullian (2nd cent.). On the other hand, three Old Latin MSS ( cod . Vercellensis, cod . Veronensis, cod . Rhedigeranus-Vratislaviensis) have ‘Elisabeth.’ This reading was known to Origen ( Hom . 5 on Luke 5:1-39 ), unless his translator Jerome interpolated the reference. Niceta of Remesiana (fl. c . 400) quoted it in his treatise ‘On the good of Psalmody.’ We can trace it back to the 3rd cent in the translation of Irenæsus. There is fairly general agreement among critics that the original text must have been simply ‘and she said,’ so that both ‘Mary’ and ‘Elisabeth’ should be regarded as glosses.

On the question which is the right gloss, opinions are divided. In favour of ‘Elisabeth’ it has been suggested that the exclamation Luke 1:42-45 does not cover all that is implied in Luke 1:41 , ‘and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost.’ Such words when used of Zacharias in Luke 1:67 are followed by the Benedictus . Are we to look on the Magnificat as a corresponding prophecy on the lips of Elisabeth? On the other hand, the glowing words of Elisabeth ( Luke 1:42-45 ) need a reply. She who bad answered the angel so humbly and bravely ( Luke 1:38 ) would surely speak when thus addressed by a near relation. Indeed, Luke 1:48 , ‘all generations shall call me blessed,’ seems like a reply to Elisabeth’s ‘Blessed is she that believed’ in Luke 1:45 . In the OT the formula of reply is frequently without a proper name, and the first chapters of Lk. have ‘a special OT colouring.’

Another argument has been founded on the reading of Luke 1:55 : ‘Mary abode with her,’ where the Pesh. and the Sinai Palimpsest render ‘with Elisabeth.’ It is suggested that the tell-tale ‘with her’ of the Greek text proves that the hymn was ascribed to Elisabeth. But in the OT the personality of the singer is, as a rule, sunk in the song, and the name is mentioned at the end as if to pick up the thread (cf. Balaam, Numbers 24:25; Moses, Deuteronomy 32:44; Deuteronomy 34:1 [Bp. Wordsworth]). On the whole, the external evidence is in favour of the gloss ‘Mary.’ The question remains whether the hymn is more suitable on the lips of Elisabeth as expressing the feeling of a mother from whom the reproach of childlessness has been removed. Such an idea seems to express very inadequately the fulness of meaning packed into these few verses. The first words remind us of the song of Hannah as a happy mother ( 1 Samuel 2:1 ), but the hymn is founded to a much greater extent on the Psalms, and the glowing anticipation of the Messianic time to come befits the Lord’s mother. It is characteristic that she should keep herself in the background. No personal fear of the reproach of shame, which might be, and indeed was, levelled against her, no personal pride in the destiny vouchsafed to her, mar our impression of a soul accustomed to commune with God, and therefore never lacking words of praise.

The hymn has four strophes. In strophe i. (Luke 1:46-47 ) she praises God with all the powers of soul and spirit. In il. ( Luke 1:48-49 ) she speaks of living in the memory of men, not as something deserved but because it is the will of the holy Lord. In iii. ( Luke 1:51-53 ) she rises to a large view of the working out of God’s purposes in human history, in the humbling of proud dynasties, and the triumph of the meek. In iv. ( Luke 1:54-55 ) she comes back to the fulfilment of the promises in the Messianic time, beginning with the Incarnation, which is the crowning proof of God’s mercy and love.

A. E. Burn.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Magnificat'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​m/magnificat.html. 1909.
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