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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Magnificat

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MAGNIFICAT.—Our primary interest in the hymn Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) is centred in the question of (1) its authorship, upon which must largely depend the scope of (2) its interpretation. Then (3) the history of its liturgical use may be briefly summarized.

1. Authorship.—Opinions are divided as to the source from which St. Luke derived the materials of his first chapter. Völter suggests that it is based on an Apocalypse of Zacharias, a Jewish document which has been edited by a Christian, who found the Magnificat attributed to Elisabeth, and transferred it to Mary. Weizsäcker thinks that St. Luke simply inserted an early Christian hymn. A more satisfactory view is that of Sanday (Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ii. 639, 644), who suggests that St. Luke was supplied with a special (written) source, through one of the women mentioned in Luke 8:3; Luke 24:10, possibly Joanna, who, being the wife of Herod’s steward, may also have supplied information about the court of Herod. We know from John 19:25 (cf. Acts 1:14) that the Virgin Mary was brought into contact with this group. Ramsay (Was Christ born at Bethlehem? p. 88) calls attention to ‘a womanly spirit in the whole narrative, which seems inconsistent with the transmission from man to man, and which, moreover, is an indication of Luke’s character; he had a marked sympathy with women.’ On the supposition that St. Luke used an Aramaic tradition or document, it is possible to account for all the characteristics of style by which Harnack (see below) seeks to prove that he was the author both of the Magnificat and of the Benedictus.

Having described the visit of the Virgin Mary to Elisabeth, and Elisabeth’s salutation, the Textus Receptus has καὶ εἶπεν [Μαριάμ] with the variant reading Ἐλισάβετ. Then follows the hymn, the text of which has been excellently preserved, the only other doubtful reading being μεγάλα, for which we should probably read μεγαλεῖα.

Μαριάμ is the reading of all Greek Manuscripts , of the great majority of Latin Manuscripts , and of innumerable Patristic testimonies, back to the 2nd cent., when Tertullian wrote (de Anima, 26): ‘Exsultat Elisabet, Johannes intus impulerat, glorificat dominum Maria, Christus intus instinxerat.’

Ἐλισάβετ is the reading of three Old Latin Manuscripts . a (Vercellensis, saec. iv.), b (Veronensis, saec. v.), rhe (Rhedigeranus-Vratislaviensis, saec. fere vii.), in Burkitt’s phrase ‘a typical European group,’ to which may be added the testimony of Niceta of Remesiana, de Psalmodiae Bono, c. 9: ‘Nec Elisabeth, diu sterilis, edito de repromissione filio, Deum de ipsa anima magnificare cessat; c. 11: Cum Elisabeth Dominum anima nostra magnificat.’

So also Origen, or his translator Jerome, in the 5th Homily on Luke 5 (Lommatzsch, t. v. p. 108 f.): ‘Inuenitur beata Maria, sicut in aliquantis exemplaribus reperimus, prophetare; non enim ignoramus, quod secundum alios codices et haec uerba Elisabet uaticinetur Spiritu itaque sancto tunc repleta est Maria,’ etc. Harnack thinks that Jerome, if he had been responsible for this reference, would have mentioned whether the reading was in Latin or Greek Manuscripts . But as Jerome was writing in Latin, and the evidence of Niceta shows that the reading Elisabeth was more persistent and widespread in the very district from which Jerome came,—having been born in Pannonia, not a great distance from Remesiana,—it must be considered still possible that he interpolated the reference.

Lastly we come to Irenaeus, iv. 7. 1 (Cod. Clarom. et Voss.): ‘sed et Elisabet ait: Magnificat anima mea dominum,’ etc. Cod. Arund. ‘Maria.’ In iii. 10. 1: ‘Propter quod exultans Maria clamabat pro ecclesia prophetans: Magnificat anima mea dominum,’ etc. Here the context proves that Irenaeus intended to write ‘Maria.’* [Note: In iii. 14. 3, Irenaeus refers to Luke 1:42-45 as exclamatio Elisabet.] Thus it seems probable that it was the translator of Irenaeus, or a copyist, who introduced the reading Elisabet from his Old Latin Bible, and we may safely carry it back to the 3rd century.* [Note: Burkitt still adheres to his view, that ‘Irenaeus regarded Elisabeth as a type of ‘the ancient Jewish Ecclesia prophesying by a Divine Spirit about the Christ.’]

How then are we to account for the reading? Bardenhewer thinks that, Μαριάμ having dropped out, Ἐλισάβετ was supplied by a copyist. But most critics (Burkitt, Harnack, Wordsworth) agree that the original text must have been καὶ εἶπεν without either name. Burkitt puts it concisely: ‘ “Mary” was read by Tertullian as well as by all Greek and Syriac texts. This is fatal to “Elisabeth”; yet, if “Mary” were genuine, the actual occurrence of “Elisabeth” in the European branch of the Old Latin would be inexplicable. But if the original text of the Gospel had καὶ εἶπεν Μεγαλύνει, κ.τ.λ., without either name, all the evidence falls into line.’

On the question, which is the right gloss, critics are divided. Harnack and Burkitt argue for ‘Elisabeth,’ Wordsworth and Spitta for ‘Mary.’ (1) Harnack does not think that the exclamation of Luke 1:42-45 covers all that is implied in Luke 1:41 καὶ ἐπλήσθη πνεύματος ἁγίου ἡ Ἐλισάβετ. In Luke 1:67 similar words are used about Zacharias, and are followed by the Benedictus. Nothing is said about Mary being filled with the prophetic spirit. It does not seem necessary, on the other hand, to resort to the extreme remedy of Spitta, who refuses to consider that the Benedictus supplies a parallel case, because he thinks that it has been interpolated at this point. The ‘glowing words’ of Elisabeth’s address need some reply. ‘Could St. Mary, who answered so freely and so bravely, yet so humbly, to the angel, have been silent at such a moment when addressed by one whom she knew so well?’ (Wordsworth). Though undoubtedly she is kept, or more probably keeps herself, in the background of this history, and is not spoken of as ‘filled with the Holy Ghost,’ there is no question of deepest communing with God (Gottinnigkeit, Spitta), and this suffices to explain the outpouring in devotion and faith of a mind stored with OT phrases.

In the OT ‘when any question is addressed to a person or persons whom the reader knows to be present, the formula of reply is frequently and perhaps generally without proper name and without pronoun’; cf. Luke 2:49. Later in his Gospel Lk. generally uses ὁ δὲ εἶπεν; but the first chapters have ‘a special OT colouring’ (Wordsworth), in view of which Harnack’s argument, that ‘if in Luke 2:46 the subject was to be changed, Lk. would have written εἶπεν δὲ Μαριάμ,’ falls to the ground. Further, the words μακαριοῦσί με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί of Luke 2:48 seem to be a reply to Elisabeth’s μακαρία ἡ πιστεύσασα. On the other hand, it is only fair to point out that Prof. Burkitt seeks to prove that St. Luke was ‘remarkably fond of inserting καὶ εἶπεν or εἶπεν δέ between the speeches of his characters without a change of speaker.’† [Note: JThSt vii. p. 223.] (2) Another argument has been based on the words ἔμεινεν δὲ Μαριὰμ σὺν αὐτῇ, which are said to make it probable that Elisabeth has been the speaker, otherwise Lk. would have written ἔμεινεν δὲ Μ. σὺν τῇ Ἐ. or ἔμεινεν δὲ σὺν τῇ Ἐ. ‘The Peshitta as well as the Sinai Palimpsest renders, “Now Mary remained with Elisabeth.” But the Greek has retained “the tell-tale αὐτῇ” ’ (Burkitt).

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 etc.). It is true that Hannah’s name is not mentioned in 1 Samuel 2:11, but it has been mentioned at the beginning. The name marks ‘the whole section Luke 1:39-56 as what we may call a “Mary section,” ’ the Syriac reading being an attempt to clear up ambiguity (Wordsworth).

On the whole, then, so far as external evidence goes, the balance of probability is in favour of the reading or gloss ‘Mary.’ But the more difficult question of internal evidence remains for discussion. Does the Magnificat seem more suitable on the lips of Elisabeth?

Harnack thinks that it was modelled on the lines of Hannah’s song, that it expresses the feeling of a mother from whom has been removed what Jewish women felt as ‘the reproach of childlessness.’ Burkitt suggests that ‘the Λόγος ἀπὸ Σιγῆς προελθών more corresponds to the fitness of things than a burst of premature song.’

Apart from the question raised by Wellhausen whether Hannah’s song has been interpolated in 1 Samuel 2, Spitta thinks that it is the song of a warrior rather than a woman, and looks elsewhere for parallels to the Magnificat. Any way, either Mary or Elisabeth would regard it as the song of Hannah, which is the main point before us. We cannot do better than quote the text at this point, with Harnack’s parallels, to introduce his argument that St. Luke is thereby proved to be the actual author of the hymn which he puts into the mouth of Elisabeth.

Luke 1:46-47 Μεγαλύνες ἠ ψυχή μου τὸν κύριον, καὶ ἡγαλλίασεν τὸ τνεῦμα μου ἐτὶ τῳ θεῷ τῷ σωτῆρί μου ̇

(1) 1 Samuel 2:1 Ἐστερεώθη ἡ καρδία μουʼ ἐν κυρίῳ, ὑψώθη κέρας μου ἐν θεῷ μου.

v. 48 ὅτι ἑτέβλεψεν ἐπὶ τὴν ταπεί νωσιν τῆς δούλης αὐτοῦ. ἰδοὺ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν μακαριοῦσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γενεαί

(2) 1 Samuel 1:11 ἐὰν ἐπιβλέπων ἐπεβλέψης ἐπὶ τὴν ταπείνωσιν τῆς δούλης σου; Genesis 30:13 μακαρία ἐγώ, ὅτι μακαρίζουσίν με πᾶσαι αἱ γυναῖκες.

Luke 1:49 ὁτς ἐτοίησέν μοι μεγάλα ὁ δυνατός, καὶ ἀγιον τὸ ὅνομα αὐτοῦ,

(3) Deuteronomy 10:21 ὅστις ἐπώησεν ἑν σοὶ τὰ μεγάλα. Psalms 111:9 ἄγιον καὶ φοβερὸν τὸ ἑνομα αὐτοῦ.

Luke 1:50 καὶ τὸ ἕλεος αὐτοῦ εἰς γενεὰς καὶ γενεὰς τοῖς φοβουμένοις αὐτόν,

(4) Psalms 103:17 τὸ δὲ ἕλεος τοῦ κυρίου ἀπὸ τοῦ αἰῶνος καὶ ἵως τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐπὶ τοὺς φοβουμέκους αὐτόν

Luke 1:51 ἑτοίησιν κράτος ἐν βραχίονε αὐτοῦ, διεσκόρπεσεν ὑπερηφάνους διανοίᾳ καρδιας αὐτῶν ̇

(5) Psalms 89:11 σὺ ἐταπείεωσας ὠς τραυματίαν ὑπερήφανον, καὶ ἐν τῷ βραχίονς τῆς δυνάμεώς σουδιεσκόρπισας τοὺς ἑχθρούς σου.

Luke 1:52 καθεῖλεν δυνάστας ἀπὸ θρόνων καὶ ὕψωσεν ταπεινούς,

(6) Job 12:19 δυνάστας δὲ γῆς κατέστρεψεν, Job 5:11 τὸν ποεοῦντα ταπεινοὐς εἰς ὕψος.

Luke 1:53 πενῶντας ἐνέπλησεν ἀγαθῶν καὶ πλουτοῦντας ἐζκτέστειλεν κενούς.

(7) 1 Samuel 2:7 κύριος πτωχίζει καὶ πλουτίζει, ταπεινεῖ καὶ ἀνυψεῖ Psalms 107:9 ψυχὴν πεινῶσαν ἑνέπλησεν ἁγαθῶν. Job 12:19 ἐξαποστέλλων ἱερεῖς αἰχμαλώτους.

Luke 1:54 ἀντελάβετο Ἰσραὴλ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ, μνησθῆναι ἐλέους

(8) Isaiah 41:8 σὺ δέ, Ἰσραήλ, παῖς μου, οὖ ἀντελαβόμην. Psalms 98:3 ἐμνήσθη τοῦ ἐλέους αὐτοῦ τῷ Ἰακώβ.

Luke 1:55κατέρας ἡμῶντῷ Ἁβραὰμ καὶ τῷ στέρματι αὐτοῦ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.

(9) Micah 7:20 δώδειἔλεον τῷ Ἁβραάμ, καθότι ὤμοσας τοῖς πατράσιν ἡμῶν; 2 Samuel 22:51 καὶ ποεῶν ἕλεοςτῷ Δαυεὶδ καὶ τῷ σπίρματι αὐτοῦ ἕως κἰῶνος.

In regard to these parallels Spitta argues with some force that there are nearer parallels in the Psalms; e.g. Psalms 33:3-4 ἐν τῷ κυρίῳ ἐπαινεθήσεται ἡ ψυχή μουμεγαλύνατε τὸν κύριον σὺν ἐμοί; Psalms 34:9 ζ μου ἀγαλλιάσεται ἐπὶ τῷ κυρίῳ, τερφθήσεται ἐπὶ τῷ σωτηρίῳ αὐτοῦ; LXX Psalm 34:27 =Psa 39:17 = Psalms 69:5 ἀγαλλιάσαιντο καὶ εὐφρανθείησαν ἐπὶ σοι πάντες οἱ ζητοῦντές σε κύριε, καὶ εἰπάτωσαν διὰ παντός, Μεγαλυνθήτω ὁ κύριος, οἱ ἁγαπῶντες τὸ σωτήριόν σου.* [Note: He quotes Psalms 9:14 f. Psalms 12:4-6; Psalms 30:8 as parallels to Luke 1:53.] This is true; but at the same time we cannot doubt that a Jewish woman would turn to Hannah’s song as, so to speak, a model, even though the phrases of the psalms which she used often in devotion would come more readily to her lips while working out her idea.

Harnack picks out certain words as having no place in his parallels, and suggests that they are not found in the LXX Septuagint , and being characteristic of Lk.’s style, prove that he was really the author of the hymn. Spitta, however, proves that the phrases in question are not only found in the LXX Septuagint , but are not so characteristic of Lk.’s style; e.g. (1) ἰδοὺ γάρ is found not only in Luke 1:44; Luke 2:10; Luke 6:23; Luke 17:21, Acts 9:11, but also in 2 Corinthians 7:11;* [Note: Psalms 50:7-8; Psalms 53:6, Isaiah 32:7; Isaiah 38:17; Isaiah 44:22; Isaiah 62:11; Isaiah 66:15.] (2) ἀπὸ τοῦ νῦν, said to be found in Luke 5:10; Luke 12:52; Luke 22:18; Luke 22:69, Acts 18:6 only, is also found 2 Corinthians 5:16.† [Note: Genesis 46:30, 2 Chronicles 16:9, Tob 10:13, 11:9, Isaiah 48:6, Daniel 10:17.] These instances alone will suffice to prove how unsafe the foundations are upon which Harnack’s argument is based.

There is one other possible source for some of the phrases which has not been mentioned, i.e. the 18 Benedictions of the Synagogue (quoted by Warren, Liturgy of Ante-Nicene Church, p. 243).

Luke 1:49

Ben. 2: ‘Thou art mighty, O Lord, world without end.’

Luke 1:51

Ben. 12: ‘Let the proud speedily be uprooted, broken, crushed, and humbled speedily in our days. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who breakest down the enemy and humblest the proud.’

Luke 1:54-55

Ben. 1: ‘Blessed art Thou who rememberest the pious deeds of our fathers, and sendest the Redeemer to their children’s children. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, the shield of Abraham.’

On the whole, then, in spite of Harnack’s arguments, there is still room to believe that St. Luke translated, or perhaps to some extent worked up into a Greek hymn, the materials supplied to him in an Aramaic tradition or document. There was no unnatural seeking after effect. In reply to Elisabeth’s address no conventional answer would seem in place. On the other hand, Prof. Burkitt regards the whole of Elisabeth’s words as the acknowledgment of Mary’s salutation, and finds ‘a striking parallel in Luke 2:25-35, i.e. the conversation of Mary and Simeon. In both cases Mary’s interlocutor is said to have a holy Spirit, in both cases the whole of the words recorded is assigned to the interlocutor, and the words themselves consist partly of pious meditation, partly of words addressed exclusively to Mary’ (JThSt [Note: ThSt Journal of Theological Studies.] vii. p. 225). This is a question perhaps of sentiment. But few devout believers in the Incarnation would hesitate to express their profound gratitude for the words of simple faith and hope, grounded, as Spitta has certainly shown, as much on the Psalms as on Hannah’s song, a spontaneous offering of praise from a lowly spirit continually in communion with the Divine, and therefore never lacking words of praise. We may regard these words as spoken in substance by the Virgin Mary, and yet maintain the truth of the phrase of Ignatius about ‘the Word proceeding from silence.’ The silence remains unbroken. No personal dread of the possible reproach not of childlessness but of shame, no personal exultation in this transcendent blessedness among women, find expression.

2. Interpretation.—The scope of interpretation varies in accordance with the view held concerning the authorship. Harnack’s description is correct so far as it goes: ‘The artistic arrangement of the pronouns, which governs the hymn, expresses exactly the progress of thought, advancing from the subjective to the objective in order to return again to the subjective, though in a higher form.’ But he fails to express the situation so clearly described by Liddon (p. 13) from the internal evidence.

‘Like the songs of Zacharias and Simeon, it is something more than a psalm, and something less than a complete Christian hymn. A Christian poet, living after the Resurrection of Christ, would surely have said more; a Hebrew psalmist would have said less than Mary. In this Hymn of hers we observe a consciousness of nearness to the fulfilment of the great promises, to which there is no parallel even in the latest of the psalms; and yet even Mary does not speak of the Promised One, as an Evangelist or an Apostle would have spoken of Him, by His Human Name, and with distinct reference to the mysteries of His Life and Death and Resurrection. Her Hymn was a native product of one particular moment of transition in sacred religious history, and of no other; when the twilight of the ancient dispensation was melting, but had not yet melted, into the full daylight of the new.’

In Strophe i. (Luke 1:46-47) she offers praise to God as His due, with all powers of the soul, that is, of imagination and impulse; and of the spirit, with the faculties of reason and memory and will.

In Strophe ii. (Luke 1:48-49) she dwells on the distinction vouchsafed to her in becoming the Mother of the Incarnate Son. She is to live in the memory of mankind not because she deserves it, but because He whose Name is holy so wills.

In Strophe iii. (Luke 1:51; Luke 1:53), turning away from self, she rises, as in moments of spiritual enlightenment any one may rise, to larger views of God’s purposes in the shaping of human history. His presence and power are vindicated in the humbling of the proudest dynasties and the triumph of the meek. This thought is characteristic of a group of psalms (9, 10, 22, 25, 35, 40, 69, 109; cf. 4 Ezr (2 Es) 11:42, Ps-Song of Solomon 5:13 f.) which must often have been in the minds of the little group—Joseph, Mary, Zacharias, Elisabeth, Simeon, Anna—who were looking for the redemption of Israel.

In Strophe iv. (Luke 1:54-55) she comes back to the thought of the Messianic time now beginning: the assurances given to the fathers should be fulfilled. The source of the Incarnation is found in God’s attributes of loving-kindness and truth.

3. Liturgical use.—In the Eastern Church the Magnificat is sung as a morning canticle. This also was its use in the West at one time. In the directions at the end of the Rule of Aurelian, bp. of Arles, c. [Note: circa, about.] 540, it is mentioned as used in the Office of Lands ‘with antiphon or with alleluia, following OT psalms and canticles, and followed by Gloria in excelsis.’* [Note: Migne, Patr. Lat. lxviii. 393.]

In the treatise of Niceta, de Psalmodiae Bono, to which we have already alluded, the primary reference is to Vigils, to the use, therefore, of the Magnificat in the evening. The list of canticles mentioned corresponds to that in use in the Church of Constantinople at that time. When the later-hour offices were developed in the West, it was, in accordance with such usage, attached to Vespers, with varying antiphon. Thus it passed into the first Prayer-Book of Edward VI., and has since been used in Evensong after the first Lesson.

In Julian’s Dict. of Hymnology there are references to several metrical versions which found favour from the 16th century. But these are of no importance.

Literature.—O. Bardenhewer, Biblische Studien, vi. (1901) p. 187; F. C. Burkitt in A. E. Burn’s Niceta of Remesiana, 1905, and JThSt [Note: ThSt Journal of Theological Studies.] vii. 220; A. Harnack, Sitzungsberichte der k. preuss. Akad. der Wissenschaften, 1900, xxvii. p. 537; F. Jacobé, Revue d’hist. et de litt. religieuses, ii. p. 424; H. P. Liddon, The Magnificat, 1889; W. Sanday, art. ‘Jesus Christ’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ; F. Spitta, ‘Das Magnifikat ein Psalm der Maria und nicht der Elisabeth,’ Theol. Abhandlungen, 1902; Völter, ThT [Note: hT Theol. Tijdschrift.] xxx. (1896) p. 224; Bp. Wordsworth in A. E. Burn’s Niceta of Remesiana; T. D. Bernard, Songs of the Holy Nativity, 1895, pp. 56, 65.

A. E. Burn.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Magnificat'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/m/magnificat.html. 1906-1918.

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