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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Annunciation, the

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ANNUNCIATION,THE (Annuntiatio, Εὐαγγελισμός, Χαριτισμός).—The announcement of the fact that the Son of God was to be born of the Virgin Mary, who at the time was espoused to Joseph, the descendant and heir of David. St. Luke (Luke 1:26-38) tells us that this announcement was made to Mary by the angel Gabriel at Nazareth six months after the same angel had told Zacharias in the Temple at Jerusalem that his wife Elisabeth should bear him a son, who was to be called John. St. Luke is our sole authority for this announcement by the angel to Mary. St. Mark and St. John are silent; and the narrative of St. Matthew, who is our other authority for the fact that Jesus was born of a virgin, is very different, being written as entirely from Joseph’s point of view as St. Luke’s is written from Mary’s point of view (see below). Nevertheless there is no contradiction between the accounts, and in some important particulars they confirm one another. They are wholly independent narratives, as their wide differences show. Yet they agree, not only as to the central fact of the virgin birth, but also as to the manner of it, viz. that it took place through the operation of the Holy Spirit. This agreement is all the more remarkable when we remember that there is nothing like this effect of the Spirit of God upon a virgin in the Old Testament, and that, prior to the New Testament, the very expression ‘Holy Spirit’ is rare (see the art. in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ii. p. 402ff.); also that the fact of the Incarnation is elsewhere indicated in quite other terms, as by St. John (John 1:14). Moreover, the two narratives agree as to four other points, which are of some importance. Both state that at the time of the announcement Mary was espoused to Joseph, that the child was to be named ‘Jesus,’ that He was born at Bethlehem in Judaea, and that the parents brought Him up at Nazareth.

It is well to remember that there are stories, more or less analogous to what is told by the two Evangelists, in heathen mythologies. The historical probability of the Gospel narratives is not weakened but strengthened by such comparisons. St. Luke’s Gentile readers must have felt the unspeakable difference between the coarse impurity of imagined intercourse between mortals and divinities, in the religious legends of paganism, and the dignity and delicacy of the spiritual narrative which St. Luke laid before them. And St. Matthew’s Jewish readers, if they compared his story with their own national ideas, as illustrated in the Book of Enoch (6, 15, 69, 86, 106), would find a similar contrast. Nor should the legendary additions to the Gospel story, which are found in the Apocryphal Gospels, be forgotten. These show us what pitiful stuff the imagination of early Christians could produce, even when the Canonical Gospels were there as models. All these three classes of fiction, heathen, Jewish, and Christian, warn us that we must seek some source for the Gospel narrative other than the fertile imagination of some Gentile or Jewish Christian whose curiosity led him to speculate upon a mysterious subject. We should have had something very different, both in details and in tone, if there had been no better source than this. And this applies even more strongly to St. Luke’s narrative than to that of St. Matthew. It required more delicacy to tell the story of the virgin birth from Mary’s side than from Joseph’s; and this greater delicacy is forthcoming. And it is all the more conspicuous because St. Luke’s narrative is the richer in details. We conclude, therefore, that St. Luke had good authority for what he has told us, viz. an authority well acquainted with the facts. For if he was incapable of imagining what he has related, equally incapable was his informant. The narrative which he has handed on to us is what it is because in the main it sets forth what is true.

Then who was St. Luke’s authority? Assuming the truth of the narrative, it is obvious that, in the last resort, the authority for it must have been Mary herself. No one else could know what St. Luke records. It does not follow from this that he got the information from her directly, although there is nothing incredible in the supposition that he and she had met. And the form of the narrative leads one to think that there cannot have been many persons between her and him. By frequent transmission from mouth to mouth details about the angel’s outward appearance, his beauty and brightness, and about Mary’s attitude and employment, would have crept in, and the conversation would have been expanded; all of which corruptions are found in the Apocryphal Gospels. Moreover, such touches as Luke 2:19; Luke 2:51 would be likely to drop out; and they have dropped from the Apocryphal Gospels.

We may go a step farther, and say that if St. Luke did not get his information direct from Mary herself, the person who passed on the mysterious story from her to the Evangelist was almost certainly a woman. Mary would be much more likely to tell it to a woman than to a man; and, in spite of her habitual reticence, she would, after Joseph’s death, be likely to confide it to some one. She would feel that such an astounding fact, so much in harmony with the life and death and resurrection of her Son, must not be allowed to die with her; and she would therefore communicate it to some intimate friend, who may have communicated it to St. Luke.

It is quite possible that this communication was at its first stage, or had not even started, when St. Mark composed his Gospel, so that when he wrote he was ignorant of the virgin birth. But as the plan of his Gospel excludes all that preceded the preaching of the Baptist, St. Mark’s silence would be natural even if he already knew it. Probably most of the first generation of Christians were ignorant of this mystery, for the Book of Acts and the Epistles show us that what was preached by the Apostles was not the miraculous birth, but the death and resurrection of Christ (Acts 1:22; Acts 2:23-24; Acts 2:32; Acts 3:15; Acts 4:10; Acts 10:39-40; Acts 13:28-30; Acts 17:31 etc.).

That the Fourth Evangelist knew the Synoptic Gospels, and sometimes silently corrects them, is certain; but he does not correct the story of the virgin birth. On the contrary, what he says about the Incarnation and about the pre-existence of the Son of Man and His oneness with the Father, is in harmony with it. Such passages as John 1:14; John 3:13; John 6:38; John 6:44; John 6:51; John 6:62; John 8:38; John 8:46; John 8:58; John 10:30; John 11:25; John 20:28; John 20:31 are more intelligible if written by one who believed the virgin birth, than if written by one who knew the doctrine and rejected it. It is indeed urged that this Evangelist’s beliefs about the Christ are such, that he must have stated the virgin birth, if he believed it. But, as the story had already been twice told, there was no need to repeat it. And the whole of his Gospel shows that he is reserved about the Virgin Mother, whose name he alone among the Evangelists never mentions. She had become his mother (John 19:27), and he is reticent about all things connected with himself. He nowhere names his own brother.

Nevertheless, when the mystery became known through the diffusion of the First and Third Gospels, its importance as a completion and confirmation of the faith was recognized. Ignatius (circa (about) a.d. 110), in a passage (Eph. 19) which is frequently quoted by later Fathers (Origen, Eusebius, Basil, Jerome, etc.), places the virgin birth in the front rank among Gospel truths; and we find it as an article of faith in the Old Roman Creed, which can be traced almost to the beginning of the second century, τὸν γεννηθέντα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου καὶ Μαρίας τῆς παρθένου: qui natus est de S.S. ex M. V.

The antecedent probability that St. Luke derived the information respecting Mary either from herself, or from a woman to whom she had confided it, is confirmed by the characteristics of these first two chapters of his Gospel. The notes of time (luke Luke 1:26; Luke 1:36; Luke 1:56) are specially feminine; and competent critics find a feminine touch throughout (Luke 1:24-25; Luke 1:41-43; Luke 1:57, Luke 2:5-7; Luke 2:19; Luke 2:35; Luke 2:48; Luke 2:51). Lange (Life of Christ [ed. 1872], i. p. 258) says: ‘The colouring of a woman’s memory and a woman’s view is unmistakable in the separate features of this history. When it is once ascribed to a female narrator … we comprehend the indescribable grace, the quiet loveliness and sacredness of this narrative.’ Ramsay (Was Christ born at Bethlehem? p. 88) says: ‘There is a womanly spirit in the whole narrative which seems inconsistent with the transition from man to man.’ Sanday (Expository Times, April 1903, p. 297) agrees that the narrative came not only from a woman, but through a woman, and he thinks that Joanna, the wife of Chuza, steward to Herod Antipas (Luke 8:2-3; Luke 24:10; cf. Luke 23:49, Acts 1:14), may have been the person through whom the information passed from Mary to St. Luke. Both Lange (confidently) and Sanday (less confidently) believe that St. Luke received the information in writing, and that he wrote the first two chapters with a document before him. On the whole, this is probable. It is quite true that the peculiarities and characteristics of St. Luke’s very marked style are specially frequent in these two chapters (Plummer, St. Luke, p. lxx); but they are also very frequent in other places where he was working from a document. St. Luke seems never to have simply copied his authority. In using written material he freely altered the wording to expressions which were more natural to himself: so that mere frequency of marks of his style is no proof that he was not using what was already in writing. And, of course, when he was translating from an Aramaic document his own favourite words and constructions would come spontaneously.

But, while this is admitted because it admits of something like proof, we are not compelled to admit the unproved assertion that the hymns of praise with which these chapters are enriched have been composed by St. Luke himself, and have no more basis in fact than the speeches in Livy. Each of these canticles suits the time at which it is supposed to have been uttered better than the time at which St. Luke wrote, and it may be doubted whether he could in imagination have thrown himself back to the surroundings and anticipations of Zacharias and Mary and Simeon. There may have been on his part ‘a free literary remodelling of material’ (B. Weiss). Before anything was written down there may have been some modification in the wording as the result of reflexion upon what had been uttered and done. There may even have been conscious elaboration. But it is reasonable to believe that these exquisite and appropriate songs represent fairly accurately what was said and felt on each occasion. What was said and felt would be remembered, and perhaps was committed to writing long before St. Luke obtained the precious record, although not till many years after the events. And there is nothing extravagant in the belief that Mary herself may at last have thought it best to commit her recollections and meditations to writing. The feeling, meum secretum mihi, would prevail for a long time: ‘she pondered these things in her heart.’ Then, as the end of her life drew nearer, she might put on record what ought not to be lost. Finally, she committed the sacred mystery to another woman, or to a small group of women; and from them it passed to St. Luke. But we must be content to remain in ignorance as to whether Mary, or some confidante, or St. Luke himself, was the first to put the story in writing.

That St. Luke should be the Evangelist to receive this womanly story of women is not surprising. The rest of his Gospel shows a marked sympathy with the sex which was so commonly looked down upon by both Jews and Gentiles. To this day, in the public service of the synagogue, the men thank God that they have not been made women. No other Evangelist gives us so many types of women. Besides those in the first two chapters, we have the widow at Nain, the sinner in Simon’s house, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, the woman with the issue, Martha and Mary, the woman bowed down for eighteen years, the widow with her two mites, the daughters of Jerusalem, and the women at the tomb. And he alone gives us the parable of the Woman and the Lost Coin. We may believe that he was one in whom a woman might naturally confide.

While in St. Luke everything is grouped round Mary and her kinswoman Elisabeth, in St. Matthew everything is grouped round Joseph. Joseph’s genealogy is given by way of preface. The Annunciation is made to him; and all revelations about the name of the Child, and the provisions to be taken for His safety, are made also to him. Obviously, if the story is true, Joseph must have been the ultimate source of a great deal of it; but it may have passed through many mouths before it took the form in which it appears in the First Gospel.

Doubt has been thrown upon the two narratives, because in the First Gospel the revelations are made by the angel of the Lord in dreams, whereas in the Third they are made by angels to persons in their waking moments. It is argued that in each case the miraculous agency is due to the imagination of the writer. This is possible. But it is also reasonable to believe that the special method of communication was in each case adapted to the character of the recipients. It cannot be said that St. Matthew always gives us dreams, or that St. Luke objects to such things. St. Matthew mentions the ministry of angels (Matthew 4:11), and communications made by means of them (Matthew 28:5-7); and St. Luke mentions communications made by means of visions in the night (Luke 16:9; Luke 18:9-10). And if the writers had imagined the substance of the heavenly message, would not St. Matthew have given the promise of the Kingdom, and St. Luke the promise of Salvation? But it is St. Matthew who has the latter (Matthew 1:21), while St. Luke has the former (Luke 1:32-33). It is worth noting that in the New Testament we do not read of dreams or visions in the night anywhere but in St. Matthew and in Acts; cf. 2 Corinthians 12:1.

Again, doubts have been raised about the two narratives, because in the one the revelation of the miraculous conception is made to Mary, in the other to Joseph; and either revelation, it is urged, would render the other unnecessary. On the contrary, both are necessary. If the virgin birth was to take place, God in His mercy would not leave Mary in ignorance of the mysterious manner in which He was about to deal with her. We may reverently say that the Annunciation to Mary was a necessity in order to save her from dreadful perplexity and suffering. And this rendered a revelation to Joseph also necessary. On the mere testimony of Mary he could not have accepted so extraordinary a story. The fact that, in spite of his inevitable suspicions, he took her in marriage, requires us to believe that to him also had been revealed God’s purposes respecting his betrothed.

It is evident that St. Matthew and St. Luke give the narratives as historical. Each believed his own story, and expected that others would believe it also (Luke 1:4). Indeed, the isolation in which these two very different intimations of the virgin birth stand in the New Testament makes the explanation of them very difficult unless there is an historical basis. They are not needed to explain anything else. They are intensely Jewish in tone; but we may be sure that Judaism, with its enthusiastic estimate of the blessings of marriage, would not have invented them. Moreover, at the time when these Gospels were written, Judaism was antagonistic to the new faith, and would not have tolerated such a glorifying of its Founder.

In the Annunciation to Mary we are not told that she saw anything, for the ἰδοῦσα read by A C in Luke 1:29 is almost certainly not genuine. Gabriel was sent, and entered some building in which she was living at Nazareth, and there delivered his message. The εἰσελθών is against the later tradition that she was at the fountain drawing water (Protevangelium of James, 11; Gospel of pseudo-Matthew , 9). The angelic message is given ‘in three little pieces of trimeter poetry, which have become somewhat obscured by the Greek translation’ (Briggs, The Messiah of the Gospels, p. 45 ff.), the first of which is the Ave Maria ‘in the form of a distich’—

‘Hail, thou that art endued with grace,

The Lord is with thee.’

The much discussed κεχαριτωμένη must mean ‘endued with grace’ (Sirach 18:17): πίστιν καὶ χάριν λαβοῦσα Μαρία (Justin Martyr, Try. 100); and both here and in Luke 1:30 the usual translation ‘grace’ should be retained for χάρις. ‘The Lord is with thee’ is frequent in the Old Testament (Joshua 1:9; Joshua 6:27, Judges 6:12, Isaiah 43:5). The Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 is probably right in omitting ‘Blessed (art) thou among women,’ which may have come from Luke 1:42 : א BL, with the Egyptian and Armenian Versions, omit.

By the first words of the angel, Mary was greatly disturbed (διεταράχθη) both in mind and heart: then her perplexity and emotion gave place to thought (διελογίζετο). But, although ποταπύς originally meant ‘from what country or nation,’ she was not deliberating, like Hamlet about the ghost, whether the message came from heaven or hell, i.e. whether it was Divine or diabolical. The Latin Versions rightly have quails, not cujas, as an equivalent. Nowhere in the New Testament has ποταπός a local signification, but means simply ‘of what kind or quality’ (ποῖος), and implies astonishment (Luke 7:39, Matthew 8:27, Mark 13:1 -2Pe_3:11, 1 John 3:1).

In his second address Gabriel calms the Virgin’s fears and explains the purpose of his mission. ‘Thou hast found grace with God’ is another Old Testament expression (Genesis 6:8; Genesis 18:3; Genesis 19:19; Genesis 39:4, Exodus 33:12-13; Exodus 33:16-17). This ‘grace’ is manifested in making her the mother of the longed-for Messiah, an unspeakable joy to a Jewish mother. In the promise which follows there are allusions to two prophecies. ‘Son of the Most High’ recalls Psalms 2:7, and ‘the throne of his father David’ recalls the great Messianic prediction in Isaiah 9:6-7.

By the second utterance of Gabriel, which contains the substance of the Annunciation, Mary is astounded. Yet she does not, like Zacharias, ask for proof (Luke 1:18). Nor is her ‘How?’ a request for an explanation. Rather it is an exclamation of amazement. She is not married: how can she have a son? And how can a humble maiden like herself have such a son? This seems to be the natural import of her words. It is unlikely that ‘I know not a man’ means that she has already taken, or there and then takes, or intends to take, a vow of perpetual virginity. And can Matthew 1:25, with its Imperfect tense (not Aorist, as in Genesis 19:8), be reconciled with any such vow? Mary’s ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω is a confession of conscious purity, drawn from her by the surprising promise that she is to have a son before she is married (see Sadler, ad loc.).

Although Mary does not ask for an explanation or a sign, Gabriel gives both in a third utterance. As to the explanation, it is an influence that is spiritual and not carnal, that is holy and not sinful, that is to come upon her and enable her to become a mother, and the mother of the Messiah.

‘Wherefore also the holy thing which shall be born

Shall be called the Son of God.’

‘Son of God’ was a recognized title of the Messiah. Both in the Book of Enoch and frequently in 4 Ezra the Almighty speaks of the Messiah as His Son. Jesus rarely uses this title of Himself (Matthew 27:43, John 10:36). But we have it in the voices from heaven (Luke 3:22; Luke 9:35) and in the devil’s challenge (Luke 4:3; Luke 4:9), in St. Peter’s confession (Matthew 16:16), in the cries of the demoniacs (Mark 3:11; Mark 5:7), and in the centurion’s exclamation (Mark 15:39). The primitive Church adopted it as a concise statement of the Divinity of Jesus Christ (Swete, Apostles’ Creed, p. 24). It is worth noting, in connexion with the part assigned to the Holy Spirit in the virgin birth, that in a fragment of the Gospel according to the Hebrews quoted by Origen (Com. in Johan. iii. § 63) the words, ‘My mother, the Holy Spirit, took Me,’ are put into the mouth of Christ.

As to the sign, which was granted unasked, Mary receives one which is as convincing as the one given to Zacharias, but much more gracious. Another wonderful birth is about to take place, and by the mention of ‘the sixth month’ the angel assures Mary that all is known to him. Mary can verify his words respecting Elisabeth, and thereby know that this message to herself is true. He intimates that there is to be close relationship between Elisabeth’s son and her own, and directs her to her kinswoman for confirmation and sympathy.

Mary’s final response to the angel is not a prayer that what he has promised may be fulfilled, but an expression of absolute submission. She foresees the difficulty with Joseph and with all who know her. But she accepts, without reserve, God’s decree respecting her, as made known to her by His messenger, and leaves the issue in His hands. She is the Lord’s bondmaid, and His will must be done.

There is perhaps more irreverence than wisdom in speculating whether God could have redeemed mankind by one who was produced without human parent; or, again, by one who had a human father as well as a human mother. But suggestions of this kind have been made, and perhaps call for comment. It may be pointed out that a new act of creation would have left no nexus between the Redeemer and those to be redeemed. He would not have belonged to the same race as those whom He came to save. He would not have taken their flesh, and His life would have had little relation to theirs. It is difficult to see how the death and resurrection of such a being would have aided the human race. But the virgin birth avoided all violent breach with humanity. Just as the prophet (John the Baptist) who was to renovate Israel was taken from the old priesthood, so the Christ who was to redeem the whole of mankind was not created out of nothing, but ‘born of a woman.’

Again, if the Christ had had two human parents, it is difficult to see how the hereditary contamination of the race could have been excluded. It may be said that such contamination remains even with only one human parent, and that the choice lies between admitting the contamination and severing the nexus with the human race altogether. But, in truth, there is no such dilemma. The choice is not between creation on the one hand and human parentage (whether with one or two parents) on the other. There is also the possibility of the substitution of Divine agency for the human father. It is conceivable that the presence of this Divine element would entirely exclude the possibility of contamination from the human mother. Indeed it is difficult to conceive that the Divine element could in any way receive contamination. But it is wiser to accept with reverent thankfulness what has been revealed to us respecting this mystery than to speculate needlessly, and perhaps fruitlessly, about what has not been revealed.

It has been pointed out already that the beauty, dignity, and delicacy of the story of the Annunciation are tokens of historic reality; for the fictions about similar subjects in pagan, Jewish, and Christian literature are, in these respects, so very different. There is yet another mark of historic truth to be noted, viz. the extreme simplicity of the Christology. New Testament doctrine about the Christ is here found at a very early stage, earlier even than that in the Epistles to the Corinthians; for there we have Christ’s pre-existence implied as ‘the second man from heaven’ (1 Corinthians 15:47), who ‘became poor’ when He became man for us (2 Corinthians 8:9; cf. 2 Corinthians 4:4-6); and therefore much earlier than the more developed Christology of Colossians (Colossians 1:15) and Ephesians (Ephesians 1:5-7; Ephesians 4:13), and than that of the writer to the Hebrews (Hebrews 1:3), or that of the Fourth Gospel (John 1:14; John 3:13; John 17:5). ‘The power of the Most High shall overshadow thee’ reminds us rather of the manifestations of the Divine presence in the Old Testament, especially the ‘pillar of cloud’ (Exodus 13:21; Exodus 40:34-38, 1 Kings 8:10-11). If St. Luke had invented the story of the Annunciation, would he not have given us more of Pauline Christology, and that in its fullest form? That he has given us what is so rudimentary is evidence that he gives a record of what was revealed to Mary at the time, rather than what he himself knew and believed.

The couplet with which the narrative ends (Luke 1:38) balances that with which it opens (Luke 1:28), and it is one of deep spiritual significance to every believer. By her absolute submission to the will of God, in spite of the agony of shame and distress which this involved, Mary entered into an intimacy of relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, such as even angels cannot know. And yet it is precisely here that the humblest Christian may, by similar obedience, follow her. ‘Blessed is the womb that bare thee,’ said one to the Lord, ‘and the breasts which thou didst suck. But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it’ (Luke 11:27-28).

It was natural that a special day should be set apart to commemorate this mystery, but we do not know when this was first done. The earliest mention of such a festival is in the Acts of the Tenth Synod of Toledo (a.d. 656); and the next is in those of the Second Synod in Trullo (a.d. 692). But, just as the Purification was originally a feast in honour of our Lord rather than of the Virgin Mary, viz. of His presentation in the Temple and meeting with Simeon and Anna, so also this festival originally commemorated His miraculous conception rather than the announcement made to her. In the Ethiopian Calendar it is not called ‘the Annunciation of the blessed Virgin Mary,’ but ‘the Conception of Christ’: elsewhere the later name of the feast has driven out the original title, not only in the West, but also in the Eastern Churches.

Literature.—Briggs, The Messiah of the Gospels, p. 41 ff., New Light on the Life of Jesus, 1904, p. 160 ff.; Ramsay, Was Christ born at Bethlehem?; Sanday, art. ‘Jesus Christ’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ii. p. 643 ff., also Expository Times, April 1903; Pearson, On the Creed, art. iii.; Swete, The Apostles’ Creed, p. 41 ff., also Expos. Times, 1893; Westcott, The Historic Faith, p. 59 ff.; B. Weiss, Leben Jesu, ii. § 2 [English translation i. p. 222 ff.]; Loofs, Leitfaden z. Studium d. Dogmengeschichte; Soltau, Geburtsgeschichte Jesu Christi, 1902; J. A. Robinson, Some Thoughts on the Incarnation, 1903; Knowling, Our Lord’s Virgin Birth; Ch. Quart. Rev., July and Oct. 1904; Gore, The Incarnation, 77 ff., 251 f.; Garvie, Expositor, Feb. 1902. On the sceptical side: Keim, Jesus of Nazara, ii. p. 38 ff.; Hase, Geschichte Jesu, § 22 ff.; O. Holtzmann, Leben Jesu, cap. iv. [English translation p. 81 ff.]; P. Lohstein, The Virgin-Birth of Christ, 1903; Cheyne, Bible Problems, 1904.

A. Plummer.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Annunciation, the'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/a/annunciation-the.html. 1906-1918.


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