The Magnificat Says Mary Knew

I’ve been studying the Greek 101 course on The Great Courses, off and on. (Not very diligently. Basically, whenever I’ve got enough brainpower.)

Not long after the bit where you realize you can understand the first five lines of the Iliad, the second episode about dactylic hexameter includes a portion of Luke’s Gospel, where Gabriel speaks to the Virgin Mary. And yesterday, thinking about it, I noticed something that connects to the Magnificat.

St. Gabriel says about the son that Mary is being asked to bear, “He will be great.” (Literally, “Houtos estai megas,” He will be big/great/important.)

Some people say that Mary couldn’t have known Who her son was. But St. Elizabeth knew right away. The Spirit of the Lord came upon her, and she cried out in a loud voice (“krauge megale“) that Mary was “the mother of my Lord.”

Well, obviously the Holy Spirit had done a lot more quality time with Mary, by overshadowing her, and God Himself was right there inside! Prophecy might occur!

So what does Mary say about her unborn son?

Megalynei he psyche mou ton Kyrion.” (Literally, My soul makes the Lord big, or My soul displays/proclaims that the Lord is big. “Megalynei” has the extended sense of “extols.”)

Mary is clearly alluding to her promised son being the Lord Himself! And then she underlines it, saying as a pregnant woman:

“Hoti epoiesen moi megala ho Dynatos.” (The Mighty One has done big things to/at me.) Like in her womb. Getting big.

But wait, there’s more! In Luke 1:58, after Mary had gone home and Elizabeth had given birth, the neighbors and relatives of Elizabeth heard that: “…hoti emegalynen Kyrios to eleos autou met autes, kai synechairon aute.” (“….that the Lord was magnifying His Mercy with her, and they rejoiced with her.” And notice Gabriel’s greeting being echoed with “chaire.”) So literally, the double meaning was that the Lord had been staying at her house, working on getting big!

Probably this is old news to a lot of you, but I’ve never heard it pointed out before. (And this allusion pattern is probably why some scholars are super-anxious to deny Mary’s composition of the Magnificat — because it shows that she understood what was going on, and was a Bible-contemplating poet as well as a prophetess.)

It would make sense for Luke to back up Mary’s allusions with at least one of his own, because that would show his audience that he also understood what was going on. It also rounds out the story, by alluding to elements of the Annunciation at the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth and name.

This will probably be a better-sounding Marian argument if you say “great” instead of “big.”

UPDATE: The Greek word “megas” is used in the Septuagint to translate Hebrew “gadol,” great (or big!). The Greek word “dynatos” is used to translate Hebrew “gibbor,” which can mean “mighty,” “the Mighty One” (as in Zephaniah 3:17), or “warrior.”

SECOND UPDATE: The sacred extension of the “extols” meaning is “make the Lord’s Name big, by letting other people know His deeds and power.” And it shows up a lot.

Megalynei references at Bill Mounce’s website.

Acts 10:46 — “For they were hearing them speaking in tongues, and exalting [megalynonton] God.”

Acts 19:17 — “And the Name of the Lord Jesus was exalted [emegalyneto].”

Phil. 1:20 — “Christ will be exalted [megalynthesetai] in my body, whether by life or by death.” (See, being Christian does imply identifying with Mary….)

The word also shows up in the Septuagint. One of the most important ones is in Sirach 43:35 — ‘Who shall see [God] and describe Him as He is? Who shall magnify [megalynei] Him as He is, from the beginning?’

Well, apparently Mary will see God, and will magnify Him. So there’s an answer to Ben Sira’s question, heh….

Another super-important LXX reference is 2 Sam. 7:18-29. Mary’s Magnificat refers a ton to the prayer of Samuel’s mother, Hannah; and legend identified her own previously barren mom, Anna/Hannah, as also identifying strongly with Hannah. But Mary was of the House of David, so it’s not surprising that she would also identify strongly with David, since her entire situation was a fulfillment of what the Lord had promised David through the prophet Nathan — that God would be father to the Son of David, that David’s House and kingdom would endure forever, and his throne would endure forever. So Mary refers to David’s thankful response to God, and Elizabeth also calls back to this speech (although obviously 2 Sam. 6:9 and Hannah’s song even more). David calls himself the Lord’s servantman [“doulo” – Hebrew “ebed”] and Mary calls herself His servantwoman or handmaid [“doula”], so the parallel is strong. (And obviously this is the usual OT way to talk directly to God, so it’s not surprising.)

“And David went in, and sat before the Lord, and said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that You have brought me thus far? But yet this has seemed little in Your sight, O Lord God… For Your Word’s sake, and according to Your own heart You have done all these great things [megalosynen], so that You would make it known to Your servant. Therefore You are magnified [megalynai], O Lord God, because there is none like to You. 

“And what nation is there upon earth like Your people Israel, whom God went to redeem for a people to himself… and to do for them great things [megalosynen] and awe-inspiring things upon the earth, before the face of Your people…

“And now, O Lord God, raise up for ever the Word that You have spoken concerning Your servant and concerning his house: and do as You have spoken, so that Your Name may be magnified [megalytheie] for ever… Because You, O Lord of hosts, O God of Israel, have revealed this to the ear of Your servant, saying, ‘I will build You a house.’ Therefore Your servant has found it in his heart to pray this prayer to You. 

“And now, O Lord God, You are God, and Your words shall be true, for You have spoken these good things to Your servant… and with Your blessing let Your servant’s House be blessed for ever.”

(Oh, and btw, the Hebrew for “great things” in this passage is “hagedullah,” from “gadol,” and “be magnified” is “weyigdal,” also from “gadol.”)

I love finding all these deep things, just sitting there in plain sight. I guess people think more about Hannah’s Song and the Magnificat because it’s apt for a woman, but there’s a ton of stuff pointing out that David’s response is sort of a bookend to Hannah’s Song. So why wouldn’t Mary refer to them both?

7 Comments

Filed under Church, Greek Bible Stuff, Translations

7 responses to “The Magnificat Says Mary Knew

  1. Hadn’t read it laid out this way, but have read a few epic rants on the song “Mary did you know?”

  2. her41am

    Let me ask you this. You are reading the text in greek. Is the Holy Spirit always referred to as “he” in the Greek? I ask because the Holy Spirit may be Wisdom.
    Wisdom was our creators first ccreation is decidedly feminine. Jesus says the Holy Spirit is his mother and the patriarchy has neutered her. At least you Catholics girls got Mary… we Protestants girls just got questions…

    • The word is female– both ‘wisdom’ and ‘spirit’– but I haven’t heard of the Holy Spirit ever being described as “her.”
      I seem to remember some quotes that mention wisdom personified that have been argued to allude to the Third Person of the Trinity.

      Your church cut out Mary and Martha?
      The women at the foot of the cross?
      That it was the women who went to serve Jesus one last time in His tomb, and thus brought the good news first?
      That it was in response to Mary’s words (“They have no wine.”) that Jesus did His first miracle?

  3. Languages that have grammatical gender _often_ do not have a connection between grammatical gender and physical sex. Grammatical gender generally comes from a word’s language origins, or from phonetic features, rather than from anything about the word itself.

    For example, Spanish words with Greek origins that end in -ma, like “problema” or “tema,” are usually masculine in gender, not feminine. They were neuter gender in Greek and Latin, and Spanish usually made such words masculine in gender.

    OTOH, a Spanish crime victim is “la victima,” even if the victim is a man.

    In Greek, -ma is a suffix meaning something like “result,” and pneu- is from the verb “pneo,” I blow. Like most of the -ma words I know about, “pneuma” is neuter gender in Greek. Wisdom (“sophia” in Greek) is feminine grammatical gender.

    Ruach (which, like “pneuma,” means both breath and spirit) in Hebrew is a feminine gender word, which does allow a lot of wordplay. However, what you usually see is “ruach” being associated with spirits of a masculine or neuter character, or with words coming from God’s mouth. “Shekhinah” or “chokhmah” are grammatically feminine gender too, and they are the ones that generally get the feminine imagery or wordplay.

    However, “overshadow” is associated not just with the shekhinah coming over the Temple or the Tabernacle (in the Septuagint), but also with Psalm 91:4/90:4, where “with His shoulders He will overshadow you, and under His wings you shall trust.”

    (“Under his wings” had a marital as well as protective connotation in Hebrew meaning “under his cloak,” and we see that in Ruth’s proposal to Boaz: “Take your maidservant under your wing, for you are a kinsman-redeemer.” (Ruth 3:9))

    It was also used in the Septuagint for “cover” in the sense of shielding or sheltering, as in Psalm 140:7/139:7 — “O Lord… You have overshadowed over my head on the day of battle,” and in Proverbs 18:11, “The wealth of a rich man is a strong city, and its great glory overshadows it.”

  4. So basically, there’s a deep connection between the words of God the Father, the Word Who is His Son, and the Breath from His mouth by Whom the Father speaks. The Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, and is as masculine as they are. (Although one can use feminine imagery for both the Son and the Holy Spirit, like the mother hen and her chicks, or Wisdom playing before the Lord. But in general, one uses masculine imagery for all three Persons, because that’s how God has generally spoken about Himself and revealed Himself.)

    Jesus never says anything about the Holy Spirit being His mother.

    A woman being overshadowed, or surrounded by a cloud, and then conceiving a child is a masculine image, to the point that a lot of early Christian authors were rather defensive about comparisons of this to Zeus impregnating Io while taking the form of a cloud, or Zeus taking the form of a rain of gold to impregnate Danae. YHWH was not pictured as only a sky god, like the various Baals and Els in Phoenicia and surrounding areas; but He was definitely associated with “riding on the clouds,” thunder and lightning, bringing rain upon the earth and dew upon the fleece, and so forth.

    (And of course, Gideon’s “dew on the fleece” is one of the common images of Mary’s conception by the Holy Spirit, and is associated with Isaiah 45:8’s messianic prophecy, the Rorate Mass in Advent, and so on.)

    This turned out very long… but there’s probably more to be said.

    • God the Father — in His nature, He has no sex, because He’s a bodiless spirit and absolutely simple. However, all fathers and all masculine things take their nature from Him, so it’s definitely okay to call Him “Him.” (And of course, English left behind its neuter grammatical genders and cases, back in Old English. So it’s a bit late to try to use gender-neutral language, unless you’re also going to bring back dual-plural, and the letters ash and thorn.)

      God the Son — in His godhood, He is a spirit with no sex. However, He became incarnate as a human man, and now His deity and humanity are joined inseparably, and He dwells in His Body at the right hand of the Father. So since He’s got a male body, it’s definitely correct to call Him “Him.”

      God the Holy Spirit — in His nature, He’s a spirit and hence has no sex. However, He is associated with clouds, dew, making the earth fertile to produce plants, fire, the masculine word for “defense lawyer” or “helper” (parakletos), and being the spouse of Mary Who overshadowed her and made her pregnant. In John 16:13, even though “pneuma” is neuter, John uses the masculine form of a verb (“ekeinos,” He will guide) instead of the neuter.

  5. Anyhoo, there’s a lot of this stuff, and it’s very interesting.

    However, it’s also true that the Bible has tons of strong women, good and bad, and lots of feminine imagery. So if you are drawn to studying that side of things, there’s nothing wrong with it, and lots of it to study.

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