The Canticles of Luke: Arguments for Authenticity

After centuries of acceptance by the Christian world that the three Canticles in St. Luke’s Gospel — those of Mary (1:46-55), Zechariah (1:68-79) and Simeon (2:29-32) — were spoken by those identified in the text, some modem commentators seem convinced that they were written by St. Luke either as original compositions to fit the occasion or by his adapting previously composed material such as undiscovered liturgical hymns of the Jewish Christians. A few words, then, to show that these theories are less probable explanations, if not totally insufficient. 

Here we are not denying the obvious influences of the Old Testament, especially the Psalms and the Canticle of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10), in the case of the Magnificat. In fact this will become a major element in our argument for their authenticity. These scholars are indeed to be congratulated for the amount of Old Testament similarities they have discovered, although one would trust that they by no means suggest that all of these passages were actively in the mind when the canticles were composed. Our argument is to show that there is no overriding reason for assuming that Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon did not speak as Luke reported them. 

The first question to be asked is why Luke would have put the canticles into the Infancy Narrative if they had not been actually spoken. There are certainly many other situations in the Gospels where he could have artfully and didactically added canticles. Indeed, as a literary device, somebody should have uttered one at the Resurrection — Mary Magdalene for instance. Or, at His baptism, Jesus himself should have burst forth or John the Baptist. Perhaps, one of the three apostles surely should have had special words at the Transfiguration. And the literary itch would certainly have produced words (no imaginative author would have missed this opportunity) even from the risen Lazarus. The simple fact is: there is none. And the result is as inartistic as if, after the first act, an opera suddenly became a spoken drama. However, Luke is a capable writer, and therefore, he must have had some reason in fact for the unbalanced result. The truth saves him from the condemnation of inferior writing; these remarkable words were spoken at these important events, and he felt that something so carefully remembered should be recorded. 

The “in-authenticity theory” seeks credence by alleging that the canticles are (1) added to the narratives in a rather clumsy manner and (2) that the text would readjust as well if they were omitted. 

These assertions are not true of Mary’s canticle. If it were taken out of the Gospel, we would have Elizabeth praising Mary (vv. 42-43), and Mary making no response. If omitted, St. Luke would merely say (as he does after the Canticle) that Mary remained there for three months and then went back to Nazareth (v. 56). Mary’s personal feelings are important here (2,000 years of Christianity agree that they are), and the Magnificat expresses them admirably. Luke introduces them as simply as he can, so as not to distract: “and Mary said.” How could he have done it better? 

The fact that the name “Mary” is repeated after v. 56 is not a valid argument against Mary’s speaking the canticle. After the rather long recitation of the various themes of the canticle it is good writing to repeat the name in taking up the narrative again (see Num 24:25; Deut 32:44,45,48; 34:1; To 14:1). 

Canticle of Simeon

As to the Canticle of Simeon, the first point, that of alleged inept interpolation, is not true. The text reads that he took the child “in his arms, and blessed God and said”: (the canticle follows). It is the “blessed God” that is alleged to make the canticle repetitious and therefore crudely inserted. But on the contrary the holy man on taking the child could have said “may God be praised,” or some similar blessing of God, before he spoke with the prophetic instinct with which he was endowed. As to the second point that the text would read just as well without the “insertion,” his canticle is not useless even as regards the context; Simeon has been told that he would not see death until he saw the Messiah of the Lord (2:26), and words from him to announce God’s message to the people and what this privilege means both to him (Simeon) and to the people is a very appropriate inspiration from the Holy Spirit. 

As to Zechariah’s canticle, the first critique is true, namely, it somewhat awkwardly attached. He has already spoken, “blessing God,” after he wrote John’s name. Then we are given two full verses of the reaction of the people, both those present and the whole countryside. But one wonders how the critics could miss the obvious reason for the awkwardness. It is the stylistic oddity of an otherwise capable writer. 

St. Luke has a compulsion to finish one subject completely before going on to the next. There are two other instances in this same chapter: one, where he seems to have Mary going back to Nazareth before the birth of John, when she would be needed the most (v. 56), and the other, when he has John the Baptist growing up in the wilderness before Christ is born (v. 80). 

But even if this canticle is clumsily attached to the narrative, it is not necessarily an afterthought. Grammatically or stylistically it can be considered as a delayed apposition: the first part of his canticle tells us what he said in “blessing God” (in fact its first word is “Blessed”). He had lost his speech and has now recovered it. Implicitly he is telling the people that God has done more than give back his speech. And in the second part of the canticle with his recovered voice he should have blessed his newborn son in the manner of the patriarchs. 

Along the same lines it is also alleged that verse 48 in the Magnificat is Luke’s insertion into the hypothetical liturgical hymn, because it violates the stylistic perfection of balanced lines common in the Hebrew psalms. On the contrary, it is this verse (“For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed”), which gives force and meaning to the whole canticle. Mary sees the goodness of God to her as a fulfillment of the way God always acts toward the good who are suffering, and at the end she links to this the promises of God now being fulfilled to the descendants of Abraham. 

On the other hand, since no possible argument can be neglected by the critics, the opposite is argued against the authenticity of these canticles: having accused Luke of spoiling the not classical contour of this poem, they now argue that the canticles require too much knowledge of the Scriptures for “ordinary people” to have composed them. 

In the first place we have already mentioned two items which make the spontaneous composition by these three people relatively easy. One is the technical simplicity of Hebrew poetry. There is no meter (such as iambic pentameter) and no rhyme. There is what is aptly called “parallelism of lines,” that is, in each set of two lines there is a reinforcement of, or an amplification of, or an opposition to the first line by the second. Now it should be obvious that if this was the only kind of poetry available and one heard it and recited it often enough, a certain facility to speak that way could easily be acquired. And we would expect some imperfections of style such as the very important but irregular verse 48. 

The wealth of allusion and dependence in regard to the Old Testament is also an argument for composition by another. One authority lists 24 Scriptural or quasi-scriptural parallels or sources in the (only 10) verses of the Magnificat, making it “almost a mosaic of Old Testament phrases.” Since the Benedictus is longer we would expect more and we are not disappointed; in the 12 verses, there are listed 44 Old Testament phrases or ideas. But what author would have looked up each one of them in order to compose? In fact we could take many Christian sermons, such as we hear on television — even one that does not quote the Scripture directly — and, subjecting it to the same analysis, come up with a similar result as to allusions and doctrine, even if not actual phraseology. And little if any of this would have been consciously in the mind of the preacher at the time of composition. Rather we would expect composition to arise spontaneously from material stored in the memory from constant familiarity. 

To be honest, then we would have to conclude that the three persons mentioned had an intimate knowledge of the Scriptures. We should not be surprised in the case of Zechariah and Simeon, both old men. Nor should we complain that God chose only an “ordinary person” for the mother of his Son; for Mary may well have meditated on the Scriptures “all the day” (Ps 119:971 118:97). Jewish girls at this time were usually taught to read, and were expected to confine their reading to the Bible. 

The same ability to compose a song spontaneously for an occasion of joy was noted by the scholar M.J. Lagrange, O.P. In the late 19th century at Macaba, some Christian Arab women composed a song of victory in this manner after their village repulsed an attack by neighboring Bedouins of the Sehour. (See Lagranges’s The Gospel of Jesus Christ, Ch. 1). 

Moreover, there is the influence of the Holy Spirit which is implicitly rejected in any discussion of the text by those determined to judge all things according to limited human modes openly. We do not have to claim a miracle for the latent contents of the memory to be organized by a momentous occasion, but the extraordinary is still not to be ruled out as preposterous. When in the full light of the early Renaissance the young, unlettered daughter of an Italian wool-dyer, St. Catherine of Siena, could dictate her Dialogue (on the basis of which she is a Doctor of the Church) to young noblemen who could write, we must allow that the Holy Spirit could add inspiration and choice of words to these separately different canticles (and different from Luke’s style as well) which celebrate the great events through which the Son of God came among us. 

From another perspective, since the Canticle of Hannah (1 Sm 2:1-10) is frequently mentioned as a model for that of Mary, it seems worthwhile to insert here a short analysis based on a comparison of the two canticles. 

There is no denying a similarity, as anyone can see at once. Therefore it is freely admitted that Mary was familiar with it. Her interest as a woman would be attracted to the exemplary women of the Old Testament, especially those as worthy of imitation as Hannah. She may have made Hannah’s canticle a part of her prayers, even as the Church has done with Mary’s prayer. In an ultimate sense, there was no better model in the Scriptures to use for her own feelings at the Visitation. 

In saying this, we are speaking about a general pattern and not about similar or borrowed phrases. Of such close similarities there are only a few:


My heart exults in the Lord. (v. 1) 
There is none holy like the Lord. (v.2) 
Those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. (v. 5) 
My soul magnifies the Lord. 
And holy is his name. (v. 49) 
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent empty away. (v. 53) 

As we can see from these, the more similar passages, Mary has not slavishly copied the canticle of Hannah, even though the general theme can be seen as the same when we compare. (See also verse 4 in Hannah’s canticle and v. 51 in Mary’s, as well as v. 7 in Hannah’s and v. 52 in Mary’s.) 

This is not to say that there are no differences between the two canticles. However, an important one is that, while Mary directs almost all her attention to God and his actions, Hannah somewhat suggests a personal victory:  

“My strength (horn) is exalted in the Lord. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in Thy salvation.” (v. 1) 

And from her new position of divine favor there is advice to these enemies: “Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth.” (v. 3) 

On the contrary we do not see this projected in Mary; at most we can only tentatively suggest that some personal experience may be included in some of her general statements (v. 51- 53). In a fundamental sense, therefore, Mary’s canticle belongs to the New Testament with its emphasis on humility, its consequent tendency towards self-effacement, and above all in its proclaiming the fulfillment (begun with her Son) of the promises made to the Chosen People and especially to Abraham. 

Hannah’s canticle gave Mary a technical model upon which she was easily able to compose her own sentiments, a model made more inviting since many of her feelings were the same. This is its great importance for the Magnificat. 

Finally, from a literary point of view (which indeed always carries a certain amount of subjectivity), we can infer that these three canticles were written by three different persons, even though all are Jewish and well acquainted with the Jewish Scriptures, as well as being (at least) devout. To keep this essay short, we will analyze only the first two. 

In the Magnificat, even if we leave out the word “handmaiden” and substitute “servant” as is done in some translations, it seems plausible to deduce that we have a woman speaking. There is a feminine quality about it that has little to do with the translation. Certainly the Benedictus is too heavy to be a woman’s composition, even though the “child” is mentioned (v.76). 

The statement, “all generations will call me blessed” (v. 48) is personal writing, and women tend to write best when they are personal. Thus for a woman this sentence is approvingly understandable, whereas for a man (with some exceptions, such as St. Paul) it would tend to be considered an unpardonable lapse. In Mary it is not arrogance but a part of the whole which is a quiet statement of facts about God. 

It is said by some commentators that vv. 51 and 52 do not seem fitting to a 15 year old girl: “shown strength with his arm” . . . “scattered the proud” . . . “put down the mighty from their thrones.” However, we are listening to a dedicated young Jewish girl of the first century. Punishment by God has been a great and salutary part of the history of her people. For her not to think in such terms would be a denial of her people. Besides, the angel in announcing the conception of the Messiah had spoken in traditional terms: “throne of his father David” and “reign” and “kingdom.” She will learn the full truth of her Son’s kingdom only later, and so here she uses Yahweh’s accustomed way of setting things right. Mary knew and cherished the psalms, and there is much of this in them, e.g., Ps 89/88. But she is soon to learn God’s new ways. 

We can see through the canticle to the person of Mary as she is found in the rest of the Infancy Narrative. The speaker is humble and at the same time intelligent and self-possessed. Unlike some men and women on great occasions she is not overly emotional. These 10 verses are, in short, the literary masterpiece that Hannah’s is not. 

Since this canticle does not show the literary mark of Luke’s style, we must look for another (if not Mary). This is the same question that confounds the modernists about their demythologizing of Scripture in general: who were these towering geniuses who composed what they (the modernists) declare that the accepted writers did not compose? They always produced without its being discovered who they were; in this case someone penned a masterpiece of one psalm or hymn only and then apparently quit writing. 

As to the Benedictus, if some scholars were not so taken up with midrash and the searching endlessly for other authors, and (let us say) were to come upon this as an isolated psalm newly discovered, they would probably conclude that its author was quite the same as what we know of the person of Zechariah — even leaving out the references to John the Baptist (vv. 76-77) — and definitely the work of a man. They should discern this from the phraseology involving words of power and deliverance from powerful enemies, which deliverance will be done by a powerful Messiah (v. 69). They would also determine that “to serve” the Lord without fear (v. 74) marked him as a priest. Even though he is speaking on an elevated level, he is quite a controlled person holding close to traditional Jewish phraseology. It is not unlikely that this man would dare to question an angel. 

In summary, what Jewish-Christian religious poet(s) could avoid being known? Would he (they) not also have written other poems which were cherished and passed on? Then how could the Greek Christian Luke put this in the mouths of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon when people would have been familiar with them in their weekly services as “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16)? And then there is the fact that he had promised his friend Theophilus that he would “know the truth.” TP 

FATHER HOFFMAN, O.P., (1913–1998) entered the Western Province of the Dominican Order in September 1937, was ordained a priest in June 1941. He taught physics, mathamatics, and moral theology. FATHER COLE, O.P., is prior of St. Gertrude Priory and professor of theology at Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Cincinnati.