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The Benedictus

The Benedictus is a hymn sung by John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah. Some scholars believe, however, that the Benedictus is an early Christian hymn focusing on Jesus as well as John—possibly written by Luke himself.

Zechariah Icon

The Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79) is a hymn sung by John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, in Luke’s infancy narrative on the occasion of John’s naming and circumcision. Zechariah is particularly joyful to be singing anything at this point in the story: he was struck dumb in Luke 1:20 by the angel Gabriel for doubting that he and his aged wife Elizabeth were soon going to become parents, and these are the first words he speaks after regaining the ability.

The hymn takes its traditional name from its first words as translated into Latin (“blessed be” = benedictus). Despite the fact that Zechariah is the one who sings this hymn in Luke’s narrative, most biblical scholars do not think that it was actually composed and sung by him on the spot.

The Benedictus is one of several hymns that appear in Luke’s infancy narrative, along with Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32). All three of the hymns are quite beautiful, but their appearances in Luke’s infancy narrative are also awkward. After all, we don’t have any other cases in the gospels where someone—in the spirit of a Broadway musical—suddenly stops everything and breaks out in song. In addition, a Broadway musical number usually emphasizes whatever is happening at that moment in the play, but these hymns are often not entirely appropriate for the point in the story where each appears.

As one example of an awkward fit, the Benedictus refers to God having raised up “a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:69). Most interpreters believe this refers to Jesus, not to John the Baptist—and Luke himself would have certainly intended it as a reference to Jesus’ status as Savior and Davidic Messiah. See the problem? This would mean that Zechariah is singing about Jesus—who hasn’t been born yet—during the celebration of his own son’s naming.

So Zechariah singing a song about the salvation brought by Jesus does not seem very likely—but if Zechariah did not compose this hymn, who did? One intriguing idea is that these hymns were composed by Jewish Christians, perhaps in the first few years after Jesus’ crucifixion. The hymns do not refer to the idea of Jesus being God’s Son (or even God incarnate), so they may have originated before Christians started thinking of Jesus in such exalted terms.

Because we know so little about the first Jewish Christians, scholars have suggested other possibilities. A few have thought that the hymn was composed by followers of John the Baptist, but certain parts (like Luke 1:69) don’t seem to fit John very well, and we know even less about John’s followers than about the first Jewish Christians.

Might Luke himself have created it? This is quite possible, because Luke was the most literarily gifted of the gospel writers, and he knew the Jewish Bible well enough to pepper these hymns with references to it. Still, Luke does tell us in the prologue to his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4) that he consulted a number of earlier documents while he was composing his account—and hymns like the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis could have been some of these. Even if the Benedictus came from other sources, Luke was a writer who left his fingerprints on all sources he used, so he likely edited these hymns in his own way.

  • Brent Landau

    Brent Landau is a lecturer in religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Revelation of the Magi: The Lost Tale of the Wise Men’s Journey to Bethlehem (HarperOne, 2010).