The annunciation is Gabriel’s prophetic announcement to Mary that she would give birth to the Son of God. However, in the past, some critics believed the idea of the Messiah as Son of God was a Graeco-Roman concept that Christians picked up after Easter. They thought Christians encountered the Graeco-Roman myth of the divine man or the son of God and then secondarily applied it to Jesus, redefining messiahship.
Was the idea of Messiah as Son of God already circulating in the first century Israel? Or did it come later?
In this video excerpt from the Mobile Ed course The Gospel of Luke in Its Gentile Context, Craig Evans (author of Christian Beginnings and the Dead Sea Scrolls and Exploring the Origins of the Bible) considers one fragment of a Dead Sea scroll written in Aramaic to answer those questions.
One of the very noticeable features about the Gospel of Luke is it’s a very well-developed infancy narrative—or even narratives because we’re really talking about the infancy of John the Baptist, as well as the infancy of Jesus, and even a story from his early childhood. I want to focus on the Son of God theme, also on the canticles, or songs of Israel, that are embedded in the infancy narrative, as well as another interesting theme that develops that often is overlooked, and it’s a typology—how Jesus and his relationship to the temple [are] foreshadowed by the relationship of Samuel and the temple. I think you’ll find that very interesting.
John the Baptist and Elijah
Well, Luke has given us, beginning in verse 5 and following, an account of the birth of John the Baptist. That just shows you how significant John is. In a sense, he is a forerunner to Jesus even in infancy. And what’s interesting in the account of John the Baptist is that he is compared to traditions surrounding Elijah, who is expected. We will find as we work our way through the Gospel of Luke that Elijah and Elisha are important figures, sometimes referenced explicitly and other times, I think, it’s just implicit—their narratives that are recorded in 1 and 2 Kings and how they come into play and influence in the Lukan narrative.
But allow me now to move to the annunciation, where Mary learns of her pregnancy and giving birth to the Messiah. Let’s go now to verse 26:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great; he will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Dead Sea Scroll: 4Q246
Now this, of course, has always been a very important text for the church, but it was thrown into a whole new light when several decades ago, a small fragment, a single piece of leather with two columns in Aramaic, was discovered at Qumran from cave 4. Of course, I am referring to document 246—two columns, nine lines in each column. Column 1 is not entirely preserved, but we can reconstruct most of the text and get a sense of how it should read, and of course, it’s only two columns, a single piece of leather out of what had been a longer text.
It appears to be a vision of some sort, a dream perhaps, that’s been interpreted either by Daniel or someone like him. 4Q246 is in Aramaic, and it usually is lumped in with other Daniel-related texts found at Qumran.
Let’s begin: [A spirit from God] rested upon him; he fell before the throne. [O ki]ng, wrath is coming to the world, and your years [shall be shortened, such] is your vision, and all of it is about to come unto the world. [Amid] great [signs], tribulation is coming upon the land. [After much killing] and slaughter, a prince of nations [will arise] the king of Assyria and Egypt. Some of the text is missing. He will be ruler over the land … and will be subject to him and all will obey. [Also his son] will be called The Great and be designated by his name.
He will be called the Son of God, and they will call him the son of the Most High. But like the meteors that you saw in your vision, so will be their kingdom. They will reign only a few years over the land, while people tramples people and nation tramples nation. Until the people of God arise; then all will have rest from warfare. Their kingdom will be an eternal kingdom, and all their paths will be righteous. They will judge the land justly, and all nations will make peace. Warfare will cease from the land, and all the nations shall do obeisance to them. The great God will be their help. He himself will fight for them, putting peoples into their power, overthrowing them all before them. God’s rule will be an eternal rule and all the depths of. . . . Probably the heavens and the earth and so on, and the text breaks off there.
Now what’s extraordinary here in this passage is that we have four very close parallels with the annunciation. You probably heard them as I went through 4Q246. Now, it’s disputed how 4Q246 should be interpreted. John Collins and others think that it is a messianic text; it is a vision concerning the coming Messiah. Others say, no, actually it’s about a coming false messiah, an antichrist figure, for example. And still others aren’t sure if it’s messianic, but perhaps it’s just a future Jewish king through whom God will work. Well, I tend to agree with John Collins, and I think it’s the majority view. Who else could this be, this Son of God, Son of the Most High? It isn’t just an ordinary Jewish king, but it must be a messianic figure.
The authenticity of the annunciation
Now here is what’s really interesting about it. We have four exact parallels: the idea that this coming one will be called great, that he will be called the Son of God, that he will be called Son of the Most High, and then a reference to ruling or sitting on the throne of David, ruling forever—four very specific parallels with Luke’s annunciation.
Now, I am not suggesting for one moment that Luke has read an Aramaic text. The point is, is 4Q246, written in Aramaic—the language of Jesus and his people in Galilee—a text written in the first century BC, a text that’s circulated in Palestine shows that the idea of the Messiah, the coming savior of Israel, would be called the Son of God is now documented.
This stands contrary to some critics who in the past have said that the idea of the Messiah as Son of God is a Graeco-Roman idea that Christians picked up after Easter when, as proclaimers of the good news of Jesus, they encountered the Graeco-Roman myth of the divine man, or the son of God, or something like that. Then Christians secondarily applied this to Jesus, redefining messiahship as it were.
4Q246 shows that that’s an unnecessary interpretation, that the idea that the Messiah would be called Son of God, Son of the Most High, that he would be called great, that he was expected to reign on the throne of his father David forever, this was an idea in the first century BC circulating in Palestine in Aramaic.
So the words of annunciation seen in the light of 4Q246 are now thrown into a whole new perspective. So Luke’s Gospel is very true to Palestine and to the Jewish tradition there and does not, in this case, reflect some sort of post-Easter, Graeco-Roman idea.
Depending on how you count, it’s the 75th anniversary of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The story of their discovery and release is much more dramatic and interesting than most Christians seem to be aware.
- The Incarnation of Jesus: 10 Quotes
- What John the Baptist Missed in His Expectations of Jesus
- This Recent Dead Sea Scrolls Discovery May Impact Septuagint Studies
- Do the Dead Sea Scrolls Answer the Canon Question?