Sunday, November 28, 2021

All Flesh Shall See the Salvation of God

Below is a rough translation and some interpretive notes for Luke 3:1-6, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, year C. Your comments are always welcomed. 

Luke 3:1-6
Ἐν ἔτει δὲ πεντεκαιδεκάτῳ τῆς ἡγεμονίας Τιβερίου Καίσαρος, γεμονεύοντος 
Ποντίου Πιλάτου τῆς Ἰουδαίας, καὶ τετρααρχοῦντος τῆς Γαλιλαίας Ἡρῴδου, 
Φιλίππου δὲ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ αὐτοῦ τετρααρχοῦντος τῆς Ἰτουραίας καὶ Τραχωνίτιδος 
χώρας, καὶ Λυσανίου τῆς Ἀβιληνῆς τετρααρχοῦντος, 
In the 15thyear of the hegemony of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being hegemon of the Judaea, and Herod being a tetrarch of the Galilee, and Philip his brother being tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanius being tetrarch of Abilene, 
ἡγεμονεύοντος: PAPart gsm, ἡγεμονεύω, 1) to be leader, to lead the way  2) to rule, command  2a) of a province, to be governor of a province  2b) said of a proconsul, of a procurator
τετρααρχοῦντος: PAPart gsm, τετραρχέω, to be governor of a tetrarchy, be tetrarch: with a gen. of the region
1. So far, there is no main verb in this sentence, so this verse is one long dependent clause. 
2. I have transliterated the noun ἡγεμονίας as ‘hegemony’ and the participial form of it, γεμονεύοντος, as ‘hegemon’ because those are term that have accrued insightful meaning in the work of Marxist social analyst Antonio Gramsci. ‘Hegemony’ not only connotes ‘leadership’; it points to a thorough form of domination that requires subjected peoples to adopt value systems that are historically and culturally alien as one’s own. It may not be wise to impose meaning from a late 19th early 20th century linguist onto Luke's vocabulary, so a more familiar term would be appropriate for a refined translation. But, the mere fact that Luke is locating this story in time with reference to names that have nothing to do with the biblical Hebrew tradition is significant. It shows not only that Luke’s audience may be more far-reaching than the audiences of the Hebrew Scriptures, but also that virtually any audience of Luke’s day would understand how this hierarchical system of ‘Caesar-to-Caesar-appointees-even-to-local-religious-leadership’ works.  
I do not know the literature of Luke’s era well enough to know if this term was loaded with the connotative meaning of today's "hegemony" or simply a common term for referring to a chain of command. While I may be imposing a deeper meaning on this term than Luke intended, I worry that many Bible Dictionaries and Lexicons were developed among people who tended to see this kind of imperial chain of command from the side of the powers and not from the side of the oppressed. It seems to me that what many Bible commentators from the past saw as the ‘background’ of the story – the Roman Empire and its effects – actually belongs in the foreground, where Luke is explicitly locating it here.
3. Herod, Philip, and Lysanius are “tetrarchs” because the kingdom of Herod the Great (who was in power during the birth narrative of Luke 1-2) was broken up into four tetrarchies upon his death. There were rivalries and intrigue that accompanied the sons of Herod. 

ἐπὶ ἀρχιερέως Αννα καὶ Καϊάφα, ἐγένετο ῥῆμα θεοῦ ἐπὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν Ζαχαρίου υἱὸν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ. 
during the chief priesthood of Anna and Caiaphas, a word of God originated to John the son of Zacharias in the desert. 
ἐγένετο: AMI 3s (deponent), γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
1. The fact that Luke includes the religious temple leadership in this chain of command is jarring. One thinks of Tertullian’s question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (which was a commentary on the influence of philosophy on theology) and is tempted to ask, “What has Rome to do with Jerusalem?” For many of those in power, at least according to Luke, the answer was “a lot.” 
2. I’m not quite sure of the best way to translate ἐγένετο. It is the word that is often translated “it came to pass” in the KJV, which is really a fine translation. It is not “came” in the traveling sense, but often more of a “coming into existence.” It is a common term in the gospels and is translated quite widely, depending on the context and what clarity demands. I’m using “originated” because I want to keep the sense of “coming into being,” but that is rather awkward for reading. 
3. “Word” has no definite article here, so I call it "a word" not "the Word." And, it is ῥῆμα, not λόγος, although I am not sure that the significance of that difference is and Luke uses ῥῆμα a lot.
4. The dependent clause names all of the people in power with the regions over which they are empowered. The main verb, however, is that a word of God came into being, not to any of the political or religious luminaries of the day, but to a desert-dwelling John, son of Zacharias. 
5. The construction of this sentence raises the question of whether Luke is using the luminaries to fix an approximate date in history, or to contrast where a word of God is found, with where imperial and religious authority is found. Or both. Luke follows a similar pattern in cc.1 and 2, beginning the story of John the Baptizer with reference to Herod the Great and the story of Jesus’ birth with reference to a decree from Caesar Augustus. This may be Luke’s way of writing ‘sacred history,’ where the events in the world normally remembered by historians are the setting for what God is doing

καὶ ἦλθεν εἰς πᾶσαν [τὴν] περίχωρον τοῦ Ἰορδάνου κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν, 
And he came into all [the] surrounding region of the Jordan while preaching baptism of repentance into forgiveness of sins, 
ἦλθεν: AAI 3s, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons
κηρύσσων: PAPart nsm, κηρύσσω, 1) to be a herald, to officiate as a herald  1a) to proclaim after the manner of a herald
1. I’m hearing an echo of II Kings 2 here and perhaps Luke’s way of writing sacred geography. While the Jordan River is prominent in the Hebrew Scriptures, in II Kings 2 Elisha pick up the mantle of the ascended-in-the-fiery-chariot Elijah and strikes the waters of the Jordan with it asking, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When the waters part, the prophets say, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” By situating John in the region surrounding the Jordan, it seems that Luke is saying that the spirit of Elijah now rests on John. 
2. In v.1, Luke uses χώρας, which could be translated 'country' or 'region.' Here he uses 'περίχωρον,' which has the same root with the prefix 'περί,' meaning 'around.' Again, one wonders about the significance of geography for Luke's story. Is it simply a locational setting, or is it significant that, of all of the contested regions, a word of God comes to John in the desert and then John comes to the areas surrounding the Jordan to preach baptism? 
3. This verse, at least in the manuscript I am translating, ends with a comma, so it concludes in v. 4.  

ὡς γέγραπται ἐν βίβλῳ λόγων Ἠσαΐου τοῦ προφήτου, Φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ 
ἐρήμῳ, Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ. 
as it has been written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of a lord, make straight his paths.’ 
γέγραπται: PerfPI, 3p, γράφω, 1) to write
βοῶντος: PAPart gsm, βοάω, 1) to raise a cry, of joy pain etc.  2) to cry, speak with a high, strong voice 
Ἑτοιμάσατε: AAImpv 2p, ἑτοιμάζω, 1) to make ready, prepare 
ποιεῖτε: PAImpv 2p, ποιέω, 1) to make  
1. Darn, just when I see echoes of Elijah in John the Baptizer, Luke goes and quotes Isaiah. 
2. A translation question that arises here - bringing the Hebrew OT text, the Greek OT text (Septuagint or LXX), and the Greek NT text into conversation - is where, exactly, does the interior quote begin? 
- The primary quote from Isaiah itself certainly begins with "A voice of one ..." 
- The interior quote either begins, "In the desert, prepare the way," which would locate where the revolutionary work of John takes place; or the interior quote begins, "Prepare the way ...." If we go with the second possibility, then the desert is where John offers the message, but not necessarily where the revolutionary work itself will begin. 
3. I'm guessing that ambiguity had some significance for 1st century Jews, since some of them (like John and the community of Masada) took to the desert to await God's great salvation, while others (like Simeon of the previous chapter) centered their waiting in the temple. With Luke writing after the destruction of the temple, this desert message may be a way of 'de-temple-izing' the work of God. Or, maybe that's just where John preached. 

πᾶσα φάραγξ πληρωθήσεται καὶ πᾶν ὄρος καὶ βουνὸς ταπεινωθήσεται, καὶ ἔσται τὰ σκολιὰ εἰς εὐθείαν καὶ αἱ τραχεῖαι εἰς ὁδοὺς λείας: 
Every valley shall be filled and the mountain and hill shall be leveled, and the crooked ones will become into straight and the rocky ones into a smooth path;
πληρωθήσεται: FPI 3s, πληρόω, 1) to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full
ταπεινωθήσεται: FPI 3s, ταπεινόω, 1) to make low, bring low  1a) to level, reduce to a plain 
ἔσται: FMI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. Certainly it is awkward, as a literal translation, to say “will become into straight,” but I am picking up on the middle voice of the future verb ‘to be’ (ἔσται), and the participle (εἰς) that is usually translated ‘into.’ 
2. The words “crooked” and “straight” are plural substantive adjectives, picking up on “paths” as the antecedent. 

καὶ ὄψεται πᾶσα σὰρξ τὸ σωτήριον τοῦ θεοῦ.
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. 
ὄψεται: FMI 3s, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes 
1. The NRSV translation of Isaiah 40:3-5 is 
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 
Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain. 
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
2. Note that the NRSV the Isaiah text as making “In the wilderness” the beginning of the quote in Isaiah. (See my note in v.4 above.) But, the NRSV translates the interior quote in Luke as beginning with "Prepare the way ...." 
3. A difference between Luke and Isaiah is that Isaiah refers to the “glory of the Lord” being revealed and seen, while Luke refers to the “salvation of God” being seen.
4. This ends the translation.  

Reflection: “All flesh shall see the salvation of God”
This statement is quite a claim. One wonders what it meant in Isaiah’s time, what it meant in John’s time, what it meant in Luke’s time, and what it means in our time. 
- Does ‘seeing salvation’ mean that everyone who lives will find wholeness and the fullness of life in their lifetime? That was certainly not the case in Isaiah’s, John’s, or Luke’s lifetimes and it certainly does not seem to be the case now. 
- Does ‘seeing salvation’ point to an eschatological fulfillment of life’s purpose and glory? There was a strong development of eschatological, futuristic theology in between the time of 2nd Isaiah and Luke. (Actually, 2nd Isaiah might be at the forefront of that development, but you’ll need to speak to an Old Testament or Intertestamental scholar for that information). Part of that development was the movement of ‘salvation’ from this life to the next. The “afterlife” (as some put it) does not seem to be a significant part of early Hebrew theology, which is why the Sadducees, who only held the Pentateuch to be authoritative, did not believe in it. 
- Does ‘seeing salvation’ mean that some people live with hope, seeing the possibilities of salvation as a guiding force, despite all of the evident bloodshed or violence or imperial hegemony that surrounds them? That is an inspiring idea, but it would almost certainly be true only of “some flesh” in any moment of history, and not “all flesh.” 
- Does ‘seeing salvation’ mean literally witnessing the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ? That was a possibility for some people (certainly not “all flesh”) in John’s and Luke’s lifetimes, but not Isaiah’s or ours. 
- Does ‘seeing salvation’ mean “seeing” the life, death, and resurrection of the Christ through the witness of preaching? For anyone reading Luke’s gospel, this is true, because he is showing Christ through this gospel. Of course, not “all flesh” has either read Luke’s gospel or heard it preached. 

It is hard to know what, exactly, Isaiah, John, or Luke might have meant by proclaiming that “all flesh shall see God’s salvation” (or, in Isaiah’s case, “all peoples will see God’s glory”). Perhaps it is not a claim in the literal or plain meaning of the term, but a word of hope that is rightly echoed in new voice in each situation of despair. It’s meaning may lie not so much in how it is fulfilled at any given moment in time, but in how true it is in every moment in time. 


  1. As always, thank you for your insightful translation. The first two verses - and your bringing in the Marxist analyst's view of "hegemony" highlights the contrast between John (and Jesus) and those in power (and the type of power those wielded).

  2. A very helpful translation! Thank you - and it does seem appropriate that this writer puts the story in the midst of "empire" rather than trying to keep the two seperate. Great insight!

  3. A very helpful translation! Thank you - and it does seem appropriate that this writer puts the story in the midst of "empire" rather than trying to keep the two seperate. Great insight!

  4. I really appreciate your translations. Thank you so much. A translation that I have found helpful for the word "egeneta" is "happened," as in "it happened to John," which is a little different than "came to" or something else. Originated is good, too, but thought I'd throw another sense of the word into the mix. Again, many thanks to you.

  5. Seeing G-d's salvation is always a problem, as you say. Sometimes it's a matter of where to look; sometimes it's a matter of what the salvation is. Maybe Luke has already given a clue to thinking about the issue. The shepherds are told that the 'sign' that a savior has been born (who is Christ, the Lord) is a baby in a cowshed. And Simeon says his eyes have seen G-d's salvation which is for all people - and what he has seen is the baby he holds in his arms.

    1. Hi Rick,
      Yes, this story makes us wonder if we're looking in all the wrong places, when God's actions are right in front of us.

  6. Perhaps Luke lists the leaders of Jesus' time, voracious in their quest for power, crushing underfoot anyone who opposed them (like Tiberius, expanding an empire to the ends of the earth, like Pilate, brutal, equivocating and expedient, like Herod, treasonous, murderous and grasping for legitimacy - all caught in political intrigue and exploiting those beneath them – and Anna and Caiaphas complicit in it all) as a way to say how deep the darkness was in the world, a darkness that generated the deepest hopelessness and despair for those under the thumb of those in power. It is at that time and in that place that God birth to the light, generating hope in the midst of despair. Luke and John are witnessing to the light of God that was born in the darkest of times so that we may trust that the fullness of God (salvation) is always being born in the world, and that we are never left without hope....oh that we would have eyes to see the eternal presence of the living God.

  7. Caught by the 'all flesh' comments. Luke only uses 'sarx' twice - here, and in a post-resurrection appearance where Jesus is saying he's not a ghost. Sarx - in Luke - seems to ground the humanness vs. ghostliness of Jesus. Suggests a parallel with 'all people' - a claim beyond reason but a claim that there are no boundaries or limits to those who can see...


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