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Apocalypticism in Luke? Part VII

August 28, 2010

Isaiah 61 is quoted twice in Luke: once in Jesus’ synagogue sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4), and once in Jesus’ explanation to John the Baptist’s disciples (Luke 7). In Luke, Jesus begins his ministry after his baptism and temptation not by selecting disciples as in the other gospel narratives, but by entering the synagogue in Nazareth. The scroll of Isaiah is handed to him and Jesus reads, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The scriptural quotation is a conflation of Isa 61:1a, b, d (c: “to heal the brokenhearted” omitted); 58:6d; and 61:2a.[1] 

The first text to bring into conversation with this passage from Luke is 4Q521; officially known as the Messianic Apocalypse.  This text copied at Qumran in the first century BCE discloses ideas about messianism for some groups in the Second Temple period, and has some similarities to the understanding in Luke.[2] Column 2 of 4Q521 reads “For he shall heal the critically wounded, He shall raise the dead, He shall bring good news to the poor, He shall […] He shall lead the holy ones, and the hungry ones he shall enrich.” Comparison of the texts of Luke and 4Q521 reveals some common elements concerning the messiah (explicit in 4Q521) and Jesus (implicit at this point?): good news to the poor, release for prisoners, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.[3]

While there are some striking similarities between Luke 4 and 4Q521 there are also some differences. One of these differences is the dead coming back to life in 4Q521; therefore, it has been suggested that to fully understand the relationship between these two texts one must also study Luke 7. At the beginning of chapter 7 Jesus’ raises the widows’ son from the dead at Nain, accordingly when Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 a second time this is a feature of the messiah that is found in Jesus’ response to the disciples of John the Baptist.

Luke 4 and 4Q521, and their use of Isaiah 61, are also useful for considering a second text from Qumran and Second Temple beliefs of the Messiah: 11QMelchizedek (11Q13).  In 11Q13 the context is set by reference to liberty promised during the year of jubilee and the sabbatical year (Lev 25 and Deut 15 are cited).[4] The Isaiah 61 passage is also referenced in 11Q13, but in 11Q13 it is Melchizedek who will release debts and captives, and will proclaim to them the jubilee releasing the captives from the debt of their sins,[5] and interestingly Isaiah 61:2 is modified in line 9 of Col. 2 to read “the year of Melchizedek’s favor.”

It is outside the scope of these posts to engage in a detailed exegesis of these passages; therefore, a few details shall have to suffice for the present purpose.  One of the important elements of agreement between Luke 4 and 11Q13 is their eschatological understanding of Isaiah 61.  However, there is a striking difference between this understanding as well: the omission of Isa 61:2b in Luke, “And the day of vengeance of our God” in Jesus’ synagogue sermon.  The exegesis of the author of 11Q13 pertaining to Isaiah 61 is dependent on Leviticus 25.[6] Judgment is key in Leviticus 25 (and Isaiah 52; Lev 26:14-42), and it could be this assumption of judgment for the enemies of Israel that explains the response of Jesus’ fellow Galileans when he omits this understanding and further clarifies that the coming of an eschatological era of jubilee is for all, not just for Israel, but for the gentile nations as well, when he offers the examples of Elijah and Elisha showing mercy to Israel’s enemies.

In addition, the wilderness triumph of Jesus—following the baptism and his placement as the seventy-seventh person and the jubilee figure in Luke 3—may have important parallels in 11Q13 and 1 Enoch.  In 11QMelchizedek the author gives priority to Isaiah 61 in predicting Israel’s release from exile and her eschatological restoration.  This restoration is the outcome of a cosmic triumph of Melchizedek, Israel’s heavenly agent, over Belial.[7] In Luke, Jesus announces the “Year of the Lord’s favor” after defeating ὁ διάβολος in the wilderness; therefore, in Luke Jesus is the heavenly agent who defeats the evil one and pronounces the jubilee. There is also a schematic parallel between Luke, 1 Enoch, and 11Q13: seventy generations, or ten jubilee periods divisible by seven.[8] In 11Q13 Melchizedek’s ministry starts at the end of the tenth week and in 1 Enoch the judgment of the watchers occurs at the end of seventy generations (ten jubilee periods), the same seventy that one may find in the genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3.  The similar understanding of Isaiah 61 in both 11Q13 and Luke 4 also makes a similar (though perhaps not precise) periodization of history by the authors of Luke, 11Q13, and 1 Enoch more likely.[9]

The importance of this brief treatment of Isaiah 61 and its interpretation in Luke 4 and 7, 4Q521, and 11Q13 is to show that Isaiah 61 was a nuclear map for understanding the significance of the messiah in other apocalyptic works during the Second Temple period; therefore, it is not surprising to encounter apocalyptic Christian groups forming their dynamic memories of their messiah along this cognitive framework. If a common fore-structure for understanding Isaiah 61 was messianic then it seems reasonable to suggest that if a first-century community believed someone to be the messiah it would be appropriate to remember him dwelling in this framework. In addition, the other Jewish religious texts are both interpreting this passage apocalyptically and eschatologically; further evidence of the possible apocalyptic worldview that characterized the memories of the Lukan community that influenced Luke 3-7.


[1] Robert H. Stein, Luke (NAC 24; Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 155.

[2] VanderKam and Flint, Meaning of the DSS, 332.

[3] Ibid., 333.

[4] Ibid., 359.

[5] Ibid.

[6] George Brooke, “Shared Intertextual Interpretations in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament,” in Biblical Perspectives: Early Use & Interpretation of the Bible in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 47.

[7] Michael Fuller, The Restoration of Israel (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2006), 238.

[8] Brooke, “Shared Intertextual Interpretations,” 49.

[9] Brooke, “Shared Intertextual Interpretations,” 49.

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