Last Sunday I went to a performance of Bach’s Magnificat and I thought it a good idea pay some attention to the Magnificat in this blog. As I am not only a classicist, but also a theologian, though in practise a historian of religions, it is a good opportunity to recall my seminars in New Testament exegesis. And above all, it is good excuse for posting the link to Ton Koopman’s performance of the Magnificat by Bach!
The Magnificat is only found in the gospel of Luke 1:46-55 and belongs to the so-called Sondergut, a German term denoting material that is not found in Matthew. What is only found in Matthew, but not in Luke is the Sondergut of Matthew.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke share many common elements and are therefore called the synoptic gospels. The gospel of John does not play a role in this, as it is by far the latest, maybe even later than 100 AD and has a theology of its own. Luke and Matthew have incorporated Mark in their gospels. The gospel of Mark is the oldest and has no nativity story. What Luke and Matthew have in common is called source Q, from German Quelle `source’. In case you wonder why I use German terms, it is because New Testament studies were dominated by German scholars in the first half of the last century with Rudolph Bultmann at the top. A theologian and scholar influenced by existentialism, who saw the New Testament as a kind of mythology, but found its ethical message of eternal value. He tried to demythologize the New Testament in order to make it understandable for the modern world:
„Man kann nicht elektrisches Licht und Radioapparat benutzen, in Krankheitsfällen moderne medizinische und klinische Mittel in Anspruch nehmen und gleichzeitig an die Geister- und Wunderwelt des Neuen Testaments glauben”
(One cannot use electric light and radio, use modern medical and clinical means when ill and believe at the same time in the world of spirits and miracles of the New Testament)
I am afraid that evangelicals, conservative Christians, pentacostals and so on of today’s world have proved him wrong…
Bultmann, who did not believe in a life eternal after death, died in 1976 at the age of 92, which is also a kind of eternity.
Back to Q, It is what Luke and Matthew have in common, but which is not in Mark. It is believed to be an early kind of gospel of which the status is unknown as there are no manuscripts. This makes it a rather tricky hypothesis, but it is plausible. As this is not a post about the problems of primitive Christianity but about the Magnificat, I won’t delve into this further. Besides, I am not qualified as I am not a New Testament Scholar, because I turned to history of religions, with specialisation early Hinduism, in my master theology.
The Magnificat resembles in many aspects the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2.1-10, but it is also reminiscent of the Psalms and the prophets. For primitive Christianity the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, was the only sacred text as there was no New Testament at that moment.
It belongs to the oldest hymns of the Christian church and must have been used in the liturgy in some Christian circles at a very early age. The author is unknown, but certainly not Maria. For if she was the author it is unexplainable why it is not in Matthew and the very fact that Mark has no nativity story at all, proves that this story was unknown amongst some Christian groups.
In the narrative of Luke, Mary, being pregnant, visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant of John the Baptist. Elizabeth praises Maria and in her turn Maria exults in this song:
Magnificat anima mea Dominum.
Et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.
Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae.
Ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes.
Quia fecit mihi magna, qui potens est
et sanctum nomen eius.
Et misericordia eius, a progenie et progenies
Fecit potentiam in brachio suo,
dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.
Deposuit potentes de sede:
et exaltavit humiles.
Esurientes implevit bonis:
et divites dimisit inanes.
Suscepit Israel puerum suum:
recordatus misericordiae suae.
Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros:
Abraham, et semini eius in saecula.
salutari meo: dative of purpose (salutare, -is (n): salvation. The word is late Latin)
ex hoc: refers to the previous sentence
dispergo dispersi dispersum: to scatter, disperge
mente cordis sui: in Hebrew thinking the heart was the seat of thoughts
esurio: to be hungry
dives –itis: wealthy, rich
suscipio –cepi –ceptum: to lift up, receive
Israel acc. Hebrew names and words are often not declined in Latin
recordor: to remember (in classical Latin mostly with the acc., but in later Latin, like here, with the gen.)
loquor lucutus sum: to speak. It is used her with two constructions: loquor ad and loquor + dat., so Abraham is dative, as is also evident from the original Greek τῷ Αβραὰμ.
semen, -inis (n): seed, offspring
saeculum: generation, time, age (it is from the root se, the same root as in se-men, so the original meaning must have been generation)
More about the Magnificat and translations:
About Bultmann, but go to the German site if you can read German:
And finally the link where it is all about:
Sandro Botticelli - Madonna of the Magnificat (Madonna del Magnificat) ca. 1483.