People

Elizabeth by Brittany E. Wilson

In the New Testament, Elizabeth appears in the Gospel of Luke as the mother of John the Baptist.

What does Luke tell us about Elizabeth?

Luke mentions Elizabeth in the first chapter of his gospel in what is often called the birth narrative (Luke 1-2). In these opening chapters, Luke describes the births of Jesus and John the Baptist, and he notes that John the Baptist’s parents are named Zechariah and Elizabeth, both of whom are “righteous before God” (Luke 1:6). Throughout the birth narrative, Luke parallels his account of John’s birth with his account of Jesus’s birth, but he brings the two stories together when Mary visits the pregnant Elizabeth in a scene known as “the Visitation” (Luke 1:39-45).

Luke further connects these two stories of miraculous births by noting that Elizabeth is Mary’s relative (Luke 1:36). Although popular tradition often classifies Elizabeth as Mary’s cousin (a tradition that stretches back to at least the Middle Ages!), Luke uses the more general Greek term “relative” (sungenis) to describe their relationship. He leaves the precise nature of how they are related unstated, but their kinship connection serves as another way in which Luke weaves together the stories of John and Jesus.

While Elizabeth is largely known by her relationship to others (namely, as John the Baptist’s mother, Mary’s kinswoman, and Zechariah’s wife), she emerges in Luke’s text as an important person in her own right. Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron (Luke 1:5) and thus of priestly lineage, and she recognizes that God has intervened in her life and looked on her with favor (Luke 1:25). She is filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41), which enables her to speak prophetic words (Luke 1:42-45), and she becomes the first person in Luke’s narrative to call Jesus “Lord” (Luke 1:43), a christological confession that links Jesus with the God of Israel. She also stands up to her neighbors and relatives when they want to name her son “Zechariah” instead of the name “John” provided by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:59-61; cf. Luke 1:13). Some ancient manuscripts even attribute Mary’s famous song known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) to Elizabeth instead.

Thus while Elizabeth is a minor character who does not appear beyond Luke 1, she nevertheless holds a prominent place in Luke’s narrative. She speaks on a number of occasions via direct discourse, moves the plot forward in important ways, and is a spokesperson for Luke’s theology. She also connects the beginning of Luke’s story with the story of Israel. As a righteous, yet barren, woman who miraculously conceives, Elizabeth evokes the stories from Israel’s scriptures of women in similar circumstances who conceive with God’s help. Like Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and Samson’s mother, Elizabeth’s womb is opened and she gives birth to a son who—according to Luke—plays a significant role in Israel’s salvation history. Elizabeth, therefore, recalls God’s faithfulness to Israel and roots Luke’s own gospel in Israel’s sacred texts. For those familiar with such texts, Elizabeth reminds the reader that Luke’s story is not entirely new, but that it continues a story that began long ago.

Brittany E. Wilson , "Elizabeth", n.p. [cited 18 Dec 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/related-articles/elizabeth

Contributors

wilson-brittany

Brittany E. Wilson
Assistant Professor of New Testament , Duke University Divinity School

Brittany E. Wilson is assistant professor of New Testament at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. She is the author of Unmanly Men: Refigurations of Masculinity in Luke-Acts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), as well as a number of articles on gender, masculinity, and the body in the New Testament.

related to Jesus Christ

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

The historical period generally spanning from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. in Europe and characterized by decreases in populations and the degeneration of urban life.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

God’s redemptive interventions in human history

Writing, speech, or thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Luke 1-2

Dedication to Theophilus
1Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,2just as they were handed on ... View more

Luke 1:6

6Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.

Luke 1:39-45

Mary Visits Elizabeth
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greet ... View more

Luke 1:36

36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.

Luke 1:5

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
5In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. Hi ... View more

Luke 1:25

25“This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

Luke 1:41

41When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit

Luke 1:42-45

42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lo ... View more

Luke 1:43

43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?

Luke 1:59-61

59On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father.60But his mother said, “No; he is to be called ... View more

Luke 1:13

13But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.

Luke 1:46-55

Mary's Song of Praise
46And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of ... View more

Luke 1

Dedication to Theophilus
1Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,2just as they were handed on ... View more

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