Zechariah’s song – a new translation

Posted: August 21, 2013 by J in Bible, Linguistics

And for Elizabeth the time was completed for childbearing and she gave birth to a son. And her neighbours and relations heard that the Lord had magnified his mercy in her, and they rejoiced with her. And it happened on the eighth day that they went to circumcise the child and they were about to name him with his father’s name – Zechariah. And his mother answered and said “No, but he will be called John.” 

And they said to her “No one from your relations is called by that name.” And they hand-signed to his father, what would he like to call him? 

And calling for a writing tablet he wrote “John is his name”. And they all marvelled. And his mouth was released at once, and his tongue, and he spoke blessing God. And fear came upon all who lived nearby to them. And in all the hill country of Judea all these things were talked about. And all who heard it stored it in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child become?” For clearly the hand of the Lord was with him. 

And Zechariah his father was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied saying,

Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel
for he has visited and worked redemption for his people 
And he has raised a horn of salvation for us 
in the house of David, child of his
Just as he spoke through the mouths of his holy prophets of old:
salvation from our foes and from the hand of all who hate us
Keeping faithful love with our fathers
and remembering his holy covenant,
The oath he swore to Abraham our father
to grant that without fear, from the hand of foes set free
We might serve in sanctity and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you as well, my child, ‘the Most High’s prophet’ will be called
for you will go ahead before the face of the Lord
to make ready his paths
To give knowledge of salvation to his people
through release of their sins
By the bowels of compassion of our God
in which the dawning from on high will visit us
To shine upon the ones in darkness and death’s shadow sitting,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.

And the child grew up and became strong in the Spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.


Gains here?

Luke highlights the change of character and scene by putting  ‘for Elizabeth’ upfront here. We follow his syntax to preserve the highlighting effect.

The vividness of the semi-direct speech  ‘what would he like to call him?’ is lost in our normal translations. Zech’s confirmation of the name chosen is emphasised by emphatic syntax: ‘John is his name.’

In the song, Zech emphasises ‘without fear’ by bringing it to the front of the statement: ‘to grant that, without fear…’. This is lost in most translations, which bury ‘without fear’ as a subordinate clause qualifying ‘serve him’. In fact it functions more powerfully here, as a frame or context, a new way of life within which that service takes place.

‘Sanctity’ here captures something of the priestly imagery of this priest’s song: God’s people serving before his altar. It also avoids using ‘holiness’, the word used above for ‘the prophets of old’. It’s a different word in greek, so we don’t want a false echo here.

The ‘bowels of compassion’ is a confronting image for the modern reader. The Hebrews thought of compassion as originating in the intestinal region. Worth noticing that, don’t you think? Kind of sticks with you, too. These visceral, bodily metaphors are typical of Hebrew language and especially poetry. They give Luke’s text a very Jewish feel. Pity to erase them.

Given that this is Luke, and refers to John the B, it is unthinkable to translate ekrataiouvto pneumati as ‘strong in spirit’. Worse still is the Holman, ‘spiritually strong’! The grammar would allow ‘strong in spirit’ or ‘strong in the Spirit.’ But we’ve already had it impressed on us that it’s the Holy Spirit that John will be filled with (1:14-17). Translators should pay attention to the story: it helps in avoiding egregious errors of this sort.

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