Total recall: Early Christian memory devices in the Benedictus

Gary Michuta

Gary Michuta

“Every Good Boy Does Fine,” my music teacher said, pointing to the staff lines of the music sheet. “The notes are E-G-B-D-F.” Over the years, I still remember the exact note order of the lines on the treble clef because of that little mnemonic device. Mnemonic devices such as this have helped untold millions recall complex data quickly and accurately.

They also played a very important role for cultures, such as ancient Judaism, which relied on oral tradition to pass on information. Rabbis would present lessons in formats conducive to memorization. By structuring lessons in helpful ways (i.e., literary forms), using word play and other techniques, the rabbis helped their disciples memorize and accurately recall hundreds of lines of Scripture and legislation.

 

Peter Mottola, center, and other men who are discerning if they are called to a priestly a vocation are seen in this April 2008 photo praying during daily Mass at Becket Hall, a Rochester, N.Y., residence for seminarians and other men considering the priesthood. In a speech in Philadelphia, Bishop Samuel J. Aquila of Fargo, N.D., told seminarians they must not be afraid to exercise the priestly authority of Christ upon ordination. (CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier) (March 30, 2011) See AUTHORITY-AQUILA March 30, 2011.

Peter Mottola, center, and other men who are discerning if they are called to a priestly a vocation are seen in this April 2008 photo praying during daily Mass at Becket Hall, a Rochester, N.Y., residence for seminarians and other men considering the priesthood. In a speech in Philadelphia, Bishop Samuel J. Aquila of Fargo, N.D., told seminarians they must not be afraid to exercise the priestly authority of Christ upon ordination. (CNS photo/Mike Crupi, Catholic Courier) (March 30, 2011) See AUTHORITY-AQUILA March 30, 2011.

Solving the puzzle

One passage of Scripture you may have read and prayed a hundred times — The Prayer of Zechariah or the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-75) — but did you know there’s a memory device being used in the text?

Before we begin, however, a word about the Gospels: The oldest copies of the New Testament were written in Greek. Scholars have long noticed the Greek in the Gospels does not always read like Greek. Sometimes the text sounds like a Hebrew or Aramaic person speaking in the Greek tongue. In other words, it appears portions of the Greek Gospels are translations of an early Semitic source, either Hebrew or Aramaic. This is not a new idea. The French scholar Jean Carmignac in his book The Birth of the Synoptics chronicles dozens of works over the last few centuries that have recognized an underlying Semitic text and even attempted to back-translate the Greek into Hebrew or Aramaic.

On the surface, this may sound easy. But it’s not. It’s easy to translate one language into another, but it is not always possible to look at a translation and know its original wording. For example, we find the Greek word “agape” and we translate it as “love.” A few years pass and we lose our original text. We see the word “love,” but what was the original text? The Greek language has four words that could be translated “love” (agape, eros, philia, and storge). How would we know which is the correct word? Although the context may help narrow our choices, ultimately our back-translation is a little more than an educated guess.

 

The Prayer of Zechariah

However, there are instances where special features in a text (such as a word play) can reveal the original text. One such instance is a section in the Benedictus (Luke 1:71-74), which reads:

71 ….salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,

72 to show mercy to our fathers and to be mindful of his holy covenant

73 and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father, and to grant us that,

74 rescued from the hand of enemies, without fear we might worship him.

Carmignac points out that the Hebrew translation of verses 72-73 appears to make a three-fold allusion to the names John (the Baptist), Zechariah, and Elizabeth. To see this, we must look at these names in Hebrew.

In Hebrew, John is Yohanan. It’s root hanan means “to show mercy.”

Zechariah in Hebrew is Zakaryah. It’s root zakar means “to remember.”

Elizabeth is Elishaba. It’s Hebrew root shaba means “to swear an oath.”

This cluster of allusions to John, Zechariah, and Elizabeth could not be coincidental; rather, it appears to be a memory device embedded in Luke’s original Semitic source. We can also add that this three-fold allusion is sandwiched between two lines that refer to the “hands” of enemies (Luke 1:71, 74). Could it be that the reference to hands would flag the disciple memorizing to follow with the allusions to John, Zechariah, and Elizabeth to ensure that the lines “to show mercy…” “to remember…” and “the oath that is sworn…” would be recited correctly?

This, and dozens of other instances like it, shows that Christians from the beginning did not pass on the faith on as a fluid mish-mash of unrelated information, but like the rabbis of their age they took great care to ensure what they handed on would be accurately and authentically transmitted to future generations.


Gary Michuta is an author, speaker and apologist and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.