by Ed Gallagher
Every once in a while I go back to my hometown, Madisonville, KY. I last lived there about twenty years ago, but before that I had spent all my life there up until I went to college. My parents still live there, so I take my family up to Kentucky a couple times a year to stay for a few days. Now, I am exceedingly bad at keeping up with people from high school, so I never schedule any sort of get-togethers. When I go back home, usually the only time I see people from my childhood besides my parents is when we go to church. I don’t think the people at my parents’ church, my childhood congregation, are resentful of me. They know I got a PhD in biblical studies; they know I teach Scripture for a living. They generally seem to respect my understanding of the Bible, appreciate what I have to say. They’ve even invited me to preach for them on occasion, and never have they come close to running me out of town, or—worse— throwing me off a cliff. Some of them do remind me that they taught me when I was in kindergarten or first grade or high school, but—far from implying that they could not possibly learn anything from me—they seem to be relatively proud of what I’ve been able to do. I have never had occasion to cite the proverb about myself, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown.”
Then again, I’m not a prophet. A prophet’s job is to hold up society to the light of God’s standards, and almost always that means being critical of one’s society. As we think back to the prophets in the Old Testament, we remember plenty of them that suffered for their ministry. Elijah fled from Jezebel (1 Kings 19). Jeremiah was beaten, imprisoned (Jer 37:15), and thrown down a pit (38:6). Amos was from the south, and he went up north to prophesy against Israel at Bethel; the priest of Bethel, a man named Amaziah, told him to go back home (Amos 7:10–13). Even today, if you’re critical of your society, you might be told to go home.
Jesus was critical of his society. Yes, he was all about love and acceptance. But he was also all about change. He told people to repent. The Son of Man did not come to affirm people in their lifestyles, but to “seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus’ contemporaries were lost, and they needed saving. That’s good news only if you’re willing to accept the premise—that you’re lost. If you think everything is just fine, you probably bristle at somebody coming to tell you that you need saving, especially if you’ve seen that particular somebody in diapers and you know he’s no better than you are. Rather than putting on airs and acting holier than thou, he should learn respect and be thankful for where he came from! I imagine things would turn sour pretty quickly if I went back to my childhood congregation and started calling out people’s sins.
Back in Nazareth
Every so often a new church launches in our town. Sometimes it’s an exceedingly quiet affair, and sometimes it’s not. I remember a few years ago a church launched around here with a big advertising push. They were funded by a group outside the area who invested human and financial capital in starting the new church plant with a bang. And it worked, at least in terms of attracting attention and a crowd.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus goes to his hometown of Nazareth to launch his ministry. Well, sort of. As soon as he gets baptized (3:21–22) and overcomes the temptations in the wilderness (4:1–13), Luke reports that he “returned to Galilee …. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone” (4:14–15). It’s at that point that he goes to Nazareth (4:16). So going to Nazareth wasn’t the very first thing he did in his ministry; he had already been teaching in synagogues in Galilee. In fact, while he’s at Nazareth, Jesus refers to his previous ministry in Capernaum (4:23), so we do get a sense that Jesus has already been doing some amazing things that for some reason Luke omits. The way Luke tells the story, the return of the 30-year-old Jesus to Nazareth is the first major thing he does in his ministry. In other words, Luke doesn’t tell his readers anything at all about the kinds of things Jesus had been teaching in those other synagogues; he flies by those details so that he can spend some time telling us what happened in Nazareth.
We should notice that this whole account comes across much differently in Luke than in the other Synoptic Gospels. Matthew and Mark both explain that Jesus’ first steps in ministry (after the wilderness temptations) were preaching the kingdom of God in Galilee (Matt 4:12–17; Mark 1:14–15), calling his first disciples, the fishermen (Matt 4:18–22; Mark 1:16–20), and then going to Capernaum, where he heals people (Matt 4:13, 23–25; Mark 1:21–28), including Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt 8:14–15; Mark 1:29–31). (Matthew has some other material here as well, including the Sermon on the Mount.) In Matthew and Mark, these episodes are what make Jesus’ reputation. Only later does he visit Nazareth (Matt 13:54–58; Mark 6:1–6).
Luke wants to highlight the episode at Nazareth. He presents it as the launching point of Jesus’ ministry. And if we’re comparing it to a modern church launch, it’d be more like those churches with the big advertising campaigns than the ones that begin without notice. If there’s one thing you can say about Jesus’ ministry, it’s that people took notice.
Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, reads Isaiah 61:1–2, and declares that this ancient prophecy is being fulfilled today.
The Scroll of Isaiah
We don’t know exactly how a synagogue service was conducted in the days of Jesus, but in later times (and still today) there is an assigned portion of the Torah (Pentateuch) to read on each Sabbath, and an assigned portion of another book from the Hebrew Bible (the Haftarah). If the Nazareth synagogue in the first century followed this custom, then Jesus read the Haftarah, and Luke doesn’t tell us about the Torah portion for that synagogue service. (On the Synagogue service, and the appearance of the physical building, see this blog post.)
Another thing we don’t know is the language in which worship was conducted in that Nazareth synagogue. You would expect that the normal Jewish language in Galilee in the first century would be Aramaic, and most people think that’s the language Jesus grew up speaking. But it seems likely that at least some Aramaic-speaking Jews attended synagogues in which the Bible was read in Hebrew. And then again, we have evidence that many synagogues (as many as fifty percent) in Palestine in the first century conducted their services in Greek. The story that we have in Luke is written in Greek, including the quotation of Isaiah at Luke 4:18–19. Most scholars would say that the scroll of Isaiah would have actually been read in Hebrew (or Aramaic?) and Luke presents to us a translation, but possibly Jesus could speak Greek (but would he have been able to read Greek?).
Jesus read Isaiah 61:1–2 in some language, and he declared that it had been fulfilled. What is it that Jesus was claiming?
Let’s look at the text as it was quoted by Luke.
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, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.Luke 4:18–19
The quotation corresponds more-or-less to the text of Isaiah 61:1–2, though including only about the first half of the second verse. There are a few differences. First of all, whatever language Jesus used in that synagogue, the quotation as Luke presents it in his Gospel corresponds to the Greek version of Isaiah (the Septuagint). This becomes clear because of the phrase “recovery of sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18; Isa 61:1), which does not precisely correspond to the Hebrew text, which has instead “release to the prisoners.” But the underlying Hebrew is difficult, and “recovery of sight to the blind” might be the Greek translator’s best guess at what it meant (and he might have been right).1 In any case, Luke no doubt considered the line in the Greek translation to be perfectly suited to Jesus’ ministry (Luke 7:21; 18:35–43). A second difference between the quotation in Luke and the text of Isaiah 61 is that Luke for some reason omits the phrase “bind up or heal the brokenhearted” (which is present in the Hebrew and the Greek version of Isaiah). And third, Luke inserts a phrase, “let the oppressed go free,” which is not in Isaiah 61:1–2. Luke seems to have gotten the phrase Isaiah 58:6.
(I keep saying that Luke is doing these things, making these changes, because he’s the one who gives us the quotation in Greek. But I realize that he might be just giving us exactly what Jesus said [in Greek? in Hebrew? in Aramaic?], and so maybe it was Jesus who made these changes.)
In Isaiah, the full passage goes like this (according to the NRSV, translating the Hebrew text).
1The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, to display his glory.
4They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
5Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
6but you shall be called priests of the LORD,
you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
7Because their shame was double,
and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.Isaiah 61:1–7
Why does Jesus choose this passage to read in that synagogue? Was it the assigned text? Or does Luke present it as if Jesus chose the text himself? Jesus seems to have thought this Isaian passage was peculiarly appropriate for his own ministry. In fact, later when the imprisoned John the Baptist sends delegates to ask Jesus whether he was “the one to come,” Jesus responds with allusions to this passage of Isaiah.
And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”Luke 7:22
Jesus doesn’t say he’s citing Isaiah at all here, but his words are reminiscent of Isaiah 35:5–6 and our passage, Isaiah 61:1–2. Particularly the last phrase of Luke 7:22 about the poor having good news brought to them sounds like Isaiah 61:1.
So Jesus thinks this passage from Isaiah 61 provides a good summary, or maybe introduction, to his own ministry. He identifies himself with this character from Isaiah. As we read the passage in Isaiah, we can imagine several features of the description that Jesus likely thought appropriate to himself. In the Greek Septuagint, the word for “anointing” at Isaiah 61:1 is a verbal form of the word Christos. This prophet in Isaiah is anointed with the Spirit of the Lord, an image reminiscent of Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:21–22). Isaiah’s prophet was “sent” by God—note that Jesus uses this same word (ἀποστέλλω, apostellō) for himself (Luke 4:43; 9:48; 10:16)2—to preach “good news” to poor people. The word for “good news” here is, in Greek, a verbal form of euangelion, the Greek term that gives us English words like “evangelism.” (The Hebrew word is bisser, which doesn’t appear a whole lot, only 24x in the Hebrew Bible and 6x in the Dead Sea Scrolls.) This same word is used earlier in Isaiah, at 52:7, in a passage quoted by Paul at Romans 10:15: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” Of course, this same word for “good news” (euangelion) is the very word often translated “gospel.” So here is an Old Testament passage talking about the announcement of the gospel. Little wonder Jesus found this passage to be appropriate to the inauguration of his own ministry.
Moreover, this good news is supposed to be announced specifically to the poor or oppressed.3 Whether we interpret “poor” here in a literal, economic sense or in a spiritual sense, the ministry of Jesus was especially directed at the poor. Or, let’s say, his announcement of good news was especially directed at the poor; his ministry also dealt a lot with the rich and powerful, but it was not good news that he was announcing to those people, but rather the judgment of God. Examples in Luke are too numerous to list, but see especially the beatitudes (Luke 6:20–26), the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), and the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:9–14).
The other elements in this Isaiah passage that Jesus reads to the Nazareth audience include release for captives, healing for blind people, and the proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor. We’ve already talked about the healing for blind people, so let’s talk about these other elements. Actually, the way Luke presents this quotation from Isaiah, the matter of “release” comes up twice. Here’s a translation of Luke 4:18–19 that displays this feature.
…to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to send away the oppressed in a release
to proclaim a favorable year of the Lord.
As I mentioned earlier, that third line (“to send away the oppressed in a release”) is not in Isaiah 61, but seems to have come from Isaiah 58:6 (where the Greek for “let the oppressed go free” is basically identical with what we have in Luke 4:18). (For what follows, I’m ripping off Hays , pp. 225–30.) This is such an important passage from Isaiah that it bears quoting.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
9Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.Isaiah 58:6–9
God is calling upon Israel here to behave like his children, to obey the Torah, to live lives worthy of the calling they have received, and he is promising that if they will do that, God will bless them exceedingly (see the rest of the passage, vv. 9–14). Part of this great blessing God wants to accomplish for his people is something like a “new exodus.” Notice that God says “your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard” (v. 8). This description is reminiscent of the pillar of cloud that led Israel in the wilderness following their escape from Egypt (e.g., Exod 13:21–22; 14:19–20). A new exodus would mean that the oppressed would go free, just like they did in the first exodus. Isaiah was originally referring to the end of the Babylonian exile, when God would lead the captives back to their homeland. But the same message continued to resonate with many first-century Jews, who were also longing for a new exodus: freedom from the oppressor.
The promise of “release” that Jesus twice mentions in his reading from Isaiah is tied to another biblical theme, which Jesus also mentions: the favorable year of the Lord. This is a reference to the Jubilee Year.
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.Leviticus 25:10
This is a translation of the Hebrew text of Leviticus. The Greek Septuagint does not have the term Jubilee (which is a Hebrew word) but instead has the phrase “year of release” (ἐνιαυτὸς ἀφέσεως), using the same word for “release” that Jesus twice uses in his reading of Isaiah 61. Actually, Isaiah was himself alluding to the Jubilee Year by proclaiming a release from captivity, since that was the main feature of the Jubilee: no more debt, no more slavery.
At least some first-century Jews were anticipating the fulfillment of Isaiah 61. There are a couple of scrolls from the Dead Sea Scrolls that explicitly quote Isaiah 61:1–2 as a prophecy relating to messianic times. One of them (called 11Q13) features a figure named Melchizedek who will usher in the Jubilee Year and do the things mentioned in Isa 61 (read the whole text at Wikipedia). The other text (4Q521) talks about the Messiah and (at the very end of the preserved fragment) says that he will “bring good news to the poor” (read the whole fragment at Wikipedia), exactly as in Isaiah 61:1.4 What these Dead Sea Scrolls show us is that some ancient Jews, more-or-less contemporary with Jesus, were looking forward to the messianic fulfillment of Isaiah 61 at the end times.
This passage from Isaiah that Jesus reads goes in multiple directions. This section of Isaiah is about the end of the Babylonian exile, and it (especially Isa 58) speaks about that period of captivity in terms of a new exodus. And Isaiah 61 is about the year of Jubilee. All of that is already at work in the passage that Jesus chooses to read. And his simple and brief sermon explodes with significance: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
The Reaction to Jesus
If the long-anticipated hopes of Israel were about to be fulfilled, you would think that would make people happy. But claiming to embody the promises of God also sounds incredibly presumptuous, especially when you’re around people who know better because they’ve seen you grow up. The reaction in that Nazareth synagogue to the words of Jesus is somewhat mixed, and then Jesus seems to intentionally push them over the edge.
At first “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth, and they were saying, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’” (4:22). It is not clear to me what we are supposed to make of this reaction. Is the crowd excited about the prospect of Israel’s hopes finally coming to fruition, or are they just proud of the local boy who has started to make his mark on the world? And the question they ask— “Is not this Joseph’s son?”—are we supposed to read it as a sign of local pride (as in, “wow, Joseph’s boy has really done well!”) or as an accusation (“why should we listen to you? aren’t you just that local carpenter’s boy?”). C. F. Evans (p. 273) thinks the question does signal the crowd’s “incredulity and hostility.”
Whatever v. 22 means, it seems that Jesus is then intentionally provocative in what he says next. I think we can say that Jesus senses some hesitation on the part of the hometown crowd, or some downright hardness of heart. That’s certainly the way the story goes in Mark and Matthew, where the people of Nazareth take offense at Jesus and demonstrate such lack of faith that Jesus performed no sign for them (Mark 6:1–6; Matt 13:54–58). Here in Luke, it’s almost like Jesus is goading the people into displaying their obstinance.
To accomplish this, Jesus cites two episodes from the Old Testament. The first concerns Elijah, who went to Zarephath during a famine in Israel (1 Kings 17:8), more than 100 miles north of Samaria (Israel’s capital). While there, Elijah saved a widow and her son from starving to death in the famine (1 Kings 17:8–16), and he raised the widow’s son from death (17:17–24). The second story Jesus mentions is the story of Naaman (2 Kings), whose leprosy brought him down to Israel from his come country of Aram so that he could consult with the prophet Elisha. Naaman was healed of his leprosy after dipping seven times in the Jordan River, according to the instructions from Elisha. The point that Jesus makes from these two stories is that in both cases God’s grace was transmitted to people outside Israel because the Israelites themselves had rejected God. On the one hand, Jesus here anticipates themes that will find their fulfillment only in Luke’s second volume, when the gospel spreads among gentiles. On the other hand, Jesus is implying here that Israel’s own scriptures attest God’s favor toward all who have faith rather than those with the right bloodline.
The implication is enough. The synagogue-attendees that day so despised the implication, especially coming from the lips of this carpenter’s boy, that they tried to kill Jesus. Of course, they did not accomplish their task (v. 30) because, as Evans says (p. 275), “Jesus possesses a mysterious invulnerability” (cf. John 8:59; 10:39). But this rejection by Jesus’ hometown is, in some ways, a foregone conclusion, because Jesus is here announcing his prophetic ministry and is thus standing in a long line of prophets who were rejected by God’s people. That’s the point, for instance, of the Parable of the Tenants (Luke 20:9–19): what the Jewish leadership is doing to Jesus by rejecting him is nothing new, but is rather what they have always done with God’s prophets. But just as Jesus is the fulfillment of the ancient words of Isaiah 61, so also he is the fulfillment of God’s prophets, and his ultimate rejection by his own people through the cross would embody and fulfill all the prior rejections of God’s servants.
He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.John 1:11
That is the story of Jesus’ ministry, resulting in his death on a cross. And since that is the pattern of his life (and again, the pattern of life for all God’s prophets), this rejection at his hometown of Nazareth is a fitting beginning to a prophetic career that Jesus knows will end in his own death. And it is his very death that ushers in the favorable year of the Lord, the proclamation of good news, liberty to those in bondage.
In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus reads Isaiah 61:1–2. As you look at that passage in the Old Testament, what sorts of things does it prophesy?
When Jesus says in the Nazareth synagogue “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21), what does he mean?
Compare the response of the Nazareth crowd in Luke 4:22–30 to the way Mark tells the story (Mark 6:1–6). What similarities and differences do you see?
What point is Jesus trying to make by mentioning Elijah (1 Kings 17) and Elisha (2 Kings 5)?
Why do the people in Nazareth get so mad at Jesus? Does Jesus intentionally provoke them?
(1) See Mark S. Gignilliat, “God Speaks Hebrew: The Hebrew Text and Septuagint in the Search for the Christian Bible,” Pro Ecclesia 25 (2016): 154–72, esp. 160–61.
(2) He uses a different word for “send” (πέμπω, pempō) at Luke 20:13.
(3) The Hebrew word at Isaiah 61:1 (עֲנָוִים, anavim), which is not a common word (only 6x in the Bible, though 21x in the Dead Sea Scrolls), is probably better rendered “oppressed” or “humble.” The Greek word used in the Septuagint and in Luke 4:18 (πτωχός, ptōchos) means “poor.” Obviously, these concepts (humble/oppressed and poor) are closely related.
(4) You can see the actual scroll online (color, infrared). The unmarked quotation from Isaiah 61:1, amounting to only two Hebrew words (ענוים יבשר), is in the middle column, third line from the bottom (line 12), at the end of the line. The official publication is in DJD 25.