Scripture and Tradition

Luke and the “Vision of Peace”: Some Musings

At the end of the Canticle of Zechariah, we read that the daybreak of Jesus’ birth is on its way

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Luke 1:79

Two themes are hereby announced that will remain important throughout Luke: light/darkness (along with sight/blindness) and peace. In the familiar Christmas story that follows, both appear again, with the glory of God shining around the shepherds (Luke 2:9) and the angelic announcement of peace on earth (2:14). (Click here if you’d like a refresher.)

Bartholomäus Zeitblom, Heerberg altarpiece (1497)

At the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Simeon’s recognition of the infant as “light” (Luke 2:32) means that he can “depart in peace” (2:29). Luke seems to want to emphasize this scene’s location at Jerusalem. Even though Gabriel’s annunciation to Zechariah takes place in the Temple and therefore obviously in Jerusalem, Luke never names the city. It’s difficult to know whether the omission is intentional. He does name Nazareth in the corresponding annunciation to Mary (1:26), but maybe the mention of the Temple in Luke 1:9 made it seem to Luke like overkill to mention Jerusalem as well. If so, he didn’t find it superfluous in the presentation story, where it is mentioned for the first time in the Third Gospel—and it’s named three times:

  • Mary and Joseph “brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” (2:22).
  • “Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon” (2:25).
  • Anna of Asher spoke of Jesus “to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38).

Coincidence? Maybe. But it won’t be the last time Luke brings together Jerusalem, peace, and light/vision. Just before Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we read,

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

Luke 19:41–42

This looks like a sad inversion of the presentation, where Simeon sees the light of Jesus and departs in peace—and these are both uniquely Lukan passages.

Pondering the Luke 19 passage the other day, I found myself wondering: Is it possible that Luke knew the etymology of Jerusalem as “vision of peace” (Gk: horasis eirēnēs)? If so, Luke’s eagerness to point out that Simeon held baby Jesus and had his “vision of peace” in Jerusalem is charmingly fitting…and the blindness of Jerusalem to “the things that make for peace” is tragically ironic.

Does that seem farfetched? It did to me at first, but that rarely stops me. I poked around a bit and found a little encouragement. In his commentary on Luke, Marshall suggests that the purpose of the emphatic “even you” in Luke 19:42

may possibly be to draw attention to the significance of “Jerusalem” as the city of peace (Heb. 7:1f. cf. Je. 15:5; Pss. 122:6; 147:12–14)…

but he remains cautious:

…but since the city is not named in the context this allusion must remain doubtful.

I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Paternoster Press, 1978), 718.

Fitzmyer is more confident. He detects a play on words:

The city, whose very name is associated with peace, fails to recognize what makes for its own peace.

Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X–XXIV: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 1256.

Still, notice that neither Marshall nor Fitzmyer say anything about “vision of peace”—only “city of peace,” which is another ancient etymology for Jerusalem (nor are these the only ones). Even worse, most commentators seem not to have followed either Fitzmyer’s confident assertion or even Marshall’s cautious suggestion about “city of peace.”

Surely I would find support in the Fathers. Quite a few of the Greek Fathers (Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, Didymus the Blind) know the “vision of peace” etymology. Beginning with Augustine and Jerome, it supplants “city of peace” in the West, as well.[1]

Alas, I can’t find any of them making the connection, even when they might be expected to. Origen, for instance, who knows the horasis eirēnēs etymology quite well and alludes to it on a number of occasions, says nothing about it when he addresses Luke 19:41–44 (Hom. Lk. 38; Fr. Lk. 238A–B). The same is true of Eusebius Pamphilus. Even more surprising, both Clement and Origen do draw on the etymology when discussing Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem in Matthew 23 (paralleled in Luke 13), but not the one in Luke 19 (Clement, Strom. 1.5.29.4; Origen, Hom. Jer. 13.1–2). Go figure.

I wish I had an explanation for why the Fathers don’t make the connection, especially when they come oh-so-close, as Clement and Origen do. Does this rule out the possibility that Luke himself knew the etymology and had it in mind when penning his Gospel, with its tantalizing associations of Jerusalem, vision(/blindness), and peace?

Until now I’ve studiously avoided mentioning where the Greek Fathers got their horasis eirēnēs interpretation of Jerusalem. But it’s no mystery—it’s found in Philo (Somn. 2.250). So, is it really so outlandish that an etymology attested by a prominent Alexandrian Jewish intellectual who flourished in the first half of the first century would find its way into the consciousness of Luke (whoever you happen to think he is)? Especially if it’s true, as Acts tells us, that there was “a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria” (Acts 18:24), mixing with Ephesian and Corinthian congregations with whom Luke was likely familiar?

I for one don’t think so. But I could be wrong.


[1] See Ellen Scully, “Jerusalem’s Lost Etymology: How Augustine Changed Latin Eschatology,” Vigiliae Christianae 70 (2016): 1–30.

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