The next section of Tatian’s Diatessaron comes from Luke 1:7-23. I am going to spare you having to read it in the 120-year-old translation of Reverend Hogg (translator acknowledgment), and put it in more modern English here.
In the days of Herod the king there was a priest whose name was Zacharias, of the family of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. They were both righteous before God, walking in all his commands and in the uprightness of God without reproach. They had no son, for Elizabeth was barren, and they had both advanced in age.
While he was discharging the duties of priest in the order of his service before God, according to the custom of the priesthood, it was his turn to burn incense. He entered the temple of the Lord, and the whole gathering of the people were praying outside at the time of incense.
There was a table of incense in front of the entrance to the Holy of Holies in the temple (Ex. 30:6). The priests were to burn incense before the Lord every morning and evening upon that table (Ex. 30:7-8). The incense was to be of an exact mixture (Ex. 30:9,34-38).
A lot of people think Zacharias … Let’s explain his name real quick.
This translation of the Diatessaron uses “Zacharias” because the original was written in Greek. The Gospel of Luke, from which this section is pulled, was also in Greek, but a lot of our English Bibles prefer to use names closer to how they sound in Hebrew, so most will use “Zachariah.”
Ok, a lot of people think Zacharias was doing the cleansing of the incense table which is done every year on the Day of Atonement. Rumor has it that the Levites tied a rope around the ankle of the priest when he entered the temple with blood each year on that day. I have never confirmed that rumor, but I don’t doubt it is true. It is irrelevant, however, because this was a morning or evening standard burning of the incense. It was not the Day of Atonement, and he was not bringing blood into the temple. Zacharias was just lighting the incense.
I say “just,” but the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges says that burning incense in the temple was “the loftiest and most coveted of priestly functions.” It gives a description of the process as well (right column). The part of that description that is important for Luke’s story here is that “The people waited outside in the Court of Israel praying in deep silence.” As it turned out, they would have to wait extra long that day.
The Angel of the Lord appeared to Zacharias, standing at the right of the altar of incense. Zacharias was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be agitated, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard, and your wife Elizabeth shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. You shall have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice at his birth. He shall be great before the Lord and shall not drink wine nor strong drink. He shall be filled with the Holy Spirit while he is in his mother’s womb. He shall turn back many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He shall go before him in the spirit and in the power of Elijah the prophet to turn back the heart of the fathers to the sons and those that do not obey to the knowledge of the righteous, to prepare a perfect people for the Lord.”
What an awesome event! If Zacharias felt privileged to be chosen by lot to bring the incense before the Lord, how much more to be greeted by the Angel of the Lord. Breathtaking! Majestic! Glorious!
Let me take a quick pause from expressing awe at this event to tell you a small tidbit about translating from ancient Greek. The translation we are using for the Diatessaron is from an Arabic translation of Tatian’s original Greek, but from what I am seeing from Rev. Hogg’s translation, my small tidbit must apply to tranlating ancient Arabic, too. It certainly applies in translating the New Testament.
Ancient Greek did not have punctuation, and it was written in all capital letters. Worse, it sometimes did not have spaces between the words! Without punctuation, Greek writers had to separate their sentences with conjunctions like “and,” “but,” “or,” “therefore,” etc. If you get a chance, look up Ephesians 1:3-13. It is all one sentence in Greek. I just glanced at the English Standard Version, and it breaks up that passage into only two sentences.
Modern English has punctuation, so as I copy the text from Rev. Hogg’s translation (linked in the first paragraph), I am reducing the size of the sentences, replacing the ands and buts with commas and periods unless they are necessary for meaning.
Ok, back to the glorious appearance of the Angel of the Lord in the temple next to the altar of incense.
Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this, since I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years?”
No, Zacharias, no! Bad idea! You should “know this” because there is an angel of the Lord standing in the temple of the Lord. He appeared out of nowhere. We Christians know, because Paul told us, that Satan can appear as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), but come on, Zacharias! You are standing in the temple of God; how likely is it that this being who just appeared in front of you is a counterfeit?
The angel didn’t appreciate his question, either.
The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands before God. I was sent to speak to you, and give you tidings of this. From now on, you shall be speechless. You shall not be able to speak until the day in which this shall come to pass because you did not trust this my word, which will be accomplished in its time.
The mistakes written about in the Bible are there to teach us. It is a good thing to believe a messenger of God when you can be sure it is God speaking through him. Don’t toy with it. Embrace it.
The people were standing, waiting for Zacharias, and they were perplexed at his delaying in the temple. When Zacharias went out, he was not able to speak to them, so they knew that he had seen a vision in the temple. He made signs to them and continued dumb. When the days of his service were completed, he departed to his dwelling.
That’s it for today. For what happened to Zacharias next, see the next post.