“There is no one among your relatives who has this name.” (Lk 1:61)

This line from today’s Gospel (Lk 1:57-66) regarding the birth and circumcision of John the Baptist has long perplexed me. These words, coming from John’s family’s neighbors and friends, seem to have no precedent in the Bible. I have read the whole thing and I do not recall any instance when a child was named after a relative. So from where does this idea come?

My limited personal resources and some research did not yield much for me — either they said nothing about this line or the commentary was short and unsatisfying. But a wonderful two-volume set of the New Testament from the Daughters of St. Paul, beautifully laid out and illustrated, that I have retained for decades now, does provide an interesting exposition on this episode that I would like to share:

The law forbade Elizabeth to take part in social activities for forty days (Leviticus 12:2-4). But the circumcision, on the eighth day, could take place in the family home. It was the custom on that occasion to name the child after the grandfather, not the father. However, because Zechariah was an old man and had also been struck dumb — for which reason they feared he might not liver very long — the relatives suggested his own name. Elizabeth’s opposition astounded them, first of all because it was not customary for the mother to press her preferences. Moreover, she wanted to give the child a name that was foreign to the family. But John signifies: “God has been merciful.” Now Elizabeth and Zechariah knew that this indicated the child’s favored destiny. Their faithfulness to the angel’s words was immediately rewarded.

The New Testament 6: The Gospel According to Luke Chapters 1-7 (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1975), 171

This custom spoken of, “to name the child after the grandfather,” is given with no further explanation. Might this have been a more recent custom thus not found in the Old Testament? This commentary doesn’t explain. As for Zechariah’s age and condition, this is speculation. but a nice sentiment. It does cause me to wonder how long John’s parents lived: Did they get to see his public ministry thirty years hence? Did he strike them growing up as worthy of the role “to prepare for the Lord a people well-disposed” (Lk 1:17)? How much did they tell John about his miraculous conception, his cousin Jesus, and the role the Spirit had set out for John?

The image below is the same one used in the Bible that i referred to above.

Fra Angelico: The Naming of John the Baptist
The Naming of John the Baptist (1434-35) by Fra Angelico (Museo di San Marco, Florence)

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