What is the meaning of “firstborn male” in Luke 2:23?

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Is the consecration of the boy only done if he is the firstborn? Or is it done if he is simply the oldest?

Question submitted by a Wycliffe Bible translation consultant that was published in the “Readers’ Perspective” column of Jerusalem Perspective 55 (April-June 1999): 6.

Yesterday I [a Wycliffe Bible translator; name withheld by Jerusalem Perspective] finished two days of consultant work, checking accuracy and naturalness of Luke 1-2 in the [language name withheld by Jerusalem Perspective] language. A question arose over Luke 2:23. Following is an excerpt from our Wycliffe (SIL) Translator’s Notes on this section. The excerpt reflects the main interpretations in the commentaries.

2:23b firstborn male: Greek: “male opening a womb.” There are two possible meanings here: 1. “A mother’s first boy child to be born.” This may not be the mother’s first child. (In Exodus this also includes an animal’s first boy baby.) 2. The literal meaning can be understood as “a male who is his mother’s first child.” And this was true of Jesus. But meaning 1 is the most likely meaning in this verse, because the law applied to all Jewish mothers, not only to those whose first child was a boy.

The linguist doing the translating has called a local rabbi to see if interpretation 1 or 2 is preferred in Jewish tradition, but we have not yet heard from the rabbi. Would you have any rabbi contacts or other resources that might tilt us toward 1 or 2?

In summary, my question is this: Is the consecration of the boy only done if he is the firstborn? Or is it done if he is simply the oldest? In other words, if the firstborn child is a daughter, but there are subsequent males, is there no consecration of a firstborn son in that family? It would be nice to learn if there is a standard rabbinical interpretation for this consecration.

David Bivin responds:

Yes, there is a standard Jewish understanding of this biblical commandment. We found out by phoning Jerusalem School member and Hebrew University professor Shmuel Safrai.

According to Professor Safrai, “the halachah (rule) in the first century—and still today—is that the pidyon haben (redemption of the firstborn) ceremony applies only to firstborn males. Ancient rabbinic sources emphasize the words peter rehem (first offspring of womb; Exod. 13:2, 12; 34:19-20; Num. 3:12; 18:15). If the firstborn child is a female, then the ceremony is not conducted for a later, firstborn male. To put it in your words, if the firstborn child is a daughter, but there are subsequent males, there is no consecration of a firstborn son in that family.”

This consultation with Professor Safrai illustrates and underscores two significant things:

  1. A number of translation problems, especially in the Synoptic Gospels, cannot be adequately solved without a firm grasp of the text’s Jewish cultural and linguistic background;
  2. As we Christians attempt the difficult task of translating the Bible, especially the Synoptic Gospels, the assistance of our Jewish colleagues is crucial.
This article originally appeared in issue 55 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

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  • David N. Bivin

    David N. Bivin

    David N. Bivin is founder and editor of Jerusalem Perspective. A native of Cleveland, Oklahoma, U.S.A., Bivin has lived in Israel since 1963, when he came to Jerusalem on a Rotary Foundation Fellowship to do postgraduate work at the Hebrew University. He studied at the Hebrew…
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