Was Zacharias struck deaf by the Angel Gabriel?

Zacharias is on one side of the incense altar and Gabriel is on the other; also visible is the Temple _menorah_ (seven-branched candlestick) and possibly the _lechem_panim_ [showbread])

The angel Gabriel appearing to Zacharias - William Blake

David Bar-Tzur

Created 16 March 2005, links updated monthly with the help of LinkAlarm.

Zacharias was the father of John the Baptist. In Luke he is punished for his disbelief that he will have a son from a heretofore childless marriage, but was the temporary punishment that of deafness? There is a useful tool called Bible study tools. My research is from various commentaries available there. The most relevant verses are Luke 1:20, and 62-64. First let's examine excerpts from John Darby's Synopsis of the New Testament: Luke 1 to review the overall story.

Herod, king of Judea, furnishes the date; and it is a priest, righteous and blameless, belonging to one of the twenty-four classes, whom we find on the first step of our way. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron; and these two upright persons walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord (Jehovah) without blame. All was right before God, according to His law in the Jewish sense. But they did not enjoy the blessing that every Jew desired; they had no child. Nevertheless, it was according, we may say, to the ordinary ways of God in the government of His people, to accomplish His blessing while manifesting the weakness of the instrument-a weakness that took away all hope according to human principles. Such had been the history of the Sarahs, the Rebeccas, the Hannahs, and many more, of whom the word tells us for our instruction in the ways of God.

This blessing was often prayed for by the pious priest; but until now the answer had been delayed. Now, however, when, at the moment of exercising his regular ministry, Zacharias drew near to burn incense, which, according to the law, was to go up as a sweet savour before God (type of the Lord's intercession), and while the people were praying outside the holy place, the angel of the Lord appears to the priest on the right side of the altar of incense. At the sight of this glorious personage Zacharias is troubled, but the angel encourages him by declaring himself to be the bearer of good news; announcing to him that his prayers, so long apparently addressed in vain to God, were granted. Elizabeth should bear a son, and the name by which he should be called was, "The favour of the Lord," a source of joy and gladness to Zacharias, and whose birth should be the occasion of thanksgiving to many. . .

But the faith of Zacharias in God and in His goodness did not come up to the height of his petition (alas! too common a case), and when it is granted at a moment that required the intervention of God to accomplish his desire, he is not able to walk in the steps of an Abraham or a Hannah, and he asks how this thing can now take place.

God, in His goodness, turns His servant's want of faith into an instructive chastisement for himself, and into a proof for the people that Zacharias had been visited from on high. He is dumb until the word of the Lord is fulfilled; and the signs which he makes to the people, who marvel at his staying so long in the sanctuary, explain to them the reason.

. . .

The son of Zacharias and Elizabeth is born, and Zacharias (who, obedient to the word of the angel, ceases to be dumb) announces the coming of the Branch of David, the horn of Israel's salvation, in the house of God's elect King, to accomplish all the promises made to the fathers, and all the prophecies by which God had proclaimed the future blessing of His people. The child whom God had given to Zacharias and Elizabeth should go before the face of Jehovah to prepare His ways; for the Son of David was Jehovah, who came according to the promises, and according to the word by which God had proclaimed the manifestation of His glory. . . .

We see that Zacharias became at least mute, if not deaf, because of his unbelief in the angel Gabriel's prophecy that he and his wife, who had been childless, would truly have a child. You will see that in this collection of commentaries many believe that Zacharias was struck deaf as well as mute. It struck me that if Zacharias were suddenly deafened, he would still be able to speak, of course, since that would not remove his language. This explains the seeming redundancy of Luke 1:20 where Gabriel says, ""And behold, thou shalt be silent and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall come to pass, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season." I assume that is what Darby means above when he says that this muteness was "a proof for the people that Zacharias had been visited from on high." It is not unusual for a person to become deaf, but sudden muteness is. Sudden changes in health have often been looked upon by various societies as a visitiation from God for good or ill.

The strongest statement that it was deafness that is made in this collection (Bible study tools) is by John Wesley in the eighteenth century. In his Explanatory notes on the whole Bible: Luke 1, he comments on 1:20, "Thou shalt be dumb - The Greek word signifies deaf, as well as dumb: and it seems plain, that he was as unable to hear, as he was to speak; for his friends were obliged to make signs to him, that he might understand them, Luke 1:62." Why Wesley says the Greek word means deaf as well as dumb seems unclear, since Robertson in his Word pictures of the New Testament: Luke 1:20 comments, "Thou shalt be silent ( NT Greek   ). Volitive future periphrastic. Not able to speak ( NT Greek      ). Negative repetition of the same statement. His dumbness will continue "until" (NT Greek   ) the events come to pass "because" (  ). The words were to become reality in due season (NT Greek, not , time). " None of the terms used, however, is the standard NT Greek word for deaf, which is "kophos" (NT Greek) and occurs 12 times in the NT: Matthew 6 times, Mark 4 times, and Luke 3 times. This term is found not in 1:20, but 1:22, "And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless."

Here are three sources that offer only a brief commentary but show the prevalence of the belief that there was deafness. Scoffield and The 1599 Geneva Study Bible do not deal with this issue at all.

(1) The Fourfold Gospel: Luke 1 "Also known as a 'Harmony of the Four Gospels', this work by J. W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton is a complete chronology of the life of Christ, divided into titled sections and sub-divisions, with comments injected in the text." (The quoted comments that appear after these three links are from Bible Study Tools itself.)

1:62 And they made signs to his father, what he would have him called1.

1. And they made signs to his father, what he would have him called. This seems to indicate that Zacharias was deaf as well as dumb.

(2) People's New Testament "Written in 1891 for the novice student of the Bible, this work was prepared with such aids as would enable the common reader to arrive at an understanding of every verse."

20. Thou shalt be dumb. His power of speech taken away shall be a sign.

63. Asked for a writing tablet. Because his tongue had not yet been loosed.

(3) Commentary critical and explanatory on the whole Bible. "This one volume commentary was prepared by Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown and published in 1871."

20. dumb--speechless.
not able--deprived of the power of speech (Luke 1:64). He asked a sign, and now he got it.

John Gill, in his Exposition of the Bible is quite fascinating to read in general because he brings in ancient Jewish and Muslim commentaries. Bible Study Tools says of him, "He preached in the same church as C. H. Spurgeon over one hundred years earlier. Yet most people today have never heard of John Gill. This is unfortunate, since his works contain priceless gems of information that are found nowhere except in the ancient writings of the Jews."

Luke 1:20

. . . he was struck both deaf and dumb, as appears from his friends making signs to him, (Luke 1:62) which they had no need to have done, could he have heard: he was struck with deafness, because he hearkened not to the angel's words; and with dumbness, because from the unbelief of his heart he objected to them. We learn from hence, what an evil unbelief is, and how much resented by God, and how much it becomes us to take heed, that it prevails not in us: and especially since it easily besets us: "which shall be fulfilled in their season"; first the conception, then the birth; after that the calling him by his name, and in process of time, the doing of his work and office; so that the unbelief Zacharias did not make the faith of God of none effect; for though sometimes the people of God are very unbelieving, yet he abides faithful to his word and promises. Mahomet, in his Alkoran11, very wrongly makes the angel to say these words to Zacharias: "thy sign shall be, that thou shalt speak unto no man for three days, otherwise than by gesture." And elsewhere12 it is said "three nights".

11 C. 3. p. 40. Ed. Sale.
12 C. 10. p. 249.

Luke 1:62

And they made signs to his father
Who was deaf, as well as dumb; otherwise there would have been no occasion to have signs made to him: and so the word used, in (Luke 1:20) signifies both deaf and dumb. These signs were made by hands or head; for such used to be made to a dumb man. According to the canon17, a dumb man nods, and (זמרנו) "and is nodded", or "beckoned to": and which beckoning one of the commentators18 says, is a sign which is expressed either by the hands or head. Such a method as these took with Zacharias, about the name of his son, is directed to in case of a father's deafness, in relation to knowing who is his firstborn19, "[if the baby has a] father that is dumb, they search or examine him in the way they search for divorces; if he makes signs, or writes, that this is his firstborn, lo! this takes the double portion."

How he would have him called;
by what name, Zacharias or John; and they were right in applying to him, to whom it most properly belonged, to give a name to his child.

17. Misn. Gittin, c. 5. sect 7.
18. Bartenora in ib.
19. Maimon. Hilch. Nechalot, c. 2. sect. 15, & 4. 1.

Matthew Henry's Complete commentary on the whole Bible: Luke 1 mentions other places in the Jewish and Christian Bibles (the Jewish terms for "Old Testament" and "New Testament") where people were struck dumb, although Henry believes that Zacharias was also deafened. He calls the infirmity a "stroke. . . like unto a palsy".

They appealed to the father, and would try if they could possibly get to know his mind; for it was his office to name the child, v. 62. They made signs to him, by which it appears that he was deaf as well as dumb; nay, it should seem, mindless of any thing, else one would think they should at first have desired him to write down his child's name, if he had ever communicated any thing by writing since he was struck. However, they would carry the matter as far as they could, and therefore gave him to understand what the dispute was which he only could determine; whereupon he made signs to them to give him a table-book, such as they then used, and with the pencil he wrote these words, His name is John, v. 63. Note, "It shall be so," or, "I would have it so," but "It is so." The matter is determined already; the angel had given him that name. Observe, When Zacharias could not speak, he wrote. When ministers have their mouths stopped, that they cannot preach, yet they may be doing good as long as they have not their hands tied, that they cannot write. Many of the martyrs in prison wrote letters to their friends, which were of great use; blessed Paul himself did so. Zacharias's pitching upon the same name that Elisabeth had chosen was a great surprise to the company: They marvelled all; for they knew not that, though by reason of his deafness and dumbness they could not converse together, yet they were both guided by one and the same Spirit: or perhaps they marvelled that he wrote so distinctly and intelligently, which (the stroke he was under being somewhat like that of a palsy) he had not done before. 5. He thereupon recovered the use of his speech (v. 64): His mouth was opened immediately. The time prefixed for his being silenced was till the day that these blessed things shall be fulfilled (v. 20); not all the things going before concerning John's ministry, but those which relate to his birth and name (v. 13). That time was now expired, whereupon the restraint was taken off, and God gave him the opening of the mouth again, as he did to Ezekiel, ch. 3:27. Dr. Lightfoot compares this case of Zacharias with that of Moses, Ex. 4:24-26. Moses, for distrust, is in danger of his life, as Zacharias, for the same fault, is struck dumb; but, upon the circumcision of his child, and recovery of his faith, there, as here, the danger is removed. Infidelity closed his mouth, and now believing opens it again; he believes, therefore he speaks. David lay under guilt from the conception of his child till a few days after its birth; then the Lord takes away his sin: upon his repentance, he shall not die. So here he shall be no longer dumb; his mouth was opened, and he spoke, and praised God.

From this collection of classic Protestant commentaries, it seems that the traditional consensus is that Zacharias was struck deaf as well as mute. I hope at some time in the future to look at Catholic and Orthodox commentaries to gain further insight into an interesting occurrence of deafness in the Christian Bible. An interesting question to ponder is what was the nature of the signs mentioned in Luke 1:62, where it says, "And they made signs to his father, what he would have him called"? Surely it would have been easier for them to write down the words than for these hearing people to "sign", who assumedly had no experience in Sign Language or even a gestural system that could express an idea as abstract as "What do you want to name your son?" Gill brings in Jewish sources which would be of special interest to me, as well as a reference to the Koran (C. 3. p. 40. Ed. Sale.), where Gabriel says, "thy sign shall be, that thou shalt speak unto no man for three days, otherwise than by gesture." What was this gestural system? Perhaps people in ages past were more in tune with gestures than we imagined.