In the New Testament, Elizabeth appears in the Gospel of Luke as the mother of John the Baptist.
What does Luke tell us about Elizabeth?
Luke mentions Elizabeth in the first chapter of his gospel in what is often called the birth narrative (Luke 1-2). In these opening chapters, Luke describes the births of Jesus and John the Baptist, and he notes that John the Baptist’s parents are named Zechariah and Elizabeth, both of whom are “righteous before God” (Luke 1:6). Throughout the birth narrative, Luke parallels his account of John’s birth with his account of Jesus’s birth, but he brings the two stories together when Mary visits the pregnant Elizabeth in a scene known as “the Visitation” (Luke 1:39-45).
Luke further connects these two stories of miraculous births by noting that Elizabeth is Mary’s relative (Luke 1:36). Although popular tradition often classifies Elizabeth as Mary’s cousin (a tradition that stretches back to at least the Middle Ages!), Luke uses the more general Greek term “relative” (sungenis) to describe their relationship. He leaves the precise nature of how they are related unstated, but their kinship connection serves as another way in which Luke weaves together the stories of John and Jesus.
While Elizabeth is largely known by her relationship to others (namely, as John the Baptist’s mother, Mary’s kinswoman, and Zechariah’s wife), she emerges in Luke’s text as an important person in her own right. Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron (Luke 1:5) and thus of priestly lineage, and she recognizes that God has intervened in her life and looked on her with favor (Luke 1:25). She is filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41), which enables her to speak prophetic words (Luke 1:42-45), and she becomes the first person in Luke’s narrative to call Jesus “Lord” (Luke 1:43), a christological confession that links Jesus with the God of Israel. She also stands up to her neighbors and relatives when they want to name her son “Zechariah” instead of the name “John” provided by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:59-61; cf. Luke 1:13). Some ancient manuscripts even attribute Mary’s famous song known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) to Elizabeth instead.
Thus while Elizabeth is a minor character who does not appear beyond Luke 1, she nevertheless holds a prominent place in Luke’s narrative. She speaks on a number of occasions via direct discourse, moves the plot forward in important ways, and is a spokesperson for Luke’s theology. She also connects the beginning of Luke’s story with the story of Israel. As a righteous, yet barren, woman who miraculously conceives, Elizabeth evokes the stories from Israel’s scriptures of women in similar circumstances who conceive with God’s help. Like Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and Samson’s mother, Elizabeth’s womb is opened and she gives birth to a son who—according to Luke—plays a significant role in Israel’s salvation history. Elizabeth, therefore, recalls God’s faithfulness to Israel and roots Luke’s own gospel in Israel’s sacred texts. For those familiar with such texts, Elizabeth reminds the reader that Luke’s story is not entirely new, but that it continues a story that began long ago.