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.

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.

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."

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".

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.