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The New International Version of Luke 1:62 says:

Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child.

Why did they make signs as he could hear what they were saying. The Bible says that he couldn't speak not that he couldn't hear.

Was Zechariah's lost speech significant on anything in particular or just because of his unbelief?

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There are two possible reasons why 'they were signing' (ἐνένευον) to him in Luke 1:62:

  1. Zechariah was mute and deaf. While there is no indication that the angel Gabriel brought about anything other than muteness,1 v. 22 states that he remained κωφός, which in addition to referring to a "lack of speech capability," can also imply a "lack of hearing capability," i.e. deafness.2 However, when κωφός refers to both muteness and deafness this is usually made clear in the context, which is not the case here. Also, when Zechariah is healed/restored in v. 64, no mention of his ears/hearing is made, only organs associated with speech.3 For these reasons, this is the weakest interpretive option.

  2. Elizabeth's neighbors and relatives ('οἱ περίοικοι καὶ οἱ συγγενεῖς αὐτῆς' in v. 58) reciprocated Zechariah's signing, merely presuming his deafness. When Zechariah left the temple after being struck mute in v. 22, he 'was signing' (διανεύων) to them because he couldn't speak. They may not have realized that he could hear, and merely mirrored his actions and 'were signing' (ἐνένευον) back to him in order to communicate in v. 62, even though this was unnecessary.4 While this is highly speculative, it seems more probable than the first interpretive option for the reasons given in that paragraph.

In summary, while neither of these interpretive options has strong support, the second seems more probable than the first given the internal evidence.


1 Only speech is mentioned as being impaired in Luke 1:20.

2 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 580. Cf. Mt 11:5; Mk 7:32, 37; 9:25; Lk 7:22 where κωφός is used to refer to deafness. The LXX also uses this word to refer to cult images that are both deaf and mute in Habakkuk 2:18 (NETS, p. 809) and 3 Maccabees 4:16 (NETS, p. 526).

3 Just as Zechariah's speech impairment is emphasized twice in Luke 1:20—the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that he 'will be silent' (ἔσῃ σιωπῶν) and that he 'will be unable to speak' (μὴ δυνάμενος λαλῆσαι)—so also when he is healed/restored, the text uses a figure of speech known as zeugma by doubly emphasizing that his mouth (στόμα) and tongue (γλῶσσα) were released (ἀνεῴχθη).

4 The use of two different Greek verbs meaning 'to make signs' (by bodily movement) does not draw any significant distinction that appears to be relevant as the words are virtually synonymous.

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    Is there any reason to believe that when John the Baptist was circumcised (and when he was to be christened with his new name) that his father Zechariah was perhaps physically removed from the location where hand gestures would have been required to communicate with him? In other words, was "sign language" perhaps required because of a sizeable physical distance between Zechariah and his interlocutors? – Joseph Jan 5 '14 at 22:22
  • @Joseph ooh, now that's interesting. That is also a possibility, yes. – Dan Jan 5 '14 at 23:22
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While I appreciate the careful and detailed answer that @Daи provided, I lean the other direction in my conclusion.

First I checked with several commentaries that I had at hand, most of which assume (without support) that Zechariah was both mute and deaf. Bock gives the question a little more attention: he cites three arguments in favor of the mute-only position (basically the same points made by Daи), but he dismisses them (albeit, without compelling evidence to the contrary). So the testimony from the "experts" seems inconclusive.

Next, I looked at all 12 occurences of κωφός in the NT. (Mt 9:33;11:5; 12:22; 15:30; 15:31; Mk 7:32, 37; 9:25; Lk 1:22; 7:22; 11:14). Of these, the most significant ones are those in Luke's own usage (1:22; 7:22; 11:14). Besides the given passage, the other two verses refer to the healing action of Jesus: in one case the κωφός is enabled to hear, and in the other he is able to speak. So just within Luke (the doctor), we see that this word was used malleably to refer to both deaf and mute conditions (presumably because these conditions so often occurred together, in antiquity; this is somewhat akin to how the term cardiovascular disease is used by medical professionals to refer to both coronary heart disease and stroke).

So, in conclusion, I think it is unlikely that Zechariah's friends were confused about his condition. He was both deaf and mute. The reason Luke didn't emphasize the healing of his ears was that he was drawing attention to the significant words Zechariah spoke at the moment of his healing.

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  • You got a +1 from me :) – Dan Jan 6 '14 at 22:19
  • Very clever, forgot that Luke was a doctor. Also strong argument with the reference to Luke only mentioning the loosening of the tongue with respect to the words spoken. – gilbert-v Mar 22 '20 at 11:14
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Put yourself in the shoes of Zecharias's peers who were, rightly, concerned about his long delay in the Holy Place. Perhaps God had struck him dead! Perhaps he had had some sort of physical symptom that incapacitated him for a short time! They just didn't know. When Zecharias does appear, then, the first thing they ask him is

Hey, Zach. What up, man? Did you have a heart attack or something? We were worried about you, man!

Now, what is the first thing Zechariah tries to do? Yes, he tries to speak but is unable to speak. His peers, obviously confused, are NOT aware that he is ONLY mute and NOT mute AND deaf, so they just automatically start signing and gesticulating wildly in order to communicate with their good friend Zach. I imagine Zach got them eventually to realize he was mute, only, and not deaf, so they probably worked things out with ink and a piece of papyrus paper, or with a tablet, just as Zecharias did nine months later with perhaps a different group of people, the composition of which is not certain.

This may seem cruel, so forgive me, but sometimes people get confused when they're introduced to a blind person, and they start talking as if the blind person can't hear them, which may instigate a curt "Hey, I'm blind, not deaf" from the sightless person.

By the way, one commentator I read (viz., Constable), suggests Zecharias was both mute and deaf. I think I disagree with Constable. First, Gabriel did not say Zacharias's punishment would include deafness, though as Constable says, "The Greek word used to describe [Zach's] condition, kophos, can mean deaf as well as dumb (cf. 7:22)." Second, how did Zach know there was a movement afoot at John's circumcision to name the baby Zecharias and not John? Perhaps someone wrote a message to Zach on a tablet to that effect (and that is certainly possible), but just as likely, I suggest, is that Zach heard what the people were planning to name his son, and he would have no part in it. He therefore called for a tablet and wrote, "His name is John."

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    @JackDouglas: I've edited my post, perhaps for the better. I have a feeling that once a post gets a couple DVs, a hydraulic effect kicks in which causes people to read the post with a jaundiced eye, so to speak. Nevertheless, I enjoyed getting back into the text and was blessed by doing so. If as a result of my post more people immersed themselves in the text, then perhaps the DVs were well worth it! Don – rhetorician Jan 6 '14 at 23:30
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    this post now has my upvote - great job! I've also removed all of the comments that are no longer relevant. – Dan Jan 7 '14 at 2:31
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    Thanks Don, this effort to fit in with what the community wants here is much appreciated! – Jack Douglas Jan 7 '14 at 10:35
  • @Jack I have just read this comment. Does your "note of appreciation" include a hint of [whether you believe it or not]? – Miguel de Servet May 24 at 17:48
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I think kmote's analysis is right on the money.

Gabriel also would have spoken to Zechariah in Hebrew and the most common Hebrew word for "silent' is ḥāraš, which means both deaf and dumb. It's possible that Gabriel used this word in Luke 1:20, when God's judgment for his unbelief was given.

I also think that the closest of Zechariah's relatives would have had nine months within which to see whether or not he could hear, and the fact that they still made signs to communicate with him is an indication that he really was deaf.

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  • There is no reason to believe the angel spoke audibly at all, seeing a vision is something that might be completely in-house (so to speak). The OT record of Balaam's donkey comes to mind, where the donkey could see the angel, while Balaam was totally unaware. Paul's conversion experience was in the presences of others, but he alone "heard" the words. Things "seen" and "heard" in a vision would not be to the limitations of the flesh, like the possibility of misinterpreting a word. for example. – enegue May 22 '17 at 2:35
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If one person yawns other follow suit. It is a strange psychological phenomenon. The same could be said about laughter and weeping:

"Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn". (Rom 12:15; NIV)

Thus, it seems that Zechariah's friends to a certain extent became mute in his presence.

Zechariah wrote John's name on a tablet. It is therefore possible that the sign his friends performed for him was the 'writing in the air' sign; with a moving uplifted hand, formed as if a pen was held by it. They may even have supplied him with the tablet he wrote “His name is John” on.

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