Wife of Zechariah and mother of john the baptist. The NT spelling of the name ('Ελισάβετ) represents a late, possibly Aramaic form of the name of the wife of Aaron (Heb. 'ĕlîseba '; Ex 6.23). Elizabeth was a descendant of her OT namesake, for she was "of the daughters of Aaron" (Lk 1.5), i.e., descended from Aaron's line. She is designated as a relative (συγγενίς; Lk 1.36) of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, but it is not possible to ascertain the exact nature of their relationship; according to the legend of the apocryphal History of Hanna, Elizabeth's mother, Sophia, was a sister of Mary's mother, Anna. Already advanced in age and sterile (cf. Gn 18.11 for the parallel case of Abraham and Sarah), she and her husband were promised a son by the Angel Gabriel, who appeared to Zachary in the Temple.
The statement that Elizabeth and her husband were "virtuous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord" (Lk 1.6) indicates that her sterility was not a result of God's disfavor; she takes her place alongside the holy women of the OT, such as Sarah and Anna, whose barrenness was the prelude to a mighty act of God. Nevertheless, by this phrase, St. Luke intends to contrast her to Mary, who is "full of grace" (1.28), and whose Son would be the promised Savior, while the son of Elizabeth was to be His precursor. Like Jeremiah (Jer 1.5), the promised child was to be "filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb" (Lk 1.15). This son of her old age would be called a "prophet of the Most High" (1.76).
At Mary's visit Elizabeth was six months pregnant. Her greeting to Mary, "And how have I deserved that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?" (1.43) indicates her belief that Mary is to be Mother of the Messiah. At Mary's greeting the infant in Elizabeth's womb leapt with joy (1.15). Three months later she gave birth to the son promised to Zachary. At the time of the child's circumcision she insisted that he be called John ("Yahweh is gracious").
According to legend Elizabeth escaped with her infant son at the time of the massacre of the innocents, and she and her child hid in a cavern, which had opened up to receive them. While there, they were miraculously fed and cared for by angels (Protoevangelium of James, 22).
The principal scene in which Elizabeth is represented in sacred art is the Visitation. There are no representations in the catacombs of the Visitation. She is shown greeting the Blessed Virgin Mary in a carving on a 5th-century sarcophagus at Ravenna and in frescoes from the 6th century in the Church of Sergius at Gaza.
Feast: Nov. 5 (Roman Church); Sept. 8 (Eastern Church).
See Also: visitation of mary.
Bibliography: p. gaechter, Maria im Erdenleben (Innsbruck 1953) 98–100. l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétion, 6 v. (Paris 1955–59) 3.1:415–417.
[m. e. mciver]