How Mary became Jesus’s mother.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 November

Some of the story behind Mary of Nazareth.

Luke 1.26-38

Last week John’s birth was foretold; this week Jesus’s. Goes like so.

Luke 1.26-38 KWL
26 In Elizabeth’s sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a Galilean town called Nazareth,
27 to a young woman affianced to a man of David’s house, named Joseph;
a young woman named Mary.
28 Entering, the angel said, “Hail, your honor! The Lord’s with you.
You’re blessed above all women.
29 She was alarmed by this message, and was speculating about what this greeting meant.
30 The angel told her, “Don’t fear, Mary: You’ve found grace with God.
31 Look, you’ll conceive in your womb. You’ll give birth to a son. You’ll name him Jesus.
32 He’ll be great. He’ll be called the Most High’s son.
The Lord will give him his ancestor David’s throne.
33 He’ll be king over Jacob’s house in the age to come. His kingdom will never end.”
34 Mary told the angel, “How will this happen?—since I’ve not been with a man.”
35 In reply the angel told her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.
The Most High’s power will envelop you
and the holy one produced will be called God’s son.
36 And look: Your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age.
This is actually her sixth month—and she was called sterile.
37 No word of God is impossible.”
38 Mary said, “Look: I’m the Lord’s slave.
I hope it happens according to your word.” The angel left her.

In Orthodox tradition, Mary was at the Nazareth well, so most Christian art depicts her there, with Gabriel either greeting her, or saying something profound as she looks downward in humility. Something pious, and posed—you know, like artist’s models will do.

Today, the well, and the cave it’s in, is underneath St. Gabriel’s Church in Nazareth. As our tour guide rightly pointed out, if it wasn’t the very place Gabriel appeared to Mary, it doesn’t entirely matter; Mary did go to this well to get water, since it’s Nazareth’s only natural water source. (As a city of 74,000 today, it has to tap a few additional water sources.)

When the art doesn’t depict Mary at a well, it’s often of her at home. Sounds reasonable, ’cause Luke says Gabriel entered, and we usually figure that’d be a building. The Roman Catholics built a chapel, the Basilica of the Annunciation, over the cave where they think Mary’s family lived. Yep, another cave. Caves are all over Israel, and I remind you Jesus was both born in, and buried in, caves. Once again, western art got it wrong: Mary’s family could hardly have afforded the Roman villas they often depict her in. Nazareth was just not that sort of town.


Northern Israel had been systematically conquered by Assyria in the 700s BC. The Assyrians moved a bunch of exiles into central Israel, who eventually became the Samaritans; northern Israel was slowly taken over by Israel’s northern neighbors, the Syrian Greeks. They populated a circle (Hebrew galíl) of pagan cities to the west of Lake Kinneret, which Herod 1 later gave its current name of Lake Tiberias. The people of Jerusalem called these cities the Gentile Circle. In the KJV this becomes “Galilee of the Gentiles.” The lake also became known as the lake of the Galilee (KJV, Sea of Galilee).

Then as now, Jews weren’t satisfied with this territory of the “promised land” being occupied by gentiles. So they planted settlements in the area: A few families would move into unoccupied land and homestead there. (Nowadays the land isn’t always unoccupied; the Israelis first drive the Palestinians out, treaty or no treaty, then start building houses for themselves. But anyway.) Nazareth was one of those settlements, founded by Judahite families who were originally from Bethlehem. Like Joseph and Mary’s families. (And since Levites could live anywhere, it explained how Mary was related to Elizabeth: Their families in Bethlehem must’ve intermarried.)

Briefly, about the “sixth month” date in verse 26: Some Christians assume this means the sixth month of the year, Elul, which falls during our late August and early September. Thus they figure Jesus was born nine months later, in Sivan (late May, early July) round Pentecost. Hey, how profound is that?—Jesus was born the same time of year the Law was given, so we can contrast its coming with his. But no; verse 36 identifies it as Elizabeth’s sixth month, not the year’s. If you’re hoping to nail down Jesus’s precise birthdate from the text, you’re not gonna. You’ll just have to settle for Christmas.

Affianced to Joseph.

Luke identifies Mary as affianced to Joseph. It’s not quite the same as our culture understands “engaged.” It’s a lot more binding. Probably more accurate to say they were pre-married.

Y’see, in that culture women and men weren’t equal. Women were always the wards of the men in their family, whether a husband, brother, or husband. (Not always cared for by these men; sometimes these relationships were pure exploitation. Same as today.) So when a woman married a man, she transitioned from her birth family’s custody to her husband’s custody. The parents and her fiancé would sort out dowry and living arrangements; once they agreed on everything, the fiancé would sign a contract agreeing to all of it, and swear to God before her parents that he’d marry her. Oaths to God were sacred, y’know; it was considered a sin if he broke it, so it was as binding as marriage today.

And yes, I say that fully aware of how not binding marriages are nowadays. People in the first century weren’t always that religious, and divorce was ridiculously easy. All the husband had to do was sign a paper legally freeing his wife, and off she went… to return to her birth family, if they’d have her; or to fend for herself in the few jobs women could hold back then.

The contract and oaths had to do with the fiancé’s obligations to his wife and her family. Not promises to love and honor. That stuff comes from the New Testament teachings about husbands and wives submitting to one another. Jewish weddings include all that stuff nowadays, ’cause they borrowed the idea from Christians. Wasn’t the case then. Men only had to take care of their wives, not love them. And if he didn’t, it meant he broke his oath to God: He was worse than an unbeliever. 1Ti 5.8

Custom was that a suitable length of time was made for the fiancé to put everything in order. Gather the dowry money, sort out the living arrangements, plan the wedding party (yeah, the groom paid for it back then), and tie up any loose ends. That done, he’d inform his fiancée’s parents, and come collect his bride. By Jesus’s day, collecting the bride had been turned into a surprise event: She didn’t know the day or time her groom would be ready for her and come get her; she just knew it’d be any day now. Yeah, it’s just like Jesus’s second coming.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, the groom and his friends would march in procession to the bride’s house, get her and her friends, and take her to his house. Then they’d celebrate—and the party could last days. No ceremony. Didn’t need one; the groom had already signed the contract. The only difference was now the couple would live together, and have sex.

Jews could marry as soon as they reached adulthood—in other words, at age 13. Mary was likely that age. So was Joseph, although since Jews didn’t care about age difference, he could’ve been anywhere between 13 and death. The idea Jesus’s mom and dad were teenagers still weirds people out nowadays. But it’s historical.

Supernatural conception.

Gabriel greeted Mary with “Hail, your honor! The Lord’s with you.” Khíre/“hail” is a common Greek and Roman greeting which literally means “rejoice,” but like so many casual greetings, over time it stopped meaning that. The rest of the greeting—“your honor” and “the Lord’s with you”—weren’t things anyone but royalty expected to hear. Coming from an angel, particularly God’s End Times angel, they were really unexpected. Hence Mary’s utter confusion. Gabriel probably should have started with “Don’t fear.” But angels aren’t infallible. Only God is.

Anyway, Gabriel got to its point: “You’ll conceive in your womb. You’ll give birth to a son. You’ll name him Jesus.” And so forth. I translated these statements as separate sentences, but they can also be translated as one big long excited run-on sentence, ’cause Gabriel might’ve been just that excited. This was big news.

Mary realized Gabriel wasn’t talking about something which would take place later, like after she was married. This was happening. She was gonna conceive now. God wasn’t gonna wait till her wedding night. Hence her very reasonable question, “How will this happen?—since I’ve not been with a man.” Literally “not known a man,” which is a Hebrew euphemism (like our English “been with a man”) for sex. I don’t know whether Mary knew the nasty Greek myths about how Zeus produced his “sons of god,” but she certainly knew the LORD doesn’t behave that way. She wanted to know how he’d pull it off.

Bluntly, Gabriel’s answer sucks. The Holy Spirit will come upon you? God’s power will envelop you? (Literally epi-skiádzo/“over-shadow,” but I translated it “envelop” because we’re talking about a “shadow” made of light.) None of this properly answers Mary’s question. Yeah God’ll do it; yeah God can do the impossible; duh. But she wanted to know how. Maybe Gabriel didn’t really know. Still, it knew God could do it, and trusted God—and hey, look at Elizabeth. Here’s a woman beyond childbearing age, and God made it so she’d be pregnant. If he could do that, it was no big deal to make virgins conceive.

Mary’s acceptance.

Preachers like to claim it was heroic and brave of Mary to accept this situation. “She was willing to give birth out of wedlock. And back then, if she cheated on Joseph, it was considered adultery. She could be stoned to death for it.”

Nah, not really.

First of all, she wasn’t out of wedlock. Joseph had sworn to marry her. Technically they were married. Custom dictated they’d wait till they lived together before having sex, but since when do really horny human beings follow custom? And if she was found to be pregnant, Mary and Joseph’s families would simply have sped up the date of the wedding feast. Plenty of Christians still do this—get hastily married before their kids are born, so everything fits our own culture’s customs.

Second of all, stoning people to death was illegal. It was against Roman law for anyone but Roman rulers to execute people. Yeah, if people were outraged enough, they might’ve tried it anyway, Romans or no Romans. But they wouldn’t’ve been unless Joseph pressed the issue.

Any consequences really came down to Joseph. Would he accept Mary’s pregnancy?—and if not, what would he do? Everything depended on what sort of character Joseph had. Was he petty and vindictive? Or was he gracious?

Since we already know from Matthew Joseph was a righteous, outstanding guy, it erases all the anxiety from this story. Yeah, at first Joseph totally didn’t buy Mary’s story—he knew how babies are made, and “God did it” wasn’t acceptable. He decided to privately divorce her. Then God ordered him not to, and that was that. But you’ll notice Joseph didn’t speed up the date of their wedding feast: She was still called his fiancée when Jesus was born. Lk 2.5 He wanted it to be obvious he hadn’t touched Mary before Jesus was born. Mt 1.25 (Whether people believed this was another thing.)

Preachers likewise claim Mary gave God permission to do this: “May your word to me be fulfilled,” as the NIV puts it. What great faith; what a subservient attitude.

Mary was actually in no position to give permission. Whether she wanted to go along with God’s idea or not, she had no right to choose. (Yes I know the political ramifications of that statement nowadays. Still gonna say it.)

As I wrote previously, women were consdiered wards of their families or husbands. According to the Law, if she agreed to anything, even if she swore to God, her father or husband could easily overturn it. Nu 30.3-15 Much as she considered herself the Lord’s slave, Mary had other masters, who actually had a say in this. Hard for us to imagine in the present day, but it’s true.

Still, she did wish to go along with God’s plan, which is what géno’itó/“it hopefully may happen” expresses. It’s an optitive verb: It expresses Mary’s wish. If Gabriel was for real, and God was gonna do as it said, that was awesome. She was all for it. It just wasn’t wholly up to her. God was gonna have to work out the details, and get Joseph and her parents on board. Which he did.

This, I think, describes a much better sort of faith than Mary heroically saying, “Do it; I give consent.” It was, “I’m not in control of these circumstances, but you are.” It was putting herself entirely into God’s hands, as opposed to defying her parents and fiancé and society, and conceiving Jesus no matter what these folks wanted. It wasn’t Mary striking out on her own. That’s a very American idea, but it’s not how God works. He strikes out on his own, and we faithfully follow him.

So here we see some of the character qualities which made Mary an outstanding mother for Jesus. God knew exactly what he was doing. He didn’t choose his mother lightly.