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Mary in the Bible (Part 6)

September 27, 2006

The Archangel Gabriel Sent to Mary

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Preliminaries
Part 3: Mary in the Gospel of Mark
Part 4: Mary in the Galatians and the Gospel of Matthew
Part 5: The “Firstborn” of Mary

To this point, we have seen that Scripture does not lend itself to the interpretation that Mary had other children besides Jesus. Typically, those who attack the position of Mary’s continued virginity point to the passages that speak of Jesus’ “brothers.” However, these same individuals tend to quote only from their English translation of the Bible without realize how much meaning and context can be lost in translation.

When we look to the original language of the New Testament, Greek, we find that the word for “brother” (adelphos; adelphoi) is employed to express everything from a blood-brother to a kinsman of the same Israelite tribe. The way we know if someone is a blood-brother is if Scripture explicitly states that the people in question have the same mother or father. The “brothers” of Jesus are not said to be the sons of Mary. In fact, these same “brothers” are the sons of another woman, as we are told later in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. The “brothers” of Jesus, we can be sure, were close relatives, perhaps cousins or close kinsmen of the Tribe of Judah.

It has also been shown that the reference to Mary’s “firstborn” in the Gospel of Luke indicates a position of primacy for Jesus among all humans, as well as the uniqueness of his birth opening the womb of Mary. A quick survey of how the Bible uses the term “firstborn” (Gr: prototokos; Heb: bekur) displays this with remarkable clarity.

One caveat before proceeding: The first few posts of “Mary in Bible” really do not validate any of the Catholic views of Mary. Rather, these posts simply quell the various objections from individuals who may be less informed about the New Testament’s particular and peculiar employment of cultural and covenantal terminology from the Old Testament.

I now turn to one of the two Gospels that declare a soaring praise of Mary and her role in salvation. This Gospel, Luke, will be the topic of the next few posts.

Let us begin with the first time Mary is mentioned by Luke, the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38). Here, the Archangel Gabriel informs Mary that she is to be the mother of the Son of God. What’s striking about the passage are its theme and its context within the narrative structure of the infancies of John the Baptist and Jesus. As I mentioned before, the Bible is a complex book, rich in symbolism, and its contents must be evaluated within their proper four contexts: 1. event; 2. narrative; 3. book; 4. Bible.

Context first—Luke sandwiches the Annunciation between the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist (Lk 1:5-25) and the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-56). This is very significant. We can tell by Luke’s narrative structure that he wants us to read all three events together and consider them in light of one another. The parallels between Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah and his visit to Mary are obvious:

1. In both cases it is Gabriel who delivers a message
2. In both cases there is an announcement of a birth
3. In both cases conception will be an extraordinary work of God

But it’s the differences between these two encounters with Gabriel that speak volumes about Mary! Consider the following outline:

Gabriel visits Zechariah (1:5-25)
Zechariah is a priest and a man (1:5)
Gabriel appears in the sanctuary (1:8-9)
Zechariah troubled at what he saw (1:12)
John will be “great in the sight of the Lord” (1:15)
John will be filled with the Holy Spirit (1:15)
John will prepare the people (1:17)
Zechariah doubts because he is old (1:18)
Zechariah is punished (1:20)

Gabriel visits Mary (1:26-38)
Mary is a virgin and a woman (1:27)
Gabriel appears in town of Nazareth (1:26)
Mary was troubled at what she heard (1:29)
Jesus will be “great” (1:32)
Jesus will be conceived by the Holy Spirit (1:35)
Jesus will rule the people (1:33)
Mary doubts because she is a virgin (1:34)
Mary is favored (1:28) and blessed (1:42)

Let’s unpack this treasure chest of Christian implications.

What is striking is the fact that while Gabriel visited Zechariah to inform him that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, Gabriel did not visit Joseph to inform him that his bride-to-be would bear a son. In Jewish tradition, God did not send his angels to women, but always and in every case to men (cf. Gen 18, 19:1-22, 32:23-31; Ex 23:20; Num 20:16; Is 6:2-7; Ez 1:4-28; Dan 7:9-10; Zec 1:9-19; Mt 1:20; Acts 10:3-6, 12:7-11, 27:23). This would make Mary the only woman in the entire Bible to whom an angel was sent before the resurrection of Jesus. For those familiar with the Jewish tradition on angels, this is not some circumstantial fact but a significant moment in the history of salvation. One woman is marked and set apart for a very special reason.

“Ha!” says the one who wants to object to my line of reasoning, “Of course the angel appeared to Mary. She was to be the mother of the Son of God! That’s nothing compared to all the other times angels were God’s messengers!” True, giving birth to the Son of God is pretty important, but Matthew had no problem writing that an angel of God announced the birth of Jesus to only Joseph.

What Luke is doing here is quite intentional. He wants to put a very strong focus on Mary before mentioning the birth of Jesus. In first century Judaism, a woman was not a reliable witness. Only the testimony of men was authoritative. It is not until after Jesus’ resurrection that women are sanctioned to be effective witnesses to him (the woman at the well in John 4 is a Samaritan, not a Jew), when there is no longer man and woman in Christ (Gal 3:28). When Luke makes Mary, a Jew, the only witness in his Gospel to Jesus’ miraculous conception, he is describing the unthinkable, the absurd. Luke wants you stop and ask why Gabriel didn’t entrust this glorious news to a male, which would have been the only acceptible thing to do in Jewish custom. Even Matthew, whose audience was composed predominately of Jews, knew this and made Joseph the witness to Jesus’ conception.
Is there more to the madness of Luke? I will tease out the other implications of Luke’s contrast between Zechariah and Mary in my next post.

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