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Mary in the Bible (Part 8)

October 5, 2006

What’s in a Name?

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
Part 6: The Archangel Gabriel Sent to Mary
Part 7: Zechariah’s Pomp and Doubt Illuminating Mary’s Simplicity and Faith

We left off discussing the profound Levitical symbolism employed by Luke in his account of the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist. We saw that Luke is drawing from Levitical/Temple worship imagery of Exodus, Leviticus and 1 Chronicles. Considering that Luke was a Gentile writer, it is a remarkable fact that he was so well-acquainted with patterns of Jewish worship.

The annunciation of the birth of Jesus (Lk 1:26-38) follows immediate after that of the birth of John. Luke continues his habit of drawing from the Old Testament throughout his entire narrative on Mary, especially Levitical themes. The focus of this post will be the initial description of Mary found in Luke’s Gospel.

“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1:26-27).

What’s in a name? Well, in the Bible names are quite important. Consider the cases of Abram (Gen 17:5), Sarai (Gen 17:15), Jacob (Gen 32:29) and Simon (Mt 16:18; Jn 1:42)—all had their names changed by God. Throughout the Old Testament, names were given to symbolize certain events or ideas (e.g. the manner in which the sons of Jacob were named [Gen 29:31-30:24, 35:16-20]). Consider also the name Jesus, which is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning “Yahweh saves”. Like Joshua of the Old Testament, Jesus will lead the people of Israel out of bondage and into the fulfillment of God’s covenant.

Luke makes certain that we catch Mary’s name: “…and the virgin’s name was Mary.” Where else in the Bible have we seen a woman named Mary? Recall that Luke makes frequent reference to the Levitical worship, which was structured under Moses during the time of the Exodus. Recall also that there were three leaders of the people of Israel during the time of the Exodus and they were all from the tribe of Levi: Moses, Aaron and their sister, Miriam. Luke emphasis on Mary’s name—Miriam in Hebrew—is no accident. He’s once more drawing our attention back to the Old Testament, just as he did in the case of Zechariah. The three main figures mentioned by Luke correspond to the three main leaders of Israel during the Exodus:

Aaron (Levitical high priest)Zechariah (Levitical priest)

Moses/Joshua (law giver and fulfiller of the covenant)Jesus


So who was Miriam? Miriam was the older sister of Moses and Aaron. When the baby Moses was placed by his mother in the Nile river so that the Egyptians could not kill him, Miriam kept watch over Moses in order to protect him (Ex 2:1-4). When Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby Moses, Miriam, who is called a “maiden” (cf. Is 7:14), arranged for Moses’ own mother to nurse him. Miriam assumed the role of protector of Israel’s leader and redeemer until he was a man, just as Luke portrays Mary as the one concerned over the well-being of the young Jesus (Lk 1:33-34, 48-52). Is it not striking that Joseph, who is portrayed as the protector of Mary and Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (Mt 1:18-25, 2:13-15, 2:19-23), is never once portrayed by Luke as the caregiver and protector of Jesus? Likewise, we do not find Moses’ father protecting him. Rather, Miriam serves as Moses’ protector.

What else can we glean from the typology at work between the Miriam of the Old Testament and Mary of the New Testament? Miriam is the first woman called “prophetess” in all of Scripture (Ex 15:20) and she leads the Israelite women in the song of praise after the destruction of the Egyptian army (Ex 15:20-21). Similarly, Luke gives to Mary a prophetic role, for she is the only witness to the message of the miraculous conception of Jesus—a message given to her from heaven (I described Mary as witness previously in Part 6 of the series). Shortly after, Mary leads a song of praise in the house of Zechariah (Lk 1:46-55), which is endearingly called by Catholics “The Magnificat.”

Rerturning once more to the three leaders of Israel, we observe from Scripture that all three—Moses, Aaron and Miriam—sin against God (Num 12:11-12, 20:6-12, 21:24; Dt 32:50). We contrast this with Luke’s description of the favor, righteousness and blessedness of Zechariah, Mary and Jesus (Lk 1:5-6, 26-30, 52).

The last aspect of Lk 1:26-27 that I want to discuss is Luke’s use of the phrase “a virgin betrothed to a man”. Unlike Matthew (cf. Mt 1:22-23), Luke is not deliberately referring to the great prophesy of Isaiah 7:14: “Therefore the Lord shall give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Rather, I suggest that Luke is yet again drawing from the context of the formation of Israel’s worship and laws from the time of Exodus. Consider the following passage from Deuteronomy:

“If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city and there stone them to death: the girl because shed did not cry out for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife” (Dt 22:23-24).

Throughout his Gospel, Luke reproduces a number of verses from Matthew’s Gospel, yet he is surprisingly independent of Matthew in his infancy narratives. Luke does not bother to tell us that Joseph struggled with the decision to marry Mary after she is found with child (cf. Mt 1:18-24) or that Joseph permitted the public to assume that Jesus was his own son. Luke only mentions this assumption independent of any reference to Joseph’s workings (Lk 3:23). Rather, Mary is left as the only explicit witness to the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit, which was unthinkable in Judaism. A woman was not a valid witness.

The passage from Deuteronomy further illustrates the Lukan manner of shattering Old Testament expectations through the depiction of Mary. Mary, a maiden who is betrothed and living within the city (Lk 1:26-27), would have appeared—even to Joseph, who did not receive a warning—to have violated the principle of Deuteronomy 22:23-24 having been found with child. And yet, Luke does not bother to offer any resolution to this quandry set up by the Old Testament law. Rather, he depicts the betrothed maiden as a bold witness who leads a song of praise (Miriam) over the miraculous conception of her child, who was conceived by no man (cf. Dt 22:23), but by God; an utterly unanticipated event centered peculiarly on one extraordinary girl.

The next post on Mary in the Bible, which will follow shortly, will examine the controversial greeting of Gabriel to Mary from Luke 1:28.


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