The Christmas Story (VIII). Luke: Gabriel- – -Mary as Disciple

[Part 7 is here. Part 9 is here.]

[You can find the whole series here.]

Luke sees Mary as the model disciple. He gives us a picture of Mary as the first to hear, however frightening it might be, and she believes though not fully understanding (hence Luke’s repeated, “and Mary pondered these things in her heart” phrase). Luke has Gabriel come to Nazereth. Thus, Luke tells us that Mary lives in Nazereth. Matthew doesn’t: he thinks Mary (and Joseph) lived in Bethlehem. She is betrothed to a man named Joseph “of the house of David.” Again, it’s Joseph that is a descendant of the great king. David is a symbol for the kingdom itself. Luke writes that Gabriel tells Mary that she is favored of the Lord, God wants in effect to bestow grace on her, and that’s the way St. Jerome translated it, full of grace.

El Greco: Mary meets the angel. Note the dove. (Image: Wikipedia)

El Greco: Mary meets the angel. Note the dove. (Image: Wikipedia)

The calling, grace, power, she is about to experience is that she is to conceive a child. God’s Son. The words seem to mean that Mary is already a graceful, a faithful person, one who already stands in favor with God. Now she is to stand in greater favor with him.[1]

“The Lord is with you” a normal greeting, then, don’t be afraid! You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.

Gabriel then quotes the Old Testament, but in a somewhat jumbled fashion.[2] There is an episode between Nathan the Prophet and king David. David wants a succession, a dynasty. He knows that without this, his accomplishments may disappear and that’s the most important thing to him: immortality. Nathan promises him that there will be a succession, and in fact that his children will rule over Jacob forever. Of Solomon he says, that I will be to him a father, and he will be to me a son. [2 Samuel 7:14] Gabriel quotes this as “he will be great, he will be called the son of the Most High, the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

No kin of David had ruled for more than 500 years. Luke reports this as if Jesus is to be the fulfillment of Nathan’s promise. The Davidic dynasty will be preserved. There will be a new anointed king of the house of David.

Mary poses the usual question: how can this be? There is a biological issue. With Elizabeth and Zacharias, they are barren. With Mary, she hasn’t yet had sex with her husband, this is in fact exactly what she says. No child is possible. Gabriel says: “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be called Holy, the Son of God.”

Gabriel does not give us nitty-gritty detail here, and at one time the very materialist theology of Mormonism led to preaching that God had sex with Mary to create Jesus (that was the only way it could be done—God’s biology was human in some sense, or so the weight of a theology that celebrated marriage, marriage with many wives, in the afterlife, seemed to require—a back-reading onto God—and some exegetes continued the theme into the mid-twentieth century). You still hear remnants of this when some older LDS explain how Jesus could do various things, how could he keep himself alive in his suffering? How could he resurrect, fast forty days, etc., etc.? It was because he had God’s genes, essentially.[3]

But in fact what Gabriel is doing here is giving Jesus a dual identity: he is the Messiah–the rejuvenation of the Davidic dynasty, and he is the Son of God. Son of David, Son of God. You have to have both in any real description of Jesus.

This dual identity is a kind of key for Christians. When Paul writes to the Romans, it’s a bit unusual, because he’s never visited them, he didn’t establish the church there and he’s somewhat nervous about the kind of reception he may get. He’s not writing to his own community, but he has to establish a relationship. Reading between the lines, there are hints that he was not popular in the Roman fellowhship. They’ve heard about this crazy person who is negating the Law. There are some reasons to believe that Rome was evangelized by people loyal to Jerusalem, though there was a significant gentile church presence and Mark may have written his Gospel there. They had great respect for the Law and so some of the things Paul wrote about the Law and his opponents at Jerusalem may have been disturbing. These things could circulate as Paul learned when he found out his letter to the Galatians apparently got back to James and company. There are always these back channels in the church. Anyway, Paul tries from the beginning of his letter to show the Rome fellowship that he has the same gospel they do. In Rom. 1:3-4 he summarizes his gospel, and it’s going to be their gospel and in the letter he even phrases his words in ways that are not normal for him, and that’s one way you know he’s a bit nervous. Paul:

Concerning his Son who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness [Holy Spirit?], by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” [this is more or less the NET translation].

This was the thing being preached anciently, and Paul uses it to identify himself, and Luke uses it to identify his Gospel as authentic, in line with the preaching of his era. I think this is useful even in our current testimony of Jesus, there is a two-fold identity to Jesus. This is what Peter testifies in Matthew: thou art the Christ (Davidic Messiah), the Son of the living God. It’s two-fold and you need both. And this is present in Acts: to be baptized you were baptized in the name of Jesus, it meant that you had to bear this testimony.

Mary responds to Gabriel: I am the slave of the Lord. The word is usually translated by something softer: handmaid, servant, but it really means slave. She places herself utterly at God’s call. This seems appropriate for Luke’s Gospel, it’s one that is conscious of social conditions, the poor. Luke knows, based on his narrative in Acts, that the message is most successful among the poor of the empire. Luke is perhaps acknowledging the facts of conversion here. This was put to practical use in the second century. The emperor asks a Roman governor in Asia Minor to seek out Christians and confront them and if they won’t give it up they are to be punished. To locate the Christians, apparently he hunts among slave women.[4]

Mary continues: “let it happen to me according to your word.” This is important, because it makes Mary the first disciple, she is a believer. She doesn’t understand everything of course, but she does know some very powerful things. When Jesus’ family comes to a house where he is preaching and they send word to him that they are waiting for him, he says something almost offensive: who are my mother and brethren? It’s the believers. Luke, by quoting this statement, makes Mary Jesus’ mother in this other strange sense. At the wedding at Cana, Mary comes to Jesus for a miracle outright. She knows by experience. We don’t have details, except for the faith promoting stories that surface a century later, but it’s clear the unnamed Mary of John’s story knows Jesus has special power, probably because he’s done stuff around home (but apparently not in public and apparently not in front of siblings!).


[1] The Book of Mormon describes Mary as exceedingly fair and white, a metaphor for her graceful standing with God. Nephi’s vision portrays this grace by showing Mary as very beautiful to Nephi, a common identification with humans. We often equate beauty with goodness, honesty, and other virtues. What she may have actually looked like to twenty-first-century eyes: anyone’s guess. But she clearly has this inner beauty. She is a good person and likely quite young. Joseph F. Smith’s vision, Doctrine and Covenants section 138, does not mention Mary by name, but the revelation suggests a foreordination.

[2] It’s difficult not to think of Moroni here. And in Mark’s Gospel, he opens it by (I’m quoting here from RSV, not the KJV, which is incorrect in terms of manuscript authenticity):

1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before thy face,
who shall prepare thy way;

3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight—”

Mark is going to tell us about the fulfillment of God’s promises, as given by Isaiah! Indeed, Mark’s Gospel is one driven by Isaiah texts—many of which come from 2nd and 3rd Isaiah–important I think). But in fact, most of his writing here doesn’t come from Isaiah at all. It’s a fusing of texts from Exodus (23:20) and Malachi (3:1). Only the third verse is actually from Isaiah. We might be tempted to blame him for quoting from memory, failing to go to the library as it were. That puts a large burden on Mark, one that is hard to understand in the world of concordances and digital texts. Joseph Smith, a frequent quoter of the Bible (in preaching), and occasionally badly misquoting it probably fits the same profile. And the mistake might be deliberate, or simply seen as a reference to the most revered of sources. But you find stuff like this if you compare texts. Another example: in Mark again, after the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus tells the three disciples not to say anything. Then he says something about John the Baptist, something like “they did to him what they wanted” (killed him). He’s supposed to be quoting Malachi, but that’s not in Malachi. He mixes it up with 1st Kings about what Ahab(?) wanted to do to the “real” Elijah. And the KJV, which reads differently in the above verses, represents a later scribal repair because the “error” was noted. [Iverson and Skinner, et al., Mark as Story: Retrospect and Prospect (SBL, 2011), 170.]

[3] Bruce R. McConkie adopts this view in his Promised Messiah, 158; also Mormon Doctrine (1966), 546, 742. One of the earliest references to physical sex between God and Mary appears in Orson Pratt’s The Seer, 158. There are links to Adam-God, to Utah polygamy, and with that, the idea of Heavenly Mother. But that takes us too far afield. If you want more, see my forthcoming book on section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Apologies for advertising it here, but it is relevant.

[4] Pliny to Trajan, 112AD. Pliny has two female slaves, deaconesses he calls them, tortured. A. N. Sherwin-White, The Letters of Pliny: A Historical and Social Commentary (Oxford, 1966).


  1. Clark Goble says:

    The whole materialist view of Mary does display a certain unimaginative consideration of the issue. Admittedly alternatives to us are more obvious given the ubiquity of IVF and now even replacing the genes in mitochondria. The idea that it is genes that gave Jesus his miracles seems a little silly, although there was always that view of the literal blood of Israel that played an important role in Joseph’s theology. (To the point that he seemed to think the reception of the Holy Ghost physically changed a person if they were adopted into a tribe of Israel)

    It’s interesting though that now we perhaps go a tad too far in the other direction discounting the role of genes. After all we know that much of a person’s personality traits arise from genetics as it interplays with the environment during development. It would be quite surprising if things such as people’s religiosity were somehow that different from things like temper, humility and so forth. As such it’s easy to assume that Jesus’ genes played a large role in what his personality was like and perhaps to a degree even his spirituality.

    I don’t want to come off as a genetic determinist. Because clearly there’s a lot of room for personal choice and development even in the space our genes and physical bodies give us. However I also think we as a church tend to be a little uncomfortable thinking too much about the implications of physicalism – especially as informed by what science is discovering. All too often we’ve moved from silly naive extremes of physicalism such as by Pratt to adopting a near blank slate like view of our bodies where the spirit is what does everything. That seems just as bad.

  2. Clark Goble says:

    BTW – NT Wright argues that Paul emphasizes Jesus as literally a Davidic king in Israel and that Christian theologians have often missed that element in how we read about Jesus. It’s interesting that element is so strong in some of the gospels.

  3. Clark, genetics is definitely a tricky space. Not clear where it may lead and what it meant for Jesus. He probably had 23 sets of chromosomes, but not clear where they came from. In a way, it lies at the heart of historical and modern Mormon physicalism. And any explanation is often absorbed better than “I don’t know.”

  4. For me, the best contribution of Mormonism to things like this is the theology of adoption. A biological son and an adopted son are the same in Mormon cosmology and soteriology (cf. the Abraham covenant as Mormons teach it). This thankfully does away with the grotesque teaching of God having sex with a girl. Jesus is the Word made flesh through adoption.

    Great series btw Bill.

  5. Clark Goble says:

    God making a girl pregnant isn’t much less problematic RJH. (I think most scholars assume Mary was only 13 or 14 at tops given the culture of the time) Adoption doesn’t really resolve much IMO beyond reading current marriage practice into the ancient world. Further adoption makes even more problematic the fatherhood of Jesus – which is why I think most cringe at that too. Let’s be honest – everything about Jesus’ birth is problematic in various ways. There’s no real solution that avoids that.

    From a modern reading regardless of the manner of conception it’s horribly problematic that the gospels don’t present Mary as having much of a choice. Now of course the gospels are writing long after the fact and from a mindset of that culture. So probably they didn’t even see that as a problem. And who knows, maybe in the original event Gabriel did ask Mary before the IVF was done. (I’d hope so – given God’s emphasis on free agency)

    The issue of adoption though while it resolves some issues makes other issues a tad more weird. Ignore the lineage issues the gospels are so concerned with. After all that’s just not an issue for the modern mind even if undoubtedly it was an issue for early 1st century Palestinians. Rather the question is what makes Jesus different? Adoption kind of sweeps those issues under the table.

    Now the problem with him being physically God’s son with special abilities is problematic too. After all the whole point of the two natures is that he had a fallen nature he has to overcome. The 19th century emphasis on special biology means that he’s really not like us but is some kind of genetic superman. Ironically that actually makes him less special as he has less to overcome. Yet if he is this super spirit able to overcome a fallen body in a way the rest of us can’t (as it typically taught) that seems a bit problematic too. While Mormons avoid a lot of the problems traditional Christians do with their issue of the two natures, I think Mormons have our own issues. Especially given our theology of life as a test.

  6. >Let’s be honest – everything about Jesus’ birth is problematic in various ways. There’s no real solution that avoids that.

    Disagree. It’s called the mysteries of godliness. I don’t mean that glibly or as a cop-out but as a resistance to the Mormon need to explain, codify, and package.

  7. Thanks, RJH. And I agree that adoption has far deeper roots in Mormonism than is often realized.

  8. Clark Goble says:

    Mysteries don’t explain what we do see. That’s what I think understandably does (or should) strike the modern mind as problematic. If mystery could resolve the one problem if could resolve them all.

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