The Christmas Story. 8. Gabriel: Mary as Disciple.

Luke sees Mary as the model disciple. He gives us a picture of Mary as the first to hear, however frightening it may have been, and she believed though not with full 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 lived 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 (see part 2). David is a symbol for the kingdom itself. Luke wrote that Gabriel told Mary she is favored of the Lord: God wanted in effect to bestow grace on her and that’s the way 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, and power she was about to experience: she was to conceive a child. God’s Son. The words seem to mean that Mary was already a graceful, a faithful person, one who already stood in favor with God. Now she was to stand in greater favor with him.[1]

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

Gabriel then quoted the Old Testament, but in a somewhat jumbled fashion.[2] There was an episode between Nathan the Prophet and king David. David wanted a succession, a dynasty. He knew that without this, his accomplishments could disappear and that was the most important thing to him: immortality. Nathan promises him that there will be a succession and, in fact, 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 reported this as if Jesus was 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 was a biological issue. With Elizabeth and Zacharias, they were barren. With Mary, she hadn’t yet had sex with her husband and this was exactly what she says. No child was 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 did not give any 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 of polygamy 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 forged keywords for Christians. When Paul wrote to the Romans, it was a bit unusual, because he had never visited them, he didn’t establish the church there and he was somewhat nervous about the kind of reception he might receive. He was not writing to his own community, but he had to establish a relationship. Reading between the lines, there are hints that he was not popular in the Roman fellowhship. They had 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 possible reinforcement from Paul’s opponents at Jerusalem may have been disturbing to the Romans. These things could circulate, as Paul learned when he found out his letter to the Galatians apparently got back to James and company, the leaders at Jerusalem. (There are always these back channels in the church.) Anyway, Paul tried from the beginning of his letter to show the Rome fellowship that he had the same gospel they did. In Rom. 1:3-4 he summarized his gospel, and it was their gospel and in the letter he even phrased his words in ways that were not normal for him, and that’s one way you know he was 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 used it to identify himself, and Luke used 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 responded 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 placed 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 was perhaps acknowledging the facts of conversion here. This was put to practical use in the second century. The emperor asked a Roman governor in Asia Minor to seek out Christians and confront them and if they would not give it up they were to be punished. To locate the Christians, apparently the governor hunted among slave women.[4]

Mary continued: “let it happen to me according to your word.” This was important, because it made Mary the first disciple, she was a believer. She didn’t understand everything of course, but she did know some very powerful things. When Jesus’ family comes to a house where he was preaching and they sent word to him that they were waiting for him, he said something almost offensive: who are my mother and brethren? It was the believers. Luke, by quoting this statement, made Mary Jesus’ mother in this other strange sense. At the wedding at Cana, Mary cames to Jesus for a miracle outright. She knew by experience. We don’t have details, except for the faith promoting stories that surfaced a century later, but it’s clear the unnamed Mary of John’s story knew Jesus has special power, probably because he had 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 beautiful Jewish girl, 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 was a good person and likely quite young. It’s a little remarkable that 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 opened 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).

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