Monday was the birth of Jesus from Matthew. Today, we start on the story from Luke.
In [Elizabeth’s] sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in the Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin named Mary, who’d been affianced to a man named Joseph, of David’s family. Coming in, it said, “Hello, honored one. The Lord is with you.”
She was alarmed by this message, and was speculating what sort of greeting this might be. The angel told her, “Don’t fear, Mary, for you’ve found grace with God. Look: You’ll conceive in your womb. You’ll give birth to a son. You’ll name him Jesus. He’ll be great. He’ll be called the Most High’s son. The Lord will give him his ancestor David’s throne. He’ll be king over Jacob’s family in perpetuity. His Kingdom will never end.”
Mary told the angel, “How will this happen, since I’ve not been with a man?”
In reply the angel told her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you. The Most High’s power will envelop you. The holy one who will be produced, will be called the Son of God. Look: Your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age. This is actually her sixth month—and she was called sterile. Because no word of God is impossible.”
Mary said, “Look: If it happens according to your word, I’m the Lord’s slave.”
The angel left her.
Gabriel was the angel which appeared to Daniel, and in the previous story appeared to John’s father Zechariah. Whether Gabriel is the same angel which spoke to Joseph, we’ve no idea. We do know the ancient Jews considered Gabriel the angel of the End Times. They figured (as we Christians still do) Messiah will come at the End. But few had any idea there’d be two comings of Messiah, and a Christian Era in between. So when an angel showed up and identified itself as Gabriel, people were understandably thrown into a tizzy. As far as they knew, the End was here! For there were a lot of mistaken assumptions people made about Messiah. Still are.
Gabriel went to Nazareth, a town in the Galilee. Northern Israel had been systematically conquered by Assyria in the 700s BC. Ever since, it’d been mostly populated by Syrian Greeks, in a circle (Hebrew galíl) of cities in the north. It was largely Gentile, filled with full-on pagan cities, and known as “Galilee of the Gentiles.” But in the first century BC, the Jews of southern Israel (a.k.a. Judea) were gradually trying to take the land back by creating Jewish settlements in the Galilee. Nazareth was one of those settlements, founded by families who were originally from Bethlehem. Like Joseph’s family. By this point, priestly families were living in the Galilee too—which explains how Elizabeth, a Levite, was related (a “cousin,” as the KJV puts it) to Mary, a Judahite: Their families must’ve intermarried.
Elizabeth, as Gabriel said, had conceived John “in her old age.” And she was six months into her pregnancy. Some Christians take “sixth month” out of context and assume Luke meant the literal sixth month, Elul… meaning Jesus must’ve been born nine months later in Sivan, around Pentecost. And how profound is that: Jesus was born the same time of year the Law was given, and the same time the Holy Spirit empowered the church. But those who are looking for secret significance behind everything have started with the wrong idea: This was Elizabeth’s sixth month. Not the year’s.
Affianced to Joseph.
Mary was affianced to Joseph at this time. This is not an “engagement,” as our culture understands it. This is a lot closer to what we’d call a marriage.
Custom was whenever a girl was old enough to marry (i.e. 13 years old, which back then was considered legal adulthood) a suitable husband would be found, and arrangements would be made to marry. No, this wasn’t arranged marriage; the bride and groom had say over who they’d marry. But the parents tended to set ’em up, approve of the union, sort out dowry and living arrangements (would she live with her husband; or with him and his parents, etc.) and so forth.
Once the parents and couple agreed to everything, the husband would sign a contract agreeing to all of it, and swear to God before her parents that he’d marry her. Since oaths to God are sacred, it’s as binding as marriage. In fact, some people teach the only way to end this relationship was divorce. (Now, this sounds like a big deal… till you discover how outrageously easy it was to get divorced back then, and how divorce then was just as common as divorce now.)
The promises mainly had to do with the groom and bride’s financial obligations to one another. Not promises to love and honor; that stuff comes from New Testament teachings about husbands and wives submitting to one another. Jewish weddings today have that, but didn’t then. They borrowed the idea from us.
Custom was that a suitable length of time was made for the groom to get everything in order: Earn the money for the dowry, get the living arrangements situated, set up the wedding party (yeah, he paid for it, not the bride’s parents), and tie up his loose ends. Once ready, he’d let the bride’s parents know. Then he and his friends would march, in a procession, to the bride’s house, get her, and take her to his house, where they’d have the feast. (Which could go on for days.) No ceremony necessary; the groom made all the expected promises beforehand. The only real difference now was the couple would live together and have sex.
Mary was likely 13 or 14 at this time. Joseph, on the other hand, could’ve been anywhere between 13 years old and death: They didn’t care about age differences. But the idea Jesus’s mom (and possibly his dad too) was a teenager, still weirds people out nowadays.
Gabriel greeted Mary: “Hello, honored one. The Lord is with you.” Khíre/“hello” is a common Greek greeting which literally means “rejoice,” but like so many casual greetings, over time it stopped meaning that. The rest of the greeting—“honored one,” and “the Lord is with you”—weren’t things anyone but royalty or priests 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, it 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. Likely Gabriel was excited. This was big news. Jesus was coming.
Mary realized Gabriel wasn’t talking about something which would take place some time from now—like after she was married. This was happening now. She was gonna conceive now. God wasn’t going to wait till the wedding night. So she asked the 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 had heard the Greek myths about how Zeus produced his “sons of god,” but she certainly knew the LORD doesn’t behave that way, and wanted to know how he’d pull it off.
Miraculously, of course. The Holy Spirit, using God’s power, would epi-skiádzo/“over-shadow” her, but I translated it “envelop” because we’re talking about a “shadow” made of light. Really, Gabriel’s answer was kinda vague when you think about it. Maybe it didn’t know all the details, either. But it knew God could do it, and it trusted God. For confirmation, it pointed to Elizabeth—a woman beyond childbearing age who was six months pregnant—and reminded Mary how God can do the impossible. Literally it said uk adynatísi pará tu Theú pan ríma/“it won’t be impossible, by God, every word.”
Various preachers claim this was heroic and brave of Mary to accept this situation. After all, they teach, “She’d give birth out of wedlock. And if she cheated on Joseph, that was considered adultery, and she could be stoned to death for it.”
Nah, not really.
First of all, any possible consequences hinge upon what sort of person Joseph was. And we know from Matthew what sort of person Joseph was: He was an outstanding guy. Mary likely knew this, ’cause she clearly had a good head on her shoulders, and wouldn’t have been so dumb as to marry a guy without knowing his character.
Second, Mary and Joseph weren’t out of wedlock. Joseph had sworn to marry her. The only thing lacking was the customary set-up time, but that was custom, not law: If they had sex before the wedding feast, it was no sin. In Joseph and Mary’s case, they didn’t, but not every Jew was so conscientious. Had they jumped the gun, and she became pregnant, all it’d mean was they’d speed up the date of the wedding feast. But they didn’t do that: Mary was still Joseph’s fiancée when Jesus was born. Which means Joseph deliberately hadn’t sped up the date: He wanted it obvious that he hadn’t been with her before Jesus was born. (Whether people believed it was another thing.)
Third, stoning to death was illegal: It was against Roman law for anyone but Romans to execute people. Yeah, if people were outraged enough, they might’ve tried it anyway, Romans or no Romans. But likely nothing would happen unless Joseph pressed the issue, and he had no interest in doing so.
Various preachers also teach Mary was giving God permission to do this: “May your word to me be fulfilled,” as the NIV puts it. It’s pointed to as an example of her great faith and subservient attitude.
The original verb, géno’itó/“it might happen,” doesn’t mean that. It means if it does happen, good; if not, then not. Mary might’ve had faith, but she wasn’t naïve: Yeah, God can do the impossible, of course. But she knew better than to just believe anything she was told—to just trust some being which claimed to be an angel out of the bible. You might notice the very next thing she did was go visit Elizabeth, and verify Gabriel’s confirmation.
Mary was actually in no position to give permission. According to the Law, if she agreed to anything, her will could easily have been overturned by her father, and later her husband. The idea of women equal to men is a New Testament idea, not an Old Testament one; Jesus wasn’t yet born to demonstrate it, and Paul wasn’t yet born to spell it out.
And God wasn’t asking her permission, either. Gabriel was sent to tell her how things were gonna be. She could get on board, or not. He wanted her on board, and knew her well enough to know she’d be just the sort of person to go for it. God didn’t choose his mother lightly.
So here we see some of the character qualities which made Mary an outstanding mother for Jesus, just as we see the qualities which made Joseph an outstanding father. God knew exactly what he was doing.