S. Kent Brown
One of the puzzling dimensions of Luke’s story of Mary and Joseph has to do with the presence of families from the south of the country, specifically from Bethlehem, that have located in the north, specifically in the small town of Nazareth. To ask the question another way, What brings the families of Mary and Joseph together more than a hundred miles from their original ancestral lands? When the tax enrollment is enjoined on residents of the country, Joseph travels to Bethlehem, “his own city . . . because he was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:1–4). Presumably, he still has family and property there, the elements that draw him back. The same situation apparently faces Mary. First, she is a descendant of David, as we learn from the Apostle Paul. That is his meaning when he writes that Jesus “was made of the seed of David according to the flesh [through His mother]” (Romans 1:3; compare Luke 18:38–39; 20:41; Acts 2:30). And David’s family is rooted in Bethlehem. Second, the verb “to be taxed” governs the phrase “with Mary,” indicating that she also has to travel to Bethlehem for the tax enrollment because her family still has ties there (Luke 2:5). Not unlike other women known to reside in Judea a century later, she may well be a joint-owner and joint-inheritor of property in Bethlehem.
This said, we still seek a plausible, historical reason for the families of Mary and Joseph to find their way north. The most visible arises about a century earlier when the Jewish Hasmonean ruler Aristobulus (105–104 B.C.) sends forces to the north from Jerusalem to subdue Galilee’s inhabitants, not all of whom are Jews, as Josephus informs us. To make sure that government matters function properly, Aristobulus sends southern officials to Galilee to manage Hasmonean political and economic interests. It is likely that many of these officials sink roots into the soil of Galilee and raise their families there. On this view, one possible reason why the families of southerners, such as those of Mary and Joseph, are living in northern towns like Nazareth is that their forebears arrive either as government officials or as people who see an opportunity for a better life after Galilee comes under Hasmonean control. Further, as Talmage suggested a century ago, the ancestors of Mary and Joseph, with ties to the royal family of David, may see Galilee as a place to escape potential retribution by the Hasmoneans who might view such people as competitors for the throne of the Judean kingdom.
Our earliest glimpses of Mary in the New Testament Gospels present themselves in Matthew and Luke. Matthew draws our attention initially to the newly pregnant Mary and the difficulty with Joseph (Matthew 1:18–25). In contrast, Luke introduces us to Mary in her home where the angel finds her. This is the meaning of the expression “in unto” (Luke 1:28). It always refers to an interior space (compare 1 Nephi 3:11). Moreover, in Luke’s Gospel the verb eiserchomai, “to come in,” usually points to a solemn entry into a special space (Luke 11:52; 13:24). Because the angel says “Fear not” to Mary, an expression also spoken to Zacharias and the shepherds (Luke 1:13, 30; 2:10), thus tying these experiences together, it is apparent that she does not expect to see a stranger where she sees him, namely, in her parents’ home. Here, in the sacred place of family activities and training, she hears the surprising words adorned with respect, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28). It is important to establish that God does not choose Mary at random, letting his choice fall on her in some incidental gracious act. No. She is known to the heavenly world centuries before this moment as Nephi’s vision of her attests (1 Nephi 11:13–23).
The report of the angel’s visit also begins to unveil Mary’s notable qualities. In the first instance, she is not bowled over by the angel’s coming. Even in her youth, she maintains her presence of mind because she thinks of the right question to ask at the end of his message: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34). Second, the angel’s words “highly favoured . . . [and] blessed” (Luke 1:28) clearly imply both heaven’s regard for this young woman and, just as important, Mary’s maturing respect for heavenly things. Third, she is thoughtful enough to sense an imperative in the angel’s words about Elisabeth that she should visit her older cousin: “thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son” (Luke 1:36). And she acts on that implied command. Last, her final words to the angel, “be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38), disclose her anticipation of the challenges ahead, including her fall from her society’s standard of uprightness when people discover her pregnancy and what it will mean to be the mother of God’s son.
—Based on The Testimony of Luke by S. Kent Brown, an e-volume in the BYU New Testament Commentary Series.