S. Kent Brown
As with Mary’s trip to Elisabeth’s home months before, for safety Mary and Joseph travel in the company of others. It is a necessity. They likely go southward through the Jordan Valley to Jericho, then make the long westward climb toward Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The alternate route runs through the Samaritan hill country, a winding road with a lot of ups and downs. Because the season is evidently early spring, others are arriving in Jerusalem and its environs for Passover. This is a reasonable explanation for the filled inn that Luke writes about (Luke 1:7). In reality, the term translated “inn” can point to a caravanserai-like structure with open stalls that look out into a large, open area where a cooking fire is kept burning. Continue reading
by S. Kent Brown
The earliest recorded prophecy that points to Mary and her son arises in Isaiah’s book. As he reports, he is commanded to meet Ahaz, the King of Judah, while the King and his party are inspecting “the conduit of the upper pool” on the north side of Jerusalem because this pool and its channel supply water to the temple and the city (Isaiah 7:3). The year is 734 B.C. and the city is surrounded by two hostile armies, one from Syria and one from the northern kingdom Israel. The King and his associates are at risk while outside the city’s walls. And so are Isaiah and his son when they go to meet them.
After Isaiah assures the King that the siege will soon be lifted, the prophet invites Ahaz to ask for “a sign of the Lord” to prove that the Lord will move events to this end. The King declines in an act of feigned humility that draws Isaiah’s ire (Isaiah 7:12–13). Thereupon, the prophet declares that “the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” This prophecy is fulfilled, at least in its distant future meaning, in Jesus’ birth to Mary (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:22–23).
Centuries later, in Nazareth, the angel’s appearance to Mary changes everything for her. Notably, the angel’s mention of Elisabeth’s pregnancy offers a way for Mary to get away from the small town of Nazareth where everyone knows everyone else and where her promised pregnancy will soon become apparent. According to Galilean Jewish custom, pregnancy during the period of betrothal causes a scandal and can invalidate the planned marriage. Going to Elisabeth puts Mary in the arms of the one person who knows both the challenges of silent and open criticism by one’s relatives and acquaintances as well as how to keep her head up in the face of disapproval. Mary must have gone to the home of Zacharias and Elisabeth with the approval of her parents and perhaps in the company of an older family member. Surely, she will have gone in a traveling group for safety, a necessary circumstance that Jesus’ parents enjoy years later when they travel to Jerusalem with their youthful son Jesus in a group of fellow travelers (Luke 2:44). After all, roads are dangerous for the solitary traveler (compare Luke 10:30), and the more so for a young woman.
It is in her cousin’s home that young Mary’s spiritual character becomes even more visible. For after Elisabeth speaks “with a loud voice” when welcoming her youthful cousin (Luke 1:42), Mary begins to sing. The written inspiration for Mary’s words has long been known, the prayer of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1–10), an indicator that Mary already knows much of the Old Testament. But Mary’s song, called the Magnificat from the first word in the Latin translation, goes beyond that of Hannah who mainly celebrates God’s exaltation of the low people of the earth, an idea that includes herself and her young son Samuel. In contrast, Mary’s song is chiefly one of redemption, both for her (“[God] that is mighty hath done to me great things”—Luke 1:49) and for others (“his mercy is on them that fear him”—Luke 1:50). The theme of redemption appears even in tiny details. For instance, Mary repeats the words “from henceforth” (Luke 1:48). These become a characteristic expression of Luke that, in most cases, points to Jesus’ redemptive act (Luke 12:52; 22:18, 69; Acts 18:6). Further, in the Septuagint the term “great things” (Luke 1:49), megala in Greek, often refers to God’s actions during the Exodus on behalf of the children of Israel, thus carrying the sense of redemption (LXX Deuteronomy 10:21; 11:7; Judges 2:7).
The trip back to Nazareth must have been emotionally taxing for Mary. After all, we have no indication that she shares the news about the angel with her family before she visits Elisabeth. On the basis of Matthew’s note, “she was found with child” (Matthew 1:18), it appears that only when she becomes visibly pregnant does she confide in Joseph. His reaction? Obviously, he does not believe her story about the angel which she must have told him to explain her condition. His parents’ reaction? We do not know. Nor do we learn the response of Mary’s parents. Joseph’s family, naturally, has every right to demand that the betrothal be undone. This is the direction Joseph goes. Fortunately, as an honorable person, he is “not willing to make her a publick example” (Matthew 1:19). He steers Mary away from severe punishment. Then God reaches out to this good young man through His angel (Matthew 1:20–21). What the next few months are like, we are not informed. We can imagine that Joseph and Mary are happy to leave Nazareth for Bethlehem. By then, their engagement, which effectively marries them, is over and, by custom, she has been escorted to his home as many ancient manuscripts affirm by reading simply “Mary his wife” in Luke 2:5. In a word, they are married.
—Based on The Testimony of Luke by S. Kent Brown, an e-volume in the BYU New Testament Commentary Series.
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.
By S. Kent Brown
The Birth of John
Luke’s Gospel does not spell out how long Zacharias and Elisabeth wait for the birth of their son following the angel’s announcement. But hints exist that offer an approximate time of when he is born. The first hint is that Jesus is born in the late winter or early spring of the year. This observation arises from Luke’s note that “shepherds [were] abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). The key lies in the phrase “by night” which is a clear pointer to the lambing season when the adults spend nights with the expectant ewes in their flock to assist with the births of new lambs. At other times of the year, the youthful children in the family are assigned to be with the sheep, as young David is (1 Samuel 16:11). A second indicator has to do with the relative ages of Jesus and his older cousin John. When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary, Elisabeth is about five and a half months pregnant. That is the meaning of “the sixth month” (Luke 1:36). In this light, John’s birth occurs the prior October or perhaps late September. Continue reading
By S. Kent Brown
We don’t know how Zacharias communicates his news to Elisabeth. If she is present in the temple grounds that day for his big moment, which is likely, she will soon learn what has happened to him. If she is home, then the possibilities become more complex. As the angel warns him, he loses his ability to talk (Luke 1:20, 22). In addition, as we learn later in the story, he loses his ability to hear (Luke 1:62). Presuming that Elisabeth is as most other women in her society, she is illiterate. Zacharias may make signs to her, even touching her stomach. Or he may go to a relative or close friend who is literate and to whom he can write a message. Of course, by the time John is born, she knows. Continue reading
The Angel Comes to the Priest Zacharias
When Zacharias goes into the temple to offer incense, he is entering the Sanctuary, which is distinct from the larger temple grounds, as indicated by the Greek term naos (in Luke 1:9), which usually points to the Sanctuary (compare Luke 23:45; Revelation 11:2). According to the Mishnah, which is a compilation of Jewish laws dating from the era before A.D. 200, a priest is allowed only once during his lifetime to light the incense. This lighting takes place twice a day at the temple, once in the morning and once about three o’clock in the afternoon in connection with the offering of the morning and evening sacrifices and the times of prayer (1 Chronicles 16:40; Acts 3:1). Because of the large number of priests, a person is selected by the casting of lots. Hence, this occasion is the most important in Zacharias’s long years of service at the temple.
The King James text says that “there appeared unto [Zacharias] an angel” (Luke 1:11). The
verb is in the passive and means “an angel was seen [by Zacharias].” There is no sense of vision or dream or divinely imposed distance between the angel and the priest. Zacharias sees the angel in a firsthand, sensory way. Luke writes that the angel stands “on the right side of the altar of incense.” Here he writes from the angel’s point of view. It is the altar’s right side. Exactly in front of the temple’s veil stands the incense altar; to Zacharias’s right, or on the north, as he approaches the altar, stands the table of the shewbread, where the twelve loaves of bread sit; to Zacharias’s left rests the large candelabrum or Menorah. The angel stands between the altar and the Menorah, between the cloud of smoke and the light, symbols of the Lord’s covenant with Abraham and of His presence among the Hebrews during the Exodus (Genesis 15:10–11, 17–18; Exodus 13:21–22). Moreover, the angel stands on the south or right side of the altar, the side of promise and blessing. This position characterizes his message to Zacharias. Because of the Israelites’ orientation toward the east—the doors of the sanctuary were on its east side, for instance—the right hand is on the south. If the angel had appeared on the north side of the altar, it would have signaled bad news for Zacharias. Continue reading
by S. Kent Brown Continue reading
By John W. Welch Continue reading