02 March 2024

Why talk about Mary at all?


What if we didn't know who gave birth to Jesus? Would the Sermon on the Mount be different if Jesus was not born of a virgin? After all, Mary isn't mentioned often; after the crucifixion she gets only a tiny mention in Acts 1.

However, let's look at the way Jesus fulfills Scripture. When Jesus says "destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days" (John 2), he is specifically referring to the exile of the Hebrews from Jerusalem to Babylon (Jeremiah, Isaiah, etc.). The Hebrews, according to these prophets, had fallen away from God, suffered a metaphorical death with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and exile to Babylon, and enjoyed a restoration when allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. Note that the events in the exile story parallel events in the Exodus story, and they both refer back to the Genesis 1 creation story. When Jesus is resurrected, we say he has "fulfilled" Scripture, in this case the exile story. Don't get distracted by thinking that Isaiah predicted the crucifixion; Isaiah was writing about the exile of his own time period, 500+ years earlier.

I will get to the "Mary" question; I just wanted to give an example of what I think it means to "fulfill" Scripture.

In Matthew 1, the genealogy of Jesus shows that Jesus is descended from King David, a critical character of the Hebrew Bible, through Joseph the carpenter. In 2 Samuel 7, God makes a covenant with David; the Davidic line will continue. This is the beginning of the belief in a messiah. If Jesus is descended from David, we have the first evidence that Jesus could fulfill the Davidic covenant. It is known to Matthew that Joseph is not the biological father, but from a fulfillment perspective, this is not a showstopper. As far as the canon is concerned, Jesus is a human who can restore the Davidic line.

Where did David come from? In fact, the mother of David is not named in the Hebrew Bible. In 1 Samuel, the barren woman Hannah prays really hard, promises to dedicate any son she might bear to the service of God, and then bears a son, Samuel. Specifically, Samuel is a nazirite who doesn't cut his hair; another nazirite is Samson, remember the importance of Samson's hair? Hannah sings a song in 1 Samuel 2 which begins, "My heart exults in the Lord". Samuel grows up to become the high priest who "anoints" the young David to become the next king.

In Luke 1, Elizabeth is a barren woman who surprisingly conceives and gives birth to a nazirite son, who we know as John the Baptist. Mary is a virgin who conceives through the power of the Holy Spirit and gives birth to Jesus. Mary sings a song in Luke 1 that begins, "My soul magnifies the Lord". Hannah's song is indeed the model for the Magnificat. In the Jesus story, we have a barren woman who conceives, a conception through the Holy Spirit, a song, a nazirite, and genealogical research showing David. Mary helps to show how the Jesus story fulfills the messianic covenant. Without Mary, Elizabeth and John the B, the genealogy is a simple coincidence.

I do not mean to suggest that the Gospelists concocted a story to ensure the fulfillment. Either the Mary/Elizabeth/John connection was learned and then it was up to Matthew to do the genealogical research, or vice versa, and the pieces of the historical puzzle were all in place to show the fulfillment of Scripture. There is no record of how the Gospelists learned the details of Jesus' birth.

Again, Mary's role after the birth of Jesus is rather inconsequential. The same is true for Hannah. Certainly, Mary was tasked with raising the messiah, and the appearance of the young Jesus at the temple (Luke 2) resembles the anointing of the young David (1 Samuel 16), but the Bible doesn't give us many details about the relationship between Mary and Jesus, and Joseph disappears after the Luke 2 event. As a final comment, give Hannah credit; way back in 1 Samuel, she starts the fall of the dominoes that leads to Jesus' fulfillment of the Davidic covenant.

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