What did Mary know?

The Annunciation, by Eustache Le SueurOne of the first times I can remember consciously and directly questioning the Jesus story was sometime around middle school. I was thinking about how Mary is said to be a virgin, but conceives a son anyway, and the explanation put forward for this is that God in the form of the Holy Spirit is the one who impregnates her. Thus, Jesus is supposed to be the son of God.

It wasn’t hard for me to imagine a more realistic explanation of these events — even assuming that all the people involved really did exist. If Mary was not actually a virgin but was betrothed to Joseph, she would be in big trouble if her “impropriety” was found out. (I didn’t realize how much trouble until later.) Perhaps she was already pregnant from some earlier affair, and told a story about being visited by the angel Gabriel in order to cover up her embarrassment. In a superstitious culture, such a story could go far.

I’m sure most of my readers have had such a realization of their own at some point in their lives. (Some Christians have even stretched to find ways to reconcile for themselves Jesus’ conception out of wedlock with his heavenly parentage. Still, I think the keeping-up-appearances story is more plausible.) At any rate, this issue caused me to chuckle when I heard Mark Lowry’s “Mary, Did You Know?” on the radio a couple weeks ago. I mean … yeah, she probably had some idea of what was going on, whatever that might have been.


It’s apparently very popular. A number of performers have covered it, including Clay Aiken, Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd. In case you can’t play the video, here’s the beginning. You get the gist.

Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you.

Once I got home and read over the lyrics, I got to thinking about that whole visit from Gabriel bit and decided to check what the Bible had to say on the topic. Turns out, Mary was pretty well in the loop all along. True, she might not have known about each individual miracle the song goes on to mention, but Luke 1 does spend a while on Mary’s celebration of her holy pregnancy. Gabriel told her pretty much exactly what’s up:

And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

If you believe the Bible, you’ll note that Joseph also got a similar message.

But as he considered these things [That is, whether to divorce Mary for her pregnancy. -NFQ], behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

So, could Mary have had any idea that her baby boy might be a savior? It depends on how dense you think she was — and, I guess, how well you think Mary and Joseph communicated with each other. It seems to me that, even if you set aside the cynical sense I began this post discussing and simply take the Bible at face value, it’s still a rather silly question this song is asking. “Mary, did you know…?” As though her not knowing is something inspiring and beautiful, even though the Bible says exactly how much she was told. Come on, Christians. Glorify ignorance much?

Leave a comment


  1. Questioning

     /  December 20, 2010 at 10:55 am

    I’ve been questioning and slowly pulling away from Christianity for the past 6 months or so. I was once one of the most devout Christians I knew–very knowledgeable and obedient–so it’s pretty much the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through (especially since my husband still has his faith). But that’s another story for another time.

    Like you, even as a young person, I could see that there were things that didn’t add up, but at the time, I was satisfied with the way these things were explained away. It always bugged me that post-manger, Mary and Joseph don’t seem to be all that clued in to the fact that they’re raising the son of God. Maybe it’s just me, but if I got pregnant without ever having sex, and an angel appeared to me and told me my child was the son of God, I think I’d remember that.

  2. If one had a slightly dirty mind, one might wonder about the possible double entendres on the verb “to know” at work in all of these items—given that the matter in question is all about Bible text and all.

    But of course my mind is utterly clean and I have no idea what I am talking about.

  3. Just two minor corrections in your theology then a comment on the body of the post.

    Mary was not impregnated by the Holy Spirit, she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. This may seem trivial, but there was no intercouse, not that you say that exactly. But she was not impregnated, she became pregnant. I realize this sounds like mincing words. But it is exactly this misunderstandint that the Mormons have which leads them to false declarations. They believe God physically came down and actually had sex with Mary.

    Second, this is not why Jesus is called the Son of God. The title of “Son of God” is a title of deity. It is a title describing Jesus’ nature. It says Jesus nature is the same as God’s nature. Being called the Son of God is the same as saying he is God.

    As for Mary knowing? The New Testament records Jesus first miracle at a wedding by turning the water into wine, so it’s not like todler or teenage Jesus was walking around performing all kinds of other miracles. I am sure Mary believed what she was told by the Angel, but there was probably a bit of uncertainty. Remember Jewish beliefs were that the Messiah would be coming as a conquering Messiah. The current belief was that Messiah would come and restore Israel from the hands of the Romans. And when Jesus was crucified, that produced a belief in the disciples that they were mistaken. The OT says anyone hung from a tree is cursed. They went and hid for fear they were next on the cross. So even after being witnesses of Jesus’ miracles and teachings his other brothers and sisters were skeptics. Even James didn’t believe until after the resurrection, none of them really did.

    I suspect Mary knew very little as to what Jesus was actually going to be, until after the resurrection. As a young boy He was obviously very intelligent, teaching at the temple to the adults. But that in itself does not really confirm divinity. Mary likely had a strong case of the 20/20’s after the resurrection looking back on Jesus’ life, but I suspect.

  4. @Questioning: Thanks for commenting. What you’re going through sounds seriously difficult; I don’t pretend to understand (never having really been religious myself before identifying as a nonbeliever) but I certainly sympathize. I hope we see you around here more in the future! As you might have gathered from my blog title, this is a good place for questioning.

    @John: I didn’t mean to imply that Christianity teaches that the Holy Spirit put its penis into Mary’s vagina. Clearly the belief is that actual conception happened in some mystical way (though I hope Jesus is believed to have had 23 chromosomes and to not be an identical clone of Mary; maybe a magical sperm just materialized inside one of Mary’s Fallopian tubes). I used the word “impregnate” to mean “causes to become pregnant.”

    I disagree that “Son of God” means exactly the same thing as “God.” I mean, what are those other two words even there for? I understand that most Christians now believe in a trinity and all that, so Luke 1:32’s “Son of the Most High” would be in some sense equivalent to “the Most High,” but that’s not the sense in which Jews understand/understood the term.

  5. Questioning

     /  December 23, 2010 at 9:56 am

    Thanks for making me feel welcome. It means a lot. 🙂

  1. My favorite Christmas songs | No Forbidden Questions

Leave a Reply