How could Mary doubt?

The Annunciation, by Paolo de Matteis. (Angels in the Bible aren’t pictured like this.) Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday, I preached on Mark 3:20-35, paying close attention to the response by Mary and Jesus’ brothers to the growing popularity, and controversy, of Jesus’ ministry. After the service, someone asked a good question: “How could Mary doubt—considering all the events surrounding Jesus’ miraculous birth?” Did she forget the virginal conception, the annunciation by Gabriel, the testimony by Elizabeth, and the words of the shepherds that she treasured in her heart?

Are we tempted to imagine that if only we had had such a profound spiritual experience, faith would come easier to us?

Well, I am… Even though it flies in the face of the testimony of scripture. Even in yesterday’s scripture, after all, please notice that the legal experts from Jerusalem don’t deny that Jesus is performing his miraculous signs. They’re only denying the power by which he’s able to do it. At the end of John 2, we’re told that “many believed in his name because they saw the miraculous signs that he did” (John 2:23), Nicodemus among them (3:2). As Jesus makes clear to this earnest Pharisee, however, it’s possible to see without really seeing. Miracles alone are insufficient basis for saving faith.

Consider “doubting” Thomas. It’s true that he didn’t witness Jesus’ resurrection on that first Easter Sunday, but how many other miracles did he see (including the raising of Lazarus not long before Easter)? How many profound spiritual experiences does one person need?

Why should the mother of our Lord be any different?

In his commentary on the text, Donald English, a British Methodist scholar, writes the following:

A more difficult problem is how Mary who, according to the stories in early chapters of Luke and Matthew, had gone through such unforgettable experiences, should now be with those trying to take him home. Such difficulties, however, arise only if one is determined not to let her be what she probably was, a simple Hebrew maid ‘engraced’ by God. How could she understand all that was involved? Why should she not have shared the view of those around her about who Jesus was, and be equally upset at the unexpected turn of events, with such crowds and teaching and healings and exorcisms, and the pretentious claims implied—and occasionally blurted out at the height of excitement or controversy—about who he was? How could she have known that he would be in opposition, as it seemed clear he now was, to the religious leaders of the day whom she regarded with deep respect and awe? … Many mothers can no doubt identify with her, if at a lesser level, in the anxiety and disappointment when a son’s life does not go as expected.[†]

One interpretation that English rejects out of hand, which you’ll occasionally run into in academic circles, is that Mary’s doubt implies that the virgin birth never happened. I hope you can see from the preceding discussion that such a conclusion is unwarranted.

The Message of Mark (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1992), 90.

19 thoughts on “How could Mary doubt?”

  1. Very interesting discussion. Another “incredible” instance of such a confrontation with the miraculous is with Jesus’ actual ascension into heaven, “but some doubted.” Brain freeze! I guess on our more personal scale, however, we (or at least I) still “panic” when things seem to be going awry, or are more than I think I can handle, despite having seen God “take care of things” so many times, and having the Word of God (which I believe) point out so many more instances. Even now, for example, my father-in-law has just been put in hospice, and I am named as executor of his estate, and I can already see some substantial situations I don’t want to have to deal with looming on the horizon. And I am nervous about it! But scripture tells me, “Look at how God clothes the grass of the field and the birds of the air. Will he not so much the more take care of you, oh you of little faith?” Yet the immediate still brings almost paralyzing concerns. So I can sympathize with Mary (but not so much with those who saw the ascension).

    1. Many New Testament scholars have reached different conclusions from the ones you highlight. Ratzinger, for one, deals with these questions in his recent Infancy Narratives book.

      My question is, to what end do Matthew and Luke include the Christmas story? How does including such a story help their cause? People in the first century knew as well as we do that babies aren’t born without human fathers—as Joseph’s own doubt in Matthew 1 attests.

      1. Yeah, of course there will be piously biased scholars who have a different take away. The narrative helps there cause because it deifies Jesus more, just as it was a story which deified pagan gods before Jesus which is where they ripped it off from. And, one of the rules of gospel criticism is that nothing is included unless in one way or another it serves the writer’s purpose.

        Notice, the earliest sources, Paul, Mark, (Q if we take the Q hypothesis) do not contain the virgin birth and one of them “Mark” contains info that would make us doubt that he believed it.

        If he believed it, certainly he would’ve included it.

      2. Matthew and Luke both include parallel accounts of Jesus’ rebuffing his mother and brothers. True, they don’t say that his family believed he was out of his mind, but we can infer that they were embarrassed by Jesus. By your logic, we should wonder why Matthew and Luke don’t go out of their way to show Mary as a faithful disciple—given what happened 30 years earlier.

        You say “if Mark believed it” he would have included it. That’s not the only explanation. He may have been unaware of it. Same with Paul. We don’t know. I agree with you that the virgin birth isn’t as central to Christianity as, say, the resurrection.

        I don’t buy that the authors included it to deify Jesus, or that they wrote in the tradition of pagan mythology. Why would Matthew, a pious Jew, care about pagan myths that he would “copy” from them? He’s already reported Joseph’s doubt: babies aren’t born without human fathers. Everyone knows this. Even if there are pagan parallels (please cite your sources; I think we would find drastic differences between them) his Jewish audience won’t be impressed by any similarity.

        You seem to imply that ancient people were dumb or gullible. If so, why does Matthew report that Joseph didn’t believe Mary when she told him what the angel said? Introducing a hard-to-believe miracle doesn’t help the cause of the gospel.

        As for “piously biased” scholars, I’m unaware that there are any neutral, dispassionate scholars studying the question of the virgin birth! The great thing about scholarship is that you have to offer reasons one way or the other. So a scholar might already be a believer, but it’s up to the discerning reader to decide if, in spite of that fact, their logic is sound. We can’t dismiss what they say because they believe it. Why wouldn’t they believe it if they have good evidence for doing so? And if they have good evidence, shouldn’t we want to read it?

      3. Yeah, Jewish history has a self-admitted history of bedding with paganism. So Jewishness is not a determiner in whether or not the gospels rip off from paganism, plus only 1 out of 2 of the gospels who include a virgin birth is a Jew. Whoever the author of Luke was, they were probably gentile.

        Regarding bias, yes, it’s true that no one is completely unbiased but I think you should be willing to admit that holding a faith belief in particular dogmas and creeds which if you believe you will go to hell for rejecting is more biased than your everyday bias. There’s a lot hangin’ there for those piously biased scholars.

        As far as the silence of Paul and Mark are concerned, it certainly begins to sound ridiculous when we begin to say “maybe they didn’t know about it” but still want to hold a belief that the N.T. writers all had the same beliefs. If they didn’t “know” about it, then they didn’t believe in it.

        Of course I think ancient people were typically more gullible than we are today in American culture. The mere fact that we are more scientific in our thinking than they were means we are less gullible.

        And I wouldn’t interpret the gospel writers as going against their own agenda by including the virgin birth. Clearly it serves a literary function for them and it wouldn’t have been that hard to believe when ever Tom, Dick, and Harry in the ancient world who was a god had some sorta special birth.

        Finally, Mark DOES say that the family of Jesus, including Mary thought he had lost his mind.

        Mark 3:21 says that when his family found out about his ministry they thought he was nuts.

        Why would I believe in a myth told by anonymous writers who don’t even claim to be eyewitnesses and who contradict each other on numerous points in the first place?

      4. Who says all New Testament writers had the exact same beliefs? I’ve never heard that before.

        Who said anything about going to hell if you don’t believe in the virgin birth? Well, no one at the mainline Protestant seminary I went to would say that. Regardless, that’s the beauty of logic and reason. You can judge a person’s argument independently of what they believe.

        Ancient people weren’t more gullible because they were less scientific—unless you’re saying that the virgin birth, as reported in the Gospels, isn’t a supernatural event. If something is already reported as happening against Nature, then learning more about Nature can’t make a miracle less likely to have occurred. People already knew that babies weren’t conceived without human fathers, even if they didn’t understand the chemistry of spermatozoa.

        Who are these Tom, Dick, and Harry gods to whom you’re referring?

        You don’t seem to appreciate that all the Gospels are written from oral tradition. This was an oral culture. The spoken word had more authority than the written word. Writing the Gospels down becomes necessary as the eyewitnesses to the events begin dying off. Underneath all four Gospels are oral traditions that are based on the testimony of eyewitnesses.

        I wonder why the early Church didn’t bother to harmonize the four Gospels to begin with? They were as aware of these contradictions as you are. Why didn’t these questions bother them the way they bother you?

      5. I do very much appreciate that they come from oral tradition and plagiarizing one another. Doesn’t sound very reliable to me. I can appreciate that.

        But whoever said that the oral testimony was based from eyewitnesses. That can’t be proven. Luke may seem to imply that in his prologue but he copies largely from Mark and Mathew/Q (either one) to the point that you have almost nothing left.

        Your mainline protestant seminary is an exception to the rule of typical conservative Christian beliefs, as most seminaries are.

        The Tom, Dick and Harry I’m talkin’ about are guys like Krishna, Horus, Dionysus, and more. If you research these folk they often either have miraculous births or virgin births. The idea just isn’t unique, and it predates Christianity.

        Yeah, I think they were less scientific in the sense that more people on the streets, if you asked them, would have believed in the myths of the Hebrew Bible, or the Greek myths, or whatever. Today much of those are scientifically dubious.

        The early church DID try to harmonize the gospels. It’s called the diatessaron.

        Do you believe in the virgin birth Brent?
        Do you believe in inerrancy?

      6. The Diatessaron is one person’s attempt to arrange the gospel material in the order in which he believed the events took place. My point is, the Church lived happily with the tension of four un-harmonized Gospels, believing as I do that together they paint a reasonably accurate portrait of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

        For example, I saw one of your earlier posts. Sermon on the Mount. Sermon on the Plain (“flat place”). Really? You see this as some slam-dunk discrepancy. Three quick responses: there are flat places on the probable hill where Jesus gave the Sermon. Go see for yourself. Also, do you think Jesus gave the sermon only once? Third, does the consideration of where it took place mean that Jesus didn’t say these words, more or less (CNN wasn’t there to tape it, after all)? Whoever said them was a genius, that’s for sure.

        Even if Q exists (highly speculative and many reputable scholars doubt it), what about the considerable amount of uniquely Lukan material? There’s quite a bit. Serious scholarship denies that Luke copied Matthew.

        You don’t seem to understand what I mean by oral tradition. The pedigree of the events finally written down in the Gospels date back decades earlier. People memorized and re-told stories. Eyewitnesses were alive to confirm or deny. This is how history was recorded back then. If you want to doubt the historicity of the Gospels on that basis, then you need to doubt a lot of history you take for granted.

        I believe in the virgin birth.

        I am not an inerrantist. That’s a modern concept that defines scriptural authority against Enlightenment standards. For example, I don’t believe that the world was created in six days. But I also don’t believe that that means that Genesis 1 is in “error.” The Bible doesn’t purport to be a science textbook. If on that basis you’re unwilling to grapple with the theological truth that Genesis 1-2 conveys, you are missing the point of Genesis.

        I believe the Bible is infallible, which is surprisingly quite different from inerrant. I’ll let let you read about that.

        Finally, I don’t believe that any of those myths you mention are virgin births. Maybe I’m wrong, but you brought it up. I would love for you explain how these myths relate to the Christmas story. Please be specific. Cite first-hand sources, if possible.

  2. I would comment that I believe the Virgin Birth is an essential doctrine of the Christian faith. Jesus was, after all, the Son of God, not the son of Joseph. As far as Mark or Paul not giving a “repeat” of the accounts in Matthew and Luke, I don’t know why he needed to do so. There are a number of events recounted in the Gospels that are not repeated in each other. Again, why should they have been? Why isn’t once enough?

    As far as inerrancy goes, I don’t believe that to be an essential doctrine of the faith. I don’t even know if I believe that myself. What scripture does teach is that holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Spirit, and that all scripture is given by inspiration of God. God works through people in a lot of ways without those persons being “infallible” in the outworking of that. But clearly scripture “bears the marks” of God “being there,” just as is claimed.

    Finally, as far as “relative gullibility” is concerned, I find “modern men” who believe in evolution to be far more gullible than those who believe that God spoke the universe into being. Evolution has so many holes in it that it can’t even hold water. Given this forum, I won’t try to go into a dissertation on that point, but at the least evolution is contrary to the Laws of Thermodynamics, gravity, probability, no spontaneous generation, and numerous other scientific and logical problems. The “steps” of evolution cannot be “replicated” and are therefore not “proved” scientificallly. So, people who believe in God and scripture are much less gullible than those who believe the “scientists” who teach “naturalism” and its “favorite son,” evolution.

  3. Brent, in the process of the diatessaron being concocted they glossed over contradictions between the gospels.I see that as the Church’s attempt to harmonize.

    In response to the contradiction on where Jesus gave the sermon on the mount. Of course you can think of far fetched harmonizations if you assume that that is a good method.

    But if you simply take Luke on his own merits, you would have no idea that Jesus preached it on a plain. That, I think, is the safest method; what would you know if you only had that one gospel?

    Brent, you assume I actually take a lot of history for granted that comes to us via the same type of method the gospels do. I don’t. I think the way the gospels came to us is historically unreliable and there’s good evidence that they have almost nothing to do with history.

    Like how story after story parallels stories in the Hebrew Bible. It begins to look more like the writers are making things up using the Bible (Like Joseph Smith did) than that they are giving us the news.

    I understand the theological difference between inerrancy and infallibility.
    I’m going to have a totally different view on what the theological take away of Genesis is supposed to be.

    Regarding the virgin birth, how do you justify believing such a crazy story for which there is so little evidence. You don’t believe stories under similar conditions that claim miracles.

    On the virgin birth myths, that is a lot to talk about. Eventually I am going to blog on this, but I’ll probably have to do it in parts. Whenever I do I’ll try to send you some links about it and we can discuss.

    1. You’re welcome to do that, but I’m going to have to bow out. I’m not a historian, but I’ve read a lot, and I’ve read historians of ancient history who say that they’re always piecing together history from single-source and thinly sourced documents. As history, the letters of Paul, for example, are significant because they are first hand. When he attests to being an eyewitness of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, for example, that counts as serious documentary value from a modern historical point of view. Doesn’t mean you have to believe it, but an historian isn’t being true to his own methodology to dismiss it because—after all—everyone knows resurrections don’t happen. As for other virgin births, Christian apologists have dealt with that issue at length. Bill Maher’s words on the subject in “Religulous,” for example, have been thoroughly debunked. You can easily do a Google search and see for yourself.

      You ask what we can believe about the Sermon on the Mount based on a possible discrepancy between its being on a hill or a plain. (You assume, incorrectly I think, that they’re the same sermon, but whatever…) What can we know? That Jesus said words very similar to the ones recorded in Luke’s and Matthew’s gospel—if you’re willing to keep an open mind, like a good historian.

      You seem to suggest that if we don’t possess a first-hand, newspaper-like account or transcript of recorded events then we can’t know that it happened. Based on what I’ve read, we don’t have those things for many events that we take for granted about ancient history. But we become extra skeptical when it comes to documentary evidence associated with the Bible. Why?

      Anyway, I’m not an historian, and whatever I have to say on the subject is second- or third-hand. I’m guessing you’re not, either. Suffice it to say that there are reputable, credible historians who agree with me and would disagree with you.

      With that, you may have the last word.

      1. Well, neither of us are historians but we are both human beings with common sense. Historians generally prefer sources that are not copying from each other, they generally prefer independent sources, they generally prefer to know that the authors are credible, they generally prefer that their sources do not contradict, they generally prefer that their sources are not biased, and they generally prefer that their sources do not contain extravagant cartoonish miracle stories.

        All of these things are in the gospels.

        That, by itself should give us some warning.

        And Paul is not any kind of credible eyewitness. He sees a vision. If Paul is a legitimate eyewitness then I guess tons of people who are in loony bins are credible eyewitnesses of the resurrection. Paul isn’t even consistent. He says in 2nd Corinthians that “Satan himself appears as an angel of light” and doesn’t recognize that his logic would easily apply to his own experience.

        So what does the fact that we don’t have good evidence for a lot of historical endeavor prove? All it shows is that we should be skeptical WHENEVER the source material is insufficient. However, as I have indicated already, the gospels are some of the worse type of historical material one could have. They could work as insightful mythology, but not as history.

        I don’t really base any of my ideas on “religulous” although I happen to agree with some, but not all of the ideas presented in that documentary.

        Well, it has been a good discussion. I don’t want to belabor the point to long, as you are probably busy.

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  5. findingdoubt, your suggestion of lack of historicity of the biblical accounts, most particularly the gospels, is very weak, in my estimation. You suggest that agreement on every point is essential to historicity. How many different accounts of various historical personages have you read? Clearly there are consistently differences in such reports–even different reporters of yesterday’s news do not always line up completely. Considering the position that these accounts were based on oral traditions handed down frequently by memory, the actual degree of consistency in the results is almost uncanny and highly indicative of divine providential oversight–not “plagarism” of one writer from the others (in which later event, why would there be any differences at all?).

    As far as totally discounting the writings because they reference miracles, all you are exposing is your own bias against the supernatural. If you start from the assumption that God is real and can manifest himself, obviously someone who could speak the universe into existence is not hamstrung from turning water into wine or feeding five thousand from 5 loaves and 2 fishes, etc. If you start from the presumption that there is no supernatural, why are you wasting time considering the Bible at all?

    1. I like this very much: “…in which later event, why would there be any differences at all?” So not only did the Evangelists shamelessly plagiarize, they weren’t any good at it!

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