In the year 4 BC (or thereabouts), Mary had a problem. She had been told that by the power of God she would conceive a child, who would be known as the Son of the Highest. She wasn’t told how to notify her family, her friends, or the man to whom she was betrothed. There’s no indication in the scriptural record that she was given instructions on how to raise a God. Yet she bravely and gracefully accepted the commission, praising God in a beautiful song called the Magnificat:
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
It didn’t seem possible that Mary herself, extolled by all as humble and submissive, would become a problem throughout Christendom. She is barely mentioned in the first writings that would eventually form the New Testament. The Apostle Paul, who wrote between 49-64 CE, referenced her only by saying that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law,” and that “according to the flesh” Jesus was descended from the House of David. From Paul we hear nothing of a virgin mother, a miraculous birth, or even a divine origin.
The earliest Gospel, scholars say, was Mark, written between 70-75 CE. This Gospel contains only two passing references to Mary. Once more there is no story here of a miraculous birth; in fact, in rejecting Jesus’ authority the people of his village point to the fact that he is the carpenter, the son of Mary. The Virgin story entered the Christian tradition in the early 9th decade gospel of Matthew, some 55 years after Jesus’ death; and in the familiar, early 10th decade gospel of Luke. It is only here that we see the seeds of a fully developed doctrine concerning Mary. John’s gospel does not cover Mary’s conception or birthing role, instead emphasizing the concept of Jesus’ divine pre-existence. It seems likely that the dogma of Mary developed gradually within the Biblical canon.
Mary’s legacy was destined to expand still further in the development of Christian history. By the early years of the 2nd century what would become the Catholic Marian tradition began to appear. Her virgin status became permanent, necessitating the transformation of biblically mentioned brothers and sisters of Jesus into half-siblings or cousins. Next, early theologians claimed for her the status of being a postpartum virgin (Christ not having disturbed her “gates” by his birth); and by the 19th century the Virgin was herself declared to be immaculately conceived. Even her own birth was now said to have been miraculous. Into the 20th century, Catholic doctrine on the Virgin Mary continued to develop, as she was proclaimed to have bodily ascended into heaven.
But before we get too critical of these developments, let’s look at our own tradition, which also tends to do a bit of elaborating on the circumstances of Mary’s experiences. Though Matthew’s Gospel account of Jesus’ birth tells us Mary was “found with child of the Holy Ghost,” and Luke’s account says that the Holy Ghost would come upon her to cause her to conceive, Latter-day Saints nonetheless believe that God the Father, not the Holy Spirit, is the literal father of Jesus Christ. Although how Jesus’ conception was accomplished has not been authoritatively established, there has historically been much speculation on this subject, even among our highest leaders. Our belief in the corporeality of God and our previous practice of plural marriage has led Mormons to postulate that Mary may have been one of God’s wives, one of the Heavenly Mothers; or even that God and Mary had intimate relations to conceive Jesus.
The LDS New Testament Sunday School lesson #2, which we will study next week, is entitled (after the Magnificat) “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord.” The purpose of the lesson is stated: “To help class members develop greater faith in Jesus Christ through a study of the lives of Elisabeth, Zacharias, John the Baptist, Mary, and Joseph.” Over the years I’ve seen, in an attempt to develop greater faith in gospel principles, a tendency to “magnify” the foundational events of our history. How easy it is, when we don’t know very much about a scriptural principle or character, to try to explain or expound or expand!
I have to admit this is a personal idiosyncrasy of mine. For the past two years I’ve been engaging in some lovely and stimulating contentions with an evangelical friend over the meaning of the Virgin Birth. But I’ve about come to the conclusion that simply by reading the scriptures we really cannot tell exactly how the conception of Christ occurred. I have my pet theories, which appeal to and make sense to me, but whether the Catholics’, the Mormons’, the Evangelicals’, or some other group’s idea of the Nativity is exactly correct, I can’t say. There simply is not enough information to impart a complete understanding of the details. In order to have saving faith in Christ, is it enough for all of us to simply know that Jesus’ conception was accomplished in a miraculous manner, by Divine power? Or is that statement too vague; will some or all of us forfeit salvation because of our mistaken ideas?
Readers, how do YOU solve the problem of Maria?