Did Mary Know?

The other day the song “Mary Did You Know?” came on the radio. Someone in the car remarked, “Uh oh, Dan doesn’t like this song.” True, I had mentioned my dislike of it before. And I’m sure some of you have “liked” the meme with Batman correcting Robin, saying, “Of course she did!” with an appeal to Luke 1. But recently I had been studying the unfolding recognition of Jesus’ sonship in the opening chapters of Luke and it led me to retract my “like” of that meme. For example, if she did know, why does she not understand Jesus’ declaration of his sonship after she finds him in the temple: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Luke directly comments that she and Joseph did not understand the saying that he spoke to them (2:49–50). But there is much more to it than this. In this article we’ll explore the unfolding epiphany of Jesus’ sonship in Luke’s gospel.

Narratives of Beginnings

Luke utilizes what Malcolm Wren terms “narratives of beginnings” (annunciations, nativities, epiphanies) to give substance to the idea of sonship in his gospel.[1] Since Luke is not writing a theological treatise or dogmatic handbook, but recounting the dramatic, once-for-all work of Jesus Christ in history, substance and meaning is embedded within the narrative’s movement. In other words, Luke communicates and creates meaning through stories.

Following the preface to his work (1:1–4), Luke transports the reader to the heartbeat of Jewish life: the temple in Jerusalem.[2] It’s here Luke begins his gospel story. Significantly, temple-centered life had been the norm for the Jewish people for hundreds of years, conjuring up thoughts of the Solomonic temple and even its forerunner, the tabernacle. What Luke is doing, then, is rooting “his narrative in the past, the antecedents, out of which will emerge something new.”[3]

This “new thing” will be taken up as the subject matter of the book. But what will be unpacked is not novel or dropped out of the sky, but the deep-rooted, ancient promises of Israel organically sprouting into fulfillment—something new. Furthermore, this “new thing” will drive the shift that Luke-Acts is concerned with from the Temple in Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). “Thus at the very beginning of the Gospel Luke sets up a tension between continuity and discontinuity—a tension which will form the basis of his concept of Jesus as ‘Son of God.’ These opening stories of annunciation embody this very tension.”[4] From this observation, both a literary and conceptual function becomes evident in these early narratives that complement one another. The first is to “established antecedents” and the second is to “initiate narrative.”[5]

Continuity: Established Antecedents 

The most obvious way that Luke establishes antecedents is by alluding heavily to Old Testament passages such as Isaiah 6 in the annunciation to Zechariah or 1 Samuel 2:1–10 in the Magnificat. In addition, Luke taps into the redemptive-historical vein of a barren couple being visited by God (think Abraham and Sarah). Wren comments, “The effect of such conscious parallels and echoes is to create in the reader an orientation within an established pattern, to establish a set of expectation of what is possible or likely to happen within a certain context.”[6] The events that unfold fit the pattern of how God has acted and dealt with his people in the past. Of particular interest to Jesus’ birth narrative is its continuation with God’s dealings with Israel in terms of the Davidic covenant: Jesus’ legal father, Joseph, is “of the house and lineage of David” (2:4). This theme of continuity and tapping into established antecedents “is never rejected in the Lukan concept of Jesus as Son of God, despite the overwhelming stress placed on discontinuity.”[7]

Discontinuity: Initiated Narrative 

Along with establishing antecedents, Luke also employs these early narratives to initiate narrative. While there is strong continuity and deep-rootedness, there is just as strong a sense of discontinuity and novelty.[8] Luke brings this out by juxtaposing and paralleling the birth narratives of John and Jesus. The fact that both are given great (even eschatological) expectations, yet have a spatial (temple; Nazareth) and temporal (in the sixth month) difference, creates expectations and anticipations in the reader. How will these two significant births come together? What is the relationship between these two births? Can one have significance without the other?[9] “Just as in Acts, Luke presents the significance of Christ in terms of a ‘ripple-effect’ going out from Jerusalem to Rome, so in the Gospel he uncovers layers of meaning as the narrative grows out of its initial beginning.”[10]

Intrusions and Interruptions

To begin looking more closely at the opening narrative, it is important to note that these are stories of intrusion or initiation. The opening air breathes with routine, men and women simply going through the motions of old covenant life. For example, the gospel does not pick up the story with Zechariah in a state of crisis or despair, pleading with the Lord on his knees, but simply carrying out his prescribed duties as a priest in the temple. Yet this ritual, which was carried out many times before, is interrupted by the appearance of an angel. Likewise, Elizabeth is beyond the age of child birth, but she miraculously conceives; and Mary is betrothed to Joseph—an exciting though routine future for a young girl—but she too conceives in a supernatural way. Furthermore, the shepherds later on are doing what they have always done, keeping watch over their flock by night, but now the angel of the Lord cracks the darkness with a glorious light that brings good news and demands of them new actions.

By these intrusions and interruptions Luke accentuates the impotency of the current life of God’s people, on the one hand, and the need for God to intervene and break through for that “new thing,” which was promised, to be fulfilled. In other words, the promises that are organically connected to the old covenant are incapable of coming to pass from below and within the system itself. So while it was good for Zechariah to be serving in the temple and for Mary to be betrothed and the shepherds to be watching their sheep, this was not the ultimate, eschatological picture of what God has promised. And for that to come about, God must intervene, he himself must enter the picture from above.

While what is to come has antecedents, it is still a new age that is about to dawn that will alter the way of life and demand new things for the people of faith. In fact, the angel Gabriel, himself an eschatological figure in the book of Daniel (9:20–27), is the one who does the interrupting on God’s behalf, and John is expected to fulfill the eschatological role of Elijah, calling fathers to understand their children (cf. Mal. 4:6). Wren writes, “The emphasis is on the need of the old to beware the impact of the arrival of the new.”[11]

Zechariah’s son will not take a patronym, but will be called John. “He will not be a conventional elder son who walks in his father’s footsteps; sonship in his case is a matter of discontinuity.”[12] There is a similar emphasis on sonship when we come to the birth narrative of Jesus. The two narratives are clearly set in parallel with each other, sharing the same basic features. But the child to be born to Mary will not be through natural sexual relations, but God’s creative power (ὅτι οὐκ ἀδυνατήσει παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ πᾶν ῥῆμα, 1:37). This child will be the result of God’s supernatural involvement with the creation to bring about something new.

Unfolding Epiphany 

Wren points out that the narrative does not only weave together the motifs of continuity and discontinuity to give substance to the concept of sonship, but also adds another dimension, namely, the idea of unfolding epiphany.[13] This theme emerges by analyzing the narrative flow of Luke 1–4.

The reader is privileged right from the very beginning of Luke’s gospel. He is brought into the temple with Zechariah to listen into an otherwise private conversation that the people outside know nothing about. Zechariah leaving the temple unable to speak also contributes to the reader’s privilege in that they know not only what has happened, but what will happen, while the people are left in the dark (though of course they can perceive that something happened because of Zechariah’s muteness). Elizabeth is then let in on the secret, to which she rejoices for it removes her disgrace; yet, she hides away, which seems contradictory. “This unexpected response serves as a literary device to maintain the reader’s interest and anticipation of the outcome … but primarily reinforces the sense of secrecy. The way in which knowledge of what God is doing spreads on earth is presented as a very tightly controlled process.”[14]

Mary becomes the first outsider to learn of the birth of John toward the ends of her own annunciation story. This story presents an ever greater mystery than the previous. In fact, “the rest of Luke’s gospel will be concerned with the implications of what it is to know this mystery.”[15] Naturally then the Luke moves into scenes that draw out these implications.

If Luke is concerned with the unfolding epiphany of this mystery, who will be the first to recognize it? When Mary visits Elizabeth (1:39–56), we learn that the very first person on earth to recognize the presence of the “Son of God” (1:35) is John while he is still in the womb, leaping.[16] John’s kick leads Elizabeth to cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (1:42; cf. 11:27, which suggests a notion of misunderstanding). Luke will emphasize the point that it is those who think they recognize the significance of Jesus who are the ones who are actually mistaken.[17]

Following the visitation is Mary’s Magnificat, which “forms the ideal conclusion of this recognition/epiphany scene, with its insistent use of the past tense.”[18] As Mary expresses, God’s salvation is not something that Jesus will embark upon later in his life, but, in a sense, his very conception is God’s act of salvation for his people. It is this simple, yet profound point that the rest of the story will be devoted to in terms of increasing recognition or non-recognition of it.

Thus the first three episodes (Annunciation to Zechariah, Annunciation to Mary, and Visitation with Recognition) can be understood as the first of a three part cycle. It can be understood as such because Luke will recapitulate the sequence of events, as seen in the following chart:[19]

CYCLE 1 2 (Recapitulation)
A JOHN NARRATIVE Annunciation to Zechariah Birth and Naming of John (1:57–80)
A JESUS NARRATIVE Annunciation to Mary Birth and Naming of Jesus (2:1–21)
A RECOGNITION OR EPHIPHANY NARRATIVE Visitation: recognition by John and claimed recognition by Elizabeth Jesus in the Temple: recognition by Simeon, Anna and the teachers, and claimed recognition by Mary and Joseph

With Zechariah now being able to speak and the breaking with the past in naming the child “John,” all throughout the hill country of Judea sprang up the question, “What then will this child be?” (1:66). The answer comes in the Benedictus (1:67–79), which reveals high expectations for this child. Like the previous scene of the annunciation of John’s birth, this section ends with a withdrawal. This time, however, it is not Elizabeth, but John who remains in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance (1:80).

As in the first cycle, the scene shifts again from John to Jesus (2:1–21). He is introduced with a markedly Gentile dating. This contrasts with John’s dating which is markedly Jewish (1:5), thus highlighting the notion of discontinuity involved in Jesus’ sonship compared to that of John. However, a note of continuity is also struck as it is revealed to shepherds in the city of David of the significance of the birth of a child “of the house and lineage of David,” “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2:4, 11). There is even a secrecy about Jesus’ birth since it did not take place in the inn, with its meaning first being revealed to the shepherds who then made what they had been told by the angel known (2:17). “But the effect of their story is ‘wonder’ rather than comprehension.”[20]

Similar to the first cycle, the second climaxes in a recognition or epiphany narrative, but this time in the temple and two accounts are given: one of Simeon, the other of Anna. Simeon is a true elder of Israel and Anna a prophetess, emphasizing continuity with the past.[21] However, their words also get at a strong sense of discontinuity and newness. The Nunc Dimittis and Anna’s prophecy “reveal Jesus as Son in both senses—he both fulfills the hope of Israel and shatters the bounds of Israel as a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles.’”[22] And the recognition by the teachers of the temple, along with their astonishment at him, leads into a dialogue between Mary and her son. At the heart of their discussion lies this question: Whose son is this really? Mary thinks that an obedient son would not have treated his mother and father like this. But Jesus, picking up on Mary’s use of the word father, speaks his first recorded words in Luke, providing illumination on the concept of his own sonship, saying, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (2:49). But Mary and Joseph do not understand Jesus’ saying. Wren makes this interesting point, “Mary has conceived a son in accepting the word (rhema) of the angel. She now fails to understand the saying (rhema) of her son when he speaks of the nature of his sonship.”[23] The third part of this second cycle ends like the first with the withdrawal of Mary with her son to their home in Nazareth (2:51), and ushers in the third cycle:

CYCLE 1 2 3
A JOHN NARRATIVE Annunciation to Zechariah Birth and Naming of John Ministry of John (3:1–20)
A JESUS NARRATIVE Annunciation to Mary Birth and Naming of Jesus Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry (3:21–4:13)
A RECOGNITION OR EPHIPHANY NARRATIVE Visitation: recognition by John and claimed recognition by Elizabeth Jesus in the Temple: recognition by Simeon, Anna and the teachers, claimed recognition by Mary and Joseph Epiphany ‘at home’ (4:14–30)

Without going into the detail of this third cycle, it is worth pointing out that Jesus’ baptism narrative (3:21–22) is “interested primarily in revealing the novelty and distinctiveness in Jesus’ sonship.”[24] Wren sees this literary reading providing support for the minority reading of 3:22, which lines up with Psalm 2:7 (LXX), “You are my beloved Son; today I have begotten you.” According to Wren, this is more consistent with Luke’s emphasis on discontinuity and it is the only reading that makes sense of Luke’s placing of the genealogy immediately afterwards. He writes, “‘Today I have begotten thee’ thus leads into a statement that on that particular day of his begetting he was about thirty years old, being the (supposed) son of Joseph, son of Heli, etc.”[25]

In chapter 3, Luke raises the question: What is the Son of God? And the final section of this third cycle, Jesus’ wilderness temptations (4:1–13), provides interpretive commentary on the Father’s declaration, “You are my beloved Son.” Satan attacks with three murderous questions, with the first and last beginning with the phrase: “If you are the Son of God…” With Jesus, the reader is forced to ask the question: What does it mean to be the Son of God? What is involved in being the Son of God? Does he turn stones into bread or throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple? Jesus’ ministry that will follow his temptations, presents the process of his revealing what he here discovers the meaning of his sonship to be.[26] This concluding recognition narrative of the third cycle can now initiate Jesus’ public ministry in the subsequent chapters. Wren insightfully writes,

It is a story about the home in which he has grown up and about the first proclamation of the nature of the home which will dominate the rest of Luke-Acts: the Kingdom of God. Jesus, “in the house of his fathers”, causes offence by speaking of the universality of the kingdom, the house of his father. He reveals that in fulfilling past experiences the Son of God will inevitably shatter current securities. In revealing the nature of the kingdom in this way he sets the pattern for its acceptance ‘away from home’. Those closest to Jesus reject the message; it therefore goes to those who “have not”.[27]

The story will meet another turning point when Jesus later sets his face to go to Jerusalem (9:51). From then on it is a story of Jesus, the Son of God, coming home. This will however, involve rejection and alienation instead of a traditional warm welcome. “Yet it is within this very alienation, at the heart of a recognition of the mystery of a son of God whose rule consists of service, whose welcome consists of a trial and whose majesty reigns from a cross, that Jesus is shown to fulfill the deepest aspirations of the children of God.”[28]


[1] “The birth narrative initiates the Gospel’s concern with Jesus’ identity as God’s Son” (Green, “Luke, Gospel of,” 543).

[2] Cf. Ron C. Fay, “The Narrative Function of the Temple in Luke-Acts,” Trinity Journal 27/2 (Fall 2006), 255–70.

[3] Malcolm Wren, “Sonship in Luke: The Advantage of a Literary Approach,” Scottish Journal of Theology 37, no. 3 (1984), 302.

[4] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 302.

[5] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 302.

[6] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 302.

[7] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 303.

[8] Cf. Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2002), 19.

[9] David Wenham writes, “God is fulfilling his promises for salvation—through John the Baptist in a preparatory way (1:16, 17), but specifically through Jesus—as the promised Messiah and Son of David, as the one remembering his mercy to Israel ‘as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham’ (so Mary in 1:54, 55). Most explicit is Zechariah’s prophetic hymn in 2:68–73, where Jesus is related to David, to the prophets and to Abraham” (“The Purpose of Luke-Acts: Israel’s Story in the Context of the Roman Empire,” in Reading Luke: Interpretation, Reflection, Formation, Scripture and Hermeneutics Series [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005], 88).

[10] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 303.

[11] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 304.

[12] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 304.

[13] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 305; Tannehill develops a similar thought in his article “What Kind of King? What Kind of Kingdom. A Study of Luke.”

[14] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 305.

[15] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 305.

[16] Robert L. Broline Jr., “The Meeting of Mary and Elizabeth: An Eschatological Encounter,” Kerux 17/3 (Dec. 2002), 32–48.

[17] Cf. Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 306.

[18] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 306.

[19] The following chart is adapted from Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 306. For a similar proposed structure see James L. Boyce, “For You Today a Savior: The Lukan Infancy Narrative,” Word & World Vol. 27, Num. 4 (Fall 2007), 375–77. Boyce also makes the point that at the center of each of these segments stands a hymn or poetic refrain.

[20] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 307.

[21] Wren notes they “could also be seen as stigmatized, old and barren people” (“Sonship in Luke,” 307).

[22] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 307; “The point is clear: Jesus is one who is bringing the consolation of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem. The background to this is the prophetic hope for God’s redemption of Israel: both Simeon and Anna echo the promises of Isaiah 52 about God bringing Israel out from Exile (cf. Lk. 2:31 with Is. 52:10, and Lk. 2:38 with Is. 52:9)” (Wenham, “The Purpose of Luke-Acts,” 87).

[23] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 308.

[24] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 309. This may be why Luke does not record John actually baptizing Jesus as Matthew (3:13–17) and Mark (1:9–11) do. By not recording this he stresses the discontinuity and newness that comes in Jesus, juxtaposed with John.

[25] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 309.

[26] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 310.

[27] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 310.

[28] Wren, “Sonship in Luke,” 310–11.

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