Behaving Like Mary: Reexamining Mary’s Encounter with Gabriel

by Julie R. Frady | December 13, 2019

I recently saw a meme of the Virgin Mary with the words “well-behaved women make history” on it. The meme was a pushback on the pithy saying, “well-behaved women rarely make history.” Whoever made this meme apparently wanted women to think that we can change history if we “behave” like Mary.

So many times, I have heard pastors extol Mary for her meekness and submissiveness, based especially on the passage where the angel Gabriel appears to her and tells her that she will be the mother of the Messiah. And Mary submits to God’s will. The lesson seems obvious: Godly women are well-behaved, meek, and submissive. We do well when we are like her.

When I had to translate Luke 1:26–38 from the Greek for an exam, though, I was surprised at how differently it came across to me.

Mary was feisty.

She gave Gabriel some pushback.

And God approved.

For the exam, we were supposed to use a Greek-English dictionary to translate but no other aids. I had wondered at first why the professor would give us that particular passage. Surely, this is one of the most well-known passages of Scripture. I could “translate” it easily from memory and my experience watching countless Christmas plays. Wait, maybe that was the reason, I thought. He wanted to see if we would actually work through the translation process, even with a passage we thought we knew inside and out.

As I worked through the passage with my dictionary, I was stunned to discover things I had never noticed from reading any English Bible translation.

Gabriel first greets Mary with “Rejoice,favored one! The Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:28, CEB). Mary’s response to this is dietarachthē, which means to be “greatly troubled,” “disturbed,” “agitated,” “perplexed,” or “confused.” And she “wonder[ed] what kind of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29, CEB). That’s actually an odd response to an angel. We see other people in the Bible react very differently to angels (for example, Num. 22:31; Luke 2:9). They’re usually struck with reverence and awe, not confusion or agitation.

We can make more sense of this reaction if we realize that in the Greek, there is no indication that Gabriel appeared to Mary as an angel, at least not at first. If he appeared to her as an ordinary man, which is not uncommon in the Bible (Heb. 13:2), then her reaction is more understandable.

Wouldn’t Mary just know Gabriel was an angel? Not necessarily. Many movies depict the angel appearing to her inside her home, but the text does not explicitly tell us where she was. She is obviously alone, but houses in Nazareth were small and didn’t afford much privacy. Outside her house in town would not have been very private either. My best guess is that she was in the countryside for some reason, perhaps gathering berries or wood for a fire.

If Gabriel appeared to Mary as an ordinary man, this also helps to resolve some of the concern I’ve seen from some women, especially in light of the #MeToo movement, about whether Mary could have really given consent. I believe that, although God knew Mary’s heart, he still wanted her to be able to give her consent. If Gabriel had shown up in a glorious form, Mary would have been in awe or fear. So it would have been difficult for Mary to feel like she did have a choice.

In any case, from what I see in the Greek, Mary is at first greatly troubled but not afraid. She is also confused at his greeting. Though it seems rather benign to us, when we consider the cultural background, it becomes clearer why she felt that way. In the first century context, men did not usually speak to women they did not know in public unless they thought they might be promiscuous. (Jesus would break this cultural taboo many times, and his followers learned to do the same.) Mary was disturbed and wondered what kind of greeting this was because she couldn’t believe a strange man was speaking to her.  She may have been thinking, Am I giving off the wrong signal for this guy to think I’m the kind of woman he can speak to in public?

I remember once when I was a college student in Spain, I was in Segovia admiring the aqueduct there. A man I did not know greeted me and then asked to sleep with me. My reaction was a lot like Mary’s: I was disturbed, confused, and couldn’t believe it was happening. I briefly wondered if I had inadvertently given off the signal that I was the sort of girl he could realistically expect to be receptive to such a query. Then my feelings quickly turned to alarm, wondering if I was safe.

Mary probably felt the same. It is only after he greeted her that Gabriel uses her name and tells her not to be afraid. I’m not sure this was all that comforting to her, though. This man knows my name! How does he know my name? she may have thought. After all, Nazareth at that time only had about 400 people in it, and I’m sure Mary was familiar with all of them. She knew he was not from around there.

Then Gabriel goes on to say that it’s OK because she’s going to be the mother of the Messiah!

OK, that’s it. Mary is done being quiet and polite now. I envision her thinking something along the lines of, I don’t know how this guy knows my name or why he thinks I’m going to hop in bed with him, but sweet-talking me into thinking that it’ll be OK because I’ll bear the Messiah is not going to make that happen. I envision her putting her hands on her hips, cocking her head, narrowing her eyes, and saying, “Just how is this going to happen because I am not having sex with any man?” That’s how her question reads in the Greek to me.

Most English translations say something like, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” But Mary doesn’t use the noun parthenos (virgin). She uses the present active tense of the verb ginôskô, which is literally “to know,” but is also used figuratively to mean “to have sexual intercourse.” Our English translations water down the forcefulness of her reply, but it’s pretty stark in the Greek—“I do not have sex with men!”

This helps explain why earlier in this chapter Zechariah is rebuked when he asks, “but how is this going to happen since both my wife and I are too old?” when Gabriel appeared to him and told him he and Elizabeth would have a son (Luke 1:18–20). But Mary is not rebuked for her similar question because the circumstances were different. Although we are not told where Mary was when Gabriel appeared to her, we know exactly where Zechariah was: the Holy Place of the Temple. Since Gabriel appeared beside the altar of incense, Zechariah knew he was talking to an angel from God. His question revealed doubt, even in light of divine revelation. Mary’s question was more, “back off, dude, I don’t do that.”

I envision Gabriel smiling in approval. It is at this point that he gives her the assurance that it is the Holy Spirit, and not himself, that will cause her to conceive. He also lets her know that he knows details about her relative Elizabeth that an ordinary man from Galilee could not have known.

Perhaps Gabriel showed Mary his glowing angel-self to her at this point. Maybe the inside information about Elizabeth and the assurance that he was not looking to sleep with her helped Mary realize that he was really a messenger from God. It is only at this point that Mary’s response softens.

She gives her consent. It was not coerced. She acquiesces to God’s will.

Looking at Mary’s encounter with Gabriel in this light aligns with how we see Mary throughout the rest of the gospels. She travels to Judea to see Elizabeth (Luke 1:39–56). We see her helping at a wedding in Cana (John 2:1–5). Mary accompanies her other sons to go “take charge” of Jesus (Mark 3:21). She is there, with the other women, at the foot of the cross as Jesus dies (John 19:25–27), and she is with all the believers in the upper room on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:14).

Mary was indeed well-behaved by God’s standards, but a shy and retiring little lady she was not. She was willing to make waves, stand up for what she knew to be right, go where she believed God wanted her to go, and speak her mind. The maker of the meme was right after all. We do well when we “behave” like Mary.