A Christmas Question about Mary

From a reader:

Dear Prof. McKnight,

I just finished listening to your interview on Midday Connection and am thrilled with the topic of your most recent book about Mary [The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus]. I recently wrote a Luke-based devotional called Divine Duct Tape and through it became very connected to Mary through her struggle to understand her son and the devastating, unexpected path he had to forge. As I studied Mary’s song and Zechariah’s too, however, I discovered a question I hope you can answer.

How are we to treat or understand these kinds of passages–these songs? It’s almost like Luke breaks into a musical. I know some kinds of scripture are poetic, some historical, some didactic, some wisdom, some prophetic promises. So many kinds of texts, yet all preserved by God to know him better and our need for him.

But in terms of ancient readers, how did they understand them and how are we? I can’t imagine that Mary and Zechariah (or Moses for that matter in his song in the OT) just burst into song like some sort of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” as they seem to sound in Luke’s text (Mary’s song, for example, seems to be within a conversation she is having with Elizabeth). I am puzzled about how these songs came to us from the mouths of their speakers. Do we know? I don’t doubt that they are genuine. Just puzzled about how they got there.

I would appreciate any insight you can offer. And thank you about your book about Mary. I am thrilled to hear someone speak of her in such an admiring but non-idealized, human way.

Blessings to you,
Kelli Anderson



This is a good set of questions and it surprises me at times that more people don’t ask them. When it comes to the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, I assume the only way Luke got them was that Mary told others or perhaps Luke himself. But I suspect the question gets deeper. I suspect the question is more about how ordinary people break into such beautiful music and poetry. I know I’ve asked that one a number of times.

Let’s begin with some basic options:

Some people they are the result — purely — from divine inspiration and the speakers (Mary, Zechariah) were transported to new heights, given divine insights and capable of poetic language because of that divine inspiration. Yet others think the songs are so poetic and majestic they had to be put on the mouths of their speakers by later Christians who imagined themselves into the mind and heart of Mary and Zechariah — a kind of “This is the sort of thing they must have said!” I don’t think we need to postulate either a miracle or that the songs come from others.

Two more options: some think these are the very words of Mary, and she was capable because she was bright and thoughtful and pious, and Zechariah, and he was capable and bright and wise and experienced and knowledgeable.

I find the fourth option most likely: even though I like studying these sorts of things, I’m not convinced we have the tools or evidence to say “Mary couldn’t have said that” or “Zechariah wouldn’t have been able to talk like that”. So, I prefer explanations that don’t assume they couldn’t have said such things. So what I think is most likely, and I don’t think we can know this with utter certainty, is something like this:

In the case of Mary, who was probably about 14 or 15 yrs old, I suspect she had a profound experience of perceiving what God was doing with her. I’m confident she burst into gratitude and joy and consolation from the moment she was convinced her baby was to be Messiah. I suspect also that she pondered on these things day in and day out. I suspect she asked theologians and priests and friends and family about messianic prophecies — and at some date after that moment, and I don’t know how long but probably not all that long afterwards, put into poetic form what she experienced.

So perhaps it was like this: she experienced joy and expressed her joy to Elizabeth in the Magnificat and said things like the Magnificat. Over time those expressions became more and more poetic so that eventually someone wrote down her own poem of praise to God for being chosen to be mother of Messiah.

I can’t prove this. I can’t prove either — apart from saying something like “The Bible says it so it must have happened just like that” — that she said those very words when she encountered Elizabeth. So the moment we are pushed into thinking about things like this we have to do our best with the kind of knowledge we have. It’s a stretch to think a young girl could suddenly burst into song like this, though I don’t think it’s impossible and neither would I eliminate the transcending power of the Spirit in such a moment. But if I had to guess, I’d choose option four, or three.

What do you think?

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  • Diane

    Mary’s song is similar to Hannah’s song in the Bible–both woman joyful over becoming mothers and both speaking for justice. Much as I like the idea of Mary recording her emotions by writing this poem, using Hannah’s song as a model, I believe it’s more plausible that the song was a later composition, a literary invention expressing the early church’s understanding of what the birth of Jesus meant.

  • A nice listing of options (prophetic utterance, later hymn superimposed, spontaneous psalm, or later compositions by the speakers capturing what they experienced). Fortunately, it is not necessary for us to choose to maintain our faith in the gospel. It might be helpful for some to loosen their understanding of what an inspired text is and be open to more options, that God doesn’t set a standard of verbatim stenography for example.

  • Chris

    In his prologue Luke mentions receiving the content of the what he wrote from custodians of the word and eyewitnesses. Perhaps he got the song directly from Mary herself? And like you say, Dr. McKnight, by the time Luke’s gospel was written she would have had plenty of time to ponder what had taken place.

  • Rick Cruse

    Not to oversimplify, but why are we afraid or unwilling to acknowledge a prophet-like, Spirit-enabled utterance?

  • rjs


    I don’t think it is fear or unwillingness to acknowledge Spirit-enabled utterance as much as a 60 or more year gap between the birth of Jesus and the writing of Luke, combined with knowledge of the literary conventions of the day.

    It could be a carefully preserved prophetic utterance, a reconstruction based on personal communication from Mary (written or oral or a combination of the two), or something else – all in keeping with accepted forms.

  • T

    This raises a few related, and very significant, issues for me.

    First is the squeezing out of singing as a common family (and human) practice in the West. I think we have to admit that the ability, on demand, to play any song (let alone any other form of entertainment) by any professional artist at any time has lessened the likelihood that singing is a practice in families. But it’s worth imagining how that’s not the case for many cultures, particularly in less developed areas.

    Relatedly, I have long been under the impression that in any culture, including Mary’s, certain “language inputs” are more common and shaping than others. What I mean is, what readings, songs, stories–what use of language of any type or source–is dominant or at least routine enough to shape one’s vocabulary and mental categories? Isn’t it fair to assume that even if Mary couldn’t read, that she had heard various Psalms and/or other scriptural and even rabbinic language so that such became part of her own mental categories, imagination and tongue?

    Then lastly, I have to echo Rick in comment 4. For many of us, especially in western cultures, it is difficult to imagine the Spirit almost literally bubble up from our core and come right out of our own mouths, but it is also a frequent experience for others even today. And while the Spirit can and does certainly provide his own words, sometimes even words unknown and not understood by the speaker, he is not adverse to using language and/or images that are already on deposit in the speaker’s head and/or heart.

    I think Mary was someone formed by the kind of language and themes we see in the Psalms and likely the Prophets and Law as well, even if much was second hand. I further believe that singing was not unheard of in Jewish households of her day (which may be more similar on that point to less developed cultures today than to modern western homes). For those reasons, I tend to think the Spirit used all of this, plus his own additional resources, to bring the Magnificat out of Mary at that time.

  • Jason

    Great post!

    I find the progression of the text from the announcement, to “wonder” – logical accounting, to her question, to suffering-surrender, to Elizabeth’s blessing and then to praise to be drawing my attention.

    The question I have is why does the Magnificant come SO LATE? Why not burst into praise right after Mary surrenders, ‘I am the Lord’s servant, may it be as you have said’? That seems like a huge moment!

    It’s like the angel is begging Mary to go to Elizabeth. Mary obviously gets the message. She travels for what two – three days? Then it is Elizabeth’s words, Holy Spirit, that lead to the song? There is a delay between announcement and song I find myself wrestling with.

    What do we make of it other than human nature and category breaking good news? Or is there something more? I am unsure.

  • Watchman

    My only explanation about Mary’s song is that she was so overcome with joy, her most deepest inner being was changed so dramatically, that she couldn’t help but break out in song at times. After all, an angel of the Lord had visited her and told her that the son she would soon bear would be the Savior of the world. And, we can’t leave out the fact that the Spirit of the Lord likely spoke through her and gave song to her lips.

  • Good to see western empirical thinking/criticism still alive and kicking! 🙂

  • I think if we pay careful attention to the theological emphases of Luke-Acts, we should conclude that these utterances are prophetic and Spirit-inspired. Luke uniquely includes such speech acts throughout his Gospel account and the Acts record. A number of recognized Pentecostal NT scholars (and others as well) have written about this aspect in Luke’s work.

    For instance, Roger Stronstad in his book “The Charismatic Theology of St. Luke,” highlights that “an outburst of charismatic activity of the Holy Spirit punctuates these nativity scenes.” He goes on to write about these songs/declarations as evidence of this prophetic inspiration – “This charismatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the infancy narrative…invariably results in prophetic praise and worship” (pg.37).


  • DRT

    I must have a vivid imagination. I can easily see Mary repeating to herself over and over the announcement and implications of what happened to her. She starts, “I am going to be the mother of the MEssiah”, then later as she continues to repeat and clarify in her mind…”my spirit is rejoicing”…then later, “my spirit exalts the lord and it is rejoicing” she keeps repeating then clarifies , no, not my spirit but my soul, “my soul exalts the lord and my spirit is rejoicing” and on and on.

    Don’t all teenage girls do this type of fantasy when they are charged up like that? “He loves, me”, later “He adores me and I am going to be his queen” Fantasy, it is great.

    This shook her world!

    Growing up in the RCC I went to catholic grade school for 8 years and the nuns were quite enamoured with Mary. To this day I can see the joy on the nuns faces when they talked about the excitement of bearing Jesus!

  • Not being an eyewitness to the event, Luke could only relate what his sources (literary and oral) provided. Whether they were polished over time or literal objective records of the initial event matters less than whether Luke believed it to be true and reflective of what happened, and clearly he did.

    Plus, remember that an ancient near-Eastern historian/evangelist like Luke is less concerned about word-for-word transcription and more concerned about his theological, didactic, and apologetic agenda. He’s telling a true story with a point, not court reporting.



  • David T. Koyzis

    I don’t exclude the possibility of Luke placing songs in the mouths of Zechariah, Mary and Simeon, much as the authors of Samuel/Kings may have put Hannah’s song into the mouth of Samuel’s mother.

    However, given my roots in the Orthodox Christian community of Cyprus, I am aware of a phenomenon of spontaneously reciting poetry, especially in contest form, known as chatista (τσιατιστά). This has been going on for some three millennia. When I visited my Cypriot grandmother nearly 30 years ago, she would spontaneously burst into songs about her grandson coming from Σικάγο with nearly perfect rhyme and metre. It was little short of amazing. Only once do I recall her hesitating to think what would come next.

    This is actually something of a tradition in my own family. My grandmother was a poet. My father published poetry in two languages in his youth. I myself have published hymn texts and psalm versifications. And now my 12-year-old daughter is writing poetry. Thus it does not at all stretch my imagination to think that Mary could have burst into song, as Luke reports it, and perhaps even with the words attributed to her.

    Here is my own versification of the Magnificat: http://genevanpsalter.redeemer.ca/psalm_texts.html#magnificat

  • JoeyS

    I like Michael Card’s suggestion that we might be able to better understand the Magnificat if we think of it as a slave spiritual, similar to those developed in the south during American slavery.

    Slaves were not typically educated yet in their submission to God (as opposed to their earthly masters) wrote some profoundly beautiful and insightful songs. Mary’s language is laced in slave language. Lord (kurios) and slave (doulos) are the words that lay a foundation for how Mary understands her role.

  • David, #13, that is a fascinating cultural commentary you’ve offered from the Mediterranean region! I’ve found similar parallels in Italian culture that resonate with descriptions in Scripture. I’d be cautious about extending such comparisons as fully explanatory, but they certainly pique our interest.

    Scot, in line with David’s section, and perhaps with something Pete Enns can bring to bear since he has commented on Hebrew poetic structure previously here, I know that Hebrew poetic tradition was quite rich, and there were certain conventions that marked them. (parallelism, imagery, common letters beginning phrases in sequence, etc.) You’ve noted Mary was likely among the pious poor, and one could surmise that her family & she recited the psalter regularly, aloud, & in the synagogue. She likely had heard the prophetic books read, too, I would suppose. Putting all that together, perhaps an immediate prophetic-poetic utterance isn’t that far-fetched. I’ve noted that the lines of Mary’s Magnificat closely resemble phrasing and import of passages in psalms & the prophets. Although written in Koine, now, there are apparent Hebrew poetic parallelisms embedded in her lines which could support that.

    So, perhaps there is a 5th option of a culturally-shaped, rhythmically situated familiar phrasing, not quite so spontaneous, liturgical poetic heritage-revealing prophetic utterance? God uses what God has at hand in the expression of his gifts through us, it seems to me. 🙂

  • “Moruti” Lutz

    I would like to differenciate between events and their interpretation.
    If we talk about the former, we eventually start a quest for the “historic Mary” – which may be more futile even than any of the “historic Jesus” quests.
    Concerning the latter, however, we have concrete evidence in our hands: the literary product called “the gospel of Luke”! In other words, if we are here talking about the “Mary of Luke” (as a literary figue) we can more than just speculate!
    As it has been pointed out, there is a fairly clear intertextual connection to the Hannah story (and that goes not only for the “song” but also for other details of the plot, especially the “unlikely mother” motif, also found in the Sarah and Elizabeth stories).
    But beyond all that I would like to callenge us all to move beyond the question: “where does it come from, originally” to the question: “where does it lead us to?” And that, I belive, we best discover, if we actually pray the Magnificat – not only once, but on a regular basis, as the Church has done throughout the ages in her evening prayer – and thus make it our own prayer!