And Mary said,
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Lk 1:46-55)
Scot McKnight has recently written a book called The Real Mary. It is an exploration of the biblical texts about the mother of Jesus. At least part of the inspiration for the book came from pondering the Magnificat, the Song of Mary in Luke 1:46-55. As McKnight describes it,
Some years back, standing in front of a class, I asked a question that I was determined to answer, and I was determined to answer the question by probing what the Bible does and does not say about Mary: “What kind of woman uttered the Song of Mary, what we now call the Magnificat?” Found at Luke 1:46-55, the Magnificat expresses the very heart of Mary–her history and her hopes, her frustrations and her expectations. In fact, this beautiful song, inspired as it is by the Spirit of God, sketches what she thinks the Messiah will accomplish. What kind of woman would sing this kind of song?
Without having (yet) read The Real Mary in its entirety, here are some of my thoughts about the answer to Scot McKnight’s question.
Is the Magnificat “the Real Mary?”
Before diving into the text, we need to address the question of how much of the Magnificat is the product of Mary herself and how much is Luke or other early traditions to which Luke was privy. Scholars generally assign this composition to early Jewish Christianity and assert that Luke cast it backwards on to the lips of Mary after the resurrection. Although there may well have been some redactional activity in the creation of the Magnificat, I would argue that by and large something like it would not be out of place in certain sectors of Judaism in the late first century BC.
- The Magnificat “bears the marks of Hebrew meter and incorporates numerous idioms that are drawn from the OT” (Jefford, “Magnificat,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible 542).
- The Magnificat is modeled on the Song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10) and makes frequent allusions to other Old Testament passages.
- The second part of the Magnificat (vv. 51-53) describes a messianic hope couched partly in militaristic imagery and is “reminiscent of the eschatological and nationalistic faith of the Maccabees” (Jefford, 542)
- The theme of the covenant of faithfulness between God and God’s people, which permeates the entire song, may be understood within the framework of thoroughly Jewish understandings of the righteousness/justice of God and the eschatological hopes of Jews in Mary’s era.
In short, there is nothing in the Magnificat that would require it to be a specifically Christian composition. It is best explained as the composition of a Jew (or Jews) who lived with a particular kind of messianic hope that was not uncommon in the first century BC. If we can imagine Mary being part of such a community of faith, versed not only in the Jewish Bible but in a particular stream of biblical interpretation or Jewish piety, we may well imagine such a song on her lips. She may not have made it all up herself from scratch; perhaps it was (wholly or in part) a composition already familiar to her.
Let’s go a little deeper. Can we place Mary within Second Temple Judaism in such a way that the Magnificat would make sense on her lips? I believe so.
Mary, Daughter of David
Both Scripture and tradition make Mary a descendant of King David. In the aftermath of the Hasmonean dynasty and the early years of Herod’s brutal reign, might her family have been especially tuned to the messianic hopes of many of her fellow Jews?
The social function of the Davidic family had shifted between the Exile and the late first century BC. Where before, they were seen as the rulers of Israel, now they were more likely to be looked to as persons of more strictly religious significance. Hillel was a Davidide who gained fame as a Torah scholar. According to tradition Joachim, like Hillel, was poor voluntarily for reasons of pious expression–Hillel to pay for his lessons, Joachim because he donated much of his flock each year to the temple.
For example, both Scripture and tradition makes her a descendant of David. In the aftermath of the Hasmonean dynasty and the early years of Herod’s reign, might her family have been especially attuned to the messianic hopes of many of her fellow Jews? This would explain the nationalistic overtones present in the second half of the Magnificat. Such political sentiments would not have been alien in the house of Joachim.
Herod had in recent memory undertaken a purge of any Davidic claimants to the throne, as Josephus reports. The idea of dramatic reversal of fortunes, bringing down the powerful and raising up “the poor” may well have resonated with those Davidides who managed to avoid this fate because they were too old or too obscure to pose a serious threat to Herod.
Mary the Hasidean
More generally, can we place Mary somewhere more specifically within the religious traditions of Judaism? I think so–in a general sense and with all due caution about the speculative nature of the project. It is possible to place Mary tentatively within the spiritual milieu of the eschatologically focused pietistic movements of early Judaism.
First, there is the preaching of her relative, John the Baptist. John fits broadly within a Hasidean-like form of Jewish piety with an emphasis on asceticism and eschatological aspirations. He denounced the comfortable leaders of the Jews–both the temple elites and the Pharisees. He may have had ties with the Essenes and/or Qumran community, although this cannot be proven and, at any event, he made a name for himself going his own way. Similar figures existed in the era, including the prophet Bannus of whom Josephus was at one time a disciple.
John attracted many followers, some of whom, if the tradition may be believed, were among the members of his family. If “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” in Matthew 27:56 (perhaps named Salome, Mk 15:40) is the same woman as “[Jesus’] mother’s sister” in John 19:25, then James and John, disciples of Jesus, were also his cousins. This is an appealing hypothesis, for if James and John were in fact close relatives of Jesus, it sheds light on a number of details:
- their readiness to follow Jesus
- their desire (or expectation) for positions of privilege
- the willingness of their mother to push this agenda (Mt 20:20)
- Jesus entrusting his mother to John’s care at the cross (Jn 19:26)
John son of Zebedee, who remains in my mind the most likely candidate for the “beloved disciple” in the Fourth Gospel, was likely previously a disciple of John the Baptist (Jn 1:35-42).
In addition to John, the followers of Jesus also give some indication of the circles in which Mary and her family moved. It should be no surprise that some of John’s disciples gravitated to Jesus. In addition, there were others who may have had connection with the same kinds of Jewish piety. Most obviously, we read of Simon “the Zealot” an ultra-Hasidean in the Maccabean mold if ever there was one!
I have already mentioned James and John. We see something of their zeal in their willingness to call down fire on Jesus’ enemies (Lk 9:54) and their expectation that soon Jesus would “come into his kingdom” with eschatological splendor. Was it this zeal for Israel’s God the reason they were nicknamed “sons of thunder”?
None of these figures would have found the eschatological reversals at the heart of the Magnificat foreign to their way of thinking. Inasmuch as the Magnificat speaks of such hopes for the people of God–both individually and collectively–it may well have originated with Mary or at least with the religious circle(s) in which she and her family moved prior to the coming of Christ.
The Magnificat may not be ipsissima verba Mariae but I see no compelling reason why it couldn’t have been Mary’s ipsissima vox. It is therefore legitimate to ask Scot McKnight’s question: What sort of woman would sing a song like this? Lest this post get much longer than it already is, let me simply suggest in closing that
- She was a biblically literate and theologically astute woman. She knew the story of God’s dealings with Israel and rested in the Old Testament promises of God’s covenant faithfulness.
- She was a woman with deep convictions about the justice of God and its implications for society. She longed for a time when the powerful would be cast down, the proud would be humbled, and the rich would be sent away empty.
- She was a politically subversive woman whose song could well be taken as a protest against Herod, Caesar, and their anti-God aspirations.