Was Mary a “normal” teenager when the angel greeted her with news that she was going to be the mother of the Messiah? Absolutely! But what does that mean, developmentally? Mark Oestreicher has an interesting twist on the subject that is at least worth pondering:
Approach 50 young teen girls with big news that, at first blush, sounds really cool (‘I’m an angel, sent by god!’ ‘god really digs you!’ ‘you’re going to give birth to the messiah!’ ‘everyone on earth will talk about you!’), but has terribly difficult implications, and I’ll show you at least 49 – if not 50 – 13 year-old girls who will ONLY be able to hold on, mentally, to the cool stuff, and will be absolutely and utterly incapable of considering the potentially negative implications.
Mark’s point is that, for something as radical as the virginal conception of Jesus, it may have been necessary (or at least helpful) for Mary to be a young adolescent, willing to embrace this radical plan with reckless abandon.
Like Scot McKnight, I remain somewhat skeptical. I’m not convinced cognitive development has remained constant over the past 2,000 years. A poor girl in first-century Galilee may well have had to “grow up” faster than a twenty-first-century middle-class church youth group member. I’m quite sure that my parents, and even moreso my inlaws, grew up faster than I had to due to increased family responsibilities at a much earlier age. So what does it really mean to affirm that Mary was a “normal” teenager? As a former professor of mine once quipped, people in biblical times didn’t have “teenagers” because they couldn’t afford them!
Still, what if the truth lies in a combination of the “traditional” view, which praises Mary for her great faith and courage in accepting a divine task with some pretty heavy negatives (loss of family honor, etc.), and this fresh twist that highlights her exuberant, childlike faith? (Kate Johnson in fact made this point in a comment on McKnight’s blog.)
Whatever the answer, I am confident that God understood more about Mary’s emotional and spiritual readiness to handle what was before her than I or an army of developmental psychologists ever will.
On a distantly related note, be sure to check out Michael Westmoreland-White’s defense of the virgin birth on historical-critical grounds. If you’re wondering whether it is possible to affirm Jesus’ virginal conception even if you do not espouse biblical inerrancy, read what Michael has written and put your mind at ease.