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Tuesdays with Mary: Mary’s Cognitive Development

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.

technorati tags: cognitive development, mary, virgin mary


  1. marko says:

    good stuff. i’ll add this: cognative development has definitely NOT stayed the same for 2000 years. it hasn’t even stayed the same for 20 years! seriously. but the weird thing about that change is that ALL the cog dev specialists and neuroscientists say the shift is DOWNWARD in age. in other words, because of the slide in the onset of puberty (to younger and younger ages), cog dev is younger and younger. NOW — this is important — along with that shift is a societal shift that doesn’t expect kids to use abstract thinking; so use of these abilities is being postponed later and later (often well into the 20s). it’s all interesting stuff to me!


  2. D. P. says:

    Welcome, Marko! This is indeed “interesting stuff.” My thoughts turn to some of the more spiritually advanced kids I have known in church youth groups. They’re very on-fire for God and largely able to handle “grown up” responsibilities, but they’re still kids–energetic, exuberant, tending to act and speak before they think, etc.

    All of this also applies to Jesus’ own mental, emotional, and spiritual development as well (“he increased in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and humans”), where I would argue a totally orthodox christology would demand we affirm that Jesus had a fully human course of physical development, and that includes development of the brain. If those synaptic paths aren’t wired yet, he just isn’t going to be that much different, developmentally speaking, from other boys his own age in his own culture. And how Jesus’ sinlessness plays out in this context is a whole other issue…


  3. Interesting insights. And thanks for the plug, Darrell. You seem to be one of the few who liked that post. Liberals are thinking I am naive and conservatives are horrified that I even admit that any Christian anywhere has ever doubted the historicity of the virgin birth! (I thought everyone old enough to know where babies come from had doubted at some point !) Either that or they are using me as an example of how disbelieving in inerrancy leaves you “vulnerable to other heresies.” Sigh.


  4. D. P. says:

    Well, your other heresies not withstanding, I appreciated the obvious intellectual effort that went into that post. And, platypus that I am, I love it when somebody uses “liberal” means to arrive at a “conservative” conclusion!


  5. Yeah, me too. But, I’ve also been known to use conservative arguments for non-traditional conclusions, too. I am more interested in being Christocentric and faithful (as much as I know how) than in being either liberal or conservative.


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