The real mary, and a few thoughts about mary’s young teen-ness.

mary1.jpgI finally got around to reading scot mcknight’s newest book, the real mary: why evangelical Christians can embrace the mother of jesus. Scot was nice enough to send me a signed pre-release copy a month or two before the book’s November release; but I missed my chance to be the cool kid on the block by reading it before it was released.

I’ve been thinking I would like to read this book during advent, since it’s the time most of us protestants (no offense to my catholic readers) think of mary. But mcknight kicked my butt on that front: mary is clearly a year-‘round subject, worth of consideration and admiration and implication in every season. In short, reading this book has greatly raised my esteem for, and understanding of, the mother of jesus. Really, I’d strongly encourage any follower of jesus – catholic or protestant, but especially protestant – to read this book.

But I want to go down a thought trail for a bit here. And I need to preface this by saying, clearly, I’m only thinking out loud here. I don’t consider myself a trained theologian, and I’m not even saying I’m ready to ‘own’ these thoughts and questions. They’re merely that: thoughts and questions. I will add this: while I’m not a trained theologian, I am a trained specialist in early adolescent development, and an avid continuing learner in this area; which leads me to these thoughts…

What if mary really was 13?

Re-stated: what if mary really was a young teen? Mcknight believes she was, and says it’s the most common belief of those in the know (though some believe she was as old as 16 – but we’ll set that aside for now). I’ve heard this assertion all my life; I’ve even taught it to kids in a “check out mary – she was your age!” kind of way. 13 or 16, that teenager-ness is a primary component of kenda creasy dean’s fantastic book, the godbearing life, which weaves a bit of practical theology out of a look at god’s approach to youth ministry via his interactions with a teenage mary.

And mcknight takes a tack I’ve always heard, and always taught. He launches from the point where mary, when the angel told her she would virginally conceive, and bear the son of god – the messiah – wonderfully responds with, “may it be.” I’ve always heard this explained, and have always explained to students, this response the way mcknight unpacks it: that, surely, mary instantly understood all the implications of this news – that she would be considered an adulterer, that she would be shunned, that her child would not be welcome in the synagogue (something, oddly, no one ever returns to, as jesus was clearly welcome in the temple at 12 – maybe I just don’t understand that part), and that she would bring disgrace and dishonor on her home and joseph’s. in this instantaneous understanding, it is said, mary shows her true mettle, and the true beauty and purity of her faith, by stating her willingness to be this vessel, and to walk this road.

but wait just a developmental second.

This doesn’t reflect anything we know about early adolescent development. It doesn’t reflect the neurological understanding we’re gaining. And it doesn’t reflect the observational data of those of us who have worked with young teens (in this case, young teen girls, specifically) for years and years. In fact, as I was reading these assertions in mcknight’s book, I noticed that a smile had involuntarily crept across my face! It was a smile of ‘what if?’

Unless mary had completely UNCOMMON understanding, emotional development, frontal lobe development, and maturity in most other ways (which, in some ways, would be a crass way of differentiating much of the Catholic/Protestant difference in belief about mary at this age; and the whole point of mcknight’s book is that we should look at ‘the real mary’, the one who lived in a jewish context and lived a normal existence with real – read: non-fictionalized – experiences, emotions, responses and behaviors), this would not be the reason for her response. Let me state that more clearly, and without such a long parenthetical interruption: a normal 13 year-old girl WOULD NOT be capable of understanding all those implications in that moment. I’m not questioning mary’s response for a second. In fact, her response makes total and complete sense as a NORMAL and reasonable response for a 13 year-old girl, because 13 year-olds are exceedingly self-focused (due to the quantity of change in their lives, among other things), and exceedingly horrible at thinking through realistic implications. 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.

So, if I’m trying to actually read the story plainly, as mcknight is suggesting, then I have to draw into sharp question the conclusion he and everyone else have suggested here. But that takes me to a wonderful series of ‘what if?’ questions, based on a theological/developmental axiom I’ve held to for years: young teens are caught in a world of transition, and it is good. The ‘it is good’ part is essential here. It presumes that god’s design of humans is good; and that ‘goodness of design’ extends to all phases of the design, including the awkward, messy, confusing transition of early adolescence (the 2nd most significant period of change in the lifespan of humans, second only to the first two years of life).

Here come the ‘what if’s?’…

Assuming mary was 13 (or, an early adolescent)…
And, assuming mary was a normal early adolescent, with normal cognitive and emotional development…
And, assuming god’s design is good, even when it comes to early adolescence…
And, assuming god was fully aware that mary was an early adolescent with everything that entails…
What if god chose mary, partly BECAUSE she was a young teen? What if god knew the innocence of a young teen (combined with a physiology capable of child-bearing) was necessary, or at least helpful, in responding to the cataclysmic news brought by Gabriel? What if god was completely comfortable with the fact that mary wouldn’t understand all the implications immediately (I’m sure she understood them eventually)?

Since I’m being hypothetical here… what if wanting an innocent who was unable to consider the negative implications in order to bring his ultimate salvation to the world were part of god’s plan from the time of creation, and part of why god designed young teens to be the way they are?

Whoa. My brain hurts. But these ideas make me smile, and it all resonates with the god I know.

UPDATE: scot mcknight linked to this post over on jesus creed, and the discussion there is fiesty and strong and interesting and passionate. really worth reading!

21 thoughts on “The real mary, and a few thoughts about mary’s young teen-ness.”

  1. That’s a very interesting thought. I’m usually from the Mary could see the risk angle, but this is an interesting idea.

    Do we know if the cognitive and emotional developments in adolescents are independent of environment and such? Could they have developed faster then from different environmental or cultural forces at work?

    I don’t mean this as a “aha what about?” snotty question, I mean this as a general “I don’t know kind of question”, when I learned about the cognitive development I basically stopped at “That’s why teens are crazy” point and forgot all the details…

  2. Marko,
    Well, you’ve got a good point, but I’d like to ask some “what ifs” myself…

    What if the Industrial Revolution has really changed maturation so that adolescence has been prolonged beyond anything in the ancient world?

    What if living in the Galilee, in the first century, among the poor required assumption of responsiblities at a much younger age?

    And what if such an early arrival for responsibility shifted brain development — or, more likely — what if brain development was much sooner because of the burden of growing up much sooner?

    And what if first century folks didn’t even really know what adolesence was?

    Well, how’s that for rabbinics? You ask me a question and I ask some back? (No, that’s not just Socratic.)

  3. I was fascinated by your use of the term:

    wanting an innocent

    It strikes me that there is a risk in overly romanicizing a 13 year-old – any 13 year-old. Mary was a human being, innocent & capable of evil, smart and still developing. By calling out our modern understanding of aspects of her, I worry that we objectify.

    And that is the non-hypothetical-ness of Mary that makes me as fascinates with the Incarnation as I am with the Resurrection. God took skin – grew in a womb, in the body of a specific young girl. I may consider her the most likely or least likely prospect of this – it actually is beside the point.

    God grew to maturity & then birth in the belly of a woman. That makes my brain hurt hard.

  4. I like what ifs as well.

    What if 13 today is a radically different kind of human being than was 2,000 years ago?

    What if, as Scot points out, that a 13 year old in the first century was not actually an adolescent as we know it, but something else we in the west (and perhaps the rest of the world) have lost?

    What if, the brain development of adolescence as we know it is some kind of symptom of the world we all currently live in rather than something that has always been?

  5. i would tend to agree with scot’s response. there is a lot of basis in his “suppositions” that is grounded in research. and it’s not to say your suppositions are wrong (since we don’t have psychoanalytical data on 13-year old girls from israel 2000 years ago), but we do know how we’re different now in the present compared to middle eastern cultures now in the present. i think if you look at middle eastern 13-year old girls even today, you’d likely find a maturity (theoretically similar to the maturity of their peers 2000 years ago) that exceeds the west’s 13-year olds. i don’t have the research in front of me to back it up, but i know much more is expected of them on the whole than we expect of our own.

  6. In limited missions experience (about 4 years) I saw a huge difference between young teens in third world countries who some had been in the role of mother since pre-teen and teens in north America. I guess the biggest question would be if she would understand the legal and spiritual ramifications of the moment… Would the jewish culture have permitted that kind of spiritual development in a girl?

  7. To echo what everyone else is saying, I think she knew what she was getting into. Sometimes it’s dangerous to look at the culture of Bible times the same way we would look at our 21st century american culture. People back then did grow up a lot quicker than we do these days. However, Marko, I think you are right to an extent. She knew what she was getting into, but she probably hadn’t experienced these stinging reactions before. If she had, she might have flinched a second before accepting such a huge responsability.

  8. Marko,
    …wonderful words and thoughts…

    The first thought that came to mind was “Perhaps this draw to something completly innocent and trusting is exactly what He planned from the begining, maybe it was something so innocent and funloving that was needed to draw us closer to Him (us Catholics are always drawing comparisions between Mary and Eve), and I believe (like you) this is at the heart of what Jesus tells us”

  9. An “average” first century Jew was done with their education at 13 and was learning a trade or getting engaged. A 13 year old would have had the torah memorized, so Mary would have been familar with the “law of bitter waters” (Numbers 5) and death by stoning (Deut 22).

    I would have to conjecture that 13 year olds wouldn’t have the luxury of being self-obsorbed. She was focused on beginning a family. I think it is only in the last 50 years that western teens can sit around for 10+ years and think about their lives.

  10. i really, really, really want to respond to all these great comments and questions, but haven’t had a spare second. i will! hopefully in the next 24 hours!

  11. i’m absolutely fascinated by the responses to this post.

    a few ‘for what it’s worth’ observations:
    1. i sense that maybe i touched a nerve for some of you. that wasn’t my intent at all! i’d really encourage you, if my post DID touch a nerve for you, to ask God what that’s all about. could have NOTHING to do with my post, but God could be trying to reveal himself in some new way.
    2. i’m really, truly intrigued that my protestant friends seemed a tad put-off by my question, and the two responses i received from catholics (one in a comment, one in a private email) were the most positive. i would have expected the opposite, as what i was suggesting MAY have been interpreted as ‘diminishing’ to mary. but in the end, i’m wondering if the protestant (or, specifically, evangelical — though bob c certainly doesn’t fall in that descriptor) response is more about our view of scripture than it is about our view of mary. don’t know — just wondering aloud.

    the most common theme of ‘push back’ seems to be along the lines of (if i can summarize): “we can’t assume anything about the development of a 13 year-old 2000 years ago from looking at today’s young teens.” and “isn’t it possible that the culture then, which didn’t include adolescence, and which expected a maturity out of 13 year-olds that we don’t expect today, would have precipitated a young teen – mary – who would have been fully capable on mature cognitive thought, specifically in the area of quick implication consideration.”

    there’s lots of truth, i think, in these statements. certainly, adolescence (as we know it) didn’t exist then. certainly, young teens had much more expected of them 2000 years ago. certainly, culture has a physiological impact (inlcuding brain development). certainly, we can’t know exactly what the capacity of a 13 year old was 2000 years ago.

    and, really — please hear me on this — i’m just having fun entertaining what i think is a wonderful and unprovable notion that only makes me love God even more! i’m NOT passionately trying to make a claim or defend a position.

    that said: what we DO know about the shift in adolescent development is that the onset of puberty has shifted down. nowhere, ever, have i seen a single developmental specialist suggest that 2000 years ago, 13 year-olds may have been MORE developmentally mature. (i’m sure the responsibilities and cultural expectations of their time brought with it a kind of maturity we don’t often see in kids these days, but i’m talking about brain development.) AND, in other cultures today that our more like that ancient culture, we still don’t find brain development that in any way surpasses our own young teens. in other words, there is just no scientific reason to think that young teens (i’m speaking in age only, since the concept of young teens, obviously, didn’t exist) had more advanced brain development at ANY point in history. kids 10 – 14 suck at abstract thinking and implication-consideration. they always have, and they likely always will.

    mary may have completely understood, in an instant, exactly what she was getting into. but, if that is true, i am a bit forced to believe that that flash of understanding was ALSO part of a ‘gift’ from God in some way or another.

  12. oh, and scot — i loved your notion that mary was ‘dangerous’ (in the way you upacked that word). i was just telling jeannie last night that one of my favorite parts of the book — and the biggest ‘new’ idea to me — was the significant role you believe mary played in the early church. i’d never thought of that, and you built a great case.

  13. Marko,
    Interesting thoughts. But wouldn’t you say that the content of Mary’s song reveals a little more maturity than the typical 13yr old?


  14. “and, really — please hear me on this — i’m just having fun entertaining what i think is a wonderful and unprovable notion…”
    Yes,indeed. You and McKnight do well in a kind of wooden literal style and often miss the meaning of Mary and her words for today’s world and, especially, for the church’s collaberation with violence in order to bring about good.

  15. As to why Jesus was accepted in the synagogue, maybe the good folk of Nazareth never knew. Since we’re playing “what if,” let me explore an idea.

    What if Mary found out, told Joseph, and, after he made his decision not to “put her away quietly,” she goes to visit Elizabeth. When she leaves, she and Joseph go to Bethlehem. They could have been here up to two years (based on Herod’s apparent timeline from the Magi). Then to Egypt. By the time they got back to Nazareth, Jesus is thought to have been conceived and born during their time away.

    That might explain how Jesus was accepted in the village. It also goes along with God looking out for those who love and serve Him. He cared for Mary by getting her around the situation.

    What do you think?

  16. Thanks, Marko, for the post. Scott’s book is really good, and I’ve enjoyed the comments.

    Another “what if” I have recently pondered (and even preached on a week ago): “What if Mary had said, ‘No.'” Or to put it better, how many houses did Gabriel visit that night before he found someone willing to accept God’s invitation? This would fit in with your assertation about 13-year-olds being incredibly self-centered and what we now know developmentally about them. Perhaps Mary really was the exception in that she was willing to say “yes” to the immediate request, even if she was unable to process the deeper implications. But her response is all we can ever ask of anyone–regardless of their age–the ability to say “yes” at any given time that God calls even if we don’t understand what that means for our future.

    Just something to think about. Have a blessed Christmas!

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