New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #2


So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.

The question(s): The angelic appearances to Zacharias and Mary form a gender pair. You will find it quite useful to compare these two visitations in detail. Compare the locations of the two announcements, the life situations of the recipients, and the words used by the angel. Then consider the following questions: Why do Zacharias and Mary respond differently to the angel? Why does Mary believe but Zacharias does not? Is this what you would expect from a priest and a young woman? Compare verses 12 and 29. Are their reactions substantively different? Compare verse 18 with verse 34. How are their questions different? Why does the angel respond differently to their questions? What do you learn about asking questions from this example? Why does Luke present this gender pair?

(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)

The Gospel of Luke contains many “gender pairs,” meaning that two stories–one about a man and one about a woman–are paired. The first of these pairs occurs in this week’s Gospel Doctrine reading with the experiences of Zacharias and Mary.

First, it is important to realize how radical the mere existence of these gender pairs are. The meta-message is that women and men are equal and (literally) comparable in Jesus’ life story. That’s a big deal in context. Some people like to disparage what they call “political correctness,” but I think it is significant that Luke went way out of his way to suggest equal representation between men and women and to point out that they would have similar experiences in relation to the Savior. If we were to model our teaching on Luke’s method of teaching, we would ensure that we taught in such a way that all members of the audience realized that the stories about Jesus were relevant to them. (I recently heard third-hand about a little girl’s happily overwhelmed reaction to a story in The Friend about a family with a step-father who was not a member of the church: “Mom, there is a story about a family just like ours!” It matters when you see [or don’t see] people like you and families like yours.)

Second, this pair is particularly interesting. Not just because it launches the story of Jesus, but also because of the different social locations of Zacharias (elderly priest) and Mary (young and of no status). So this isn’t just about gender but about social location as well. Despite their different backgrounds, both are invited to the table.

Where this gets really interesting, though, is in their different responses: Mary, after getting her question answered, models humble acceptance, while Zacharias’ question is rather different and results in an unfortunate consequence. Asking questions is not a problem here; rather, the type of questions that are asked leads to radically different outcomes. Zacharias’ question suggests that he doesn’t accept the angel as a legitimate source of knowledge; Mary’s question suggests that she needs some details filled in before she can move forward, but that she does accept the angel’s legitimacy.

More on gender pairs here (sorry about the formatting) and more about the unique role of women throughout history in shaping doctrine through songs of praise, as Mary does, here.


10 comments for “New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson #2

  1. Bruce
    January 6, 2015 at 6:55 pm

    I like this concept of ‘gender pairs;’ something I am going to watch for. Thank you. May I ask a question about Zacharias? Throughout my life, I have read that passage not as disbelief, but somewhere between astonishment and asking an honest question. Strong’s Concordance doesn’t shine too much light as the translation of ‘troubled’ still comes out as ‘troubled’; as in disturbed; an inward commotion. I see the difference between Mary’s acceptance and Zacharias’ asking questions more of a difference in their ages and life experience than their faith. Mary was young and accepting, while Zacharias was older, knew how things worked for having babies, and so he asks – “How’s that going to work when Elizabeth is past that age?’. Just my thoughts and questions. :-)

  2. Julie M. Smith
    January 6, 2015 at 7:14 pm

    Bruce, I see the difference stemming from the nature of the questions which they ask: Z’s question is “how can I know this?” or “how can I be sure of this?” which sounds as if he doesn’t trust/believe the angel. Mary, on the other hand, asks, “how exactly is that going to work?” So I guess I see the questions as the opposite of what you propose–Mary trusts the messenger and wants details; Z doesn’t. I have a hard time reading Z’s question as astonishment/honest question since the angel explains that it stemmed from a lack of belief and because Z is punished for it.

  3. Brbuce
    January 6, 2015 at 7:29 pm

    Thank you, Julie – I needed to read a little further, didn’t I? :-) that’s what I get for rushing.

  4. MargaretOH
    January 7, 2015 at 2:25 pm

    This is so helpful, Julie. Thank you. I wonder what you think about the idea that Mary’s vision of Gabriel was not her first angelic visitation? In the Dec. 1974 Ensign Robert Matthews writes this:

    “Apocryphal writings of the early Christian era present a significant and recurring theme about a substantial period of spiritual preparation in Mary’s life in the years before she conceived Jesus. They speak of her being tutored by angels and having other spiritual manifestations. (See Chapters 1 and 4–9, The Lost Books of the Bible, New York, The World Publishing Company, 1926. See also “The Gospel of Bartholomew,” part 2, The Apocryphal New Testament, M. R. James, translator, Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1969, pp. 170–72.) These manifestations were also said to have occurred prior to the visit of the Angel Gabriel.

    Many details of these writings assuredly are not accurate; even so, the idea is probably correct that Mary received spiritual preparation and education for some time prior to the personal manifestation of the Father to her.”

    Perhaps this helps explain her response?

  5. Julie M. Smith
    January 7, 2015 at 6:41 pm

    MargaretOH, I’m glad you find it helpful.

    It is interesting to wonder whether this was or was not Mary’s first angelic visitation. The scriptural record is silent, however, and so I don’t like to speculate. And I consider looking at the apocrypha speculation–I suspect that using the apocrypha for historical information would yield something useful maybe 5% of the time.

  6. Zachary Frentheway
    January 8, 2015 at 8:58 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with Julie M. Smith about the apocrypha and other such sources. I suspect that when we read it we should do so as was it was prescribed to Joseph Smith “by revelation” or by the Spirit of the Holy Ghost as “by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truthfulness of all things;” even if there’s only 5% truth in the subject. With reference to Mary’s spiritual knowledge and her receiving multiple revelations I would look at her story as I do all accounts in scripture. Part of the point I believe Bruce is illustrating is the detailed accounts of two very different people with respects to rank in society, rank in the church, age, and even gender. In short, Luke’s accounts were so vast that any audience reading might personally identify respectively with the times and get something personally needed from the material. I believe Mary received preparations spiritually a lot like you and I.

  7. Walter van Beek
    January 10, 2015 at 5:13 am

    Nice post, Julie, congratulations. I look forward to more of these.
    One question: the record is from Luke, written by him, and he is the only one. He must have heard and read tales and stories that floated around, orally first, written later, after which he has given their eventual form as the wonderful stories of his first two chapters. From a narratological viewpoint – which I think is more correct here than a historic one – are not the differences between Mary and Zachariah an expression of the general cultural – even male – view on gender differences?

    Walter van Beek

  8. Julie M. Smith
    January 10, 2015 at 7:51 am

    Walter, that’s a fascinating question.

    I’d suggest that the willingness to legitimate Mary’s story by paralleling it with that of a priest would not reflect then-current gender norms which delegitimated women’s experiences to the point where there was debate over whether women could serve as witnesses in court. Further, the fact that Mary ends her encounter as the better of Z (because he is punished by she is praised) ends up being rather subversive to cultural expectations re gender.

    Having said that, I think in general, if not in this story, Luke’s main approach to gender is to elevate women by honoring traditionally female roles which, by comparison, Mark’s is to elevate women by permitting them to enter men’s roles, shows that in general your suggestion is correct, although perhaps not so much evidenced in this case.

  9. January 19, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    My stake already had Stake Conference, so we had this lesson yesterday. While I love the insight of the gender pairs, I still have trouble with comparing the two questions and how everyone is concluding that one was more righteous than the other.
    Perhaps is just the Kings James English, or my chauvinistic caveman showing, but I really think that Zacharias’s question is ‘better’. He asked, “Whereby shall I know this?”. To me that sounds really close to “How can I know this is true?”; and isn’t that exactly what we want everyone to be asking? “How can I know the Book of Mormon is true?”, “How can I know Joseph Smith was a prophet?”, etc. He’s saying “This sounds too good to be true, and I really want it to be true. I’m ready to believe you. Can I really get my hopes up?” If Gabriel gave the Sunday School answer of “Pray about it”, I suspect that Zacharias would have, and gotten a confirmation of the truth.
    But Mary asks “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” Mary’s question is more of a rhetorical question, and even more of a statement. I really think it could be reworded into todays vernacular as “Ummm… that’s not possible; I haven’t had sex yet.”
    I think we see the difference responses to Gabriel and then proof text the questions to fit some sort of cause an effect narrative that we’re comfortable with. Perhaps it was so important that John be named John and the only way it was going to happen would have been through the whole smitten dumb, then talk again miracle, that Zacharias’s question didn’t matter.
    Or it could be possible that the Lord had different standards/expectations for Mary and Zacharias. Zacharias: High Priest, educated in scriptures, long life of experience learning about how the gospel works.
    Mary: young, of low standing, probably not educated.
    So it’s possible that Mary asked a more punishment worthy question, but since the expectations were lower it didn’t matter.
    I like this post, I’ll certainly be looking for more pairings, but I don’t come to the same conclusion that everyone else does of which question was more righteous than the other.

  10. Julie M. Smith
    January 19, 2015 at 1:15 pm


    Here’s how I think about it: Z is looking at an angel and saying “how can I know that your message is true?” So he is, in effect, telling the angel that he doesn’t believe him or trust him. We may even be able to say that he is denying that it is an angel (although I admit that might be pushing it, esp given v12). That’s a problem, I think. And I think it explains the disparate responses to their questions.

    That said, I like your thinking, even if I don’t agree with your conclusions!

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