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What Child Is This?

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, angels announced the Messiah’s birth to local shepherds (Lk 2:8-14). The shepherds then went to Bethlehem to see the baby for themselves, relating what the angels had said to the divinely chosen couple. For Mary, the news from the shepherds confirmed what she had been told previously about the identity of her son (Lk 1:30-33). Luke reports that Mary “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19).

What did it mean for Mary to “treasure” and “ponder”?

Biblical scholar Scot McKnight explains, “These are standard words in Judaism for thinking about events in one’s life so one could make sense of and narrate what God was doing in history.”(1) Mary wanted to understand what was happening so that she could proclaim the good news to others, clearly. She was one of the first to announce the Gospel, starting even before Jesus was born (Lk 1:46-55).

There was much more for Mary to ponder as the boy grew up. At age twelve, Jesus showed himself to be right at home in the Temple courts in Jerusalem during the Passover season, holding his own in discussions of the Scriptures with the sages of Israel (Lk 2:40-51). Luke notes that afterward Mary once again “treasured up all these things in her heart” (v. 51).

As she thought deeply about what had happened, perhaps she recognized a fulfillment of prophecies like Isa 11:1-2, which says the Messiah would possess “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” She also may have begun to realize that her son would one day be her teacher.

Luke’s portrayal of Jesus and Mary in Luke 2 brings together two biblical motifs. One involves precocious children whose conceptions were miraculous. The second is about servants of God who treasure and ponder divine revelation.

Both motifs are also present in the Genesis account of Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel, whose birth was an answer to prayer (Ge 30:22-24). When he was about seventeen, Joseph had some unusual dreams. He summarized one of them this way: “Behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me” (Ge 37:9).

Since Joseph had eleven brothers, Jacob could see what the dream symbolized and was surprised. “What is this dream that you have dreamed?” he asked Joseph. “Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” (v. 10) Still, Jacob had experience with messages from God that came in dreams (Ge 28:12-15; 31:11-13), so he “kept the saying in mind” (v. 11). Like Mary, he reflected on the event and what the future might bring for his talented son.

Luke 2 makes an implicit comparison between Mary and Jesus on the one hand, and Jacob and Joseph on the other. Luke also compares Jesus and Mary to the prophet Samuel and his mother, Hannah. Mary’s expression of rejoicing in Lk 1:46-55 is similar to Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving after the birth of Samuel (1 Sa 2:1-10).

Both Mary and Hannah declare that God humbles the proud and exalts the humble.

Like Mary and her husband Joseph, Hannah and Elkanah made regular pilgrimages to worship God (1 Sa 1:3; Lk 2:41), and Samuel’s boyhood service under Eli the priest (1 Sa 2:11) looks ahead to Jesus’ experience at the Temple. Luke emphasizes the connection between Samuel and Jesus when he writes in Luke 2:52 that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man,” a reference to 1 Samuel 2:26.

The treasuring and pondering motif appears again in the seventh chapter of Daniel, where Daniel saw visions of four great beasts representing four kingdoms, followed by the “everlasting dominion” of “one like a son of man.” After seeing these visions and hearing them explained, Daniel confessed that “my thoughts greatly alarmed me, and my color changed, but I kept the matter in my heart” (v. 28).

Daniel treasured and pondered these revelations, and Mary followed in Daniel's footsteps when she became the mother of the divine Son of Man.

There are additional examples of this motif in the Jewish literature of the Second Temple period.(2) One comes from the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a fictional work that pictures the deathbed advice of the sons of Jacob to their descendants. Levi, in his testimony, describes a heavenly vision in which he is told by the Most High, “I have given thee the blessings of the priesthood until I come and sojourn in the midst of Israel” (T. Levi 5:2). After the vision, Levi says, “And I kept these words in my heart” (T. Levi 6:2).

In treasuring and pondering the revelation she received concerning her special son, Mary was in good company, joining the likes of Jacob, Hannah, Daniel, and Levi. We are blessed as we follow their example of probing the meaning of God’s Word and God’s work in our lives. The blessings of such dedicated study are described by Jesus ben Sirach, a sage of the second century B.C., in Sirach 39:1-11. When one is devoted to study, Sirach says, “The Lord will direct his counsel and knowledge, as he meditates on his mysteries” (v. 7).

Jesus of Nazareth gives a similar picture in his description of the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, who is “like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt 13:52).

  1. The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus, Paraclete Press, 2007.

  2. Several examples are discussed Andrew B. Perrin in "Greek Gospels and Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls: Compositional, Conceptual, and Cultural Intersections," Open Theology 6 (2020), pp. 440-456.


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