The Gospel According to Mary: An Exercise in Stating the Obvious

An excerpt from my new book in collaboration with Kelly.

How obvious can it get? The Gospel according to Luke is the Gospel according to Mary! The first two chapters of Luke were virtually Mary’s story: it’s about the angel giving her the announcement, her thoughts, and the subsequent interactions with Elizabeth. Given that, why not have Mary tell the rest of the stories when she was there all the way to the start of the book of Acts.
To get the bigger picture of the gospel of Luke, we make a quick sidetrack to see why it is part of the canon and how it fits alongside the other gospels: Matthew, Mark, and John. It is generally accepted that Mark was written first, then possibly Matthew, then Luke, and later, John. Also observed was Matthew and Luke, used Mark as the template to build upon; Mark has sixteen chapters of Jesus doing things while the two adds sermons and stories. These three gospels form what is known as the Synoptic Gospels (“seeing together”). John was written at least a full decade later whichever time frame scholars try to put it in.

What gets them included in the canon and not get rejected like the Gnostic Gospels is the authority behind each: Matthew and John were part of the original twelve disciples and were eyewitnesses, while Mark is associated with Peter who may have provided the material with which he would write, arrange, and present his gospel. The technical term used by scholars is “redactor” and there is a formal study to make sense of this called “redaction criticism”. The language and patterns in Mark’s gospel feel too like Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. The gospels of Matthew and John were not unbiased presentation of their story either, they have a theme and editorializing as they present their gospel to a particular audience.

Then there is the gospel according to Luke. St. Luke—on the scale of things—is an obscure figure being mentioned only a couple of times. In Colossians, Paul mentions that he is a doctor, which hints to some level of education. Luke is not an eyewitness and he is not associated with one either. He is associated with and is a disciple of Paul. And Paul was not an eyewitness either—unless you count on the possibility of him being present at the crucifixion as one of the Pharisees who had Jesus nailed on the cross! 

Luke begins by saying that he did some investigative research which involved interviews of “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2) with a particular audience named Theophilus. Theophilus does not appear anywhere else in the bible; the closest possible person is the mayor of Luke’s hometown (Antioch). The other gospels, while not naming their audience has a look and feel to them from which you can guess who they were meant for, and not for one person.

Scholars would like to put the Synoptics side by side to make sense of the similarities and difference. Mark has the baseline information where his materials carry over almost into both Matthew and Luke; while the latter two has materials unique to them. There are hardly any questions to stuff unique to Matthew, acknowledging that he is an eyewitness and can draw from his memory things that Mark did not write in.

Luke has materials unique to his gospels that many scholars wonder where they came from. Seems like they do not want to take that “interview” at face value, but as I mentioned earlier, that is the debate I do not want to go to. Many, presuming that Luke (or someone else) wrote this later when there were no living witnesses, points to a missing document called “Q” (from quelle; German for “source”) from where the author got his materials.

Luke said that his account has been handed down to “by those from the first were eye-witnesses and servants of the word” (Luke 1:2). That was from the NIV, the ESV qualifies it with “from the beginning were eyewitnesses” (italics mine). Which beginning? The start of Jesus’ ministry? Or, the very very very beginning? As in, the conception of Jesus?

Along that line of thought, who in Luke first said or took that role? “Behold, I am a servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38). Those little hints seem to say that Mary isn’t just one of those witnesses or servants of the word, it feels like it is SCREAMING that Mary is THE witness and servant of the word! It almost sounds James Bond-ish, but Mary is Q (although in the context of 2020 something, “Q” has taken a nefarious meaning).

So, first two chapters are intimately personal and passionate that no male scribe could have captured those details and emotions. When Mary responds to the original greeting about being favored, everything oozes with her wit and sense of humor. The bible’s stiff formal language or translations misses everything: “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” makes for a great meme material: 

That said, what is to keep Mary from telling the rest of the story? After all, she was there every step of the way. She was present in the journey from Galilee to Judea. Luke singles her out among many other women in the first “business” meeting of the disciples in Acts 1 (now that we’re here –did Mary contribute to the Acts of the Apostles or what that wholly Luke’s doing?). Then among the unique stories found in Luke, are stories about women or from the point of view of women that are completely absent in the other gospels. It must be a result of a woman’s insider perspective missed and ignored by other male witnesses.

But more than just being the source of the stories, Mary is also the editor (redactor) of Luke. For the longest time, Luke is associated with servanthood and discipleship. Among the metaphorical figures assigned the gospels: Matthew is represented by a man, Mark by a lion, John by an eagle and Luke by an ox—a beast of burden: passive, docile and in the service of the farmer. Mary bookends that theme in the beginning when she said, “…let it be to me according to your word…”) and in the end, through her son, “…your will be done…”. In her own narrative, she recalls the two occasions where her son puts more value in obedience that motherhood, because that is how she would have it anyway (Rosemary Dewerse 2004).

“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).
“As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breast at which you nursed!’ But he said, ‘Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’” (Luke 11:27-28)

Rosemary Dewerse points out that Jesus said “my mother and my brothers” after talking about the Parable of the Sower where he defines the good soil as “those, who hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). “Hearing and holding fast in the heart” is an echo of Mary “pondering in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). Add to that the adventure of thirty years before her son ventures into his ministry. Mary counts as first among the good soil.

She provided the narrative, edited the material and now she sets the theological tone.

For the longest time, Luke has always been—for me—the poor imitation of Matthew (yeah…because you read Matthew first—duh). There are gems like the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, the teaching on prayer in Luke 11, and the parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son in Luke 15. Yet somehow, they are like disconnected dots in a kid’s color book. I could not connect the dots.

The other gospels have a preamble or a key to decrypt their message. Jesus’ announcement of the good news of the Kingdom being at hand in Mark 1:14-15, describes everything else that follows. Matthew establishes Jesus as the son of Abraham and the son of David. God promised Abraham a seed (son) who will bless all nations and David a son who will run a kingdom. So Jesus talks and walks accordingly and in the end says “all authority (kingdom) has been given to me, go make disciples of all nations”. Then understand what John 1:1-14 and the lights go on as to who Jesus is in his gospel. The dots connect and you get to see the picture. But I had trouble finding Luke’s key or preamble.

Was it Jesus’ opening speech in Luke 4:18-19 where he quotes Isaiah? Somehow by just reciting what someone else said and a brief commentary that is an abbreviated version of the Beatitudes found in Matthew gives the impression that Luke is just a poor shadow of Matthew.

But then we are trained to ignore one person and what she had to say.

“‘My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.’” (Luke 1:46-55 ESV)

Mary’s Magnificat is the preamble to understanding Luke, and with it, she sets the theological tone that would connect the dots. It makes sense now that Jesus opens with Isaiah 61:1-2:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. to set at liberty those who are oppressed. to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19).

Those are the great things that the Lord has done that Mary sings about. The Beatitudes in Luke sound the way they do: “blessed are the poor” and “woe to the rich” because he has brought down the mighty and exalted those who are humble at heart!

So, what did Luke actually do? Well, he was the one who wrote it down. We can only guess on Mary's own writing skill but to have a doctor as your secretary in that day and age was a big deal. Whichever or whatever the case, Luke is still instrumental in getting this out; even Peter and Paul had their own secretaries who wrote certain epistles for them.