Luke 1:31 records the angel telling Mary, "you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus." Mary's question in reply shows mystification or surprise; it's clear she understands this is impossible in normal terms.

Yet when I read the statement, I don't see a need to assume anything will happen immediately or that there will be a "virgin birth". I think it would be natural to conclude she'll bear a child, our Messiah, in the course of marriage.

Why did Mary understand the significance?

  • You're certainly omitting the immediate context. See, especially, Luke 1:34-35.
    – user862
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 17:03
  • I omitted it in the sense of not quoting fully, but I don't see your point as applied to my question. Can you help further?
    – Smandoli
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 17:09
  • When you say Mary's question in reply shows mystification or surprise," which verse are you referring to?
    – user862
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 18:41
  • @H3br3wHamm3r81 surely v34? Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 18:43

5 Answers 5


We know from verse 34 that Mary does understand Gabriel's message to mean she would have a miraculous conception, as you allude to in your question:

34And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Luke 1, ESV

But it is not clear from the preceeding text how Mary knows that, as you say.

I think it is helpful to bear in mind here that although Luke aims "to write an orderly account", that does not mean he will necessarily aim to include every detail of every event: this is still a narrative, and the intent is that the reader would "have certainty concerning the things you have been taught" rather than a detailed timeline of events.

It is of course possible that other words were exchanged between Gabriel and Mary that he does not report, or that something about the tone or manner of his words or his expression made Mary understand his meaning, or indeed that she was simply directly given insight and understanding at the right time: but Luke chooses not to tell us because he has left no ambiguity about the facts he is concerned with communicating.

The miraculous nature of Jesus conception is in contrast with the 'less-miraculous' nature of John's conception that is interwoven in the narrative: Luke is trying very hard to tell us something about the nature of the child to be born, and not so much about Mary and what she knew and when.


Three possibilities have been suggested:

  1. Mary deduced she was the woman in Isaiah's prophesy from the way Gabriel addressed her

  2. Gabriel said other things to Mary that Luke didn't record, since what Mary knew and when she knew it wasn't that important (accepted answer as of 11/27/17)

  3. Mary had taken a vow of virginity - not documented in the Gospel account, but recorded elsewhere (Protoevangelium of James) - and so knew that she would always remain a virgin

The first explanation seems to have some appeal since it does not assume that there is anything outside of the canonical Scriptures needed to explain her reaction.

The second explanation maintains there was something relevant that took place that remained undocumented in the canonical Scriptures, but the events were so unimportant relative to the Gospel account that no one ever bothered to write them down.

The third explanation is similar to the second, but it maintains that the additional relevant events were, in fact, documented, but not in the canonical Scriptures.

I find the bias against the third explanation in favor of the second a little hard to understand. While not included in the canonical Scriptures, neither was the Protoevangelium considered to belong to the class of heretical writings explicitly rejected by the Church. It is a document that dates to the second century, survives in over 140 Greek manuscripts, and is considered an important part of written Church tradition - not on the level of the New Testament to be sure, but certainly on the level of some of the other writings of the post-Apostolic period (e.g. Hermas, Didache). Rather than even admitting the existence of some non-Scriptural writings that might be relevant, the second explanation essentially sweeps all the messy details under the carpet and postulates that no one ever wrote down anything.

One's disposition to one or the other of the explanations will depend strongly, I think, on one's hermeneutic principles. If one accepts only a hermeneutical system that absolutely rejects any writing produced outside of Scripture to aid in interpreting Scripture, then I suppose that one must accept the first or perhaps the second explanation. (Such a hermeneutical system begs the question, however, of how Scripture authenticates its own canon without recourse to any external agent). If one is somewhat disposed, however, to interpret Scripture in light of how it seemed to be interpreted by the early Church (which itself originated the canon of Scripture), then perhaps writings like the Protoevangelium might be of some value.


There is an ancient tradition in the eastern Churches that Mary had made a vow of virginity when young and served in some special capacity at the Temple (Zacharias, her uncle, Scripture tells us, was a priest). This is one explanation that is sometimes given for Mary having known that she would conceive as a virgin and not in the course of wedlock.

Certain details of her childhood are recounted in the Apocryphal Protoevangelion of James, a 2nd century work that was widely read, but not included in the canon of the New Testament (mostly because it related to only Mary). Parts of the account seem somewhat fantastical, but they are actually not much more fantastical than the Annunciation account in Luke.

Anyone who visits Nazareth immediately notices all sorts of references to "Mary's well", including an Arab taxi stand so named. Arab Christians and Muslims in the area both hold that Mary was visited by Gabriel while fetching water from a well (there are two wells in town: one in the town center, where the Muslims claim the event took place; and one in the basement grotto of an old Arab Orthodox Christian Church, where some Christians claim it took place). The only written reference to something like this having happened is in the Protoevangelium.

Some additional background on the Protoevangelium of James is here.

  • There doesn't seem to be anything is Gabriel's greeting and proclamation that suggests Mary was serving at the Temple or belonged to such a vow, especially as she was already betrothed to Joseph. The OP asked about Gabriel's greeting.
    – MutluAnne
    Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 23:02
  • @MutluAnne, the title question was indeed, "Does Gabriel's initial announcement to Mary suggest the virgin birth?" However, the body of the post also poses the question, "Why did Mary understand the significance?" You can agree or disagree that the Protoevangelium is in any way relevant, but it is, in fact, one explanation for how Mary could have understood the significance of Gabriel's prediction.
    – user33515
    Commented Nov 28, 2017 at 1:44

All of Abraham's descendants were longing for Messiah, weren't they? The Roman occupation, combined with God's roughly 400 year silence and the timing laid out in certain prophesies for Messiah's birth would have had at least some people thinking that the time of His visitation was at hand.

If Mary's relatives were considered righteous and blameless before God (Zechariah and Elizabeth), and familiar with what a priest and his wife would know of the Old Testament, is it too much to think that Mary would have been familiar with Isaiah 7?

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (14)

Matthew quotes it in his Gospel:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matthew 1:23)

It seems that at least some in Israel would still have been teaching the next generation, according to Deuteronomy 6. They were to teach their children, not only sons. Though sons were favored for deeper discussion, daughters would have overheard many conversations as well, as they took place in and around the home and along life's way.


Does Gabriel's initial announcement to Mary suggest the virgin birth?

No, it does not. Mary's question proves that it was not made clear to her that there would be a virgin (i.e. miraculous) conception.

For one glaring reason.

She specifically cites the reason she sees it is impossible: an intention to remain a virgin, even in marriage.

More specifically, even though she is betrothed to Joseph, and thus to go to have children with him, eliminating any mystery of how she will "concieve,"Lk 1:31 she cites a reason at odds with having a child, that is:

How shall this be, since I know not man?Lk 1:34

To 'know' man is a well-known Hebraism, a euphemism for sexual intercourse.e.g. Gn 4:1

So Mary is in fact saying, 'How shall this be, since I do not have sex.'

Clearly, Mary knew that sex was required to concieve children (claims that she didn't know how babies were made are absolutely ridiculous), hence why she brings up sexual intercourse at all in relaton to concieving and having a son.

Thus Mary's question, semantically equates to:

'How is this conception possible, if I am remain to remain virgin?'

The angel's answer is such that it seems to take her question exactly that way. Namely, he provides the means of conception, as she asks for:

Luke 1:35 (ASV)

And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also the holy thing which is begotten shall be called the Son of God.

That is, an alternative to 'knowing man.' One wonders, if we are to hold she went on to have children anyway way a) she raised the point at all or b) Scriptures nowhere tell Mary to not have relations, nor Joseph.

Since going on to have children is incompatible with her question, we must conclude, as the early Church believed, that she intended to remian virgin.

To refine this even further, specifically, Mary must mean by 'man' Joseph (even though we know it is a euphemism, and 'man' has no referent—in marriage it certainly does), to whom she was betrothed (and at that time, for all intents and purpsoes, married). 'Knowing' another man is absolutely out of the question in marriage, obviously. So Mary's question actually means, 'How shall I concieve this child, if Joseph and I do not have sexual relations?'

None of this makes sense if:

  • She intended to go on to have relations with Joseph.

  • She had been told it would be a miraculous (virgin) birth.

The early Christian Church was unanimous also that Mary didn't have other children, and understood it this way.1

1 Jerome, The Perpetual Virginity of Mary, 18; Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Generation of Christ, 5; Augustine, Sermons, 186; cf. Summa Theologiae, III.28.3

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