In Luke 1, we read very similar accounts of two births foretold. In the first, the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son to be named John. In the second, Mary is told by Gabriel that she will conceive a son, Jesus. Both seem to respond in a similar manner to the angel. Compare:

18Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."

34"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

Luke 1:18, 34 (NIV)

In response to Zechariah, the angel silences him until the time of John's birth; but in response to Mary the angel addresses her question by giving an explanation that the Spirit will overshadow her. What would account for the disparate reactions by the angel Gabriel to their questions?

  • Okay, maybe not quite related to silence, but close enough. :)
    – Soldarnal
    Commented Dec 2, 2011 at 21:59
  • This has also been asked on the Christianity site. Commented Dec 15, 2011 at 22:13
  • 3
    I think Zechariah needs a PROOF while MARY was simply asking the Angel for the PROCESSwith which it will comeby
    – user769
    Commented Sep 20, 2012 at 7:04
  • "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" - A very awkward question coming form a young woman engaged to be married (Luke 1:26-27).
    – Lucian
    Commented Aug 4, 2017 at 4:42

8 Answers 8


Their responses seem similar and I don't believe it's possible to examine the language and come with the phrasing that leads to the rebuke. His mirrors Gen 15:8 which is not received as harshly.

In comparison with Mary's response while hers seems more technical ("How is this going to happen?" - which perhaps implies a belief in something supernatural happening since she's about to be married) whereas Zechariah's response is a request for a sign (of which there are several Old Testament examples which do not receive as harsh a response). Zechariah's response does seem to question the integrity of the messenger though.

But beyond the "don't irritate and angel of the Lord" possibilities, I think one has to look beyond the form of his response and assume more information about the quality of the response is involved than that which Luke gives. Obviously in the framework of Luke's work and thought God is omnipotent, omniscient and just and this characteristic is to be presumed to be in effect through his messengers.

Zechariah didn't trust God, Mary did.

  • Good answer. The other thing that strikes me about Mary's question is that it seems to come out of no where. It's not clear why, being already betrothed, she wouldn't assume this son would come from Joseph after they were married. Whereas both Abram and Zechariah have reasons to doubt.
    – Soldarnal
    Commented Dec 3, 2011 at 17:27
  • Maybe God was checking the influence on the community of Zechariah's doubt, rather than chastising him.
    – Smandoli
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 16:24
  • Soldarnal, about your question in comment above, see hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/3964/1975.
    – Smandoli
    Commented Jun 15, 2013 at 21:00

Gabriel seems to be the same person who visited Daniel to explain the meaning of his visions. Since those visions were very troubling, Gabriel's message was welcome and an answer to prayer.

Gabriel also visited Zechariah as he served at the altar of incense in the Temple. In that case, Gabriel was there to explain how and why Zechariah's wife, Elizabeth, would conceive. Since the couple was old and childless, the message was certainly good news. Zechariah's response seems very similar to Abraham's and Sarah's:

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”—Genesis 17:17 (ESV)

So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”—Genesis 18:12 (ESV)

To a reader with any familiarity of Genesis, the theme of God providing a child to a childless couple would be an obvious connection. To a priest with familiarity of the Tanakh, a number of additional stories of God providing children should have come to mind. So Gabriel seems pretty justified in making Zechariah temporarily dumb "because you did not believe my words".

Now the coming of an angel must have been confounding to her and the message itself would not have been as welcome to an unmarried, betrothed, possibly teenage girl as it would have been to Elizabeth:

And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”—Luke 1:30-33 (ESV)

I've emphasized the verbs, which indicate that a whole series of events will begin with her conceiving a son and ending with the Kingdom Gabriel had foretold to Daniel. It's not phrased as an offer, but as a certainty. That's quite a bit to absorb and so her question is natural and (perhaps a bit surprisingly) gets right to the crux of the problem:

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

She isn't so much questioning if the prophesy will come about, as she is questioning what the first step will be. She's asking the "Now what happens?" question. Now she might have recalled Isaiah 7:14 and understood it as a prophesy of a virgin conceiving, but that seems unlikely. Unlike the mairead of examples of barren women providing their aging husbands with children, the Tanakh doesn't offer many cases of unmarried women giving birth. The cultural normative was to remain a virgin until marriage. So her question was likely intended to get direction about how to proceed with her engagement.

Perhaps more to the point, Luke's Greek and Roman readers, would likely have connected the story to the many myths about Zeus seducing or raping mortal women. Mark avoided the issue by starting the story with Jesus as an adult, John takes a highly philosophical approach that also avoids details of the nativity, and Matthew focuses on Joseph's response to the news rather than Mary's. So Luke was the only early account that took on the difficulty of the virgin birth head on.

His solution is to describe the moment of Mary's conception as a creation event:

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”—Luke 1:35-37 (ESV)

The callback would be to the first chapter of Genesis:

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.—Genesis 1:2 (ESV)

Mary remains a virgin because the Spirit of God creates the child ex nihilo. He will "be called holy—the Son of God", not because His mother is untainted by sex, but because God caused Him to be created in a unique way and without violating Mary. Notice that the definite tone continues: these events will happen. But Mary takes the opportunity to give her assent to the arraignment:

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.—Luke 1:38 (ESV)

Gabriel didn't ask, but Mary behaves as if he had given her an option. Again, this diffuses the possibility of a rape scenario. Luke further emphasizes Mary's willingness to go along with the plan and her acknowledgment of God's blessing to her in the rest of the chapter (especially The Magnificat). It's also helpful to contrast Zechariah's unbelief with Mary in order to highlight her faithful response.


Zechariah responses to welcome, good news with unbelief. Mary responds to troubling news with first with practicality and faithfulness in the end.


Humility is a key difference between Mary's response and Zechariah’s response to Gabriel. Where Mary expressed humility Zechariah expressed doubt.

In Luke 1:29 (NLT), it describes Mary as "confused and disturbed" in her response to Gabriel's greeting in verse 28, "Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!"

Her feeling of being confused and disturbed is an understandable result of humility and fear from being called a “favored woman” by Gabriel who needed no introduction as to who he was. As we see in verse 30 Gabriel says, “Don’t be afraid, Mary” after he sees her reaction to his presence. Gabriel told Zechariah to not be afraid as well in response to him being "overwhelmed with fear" (1:13). Zechariah’s response of overwhelming fear can be seen as an act of humility or being humbled. This reaction of fear or being disturbed by Gabriel is also seen in the book of Daniel as well. In Daniel 8:17 it says, "As Gabriel approached the place where I was standing, I became so terrified that I fell with my face to the ground." Maybe it's his appearance or maybe it’s the fashion in which he becomes known, but Daniel, Zechariah and Mary all show some kind of distress as they become aware of Gabriel's presence. So, to this point in both Zechariah’s and Mary’s interactions with Gabriel we have similar initial reactions of fear and a form of humility. However, Zechariah doesn't show humility with his response to the news Gabriel brings whereas Mary does.

Once Gabriel tells each of them the reason for his appearance, their responses at first glance might seem similar but their hearts behind their responses are totally different.

Zechariah's response: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” (ESV)

Zechariah’s response is one of doubt. He hears and acknowledges what Gabriel is proclaiming to him but he is looking for something to hang his hat on, he wants a little more proof. He then gives his reasoning for doubt by telling Gabriel that he is an “old man” and his wife is “advanced in years.”

Mary's response: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (ESV)

Mary’s response is of humble confusion not doubt. She has a legitimate question about this news from Gabriel. She is an unwed, engaged to be married virgin. Short of a miracle, it’s physically impossible for her to become pregnant as a virgin. Never in the history of mankind had there been a story told of a woman becoming pregnant as a virgin. It is something that is extremely hard to wrap ones mind around. Once Gabriel explained to her how it is possible (1:35), Mary’s response of acceptance (1:38) tells us where her heart is when she says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Bottom line, Mary is not questioning if Gabriel’s proclamation will happen, she wants to know how it will happen. Whereas, Zechariah as a priest is not asking how it will happen, but rather he wants to know will it happen when he asks for further evidence.

  • I agree that Zechariah was being punished due to doubting and not confusion, and I also think that his situation should have been more convincing than Mary's. After all, Zechariah was a priest, in the temple, in the Holy Place, offering incense before the altar, and then an angel appears at the right side of the altar. Also, Gabriel tells him that his "prayer is heard" in verse 13, so apparently he had in fact been praying for a son (at least sometime in the not-too-distant past).
    – user6503
    Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 18:02
  • @Brian we don’t know when in life Zechariah prayed to God for a child. However, judging by his response of doubt & what he said in that response, I don’t think he was actively seeking the Lord for a child. He felt that he and his wife were past that stage in their lives. He actually might have thought, "What prayer?" In this exchange we can be assured that God hears all our prayers and does not forget them! We may forget them & be more willing to move on from what we wanted during a season of life. But God remembers all our prayers and will choose when, where & how he will answer them. Commented Dec 31, 2015 at 11:35

Accounts of evangelists do not carry all words truly spoken in an encounter. Zechariah must have uttered other words that clearly showed too much doubt that merited a punishment. It cannot be labeled a blessing for a man to lose his power of speech. It is a curse not to be able to spread a good news. Zechariah's response as recorded by Luke is simplified for the sake of brevity. It is enough that to doubt a message from God will merit a reprimand. On the other hand, Mary, before the angel's appearance, is already a favored one, full of grace and already is with the Lord. The angel seemed to be just corroborating what already has been done to Mary. So that even if the response would seem similar to Zechariah's, there was no need for the angel to take exception with Mary. The plan for her is a foregone conclusion from God's perspective. Her reply is the last stroke to seal the plan for posterity - "Let it be done unto me according to your word".


I agree that Zechariah didn't trust Gabriel but Mary did. While Zechariah was "troubled by what he saw", Mary was "troubled by what was said". He asked “How shall I know this?”; he was an old man with a wife well advanced in years.
Mary asked “How can this be?”; she was very young, innocent, and accepting. While she didn't understand how she would become pregnant, she still trusted and believed saying "May it be done unto me according to your word."

Mary accepted the words of Gabriel; Zechariah just couldn’t.


As others have mentioned, Zechariah doubts but Mary does not; she seeks further instruction. Indeed, Mary's faithful response is remarkable (see below). First Gabriel's rebuke to Zechariah:

behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled at their proper time. (Luke 1:20)

Zechariah knew what to do. Moreover, for Zechariah, there was no moral barrier for him to conceive a son, only a concern that he and Elizabeth could no longer conceive. Mary's concern is that she is still a virgin. She is betrothed to Joseph, but her marriage is still months away. So she needs more information.

“How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

Gabriel, somewhat surprisingly if one does not know the tradition of the Virgin Birth, does not instruct her to take the logical next step; namely to contact Joseph, move up the date, and consummate her marriage to him. Instead, he mentions that her cousin Elizabeth has already conceived, apparently hinting that Mary should visit the home of Zechariah the priest, Elizabeth's husband.

even your relative Elizabeth herself has conceived a son in her old age, and she who was called infertile is now in her sixth month. (Luke 1: 34-36)

Mary responds and immediately leaves for the hill country of Judea to acct on the angel's suggestion.

Mary set out and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. (1:39)

So Mary's response was faithful, and she actively sought to fulfill the angel's extremely unusual prediction. Zechariah's response, while not disobedient, lacked confidence in the angel's words, which were not nearly as surprising as the Annunciation to Mary..

Gabriel responded sternly to Zechariah because he doubted the angel's prediction that he would conceive a son. The angel praised Mary because she did not doubt, but only sought direction as to how to achieve the conception of a son without violating God's moral law.


Zechariah did not receive a rebuke but a sign appropriate to the calling of John.

1Ki 17:1 And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.

Elijah was introduced to Israel by calling for a drought. There would be no water until he speaks.

John has been ordained to fulfill the prophecy that one like Elijah would prepare the way. Historically, God has been silent for four hundred years. He has not spoken to Israel through prophets, kings, priests, or judges. There has been a drought of the word of God until John.

What more appropriate sign can there be that Zechariah cannot speak until John? It was a blessed sign indeed, not a curse.

On the more esoteric level, Jesus is the Word of God and the Living Water. As the forerunner to Christ: There is no Christ until John speaks. It is he who proclaims "Behold, the Lamb of God!" after which Jesus begins his ministry.

  • There are some merits to this answer. It doesn't seem to recognize the angel's explanation of the cause, "because you did not believe." But it still offers insight.
    – Smandoli
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 16:21
  • John's parallel to Elijah is important but misses the point. Zechariah was clearly rebuked for disbelief: "you will be silent and unable to speak until the day when these things take place, because you did not believe my words." Commented Sep 15, 2022 at 16:43

If you are praying and when God answers, believe it

  1. Mary was not praying for a saviour to be born within her. And even her question is not a doubt but an exclamation.
  2. However, Zechariah was waiting for a miracle anf when God answers him, he doubted it.

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