Q&A: Elizabeth and Mary as Prophetesses

Elizabeth and Mary as Prophetesses

Question

I'm doing some study on Luke 1: 5-66, especially on Elizabeth wife of Zechariah and Mary of Nazareth. It seems to me on one level these two women stand in direct line to the Old Testament prophets, thus bridging the Hebrew and Christian traditions. Some reading has suggested that here Elizabeth and Mary stand over and against the patriarch Zechariah thus emphasising Luke's concern for the marginalized and the poor.

Answer

Your raise some very important points. I'll try to comment on three of them.

1. The issue of interpreting Elizabeth and Mary in line with the Old Testament prophets is a somewhat complicated one. In the Old Testament, there were different prophetic types. Some prophets seem only to have engaged in charismatic experiences without the connotations of being God's authoritative covenant emissaries, and others such as Saul prophesied without even being prophets (1 Sam. 10:1-13; compare Joel 2:28-29). The writing prophets of the Old Testament, however, as well as prophets like Elijah and Elisha, were commissioned by God as his covenant emissaries, and they authoritatively represented him. They did not just receive visions and dreams, but were given the job of proclaiming God's messages to his people in prosecution of the covenant. Elizabeth and Mary seem to have had experiences more similar to Saul's: the Spirit of the Lord was on them, and they prophesied. They were not, however, authoritative covenant emissaries. In this respect, they were also similar to the New Testament prophets like Agabus and Philip's daughters (Acts 11:28; 21:8-10), whereas the apostles were those who continued the line of authoritative covenant emissaries.

2. Elizabeth and Mary certainly stood in the long procession of godly women and men of the pre-Christian Hebrew tradition, but I'm not sure that I would single them out from the rest of the believing remnant of Israel in their bridging of the Hebrew (B.C.) and Christian (A.D.) traditions. Fundamentally, the Hebrew and Christian traditions are one and the same (excluding the modern non-Christian Hebrew tradition). All of those who remained loyal to God and received Jesus as Messiah/Christ bridged these traditions. If instead you are thinking of bridging the prophetic traditions, they were certainly part of the smaller groups who spoke under the filling of the Holy Spirit in both Testaments, but they shared even this smaller bridge with others as well.

3. Luke's concern for the poor and for women is clear in both Luke and Acts. Certainly the literary structure of Luke 1 parallels and contrasts Elizabeth and Mary on the one hand with Zecharias on the other. In this regard, Zecharias' unbelief does not measure up to the quality of Elizabeth's belief or Mary's belief. Zecharias is forgiven, though, and proclaims the final prophecy of the chapter (on par with the earlier Magnificat). I would suggest that the literary contrast is purposeful, and demonstrates the great significance, value, and honor of the women -- they were not second-class prophets. At the same time, neither were they superior to Zecharias, except insofar as they did not experience the personal failure of initial unbelief. Interestingly, Zecharias is the only one in the whole Gospel of Luke who is actually said to have prophesied (Luke 1:67).

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.