Mary, a Teenage Bride and Mother

This article will answer two very common questions:

“How old was Mary (the mother of Jesus) when she became pregnant?” & “How old was Mary when she gave birth to our Lord Jesus, the Christ?”

Thousands of paintings, drawings, statues, and even “living manger scenes” portray Mary, Jesus’ mother, at the time of Jesus’ birth. However, most of them portray her as a young woman in her 20’s. To be sure, Mary was a remarkable woman. For one thing, she truly understood what it meant to sacrifice for the sake of doing God’s will, an example her son, Jesus, noted and would later follow. For example, apparently no one at that time, including she herself, was expecting the Messiah to be born of a virgin. This is why she asked the angel Gabriel how she was going to bear the Messiah when she was not married and sexually active (Luke 1:34), why Joseph decided to divorce her, and why, years later, the religious leaders still thought that Jesus was a bastard child, born of fornication (John 8:41 – KJV). She knew that accepting pregnancy from God would cause turmoil and pain to her and her loved ones, but she accepted God’s plan for her life, saying, “…Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word…”(Luke 1:38 – ESV [1]).

One very remarkable thing about Mary is that she would almost certainly have been 12-14 years old when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. We know this because the common custom at that time was for girls to marry early, at that age. The Bible never gives Mary’s age when she got pregnant or gave birth to Jesus, and that is because when something happened that was common in the culture, nothing was said about it. We write the same way today, leaving out any details that everyone knows by custom and culture. If we read in the newspaper that a thief drove down the road for miles while being chased by police, we do not think, “Drove? What is ‘drove?’ I wonder how he got down the road all that distance?” We all know what “drove down the road” means, so we exclude the details when we write about it.

Similarly, if I tell someone, “I called Dan and talked with him,” it is clear from our culture that I called on a telephone, even though I do not say it. Many years ago I was teaching my kids the Bible, and I read them that Deborah the prophetess “called Barak” (Judg. 4:6 – KJV). My little daughter interrupted me and wanted to know Barak’s phone number. Her comment made sense given her understanding of custom and culture.

In ancient Israel, girls married in their teens, even early teens. [2] For Mary to be betrothed (engaged) but not yet formally married, yet old enough to have and nurse the Messiah, she would have been 12-14. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible points out, “It appears that both boys and girls were married very young. Later [after the New Testament period] the rabbis fixed the minimum age for marriage at twelve for girls and thirteen for boys.” [3]

Some customs of biblical Palestine continued through the centuries, and after her trip to the Near East around 1910, Alma White commented on the age of marriage in Palestine, “A girl is usually married in her twelfth or thirteenth year, and sometimes as early as her tenth year.” [4] W. M. Thompson, a missionary in the Middle East for some 30 years, attests to the same thing. [5] James Neil points out that everyone married, because they felt obligated to fulfill God’s command to be fruitful and multiply, and that, “Girls are ‘given in marriage’ at eleven or twelve years of age, though this is not the limit. They are frequently married as young as nine….” [6]

Marrying young was the custom in many ancient cultures. Two cultures that had particular influence on the biblical world were the Greeks and Romans. Isomachus, a character in the Greek writer Xenophon’s Oeconomics, mentions that when he married his wife, she was not yet fifteen. [7] Roman girls also married very young, sometimes even before puberty. [8]

Women married early because it was they who bore the children who continued the family line and provided economic strength and physical protection for the family, and it was generally desirable to have many children. Furthermore, lots of children died young, and many women died in childbirth. We know from Matthew and Luke that Mary was a virgin, and had never been married before, so her marriage age would have been set by common custom. Also, as was common, Mary had a large family, with at least seven children. Her male children were Jesus, James, Joseph, Simon and Judas (Matt. 13:55), and she had at least two daughters, for Jesus had “sisters” as well as brothers (Matt. 13:55 and 56). [9]

Boys also married early, but somewhat later than girls. Jewish boys were expected to marry at sixteen or seventeen. [10] Similarly, in the Roman world, the age at which a Roman boy discarded the white toga with a red border, the symbol of youth, and wore the pure white toga of a Roman man and citizen, was generally between 14 and 17. [11] Just how old Joseph was when he married Mary is not as easily determined as Mary’s age, because although men customarily married in their mid to late teens, for a number of reasons they sometimes married later.

It is often assumed that Joseph married late in his life, because it is almost certain that he had died by the time Jesus started his ministry. We draw this conclusion from a number of biblical records in which Joseph was conspicuously absent, culturally speaking. One is when Jesus moved his headquarters to Capernaum his mother and brothers came, but not his father (John 2:12). Even more significant is that while on the Cross, Jesus instructed the Apostle John to take care of his mother and told Mary to treat John as a son, which would never have occurred had Joseph been alive (John 19:26 and 27). However, the fact that Joseph was dead by the time Jesus was 30 does not necessarily mean that Joseph was a much older man when he married Mary, because many people died young from accidents or disease.

If we are going to paint a picture of the birth of Christ, or cast a woman for a living nativity scene, there is some room for interpretation, but if we want to show Mary as she actually was, having a girl of twelve to fourteen as an actor or model would be the most proper thing to do.

Endnotes

[1] Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™ © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.
[2] Philip King and Lawrence Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2001), p. 37.
[3] Merrill C. Tenney, editor, The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Regency Reference Library, Grand Rapids, MI, 1976), Vol. 4, “Marriage,” p. 96.
[4] Alma White, Jerusalem, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, (Pillar of Fire, Zarephath, New Jersey, 1936), p. 83, 173.
[5] W. M. Thompson, The Land and the Book, (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1880, reprinted 1973), p. 293.
[6] James Neil, Everyday Life in the Holy Land, (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, 1913), p. 223.
[7] Robert Flaceliere, Love in Ancient Greece, (Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1962), p. 110; Mary Johnston, Roman Life, (Scott, Foresman and Company, Chicago, 1957), p. 145.
[8] Robert Flaceliere, Love in Ancient Greece, (Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1962), p. 115.
[9] It is sometimes said that these brothers and sisters were not Mary’s children, but that argument is not based on good exegesis or the natural reading of the text. The people of Nazareth, who made the statement, were not making a comment about Jesus’ relatives, but about his family.
[10] Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1979), p. 147.
[11] Mary Johnston, Roman Life, (Scott, Foresman and Company, Chicago, 1957), p. 146.

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23 comments

  1. The astonishing news that Mary was pregnant must have impacted tremendously on her parents.
    What was their reaction?

    Derek

    1. I am sure dismay, shock, sadness, and all the other emotions parents have when a young unwed daughter becomes pregnant. Mary was surely one tough woman.

      1. Thank you for your presentation about Virgin Mary’s Life. I always read the Holy Bible by King James Version . Also I participate in Bible study,
        but hardly mention about Virgin Mary’s life. I know about Joseph, He is
        related to Abraham.

    2. We wouldn’t know because the Bible says nothing about Mary’s parents. In this time you were married at a young age as said . Some never saw there old family again

  2. While the Bible does not specifically state how old Mary was when Jesus was born, most Christian historians speculate that she was around 15—16 years of age at the time of Jesus’ birth. According to Jewish customs at the time, a young woman might become betrothed to a young man as early as 12 years of age, though the consummation of their marriage through ceremony and physical intimacy would not happen until they were legally married, many months or even years later.

    InLuke 1:39–56, we learn that Mary traveled from Galilee to Judah to visit her relative Elizabeth. She would have had to cross a great distance though the territory of Samaria. We do not know if she traveled alone, with servants, or in the company of other family members. However, there is a great likelihood that, even with adult escorts, Mary would have needed to be both physically and emotionally mature enough to handle such a journey.

    No matter what Mary’s age when Jesus was born, her spiritual maturity is indeed evident. The mother of Jesus is described by GOD as “highly favored” (Luke 1:28). When presented with the news that she would conceive the holy Son of GOD, Mary responds with pure faith and obedience by saying, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:35–38). Her song (Luke 1:46–55) is full of Scripture, by some counts, there are 10 quotations of and allusions to the Old Testament in theMagnificat, another strong proof of Mary’s learning and spiritual maturity. An immaculate conception cannot be redefined as a violation of any kind.

    1. Wow. I couldn’t imagine being only 15-16 mother or a 14-15 mother-to-be.

  3. Out position is not mere conjecture, but is based on known historical cultural evidence.

  4. Mary was approached by the Angel and told that she was carrying Jesus. Joseph was approached by an angel in his dream to take Mary as his wife as it was from God. Mary goes to Elizabeth maybe to confirm what the Angel said about. Elizabeth tells her that she is carrying Jesus, Mary prophesy’s about Jesus, Jesus is born Wise men bring Gifts, Shepherds appear, Jesus purification ceremony presenting him to the Lord at the temple, Simeon prophecy about Jesus and also the prophetess, Anna.

    NOW Can someone explain Luke 2: 49 “And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 AND THEY DID NOT UNDERSTAND THE SAYING THAT HE SPOKE TO THEM” WHY??

    Why did they NOT KNOW WHAT JESUS WAS SAYING AFTER ALL THE Prophesies and Mary own prophesies, all the visits and all the emotions that she must have gone through if she was given a virgin birth.

    Had Mary and Joseph lost faith? Had they forgotten all the experiences ,d the supernatural happening?

    1. In the moment they probably just didn’t make the connection of what Jesus was talking about. After all, given all the prophetic about what the Messiah would be like, and that he would die and be raised, no one understood that even when He plainly spoke to them. It causes me to be a little humble about what I am possibly not understanding too.

    2. Even if my child was divine, I would be a little disheartened after searching three days, unable to find my 12-year-old son. And then being told off by the same child, must be very confusing. Is he subject to my authority? Or am I subject to his? Am I really wrong for worrying, after losing track of the greatest hope of mankind, in the largest city this side of Babylon? Jesus says they shouldn’t have worried, and he’s right. But they don’t understand because they’re parents. (This of course isn’t the authoritative interpretation, just a “plausible explanation.”)

  5. I thank you that you are pulling evidence from the Bible. But you do need to realize, that not everyone will believe this. It’s society not you.

  6. Am I really the only one here who’s getting sick of the idea that “god” got a minor pregnant? And everyone is actually OK with this? Wtf is wrong with people? Why are you people worshiping a pedophile????

    1. You are showing your ignorance and lack of cultural understanding. She was totally eligible for pregnancy and marriage, proven by the fact she was engaged to joseph.

    2. You realize it has been normal for teenagers to be married, work, and raise children for thousands of years? Only with in the last two or so centuries has anyone had a problem with it, and those that have a problem with it are disregarding biology in the first place.

      And God didn’t have sex with Mary, do you even know what a virgin is?

  7. I am perplexed as to why Jesus told his disciple John to take of his mother Mary & told his mother Mary to accept John as her son when she had other sons & daughters ( John 2:12 & John 19:26-27). I am searching for an answer & want to understand why Jesus did this, Looking forward to a timely response, thanks.

    1. In the absence of being told why he did this, we could only speculate and guess. Maybe he knew his mother believed and he was doubtful about his brothers. maybe his sisters were married and subject to husbands that didn’t believe. IT really doesn’t matter why, if God thought it was necessary for us to know He would have told us why.

  8. I’m not a believer, but I thought that was an excellent article.

  9. I do not accept at all the notion that Mary was a young teen. The language of the text refers to her as a woman whose status was not having known a man (aka, a virgin). People regurgitate the idea that “in their culture” and NO ONE ever provides the historically verifiable evidence. She seemed mighty independent and mature for being a child. This recurring suggestion is feeding the anger of skeptics, etc. The Bible does not call her a child, let alone give an age. To suggest she was a minor is problematic.

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