Recently I heard a pastor refer to Mary as a scared teenage girl. We love to humanize Bible character, i.e. make them like us, which includes creating than any image in which our culture has shaped us. This humanizing tendency especially requires exposing their weaknesses and faults.
It is common these days to assert that Mary was a teenager. In fact some scholars place her as an early teen, perhaps 12 to 14. This is based on the belief that that was the typical age for marriage in that culture, and since we have no indication that Mary was not of typical age it is assumed that she must have been in her early teenage years.
Other Bible scholars disagree, asserting that we have no indication from Scripture that Jewish girls married that young, and that some passages suggest that they were older.
I believe that Scripture gives numerous indicators that women in Scripture were not marrying at twelve or fourteen. Think about this. During a time when no birth control methods were used, and when couples wanted to have children, assuming that the husband was about the same age as his wife, how would a man of 18 support a family of four children? It seems on many counts it would be more natural to see marriage occurring during late teens or even into the twenties.
But beyond that, even if Mary had been in her mid-teens, I sense that the culture of the day developed maturity earlier than does ours. Diana West in her book, The Death of the Grown-Up, documents our societal tendency to get stuck in adolescence. She offers the following research results in support:
More adults, ages 18 to 49, watch the Cartoon Network than watch CNN. Readers as old as 25 are buying “young adult” fiction written expressly for teens. The average video gamester was 18 in 1990; now he’s going on 30. And no wonder: The National Academy of Science has, in 2002, redefined adolescence as the period extending from the onset of puberty, around 12, to age 30. The MacArthur Foundation has gone further still, funding a major research project that argues that the “transition to adulthood” doesn’t end until age 34.…(O)ne-third of the 56 million Americans sitting down to watch SpongeBob SquarePants on Nickelodeon each month in 2002 were between the ages of 18 and 49.[i]
One guesses that life in Mary’s time was more serious and placed responsibility on young people resulting in their maturing more quickly. Survival was demanding back then, requiring hard work by the entire family.
One weakness of our culture is that teenagers have substantial support and freedom with minimal responsibility. Some teenagers are very driven by academics, athletics, or other substantive pursuits, but many if not most are not, leaving a societal vacuum that they tend to fill with bad behaviors and habits that prolong adolescence rather than engender maturity.
Therefore, if Mary was a teenage girl, say 16, it would be incorrect to equate her with a typical girl of that age in our society. Instead, Mary displayed substantial wisdom and strength. Her response to the angel and her reciting of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) with its many biblical references and spiritual depth do not portray a scared teenage girl but a godly woman with an in-depth grasp of the situation and a strong grip on her emotions, both engendered by a mature relationship with the Lord.
My concern with the “scared teenage girl” description of Mary and the broader inclination to “humanize” godly biblical characters is that this tendency seems to be designed to take us off the hook, to make us okay with who we are.
Perhaps the lesson we should glean is that we would be better off rather than seeking to bring godly biblical characters such as Mary down to our level, instead to aspire to rise to theirs.
[i] The Death of the Grown-Up, Diana West; St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, NY (2007), pp. 1-2.