Historical Culture Context
Vigilance and Prayer
Women in the ancient Middle East could never do anything alone. They either had to be always in a cluster of women and children or under the watchful eye of their father, brother, husband, or some other responsible male relative.
A woman who goes anywhere alone, but especially a fourteen-year-old unmarried girl like Mary, is open to charges of shameful intentions and conduct. If no one other than Joseph knew she was pregnant at this time, such a solo journey would leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about her pregnancy afterward.
The trip from Nazareth in Galilee where Mary lived to a village in Judea where Elizabeth lived would take four days. (Later Christian tradition identified Am Karem, eight kilometers west of Jerusalem, as the place.) Since travel alone was not safe, people commonly joined a caravan. This is a possibility for Mary, but Luke does not mention it.
Is there a plausible cultural explanation for Mary’s solo journey? We’ll consider that possibility next.
It is often difficult for sophisticated contemporary believers to suspend their scientific knowledge in order to understand simpler human explanations. Only in the last 100 to 150 years have we learned the facts of reproduction and childbearing. Our ancestors in the Faith held a much simpler view of life.
The ancients believed that the male deposited a miniature, fully formed human being in the female. The male provided a “seed”; the woman was the “field.” In this worldview, “conception” difficulties are entirely the fault of the field and not of the seed.
Pregnant women have always experienced movement of the child in the womb. Rebekah felt movement and perhaps even suspected that she was bearing twins. That movement was interpreted as a struggle between the children, symbolizing the future struggle of the two nations they represented (Gen 25:22-23).
Elizabeth interprets the movement of her child in her womb as a leap for joy at hearing Mary’s greeting. When Elizabeth tells this to her kinswoman, Mary may well have been confirmed in another growing conviction about her own child. Just as the angel announced, her yet unborn child is holy (Lk 1:35). This holiness is a quality that can ward off or protect against evil.
In modern technical jargon, the unborn child’s holiness is an “apotropaic” power, that is, a force stronger than evil and evil spirits. Mary could easily conclude that it is safe for her to travel alone because she would be protected by her child’s special power, just as Tobit (Tb 5:4ff) was protected by the disguised angel Raphael on his journey abroad. Contemporary cultural descendants of our ancestors in the Faith in the Middle East rely heavily on talismans and similar charms (often blue in color) to protect them from evil.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University