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The gospel of Luke states that when the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharia and told him that his wife Elizabeth would concieve John the Baptist, Zacheria doubts the prophecy and so is temporarily struck dumb till the day John would be born.

However even Mary expresses doubt at Gabriel's word that she would conceive Jesus. Why then is Mary not punished for doubting God's word unlike Zachariah?

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Here's a related question. –  Jon Ericson Dec 15 '11 at 22:12
Quick terminology clarification -- in the Catholic Church, where the term "Immaculate Conception" comes from, it is a reference to the conception of Mary (without original sin), not the conception of Jesus. This is a common misunderstanding even among Catholics. ;-) –  Ben Dunlap Dec 23 '11 at 21:10
Thanks for the clarification Ben. Will edit the original post. –  amal antony Dec 28 '11 at 7:18

4 Answers 4

up vote 27 down vote accepted

There is a subtle difference in the responses of Zacharias and Mary.

Zacharias says, in Luke 1:18 (NASB)

Zacharias said to the angel, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”

Zacharias is essentially asking the angel, "How do I know I can trust you? Prove it." Furthermore, Zacharias's only basis of doubt was his and his wife's old age. This was a miracle for which Biblical precedent had already been set (for Abraham, for example, in Genesis 18)

Mary, on the other hand, asks in Luke 1:34 (NASB)

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

Mary is not asking "How will I know" (i.e., she's not asking whether she can trust God's word) - she is asking how it can be, in a spirit of amazement and wonder, rather than a spirit of doubt.

Also, note that in Luke 1:38, we read:

And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

Mary may have expressed doubt by asking how this would be initially, but once she was given an answer to her question of how it could be, she did believe.

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+1 I like that you contrast Mary's response with Zachariah's. It is interesting that Zachariah is almost seen challenging God to give him a sign, and so the fact that he was stuck dumb could very well be also seen as God complying with that request. It might serve as a good lesson to take care what we ask for... –  Steven Dec 14 '11 at 13:58
Nicely explained. I think you nailed it. –  AJ. Dec 15 '11 at 15:45
@Steven: "God to give him a sign, and so the fact that he was stuck dumb could very well be also seen as God complying with that request. It might serve as a good lesson to take care what we ask for..." I think it is important to remember that Zachariah did get what he asked for, Gabriel clearly told Zachariah, "your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son..." How long had it been since that prayer had been made? How long had it been since Elizabeth and Zechariah had resigned themselves to the fact that despite their petitions to God, they would not have a child? –  user5723 Sep 11 '13 at 12:51

It should be noted that the entire Jewish race began with a miraculous birth of an old man and woman who was "past the age of childbearing". Additionally, women who were barren became mothers through the provision of God--not only Sarah, but Rebekah and Rachel as well.

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

And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren. And the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. Genesis 25:21 ESV

When the LORD saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. Genesis 29:31 ESV

Additionally, Zechariah had apparently prayed specifically that God would allow he and his wife to have children.

But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. Luke 1:13

So, Zechariah's prayer, like Abraham's, Isaac's, Rachel's, Hannah's and others, was heard. The angel was merely announcing to Zechariah that his prayer would be answered. So, he actually doubted God's proclaimed provision and answer to his prayer.

Mary, however, had certainly not ever prayed that she would have a miraculous child out of wedlock, and a virgin had never given birth before, so her questioning is a quite a bit more understandable than that of Zechariah.

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The fact that Zechariah had a negative consequence to his question while Mary did not tells us more about God than it does about the two individuals. For God does not judge whether a work or a question is a good work or a sin on the basis of the outward work or obvious question. Rather God is clear that He judges the heart as to the motivation. The conclusion is clear that since Zechariah receive a negative consequence to his question it was because doubt and unbelief motivated his question. So also, since Mary received no negative consequence her question was NOT motivated by doubt and unbelief but simply an inquiry into how God intended to fulfill His promise.

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I too have thought about this question as to why the doubt of one was treated much more sternly than the doubt of the other. Zechariah was much older than Mary and was also a priest performing his priestly duties in the sanctuary when the angel appeared.As said above, he was receiving a specific and very detailed answer to his own prayer and yet failed to recognise this! By contrast his unborn son leaps in the womb when Mary enters their home and greets Elizabeth. The theme of recognition is a fascinating one.

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