The gospel of Luke states that when the angel Gabriel appeared to Zacharia and told him that his wife Elizabeth would conceive 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?


8 Answers 8


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.

  • 14
    +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, 2011 at 13:58
  • Nicely explained. I think you nailed it.
    – AJ.
    Dec 15, 2011 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, 2013 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.


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.


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.

  • Hello Sally. Welcome to the site. I hope to see you post again soon.
    – user3961
    Dec 22, 2013 at 1:44
  • Welcome here! Just a tip, to help you have your future posts better and better - visit the introduction telling what is this web tour.
    – Pavel
    Dec 22, 2013 at 11:36

In response to the question regarding the contrast in the two encounters with God's messenger, concerning Zechariah and Mary, resulting in different outcomes.

Zechariah was a priest. It was customary in that time for only the priest to enter into the temple of God and burn incense (pray to God), and then get a word from God to share with the people who were waiting on the outside to hear a word from God.

Therefore, for a priest not to believe a word from God(doubt, question) was a major occurrence. Lives depended on this word. Priests were seen as the intercessor between man and God before Jesus came (The Great High Priest, Hebrew 4:14 who is always interceding for his children, Romans 8:34). Zechariah's was made silent because of his position; while being in that position he doubted. I pray that this brings clarity and I encourage you to search info on Old Testament priests and their duties. Hopefully it will help put that section of Luke into context. May God's Holy Spirit give you understanding of His Word. Love you...

  • Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. For more on what this site is all about, see: How we are different than other sites. Meanwhile, I hope you'll browse some of the other questions and answers on this site. Aug 8, 2017 at 15:41
  • Nelson, I have edited this answer for format, organization, and presentation. Please review the edit (if you like it, good) and edit again in case it does not please you. Aug 8, 2017 at 15:51

The question is: "Why then is Mary not punished for doubting God's word unlike Zachariah?" I think the assumption that Zacharias was being punished isn't quite right. I think it was a wonderful gift, the gift of silence, within which he was able to absorb the revelation he had received - itself a great grace. True, his response can be interpreted as a bit skeptical, but I view it more as superficial - in some sense he didn't know what he was saying. So he needed some time to reflect, and an enforced silence freed him from his verbal duties as a priest. Mary, on the other hand, seems like she was already in a state of deep contemplation, and her response came from that kind of frame of mind. I.E., she didn't need to be "put on silence" because she was already operating out of a deep interior silence.

My main point is that I don't view Zechariah's experience as in any way involving a "punishment"...


If you listen to the responses of Zacharia and Mary to the Angel Gabriel, it should be obvious that Zacariah's response was one of doubt to something being told to him, a Scripture Scholar. He had asked for a child and he, knowing God as a priest, should have known from past Scriptural history that God is never limited by anything except the person causing the limitation. He knew that he was being visited by a messenger (angel) of God to relate to him God's love for him and Elizabeth by making the impossible happen, the birth of a Great Person. Yet, he doubted.

On the other hand Mary never asked for anything other than to be loved by the God she prayed to each moment of her life. When the angel Gabriel appeared to her telling her that a child would be born to her and this child would be the Son of God, her inquiry was a very natural one, "I am a virgin; I know not man." Explain this to me: When the angel told her that the Spirit of God would over shadow her and that nothing was impossible to God, her immediate response was out of the love for God in her heart, "Let it be done unto me according to God's word."

Keep in mind that Mary was a child betweeen 13-16 years of age, not a priest, but a simple maiden who loved God dearly. What followed was Jesus, God with us! As a result of her "fiat" (her acceptance was made freely) she made it possible for God to have his divine Son become incarnate and be born bringing into the world his promised redemption to Abraham and the prophets that followed throughtout salvation history.

  • Welcome to the site. We are glad you decided to participate. Here are some meta posts about this site to help you learn how we do it here: What Christianity.StackExchange is (and more importantly, what it isn't) and How we are different than other sites Please also take the tour and see the help center. I hope to see you post again soon. Please also keep in mind that I and other users are willing to help you, so ask us anything if you need help.
    – user3961
    Dec 18, 2014 at 20:41
  • Where's your evidence that Mary never asked for anything but to be loved by God? And why would that be a good thing? Asking God for specific stuff is a sign of faith.
    – curiousdannii
    Dec 19, 2014 at 5:41

A stubtle but fundamental differences in both circumstances.

Doubt [Luke 1:18]

And Zachariah said to the angel: By what shall I know this [to be true]? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.

Inquisitiveness [Luke 1:34]

And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, seeing I know not man?

Zechariah needs assurance from the angel that the thing will be done, and does not believe his testimony.

Mary believes that God will do the thing, but wants to know how, since she intends to 'not know man' (a euphemism for having marital relations), that is, remain a virgin.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .