After Herod's death in 4 B.C., Galilean rebels overran a Roman garrison at Sepphoris a few miles from Nazareth. When Roman reinforcements quashed the rebellion and crucified the leaders, Mary probably tended to wounded survivors fleeing to nearby caves, Hazleton says.
It is against this tumultuous background that the angel Gabriel, in the Gospel of Luke, appears to Mary in what has come to be known as the Annunciation—a startling vision mingling alarm, illumination, and willing submission. The earliest representations of the event appeared in the Roman catacombs, and the scene was later interpreted by Matthias Grünewald, Simone Martini, Raphael, and hundreds of artists over the centuries. Although Mary is generally depicted as a woman at least 18 or 19 years old, Hazleton reasons that she was far younger. According to the Vatican, Mary was born around 13 B.C., making her about 13 years old at the time of Jesus's birth.
When Gabriel appears, Mary is betrothed to Joseph, a figure who remains even more mysterious than Mary throughout the Gospels. He is a descendant of King David, Luke says, a crucial element for fulfilling Hebrew prophecy that the Messiah would be a descendant of the royal house of Israel. Trembling in spite of the angel's entreaty not to be afraid, Mary is incredulous when she receives the news that not only is she to give birth, but she is also to bear the Son of God.
"How can this be, since I have no husband?" she asks. "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you," replies Gabriel. With unnerving self-possession, the peasant girl gives her assent. "Let it be to me according to your word," she says.
In a stroke, Mary's obedience to the will of God absolves the disobedience of Eve, maintained second-century theologian Irenaeus. It is significant that Mary, like Eve, acts without compulsion, a sign of God's grace and a promise that human beings would exercise freedom in their destinies.
Some religious historians, like the late Raymond Brown, author of The Birth of the Messiah, argue that early Christians viewed Jesus as becoming the Son of God not at birth but at the Resurrection. The idea of the virgin birth arose later, they theorize, with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, written after A.D. 60. Others, like Jane Schaberg, a feminist scholar at the University of Detroit Mercy, raise the explosive possibility that Mary was raped. She contends that this is the reason Joseph considers divorcing his pregnant bride in Matthew before an angel reveals that she will conceive the child through the Holy Spirit. Schaberg takes a piece of second-century, anti-Christian propaganda—the story that a Roman soldier called Panthera was Jesus's father—and turns it on its head. If Mary were raped, she says, the Holy Spirit transforms an illegitimate child into God's anointed son and Mary's potential disgrace becomes an exalted grace of redemption. Although some feminist theologians side with Schaberg, conservative Catholics furiously dismiss her proposition as borderline heresy.