It’s the Christmas season; during this time of year we typically hear about the Nativity story more than usual. All Christians know the story of Jesus’ birth, at least in broad strokes. The angel Gabriel comes to the virgin Mary to tell her that she will have a baby. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem where there is no room for them in the inn. She gives birth to the Christ child and lies him in a manger; and shepherds, informed in the field by an angelic host, come to see the Lamb of God—the newborn King with swaddling clothes for a royal robe.
We’ve heard it all before, and we could tell the story from memory—so in this post, I won’t rehash what you already know. But I do want to draw your attention to a strange little detail of this story that you might have overlooked.
Mary and Elizabeth
In Luke’s account, when Gabriel comes to tell Mary about her coming Son Jesus, Gabriel also gives Mary another piece of information: “And, behold, thy cousin Elizabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren” (Lk 1:36). Mary’s much older relative Elizabeth, infertile for decades, was going to have a child as well: she was already six months pregnant, showing by now.
This is the quirk in the story I want to highlight: Elizabeth was from the tribe of Levi (Lk 1:5), but Mary was from the tribe of Judah (Lk 3:23, 33). Have you ever stopped to consider how they were related?
Let me offer one possible way these women from two different tribes could have been related—and why I think it matters.
Cousins, the KJV, and Greek
The KJV calls Elizabeth Mary’s “cousin.” In modern English, “cousin” describes a very specific relationship: cousins are the children (or grandchildren, etc.) of siblings. My first cousins are the children of my father’s sister; my second cousins are the grandchildren of my grandmother and her sister; and so forth.
In 1600s English, however, “cousin” was not so neatly defined. A “cousin” could refer to any “collateral blood relative more remote than a brother or sister.” In other words, in the 1600s “cousin” could refer to our modern concept of cousin—as well as an aunt/uncle or a niece/nephew.
The corresponding term in Luke’s original Greek is equally ambiguous. Elizabeth is called Mary’s συγγενίς—a female relative related by blood, a kinswoman. This term is related to the noun συγγενεία, “extended family, kinship, relatives” and the adjective συγγενής “belonging to the same family/clan, related, kin.” Given the ambiguity of συγγενίς, “cousin” was the perfect translation in the 1600s.
Here’s what we know about Mary and Elizabeth: they may or may not have been “cousins” in our modern sense of the word—but they were blood relatives “belonging to the same family/clan.” But this only makes our question more perplexing: how can Mary and Elizabeth be collateral blood relatives, from the same family, if they are from different tribes?
How To Belong To A Tribe
In the Old Testament, tribal affiliation was patrilineal: you belonged to the tribe of your father. This is demonstrated clearly in the establishment of the priesthood in Exodus.
Aaron, the first priest, was from Levi (Num 3:6, 26:59). His wife, Elisheba, was the daughter of Amminadab—making her from the tribe of Judah (Num 1:7, 7:12, 1 Chron 2:10). And yet their son Eleazar is from the tribe of Levi (Num 3:32, 1 Chronicles 24:6), not from the tribe of Judah.
We see a similar situation in Judges 17. Here we are introduced to “a young man out of Bethlehemjudah, of the family of Judah [ἐκ τῆς συγγενείας Ἰουδα], who was a Levite. Notice that this young man is described as belonging to the συγγενεία—the family, blood-relation—of Judah, even though he is called a Levite. This young man’s father was a Levite, even though, somewhere he had Judahite blood through one of his female blood-relatives (his mother, his father’s mother, etc.).
So: a husband and wife could be from different tribes, and their children would take the tribe of their father. To say the same thing differently: a child can have a different tribe than his/her mother, but must have the same tribe as his/her father.
At this point you might be tempted to say, “Ok…so Elizabeth’s dad was from Levi; Mary’s dad was from Judah; and somehow, somewhere, they’re related through a woman who married into a different tribe….what’s the big deal?”
Here are two big reasons why we should keep investigating: 1) we’ve figured out that Mary and Elizabeth are “cousins” through somebody’s mother, but we still haven’t established precisely how they are related; 2) as I’ll show in the next section, all of this has serious implications for Jesus’ role as our High Priest.
A High Priest Problem
Multiple times in the Old Testament God promised the Levites that they would always have a priest from their tribe—forever.
- Deut 18:5—For Jehovah thy God hath chosen him [Levi] out of all thy tribes, to stand to minister in the name of Jehovah, him and his sons for ever
- Ex 29:9—And thou shalt gird them with girdles…and the priest’s office shall be theirs for a perpetual statute
- Jer 33:18—Neither shall the priests the Levites want [= lack] a man before me to offer burnt offerings, and to kindle meat offerings, and to do sacrifice continually
God promised that there would always be a Levite priest. The problem? Jesus is from the tribe of Judah: “For it is evident that our Lord sprang out of Judah; of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood” (Heb 7:14). What is more, Christians believe that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross put an end to Levitical sacrifices—rendering Levitical priesthood obsolete.
So how do we reconcile this apparent discrepancy? I believe that the solution lies within Mary’s relationship to Elizabeth.
How Mary And Elizabeth Were (Probably) Related
Let me admit at the start of this section: what I propose below is not the only way to account for Mary’s relationship with Elizabeth. And, since Scripture does not explicitly spell out their consanguinity, what I propose here is ultimately a pious speculation. Nevertheless, I believe that what follows is the best explanation of the information that we see in scripture—and it resolves the apparent discrepancy that I have noted above.
We do not know anything about Elizabeth’s mother, so I will not speculate about her in this scenario. But we do know that Elizabeth’s father is from Levi; Mary’s father is from Judah; and they are blood-relatives. I propose that the relationship is through Elizabeth’s father and Mary’s mother.
If Elizabeth is Mary’s cousin (in the modern sense of the word), Mary’s mother and Elizabeth’s father are siblings. If Elizabeth is Mary’s aunt, Mary’s mother and Elizabeth herself are siblings. And so on; I won’t bore you with all the particulars. Suffice it to say that the logic works regardless of precise relationship.
Here’s what this means: although Mary was from the tribe of Judah (because of her father), she had Levite blood (because of her mother). Thus Jesus, although he was from the tribe of Judah, also was a blood-relative with Levi.
Why This Matters
I believe that this relationship—Jesus (and Mary) being from Judah but having Levite blood—solves the problem that I outlined above. Jesus can be a legitimate heir to the priesthood because he has Levite blood, even though he is from Judah, “of which tribe Moses spake nothing concerning priesthood.”
If you think about it, this is a near-exact reversal of what happened with the first heir to the priesthood, Eleazar. Eleazar was a Levite, with a Levite father and a Judahite mother. Mary (and by extension Jesus) was a Judahite, with a Judahite father and a Levite mother. When Aaron married Elisheba, God ordained that every Levite priest from then on would have some Judahite blood; how fitting, then, that the final priest—a Judahite priest—would have some Levite blood.
In Jeremiah 33:17-18, we get a prophecy about the New Covenant. We know that Jesus fulfills the first half: “David shall never want a man to sit upon the throne of the house of Israel.” Jesus is the fulfillment as the final Davidic king. If my proposal is correct, Jesus also fulfills the second half of the prophecy: “Neither shall the priests the Levites want a man before me.” Both aspects of Jeremiah’s prophecy, half to Judah and half to Levi, are both fulfilled in Christ—our King and Priest, with Judahite and Levite blood-relation.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of obscure rabbit trail in the Nativity story! Merry Christmas!