‘Mary Did You Know’ Is A Rhetorical Question, Okay? And A Great Song

‘Mary Did You Know’ Is A Rhetorical Question, Okay? And A Great Song

Yes, the Christmas song asks a rhetorical question, but while communicating well-known truths about Jesus and his glory. It's actually better than a lot of other favorites.
Timothy Koch
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I saw the first one November 28 this year. Last year, I saw the first one on the day after Thanksgiving. I’m talking about the meme that lambasts the Christmas song “Mary, Did You Know?” Overlaying some classical artwork of Madonna and Child were the words, “Yes, I knew. Stop asking already.”

The next one I saw was a GIF from The Wrestling Pastor (the best thing Twitter has going for it).  A wrestler, nodding his head in affirmation with arms-outstretched communicating exasperation and a “Can we give up the silliness of this settled question?” attitude, is placed underneath the commentary, “Mary did you know? Yes, she knew. GABRIEL TOLD HER!”

This happens every year. Last year it was “Why ‘Mary Did You Know’ Is the Most Biblically Illiterate Christmas Tune.” On August 15, when the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) commemorates St. Mary, mother of our Lord, one of her pastors, a prolific blogger, wrote, “It is fanciful speculation to suggest that Scripture is wrong and Mary did not know.”

Every year, theological pot-shots are taken against this song. But of all the songs to level your theological ire against, this one surprises me because there’s actual theological substance in this song, as opposed to say, “Away in the Manger,” which appears not once, but twice, in the hymnal that is used in my congregation. So here’s my “Mary, Did You Know?” apologetic.

It’s a Rhetorical Question

Theologians, especially Lutheran ones, are trained at great lengths and at great expense to be faithful readers of a text. A fair amount of this training is teaching the theologian the full range and usage of language, so that we recognize a metaphor when a metaphor is being employed and we recognize a rhetorical question when a rhetorical question is being employed. An example of a rhetorical question used in Scripture would be Psalm 44:23 “Awake! Why are you sleeping O Lord?” Obviously, the Lord does not “slumber or sleep,” as stated in Psalm 121:4.

When Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart wrote their popular book “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth,” they divided it into chapters on the basis of literary genre. The epistles get two chapters; Old Testament narratives get a chapter; Acts gets its own chapter; the gospels get a chapter; the parables get their own chapter, wisdom literature gets a chapter; and of course, Revelation gets its own chapter. This is necessary because different hermeneutical approaches are used for different genres of writing.

Dr. James Voelz, a professor of New Testament theology, does a similar thing in his book “What Does This Mean? Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World.” Instead of looking broadly at genres, Voelz zeroes in on specific linguistic tools and features.

In this textbook, the reader learns the difference between signifiers and conceptual signifieds, illocutionary and perlocutionary force, semiotics and external entailments. This text and these terms are the foundational hermeneutical tools most seminarians are given if they are LCMS members. I wasn’t even allowed to write a sermon until I was responsible enough to interpret a text, and reading Voelz’s book was a requirement for learning that.

If you’re going to literally answer an obviously rhetorical question, you expose yourself as a poor reader. But if you insist on being a poor reader, then at least be consistent and admit that some of these things Mary didn’t know. Mary didn’t know Jesus would walk on water. She didn’t know Jesus would calm a storm. She may not have known that Jesus would give sight to a blind man, but that depends on her Old Testament literacy, the nature of the inaugurated kingdom of God, and the specific degree to which Jesus would fulfill these promises during his earthly ministry. If you insist on giving a literal answer to the song’s rhetorical question, these are the fruitless places that you go.

Also, hymns are poetry. Poetry is varied in its communicative techniques. Rhetorical questions are part and parcel of the poetic arsenal. Let’s not pretend the song “Mary Did You Know?” is an honest inquest about the factual reality of whether Mary knew specific details of her son. This song, while posed as a question to Mary, is actually communicating to the singer and hearer the truths about Jesus.

What Truths About Jesus Are Expressed?

Unlike “Away in the Manger” which betrays gnostic tendencies such as telling us that Jesus awoke without crying, “Mary, Did You Know?” communicates helpful salvific information about Jesus Christ. Here’s a brief list of truths expressed and the accompanying lyrics that express them:

  • Jesus is the savior of people. (“Mary did you know that you baby boy will save our sons and daughters?”)
  • Mary is theotokos, the God-bearer. Early Christian debates concerning the word theotokos were more about what the term confessed about Jesus than what it confessed about Mary. (“When you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.”)
  • Homoousious. There’s no confusing the persons or dividing the substance going on in this song. (“This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I AM.”)
  • Jesus will be sacrificed. (“Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb.”)
  • Jesus is Lord of all creation. (“Mary did you know that you baby boy is Lord of all creation?”)

Another fun exercise is to put biblical citations after every line. See what passages from Scriptures are being alluded to in “Mary, Did You Know?” Then do the same exercise with “Silent Night” or “Away in the Manger” or “Go Tell It On the Mountain” or even “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

Now compare them. My point is this: “Mary, Did You Know?” is filled with a greater variety of faithful biblical imagery than many other less-contentious Christmas songs.

John the Baptist Also Knew

Do you know who else knew thing or two about Jesus Christ? John the Baptist. Concerning John the Baptist, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). Jesus called John the Baptist “More than a prophet” (Matthew 11:9) and “Elijah, who is to come.” (Matthew 11:14).

Do you think John the Baptist knew the stuff we’re asking of Mary in “Mary Did You Know?” Do you think John knew that Jesus was “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?” Of course he did! So then why did he send messengers to Jesus with this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Now, I’m not the first person to conclude this was a dumb question. Indeed, Jeffrey Gibbs writes in his commentary “Matthew 11:2–20:34” that, “With the apparent exception of Tertullian, the church fathers and early commentators held that the Baptist could not possibly have entertained doubts about the identity of Jesus. Yet in terms of grammar, near context, and even the wider sweep of Scripture’s story, there is no compelling reason to reject the obvious sense of the text.”

To bolster Gibbs’s claim that there is no compelling reason to reject the obvious sense of the text that John the Baptist did have doubts, I invite you to the end of Matthew’s gospel, where even after the resurrection of Jesus and while in the act of worship, we’re told that some of the disciples “doubted” (Matthew 28:17). If John had doubts while languishing in prison, and some disciples had doubts while worshiping the resurrected Christ, what doubts might Mary have had during her life?

Again, it’s an obvious rhetorical question. But if you’re going to obstinately insist on a literal answering of it, you still need to contend with the doubting precedent of John the Baptist and at least a few of the 12 apostles.

Other Miscellaneous Objections

This article isn’t meant to be exhaustive. There are other objections to this song that I’ve seen that I want to address in short order.

The song is overplayed. This is completely true and fair.

The song takes the focus off of Jesus and puts it on Mary. Does it? This is a very subjective claim. I suppose the same could be said for “The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came.” You could argue “Silent Night” takes the focus off of Jesus and puts it on the shepherds. I’ve heard the many arguments of this nature leveled against “The Old Rugged Cross” while inexplicably “In the Cross of Christ I Glory” gets a free pass.

It’s hard to argue against subjective claims; I suppose you need to draw the line somewhere. I’m wary of limiting the full range of language usage because an obvious rhetorical question might say the word “Mary” too often for some people’s taste. Furthermore, this song was written by Mark Lowry, who is a Baptist and evangelical. This isn’t some papist trying to sneak Mary-worship in on the evangelicals on the sly.

The memes are just meant to be funny. Now I’m the one who needs to be consistent. If I’m going to ask you to recognize an obvious rhetorical question, then I need to reciprocate and recognize an obvious attempt at humor. With all my apologetic gusto expressed here, let me also admit that the memes are funny. The one of Mary holding a deck of Uno cards is the cleverest of them all, but the Batman slapping Robin ones are still my favorite.

There are better songs out there. I never suggested otherwise. “O Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is” by Paul Gerhardt should be more popular than it is, and its lack of popularity is on all of us. I’m also partial to “Where Shepherds Lately Knelt.” But perhaps the best song of all is the “Magnificat” itself, which Holly Scheer rightly steers her readers to in her critical take-down of “Mary, Did You Know?” The “Magnificat” is the better song by far.

If your familiarity with “Mary, Did You Know?” eclipses your familiarity with the “Magnificat,” then repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. A blessed Advent and Christmas to you all.

Timothy Koch is the pastor at Emanuel Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Milbank, South Dakota. He is also a fellow for the newly launched Sword & Swan Media House (www.swordandswan.com), and a frequent reviewer of books at www.thebeggarsblog.com.

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