Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist and cousin of Mary of Nazareth

Home             Elizabeth's story: the Gospel text            The world Elizabeth lived in            Bible study activities


Find out more

Mother and child, George de la Tour

Childbirth in ancient times

Picture of an older but still beautiful woman

Short version of the story with Bible Study Activities
Bible People: Elizabeth

Guardian angel with small child sleeping

What is an angel?
Angels in the Bible

Reconstruction of the 1st century AD Temple of Jerusalem built by King Herod

The Temple and city in 
1st century Jerusalem
Bible City: Jerusalem 

Execution axe

The fearsome fortress where Elizabeth's son died
Bible Lands: Machaerus

Painting of the head of John the Baptist

Elizabeth's inspired son
John the Baptist



PAINTINGS OF
THE FAMILY OF
JESUS

The Visitation, Ghirlandaio

Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, by Ghirlandaio


Two people with hands held

Looking for a medition on Mary & Elizabeth? 
Try  FRIENDSHIP


New website

Life of Jesus Christ

Detail of painting by Albrecht Durer

what really happened

historical background

 






 


   

 


Movies

Still from the movie 'Little Miss Sunshine', about a family that supports each other

Elizabeth: Bible Study Activities

has a list of movies (like Little Miss Sunshine, above) about family members supporting each other - as Elizabeth and Mary did.

 

  

Her  trust  in  God  rewarded

Names in the story 
Elizabeth is Eli-sheba. It means ‘God’s promise’, or ‘my God is generous’. 
Mary means ‘wise woman’ or ‘lady’. It is a Greek form of the Hebrew Miriam or Mariamme, and was the most popular woman's name at the time.  
John means ‘God has been gracious’.
Zechariah means 'God has remembered'.
 

Main themes in the story

  • The gospel-writer Luke used Elizabeth's story to set the stage for the birth of Jesus. Both stories have an Annunciation by an angel and songs that praise God, eg the Magnificat. 

  • In the Old Testament, God's power is often shown through a woman who prays and gives birth after everyone else has given up hope. 

  • Elizabeth marked her son as different when she insisted on a non-family name. This and the sudden affliction and recovery of her husband Zechariah caused consternation among Elizabeth's neighbors, but she stood firm against a doubting community. 

  • The Visitation, by Jacques Daret Inspired by God, she knew John was a child with a great destiny. 


Elizabeth's story has three episodes:

Elizabeth becomes pregnant, Luke 1:5-25
Elizabeth was a respectable woman married to Zechariah, a member of the Jerusalem priesthood. She was past menopause, her husband was elderly, and she had given up hoping for child. But Elizabeth's life took an unexpected turn. She became pregnant, to the amazement of all. 

Mary visits Elizabeth Luke 1:57-66
 
While she was pregnant with the future John the Baptist, she gave shelter to her young cousin Mary of Nazareth who, pregnant with Jesus and unmarried, may have been fleeing from the anger of her family. At their meeting, each recognizes that they and their children will be an extraordinary part of God's  plan for humanity

Elizabeth gives birth to John, Luke 1:67-80
A few months later Elizabeth bore the son she had always hoped for. She named him 'John'. He was circumcised, and Zechariah regains his speech and hearing. 

When the two women met face-to-face, Elizabeth's unborn baby suddenly moved in her womb.  This may well have been the first time - an exciting moment for any mother. She took it as a sign, and pronounced a blessing on the younger woman.  Mary responded with the words of the song called the Magnificat.  
Bible People: Elizabeth
- a short version of Elizabeth's life

Custom Search
 


Elizabeth becomes pregnant

Luke 1:5-25

First, Luke outlined Elizabeth’s family background. She was descended from a long line of priests – Luke established this fact right at the beginning of his gospel, because he wanted to counter the slanders that were being bandied around about Jesus’ legitimacy. 

Reconstruction of the regalia worn by the Jewish high priest at the time of JesusLuke wanted to say, loud and clear, that John and Jesus both came from a respectable, well-connected family, so he began by pointing out that not one but both John’s parents came from a priestly family, and that Elizabeth’s father was a priest – this is what is meant by ‘daughter of Aaron’. Her husband Zechariah was a member of the priestly order of Abijah.  

Despite her impeccable family background, Elizabeth was barren. In those days childlessness was not just a misfortune, it was a disgrace (see Genesis 16:4, 11; 29:32; 30:1, 1 Samuel 1:5-6, 11, 2:5, 7-8). 

But in Elizabeth’s case this could hardly be so, since her reputation was blameless. Instead, there had to be some other reason. 

Perhaps, like Sarah (Genesis 18:11) and Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2) she remained barren because God had a greater plan for her. Her barren state would heighten the sense that her impending pregnancy was a miracle.

Having established the credentials of the elderly couple, Luke now set the scene for the first dramatic event. 

Zechariah’s priestly section was taking its turn to offer sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem - although the Jewish people were under Roman occupation, they enjoyed a high degree of religious freedom. Temple worship was sanctioned, as long as it did not hide or encourage sedition. 

Zechariah had been chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary of the Temple and offer incense as part of the daily worship at the Temple – only the single priest who had been chosen by random lot, and therefore by God’s hand, could enter the sanctuary. 

Immediately inside this gate was the court of Israel, open to every male Jew, priest or layman. Beyond it, in front of the Shrine itself, stood an altar. On either side of the altar was the court of the Priests. Thus, non-priestly men might stand within sight of the altar and take part in the services -  but only the priests might actually approach it and the sacred shrine which lay beyond.   
The Temple of Jerusalem

It was a pivotal moment for him, since the large number of priests, about 8,000 at that time, meant that any one priest could only expect to offer sacrifice once or twice in his lifetime. Now it was Zechariah’s moment.

ELIZABETH: BIBLE WOMAN;  MODEL OF HEROD'S TEMPLE

A model of Herod's Temple. Zechariah offered sacrifice inside the doors of 
the main building, though not of course in the inner room called the Holy of Holies.
Below: floor plan of the Temple enclosure
 

ELIZABETH: BIBLE WOMAN;  GROUND PLAN HEROD'S TEMPLE

 At about 3pm on this particular day he stepped forward into the sanctuary to offer incense. The people waited outside, as did the other priests. At that moment, an angel appeared at the right side of the altar in front of Zechariah - the right side, because a favored courtier or royal family member always took this position in a royal throne room. This was where the angel now stood.

Zechariah and the Angel, James TissotAn angel? What exactly did that mean? Biblical writers gave no specific meaning, but they used this word to show that a human being had received a message from God. What they meant by the word ‘angel’ is an open question. In our skeptical, must-have-proof world we would probably say the same thing in a different way: that a deep conviction of purpose settled on the person involved, guiding them towards a particular course of action.

The angel spoke. It reassured the terrified Zechariah, telling him not to be afraid.

Then it gave him momentous news: his wife Elizabeth would conceive and have a son. Since the hand of God is clearly evident in what is happening, the listener/reader knows that this will be no ordinary child. The angel was specific. The child would have four characteristics:

  • he would be great in the sight of God

  • he would drink no wine and thus live the ascetic life of a Nazarene, setting him apart from ordinary people

  • he would be filled with the Spirit from his conception

  • he would prepare for the Messiah and thus be a catalyst between Israel and God.

Despite the extraordinary circumstances, Zechariah quibbled. He expressed doubts that this could happen. He discreetly implied that he was no longer capable of sexual intercourse, and that his wife had ceased menstruating. 

ELIZABETH: BIBLE WOMAN;  ZECHARIAHThere was genuine confusion on his part here, but there was also the sense that he was objecting, as he asked for a sign – just as Abraham did (Genesis 15:8), and Gideon (Judges 6:36-40) and Hezekiah (2 Kings 20:8-11).

The angel responded by naming itself – ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God’. Only the highest officials in an oriental royal court stood in the presence of the king. Protocol demanded that most people bow or prostrate themselves, so Gabriel was telling Zechariah he had committed an offense in not believing the message.

As punishment for his lèse-majesté Zechariah was reduced to silence, probably becoming both deaf and mute. In one way it was a reassuring miracle, but in another it was a punishment, one that would last until the birth of the child set him free.

When Zechariah came out of the Temple he was unable to speak. Clearly something momentous had happened. The priests and people interpreted his silence as proof that he had had some profound religious experience, possibly a vision, but Zechariah could tell them of his experience. Frustrated by his inability to speak, he tried to explain by signing. This had limited success. He finished out his allotted time of office, then headed for home.

Zechariah had doubted but Elizabeth had not, and so now she, not her unfortunate husband, moved into the spotlight, favored above her husband. Home at last, Zechariah found comfort in the arms of Elizabeth. One thing led to another, and she became pregnant – to her surprise and the amazement of her family and friends.

When she realized she was pregnant, she went into seclusion. This meant she did not leave her house for any reason, nor receive any visitors. She stayed like this, leading a calm and quiet life, until her pregnancy became physically obvious to all who saw her.  

'The Visitation', by Jacopo Pontormo. Green is the traditional colour or symbol of new life.

 

Mary visits her kinswoman Elizabeth

Luke 1:57-66

Mary had been betrothed to Joseph with a formal witnessed agreement, legally binding, between the families of the young people, and a bride price paid to Mary’s family. It was expected that the formal marriage would take place about a year later, when Mary would be taken home to Joseph's family to live. Since later on in the story Mary returned to her home, not Joseph’s, we can assume that Mary and Joseph were not married at this particular time.  

Painting of an older woman, from a Fayum coffin portrait

Accustomed as we are to benign images of the Annunciation, and of Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus, we tend to blot out the reality of the situation: a young girl was pregnant, her fiancé knew he was not the father, yet the bride price had been paid. 

In a Middle Eastern rural community at the time, this sort of situation could easily result in an honor killing of the young girl by her fiancé's family. What few commentators seem to realize is that Mary's visit to Elizabeth, about a hundred miles away in Judea, may have been a desperate attempt by her family to save her from this fate, to get her out of the way until some solution had been worked out. 

Leaving Galilee and traveling south, Mary duly arrived at Elizabeth's house in Judea after a journey of about three or four days. 

See  Bible Maps  to trace the route of this journey.

At first glance, this might seem like a commonplace event as two kinswomen, both pregnant, meet each other. But Luke was making oblique references to Old Testament precedents, alerting the reader to a deeper meaning in Elizabeth's story:   read 1 Samuel 1:1-2, Judges 13:2, about a couple like Elizabeth and Zechariah, unable to have children, and Genesis 18:11 which describes an elderly couple who thought they would never have a child.   

 

The two pregnant women met, and at that moment Elizabeth's unborn baby responded by suddenly moving and kicking in her womb.  Twenty-eight weeks, the end of a woman's second trimester,  is the normal time to expect an unborn baby to kick in the womb, and this may well have been the first time Elizabeth's unborn baby moved - an exciting moment for any mother. She took this sudden movement, at this particular meeting, as a sign.  

In a moment of penetrating spiritual clarity, Elizabeth recognized she was being visited by the mother of the expected Messiah. She pronounced a blessing on the younger woman:

'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.'

Mary responded with the words of the song called the Magnificat

Robert Anning Bell, Mary and ElizabethScholars now guardedly say this was a hymn sung by the early Christians in their liturgies, implying that it may have had a composition date later than the moment of meeting between the two mothers. 

They also imply that an illiterate peasant girl from Galilee would not have had the ability to compose such a hymn. 

But there is no reason to think that Mary could not have been capable of composing it herself. The Magnificat is closely based on the Song of Hannah in 2 Samuel 2:1-10, and Mary must have known this Song well. 

  • She certainly would have learned it by heart, since women at the time had a rich oral tradition, all of it memorized, and 

  • she would have seen the Song of Hannah as appropriate, since Elizabeth's pregnancy so late in life mirrored the pregnancy of Hannah.

Adapting passages from the Jewish Scriptures to suit current situations was a familiar part of the oral tradition, and Mary and her female relatives would have been familiar with the technique. True, there is some evidence it was adapted along the way before Luke translated it into Greek, but surely Mary is the source of this glorious song.

It is not clear from the text whether Elizabeth had the help of her young kinswoman when she gave birth to her baby. Commonsense and the lapse of time would suggest she did. Elizabeth would certainly have been surrounded by loving, concerned relatives and friends, especially since her advanced age must have made it a difficult birth.

You can read about giving birth at Childbirth in the ancient world (preparing for the birth, midwives, the delivery, care of the newborn baby, and birth control).

In ancient times, women hunched themselves over a hole hollowed in the ground, standing on bricks or stones placed at either side. They gave birth in a squatting position, with relatives and friends taking turns to support them under the arms. In the Roman world there were special birthing chairs with a U-shaped hole in the seat and supports for the feet and back, but we have no way of knowing whether this latest medical technology had reached Roman-era Jerusalem.    Childbirth in ancient times

 

Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Visitation

 
Elizabeth gives birth to John

Luke 1:67-80  

Elizabeth had a son, and all her friends and relatives were overjoyed for her. She seems to have recovered well from the birth itself, because eight days afterwards she was up and around, ready to attend the circumcision of her son.

A baby was usually named on the day of his circumcision, and a common practice at this time was to name a first son after his grandfather. 

An elderly woman holding a newborn babyIn this case however, Elizabeth's extended family seemed to have decided that the baby would be called Zechariah, after his stricken father. 

But Elizabeth stepped forward and briskly contradicted them. Her son's name was to be 'John', she said. Everyone disagreed with her, pointing out that there was no family precedent for the name 'John', but Elizabeth stood her ground. She insisted so fiercely that, exasperated, the family members turned to Zechariah for support. Since he could not speak, he asked for a writing tablet - a small wooden tile with a wax surface. With a stylus he scratched a single sentence: 'His name is John'.

Immediately, to the amazement of the onlookers, he regained the use of his speech and hearing. A skeptic no more, his first words were in praise of God. The sound of his voice silenced even the most talkative of his neighbors. 

A modern take on the meeting between Elizabeth and Mary of Nazareth. The Visitation, by  Dennis CreffieldThey were awed and not a little frightened by what they were witnessing. Like neighbors everywhere, they could not wait to pass on the story of what had happened, and discuss its meaning. The son of Elizabeth and Zechariah must certainly be destined for greatness - 'the hand of God was with him', and he would be different and unique. Now the name 'John' seemed appropriate, since without any family precedent, it gave him an identity of his own that had nothing to do with the past.

Their assumption was cemented by the words Zechariah now spoke. This little child would one day be a prophet of the Most High, he said, preparing the way for the Messiah.

This scene is the last we see of Elizabeth. By the standards of the time, she was already elderly, and she may not have lived to see her son grow to manhood.

It has often been suggested that John, described as living in the wilderness (Luke 1:80), may have been a member of the Essenes at Qumran. This group was known to adopt young children and look after them, hoping they would become permanent members of their community. If Elizabeth and Zechariah were both elderly and died soon after John's birth, the Essenes may have done just this for John. 

If so they were disappointed, since John broke away to forge his own ministry in the desert, preparing the way of the Lord.

See Bible People: John the Baptist for a short version of John's story.

Return to top

 

Custom Search

 

         Bible Study Resource for Women in the Bible: Elizabeth, Mother of John the Baptist, Visitation of Mary

 

   Home                                     FAQs                                        About the Author

www.womeninthebible.net
Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher