108. Mary’s “Interpretation” (sumballein) of the Shepherds’ News (Luke 2:19)

We do not have a lot of information about Mary, the mother of Jesus in the writings of the New Testament apart from Luke-Acts and Matthew. Twice in the short notices that define her Luke says that she preserved (sunetērei, 2:19; dietērei, 2:51) certain information. In the first instance it is the prophetic announcement given by the “angel of the Lord” (2:19) to the shepherds and the shepherds’ verification of this message when they discover “this child” (2:17) in Bethlehem. Others hear the shepherds and are amazed, but only Mary “treasured up (sunetērei) all these things” (2:19). The second incident involves a visit to the Temple when Jesus is twelve and Joseph and Mary accidentally leave him behind as they start their return journey to Nazareth. When they discover he is missing, they hastily return and find him in the Temple, confounding the priests with his answers to their questions. When Jesus explains that he “had to be in my Father’s house” (2:49), they do not understand, but once more his mother “treasured (dietērei) all these things in her heart” (2:51).1

The verb sunetērein (Luke 2:19) occurs in two other locations in the New Testament. In Matthew 9:17 it describes how the action of putting new wine in new wineskins “preserves (suntērountai )” both. However, if new wine is placed in old wineskins, then the wineskins burst and the wine leaks out. The other context is in Mark 6:20 where we discover John the Baptist imprisoned by Herod Antipas. Mark reports that Herodias, Herod’s wife, “desired to kill John” (because of his public criticism of her marriage to Herod), but she was prevented by her husband. Herod “protected (sunetērei)” him, because he was afraid of John. So these two contexts demonstrate how this verb expresses the idea of preserving something. In the third edition of A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, revised and edited by F.W. Danker, this word is applied more specifically to the preservation of information in two different ways. One sense is “to have a marked regard for, keep in mind, be concerned about” and the other is “to store information in one’s mind for careful consideration, hold or treasure up (in one’s memory)“.2 Danker chose the second as the preferred meaning for this verb’s usage in Luke 2:19, but it seems to me that either would work in this context, unless the phrase en tēi kardiai autēs (in her heart) requires the sense of “treasure up…in her heart.”

In Daniel 4:48 (Old Greek version) we discover a similar usage. Nebuchadnezzar sees the vision of the tree which is chopped down and God enables Daniel to provide him with the interpretation. When Nebuchadnezzar hears what the dream forecasts for him, the Greek translation says that he “kept (sunetērēse) the words in his heart.”3

The other verb similarly only occurs rarely in the New Testament, but is common in Hellenistic Greek. Apart from Luke 2:51, it only is found in Acts 15:29. The leaders of the Jerusalem conference compose a letter to send to other churches regarding their recommendations for Gentiles who have become Christians. The last part of the letter states that such people “will do well to avoid (diatērountes) these things” (Acts 15:29), with sense of “thoroughly keep free from.” Danker offers again two meanings for this term. We have already noted one meaning in reference to Acts 15:29. The second sense is offered from Luke 2:51, namely, “to keep something mentally with implication of duration, keep.”4 There is an interesting parallel to Mary’s situation in Genesis 37:11. Joseph shares the dream he received about the sun, moon and eleven stars which bow to him. Although his brothers are incensed by this, in the Greek translation we discover that his father “retained (dietērēsen) the matter in his memory.”5 One other example may be found in Daniel (Theodotion version) 7:28. The prophet has received a vision and an interpretation of that vision and the episode concludes by saying that Daniel was greatly troubled but “kept (either dietērēsa or suntērēsa, textual evidence is mixed) the matter” in his heart.6

In each parallel in the Greek Old Testament we discover a human response to a divine revelation. The person (Jacob, Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar) involved intends to preserve the message and the experience internally. Why he does this is never defined, but we presume it would relate to future reflection or verification that the message received is indeed true. It’s as if the person waits to see how things will unfold, perhaps with some trepidation as to the results. In the case of Mary, the first occasion concerns a divine message given through angels to shepherds and reported by the shepherds in Mary’s presence. The second instance has to do with Jesus’ statement, perhaps intended by Luke to suggest that Jesus’ explanation is to be viewed as a divine revelation as to his purpose.

We also see uses of suntērein meaning to hold up or preserve in the Wisdom literature. For example, in Ecclessiasticus or the Wisdom of Ben Sirach, the writer sings the praise of the person who invests himself in the study of God’s law (39:1-3). Such a person searches and investigates the wisdom of the ancients, parables, prophecies and “preserves (suntērēsei) the narrative of famous men” (39:2). The objective seems to be to generate opportunity for further meditation upon their significance. Given the primarily oral nature of ancient study and the extreme expense of personally possessing written materials, Sirach probably is describing how the pious in antiquity would engage God’s word — by hearing it read, memorizing it, and then reflecting upon it, i.e. holding it or treasuring it, waiting expectantly for God to fulfill his word.

In the first Lukan text (2:19), the author adds that Mary “pondered (sumballousa) them in her heart.” This verb (sumballein) is found in the New Testament only in the writings of Luke.7 In several contexts it has the sense of pondering or considering. The Sanhedrin “conferred together (suneballon pros allēlous)” about their decision regarding Peter and John (Acts 4:15). As Paul presents the Gospel in the Athenian agora, some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers begin to converse or quarrel (suneballon autoi) with him (Acts 17:18). Whether they are just “pondering together” or “quarrelling” depends upon your reading of the context.

The other context is Luke 2:19 where Mary is said to “ponder all these things in her heart.” Danker in his lexicon suggests the colloquial “get it all together” as a possible rendering.8 However, I am not sure that this is what Luke intends. I would suggest rather that Luke desires us to realize that Mary, as a young, pious, Jewish mother, is experiencing and learning some amazing things about her son. At his birth she is told about a heavenly sign and heavenly proclamation affirming that this boy is the Messiah, Lord, Saviour of Israel — an extraordinary cluster of titles to be applied to any Jewish male (Luke 2:11). Then when he is at the age of spiritual responsibility as a male (twelve), Jesus tells her about “his father’s business,” and it has nothing to do with Joseph. She retains these things in her memory, searching for their meaning as her son gradually matures.

As the early church coalesces after the resurrection and ascension, it is Luke who tells us that Mary, the mother of Jesus is in the upper room with the apostles and other women (Acts 1:14). In this way Luke characterizes Mary as a divinely-informed, wise person who has the capacity to interpret what God is doing in Jesus because she holds or retains these revelatory events in her memory and seeks to discern what God is intending to do. She appears as a person who recognizes God’s actions and words and who desires to understand them personally, as well as their implications for those she loves.


  1. Luke certainly regards Mary as being privileged because she receives various revelations, but no different than Jacob or Daniel, in that she still has responsibility to ponder carefully what God’s plans might be so that she can be a truthful witness for God;
  2. Because we live in a culture that depends almost entirely upon written documentation, our process for “holding on to” or “retaining” God’s Word is somewhat different. However, we have God’s Spirit and God’s revealed, inscripturated word to help us discern God’s will and plans. Yet our responsibility to “hold internal conversations” about the meaning of this divine word has not diminished.
  • 1The proposed revision to the New International Version does not make any change in the translation of these terms.
  • 2A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, revised and edited by F.W. Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, third edition), 975.
  • 3As translated in A New English Version o f the Septuagint, 1006).
  • 4A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 238.
  • 5This is my translation. A New English Translation of the Septuagint rendered it as “his father closely watched the matter.”
  • 6There are many examples of diatērein and suntērein in the Septuagint, but most have to do with preserving an oath or covenant or protecting something. Of course “heart” in these various contexts describes the element of cognition and decision-making.
  • 7Luke 2:19; 11:53; 14:31; Acts 4:15; 17:18; 18:27; 20:14). The range of meanings is quite diverse, including “come together at a point, meet”: Acts 20:14; “come into conflict with someone, quarrel”: Luke 11:53;14:31; or “be of assistance, help”: Acts 18:27.
  • 8A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 956.

Leave a Reply