9 min read

LIVE STUDY: Mary and Elizabeth Weren’t Cousins?

Merry Christmas! cousins

I was walking to Cheers-fil-a and listening to Catholic Answers (because I find that apologetics discussions get more interesting the further they get from my tribe) and they got a really interesting question:

When she first asked her question, I smiled really big let out a celebratory shout “Yeah!” because it seemed so rare that someone would be reading the story so closely and notice such a thing.

But the answerer pulled a record scratch over my happy dance with this:

Turning my “Yeah!” into a “wut?”

I know we’re all in this question-answer business together, so I don’t want to come down too harshly, but why can’t we give a better answer than, “Well, they’re both from the tribe of Israel, see? So ‘cousin’ there could mean like ‘countryman'”


“and, I mean besides, they could be cousins…”

So, if the answer is they could be cousins, why does it matter that they’re all Isralites? And if it does go that far back into history, it doesn’t answer the question why are they’re called cousins? Why would an angel say “cousin” if they meant on a national level? Why not just say “sister”? I mean, isn’t “cousin” a weird word choice? And if it’s not, could we point to other uses of the word “cousin” to describe two decedents of the original sons of Israel?

But, like most of my cranky judgementalism, I actually didn’t have a better answer. And that bothered me (I mean, I like to have substance to bolster my felt superiority).

Since we’re going into finals week, I’m not going to study and then write a response. I’m just going to type as I go through the resources. Hopefully seeing how the sausage is made will give some of you encouragement to dig into these issues on your own.

STEP 1: Confronting my own assumptions.

  1. Any look into the gospels needs to be immediately acknowledged as outside my wheelhouse. I’ve done no serious work in the synoptic gospels (I’ve done a bit in John, but I’m still not conversant). So I’m way outside my lane and that means I’m going to need to rely on some good secondary and tertiary sources.
  2. It seems to me there are only a few options here:
    1. This is a blatant contradiction in the text (this is always an option but I have yet to find it to be the case. Still, intellectual honesty says to put it on the board)
    2. The text doesn’t give a clear enough family tree to draw a a conclusion about their relationship to each other
    3. Either Mary or Elizabeth are actually from the Judah/Levi
    4. The word “cousin” is a poor translation of the Greek word describing them.
  3. My immediate reaction is I don’t recall any verse saying Mary is is a Judahite or that Elizabeth is a Levite. Her question pointed Luke 1:5 which includes the phrase “from the daughters of Aaron”, so it’s safe to assume that means she’s a Levite, but I’ll need to check. Same with Mary on her side.
  4. The third fact needing textual verification is that they’re cousins. I’m pretty sure that’s in the text itself, but I’ll need chapter and verse.
  5. Assuming chapter and verse is established, I should probably do a word study on “cousin” to see what the semantic range is. If it can just mean kinswoman, then Nash had it right, if a bit inarticulately. But if the available definitions are more narrow than that (my gut says they are, but we’ll see), then we have some work to do. But even if the range can be broader, I’d like to also check Luke’s other uses (assuming there are some) to see how narrowly he usually intends the word. To me. “cousin” is a pretty specific English for the translators to just throw in there, so I’m going to trust that they used it on purpose.
  6. Once I’ve done all of that, I’ll check the commentaries and some “contradiction” resources to see what they say.

So the task before me is

  1. Source cite Mary’s linkage as a Judahite
  2. Confirm that “daughter of Aaron” is the same as “Levite”
  3. Source cite that Mary and Elizabeth are cousins
  4. Look up the Greek word being translated as “cousin”
  5. Check’s Luke’s usage of it
  6. Consult commentary sources.

Should be fun! Let the sleuthing begin!

STEP 2: Dig In

I’m still at Cheers-fil-a and so I don’t have my computer (and I need to do homework). But I can’t resist skimming through the context. I found the “relationship” reference is Luke 1:36. The NASB renders it “relative”: “And behold even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month.” The (Catholic) NAB has the same thing. It’s the KJV that reads “cousin”. I think the answer is: it’s a translation issue introduced by early English versions. I’ll be able to confirm when I can do the proper research at my laptop. But, preliminary conclusion: Mary and Elizabeth weren’t cousins, per se, the text says they’re “relatives” and therefore there’s no problem with them being from other tribes. I’ll be able to confirm it when I’m back at my desk.


Okay, I’m back at my desk (enjoying the Soundtrack to the 1994 Miracle 34th Street. The 90s orchestral soundtrack needs to make a comeback). I dug through my in-house stacks and found I. Howard Marshall’s NIGTC commentary as well as Darrell Bock’s ECNT commentary. I also found my stack of “Difficulties” references books. I seriously doubt we’re going to need them but here we go.

To my early points:

1. Source cite Mary’s lineage as a Judahite

I did a quick search for her and didn’t see anything that stood out. The BDAG entry didn’t include anything. TDNT doesn’t have an entry. A skim through Marshall didn’t help. Bibleworks includes the Biographical Bible. That entries claims her father is “Heli”, but the rabbit holes leads us to Luke 3:23, which is pretty weak. Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible explains Mary’s place in the genealogy appears at the end of Matthew 1, but again, pretty weak.

This is an interesting thread, but since I don’t think it’s going to make a difference in our final analysis, I’m content to stick a pin in it and say there isn’t canonical, chapter-and-verse that says Mary is a Judahite. I’m more than happy to be wrong about that and it makes all the sense in the world to me that she would be. And if it is her genealogy in Luke 3, then of course that settles it. But right now, I can’t point to something definitive. And sense I don’t think I’m going to need to in order to settle the question, I’ll just move on.

Okay, I lied, I went to grab another commentary and realized I forgotten about DOJG (the first edition; I don’t have the second one yet). But upon a quick scan of some of the relevant entries, I didn’t see anything that stood out. So I’m moving on for reals this time.

2. Confirm that “daughter of Aaron” is the same as “Levite”

On it’s face, “wife from the daughters of Aaron” (“καὶ γυνὴ αὐτῷ ἐκ τῶν θυγατέρων Ἀαρὼν” Luke 1:5) seems to obviously be calling Elizabeth a Levite. There maybe something nuanced on this one, but it would require a deeper dive than I feel like is needed right now.

3. Source cite that Mary and Elizabeth are cousins

As was discovered in Cheers-Fil-A, the KJV renders the word as “cousins” in Luke 1:36. Were that all these points we as easily settled….

4. Look up the Greek word being translated as “cousin”

This, to me, is going to be the whole ball game.

καὶ ἰδοὺ Ἐλισάβετ ἡ συγγενίς σου καὶ αὐτὴ συνείληφεν υἱὸν ἐν γήρει αὐτῆς καὶ οὗτος μὴν ἕκτος ἐστὶν αὐτῇ τῇ καλουμένῃ στείρᾳ· And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and 1she who was called barren is now in her sixth month.

Immediately, the noun in question here (bolded) struck me as a compound of συν (the preposition “with”) with some cognate of γινομαι (a verb meaning “to become”, which can be used in a familial sense, I think). But compounds don’t always mean anything (my prof likes to use the English word “butterfly” as an example of compound words not being the sum of their parts). And, tragically, it turns out that it’s a hapax. So this word only appears in this verse and nowhere else in the New Testament or the Greek Old Testament. So I can’t check other contexts.

That brings us to the lexica.

Louw-Nida lists it under “Kinship Terms” and describe it as “female member of an extended family or clan – ‘relative, kinswoman.'”

BDAG glosses it as “kinswoman, relative” and describes it as, “a late and peculiar fem. of συγγενής, rejected by the Atticists”.

LSJ concludes similarly. Skimming through the LSJ entry for συγγέν-εια, ἡ it seems to me the classical use of that noun holds a lot of the same semantic range as the English words “family member”, both in the literal and metaphorical senses.

So, at the very least, the lexical entries don’t support something as narrow (in contemporary English, anyway) as “cousin”, though it’s tough to be too dogmatic about that. And all the contemporary English versions (NIV, NASB, ESV, NLT, NRSV, NKJV, CSB) go with “relative”.

Just so I don’t feel like an idiot and do all this work on the wrong verse, I searched for the term “cousin” (I know, I know, a little late in the game for this) and there is an English use in Colossians 4:10a, “Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; and also Barnabas’s cousin Mark…” In this verse, the translators are rendering ἀνεψιὸς, a Greek word appearing here (as well as in Numbers 36:11, Tobit 7:2) that is glossed by BDGA, LSJ, and Lowe-Nida as “cousin”.

That leads me to conclude that, not only is Luke 1:36 using a word that seems far less exact than “cousin”, there actually is a Greek word equivalent to “cousin” that Luke could have used and didn’t.

That’s case closed for me: The text is not claiming Mary and Elizabeth are cousins, just that they’re related. And since there isn’t clear explanation of how they’re related, we actually don’t know what their relationship to each other is.

So why does the KJV translate “cousin”? That seems to be how all the early English translations render it. Wycliff (circa late-1300s), Tyndale (1534), and then the 1611 KJV. But it was changed to “relative” in the protestant translations thereafter (including, it appears, the NKJV).

As far as Catholic translation goes. The Vulgate uses “cognata”, which Douay-Rheims renders as “cousin”, which carried over into Challoner Revision. The NRJB (updated just this year) also goes with “cousin”. I’m assuming there’s something traditional I’m missing here, so the Catholics are going to have to explain that.

I will say, however, that if we ignored all previous translations and just sat down to translate this hapax with only the lexical data, there’s no way any native English speaker would come up with the word “cousin” as a rendering.

5. Consult commentary sources

Marshall and Bock basically say in a few sentences what I’ve found in about 1,700 words of rambling. Bock notes, “The relationship between Mary and Elizabeth is not specified. Wycliffe seems to be responsible for associating the two as cousins…” (1:126 n47). Marshall says, “συγγενίς** is a rare form for συγγενής, ‘a female relative’, not necessarily a cousin. Mary’s relationship to Elizabeth suggests she too may have been of priestly descent (1:5)” (p. 71).

STEP 3: Synthesize and Conclude

So, how should we answer the question, “How are Mary and Elizabeth cousins if they’re from different tribes?” We could say that we need more evidence before we claim they actually are from different tribes (but I’m willing to say they are), but the real issue issue is the Bible doesn’t claim they’re cousins. This appears to be an English translation issues that went away at the end of the 19th century, in protestant Bibles anyway.

Oh, and, just for giggles, I did check the contradictions encyclopedias and Geisler/Howe do address it on p. 381, basically saying exactly what we discovered, but totally dodging the translation issue that raises the question in the first place. So, yeah, could have saved some time by looking at the commentaries or Geisler/Howe, but what’s the fun in that? I don’t know of any quick-references guides that are going to walk through the data so we see how the commentators came to their conclusions. That’s not what they’re for.

And besides, we got a Christmas post out of it. Happy Advent!

The takeaway here is: don’t ever give up after hearing one, unsatisfactory answer. If this answerer is anything like me, I’m sure he would have preferred to give a better answer. I’ve certainly had questioners trigger an avalanche of replies that seem to come tumbling out all at once. That’s rough. But what slays me is that some questioners get lost in that avalanche and then walk away assuming there isn’t a satisfactory answer.

That’s just not true.

There are good answers. Great ones, in fact. But we have to have the right questions, the right resources and the right amount of time to dig it out. And, not surprisingly, that may not be the case for a call-in show (though, surprisingly, it actually can be).