Behind the Bible: Is Mary full of grace, or just highly favored?

Gary Michuta

Gary Michuta

From childhood we’ve prayed the Hail Mary with the words, “Hail Mary, full of grace…” These words come from the angel Gabriel’s greeting to the Blessed Virgin in Luke 1:28. If you’ve looked up this verse in different Bibles, however, you may have noticed varying translations. What accounts for this, and what did the angel really said to Mary? To answer this, we need to dig into the background of Luke 1:28.

At the end of the fourth century, Pope St. Damasus commissioned St. Jerome to make a fresh Latin translation of the Bible. When St. Jerome came upon Luke 1:28, he translated the angel’s title for Mary, the Greek word kecharitomene, into the Latin “gratia plena” (“full of grace”). Centuries later, Jerome’s became the official translation of the Catholic Church, and English translations, such the Douay-Rheims Bible and the Knox, rendered it as “full of grace.”

More recent Catholic translations render kecharitomene differently. Some say “favored one” (NAB) or “you who enjoy God’s favor” (NJB). Protestant translations are even more varied. (For example, the King James Version reads, “O highly favored one,” while the more interpretive God’s Word Translation gives “you are favored by the Lord.”) What accounts for these differences, and why are they important?

Getting to the Greek

The Greek language can pack a lot into a single word, which makes it difficult to convey all the nuances in English, so let’s take a closer look at kecharitomene and see what it tells us.

The word is comprised of three parts: a root, a suffix, and a prefix. Each tells us something important.

The root of kecharitomene is charitoo, which is commonly translated “grace,” a supernatural endowment gratuitously given by God (CCC 1997-1998). Scripture sometimes emphasizes what God gives — a supernatural gift (Luke 2:40, Acts 6:8) — and sometimes why God gives it — His favor or kindness (Acts 13:43, Gal. 1:15). Both are always present, because God’s gift of divine help comes from his beneficence and God’s beneficence is manifested by his divine help — which accounts for the different translations of “grace” or “favor.”

The suffix –mene indicates a passive participle, meaning Mary (the subject) is being acted upon. This is important because it shows Mary did not bring herself into this graced state, but rather it was the action of God — it describes Mary as “she who has been graced [by God].”

The prefix ke– indicates the perfect tense — meaning the action (Mary’s being graced) has been completed in the past with its results continuing in full effect.

What does it mean?

Gabriel’s greeting, kecharitomene, means God’s grace (favor) has been given to Mary prior to the angel’s appearance and that graced state continues on. It hints at, but does not alone demonstrate, both Mary’s Immaculate Conception — that Mary “…at the first instant of her conception…was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin…” (Pope Pius IX, “Ineffabilis Deus”) — and her subsequent sinless life of grace.

But what about St. Jerome’s “full of grace”? Does kecharitomene have a sense of fullness? Yes, it does. The prefect tense carries with it a sense of fullness or completion. Take for example the word translated “it is written” (gegraptai). It too is in the perfect tense, and carries a sense of “It has been written and it stands written.” It lacks nothing. Likewise, Mary has been graced (favored) by God and she stands in that grace (favor). She is full of grace.

This raises a problem for those who translate kecharitomene as “favor.” How can the fullness or completeness of the perfect be expressed in terms of favor? Some try to intensify the word by giving “you who are highly favored” (NIV, NKJV, ISV, ASV) or “greatly blessed” (GNB) or “richly blessed” (NASB95, gloss).

The background to Gabriel’s greeting tells us quite a bit about the “great things” God has done for Mary (Luke 1:49). It also explains why one Greek word has spawned so many different translations.

Gary Michuta is a professional author, speaker and apologist and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at