Mary was met by the Angel Gabriel. He was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth. He went and visited the virgin engaged to a man named Joseph of the House of David. And the virgin name was Mary. This is how the Gospel of Luke begins a story that has been told and retold and celebrated for 2000 years already. Mary’s life will not be easy. At the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, she’s told by the Righteous Man Simeon, that her son would be opposed by many; and the sword would pierce her own heart also (Luke 2:25-35).
Who’s the Virgin Mary?
According to the Synoptic Gospels, it doesn’t appear she has been a follower of her son. Although the Gospel of John, in chapter two, records a marvelous story on how in a Wedding at Cana. There they ran out of wine. Mary served as a mediator by saying to Jesus they are out of wine. And hence the Miracle of Turning Water Into Wine. We find Mary in the Gospel of John at the foot of the cross. Where she watches the death of her son. And the last time we see her in the New Testament she is in Jerusalem after the Crucifixion with the followers of Jesus.
The Virgin Mary: Other Traditions
Her story continues to pass the pages of the text. It’s proclaimed she was conceived Immaculately. Which means without the taint of the Original Sin. And at her death, her body would not suffer corruption but would be assumed; taken up bodily into heaven. Although the Gospels speak of Jesus’s brothers and sisters, she becomes regarded as a Perpetual Virgin and in fact a New Eve who makes right what went wrong in the Garden of Eden. Mary is Connected to a figure in the Book of Revelation, she is held as the Queen of Heaven.
How Common Was the Name Mary?
The name Mary is one of the most common names in the Jewish world in the first century. And actually shares that name with two of Jesus’ followers: Mary, the sister of Martha, and Mary Magdalene. From the Old Testament, the name provokes Miriam: like the Sister of Moses, who led the children of Israel in song at the Red Sea.
Miriam the Prophetess is a figure celebrating freedom. Perhaps Mary’s parents hoped their daughter too would celebrate freedom from Roman rule. Mary is also sharing her name with one of the ten wives of King Herod The Great; his favorite wife, Mariamne. She was a Hasmonean princess who gave this Roman Puppet king a little bit more credibility in the eyes of Jews.
Her genealogy is actually not recorded in the New Testament. Although later church traditions would suggest that she, like Joseph were descendants of the House of David. In the Gospel of Luke where Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, there are hints of a priestly connection because we know Mary and Elizabeth are cousins and we know Elizabeth is a descendant of Aharon.
When we return back to the gospel texts themselves; it turns out that from the entire New Testament only the Gospel of Matthew explicitly states that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived and the Gospel of Luke strongly implies (Luke 1:26-27) this is the case.
A Missing Nativity Story In The Gospel According To John
Mark’s Gospel as we have seen, begins with the Baptism of the adult Jesus by John the Baptist. And the Gospel of John doesn’t give us a Nativity Story. The Gospel of John gives us a hymn that starts:
“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word is god”(John 1:1)
The Gospel of John doesn’t go into any detail about Jesus’ birth. He does insist that the Word became flesh (John 1:14) and dwelt among us. In fact, John’s gospel may not agree with the birth of the Virgin Mary at all. In the first chapter of the gospel of John the Apostle Philip announces: “We have found him of whom Moses wrote about in the Law and the prophets also wrote, Jesus of Nazareth the son of Joseph”. Now there is a brief hint in John 8:41 that may suggest rumors of Jesus’ illegitimacy but this is not clear.
The Nativity in Matthew’s Gospel
Moving to Matthew, this is what the first gospel says:
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”(Matthew 1:18,22-23)
Matthew here for his Fulfillment Citation cites the Prophet Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew is citing from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible. The Hebrew text says nothing about a virgin, It’s mentioning a “pregnant young woman” but the Greek text is mentions explicitly a virgin.
In fact in the 2nd century in the Christian Church, some early writers had suggested that Jews actually changed the Hebrew to avoid the sense of the prediction of the Virgin birth but in fact, the Dead Sea Scrolls as some other sources tell us that is not the case.
The Agenda of the Gospel of Matthew
We can see with this Fulfillment Citation Matthew’s own agenda and his own artistry. On the one hand, Matthew is heavily interested in anchoring Jesus into Jewish history into the Old Testament particularly in the nativity story these connections are emphasized; further, the name Emmanuel (God with us) provides a framework for the gospel because the very last line (Matthew 28:20) in Matthew’s Gospel the resurrected Jesus says to his followers:
“Behold I am with you (Emanuel)”.
The nativity frames the gospel on one hand and resurrection on the other.
The Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel
It’s in Luke’s gospel that offers the more familiar Christmas story. The annunciation of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:26-35). Then we are told Mary went with haste to the hill country where she visits Elizabeth. when Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit greets her: “Blessed are you among women” Marry replies with a magnificent hymn actually called the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) a hymn named for the Latin first word.
The hymn echoes the Song of Hannah, the mother of the Prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Some ancient manuscripts actually attribute the Magnificat to Elizabeth rather than Mary because Elizabeth very much mirrors Samuel’s parents. The Magnificat celebrates liberation: “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek.” And thus the Magnificat foreshadows Jesus’s agenda because Jesus too would attempt to lift the lowly to give hope to the poor and the oppressed.
The Magnificat may in fact be compared to other Hymns in Luke’s infancy account. There is Zechariah’s Benedictus (1:67-79); the angels’ Gloria in Excelsis (2:13-14); and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (2:28-32). In form and content, these four psalms are patterned on the “hymns of praise” in Israel’s Psalter.
In structure, these songs reflect the compositions of pre-Christian contemporary Jewish hymnology. As it is as if Luke is trying to rewrite the Old Testament and setting Jesus in that Old Testament environment a fulfillment of the promises made to his people. As for how Luke knew this information? church tradition suggests that she heard it directly from Mary.
Mary’s Relationship With Jesus
During Jesus’ earthly ministry it’s not clear that Mary followed him. At least according to the Synoptics tradition. In Fact, we have some indication that she did not quite understand her son. After a Passover pilgrimage (Luke 2:41-51) Mary, Joseph, and Jesus at age twelve go from Galilee down to Jerusalem to the Temple in order to offer sacrifice. Mary and Joseph while heading back discover that their son is missing and they search for him for 3 days. Those 3 days foreshadow the days in the tomb when he is missing; go to his followers.
Finally, after finding him in the Temple Mary says: “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And Jesus responds that he had to be in his father’s house. But neither Mary nor Joseph understands. The Gospel of Luke continues: ” And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.” when his family later attempts to see him Jesus responds (Luke 8:19-21, Mark 3:31-35, Matthew 12:46-50) “who are my mother and brothers?” And looking at those seated about him he says: “whoever does the will of God is my brother and mother and sister”.
Mary In The Gospel of John
The Gospel of John once again offers a different picture. In John 2:3 she is called the mother of Jesus. And she is never named Mary in the Gospel of John. She serves as that intercessor in order to serve wine at the wedding at Cana. moreover, only in the Gospel of John, there is Mary’s presence at the cross explicitly noted (John 19:25-27):
“Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus, therefore, saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.” According to the Book of Acts 1:14 the Apostles with one accord dedicated themselves for prayer together with a woman and Mary the mother of Jesus with his brothers. And this is the last time we saw the Virgin Mary in the New Testament.
Mary in Post Canonical Texts – The Immaculate Conception
The most well-known story about Mary is about her conception which develops in the end to be the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. The seeds are planted for this idea in a second-century document called the Protevangelium of James (the pre-gospel of James, the brother of Jesus that is present here as a child of Joseph from a previous marriage. So he was there to witness the marriage of Joseph and Mary and then ultimately Mary’s pregnancy).
The text is a part of a collection called the New Testament Apocrypha. Adapting the model of that Old Testament infertile couple Motif that we can see for example with John the Baptist parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. In this case, the parents of the Virgin Mary are old and are unable to convince, their names are Anna (Echoing Hannah, the mother of Samuel) and Joachim. But finally, they receive an angelic annunciation, but this time the child that will be born would be a daughter.
Could The Son of God Have Been Housed In a Womb That Was Sinful?
If only the death of Jesus could have saved from sin, what did that say about Mary’s condition? These questions were prompted vigorously in the Early Church. In the eastern church according to John of Damascus (c.676-787); If Mary had been exempt from all temptation Christ would not have died for her sins. and as John of Damascus rightly points out, Paul in the Epistle to Romans states “we have all sinned”. So for the Eastern Church at least for John of Damascus, Mary wasn’t sinless.
The Original Sin in the Western Church
The Western Church started to develop the concept of Original Sin. Ambrose (c.340-397), the Church Father began the idea around the year 390 C.E, and it had been taken by then by his student Augustine (354-430). And this view of original sin taught that with Adam’s fault is that a change was created in Adam’s own body, so that Adam created would be best called viciated seed, and consequently all conceptions following that, all but Jesus, would be tainted with that viciated sperm.
But finding it impossible the idea that Jesus would have been housed in a womb-like all wombs tainted by the original sin, the Latin Church started to emphasize Mary’s sinlessness and the view became apparent in the end that her conception was not stained, it was Immaculate. In 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Mary’s Perpetual Virginity
The belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity also begins with the Protoevangelium of James. This is the view that although Mary had borne a child she remained a virgin not only while the child was conceived; but also while the child was being born, inpartu and after the child was being born, postpartum.
The New Testament apart from the birth of Jesus has no interest in Mary’s sexual status. Matthew states (chapter 1:25) that Joseph didn’t know Mary until she had borne a son. And the text could be easily read suggesting the couple had normal marital relations after the birth of Jesus. The Gospels speak of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. But it is also true that the words, brothers, and sisters could mean cousins and friends like fraternity brothers; or like in the army a band of brothers. The Protoevangelium does take Mary in the direction of complete sexual continence which will become a major issue in the Early Church.
Mary In The Protoevangelium of James
The Protoevangelium depicts Mary like the Prophet Samuel as raised in the Temple; which we already know was completely ahistorical, the temple was not at ancient daycare. But when Mary turns twelve according to the story and was about the age of menstruation, the priest in the temple announces Mary needs to leave because that menstruating women should not be in the temple. Consequently, they need to find Mary a husband but they also insist contrary to the way that most Jews thought at the time; the priest at the temple insist that Mary remained a virgin.
So they betrothed her to the widower Joseph that already had sons and a daughter and was over 80. Then Mary becomes pregnant, drawing from Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, and then Mary gives birth painlessly in a cave at midnight stillness. The local midwife her name is Salome, here that “a virgin had brought forth” she actually doesn’t believe. So she’s actually going down to the cave and performs a gynecological examination on the virgin and proclaims that yes a virgin had brought forth.
A similar scene takes place in another early Christian document, probably the 2nd century, called the Ascension of Isaiah. The text says that Mary who is pregnant suddenly beheld a small child, and she was amazed, and when her amazement wore off her womb was found as it was before when she was with child and many said she has not given birth because the midwife hasn’t gone up to her, we heard no cries of pain.
Why a Painless Birth ?
Because the curse of Eve according to Genesis Chapter three; was traditionally read as the curse of women having pain in childbirth. So Mary that is the New Eve makes right what Eve turned wrong. Mary starts a new generation with no pain in childbirth. And celibacy is becoming extremely valued. Mary’s virginal status became the ideal for women as Jesus’ virginal status. Connecting to the evaluation of celibacy is the emphasis on the purity of the chased body.
What Happened to Mary’s Body After She Died ?
Since the Virgin had recorded a miraculous conception herself and her body had housed the divine Jesus surely the same body would not see the same physical corruption and so arose what it was The Doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin. The doctrine says that as Mary was falling asleep (her Dormition) her body was miraculously received into heaven.
Eastern Traditions Regarding Mary’s Death
In the Eastern Church probably in the 3rd or 4th century Mary actually became hailed as the Theotokos, the bearer of God. Reflecting appropriations of The Book of Revelation chapter 12: Where the author John envisions a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of 12 stars. Mary becomes associated with this figure and hence becomes known as the Queen as Heaven.
This is in part a goddess tradition and facilitates the appropriation of goddess traditions from the numerous people who came under the Christian umbrella. This was one of the wiser things the church did because people who converted didn’t want to forsake their own traditions; So what the church did is to say: you have this idea, it’s not quite right, you would find the complete fulfillment of this model in Christ or the Apostles or for goddess worship in the Virgin Mary.
Consequently, it’s not surprising when we start to get iconographic representations of Mary and baby Jesus for example the Madonna and child theme. Mary and baby Jesus on her lap look exactly like Iconic representations of the Goddess Isis with the Divine child Horus and her lap.
The Protestant Tradition
The Protestant tradition accepted the Virgin birth but it withdrew from the emphasis of Mary per se, in part through self-definition in relation to the Roman Catholic Church. The more the Catholic Church accentuated Mary the more the Protestant Church pulled away. Because for the Protestant Church the model was to go back just to the New Testament itself. Where is in the Catholic Tradition from protoevangelium meant other developments like the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of the Virgin.
Mary in Islamic Traditions
Mary also plays a major role in Islamic thought although Mary is not seen by Muslims as without sin and Muslims do not see Jesus as divine they completely accept the Virgin birth. One reason why Mary retains such a fascination is that she continues to appear to her children on earth. These appearances have the effect of a good revival. There was in the 16th century an appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico; where Mary was seen as a member of the indigenous population.