Mary Historical Reference

Vladimir Nabokov


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Mother of Jesus{$I[g]Israel;Mary} Though little is known about the historical Mary, the legendary virgin mother of Jesus Christ has been revered throughout the ages.

Early Life

According to tradition, the parents of Mary (MEHR-ee) were Joachim and Anna, from the city of Nazareth in Galilee in present-day Israel. About five hundred years after their time, Saint Augustine declared that the sin of Adam and Eve infects all humanity and is passed down from generation to generation through biological conception. Mary was declared to have been exempt from this sin in preparation for her role as the mother of Jesus. This exemption became known and is still celebrated as the Immaculate Conception. The event is commemorated each year on December 8, nine months before her birthday, which is celebrated on September 8.

Life’s Work

Almost nothing is known about the historical personage of the woman known as the Virgin Mary. She was the mother of the man Jesus, whom Christians worship as the Son of God. In the Christian Scriptures, only two of the four gospels, Matthew and Luke, feature Mary at the birth of Jesus. Matthew traces the ancestry of Jesus through Mary’s husband, Joseph, and then immediately proceeds to create an image of Jesus as a new Moses. Like Pharaoh at Moses’ birth, King Herod is threatened by portents at Jesus’ birth and to avoid his fate, promises to kill all Hebrew baby boys. The Holy Family escapes into Egypt to await the death of the dreaded king. After Jesus’ baptism, which takes place when Jesus is approximately thirty years old, he is followed by crowds up to the mountain, where Matthew depicts him, again like a new Moses, giving a new law to the people. Scholars agree that Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ birth was written later than the rest of the gospels and that its purpose was not to relate a historical event but to convince his readers that Jesus was the Messiah for whom they were waiting.

In Luke’s gospel, an angel appears to Mary and asks her to accept the privilege of being the mother of the savior. After questioning how this might happen, as she is not yet married, Mary is assured by the angel that the child will be born by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is thought that Mary was probably between the ages of twelve and fourteen at this time. Mary then immediately goes to the town of Ain Kerim to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Luke took excerpts from the song of Hannah, mother of Sampson, and put them into the mouth of Mary: “My heart extols the Lord. My spirit exults in God my savior.” As soon as the child is born, an angel goes out to some shepherds and announces to them that a savior has been born. Luke recalls that Mary pondered all these things in her heart. Unlike Matthew’s account, Luke’s does not include a visit from the Magi or a flight into Egypt.

Outside of these infancy narratives, Mary is mentioned only a few more times in the Scriptures. Her next appearance is at a wedding in Cana, where the hosts run out of wine. Mary relates this fact to her son Jesus, who then changes water into wine. In Mark 3:20-35, Jesus’ relatives are suspicious of him and think that he may be somewhat insane. They go to the place where he is preaching, and when they ask for him, the crowd yells out, “Your mother and brothers are outside asking for you.” Jesus answers, “Who are my mother and my brothers? . . . Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” At first, this answer seems to be a rebuke of his mother and his immediate family. However, Mark’s purpose is to distinguish between Jesus’ natural family and his followers. He is claiming that all people can be related to Jesus, not through blood ties but by doing the will of God.

In Luke 11:27-28, a similar incident takes place. A woman calls out from the crowd, “Blessed is the mother who bore you and nursed you!” Jesus answers, “You might better say, ‘Blessed are those who hear God’s message and observe it!’” Again, this seems to be a rebuke of his mother, but it can be interpreted to mean that kinship has no special claim on Jesus’ friends.

John’s gospel is the only one that puts Mary at the foot of the cross. Mary, her sister Mary (the wife of Clopas), Mary Magdalene, and John himself are present when Jesus looks down from the cross and says to his mother, “Woman, behold your son,” and to the beloved disciple John, “Son, behold your mother,” thus giving Mary into the care of John. According to later tradition, Jesus is taken from the cross and laid in the arms of his mother. This scene has inspired many artistic sculptures and paintings, the most famous of which is the Pietà by...

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