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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1965

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....

(The entire section contains 1965 words.)

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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 Michelangelo, which now stands in the Vatican in Rome.

Whether Mary stayed in Jerusalem or went to Ephesus is not known. Ephesus boasts of a house in which Mary lived and died, but most scholars think she probably stayed in Jerusalem, where there is also a place honored as the site of her “falling asleep.” There is a strong tradition in the Catholic Church that Mary did not die but only fell asleep and that she was assumed into heaven, body and soul. This “Assumption” was officially declared in 1950 and is celebrated each year on August 15. In 1954, Pope Pius XII officially proclaimed her “Queen of Heaven.”

Before the fifth century c.e., references to Mary were rare. In about the year 100 c.e., Justin Martyr contrasted her with Eve, a theme later developed by Saint Irenaeus. Mary came into prominence until the 400’s, when church councils debated whether Jesus was God. In 428, Nestorius, a Syrian, became bishop of Constantinople, the eastern capital of the Roman Empire. He preferred the term christotokos (mother of Christ) for Jesus’ mother rather than the more popular theotokos (mother of God) because, he said, theotokos implies that Mary gave birth to God. Nestorius was quickly challenged by Cyril of Alexandria, and in 430 the bishops condemned Nestorius as a heretic. Since then, Mary has often been referred to as the “Mother of God.” In popular piety, however, this title resulted in Mary’s being referred to as a goddess; in 787, therefore, the Council of Nicaea clearly distinguished between worship of God alone and the lesser reverence due Mary and the saints.

The Middle Ages saw a proliferation of devotions and artistic works in honor of the Virgin and Mother Mary. She can be seen at the Annunciation, often reading a book of Scripture as the angel appears to her, a dove over her head representing the Holy Spirit. In one painting, the tiny baby can be seen flying through the window of the chapel to be implanted in her womb. Other favorite poses include the birth of Jesus in the stable, the Madonna and child, the crucifixion, and the pietà. At the time of the Reformation, Protestants deemphasized devotion to Mary. However, Martin Luther referred to her as the foremost example of God’s grace and of proper humility.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Mary was reported to have appeared to various people: in Lourdes, France, in 1858; in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917; and since 1981 in Medjugorje, Bosnia. Some of the bishops at the Second Vatican Council in 1965 moved to declare her “corredemptrix” with Christ; that is, the co-redeemer of the world along with her son. The council did not approve of this, but it did include a chapter on Mary in the document Lumen Gentium. In his speech at the council, Pope Paul VI proclaimed Mary “Mother of the Church.”


After the Vatican Council, there was more activity in Roman Catholic Mariology. At first, women did not wish to venerate Mary, because she had always been idealized strictly for her biological function as the mother of Jesus. They saw her as weak, a woman who was always submissive to others, one who did not make her own decisions about her life. Feminist theologians, however, have begun to point out Mary’s strengths. In the story of the annunciation, she questions the angel who wants her to be the mother of Jesus, and, after she understands what God wants, she decides on her own to go ahead, even though she realizes that she will be criticized by those who will not understand.

In her prayer, quoted from Hannah of the Hebrew Scriptures, Mary speaks of how she, along with others who had been considered humble and lowly, were lifted up by God: “He has satisfied the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty-handed.” Mary is seen here as a symbol for all women, who traditionally have been seen as insignificant but are now seen as equal to men and are highly regarded not only for their ability to reproduce but also for other strengths of intellect, will, and determination. Women throughout the ages have been able to relate to Mary in her difficult life, especially in the loss of her son.

Further Reading:

Brown, Raymond, Karl P. Donfried, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and John Reumann, eds. Mary in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978. The role that Mary plays in salvation is one that has divided Protestants, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics over the centuries. This book is an effort to open the way for agreement.

Coll, Regina. “Mary, the Mother of Jesus.” In Christianity and Feminism in Conversation. Mystic, Conn.: Twenty-Third, 1994. In this brief chapter, Coll speaks of how the Virgin Mary relates to the modern woman. Feminists now say that virginity is not simply a biological phenomenon but also connotes a person who is whole in herself, one whose being was not owned by a man.

Cunneen, Sally. In Search of Mary: The Woman and the Symbol. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996. This book reviews the New Testament references to Mary and then traces her cult through the ages into contemporary time. The author enters into the human aspects of Mary’s life (her pregnancy, for example) and discusses how, very often, she did not understand what her son was doing. Cunneen quotes many different theologians, poets, and ordinary people to bring out the humanity of Mary as a person, a mother, and a model for the church.

Kung, Hans, and Jurgen Moltman, eds. Mary in the Churches. New York: Seabury Press, 1983. An ecumenical inquiry with contributions by Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic scholars. For the most part, Mariology has been anti- rather than pro-ecumenical and has been largely excluded from ecumenical dialogue. The authors wish to present Mary as an essential figure in the gospel of Christ.

Macquarrie, John. Mary for All Christians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Erdmans, 1990. John Macquarrie, a British theologian, takes up the questions of the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and Mary as corredemptrix. He states that Mary should not separate Christians from one another but should be seen in a wider context of Christian faith as a person who can point toward God.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York: Vintage Books, 1976. This book relates the history of the titles of the Virgin Mary, such as the second Eve, queen, madonna, sorrowful mother, Immaculate Conception, and the Virgin among the moon and the stars. It also contains eight color and fifty-two black and white plates depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin.

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