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Mary, Mother of Jesus

See also Mary (Mother of Jesus)

MARY, MOTHER OF JESUS (Μαρία, Μαριάμ from Heb. מָ֨רָה, bitter).

Biblical information


The betrothal.

Mary was brought up in Nazareth, and prob. was still in her teens when she was betrothed. In the 4th-cent. History of Joseph the Carpenter, she was said to be twelve when she was betrothed to Joseph, a widower of ninety with a grown-up family. The Biblical picture, however, suggests a young man entering marriage for the first time. Betrothal was in Jewish custom almost tantamount to marriage. A declaration was made to the prospective bride, and a small gift given her as a pledge, in the presence of witnesses; or else the declaration might be in writing. From this time the woman was called “wife”; if her betrothed should die before the marriage was consummated, she became a widow and the custom of levirate marriage might apply to her. She could not be dismissed from the betrothal relationship except through a writing of divorce, and any sexual relationship during the betrothal period was treated as adultery. In the case of a virgin, the betrothal lasted about a year.

The annunciation (Luke 1:26-38).

During this period of betrothal the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, and greeted her with the words, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” The address, κεχαριτωμενη, means that Mary has received grace; not that she has grace to bestow. The following clause may be interpreted as a wish, “the Lord be with you” or as a statement defining the grace which Mary had received. The additional words in the KJV, “Blessed art thou among women” have some MS support, but are most likely a gloss from Elizabeth’s words (Luke 1:42). Mary was puzzled by the greeting, and evidently frightened, for the angel continued, telling her not to be afraid, and that she would conceive and bear a son whom she would call Jesus. He would be called the Son of the Most High, and would, as David’s descendant, reign over Israel for ever. Mary made the natural inquiry, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” Her reply does not indicate doubt or disbelief of the message, as Zechariah’s had done (Luke 1:18), but rather perplexity as to the method of fulfillment.

The angel then told Mary that Elizabeth, in her old age, had conceived a son six months earlier, “for with God nothing will be impossible.” A great deal was implied by Mary’s words of meek acceptance, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” It was the humble acceptance of the embarrassment, suspicion and misunderstanding which would undoubtedly follow, by this lowly, devout maiden.

The visit to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56).

Shortly after the angel’s departure Mary went to visit the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Luke states merely that this was in a city of Judah in the hill country. Tradition identifies the town as ’Ain Karim, a village five m. W of Jerusalem. If so, Mary traveled some eighty m. from Nazareth. On entering the house she was surprised by Elizabeth’s greeting, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” and reference to her, not as kinswoman, but as “the mother of my Lord.” Doubtless the promises she had received through Zechariah would have filled Elizabeth with hopes for the early appearance of the Messiah; now there was the physical sign of the movement of the babe in her womb, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (v. 41) to grant recognition of the one who was to be born, and to pronounce blessing on the mother who believed God’s message.

The song that follows is attributed to Elizabeth by three OL MSS, and by Niceta of Remesiana; but all Gr. and most Lat. MSS, and almost all Patristic references, speak of it as Mary’s. The Magnificat is more calm and majestic than the ecstatic outburst of Elizabeth, and is modeled on the OT Psalms, and esp. the Song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10). It is a meditation in four strophes. The first two give Mary’s personal praise, and the reason for it; the third speaks of God’s larger purposes in the shaping of human history; the last returns to the immediate fulfillment of God’s mercy promised to Israel. The theme in general is of God’s gracious dealing with the humble and poor, while He shows His strong power against the rich and the mighty. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, in all probability up to the birth and circumcision of John (Luke 1:57-79).

The birth and infancy narratives.

It was prob. some time after Mary returned to Nazareth that “she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:18). Joseph, being a just but also kindly man, planned to divorce her quietly, rather than expose her to public disgrace, but was reassured by the message of an angel, given in a dream, that Mary’s child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He was instructed, as Mary had already been (Luke 1:31) to call the baby’s name Jesus (“Jehovah is salvation”), “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Immediately Joseph took Mary to his home as his wife, but had no sexual intercourse with her until after the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:25).

If we had only Matthew’s account, we would have thought Joseph and Mary belonged to Bethlehem, but Luke makes it clear that the birth of Jesus occurred in Bethlehem only because of the census, which brought his parents to their ancestral home town. Luke’s accuracy has been challenged on the grounds that there is no record of a census at the time of Jesus’ birth; that no one would be required to journey eighty m. to fill out a census paper; that the census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria was in a.d. 6-7, long after Jesus’ birth. The conclusion drawn is that Matthew and Luke brought Bethlehem into the picture only to make the record fulfill the prophecy of Micah 5:2.

Ramsay discusses the question carefully in his book, Was Christ Born at Bethlehem? He produces evidence from Egyp. papyri that a census was taken in the Rom. world every fourteen years, so one would have occurred about 8-7 b.c., and it may have been somewhat delayed in Pal. In a census in a.d. 104 people in Egypt were required to return to their own town for enrollment. When Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria in a.d. 6, it was his second such appointment; he may well have been an additional legate to Sentius Saturninus at the time of the earlier census. There seems no valid reason, therefore, to reject the historicity of Luke’s clear statement about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth.

The census would account for the shortage of accommodation in Bethlehem. The “inn” (κατάλυμα, G2906), prob. a simple lodging place, was full. Somewhere nearby, perhaps in a cave, as some apocryphal gospels say, Jesus was born and laid in a “manger” (φάτνη, G5764)—not a stall, but a feeding trough for animals.

Out in the fields a group of shepherds stood guard over their flock that night. Such flocks were always needed for the sacrifices of the Temple at Jerusalem, a mere six m. away. Informed of the birth by an angel, the shepherds went to Bethlehem, found the babe wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger, and excitedly repeated the message they had received. For others, the shepherds’ words were a passing wonder, “but Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

There is no indication in Matthew’s account how long after the birth it was when the wise men, or magi (μάγοι) came, following the lead of the star they had seen in the E, in search of the one born king of the Jews (Matt 2:1-12). Their inquiry in Jerusalem perturbed Herod, who verified from the chief priests and scribes the anticipated birthplace of the Messiah, then sent the wise men to Bethlehem. By this stage the holy family was in a house, where the wise men offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This may have occurred before or after the circumcision which took place on the eighth day, when the baby was given his angel-conferred name of Jesus. They stayed in the environs of Jerusalem until two further requirements of the Jewish law were fulfilled. For every first-born child, a redemption price of five silver shekels, about $3.65 in American money, or ten days’ wages for a working man, had to be paid to the Temple a month after the birth (Num 18:16). Then, forty-one days after the birth for a boy, the ceremony of the mother’s purification took place (Lev 12:2-4). For convenience, these two ceremonies were commonly combined in one visit to the Temple, as was the case here. The offering for a mother’s purification was a lamb and a turtle-dove or a young pigeon. Joseph and Mary offered the alternative permitted to a mother too poor to afford a lamb, of two turtle-doves or pigeons (Luke 2:24).

During the course of the presentation in the Temple, two aged Heb. saints came in and praised God at the recognition of the infant Redeemer. Simeon held the babe in his arms and blessed God for the gift of salvation in the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32). He then blessed the parents, and prophesied to Mary that the child would cause the downfall of many, and the rising of many others, in Israel. He would be spoken against as he revealed the thoughts of men’s hearts. And for Mary herself, a sword would pierce through her own soul, as she saw her son so treated. The longwidowed prophetess Anna, aged eighty-four, likewise gave thanks to God and spoke to others about the child.

Luke’s account suggests that the family returned immediately to Nazareth (Luke 2:39), but Matthew tells how, after the departure of the wise men, Joseph, being warned by an angel in a dream, fled in haste, by night, with Mary and Jesus, to Egypt, staying there in safety until after Herod’s death, about the end of March, 4 b.c. No indication is given of the length of stay in Egypt or the exact location. Ancient legends say they spent two years at Matareeh, a few m. NE of Cairo, but others have argued for a sojourn as short as a month or two. After this, they returned to Israel, and avoiding Judea where Archelaus now reigned, made their home in Nazareth.

Life in Nazareth.

Jesus’ development is described as that of an entirely normal boy in Luke’s restrained and dignified account (Luke 2:40-52). It was a godly Jewish home in which Jesus was taught the Scriptures, reverent obedience to parents, and the love of God. Every year the family journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover Feast. It was during one such annual visit, when Jesus at the age of twelve, entered the responsibilities of a “son of the commandment,” that He stayed behind, and was found in the Temple after three days, listening to the teachers, and asking intelligent and perceptive questions. Mary was astonished and indignant as she rebuked Him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” His reply, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” was in turn a gentle rebuke. Mary should have sensed the early call of His divine mission.

The home in Nazareth was one full of boys and girls, for Joseph and Mary had at least six other children (Mark 6:3). Jesus, as the eldest, followed His father’s trade as a carpenter. From the total silence of the later gospel story, we conclude that Joseph died before Jesus entered upon His public ministry; legend says in His eighteenth year. If so, for many years Jesus stood by His widowed mother in the responsibility of bringing up the younger members of the family, which may well account for His not entering His public ministry until He was about thirty (Luke 3:23).

Incidents during Christ’s ministry.

At the cross.

Only John states that Mary was present at the crucifixion, and that Jesus gave her into the care of the beloved disciple with the words, “Woman, behold your son!,” “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26, 27). Why did Jesus give Mary into the care of her nephew rather than one of her own sons? It may have been because they, as yet, did not believe in Him (John 7:5), or because they were married men (1 Cor 9:5), and John single. Or it may be that Jesus merely intended John to take her away from the harrowing scenes of the crucifixion, and he did so from that hour. However, traditions say that she lived the rest of her life with John, either in Jerusalem, or accompanying him to Ephesus.

After the resurrection.

The only further mention of Mary is after the ascension, when Mary and Jesus’ brothers, now in Jerusalem, joined the eleven apostles in prayer while they waited for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). It was perhaps the appearance of the resurrected Christ to James (1 Cor 15:7) that brought to His brothers the faith they notably lacked during His ministry, and brought full assurance to Mary. They were all doubtless in the full company of 120 persons (Acts 1:15) present at the choosing of Matthias to replace Judas as apostle and who were filled with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4).

Ecclesiastical traditions

Worship of Mary.

There is no hint anywhere in the NT of veneration offered to Mary. Jesus expressly warned against such (Luke 11:27, 28). Rather, the picture of Mary given in the NT is of a humble village maiden who typifies all that is finest and noblest in Jewish womanhood. Her purity, simplicity, deep spiritual sensitivity, and complete obedience to God stand out; her careful training of her son in His early years, her complete confidence in Him as shown in the incident at Cana, her utter loyalty as shown by her presence at the cross, even though it seems there were times when she did not fully understand Him, all prepared her for the position she took among the earliest disciples in acknowledging Him as Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). Nor is there any evidence of prayer made, or worship offered, to Mary during the first four centuries. The later cult of the worship of Mary has developed on the flimsy foundation of three passages in Luke—the greeting of Gabriel, “Hail, O favored one” (1:28); the greeting of Elizabeth, “Blessed are you among women” (v. 42); and the grateful words of Mary in the Magnificat, “Behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed” (v. 48). These passages emphasize the unique high privilege bestowed on this specially chosen maiden, but in no way suggest that worship should be offered her, which belongs only to God. Upon the brief Biblical details of her life has been woven an intricate web of legend, largely fictitious and quite unreliable, and upon this has been built a complex structure of dogma which has developed and increased through the centuries. There are four main tenets of this dogma.

Mother of God.

In the fourth and fifth cents. controversy raged around the propriety of applying the term θεοτόκος, “Godbearer,” or “mother of God” to Mary. The title was intended to confirm the full deity of Christ. Nestorius proposed the less explicit χριστοτόκος, but this, along with his other teaching, was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in a.d. 431, where it was affirmed that in Christ there were not two persons but one; “the perfect existing God made at the same time perfect man, made flesh of the Virgin.” The expression, then, does not mean mother of the divine nature. On this understanding both Lutheran and Reformed confessions at the time of the Reformation allowed the term, but it has never been popular among Protestants. It is as mother of God that Mary is termed mediatrix, not, in the thought of the Rom. communion, to take the place of Christ as sole mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5), but to mediate between Christ and mankind as she did at Cana (John 2:3).

Perpetual virginity.

The phrase, “born of the Virgin Mary” used in the Apostles’ Creed, is held to imply not only that Mary was a virgin when she conceived, but also “in birth and after birth.” The apocryphal Protevangelium of James states that Jesus was born miraculously, leaving Mary’s virginity intact. It is held that Mary’s words to Gabriel, “I know not a man” (Luke 1:34) indicate that she was under a vow of perpetual virginity, in which case it is difficult to explain why she had earlier become betrothed to Joseph. As to the brothers and sisters of the Lord, these are regarded either as children of Joseph by an earlier marriage (the view of the apocryphal gospels, commonly called the Epiphanian view, after Epiphanius who argued it c. a.d. 382), or as cousins, children of Clopas and the Virgin’s sister, also called Mary (the Hieronymian view, after Jerome, c. a.d. 383).

This doctrine has no explicit support in the NT, and the application of OT texts such as Song of Solomon and Ezekiel 44:2 to Mary is quite unjustified. While the use of the words “before” (Matt 1:18), “until” (Matt 1:25) and “first-born” (Luke 2:7) may not in themselves be absolutely convincing, they agree with the frequent references in the NT to Jesus’ brothers, to indicate that after a perfectly normal birth (Luke 2:5), Mary lived with Joseph as man and wife, and enjoyed the blessing of a large family (the Helvidian view, after Helvidius, c. a.d. 380). Had it not been for the pressures of an asceticism which in these early centuries regarded celibacy as an ethically higher state than marriage, and all sexual relations as inherently part of sinful flesh, it is certain no other interpretation would ever have been thought of. See Virgin Birth.

Immaculate conception.

Augustine is the first notable theologian to declare that Mary was free from actual sin (Nature and Grace, ch. 36). Later theologians discussed whether she was free, not only from actual sin, but from original sin, like Eve in her innocence. Aquinas taught that though Mary contracted original sin, between conception and birth, by God’s miraculous power, the “inflammation of sin was rendered harmless,” and then completely removed at her conception of Christ. Duns Scotus opposed this view, and taught that she was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin at the first instant of her conception. This was promulgated as Roman Catholic dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854.

Bodily assumption.

The earliest versions of this legend come from the later 4th cent., and show widely varying details, the one common feature being that Mary was miraculously transported, body and soul, to heaven by Jesus. The legend has no historical evidence, is foreign to Scripture, and contrary to all extant writings of the first three centuries. But the “feast of the Assumption” has long been observed as August 15 in the Christian calendar, and “the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin” was proclaimed a part of official Roman Catholic dogma by Pope Pius XII in 1950.


T. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III (1273) 27-30; A. Plummer, St. Luke, ICC (1896); W. M. Ramsay, Was Christ Born at Bethlehem? (1898); M. R. James, The Apocryphal NT (1924), 38-49, 194-227; J. G. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930); J. J. Lilly, “Jesus and His Mother During the Public Life,” CBQ (1946); V. Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark (1952), 247-249; J. B. Carol, ed., Mariology, 3 vols. (1955, et seq.); C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to St. Mark, CGT (1966), 133-135; G. A. F. Knight, “The Protestant World and Mariology,” SJT 19, 1 (1966).

Additional Material

MARY, BIRTH (OR DESCENT) OF. A Gnostic document known only from its mention by Epiphanius (Heresies XXVI. 12. 1-9). It identifies the Zechariah of Matthew 23:35 with the father of the Baptist, and says he was killed because he told of his vision in the Temple (Luke 1:9-12) of a man having the form of an ass. This conforms with pagan polemic against the God of the Jews, and the work appears to show violent hostility to Judaism. It is quite distinct from the Gospel of the Birth of Mary. See NTAp. I. 344f.