Mary, mother of Jesus
Main themes in the story
Notice the different images of Mary:
Writers of the New Testament saw Mary as relatively unimportant. For them, Jesus was the central figure. He was the focus of all their attention and hopes. Mary is included only when something she does throws light on the person of Jesus.
The four evangelists show Mary in four different ways. Like modern authors, they do this because
For a short version of Mary's story, go to Bible People: Mary
Additional website Life of Jesus Christ with
In Mark’s gospel, the references to Mary are:
Mark places Mary firmly at the centre of her family. One of his stories
tell of a visit she and her family made to Jesus when he was preaching.
Mary is shown as the leader of the family of Jesus, confident and loving. The members of
did not understand his purpose, but were concerned about his welfare.
He had also widened the family circle so that the
kinship group was extended to a community of people who believed in him. Mark
was implying that the community of believers should function like a close-knit family.
of Mary may be the closest to the historical Mary of Nazareth.
in Luke's Gospel
In the gospel written by Luke, Mary was a model of what a follower of Jesus ought to be: she had faith in God, she thought deeply about what was happening to her, and she co-operated with God, holding nothing back. She was also a very human figure, experiencing distress and joy as she watched over her child.
Mary promised herself in marriage to a young man called Joseph. He was a worker in wood, metal or stone, producing practical objects for agricultural or domestic use.
But Mary’s life was not to be the normal one a young Galilean woman might expect.
The gospels say that an ‘angel’ came to her, telling her that she was to be the mother of an extraordinary man, one who would be called the Son of God.
What the gospel writer meant exactly when he used to word 'angel' we do not know. A modern writer might say that a profound conviction settled on the person (so profound that it seemed God-given) that they must follow a particular course of action. They knew they must do something special, that it must be God's will.
This event was called the Annunciation.
'The angel said to her “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus”.’ Read Luke 1:26-38
Mary became pregnant, even though she and Joseph had not had sexual intercourse.
Being an unmarried mother in that culture was very difficult, much more so than in today’s society. People were not seen as individuals as they are now, but members of their group/clan, and any action of an individual reflected on the whole group. Mary’s family would have found it very hard to believe that there was no human father; her pregnancy brought dishonor to all of them.
she became pregnant Mary went to visit an older cousin of hers, Elizabeth.
Perhaps the visit was a way of getting her out of harm's way: an unmarried
pregnant girl was in real danger from outraged relatives, and Elizabeth's
house may have been a safe haven for the young girl.
When Mary and Elizabeth met, there was a moment of mutual recognition, where each woman realized that the child of the other would be a person of great importance. Mary spoke the words of a beautiful prayer, expressing her wonder at what had happened. The prayer is called the ‘Magnificat’.
Mary and Joseph had to attend a census-taking in Joseph’s ancestral town, Bethlehem, and Mary
gave birth to her son there. This census may or may not be an historical
fact: possibly it was a device to situate them in Bethlehem, from which
the Messiah would spring, for the birth of Jesus.
In traditional portrayals of the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were the only family members present. In fact, Mary would have been helped during the birth by a group of her female relatives. You can read about giving birth at Childbirth in the ancient world (preparing for the birth, midwives, the delivery, care of the newborn baby, and ancient forms of birth control).
All the stories about Jesus’ early life convey the idea that he was extraordinary. Their message is that Jesus was more than an inspired teacher and thinker. While he was fully human, he also came directly from God, and represented God in a unique way. By saying that Jesus’ birth was miraculous, Luke presented Jesus as divine.
A religious ceremony for the women followed the birth of a Jewish child. This marked the end of the post-partum period, and the resumption of sexual relations between wife and husband.
As a devout Jewess, Mary observed the rituals surrounding the birth of a child (Leviticus 12).
During the ceremony in the Temple two people, Anna and Simeon, foretold an extraordinary future for Mary’s son.
After this, Mary and Joseph returned to Nazareth, where they lived with their family. During these years, Mary lived the normal life of a Galilean peasant woman.
A Jewish woman had the responsibility of giving her children their basic education. Jesus’ introduction to the richness of Jewish religious ideas came initially from his mother, with male teachers later educating him in Torah.
Mary and her family seem to have been conservative Jews who took their
religious duties seriously. Jesus was about twelve when they made the
journey to Jerusalem. They travelled with a group of pilgrims to visit the
great Temple and make sacrifices there.
For a woman from a small town in far-off Galilee, Jerusalem would be confusing, noisy, full of strangers, but also exciting, with strange sights and new experiences.
Men and women spent the major part of their lives in groups of their own sex. Jesus could have been with either group. As a child, he spent most of his life with the women’s group, but as a boy near adulthood, he could have been with the men’s group.
Mary and her family looked for Jesus, and when they found him they all returned to Galilee. Mary
continued her life as a normal Jewish/Galilean woman.
Matthew’s gospel contains several stories not found in the other gospels. In Matthew’s gospel, the references to Mary are:
In the gospel written by Matthew, the story of Jesus’ birth is told from Joseph’s point of view, not Mary’s. The story is preceded by a genealogy, in which Joseph is named as the legal father of Jesus.
In the Jewish world, a genealogy established social position and religious identity. It shows a difference in approach between Luke’s and Matthew’s accounts.
In Matthew’s gospel, Mary was in a vulnerable position because her culture emphasized family honor. Her pregnancy could bring dishonor to her whole family.
At first, Joseph was reluctant to marry, knowing that he was not the father of her child. But in a dream he realized that what was happening is remarkable and amazing, and cannot be treated in an ordinary way. So Mary and Joseph were married.
‘When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. He took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son.’
In Matthew 2:13-21, Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt.
The story about Jesus' escape to Egypt paralleled another escape stories in the Hebrew Scripture: Joseph in the book of Genesis, and Moses’ escape from the Pharaoh.
Read Matthew 12:46-50, the family of Jesus visit him during his ministry.
Read Matthew 13:53-58, Jesus is rejected at Nazareth.
There is no mention of Joseph in the later stories. In her maturity, Mary may have been widowed, or Joseph may have traveled to surrounding villages and towns to look for work. Builders, stonemasons and carpenters from Nazareth would have been hard-pressed to support themselves if they worked only in their own village.
There was work at Sepphoris, four miles north of Nazareth. The Romans rebuilt this town with a Greek-style theatre and temples during Jesus’ boyhood, so there would have been plenty of work their for building tradesmen.
See Bible People: Joseph for a short biography of Joseph.
See MAPS for Israel and the city of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus
John’s gospel contains stories not found in the other gospels. The references to Mary in John’s gospel are:
The gospel of John developed complex ideas about Jesus: who he was, and how this was evident in his life. The emphasis was on the divinity of Jesus, with not many stories about Mary. But the stories we have show a woman who was sure of herself, and confident about her place in the community.
One story tells about a wedding that she and Jesus attended in a town in central Galilee, called Cana.
‘When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.’
Read John 2:1-11
The story of the wedding at Cana gives us an example of Mary’s assertiveness as she insists that Jesus help in a difficult situation. Mary has often been represented as quiet and submissive in iconography and tradition. As a Jewish peasant woman, it is unlikely that she was either of these things.
See Bible Heroines: Mary for the text of this story, with comments.
Mary watched her son during the three years he spent teaching and traveling around the country. She saw that the authorities viewed his actions and words with mounting apprehension.
The Jewish authorities were in a difficult situation. They were trying to maintain a delicate balance of political stability between the Romans and the Jewish population. They saw Jesus as a threat to this stability.
The situation became progressively worse. Mary saw the danger coming, but was unable to protect her son. Eventually, during an incident in the crowded city of Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested, given a swift trial, and executed in the hideous manner reserved for criminals.
‘Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of
Clophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother “Woman, here is your son.” The he said to the disciple “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.’
Mary saw her son tortured and killed. Jesus had been her baby, the boy she educated, the young man she was so proud of. She now
saw him tormented and executed by brutal soldiers.
AND A GOOD FRIDAY WAS HAD BY ALL, by Bruce Dawe
You men there, keep
those women back
well this Nazarene
Silenus held the spikes steady and I let fly
Orders is orders, I said
after it was over
then we hauled on the
1:13-14 for Mary’s role in the early Christian communities.
See the new website on the
|Bible Study Resource for Bible Women: Annunciation & Birth of Jesus, Wedding at Cana, Mary in the Gospels|