Mary, Greek form of the Hebrew ‘Miriam’ or ‘Mariamme’, means ‘wise woman’ or ‘lady’. Mariamme was the beautiful, tragic queen of Herod the Great, so Mariamme or Mary was a widespread woman’s name at the time. Jesus means ‘God saves’ or ‘God is generous’. Joseph means ‘May God add….’ (other children to the one just born); this may mean Joseph was the eldest son in his family. Elizabeth means ‘My God is generous’. Anna means ‘favour’. Simeon means ‘God has heard’. John means ‘God has shown favour’.
Main themes in the story
Mary of Nazareth is one of the few women in the ancient world whose life story we know: as girl, mother and mature woman.
Even so, the gospels are about Jesus, not his mother. Her appearances are limited, and this makes it difficult to know what the real woman was like.
Notice the different images of Mary:
Mary, an historical woman living in first-century Galilee
Mary in the stories of the New Testament
Mary venerated in the Christian Church as the Mother of God.
Mary was a Jewish peasant girl in a small village called Nazareth. She became pregnant and married Joseph, then bore a son called Jesus.
She watched as her son taught and preached in the Galilean countryside, then anguished as he took a path into danger.
Her son was arrested and crucified. Her emotions at the crucifixion are unimaginable.
Mary of the Scriptures
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
each was writing for a particular audience, for example Christians in Rome, Jewish Christians in Jerusalem or in the Diaspora, and Gentile Christians
each was trying to convey particular ideas about Jesus and about God.
6:1-6 Jesus is rejected at Nazareth; Mary is not mentioned by name in this painful incident, but she was almost certainly there.
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. ‘A crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you”.’ Read Mark 3:31-35
A large Middle Eastern family
Mary is shown as the leader of the family of Jesus, confident and loving. The members of Jesus’ family did not understand his purpose, but were concerned about his welfare.
Mark showed that Jesus reset the boundaries of family life. Firstly, he was obviously trying to break away from his roots and take his message to a larger audience.
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.
Women were clearly a part of the new type of family that Jesus proposed.
In another story, Jesus returned to his home town, Nazareth. He had been living the life of an itinerant preacher. When he returned, he was at first greeted warmly, but then rejected and violently expelled from his own town.
Layout of a middle-sized house in 1st century Nazareth
Nazareth at the time of Jesus may have looked something like this 19th century photograph of a Middle Eastern village
Mark’s image of Mary may be the closest to the historical Mary of Nazareth.
Read Mark 6:1-6
Mary in Luke’s Gospel
Luke’s gospel contains stories not found in the other gospels. In Luke’s gospel, the references to Mary are:
8:19-21 the family of Jesus visit him during his ministry.
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.
Annunciation, Fra Angelico, detail of the angel
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.
Soon after 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.
Read Luke 1:39-56
The Visitation, Ghirlandaio
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.
Read Luke 2:1-7
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.
The Presentation in the Temple, by William Hole The artist used authentic details, such as the fifteen semicircular steps leading from the Women’s Court into the Court of the Israelites, through the Nicanor Gate to the Court of the Priests and the Altar of Sacrifice – notice flames through the upper doorway.’
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.
The Virgin Mary, by Leonardo da Vinci
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.
Read Luke 2:41-52
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.
Think of an intelligent twelve-year-old in a provincial village. He frequently travels to Jerusalem because his parents are devout Jews. Each time they are in Jerusalem, the boy is taken to the Temple. He sees the academies set up in the Temple to teach young men. He wishes he could join them. While his parents are busy elsewhere, he goes into one of the academies to listen. He finds himself drawn into the discussion. He is so absorbed in debate he does not notice his parents have left… Reconstruction: the lost boy in the Temple
On one of their visits to Jerusalem, Mary’s son Jesus stayed behind when the other members of his family set out for home. His absence was not noticed for some time.
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.
Now read Luke 4:16-30, where Jesus was rejected at Nazareth, and Luke 8:19-21, where the family of Jesus visited him during his ministry.
Reconstruction of a middle-sized house in 1st century AD Nazareth
Mary in Matthew’s Gospel
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.’ Read Matthew 1:18-25.
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 there for building tradesmen.
19:25-27 Mary witnessed the crucifixion of her son.
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.’
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.
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.’ Read John 19:25-27
Mary of Nazareth, mother of Jesus, holds her dead son after the crucifixion; from the film The Passion of the Christ
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.
It is impossible to imagine how Mary felt as she watched the full horror of the crucifixion. After the death of her son, she lived in the home of one of his friends.
AND A GOOD FRIDAY WAS HAD BY ALL, by Bruce Dawe
You men there, keep those women back
and God Almighty he laid down
on the crossed timber and old Silenus
my off-sider looked at me as if to say
nice work for soldiers, your mind’s not your own
once you sign that dotted line Ave Caesar
and all that malarkey Imperator Rex
well this Nazarene
didn’t make it any easier
really – not like the ones
who kick up a fuss so you can
do your block and take it out on them
Silenus held the spikes steady and I let fly
with the sledge-hammer, not looking
on the downswing trying hard not to hear
over the women’s wailing the bones give way
the iron shocking the dumb wood.
Orders is orders, I said after it was over
nothing personal you understand – we had a
drill-sergeant once thought he was God but he wasn’t
a patch on you
then we hauled on the ropes
and he rose in the hot air
like a diver just leaving the springboard, arms spread
so it seemed
over the whole damned creation
over the big men who must have had it in for him
and the curious ones who’ll watch anything if it’s free
with only the usual women caring anyway
and a blind man in tears.
Mary in the Acts of the Apostles
Mary at Pentacost, icon
Read Acts 1:13-14for Mary’s role in the early Christian communities.
Keep in mind as your read this passage from Acts that it was written before the gospels were written.
Mary is shown as a mature woman who devoted herself to prayer within the early Christian community. She thus lived out the Jewish ideal of holiness. Jews believe that holiness is found in active participation in the life of the community. Holy people do not avoid the company of others. They share the happiness and sadness of the people around them, because they believe that God is found in humanity, not in isolation.