What do we know about Mary, Mother of Jesus, from the Bible? "Of her early life Scripture tells us nothing, but in the Gospels Mary figures most prominently in Christ's infancy narratives of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. It has often been observed that Luke's account gives the story from Mary's viewpoint, while Matthew's gives more prominence to Joseph. In both, the virginal conception of Christ is clearly, but equivalently stated. During Christ's public life Mary occasionally appears (e.g. at the marriage feast of Cana), but remains habitually in the background. She reappears in John's gospel at the foot of the cross, where the beloved disciple received Christ's injunction to treat her as his mother; thenceforth presumably she lived in his household. In the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles she was with the Apostles and received the Holy Spirit with them on Whitsunday [Pentecost]. But her role was not the active one of teaching and preaching; in the early church, as in Christ's ministry, she remained so much in the background that it is difficult to know where she lived or even where she died." [from The Oxford Dictionary of the Saints, pp. 267ff.]
Church fathers of the early middle ages and afterwards elaborated extensively on Mary's significance to the Faith. Many Christians suspect that non-biblical Marian doctrines based on devout speculation are overstated and perhaps erroneous. In any case, Mary has been honored widely as "representing inner strength and the exaltation of the oppressed over the oppressor. ... For many, the adoration of a female figure is a vital psychological supplement to their faith." [from "Mary, Mother of Jesus" in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, pp. 499f.]
As in certain Gospel selections [Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-56], Mary represents loving, faithful, and exemplary acceptance of God's will for her life. Although no prayers in Episcopal Book of Common Prayer are addressed to Mary, she is associated with or mentioned in several (e.g., on pages 50, 53, 161, 188, 189, 192, 345, 368, 374, 375); Mary is mentioned in the Prayer Book's "Catechism" on page 849 (as the instrument of Jesus birth). Within Biblical scholarship, and also among Anglican clergy and laity, individuals differ whether "virgin" means "biological virgin" (to be understood literally or metaphorically) or "young girl."
What Does The Bible Say About The Mother Of Jesus?
To sort out one Mary from another in the
New Testament, the name is often qualified by association with a
place. So today we refer to Mary Magdalene and to Mary of
Bethany (the latter appearing in John's Gospel, chapters 11 and
12): two different women from two different places. When it
comes to Jesus' mother, however, the practice of the New
Testament changes. She can be referred to simply as Jesus'
"mother." The fact of that relationship takes precedence over
any other concern.
Jesus had been conceived before Mary and Joseph were living together. Matthew's Gospel states, "His mother Mary was contracted in marriage to Joseph; before they were together she was found pregnant from holy spirit" (1:18).
Controversy about whether God, Joseph or another man impregnated Mary has been intense and perennial. Departure from established doctrine has sometimes resulted in punishment and persecution. Yet, the New Testament itself represents various views of Jesus' birth.
The charge of illegitimacy plagued Jesus all his life. Even far from his home, during disputes in Jerusalem after he had become a famous teacher, Jesus was mocked for being born as the result of "fornication" (John 8:41). The people of his own village called him "Mary's son," not Joseph's (Mark 6:3). But his followers did consider him Joseph's son (John 1:45), and believed he was descended from King David through Joseph.
The historical challenge is to explain why Jesus was accused of illegitimacy, why he was called Joseph's son and why the view developed that he was born of a virgin. By examining the ancient Jewish commitment to the maintenance of family lineage, which was the cultural context of Jesus' birth, we can explain all these features of the New Testament and discover one of the most profound influences on Jesus' personal development.
Mary would have been some 13 years old -- the age Jewish maidens of that time married -- when the widower Joseph came to her village of Nazareth, perhaps to repair the house of her parents. Joseph was a journeyman from nearby Bethlehem (in Galilee, not Judea), a roofer, stonemason and rough carpenter. It makes sense that he would have met Mary in the early spring; he could ply his trade then before he was needed at home to tend his fields of wheat and barley. The calendar of Christianity from centuries after the New Testament -- bowing to the Imperial Roman feast of Sol Invictus, the invincible sun, which became ensconced during the third century C.E. and was applied to Christ a century later -- has Jesus born on Dec. 25. But reckoned from his parents' probable time of meeting, his birth was earlier, probably in the autumn.
Mary's family had agreed to a contract of marriage with Joseph, but the couple was not yet living together when her pregnancy became obvious. The wording of the New Testament itself, although written many years after the events and richly laced with legends concerning Jesus' birth, attests to this simple fact: before they resided together she was obviously pregnant (Matthew 1:18).
That precise statement in Matthew's Gospel explains how, over time, Jesus was considered illegitimate by some, the product of a miraculous birth by others and Joseph's son by others still. The early pregnancy touched off vicious rumors in Mary's village of Nazareth: perhaps Joseph was not really the child's father. So, for the birth, Joseph brought Mary to Bethlehem of Galilee, where he had lived with his first wife, to shield her from Nazareth's gossip.
Christmas cards, of course, make Bethlehem
of Judea (near Jerusalem) the place of Jesus' birth, instead of
the far more logical Bethlehem of Galilee. That is because
Matthew's Gospel (2:1-6), written around the year 80 C.E. in
Syrian Damascus, relates the nativity to a prediction in the
book of the Prophet Micah (5:2) regarding the coming of the
Messiah from Judean Bethlehem. Matthew fills in details of
Jesus' birth by declaring that the events "fulfilled" texts from
the Scriptures of Israel. Another example of Messianic
fulfillment is the biblical text: "Look, a maiden shall
conceive," culled from the book of Isaiah (7:14) and applied by
Matthew to Mary's conception of Jesus before she was actually
living with Joseph (Matthew 1:22-23).
Bruce Chilton is the Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College and the author of "Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography" (Doubleday).