Mary, the mother of Jesus

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In Christianity and Islam, Mary (Jud毭Aramaic מרים Maryām "Bitter"; Septuagint Greek Μαριαμ, Mariam, Μαρια, Maria; Arabic: Maryem, مريم) is the mother of Jesus and the betrothed of Joseph. The area of Christian theology concerning her is Mariology.



Most, though not all, historians accept that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure, even if they accept nothing or almost nothing of the account of his life in the Christian Gospels. Mary (Miriam in Hebrew, Mariam in Greek) is mentioned by name in three of the four Gospels, and the Book of Acts, although not by name in the Gospel of John.

It is generally agreed that she was a young woman when she first became a mother. Some insight into traditions concerning her later life, e.g., that she died between three and 15 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, can be found in the Apocrypha. Assuming that Jesus died in his 30s, there is also little reason to doubt that his mother could still be alive at the time of his death, or that she could have witnessed it. Beyond the accounts given in the Gospels and a few other early Christian sources, however, there is no independent or verifiable information about any aspect of Mary's life. An account of the childhood of Mary is given in the mid-2nd century Gospel of James.The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions built around the figure of Mary, and the centuries of Marian cult derived from the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian churches, are based on faith, traditions of the Church Fathers, and their interpretations of the Scriptures¹.

Christian records

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Gabriel delivering the Annunciation to Mary. Painting by El Greco (1575)

Little is known of her personal history from the New Testament. She was a relative of Elisabeth, who was of the lineage of Aaron (Luke 1:36). She resided at Nazareth with her parents, while betrothed to Joseph. During her betrothal, the angel Gabriel announced to her that she was to be the mother of the promised Messiah while remaining yet a virgin (the Annunciation, Luke 1:35). After this she went to visit her cousin Elisabeth, who was living with her husband Zacharias (probably at Juttah, Josh. 15:55; 21:16, in the neighbourhood of Maon), at a considerable distance, about 160 Km, from Nazareth. Immediately on entering the house she was saluted by Elisabeth as the mother of her Lord, and then forthwith gave utterance to her hymn of thanksgiving (Luke 1:46-56; comp. 1 Sam. 2:1-10) commonly known as the Magnificat. After three months Mary returned to her own home in Nazareth. Joseph was told in a dream (Matt. 1:18-25) of her condition, and took her to his own home. Soon after this the decree of Augustus (Luke 2:1) required that they should proceed to Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), some 80 or 90 miles (about 130 kilometers) from Nazareth; and while there they found shelter in the inn provided for strangers (Luke 2:6, 7). But as the inn was crowded, Mary had to retire to a place among the cattle.

There she brought forth her son, who was called Jesus (Matt. 1:21), because he was to save his people from their sins. This was followed by the presentation in the temple, the flight into Egypt, and their return in the following year and residence at Nazareth (Matt. 2). Mary apparently remained in Nazareth for thirty uneventful years. During these years only one event in the history of Jesus is recorded: his going up to Jerusalem when twelve years of age, where he was found among the doctors in the temple (Luke 2:41-52). Probably also during this period Joseph died, for he is not mentioned again.

Mary was also present at the inauguration of Jesus' public ministry when, at the marriage in Cana; her intercession led to the first public miracle performed by Jesus (John 2:1-11). After this point, there is little mention of Mary in the Gospels until we find her at the cross along with her sister Mary, and Mary Magdalene, Salome and other women (John 19:26). Mary cradling the dead body of her son is a common motif in art, called a [[piet?.

Of the roughly 100 people in the Upper Room after the Ascension on the day of Pentecost, she is one of the handful who are named (Acts 1:14). From this time she wholly disappears from the historical biblical accounts, although it is held by many Christians that she is again portrayed as the heavenly Woman of Revelation (Revelation 12.1).

Her death is not recorded in Scripture.

Roman and Eastern Orthodox traditions

Christian theologies hold that Jesus was the result of a virgin birth; denial of this is considered heretical by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox (and Evangelicals) alike. She is often called the Blessed Virgin Mary or Our Lady (this latter, in French, Spanish, and Italian, is rendered Notre Dame, Nuestra Señora, and Madonna respectively). Among Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox she is called Theotokos (Greek for God-bearer) and St. Mary. Catholics also refer to her as Mother of the Church, Queen of All Saints, Mother of God, Queen of Angels, and Queen of Heaven; other Catholic names for Mary can be found in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

According to the Gospel of James, which, though not part of the New Testament, contains biographical material about Mary considered plausible by some Orthodox and Catholic Christians, she was the daughter of Joachim and Anna. Before Mary's conception, Anna had been barren, and her parents were quite old when she was conceived. They took her to live in the Temple in Jerusalem when she was three years old, much like Hanna took Samuel to the Tabernacle as recorded in the Old Testament (Tanakh, Hebrew Bible).

Missing image

According to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition, between three and fifteen years after Christ's Ascension, in either Jerusalem or Ephesus, she died while surrounded by the apostles. Later when the apostles opened her tomb, they found it empty and concluded that she had been bodily assumed into Heaven. ("Mary's Tomb" - a tomb in Jerusalem is attributed to Mary, but it was unknown until the 6th century.)

Islamic tradition

Islamic theology also posits that Jesus was the result of a virgin birth. The Quran tells the story of Maryam (Mary) in two places, 3:35-47 and 19:16-34, but goes into much less detail than the Bible. It says that Maryam (Mary) was dedicated to God's service by her mother while still in the womb (Quran 3:35), that she was cared for by Zakariya (Zecharias) (3:36), and that in her childhood God provided for her to help her grow strong and pious (3:37). He then sent an angel to announce that she could shortly expect to bear a son, specifying that "O Mary! Allah hath chosen thee and purified thee - chosen thee above the women of all nations." (Qur'an 3:42). It specifies that she conceived Jesus despite being a virgin: "She said: "O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?" He said: "Even so: Allah createth what He willeth: When He hath decreed a plan, He but saith to it, 'Be,' and it is!" (3:47).


Veneration of Mary

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Image from 17th century Peruvian cult

Roman Catholic, Orthodox and many Anglican Christians venerate Mary, as do the non-Chalcedonian or monophysite Orthodox (such as the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt and the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church). This veneration especially takes the form of prayer for intercession with her Son, Jesus Christ. Additionally it includes composing poems and songs in Mary's honor, painting icons or carving statues representing her, bowing or kneeling before such images as a token of respect to the one portrayed by them, and conferring titles on Mary that reflect her exalted position among the saints. She is also one of the most highly venerated saints in both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Church; several major feast days are devoted to her each year. (See Liturgical year.) Protestants have generally been less enthusiastic about the veneration of the Virgin than their Catholic and Orthodox cousins, often arguing that if too much attention is focused on Mary, there is a danger of detracting from the worship due to God alone. By contrast, certain documents of the Second Vatican Council, such as chapter VIII of the dogmatic constitution "Lumen Gentium" [1] ( describe Mary as higher than all other created beings, even angels: "she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth"; but still in the final analysis, a created being, solely human - not divine - in her nature. On this showing, Catholic traditionalists would argue that there is no conflation [2] ( of the human and divine levels in their veneration of Mary.

The major origin and impetus of veneration of Mary comes from the Christological controversies of the early church - many debates denying in some way the divinity or humanity of Jesus Christ. So not only would one side affirm that Jesus was indeed God, but would assert the conclusion that Mary was the mother of God.

Both Roman Catholics and Orthodox make a clear distinction between such veneration (which is also due to the other saints) and worship which is due to God alone. Mary, they point out, is not in herself divine, and has only such powers to help as are granted to her by God in response to her prayers. Such miracles as may occur through Mary's intercession are ultimately the result of God's love and omnipotence. The term worship is used by some theologians to subsume both categories: sacrificial worship and worship of praise: Orestes Brownson in his book Saint Worship is a good example of that usage. Roman Catholicism distinguishes three forms of honor: "latria", due only to God, and usually translated by the English word adoration; "hyperdulia", accorded only to the Blessed Virgin Mary, usually translated simply as veneration; and "dulia", accorded to the rest of the saints, also usually translated as veneration. The Orthodox distinguish between worship and veneration but do not accept a sort of "hyper"-veneration only for the Theotokos.

Some early Protestants venerated and honored Mary. Martin Luther said Mary is "the highest woman", that "we can never honour her enough", that "the veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart", and that we should "wish that everyone know and respect her". John Calvin said, "It cannot be denied that God in choosing and destining Mary to be the Mother of his Son, granted her the highest honor." Zwingli said, "I esteem immensely the Mother of God," and, "The more the honor and love of Christ increases among men, so much the esteem and honor given to Mary should grow." Others rejected the distinction between veneration and worship, and considered all these practices to be idolatry or unlawful worship. With the exception of the Anglican Communion, modern Protestantism has generally followed those reformers who rejected the veneration of Mary and other saints.

Joint Anglican/Roman Catholic Document

On May 16, 2005, the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches issued a joint 43-page statement, "Mary: Hope and Grace in Christ (" (also known as the Seattle Statement) on the role of the Virgin Mary in Christianity as a way to uphold ecumenical cooperation despite differences over other matters. The document was released in Seattle, Washington, by Alexander Brunett, the local Catholic Archbishop, and Peter Carnley, Anglican Archbishop of Perth, Australia, co-chairmen of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC).

The joint document is said to seek a common understanding to help both churches agree on the theological reasoning behind the Catholic dogmas, despite Anglicans not accepting the papal authority that underpins them. Carnley has reportedly said that Anglican concerns, that dogmas about Mary are not provable by scripture, would "disappear", with the document discussing that Anglicans would stop opposition to Roman Catholic teachings of the Immaculate Conception (defined in 1854) and the Assumption of Mary (defined in 1950) as being "consonant" with the Biblical teachings.

In a statement [3] ( on the document, the Vatican clearly linked this to its concern over homosexuality by praised Anglican leaders for agreeing to have member churches in the U.S.A. and Canada - where priests have blessed same-sex unions - withdraw from the international Anglican Consultative Council until the matter is resolved.

Virgin birth of Jesus

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Bramantino, Madonna and Child in a Landscape, c. 1485.

The Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed both refer to Mary as "the Virgin Mary". This alludes to the belief that Mary conceived Jesus through the action of God the Holy Spirit, and not through normal intercourse with Joseph or anyone else. That she was a virgin at this time is affirmed by Eastern Christianity, Roman Catholicism and by many (though not all) Protestants.

Historic Christianity, including modern-day Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, teaches that she was a virgin before, during, and after giving birth to Jesus. Islam also takes this position, which is stated explicitly in the Quran (3:47). Some Protestants also hold this view, while many others believe that she was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, but that she later was not and had other children with Joseph the Betrothed. Catholics and Orthodox explain references to Jesus' brothers as either cousins, or as step brothers who were Joseph's children by a prior marriage.

Persons who are neither Christians nor Muslims generally doubt that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. A common view by non-religious sources speculates that Mary had relations with a Roman soldier and then married Joseph who protected her from the harsh Jewish laws of the time which would have sentenced her to death by stoning for such an act. This version is recorded by Origen in the third century and attributed to Celsus of the second century in Contra Celsum 1.28-32. Also see: Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives (Biblical Seminar Series, No 28), Jane Schaberg, ISBN: 1850755337

The Gospel of Matthew describes Mary as a virgin who fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. The passage in Isaiah, in the Hebrew language Masoretic Text, stated that a young woman would give birth to the Messiah. The same passage in the Greek language Septuagint says that a virgin would give birth to the Messiah. Some scholars believe that the Septuagint mistranslated the Hebrew word for young woman, "almah", into the Greek word "parthenos", meaning virgin. This suggests that the origin of the belief that Mary was a virgin derived from an attempt by Matthew at describing the fulfillment of a prophecy that was actually not made. However, many scholars find evidence that the Septuagint was translated from a different Hebrew text that has since been lost, based on comparisons between existing Masoretic texts, Septuagint texts, Dead Sea Scrolls, and some Samaritan texts. If so, then it is impossible to compare the Septuagint with the Hebrew text its translators used, and it remains possible that the Septuagint has an equally valid translation of Isaiah's prophecy. In addition, the currently accepted Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible was assembled centuries after the foundation of the Christians who held to the virgin interpretation.

In the academic community, controversy surrounds the interpretation of this passage. According to almost all non-Christian biblical scholars, many liberal Christian biblical scholars, and also according to Jewish tradition, the prophecy only describes events during the rule of King Ahaz of Judea. The prophet is giving information to the King about an event that will soon be made known to him. The text is clearly not about someone being born centuries later. However, soon after the development of Christianity a new way to read this text was born, one in which Isaiah was not only giving prophetic comfort to his peers, but was also cryptically forecasting the coming Messiah.

Some have argued that the Greek parthenos did not necessarily mean virgin before the second century CE. For some details, see: [4] (

St. Irenaeus of Lyons observed in the second century that the Jews themselves translated the word "virgin" well before the time of Jesus; he attributes the translation "young woman" to Theodotian the Ephesian and Aquila of Pontus, both Jewish proselytes who published new translations of the Tanakh in the second century. Thus the universal acceptance of it in the Jewish community as meaning "young woman" apparently came about in response to the development of Christianity. Irenaeus reinterprets many prophecies by David, Moses, and Daniel as also predicting a virgin birth, and demonstrates why the messiah could not be born of Joseph (Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 21.). Jews and Christians have disagreed about the interpretation of these and other prophecies since the birth of Christianity.

However, this disagreement concerns the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) regarding Jesus' birth. The accounts in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke leave no doubt that the authors of these gospels were asserting that Mary indeed had "no relations with man" before Jesus' birth.

Perpetual virginity

That Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus is a doctrinal stance of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Of the early fathers of the Church, only Tertullian seems to have questioned the teaching. Muslims also hold it to be true. The most prominent leaders of the Reformation, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin also defended the perpetual virginity of Mary against those who questioned it. Popular belief among the faithful has diminished in the 20th century, together with active faith and participation in organized religion. Protestant churches, as well, have set aside the traditional teaching, citing references to "brothers" of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Defenders of the teaching, including John Calvin, have pointed out that Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ and his disciples, lacked a specific word for "cousin," so that the word "brother" was used instead. In addition, nothing in Greek or Aramaic disqualifies a half-brother (same father, different mother) from being called a "brother".


At the Third Ecumenical council, the Council of Ephesus (against the Nestorians), A.D. 431, it was decided that it was entirely appropriate to refer to Mary as the Theotokos, to emphasize that Mary's child, Jesus Christ, was in fact God (Denziger ?111a). That Council clarified that the Church Fathers "did not hesitate to speak of the holy Virgin as the Mother of God" (ibid.), thus affirming what had always been held as true: e.g. St. Ignatius of Antioch, ca. A.D. 110 (Jurgens ?42); Alexander of Alexandria, A.D. 328 (Jurgens ?680); among other references from similar sources. She is often referred to as "Theotokos" in Eastern Orthodox hymns.

Dormition and Assumption

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This image depicts Mary's Assumption into heaven with her body and soul.

For Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics alike, Mary's assumption, i.e., the lifting up of her body into Heaven after her death, is seen as a concrete and present instance of the resurrection of the body, a belief integral to Christian theology and found in the creeds.

The doctrine in Roman Catholicism

The belief in the corporeal assumption of Mary was formally declared to be dogma by Pope Pius XII in 1950; Roman Catholics must therefore hold the doctrine as true. Pope Pius XII states in Munificentissimus Deus [5] ( "[W]e pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith." This is an example of an invocation of papal infallibility. The Feast of the Assumption is celebrated on August 15.

The promulgated dogma is not worded so as to force the issue as to whether she experienced death prior to her Assumption, as there is no theological basis for doing so. Ludwig Ott (Bk. III, Pt. 3, Ch. 2, ?6) states that "the fact of her death is almost generally accepted by the Fathers and Theologians, and is expressly affirmed in the Liturgy of the Church," to which he adduces a number of helpful citations, and concludes that "for Mary, death, in consequence of her freedom from original sin and from personal sin, was not a consequence of punishment of sin. However, it seems fitting that Mary's body, which was by nature mortal, should be, in conformity with that of her Divine Son, subject to the general law of death." In keeping with the historical consensus of the Church, Pius XII himself almost certainly rejected the notion of Mary's "immortality" (the idea that she never suffered death) in favor of the more widely accepted understanding that her assumption took place after her physical death.

The doctrine in Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy

The tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church holds that Mary died, and that after her death and burial, she was resurrected and taken up bodily into heaven. This two-fold event is celebrated as the Dormition ("falling asleep") of the Theotokos. The Feast of the Dormition is celebrated on August 15, and is preceded by a fourteen day fast from meat and dairy products, the third longest fast of the liturgical year after Great Lent and Winter Lent. Despite the great importance of this feast in the Orthodox liturgical calendar, it is not considered a matter of dogma as in the Catholic Church (dogmatization of the Dormition for the Roman Catholic Church was formalized by a Roman Catholic pope after the Great Schism, whose authority Eastern Orthodox did not recognize).

Immaculate Conception of Mary

The Immaculate Conception is the doctrine that states that Mary was filled with grace from the very moment of her conception in her mother's womb. While it might be permitted for Orthodox Christians to believe the doctrine, only the Roman Catholic Church has officially adopted this teaching, and the title "Immaculate Conception" is one used only by Catholics. Most Protestants reject the idea that Mary was saved by God from her very first moment.

While it is technically true to say that Orthodox believe Mary was conceived immaculately, Orthodox do not believe in the same idea of original sin as the West, and they believe all babies are born immaculate. Sin is not considered ontological in Orthodoxy, only the tendency toward it. (This tendency is referenced by the phrase, "ancestral curse," which sometimes leads to confusion on the Orthodox view of the fall.) Mary is considered sinless in the Orthodox Church because it is believed that the grace of God allowed her not to sin, thereby remaining immaculate. So in the Orthodox view, it seems Mary was conceived immaculately but her conception was not out of the ordinary in any way.

Non-Abrahamic worship of Mary

Some followers of non-Abrahamic religions, particularly followers of Wicca, link Mary to the Earth Mother of various Neo-pagan traditions. Some Buddhists have even been known to link Mary to Kwan-Yin, a Bodhisattva of compassion venerated by various Chinese Buddhist faiths. Followers of Santería identify Mary (as Our Lady of Regla) with the goddess Yemaja.

Mary and Shakespeare

In sixteenth-century England, veneration of Mary was a central issue in public controversy about the sense of scriptural text, religious images, and religious practices in Christian life. Some leading figures in sixteenth-century England considered pilgrimages to Marian shrines and praying the rosary to be unscriptural, superstitious, and/or idolatrous. From 1535 to 1538, under orders from Henry VIII, all Christian shrines in England were destroyed. Most of these shrines were Marian shrines, and they included the highly popular shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, as well as other popular shrines at Ipswich, Worcester, Doncaster, and Penrise.

At the same time, Mary rose dramatically in popularity as a given name for baby girls in sixteenth-century England. About 1500 in Warwick County, England, perhaps only 1% of baby girls were named Mary. By 1600, the share of baby girls named Mary had risen to about 10%.[6] ( This change is remarkable in light of extensive government efforts during that same period to extirpate veneration of Marian images and direct Christian worship to the written word.

William Shakespeare had keen appreciation for the controversy over the sense of Mary in Christian life. Concern about the relationship between words and images, and players, shadows, and real persons, pervades Shakespeare's work. His play, Romeo and Juliet, Act 1, Scene 5, includes a dialogue, formally organized as a sonnet, that uses Marian pilgrimage to figure Romeo's wooing of Juliet. His play, Twelfth Night, includes a character named Maria who, as a character who treats other persons as instruments to fulfil her needs, expresses widely recognized corruption in Marian practices. The last scene in The Winter's Tale includes instructions from Paulina that place Perdita in the position of asking the statue of Hermione for intercessory prayer, much as a pilgrim to a Marian shrine might have prayed before an image of Mary. Turmoil about the sense of Mary in sixteenth-century English history is closely related to the development of Shakespeare's theatre.


Mary has been portrayed in several films:

See also

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