Monday, June 24, 2013

There's Something About Mary, Part II: The Historical Mary

This is part 2 of a series investigating the Marian Doctrines of Catholicism.

Part 1:  Introduction
Part 2:  The Historical Mary
Part 3:  The Ret-Conned Mary
Part 4:  Doctrine 1 - Perpetual Virginity
Part 5:  Doctrine 2 - Theotokos
Part 6:  Doctrine 3 - Immaculate Conception
Part 7:  Doctrine 4 - Assumption
Part 8:  Doctrine 5 (proposed) - Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix
Part 9:  Conclusion


The first step in our process has to be to understand Mary in her historical context. What can we find out about Mary from her contemporaries--including the Biblical authors and other early sources. As with secular historians, we will assume that the Biblical narrative accurately records the historical events, since it is better-evidenced than any other work of the ancient world. (Though of course they would remove anything miraculous from the story.)

Mariam of Nazareth

To begin with, let us start by getting her name correct: Miryam or Mariam of Nazareth--which the Catholics, speaking in Latin, rendered as Maria and which later therefore became Mary.

Mariam was an extremely common name in the New Testament, second only to Salome for common names at the time: about 1 in 5 women in her era shared this name, all in honor of the sister of Moses, one of ancient Judaism's most well-known and high-profile women of faith.

Mariam appears to have grown up as a girl from the small village of Nazareth--a town so small that it literally did not make the maps or any historical discussions in ancient Jewish documents. Based on excavations of the town, scholars estimate that the population at the time of Mariam was no more than 480-500 people. From all appearances she was raised as a typical Jewish girl: learning and memorizing sections of Torah, attending synagogue each week, and traveling to Jerusalem with her extended family for annual religious festivals.

Mariam  was engaged to a young man named Joseph, whose family was from Bethlehem. Betrothal in ancient Judaism was a period of usually around a year, during which the two began preparing for their lives together. They  did not court others or allow themselves to be courted during this time, and the husband-to-be prepared a home for them to live in (generally, adjacent to or part of his father's house). At the end of the betrothal period he would return to take the bride-to-be to be wed and enter their new home.

We know little of Mariam and Joseph's feelings for each other. Was the marriage arranged despite protests or did they have feelings for each other? Were they looking forward to the wedding or not? What was the age range? It would not have been uncommon for Joseph to be in his twenties yet for Mariam to be in her early teens, for example.

What we do know is that, during her betrothal period, Mariam became pregnant. This of course would imply to everyone that either she and Joseph were intimate prior to marriage (fornication), or that she was unfaithful with someone else. Either would be an offense worthy of a divorce (in the best case) or a stoning (in the worst). Before she was showing the pregnancy, Mariam left her village to live with her relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah, who had recently become pregnant miraculously with a boy who would later be known as John the Baptizer.

Mariam and Joseph each independently claimed to have been made aware of the pregnancy through miraculous visions--we hear Joseph's testimony through the Gospel of Matthew, and of Mariam's through the Gospel of Luke. So they decide not to get a divorce after all.

Fortuitously it would seem for their situation, Caesar Augustus calls for a census and taxation so Joseph is able to avoid embarrassment and take the now visibly-pregnant Mariam down to Bethlehem to register with his family. There they give birth in the famous nativity story. They name their son Yeshua (the Hebrew name we would render "Joshua")--it means "deliverer" or "savior." In Greek the word is rendered Iesous, which later became Jesus. After the birth it appears that they lived in Bethlehem for a few years before traveling to Egypt, then returning to Nazareth sometime before Jesus was 12.

We know very little else of Mariam. Early texts are quite clear that she mothered other children: James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude, as well as at least two daughters. They lived together in Nazareth and seem to have followed the standard Jewish practices of their day: their children are all amazingly well acquainted with the Torah (so much so that it astonishes some rabbis to hear the 12-year old Jesus teaching at the Temple); they travel regularly to Jewish festivals; they circumcise their children; they attend local weddings.

By the time Jesus is around 30, Mariam is well aware of His miraculous abilities, and uses her influence as His mother to help a host at a wedding in Cana who has run out of wine. She follows around with Jesus' entourage until He dies, and then appears to have remained an active member of the Christian community until her death--even, apparently, serving as a source for some of the Gospel of Luke's eyewitness testimony.


Though we shall see later Christian tradition in our next post adding to Mariam's history and developing a sort of new mythology around her, the earliest sources all agree: she is an important, but relatively minor figure in the New Testament era.

The historical Mariam of Nazareth appears in all of the early sources to be a faithful peasant Jewish woman of a small town in Judea, mother of seven and a devoted family member. It is likely that she could not read, and had no personal career but rather served her family as a homemaker: first living with her parents, then staying with her relative Elizabeth, then living with her husband and children until death. She appears to have been humble and poor and lowly, yet great in faith. Evidence indicates that she long out-lived her husband, yet never remarried as far as we can tell. Rather, she seems to have devoted her life to her children and her God.

This, then, is the historical view of Mariam of Nazareth, mother of Yeshua.

UPDATE--As requested in comments, more detail about Mary giving birth to other children:

Sure, no problem. The earliest sources of course are Scriptural.

The Gospel of Mark was written around 49-55 AD. In Mark 6:3 the onlookers identify Mary as Jesus' mother, and his brothers as James, Joses (Joseph), Judas (Jude), and Simon. It also mentions that they have sisters (plural).

Next up comes Matthew (50-62 AD). In Matthew 12:46 mentions that Jesus' mother and brothers were waiting for Him outside. Matthew 13:55 repeats the same story from Mark 6:3. In Matthew 1:24-25, we are told that Joseph kept Mary a virgin "until she had given birth to a son"--not forever.

In Paul's letters, written between 45 and 60 AD, Paul refers to the "brothers of the Lord" as luminaries of the early church along with Peter (Cephas) and the apostles (1Cor 9:5). In Galatians 1:19, Paul refers to James as Jesus' brother.

In Acts, written about 65 AD, Luke records the aftermath of the crucifixion. In Acts 1:14, the people who were meeting to talk about Jesus are divided into three groups: (1) Jesus' followers, (2) the women including Mary, and (3) Jesus' brothers.

In John's Gospel, written sometime between 60-100 AD, we find that Jesus traveled with his "mother and brothers and his disciples" (John 2:12), and that Jesus' brothers encouraged Him to do take His ministry more public or no one would believe in Him (John 7:3-10).

No one in the New Testament is called by the term, "Jesus' brother" except for these four men, only one of whom (James) is significant enough to become a leader in the early church.

So in the earliest writings of the church--specifically the Scriptures--we are told that they are brothers and sisters, and the context certainly makes it seem to be so. Furthermore Paul clearly thinks they are brothers, referring to James alone as "brother of the Lord" as a title, and in Galatians drawing a distinction between the apostles and the brothers of the Lord--both groups being given a position of honor in the early church.

But it is not just Scriptural evidence, either.

Tertullian, in his writing On Monogamy (c.200-225), says:

"For who was more worthily to perform the initiatory rite on the body of the Lord, than flesh similar in kind to that which conceived and gave birth to that body? And indeed it was a virgin, about to marry once for all after her delivery, who gave birth to Christ, in order that each title of sanctity might be fulfilled in Christ's parentage, by means of a mother who was both virgin, and wife of one husband." (On Monogamy, 8)

Hegesippus (110-180) also called James the Just, head of the Jerusalem church and author of the Epistle, "the brother of the Lord"--again, the only person given this title.

As we shall see in the next post, we really don't see ANY early church father address the concept of Mary as an ever-virgin for another 200 years. No one really talks against the concept of her being ever-virgin, either: it just doesn't seem to be much of a debate until the 3rd century.

We shall from there see this "ret-conned" view of Mary begin to take shape.


  1. Would you mind to give a little more background on Mary ( Mariam ) being a mother of seven and how you arrived at their names specifically? Thanks.

    1. Sure--it was a bit too long for the comments and, I felt, relevant to the original post so I updated the above. Hope that answers the questions!