Mary, the mother of Jesus

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Mary (Judeo-Aramaic: מרים, Maryām, from Hebrew Miriam meaning excellence), resident in Nazareth in Galilee, is known from the New Testament[1] as the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament describes her as a young maiden who conceived by the agency of the Holy Spirit whilst she was already the betrothed wife of Saint Joseph and awaiting their imminent formal "Home-taking" ceremony (the concluding Jewish wedding rite).

To Christian believers the accounts in the canonical "Birth narratives" suggest that she had still been a virgin at the time of the child's birth as well as at his conception.[2] The New Testament also recounts her presence at important stages during her son's adult life and in the early Church (e.g., at the Wedding at Cana, at his crucifixion and during communal prayers in the Upper Room).

Stories of her life are further elaborated in later Christian apocryphal traditions, their best known detail being the names of her parents: Joachim and Anne.

Christian churches teach various doctrines concerning Mary, and she is the subject of much veneration. The area of Christian theology concerning her is known as Mariology. The conception of her son Jesus is believed to have been an act of the Holy Spirit, and to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah that a virgin (or maiden) would bear a son who would be called Immanuel ("God with us").[3] The Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church venerate her as the Ever-Virgin Mother of God (Theotokos), who was specially favoured by God's grace (Catholics, but not Orthodox, hold that she was conceived without original sin) and who, when her earthly life had been completed, was assumed bodily into Heaven. Some Protestants, including certain Anglicans, Methodists and Lutherans, embrace veneration of Mary and also hold some of these doctrines. Others, especially in the Reformed tradition, question or even condemn the devotional and doctrinal position of Mary in the above traditions. Mary also holds a revered position in Islam.


Mary is referred to by the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy and all Eastern Catholic Churches as Theotokos, a title recognized at the Third Ecumenical Council (held at Ephesus to address the teachings of Nestorius, in 431). Theotokos (and its Latin equivalents, "Deipara" and "Dei genetrix") literally means "Godbearer". The equivalent phrase "Mater Dei" (Mother of God) is more common in Latin and so also in the other languages used in the Western Catholic Church, but this same phrase in Greek, in the abbreviated form of the first and last letter of the two words (ΜΡ ΘΥ), is the indication attached to her image in Byzantine icons. The Council stated that the Church Fathers "did not hesitate to speak of the holy Virgin as the Mother of God",[4] so as to emphasize that Mary's child, Jesus Christ, is in fact God.

Mary is also referred to as Panagia (All Holy). Many churches, monasteries and towns are named after Panagia including Panagia, Lemnos; Panagia, Kassos; Megali Panagia in Chalcidice, etc.

In the Orthodox Church Mary is often referred to as Aeiparthenos (Ever-Virgin) in the belief that she stayed a virgin even after her wedding to Saint Joseph. The Orthodox hold that the children mentioned in the Bible as brothers of Jesus (James, Joseph or Joses, Simon and Judas)[5] were in fact children of Joseph from a previous marriage.

Ancient sources

New Testament

Little is known of Mary's personal history from the New Testament. Her parents are not named in the canonical texts, but in apocryphal sources, widely accepted by later tradition, were Joachim and Anne. She was a relative of Elizabeth, wife of the priest Zechariah of the priestly division of Abijah, who herself was of the lineage of Aaron and so of the tribe of Levi.[6] In spite of this, some speculate that Mary, like Joseph, to whom she was betrothed, was of the House of David and so of the tribe of Judah, and that the genealogy presented in Luke was hers, while Joseph's is given in Matthew.[7] She resided at Nazareth in Galilee, presumably with her parents, and during her betrothal – the first stage of a Jewish marriage - the angel Gabriel announced to her that she was to be the mother of the promised Messiah by conceiving him through the Holy Spirit.[8] When Joseph was told of her conception in a dream by "an angel of the Lord", he was surprised; but the angel told him to be unafraid and take her as his wife, which Joseph did, thereby formally completing the wedding rites.[9] The gospels of Mark and John do not mention the virgin birth.

Since the angel Gabriel had told Mary (according to Luke[10]) that Elizabeth, having previously been barren, was now miraculously pregnant, Mary hurried to visit Elizabeth, who was living with her husband Zechariah in a city of Judah "in the hill country".[11] Once Mary arrived at the house and greeted Elizabeth, Elizabeth proclaimed Mary as "the mother of [her] Lord", and Mary recited a song of thanksgiving commonly known as the Magnificat from its first word in Latin.[12] After three months, Mary returned to her house.[13] According to the Gospel of Luke, a decree of the Roman emperor Augustus required that Joseph and his betrothed should proceed to Bethlehem for an enrollment. While they were there, Mary gave birth to Jesus; but because there was no place for them in the inn, she had to use a manger as a cradle.[14]

After eight days, the boy was circumcised and named Jesus, in accordance with the instructions that the "angel of the Lord" had given to Joseph after the Annunciation to Mary. These customary ceremonies were followed by Jesus' presentation to the Lord at the Temple in Jerusalem in accordance with the law for firstborn males, then the visit of the Magi, the family's flight into Egypt, their return after the death of King Herod the Great about 2/1 BC and taking up residence in Nazareth.[15] Mary apparently remained in Nazareth for some thirty years. She is involved in the only event in Jesus' adolescent life that is recorded in the New Testament: at the age of twelve, Jesus having become separated from his parents on their return journey from the Passover celebration in Jerusalem was found among the teachers in the temple.[16] Probably some time between this event and the opening of Jesus' public ministry Mary was widowed, for Joseph is not mentioned again.

After Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist and his temptations by the devil in the desert, Mary was present when Jesus worked his first public miracle at the marriage in Cana by turning water into wine at her intercession.[17] Subsequently there are events when Mary is present along with Jesus' "brothers" (James, Joseph, Simon and Judas) and unnamed "sisters".[18] Mary is also depicted as being present during the crucifixion standing near "the disciple whom Jesus loved" along with her sister Mary of Clopas (possibly identical with the mother of James the younger and Joseph mentioned in Matthew 27:55, cf. Mark 15:40), and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25-26), to which list Matthew 27:56 adds "the mother of the sons of Zebedee", presumably the Salome mentioned in Mark 15:40, and other women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and ministered to him (mentioned in Matthew and Mark). Mary, cradling the dead body of her Son, while not recorded in the Gospel accounts, is a common motif in art, called a "pietà" or "pity".

According to Acts, Mary is the only one of about 120 people gathered, after the Ascension, in the Upper Room on the occasion of the election of Matthias to the vacancy of Judas, to be mentioned by name, other than the twelve Apostles and the candidates (Acts 1:12-26, especially v. 14; though it is said that "the women" and Jesus' "brothers" were there as well, their names are not given. From this time, she disappears from the Biblical accounts, although it is held by some Christian groups that she is again portrayed as the heavenly Woman of Revelation (Revelation 12:1).

Her death is not recorded in scripture. Tradition has her assumed (taken bodily) into heaven.

Later Christian writings and traditions

According to the Gospel of James, which, though not part of the New Testament, contains stories 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 gave her to service as a consecrated virgin in the Temple in Jerusalem when she was three years old, much like Hannah took Samuel to the Tabernacle as recorded in the Old Testament.

According to tradition, Mary died while surrounded by the apostles (in either Jerusalem or Ephesus) between three and fifteen years after Christ's ascension. When the apostles later opened her tomb they found it empty and concluded that she had been bodily assumed into Heaven.

The House of the Virgin Mary near Ephesus, Turkey is believed by some to be the place where Mary lived until her assumption into Heaven. The Gospel of John states that Mary went to live with the Disciple whom Jesus loved (John 19:27), who is traditionally identified as John the Apostle. Irenaeus and Eusebius of Caesarea wrote in their histories that John went later to Ephesus,[19] which may provide the basis for the early belief that Mary also lived in Ephesus with John.

"Mary's Tomb", an empty tomb in Jerusalem, is attributed to Mary, but it was unknown until the 6th century.

Christian doctrines

Virgin birth of Jesus

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. That she was a virgin at this time is affirmed by Eastern Christianity, Roman Catholicism and Protestants. Rejection of this is considered heretical by many traditional Christian groups.

The Gospel of Matthew describes Mary as a virgin who fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. The Hebrew word almah that appears in this verse, and the Greek word parthenos that Jews used to translate it in the Greek Septuagint that Matthew quotes here, have been the subjects of dispute for almost two millennia. This disagreement is related to the question of whether Isaiah 7:14 is a prophecy of Jesus' birth. Regardless of the meaning of this verse, it is clear that the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke consider Jesus' conception not the result of intercourse and assert that Mary had "no relations with man" before Jesus' birth.[20]

Dormition and assumption

In Eastern Christianity

In the Eastern Orthodox, Eastern Catholic and Oriental Orthodox traditions, the Ever-Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, died, after having lived a holy life. Eastern Orthodox do not believe in the immaculate conception, with the exception of some Old Believers, on the contrary believing that she was the best example of a human lifestyle. The surviving apostles were present at and conducted her funeral. However Thomas was delayed and arrived a few days later. He said that he would not believe this had happened unless he saw the body of Mary. Peter expressed dismay that Thomas continued to doubt what the other apostles told him. Upon opening the tomb, Thomas revealed that he had witnessed the absent body of the Theotokos being taken to heaven by angels. While every Orthodox Christian believes this to be true, the Orthodox have never formally made it a doctrine. It remains a holy mystery. The Eastern Orthodox and Greek-Catholics celebrate this event on the 15th of August. The feast day of the Dormition ("falling asleep") of the Theotokos is preceded by a two week fasting period.

Christian veneration of Mary

Orthodox, Catholic as well as some Anglican, Lutheran and Methodist Christians venerate Mary. This veneration especially takes the form of prayer for intercession with her Son, Jesus Christ. Additionally it includes composing poems, hymns and songs in Mary's honor, painting icons or carving statues of her, and conferring titles on Mary that reflect her position among the saints. She is also the most highly venerated saint in both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches; several major feast days are devoted to her each year:

Protestants have generally paid only a small amount of reverence to the Blessed Virgin compared to their Anglican, Catholic, and Orthodox counterparts, often arguing that if too much attention is focused on Mary, there is a danger of detracting from the worship due to God alone.

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 Christians 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".

See also


  1. See Matthew 1:16, 18-25 and Luke 1:26-56, 2:1-7.
  2. See Matthew 1:18, 25 and Luke 1:34-35.
  3. The Hebrew text is ambiguous as to whether the woman in question is a "young woman" or a "virgin"; Matthew, following the Jewish Septuagint translation into Greek gives "virgin" unambiguously.
  4. Denziger §111a
  5. Matthew 13:54–56; Mark 6:3; Acts 1:14.
  6. Luke 1:5 and Luke 1:36
  7. Douglas Hillyer Bruce "New Bible Dictionary", publisher=Inter-varsity Press (1990), page = p746 isbn=0851106307
  8. An event described by Christians as the Annunciation,Luke 1:35.
  9. Matthew 1:18-25 - Matthew's account of the Nativity of Jesus.
  10. Luke 1:19 - Luke refers to the Angel Gabriel.
  11. Luke 1:39.
  12. Luke 1:46-56.
  13. Luke 1:56-57.
  14. Luke 2:1 and following.
  15. Matthew 2.
  16. Luke 2:41-52.
  17. John 2:1-11.
  18. Matthew 13:54–56; Mark 6:3; Acts 1:14. These are also described as "relatives".
  19. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses III,1,1; Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History, III,1
  20. Matthew 1:18, Matthew 1:25, Luke 1:34

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