Mother of God

A History of the Virgin Mary

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 Miri Rubin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10500-1

Chapter One

The Earliest Glimpses of Mary

Most of the stories about Mary known to us from worship in churches or visits to museums were created in the decades following the life of Jesus. But few were told in the gospels. Those versions of Jesus' life that became the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John provide only scant detail about the life of Mary. They were writings based on the memories of Jesus' followers, which conveyed his message and gave meaning to his death. Yet Mary's life emerged almost in parallel. There was an understandable desire among Jesus' followers to discover the 'back story', to flesh out the details, to understand the provenance of the God made Flesh. There was also a need for answers to questions raised by those who might join them, and from detractors, Jews who were sceptical or scornful of the claim that Jesus was the Messiah.

The world within which the first stories about Mary evolved was a Jewish one, and it was full of difference and variation. For there were Jews who believed that Jesus of Galilee was the Messiah of the House of David and those who did not; there were Jews who practised extreme asceticism according to strict disciplines of body and mind - like the communities that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls and whose rigorous lifestyle inspired John the Baptist - and there were those - the great majority - who followed rabbinical and communal precepts of Jewish life in Palestine. They all lived under Roman rule.

The adherents of Jesus were buoyed by the presence among them of those who could claim affinity to him by blood or by disciplehood. Jesus' followers, those who had appreciated him in his lifetime, passed on this commitment to their sons and daughters, as they mourned his death and remembered his powerful example. Genealogies were composed that linked Jesus with the House of David, and these were included in the gospel of Matthew. The stories about his death and afterlife expressed the yearnings that the death of beloved leaders inspires: stories of miracles, of appearances and coded messages. To the memory of Jesus were also attached Messianic yearnings, all the more potent after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE following the Jewish revolt against Roman rule and the prohibition of Jewish settlement in Jerusalem after the Bar Kochba Revolt of 135. Some Jewish-Christians settled in Trans-Jordan and Syria, others in Egypt, in terrains where long-standing Jewish communities already existed. This was the terrain of conversation and polemic, where fledgling loyalties were tested by scepticism and derision. This was, therefore, a world of narrative, in which memory was cast into tales aimed to solidify the legacy of charisma.

It was a world in which 'Christianity' possessed no dominance, no striving towards doctrinal uniformity, no institutions or offices of popes, bishops and priests. If we are to understand the figure of Mary, we must try to think of this world 'rustling with the presence of many divine beings', an urbanized Roman commonwealth where temples stood alongside synagogues, a Mediterranean world of extraordinary cultural variety that lived under the vigilant eye of local imperial officialdom. Each person in Alexandria, Jerusalem or Ephesus entertained an ethnic predisposition towards a religion but also owed obedience and respect to the emperor. Jesus' followers found themselves at odds with some aspects of public culture of the late ancient city with its sacrifices, worship of ancestors and the cult of the emperor. As early Christian worship was under scrutiny, and its adherents were occasionally persecuted, Christian life took place in homes and even in synagogues.


Four accounts of Jesus' life and ministry were written by the end of the first century CE: the three synoptic Gospels of Mark, Luke, Matthew, and the Gospel of John, which differs in structure and style. These were records of memories about Jesus, cherished by his followers. Their interests lie above all in Jesus' dual 'sonship': of David and of God, historic and eternal. None of the gospels offers the story of Mary's early life and provenance; their aim was rather to introduce Jesus, and so Mary enters the frame as a maiden about to receive the Annunciation. Mark's Gospel (c.65-80 CE), which was probably composed first, provides no narrative of Jesus' birth, nor does the later gospel of John (c.90-100 CE). In the telling of Jesus' coming the circumstances of his birth were all-important, since lineage and affinity were fundamental attributes of a Messiah King. Yet Mark and John introduce Jesus as an adult and steer away from describing his early life. Mary appears only in passing in Mark 6:3: 'Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?'

The gospels of Luke and Matthew (c.80-100) also support the belief in Jesus as Messiah of the House of David. Followers of Jesus probably provided Matthew's detailed genealogy, which linked Jesus, through Joseph, to the House of David. Luke had access to remarkable sources about the Annunciation and Birth, and the link between Jesus and John the Baptist. He offers these in a language reminiscent of Hebrew poetry. Both Matthew and Luke tend to allegorize Jesus' life, seeing each episode as a fulfilment of a prophecy. In this manner, giving Jesus the deepest possible roots in Jewish prophecy, they aimed to convince other Jews that God was acting through Jesus. The most likely provenance for the idea that Jesus was conceived miraculously by God's spirit is in the circles of Jewish Christians and/or mixed Gentile and Jewish Christians who preferred to articulate the faith in Jesus in the idioms of the Jewish tradition.

The story of the man whose possible divinity was the subject of excited rumour and speculation in the generations that followed his death called for a special kind of beginning. This is where Luke's gospel is so important. Luke chapters 1 and 2 describe Jesus' birth and infancy in keeping with the classical models of biographical writing. It begins in the time of King Herod, with the Annunciation to Zechariah the Priest and his wife Elizabeth - an elderly and childless couple - that a son would be born to them whose name would be John (Luke 1:5-22). Theirs was a son with a mission: 'He shall unite the hearts of all, the fathers with the children, and teach the disobedient the wisdom that makes men just' (Luke 1:17). Elizabeth conceived, aware that God had touched her.

Next Luke tells of another Annunciation, just six months later, in the city of Nazareth, to a virgin named Mary. Luke 1:18 reports that she had been betrothed to Joseph: 'Now the generation of Christ was in this wise. When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost.' Next the Angel Gabriel pronounced the famous words to her: 'Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women' (Luke 1:28). Mary was perplexed, so the angel said: 'Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name Jesus' (Luke 1:30-31). Mary protested: 'How shall this be done, because I know not a man?' (Luke 1:34), and in the next verse the angel reassured her that the Holy Spirit would 'come upon her' and 'overshadow' her. When he discovered Mary was pregnant, Joseph wished to send her away, but an angel appeared to him in a dream, and so Joseph took Mary to his house (Matthew 1:19-21). In so many ways Mary's story re-enacted the tale of Sarah, Abraham's aged and barren wife, and the message brought to her by Angels, as told in Genesis 17:17. The testimonies that informed the writers of the gospels surrounded Mary's pregnancy with miracles and wonder.

The consequences of this pair of Annunciations were realized dramatically through the coming together of two women - young and old, Galilean and Judean - Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. At the Annunciation Mary was informed that Elizabeth was already six months pregnant (Luke 1:36), and so she went south to Judea, to visit her kinswoman. The Visitation offers a moment of female friendship and kinship: Elizabeth praises her guest, welcomes her, and feels her own unborn son move. She proclaims loudly: 'Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. How have I deserved to be thus visited by the mother of my Lord?' (Luke 1:42-3). This shared experience of song tied the women in friendship, wonder and praise with Mary saying: 'My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour' (Luke 1:46-7).

Here the good news of the arrival of a child is accompanied, as it was with Hannah and the birth of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10), by spontaneous singing. The song sounds like a psalm, an intimate appeal to God, an offering of thanks for his remembrance of his 'servant'. Which of the women sang the words was to become a matter for dispute. The Egyptian theologian Origen (c.185-c.254) believed these to have been Mary's words, though he acknowledged that 'in some manuscripts the words are prophesied by Elizabeth'; indeed the earliest Latin manuscripts of Luke's gospel attribute the Magnificat - as it came to be known - to her. Mary's words of praise, so reminiscent of the sound of the psalms, may have seemed familiar and attractive to Jews who pondered the claims of Jesus' followers.

Mark tells of the arrival of Jesus and his followers at Nazareth, his home town, where he taught at the synagogue and inspired wonder and dismay. When his family appears, the expectation that Jesus would greet his family is dashed. Rather, Jesus teaches the meaning of true disciplehood: the sacrifice of family and kinship:

There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him.

And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee.

And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren?

And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!

For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother. (Mark 6:31-34)

Mary is not a constant companion to her son in these gospel narratives, though in later centuries it became common to present her among the apostles.

Mary appears rarely in the gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry. John alone mentions Mary's presence at the Marriage at Cana in Galilee (John 2:3-5), and records an exchange between them:

And the wine failing, the mother of Jesus saith to him: They have no wine. And Jesus saith to her: Woman, what is that to me and to thee? my hour is not yet come. His mother saith to the waiters: Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye.

Mary appears at Jesus' first public miracle and is made aware of the fulfilment of prophecy in her son's public work.

Luke, Mark and Matthew tell even the climax of Christ's life, the Crucifixion, without mention of Mary. Only John records Mary's presence at the foot of the cross:

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus, his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalen. When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son. After that, he saith to the disciple: Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own. (John 19:25-7)

Mary is presented here as witness and as companion to John, Jesus' favoured disciple.

So, as we see, Mary was situated most prominently within the narratives of Jesus' birth and lineage. Even the genealogy offered by Matthew's gospel is a purely paternal one, and it leads through the generations of fathers to Joseph. Nor is Mary more prominent in the Acts of the Apostles, where she appears only once, in the description of Jesus' followers in prayer after his death. The apostle Paul never discussed Mary in his letters to emergent communities of Christ-followers in the eastern Mediterranean; he referred only once to the fact that Jesus had been born of a woman: 'But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law' (Galatians 4:4).

The Jewish world from which Jesus and his first followers had emerged was not accustomed to elaborating complex life-stories for gods, such as those cherished by Greek and Roman writers. But it did have codes for personal piety and moral improvement to which Jesus was seen to adhere. Among the early followers of Christ who emerged from this Jewish world - as yet rightly called Jewish-Christians - the earliest stories about Jesus' mother and his infancy emerged.

The gospels paid scant attention to Mary, but acknowledged her role as recipient of the Annunciation with which the drama of Jesus' life on earth began. Those who cherished Jesus sought to explore his lineage more deeply in support of the emergent claim of his divinity. They were inexorably drawn to the figure of his mother - Mary.


Among the disciples and followers of Jesus - in Palestine, in Syria, in Egypt - a memory was nurtured not only of an exemplary teacher, but also of a man born of miraculous conception who died, was resurrected and ascended to heaven. This was, however, not the only view of Jesus' life: a robust tradition called Docetism - from the Greek word dokein, to seem - preferred to believe that he had not died on the cross, but rather that he had escaped death by changing places with another person. The rich tradition of exegesis around the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac as well as the Hellenistic myths regarding 'doubles', who suffer in the place of gods, supported a version that imagined Jesus next to or above the cross, laughing as he outwitted his enemies.

The precise formula whereby Jesus was both God and Man was far from established among the followers of Jesus. The tension over such formulations was heightened after the destruction of the Jewish Temple, when apocalyptic anxiety pervaded everyone's lives. Hectic work of persuasion was under way, and it drew from the resources of the Jewish Bible and the tradition of exegesis and accounts of the life of Jesus - the gospels. The deeds of the disciples were collected in the Acts, and this original group included Mary, as in Acts 1:14: 'All these were persevering with one mind in prayer with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren'.

The Jewish Bible was full of prophecies which were cherished by the Jewish followers of Jesus. Most important for the figure of Mary was the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14: 'Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel'. Hence forward attention was directed at the figure of his mother: the Hebrew was alma, maiden, but the Greek Septuagint translation, used by Christian writers, was parthenos, virgin.

Within this world of Jewish-Christian stories about Mary's early life were composed and they served to 'fill in the gaps in the gospels' for the reassurance of those who followed Jesus and those who might join them. The issue of Jesus' conception and birth possessed some polemical weight. Intense arguments took place in the intimacy of neighbourhood and kinship in Galilee, as well as in cities with large Jewish and Jewish-Christian populations such as Alexandria, Rome and Antioch.

The desire to know more about Mary was fulfilled by the mid-second century. The Protogospel of James is a title that was given in the sixteenth century to an account of Mary's life that was probably composed in Syria or Egypt by 150 CE. By the sixth century it was officially deemed to be 'apocryphal' - hidden, not recognized as part of the canonized tradition of scripture. The author was skilled in the Alexandrine style of layered writing and acquainted with Jewish life, though he does not seem to be a Jewish writer. The story was widely known among early Christians.


Excerpted from Mother of Godby MIRI RUBIN Copyright © 2009 by Miri Rubin. Excerpted by permission.
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