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Mary, Mother of God

December 27, 2012


Any historian who sets out to write a biography of the historical Mary is immediately confronted by two divergent narratives. The first view, held by Catholic and Orthodox Christians (and in part by Muslims) sees Mary as a girl consecrated from birth, who remained completely devoted to the service of God before, during and after the life of Jesus. According to this view, Mary was perpetually a virgin, married in name only, and had no biological children. On the other hand, the Protestant view (as well as that held by many modern critical scholars) is that Mary was a young, poor peasant girl raised, betrothed and married in the normal fashion. After the birth of Jesus she gave birth to other biological children.

Tradition holds this grotto under the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem to be the birthplace of Mary, however this tradition only seems to date to the 5th century AD.

Tradition holds this grotto under the Church of St. Anne in Jerusalem to be the birthplace of Mary, however this tradition only seems to date to the 5th century AD.

Every aspect of her life is muddled by the tension between the two views. Each view of Mary – prototypical nun or wife and mother – comes loaded with its own set of theological implications that are beyond the scope of this article. Most authors simply choose one interpretation, mention the other view in order to quickly dismiss it, and call it a day. But this fails to answer the important question of how we ended up with two narratives in the first place, and why so many people believe one or the other to be correct. Rather, this article will begin at the beginning of Mary’s life, take all sources into account, and work from there.

One immediately runs into difficulties establishing any basic facts about Mary’s early life. Her parents are not named in any 1st century sources, but tradition in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches holds that they were named Joachim and Anna. This cannot be traced earlier than the 2nd century.

Scholars have long grappled with the different genealogies given for Jesus in Matthew and Luke. Matthew traces the descent of Jesus from David and Solomon, through the Judean kings and then through the descendants of Jehoiachin in the post-exilic period. Luke on the other hand traces Jesus’ descent from David’s lesser known son Nathan.[1]

Many scholars beginning with John of Damascus in the 7th century have sought to explain the two competing genealogies by arguing that Matthew shows the ancestry of Joseph while Luke shows the ancestry of Mary. Yet, Luke explicitly identifies Jesus as “the son, so it was thought, of Joseph son of Heli.”[2] Advocates of this view are forced to propose a textual corruption of some sort and that the text originally read that Jesus was a descendant of Heli. The text would be reconstructed as something like “the son (as it was supposed, of Joseph, but really) of Heli.” Advocates of this view further argue that the name Heli is short for Eliakim, another variant of the name Joachim, the traditional name for the father of Mary.[3]

But why is Mary never mentioned in her own genealogy? John of Damascus argued that it was because “it was not the custom of the Hebrews nor of the divine Scripture to give genealogies of women,” ignoring that Matthew’s genealogy lists four of them and the genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1-8 mention numerous women whenever they were deemed to be  worth mentioning. It seems rather strange that Luke, who otherwise paid much more attention to Mary than Joseph, would fail to mention Mary in his account of her lineage and substitute Joseph instead. Other scholars came up with different explanations for the discrepancy. For instance, in the early 3rd century, Sextus Julius Africanus argued that the line of Joseph had been muddled with numerous levirate marriages, and that original records had been lost, leading Matthew and Luke to reconstruct the ancestry of Joseph as best they could from oral traditions and private family records. Hence, they ended up with different lists.[4]

Regardless of the names of Mary’s parents, Luke does inform us that Mary was related to Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah the priest and the mother of John the Baptist. Both Elizabeth and Zechariah were descendants of Aaron, the first high priest. Zechariah “belonged to the priestly division of Abijah,” one of the 24 priests named by David in Jerusalem.[5] This implies that Mary did not belong to the tribe of Judah, as is often alleged, but to the tribe of Levi. It also means that, contrary to the common Protestant claim that Mary was a poor peasant, she was in fact born into the hereditary ruling class of Jewish society. She definitely was not some sort of proto-marxist heroine of the lower classes as envisioned by certain neo-Anabaptist authors. Protestant Midrash aside, by the end of the 1st century BC, the priestly families of Jerusalem lived in large houses, had accumulated extreme amounts of wealth and held a lot of political power. Most of them seemed to have belonged to the Sadducee sect which attracted the powerful and wealthy but had little influence amongst the general population.[6]

Beneath the foundations of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem lie the remains of mansions belonging to the priestly families of Judea from the 1st century AD. If Mary was born into a priestly family, she likely grew up in a setting similar to this, enjoying the finest things that the land of Judea had to offer.

The possibility that Mary grew up a Sadducee is intriguing but there is no evidence for it. There is no hint of key Sadducean beliefs – rejection of divine fate, belief in only the Torah and rejection of the Oral Law, and rejection of the existence of an afterlife – in any of Mary’s brief dialogue in the Gospels. Of course, not everyone who was a priest was a Sadducee and not everyone inherits the religious beliefs of their parents. In any case, if Mary held to the Sadducees’ rejection of the existence of angels and divine fate it would completely clash with Luke’s narrative, which relies on angels and divine fate to shape events.[7]

Anything else that can be said about Mary’s childhood and upbringing depends entirely on how much weight is given to a mid 2nd century document called the Protoevangelium of James. The Protoevangelium is not accepted as canonical by any church, which will lead most Protestants to disregard it entirely, but the historian does not have the luxury of discarding sources simply because they do not fit a preconceived theory. The gospel purports to have been written by Jesus’ step-brother James at the time of the death of Herod but seems to depend on the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke, meaning it post-dates those gospels. The work is one of several “infancy gospels” which began to appear in the 2nd century to meet a demand brought about by believers curious to know more about Jesus’ family, birth and childhood.[8]

Fresco showing Mary's trial by water, from the Church of Santa Maria fores portas, in Castelseprio, Italy. From the 7th-9th centuries AD.

Fresco showing Mary’s trial by water, from the Church of Santa Maria fores portas, in Castelseprio, Italy. From the 7th-9th centuries AD.

In the Protoevangelium, Joachim and Anna are a wealthy childless couple in Jerusalem earnestly praying for a child.
An angel appears to Anna telling her she will soon conceive, and nine months later she gives birth to Mary. In return, when Mary was three years old her parents took her to the Temple and dedicated her as a temple virgin in the service of the Lord. There, she lived in the Holy of Holies, fed by the hand of an angel, until she turned twelve years old.

At this point, the priests placed her in the care of Joseph, an elderly widower with children from a previous marriage. The Protoevangelium never refers to them as married. When Mary was discovered to be pregnant with Jesus, she and Joseph were given the water test for adulterers described in Numbers 5:12–27. They both pass, and begin their journey to Bethlehem where Mary stops in a cave, about to give birth. Joseph went to find a midwife, but Jesus was born by appearing out of a cloud and a bright light. The Protoevangelium ends with the flight to Egypt and the Massacre of the Innocents, and Zechariah the priest is killed when he refuses to give up the location of his son John.[9]

The question is, how much of the Protoevangelium was invented out of whole cloth, and how much represents earlier traditions that may have some historical basis?

An initial reading says: not much. The story of Joachim and Anna praying for a child clearly draws on the Biblical stories of Sarah and Hannah (the Hebrew version of Anna, no less) where similar women seeking children were visited by angels or heard voices from God. Hannah even dedicated the resulting child to service in the Tabernacle and he slept in the Holy of Holies, just as Anna dedicates Mary in the Protoevangelium.[10]

Model of the Second Temple. From the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Model of the Second Temple. From the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

A larger historical question was if there was even a system set up in the second Temple for “temple virgins” as described in the Protoevangelium. Catholic scholar Taylor Marshall believes evidence of a guild of women dates back to Tabernacle times. Exodus 38:8 references the “servers [feminine plural] who served at the entrance to the Tabernacle.” 1 Samuel 2:22 states that Eli’s sons “slept with the women who served at the the entrance to the Tabernacle” at Shiloh. The books of 2 and 3 Maccabees each reference “unmarried girls who were kept in seclusion” who mourned when the Temple was threatened by foreign monarchs. The 1st century pseudepigraphal work of 2 Baruch mentions “virgins who weave fine linen” and that they should burn their cloth so the enemy does not capture it.[11] All of this is frustratingly vague, and nothing here clearly describes a guild of unmarried young women dedicated to service in the Temple. In the Mishnah, the curtain over the Holy of Holies is described as being “made up of 82 ____” and two textual variants read either “maidens” (i.e., it was woven by them) or “ten thousand” (i.e., made up of 820,000 threads). The Talmud records a debate over whether “the women who wove the Temple curtains” were paid from the Temple’s operating funds or repair budget, but once again there is no suggestion that these women were unmarried or dedicated to service in the Temple.[12] There is no mention of such women in Josephus, or in the Kodashim order of the Mishnah and Talmud dealing with Temple practices. All told, the evidence for a guild of temple virgins working in the second temple is slim to none. It seems more likely that the author of the Protoevangelium was unfamiliar with the Temple and got the idea from pagan institutions such as the Vestal Virgins.

The suggestion in the Protoevangelium that Mary lived in the Holy of Holies of the Temple is not at all consistent with Jewish practice and is instead an attempt to make a theological allegory: Just as the Holy of Holies in the first Temple contained the Ark of the Covenant, so the second Temple contained Mary, the bearer of the New Covenant. Likewise, the “water test” administered to Joseph and Mary betrays an ignorance of Jewish practice: The ordeal was administered only to the woman, not to the man.[13]

The Protoevangelium‘s view of Joseph is rather curious, describing Joseph as an old man who was chosen by lot from all the widowers of Judea to marry Mary. When he protested that he was old and she was twelve, the priest reminded him  of how the sons of Korah who rebelled against Moses were swallowed up by the earth. Yet, the text stops short of saying that Mary and Joseph were married, even going so far as to modify the Biblical text. When Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant in the Gospel of Matthew, an angel tells him “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.” In the Protoevangelium, this is changed to “be not afraid of this maiden.” Instead of a husband, Joseph is portrayed as a guardian put there to care for Mary.[14]

Absalom's Pillar, so named although it has nothing to do with Absalom and dates to the 1st century BC.

Absalom’s Pillar in the Kidron Valley, so named although it has nothing to do with Absalom and dates to the 1st century BC.

The story of the martyrdom of Zechariah became much more intriguing in 2003 when Joe Zias discovered a Greek inscription on the monument known as Absalom’s Pillar in the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem. Although heavily damaged, the inscription read “This is the funerary monument of Zachariah, martyr, a very pious priest, father of John.” Although the monument was built in the 1st century BC or AD, the inscription likely dates to the 4th or 5th century AD based on the language and style of lettering. The tradition of Zechariah as a martyr may have begun by linking Zechariah the father of John the Baptist with a “Zechariah son of Berekiah” whom Jesus accused the Pharisees of murdering “between the Temple and the Altar.” The stories were further confused by another Zechariah son of Baruch, who was assassinated in the Temple courts during the Jewish Revolt in AD 70 and his body dumped in the Kidron Valley. Regardless, even if Zechariah son of Berekiah was the same as the father of John the Baptist, the Protoevangelium records that he was killed by Herod while Jesus said he was killed by the Pharisees, who were often opposed to Herod. It seems far more likely that Jesus was referencing Zechariah the Old Testament prophet, whose father was also named Berekiah. Zias could only conclude that “the inscription confirms all the known textual data.” The evidence is too vague to do anything else.[15]

Finally, the Protoevangelium records that Zechariah was High Priest and he was succeeded by Simon. Neither of these men are recorded as serving as a High Priest even though we know the name of every single High Priest from this period. It is hard to believe that this information would have been completely inaccessible in the 2nd century (the writings of Josephus were widely available to Christian authors throughout church history). Rather, it shows us that the author simply did not care. Whatever his goal was in writing the Protoevangelium – whether to promote certain theological views about Mary or simply to entertain – supplying accurate factual information did factor into the picture. Whatever traditions were incorporated into the narrative of the Protoevangelium were modified to fit the needs of the narrative. This can be seen in the changes the author made to the story of the Gospel of Matthew to make Joseph Mary’s guardian instead of her husband. The Protoevangelium’s historical value is next to nothing. Its only use is the evidence it can give us of popular beliefs about Mary in the 2nd century.

With the Protoevangelium of James discarded, the only sources we have for Mary’s early life are the four Gospels and local geographical traditions, and both provide scant information in this regard. A local tradition of uncertain provenance says that Mary and her parents resided in Sepphoris in the Galilee. Jews began to settle the Galilee region in large numbers in the 1st century BC, which is likely how Joseph ended up moving from his ancestral home of Bethlehem to Nazareth.[16]

Agricultural land near Sepphoris, looking towards the ruins of Cana (in the far right) where Jesus performed his first miracle.

Agricultural land in Galilee near Sepphoris, looking towards the site of Cana (in the far right).

We do not know how Mary and Joseph first met. Marriages were often arranged between families, however the use of marriage brokers to match couples is not attested before the 2nd century AD. Contrary to popular perception, men could also meet women on their own. Young women were not locked inside their homes until they were married, rather, they frequently left the home to draw water (wells were a common social gathering space), go to market, or even to find employment as shopkeepers. On the fifteenth day of the month of Av, Mishnaic and Talmudic sources report that “the daughters of Israel came out and danced in the vineyards” and “whoever was unmarried repaired thither.” The young men were instructed “do not set thine eyes on beauty but set thine eyes on good family.”[17]

While Mary’s age at betrothal is often given as being in her early teens (Catholic tradition says she was fourteen), evidence from inscriptions indicates that girls married any time between the ages of 12 and 26. Joseph was likely older, but how much older is not certain. Disregarding the Protoevangelium’s tales of an aged widower, ancient sources give varying numbers for the proper marriage age for a man. Philo of Alexandria argued that the time for a man to get married was between the ages of 28 and 35. On the other hand, the rabbis of the Talmud encouraged early marriage, with Rabbi Ishmael stating that God was angry with a man who waited to get married after the age of twenty. Most likely, the poorer the economic situation, the longer men waited to marry because they needed to be financially secure in order to support a family.[18]

Regardless of whether Joseph met Mary in Sepphoris where he may have worked or in the Jerusalem area where he had family, the two families would have arranged the betrothal, drawn up a ketubah or marriage-contract, and the groom would pay a small, symbolic bride price to the bride’s father. The betrothal period would last a year or two, during which the bride to be would continue to live at her parents’ house. For some purposes, the couple were already considered legally married. Ending a betrothal required a certificate of divorce.[19]

It was during this time, according to the Gospel accounts, that Mary’s life changed forever. Luke records that Mary was in Nazareth (for what purpose, we are not told) when an angel appeared to her and said: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” Mary replied in bewilderment, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel informed her that she would conceive because “the Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” As a result, her child “will be called the Son of God.” Mary replied, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Roman era village and agricultural terracing on a hillside at Safat, near Ein Karem.

Roman era village and agricultural terracing on a hillside at Safat, near Ein Karem.

Mary’s next actions betray a state of uncertainty and confusion. Told by the angel that he relative Elizabeth was six months pregnant despite her old age, she rushed to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home (traditionally at Ein Kerem four miles west of Jerusalem). Encouraged by Elizabeth, she remained there three months before returning home.[20]

At some point in time, it became obvious that Mary was pregnant. Joseph was an observant Jew, faithful to the Law, and was well within his rights to have Mary thrown off the cliff near Nazareth and stoned to death for adultery. Priestly families were especially strict about upholding their family honor and purity, and any questionable ancestors in a person’s lineage could make them undesirable marriage partners.

But he did not want her to die, so he instead thought of a plan by which he would quietly divorce her. She would then live out the rest of her days in the household of her father or male relatives, forever single, but keeping her life and the life of her child. Instead, Matthew records that another angel appeared in a dream to Joseph, telling him to go ahead and marry Mary, because she had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph then “did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife, but he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.”[21]

Luke picks up the narrative again with a census ordered by the Roman Emperor Augustus which forced every man to return to his ancestral home to register. The issues related to the date and historicity of the census have been dealt with extensively in other literature and will not be discussed here. Mary accompanied Joseph to Bethlehem, it has often been speculated that she did so to escape the suspicions and dirty looks that remaining home would have entailed, and her apparent shotgun wedding would have done little to assuage matters. On the other hand, the rabbinic authorities of the time were not entirely united in their opinion of whether it was permissible for a betrothed couple to have sexual intercourse, so it may or may not have mattered.[22]

Regardless of whether or not they thought it legitimate, the people of Nazareth certainly thought that Joseph was Jesus’ father. Luke records that at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry “he was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph. When Jesus returned to Nazareth and preached their they exclaimed “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”[23] Yet, a century later the pagan critic Celsus charged that Jesus was fathered by a Roman soldier named Panthera, a charge which Origen astutely noted meant that Celsus was admitting there was something unusual about Jesus’ birth, otherwise he would simply have argued that Joseph was his natural father. Celsus’ allegations were later echoed by Jewish writers in the Talmud and the Toledot Yeshu.[24]

While Luke 2:7 is often translated to read that “there was no room for them in the inn,” it is unlikely that a town the size of Bethlehem would have even had an inn. The Greek word katalyma used in the verse is elsewhere translated “guest chamber,” and likely referred to a guest room in a house belonging to one of Joseph’s distant relatives. There was no room in the guest bedroom, so Joseph and Mary had to be housed in an “overflow room” usually used for storage. Here she gave birth to Jesus, and laid him in a manger pressed into service as a crib. In the 2nd century, Justin Martyr reported that Jesus was born in a cave, and many homes in the area had a room that was made from a cave in the hillside.[25]

The Grotto of the Nativity under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the spot where Jesus was born.

The Grotto of the Nativity under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the spot where Jesus was born.

The rest of the Christmas story, the visit of the shepherds, the dedication of the baby Jesus at the Temple, the visit of the Magi, and the resulting flight to Egypt until the death of Herod, are all so well known as to need no retelling. After returning from Egypt, Joseph and Mary relocated back to Nazareth to avoid the erratic reign of Herod’s son Archelaus.[26]

Luke tells us that after these events Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart,” that is, she collected information in hopes of one day being able to understand her son and how her world had turned upside down. The family settled into a normal routine of life. Joseph resumed work as a Tekton, that is, an architect or building technician. He would have been able to command a good wage for this work. The family was very observant, for they made yearly trips to Jerusalem for the Passover.[27]

It is here that we come to the most controversial aspect in Jesus’ life. Catholic and Orthodox teaching holds that Mary was a perpetual virgin despite being married to Joseph. This immediately runs into problems, in that all four Gospel writers describe Jesus as having brothers. When Jesus returned home to Nazareth and taught in the synagogue, the people “took offense to him” and exclaimed, “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” Matthew and Luke repeat the same story. Luke further records that after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the disciples met for prayer “along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”[28]

Paul wrote to the Galatians that three years after his conversion he met with “James, the Lord’s brother” in Jerusalem and called him a pillar of the church. Later, he wrote that the resurrected Jesus “appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” Josephus writes of this same James to say that the High Priest Ananus ben Ananus “assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James…when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.” The public outcry led to Ananus’ removal from the office of High Priest.[29]

In the latter half of the 2nd century, Hegesippus reported that during the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD) “there still survived of the kindred of the Lord the grandsons of Judas, who according to the flesh was called his brother.” His contemporary Sextus Julius Africanus mentioned people “called desposyni, on account of their connection with the family of the Saviour” who lived in the villages of “Nazara and Cochaba” and “pride themselves in preserving the memory of their noble descent.”[30]

At the same time, the 2nd century saw a growing emphasis on the theology of the Incarnation and a growing Mariology meant to counter the claims of Gnostics such as Valentinus who argued that Christ did not have a human nature and was purely divine. According to the Valentinians, Mary was merely a conduit for bringing Jesus into the world, not his mother in the biological sense. Against this view, theologians such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons argued that Jesus did in fact have a biological mother from whom he derived his human nature, while the virgin birth is evidence of his divine nature.[31]

"Mary from an Annunciation" by Francesco di Valdambrino, Siena, Italy, 1425. In the Bode Museum in Berlin.

“Mary from an Annunciation” by Francesco di Valdambrino, Siena, Italy, 1425. In the Bode Museum in Berlin.

Alongside the theologians, different theological interpretations of Mary began to develop among the rank and file, best demonstrated by the Protoevangelium of James. It is an intriguing feature of Marian theology that much of it was developed by the Catholic rank and file laity rather than by theologians in ivory towers in Alexandria or grottos in Bethlehem. The infancy gospels were decidedly down-market, written for people who “preferred hearing stories of a super-Jesus to contemplating theories of the eternal generation of the Logos.”[32] Here, the idea first appeared that Mary was a virgin from birth to death.

This view was largely ignored by the church fathers until the beginning of the 3rd century. Before the 3rd century, writers such as Ignatius of Antioch, Aristides, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus defended the virgin birth without arguing for Mary’s perpetual virginity. In the late 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria wrote that “many even down to our own time” regarded Mary as a virgin only until the birth of Jesus, while “some say that” she remained a perpetual virgin. In the early 3rd century Origen wrote that “some say, basing it on a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or ‘The Book of James’ that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife.” He added that those who held these views did so because of a “wish to preserve the honour of Mary in virginity to the end.” Nevetheless, he opined that “I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the first-fruit among men of the purity which consists in chastity, and Mary among women; for it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the first-fruit of virginity.” Finally, in the first years of the 3rd century Hippolytus of Rome articulated the analogy implicit in the Protoevangelium between Mary’s womb and the Ark of the Covenant. Mary was “all-holy, ever-virgin.” Just as the Ark contained the Covenant between God and the Israelites, so Mary’s womb contained Jesus, the new Covenant between God and mankind. Just as none could enter the Holy of Holies but the High Priest, so none could enter Mary’s womb but the new High Priest Jesus Christ.[33]

Yet, dissenters persisted. Tertullian affirmed the virgin birth while holding that Jesus’ brothers were in fact his brothers. He even challenged whether Christians should speak of “the Virgin Mary” at all, since Paul wrote of Jesus as “born of a woman” rather than “born of a virgin” and “although she was a virgin when she conceived, she was a wife when she brought forth her son.” He sought to counter those who thought Jesus was only divine by arguing that Jesus’ mother and brothers showed his humanity. After all, in Matthew 12:49 Jesus pointed to his disciples and said “these are my mother and my brothers.” Noting that “heretics have removed this passage from the gospel,” he argued that Jesus was transferring the title of blood relationships to those who had faith. He couldn’t be transferring this title unless he had someone to transfer it from, therefore, he had to have actual blood relations who were his mother and brothers.[34]

In Rome in the fourth century, Helvidius made another series of arguments against Mary’s perpetual virginity. Matthew 1:23 says that she was betrothed to Joseph, not entrusted to him for a guardianship. Matthew 1:25 says that Joseph “had no union with her until she gave birth to a son,” and “until” implies that Joseph and Mary did have union after she gave birth. Why does the author not simply say that “he did not have relations with her again” like in the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38:26? And why does everyone from the people of Jesus’ hometown to the Apostle Paul speak of Jesus’ brothers? Finally, what is wrong with the idea of Mary having a normal marriage? “Are virgins better than Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who were married men?” asked Helvidius. “Are not infants daily fashioned by the hands of God in the wombs of their mothers? And if so, are we bound to blush at the thought of Mary having a husband after she was delivered?”[35]


“Virgin Mary from the Church of Our Lady in Ravensburg” by Michael Erhart, 1480, Ravensburg, Germany. In the Bode Museum in Berlin.

In the east, a sect know to their detractors as the Antidicomarians existed in Arabia which expressed similar views. Nevertheless, the tide was turning and the view of perpetual virginity was becoming the norm. Epiphanius of Salamis denounced the Antidicomarians as blasphemers, “as though they had a grudge against the Virgin and sought to cheapen her reputation.” Jesus, as Firstborn of all creation, could not have brothers. He was the “Lion of Judah” and since lionesses can only conceive once, so Mary could only have conceived once. Mary took a lifelong vow of virginity and was betrothed to Joseph for protection only, because Joseph was an eighty year old widower at the time. Jesus’ brothers and sisters were born from Joseph’s earlier marriage. And after all, the name “Mary” means “virgin,” and this has to have some significance. Finally, he concluded with an impassioned plea that “He who honors the Lord, also honors his Holy Vessel. He who dishonors the Holy Vessel, dishonors his own master as well. Leave Mary, the Holy Vessel, the Holy Virgin alone!”[36]

In Rome, Jerome likewise countered Helvidius with a similarly invective-filled work titled The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary. Jesus’ brothers, he argued, were in fact his cousins. The disciple James son of Alphaeus was the same as James the brother of Jesus. Joseph, in fact, was a perpetual virgin just like Mary.[37]

Epiphanius’s spectacularly bad arguments (lions give birth to litters of cubs at a time, and Mary is a form of the Hebrew Miriam, who was the sister of Moses and is a contraction of the Egyptian name Meri-amun, meaning “daughter of [the Egyptian god] Amun”) give little support to his position, and most of Jerome’s arguments are rationalizations (the accounts COULD be interpreted to say that Jesus’ brothers were cousins, etc) rather than arguments from evidence. It is only at the end of Jerome’s work that he shows his true cards. While denying that he had “in the least disparaged marriage,” he argued that virginity was preferable, for there were already too many people on the planet: “The world is already full, and the population is too large for the soil. Every day we are being cut down by war, snatched away by disease, swallowed up by shipwreck, although we go to law with one another about the fences of our property.” Instead, Jerome preferred that Christians be virgins and dedicated to God, rather than be distracted by “the prattling of infants, the noisy household, children watching for her word and waiting for her kiss, the reckoning up of expenses, the preparation to meet the outlay” and all the other worries of motherhood. “Tell me, pray, where amid all this is there room for the thought of God? Are these happy homes? Where there is the beating of drums, the noise and clatter of pipe and lute, the clanging of cymbals, can any fear of God be found?”[38]

The problem is, this seems to be exactly what happened. Whilst Mary was left pondering the meaning of Jesus’ birth, we next encounter her when the twelve year old Jesus was left behind in the Temple over Passover. When they found Jesus learning from the priests, she scolded him: “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” Jesus replied that he had to be “in my Father’s house,” but as Luke records that his parents “did not understand what he was saying to them.” Joseph disappears from the bible after this point and it is often surmised that he died when Jesus was still an adolescent. Mary next appears when Jesus was thirty and beginning his ministry, coming to Capernaum with her sons in order “to take charge of him, for they said, ‘he is out of his mind.'” Indeed, there is, as Tertullian put it “a want of evidence of His mother’s adherence to Him.” Whatever she was expecting after pondering the events of Jesus’ birth, she was apparently not expecting him to become an itinerant preacher drawing crowds from as far as Idumea, Jordan and Sidon.[39]

Icon of Mary and child. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.

Icon of Mary and child. In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem.

And there Mary exits the ministry of Jesus, along with his brothers, a skeptic of his ministry and purpose. All told, there seems little reason to believe that Mary was a perpetual virgin. The doctrine was not based on any historical evidence, but on a belief that celibate asceticism was preferable to married childbearing as well as an analogy between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant which presupposed a continuity of sacred space. In this manner of reasoning, theological assumptions direct history, rather than letting the historical record determine theological assumptions. It certainly does not fit in a 1st century Jewish context, for God commanded Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and increase in number.” None of the major Jewish schools of thought advocated celibacy. In fact, the Mishnah stated that if a marriage did not produce children after ten years it was required that a couple divorce, for to remain married would be in defiance of the commandment.[40]

Mary reappears in the life of Jesus at the crucifixion, and even there, her presence is only mentioned in the Gospel of John. While Jesus was hanging on the cross, Mary, Mary’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene stood nearby and observed. When Jesus saw her and his disciple John there, he said to her “Dear woman, here is your son.” To John he said “here is your mother.” Then, “from that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”[41]

Since the days of Jerome and Epiphanius, advocates of Mary’s perpetual virginity have used this passage to make a case for Jesus’ lack of brothers. Why did Jesus commit Mary to John’s care, if Mary had other sons that could care for her?[42] Yet, the skepticism of Jesus’ family provides a ready explanation for this: If Jesus’ brothers did not believe in his ministry, he could have had good reason to not trust them. Instead, by commissioning John to care for his mother, he could keep exposing his family to his teachings even when he was gone.

Grotto under the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. One tradition holds that Mary lived in a house on this spot and eventually died here.

Grotto under the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. One tradition holds that Mary lived in a house on this spot in her old age and eventually died here.

Apparently it worked, for Mary appears again in the first chapter of Acts, in attendance at a prayer meeting along with Jesus’ brothers. And from this point on the historical evidence trails off. We do not know if she lived to see her son James thrown off the temple and murdered in Jerusalem in 62 AD. All available evidence indicates that John relocated to Ephesus, but we do not know when he did so. Therefore, two traditions have sprung up. One states that Mary lived in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, at a site later commemorated by the “Mother of all Churches” as well as the modern Dormition Abbey. She was buried in the Kidron Valley. The other tradition states that Mary moved with John to Ephesus, where she died and was buried.[43]

Since then, Mary’s role has only grown in both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. After all, if Mary gave Jesus his human form, she had to be somehow shielded from Original Sin to avoid passing this to Jesus, and the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception developed. And if Mary was not born with Original Sin, she was free from even venial sin and lived a sinless life. The teaching of the Assumption – that after the end of her life Mary was taken both body and spirit into heaven – was a tradition for millennia before finally being defined as doctrine by Pope Pius XII in 1950. Orthodox Christianity rejects the concept of hereditary original sin and therefore has no need of an Immaculate Conception, but accepts the Assumption in a modified form as the Dormition of Mary.

While many early Protestant theologians held to many aspects of Catholic Mariology, over time the Reformation principles of Sola Scriptura, Sola Christus and Soli Deo Gloria led Protestants to abandon most of the doctrines of Marian theology in favor of a view of Mary that relied solely on the text New Testament. Rather than a cosmic singularity, Mary came to be understood as thoroughly average person chosen by God to be used in extraordinary ways. As such, for Protestants Mary is a role model for believers to follow rather than a woman of unattainable perfection.

With that, we can conclude with a piece universally admired: Mary’s modest contribution to the New Testament, the famous Magnificat:

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers.

"Our Lady of Sorrows" by Pedro Roldan, Sevilla, Spain, c. 1670. In the Bode Museum in Berlin.

“Our Lady of Sorrows” by Pedro Roldan, Sevilla, Spain, c. 1670. In the Bode Museum in Berlin.

Mary’s blessed state and favor with God brought her joy but also brought her immense suffering. She gave birth to Jesus under a cloud of suspicion, grew distant from him as he began his ministry, saw him crucified, and perhaps lived to see her other son James murdered. Yet, she still considered herself blessed, not for the material benefits in her life but because she saw God using her to bring about his plan of salvation “even as he said to our fathers.”[44]


[1] Matthew 1:1-16; Luke 3:23-38; 2 Samuel 2:14.

[2] Luke 3:23.

[3] “Genealogy of Christ,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, (accessed December 22, 2012).

[4] John of Damascus, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, trans. by E.W. Watson and L. Pullan, (, accessed December 22, 2012), 4.14; Sextus Julius Africanus, Letter to Aristides, (, accessed December 17, 2012), 1-5.

[5] Luke 1:5, 36; 1 Chronicles 24:10.

The precise relation of Mary to Elizabeth is unclear, except that Elizabeth was significantly older than Mary.

[6] M. Stern, “Aspects of Jewish Society: The Priesthood and Other Classes,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, Vol. 2, ed. by Shmuel Safrai & M. Stern (Fortress Press, 1976), 576-577, 609-611; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, trans. by William Whiston, 1737 from (accessed December 22, 2012), 13.10.6, 3; Josephus, The Jewish War, trans. by William Whiston, 1737 from (accessed December 22, 2012), 2.8.14.

[7] For Sadducean beliefs, see Josephus, The Jewish War, 2.8.14; Antiquities of the Jews, 13.5.9, 13.10.6; Mark 12:18; Acts 23:8.[8] Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: An Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 214; “Apocryphal Gospels of Catholic Origin,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (accessed December 22, 2012).Another example of a 2nd century infancy gospel is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Most other infancy gospels are based on these two.

[9] The Protoevangelium of James, trans. by. Alexander Walker (, accessed December 19, 2012).

[10] Paul Wright, Greatness, Grace & Glory: Carta’s Atlas of Biblical Biography (Jerusalem: CARTA, 2009), 160; 1 Samuel 2:21-28, 3:3; Protoevangelium of James, 7.

[11] Taylor Marshall, “Did Jewish Temple Virgins Exist and was Mary a Temple Virgin?” Canterbury Tales, (accessed December 22, 2012); Exodus 38:8; 2 Samuel 2:22-23; 2 Maccabees 2:18; 3 Maccabees 1:18; 2 Baruch 10:19, trans. by R.H. Charles (, accessed December 22, 2012);

While 2 Baruch is ostensibly about the destruction of the first Temple, it was written after the destruction of the second Temple and was undoubtedly influenced by it.

[12] Mishnah Shekalim, 8:5; Bab. Talmud, Kethuboth 106a (English translation found at

[13] Protoevangelium of James, 16; Numbers 5:11-31.

[14] Protoevangelium of James, 8-9, 14, Matthew 1:20.

[15] Joe Zias and Emil Puech, “The Tomb of Absalom Reconsidered,” Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 68, No. 4, (December 2005), 148-165 (available online at:; Matthew 23:35; Josephus, The Jewish War, 4.5.4; Zechariah 1:1.

[16] “The Blessed Virgin Mary,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, (accessed December 23, 2012); Wright, Greatness, Grace & Glory, 157-159.

[17] Shmuel Safrai, “Home and Family,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, Vol. 2, 752-755; Mishnah Taanith, 4:8; Bab. Talmud, Taanith 30b-31a.

[18] Safrai, “Home and Family,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, Vol. 2, 752-755; David W. Chapman, “Marriage and Family in Second Temple Judaism,” in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, ed. by Ken M. Campbell (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2003), 186-187; James S. Jeffers, “Jewish and Christian Families in First Century Rome,” in Judaism and Christianity in First Century Rome, ed. by Karl Paul Donfried and Peter Richardson (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1998), 134-135; Philo of Alexandria, On the Creation (, accessed December 23, 2012), 103; Bab. Talmud, Kiddushin 29b.

[19] Wright, Greatness, Grace & Glory, 160; Safrai, “Home and Family,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, Vol. 2, 752-753; Chapman, “Marriage and Family in Second Temple Judaism,” in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, 186-194.

[20] Luke 1:26-45.

[21] Matthew 1:18-25; Deuteronomy 22:13-21; Wright, Greatness, Grace & Glory, 162; Safrai, “Home and Family,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, Vol. 2, 753.

[22] Wright, Greatness, Grace & Glory, 162-163; Safrai, “Home and Family,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, Vol. 2, 756-757.

[23] Luke 3:23, 4:22.

[24] Origen, Against Celsus, trans. by Frederick Crombie (, accesed December 23, 2012), 1.32; Peter Schafer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2007), 21-22.

[25] Wright, Greatness, Grace & Glory, 163; Luke 2:6-7; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, trans. by Marcus Dods and George Reith (, accessed December 23, 2012), 78.

The birth in a cave is also recorded in the Protoevangelium of James, although that work’s relation to Justin is unclear and this may indicate the existence of a pre-existing tradition of birth in a cave. The preserved Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem seems to support this.

[26] Matthew 2:21-23.

[27] Luke 2:19, 2:41; Ben Witherington III, Women in the Earliest Churches (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 141-142; Wright, Greatness, Grace & Glory, 168.

[28] Mark 6:1-3; Matthew 13:53-57; Luke 4:14-30; Acts 1:13-14.

[29] Galatians 1:19, 2:9; 1 Corinthians 15:7; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1.

[30] Hegesippus, Fragments “Concerning the Relatives of Our Savior,” (, accessed December 24, 2012); Sextus Julius Africanus, Epistle to Aristides, 5.

[31] Epiphanius, Panarion, trans. by Frank Williams (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2009), 31.7.3; Irenaeus of Lyons, Against All Heresies, trans. by Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut (, accessed December 18, 2012), 3.19.1-3, 3.22.1-2; Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 66-67.

[32] John T. Helgeland, “Christians and the Roman Army, A.D. 173-337,” Church History, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), p. 156.

[33] Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans,trans. by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (, accessed December 21, 2012), 1; Aristides, Apology, trans. by D.M. McKay (, accessed December 18, 2012), 2; Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, trans. by William Wilson (, accessed December 25, 2012), 7.16; Origen, Commentary on Matthew, trans. by John Patrick (, accessed December 25, 2012), 10.17; Hippolytus of Rome, On Daniel, trans. by S.D.F. Salmond (, accessed December 25, 2012), 2.6; Hippolytus of Rome, Against Beron and Helix, trans. by. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (, accessed December 25, 2012), fr. 8.

[34] Tertullian, Against Marcion, trans. by Peter Holmes (, accessed December 26, 2012), 4.19; Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, trans. by Peter Holmes (, accessed December 26, 2012), 7, 23.

[35] Jerome, The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary, trans. by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley (, accessed December 20, 2012), 3, 5, 9, 13-14, 20.

[36] Epiphanius, Panarion, 78.2.1-2, 78.6.1-2, 78.8.2-4, 78.21.1-6.

[37] Jerome, The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary, 4, 8, 10, 12, 15-18.

[38] Jerome, The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary, 21-23.

[39] Luke 2:41-49; Mark 3:20-35; Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, 7.

[40] Safrai, “Home and Family,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, Vol. 2, 749, 791.

[41] John 19:25-27.

[42] Epiphanius, Panarion, 78.10.10; Jerome, The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary, 15.

[43] Wright, Greatness, Grace & Glory, 172.

[43] Luke 1:46-55.

Image Sources: All images © Christopher Jones 2012, except the following:

Fresco at Castelsprio:

Photo of Absalom’s Pillar: © Ariel Horowitz, taken from

Article © Christopher Jones 2012.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 2, 2013 7:41 AM

    Well written and interesting. Good luck at Wheaton.

  2. January 7, 2013 10:14 AM

    Impressive and interesting. The only thing I would take issue with on my first reading would be Mary’s state of mind when she went to see Elizabeth. Uncertainty and confusion would certainly be expected of Mary, but her greeting to Elizabeth (the Magnificat, which you included at the end), doesn’t seem to reflect that. Thoughts?

    Also, Petra would say that Mary’s composition of the Magnificat shows that she was well educated, as a girl who lived in the temple would have been, which I think is an interesting point. Though if you assume that Mary was from a Levitical family, I suppose a decent education would not be surprising.

    However, I’m not sure that you can assume that Mary was from a Levitical family just because her cousin was married to a Levite. I am not sure how the law was applied during the 1st century specifically, but I believe a Levite could marry any Israelite woman who was a virgin (Lev. 21:7, 13-14). So perhaps instead Elizabeth was of the tribe of Judah?

    I’m afraid these thoughts are not nearly as well researched as yours but…oh well. 🙂 Thanks for sharing yours.

  3. January 7, 2013 1:32 PM

    I don’t know if the “And Mary said…” before the Magnificat necessarily implies that she composed praise poetry in direct response to Elizabeth’s greeting. That seems like a rather strange response in real world, not-on-Broadway conversation. I don’t think we can know for sure when the Magnificat was composed. The narrowest window I think we can allow was sometime during the three months that Mary spent at Elizabeth’s house. Which could be enough time for her to figure some things out and come to terms with some of them. But that’s really all speculation.

    Also, Luke 1:5 says of Zechariah that “his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.”

  4. January 8, 2013 1:23 PM

    Shoot, you’re right about Elizabeth. Though I would still argue that “cousin” is non-specific enough that Mary could have been from just about any tribe (or mix of tribes).

    And yes, Mary may not have composed that on the spot (but hey, why can’t life imitate Broadway?) – it’s still our first real indication of her thoughts and feelings. Whatever she may have felt before composing it is impossible to tell.

  5. September 10, 2013 11:04 AM

    Certainly popular piety may distort history. But where historical evidence is wanting in such questions, and traditions conflict, the dispute must decided (if it must be decided at all) by theology, or, depending on the case, by philosophy. Unfortunately, the method applied in this article cannot take it to the conclusions it reaches.

    Thus, for a representative example, the author claims: “Mary exits the ministry of Jesus, along with his brothers, a skeptic of his ministry and purpose.” Now, concern and confusion are not skepticism; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But they are presented as such, perhaps belying theological assumptions of precisely the sort that “direct history, rather than letting the historical record determine theological assumptions”–or better still, rather than letting the historical method extract from the record what it can and, when it fails (as in many questions of Mary’s biography), humbly passing the baton to theology.

  6. December 26, 2015 3:12 AM

    Years have come and gone, once a young girl myself, I now know age 70 and pray for more. Recently my ancient Aunt, reported our family to have originated from a brother of a French King who traced his ancestry to “James the Just”, the brother of Jesus. That, at age 70, makes me somehow related to this wonderful story.

    For evidence of ancestral lineage to James the Just is probably as dubious as some of Mary’s connections to things and people.
    I know I have read the Bible on my own since I was a small girl – nobody asked me or forced me – I’ve just always wanted to.

    I love the Lord “like a friend, my brother, then my father, then my King – always my God” – as my understand grew so did my reverence of him.

    Reading in the Bible I would be “cast out of a synagogue”, I applied to become a secretary in one of the few orthodox ones here in the United States thinking, “you can’t be thrown out if you never go into one!”. And so my life goes on.

    Yes, the women of the synagogue became outraged at my presence, a mere Christian within their confines; the Rabbi was very sad; he said I was the “most peaceful person he had ever known” and I told him one of my boss’s names is “Prince of Peace” – he smiled.

    The trees we mailed to Israel which I helped send using a Jewish typewriter with numerical code on each letter so I could type the letters from English? they must be growing to quite a height by now. I love the Lord and all the things he has let me do, try, and become.

    Tonight, “seeking Mary” has been my theme of this Christmas! And I found her in your article, your discussion, rationale and love.

    Thank you!

    If I am a distant descendent of “James the Just” and related thru lineage to all the above, I’m sure my King, my father, my brother, my friend, my God, Jesus, will tell me when I meet him beyond Death.

    Amen and thank you.
    F. Spear

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