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In Christianity and Islam, Mary (the Blessed Virgin Mary) is the mother of Jesus Christ and the betrothed of Joseph. Mary (Miriam in Hebrew, Mariam in Greek) is mentioned by in each of the Four Gospels, the Book of Acts and in the Quran — although not by name in the Gospel of John.
It is generally agreed that she was a young woman when she first became a mother, and that she died between three and 15 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. Both Christian and Islamic theologies hold that Jesus was the result of a virgin birth. Christians hold that therefore God is the father of Jesus; Muslims reject that view. She is often called the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Our Lady (Notre Dame, Nuestra Señora), Theotokos, or Madonna, in addition to being given many other titles. She is also widely known to Catholics as St. Mary, Mother of the Church, Queen of All Saints, Queen of Angels, and Queen of Heaven.
Most (though far from all) historians accept that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure, even if they accept nothing or almost nothing of the account given of his life in the Christian Gospels. If Jesus was a historical figure, then his mother must also have been a historical figure, and there seems no reason not to accept the Christian tradition that her name was Miriam. Given that Jesus died in his 30s, there is also no reason to doubt that his mother was still alive at the time of his death, or that she may have witnessed it.
Beyond the accounts given by the Gospels and a few other early Christian sources, however, there is no independent or verifiable information about any aspect of Mary’s life. The edifice of Christian tradition that has been built around the figure of Mary, and the centuries of Marian cult in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches, to which the rest this article is devoted, are based on faith and speculation, not on historically verified sources.
Little is known of her personal history from the New Testament. Her purported genealogy is given in Luke 3. According to Luke, she was of the tribe of Judah and the lineage of David (Ps. 132:11; Luke 1:32). She was cousin by marriage toElisabeth, who was of the lineage of Aaron (Luke 1:36). According to the Gospel of James (which, though not considered part of the New Testament, contains biographical material about Mary widely accepted by Orthodox and Catholic Christians) she was the daughter of Joakim and Anna. Before Mary’s conception, Anna had been barren, and her parents were quite old when she was conceived. They took her to live in the Temple in Jerusalem when she was three years old, much like Hanna took Samuel to the Temple as recorded in the Old Testament (Tanakh, Hebrew Bible).
While she resided at Nazareth with her parents, while betrothed to Joseph, the angelGabriel announced to her that she was to be the mother of the promised Messiahwhile remaining a virgin (Luke 1:35). After this she went to visit her cousin Elisabeth, who was living with her husband Zacharias (probably at Juttah, Josh. 15:55; 21:16, in the neighbourhood of Maon), at a considerable distance, about 100 miles, from Nazareth. Immediately on entering the house she was saluted by Elisabeth as the mother of her Lord, and then forthwith gave utterance to her hymn of thanksgiving (Luke 1:46-56; comp. 1 Sam. 2:1-10). (This hymn is commonly known as theMagnificat.) After three months Mary returned to Nazareth to her own home. Joseph was told in a dream (Matt. 1:18-25) of her condition, and took her to his own home. Soon after this the decree of Augustus (Luke 2:1) required that they should proceed to Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), some 80 or 90 miles from Nazareth; and while they were there they found shelter in the inn provided for strangers (Luke 2:6, 7). But as the inn was crowded, Mary had to retire to a place among the cattle, and there she brought forth her son, who was called Jesus (Matt. 1:21), because he was to save his people from their sins. This was followed by the presentation in the temple, the flight into Egypt, and their return in the following year and residence at Nazareth (Matt. 2). Mary apparently remained in Nazareth for thirty uneventful years. During these years only one event in the history of Jesus is recorded, viz., his going up to Jerusalem when twelve years of age, where he was found among the doctors in the temple (Luke 2:41-52). Probably also during this period Joseph died, for he is not mentioned again.
Mary was also present at the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry when, at the marriage in Cana, her intercession led to the first public miracle performed by Jesus (John 2:1-11). After this point, there is little mention of Mary in the Gospels until we find her at the cross along with her sister Mary, and Mary Magdalene, and Salome, and other women (John 19:26). Mary cradling the dead body of her son is a common motif in art, called a pietà.
Of the roughly 100 people in the upper room after the Ascension on the day of Pentecost, she is one of the handful who are named (Acts 1:14). From this time she wholly disappears from the historical biblical accounts, although it is held by many Christians that she is again portrayed as the heavenly Woman of Revelation (Revelation 12.1).
Her death is not recorded in Scripture. According to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition, between three and fifteen years after Christ’s Ascension, in either Jerusalem or Ephesus, she died while surrounded by the apostles. Later when the apostles opened her tomb, they found it empty and concluded that she had been bodily assumed into Heaven. (A tomb in Jerusalem is attributed to Mary, but it was unknown until the 6th century.)
Both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians venerate Mary, as do the non-Chalcedonian or monophysite Orthodox (such as the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt and the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church). This veneration takes a number of forms, including composing poems and songs in Mary’s honor, painting icons or carving statues representing her, bowing or kneeling before such images as a token of respect to the one portrayed by them, conferring titles on Mary that reflect her exalted position among the saints, and prayer for intercession with her Son, Jesus Christ.
Both Roman Catholics and Orthodox make a clear distinction between such veneration (which is also due to the other saints) and worship, which is due to God alone. Mary, they point out, is not in herself divine, and has only such powers to help as are granted to her by God in response to her prayers. Such miracles as may occur through Mary’s intercession are ultimately the result of God’s love and omnipotence.
Roman Catholicism distinguishes three forms of honor: “latria”, due only to God, and usually translated by the English wordadoration; “hyperdulia”, accorded only to the Blessed Virgin Mary, usually translated simply as veneration; and “dulia”, accorded to the rest of the saints, also usually translated as veneration. On the other hand, the Orthodox do not distinguish between “dulia” and “hyperdulia”, at least not in current practice.
Even some early Protestants venerated Mary. Martin Luther said Mary is “the highest woman”, that “we can never honour her enough”, that “the veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart”, and that we should “wish that everyone know and respect her”.
Other Reformers rejected the distinction between veneration and worship, and considered all these practices to be idolatry or unlawful worship. With the exception of the Anglican communion, modern Protestantism has generally followed those reformers who rejected the veneration of Mary (and, of course, of other saints).
The Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed both refer to Mary as “the Virgin Mary”. This alludes to the belief that Mary conceived Jesus through the action of God the Holy Spirit, and not through normal intercourse with Joseph or anyone else. That she was a virgin at this time is affirmed by Eastern Christianity, Roman Catholicism and by many Protestants (though not by all Protestants).
Historic Christianity, including modern-day Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, teaches that she was a virgin before, during, and after giving birth to Jesus. Islam also takes this position, which is stated explicitly in the Qur’an. Some Protestants also hold this view, while many others believe that she was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, but that she later was not and had other children with Joseph the Betrothed. Catholics and Orthodox explain references to Jesus’ brothers as either cousins, or as half brothers who were Joseph’s children by a prior marriage.
Persons who are neither Christians nor Muslims generally doubt that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus.
The Gospel of Matthew describes Mary as a virgin who fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. The passage in Isaiah, in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, stated that a young woman would give birth to the Messiah. Some scholars believe that the Greek language Septuagint, which the author of Matthew would have used as his Bible, mistranslated the Hebrew word for young woman, “almah”, into the Greek word “parthenos”, meaning virgin. This suggests that the origin of the belief that Mary was a virgin derived from an attempt by Matthew at describing the fulfillment of a prophecy that was actually not made. However, many scholars find evidence that the Septuagint was translated from a different Hebrew text that has since been lost, based on comparisons between existing Masoretic texts, Septuagint texts, Dead Sea Scrolls, and some Samaritan texts. If so, then it is impossible to compare the Septuagint with the Hebrew text its translators used, and it remains possible that the Septuagint has an equally valid translation of Isaiah’s prophecy. In addition, the currently accepted Masoretic text of theHebrew Bible was assembled centuries after the foundation of the Christans who held to the virgin interpretation.
In the academic community, controversy surrounds the interpretation of this passage. According to almost all non-Christian biblical scholars, many liberal Christian biblical scholars, and also according to Jewish tradition, the prophecy only describes events during the rule of King Ahaz of Judea. The prophet is giving information to the King about an event that will soon be made known to him. The text is clearly not about someone being born centuries later. However, soon after the development of Christianity a new way to read this text was born, one in which Isaiah was not only giving prophetic comfort to his peers, but was also cryptically forecasting the coming Messiah.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons observed in the second century that the Jews themselves translated the word “virgin” well before the time of Jesus; he attributes the translation “young woman” to Theodotian the Ephesian and Aquila of Pontus, both Jewish proselytes who published new translations of the Tanakh in the second century. Thus the universal acceptance of it in the Jewish community as meaning “young woman” apparently came about in response to the development of Christianity. Irenaeus reinterprets many prophecies by David, Moses, and Daniel as also predicting a virgin birth, and demonstrates why the messiahcould not be born of Joseph (Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 21.). Jews and Christians have disagreed about the interpretation of these and other prophecies since the birth of Christianity.
That Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus has been accepted by most Christians until comparatively recent times. Of the early fathers of the Church, only Tertullian seems to have questioned the teaching. Both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches insist on it, as do Muslims. The most prominent leaders of the Reformation, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin also defended the perpetual virginity of Mary against those who questioned it.
Later generations of Protestants, however, abandoned the traditional teaching, citing references to “brothers” of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Defenders of the teaching, including John Calvin, have pointed out that Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ and his disciples, lacked a specific word for “cousin,” so that the word “brother” was used instead. In addition, nothing in Greek or Aramaic disqualifies a half-brother (same father, different mother) from being called a “brother”.
For Orthodox and Roman Catholics alike, Mary’s assumption, i.e., the lifting up of her body into Heaven after her death, is seen as a concrete and present instance of the resurrection of the body; a belief asserted by virtually all Christians in the creeds, yet often replaced in the popular imagination by a more shadowy spiritual immortality.
The belief in the corporeal assumption of Mary was formally declared to be dogma by Pope Benedict XIV in the encyclical De Festis B.V.M.; Roman Catholics must therefore hold the doctrine as being necessary to salvation. Pope Pius XII, inMunificentissimus Deus , reiterated “We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” The establishment of this dogma as “necessary to salvation” is widely taken to be an example of the Pope’s invoking papal infallibility. The Feast of the Assumption is celebrated on August 15.
At the time that this dogma was promulgated, there was a strong sentiment among many Catholics that the immaculately conceived and sinless Mother of God would not have suffered death (which is “the wages of sin”), but was instead taken up alive into heaven like Elijah the Prophet. For this reason, the dogma was deliberately so worded (“when the course of her earthly life was finished”) as to allow faithful Catholics to believe either hypothesis: that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven without dying, or that her incorrupt body was assumed into heaven after her death.
Judging from the sources quoted in Munificentissimus Deus, Pius XII himself almost certainly rejected the notion of Mary’s “immortality” (the idea that she never suffered death) in favor of the more widely accepted understanding that her assumption took place after her physical death.
The tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church holds that Mary died, and that after her death and burial, she was resurrected and taken up bodily into heaven. This two-fold event is celebrated as the Dormition (“falling asleep”) of the Theotokos. The Feast of the Dormition is celebrated on August 15, and is preceded by a fourteen day fast from meat and dairy products, the third longest fast of the liturgical year after Great Lent and Winter Lent. Despite the great importance of this feast in the Orthodox liturgical calendar, it is not, as in the Catholic Church, considered a matter of dogma, since it has not been formally defined by any ecumenical council accepted by the Orthodox.
At the Third Ecumenical council, the Council of Ephesus, it was decided that it was entirely appropriate to refer to Mary as the Theotokos, a Greek word which can be translated as “God bearer” or “Mother of God.” This was to emphasize that Mary’s child, Jesus Christ, was in fact God. She is often referred to as “Theotokos” in Eastern Orthodox hymns. She is also one of the most highly venerated saints in both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Church; several major feast days are devoted to her each year. (See Liturgical year.) Protestants have generally been less enthusiastic about the cult of the Virgin than their Catholic and Orthodox cousins, often arguing that if too much attention is focussed on Mary, there is a danger of detracting from the worship due to God alone.
Some non-Christians, particularly followers of Wicca, link Mary to the Earth Mother of various Neo-pagan traditions. Some Buddhists have even been known to link Mary to Kwan-Yin of various Chinese Buddhist faiths.