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Did Mary, Mother of Jesus, Really Exist?

It's hard to say anything for sure about 1st century Jewish women like Mary

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Mary icon

This icon of the Mary, mother of Jesus, is located in St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai. Eastern Christians give Mary the title of Theotokos, meaning 'God-bearer.'

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Most first-century Jewish women got little notice in historical accounts. One Jewish woman who allegedly lived in the first century is remembered in the New Testament for her obedience to God. Yet no historical account answers the essential question: Did Mary, the mother of Jesus, really exist?

The Only Written Source on Mary Mother of Jesus

The only record is the New Testament of the Christian Bible, which says that Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter in Nazareth, a small town in the Galilee region of Judea when she conceived Jesus through the action of God's Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18-20, Luke 1:35).

Why No Records of Mary Mother of Jesus?

It's not surprising that there is no historical record of Mary as the mother of Jesus. Given her residence in a hamlet in Judea's farming region, she was not likely from a wealthy or influential urban family with the means to record their ancestry. However, scholars today think that Mary's ancestry may be surreptitiously recorded in the genealogy given for Jesus in Luke 3: 23-38, mainly because the Lukan account doesn't match Joseph's heritage listed in Matthew 1:2-16.

Furthermore, Mary was a Jew, a member of a society subjugated under Roman rule. Their records show that Romans generally didn't care to record the lives of the peoples they conquered, although they took great care to document their own exploits.

Finally, Mary was a woman from a patriarchal society under the power of a patriarchal empire. Although certain archetypal female figures are celebrated in Jewish tradition such as "the virtuous woman" of Proverbs 31:10-31, individual women had no expectation of being remembered unless they had status, wealth or performed heroic deeds in the service of men. As a Jewish girl from the country, Mary had none of the advantages that would have made it compelling to record her life in historical texts.

The Lives of Jewish Women

According to Jewish law, women in Mary's time were thoroughly under the control of men, first of their fathers and then of their husbands. Women weren't second-class citizens; they weren't citizens at all and had few legal rights. One of a few recorded rights occurred in the context of marriage: If a husband availed himself of his biblical right to multiple wives, he was required to pay his first wife the ketubah, or the alimony that would be due her if they were to divorce.

Although they lacked legal rights, Jewish women had significant duties related to family and faith in Mary's time. They were responsible for keeping the religious dietary laws of kashrut (kosher); they began the weekly Sabbath observance by praying over candles; and they were responsible for propagating the Jewish faith in their children. Thus they exerted great informal influence over society despite their lack of citizenship.

Mary Risked Being Charged With Adultery

Scientific records estimate that women in Mary's day achieved menarche somewhere around age 14, according to National Geographic's newly published atlas, The Biblical World. Thus Jewish women often were married as soon as they became able to bear children in order to protect the purity of their bloodline, even though early pregnancy resulted in high rates of infant and maternal mortality. A woman found not to be a virgin on her wedding night, signified by the absence of hymeneal blood on the wedding sheets, was cast out as an adulteress with fatal results.

Against this historical background, Mary's willingness to be the earthly mother of Jesus was an act of courage as well as faithfulness. As Joseph's betrothed, Mary risked being charged with adultery for agreeing to conceive Jesus when she legally could have been stoned to death. Only Joseph's kindness to marry her and legally accept her child as his own (Matthew 1:18-20) saved Mary from an adulteress' fate.

Mary as Bearer of God: Theotokos or Christokos

In A.D. 431, the Third Ecumenical Council was convened in Ephesus, Turkey to determine a theological status for Mary. Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, claimed Mary's title of Theotokos or "God-bearer," used by theologians since the mid-second century, erred because it was impossible for a human to give birth to God. Nestorius asserted Mary should be called Christokos or "Christ-bearer" because she was the mother only of Jesus' human nature, not his divine identity.

The church fathers at Ephesus would have none of Nestorius' theology. They saw his reasoning as destroying Jesus' unified divine and human nature, which in turn negated the Incarnation and thus human salvation. They affirmed Mary as Theotokos, a title still used for her today by Christians of Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholic traditions.

The creative solutions of the Ephesus council redressed Mary's reputation and theological standing, but did nothing to confirm her actual existence. Nonetheless, she remains a pivotal Christian figure revered by millions of believers around the world.

Sources

  • The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press 1994).
  • The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • "Mary (mother of Jesus)" (2009, December 19), New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:02, November 20, 2010. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Mary_%28mother_of_Jesus%29?oldid=946411.
  • The Biblical World, An Illustrated Atlas, edited by Jean-Pierre Isbouts (National Geographic 2007).
  • The Jewish People in the First Century, edited by S. Safrai and M. Stern (Van Gorcum Fortress Press 1988).

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KJV versions of Bible Passages

Matt.1:18-20
1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

1:19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.

1:20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.

Luke 1:35
1:35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
Luke 3: 23-38
3:23 And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli,

3:24 Which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi, which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Janna, which was the son of Joseph,

3:25 Which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Amos, which was the son of Naum, which was the son of Esli, which was the son of Nagge,

3:26 Which was the son of Maath, which was the son of Mattathias, which was the son of Semei, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Juda,

3:27 Which was the son of Joanna, which was the son of Rhesa, which was the son of Zorobabel, which was the son of Salathiel, which was the son of Neri,

3:28 Which was the son of Melchi, which was the son of Addi, which was the son of Cosam, which was the son of Elmodam, which was the son of Er,

3:29 Which was the son of Jose, which was the son of Eliezer, which was the son of Jorim, which was the son of Matthat, which was the son of Levi,

3:30 Which was the son of Simeon, which was the son of Juda, which was the son of Joseph, which was the son of Jonan, which was the son of Eliakim,

3:31 Which was the son of Melea, which was the son of Menan, which was the son of Mattatha, which was the son of Nathan, which was the son of David,

3:32 Which was the son of Jesse, which was the son of Obed, which was the son of Booz, which was the son of Salmon, which was the son of Naasson,

3:33 Which was the son of Aminadab, which was the son of Aram, which was the son of Esrom, which was the son of Phares, which was the son of Juda,

3:34 Which was the son of Jacob, which was the son of Isaac, which was the son of Abraham, which was the son of Thara, which was the son of Nachor,

3:35 Which was the son of Saruch, which was the son of Ragau, which was the son of Phalec, which was the son of Heber, which was the son of Sala,

3:36 Which was the son of Cainan, which was the son of Arphaxad, which was the son of Sem, which was the son of Noe, which was the son of Lamech,

3:37 Which was the son of Mathusala, which was the son of Enoch, which was the son of Jared, which was the son of Maleleel, which was the son of Cainan,

3:38 Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.

Matt.1:2-16
1:2 Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;

1:3 And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram;

1:4 And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon;

1:5 And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse;

1:6 And Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias;

1:7 And Solomon begat Roboam; and Roboam begat Abia; and Abia begat Asa;

1:8 And Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Ozias;

1:9 And Ozias begat Joatham; and Joatham begat Achaz; and Achaz begat Ezekias;

1:10 And Ezekias begat Manasses; and Manasses begat Amon; and Amon begat Josias;

1:11 And Josias begat Jechonias and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon:

1:12 And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel;

1:13 And Zorobabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor;

1:14 And Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud;

1:15 And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob;

1:16 And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

Proverbs 31:10-31
31:10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.

31:11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.

31:12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life.

31:13 She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands.

31:14 She is like the merchants' ships; she bringeth her food from afar.

31:15 She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household, and a portion to her maidens.

31:16 She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard.

31:17 She girdeth her loins with strength, and strengtheneth her arms.

31:18 She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night.

31:19 She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff.

31:20 She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy.

31:21 She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet.

31:22 She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple.

31:23 Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.

31:24 She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant.

31:25 Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come.

31:26 She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.

31:27 She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness.

31:28 Her children arise up, and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her.

31:29 Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all.

31:30 Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised.

31:31 Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.

Matt.1:18-20
1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

1:19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.

1:20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.

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