Mary: An Overview

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The New Testament description of Maria, or Mariam, includes Mary's virginal conception of Jesus. Preeminent among the saints, the Virgin Mary later became the object of piety and cult and, especially in the Roman Catholic church, of dogmas such as the immaculate conception and the assumption. Protestant treatment of her as a biblical saint varies. She is honored in the Qurʾān (sūrah s 3 and 19), Shī˓ah speculation, and ūfī mystical traditions (see Tavard 3245, Pelikan 6779). There is some Jewish interest in Mary as a Jewish mother and link to the people of Israel (Flusser).

Traditionally, Mary has been presented by combining all the references to her in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles and viewing them in the light of the infancy narratives (Mt. 12, Lk. 12), which have been taken as her memoirs revealed years later to an evangelist. These accounts have then been psychologized and interpreted in light of later Marian thought. Further, Revelation 12, which speaks about "a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars," who gives birth to a male child who in turn is caught up to God after escaping a dragon on earth, has been regarded as a reference to Mary. Similarly, passages in the Hebrew scriptures have been said to refer to Mary; in Genesis 3:15 she (as the Vulgate reads) "shall bruise" the serpent's head; in Isaiah 7:14 (Mt. 1:23) a young girl (Septuagint, "virgin") shall give birth to a son; in Proverbs 8 and other passages about Wisdom (personified as a woman); and in the female figure of the daughter of Zion (e.g., Zep. 3:1420). On Old Testament typologies in patristic sources, see Pelikan 2336, 4145.

Modern scholarship finds differing pictures of Mary in each gospel. Earlier accounts can be ascertained from sources used by the gospel writers, and a "historical Mary" can be sought behind such sources. The concatenation of biblical images, together with evolving Marian piety and influences from other religions, led to postNew Testament developments that were initially connected with Christology, then with ecclesiology, but by the Middle Ages and certainly since the seventeenth century, Roman Catholic dogmatics were treated separately as Mariology. Pelikan treats her many titles like "the second Eve" and "black Madonna."

Mary in the New Testament

The Gospel of Mark (written about 70 ce) describes Jesus' mother and brothers on the edge of a crowd listening to him teach (Mk. 3:3135). "His own" (3:20), likely "his family" (NRSV), have come to take him away because Jesus was, they thought, "out of his mind"; they are like the hostile scribes who claim that he is "possessed by Beelzebub" (3:22). In Mark 3:3435, Jesus designates as "my mother and my brothers" those who do the will of God, thus contrasting his natural family, including Mary, with his "eschatological family" of disciples. The passage in Mark 6:16a, about the rejection of Jesus in his home synagogue, shows Mary and Jesus' brothers sharing the unbelief of those of the surrounding countryside; 6:3, "son of Mary," does not indicate either virgin birth or illegitimacy (contrast Schaberg). References to another Mary, in addition to Mary Magdalene, in 15:40, 15:47, and 16:1 do not denote Jesus' mother. Hence the overall picture of Mary in Mark is a negative one. (For details, see Brown et al., 1978, pp. 5172, 286287.)

In the Gospel of Matthew (perhaps before 90 ce), a more positive view of Mary results, especially from the first two chapters about the birth and infancy of Jesus, the fruit of meditation upon the Hebrew scriptures within the Matthean community. The genealogy (Mt. 1:117), from Abraham through David to "Jesus who is called the Messiah," mentions five women, including "Mary, of whom [fem.] Jesus was born" (1:16). This genealogy was probably designed to emphasize how God carried out his plan to save his people through Jesus the Messiah (1:21) in spite of "marital irregularities" in each of the cases of the five women. With Mary, the irregularity is that Joseph learns she is with child "from the Holy Spirit." But this is in accord with God's plan (Mt. 1:2122). That the women were "threats" but "vulnerable" is stressed by Gaventa 3246. The evangelist cites Isaiah 7:14 (Septuagint) to verify that a virgin has conceived and that the child will be "God with us" (Mt. 1:23).

Matthew's portrait of Mary during the ministry of Jesus is also ameliorated by other details. In the scene of Jesus' eschatological family (Mt. 12:4650) no reference is made to Jesus' natural family coming to take custody of him. In the synagogue scene at Nazareth (Mt. 13:5358), Matthew drops out the Marcan reference to "his own kin" in what Jesus says (13:57; cf. Mk. 6:4).

The most positive synoptic portrayal of Mary comes in the Gospel of Luke plus Acts (perhaps after 90 ce). In Acts 1:14, Mary is a member of the Jerusalem church. In Luke 12, Mary is described as Joseph's "betrothed" (Luke 2:120, where, however, a virgin birth is not mentioned). More striking are (1) the scene where the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear "the Son of the Most High" and "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (God's creative activity, Acts 1:8; Gen. 1), and Mary responds, "Let it be with me according to your word" (Lk. 1:2638, Mary's faith); (2) the story of Mary's visit to Elizabeth (Lk. 1:3956) and Mary's song, the Magnificat (1:4655, Mary as prophetess), in particular, the words about her blessedness (esp. 1:42 and 1:48); (3) the account of Mary in the Jerusalem Temple where she comes for purification after childbirth and where Jesus is presented to the Lord (Lk. 2:2140); and (4) the story of Jesus in the Temple as a twelve-year-old (Lk. 2:4152). These accounts show Mary's faith in God (Lk. 1:38, 1:45); tell of the virginal conception (Lk. 1:3134, cf. 3:23) and of Mary's status as a "favored one" (Lk. 1:28; Vulgate, gratia plena ), employing the term hail (ave); and relate Simeon's prophecy to Mary: "A sword will pierce your own soul too" (Luke 2:35; Mary, also, must transcend the natural bonds of family and come to faith in Jesus). This she does, for Jesus declares blessed not the womb that bore him but those who hear and keep God's word (Lk. 11:2728). The rejection scene at Nazareth (Lk. 4:1630) is presented very differently, and the saying about Jesus' eschatological family (Lk. 8:1921) lacks any contrast with his natural family. In Luke 2:19 and 2:51, Mary ponders over Jesus' birth and thus grows in faith and discipleship.

The Gospel of John (c. 90) contains no reference to the virgin birth, in part because the preexistence and incarnation of the Word are emphasized (Jn. 1:118). The scenes involving "the mother of Jesus" (never "Mary") during Jesus' ministry are totally different from those in the Synoptic Gospels. In the story about a wedding feast at Cana (Jn. 2:111), his mother does not yet seem to have grasped that his "hour" does not parallel the wishes of his natural family. Although she accompanied Jesus to Capernaum (Jn. 2:12), perhaps this was because she was seeking to bring him home (cf. Mk. 3:2035). The mother of Jesus appears in one other Johannine scene (Jn. 19:2527), standing at the foot of the cross with the Beloved Disciple. This stabat mater reference occurs only in John, among all the Gospels.

Earlier New Testament writings, like Paul's letters (c. 5060, Gal. 4:4, antidocetist), make no reference to Mary, nor does the Q source, a reconstructed collection of Jesus' sayings, presumed to have been used by Matthew and Luke. A pre-gospel tradition could be behind John 2:111, or a common source could be the basis of the Matthean-Lukan stories of Mary's conceiving and the genealogy. More likely these are deductions of post-Easter Christology, theologoumena, dramatizing the divine origins of Jesus.

Regardless of the backgrounds and symbolism of the scene in Revelation 12 that are suggested by scholarship in the history of religions, the passage is intended to assert God's triumph in Christ over Satan's attacks. The woman who gives birth to the Messiah is Israel and the church, Christ's suffering people. Marian applications to the passage developed only in the fourth century.

Marian Piety and Mariology

In the second century, references to Mary are rare, found chiefly in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch about the "mystery" of Jesus' birth (e.g., Ephesians 19.1) and in Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 100). Justin typologically compares Eve and Mary, a theme developed by Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.21.10). The New Testament Apocrypha and gnostic documents from Nag Hammadi expand references to Mary (see Tavard 1731). The Protevangelium of James (an infancy gospel and life of Mary, written mid-second century), with its hagiographic details, was to have great influence. It said that Mary remained a virgin while delivering her son (in partu) as well as after Jesus' birth (virginitas post partum ). Growing Christian emphasis on asceticism, with Mary as virgin model, and contacts with "mother goddesses" in other religions, especially in Asia Minor, encouraged Marian themes. But even in the third century there is no trace of belief in Mary's assumption into heaven (Brown et al., 1978, pp. 241282).

Popular piety concerning Mary usually developed first in the East, often involving icons (see Tavard 6773) and in a liturgical context, sometimes involving groups deemed heretical. The West was often more sober in its piety (see Tavard 65100). The prayer in the Byzantine liturgy Sub tuum praesidium confugimus ("Under your mercy we take refuge, O Theotokos ") has been traced back to the fourth century or earlier (for details, see O'Carroll, 1983). In the Refutation of All Heresies 7879 (c. 375), Epiphanius, bishop of Cyprus, refers both to "opponents of Mary" who denied that she was perpetually a virgin (Gr., aeiparthenos; Lat., semper virgo ), and to the Collyridians, women who offered cakes (kollyrides) to the Virgin as a goddess (cf. Jer. 7:18, 44:1528). At the Second Council of Nicaea (787) clear distinctions were made: latr(e)ia ("worship") is for God alone; d(o)ul(e)ia ("reverence"), for the saints; and huperdouleia ("more than reverence"), for Mary.

In the Christological controversies of the fifth century, Mary took on more and more of the status of her Son. While Nestorius (d. 451) was willing to call Mary christotokos ("the one who bore Christ"), he boggled at the term theotokos, "God-bearer." This term became the rallying cry of Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) and was proclaimed as a title for Mary at the councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451). The intent was to assert that he whom Mary bore was, while "truly man," also "truly God." Use of the term theotokos also led to emphasis on Mary not simply as Dei genitrix ("she who gives birth to God") but also as mater Dei, the "mother of God" (see Tavard 4964; Pelikan 5565).

Marian festivals generally developed in the East and then spread elsewhere. They multiplied in number. Some had biblical roots, for example, the Annunciation on March 25 (Lk. 1:2638) and the Purification on February 2 (Lk. 2:2139, cf. Lv. 12). Others, like the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (September 8) and her Presentation in the Temple (November 21), have their roots in the Protevangelium of James. The fifteenth of August became the date for the Dormition, or "falling asleep" of the Virgin. Later there arose accounts of Mary's bodily assumption into heaven, paralleling Jesus' exaltation. Mary was regarded as now reigning with her Son, and thus she could be intercessor, or mediatrix, with Christ and God. A legend about Theophilus, who made a pact with the devil but obtained forgiveness through Mary, was an indication of her power to intervene. The Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (December 8 or 9) arose around the theme of her sinlessness from the time of her birth (cf. Protevangelium of James 4). However, in the West there was a long debate over Mary's sinlessness in light of the Augustinian doctrine of original sin; the Franciscans promoted the feast, while the Dominicans (including Thomas Aquinas) opposed it.

Celebration of Mary had now moved from the realm of Christology to that of ecclesiology. Mary was Mater Ecclesiae ("mother of the church"), for she had brought forth Christ, the head of the church. One principle at work was "potuit, decuit, fecit": God could do a thing, it was fitting that God should, and therefore God did itfor example, God saw to it that Mary was born or exalted much like her Son. Other principles were exhibited by Bernard of Clairvaux's dictum "Everything through Mary" and the widespread medieval belief that one can never say too much about Mary. Reflections of this cascading piety can be seen in the Akathistos, a Greek hymn of the fifth or sixth century that has elaborate epithets for Mary, or in Western antiphons like Alma redemptoris mater (Sweet Mother of the Redeemer), or in the Ave Maria prayer ("Hail, Mary," Luke 1:28 and 1:48, with the later addition of "Pray for us sinners "). Poetry, often outside the churches, e.g., by the English Romantics and pre-Raphaelites, and literature sometimes hailed Mary (see Tavard 153167; Pelikan 165175).

Some of the Protestant reformers (see Pelikan 153163), including Ulrich Zwingli (see Tavard 104109), grew up under the high Mariology of the late Middle Ages and its piety. Luther seems at times to have affirmed Mary's immaculate conception and even her bodily assumption and retained some Marian festivals, but with a Christological emphasis. More revealing is Luther's 1521 exposition of the Magnificat (Works, Saint Louis, 1956, vol. 21, pp. 297358), where Mary is "the foremost example" of God's grace and of proper humility. The Lutheran confessions simply assume the virgin birth of Jesus Christ and even use stock phrases like semper virgo. But Calvin, who praised Mary as "holy virgin," expressed misgivings about calling her "mother of God." Protestant reaction to the post-Tridentine emphases in Roman Catholicism gave Mary less and less place (see Tavard 117130; Dawe). Anglicanism often shares in (Roman) Catholic tradition about Mary, though not in the papal magisterium seen in the dogmas of 1854 and 1950 (see below; Tavard 134152).

Eastern Orthodox regard for Mary has continued as living piety, but without the emphasis on dogmatic articulation found in Roman Catholicism (see Nikos Nissiotis, in Concilium 168, 1983, pp. 2539, with bibliography). "Sophiology," Mary as created Wisdom (Sophia), developed especially in nineteenth-century Russian Orthodoxy (see Tavard 7879; O'Carroll, Theotokos 332 and 9092 on Sergius Bulgakov, 18171944). For Roman Catholic theology, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought new developments in spirituality having to do with Mary (for example, the devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary promoted by Jean Eudes, 16011680). In Italy, Alfonso Liguori (16961787) gathered stories about the Virgin in his book The Glories of Mary. Emphasis on Mary was encouraged by reported visions and appearances (Pelikan 178187), for example, at Lourdes in 1858, with the announcement, "I am the Immaculate Conception," at Fatima, Portugal in 1917, and Medjugore in Bosnia-Herzegovina, beginning in 1981 (appearances have been claimed more frequently in the twentieth century than any previous time, so Tavard 186); also by international Marian congresses; by Marian years proclaimed by the pope; and by pilgrimages (for example to Czestochowa in Poland, Guadalupe, Mexico).

Reflective of such popular piety was Pius IX's 1854 definition of the immaculate conception as dogma for Roman Catholics in Ineffabilis Deus: "The most blessed Virgin Mary was preserved free from all stain of original sin." In 1950, Pius XII defined the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a dogma in the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus: "The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary was assumed body and soul to heavenly glory." Protestant reaction was negative. The Orthodox reacted against the 1854 dogma because of their belief that everyone, Mary included, is afflicted with sin in the sense of human infirmity, but in 1950 they reacted only against papal claims of authority inherent in the proclamation (see Pelikan 189213). Some Catholics have called for ecumenical rewriting of these dogmas (see Tavard 200).

Although some Catholic "maximalists" on Mary hoped that the Second Vatican Council would declare her coredemptrix with Christ, the council did not make such a statement. In fact, it voted in 1963 to include the material on Mary as chapter 8 of the Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, rather than to treat it as a separate schema. The dogmatic constitution treats her role in the economy of salvation, as Mother of God and of the Redeemer, as a model for the church, and as a sign of hope and solace for God's people in pilgrimage. There are also paragraphs on devotion to the Blessed Virgin, warning against exaggeration. However, the speech by Paul VI in 1964, promulgating Lumen gentium, proclaimed Mary as Mater Ecclesiae, and his apostolic exhortation in 1974, Marialis cultus, sought for renewal in devotion to Mary and called her "our sister." John Paul II has spoken frequently in traditional Marian terms, often devotionally (Redemptoris mater, 1987, announcing a Marian jubilee for 19871988, leading toward the bimillennium in 2000 of Jesus' birth). The net effect since Vatican II has generally been a greater restraint and balance in Roman Catholic Mariology and in Catholic devotional life. Some statements have suggested that Mary provides "the model of all real feminine freedom" (U.S. Catholic Bishops, Behold Your Mother, 1974). But for many feminists, Mariology, certainly in the church writers of the early centuries, has been all too androcentric (cf. Borrensen, Halkes, and Moltmann-Wendel, in Concilium, 168, 1983; contrast at points Tavard 4957, 221266). In ecumenical dialogues the fullest treatment has come in the United States "Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VIII," The One Mediator, the Saints, and Mary, ed. H. George Anderson, J. Francis Stafford, and Joseph A. Burgess (Minneapolis, 1992); "saints" and prayers for and to deceased saints proved more divisive than did Mary.

See Also

Councils, article on Christian Councils; Cult of Saints; Goddess Worship; Jesus; Virgin Goddess.


Walter Delius, Geschichte der Marienverehrung (Munich, 1963), and his Texte zur Geschichte der Marienverehrung und Marienverkündigung in der alten Kirche, rev. Hans-Udo Rosenbaum (New York/Berlin, 1973) are updated in Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 4th ed., vol. 5 (Tübingen, 2002): 800824, by Heinrich Petri, Reinhard Thöle, and Birgit Merz. More popular in tone are Hilda Graef's Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, 2 vols. (New York, 19631965); Marina Warner's Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York, 1976); Christa Mulack's Maria: Die geheime Göttin im Christentum (Stuttgart, 1985); David Flusser, Jaroslav Pelikan, and Justin Lang, Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective (Philadelphia, 1986); George H. Tavard, The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary (Collegeville, Minn., 1996); and Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (New Haven, 1996). Sympathetic articles on persons, terms, and themes, with bibliography, will be found in Michael O'Carroll's Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, rev. ed. with supplement (Wilmington, Del., 1983). For biblical materials, treated with historical-critical methodology and ecumenically, see Mary in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Karl P. Donfried, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and John Reumann (Philadelphia, 1978); Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (Garden City, N.Y., 1977); Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives (San Francisco, 1987); Mary Margaret Pazden, "Mary, Mother of Jesus," The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York, 1992), vol. 4: 584586; Ingrid Rosa Kitzberger, "Maria, Mutter Jesu," Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 4th ed., vol. 5 (Tübingen, 2002): 798799; Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary, Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus (Columbia, S.C., 1995), including literary approaches and "story." Mary in the Churches, edited by Hans Küng and Jürgen Moltmann, Concilium 168 (New York, 1983), surveys biblical origins and confessional attitudes today as well as trends in feminist and liberation theology and depth psychology and literature. Mary's Place in Christian Dialogue, edited by Alberic Stacpoole (Wilton, Conn., 1982), reflects work by the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which also published Donald G. Dawe, From Dysfunction to Disbelief: The Virigin Mary in Reformed Theology (Washington, D.C., 1977). Stephen Benko's Protestants, Catholics, and Mary (Valley Forge, Pa., 1978) deals also with Josephology. Periodicals: Marian Studies; Dialog 31 (Fall 1992): 245271.

John Reumann (1987 and 2005)

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Mary: An Overview

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Mary: An Overview