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Introduction and acknowledgments.
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Since 2009, I have been exploring eschatological themes. I started out with an interest in what can be described as the "mechanics of salvation", and I have also been taking a metaphorical look at the Bible and especially the Gospels. I have read apologetic stuff, liberal stuff, secular philosophy stuff, and have viewed videos and countless web sites.
Recently, it occurred to me that there is more to eschatology than the "end". Indeed, it seems the Gospels are well taken as a whole, even if one occasionally focuses on one area. I found Mary the mother puzzling, especially when I was trying to be metaphorical. What are the annunciation and virgin birth all about, and why does Mary's story end after the crucifixion, without a resurrection experience? Is Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, a Christian?
I received valuable assistance in the development of this article, but this article is my own work with the help of God and I am the only person who should be held accountable.
The Polish Heritage Society of Rochester granted me a scholarship in recognition of my in-kind contributions. I used funds from that scholarship to develop this article. This article may not represent the perspective of the PHSR.
A few members of the clergy have guided me since around 1990. This article presents my own beliefs, and these priests may not agree with some points, and they did not review all my points, so I will use first names only: Deven, Julie, Peter, Bill and David.
And of course, thanks to my lovely wife, Susan for her support, even when she doesn't know she's being supportive.
Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. See the Bibliography section for more information.
As a software developer, I have found the development of a long article for the web to be technically interesting. If you have any thoughts on the technical aspects of gocek.org, let me know. NRSV Bible verses do not capitalize "he" and "him" when referring to Jesus, but I otherwise conform to this tradition. Please report errors, misspellings, etc.
The Bible gives us little information about Mary's lineage, upbringing, life and death. The Bible passages we are given are extremely profound, making Mary possibly the most important female in the New Testament, and I suppose it is understandable that we want to fill in the holes. Many people, Christians and otherwise, especially Roman Catholics, subscribe to the four Marian dogmas of divine motherhood (Mary as the mother of God, or Theotokos, 431 CE), perpetual virginity (no specific papal announcement, but sometimes including a miraculous maintenance of virginity even after giving birth), immaculate conception (the conception of Mary as sinless, 1854) and bodily assumption (Mary's ascension to heaven without dying, 1950). In addition, Mary's Christian discipleship is taken for granted by many Christians, and the belief Mary is a co-mediator (mediatrix) between us and Jesus/God in heaven is also widely held. Roman Catholics do not consider the co-mediator belief to be "worship", but they place Mary above all other humans, a notion with which I and most reformed Christians do not agree.
My approach is that the Bible says what it says; nothing more, nothing less. The verses exist to tell stories and teach lessons, and may be interpreted, but the temptation to read between the lines is fraught with peril. We can as easily concoct positive as well as destructive notions between the lines. Some Bible stories are consistent with secular and apocryphal histories, so some of our beliefs about biblical figures arise from non-biblical sources. However, secular histories tell us nothing directly about Mary. Some histories give information about people and places believed to be associated with Mary, but these stories and associations are ambiguous and vague.
There is no biblical or other direct evidence of these doctrines, and the doctrines are not consistent with the rest of my beliefs, for which I will try to provide biblical justification. Even the doctrine of divine motherhood requires a definition of Jesus that Jesus does not provide. Furthermore, although the Bible does not necessarily say the apocryphal doctrines did not occur, they contradict other biblical doctrines, so there are reasons to reject the apocryphal doctrines.
Luke 1: 26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.' 34Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I am a virgin?' 35The angel said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.' 38Then Mary said, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.' Then the angel departed from her.
One might argue that God would not choose an ordinary, sinful person to be the subject of such an amazing story. Therefore, there must be something special about Mary. In fact, there is something special about Mary, in the sense we all possess unique gifts. Mary's place in the Gospels is unique. My place in history is unique, as is yours. Beyond the musings of sinful humans, though, there is nothing in the Gospels or elsewhere in the Bible concerning the conception of Mary in her mother's womb, or even the names of her parents. An amazing thing about the annunciation is that Mary is just a woman.
I describe my beliefs about Jesus in more detail in my Personal Creed. Briefly, Jesus is an example of perfect obedience to God's plan. No one else ever perceived God's plan to ask as much, and no one achieved so much. No one ever will be asked for as much, or will achieve as much. It is important to understand where Jesus comes from, so the annunciation story is provided to us. Jesus is human because Mary is human. If Mary is something more than human, then she is not human and Jesus is not human. If Jesus is not human, then Christianity is a whole different religion.
The annunciation is about discernment and fulfillment by a human. In verse 34, Mary does not question God's plan for her, or that a woman should bear the Messiah. Mary's question is about her ability. She simply doesn't realize that, with God's help, she can fulfill her part using her unique gifts. Mary does understand that her purpose is to discern God's plan for her and then to fulfill that plan. Whether an angel interacted with Mary literally, physically and historically, or whether that's just a metaphor for discernment, Mary figured out God's plan for her and set out to accomplish it.
At first glance, Gabriel doesn't seem to offer much of a choice. However, verse 38 is widely recognized, especially among modern Protestants, as a courageous agreement to Gabriel's terms. What if Mary had refused? If Mary could have refused, one wonders if Mary was God's first choice, or if other women had already refused.
However, these musings arising from a relatively literal interpretation of verse 26 are a distraction from the lesson we learn from Mary, and I thank Cynthia L. Rigby in particular for pointing this out. Rigby explains that my purpose on earth is to discern God's plan for me, and to make choices that lead to a path of fulfilling that plan. So it was with Mary. Mary had a choice, but she recognized God's plan and the agreement that would lead to fulfillment of that plan.
That's not to say Mary was forced into "freely" choosing the only choice God gave her. Even one who discerns God's plan can take a different path. Mary could have taken a different path, and we would not be reading about her today. Note especially that God's plan is collaborative. Mary's virginity suggests she could not achieve God's plan without the help of God. Jesus' conception in a human womb shows also that God's plan was not accomplished without a human. One could suggest God could have miraculously plopped Jesus onto the earth without going through the womb. (Agnes Howard writes about this, but it occurred to me independently.) But, there is no biblical justification for such a suggestion, and that's not how it happened.
I am making a distinction between the story and the lesson. As with all Gospel stories, a lesson is taught. I might, or might not interpret Luke 1 literally, but I must also learn the lesson. The birth narrative is not just a beautiful story; it is also a lesson for all of us, for all time. None of us will have the good fortune to be informed of God's plan by an actual angel. We must figure out our plans for ourselves. It doesn't matter how Mary actually discerned her plan. I didn't say it's not literally, physically, historically about angels, but I did say it doesn't matter. What matters is that Mary figured it out and fulfilled it. I didn't say Mary was not a literal, physical, historical virgin. I did say she needed God to fulfill the plan she discerned. I am a virgin in this sense. If I don't work to fulfill God's plan for me, God won't send down angels to do it for me. If I don't collaborate with God, and if God doesn't collaborate with me, and if we all don't collaborate with each other, then our plans won't be fulfilled.
Matthew 1: 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took [Mary] as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
The books of Matthew and Luke provide the virgin birth narratives (VBNs). Mark and John do not comment directly on the birth of Jesus. I am not going to try to prove the historicity, or lack thereof, of the VBNs. I refer you to the work of Machen in my bibliography. Machen will either convince you, or drive you nuts. Machen's work is a classic, apologetic epic. "Apologetics" is the systematic defense of, in this case, the literal interpretation of the Gospels. I'm not sure everyone defines it that way, but I have found that apologetic authors focus on literal interpretations.
The VBNs are particularly seductive. If you're not careful to look past the story to dig for the lessons, you'll be sucked into trying to fill in all the holes of the story. But, there are no holes, and that is what is lost on apologetic thinkers. The apologetic believes and insists that if the Gospels aren't literally, physically and historically true, then Christianity is false. Apologetics place the stories above the lessons; the lessons make sense to the apologetic only because of the historicity of the stories. Apologetics want it all to be black and white. True or false. Heaven or Hell. But it's not black and white. Machen cannot actually prove the historicity of the VBNs in 400 pages, and resorts to picking away at the denials. You'd think an educated guy like that would realize the reason proofs are so hard is because it's not about the stories. Exodus was not written because Moses was actually given stone tablets, but because the rest of us need to know the Ten Commandments.
I agree with most of Machen's academic claims. I am happy to agree with Machen's assessment that the VBNs were written as part of the whole Gospels of Matthew and Luke, i.e., the VBNs weren't stuck in, separately.
I am not as sure as Machen that the VBNs were not subject to "Jewish derivation". We believe today the VBNs are foretold by (Isaiah 7:14). The Jewish derivation theory suggests the writers of Matthew and Luke had the Old Testament at their disposal and could have written the VBNs to conform. Machen argues against this, stating that no one noted the connection of Isaiah to the VBNs until after the birth had actually occurred and the VBNs were written. In particular, Machen denies that first century Jewish thinkers considered the possibility the Messiah would be born of a virgin, and therefore, only the miraculous event itself could have put that thought into the minds of the writers. However, to the extent we know exactly who wrote the books of Matthew and Luke, Matthew was a tax collector and not a Jewish theologian, and Luke was a Syrian Gentile, so it is problematic to compare their thoughts to the rabbis. I'm not stating specifically that I support the Jewish derivation theory, and it is true, as Machen argues, the VBNs were written in an old, Semite style. Still, I am stating that if Matthew and Luke could have learned to write in a Semite style, they would have read Isaiah, and this weakens Machen's argument. Finally, Machen would certainly not claim that Matthew and Luke did not know of prophecies concerning the Messiah, so his rejection of the derivation theory is selective.
Not only is it impossible to prove the historicity of the VBNs, but the holes in Machen's epic argument make me wonder if his literal approach was ever intended by Matthew and Luke. Machen knew Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and more, and studied the original (or, as original as have been found) biblical sources, but he leaves us with arguments that depend on faith in a story of an actual angel announcing a divine "overshadowing". The apologetics' proofs of supernatural events depend on belief in other supernatural events.
When Gospel stories are considered literally, contradictions appear. Machen addresses these historical contradictions through various apologetic gymnastics. Ultimately, Machen claims, the different authors used different perspectives to describe the events. Just like people witnessing a crime, there can be contradictions due to the differences in perspectives. The contradictions prove the historicity for Machen, rather than disprove it. However, when the lessons are given the primary focus over the storytelling, the contradictions also lose focus. There are no contradictions in the lessons.
The lineages of Jesus presented in Luke and Matthew sometimes cause reader confusion. If taken literally, many questions arise. Even if the differences in the lineages are resolved, such as by claiming Luke presents a family lineage while Matthew presents a kingship progression, we wonder what Joseph can hope to accomplish as the adoptive father of God, or even what God can hope for Joseph to accomplish as the adoptive father of God. Of course, when we wonder about Joseph, we're wondering about the wrong thing. I think the lineages show the humanity of Jesus, who was born of men and women. Admittedly, that's a simple explanation for a lot of text, and I don't possess the scholarly expertise to fully address this, but I still think the key to understanding the lineages is to avoid trying too hard to understand them.
It is true that I have resorted to picking away at Machen's arguments without successfully proving the VBNs are metaphorical and not literal, but it is not my intent to disprove the historicity of the narratives. Machen concludes that he proved his point, but if he did, that means the Bible ended 2000 years ago, and there's nothing left for us to do, today. I hope you'll see, in the course of this article, that a metaphorical approach gives us purpose.
The great struggle of the spiritual person is to integrate his or her spirituality into a material life. No matter how spiritual we humans try to be, we eventually have to submit to our humanity. Each day, I must get out of bed, bathe, eat, work and sleep again. No matter how joyfully I express my thanks to God for a meal, I eventually have to shut up and eat.
It's OK, with God, for us to act like humans. However, I think that spiritual people, Christian or otherwise, see a grander purpose to their lives than simply surviving until they die. What is the source of that purpose, and is there more than one source? How do I determine my purpose? What are the benefits of fulfilling that purpose, to me or others? What are the consequences of refusing to fulfill that purpose?
For simplicity, I will consider that I have "a purpose" beyond basic survival and procreation. A song is a complicated collection of sounds and words, but we say it's just "a song". Likewise, allow me to discuss "my purpose" without meaning to trivialize the complexities of the universe. At any moment, I can be working to fulfill my purpose, or not. If I determine that my purpose is to evangelize though spiritual articles on the web but I instead spend my time watching TV, then the benefits of fulfilling my purpose won't be received. That doesn't mean there is anything particularly bad about watching TV, but it's just not beneficial if it's not my purpose.
How do I know what my purpose is? I think that for some people, the answer comes easily. Albert Einstein's purpose was to ponder the makeup of the universe. He couldn't escape it if he tried. Mary's purpose was announced by an angel. Most of us, however, struggle to discern our purpose. We're never sure if we have it right, and we discern it differently over time.
We who are spiritual believe we have no purpose without the spiritual, which in my case includes "God". If I can discern my purpose, I can say I have discerned God's plan for me. According to my understanding of God, I can say God is the one and only source. In my Personal Creed on this web site, I provide my definition of God, and that's important to the understanding of this article. Briefly, God is the connection between me and other people and the rest of the universe, and the presence of God in these relationships makes us greater than the individual parts. My purpose is that which the rest of the universe needs it to be. Without the rest of the universe motivating me, I'm just a machine.
It's difficult for most of us to determine our purposes, and yet, we know our strengths. Some of us write software, or play music, or ride horses, etc. For most of us, our purposes can be something we do well, or enjoy doing. Mary might have been surprised at the glorious nature of her purpose, but it wasn't something that was repugnant to her. I think most humans can determine their purposes. I might not be able to state mine completely, and it might evolve over time, but it should not be a great mystery.
Once I discern some semblance of a purpose, then I can make choices. At any moment, I can work toward fulfilling my purpose, or not. Most of the time, I can tell the difference. I do not necessarily need to be performing a specific task toward a specific end result. For example, if I possess the gift of writing articles, I can feel I am working toward fulfilling my overall purpose even when I am not actively writing. Maybe, for a moment, I am expanding my vocabulary or having an experience I can write about later.
I don't think it's sinfully proud to feel I have gifts to be used toward fulfilling my purpose. We all have gifts, and we can all make the universe a better place, and that's what fulfilling a purpose is all about. I discern God's plan for me, and when I fulfill it, the universe is improved, and I benefit from that improvement. If I refuse to work to fulfill my purpose, or if I refuse to try to discern my purpose, then I can't productively use my gifts.
One way or another, Mary discerned that she had the gift of becoming a mother, and her purpose was to bear and raise He who would become the Messiah. Maybe an angel literally appeared, or maybe that's just a colorful way to tell the story, but Mary discerned this as her purpose. Maybe Mary was a literal, physical virgin without carnal knowledge, or maybe her stated virginity represents any human's inability to achieve good without knowing God. Mary and I need to be touched and "overshadowed" by God to achieve good. Mary was not overshadowed by God because Mary was born good; Mary needed to be overshadowed to do good.
Mary discerned her purpose and worked to fulfill it, and the world is a better place for it. She is remembered in the Bible because the results of Mary's work are so profound that the story needed to be told, forever and ever.
John 2: 1On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." 4And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." 5His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."
The passage continues with the well known, miraculous transformation of water into wine. There is clear symbolism. In 1st century Judea, the Jews were oppressed by the Roman conquerors and collaborating priests. At Cana, the guests lack the wine that is so important to a beautiful wedding feast, just as the oppressed Jews lack the peace and justice that are so important to a beautiful life. Jesus knows what must be done to help the Jews, all other humans, and even the universe, but with or without miraculous foresight, He knows that radical protest is dealt with harshly. And yet, the people call out for a Messiah to save them. The mother of Jesus is simply fulfilling God's plan. She knows Jesus can help the Jews. When those closest to Jesus insist the people can wait no longer, Jesus resists a little more, but finally begins His ministry. It is a ministry that is dealt with harshly, indeed.
Am I saying Jesus didn't really turn water into wine, and that it's all just a pretty story? I cannot justifiably make such a claim, but my understanding of the symbolism just makes so much more sense. The literal interpretation suggests that if I want to get drunk, but my host runs out of booze, I should pray to Jesus that my host will somehow be saved from embarrassment. The literal interpretation suggests the biological mother of Jesus, with knowledge unavailable to others, started Jesus on a path that would lead to His horrifically violent execution. Nice going, Mom. I will show that this story is not about the boozing, biological mother of Jesus.
Interestingly, the mother of Jesus in John 2 does not offer to help. Servants are directed to help. Indeed, Christianity does not end with the life of the human Jesus. Christianity lives on with the help of servants such as I and anyone who would read this far (even if you disagree with me). Across the New Testament, the mother of Jesus is a very good Jew, but it is not clear she is a Christian.
Religion fills a need that government and secular society can't fill. Our human survival instincts lead us to look out for our individual selves, and yet, it just seems like there's more to life than self-preservation. It is religion that seeks to define unselfish behavior. Judaism in the 1st century was under fire. The Romans had conquered the Promised Land, and the priests collaborated with the conquerors in order to hold onto personal power. A drastic change was needed for the good of the common people. It wasn't so much that the Romans needed to be violently defeated. Romans were able governors; if only their violent and unjust methods could be softened.
How could this change be accomplished? As was customary for Jews, they felt they needed a hero who would act in the name of and with the power of the one, true God. But, times were especially hard, maybe even harder than the days of enslavement in Egypt. This savior would have to be greater even than Moses and King David.
Again, the violent overthrow of the Romans was not necessarily the answer. Wouldn't such violence beget more violence? The priests were bad enough as powerless collaborators; what would they be like as victorious leaders? This savior would have to be great enough to effect the needed change without violence. What was needed was peace and justice, and that could not be achieved through violence. Karen Armstrong shows that the need for peace and justice for all would be mislaid by Jews, Christians and Muslims, at times, but in 1st century Judea, the call indeed was for peace and justice. It was a radical approach because that approach had not been used since the days of Abraham.
Why wasn't Jesus born a Roman, or earlier as an Egyptian? He was born a Jew because it was the Jews who needed Him. The Romans and Egyptians did just fine with their petty gods. They faded away, eventually, but more as a result of their own weaknesses than of foreign conquerors. Mohammed came along for the Arabs when they needed him. All religions have their heroes.
It was also important for Jesus to be born among the oppressed. It was clear to the Jews that no prince would discard a system that so favored the princes. King David himself had a soldier killed because David had impregnated the soldier's wife (2 Samuel 11:15). No, a prince would not do; such radical change could be motivated only from the bottom up. God alone would not do this for the Jews. God would be impartial, and the Jews did not need impartiality. The Jews could only hope God would favor a Jewish hero. Jews had prayed for victory for centuries, but in the 1st century they would pray, instead, for peace and justice. The Jews and God would collaborate for peace and justice.
This savior would not be "just a man", but first among men. He would be the Adam who could avoid temptation and The Fall. He would be God and Man, together. Nothing less would save the Jews. I don't think this correlation between the creation stories and the Gospels was a historical coincidence. Authors like Machen indeed argue that the correlations to older stories and the fulfillment of prophecies was realized only after the events had occurred and been recorded. As noted above, Machen rejects the Jewish derivation theory, but in my opinion, Machen does not decisively disprove the theory.
What does this have to do with Mary? Mary begets the new Adam; Mary is Eden. We remember Eden from Genesis, but Eden is no more. We remember Mary as a child of God. I will discuss the notion of Mary's Christian discipleship later, but it is not made clear. Eden experiences the birth and fall of Adam, but parts with Adam. Mary experiences the birth and death of Jesus, but we know of no encounter with the risen Christ. Mary wants a special relationship with Christ (Mark 3:31), but she is not entitled to a special relationship and Jesus tells her so (Mark 3:35). The new Adam (Jesus) is not expelled from Eden in a fall from grace. The new Adam intentionally separates Himself from Eden. Either way, Eden can't have Adam, and no one, not even Mary, can have Christ to himself or herself.
I cannot biblically justify a claim that Mary is not a disciple of Christ. The modern writings in Gaventa/Rigby treat Mary's discipleship and Mary's Christianity as undisputed, but it's not so obvious to me. The Bible does not record Mary's experience with the resurrection of Jesus. She is not known to have become an evangelist. That doesn't mean I don't revere Mary. As I have pointed out, Mary's stories are recorded in the Bible for a reason. She is possibly the most important example of discernment and fulfillment of "purpose" in the New Testament, aside from Jesus. Mary's story implies that anyone, Christian and otherwise, can discern and fulfill in the name of God. God provides everyone with a unique purpose. It is our job as humans to discern and fulfill, so just remember that we are all alike in that respect. Mary is human like the rest of us, but we can learn from her story.
The stories in the New Testament, especially the Gospel stories, are there because they are critical to Christianity. If a story is not in the Gospels, it's because it is not critical to Christianity. If Mary encountered the risen Christ, or if Mary evangelized or was baptized, it was not considered important enough to be passed down. I can't claim these did not happen, but I cannot base my reverence for Mary on her Christianity, which is not described in the Bible. I must base my reverence on what was passed down, which is certainly enough.
John 19: 25And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.
This makes Mary the only human other than Jesus to be present at both His birth and death.
I consider the crucifixion to be the most historically verifiable story in the Gospels. Not only do the descriptions of the method of crucifixion correspond to other, non-biblical sources, but there are non-biblical texts that point to the execution of a spiritual leader at roughly the time indicated in the Gospels. Some Christians treat the Gospels very metaphorically, but the crucifixion can be taken quite literally. That guy Jesus was really killed on a cross, and the mother's presence at the crucifixion is part of John's account.
We grieve with Mary. We can only guess at how difficult the experience was for Mary, and this is one of the passages used to denote Mary's "discipleship". However, like "Jesus Christ, Superstar", which famously ends with the crucifixion, Mary disappears after the crucifixion except for (Acts 1:14). Ironically, at the very cross of Jesus Christ, Mary remains the good Jew, waiting for the Messiah.
However, the crucifixion appearance by Mary represents a reconciliation between Mary and Jesus after years of tension within the family.
Luke 11: 27While [Jesus] was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!" 28But he said, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!"
Matthew 12: 46While [Jesus] was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47Someone told him, "Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you." 48But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" 49And pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! 50For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."
Mary's presence at the crucifixion does not represent an unambiguous acceptance of Jesus as God and savior, but there is room for both family relationships and the Christian path.
As stated above, the relationship between Jesus and his family was strained during His active ministry and as early as the age of twelve. Jesus makes the point that we don't inherit resurrection from our family members, and that even his mother needed to walk the path he taught in order to share in the invitation to the kingdom of God. Mary bears and raises Jesus, but like everyone else, there is always more to be done.
Mark 16: 1When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
With respect to Mary the mother, Mark 16:1 is ambiguous at best, and I believe it does not refer to the mother of Jesus, and many theologians agree. Mark earlier lists someone named James as a brother of Jesus, but it cannot be said with certainty that Mary the mother had a resurrection experience at the empty tomb. There is no biblical account of any sort of baptism of Mary, to the extent baptisms were even common among Christians in the first century.
A single verse places Mary with the disciples after the crucifixion (Acts 1:14), at the election of Matthias as a replacement for Judas. This is widely recognized as an indication of Mary's discipleship and as an active member of the Christian community. However, I believe this is as ambiguous as Mark 16:1. From a literal perspective, Mary was likely a widow whose oldest son and had just been brutally executed. Unless someone took Mary in, she would be destitute. Of course, Jesus assigned a follower to care for her (John 19:27). So, it is no surprise she was praying among the disciples in Acts. It is no surprise the early Christians were kind to all who asked for their kindness. That's all we know about Mary after the crucifixion.
Revelation 12, with its pregnant woman being chased by a dragon, does not clearly correspond to any discipleship of the biological mother of Jesus.
We Christians, imperfect humans that we are, often debate the ranking of personalities in the New Testament. Who were the most important people aside from Jesus? For most Christians, I think it comes down to Peter and Paul. Even a debate about the most important woman probably chooses Mary Magdalene before Mary the mother.
What if a biblical text recorded that Mary the mother had experienced the presence of the risen Jesus? In my opinion, that would propel Mary clearly to the top of the heap. She is already the only human to experience the birth and death of Jesus. Without a resurrection experience, she is just another Jew, but with a resurrection experience, she has a relationship with Jesus unmatched even by the chosen twelve.
But, in the evolution of Christianity, how would that have served the cause? If Mary wasn't evangelizing and forming Christian communities, what good would it do for writers or Bible editors to raise her above all humans? I think the lack of a record of a resurrection experience for Mary, regardless of history, was deliberate, so the actual Christian leaders such as Peter and Paul could be recognized. I further discuss Mary's role, without a resurrection experience, in the next section.
Following the verse in Acts, there is no biblical record of Mary's activities. There are some historical texts about the disciples of Jesus that are sometimes connected to Mary, but these are ambiguous, if not simply mythical.
The argument that supports much Marian dogma seems to be that God would not have chosen a normal, sinful human to bear God's progeny. Therefore, she must have been born sinless. A sinless woman who gave birth as a virgin would remain a virgin. Anyone born sinless would not, could not suffer the scandal of death, and would have simply ascended, as did Jesus. Then, in heaven, she would be the Mediatrix, with special authority to intercede on human's behalf. It may not be correct to state that any Christian sects equate Mary with Jesus as a mediator between humans and God, but many who believe in "saintly intercession" rank Mary above other "saints". This is mainly, although not solely, a Roman Catholic belief.
None of these ideas is supported by the Bible. The concept of perpetual virginity, combined with the concept of sinlessness, cannot be interpreted to imply carnal union is inherently bad. Verses referring to the siblings of Jesus are mistranslated to refer to "cousins", only to serve the dogmatic confusion rather than the lessons. Finally, Jesus did not simply ascend; first, He died, so the notion that Mary did not die seems theologically spurious.
My bibliography points to a web site with ancient texts that support Mary's immaculate conception. They tell the story that Mary's parents gave a third of their income to the temple and a third to the poor, were told by angels about Jesus even before Mary was conceived, and sent Mary at the age of three to grow up with other girls as virgins in the temple. However, this is fluffy sentimentalism, and is not consistent with historical research. From a literal perspective, it is hard imagine how Matthew and Luke came to know Mary's story, and harder still to imagine how the author of the apocryphal texts would know Mary's parents' stories. The villagers of the time were poor even before the tax collectors and Roman soldiers took half of what the villagers had. The Bible is very explicit about Jesus' humble origins. Mary's family had no wealth for sending her to grow up in a temple. It was the Roman inflicted violence and oppression that gave rise to the need for a savior.
Mary was just a girl. If Mary is simultaneously sinless, a virgin and a mother, and if she doesn't die, then don't bother using her as an example for your daughters, because such an example is unattainable. But, if Mary was a human who perceived her God-given purpose and fulfilled it, then Mary is an example for us all.
As for Mary's divine motherhood, there is no question Jesus had a biological mother, and we refer to her as Mary. If Jesus is God, then Mary's motherhood was divine, and she is Theotokos, god bearer. This dogma is more about Jesus than about Mary. Jesus didn't claim to be God. For more of my thoughts on the divinity of Jesus, I refer you to my Personal Creed.
Mary was not chosen because she was good. Mary achieved goodness because she was chosen, discerned that for which she was chosen, and fulfilled her purpose.
Here are some biographical notes on authors whose works were researched for this article.
Click to view the bibliography.
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