Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Virgin Mary and baby Jesus

Watercolour and ink portrait of Mary, mother of Jesus, by Sarah Beth Baca.
Used with permission of the artist. All rights reserved.
Prints of this portrait can be purchased here.

Mary’s Piety

The Christmas story is full of interesting characters: angels from Heaven, shepherds of the temple flocks, and astrologers from Persia. But at the centre of this cast of characters is the figure of a young woman, Mary.[1] God chose to bring his Messiah into the world as a human baby, and he chose Mary as the mother.[2] This was an honour of the highest magnitude. Mary was correct when she prophesied, “From now on, all generations will pronounce me as blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” (Luke 1:48b–49.)[3]

Since she was a relative of Elizabeth, who was a descendent of the first high priest Aaron (Luke 1:5–6), Mary may also have been a descendent of Aaron (Luke 1:36). She played a mediatory (priestly?) role in bringing the Messiah into the world. Mary probably had other qualities too that made her God’s choice for her extraordinary role.

The Gospels show that Mary was a young woman of faith, fortitude, and obedience. Her song, the Magnificat, recorded in Luke 1:46–55, reveals that she understood God’s ways and understood the radical nature of his kingdom. Here’s an excerpt:

He has done a mighty deed with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
because of the thoughts of their hearts;
he has toppled the mighty from their thrones
and exalted the lowly.
He has satisfied the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty. Luke 1:51–53 CSB

In some Roman Catholic and High Anglican teachings, Mary’s piety is exaggerated, and it is taught she remained a virgin throughout her life. Some also claim that Mary was herself conceived “immaculately,” that is, she was conceived in her mother’s womb without inheriting a sinful nature.[4] The Bible, however, does not say that Mary remained a virgin after giving birth to Jesus—it seems to indicate otherwise—and it tells us nothing about how Mary was conceived.[5]

An Extraordinary Delivery?

There is also a claim that Mary delivered Jesus in some supernatural way. The mid-to-late second-century document, The Infancy Gospel of James (also known as the Protoevangelium of James), contains an account of a woman examining Mary postpartum to determine whether she had given birth to Jesus in the usual way. According to the story, the woman discovers that Mary is still a virgin and “intact.” There is no biblical reason, however, to suspect that there was anything unusual about the way Mary gave birth to Jesus.

Furthermore, there is a common presumption that Mary and Joseph were alone together when Jesus was born. Some retellings of the Christmas story make it sound as though Jesus was born during the very first night of Joseph and Mary’s stay in Bethlehem. Whether this was the case, or not, a friend of Mary would have made contact with the midwives of Bethlehem and asked for their help when the time came for Jesus to be born. We can assume that in a culture where hospitality was practically a sacred duty, Mary was attended by midwives during her labour, while Joseph waited elsewhere, as was the custom. Nevertheless, Jerome believed that because the biblical text states that Mary wrapped her newborn and she placed him in his manger bed (Luke 2:7), “she was both mother and midwife” (The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed MaryAgainst Helvidius 4).[6]

Mary’s Personality

We know Mary was fit and young and capable of making long journeys.[7] We also know she was a devout Jewish woman with great faith in God. But what do we know about her personality?

Many Christmas cards and religious artworks show Mary, usually dressed in blue,[8] with her eyes averted and looking down. This downward-turned face makes her look rather passive and shy. Yet in the Bible verses that mention her, Mary does not seem to be either. Instead, she is active and assertive (e.g., Luke 1:39; John 2:1–5). My friend Julie Frady has observed that in the Gospels, “Mary was always going somewhere, doing something, and speaking her mind.” [Julie has an interesting take on Mary’s conversation with Gabriel. Read it here.]

Deitrich Bonhoeffer made this observation about Mary and her song.

The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.
From a sermon Bonhoeffer delivered during Advent 1933.

There is no doubt that Mary went through some very tough times during her lifetime (Luke 2:34–35). However, the Bible does not glorify her sufferings, and neither should we. Perhaps Mary had a bright personality, good humour, and a determined spirit that helped her to be a wonderful mother despite difficult situations. We know that the Holy Spirit came upon Mary when she conceived Jesus, and the scriptures often associate the Holy Spirit with joy. So perhaps Mary, like Jesus, was a joyful person (John 17:13).

I have yet to see a portrait of Mary with a beaming smile on her face. It seems that for many, a happy confident smiling face is incompatible with notions of piety and holiness.

Mary’s Enduring Faith

Mary was not only the mother of Jesus, she was also a true believer in him. More than anyone, she knew that Jesus was truly the Son of God. And when Jesus began his earthly ministry at the age of 30, Mary was a loyal follower. She was there at the cross when her son was debased, tortured, and killed. And she would have been among the first to learn from the women that her son was alive again.

After Jesus had completed his mission and returned to heaven, Mary is mentioned as being with the believers who were meeting together in Jerusalem and waiting for the promised Holy Spirit (Acts 1:12–14). According to tradition, she later travelled to Ephesus with John, the apostle, and they ministered there for many years until her death. Mary proved to be a faithful servant of God.

Once when Jesus was teaching, a woman called out to him and said, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” Jesus did not affirm this blessing. He responded with, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (See Luke 11:27–28).[9] Mary was greatly blessed. She was the mother who gave birth to Jesus and nursed him, and she had heard the word of God and obeyed it.

Part 7 »

Footnotes

[1] Many early church theologians saw Mary as being the antithesis of Eve, and the antidote to Eve’s sin. Even though Adam and Eve both ate the forbidden fruit and both were culpable of sin, early church theologians emphasised Eve’s doubt, disobedience and pride as being instrumental in bringing sin into the world. Conversely, they highlighted Mary’s faith, obedience and humility as being instrumental in bringing salvation into the world. While the comparison of Eve and Mary is interesting, it should not be pushed too far. What we do know is that Mary’s son Jesus Christ would die sacrificially on our behalf and that he redeemed both men and women from sin and death. [More on this here.]

[2] It is amazing to consider that Jesus left the glories and privileges of heaven for a womb and entered the world through a birth canal. Jesus’ self-sacrifice during his incarnation, and throughout his earthly ministry, is astounding!

[3] There are two families of words translated from Greek into English as “blessed” in Luke 2: eulogē– words and makari– words. In verse 42, Elizabeth gives her young cousin Mary and her unborn baby a blessing that was not unusual when greeting a pregnant woman: “Blessed (eulogē–) are you among women and blessed (eulogē–) is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 2:42). These are hoped for blessings. But later in her speech, Elizabeth uses a different blessing word when she says, “Blessed (makari–) is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil what has been spoken to her!” (Luke 2:45). Mary is blessed. She was blessed because of her faith in God’s promise to her. And in Luke 2:48, Mary acknowledges, “From now on, people will pronounce me as blessed (makari–).” Makari– words are used again in Luke 11:27–28.

[4] There is nothing in the canonical (biblical) Gospel accounts that suggests Mary herself was conceived immaculately (the Immaculate Conception), that she gave birth to Jesus miraculously, that she remained a virgin perpetually, that she was transported to heaven with her body and soul united (the Assumption of Mary), that she can hear our prayers, or that she had (or has) any kind of special powers.
Mary should be revered as a woman of faith and the mother of the Messiah but only God should be the recipient of our devotion and veneration. Excessive devotion to Mary is a form of idolatry. Our hope, trust, devotion and prayers should be given to God alone.

[5] Mary conceived Jesus miraculously when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her. Mary was a virgin when this occurred and she remained a virgin until Jesus was born. The inference from Matthew 1:24–25 is that, sometime after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph began having sex like any normal married couple. Furthermore, we know that Jesus had brothers and sisters (Matt 13:55–56; Mark 6:3; John 2:12, 7:3–5; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor 9:5; Gal 1:19). Roman Catholicism teaches that these brothers and sisters were children of a different Mary, and were not the children of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Orthodox Church teaches that these brothers and sisters were children of Joseph by a previous marriage. The mid-second century document, The Infancy Gospel of James relates that Joseph was a widower with children when he married Mary. In the New Testament, however, Jesus’ brothers and sisters are associated with Mary the mother of Jesus (John 2:12; Acts 1:14).

F.F. Bruce infers from the scriptures that Jesus’ siblings “were children of Mary; the burden of proof rests on those who interpret the relationship differently.” Bruce doesn’t mention the Infancy Gospel of James, but he writes the following in footnote 3 on page 88.

[In the fourth century,] Epiphanius (Heresies, 78) argued that they were children of Joseph by a previous wife. Then Helvidius of Rome restated the interpretation (already maintained by Tertullian and others) that they were children of Joseph and Mary, born after Jesus. In reply to Helvidius, Jerome propounded a new theory: that they were cousins of Jesus, children of Alphaeus by “Mary of Clopas”, whom he inferred from John 19:25 to be the Virgin’s sister (Aduersis de perpetua uirginitate beatae Mariae [The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary]).
Bruce, Men and Movements in the Primitive Church: Studies in Non-Pauline Christianity by F.F. Bruce (Exeter: Paternoster, 1979), 88.

[6] Greek professor Gary Manning looks at the Greek verb sparganoō, which can be translated “to wrap in swaddling clothes” (cf. Luke 2:7, 12), in other ancient Greek literature, here.

[7] Here are the travels of Mary recorded in the Gospels. Mary travelled from Nazareth to visit her cousins Elizabeth and Zechariah in the Judean hills, and returned three months later (Luke 1:39:ff). She travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem where she delivered Jesus (Luke 2:4ff). There was a short 10 km trip from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to present Jesus at the temple (Luke 2:22). She and her family fled to Egypt (Matt. 2:13ff), and two years later returned to settle in Nazareth (Matt 2:19). Then there was an annual trip to Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 2:41), and no doubt shorter trips such as when Mary went to a wedding in the nearby village of Cana and then stayed in Capernaum for a few days (John 2:1, 12). She had probably travelled with Jesus around Galilee, at least sometimes, before he passed on the responsibility of her care to the beloved disciple (John 19:25-27). Mary was in Jerusalem where she watched her son be crucified (John 19:25). And she was still in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:14). Tradition says that Mary lived her later life in far off Ephesus.

[8] In traditional religious art, Mary is often dressed in blue and white. It is unlikely that Mary wore clothes made of expensive blue fabric or impractical white. Though, there is no reason to suppose that Mary was poor. The colour blue has long been associated with Mary, beginning with Byzantine and early Medieval art. Natural aquamarine (ground and purified lapis lazuli) was costly and, during the medieval period and European renaissance, its use in painting was typically reserved for portraits of Mary.

[9] More about Luke 11:27-28 in my article, Is Motherhood the Highest Calling for Women? here.

© Margaret Mowczko 2010
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Postscript 1: November 11 2022
Letters to John from Pseudo-Ignatius about Mary

There are two letters which claim to have been written by Ignatius (bishop of Antioch 69 – c. 107) to John the Presbyter, that is, to the apostle John. In the letters, Ignatius asks John if he can come to visit Mary who is in Jerusalem (cf. John 19:26–27).

The letters are not regarded as genuine. Mary was probably deceased when the real Ignatius was active in ministry. Conversely, Ignatius may not have been born yet, or was a boy, in the time frame suggested in these letters. (James the Just, who was martyred in the 60s, is still alive and is mentioned in the second letter.) The real Ignatius mentions no association with John in his genuine letters which were written in Greek. The two letters which I quote from below were written in Latin in Middle Ages.

Philip Schaff writes about the spurious Ignatian letters here. Regarding the two letters about Mary, he says that “they carry the stamp of imposture on their front; and, indeed, no sooner were they published than by almost universal consent they were rejected.”

Nevertheless, I quote the following out of interest because, while the letters are later fabrications, it seems likely that many people sought an audience with Mary the Mother of Jesus.

In the first letter, pseudo-Ignatius says this about Mary,

There are also many of our women here, who are desirous to see Mary [the mother] of Jesus, and wish day by day to run off from us to you, that they may meet with her, and touch those breasts of hers which nourished the Lord Jesus, and may inquire of her respecting some rather secret matters.

Salome also, whom thou lovest, who stayed with her five months at Jerusalem, and some other well-known persons, relate that she is full of all graces and all virtues, after the manner of a virgin, fruitful in virtue and grace. And, as they report, she is cheerful in persecutions and afflictions, free from murmuring in the midst of penury and want, grateful to those that injure her, and rejoices when exposed to troubles: she sympathizes with the wretched and the afflicted as sharing in their afflictions, and is not slow to come to their assistance. Moreover, she shines forth gloriously as contending in the fight of faith against the pernicious conflicts of vicious principles or conduct.

She is the lady of our new religion and repentance, and the handmaid among the faithful of all works of piety. She is indeed devoted to the humble, and she humbles herself more devotedly than the devoted, and is wonderfully magnified by all, while at the same time she suffers detraction from the Scribes and Pharisees.

Besides these points, many relate to us numerous other things regarding her. We do not, however, go so far as to believe all in every particular; nor do we mention such to thee. But, as we are informed by those who are worthy of credit, there is in Mary the mother of Jesus an angelic purity of nature allied with the nature of humanity. And such reports as these have greatly excited our emotions, and urge us eagerly to desire a sight of this (if it be lawful so to speak) heavenly prodigy and most sacred marvel. (Source: BibleStudyTools.org)

In the second, shorter letter, pseudo-Ignatius asks again to see Mary, James, and other saints. Here’s an excerpt.

I desire to go up to Jerusalem, and see the faithful) saints who are there, especially Mary the mother, whom they report to be an object of admiration and of affection to all. For who would not rejoice to behold and to address her who bore the true God from her own womb, provided he is a friend of our faith and religion? . . .  Moreover, [I desire to see] the other saints, both male and female. (Source: BibleStudyTools.org)

There is also a spurious letter from Ignatius to Mary herself, and a reply. See here.

Postscript 2: January 5, 2022
Mary is the Lord’s Slave, not Joseph’s Slave

There are a couple of articles, newly posted on the internet, which entertain the idea that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was Joseph’s slave.* This idea is mainly based on a flawed reading of “his servant/ slave” in Luke 1:48 and on a couple of speculative ideas.

The Greek word doulē in Luke 1:48 means “slave.” (“Servant,” which occurs in most English versions of Luke 1:48, is not a precise translation.) However, the context shows that “his” refers to God. Mary is speaking about God here, not Joseph.

“My soul magnifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour
because he has looked with favour
on the lowly state of his doulē.” Luke 1:46-48

I don’t get why anyone would read Mary declaring that God has looked at the lowliness of “his doulē” and understand “his” as referring to Joseph. Especially since Mary stated earlier in the same passage that she is the Lord’s doulē (Luke 1:38).

When Mary referred to herself as a doulē, she could simply have been using self-effacing diplomatic language (Luke 1:48). This kind of language is also used by Ruth when speaking to Boaz in Ruth 2:13, Hannah to Eli in 1 Sam. 1:18, Abigail to David in 1 Sam. 25:24ff; 25:41ff, the medium of Endor to Saul in 1 Sam. 28:21–22, the wise woman of Tekoa to David in 2 Sam. 14:6–7ff, and the prophet’s widow to Elisha in 2 Kings 4:2, 16, as just a few examples. The Hebrew word שִׁפְחָה–shipchah (“maidservant, female slave”) is used in each of these Old Testament verses and is translated in the Septuagint, without exception, as doulē. Yet none of these women, as far as we know, was an actual slave.

There is more to it, however. In the Hebrew Bible and in the Greek New Testament, the phrase “the Lord’s slave,” God’s slave,” or something very similar is a description used of various people: Moses, David, Simeon in the NT, prophets, and the apostles (Acts 4:29; 16:17), among others. Mary is not the only Bible person to be called the Lord’s slave.

And “slave” words are used in Acts 2:18: “Even on my male slaves (douloi) and on my female slaves (doulai) I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

This slave language indicates devotion to God, not human slavery. Mary was not Joseph’s slave; she was dedicated to God and his will for her life.

Slavery was huge in the Roman Empire, and a few named people in the New Testament, especially in the New Testament letters, would have been slaves or freed slaves. (Andronicus and Junia, for example, may have been freed slaves.) But nothing about Mary’s actions, such as visiting Elizabeth for three months, indicates that her freedom was limited.

Furthermore, when the Gospels tell us what the relationship was between Mary and Joseph, they say she was a virgin ‘betrothed in marriage’ (mnēsteuō) to him, with no hint of slavery (Matt. 1:16, 18–19; Luke 1:27; Luke 2:5). Other Bible verses that mention Mary, similarly, give no hint that she was a slave belonging to Joseph (Matt. 1:18–25; 2:11; 13–14; 19–21; 12:46–47//Mark 3:31–32//Luke 8:18–19; Matt. 13:55–56//Mark 6:3; Luke 1:26–38; 39–56; 2:1–7; 16–19; 22–24; 27–35; 39; 41–51; John 2:1–12; 6:42; 19:25–27; Acts 1:14 cf. Gal 4:4ff).

One more thought. Mary’s words in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55) are often compared with Hannah’s prayer (1 Sam. 2:1–10) which expresses similar themes. Neither Mary and Hannah were slaves but they understood injustice, poverty, and powerlessness, and they understood that their own situations and status were being raised, but their hope-filled words are about God’s deliverance of Israel. They were not speaking about themselves but about a large-scale reversal of fortune resulting in justice and equity for all including the poverty-stricken.

* Candida Moss (Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham) wrote an article entitled “Was the Virgin Mary Actually a Slave?” where she quotes Dr Mitzi J. Smith (J. Davison Philips Professor of New Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia, and Professor Extraordinarius, Institute of Gender Studies, University of South Africa). This article was published on The Daily Beast on January 1, and picked up by Yahoo News. And Keith Giles has written a blog post which was published on his blog on January 4. Clarice J. Martin and Raquel S. Lettsome also explore Mary as a slave.


Christmas Cardology Series

(1) Introduction
(2) Mary’s Scandal and Favour
(3) Nazareth to Bethlehem
(4) Was Jesus born in a barn?
(5) When was Jesus born?
(7) The Wise Men from the East

And a powerful, short post: Mary Consoles Eve

7 thoughts on “Christmas Cardology 6: The Virgin Mary

  1. Yes, there is a lot of mythology around Mary. She was about 12-13 when Jesus was born, this was the typical age back then. She is one of the models we have for being a disciple.

      1. Hi Mandy,

        As ridiculous as it may sound to us today, there is evidence in ancient inscriptions and literature that show us that the average age of girls in first marriages in the Roman Empire (the setting of the New Testament) was 14-15 years of age. In too many parts of the world, girls are still marrying young, way too young.

        Ancient authors, such as Plutarch, discussed the optimum age for marriage. Plutarch even said that girls were happier if they married later. Nevertheless, 14-15 seems to have been the average.

        I’ve read the page you linked to, but cannot verify the author’s claims as Google Books does not provide the pages with the endnotes. But I am unconvinced by his astonishingly general statement: “until the latter half of the twentieth century, the average age of first menstruation was about sixteen.” Does Richard Racy (who I’ve never heard of) honestly think that all women around the world in every culture and in every age “until the latter half of the twentieth century” fit with this huge generalisation? He needs to read first-century material. (I tried to find out who Richard R. Racy is but can find nothing about him on the internet. Therefore I assume he is not a New Testament or history professor.)

  2. Don, Many girls did marry young in ancient and medieval times. Greco-Roman brides were usually married by 14-15 years of age, but my understanding was that Jewish brides were typically a little older.

    We have evidence from the second century that Christian brides were usually in their late teens, or even older, and that this more humane custom positively influenced the surrounding Greco-Roman culture.

  3. I’ve been enjoying your blog posts for some time now, and I appreciate your insights. I’m an Orthodox Christian and wanted to point out that the Orthodox Churches do not support the doctrine of immaculate conception. From what I have learned (as a layperson) we believe that Mary was given the grace of God when the angel Gabriel came to her to announce she would give birth to Christ – and at that moment any ancestral sin and sins she had committed during her life were removed/healed.

    Sin is considered, at it’s essence, a broken state of separation from God and not necessarily something the person is guilty for (ex ancestral sin). Thus, when Adam and Eve sinned, the world became separated from God, so we all live with the consequences of that “sin” and that is our ancestral sin. In Orthodoxy, living in Christ and thus receiving the grace of God heals us from that brokenness of sin, so that we are no longer divided with God.

    Anyway, the idea is that God could not live in a being separated from Him, so that’s why in the Orthodox tradition we believe Mary was cleansed from her sin at Angel Gabriel’s annunciation.

    1. Hi Marie,

      Thanks for leaving your comment. That is good to know, and very interesting.

      I love this thought, which I agree with completely: “living in Christ and thus receiving the grace of God heals us from that brokenness of sin, so that we are no longer divided with God.” I am deeply and forever thankful for our reconciliation with God, that Jesus brought about by his death and resurrection (Romans 5:1-11).

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