Mary: the biblical woman behind the cultural legend

by and

Cultural ideas and traditions about Mary often overshadow the biblical woman. For instance, this European mother and child look nothing like the historical Mary and Jesus would have.

We can see in church history that unbiblical traditions started to accrue about Mary, the mother of Jesus, as early as the second century. This means that some of our thoughts about her today might be more influenced by legends than by what Scripture teaches. This woman was given a unique role: to be the mother of the Messiah. But is there anything more? She only appears in a few places in the New Testament, but when we examine what the Bible says about her, we can glean some important facts that reveal a lot about her character, her relationship to Jesus, her need to be saved from her sins, and her status in the early church.

The biblical information challenges many traditions about Mary, and some may feel uncomfortable drawing out the full implications of the biblical statements about an individual who Scripture declares is “blessed among women” (Luke 1:42). However, as Christians, we need to be willing to allow Scripture to shape our thinking in all areas, including regarding well-beloved biblical figures.

Mary believed the Word of God

Sometime around 4 BC, God sent the angel Gabriel to visit a young, poor, Jewish woman with the very common name of Mary. When Gabriel gave his message to Mary, she was a teenage girl with every expectation of a normal life, soon to be married to the village carpenter. Her first reaction to the angel was to be very troubled—given that terror or misplaced worship is a common reaction to angelic appearances in Scripture (e.g. Judges 6:22; Judges 13:22; Matthew 28:4; Luke 1:12; 2:9; Revelation 19:10; 22:9), this isn’t unusual. But Gabriel’s message was that Mary had found favor with God, that she would conceive a son, and that this Son would be the promised Messiah:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He 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 father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered 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 called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1:26–38).

Mary’s response is a logistical question: she is not married, and as a godly young woman, there is no chance that she could have been pregnant through natural means. She may not have known about DNA and embryogenesis like we do today, but she certainly knew the ‘facts of life’. Gabriel tells her that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her, and the child will be the Son of God.

The angel also reveals that hers is not the only supernatural pregnancy—her relative Elizabeth,1 who was past the years of natural childbearing and so should not be pregnant, had conceived and was six months along.

Here’s the amazing part of the story: Mary’s response indicates a simple belief in the word of God—she consents to become the mother of the Messiah even though what was promised was technically impossible and socially dangerous.

It is important to note that this did not come without risks for Mary. The angel never promised her that she would avoid the social ostracism of being unwed and pregnant. She could be stoned to death, she could be divorced, she could die in childbirth alone and ostracized from her community—she was given no guarantees other than the word of the angel, but she trusted God anyway. Oh, that more people would have faith like Mary!

Scripture contrasts Mary’s faith with that of Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband. Like Mary, he received word from Gabriel that his wife would bear a son and that this son would have an important role in fulfilling Scripture and would come before the promised Messiah (Luke 1:5–24). The son, of course, would be John the Baptist, who heralded the coming of the Messiah, saying things like, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight” (Mathew 3:3).

But while Mary’s question simply asked how it would happen, Zechariah’s question was skeptical—how could he know that it would happen? The angel’s rebuke is stinging. Gabriel was sent from the very presence of God to bring Zechariah good news—and he dared to disbelieve it. The consequence is that Zechariah would be mute until the promise was fulfilled. That was very generous of God, and when John was born, Zechariah clearly had learned his lesson and loudly sang God’s praises (Luke 1:67–79).

God and the ‘laws of nature’

Some people may ask how miracles like the Virgin Birth can be possible since they violate the ‘laws of nature’. But these ‘laws’ are simply descriptions of how God normally acts—how He has created the universe to run normally. But God is not limited by these laws, and is free to act in ways that transcend them. We call these occasional direct acts of God “miracles”. It would be fairly trivial for God to supernaturally create the ‘male half’ of the genetic material needed for Jesus to be born of a virgin and to do all the miracles the Bible claims He did, like creating the universe (Genesis 1; John 1) and singlehandedly rising from the dead.

Mary really did believe God

There are other indications that Mary believed what the angel told her:

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord (Luke 1:39–45).

Mary clearly believed what the angel told her about Elizabeth, and wanted to see her in person. Elizabeth immediately knew that Mary was pregnant with the long-expected Messiah, based on the prophetic statements spoken about the child in her womb, that child’s reaction to Mary’s presence, and because she was filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:41)—Mary hadn’t had time to tell her the news.

Incidentally, this shows that both unborn babies were already people. Mary was very early in her pregnancy, days or weeks at most, and Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant with John. But both babies are already recognizable as to their personhood. If John, still unborn, could react that way to the presence of Jesus, clearly babies in the womb are human beings.

Mary was well-schooled in Scripture

Elizabeth commends Mary for believing. Mary’s response indicates the source of her strong faith: even as a young teenager, she was already well-versed in God’s Word. It is easy to miss, but Mary was clearly taught and understood a lot of Scripture. She sings or cites a song that reveals a deep knowledge of the Bible. There are echoes of Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:1–10), various Psalms, and many other parts of Scripture. Mary did not just have a passing knowledge of Bible stories; she knew the themes well enough to draw on them to create a new song of praise:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations shall call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (Luke 1:46–55).

Mary was obedient to the Scriptures

Mary and Joseph had Jesus circumcised (Luke 2:22–24) and gave the appropriate offerings at the Temple, according to the Law (Leviticus 12). Incidentally, the offering she gave shows that she and Joseph were poor—they gave “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Luke 2:24), which was allowed as a substitute for “a lamb and a turtledove or pigeon” for people who could not afford a lamb (Leviticus 12:6, 8). Importantly, the Levitical offering was for the sin of the mother. The lamb, or one of the birds (for poor people), was a sin offering. Readers should be familiar with the lamb symbolism in Scripture, especially since Jesus is called, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), by John the Baptist no less.

This shows that Mary knew she had sin in her life, which needed to be atoned. This is a very important theological point. The only person ever born without sin was Jesus. The only person who lived a life completely free from sin was Jesus. Thus, the only person who could substitute their life for others, in the eyes of a God who demands a perfect sacrifice, was Jesus. It also means that Mary, like the rest of us, needed saving before she could go to heaven.

Mary was wise

Mary seemed to have a wise and reflective nature. We can see this when the Bible says, “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), and “his mother treasured up all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51).

Mary was not perfect or supernatural

Despite later legends and traditions, Scripture presents Mary as a completely ordinary human woman. Mary’s song of praise indicated that she understood her own need for a Savior. We also see evidence of her limitations. For example, when Jesus disappeared from the family group on a return trip from Jerusalem (Luke 2:41–51), he was eventually found at the Temple. She said that she and Joseph experienced “great distress” when they were looking for Him. But think about it, after all those promises made to her, and after all that confirmation of Jesus’ specialness, how could she be afraid of anything happening to him?

Several years later, Jesus had to correct her at a wedding in the town of Cana (John 2:1–11). His gentle rebuke (“Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”) seems to indicate that she misunderstood their relationship. As commentator D.A. Carson explains:

We must not avoid the conclusion that Jesus by rebuking his mother, however courteously, declares, at the beginning of his ministry, the purpose of his coming; his only lodestar is his heavenly Father’s will (5:30; 8:29). This must have been extremely difficult for Mary. She had borne him, nursed him, taught his baby fingers elementary skills, watched him fall over as he learned to walk; apparently she had also come to rely on him as the family provider. But now that he had entered into the purpose of his coming, everything, even family ties, had to be subordinated to his divine mission. She could no longer view him as other mothers viewed their sons; she must no longer be allowed the prerogatives of motherhood. It is a remarkable fact that everywhere Mary occurs during the course of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus is at pains to establish distance between them (e.g. Mt. 12:46–50).2

Even later, after Jesus began his main ministry and after he had performed multiple amazing miracles and had proclaimed himself to be the Messiah, she was present with his brothers when they came to try to bring him home (Mark 3:21, 31–35; Luke 8:19–21). They apparently thought He had gone too far, maybe even having lost His mind. Did she fail to completely understand the nature of His ministry, or of his divinity?

Jesus makes a few statements that should give us pause if we seek to elevate Mary too high:

“As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27–28).

That is a very important statement from Jesus. He directly parries an attempt to elevate Mary beyond her proper position. Also:

“But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:48–50).

This indicates that, while Mary had the honor of playing a unique role in the coming of the Messiah, her role as his mother did not give her a special position in heaven or a privileged position in salvation.

Mary was the mother of many children

While the early church gave Mary the title of “ever-virgin”, and as early monasticism made chastity a virtue in and of itself, the Bible contains statements that go against this. Scripture is clear that Joseph and Mary did not engage in relations until after Jesus was born (Matthew 1:25)—but this indicates that they had a normal married relationship afterwards. Jesus is said to have four or five brothers and multiple sisters in Scripture (Mathew 13:55–56; Mark 6:3; Luke 8:19; John 2:12; Acts 1:14). We even have the names of the brothers: James (the future leader of the church in Jerusalem, Galatians 1:19), Judas (the brother of James, Jude 1:1), Joseph, and Simon.3

In the Jewish view of the day, having many children would have been seen as a great blessing and a sign of God’s favor on Mary. It may have also been a comfort to have so many other children after having to relinquish the special mother-son relationship she may have expected to have with Jesus.

Mary was one of the first Christians

Even though she was the mother of Jesus, Mary needed to be saved in the way all of us are—through faith in Christ. And she is clearly listed among the early Christians. For example, she and Jesus’ brothers were among the early disciples in Capernaum after the wedding in Cana (John 2:12). She was also in the ‘upper room’ where they were staying after Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:14; note, the Greek word ‘brothers’ may refer to ‘brothers and sisters’). This is the final word Scripture tells us explicitly about Mary.

Unlike a couple of her sons, Mary did not go on to be a leader in the early church. She did not do any miracles, or give any prophecies that are recorded. She was not seen to be ‘special’ in any sense among the earliest believers and we hear nothing about her again.

The earliest and best extrabiblical traditions suggest that John was faithful to the charge Jesus gave him to take care of Mary (John 19:26–27). One account tells us she lived with John in Ephesus where he ministered until her death. Sadly, we cannot know for sure if this is true, but it is the best-attested tradition.

Mary might be one of the witnesses behind the Gospel of Luke. We see hints of this in the fact that Luke, the ever-careful historian and fact checker, includes personal details in his Gospel that seem to come from a personal interview with Mary, including the two statements about Mary ‘treasuring things in her heart’ we mentioned earlier, among many other similar details.

What we learn from Mary

Mary is presented in the Bible as an exemplary woman who is worthy of imitation with regard to her faith, her diligence in the Scriptures, and her godly life. She had the unique privilege of being the mother of the Messiah, and the unique difficulty of having to give up the ‘special’ mother-child relationship to recognize Him as her Lord and Savior. Most importantly, she was saved like every Christian today is saved—by faith in Christ.

In other ways, however, her story is unique. She was the chosen person to bring about the fulfilment of the very first prophesy in the Bible, the one that promised a coming Saviour in the “proto-gospel” of Genesis 3:15:

“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Thousands of years after that fateful scene in the Garden of Eden, a poor, young Jewish woman became a vessel for the Incarnation of the Son of God, who, as we learned before, came ‘to take away the sins of the world’.

The many hyper-rational, skeptical people alive today want us to doubt Scripture. Yet Mary gives us an example of someone who believed the Word of God without compromise, humbly, and in the face of potential shame. We would do well to imitate her belief in God’s word, and her trust in Christ.

First published: 25 December 2017
Re-featured on homepage: 19 December 2019

References and notes

  1. Mary is from the tribe of Judah (Luke 3:33; Matthew 1:2), but Elizabeth is from the tribe of Levi (Luke 1:5). How can they be “cousins” (Luke 1:36), as some Bible versions render it? There are several answers to this. First, the Greek behind this can mean ‘close relative’. Second, if Elizabeth’s mother was from the tribe of Judah (e.g., the sister of Mary’s father), and had married a priest from the tribe of Levi (that is, Zechariah), Elizabeth would have been ‘of the daughters of Aaron’. Return to text.
  2. Carson, D.A., The Gospel According to John, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1991, pp. 169–170. Return to text.
  3. Some teach that these brothers and sisters were from an earlier marriage of Joseph, but this is not what the Bible seems to indicate, and it contradicts the idea that they waited until after Jesus was born. Plus, the idea is strongly influenced by ancient philosophical schools that made distinctions between the (supposedly evil) physical world and the (supposedly pure or perfect) spiritual world. Yet, the Bible clearly teaches that the physical world can bring enjoyment and that it is not a sin to enjoy the things God has created. Return to text.

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