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Mary: the biblical woman behind the cultural legend

by and

First published: 25 December 2017 (GMT+10)
Re-featured on homepage: 19 December 2019 (GMT+10)
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.

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.

Helpful Resources

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Readers’ comments

Wendy W.
I praise God for this clear presentation of Biblical truth. The video about the wise men is also worth watching for those interested in the true facts of the Bible.

FYI I am not very proficient in Chinese language, but I believe the word for "wise men" in the Chinese Bible is the same word as PhD in modern Chinese 博士 if I'm not mistaken
Roger R.
It appears (from Matt 1:16) that Joseph and Mary were formally married by the time of Jesus birth, otherwise Mary's genealogy would not have been attributed to Joseph, but to her father.
For more insight into this take a close look at the case of Zelophehad's daughters (Numbers 36:2-9) where it is clear that when married, their inheritance would pass to their husbands, even when they were alive. Although the marriage was not consummated until at least a month after Jesus birth, it is very probable that Mary then had children to Joseph.
Jerry P.
as a former catholic I was brought up in all that teaching about mary after being saved from my sins and studying the bible
I have learned the truth and do not rely on the traditions of men God has not nor does he have to supply all the answers
that where faith comes in
J L.
Thank you for this article. I’m Protestant so do not hold to the perpetual virginity of Mary, but I do have some speculation. I’ve read Jesus’s claim to the throne of David is established through his lineage of both Joseph AND Mary. The Eastern Orthodox have a different tradition than Catholics and say that Jesus’s brothers were Joseph’s sons from an earlier marriage. If that’s true then his brothers would have no claim on the throne of David, not being Mary’s children, due to the curse of Jeconiah, that sons of Joseph would be under. However, Joseph and Mary could have any number of daughters without any competing claims. A clue could be in Lk 2:7 - “..her firstborn, a son.” The rest of her natural children may have been the sisters. This COULD, maybe, also explain why Jesus left his mother in the care of John rather than his brothers. Scripture CAN be interpreted to say that John and James were Jesus’s cousins. If true then John may have been “next in line” to the throne of David, in addition to the brothers not being Mary’s natural children. I know I’m being quite imaginative and going way beyond what is written, but I think the very early traditions about Jesus’s family may contain some kernel of truth under all the later schlock about Mary. I question ideas that the early Christians saw Mary through the pagan pantheons-Isis, Asherah, etc. I’m not trying to protect Mary’s virginity, but Jesus’s throne. I believe all the verses about Jesus’s family are completely true; I’m not disputing that. Only suggesting that his family situation was more convoluted than we can see from them.
Jean P.
Re the inset about the miracle. In Hebrews 10: 5-7, Jesus quotes Psalm 40 6-8. " A body hast Thou prepared for Me ---" So even the Incarnation was prophysied.
Frances C.
It seems to me that the point of discussion between Roman Catholics and Protestants is not whether or not Mary and Joseph had more children, but what we are required to believe about that. The RC Church requires faithful Catholics to believe that Mary remained a virgin, although the Bible is at best silent on the issue, or as Lita and Robert have said, it implies otherwise. So Protestant churches that are true to their own claims cannot require Christians to believe what cannot be most reasonably derived from the Bible. On the other hand it cannot demand that Protestants believe something extra Biblical, but it can complain when someone starts to insist that something extra Biblical is true and must be believed.
Emilie B.
Of course Mary had children by Joseph. See Matthew 1:24, 25 "Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife and KNEW her not UNTIL she had brought forth her firstborn son....." See the words new and until. We need to remember that GOD meant the sexual relationship in marriage to be special and pleasurable. Mary and Joseph were normal people who believed and obeyed the WORD of God.
Terry W.
The message the Archangel gives to Mary saying the Holy Spirit will come upon you implies that if the Holy Spirit is a Third person of the trinity, logic is that God the Father, is not the father of Jesus Christ. Simple statements throughout the Bible give the Duality of the Godhead.(1Cor.8:6 /John 1:1-3 /Rev.7:10). There are more statements regarding Father and Son as one. We are told not to add or take away biblical statements. To further the truth look up the Hebrew and Greek definition of the Holy Spirit. This is the power of God and is also a gift from God,(Acts2:38) T.W.
Lita Cosner
Dear Terry,

That the Holy Spirit was the one who overshadowed Mary is completely consistent with His role and actions throughout Scripture, and in no way negates the relationship between the Father and the Son. If God is a duality and not a Trinity, why are we commanded to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit? Why are Trinitarian constructions so common throughout the NT? If the Holy Spirit is simply 'the power of God' and not a Person in His own right, how can the Holy Spirit be lied to, grieved, etc? Please search creation.com for Trinity to find several comprehensive articles.
Paul R.
The Scriptures are so clear ,From Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21 about Gods' Divine Purpose for His Creation , including His Son - the Lord Jesus Christ. I learnt long ago ,that when Scripture "contradicts" Scripture ,it's my own understanding which is fallible and in need of further study and vigorous fellowship to bring forth its' truth . Unless everything in extra-biblical teachings and "traditions" aligns perfectly with Scripture itself , they become the thoughts of men ,not of God , and as such are open to conjecture and vigorous debate : A claim that Roman Catholicism makes about Peter ( Cephas) being the first bishop of Rome is one of them. The Third Person of the Trinity , the Holy Spirit, is given to ALL who have repented of their sins ,and call Jesus The Christ as their Lord and Saviour ; He is our Seal, living within every believer, and testifying to God the Father, and God the Son ..!!! Scripture invites close scrutiny of Itself ,the Living Word of God ; why ?? Because of its' infallibility !! We are invited to "taste and see that the Lord is good" - I would invite every reader to take God at his promise to "taste and see .."
Renton M.
When the angel came to Mary, there is no indication she was troubled by his appearance, which seems to indicated he simply appeared as a man. What troubled her was his words...his greeting. What sort of greeting was this? Many make a big deal regarding Mary's comment, "May it be to me as you have said." as being a great statement of faith. I'm not so sure. Who was this guy who had turned up with this extra ordinary message? She didn't know... other than what he had said. It wasn't a self verifying message. But why should she believe him? I don't think her comment is as flippant as "Whatever..." but I'm not sure it is her expressing great faith either. Fortunately for Mary there was one part of what the angel said that was objectively verifiable. 'Elizabeth is pregnant and is in her sixth month.' Mary immediately travels...hurries...to see Elizabeth and check what she has been told...and finds the confirmation of the message...and launches into her statement of praise. Now she believes...
Lita Cosner
Thanks for these comments. However, I think Luke intends to depict Mary's response as reflecting her belief, and specifically contrasting her with Zechariah.
Scott B.
We (my family) sometimes come into contact with individuals elevating Mary to a god or god-like status. These individuals typically have been influenced by Catholic tradition. The text under the subheading "Mary was not perfect or supernatural" rendered much evidence that she was indeed no god, nor was she god-like.
Scott P.
Thank-you Lita for a well written article. Luke 2:7 tells us that Mary "gave birth to her first born son." The fact that Luke qualifies Jesus as being Mary's firstborn, strongly implies that Luke was aware of other children that Mary later gave birth to.
Jaroslav L.
Thank you for this interesting article! Let me mention a few thoughts: I think that Jesus Christ explicitly positions His mother – as being one of the crowd that follows Him (Mark 3:31-35) or John 2:5

Regarding “miracles” – to me, the word “miracles” is much more associated with magic resp. magicians while our God “just” applies His Power. Magic is something that comes from “nowhere” while God´s power is manifestation of the God´s power. And once He is outside of our time and space and actually He is our creator, then, He can enter into His creation … because of His power. Mary was a strongly believing in God – that is why the God made His choice. He knows what He is doing while we only think we know what to do.

It is strange that Mary stayed with John even if she had several children. (John 19:27). It looks like that Jesus Christ´s brothers and sisters did not believe in Him before His crucifixion as it is indicated in (John 7,3-5) but they did not change their view even after the event. They even might repudiate His mother that advocated for Him and wanted her children to accept their brother as a Son of God - but they probably refused. They had THEIR view of the world, God, and people. This is not surprising as many people stayed stubborn even if they faced obvious events – let´s remember John 12:37. And because our Lord knows everybody, He asked John to take care of His mother because with John’ s support she could continue in her worshipping of the true God.
Yvonne R.
The moving of the HOLY SPIRIT in Mary's personal experience can be understood by all of us who have experienced the HOLY SPIRIT moving in wondrous ways in our own personal lives. The bible states the actual situation as occurred in those days. To believe other than the word as written is to take out of context and so not see the value of JESUS being born into a normal family life which is the example one would expect GOD to do and is not seeing the importance of JESUS taking on human flesh for the sake of mankind. JESUS could not, would not glorify Mary for to do so would be placing Mary above GOD. Mary was a vessel for the purposes of GOD. HIS brothers attempts to thwart HIS ministry was due to their lack of comprehension and their inability to understand who JESUS really was. GOD on earth.'If you have seen ME you have seen the FATHER'. Praise to GOD for all that we do that can only be discerned spiritually. Corinthians 2:13-16
Donald W.
Thankyou for clarifying for me the question I put to you about the sin nature coming from Adam and Jesus , being God, being born without a sinful nature. You’ve been very helpful. Please keep up the excellent work you do in helping us lay folks to better understand the scriptures
Dreme O.
Great article! Nicely done. I hope Catholics will ask themselves if the focus of their worship is really God (Jesus) or someone else. I know my Catholic friend loves Jesus, and she believes the Bible is true, but she really, really, really loves Mary, and she mostly wants to talk about Mary and do Mary-related activities.
Nathan B.
I've found the best approach to Christian theology is to start from scratch and see what scriptures say on the matter. Both Catholics and Protestants alike have strongly help traditions that are hard to shake (see Saul "changing" his name to Paul as an unscriptural yet heavily preached Protestant belief). You have to forget everything you thought you knew about biblical figures and church rituals and accept that your long held beliefs - many times passed down in churches and families from generation to generation - could be and probably are wrong or at the very least, not scripturally based. It's difficult to discern sometimes after 2000 years of church teachings. Even my father, 40 years in Southern Baptist ministry, struggles to distinguish between tradition and scripture on occasion.
Dan M.
What is it about people and tradition? They are always replacing biblical fact with tradition and confusing the issues which is why we have so many sects, (denominations) of Christianity! The bible is very strait forward and easy to understand at the surface level so a child can understand it. Maybe because God knows we, (humanity) are somewhat dull of mind and don't understand the Heavenly things, (Joh 3:12)? Show me one instance of a early Christians praying to Mary. Also Mary was not given for the atonement of my sins and Mary died like we all do and was not resurrected and taken up like Jesus was. Mary was special by association, (birth) to Jesus, nothing more. She is miry a good humanly example to follow and blessed among Women for sure. Stop reading into, what is not there, (Sola Scriptura).
Overall, this was a good article, biblical and accurate - rather than relying on tradition. One comment (2017) said “Notice that at Calvary Jesus commits His mother in the care of John (John 19:26-27). This suggests that Jesus' brothers were not actually Mary's own children.” You correctly replied that younger brothers could do all those things he mentioned. But it is also likely Jesus would not leave Mary in his brothers’ care for the specific reason that they were all unbelievers at that time (even the commenting person mentioned they were not believers). Also Luke 1:36 shows that Elisabeth was not a sister of Mary because the Greek suggenis (exact translitteration) means close relative like Lita indicated. That shows that Luke and the other Gospel writes did distinguish this word form adelphos (brother) and adelphe (sister). Therefore, this is yet another reason why we should not try to make Jesus’ brothers and sisters to be cousins or more distant relatives, or even non relatives. The Bible plainly teaches that Jesus had biological brothers and sisters - not spiritual because they were not saved until after the resurrection.
Chuck R.
Well, you've stirred up a hornet's nest with a particular church, but this article is spot on regarding Biblical teachings about Mary, not flawed traditional beliefs. Note too that Jesus was born without sin because He did not have an earthly father, as it is the man who carries the sin 'gene'. At the eating of the forbidden fruit, Eve, deceived, ate of the fruit and nothing happened (Gen, 3:6-7, 1 Tim. 2:3), not until Adam CHOOSE to sin did they realize what they had done.
Lita Cosner
Chuck, as we said in response to another comment:

Sin came through a man (Adam), not Eve, even though she sinned first. But that doesn't mean sin generally comes from the father and not the mother. If we somehow engineered a non-miraculous parthenogenetic birth, the daughter would still be sinful. Jesus is sinless because He is God and cannot sin. He was conceived without a sin nature because of the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary.
Donald W.
Do not the scriptures teach that the sin nature comes through the man ? Mary conceived Jesus by the work of the Holy Spirit therefore Jesus would not have inherited mans sinful nature as have all humans since the fall of Adam . Mary would have inherited the sinful nature from her father yet God used her to bring about the “man” Jesus who was and is totally God and totally man because of birth through a human woman. I would be very interested in your response as I to desire to use only scripture to dictate and teach my beliefs not traditions.
Lita Cosner
Sin came through a man (Adam), not Eve, even though she sinned first. But that doesn't mean sin generally comes from the father and not the mother. If we somehow engineered a non-miraculous parthenogenetic birth, the daughter would still be sinful. Jesus is sinless because He is God and cannot sin. He was conceived without a sin nature because of the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary.
Bill P.
Your article here is very true. It has been 40 yrs. since I myself was a Catholic raised in a strict Catholic family. One of the first things I did after THE LORD had mercy on me was to read scripture for myself. (I don't know if you know this but Rome made it unlawful for their flock to read The Bible until 1967) and for the millions of practicing Catholics over the centuries it was punishable (by death) if they were caught doing so. All the info they were allowed was what Rome taught them, and Rome only taught the traditions of men instead of The True Word of God. I searched GOD'S WORD regarding Mary, (her being born without sin, being made "The Queen of heaven", etc), I found none of this and suddenly learned that all I was taught was not true. Yes it is true that in Israel of old it was considered a curse for a woman to be barren and that the dream of every Jewish woman was to be the mother of The Messiah. Mary believed scripture so she knew that ALL have sinned except (just as you stated) for The Messiah (Jesus Christ) who was conceived by THE FATHER through His Holy Spirit, (that same Spirit that raised HIM from the dead and will one day make us like HIM). I remember when a priest would pray to a cement statue of her as many in my family still do today. I know now because of "The Word God" this is idol worship. Mary knew that all of humanity were born of Adam inheriting a sinful nature and were in need of a SAVIOR. I've witnessed w/a humble heart concerning this to my family and this matter caused a huge rift between us, but I still pray for them. I have pity for those who believe she appeared to many over the centuries as a queen from heaven (This comes from Babylon, Nimrod's mother). "IF" Mary could, "no doubt", she would warn of the danger of this error.
Norman P.
Excellent article - thank you! As Paul wrote to Timothy, 'All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works' (2 Timothy 3:15-17). Nicodemus, a religious leader among the Jews, needed Jesus to tell him: 'Ye must be born again' - alluding to receiving Christ by faith as Saviour, i.e.John 3:16-18). Without such a re-birth, we cannot understand, see or enter the Kingdom of God. As an extension of the virgin birth, when we are 'born of God' (John 1:13) and born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5) - we can say, Christ in me, the hope of glory - what a miracle of grace that is, and it's all thanks to Jesus! And since that temple curtain was split, we can now go direct to the throne of grace through him! I love the Biblical accounts of the incarnation, and Mary's godly faith. But not even the Holy Spirit distracts from Christ - as you will find in all the apostles' letters, he always points us to Him. I believe that when those dear faithful Jews like Mary and Zachariah, Simeon and Anna prophesied, they were uttering the words of prophetic scripture under the influence of the Spirit, not simply from memory: that same Spirit who afterwards recalled everything in the writing of the Gospels, Acts and Revelation.
Regarding apparitions, Galatians 1:6-10 and Colossians 2:16-23 infer that such things are capable of contradicting the Gospel of Christ and then should be roundly rejected. See also 2 Corinthians 11:14 and 2 Thessalonians 2:8-10. Jesus is the only way to the Father, as all by the Spirit would testify, dear 'Miriam' included!
Thomas M.
Too full of unwarranted assumptions to even comment.
Lita Cosner
And yet you commented! If you had pointed out something you felt was insufficiently supported by the evidence we presented, we could have attempted to answer your criticism. As it is, you just tried to dismiss the entire article with an elephant hurl.
Teresa D.
A point that I've never seen made anywhere else: if God intervened so that Mary had no sin, why didn't He intervene so that none of us had any sin? Then Jesus wouldn't have had to die with all the drama and suffering involved. Much simpler. But the Lord of all logic and knowledge knew that He did have to, which indicates that He couldn't just wave a magic wand over anyone to make them sinless. Therefore Mary needed saving just like the rest of us.
Antonio F.
It's interesting to see that some of the beliefs of Mary's godliness come from earlier church forefathers. Peter Jones from the Ezra institute points out that some people hold to a pagan view of God, where Jesus is one of the gods in the pantheon of immortals (Gnosticism) and that this contradicts what Scripture says. My concern is that since Gnosticism tried invading the church early on, isn't it possible that these church forefathers' original beliefs prior to conversion and salvation led them to making the claims of Mary's deification?
Lita Cosner
Where the unbiblically elevated views of Mary come from isn't as much of a concern as making sure our view of Mary is biblical. I.e., that she was a godly, believing, but sinful woman who needed a Saviour just like everyone else. Her unique role in bearing the Messiah did not mean that she was herself deified.
Melvyne C.
Thank you for your reply. The infallibility of scripture, certainly we try to live by every word from the mouth of God; and Jesus (Matt 4:4) was citing Moses (Deut 8:3). Inspired is all scripture I would agree (2 Tim 3:16). Still, Yahweh asked us to reason together with him (Isa 1:18). Jesus literally never said he had birth brothers or sisters.
You say, Jews living together chase was unheard of. We were not there in the case of the holy family. However, a young woman and virgin conceived supernaturally a divine child is totally unheard of anywhere, except for (Isa 7:14). She conceived, “Mighty God” (Isa 9:6). Thus, those supernatural facts surely must have had profound effects on their relationships.
You mention that Mary gave birth in sin, as she offered a sin offering. Scripture does not say that, but, an offering “as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord” (Lk 2:24).
Moreover, surely, affected would be Jesus by original sin and needing to save himself in his human part.
Besides, any sin offering Mary made, may have been done ignorance because she did not know sin was removed in her. Also, Jesus was Baptised, without sin, thus fulfilling the law, which was not written to make allowances for a sinless woman (Lev 12:8), or the God-Man.
Lita Cosner
Melvyne, you are still arguing from tradition, not the Scriptures. We are an evangelical Protestant organization, and as such our view of Mary should not be surprising. We have stated how we derive our view of Mary from Scripture alone. The closest you got to biblical argumentation was an argument from silence.
Melvyne C.
Thank you for your reply, Lita and Robert, notwithstanding the brilliance of CMI, your reply for me, still leaves questions unanswered, and possess problems.
Tying in Google, for instance, “Brothers of Jesus,” brings up some interesting articles, providing a broad basis for reflection.
It seems to me, that the holy mother, through the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus. Thus, in the Holy Trinity; Mary, is a daughter, spouse, and need of a saviour, at least to remove, somehow, any effects of original sin in her. Joseph, through a dream, knew Mary somehow had miraculously conceived, and Mary knew the fact personally.
Therefore, would Mary not adulterate, in a spiritual sense, her relationship with the Holy Spirit by having other children through a man? Why should Mary consent to conceiving something less than her perfect, sinless son, through a less than miraculous process and birth needing, under Jewish law, purification? Her womb was the temple of the Spirit of God, I cannot see Joseph polluting such a holy sanctified place. The holy couple had the perfect divine human and God-Man, as a child, to protect and teach. Surely that’s enough for any mortal?
Lita Cosner
Typing any given query into Google will bring up a variety of results ranging from credible to rantings of people of questionable mental stability.

With respect, you seem to be unduly influenced by extrabiblical tradition. Mary was a married woman. Celibacy in marriage was unknown during Mary’s day, and when some people got that bright idea in Corinth, Paul was quick to speak against it.

Mary had no romantic relationship with the Holy Spirit—God told Joseph through an angel in a dream to marry Mary, so how could having a normal married relationship be ‘adultery’?

That Mary's womb was made holy through carrying Jesus is not borne out by a careful study of the Scriptures. The Lord Himself seemed at pains to refute such a notion in Luke 11:27–28.

A common thread with the comments coming from the more Catholic readers (not all necessarily Roman Catholic, but influenced by their traditions) is that they take exception to the conclusions of the article without addressing the biblical evidence we cite, and without providing any biblical evidence of their own. Some believe that poorly-attested sightings of Mary are sufficient refutation! This is not how we should think as Christians.
Nathan G.
Mary most certainly knew her Old Testament better than many Christians today. For a girl probably somewhere between 15 to 20 years of age, she strung together 18 direct references to Old Testament verses of import. How many of us could have done that seamlessly at the same age?

Devout Jews took the Book seriously, not as some window dressing to be read five minutes before bed and for an hour at tabernacle once a week. The memorization of large portions of Scripture is a practice which, unfortunately, in our day and age has largely died out. How many of us can quote entire books of the Bible by heart and without error or prompting? Not many.

The virgin birth was necessary to fulfill prophecy, but the mechanics worked like any other birth once labor got going. I think that the virgin Conception is much more fascinating. If you stop to think about it, the actual minimum change required for this miracle was only the creation of a Y chromosome from an existing X, if God were to merely change a cell in the uterus into a fertilized egg cell. (Changes in the other complementary chromosome strand by creating an entire male Y chromosome would hinder genetic problems had Christ been merely human and married, but he wasn't and didn't.) The Y literally makes the man ... or in this case the Son of Man, regardless of how God decided to do it. It is, however, important to note that God told Eve that her "seed" would crush the serpent's head way back in Genesis. That is why the creation of an entire male chromosome is highly likely, since women do not have "seed" (sperm). What more powerful way is there for God to link the first and last Adam than through the Y-seed specifically promised to Eve, then miraculously fulfilled in Mary?

Merry Christmas everyone!

Robert Carter
Thanks for this comment. However, speculating about the mechanics of how the miracle of the Virginal Conception occurred is beyond the scope of the article, and the Bible itself does not go into it in sufficient detail for productive conversation.
M. K.
The brothers of Jesus were cousins, or maybe even more distant relatives or neighbors, not actual brothers. Interestingly, the first protestants like Luther, Calvin, Wesley, etc. all agreed on that, even though they held many heretical views against the Catholic Church. Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant and the New Eve. She was conceived without original sin. This does not mean she didn't need a savior, she did, but he saved her at the moment of conception. There is a heretical quasi-Catholic sect in Spain with a self-proclaimed Pope who teaches that Mary did not need to be redeemed, but that's not the correct view. Please do some research on the apparitions at Guadalupe, La Salette and Fatima.
Lita Cosner
Dear Michael,

Please demonstrate from the Greek that adelphoi commonly means cousins, distant relatives, or even neighbors. The only reason to argue this is the unbiblical belief that Mary remained a virgin her entire life and could not have given birth to Jesus' half-siblings.

I cannot corroborate your statement about Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, but the great thing about being a Protestant is that we are not bound by the unbiblical beliefs of some of our forefathers. Rather, the Bible is our sole authority (see some of the prior responses to comments on this article).
M. D.
Thank you for a clear article. I have one observation, though. While the Bible makes it clear that Jesus had brothers and sisters, this does not necessarily mean that Mary was the mother of all of them. However, her having children after Jesus was born can not be disproved by the Bible and was certainly the normal cause of affairs in a Jewish family at the time. Notice that at Calvary Jesus commits His mother in the care of John (John 19:26-27). This suggests that Jesus' brothers were not actually Mary's own children. That they were older than Jesus is shown by their relationship with Him. They tried to restrain Him (Mark 3:21), spoke taunting words to Him (John 7:3-4), did not believe in Him (John 7:5), and interfered with His conduct (Mark 3:31) as only older brothers would dare to do in those days. While, initially, Jesus' brothers did not believe in His mission (John 7:3-5) it is good to learn that later they are mentioned among His followers.
Lita Cosner
Thanks for this comment. However, the most natural reading of Scripture is that they were Jesus' half-siblings, not step-siblings. The main reason to argue otherwise is the unbiblical later traditions that Mary remained a virgin her entire life, which is contrary to the biblical data as we explained in the article.

As for the behavior of His brothers being characteristic of older siblings, anyone with younger siblings knows they are just as capable of those actions. And if one had an older brother they believed to be insane, or who was bringing disgrace to the family, they certainly would do so.
Rocco P.
I found your article factual and balanced -- but I have a question about one comment made: "even as a young teenager, she was already well-versed in God’s Word." Did you mean to imply that Mary was a young teenager when she conceived Jesus? There are some traditions which claim that Mary was a young teenager and Joseph was an older man and in my exchanges with Muslims they often refer to these to defend Mohammed at the age of 53 marrying a nine year old girl. Is there any basis in scripture that Mary was a young teenager when she conceived Jesus? In Luke 1:39,56 Mary appears to travel independently to distant Judea and stayed there with Elizabeth for three months. This would imply that she was at this time at least a young, mature woman.
Robert Carter
We did not intend to indicate she was very young, so the Mohammed episode is not justifiable in this context. Mary was an unmarried woman in a culture where woman generally married early, as in late teens, not 'early' as in prepubescent. This is especially evident when we are told that Mary had a child at this age: the prepubescent female body is simply not prepared to bear and birth a child. When she went to visit Elizabeth, it would make sense if she had a chaperone, especially if the trip took longer than one day, but the Bible gives us no further details.
Melvyne C.
A timely and important article this blessed Christmas, but not without some thought provoking theology, for me, anyway.

Did Jesus descend into original sin, that is the flesh of his handmaiden Mother, blessed above all women? If so, would He not need to save His own flesh first, that is, the part inherited from His Mother?
Lita Cosner
Thanks for this comment. Obviously, something supernatural would have to happen for Jesus to be become truly man without inheriting sin nature. It is not necessary to move this supernatural event back to the conception of His mother. If that were necessary, why not Mary's mother, or grandmother, or great-grandmother?

Mary's own song of praise reflects her knowledge that she needed a savior, and one of the turtledoves she offered was for a sin offering.

For more, see The virginal conception of Christ.
Vern R.
Merry Christmas CMI, excellent article.
Thank you for giving the gift of knowledge of the scripture and its place in the created world we live in. It is a gift that keeps on giving.
May our Lord continue in His blessing of your work.
Andrew T.
I fully agree that what the Scripture records about Mary, is all that we have a right to assert about her as an historical woman. But, in what way do we regard the innumerable appearances of her, and miracles apparently from her, in the later Church? The God of Abraham works in mysterious ways...
Lita Cosner
As Christians, we are bound by the Scriptures, which are infallible, inerrant, and trustworthy. However, the records of the appearances of Mary are regrettably none of these, and many people question their historical accuracy. It would be misguided, therefore, to allow such reports to alter our theology or worldview, especially when nothing in the biblical record would lead us to expect such apparitions.
Clifford R.
This article was good; more often then not "keeping of days" article's reflect a point or intent the author is trying to justify within their own practice and commonly these article's are "fact laden" to "prove" the intent (perhaps CMI's 2016 "Christmas article"), which raises more question then settles.

My opinion is that Rob is a Christian man with compassion and heart felt concern for others, Lita's appraisal of scripture is usually spot on, both of you are conscientiously aware the word's you choose; I am curious as to why you used the word "may" in this clause "She may not have known about DNA and embryogenesis like we do today"?
Lita Cosner
Thank you for your comment. It is just a manner of speaking. We certainly were not leaving the option open that Mary may have known about DNA and embryogenesis. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.
Richard L.
Thank you for the beautifully-balanced tone of this response, and for the “God and the ‘laws of nature’” sidebar and its “how God normally acts” expression. 2 bible verses—mentioned by Henry Morris, years ago—reinforce that sidebar’s points: re-normalizing (Rom. 12:2) our sensibility regarding “laws of nature”, and clarifying “how God normally acts”. They are Colossians 1:17 “…in him [Christ] all [created {previous verse}] things cohere” & Hebrews 1:3 “… he [Christ] upholds {active participle, continuous action} the universe by the word of his power…” Together, these verses give us theologies of supernatural miracles and “laws of nature”.

Supernatural sustenance is needed, continuously, for nature and its “laws” to keep existing. Being mentally conditioned by “world” mistakes, we have a hard time properly understanding the “free to act” and “transcend” that you use in your sidebar. From those 2 verses, there is no normative existence of the laws of nature! They are simply (investigated and labeled interesting features within) the standard format that God sovereignly chooses to make / keep-in-existence, moment by moment—most of the time. No ontological normativeness of those “laws”! (Supernatural miracles are “exceptions” to standard-format natural laws, not “interruptions” or “violations”.) God doesn’t need any extra effort to “act” or “transcend” natural laws.

Scientists are psychologically like students. Teachers allows students to usually sit where they choose. Students get used to that format, not realizing that the teacher reserves the right to change seating order. Students and scientists can resent such change.

At Christmas, the Creator (the Trinity’s 2nd person) created a virgin-birth human being for his person. Amazing! No problem, scientifically.
George J.

I greatly admire the work you do, your website and articles. But it was quite sad reading your article on Mother Mary. As you may have guessed I'm Catholic and we do hold her at more respectful level. Reducing her to mere lady who happened to give birth to Jesus the Son of God - is indeed very sad. I'm afraid I lack the skill and knowledge and ability and the will to defend our most misunderstood Lady. It has been done by many Church Councils and Saints over the ages in great eloquence. My only wish is that you respect the traditions of the other Christian brothers and sisters (Catholic and Orthodox) who have retained their beliefs over a few thousand years - and perhaps give us the benefit of a doubt.
Lita Cosner

As you may have guessed, CMI is a Protestant evangelical ministry, and as such, holds the historically Protestant view of Mary as a very godly woman who displayed great faith and obedience to her Lord. The goal of this article was to examine what the Bible has to say regarding this remarkable person, and not to get into later tradition that popped up relatively quickly surrounding her.
J. M.
Accurate, well written and succinct.

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