The Jewishness of Mary

To be ignorant of the Scripture is not to know Mary, the Mother of Christ.
by Sr. M. Danielle Peters | Source: Catholic.net
“To be ignorant of the Scripture is not to know Christ,” said St. Jerome.[2] Could we develop this statement further and conclude: To be ignorant of the Scripture is not to know Mary, the Mother of Christ?

The Bible is over 95% male-oriented. Of 1,426 names in the Bible only 111 names are women’s. … Mary of Nazareth, however, is among the women most mentioned in the Bible, that is, in the New Testament. She is an exception to the rule and almost for that reason an exceptional woman.[3]

The factual data we gain from the Scriptures on Mary’s life are by no means copious[4].  As far as details about Mary’s person are concerned, we do not know much about her liking, knowledge, exterior etc. However, through the spiritual intervention of God in her life, she becomes a person in terms of her religious vocation. Her process of individuation is initiated by her reflection on who she is and her mission as handmaid of the Lord.[5]  

It is not possible to establish an exact chronological point for identifying the date of Mary’s birth … Her presence in the midst of Israel – a presence so discreet as to pass almost unnoticed by the eyes of her contemporaries[6] …Only in the mystery of Christ is her mystery fully made clear.[7]    

Mary of Nazareth, daughter of Joachim and Anna,[8]   is first mentioned by name  in the  Gospel of Mathew.[9]   She was an ordinary woman, and her name was common enough that other women of the same name in the gospel had to be distinguished by their relatives or their place of origin.[10]  

From tradition we can assume that she grew up as a young Jewish girl in a   small  town in the Palestinian Galilee. “Since Mary was born into Judaism,  she experienced the Hebrew Scriptures both in her prayer and her mode of life as a woman of Nazareth.”[11]  Mary’s education as a girl included listening to the readings of the Torah and the Prophets in the synagogue. We cannot know for  sure but it is quite possible that Mary knew how to read.[12]

Although women probably were seated separately from men during the synagogue services, they could have learned the prayers and listened attentively to the readings from the Sacred Scripture. … There is no reason to question that Mary was present in the synagogue when Jesus read from Isaiah 61. Would she not have reflected on such passages already, wondering about their Messianic implications?[13]

It might be helpful to recall that until the completion of her eleventh year a Jewish girl was a minor and from her 12th birthday on she was considered to be of age. This means that from that day on, Mary was expected to keep those parts of the Torah, which were binding on women. At the same time she also became eligible for marriage.

 Like all good Jewish girls, she would have been docile, submissive, and obedient to her earthly parents’ wishes. Thus, when she was of marriageable age, about fourteen, and her parents promised her to a man many years her elder, she accepted their decision. In all actuality, she had no choice.[14]  

Consequently, we can presume that it was around that time that Mary was betrothed to Joseph. The time of betrothal generally lasted a year, with the exception of widows.[15]  We know that the Annunciation[16] occurred during the phase of her betrothal. 

God had addressed Himself to women before as in the case of the mothers of Samuel and Samson. However to make a Covenant with humanity, He, hitherto addressed himself only to men: Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Now, “at the beginning of the New Covenant, which is to be eternal and irrevocable, there is a woman: the Virgin of Nazareth.”[17]


This takes place … within the concrete circumstances of the history of Israel, the people, who first received God’s promises. The divine messenger says to the Virgin: “Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you” [18]. He does not call her by her proper earthly name: Miriyam (= Mary), but by this new name: ‘full of grace’. What does this name mean? Why does the archangel address the Virgin in this way? In the language of the Bible, ‘grace’ means a special gift, which according to the New Testament has its source precisely in the Trinitarian life of God himself, God who is love[19].[20]

The One who called her His most beloved is Love Himself. It might well be the core experience of her life when Mary learns that she is loved for who she is and not for what she can do. This awareness leads her to identify herself as the handmaid of the Lord[21] and urges her to embrace the mission entrusted to her.

Indeed at the Annunciation Mary entrusted herself to God completely, with ‘the full submission of intellect and will,’ manifesting ‘the obedience of faith’ to him who spoke to her through his messenger. She responded therefore with all her human and feminine ‘I’, and in this response of faith included both perfect cooperation with the ‘grace of God that precedes and assists’ and perfect openness to the action of the Holy Spirit, who ‘constantly brings faith to completion by his gifts’.[22]

Thus, we learn that Mary conceived her son through the power of the Holy Spirit[23].    Both Mathew’s and Luke’s New Testament Infancy Narratives indicate that Joseph and Mary were faithful observers of the law.  According to Mathew, Mary was legally espoused to Joseph, even though she did not live with him[24] in accordance with the Jewish requirement of pre-conjugal virginity. Hence, when Mathew tells of Mary’s pregnancy before sharing the life of Joseph, he makes it clear that she had become suspect to infidelity[25].  All the more we have to appreciate Mary’s faith in the angel’s message, since she knew that her life was at stake.  


Following the Annunciation we encounter Mary on her way in order to serve her relative Elizabeth[26]. The visitation has a tremendous effect on Zechariah’s house. Elizabeth prophesied[27], the baby was sanctified in her womb[28] and the mute man of the house would eventually be able to speak again.[29]   

The Virgin makes no proud demands nor else does she seek to satisfy personal ambitions. Luke presents her to us wanting only to offer her humble service with total and trusting acceptance of the divine plan of salvation. This is the meaning of her response: ”Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.”[30]  

Mary’s Magnificat[31] harmonizes with Zechariah’s Benedictus[32] and reflects her deep roots in the Jewish tradition as well as in the Hebrew Scriptures. He has done great things for me: this is the discovery of all the richness and personal resources of femininity, all the eternal originality of the ‘woman’, just as God wanted her to be, a person for her own sake, who discovers herself ‘by means of a sincere gift of self’.[33]  As a daughter of Israel, Mary sings in concord with such women as Miriam, sister of Moses or Hannah, mother of Samuel.  

For St. Luke, Mary is the perfect example of awaiting the Messiah with a pure and humble spirit. Luke sees in Mary the Daughter of Zion who rejoices because God is with her, and who praises His greatness for pulling down the mighty and exalting the humble.[34]    

The earliest reference to Jesus’ mother in any literature, and the only one in the  Pauline letters and all of the epistles of the New Testament, appears in Galatians  4:4. There, Paul simply connotes that God’s son was ‘born of a woman, born under the law.’  

The phrase, genomenon ek gynaikos, “born of a woman”, is a frequently used Jewish expression to designate a person’s human condition. It reflects ‘?d?m y?lûd ‘i???h of Job 14:1 “a human being (that is) born of a woman …" Paul does indirectly refer to her. But it is a reference to her simply as mother, in her maternal role of bearing Jesus and bringing him into the world.[35]  

For the purpose of historical investigation, these phrases tell us only that Paul understands Jesus to have been born to a Jewish woman[36]. “The fact that he does not mention Mary’s name does not necessarily mean that he does not know it; but neither can it be assumed that he knows it and declines to use it.”[37]

It is significant that St. Paul does not call the Mother of Christ by her own name, Mary, but calls her woman: it coincides with words of the Proto-evangelium in the Book of Genesis (3:15). She is that woman who is present in the central salvific event, which marks the fullness of time: this event is realized in her and through her.[38] To be born under the law means, for Jesus, that he was fully integrated into the  human condition in both time and place through his roots in the Jewish people.  Mathew presents us with Jesus’ genealogy.

But the uniform repetitions of male progenitors is interrupted four times in order to mention women: Rahab and Ruth, both of them foreigners, are there to show that the rest of the human race is invited to share in salvation along with Israel; Tamar, daughter-in-law of Judah, and Bathsheba, who had been the wife of Uriah before becoming David’s wife, are there to remind us that the promise makes its way despite the weaknesses of a patriarch[39] and of a king[40] and, paradoxically, even derives support from them. These four women and the four irregular births that occur due to them prepare the reader for the mention of Mary and for the birth of Jesus, the extraordinary character of which will be brought out later in the narrative.[41]

Mathew’s gospel affirms the legitimacy of Jesus as a Jewish boy born of Jewish parents. He is the offspring of a legally recognized married couple. Thus, Joseph is the lawful father of Jesus who, in turn, has the responsibility of naming the child. On the other hand, Mary is the mother of this child in an extraordinary way similar to the other women mentioned in the genealogy: Rahab, Tamar, Ruth and Beersheba. Mary is the Virgin Mother[42] of the promised Messiah who is called Emmanuel, God with us!

Clearly then, Mary plays a role in God’s plan of saving His people, and indeed she was foreseen from the time of Isaiah as the virgin who would give birth to Emmanuel. Yet, in the Matthean infancy narrative she remains an instrument of God’s action and her personal attitudes are never mentioned. Once she has given birth to Jesus, she and the child become the object of Joseph’s care.  Joseph is center of the drama. [43]”[44]  


This becomes evident immediately after the birth of Jesus. When the violence is unleashed against the child and his family[45], Joseph takes initiative upon the Angel’s request, fleeing with the child and his mother to Egypt. Like Mathew, Luke locates Jesus in the history of the Jewish people. For Luke however, “Mary is the guarantor of his roots; and she is the sign of this newness.”[46]  The birth took place in conditions of extreme poverty. Luke informs us that on the occasion of the census ordered by the Roman authorities, Mary went with Joseph to Bethlehem. Having found ‘no place in the inn’, she gave birth to her Son in a stable and ‘laid him in a manger.'[47] 

We are reminded again that Jesus was born under the law when, in Luke 2:22-24, Mary and Joseph present Jesus in the Temple and ransom him for a pair of turtle doves as prescribed by Jewish law.[48]  

Simeon’s words seem like a second Annunciation to Mary; for they tell her of the actual historical situation in which the Son is to accomplish his mission, namely, in misunderstanding and sorrow. … She will have to live her obedience of faith in suffering at the side of the suffering Savior, and that her motherhood will be mysterious and sorrowful.[49]   

The Holy family lived in Nazareth.  Not much is said about their family life; but we know that Jesus and Mary were both under the care of Joseph and, most likely, lived a normal Jewish family life.

More about Mary of Nazareth can be learned through the simple metaphors and parables in the language of Jesus in his home. … Often the woman, because of her skills in planning and experience, was in control over the critical aspects of household life. In her natural role of parenting, a woman normally would have nearly double the amount of pregnancies in order to bear the desired number of children to carry on the chores and responsibilities of the household[50].

Archeological discoveries in households attest to devotions of a religious nature at home, for example;  

If the practice in Nazareth was close to Pharisaic norm, Joseph would ask the family when darkness fell on the eve of the Sabbath: ‘Have you tithed? … Light the Lamp’. Thus would they collaborate in keeping the commandments at home.[51]  

Throughout the years that followed, up to Jesus’ public ministry, Mary was, for Jesus, what every Jewish mother was supposed to be for her child. “While Joseph was alive Mary apparently went with him to Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.”[52] It is during such a pilgrimage that the 12-year-old Jesus was lost for three days and Mary and Joseph went in search of him[53]. Luke’s Gospel recalls the anxiety of a mother who thought her son was lost and who of finding him, reproached him. 

Here as well as upon the shepherds’ visit to the ‘babe lying in the manger', Mary as a woman of Israel and daughter of Zion remembers and ponders over the words and events of God. The word symballousa used of her in Luke means to turn over and over again in one’s mind and heart in order to face what is happening either through life’s experiences or God’s revelation.[54]  

Not much is known about Mary during Jesus’ public life.  

A Jewish woman faithful to the law did not participate in public life. Even her chin was covered by the veil, which she wore so that none of her traits were distinguished. The fact that in Mark’s Gospel Mary is searching for Jesus and is familiar with his whereabouts leads to an almost certain conclusion that she is then a widow and has possession of all that Joseph owned.

In John’s Gospel we are told that Mary and Jesus were guests at the wedding feast in Cana. The way she interacts with the servants and initiates the preparations for Jesus’ first sign is another indication “that she was now the only survivor.”[56] Mary’s presence at the wedding feast reveals much about her. It can be summarized in her intuitive grasp of the situation, her concern over the possible embarrassment of the young couple and her willingness to call upon her son.  

Mary is present at Cana in Galilee as the Mother of Jesus, and, in a significant way, she contributes to that beginning of the signs which reveal the messianic power of her Son. ... The Mother of Christ presents herself as the spokeswoman of her Son’s will, pointing out those things, which must be done so that the salvific power of the Messiah may be manifested. ... Her faith evokes his first sign and helps to kindle the faith of the disciples.[57]  

The meaning of Mary at Cana is exposed fully when His Mother stands ‘near the cross of Jesus,’ and hears Him say: ‘Woman, there is your Son’[58]. 

The Gospel means more than that the dying Jesus is providing for His Mother’s care. … Mary on Calvary symbolizes … the new Israel, the new People of God, the mother of all men, Jew and Gentile.[59]

Both times, at the beginning and at the consummation of his public life, Jesus addresses her as ‘woman’.

The words of Jesus to His Mother, ‘Woman, how does this concern of yours involve me? My hour has not yet come,’ were an invitation to deepen her faith, to look beyond the failing wine to His messianic career. … It is striking that no sign is done to help Mary believe. The Mother of Jesus requires no miracle to strengthen her faith. At her Son’s word, before ‘this first of his signs’ she shows her faith.[60]

Mary’s last appearance is found in Acts 1:14.  We see her in the midst of the Apostles in the Upper Room, prayerfully imploring the gift of the Holy Spirit.[61] For the church of that time, Mary is now a singular witness to the years of Jesus’ infancy and hidden life at Nazareth. Now she can release what, until now, she has kept pondering in her heart.


In summary,

Mary of Nazareth – whose name is written at times in the Hebraic form, Mariam – was a chaste young Jewish girl betrothed to a devout Jewish man, Joseph. The portrait of her in the New Testament is that of a prayerful Jewish woman with very human traits who aspired to follow the practices set by Jewish law and religion. The picture of Mary that emerges through the Gospels is at times powerful and detailed. She celebrates. She suffers. She observes. She prays. She treasures things in her heart and reflects on them. ... To understand what seems to be a rather casual first appearance of Mary in Scripture, we need to place Mathew 1:16 in the context of the whole of Mathew’s first chapter and pull in John 1:1-5.[62]



[1] This is the third part of Mary of Nazareth, The Mother of Jesus: A study of Woman in Sacred Scripture and in Jewish Culture and their impact on the Blessed Virgin Mary written for a course at IMRI: Mary in Theological Anthropology, December 2002.

 
[2] In Isaiam, Prol. See: Chopin, John. The Book of Catholic Quotations. New York 1956, 60.

[3] Buby, Bertrand SM. Mary of Galilee. Volume II: Woman of Israel – Daughter of Zion.  New York, 1995, 44f. See also: Of the 1,426 people given names in the Hebrew scriptures, only 111 of them are female. The proportion is twice as great in the New Testament, but there, in contrast to Andrew, James, John, and Judas, we meet the Samaritan woman, the Canaanite woman, the widow of Naim. In:  Coffey, Kathy. Hidden Women of the Gospels. New York, 2000, 13.

[4] This possibly caused Catholic theologian John McKenzie to remark that  Faith in the Mary of traditional Christian devotion is faith in something which is not true. See: McKenzie, John. The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament. Concilium 168 (1983), 9.  Or even more blatant: Ultimately, it is not only the church but also the Catholic faithful who have impugned divinity upon Mary. Any cursory observation of Catholic ritual reveals Mary to be the untitled goddess of Christianity. See: Hamington, Maurice. Gender and Challenge of Social Construction: Mary, the Mother of Jesus. In:  Rosenberg, Roberta. Women’s Studies – An Interdisciplinary Anthology. New York 2001, 58.

[5] Roten, Johann. Mary in Theological Anthropology. Course taught at The Marian Library/International Marian Research Institute, University of Dayton, Ohio, October 14 - 25, 2002, class notes.  

[6] RM 3

[7] Ibid. 4

[8] Protoevangelium of St. James

[9] Mt 1:16.

[10] Blarcy, Alain. Jourjon, Maurice and the Dombes Group. Mary in the Plan of God and in the Communion of Saints. Paulist Press 2002, 54, 126.

[11] Buby, Bertrand SM. Mary of Galilee. Volume II: Woman of Israel – Daughter of Zion.  New York, 1995, 6.

[12] See: Ibid.  43.

[13] Frizzell, Lawrence E. Mary and the Biblical Heritage.  In: Marian Studies XLVI (1995), 38.

[14] Millet, Craig B. In God’s Image – Archetypes of Women in Scripture. San Diego, 1991, 117.

[15] Es ist zum besseren Verständnis einiger Züge der Kindheitsgeschichte dienlich, wenn man sich zunächst über das Alter der seligsten Jungfrau ein richtiges Bild gemacht  hat.  ... Bis zum Alter von elf Jahren und einem Tag galt das Mädchen als „Kind“, in Alter von elf bis zwölf Jahren ab galt sie als volljährig, als eine ... „Grosse“,   mag auch erst später festgesetzt worden sein, dass für eine Grosse gerade zwölf Jahre und ein Tag erforderlich sei. Von diesem Alter an galt auch von ihr: „Ein Mädchen, das die ersten Zeichen der Reife aufweist, ist verpflichtet, alle (die Frauen betreffenden) Gebote der Torah zu erfüllen.“ Mit zwölf Jahren trat Maria in eine Alterstufe, in der sie nacar?h genannt wurde und verbrachte als solche die nächsten sechs Monate. Dieses halbe Jahr betrachtete man als die Zeit, in der sich die Reife des Mädchens vollends entwickelte. Mit zwölfeinhalb Jahren wurde sie als heiratsfähig betrachtet. ... Demnach dürfen wir als sicher annehmen, dass sie im Alter zwischen zwölf und zwölfeinhalb Jahren mit Joseph verlobt wurde. Ihre Verlobungszeit dauerte nach dem Herkommen zwölf Monate oder ein ganzes Jahr, im Gegensatz zu der sich aufs Neue verlobenden Witwe, für die sie nur dreissig Tage betrug.... Man gewährt einer Jungfrau von da an, wo der Mann sie zur Hochzeit aufgefordert hat, zwölf Monate, um ihre Ausstattung zu besorgen; und wie man der Frau (diese Zeit) gewährt, so gewährt man sie auch ihrem Mann (falls er von seiner Braut zur Heimführung aufgefordert wird), um seine Ausstattung zu besorgen.   In: Gaechter, Paul. Maria im Erdenleben. Neutestamentliche Marienstudien. Innsbruck, Wien, München 1953, 89f. See also: Buby, Bertrand SM. Mary of Galilee. Volume II: Woman of Israel – Daughter of Zion.  New York, 1995, 47 and Blarcy, Alain. Jourjon, Maurice and the Dombes Group. Mary in the Plan of God and in the Communion of Saints. Paulist Press 2002, 56, 130.

[16] Lk 1:26ff. By multiple allusions to the Old Testament, St. Luke shows Jesus as the promised Messiah. These allusions can be illustrated here by a summary of the Annunciation story. The opening words of Gabriel, … repeat the promise of hope that the prophet Zephaniah addressed to his people as they faced the threat of invasion 625 years before Christ . (Zep 3:14-17). National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Behold Your Mother. Washington DC 1973, 22.

[17] MD 11

[18] Lk 1:28.

[19] 1 Jn 4:8.

[20] RM 8. LG 55

[21] In the expression ‘handmaid of the Lord, one senses Mary’s complete awareness of being a creature of God. MD 4.

[22] RM 13

[23] Vatican II summarizes the effects in this way: At the message of the angel, the Virgin Mary received the Word of God into her heart and her body, and gave life to the world.  LG 53.

[24] Mt 1:18.

[25] See Mt 1:18-25.  Bei einer vorehelichen Schwangerschaft hätte das Sota Ritual des Eiterwassers angewandt werden können.  See: Hahn, F. Judentum. In Bäumer, R. et Scheffczyk L. (eds), Marienlexikon, Greco-Laib, EOS-Verlag, St. Ottilien 1989, 450. See also: Stevens, Maryanne. Paternity and Maternity in the Mediterranean: Foundations for Patriarchy. In: Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol. 20, 2, 1990, 47.

[26] Lk 1:39ff.

[27] Lk 1:42f.

[28] Lk 1:44. RM 12.

[29] Lk 1:64.

[30] John Paul II. Mary sheds Light on Role of Women. General Wednesday Audience. 2. Applying this instance to all women, the pope continues: Mary’s maternal heart, open to all human misfortune, also reminds women that the development of the feminine personality calls for a commitment to charity. More sensitive to the values of the heart, women show a high capacity for personal self-giving. Ibid. 4.

[31] Lk 1:46ff.

[32] Lk 1:68ff.

[33] MD 11

[34] National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Behold Your Mother. Washington D.C. 1973, 17.

[35] Brown, Mary 42f.

[36] See also: Rom 1:3 and 9:5.

[37] Roberts Gaventa, Beverly. Mary, Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus. University of South Carolina Press, 1995, 3.

[38] MD 3

[39] See Gen 38.

[40] See 2 Sam 11-12.

[41] Blarcy, Alain. Jourjon, Maurice and the Dombes Group. Mary in the Plan of God and in the Communion of Saints. Paulist Press 2002, 59,141.

[42] Mt 1:23.

[43] Mt 2:13f; 20-21.

[44] Brown, R. et al. Mary in the New Testament. Paulist Press New York, 1978, 86.

[45] See Mt 2.

[46] Blarcy, Alain. Jourjon, Maurice and the Dombes Group. Mary in the Plan of God and in the Communion of Saints. Paulist Press 2002.

[47] Cf. Lk 2:7.

[48] Cf. Ex 13:2 and Lev 12:1-8

[49] RM 16.

[50] Buby, Bertrand SM. Mary of Galilee. Volume II: Woman of Israel – Daughter of Zion.  New York, 1995, 44f.

[51] Frizzell, Lawrence E. Mary and the Biblical Heritage.  In: Marian Studies XLVI (1995), 34.

[52] Buby, Bertrand SM. Mary of Galilee. Volume II: Woman of Israel – Daughter of Zion.  New York, 1995, 49.

[53] Lk 2:41ff.

[54] Buby, Bertrand SM. Mary of Galilee. Volume II: Woman of Israel – Daughter of Zion.  New York, 1995, 28.

[55] Ibid.  47.

[56] Ibid.  48.

[57] RM 21.

[58] Jn 19:26.

[59] National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Behold Your Mother. Washington D.C. 1973, 37.  See also MD 19 and RM 18: For this mystery also includes the Mother’s sorrow at the foot of the Cross – the Mother who through faith shares in the amazing mystery of her Son’s self emptying: this is perhaps the deepest kenosis of faith in human history.  

[60] Ibid. 35.

[61] RM 26.

[62] Ruiz Scaperlanda, María. The Seeker’s Guide to Mary. Loyola Press, Chicago 2002, 2f. 



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Published by: andrew
Date: 2010-08-03 09:26:16
I was given to understand that Mother Mary was dedicated to the temple at an early age-Protoevangelium of James?

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