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Mary, the mother of Jesus

In Christianity, Mary is the mother (by God) of Jesus Christ and the betrothed[?] of Joseph. Mary is mentioned by name in each of the Gospels except the Gospel of John. It is generally agreed that she was a young woman when she first became a mother, and that she died between 3 and 15 years after the crucifixion of Jesus. She is often called the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Our Lady (Notre Dame, Nuestra Señora), Theotokos, or Madonna, in addition to being given many other titles.

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Christian Tradition

Little is known of her personal history from the New Testament. Her purported genealogy is given in Luke 3. According to Luke, she was of the tribe of Judah and the lineage of David (Ps. 132:11; Luke 1:32). She was cousin by marriage to Elisabeth[?], who was of the lineage of Aaron (Luke 1:36). According to the Gospel of James (which, though not considered part of the New Testament, contains biographical material about Mary widely accepted by Orthodox and Catholic Christians) she was the daughter of Joakim[?] and Anna[?]. Before Mary's conception, Anna had been barren, and her parents were quite old when she was conceived. They took her to live in the Temple in Jerusalem when she was three years old, much like Hanna took Samuel to the Temple as recorded in the Old Testament (Tanakh, Hebrew Bible).

While she resided at Nazareth with her parents, before she became the wife of Joseph, the angel Gabriel announced to her that she was to be the mother of the promised Messiah while remaining a virgin (Luke 1:35). After this she went to visit her cousin Elisabeth, who was living with her husband Zacharias (probably at Juttah, Josh. 15:55; 21:16, in the neighbourhood of Maon), at a considerable distance, about 100 miles, from Nazareth. Immediately on entering the house she was saluted by Elisabeth as the mother of her Lord, and then forthwith gave utterance to her hymn of thanksgiving (Luke 1:46-56; comp. 1 Sam. 2:1-10). (This hymn is commonly known as the Magnificat.) After three months Mary returned to Nazareth to her own home. Joseph was told in a dream (Matt. 1:18-25) of her condition, and took her to his own home. Soon after this the decree of Augustus (Luke 2:1) required that they should proceed to Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), some 80 or 90 miles from Nazareth; and while they were there they found shelter in the inn provided for strangers (Luke 2:6, 7). But as the inn was crowded, Mary had to retire to a place among the cattle, and there she brought forth her son, who was called Jesus (Matt. 1:21), because he was to save his people from their sins. This was followed by the presentation in the temple, the flight into Egypt, and their return in the following year and residence at Nazareth (Matt. 2). Mary apparently remained in Nazareth for thirty uneventful years. During these years only one event in the history of Jesus is recorded, viz., his going up to Jerusalem when twelve years of age, where he was found among the doctors in the temple (Luke 2:41-52). Probably also during this period Joseph died, for he is not mentioned again. (This history is selective; a very different history can be presented depending on which of the gospels is preferred.)

After the commencement of Jesus' public ministry little notice is taken of Mary by the gospel writers. She was present at the marriage in Cana[?]. Very few gospel stories mention her until we find her at the cross along with her sister Mary, and Mary Magdalene, and Salome, and other women (John 19:26). Of the roughly 100 people in the upper room after the Ascension on the day of Pentecost, she is one of the handful who are named (Acts 1:14). From this time she wholly disappears from the biblical accounts. Her death is not recorded in Scripture. According to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition, between three and fifteen years after Christ's Ascension, in either Jerusalem or Ephesus, she died while surrounded by the apostles. Later when the apostles opened her tomb, they found it empty and concluded that she had been bodily assumed into Heaven. (A tomb in Jerusalem is attributed to Mary, but it was unknown until the 6th century.)


Immaculate Conception of Mary

The Immaculate Conception is a doctrine unique to the Roman Catholic Church, and is rejected by both Eastern Orthodoxy and by Protestantism, albeit for very different reasons.

Veneration of Mary

Both Catholics and Orthodox Christians venerate Mary by praying to her: kneeling in front of her images (statues, in the case of most Catholics, and icons in the case of the Orthodox), and entreating her aid. Both Catholics and Orthodox make a clear distinction between such veneration (which is also due to the other saints) and worship, which is due to God alone. Mary, they point out, is not in herself divine, and has only such powers to help as are granted to her by God in response to her prayers. Roman Catholicism distinguishes three forms of honour: "latria", due only to God, and usually translated by the English word adoration; "hyperdulia", accorded only to the Blessed Virgin Mary, usually translated simply as veneration; and "dulia", accorded to the rest of the saints, also usually translated as veneration.

Others, both Christians and non-Christians, reject the distinction between veneration and worship, and consider all these practices to be idolatry or unlawful worship.

Virgin Birth of Jesus

The Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed both refer to Mary as "the Virgin Mary". This alludes to the belief that Mary conceived Jesus through the action of God the Holy Spirit, and not through normal intercourse with Joseph or anyone else. That she was a virgin at this time is affirmed by Eastern Christianity, Roman Catholicism and by many Protestants (though not by all Protestants).

Historic Christianity, including modern-day Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, teaches that she was a virgin before, during, and after giving birth to Jesus. Islam also takes this position, which is stated explicitly in the Qur'an. Some Protestants also hold this view, while many others believe that she was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, but that she later was not and had other children with Joseph the Betrothed. Catholics and Orthodox explain references to Jesus' brothers as either cousins, or as half brothers who were Joseph's children by a prior marriage.

Persons who are neither Christians nor Muslims generally doubt that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus.

The Gospel of Matthew describes Mary as a virgin who fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. The passage in Isaiah, in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, stated that a young woman would give birth to the Messiah. Some scholars believe that the Greek language Septuagint, which the author of Matthew would have used as his Bible, mistranslated the Hebrew word for young woman, "almah", into the Greek word "parthenos", meaning virgin. This suggests that the origin of the belief that Mary was a virgin derived from an attempt by Matthew at describing the fulfillment of a prophecy that was actually not made. However, many scholars find evidence that the Septuagint was translated from a different Hebrew text that has since been lost, based on comparisons between existing Masoretic texts, Septuagint texts, Dead Sea Scrolls, and some Samaritan texts. If so, then it is impossible to compare the Septuagint with the Hebrew text its translators used, and it remains possible that the Septuagint has an equally valid translation of Isaiah's prophecy.

In the academic community, controversy surrounds the interpretation of this passage. According to almost all non-Christian biblical scholars, many liberal Christian biblical scholars, and also according to Jewish tradition, the prophecy only describes events during the rule of King Ahaz of Judea. The prophet is giving information to the King about an event that will soon be made known to him. The text is clearly not about someone being born centuries later. However, soon after the development of Christianity a new way to read this text was born, one in which Isaiah was not only giving prophetic comfort to his peers, but was also cryptically forecasting the coming Messiah.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons observed in the second century that the Jews themselves translated the word "virgin" well before the time of Jesus; he attributes the translation "young woman" to Theodotian the Ephesian and Aquila of Pontus, both Jewish proselytes who published new translations of the Tanakh in the second century. Thus the universal acceptance of it in the Jewish community as meaning "young woman" apparently came about in response to the development of Christianity. Irenaeus reinterprets many prophecies by David, Moses, and Daniel as also predicting a virgin birth, and demonstrates why the messiah could not be born of Joseph (Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 21.). Jews and Christians have disagreed about the interpretation of these and other prophecies since the birth of Christianity.

Perpetual Virginity

That Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus has been accepted by most Christians until comparatively recent times. Of the early fathers of the Church, only Tertullian seems to have questioned the teaching. Both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches insist on it, as do Muslims. The most prominent leaders of the Reformation, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin also defended the perpetual virginity of Mary against those who questioned it.

Later generations of Protestants, however, abandoned the traditional teaching, citing references to "brothers" of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Defenders of the teaching, including John Calvin, have pointed out that Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ and his disciples, lacked a specific word for "cousin," so that the word "brother" was used instead.

Dormition and Assumption

The belief in the corporeal assumption of Mary was formally declared to be dogma by Pope Benedict XIV in the encyclical De Festis B.V.M.; Roman Catholics must therefore hold the doctrine as being necessary to salvation. Pope Pius XII, in Munificentissimus Deus [1] (http://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/P12MUNIF.HTM), reiterated "We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory." The establishment of this dogma as "necessary to salvation" is widely taken to be an example of the Pope's invoking papal infallibility. The Feast of the Assumption is celebrated on August 15.

At the time that this dogma was promulgated, there was a strong sentiment among many Catholics that the immaculately conceived and sinless Mother of God would not have suffered death (which is "the wages of sin"), but was instead taken up alive into heaven like Elijah the Prophet. For this reason, the dogma was deliberately so worded ("when the course of her earthly life was finished") as to allow faithful Catholics to believe either hypothesis: that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven without dying, or that her incorrupt body was assumed into heaven after her death.

Judging from the sources quoted in Munificentissimus Deus, Pius XII himself almost certainly rejected the notion of Mary's "immortality" (the idea that she never suffered death) in favor of the more widely accepted understanding that her assumption took place after her physical death.

The tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church holds that Mary died, and that after her death and burial, she was resurrected and taken up bodily into heaven. This two-fold event is celebrated as the Dormition ("falling asleep") of the Theotokos. The Feast of the Dormition is celebrated on August 15, and is preceded by a fourteen day fast from meat and dairy products, the third longest fast of the liturgical year after Great Lent and Winter Lent. Despite the great importance of this feast in the Orthodox liturgical calendar, it is not, as in the Catholic Church, considered a matter of dogma, since it has not been formally defined by any ecumenical council accepted by the Orthodox.

For Orthodox and Catholics alike, Mary's assumption is seen as a concrete and present instance of the resurrection of the body; a belief asserted by virtually all Christians in the creeds, yet often replaced in the popular imagination by a more shadowy spiritual immortality.


At the Third Ecumenical council, the Council of Ephesus, it was decided that it was entirely appropriate to refer to Mary as the Theotokos, a Greek word which can be translated as "God bearer" or "Mother of God." This was to emphasize that Mary's child, Jesus Christ, was in fact God. She is often referred to as "Theotokos" in Eastern Orthodox hymns. She is also one of the most highly venerated saints in both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Church; several major feast days are devoted to her each year. (See Liturgical year.) Protestants have generally been less enthusiastic about the cult of the Virgin than their Catholic and Orthodox cousins, often arguing that if too much attention is focussed on Mary, there is a danger of detracting from the worship due to God alone.

Some non-Christians, particularly followers of Wicca, link Mary to the Earth Mother of various Neo-pagan traditions. Some Buddhists have even been known to link Mary to Kwan-Yin[?] of various Chinese Buddhist faiths.

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