What does scripture tell us about Mary's life?

The Bible does not mention Mary's early life. Focusing on Jesus, Scripture begins to consider Mary in reference to Jesus' origins. In Gal 4:4, Paul tells us of Mary's Jewish roots in order to note Jesus' background.

Life in Nazareth
[Annunciation Scene] Luke tells us that Mary was living at Nazareth when Jesus' conception by the Holy Spirit was announced by the angel, Gabriel (Lk 1:26). Lk 1:5 sets these events during the reign of Herod the Great. Scholars estimate this reign lasted from 37 - 4 B.C. Luke adds that, at that time, Mary was a virgin betrothed to "a man named Joseph of the house of David" (v. 27). The Hebrew Scriptures set the normal age for betrothal at 12 1/2.

Mary's conversation with the angel is described in vv. 28-38. Some scholars and theologians see Mary's question about the predicted birth (v. 34) as indicating her intention to remain a virgin for life.

The Bible does not present an exact genealogy of Mary, but we can make a few speculative comments about her family background. We should note that Luke 1:32 implies as a possibility that Mary is a descendant of David. This is only a possibility and we should remember that the other New Testament sources are silent about the issue of Mary's descent from David. However, we can say that through Mary's marriage with Joseph, she entered his family and legally became a part of the House of David. It is also possible that Mary has lineage to Aaron. This speculation arises from the fact that in Luke 1:5 we are told that Mary's cousin Elizabeth has lineage to Aaron.

Visit to Elizabeth
Lk 1:39-56 describes a subsequent visit which Mary made to Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah. Mary's famous Canticle, the Magnificat (vv. 46-55), occurs during this visit. Since Mary probably customarily spoke in Aramaic, Luke's polished Greek translation probably differs somewhat from Mary's actual words. However, the correspondence of Luke's Magnificat to Old Testament prayers of women (e.g. Deborah, Hannah) and other standard Hebrew prayers (e.g. Amidah) are consistent with authorship by a pious Jewish woman.

Birth in Bethlehem
Matthew (2:1) and Luke (2:4) tell us that Mary delivered Jesus in Bethlehem. Luke writes that this occurred "while Quirinius was governor of Syria" (Lk 2:2). The New Jerome Biblical Commentary estimates the dates for his reign from 6-7 A.D. However, the New American Bible cites evidence placing his reign from 10-8 B.C. Scholars are divided about the actual date Mary gave birth to Jesus. Since, Herod's reign ended around 4 B.C. Jesus' birth must have preceded it. This error of four years in the calculations of fourth century Christian scholars is understandable since events were often associated with Olympiads at that time. Jesus was probably born between 6 and 4 B.C. Even with direct information from the Magi, Herod was unable to improve on this two year margin of error (cf. Mt 2:16). Luke mentions local shepherds who visited the Holy Family shortly after Jesus' birth (Lk 2:8-20). Matthew tells us of Magi who came to the site from the Orient. Due to the distance, they probably arrived considerably after the birth. Given the estimate of 6-4 BC for Jesus' birth, and assuming that Mary was betrothed around the customary age and that she conceived Jesus shortly after, we may estimate the year of her birth around 20 BC.

Flight into Egypt
Matthew also informs us that the Holy Family fled to Egypt to avoid Herod's massacre of infants after the Magi's visit. When Herod's sons succeeded him, the Holy Family returned to their home town of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up (cf. Mt 2:16-23). Hence, people assumed that Jesus was born in Nazareth, confusing those who awaited a messiah from David's city of Bethlehem (cf. Jn 7:42).

Mary and Joseph
The Lukan accounts portray Mary [and Joseph] as faithful Jews, having Jesus circumcised and presented to God in accord with Jewish law. Further: "His parents used to go up every year to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover" (Lk 2:41). On one such pilgrimage, Mary and Joseph lost track of their twelve-year-old son and found Jesus in the temple amazing Jewish teachers with his insight (Lk 2:41-51). Joseph is no longer mentioned in Scripture after this event. He probably died shortly after, but almost certainly had died by the time Jesus began his public ministry.

Mary and Jesus' Public Life
It was customary for Jewish men to enter public life after age thirty. This was probably the age at which Jesus began his public ministry.

The gospels mention various festal pilgrimages to which Jesus journeyed, a custom he learned from his parents (cf. Lk 2:41). From this evidence, scholars calculate that his public ministry probably lasted around three years placing his death around age thirty-three, with Mary around forty-eight at that time (i.e. 27-29 AD). Though these are estimates, we can safely assume that Jesus died before 37 A.D., when scholars inform us that Pilate left office in the Holy Land.

Mary kept abreast of Jesus' preaching activities and even followed Him to at least some of his lectures (cf. Mt 12:46-50, Mk 3:31-35, Lk 8:19-21). The Greek variants of adelphoi used to refer to brothers and sisters of Jesus in these passages need not be interpreted in the sense of full blood relations. Hence, the Scriptures do not contradict the dogma of Mary's lifelong virginity held by Catholic and Orthodox Christians. However, it may tell us something significant about Mary's life. To use adelphoi for extended family implies an unusually close relationship. These kin may have lived in the same house as Jesus, Mary and Joseph, perhaps after the death of their parents. For more details, consult Joseph Blinzler's Die Brüder und Schwestern Jesu [The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus]. Also, note that Mary's meetings with Jesus were not limited to his preaching sessions. They were also together at certain routine gatherings like the wedding feast at Cana (Jn 2:1-12). In that particular case, Mary's solicitude and Jesus' saving activity made the gathering far from routine.

Mary and Jesus' Passion
Since the Holy Family followed a yearly custom of pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover (cf. Lk 2:41), it is reasonable to assume that Jesus and Mary met there each year. The Synoptics indicate that Jesus continued this customary journey during his public ministry. We may presume that Mary also continued this habit. John explicitly tells us that they were both present when Jesus made his last pilgrimage to Jerusalem and met at his Crucifixion (cf. Jn 19:25).

Though not explicitly mentioned, the above allows us to assume that Mary was present when Jesus celebrated the Last Supper. The Passover meal (celebrated on the vigil for reasons which would become obvious) was traditionally a family affair at which Mary would have been expected to attend and assist with the domestic chores if she was present and able.

After the meal, Jesus was unjustly arrested, accused, condemned, tortured, and crucified under the jurisdiction of Pontius Pilate. Since Pilate left his post in the Holy Land by 37 A.D., Jesus must have died before then, probably around 28 A.D. He was probably around thirty-three at the time, making Mary around forty-eight. All four gospels mention Jesus' Crucifixion. Only John specifically mentions Mary's presence. The fact that from the Cross Jesus entrusted Mary to the beloved disciple rather than to a relative was considered evidence of Mary's lifelong virginity by Origen (d. ca. 254).

Mary after Jesus' Death and Resurrection
Scripture tells us that Jesus arose from the grave the following Sunday and was seen by many witnesses over the next forty days. Scripture does not mention his mother as one of these witnesses, nor does Scripture rule out this possibility.

The nine days after Jesus' Ascension to the Father found his followers gathered together in constant prayer just before the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Acts 1:14 tells us that Mary was among this group. This is the final mention of Mary in the Bible.

Mary's Death
St. Irenaeus (d. 220) tells us that the beloved disciple, John, preached in Ephesus after Pentecost. Presumably, Mary accompanied him there. The Ecumenical Council at Ephesus (431 A.D.) mentions an already-ancient Church commemorating them nearby. One ancient tradition claims that Mary died and was buried at Ephesus. Scholars consider this evidence inconclusive.

We do not know exactly where Mary died or in what year. Another ancient tradition claims Jerusalem as the site of her death and burial. The Catholic dogma of the Assumption teaches that Mary was taken into heaven body and soul (i.e. as a whole person) after the course of her earthly life. The dogma does not specify where, when or how her life ended. Indeed, 'at the end of her earthly course' does not explicitly state that she 'died' in the normal sense. Though not formally a dogma, Mary's entrance into heaven after falling asleep is also the universal ordinary teaching of Eastern Orthodoxy. This belief is consistent with a Marian reading of Rev. 12. Since Rev 12:5 identifies The Woman as the one who gave birth to the Messiah, a Marian interpretation is justified. However, the Church considers other interpretations perfectly valid (e.g. The Woman as Israel or The Church).


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