Mary of Nazareth
Mary of Nazareth was born c. 18 BC (3743–3744 in the Hebrew calendar) in the Roman district of Galilee. She was descended from the royal lineage of David, the ancient king of Israel. This high Jewish pedigree later became the reason God chose her to birth Israel's long-awaited Messiah: Jesus. It is clear from scripture that Mary had both a father and a mother, as well as a sister—perhaps, Mary of Clopas (John 19:25). The only relative we know by name is Elizabeth, her cousin who gave birth to John the Baptist. She was the wife of Zechariah, a priest from the Abijah division. Elizabeth herself came from the ancient priestly lines of Aaron and Levi (Luke 1:5, 36). This suggests that Mary, too, was a descendant of Israel's old religious hierarchy. Scholars most often identify Luke's genealogy of Jesus with Mary, while they consider Matthew's to be about Joseph—his earthly father. The Davidic line of Mary stemmed from Nathan, the third son of David and Bathsheba (Luke 3:31). However, Joseph's line came from Solomon, their firstborn son who became an esteemed king in his own right (Matt. 1:6-7). The lineages of Mary, Elizabeth, and Joseph all came from the tribe of Judah.
When Mary visited Elizabeth in Hebron, in the Judean hill country, she traveled about 100 miles (161 km) due south from Nazareth (Luke 1:39-40). This was a city of priests dating from the time of Joshua, who entered the Promised Land and established the kingdom of Israel (Josh. 11:21; 21:11, 13). Mary spent about three months with Elizabeth before returning to her home in Galilee. Why did Luke mention this trip in his gospel? It both established a connection between Jesus and his cousin, John the Baptist, and reinforced his claim to the royal house of David. In Mary's original context, she simply needed emotional support, which was perhaps hard to come by living with disapproving and scandalized parents.
Consenting with God
Too often we assume Mary simply obeyed God without reservation. However, this is not what we see in the text. Luke explained that she felt troubled by the angel Gabriel's message, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you" (Luke 1:28). Many commentators in our day believe the ancients were more superstitious (i.e., religious) than most people are now. However, doubt and skepticism were always the basic characteristics of our human consciousness. Faith, on the other hand, is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8). The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation, "She was much perplexed," in Luke 1:29 is a muted one compared to the original Greek dietarachthē (G1298). This word suggests extreme agitation and feelings of great trouble. This was just the greeting! Like us, Mary was waiting for the "but". She may have thought, What does God want of me?
Mary thoroughly reasoned over Gabriel's message, as the Greek dielogizeto (G1260) implies at the end of verse 29 ("[she] pondered what sort of greeting this might be"). So when he comforted her by saying, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus" (vv. 30-31), Mary continued to argue. Even in the first century, this young Jewish woman knew that virgins cannot give birth to children—it is a violation against nature (v. 34). Little did she know this line of debate would go on well into the future generations; one that would eventually divide the Jews from Christian gentiles. Gabriel even answered Mary's question: "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 holy; he will be called Son of God . . . for nothing will be impossible with God" (vv. 35-37). In other words, God himself will contradict the laws of nature—which he created—to impregnate Mary without sexual intercourse. As a sign to confirm her doubt, God also caused her elderly cousin Elizabeth to conceive a child well beyond the childbearing age (v. 36).
Consent is a major issue when it comes to intimate relationships today. That said, many readers of the New Testament assume Mary did not have a choice to give birth to Jesus. However, we know that God is a perfect gentleman. The Lord himself says, "Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door" (Rev. 3:20). He does not kick the door in, neither does Jesus come to steal nor harm us. This was how God approached Mary, who was probably all of fifteen years old at the time. To be sure, this was her statement of consent: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). Mary also praised God by singing this hymn we know today as the Magnificat (from the Latin translation of the first clause):
My soul magnifies the Lord [Latin: Magnificat anima mea Dominum], and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from 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 powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever (vv. 46-55).
Virgin or Young Woman?
The virgin birth of Jesus is one of the most divisive theological points between Jews and Christians. This is not a recent phenomenon, either. In AD 90, Judea's leading rabbis met in the coastal city of Jamnia (Hebrew: Yabneh, H2996) to decide on which biblical texts held authority in Judaism. After losing their sanctuary in AD 70, these Jewish leaders needed to adapt their traditions from temple to synagogue—from the priestly to the rabbinical. One of the decisions made at the Council of Jamnia was the rejection of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament for Hellenistic Jews. According to legend, a group of seventy (Latin: septuaginta) Jewish scholars met in Alexandria circa 200 BC to translate the Hebrew scriptures into Greek—the language of all Mediterranean business. There were to reasons that Jamnia denied the Septuagint's validity: 1) The authors of the New Testament used the Greek translations exclusively in their quotes of the Old Testament. 2) The Septuagint's rendering of Isaiah 7:14 included the word parthenos (G3933) to translate the Hebrew almah (H5959). Even to this day, Jewish and Christian theologians debate whether almah means only "young woman" without considering her sexuality or if it only applies to virgins. However, it seems the Christian scholars actually have the winning argument. The Jewish translators of the Septuagint, who spoke both Greek and Hebrew, understood the word almah to infer a woman's virginity. This was the reason they chose to use parthenos, a Greek term that only refers to virginal women. Therefore, Matthew was not wrong to ascribe Isaiah's prophecy to Mary (Matt. 1:21-23).
All Generations . . .
Everything we may learn about the "historical Mary" comes only from the New Testament. We know that she gave birth to other children after Jesus' nativity: James, Joseph, Simon, Judas, and at least two sisters (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3; 15:47; 16:1; Gal. 1:19). This coincides with Matthew's testimony that she enjoyed normal intimacy with Joseph after Jesus was born (Matt. 1:25). Mary interweaves into the earthly life of Jesus on rare occasions and even doubted his ministry at first. By the time we see her interact with him at Cana, however, Mary understood Jesus' mission (John 2:3-5). That did not prevent her from suffering a mother's grief during the crucifixion. Mary was one of the first witnesses to the resurrection, making sure to visit Jesus' grave as often as she could. More importantly, Mary came to believe in Jesus as not only her firstborn son, but also the only-begotten Son of God. Luke told us the apostles were "constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers" in a room upstairs (Acts 1:14). One of her sons, James, would go on to led the early church from Jerusalem.
All generations have indeed called Mary blessed. Granted, some of this honor for an otherwise obscure Galilean peasant has gone too far into heresy and sacrilege. However, there is a place for all Christians to observe Mary's servant heart toward God, which continued throughout Jesus' earthly life and beyond. Some pious fictions suggest the Lord assumed his mother into heaven after death, while others go further to call Mary the "queen of heaven". Probably the most reliable tradition is what happens to us all when we die: Mary fell asleep. She probably stayed in the city of Jerusalem until her last day, serving as a matron to the church under her son James' care.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, you have taken to yourself the blessed virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son: Grant that we, who have been redeemed by his blood, may share with her the glory of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus the Messiah our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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