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Mary Through the Centuries
Her Place in the History of Culture
By Jaroslav Pelikan

Chapter One: Miriam of Nazareth in the New Testament

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God
unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin
espoused to a man named Joseph, of the house of David;
and the virgin's name was Mary.--Luke 1:26-27
Because this book is not an inquiry into who Mary was in the first century but into what "through the centuries" she has been experienced and understood to be, biblical materials dealing with her have an essentially retrospective function here. In light of the subsequent development of devotion and doctrine, what did the Bible contribute to the portrait of the Virgin? That perspective applies with particular force to the subject of the next chapter, the allegorical and typological use of a Christianized Old Testament for its bearing on the question of Mary, where the problem of the original meaning of a passage, including the precise translation of the Hebrew text, will have to be quite secondary to the meaning that the passage acquired in Christian history through translation and exegesis. But the New Testament, certainly no less than the Old, has continually taken on new meanings in the course of the history of its interpretation, meanings that have sometimes been the consequence of what it did not say as much as of what it did. For to both Testaments we may apply the sage comment of a scholar of the Hebrew Bible who has illumined some special chapters in the history of its interpretation. "Just as a pearl results from a stimulus in the shell of a mollusk," Louis Ginzberg observed, "so also a legend may arise from an irritant in the scripture." Whether as stimulus or irritant or inspiration, Scripture has dominated attention to the Virgin Mary though it has not always controlled it.

Nevertheless, the account of Mary in the New Testament is tantalizingly brief, and anyone who comes to consider the biblical references to Mary from the study of later development of devotion to her and of doctrine about her, as this book is doing, must be surprised or even shocked to discover how sparse they are. One interpreter early in this century, who was intent on maximizing the evidence as far as permissible (and perhaps a little farther), was compelled to acknowledge that "the reader of the gospels is at first surprised to find so little about Mary." Or, as the leading Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament put it in identifying the first of the seven women bearing the name Maria in the New Testament, "Little is known about the life of this Mary." Depending on what one includes, it could all be printed out on a few pages. If that were all there were to go on, this book would be short indeed! In fact, the contrast between the biblical evidence and the traditional material is so striking that it has become a significant issue in the ecumenical encounter between denominations. Out of that encounter has come a volume jointly written by Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars entitled Mary in the New Testament and devoted to a book-by-book and topic-by-topic analysis of the possible references to Mary in the New Testament. Although the work has all the disadvantages of a book that has been not only jointly written but subjected to a series of votes, it has assembled the material in a convenient form. Even more surprisingly, it reflects a remarkable consensus across confessional lines, especially in its adherence to the historical-critical method of studying the Bible but even in its conclusions about individual passages of the New Testament. Pointing out that "in the course of centuries mariology has had an enormous development" (which is the business of this book), the authors of Mary in the New Testament, because of their focus, paid little attention to that development.

For biblical scholarship, the fact that "in the course of centuries mariology has had an enormous development" may be something of a problem. But for historical scholarship, that development is also an enormous resource. To be sure, Mariology was not the only doctrine to have undergone such a development; in fact, it would be impossible to identify a doctrine that has not done so. The most decisive instance of the development of doctrine, and the one by which the fundamental issues of what could by now be called "the doctrine of development" have been defined, is the dogma of the Trinity. For the doctrine of the Trinity was not as such a teaching of the New Testament, but it emerged from the life and worship, the reflection and controversy, of the church as, in the judgment of Christian orthodoxy, the only way the church could be faithful to the teaching of the New Testament. It did so after centuries of study and speculation, during which many solutions to the dilemma of the Three and the One had surfaced, each with some passage or theme of Scripture to commend it. The final normative formulation of the dogma of the Trinity by the first ecumenical council of the church, held at Nicaea in 325, took as its basic outline the biblical formula of the so-called great commission of Christ to the disciples just before his ascension: "All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. But into the framework of that New Testament formula the Nicene Creed had packed many other biblical motifs, as well as the portentous and nonbiblical technical term for which it became known, suggested apparently by Emperor Constantine: "one in being with the Father [homoousios toi patri]." With characteristic acuity, therefore, John Courtney Murray once formulated the implications of this for the ecumenical situation: "I consider that the parting of the ways between the two Christian communities takes place on the issue of development of doctrine.... I do not think that the first ecumenical question is, what think ye of the Church? Or even, what think ye of Christ? The dialogue would rise out of the current confusion if the first question raised were, what think ye of the Nicene homoousion?" If the Protestant churches acknowledged the validity of the development of doctrine when it moved from the great commission of the Gospel of Matthew to produce the Nicene Creed, as all of the mainline Protestant churches did and do, on what grounds could they reject development as it had moved from other lapidary passages of the Bible to lead to other doctrines?

From the apparently simple statements "This is my body" and "This is my blood" in the words of institution of the Lord's Supper, for example, had come not only the resplendent eucharistic liturgies of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Latin Mass with all its concomitants, including the reservation of the consecrated Host and devotion to it, but the long and complicated history of the development of the doctrine of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament, leading in the Western church to the promulgation of the doctrine of transubstantiation at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 and its reaffirmation by the Council of Trent in 1551. If the First Council of Nicaea was a legitimate development and the Fourth Council of the Lateran an illegitimate development, what were the criteria, biblical and doctrinal, for discerning the difference? As it stood, the statement of Christ to Peter in the New Testament, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it," left more questions unanswered than answered. But by the time the development of doctrine had done its work on the passage, it had come to mean, in the formula of Pope Boniface VIII, that "to every creature it is necessary for salvation to be subject to the Roman pontiff." To reject this development of doctrine on the argument that it was a development and that development was in itself unacceptable made it difficult for the biblical exegesis of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods to contend with those on the left wing of the Reformation who, sharing the insistence of the "magisterial Reformers" on the sole authority of Scripture, rejected the reliance on the trinitarian doctrine of Nicaea as a necessary presupposition and method for reading biblical texts.

For having thus developed out of Scripture, the trinitarian perspective had in turn become a way--or, rather, the way--of interpreting Scripture. As it was systematized at least for the West chiefly by Augustine, this method of biblical exegesis was cast in the form of a "canonical rule [canonica regula]." The several passages of the Bible that appeared directly to substantiate the dogma of the Trinity, such as above all the baptismal formula at the close of the Gospel according to Matthew and the prologue about the divinity of the Logos at the opening of the Gospel according to John, mutually reinforced each other to form the biblical proof for church doctrine. Conversely, however, any passages that, taken as they stood, appeared to contradict church doctrine were subject to the "canonical rule" and required careful handling. When, several chapters after the solemn prologue, "And the Word was God," the Gospel of John had Jesus say of himself, "My Father is greater than I," Augustine had to bring his heaviest weapons into action. If the Protestant Reformers and their descendants were willing to hold still for such a manipulation of New Testament passages in the interest of upholding a doctrinal development that had come only in later centuries--and they were--what stood in the way of such manipulation when the passage in question was "This is my body" or "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church"?

Perhaps nowhere, however, was the challenge of this dilemma more dramatically unavoidable than in the relation between the development of the doctrine of Mary and its purported foundation in Scripture. For some components of that doctrine, the foundation seemed relatively straightforward. Both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke left it unambiguously clear that it was as a virgin that Mary had conceived her Son. But further reflection did produce the puzzling discrepancy that the rest of the New Testament remained so silent on the subject, if indeed it was so unambiguous and so essential. The epistles of Paul, the other epistles of the New Testament, and the preaching of the apostles as recorded in the Book of Acts--none of these contained a hint of the virginal conception. Because Matthew and Luke did both contain it, the other two Gospels were of special interest. Mark's Gospel opened with the adult ministry of Jesus and conveyed no information about his conception, birth, and infancy. John's Gospel opened far earlier than that, "In the beginning" when there was only God and the Logos. Yet in its first chapter, just before the celebrated formula "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us," it carried an intriguing textual variant that was relevant to this issue. "As many as received him," it promised, "to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name, which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." But in some early Latin witnesses who were not without authority on other textual questions, the plural phrase "which were born," referring to the regeneration of believers by grace, was replaced by the singular "who was born" or "who was begotten," apparently referring to the virgin birth of Christ; and according to the New Jerusalem Bible, "there are strong arguments for reading the verb in the singular, `who was born,' in which case the v[erse] refers to Jesus' divine origin, not to the virgin birth." Beyond this variant, however, is the question of the biblical support for the idea of "virgin birth" as such. For the uncontested proofs from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke asserted only, strictly speaking, the virginal conception, leaving unaddressed the question of the manner of his birth, not to mention the question of the virginity of Mary after the birth. A related question, the identity of the "brethren" of Jesus spoken of several times in the New Testament, will engage us, at least briefly, at a later point. Early creeds passed over such distinctions when they simply confessed that he was "born of the Virgin Mary."

To summarize the biblical materials and simultaneously to prepare the ground for the development that followed, this chapter and the next, then, will look at some of the major themes of later thought about Mary asking what the adumbrations of these were seen to have been within the text of the New and Old Testaments. This book is not the place for an extended exegesis of these texts, but only for an identification of what the subsequent tradition took to be the evidence from the Bible, including that portion of it which Christians came to call the "Old" Testament, for the themes to follow. Some of this material can be considered rather briefly; other texts and topics will require more detailed exegetical grounding. In these chapters, therefore, the themes that are woven into the titles of the remaining chapters provide, roughly in the order of their appearance, an opportunity to review some of the principal biblical texts. As epigraphs for the chapters in turn, these passages from the two testaments will be emblematic of the dominance of Scripture.

Ave Maria. "Hail Mary, full of grace: the Lord is with thee," was, according to the Vulgate, the salutation of the angel Gabriel to Mary. In reaction against that translation, and against the meaning with which it had been freighted when "full of grace" was taken to mean that Mary had not only been the object and the recipient of divine grace, but, possessing that grace in its fullness, also had the right to act as its dispenser, the Authorized Version of the Bible translated the salutation to read: "Hail, thou that art highly favored." The Greek passive participle being rendered by these conflicting translations was kecharitomene, whose root, the noun charis and its cognates, meant "favor" in general and, particularly in the New Testament and other early Christian literature, referred to "grace," seen as the favor and unearned generosity of God. In the immediate context of the account of the annunciation, it does seem to have been referring first of all to the primary initiative of God in selecting Mary as the one who was to become the mother of Jesus and thus in designating her as his chosen one. In Martin Luther's Christmas hymn "Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her [From heaven above to earth I come]," which was to become the leitmotiv in each successive cantata of Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio of 1734-35, another angel was presented as saying, to the shepherds of Bethlehem and through them to all the world, "Euch its ein Kindlein heut' geborn,/Von einer Jungfrau auserkoren [To you this day is born a Child, from an elect Virgin]." That was a Reformation formulation for this designation of Mary as the chosen one--"predestined one," it would not be unwarranted to say, as, among others, the Second Vatican Council would say in 1964--through whom the plan of God for the salvation of the world was set into motion.

This historic interconfessional dispute over the full implications of kecharitomene should not obscure the far more massive role played by the opening salutation, Ave/Hail, through the centuries. It came to open the prayer that has, it seems safe to estimate, ranked second only to the Lord's Prayer in the number of times it has been spoken over those centuries in Western Christendom: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death. Amen. [Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis peccatoribus, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.]" Its first sentence, as punctuated here, combined two biblical salutations in the Vulgate version. Its second sentence was a petition that combined the postbiblical title Theotokos with later Mariological doctrine, according to which the saints in heaven interceded for believers on earth, and a fortiori that the Mother of God, being "full of grace" and therefore the Mediatrix, was in a position to intercede for them, which they in turn had the right to request from her directly. In a striking way, therefore, the Ave Maria epitomized not only the irony of Mary's having become a major point of division among believers and between churches but the dichotomy between the sole authority of Scripture and the development of doctrine through tradition; for even those who affirmed the absolute supremacy of biblical authority would nevertheless refuse to pray the impeccably biblical words of its first sentence.

The Second Eve. Because the chronological sequence of the composition of the books of the New Testament does not correspond to the order in which they appear in our Bibles as a collection of canonical books, the oldest written reference to Mary (though not by name) that appeared in the New Testament was not in any of the Gospels but in Paul's Epistle to the Galatians: "When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons." Most New Testament scholars would agree that "made of a woman" did not mean or even imply "but not of a man" (although it also did not exclude the idea of the virgin birth), but rather that it was a Semitic expression for "human being," as in the statement "Man that is born of woman is of few days, and full of trouble." (For that matter, Macbeth was to discover that the prophecy of the witches, "None of woman born shall harm Macbeth," did not preclude a human father--but also that it did not include a caesarean section!) Thus the phrase in Galatians was taken from early times as a way of speaking about Jesus Christ as truly human, in opposition to the widespread Christian tendency (considered in chapter 3) of supposing that the way to ensure that he be regarded as more than human was to describe him as less than human. But associated with this New Testament point was one of the devices employed by the apostle Paul to make this same point about the true humanity of Christ, which he did on the basis of a special interpretation of the Old Testament. It was expressed in the verse "As by one man's disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous." From that typology of speaking about the First Adam and then about Christ as the Second Adam it was a short step, albeit a step that the New Testament did not take, to speak about Mary as the Second Eve, and thus to extrapolate from Paul's words to say as well, "As by one [woman's] disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous," through the One to whom she gave birth. I shall examine in chapter 2 how it was that because Mary, the Second Eve, was the heir of the history of Israel, the history of the First Eve could be--or, as the early Christians saw it, had to be--read as a biblical resource and a historical source for providing more information about her.

The Mother of God. Even in the Gospels as they have come down to us, the relation between Jesus and John the Baptist was a complicated one. The evangelists did divulge that the ministry of John the Baptist had caused "all men" among his contemporaries to "muse in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not." Nevertheless they were at pains to explain that John himself had identified Jesus as "the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world" and that, when challenged, he explicitly subordinated his historic mission to that of Jesus--and his person to that of the one "whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose." This tendency was carried over from the relation between John and Jesus to the relation between Elizabeth and Mary. For in the account of what came to be known as the visitation, not only had John the unborn "babe leaped in my womb for joy," but Elizabeth "spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?"

If this verbal exchange between Mary and her "cousin [syngenis]" Elizabeth were to be interpreted as having taken place in Aramaic or even to have employed some Hebrew, the title attributed by Elizabeth to Mary, "the mother of my Lord," which was he meter tou kyriou mou in Greek, could conceivably be taken as a reference to Jesus Christ as Adonai, "my Lord," the term used as a substitute for the ineffable divine name, JHWH. That was, at any rate, how from early times Christian interpreters had seen the standard New Testament "Christological title of majesty" kyrios, whether or not the Gospels or the apostle Paul had intended any such identification. And because, in the central affirmation of the faith of Israel, the Shema, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord," repeated by Christ in the Gospels, there already was the identification between "the Lord" and "our God" as one, the assembled bishops at the Council of Ephesus in 431 did not find it difficult to move from Elizabeth's formula of Mary as "the mother of my Lord" to Cyril's formula of Mary as Theotokos.

The Blessed Virgin. The chastity of Mary, in paradoxical combination with her maternity, was one of the elements held in common by the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew. "And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man named Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary," Maria being one of the Greek forms of the Hebrew name Miryam, sister of Moses. So began, in the first chapter of Luke's Gospel, the longest sustained account of Mary in the Bible. In the next chapter, in the introduction to the story of the nativity, it was said that Joseph--and, according to many early Christian interpreters, Mary as well, though this was not made explicit--was "of the house and lineage of David." Although with fewer details, especially about Mary herself, Matthew's version paralleled that of Luke, also referring to her as a virgin and citing as evidence the prophecy of Isaiah that "a virgin [parthenos] shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel."

It was Luke who in his first two chapters told the story of the exchange between Gabriel and Mary (the annunciation, from which the figure of Gabriel, as depicted by Jan Van Eyck, is shown here); of the exchange between Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and Mary (the visitation), including the Magnificat, "My soul cloth magnify the Lord" (which in some manuscripts was ascribed to Elizabeth rather than to Mary); of the coming of the shepherds (whereas Matthew uniquely had the coming of the Magi); and of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple, with Simeon's Nunc Dimittis, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace." So dominant was Mary's perspective in the way Luke narrated the story of the birth of Jesus that some early readers were driven to inquire where these details had come from, since they did not appear in other accounts. Luke's Gospel opened with words that some church fathers took as an explanation: "Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, even as they delivered them unto us which from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word; it seemed good to me also having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order." Because it has usually been historians who have studied the structure and content of the Gospels, these introductory words have marked Luke as the historian among the evangelists. He used about himself the Greek word parekolouthekoti, which meant that he had done historical research, more or less as his fellow historians did now. The sources on which he drew for that research were in part written, including the "many [who] have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us," thus apparently including writers in addition to those who have been preserved in the pages of our New Testament. But the sources explicitly included the "eyewitnesses and ministers of the word," because Luke not only did not belong to the original twelve disciples and eyewitnesses but was not even a disciple of one of these; rather, according to tradition, he was a pupil and "the beloved physician" of the apostle Paul, who was "one born out of due time" in coming last to the band of the apostles. When Luke undertook his research into the very beginnings of his narrative, as reflected in the first two chapters of his Gospel, who would have been the "eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" to whom he would have turned for what we today would call the "oral history" of those early events? The telling of the story in these chapters from the perspective of the Virgin Mary seemed to suggest her as primary among these original eyewitnesses and servants of the Gospel. In addition, although Luke, being a Gentile rather than a Jew, wrote, both in the main body of his Gospel and in the Book of Acts, a Greek that came closer to Attic standards than other parts of the New Testament and that sounded somewhat less like a translation, that quality was not present in these chapters, which in some respects did seem to be a translation from a Hebrew (or Aramaic) original. These considerations led early Christian writers to characterize the opening chapters of Luke's Gospel as the memoirs of the Virgin Mary--a characterization that has not commended itself to the historical-critical study of the Gospels. There even arose a tradition that Luke was the first painter of Christian icons, and the theme of Luke painting the icon of the Virgin became standard.

The Mater Dolorosa. When the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed, in their summary confessions about Jesus Christ as the Son of God, moved directly from his having been born of the Virgin Mary to his having suffered under Pontius Pilate without so much as mentioning his teachings or his miracles or his apostles, they were echoing, but also carrying at least one step further, the emphasis of the Gospels on his suffering and his crucifixion. Each Gospel, after its own fashion, shifted from the individual incidents and occasional glimpses of its previous narrative to a far more detailed preoccupation with the day-by-day and even hour-by-hour unfolding of the story of Christ's passion and death. From the perspective of the later history of interpretation the differences in their accounts of the passion were well illustrated by the compilation of the seven words from the cross."

Among these seven words, John provided the one most directly relevant here: Woman, behold thy son! Behold thy mother!" Homiletically if not theologically, Behold thy mother" could easily become the charter for entrusting to the maternal care of Mary not only "the disciple whom Jesus loved, identified by the tradition though not by present-day scholarship as John the evangelist, but all the disciples whom Jesus loved in all periods of history, therefore the entire church past and present. As Origen of Alexandria had already put it in the first third of the third century, "No one can apprehend the meaning of [the Gospel of John] except he have lain on Jesus' breast and received from Jesus Mary to be his mother also.... Is it not the case that everyone who is perfect lives himself no longer, but Christ lives in him; and if Christ lives in him, then it is said of him to Mary, Behold thy son Christ.'" But this scene also stirred the Christian imagination in more poignant ways; for, like the annunciation scene at the beginning of Christ's life, it seemed to provide a window into the inner life of the Virgin. From the beginning of Christ's life there also came the prophecy that would be seen as justification for such an exploration of the subjectivity of the Virgin when, as the Mater Dolorosa, she stood at the foot of the cross: "Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also."

The Model of Faith in the Word of God. When the Epistle to the Hebrews, in its roll call of the saints throughout the history of Israel, rang the changes of those "of whom the world was not worthy," it introduced each name with the formula "By faith," after introducing this roster with its own definition: "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." And when the Epistle to the Romans defined that "faith cometh by hearing [akoe], and hearing by the word of God," and opened as well as closed its total message with the identification of "faith" as "obedience [hypakoe]," it was summarizing a connection between obedience and faith, and between faith and the word of God, that had been especially prominent in the writings of the Hebrew prophets and in the teachings of Jesus. The differences between its declaration, so central to the Protestant Reformation, "that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law," and the declaration of the Epistle of James that "by works a man is justified, and not by faith only," would frustrate future attempts at harmonization, especially during the Reformation. But those differences did not detract from either the fundamental importance of faith to the entire New Testament message or the centrality of the doctrine of the word of God.

The one historical figure who played a major role in each of those New Testament pericopes--Hebrews, Romans, and James--was Abraham. According to all three, he was what Romans called him, "the father of all them that believe." But if there were to be a "mother of all them that believe," the prime candidate would have to be Mary, just as Eve was identified in the Book of Genesis as "the mother of all living." The key statement by which Mary qualified for such a title was her response to the angel Gabriel, and through the angel to the God whose messenger Gabriel was: "Be it unto me according to thy word." For without invoking the word "faith" explicitly, these words put into action the identification of faith with obedience, and by describing her obedience to the word of God made of her the model of faith. Indeed, beginning with Mary and moving backward through the history of Israel, it would be possible to devise a roll call of female saints--Eve and Sarah, Esther and Ruth, and many more--of whom she was an exemplar, just as it would be possible to begin with Mary and construct a similar roster of female saints since the New Testament era. And by its emphasis on faith such a roster could commend itself even to those heirs of the Protestant Reformation who have traditionally regarded with profound suspicion any such elitism among believers.

The Woman for All Seasons. Rosters of this kind would, of course, be a part, but only a small part, of all those who through the centuries have found in the Virgin Mary an object of devotion and a model of the godly life, for they shall occupy the balance of this book. As she was represented as predicting, "For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed." This was one of relatively few passages in the New Testament that seemed to envision a long period of many generations to come, along with the prophecy of Christ that "this gospel shall be preached in the whole world." The content with which those successive generations would invest the title "blessed" would vary greatly through the centuries, but the striking quality would be the success with which, in all seasons, Mary's blessedness would be seen as relevant to men and woman in an equal variety of situations. And that has truly made her the Woman for All Seasons.

© 1996 Yale University

Yale University Press

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