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Mary, the Mother of Jesus

Virgin of the Immaculate Conception
Virgin of the Immaculate Conception

In light of the significance that Mary, mother of Jesus, would attain in later Christian tradition, it is perhaps somewhat surprising how infrequently she appears in the New Testament. The various Gospel writers preserve different memories of her role in the beginning of Christianity, and there is some tension among the various accounts of Jesus’ relation with his mother and the members of his family. While some sources portray Mary as the model of faith and discipleship, others suggest instead that Jesus was estranged from her and his family.

Was Mary Jesus’ first disciple?

If one were to judge simply on the basis of Mark’s Gospel and the letters of Paul, this question would be entirely absurd, since Paul notes only that Jesus was born of a woman and Mark is just a little more informed in knowing Mary’s name. Matthew relates her betrothal to Joseph and her virginal conception, as well as some traditions of the Nativity, including the flight into Egypt. Nevertheless, it is in John and especially in Luke that Mary occasionally comes to the fore. In John she is present for the wedding at Cana, which inaugurates Jesus’ public ministry in this Gospel, and it is there at her urging that Jesus performs his first miracle. And when Jesus then departs Cana for Capernaum, Mary remains in his company with the disciples. Although she is largely absent thereafter, she again appears at the foot of the cross, implying that she was a disciple from beginning to end.

Luke’s Gospel offers the most developed reflection on Mary and her role in the beginnings of Christianity, particularly at the Annunciation. There, Mary is the first to hear and receive the gospel message of salvation from the angel Gabriel, to which she responds with faith, saying, “let it be with me according to your word.” Thus Luke presents Mary as the first faithful disciple of her son and also as one who is “blessed among women” and will be called blessed by all generations. Then in the Magnificat, which completes this sequence, Mary speaks prophetically, recalling the promises of the prophets and foretelling the themes of her son’s preaching. Such representation of Mary as the model of belief and discipleship in Luke forms a sharp contrast with the silence of Paul and Mark.

Was Mary estranged from her son’s ministry?

Despite John’s and Luke’s portrait of Mary as effectively the first of Jesus’ disciples, other passages from the Gospels suggest a decidedly different relationship between Mary and her son’s religious movement. The most important of these is a passage from Mark (Mark 3:20-35) that recurs in the other Synoptic Gospels. Here Mark relates an incident where Jesus’ family first tries “to seize him” because “the people were saying, ‘He is beside himself.’” Then when his mother and brothers later ask to see him, he responds, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” continuing to explain that his true mother and brothers are his disciples, those who do the will of God. This passage seems to indicate discord between Jesus and his family, as well as Jesus’ rejection of his biological family for the new religious family of his followers. Because this tradition is difficult to reconcile with the esteem for Mary that one finds in John and Luke—not to mention the later tradition—many scholars are convinced that this account likely preserves an early, if not authentic, tradition. Accordingly, there is a tendency to conclude that the historical Jesus was probably estranged from his mother and his family during the time of his ministry. (John 7:5 similarly notes that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him.)

Nevertheless, it is also possible that such passages instead serve a literary and theological purpose in highlighting the importance of discipleship over the bonds of family, a recurrent theme in the Synoptics. Perhaps Mary’s more prominent role in John and Luke reflects changing attitudes toward the bonds of kinship and families or simply a growing interest the life of Jesus beyond the time of his ministry.

Of course, one should not completely exclude the possibility that Mary was possibly more involved in her son’s ministry than Paul and Mark would suggest. Some scholars have suggested that Mark’s tradition may reflect a polemic against the influence that members of Jesus’ family had within the early Christian movement after his death, as members of his biological family struggled with some of his other disciples for leadership of the movement. Moreover, it seems clear that Jesus’ brother James was an important leader in the primitive community soon after Jesus’ death, a point which calls into question any possible estrangement between Jesus and the members of his family.

  • Stephen J. Shoemaker

    Stephen J. Shoemaker is professor of religious studies at the University of Oregon. He is the author of numerous articles on Mary in early Christianity, as well as the books The Ancient Traditions of the Virgin Mary’s Dormition and Assumption (Oxford University Press, 2002); The Death of a Prophet: The End of Muhammad’s Life and the Beginnings of Islam (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); and Maximus the Confessor, The Life of the Virgin (a new translation with introduction and notes, Yale University Press, 2012).