|Mary: A Christian View||Mary: A Muslim View||Points of Agreement and Disagreement||Points for Further Discussion|
In the New Testament, Mary is the mother of Jesus and the betrothed wife of Joseph. Each of the gospels, however, gives a different picture of her. In Mark (the earliest gospel, c. 70 c.e.) there is no account of Jesus' childhood. Mary is only mentioned as a part of Jesus’ family (Mk. 3:31), which is presented negatively, as not understanding Jesus’ mission (Mk. 3:21). In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary is betrothed to Joseph, but “before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 1:18). Joseph is told in a dream to take Mary as his wife, and that the child she has conceived is from the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:20-21). Matthew’s is the clearest statement of the doctrine of theso-called “Virgin Birth” (actually, virginal conception) of Jesus.
It is in Luke’s account that we find most of the familiar Biblical stories about Mary. The angel Gabriel announces to her that she will conceive a son, and will call him Jesus, and implies that the child will be conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mary’s response is one of perfect submission: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.” Mary also utters a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving—called the “Magnificat” (the first word of the prayer in Latin). It begins: “My soul magnifies the Lord 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….” (Luke 1:46-55). Mary is identified as one of the poor but pious people of Israel, whose faith and submission to God is blessed by God. In the Book of Acts (also authored by the author of Luke) Mary is presented as one of the nascent Christian community waiting in prayer before the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 1:14).
The gospel of John gives yet another account of Mary. She was with Jesus at a wedding in Cana, in Galilee, when the wine ran out. She approaches Jesus for help, and he responds by turning the water of purification into wine (John 2:1-11). Mary is also presented as at the foot of the cross during Jesus’ crucifixion. In this scene, Jesus gives her into the care of the beloved disciple: saying “Woman, here is your son” and to the disciple: “Here is your mother.” From that time the disciple “took her into his own home” (John 19:27). From this account the tradition arose that Mary lived with the apostle John until her death, perhaps in Ephesus or Jerusalem. There is a "House of Mary” in Ephesus, reputed to be the house where Mary died.
Thus the gospel accounts of Mary differ substantially. There is a trajectory, from the earliest gospel, Mark, with its relatively negative portrait of Mary, to Luke and John, which present highly positive views of Mary.
This same trajectory continues in the later history of the Church. Though Matthew and Luke only affirm that Mary remained a virgin through Jesus’ conception, later tradition holds that she remained a virgin for her whole life. This contradicts the apparent sense of Mark 6:3 which names Jesus’ four brothers and mentions his sisters. Christians however held that the Greek words adelphoi and adelphai (lit. brothers and sisters) could have referred to Jesus’ cousins or his step siblings (children of Joseph but not of Mary). This position has remained that of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, though some recent Catholic scholars, such as John Meier, believe that Jesus had blood brothers.
Many of the details of Mary’s life—the names of her parents (Anne and Joachim), the stories of her childhood and dedication to the Temple, come from a second century writing, the Protoevangelium of Jame. These stories have greatly influenced popular devotion to Mary, but their historical reliability is doubtful.
The Council of Ephesus, in 431, declared that Mary is Theotokos, literally, “God Bearer” or the “Mother of God.” This decision was a response to the theology of Nestorius, who had asserted that Mary could not be called “Mother of God” but at most “Mother of Jesus.” But the Council’s decided that the divine and human natures of Jesus were so closely united in him that what could be said of one nature could also be said of another. To say that Mary was only the mother of the human side of Jesus would seem to divide Jesus into two separable natures. Hence the title “Mother of God,” which has been embraced by Marian piety in both the Western and Eastern churches.
Devotion to Mary flourished during the medieval and Renaissance periods. In the west, devotional prayers such as the Rosary appeared. And much of the great art of the Renaissance focused on Mary, for example, Michelangelo’s statue, the Pieta. In the East, devotion was expressed in icons of Mary and the infant Jesus. Icons are understood in the Eastern Church not as objects of worship, (which would be idolatry) but as aides to worship, windows onto the sacred, which help focus the mind. In both the Western and Eastern churches, Mary is regarded as an intercessor, but is not an object of worship. Thus the Rosary prayer says: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”
In 1854 Pope Pius IX declared that Mary had been conceived without original sin (see Pius’ encyclical Ineffabilis Deus). This doctrine is known as the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, and is held by (most) Roman Catholics, but not by other Christians. Again, in 1950, Pope Pius XII (also after consulting with bishops) declared that Mary had been assumed into heaven body and soul (Munificentisissimus Deus). Like the belief in the Immaculate Conception, this doctrine is held by the Roman Catholic church, but not by other Christian churches.
There has been a long history of reported appearances of the Virgin Mary, beginning with her appearance as the virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego near Mexico City in 1531. Another series of reported appearances took place at Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. The Roman Catholic Church has made no official pronouncement on these appearances, though the Feast of our Lady of Guadalupe is celebrated on December 12 in America and Mexico.
Raymond Brown: The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977)
Raymond Brown et al., eds.: Mary in the New Testament (N.Y.: Paulist Press, 1978).
Christians and Muslims agree that Mary was the mother of Jesus, and that Jesus’ conception was through the Spirit of God. Jesus did not have a human biological father, and Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. Mary is held up as a role model in both traditions, as being submissive and obedient to God’s will. Many children in both Christianity and Islam are named “Mary.” Many Christians (Roman Catholics and Orthodox) and many Muslims pray to Mary as an intercessor.
In the Christian tradition, Mary has been honored with the title “Mother of God,” which would be excessive and even heretical in Islam (since it indicates that Jesus is a divine person).