Is There Evidence that the Virgin Mary Existed?

Painting of 'The Virgin and Child'
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Most first-century Jewish women got little notice in historical accounts. One Jewish woman—the Virgin Mary—who allegedly lived in the first century is remembered in the New Testament for her obedience to God. Yet no historical account answers the essential question: Did Mary, the mother of Jesus, really exist?

The only record is the New Testament of the Christian Bible, which says that Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter in Nazareth, a small town in the Galilee region of Judea when she conceived Jesus through the action of God's Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18-20, Luke 1:35).

No Records of the Virgin Mary

It's not surprising that there is no historical record of Mary as the mother of Jesus. Given her residence in a hamlet in Judea's farming region, she was not likely from a wealthy or influential urban family with the means to record their ancestry. However, scholars, today think that Mary's ancestry may be surreptitiously recorded in the genealogy given for Jesus in Luke 3: 23-38, mainly because the Lukan account doesn't match Joseph's heritage listed in Matthew 1:2-16.

Furthermore, Mary was a Jew, a member of a society subjugated under Roman rule. Their records show that Romans generally didn't care to record the lives of the peoples they conquered, although they took great care to document their own exploits.

Finally, Mary was a woman from a patriarchal society under the power of a patriarchal empire. Although certain archetypal female figures are celebrated in Jewish tradition such as "the virtuous woman" of Proverbs 31:10-31, individual women had no expectation of being remembered unless they had status, wealth or performed heroic deeds in the service of men. As a Jewish girl from the country, Mary had none of the advantages that would have made it compelling to record her life in historical texts.

The Lives of Jewish Women

According to Jewish law, women in Mary's time were thoroughly under the control of men, first of their fathers and then of their husbands. Women weren't second-class citizens; they weren't citizens at all and had few legal rights. One of a few recorded rights occurred in the context of marriage: If a husband availed himself of his biblical right to multiple wives, he was required to pay his first wife the ketubah, or the alimony that would be due her if they were to divorce.

Although they lacked legal rights, Jewish women had significant duties related to family and faith in Mary's time. They were responsible for keeping the religious dietary laws of kashrut (kosher); they began the weekly Sabbath observance by praying over candles, and they were responsible for propagating the Jewish faith in their children. Thus they exerted great informal influence over society despite their lack of citizenship.

Mary Risked Being Charged With Adultery

Scientific records estimate that women in Mary's day achieved menarche somewhere around age 14, according to National Geographic's newly published atlas, The Biblical World. Thus Jewish women often were married as soon as they became able to bear children in order to protect the purity of their bloodline, even though early pregnancy resulted in high rates of infant and maternal mortality. A woman found not to be a virgin on her wedding night, signified by the absence of hymeneal blood on the wedding sheets, was cast out as an adulteress with fatal results.

Against this historical background, Mary's willingness to be the earthly mother of Jesus was an act of courage as well as faithfulness. As Joseph's betrothed, Mary risked being charged with adultery for agreeing to conceive Jesus when she legally could have been stoned to death. Only Joseph's kindness to marry her and legally accept her child as his own (Matthew 1:18-20) saved Mary from an adulteress' fate.

Theotokos or Christokos

In A.D. 431, the Third Ecumenical Council was convened in Ephesus, Turkey to determine a theological status for Mary. Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, claimed Mary's title of Theotokos or "God-bearer," used by theologians since the mid-second century, erred because it was impossible for a human to give birth to God. Nestorius asserted Mary should be called Christokos or "Christ-bearer" because she was the mother only of Jesus' human nature, not his divine identity.

The church fathers at Ephesus would have none of Nestorius' theology. They saw his reasoning as destroying Jesus' unified divine and human nature, which in turn negated the Incarnation and thus human salvation. They affirmed Mary as Theotokos, a title still used for her today by Christians of Orthodox and Eastern-rite Catholic traditions.

The creative solutions of the Ephesus council redressed Mary's reputation and theological standing but did nothing to confirm her actual existence. Nonetheless, she remains a pivotal Christian figure revered by millions of believers around the world.

Sources

  • The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press 1994).
  • The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • "Mary (mother of Jesus)" (2009, December 19), New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:02, November 20, 2010. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Mary_%28mother_of_Jesus%29?oldid=946411.
  • The Biblical World, An Illustrated Atlas, edited by Jean-Pierre Isbouts (National Geographic 2007).
  • The Jewish People in the First Century, edited by S. Safrai and M. Stern (Van Gorcum Fortress Press 1988).