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Mary, the Virgin

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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MARY, THE VIRGIN.—Historical data for the life of the mother of our Lord are astonishingly meagre. Legendary matter there is in abundance, with regard to her life both before the Annunciation and after the Ascension, but this art. will not touch on this except incidentally.

1. The Virgin Mary was born, we may suppose, at Nazareth. Tradition names Jerusalem (Cuinet, Syrie, Liban, et Palestine, p. 523), but this is quite untrustworthy. Her parents, according to a not improbable tradition, were Joachim and Anna (Protev. Jacob.). There is no reason to doubt that the Virgin, as well as Joseph, belonged to the tribe of Judah and to the family of David (Luke 1:32; Luke 1:69, Romans 1:3, 2 Timothy 2:8, Hebrews 7:14), although it is almost certain, on the other hand, that both Mt. and Lk. give, not her genealogy, but Joseph’s.

The statement of the Test. XII. Patr. (Simeon vii.), which makes Mary a woman of the tribe of Levi, is clearly an erroneous inference from the relationship between her and Elisabeth (cf. Plummer on Luke 1:27; Luke 1:36). Syr [Note: yr Syriac.] sin reads, Luke 2:5, ‘because they were both of the house of David.’

Only one member of her immediate family is alluded to in the NT, viz. her sister (John 19:25). This sister of the Virgin was most probably Salome, wife of Zebedee, and mother of James and John. We know from the other Gospels (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40) that Salome was present at the Crueilixion, and it is quite in accordance with St. John’s manner to allude thus to his own mother without mentioning her name. The other opinion, that this sister was Mary ‘of Clopas,’ would (cf. Westcott, in loc., also Mayor, St. James, pp. xix–xx) ‘involve the most unlikely supposition that two sisters bore the same name.’ The family of the Virgin was connected in some way with Elisabeth (ἡ συγγενίς σου, Luke 1:36), but what the degree of relationship was cannot be known. According to a theory brought forward in connexion with the harmonizing of the two genealogies of our Lord, Mary was a cousin of Joseph her husband (art. ‘Genealogy of Jesus Christ’ in Smith’s DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] ), but such a theory has little to recommend it. That her family was but a humble one may be inferred from her betrothal to Joseph ‘the carpenter,’ especially if there be any truth in the tradition as to the disparity of their ages.

2. Some time after their betrothal, which came generally among the Jews a year before the marriage, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to Nazareth to tell her of One who was to be born of her, and who should ‘be called holy, the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35). The simplicity of the narrative bears on it the stamp of truth. Mary was troubled (διεταράχθη), we are told, at the saying, yet she believed at once. Her words, ‘How shall this be?’ ought not to be taken as an expression of doubt, like the words of Zacharias, ‘Whereby shall I know this?’ They are rather to be regarded as an ‘involuntary expression of amazement’ (Grot. ‘non dubitantis sed admirantis’). Equally impossible is it to suppose that she believed that the child promised would be the fruit of a future union with Joseph. The words of the angel forbid any such idea. Yet, on the other hand, we need not suppose that the full meaning of the angel’s words was at once grasped. There are evident signs in the narrative that this was not so, but nothing that we read mars the exquisite simplicity of her words of humble submission, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.’ Soon after (‘in these days,’ Luke 1:39) the departure of the angel, Mary set out to pay the visit to her kinswoman, which his words would naturally suggest to her. The supposition that her journey was due to the intention of Joseph to put her away is a baseless one. Rather, as it has been said, ‘the first but the ever-deepening desire in the heart of Mary, when the angel left her, must have been to be away from Nazareth, and for the relief of opening her heart to a woman, in all things like-minded, who perhaps might speak blessed words to her’ (Edersheim, Life and Times, i. p. 152). She arose with haste and set out to seek that relief in the house of her kinswoman in the far-off hills of Judah.

What the city of her destination was we cannot know for certain. Whatever it was, it was distant from Nazareth by almost the whole length of the land. According to a tradition which may be correct (cf. ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] xv. [1905] 245 f.), it was ‘Ain Karim, a village an hour and a half west of Jerusalem.

The opinion held for so long that this city was Juttah is, according to Buhl (GAP [Note: AP Geographic des alten Palästina.] p. 163), quite worthless, having originated with Reland in the beginning of the 18th century.

When Mary reached her kinswoman’s house, a fresh surprise awaited her in the greeting of Elisabeth: ‘Blessed art thou among women.’ No longer is Mary to Elisabeth simply ‘kinswoman,’ she is ‘the mother of my Lord.’ Doubtless what she had heard from Zacharias of the promises made in regard to their son would fill Elisabeth with hopes of a speedy appearance of the Messiah, and now, by inspiration (Luke 1:41), she knows that the mother of her Lord is before her. Her greeting is in reality a psalm, brief though it is and overshadowed by the still more wonderful hymn which it called forth in response. The ‘Song of Mary’ is ‘modelled on the OT psalms, especially the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), but its superiority to the latter in moral and spiritual elevation is very manifest.’ That Mary should ‘fall back on the familiar expressions of Jewish Scripture in this moment of intense exultation’ is very natural (cf. Plummer, St. Luke, p. 30).

Niceta, bp. of Remesiana, in his treatise de Psalmodiae Bono, names Elisabeth as the author of the Magnificat. This is supported by the Old Latin Manuscripts Vercellensis, Veronensis, Rhedigeranus, and by Irenaeus. Origen also knew of the reading, though he did not accept it. The evidence adduced, however, does not seem sufficient to override the verdict of all the rest of antiquity, that the Hymn is Mary’s and not Elisabeth’s. See, further, art. Magnificat.

3. Mary remained with her kinswoman in Judah ‘about three months,’ probably waiting (cf. Luke 1:56 with v. 36) till after the birth of John the Baptist, and then returned to Nazareth. It is probably at this point that we ought to put the commencement of the narrative in Mt., which records Joseph’s intention to put Mary away privily when her condition became known to him, and speaks of his subsequent marriage with her in obedience to the angelic messages. The marriage would afford ‘not only outward but moral protection’ both to the mother and to the unborn Babe. That the Virgin is still spoken of as ἐμνηστευμένη in Luke 2:5 is not to be taken as necessarily indicating that the marriage had not yet taken place. Had she not been Joseph’s wife, Jewish custom would have forbidden her making the journey along with him. When Joseph went up to Bethlehem to get himself enrolled, Mary went also, not because it was necessary, but because ‘she would be anxious at all risks not to be separated from Joseph’ (Plummer, in loc.). At Bethlehem, perhaps in the cave where now is the Church of the Nativity, she brought forth her firstborn Son, and there, too, she received the visit of the shepherds, whose words as to the sign given them from heaven she ‘kept, pondering them in her heart.’

4. There is no need to linger on the next events,—the Circumcision, the Presentation and Purification in the Temple, the visit of the Magi, the Flight into and Return from Egypt,—for these all belong rather to the life of Christ than to that of Mary. Before leaving this part of her history, it may be well to emphasize how much of what we know of the Birth, Infancy, and Childhood of our Lord we owe to accounts given by His mother. That St. Luke’s source in the first two chapters of his Gospel was one connected with the Virgin is generally admitted. Whether he received his information directly from her, as Ramsay supposes (Was Christ born at Bethlehem? p. 85 ff.), or whether the information came to him indirectly through another (perhaps, as Sanday conjectures, Joanna), may not be determinable. At least we can say that St. Luke believed that he wrote what he wrote on her authority.

‘He does not,’ writes Ramsay (ib. p. 74), ‘leave it doubtful whose authority he believed himself to have. “His mother kept all these sayings hid in her heart”; “Mary kept all these sayings, pondering them in her heart”; those two sentences would be sufficient.’

5. The Return from Egypt was followed by a life in retirement at Nazareth. Very little do we know of those years. Two verses in Lk. (Luke 2:40-41), which tell us of the growth of the Child and the custom of His ‘parents’ to go every year to Jerusalem at the Feast of the Passover, are all we have in the way of direct statement. Here in Nazareth it was that those brothers and sisters of the Lord, of whom we read in the course of the Gospel narrative, were born to Mary and Joseph (for other views see art. Brethren of the Lord). Four brothers are named (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3), but the sisters are mentioned only once (Mark 6:3), without any mention of their names.

The silence of the life at Nazareth is broken but once before the commencement of the Ministry. The scene in the Temple (Luke 2:42-50) would claim a fuller consideration in the Life of Jesus Christ. As regards its relation to His mother, we have to notice only two points which emerge from St. Luke’s narrative. Mary did not yet understand all the meaning of the angel’s words to her regarding the Child that was to be born. The Child’s own words would be a reminder to her of His true nature. He must be ‘about his Father’s business’ (or ‘in his Father’s house’). Then again we see from the passage the lasting impression which the scene left on Mary’s mind. ‘His mother kept (συνετήρει) all these sayings in her heart.’ The tense of the verb covers a long period, up to, and even during, the Ministry. Yet of the Virgin’s life during the interval between our Lord’s twelfth year and His Baptism we know nothing but what is contained in these words and those which immediately precede, as to her Son’s subjection to her and Joseph. It is, however, an easily drawn inference from the absence of any mention of Joseph in the later Gospel narrative, that he died during this interval. Beyond this it is useless to conjecture. ‘The Arabic Historia Josephi (cc. 14, 15) places his death in our Lord’s eighteenth year, when Joseph had reached the age of 111’ (Swete on Mark 6:3).

6. The remaining allusions to the Virgin in the Gospels may be briefly recorded. She was present at the marriage feast at Cana (John 2:1), after which she went down to Capernaum (John 2:12) with Jesus and His brethren and His disciples. She would seem to have been among ‘his friends’ (οἱ παρʼ αὐτοῦ) at Capernaum, who ‘went out to lay hold on him’ (Mark 3:21), for the next paragraph tells us of the coming of His mother and His brethren (Mark 3:31). She is mentioned by the unknown woman out of the multitude (Luke 11:27), ‘Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the breasts that thou didst suck.’ She was present at the Crucifixion, whence the loved disciple, into whose care she had been committed, took her to his own home (John 19:25 ff.). It is not a little remarkable, in view of later developments, that no fewer than three of these allusions seem to guard against an undue feeling of veneration for the mother of our Lord, In the story of the feast at Cana, His words, though not wanting in respect, ‘show that the actions of the Son of God, now that He has entered on His Divine work, are no longer dependent in any way on the suggestion of a woman, even though that woman be His mother.… The time of silent discipline and obedience is over’ (Westcott, in loc.). In the scene at Capernaum the lesson is much the same, though the interference of Mary and our Lord’s brethren on this occasion seems to have arisen from a different motive. They are seeking to oppose His work. Before they reach Him He understands their purpose, and declares that the true kinship to the Son of God consists in obedience to the will of God, and not in mere earthly ties. It is, of course, as Swete observes (St. Mark, p. 70), ‘a relative attitude only, and is perfectly consistent with tender care for kinsmen, as the saying on the cross shows.’ These two scenes at Cana and Capernaum belong to the beginning of the Ministry, and similarly, almost at its close, we have Christ’s words, during the last journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, in answer to the saying of the woman above mentioned, ‘Yea, rather (μενοῦν), blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it (Luke 11:28).’ This adds to and corrects the woman’s words. There is no denial of the Virgin’s blessedness, only a declaration of that wherein her blessedness consists, a blessedness which may be shared by all who, like her, hear the word of God and keep it.

Why it was that the Virgin was committed by our Lord on the cross to John can be only a matter of conjecture. It may be, as Mayor suggests (St. James, p. xxvii), that her sons, as married men (1 Corinthians 9:5), were already dispersed in their several homes, while John her nephew was unmarried, and so could more readily accept such a charge. All we know is that ‘from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home (John 19:27).

7. After this the only glimpse we get of Mary is in Acts 1:14, where she is mentioned as continuing steadfastly in prayer with the other women and the brethren and Apostles of the Lord, after the Ascension. Whether she lived the rest of her life in Palestine, or accompanied St. John to Ephesus, cannot be known. Traditions there are, but they vary. According to one, found in Nicephorus Callistus (Historia Ecclesiastica ii. 3), she continued to live with St. John in Jerusalem, and died there in her fifty-ninth year. Another tradition, found in the Synodical Letter of the Council of Ephesus (a.d. 431), makes her accompany St. John to Ephesus, and speaks of her as having been buried in that city.

J. M. Harden.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Mary, the Virgin'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​m/mary-the-virgin.html. 1906-1918.
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