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Meet Mary: The Blessed Virgin, the Bible, and the Early Church

The following is an excerpt from a chapter in the recently published book Meet Mary: Getting to Know the Mother of God, Sophia Institute Press, January 2008. The book is be available via the Sophia Institute Web site,

-Asst. Ed.

Mary in the Bible and the Early Church

So, who is this woman who has had cathedrals named for her, poems written about her, and battles fought in her honor? Who is this Mary?

Of the details of her life, we know little. Much of what we do know was recorded in the pages of the New Testament and passed down through the oral tradition of the early Church. Written on scrolls of parchment and the walls of the catacombs, this history gives only the briefest sketch of the woman who brought Jesus into the world.

The glimpses into her life and character that we do get, however, are rich with significance, which is exactly why millions of men and women through the centuries have found in her a model of holiness, a companion in suffering, and, above all, a mother of their own.

Mary in the New Testament

In the pages of the New Testament, we have the oldest historical record of Mary’s life. Almost all that we know of her earthly existence we know from the four Gospels, which were written sometime between 50 and 100 A.D, along with the oral tradition passed on by the first Christians.

We know she was raised in Galilee, one of the most remote corners of one of the most remote provinces of the ancient Roman Empire. We know that when she came along in approximately 14 B.C., Israel was governed by Herod, a sadistic and power-hungry king who ruled at the pleasure of the emperor in Rome. A representative of that emperor, the governor, also sat in Jerusalem, supervising the soldiers, keeping an eye on Herod, and putting down the periodic rebellions that sprang up among the Jewish people.

We also know that Mary was Jewish, a member of a people that had been persecuted, enslaved, exiled, and oppressed for thousands of years, yet who continued to worship the God of its ancestors and reject the polytheism of its oppressors. We know that she married a carpenter named Joseph, gave birth to a son named Jesus, watched her son become a man, and later watched him die on a cross.

The most detailed written information we have on Mary’s early life and relationship with her son comes from the Gospel of Luke. Luke, more so than any of the other Gospel writers, was concerned with giving an in-depth history of Jesus’ life, so he included more detailed information about Jesus’ early years than the others did. In his Gospel, there are five key events in Christ’s early life that involve his mother. Here they are, according to their traditional names:

1. The Annunciation (1:26-38), where the Angel Gabriel greets Mary with the words, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” He then informs her that she will conceive a child, who will go on to become the savior of the world. After asking, “How can this be, since I know not man,” Mary accepts his answer, replying, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word.”

2. The Visitation (1:39-56), where Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, the expectant mother of John the Baptist. When Elizabeth first sees Mary, her child leaps in her womb, and Elizabeth cries out, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” and Mary proclaims in return, “All generations will call me blessed” (1:48).

3. The Nativity (2:22-38), where Mary gave birth to Jesus in a manger, and as the Christmas plays remind us, “wrapped him in swaddling clothes.”

4. The Presentation (2:22-38) of the infant Jesus in the Temple by Mary and Joseph, a Jewish ritual duty. There, an old man named Simeon prophesies about Jesus, and warns Mary that “a sword will pierce your own heart too.”

5. The Finding of the Child Jesus in the Temple (2:41-52), where, after Jesus tells Mary and Joseph that “I must be about my Father’s business,” we learn that Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

From the Gospel of Matthew, we also learn about:

1. The Betrothal of Mary (1:18) to Joseph, the carpenter.

2. Joseph’s Confusion (1:20) about Mary’s pregnancy. When he considers divorcing her quietly, an angel appears to him, saying, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived of her is of the Holy Spirit.”

3. The Arrival of the Three Wise Men (2:13-18), who “going into the house saw the Child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him.”

4. The Flight of Jesus’ Family (2:13-18), where Joseph was again instructed in a dream to “take the Child and his mother and flee into Egypt.”

5. The Return into Israel (2:19-23), where, after Herod the Great’s death, an angel once more speaks to Joseph, telling him to “rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”

Beyond the infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew, there are five more important references to Mary in Scripture, including:

1. The Wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-11), where at Mary’s request, Jesus performs his first public miracle—turning water into wine—and begins his active ministry. Mary’s words to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you,” describe the heart of her message to all believers across time.

2. Mary at the Foot of the Cross (Jn 19:25-27). Hanging upon the Cross, Jesus says to Mary and to the disciple whom he loved, “Woman, behold, your son…behold, your mother.” We also learn that “from that hour, the disciple took her into his home.”

3. The Presence of Mary in the Upper Room (Acts 1:13-2:4), awaiting the arrival of the Holy Spirit, with the early disciples of Jesus.

4. Paul’s Reference (Galatians 4:4) to the Savior “born of a woman.”

5. John’s Vision in Revelation (Rev 12:1), where he describes “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” He goes on to make it clear that he’s referring to Mary, declaring, “She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod.” John also alludes to the woman’s “other offspring, those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus.”

With one or two exceptions, that is all the New Testament has to say about the mother of Jesus. Yet those few passages, coupled with the oral faith and life of the Church of Jesus and his first apostles and disciples, are the foundation of what the Catholic Church teaches and believes about Mary; the seeds from which fully formed doctrines would emerge. We’ll explore the relationship between the seeds and their blossoming fruits in the next chapter, but for now, let’s sum up the key Marian themes that emerge in the New Testament.

Mary’s Miraculous Motherhood: Although Mary is really and truly Jesus’ mother, she is a mother like no other. The child born of her was conceived virginally; he had no man for a father. So, from the beginning, we get a rather strong indication that Mary’s relationship with God was a bit different from most women’s (or men’s).

The Unity of the Mother and Child: This theme is particularly evident in Matthew, where in the first chapters the two are almost never mentioned more than a breath apart.

Mary’s Suffering: Being the mother of the Christ is no easy job. Her midnight flight into a strange land, the warning of a sword piercing her heart, and her presence at the foot of the Cross while her son dies an agonizing death give us a glimpse of the sorrows she endured in her lifetime.

Mary as “Woman”: On two separate occasions, we hear Mary referred to not by her name or her relationship with her son, but simply as “Woman.” This is not a token of disrespect, but is done expressly to highlight the role she plays in salvation history.

We’ll see how when we explore all of those themes in greater depth in the next chapter. But before we move on to look at Mary’s role in the early Church, we need to first look backwards, to the books of the Old Testament.

Mary in the Old Testament

“The Old Testament?” you ask. “Mary wasn’t even born until generations after the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures was written.”

In order to answer that point, I need to first explain how Catholics read the Bible. We don’t believe that the Old Testament and New Testament are two separate entities, entirely unrelated to each other. Rather, we hold that both were inspired by the same God to tell one story, the story of salvation history. We also believe that both are only truly understandable in light of each other. In other words, what is foreshadowed in the Old Testament is revealed in the New, and our understanding of what is revealed in the Old Testament is enriched by the Old.

When we look back through the pages of the Old Testament, we find all sorts of hints about what was to unfold in Israel’s history, about the coming of the Christ, and about the establishment of a new type of kingdom. We also find hints about the woman who would give birth to the Christ and what her role in his kingdom would be. Which is exactly why we’re looking back through those pages for a deeper understanding of Mary.

We don’t have to look long before we happen across the first bit of Marian foreshadowing. It comes in the opening pages of Genesis, the first book in the Bible. There, in Genesis 3, we find what biblical scholars call the protoevangelium, which is Greek for “the first gospel” or “the first good news.” This “good news” is God’s promise to Adam and Eve that despite their sin, all hope is not lost for man. There will be forgiveness and redemption. He foretells the eventual downfall of Satan, telling the serpent “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; she will crush your head and you shall bruise her heel” (1).

The “woman” he refers to here is not Eve. She has already sinned and sinned gravely, so it is impossible for her to have enmity, i.e. total and unmitigated opposition, towards evil. And it will not be one of Eve’s sons who crush the head of the serpent and bring about the promised redemption – that’s Jesus’ job. Based upon that understanding of Genesis 3, there is then only one woman to whom God can be referring in his words to the serpent: Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In addition to that explicit Marian reference, there are two prophecies in the Old Testament that foretell the virgin birth. The first, in Isaiah 7:14, speaks of the “Virgin-Mother of Emmanuel” and goes on to say, “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” Later in Isaiah, Emmanuel is referred to as the future savior of his people, connecting the prophecy even more clearly to Mary and Jesus.

Then in Micah 5:2-3, the prophet foretells the birth of the savior in Bethlehem from a woman who will “bring forth” the “ruler of Israel”:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are a little one among the thousands of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be the ruler in Israel, and his going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in travail shall bring forth, then the rest of his brethren shall return to Israel.

The mother, introduced so suddenly in Micah and so specifically designated without a husband, conveys the same virginal sense we see in Isaiah 7:14. The fact that she is so strongly and clearly identified as a woman without a husband represents at least an implicit reference to that same virgin birth.

In addition to these three explicit references to Mary as the mother of the redeemer, there are many other models or “types” of Mary scattered throughout the Old Testament. Many of these models are the women of Israel: Eve, the first mother of the human race; Sarah, the wife of Abraham who conceived miraculously in old age;

Miriam, the sister of Moses whose song rejoicing in God’s liberation of Israel foreshadows Mary’s song (called the Magnificat) in Luke1:46-55; Hannah, who gave her son up to God’s service; Bathsheba, the great Queen Mother of the Davidic Kingdom; and Esther, who interceded before her husband, the king, on behalf of her people, the Israelites.

There are also symbolic models of Mary, archetypal images that foreshadow the role she will play in salvation history (2). These include:

Jacob’s Ladder (Gen 28:12), which was the intercessory means by which angels descended from heaven and ascended from earth in Jacob’s dream.

The Burning Bush (Ex 3:1), which held within it the presence of God without material corruption.

The Israelites’ Temple (1 Kings 8), the House in which God dwelt.

Perhaps the most important symbolic image of Mary in the Old Testament is the Ark of the Covenant (Gen 6:14; Ex 37:1). Built upon God’s command, his shekinah, or divine presence, hovered over it. The Israelites carried it with them through their desert wanderings, and when the great Temple of Solomon was built, it occupied the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies. What made the Ark so sacred, what actually made the inner sanctum the “Holy of Holies,” was what was inside the Ark. Within its cedar walls lay the Ten Commandments carved in stone, pieces of the Manna with which God fed the Israelites in the desert, and the staff of Aaron, the first in the line of Levitical high priests. In other words, the Ark contained the Word of God, the Bread of God, and the most important symbol of a high priest of God.

When Mary was pregnant, what did she hold inside her womb?

Jesus, “the Word of God made flesh.”

Jesus, “the Bread of Life.”

Jesus, “the eternal High Priest” (cf. Jn 1:14; Jn 6:35; cf. Heb 4:14).

Mary was a living Ark of the Covenant, home to the fullness of all that the first Ark contained and much more.

All of these images foreshadow in some way Mary’s miraculous motherhood, her sorrows and sacrifices, her intimate relationship with her son, and her intercession on behalf of God’s people. And all these Marian revelations were first seen in the infancy of Christianity, by the early Christian leaders and thinkers whom we call the Fathers of the Church

Mary in the Early Church (3)

The authors of the New Testament focus the overwhelming majority of their attention on Jesus and his ministry, not his mother. The reasons for this are obvious: Jesus is God, Mary is not. If Christ’s divine nature and primacy were not clearly and solidly established, devotion to his mother would make no sense; worse, it could morph into the type of goddess worship so common in the ancient Near East.

The same principle held true for the early Church. Establishing Christ’s primacy had to come first, otherwise their claims to be a Church, the very body of Christ, would sound like lunacy. Yet even so, we still find acknowledgement and devotion to the mother of Jesus from apostolic times.

The oldest historic evidence we have of Marian devotion among early Christians comes from the catacombs. These tombs of the Christian dead, scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, bear witness to their affection for Mary, their hope in her intercession, and their confidence in her place in heaven. As early as the end of the first century after Christ, they began including Mary in frescoes on the walls of the Roman catacombs. At times she is shown with her son, at other times she appears alone. Common images include Mary as the model of virginity and Mary as the orans – the woman at prayer. Scenes of Mary at the Annunciation and the Nativity are also on the walls.

One of the most significant frescoes is in the catacombs of St. Agnes in Rome. There, Mary stands between Peter and Paul, her arms outstretched to both. Dating back to the first years of Christianity, whenever Peter and Paul appear together in religious imagery they are symbolizing the one Church of Christ, a Church of authority and of evangelization, a Church for both Jew and Gentile. Mary’s prominent position between the two illustrates the Apostolic Church’s understanding of her as “Mother of the Church.”

The number of images of Mary and their location within the catacombs also makes it clear that the early Christians saw Mary not simply as a historical person, but as a source of protection and of intercession. This symbolic use of her image points to the reality of their relationship with her. In seeing her as “the Mother of the Church,” they saw her relating to them, to all Christians, as any good mother would: protecting them, teaching them, and helping them by her prayers.

Then within about a hundred years of Jesus’ death, the leaders and teachers in the early Church had come to describe Mary as “the New Eve.” What did they mean by this?

In Genesis, when Adam sinned, he did not sin alone. His wife disobeyed God before he did and then tempted him to disobedience as well. Man fell from grace and original sin entered his nature because of Adam’s sin, but Eve had played an instrumental role in that fall.

So too with man’s redemption. When man was given the possibility of being restored to grace and cleansed of original sin, that possibility came about through Christ’s saving death on the cross. But at the foot of that cross was a woman, a woman who had made Jesus’ death possible by making his life possible. With her “yes” to the Angel Gabriel, Mary, like Eve, played an instrumental, albeit secondary role, in man’s redemption.

St. Justin Martyr (d. 165), the early Church’s first great defender of Christian teaching, made much use of this metaphor, describing Mary as the “obedient virgin” in contrast to Eve “the disobedient virgin”:

[The son of God] became man through the Virgin that the disobedience caused by the serpent might be destroyed in the same way in which it had originated. For Eve, while a virgin incorrupt, conceived the word that proceeded from the serpent, and brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary was filled with faith and joy when the Angel Gabriel told her the glad tidings…And through her he was born… (4)

St. Irenaeus of Lyon (d. 202), another great defender of Christian orthodoxy, also wrote about Mary as the New Eve who participated in Christ’s work of salvation:

Just as Eve, wife of Adam, yet still a virgin, became by her disobedience the cause of death for herself and the whole human race, so too Mary, espoused but yet a virgin, became by her obedience the cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race…And so it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by Mary’s obedience. For what the virgin Eve bound fast by her refusal to believe, this the Virgin Mary unbound by her belief (5).

Later, St. Ambrose (d. 397) further developed the Christian understanding of the New Eve:

It was through a man and a woman that flesh was cast from Paradise; it was through a virgin that flesh was linked to God…Eve is called mother of the human race, but Mary was mother of salvation (6).

St. Jerome (d. 420) neatly summarized the parallel when he wrote, “Death through Eve, life through Mary” (7).

In addition to this understanding of Mary’s role in salvation history, the first centuries of Christianity also provide us with numerous examples of direct prayer to Mary as a means of intercession for the graces and protection of her son (8).

St. Irenaeus referred to Mary as Eve’s special “advocate,” interceding through prayer for her foremother’s forgiveness and salvation, while St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (d. 350) wrote of Mary in heaven praying for those still on Earth.

St. Ephraem (d. 373), one of the great Eastern preachers, prayed to Mary directly in several of his sermons. Likewise, St. Gregory Nanzianzen (d. 389) included direct prayer to Mary in his sermons.

From the latter half of the fourth century on, such examples of Marian prayers simply abound, from the sermons of St. Ambrose to the Eastern Father, St. Epiphanius. The most complete ancient prayer to Mary, however, dates back to an even earlier time, 250 A.D. It is called the Sub Tuum:

We fly to your patronage,

O holy Mother of God.

Despise not our petitions

in our necessities,

but deliver us from all dangers,

O ever glorious and blessed Virgin.

The early Christians knew that the same woman who had rocked the infant Jesus to sleep, picked him up when he fell, and held his broken body in her arms could also be trusted to help them through their own trials, both spiritual and temporal. Their trust in and love for Mary was more than evident by 431 A.D., when the Council of Ephesus – an authoritative meeting of Church leaders – formally defended her title as “Mother of God.” Already, there were cathedrals dedicated to her in Rome, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, and after the council, devotion to Mary flourished even more in both East and the West. Marian prayers, Marian liturgical feasts, Marian icons, and Marian paintings were soon everywhere in the Christian world.

The son’s place had been secured; his Church established and fortified. And now, the seeds of truth about his mother, seeds foreshadowed in the Old Testament, planted in the New Testament, and cultivated in the early Church, could finally come to fruition. Nothing that came forth would or could in any way diminish the truth and glory of Christ. Rather, the fruits of authentic Marian devotion could only show more clearly, more beautifully, the possibilities offered to man by Christ’s saving grace.

-Dr. Mark Miravalle


(1) Although some translations have the pronoun “she” for the one crushing the serpent’s head, the original Hebrew somewhat favors the masculine “he.” But in either case, the victory over Satan is ultimately that of Jesus Christ with Mary’s instrumental participation as the “New Eve.”

For a defense of the “she” pronoun from historical and medieval commentaries, particularly Cornelius à Lapide, cf. Br. Thomas Sennott, M.I.C.M., “Mary Co-redemptrix,” Mary at the Foot of the Cross II: Acts of the International Symposium on Marian Coredemption, Academy of the Immaculate, 2002, pp. 49-63. The author offers the following initial explanation in support of ipsa and quotes Cornelius à Lapide in support:

In Hebrew hu is “he,” and he “she,” . . . There is no “it” in Hebrew, both hu and he can be translated “it” depending on the context.

In Greek “he” is autos, “she” aute, and “it” auto.

In Latin “he” is ipse, “she” ipsa, and “it” ipsum . . .

Cornelius à Lapide in his great Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram says that the underlying mystery is even reflected in the Hebrew grammar. “Also hu is often used instead of he especially when there is some emphasis on action and something manly is predicated of the woman, as is the case here with the crushing of the serpent’s head . . . It makes no difference that the verb is masculine yasuph, that is “(he) shall crush,” for it often happens in Hebrew that the masculine is used instead of the feminine and vice versa, especially when there is an underlying reason or mystery, as I have just said” (C. à Lapide, Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram,Larousse, Paris, 1848, p. 105). The “underlying mystery” is, of course, that Our Lady crushes the head of the serpent by the power of Our Lord.

(2) These models are taken from Ineffabilis Deus, Pius IX, 1854.

(3) For more information on Mary in the early Church, see J. Murphy, “Origin and Nature of Marian Cult” in J.B. Carol, O.F.M. ed., Mariology, Vol. III, Bruce, 1961.

(4) St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, ch. 100, Patrologia Graeca (PG), Migne, 6, 709-712.

(5) St. Irenaeus, Adversus haereses, Bk. 3, pg. 32, 1; PG 7, 958-959.

(6) St. Ambrose, Epist. 63, n. 33, Patrologia Latina (PL), Migne, 16, 1249-1250; Sermon 45, n. 4; PL, 17, 716.

(7) St. Jerome, Epist. 22, n. 21, PL 22, 408.

(8) Cf. W. Burghart, S.J. “Mary in Western Patristic Thought,” Mariology, Vol. I, 1955; Murphy, Mariology, III, p. 6.

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