The historical Mary
- The Girlhood of Mary Virgin by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I saw an interesting post at Far From Rome about The brothers and sisters of Jesus, and it made me think about Jesus' mother, Mary. In looking around, I came across a 2005 America magazine article about the historical Mary (no immaculate conception/perpetual virgin stuff :) . Here's part of it .....
The Historical Mary
[...] Focusing on Mary’s Jewish roots, writers like Raymond E. Brown, S.S., in The Birth of the Messiah, John P. Meier in A Marginal Jew and Elizabeth A. Johnson in Truly Our Sister have carefully examined the religious, economic, cultural and political circumstances of her daily life. The scene they reconstruct is quite different from the idyllic portraits of medieval artists and the serene rhapsodies of musicians and poets.
Mary was actually called Miriam, after the sister of Moses. Most likely she was born in Nazareth, a tiny Galilean town of about 1,600 people, during the reign of Herod the Great, a violent puppet-king propped up by Roman military might. Nazareth was of little consequence for most Jews: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). It is never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, nor in the Talmud. Mary spoke Aramaic, with a Galilean accent (see Matt 26:73), but she also had contact with a multilingual world. She heard Latin as it slipped from the tongues of Roman soldiers, Greek as it was used in commerce and educated circles and Hebrew as the Torah was proclaimed in the synagogue.
She belonged to the peasant class, which eked out its living through agriculture and small commercial ventures like carpentry, the profession of both Joseph and Jesus. This group made up 90 percent of the population and bore the burden of supporting the state and the small privileged class. Their life was grinding, with a triple tax burden: to Rome, to Herod the Great and to the temple (to which, traditionally, they owed 10 percent of the harvest). Artisans, who made up about 5 percent of the population, had an even lower median income than those who worked the land full time. Consequently, in order to have a steady supply of food, they usually combined their craft with farming.
The picture of the Holy Family as a tiny group of three living in a tranquil, monastic-like carpenter’s shop is highly improbable. Like most people at that time, they probably lived in an extended family unit, where three or four houses of one or two rooms each were built around an open courtyard, in which relatives shared an oven, a cistern and a millstone for grinding grain, and where domestic animals also lived. Like women in many parts of the world today, Mary most likely spent, on the average, 10 hours a day on domestic chores like carrying water from a nearby well or stream, gathering wood for the fire, cooking meals and washing utensils and clothes.
Who were the members of this extended household? Mark’s Gospel speaks of Jesus, “the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here among us?” (Mark 6:3). Were these “brothers and sisters” children of Jesus’ aunt (see John 19:25) and therefore cousins? Were they Joseph’s children by a previous marriage? We do not know their precise relationship to Jesus and Mary, but it is probable that they all lived in close proximity within the same compound.
In Palestine at that time, women ordinarily married at about 13 years of age in order to maximize childbearing and to guarantee their virginity, so it is likely that Mary’s espousal to Joseph (Matt 1:18) and the birth of Jesus occurred when she was very young. Luke indicates that Mary gave birth to Jesus during a census required by the Romans around 6 B.C., in a cave or stall where animals were stabled. A feeding trough served as his crib, as today poor refugees use cardboard boxes and other homemade artifacts as makeshift beds for newborn infants.
It would be a mistake to think of Mary as fragile, even at 13. As a peasant woman capable of walking the hill country of Judea while pregnant, of giving birth in a stable, of making a four- or five-day journey on foot to Jerusalem once a year or so, of sleeping in the open country like other pilgrims and of engaging in daily hard labor at home, she probably had a robust physique in youth and even in her later years. We also err when we picture her as Fra Lippo Lippi’s gorgeously dressed, blue-eyed, blond-haired Madonna, who often adorns Christmas cards. Whether she was beautiful or not, she would have had features like those of Jewish and Palestinian women today, most likely with dark hair and dark eyes.
It is doubtful that she knew how to read or write, since literacy was extremely rare among women of the time. The culture was highly oral, with public reading of the Scriptures, the telling of stories, the recitation of poems and the singing of songs.
A Jewish culture permeated Mary’s life. One might legitimately ask: Did she keep a kosher kitchen? Was there a mezuzah on the doorpost of her family’s modest home in Nazareth?
Her husband, Joseph, seems to have died before Jesus’ public ministry began. We know that Mary herself, however, lived through the time of that ministry (Mark 3:31, John 2:1-12). Her separation from Jesus as he went out to preach was undoubtedly painful for her. In a passage that has always embarrassed Mariologists, Mark tells us that Jesus’ family thought him mad (Mark 3:21); but what mother, upon seeing her son challenge Roman authority rather dauntlessly (this often meant death), might not have said to him, “Are you crazy?”
John tells us that Mary was present at Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:25-27), though the other evangelists are silent about this. At that time she was probably close to 50 years old, well beyond the age at which most women in that era died. She lived on at least into the early days of the church. Luke states that she was in the upper room in Jerusalem with the 11 remaining apostles “who devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women...and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14). The lovely paintings and icons of Pentecost that picture the Spirit descending on Mary and the 11 apostles hardly do justice to Luke’s text, which indicates that she was there with a community of 120 persons.
After Pentecost, Mary disappears from history .......