The Biography of Mary the Mother of God pt. 1

The Gospel of Luke introduces the readers to Mary, the mother of our Lord, much like any biography by addressing Mary’s origins in chapter one verses 26 through 27. Dr. Edward Sri of the Augustine Institute points toward the importance of Nazareth being the home of Mary and later Jesus in which the “obscure village will cause him (Jesus) trouble later in his public ministry.”[1]

 Luke also in the passage informs that Mary is betrothed to Joseph in which Dr. Sri explains that in Judaism in the first century A.D. marriage is a two-step process; the betrothed—as in the modern western engagement—at first live apart; however, at this point Mary and Joseph would be considered husband and wife. During the betrothal stage, Mary would still live with her family under the second stage of the marriage which is the consummation stage.[2] At the time of the betrothal, Mary, a virgin, as most would have been would have been during the betrothal stage, would have been in her early teens approximately anywhere from the ages of fourteen to sixteen.

Sri writes, “In sum, the initial portrait of Mary in Luke 1:26-27 is only a vague sketch. She is a young woman, probably in her early teens. She is betrothed to a man with the royal Davidic lineage but is living an ordinary life in an insignificant village in Galilee.”[3]

Most of what is known about Mary’s biography is written in a 2nd-century document known to scholars as the Protoevangelium of James—such as the names of Mary’s parents. Although not being canonical, the Protoevangelium does provide a reliable history for scholars in learning about what early Christians understood as the early origins of Christ and His mother. German scholar Michael Hesemann writes, “the Proto-Gospel contains so many details that can be verified historically and archaeologically…that we must assume that it has an authentic tradition at its core.”[4]

 When piecing together early Jewish and first-century Jewish practices with the account of the Protoevangelium, a scholar can learn much of Mary’s early childhood. Hesemann explains that early temple practices of young female virgins extend back to the book of Exodus (38:8), ‘women who ministered at the door of the tent at the meeting,” and that such services existed into the 11th century as recorded in 1 Samuel 2:22.[5]

22 Now Eli was very old, and he heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.[6]

 A once previously rejected portion of the Mary narrative is one of Mary having served as a young girl administrating the temple in the Protoevangelium. However, research done by Timothy Horner of John Hopkins University has corrected this once rejected view. It was Horner’s scholarly work, Jewish Aspects of the Proto-Gospel of James,  in which he drew “parallels between the Proto-Gospel and the tradition of the Jewish Mesnah” which gave her role as a temple minister a more positive position in scholarly circles.[7]

The practices of giving young girls, sworn to perpetual virginity, in service of the temple is given an account in the Book of Judges. In the account, Judges 11, Jephthah of Gilead “made a vow; if he survived, he would sacrifice to the Lord the first person who came of the door of his house to meet him, it turned out to be his daughter, his only child.”[8] The account gives record of the daughter’s virginity, 39 And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had made.* She had never known a man. And it became a custom in Israel,[9]but Hesemann rejects the mortal sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter as the given explanation in the German Unity Translation and the Revised Standard Version Catholic due to “since Abraham’s day, it was thought that God did not want human sacrifices; and since the times of Moses, they were explicitly forbidden.”[10]

The presented scholarship of Hesemann allows him to assert that Mary took a vow of perpetual virginity, served as a virgin temple minister, as recorded by the Protoevangelium, and left after she entered into womanhood. The explanation also allows for the assertion of Mary being married to an older man who already had children and would not violate her vow of perpetual virginity, as the Gospel of Matthew claims Joseph as being “a righteous man.”[11]

Catholic Apologist Jimmy Akin writes, “Thus the Protoevangelium states that Joseph, an elderly widower who already had children, was chosen to be her spouse… According to the Protoevangelium, Joseph was required to regard Mary’s vow of virginity with the utmost respect. The gravity of his responsibility as the guardian of a virgin was indicated by the fact that, when she was discovered to be with child, he had to answer to the temple authorities, who thought him guilty of defiling a virgin of the Lord.”[12] The origins of this theory is found from St. Augustine in which Pope Benedict XVI disagrees saying, “Since Saint Augustine, one explanation that has been put forward is that Mary had taken a vow of virginity and had entered into the betrothal simply in order to have a protector for her virginity. But this theory is quite foreign to the world of the Judaism of Jesus’ time, and in that context it seems inconceivable.”

 Although Pope Benedict XVI is a reputable scholar, without viewing any supportive evidence for his opinion, with both Hesemann’s examination and confirmation from St. Augustine and Catholic Apologist Jimmy Akin, it would be prudent to agree with Hesemann’s assessment on Mary’s perpetual virginity being linked to a vow, unless other evidence can be supported which would present doubts on Hesemann and Horner’s research.

[1] Edward Sri, Dawn of the Messiah: The Coming of Christ in Scripture (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005), 19.

[2] Sri, 19.

[3] Ibid, 21.

[4] Michael Husemann, Mary of Nazareth: History, Archaeology, Legends) San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2016), 48.

[5] Husemann, 72.

[6] The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version; Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 1 Sa 2:22–23.

[7] Hesemann, 71.

[8] Ibid, 70.

[9] The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version; Second Catholic Edition (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), Jdg 11:39.

[10] Hesemann, 71.

[11] Mt. 1:19

[12] Jimmy Akin, The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church (San Diego, CA: Catholic Answers, 2010), 349.

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