Apparitions. Mystical Marian visions have been reported thousands of times, beginning with the "woman clothed with the sun" of Revelations and cresting in the 20th century with more than 200 apparitions cited since 1930. Such is Mary's power that Pope John Paul ii credited her with saving his life when he was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt on May 13, 1981—the same day and hour Mary reportedly appeared to three children at Fátima in Portugal 64 years earlier.
It's a lucky thing Mary inspires, because sketching a picture of her from the meager biblical references requires not a mere leap but an Olympian broad jump of the imagination. In all the Gospels, she appears fewer than 15 times, in accounts that take up a total of less than four pages.
Named for Moses's sister, Mary (Miriam in Hebrew or Maryam in Aramaic, the language she spoke) grew up in Nazareth, a hill town of olive groves, vineyards, and hard-scrabble farms 70 miles north of Jerusalem. Nazareth means "small fort," probably its original function, given the site's commanding view overlooking the Jezreel valley. On an extension of the Silk Road far below, camel and mule caravans bearing silk and saffron made their stately progression from the Jordan River to the eastern Mediterranean port of Caesarea.
Nothing is known of Mary's family, although legends later held that she was the daughter of an elderly couple, Anna and the priest Joachim. In Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother, Middle East historian Lesley Hazleton speculates that Mary may have been a shepherd, herding sheep and goats on the craggy hillsides and learning about healing and herbal cures from village women, techniques she passed along to her son.
In Hazleton's account, Mary considered herself an Israeli Jew from the province of Galilee, a region that had been occupied for more than a millennium by foreign rulers, from Babylonians to Persians, Greeks, Seleucids, Parthians, and Romans. Although she could neither read nor write, she most likely absorbed oral histories of David, Solomon, Elijah, and Ruth from the elders.
Mary certainly witnessed peasant farmers ruined by onerous taxes and saw them beaten and imprisoned by soldiers, a recurrent shame that deepened her indignation at injustice and nurtured sympathy for the poor and oppressed people all around her. The Galileans groaned under the brutal rule of Herod the Great, a shockingly rapacious client king of the Roman Empire who built innumerable palaces while his subjects were literally taxed to death. Debt-ridden and living on the edge of starvation, Mary's neighbors no doubt served as the inspiration for Jesus's demands in the Lord's Prayer: "Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts."