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."
After Herod's death in 4 B.C., Galilean rebels overran a Roman garrison at Sepphoris a few miles from Nazareth. When Roman reinforcements quashed the rebellion and crucified the leaders, Mary probably tended to wounded survivors fleeing to nearby caves, Hazleton says.
It is against this tumultuous background that the angel Gabriel, in the Gospel of Luke, appears to Mary in what has come to be known as the Annunciation—a startling vision mingling alarm, illumination, and willing submission. The earliest representations of the event appeared in the Roman catacombs, and the scene was later interpreted by Matthias Grünewald, Simone Martini, Raphael, and hundreds of artists over the centuries. Although Mary is generally depicted as a woman at least 18 or 19 years old, Hazleton reasons that she was far younger. According to the Vatican, Mary was born around 13 B.C., making her about 13 years old at the time of Jesus's birth.
When Gabriel appears, Mary is betrothed to Joseph, a figure who remains even more mysterious than Mary throughout the Gospels. He is a descendant of King David, Luke says, a crucial element for fulfilling Hebrew prophecy that the Messiah would be a descendant of the royal house of Israel. Trembling in spite of the angel's entreaty not to be afraid, Mary is incredulous when she receives the news that not only is she to give birth, but she is also to bear the Son of God.