In Search of the Real Virgin Mary

The bible provides surprisingly little on the mother of jesus

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"How can this be, since I have no husband?" she asks. "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you," replies Gabriel. With unnerving self-possession, the peasant girl gives her assent. "Let it be to me according to your word," she says.

In a stroke, Mary's obedience to the will of God absolves the disobedience of Eve, maintained second-century theologian Irenaeus. It is significant that Mary, like Eve, acts without compulsion, a sign of God's grace and a promise that human beings would exercise freedom in their destinies.

Some religious historians, like the late Raymond Brown, author of The Birth of the Messiah, argue that early Christians viewed Jesus as becoming the Son of God not at birth but at the Resurrection. The idea of the virgin birth arose later, they theorize, with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, written after A.D. 60. Others, like Jane Schaberg, a feminist scholar at the University of Detroit Mercy, raise the explosive possibility that Mary was raped. She contends that this is the reason Joseph considers divorcing his pregnant bride in Matthew before an angel reveals that she will conceive the child through the Holy Spirit. Schaberg takes a piece of second-century, anti-Christian propaganda—the story that a Roman soldier called Panthera was Jesus's father—and turns it on its head. If Mary were raped, she says, the Holy Spirit transforms an illegitimate child into God's anointed son and Mary's potential disgrace becomes an exalted grace of redemption. Although some feminist theologians side with Schaberg, conservative Catholics furiously dismiss her proposition as borderline heresy.

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    • Still other historians, like Hazleton, suggest that there was a sort of dual paternity, with Joseph the human father and the Holy Spirit the divine one, a scenario similar to birth legends about Helen of Troy or Alexander the Great, both sired by the god Zeus and human fathers. Certainly, in cults across the Middle East, goddesses like Isis, Ishtar, and Diana who were both virgin and fertile exemplified a commonly accepted paradox.

      Strengthening faith. Whatever the literal or metaphysical truth surrounding the virgin birth, the mystery rests intact. The very fact that the concept goes "against nature and against proofs" invests the faith with its power, according to the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal.

      Soon after the Annunciation, Mary visits her pregnant elderly cousin Elizabeth. Her husband, Zechariah, has also had a vision of Gabriel foretelling the birth of a son, later known as John the Baptist. When Mary greets her cousin, Elizabeth feels the child leap in her belly in joyful recognition of the holy infant growing in Mary. "My soul magnifies the Lord," rejoices Mary, beginning the Magnificat. Repeating themes and language used by Hannah in the Old Testament to give thanks for the birth of her son Samuel after years of infertility, Mary prophesies the revolutionary kingdom to come. In the future, the Lord will act as he has in the past when he "put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree...filled the hungry with good things, and the rich...sent empty away." In this 27-line poem, Mary prefigures "virtually every theme in Jesus's teaching and ministry," Scot McKnight asserts in his book The Jesus Creed.

      After staying with Elizabeth for three months, Mary next appears at the Nativity, a miracle of humility enacted in countless Christmas pageants and an amalgam of accounts from Luke and Matthew. Biblical historians now set Jesus's birth sometime between 6 B.C. and A.D. 6.