In Search of the Real Virgin Mary

The bible provides surprisingly little on the mother of jesus

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Summoned to Judean Bethlehem for a census, Mary gives birth in a manger because there are no more rooms at the inn. Shepherds flock to see the newborn child along with three regal wise men bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In Matthew, the couple flee with their baby to Egypt to avoid the massacre of infants ordered by Herod to eliminate the future ruler of Israel foreseen by Hebrew prophets.

In a polemical interpretation, Hazleton maintains that Jesus was born in A.D. 6, not in Judean Bethlehem but in Galilean Bethlehem. Like other scholars, she thinks Judean Bethlehem was named in the Gospels because it was the birthplace of King David and the new Messiah needed to be viewed as his divine successor. Hazleton argues that the Syrian governor Quirinius mentioned in Luke as ordering the census was not appointed until A.D. 6, when, in fact, a census did take place, according to the Jewish historian Josephus. The Bible's "Herod the king" is not Herod the Great, who died in 4 B.C., but his son Herod Antipas, she asserts. According to this reckoning, Jesus was 23 years old when he was crucified and resurrected in A.D. 30, not 33 as commonly thought, and Mary was 36, not 46.

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    • Whatever the dates for the Nativity, Mary next appears in Luke during the purification ritual for her baby. A seer named Simeon blesses Jesus and direly predicts to his mother that "a sword will pierce through your own soul also," an ambiguous foreshadowing of Mary's suffering at the Crucifixion as she watches a Roman soldier thrust a sword into her son's side.

      Twelve years later, Mary and Joseph lose young Jesus in Jerusalem. After searching for him for three days, they find him at the temple and gently upbraid him for causing them anxiety. "Did you not know that I must be in my father's house?" the boy replies calmly. Mystified, Mary keeps this answer in her heart, along with the puzzling adoration of the shepherds and wise men at his birth, perhaps fearing the ultimate purpose God intends for her and her son.

      From then on, Jesus maintains an "oddly uneasy, even antagonistic" relationship with his parents, says Hazleton, addressing Mary not as "mother," but as "woman." At a wedding in Cana, Mary tells Jesus there is no more wine. "O woman, what have you to do with me?" he replies testily. "My hour is not yet come." Patient as always, Mary instructs the servants to follow Jesus's orders. Despite his protest, Jesus draws attention to himself by performing a minor miracle, turning the water brought to him into wine.

      Mary is also an essential presence at the Crucifixion, where she agonizes for hours, comforted by her sister (or sister-in-law), also named Mary, and Mary Magdalene (as well as Salome, says Mark) as her son dies. As Mary stands next to John, the youngest disciple, Jesus tells her: "Here is your son." These are his last words to Mary. Turning to John, he says: "Here is your mother," binding them together. After he dies, Jesus is lowered into his mother's arms in a scene depicted in Michelangelo's transcendent Piet à .

      In Mark and Luke, Mary arrives at the tomb two days later with Mary Magdalene to anoint Jesus with perfumes but is greeted by an angel or angels who bid them to tell the disciples that Christ is risen. She does not actually see Jesus herself. Mary's final appearance in the Bible is anticlimactic. In the book of Acts, she is given a brief mention when she joins the apostles to pray at Pentecost (50 days after Jesus's Resurrection at Easter) in the "upper room," where the Last Supper was held.

      From then on, Mary's story is taken up by various Apocryphal and Gnostic texts. Although they recount diverse opinions about where she goes, some placing her with John in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Mount Zion, or Ephesus in present-day Turkey (according to the Eastern Orthodox tradition), most sources also place her at the center of a group of female disciples continuing Jesus's message of forgiveness. The Gnostic Pistis Sophia, which means Faith Wisdom in Greek, shows Mary as one of 17 disciples: the 12 male apostles plus Mary Magdalene, Salome, Martha, and her sister Mary of Bethany.