Virgin Mary: Her Life, History, Events and Women in Her Time

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da Vinci's Virgin
Mary was the mother of Jesus. Christians believe she was made pregnant miraculously by God while she was still a virgin. It can be argued that Mary is not only the central female figure of Christianity and Catholicism, she is the most prominent female figure in Western culture. Great churches and cathedrals like Chartres and Notre Dame in France and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople were raised in her honor and more medieval and Renaissance paintings were painted of her than any other figure. Visions, appearances and apertures of Mary far outnumber those of Jesus or any Christian saint.

Based on the number of books written about her (3,595 in 1999 the Library of Congress collection), the Virgin Mary is the world's most famous woman. Mary holds a special place because it believed that as the mother of Jesus none of the things that Christ did would have been possible if she didn’t give birth to him first. Some Christians believe that God gives his grace through Mary to women and through them to men. Christians have a special prayer for Mary: “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of the womb. Jesus, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

According to the BBC: ““One of the reasons that Mary has maintained her popularity is that there were all the makings in the biblical text for a fascinating story, and yet with much of the detail missing. Often when details are missing, tradition will do its own part in trying to fill in those details and imagine those details to make that person's life a little bit fuller and understand a bit more about them. [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC ]

Websites and Resources: Saints and Their Lives Today's Saints on the Calendar ; Saints' Books Library ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Saints engravings. Old Masters from the De Verda collection ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America ; Lives of the Saints: ; Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians ; Elaine Pagels website ; Sacred Texts website ; Gnostic Society Library ; Guide to Early Church Documents; Early Christian Writing ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins ; BBC on Christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Classics Ethereal Library;

Life of Mary

According to, Mary was 46 to 49 years old when Jesus died. Britannica states that she “flourished” from 25 B.C. to A.D. 75. Assuming this is in reference to her lifespan, according to Britannica, Mary was approximately 54 to 59 years old when Jesus died and lived to be 100.

Mary and Joseph's betrothal

Mary had Jesus when she was teenager, She is believed to have be around 14 when Jesus was born. It was not unusual for Jewish girls like Mary to get married at an early age. Many Protestants believe that after Jesus was born Mary no longer remained a virgin and had children with Joseph the normal way. They were all born after Jesus, making the virgin birth more plausible. Catholics and Orthodox Christians believe that Mary was virgin her entire life.

Maureen Orth wrote in National Geographic: “Clues about her life are elusive. Scholars of Mary must take what they can from Hebrew Scriptures, first-century Mediterranean texts, the New Testament, and archaeological digs. The Bible says she lived in Nazareth when Romans had control over the Jewish territory. After Mary became pregnant, her betrothed, Joseph, a carpenter, considered quietly leaving her until an angel came to him in a dream and told him not to. The birth of Jesus is mentioned in just two Gospels, Luke and Matthew. Mark and John refer to Jesus’ mother several times. [Source: Maureen Orth, National Geographic, December 2015]

“The Evangelists were writing 40 to 65 years after Christ’s death and were not biographers, says Father Bertrand Buby, the author of a three-volume study, Mary of Galilee, and a distinguished member of the faculty in the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton, in Ohio. “So don’t expect them to have all the elements about Mary. Her life is picked up from hearsay.” Some of the latest Mary scholarship focuses on her as a Jewish mother. María Enriqueta García, in her sacred theology dissertation at the Marian Institute, explains that Mary brings us to Jesus, who is the light of the world, just as Jewish mothers light the Shabbat candles. “We see the relationship of Mary with us isn’t just any relationship — it’s sacred.”

Mary in the New Testament

There are few mentions of Mary in the Bible. They include: 1) when Mary is told by an angel that she will conceive the son of God even though she was a virgin (Luke 1:26-38); 2) The manger scene when she gives birth to Jesus (Luke 2:15-19). 3) when she and Jesus’s brother appear to Jesus while he is speaking to a crowd (Matthew 12:46-50); 4) when she urges Jesus to perform his first miracle (turning water into wine) (John 2:1-7); and 5) her appearance at the crucifixion (John 19:25-27).

In the New Testament Mary speaks only four times, beginning with the Annunciation, when, according to Luke’s Gospel, the angel Gabriel appears to her and says she will bear “the Son of the Most High.” Mary answers, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” Her only extended speech, also in Luke, is the lyrical Magnificat, uttered in early pregnancy: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” [Source: Maureen Orth, National Geographic, December 2015]

According to the BBC: “The New Testament is quite disappointing in some ways because it doesn't tell us as much about Mary as we'd like to know. The place that we find most about Mary from is Luke's gospel. Luke thinks that Mary is one of the key characters in the drama so he tells the whole story of Jesus' birth from Mary's perspective. In particular, Luke writes about the time of the conception of Jesus and exactly what Mary was thinking, what she was doing, what her reactions were when the Angel Gabriel talked to her. [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC |::|]

“Other parts of the New Testament tend to be rather negative about Mary. Matthew tells the story from a traditional male perspective. He sees the whole story from Joseph's perspective. Mark's gospel tends to lump her together with Jesus' family and regards her as being someone who stands in the way of Jesus and his gospel and his message. |The gospel writers don't actually want to tell very much about Mary unless the action is really revolving around something important about Jesus. |::|

Is Mary the Real Hero of the Christmas Story

Candida Moss wrote in Daily Beast: As with most births, it’s his mother who’s the real hero of the Christmas story. Having undergone a lengthy and dangerous journey to Bethlehem, the teenage Mary gives birth in uncomfortable conditions and without the support of her immediate family. After the nativity, Mary only makes a few cameos in the Gospels; we hear almost nothing about Jesus’s upbringing and Jesus is dismissive of her on at least two occasions. But there’s a lot more to say about the woman whom Christian tradition describes as “the mother of God” and “Queen of Heaven.”

“According to tradition, Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem shortly before Jesus' birth. Joseph had been ordered to take part in a census in his home town of Bethlehem. All Jewish people had to be counted so the Roman Emperor could determine how much money to collect from them in tax. Those who had moved away from their family homes, like Joseph, had to return to have their names entered in the Roman records. |::|

“Joseph and Mary set off on the long, arduous 90-mile journey from Nazareth along the valley of the River Jordan, past Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Mary travelled on a donkey to conserve her energy for the birth. But when they arrived in Bethlehem the local inn was already full with people returning for the census. The innkeeper let them stay in the rock cave below his house which was used as a stable for his animals. It was here, next to the noise and filth of the animals, that Mary gave birth to her son and laid him in a manger. |::|

Women in Mary's Time

Catacombe of Priscilla

According to the BBC: “Jewish women in first century Palestine had very limited legal and economic rights. It's particularly in the domain of economic rights that this is a big problem. When a girl was in the household of her father, any work that she did or wages that she earned would belong to her father. Once she married, her wages and products that she made belonged to her husband. There were very few times when she would have any sense of financial and economic autonomy. [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC |::|]

“A woman didn't have the right to divorce her husband, but he could divorce her. If she divorced she would lose her children as well. Most inheritances that she received would go straight to her husband. The husband would maintain legal responsibility for the children. |::|

“We have multiple sources for knowing about women's lives in 1st century Roman Palestine. There are literary sources such as the Bible, texts from writers such as Josephus and Pliny and the Apocryphal texts (although these have to be read with a pinch of salt as they refer to a slightly later time). There are the early Rabbinic materials, which provide a good deal of information. There's also archaeological evidence and material culture to give us clues about how women lived and what kind of houses they lived in. There is a great deal of information about Roman women's lives in Roman texts and novels throughout the provinces of Rome. |::|

“Mary, like most Jewish women and girls of her time, would have spent most of her day working. Almost as soon as she could walk she would have been helping out with the many chores it took to keep daily life going. Stoves needed to be tended, beds needed to be made, homes need to be kept in repair, food needed to be prepared, animals needed to be tended whether one was on a farm or in a village. Food needed to be prepared for the future, so meat and vegetables needed to be preserved for future times as well. Water had to be drawn from cisterns and from wells. An incredible amount of work had to be done every day and it was done primarily by women and girls. |::|

“People at this time ate a fairly straightforward diet. Most days people would have eaten lots of bread from wheat or barley, cereals or gruels. Olives, dates and figs were also eaten. Meat was eaten every now and again, usually after a big festival and the slaughtering of a lamb or goat. A lot of wine was drunk too. |::| According to the BBC: “Politically Mary would have lived at quite a difficult time. She would have seen the end of the reign of Herod the Great and all the revolts that accompanied the end of his reign. She would have seen the Roman Legions coming in to Galilee to put down these revolts and all the atrocities associated with the legions. |::|

“We know from Jewish writings of the time that the Romans burnt cities and took people away into slavery. Galilee was politically fairly stable throughout most of Jesus' lifetime but there would have been isolated pockets of resistance and certainly no one would have liked the idea that Judea to the south was a Roman province, or that the Romans were present in the Holy City of Jerusalem and in the temple itself. |::|

“Galilee in the 20s was occupied by Romans and would have been an oppressing place for the Jews. If a Roman soldier said "you've got to carry my backpack one mile", they'd have to do it; they had no option. The Romans forced the Jews to pay taxes to Caesar. At night they might have heard the soldiers march by with their swords clanging, and they would have been afraid. |::|

“One can imagine there was talk about trusting in God and that maybe in their lifetime he would send a Messiah. The Jews, as they became more and more oppressed, may have became more and more obsessed with God. They may have thought that this could be the time for the Saviour to come. And it was in this highly charged theological atmosphere that Mary wove her way to the well, perhaps holding in her arms the infant Jesus. |::|

Marriage and Pregnancy Out of Wedlock in Mary’s Time

model of an ancient synagogue

Mary was young According to the BBC: “Later Rabbinic sources tell us that Jewish girls could be betrothed as early as 12 years and a day or any time after the age of twelve and a half. The actual marriage involved two stages. First of all there was the betrothal and then - after an interval of several months, perhaps a year - the young girl would have been taken to the house of her husband to be and at that moment, once they started to live together, they were considered properly married. |::| “This could have been quite a traumatic process for a young girl; to leave behind her mother and father and all the people she was used to, and go to live in an alien household. The choice of husband was made by the family, not by the girls themselves. It was a legal agreement between the father and the husband. Girls did not have a part in that legality. |::|

“ A girl who became pregnant out of wedlock would have been terrified. The whole social structure was set up for children to be born within marriage. Genealogy and ownership of children was seen as very important. Girls who became pregnant outside marriage would probably have had to leave their homes and their families. |::|

“There was the potential of being sold into slavery or of being stoned to death. She may have been married off quickly or banished from her home and village, which may have led a women to prostitution or slavery when she had no way of supporting herself. According to the New Testament Joseph, after being visited by an angel, decided not to send her away or to expose her but to marry her. |::|

Mary and the New Testament

Mary's Well in Nazareth

According to the BBC: “The story of Mary comes in all sorts of different contexts of the New Testament and we have to piece the different bits together. Matthew tells us a little bit, Luke tells us some different things, Mark doesn't tell us very much, John tells us some different things again. It's not one big coherent story that takes you from her birth to her death. We just have little spotlights of certain parts of her life. [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC |::|]

“Mary does appear outside the New Testament, but the documents start looking very much like pieces of ancient fiction. The best source for her is a document from the second century called the Proto-Evangelium of James. It's a parochial text and it talks in great detail about her parents, her upbringing, her age when she conceived Jesus and so on. The disappointing thing about it is that most of it is probably made up. |::|

“The fact that Mary is in the New Testament at all is significant because it deals with Jesus and the growth of the early church; there's actually very little reason to mention anything at all about Mary. The New Testament tells us very little about his father Joseph so the fact that she's prominent shows that there was some interest in Mary in the early church years. |::|

“It is important to remember that all of the gospels were written significantly later than the death of Jesus. Matthew and Luke, who do refer to Jesus' birth, were probably written almost a century later than his birth. Each of the gospels was composed in a different environment at a different time with particularly different interests in mind. Each one of them has a slightly different theological overtone, each of them is writing for slightly different purposes and thus each has its own particular traits. |::|

“There are very few references to Mary outside the New Testament. Later Jewish writings refer to her by her Jewish name, Miriam, and say that she's a hairdresser and that Jesus is the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier called Panthera. The problem with these references is they are at least from the 200s - quite possibly as late as the 500s - so they're substantially later than the New Testament and probably reflect a lot of the hostility between Jewish and Christian groups at that late date.

Was the Mary a Slave?

One scholarly theory hypothesizes that Mary may have been a slave. Dr. Mitzi J. Smith of the Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, GA has published an article on Mary as an enslaved woman in her book “Bitter the Chastening Rod” Candida Moss wrote in The Daily Beast: , Some readers will undoubtedly be shocked by Smith’s suggestion. How could we think that Mary was enslaved? Well, the answer is that she says as much. The Gospel that provides the most information about Mary is the Gospel of Luke. (In fact, according to later tradition, Luke had met Mary and she served as his source for information about the events leading up to and include the birth of Jesus). When the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary in Luke 1 and told her that she would conceive and give birth to a son, Mary responded by identifying herself as a “doule” a Greek word that unambiguously means “enslaved girl” (Luke 1:38). If we were reading any other ancient text written in Greek, we would assume that Mary was enslaved [Source: Candida Moss, The Daily Beast, January 1, 2023].

As Smith told me, “Any first century reader, of any ethnicity, culture or religion, living under the Roman empire––a slave society where a significant segment of the population was enslaved and an empire that relied on enslaved labor––would have taken Mary’s self-designation as an enslaved woman seriously and as a declaration of her material or physical lived reality and not simply as a metaphor. And we should too.”

The Gospel of Luke was written, in the best scholarly estimates, sometime between 70-120 A.D. This was a period, Smith said, when Jewish people were enslaved in large numbers (for example in the aftermath of the First Jewish War, when 97,000 residents of Jerusalem and its environs were captured). As Professor Catherine Hezser has shown in her book Jewish Slavery in Antiquity, ancient Jews also practiced slaveholding. Slavery would have been an easy and natural frame of reference for anyone who heard this story.

Was Mary at the Crucifixion?

It is plausible that Mary was present at the Crucifixion. On the Gospel of John explicitly places her at the Cross but there are hints that she was there in the other gospels. According to the BBC: “In John's Gospel she's actually placed at the Crucifixion; Mary stands with the disciples, and they're entrusted to one another's care by the dying Jesus from the cross. But it's unlikely that Jesus would have been able to communicate with anyone from the cross. In the other gospels the relatives of Jesus stand at a distance and Jesus wouldn't have been able to have a conversation with them. [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC |::|]

“What does seem to be historically accurate is that Mary was in Jerusalem at this time. She could conceivably have been at the crucifixion. It's difficult to work out what happened to Mary after Jesus' crucifixion. The last reference there is to her comes early in Luke's second volume, The Acts of the Apostles. Luke was the only one of the gospel writers to write a second volume. He mentions Mary being in Jerusalem not long after the crucifixion. The other possibilities are either that she went home to Nazareth and went to live with family there, or she went to Ephesus and lived with the "beloved disciple" who's mentioned in John's gospel. |::|

Mary After the Crucifixion: Jerusalem or Ephesus?

Mary and other women at the tomb during Christ's Resurrection

“The story of Mary after the beginning of Acts is not known but there are traditions about it and it's important as part of the Christian story. Mary was associated with a beloved disciple in John's gospel and Jesus says the beloved disciple is to take her to his home. Women had to be looked after by men in that society so when Jesus could no longer look after her, the beloved disciple looks after her. The beloved disciple, who is not named in John's gospel, is identified later as being John. [Source: August 2, 2011, BBC |::|]

“Traditions vary. One tradition is that Mary stayed in Jerusalem, died in Jerusalem and Jerusalem claims her tomb. The reasoning for this is that we know James, her son (or her step-son), was there. Moreover, when James died, a cousin of Jesus' called Simeon became the next leader of the Church in Jerusalem. This suggests that there was a family enclave in Jerusalem. If this is the case then it makes it quite likely that Mary was one of the people who stayed there and held them all together. In a sense Jerusalem claims that Mary was the mother of the church in Jerusalem and James stayed in Jerusalem. But James himself had to flee Jerusalem when things got very difficult so perhaps Mary had to leave Jerusalem at some point.” |::|

Another “possibility is that Mary went to Ephesus some time after Jesus' death and resurrection. The reason for this theory is that John, the Beloved Disciple, is supposed to have written his gospel from there and this same John is said to have been at the cross with Mary when Jesus entrusted each of the disciples to each other. Ephesus is relatively unlikely to be the place where Mary went. The idea is purely based on the tradition of her association with John and John's gospel. At the beginning of the 19th century an interesting German nun had a vision about Mary's life. In that vision she saw Mary's life ending in Ephesus and she also described the house where Mary lived. As a result of that vision archaeologists dug up a house which is very similar to the one she described and this is now revered as Mary's house. |::|

“Mary may have died not long after Jesus' death and resurrection. Even if she was very young when she gave birth to Jesus she would have been in her forties, at the youngest, at this stage, which is already very good by ancient life expectancy, especially for a woman who's given birth.” |::|

In Turkey, the location of Ephesus, Mary “replaced Diana (Artemis) , one of the Greek goddesses. When Christianity began to spread beyond the Holy Land, it arrived in areas where other gods and goddesses reigned. Christians now sing hymns at the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Ephesus on the west coast of Turkey. But before Mary came, the Greek goddess Diana was worshipped there, and there was a large temple in her honour. The Christian Bible records how craftsmen who made silver shrines to Diana railed against the newly arrived Christians who were threatening their trade.“But their protests were in vain - as Christianity gained a following in Ephesus, Mary replaced Diana in the affections of the people. Mary even assumed many of the Greek goddess's titles, such as "Queen of Heaven" and "Mother of God". [Source: Andrew Walker, Professor of Theology and Culture, King's College, London, August 3, 2011, BBC |::|]


Ephesus (about 100 kilometers south of Izmir on the west coast of Turkey) has been described as the best-preserved classical city in the Mediterranean. Called "the first and greatest metropolis in Asia" it was the home of 250,000 people in Roman times and was one of the first cities in the world to embrace Christianity. Even though it is located about eight miles inland today, Ephesus was once a great port and in its time the commercial hub of the Mediterranean and the place where St. Paul sent his letter to the Ephesians. .

Outside the entrance gate is a completely restored gymnasium, the Roman equivalent of a secondary school. The first place you come to inside the gate is a huge a 24,000 seat amphitheater where St. Paul spoke during the first century after Christ's death.After one of St. Paul's sermon's a riot broke out because the citizens of Ephesus feared that Christ would dethrone their popular pagan goddess Diana. From the hill in back of the amphitheater there is a panoramic view of the entire city.

The Marble Way is road paved with flat stones. Heading up the Marble Way you pass the Library of Celsius, the most beautifully restored structure in Ephesus. The marble facade of the library is comprised of two tiers of Corinthian columns and niches with statues. If you are so inclined it is possible to crawl around in the ancient sewer system underneath the building.

Ascending from the library to the top of a hill is the Sacred Way, an ancient marble road lined with columns its entire length. Off to one side of the road is an ancient brothel, identified with a small inscribed foot and a woman with a mohawk haircut. As you climb up the hill you pass the sacred pump room which produced water that purportedly made sterile women fertile. Further up is the Fountain of the Trojans and the Temple of Hadrian. The later is adorned with friezes of elephants, warriors, kings and gods, and was used to worship the emperor.

House of the Virgin and Temple of Diana in Ephesus

The House of the Virgin (outside of Ephesus) is, according to legend, where the Apostle John and the Virgin Mary came here after Christ was crucified. Mary reportedly lived here until she died. She is not buried anywhere because, according to the Catholic scripture but not the Bible, when she died she rose into the sky “assumed body and soul into Heavenly glory.” The Vatican has sanctioned the site which is visited each year by thousands of pilgrims.

Mary’s House is a tiny stone structure, dimly lit despite burning candles placed throughout it. Nuns who oversee the chapel sell rosary beads. Visitors can collect water from the chapel’s spring. The black handless statue of the virgin that once sat inside the house can now be seen in the museum in Selçuk. John is believed to be buried under the ruins in the 6th-century cathedral. Double Church was the home of the third Ecumenical Council (A.D. 431).

The Temple of Diana in Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was ordered by King Croesus and completed around 550 B.C. after 120 years of labor. Described by Phion as the greatest of the seven wonders, the Temple of Diana was 225-feet-wide and 525-feet-long, with 127 sixty-foot-high marble columns. The largest and most complex temple in ancient times, it was made out of marble, wood and tile, and built on marshy soil so it would be immune to earthquakes. Even so the temple had to be rebuilt three times before Goths destroyed it in 262 A.D.

Diana of Ephesus, also known as the virgin huntress of the moon, was worshipped throughout most of Europe and the Mediterranean during ancient times and she still has followers today. The Greeks knew her as Artemis, and her origins can be traced as far back as Babylon. She may even have evolved from Stone Age earth mothers goddesses that dominated primitive cultures before the Greeks popularized male gods.

Despite the fact she was a permanent virgin, she was the goddess of fertility, and the famous statue of her now in the Selçuk Museum has endowed her with 18 breasts. None of the breasts have nipples, however, which led one classical scholar to venture they were actually bull's testes or the ova on scared bees. Whatever they were Diana's image has fascinated artists for centuries. Other statues have placed bees on her knees and lions over her shoulders. A Raphael painting of her graces the Vatican. And recently a Brooklyn artist gave her four buttocks as well as a chestful of breasts.

What got St. Paul into trouble was his statement: "Diana should be despised and her magnificence should be destroyed" The Temple that honored her was a popular tourist attraction and silver souvenirs of Diana and her temple were sold on the streets of Ephesus like miniature Eiffel towers and Statues of Liberty are sold today. During the festival of Artemis images of Diana were placed on the steps of her temple for worshipers to kiss. [Source: Vicky Goldberg, New York Times, August 21, 1994].

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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