Mary: Greek Mariam [var. Maria], so also the Septuagint (LXX) for Miriam, sister of Moses, Hebrew Miryam. Mariam is the shortened version of the name Mariamne/Mariamme, a common first-century B.C.E./C.E. Jewish women's name. The Rabbis associated the name with the Hebrew word for “bitter.” More likely etymologies are “plump one” or “wished-for-child.”

Summary: Mary in the Gospels and Acts.

Mary's role in the gospels and Acts begins with the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke who introduce Mary as a Jewish girl betrothed to Joseph of Nazareth, a descendant of King David (Lk 1:27 and genealogies). While still a virgin, Mary becomes pregnant with Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit (Mt 1:18; Lk 1:35). According to Luke, Mary visits her pregnant kinswoman, Elizabeth (Lk 1:39–45), soon to bear John the Baptist, and she sings the hymn of praise known as the Magnificat (Lk 1:46–55) (although there is manuscript evidence that this song was originally Elizabeth's). In both Matthew and Luke, Mary gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem (80 miles [130 km] south of Nazareth), where the family is visited by shepherds (Lk 2:15–18) or “wise men” (Gk magoi, non-Jewish practitioners of esoteric knowledge and magic; Mt 2:1–12). Matthew adds a flight into Egypt to evade a murderous King Herod (Mt 2:14) followed by a return to Nazareth. Luke reports Jesus' circumcision (2:21), and, as the gospel most interested in the Jerusalem Temple—and the most misinformed about Jewish praxis—has Jesus' parents performing a supposed purification sacrifice in the Temple where aged prophets Simeon and Anna extol the baby (Lk 2:22–38). Also in Luke is the incident of Jesus' mother and father finding their missing son presiding in the Temple (Lk 2:46). In the succeeding years Mary and Joseph have more children (Matt 12:47; Mk 3:32; Lk 8:20; Jn 2:12), but Mary was apparently a widow by the time of Jesus' ministry.

The Synoptic gospels and the gospel of Thomas paint a picture of seeming mutual aloofness between the adult Jesus on the one hand and Mary and Jesus' siblings on the other (Mt 10:37; 12:47–8; Mk 3:31–5; Lk 8:19–21; Thomas Log. 55; 99). Furthermore, according to the synoptics, Mary was not present at the crucifixion or resurrection of her son. However, “Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:14) are part of the post-Easter community in Jerusalem. John's gospel mentions that Jesus' mother (always unnamed) and brothers accompany him and his disciples to Capernaum early in his travels (Jn 2:12), although his relations with the brothers seem fraught with suspicion and misunderstanding (Jn 7:3–5). Mary appears in her own right twice; uniquely in John, she precipitates Jesus' first miracle, the changing of the water into wine at Cana (Jn 2:1–11), and stands vigil with the other women and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross (Jn 19:25) where Jesus commends his mother and disciple to one other.

Mary's “Slim Scriptural Persona.”

Many scholars have noted the “slim scriptural persona” of Mary the mother of Jesus in the New Testament; references are restricted to the gospels and Acts 1. Paul, whose letters provide the earliest textual witness to Jesus, seems uninterested in, if not unaware, of Jesus' life or family except for James, Jesus' brother who led the post-Easter Jerusalem church (1 Cor 15:7; Gal 1:19; 2:9, 12) and unnamed “brothers” (1 Cor 9:5). In describing Jesus as “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4) Paul employed a common Jewish locution for “human being.” Furthermore, 1 Timothy's cautions against “myths and endless genealogies” (1 Tim 1:4) and “profane myths and old wives' tales” (1 Tim 4:7) may express overt hostility, at least in late first-century Pauline circles, to gospel-style narratives about Jesus; 1 Timothy could be aimed particularly at infancy accounts such as those in Matthew and Luke, the only New Testament books to provide lengthy genealogies for Jesus.

In Mark, the earliest gospel (ca. 70C.E.), the life of Jesus as “the Christ” (“the anointed one,” “the Messiah”) begins, as does the gospel itself, with Jesus' baptismal “birth” as “son of God” (Mk 1:11). Peter's speech in Acts 2:22ff., which preserves an early Christian creed, says nothing about Jesus' family or a miraculous birth. Finally, much of what the gospels and Acts 1 do report about Mary should be understood in the context of ancient literary conventions in which history and theology coalesce, the one influencing the other. First-century standards of evidence also differ from those of today; Luke's claim to eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:2) did not preclude wholesale borrowing from the gospel of Mark. No non-Christian source contemporary with the New Testament (first century) mentions the mother of Jesus. Earliest among the Orthodox Christian fathers, Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107) invoked Mary as proof of Jesus' humanity against Docetists who believed Jesus only seemed human but was actually fully divine.

Consequently, as with Jesus, contemporary scholarship tends to distinguish the “historical Mary” from the “Mary of faith.” Light on the “historical Mary” comes less from the New Testament than from advances in knowledge about the Jewish world in which Jesus was conceived, lived, and died. On the other hand, the “Mary of faith” continues to evolve, as contemporary feminist and liberation theologians demonstrate. The earliest stories about this Mary developed for two main reasons: the first was Christian desire to fill in the gaps that the earliest creedal statements about Jesus (such as 1 Cor 15:1–4) left unaddressed; the second—and related—reason was that Christians found themselves of necessity considering Jesus' mother as they articulated their understanding of the person and role of Jesus (Christology).

The Historical Mary.

The gospels and Acts agree that Jesus came from the tiny Galilean village of Nazareth, and this may also be true of his mother. However, first-century Jewish families tended to be patrilocal (the wife living with her husband's family), so Mary could have been born and raised somewhere nearby. The biblical forerunner of the numerous Jewish girls called Mariam was Moses' bold sister, Miriam (Ex 15:20–21), but a female relative might have been Mary's more proximate namesake. The names of Mary's mother and father in the apocryphal Protevangelion of James (mid-second century) are Anna and Joachim, which may preserve an authentic memory; on the other hand, the author may have invented the name Anna based on another childless woman, Hannah, the prophet Samuel's mother (1 Sam 1).

Mary grew up a peasant girl in rural Galilee; it is unlikely that she would have been able to read or write, but she would have absorbed Jewish traditions from the yearly festal cycle and local folkways. In addition to household duties, she probably roamed the surrounding hills tending the occasional sheep or goats that peasant families raised. The Protevangelion of James claims that Mary was born into a wealthy priestly family of Davidic descent, no doubt in part to answer the troublesome Christological question as to how Jesus could be the “son of David” if Joseph, whose Davidic ancestry is outlined in Matthew and Luke, were only Jesus' foster father. Mary's priestly ancestry in the Protevangelion may have originated as a parallel to Miriam's and Moses' parents who were both Levites (Ex 2:1).

As in other traditional Mediterranean cultures, even among the lower classes, Mary's parents probably arranged her marriage to Joseph. Jewish men tended to marry in their twenties or even thirties. Mary's husband might well have been an artisan—the Greek tekton, traditionally translated “carpenter,” had a range of meaning beyond that of carpenter in the modern sense—a deduction from Mark 6:3 where Jesus is “the carpenter [tekton],” and sons usually followed their fathers' profession. (There is also a variant manuscript reading of Mark 6:3 that calls Jesus “the son of the carpenter.”)

Because Jewish girls married soon after the onset of puberty, Mary may have conceived Jesus around the age of thirteen. Although both Matthew and Luke describe a virginal conception, their accounts interweave so many patterns, phrases, and motifs from Jewish scripture and Midrash that they cannot stand as historical evidence. Additionally, not only do they contradict one another, but more significantly, in subsequent chapters no one, least of all Mary, mentions or seems aware of anything unusual about Jesus' conception or childhood. Luke's claim that the mother of John the Baptist and the mother of Jesus were related may be a Lukan invention as it was apparently unknown to the other evangelists. While acknowledging a spiritual connection between Jesus and John the Baptist, who was more famous than Jesus in the early years of the Jesus movement, Luke is also intent upon establishing Jesus' superior authority; to wit, John's birth to an elderly barren mother followed scriptural precedent, but with Jesus' virginal conception God has worked a miracle in an entirely new mode.

Whether Mary gave birth to Jesus at home in Nazareth or in Bethlehem as reported by Matthew and Luke remains the subject of debate. Mark and John, the earliest and latest gospels, seem to assume a birth in Nazareth. No credible historical evidence exists for a Roman census around the time of Jesus' birth (Lk 2:1–5), nor does the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem for a census or taxation correspond to any known Roman or Jewish practice. Birth in Bethlehem is not impossible, but oral traditions about heroes, Jesus included, quickly become “story magnets” to which appealing and enlightening details adhere. Bethlehem's status as King David's birthplace and the home of a future ruler according to prophecy (Mic 5:2; quoted in Mt 2:6) could contribute to its identification as Jesus' own birthplace. Narrative motifs associating Jesus with the Jerusalem area—Bethlehem is 6 miles (9.6 km) from Jerusalem—might have developed in Jerusalem church circles in the half-century between Jesus' death around 30C.E. and the composition of the gospel infancy narratives in the 80s and 90s.

Nowhere does the New Testament claim or imply Mary's continued virginity after Jesus' birth. Matthew (1:25) states explicitly that Joseph refrained from intercourse with Mary only until Jesus was born. Luke 2:7 calls Jesus Mary's “first-born son,” which is likely, but both Luke and Matthew may be echoing scripture, according to which first- born males belong to God (Ex 13:2, 12; 22:29; 34:19; Nu 3:13; Lk 2:23 cites Ex 13:2). All four of the gospels also mention Jesus' siblings. Mark 6:3 (cf. Matt 13:56) quotes Jesus' skeptical Nazareth neighbors for whom Jesus is just the “son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” The gospel writers assume that these are Jesus' full siblings, and thus Mary seems to have borne at least six more children after Jesus. Such a large family points to a remarkably fertile and healthy mother. Joseph's absence from the gospels probably indicates that he left his wife a widow before his son's ministry began. In addition to Jesus' brother James, a “pillar of the church” (Gal 2:9), Paul refers to “brothers of the Lord” (1 Cor 9:5) as missionaries who like Cephas (Peter) traveled with their wives; assuming these married brothers had children, Mary would have been a grandmother.

In the second century, Justin Martyr defended Jesus from accusations that he was the illegitimate son of Mary and a Roman soldier named Pantherus. Most scholars think that anti-Christian circles disseminated the Pantherus story in reaction to Christian claims for Jesus' supernatural conception. The earliest mention of Mary's virginity post partum appears in the second-century Protevangelion of James, which features the birth stories of both Mary and Jesus. Perhaps composed in ascetic Syriac Christian circles, this document remained relatively obscure until the later fourth century when feuding factions led by Jerome and Helvidius, among others, argued over the state of Mary's virginity in their disputes over the spiritual authority of married versus celibate church members.

It seems clear that at the latest, Mary joined the followers of Jesus soon after his crucifixion (Acts 1:14). She would have been in her mid-forties, elderly by ancient standards. Her appearance at the cross in John's gospel hints at an actual association between Mary and the so-called “beloved disciple,” traditionally, if improbably, identified as John the Evangelist. However, after the notice in Acts she vanishes from history. Lacking even early apocryphal stories about her subsequent life or her death, the probable conclusion would be that she enjoyed no special status in the early Jerusalem church. In the ensuing three centuries the most important female Christian saint and role model for women was Thecla, Paul's sometime preaching companion; more Christian women seem to have been named Thecla than Mary. By the late fourth or early fifth century stories about Mary's Dormition (“falling asleep”) reported that Mary went to live in Bethlehem and subsequently died in Jerusalem surrounded by all the apostles, both living and dead, and greeted by Jesus after his death. A competing but less prominent apocryphal tradition claimed she lived and died in Ephesus.

Mary in the Gospels.

For all their general agreement, each of the synoptic gospels presents a slightly different Jesus, while the remote and lordly Jesus of John's gospel stands even further apart. As the gospels' Jesuses differ, so does Mary, and her presence advances each evangelist's Christology. The following survey outlines Mary's role in each gospel in their probable order of composition.


Mark's omission of any information about Jesus before his baptism suggests that for the author of the earliest gospel (70C.E.) Jesus' childhood and early adult life were of no consequence. Mark's Jesus has been described as the “suffering Son of God,” misunderstood and ultimately abandoned by his followers. His family's appearance in Mark 3 contributes to this portrait. If Mary is meant to be included among “his own” (NRSV, “his family”) in Mark 3:31, then she, too, thinks her son has “gone out of his mind” (“possessed” might be a better translation, given the proximity of the charge that Jesus has an unclean spirit [Mark 3:30]).

Later in the same chapter, as Jesus' mother and brothers and sisters come to him, presumably to rescue him from himself, Jesus pronounces his dictum—it appears in all three synoptics and Thomas—that his true “brother and sister and mother” are those now sitting at his feet who “do the will of God” (3:33–35). This definition of Jesus' true family need not exclude his own mother and siblings, but the rhetorical thrust of Mark's narrative depends on the shock value of the contrast between the unbelieving blood family and the believing spiritual family. Mark mentions Mary a second time (6:3) as he builds on the “misunderstanding motif” with another scene set in Nazareth; Jesus' neighbors name his mother and brothers one by one, concluding their litany of names with a nod to Jesus' “sisters.” Contemptuous familiarity with Jesus' mother and siblings blinds the townspeople to Jesus' true nature.


The earliest Christian birth narrative appears in Matthew, composed probably between 80 and 85C.E. For Matthew, Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, come to perfect the covenant of God with the chosen people of Israel. Matthew uses two primary frameworks in shaping the birth narrative. First, for Matthew Jesus is the new Moses, and he bases his birth narrative on contemporary Jewish midrashim (mostly oral story traditions) about the birth of Moses. Second, Matthew repeatedly cites scriptural “proof texts” as evidence that the circumstances of Jesus' birth fulfill scriptural prophecy and God's plan of salvation.

Not Mary but Joseph is the hero of Matthew's birth story. His dreams recall another prophetic and divinely guided dreamer, Joseph son of Jacob; Joseph is also modeled after Amram, Moses' father who, in Jewish expansions of the birth story of Moses, also received a reassuring dream about his pregnant wife (i.e., Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 4.254–259). Even the grammar of the story reinforces Joseph's primacy; Mary is the subject of an active verb only once, in a subordinate clause. Nor does she speak. Matthew does not reveal how Mary conceived Jesus—the reader learns she was “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:18)—and the narrative stresses Joseph's anxieties, not Mary's.

Nevertheless, Mary matters to Matthew because of his scriptural fulfillment theme; Matthew states explicitly that the virginal conception of Jesus by Mary corresponds to the Emmanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, and he quotes Isaiah to prove it (Mt 1:22–23). Scholars dispute whether Matthew's citation of Isaiah 7:14 indicates any Jewish expectation of a virginally conceived Messiah. In patriarchal societies such as Mary's female virginity at marriage serves to guarantee the paternity of the couple's first child. In Matthew, Jesus' miraculous conception highlights God's active role in the “creation” of the Messiah.

As early as the second century, anti-Christian polemicists gleefully pointed out that Matthew's gospel had cited not the original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14, but the Greek translation (Septuagint) which had rendered the Hebrew ‘almah, “young woman,” by Greek parthenos, usually meaning a physically intact virgin. Christian apologists such as Justin Martyr (mid-second century) countered with a clever point: if, as Jewish tradition insisted, the Septuagint translation was sanctioned by a miracle (as affirmed in the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas of the second century B.C.E.), then God must have deliberately put the word “virgin” in the Greek translation of Isaiah 7:14.

Mary's role in Matthew's birth story also helps to explain the curious presence of four women besides Mary in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus. Since biblical genealogies seldom list women, these four—Tamar (1:3; cf. Gen. 38), Rahab (1:5; cf. Josh 2), Ruth (1:5; Ru 3) and Bathsheba (“the wife of Uriah;” 1:6; cf. 2 Sam 11)—must signify something important. It would appear that like them, Mary remained morally uncompromised despite an association with sexual irregularity, and like theirs, Mary's action furthers God's plan to bring salvation to Israel through the Davidic lineage (2 Sam 7). Perhaps by subtle placement of the women's names and Mary's passive role in the birth story, Matthew points to the hidden hand of God at work in history.


Luke's gospel, like Matthew's, is generally dated to the early 80s, although some New Testament scholars have recently suggested that Luke's infancy narrative (Lk 1–2) is an addition of the early second century. Whether or not this will prove the case, Luke 1–2 nevertheless touches upon themes found in the Luke as a whole: a concern for the marginalized and poor; an acute awareness of Jesus' place in the history of the Jewish and Gentile world; a subtle polemic against the political and social values of the Roman Empire; and a sense that Jesus follows in the steps of the great—and persecuted—Jewish prophets, especially Elijah.

Given these concerns, it is not surprising that in Luke's nativity story Mary is exceedingly active; she wonders, she questions, she makes a decision, three times she travels from Galilee to Judea, she rejoices with her kinswoman Elizabeth, she sings a prophecy, she gives birth. As a peasant woman she is both marginalized and powerless, and she lives under Roman occupation. The birth of Jesus is staged before a backdrop of Roman power in the days of the emperor “Caesar Augustus” (2:1) whose coins bore the legend divi filius, “son of a god;” with conscious irony, the narrator presents readers with the child of a peasant mother who must lay her baby in a feeding trough for animals; but this infant is nonetheless the true son of God of whose “kingdom there will be no end” (1:32–33).

Luke is also intent upon explaining Jesus to his Gentile Christian audience, and in the mode of nineteenth-century Christian missionaries, he must translate Jewish ideas, especially the idea of Jesus as “son of God,” into Gentile terms. Like Matthew, Luke describes a virginal conception but with a different focus. In Jesus' time, a devout Jew who consciously strove to do God's will could be called a “son of God” (see Wisd of Sol 2:12–20, and compare Lk 23:47 with Mk 15:39). In Greco-Roman culture, by contrast, “son of God” meant a child born of a carnal encounter between a human and a deity; for example, Perseus, Herakles, Helen, and Aeneas, the ancestor of the Romans. Where Matthew's birth story is patterned on that of Moses, Luke's reads like a Greek myth. To Jews the Holy Spirit's “overshadowing” of Mary recalled the cloud-like glory of God filling the tabernacle in the wilderness (Ex 40:34), but Luke's Gentile listeners would more likely envision Danaë, the mother of Perseus, impregnated by Zeus in the form of a shower of gold passing through the upper window of an otherwise inaccessible tower. Luke may intend another ironic parallel here between the mothers of Jesus and of the Roman emperor; the Roman historian Suetonius reports a tale of the impregnation of Augustus's mother, Atia, by the god Apollo (De Vita Caesarum—Divus Augustus XCIV; 121C.E.).

A modern paraphrase of the Angel Gabriel's greeting to Mary, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (1:28), would be “Hello, lucky girl! God is on your side.” In the Magnificat (1:46–55) Mary glories in a God who exalts a poor teenaged girl from nowhere, who reverses the injustices of the world and who discharges his promises to his faithful people. In Luke, Mary is the very first to articulate a vision of the kingdom of God that her yet-unborn son will bring to the world. Luke bases Mary's song on the biblical Song of Hannah (1 Sam 2), but Mary—Mariam—is also Miriam redivivus, the “prophetess” glorifying God for delivering the enslaved Israelites from the Egypt (Ex 15). Anthropologists have observed that sexual activity and prophecy are often mutually exclusive. Mary as an adolescent virgin lingers on the threshold between childhood and adulthood. In such a liminal state the virgin becomes receptive to penetration by the spirit of God and can in turn mediate God's message to humanity.

Mary's encounter with Gabriel also follows a literary genre, the “call narrative,” found throughout the Hebrew Bible. One may profitably compare Luke 1:26–38 with the burning bush episode in Exodus 3. First, God or an angel (“messenger”) appears to an unlikely person (Moses the outlaw, Mary the girl) with a commission to save Israel from distress. The person always objects that the required action is impossible or inappropriate (Moses cannot speak well; Mary is a virgin). God gives reassurance, often reinforced by a miracle, and at last God's chosen hero acquiesces. That God has chosen a girl, however, makes Luke's call narrative different from earlier biblical examples. For the reader, an awareness of the call narrative pattern creates a dynamic tension in the interpretation of Mary's “Yes.” Does she have the option of saying “No” to God? Is she intimidated? Or is she an autonomous actor?


Mary's literary function in John, latest of the canonical gospels (early 90s C.E.), is complicated by at least three layers of compositional phases and by the instability of the text itself. For example, the episode of the woman taken in adultery is a late addition and changes place from manuscript to manuscript. John's audience seems to have been Jewish Christians embittered over rejection by fellow Jews. In John, Jesus is the divine man from heaven who differs so strikingly from the Jesus of the Synoptics that scholars debate whether the author of John had any awareness of them.

Like Mark, John begins with the adult Jesus, but John gives Mary two prominent and unique scenes, first at Cana (2:1–11) and later at the cross (19:25–27), the beginning and end of Jesus' ministry. As in the Synoptics, however, Mary is absent from the resurrection. Even if the mother of Jesus was introduced secondarily into an earlier version of the wedding at Cana—as may be indicated by some textual awkwardness—the question remains as to her function in the present narrative. Further, Jesus' tone in addressing his mother as “Woman,” while probably not meant as dismissive, still sounds detached. One suggestion has been that Mary belongs to a set of characters in John—others are Nicodemus (Jn 3) and the Samaritan women (Jn 4)— who are attracted to Jesus, yet misunderstand him, or who are rebuffed by Jesus, but achieve their objective through their persistence (Jn 4:46ff.). By way of contrast, the scene at the foot of the cross shows Jesus binding his mother and the beloved disciple together and thereby creating the new eschatological family that binds all Christians.

Reception History.

Differing views of the mother of Jesus were a natural consequence of diverse Christian attempts to work out the meaning of Jesus' life and death. In the Gospel of Thomas (Log. 101) Jesus ridicules the idea that any human mother gave him life. On the other hand, Adoptionist Christians insisted that Mary and Joseph conceived Jesus in the normal human way and that God adopted Jesus at his baptism. In a lost gospel Jesus refers to “my Mother the Holy Spirit” (The Gospel of the Hebrews). Even in the late fourth century, Augustine had to quash the notion, apparently still current, that Jesus was the son of God and the Holy Spirit, despite the fact that in 325 the Council of Nicea had affirmed that “by the power of the Holy Spirit [Jesus] became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” One of the eighty heresies described in Epiphanius's Panarion (ca. 380) involved women officiating over a “blasphemous act” that apparently consisted of offering and then sharing bread in the name of the Virgin; rather than providing evidence that Mary was in some places worshipped as a goddess, Epiphanius is indulging in hyperbolic rhetoric against what he sees as excessive veneration of a saint. Fifty years later at the Council of Ephesus (431) Mary was declared Theotokos (“God-bearer”) and thereby definitively assured of her theological stature and her subsequent prominence in Christian art.

In the centuries after the Peace of the Church, and primarily in the West, biblical passages outside the Gospels came to be associated with the mother of Jesus. For example in Revelation 12:1 the “woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” probably symbolized the persecuted Church. However, especially as the doctrine of Mary's Assumption to heaven after her death grew out of Eastern traditions of the Virgin's Dormition (“falling asleep”), Revelation's heavenly woman was often identified as Mary. By the seventh century the Song of Songs had entered the liturgy for the feasts of the Virgin's Nativity, Purification, and Assumption, and in the Middle Ages the Song's marriage imagery inspired scenes of Christ enthroned with Mary or crowning the Virgin as Queen of Heaven. Portrayals of the Virgin standing on the sun or half-moon and treading on a snake combine Revelation 12:1 with a mistranslated pronoun in the Latin (Vulgate) of Genesis 3:15: the Vulgate's “she” who will strike the serpent's head was taken to mean Mary. This image of Mary crowned with Revelation's twelve stars became the canonical representation of the Virgin as the Immaculate Conception (not to be confused with Mary's virginal conception of Jesus), a Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary herself was conceived without original sin, officially adopted in 1854 after centuries of internal debate.

There are no known images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary from their lifetimes or for several centuries thereafter. The earliest Christians—many of whom still considered themselves Jews—appear to have honored the Second Commandment's ban on idols (Ex 20:4–5). Evidence for identifiably Christian art is lacking before the third century when Christians in Rome began to adapt conventional pagan images such as the Good Shepherd for their own purposes. Until very recently, the earliest image of Mary was believed to be a third-century fresco of a mother and child in the Roman catacomb of Priscilla. Reexamination of the fresco, however, suggests that what was originally a Roman matron and child was “restored” to look more like the traditional Virgin of later centuries. Absent the renowned Priscilla image, the earliest Mary image would be found in one of the Adoration of the Magi (Matt 2:9–11) scenes in the Roman catacombs, the only composition featuring Mary that occurs with any frequency between the third and fifth centuries.

While the imprint of other important goddesses of the Greco-Roman world such as Artemis, Cybele, Hera and the Dea Syria can be traced in the traditions of the Virgin Mary, Egypt in particular may have contributed to the evolving devotion to the Virgin. Images of the Egyptian goddess Isis nursing the infant Horus may have influenced the representations of the Madonna and Child that began to appear more frequently as of the seventh century, although chronological and geographical gaps in the evidence preclude certainty. Furthermore, the title, Theotokos, an epithet of Isis, was championed for Mary especially by Cyril of Alexandria (Egypt) at the Council of Ephesus (431), and Egyptian magic spells originally associated with Isis reappear in Coptic Christianity featuring the Virgin Mary instead.

The history of the devotion to Mary is a complicated one. A case in point is a Christological concept related to Mary, namely her breast milk. The New Testament never alludes to Mary nursing, but the image of Mary suckling the infant Jesus was invoked by Ignatius in the early second century as proof of Jesus' humanity, and this is the primary message of the many late-Byzantine, Medieval and Renaissance nursing Virgins. However, in other early Christian writings, milk became a metaphor detached from the “bodily” aspect of a human mother's milk and associated instead with the male godhead. In the Odes of Solomon 19 salvation comes from the milk of God's breasts. Clement of Alexandria in the second century insisted that Mary's milk is the “drink of immortality” that comes from God and is composed of the same elements as Christ's eucharistic blood (Paedagogus I.VI, 39, 2–40). Two centuries later Cyril of Alexandria claimed that Mary's milk was given to her “in the heavens” (Discourse on the Virgin Mary [Coptic ms. 6782 in the British Museum]). As late as the seventh century, frescos of the nursing Virgin on the walls of monastic cells in Coptic Egypt probably communicated eucharistic rather than specifically Marian concepts; for Monophysite monks, Mary's milk, like that of Isis in earlier times, conferred immortality.

In the wake of the Council of Ephesus (431) Christian art increasingly featured the now-familiar biblical scenes featuring the Virgin Mary, such as the Annunciation (Lk 1:26–38), the Nativity of Christ, and the Crucifixion. The post-Iconoclastic era (tenth century) saw the appearance of the Deposition of Christ in which a distraught Mary extends her body over her dead son; from this developed the stark Pietà, Mary seated with the dead Christ draped over her lap in a sorrowful evocation of the Madonna and Child.


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Mary Joan WinnLeith