Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, is one of the great figures of Christianity.
Some, like Catholics and Orthodox, consider Mary a privileged intercessor between man and God.
Photo by DDP on Unsplash
Since the origins of Christianity, Mary has fascinated and been the subject of significant apocryphal literature to lift the veil over the many dark areas of her existence.
Let’s go back to the story of the woman who became the mother of Jesus.
In the origins: the canonical gospels
The oldest sources we have about Mary are the canonical Gospels, in particular those of St. Luke and St. Matthew, but also those of St. John, who, although he never called her by her first name, speaks of the “Mother of God.
Mary appears during the story of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel comes to announce that she will give birth to a newborn child generated by the Holy Spirit.
According to Luke (1:26-38), we learn that Mary was then engaged to a man, but that she is still a virgin and that the child to come is of divine origin.
Joseph, of course disappointed by his fiancée’s pregnancy, decided to break up with her in secret.
But an angel would have warned him about the sacred mission of his companion and decides not to disown it.
After a visit to her relative Elizabeth, who was also miraculously pregnant (she gave birth to St. John the Baptist), Mary returned to her husband who had to go to Bethlehem for a census.
This is the famous episode of the Nativity celebrated at Christmas: the couple makes the trip on the back of a donkey and Mary gives birth in Bethlehem, in a stable.
There it is said that angels have gathered together shepherds who have come to see the newborn and, according to Saint Matthew, three wise men from the East have come to pay homage to him.
Warned by the magicians of the birth of a new “King” and knowing that his power was threatened by a prophecy, the King Herod would have ordered then the massacre of the newborn babies, an episode only spoken about in the Gospels and remembered under the name of the Massacre of the Innocents.
But there also, according to Saint Matthew, Joseph, warned in a dream vision, escaped from the massacre and fled with his family to Egypt and did not return until the death of Herod.
St. Matthew is the only one who reports this episode, perhaps simply to make the gospel account coincide with the prophecies of Micah and Jeremiah.
However, there is nothing historically wrong with the scene, since Egypt was in fact a land of immigration for the Palestinians during the difficult reign of Herod.
St. Luke only tells how Jesus was presented to the Temple in Jerusalem, according to the Jewish rite.
It was there that a wise old man, moved by the Holy Spirit according to the Gospels, came to Jesus and made this prophecy to Mary of the imminence of redemption.
Then all of Jesus’ childhood is spent, spent in silence, where we no longer know anything about Mary’s life.
Only in the twelfth year of Jesus did we learn that the child was lost by his parents during the great feast of the Passover in Jerusalem.
They found him again in the Temple, among the doctors who marveled at his intelligence…
More generally, the translation of the term “siblings” is considered to be much broader than the current definition and may refer to various relationships between cousins.
During Jesus’ public life, his relationship with his mother was not well known. It seems that Jesus always minimized the strength of his ties in order to privilege the bond that through him united believers to God.
However, Mary is always with her son and it is even she who in some way launches her public life by inviting him to the wedding at Cana to turn water into wine.
Then Mary appears as the driving force of the Christ mission: she knows the divine origin of her son, she knows she has a mission and that everything must end in suffering for her…
And yet, she accepts this and even invites Jesus to initiate this process that seems unavoidable.
Present at the beginning, always in the shadow of her son during evangelization, Mary recovers a primary role during the Passion.
She is, along with St. John and Mary Magdalene, one of the last faithful to stand at the foot of the cross.
This gesture is often seen as a confirmation of the fact that Mary had no other children, so the visibly widowed woman (which could justify the idea of an older husband) and with no other support is entrusted to a trusted third party.
Since then, Mary was attended by the Apostles, the first Christian Church, and is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles attributed to St. Luke.
Mary of Nazareth, the central figure… So the chosen objective…
One suspects that the virgin birth was not more than 2,000 years ago than it is today, and questioning this virgin birth was a good way to question the divine character of Jesus and therefore of his mission and message
Thus, Mary quickly became a target of choice for anti-Christian literature. Already in 178, the Roman Celsus flatly rejects any divine origin of Jesus in his “True Discourse”, also called “Discourse against Christians”.
It makes Mary an adulterous woman who had sex with a Roman soldier named Panthera.
This accusation, which appears a century and a half after the events, is certainly the culmination of a general accusation made by Jews and Gentiles who did not accept the possibility of this conception by the Holy Spirit.
The choice to make the father a Roman soldier, an occupier, is also a way of minimizing the figure of Mary and insulting Christians by making their “Mother” a soldier’s daughter.
Apocryphal and tradition to complete the canonical history
In order to fill in the many dark areas in Mary’s life, Christian communities have written apocryphals, more or less late.
Tradition has also made it possible to evoke the origins and the end of the life of the mother of Jesus.
If we manage to date the apocrypha found, it is still very difficult to date the tradition they report.
Specifically, they do not provide us with anything irrefutable about Mary’s historical life, but they do inform us of an important historical phenomenon: the preponderant place occupied by the figure of Mary in the first Christian communities. These apocrypha often entered the Catholic tradition.
Thus, only in the apocryphal texts do the names of Mary’s parents appear: Anne (long since sterile) and Joachim who met at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem.
These accounts are rewritten in the Protestant Gospel of James (2nd century) and in the Gospel of pseudo-Matthew (late 6th century).
Mary is presented there as a child, brilliant in her goodness and more pious than any other, undeniably in the grace of God.
In her adolescence she rejected marriage, considering that God preferred chastity. Respecting her vow, the priests of the Temple would have organized a ceremony to find out who God appointed to keep it.
An apocryphal text solves the problem of marriage and Mary’s virginity by making her a consecrated virgin entrusted to an elderly man to protect and support her and not to found a family with her.
The rest of the story follows the main lines of the canonical gospels, but with more detail, including the reaction of the priests when they learn that “their” consecrated virgin is pregnant .
Mary undergoes a ritual test to prove that she has not made a mistake. This apocryphal work also brings several miraculous episodes during the flight to Egypt.
Finally, the question of Mary’s death is addressed in the pseudo-John’s Dormition of Mary, an apocryphal work, said to date from the sixth century, which states that the precious body was placed in Gethsemane in a tomb moved to paradise after three days.
What about Mary’s grave?
The location of Mary’s tomb is not known with certainty. Several sites are claimed to be the final resting place of the Virgin on earth, including the church of the tomb of the Blessed Virgin in Jerusalem, at the foot of the Mount of Olives.
This church, the result of a succession of buildings since the fourth century, is well founded in a first century cemetery, around a contemporary tomb of Mary.
However, only tradition (mentioned by Denys the Areopagite in the 4th century) and not archaeology, serve to authenticate it. The other competing site is quite far from Jerusalem, in Ephesus. It is in this city where Saint John would have gone to evangelize.
Mary was entrusted to St. John. The city of Ephesus has a basilica built on an ancient tomb attributed to St. John and a chapel considered the last house of Mary.
This last site was only identified as such at the end of the 19th century, based on the visions of a Germanic mystic: Anna Katharina Emmerick.
However, as the site is a 13th century chapel (although certainly built on older remains) there is no archaeological evidence linking the site to the 1st century and therefore even less to Mary.
Some point out that according to the Acts of St. John of Prochurus dating from the second century, St. John did not arrive in Ephesus until an advanced age, and therefore certainly after the Dormition. If this were so, Mary’s tomb would be in Palestine and not in Turkey.
The famous Talpiot tomb in Jerusalem was presented in 2007 by James Cameron as possibly the tomb of Jesus and his family.
Of the six osarios with name discovered (but it is not even sure that all come from the tomb), one takes the name of “Mariah”.
However, the link between this tomb and the Sagrada Familia was widely criticized and questioned. She was no longer to be called Mary in life, but rather Mariam in Aramaic.
Then, the grouping of the diverse characters (Mary Magdalene, Judas, Joseph, James…) contradicts the most ancient sources and traditions.
The analyses of DNA cannot be conclusive, since the osarios can have been reused many times.
As the names are among the most used at that time, their grouping in a tomb does not allow any conclusion. In the end, if the Christic theory of Talpiot’s tomb was an audiovisual success, it must be said that it does not have any scientific approval.
Mary in the Koran
Islam is the last Abrahamic religion, appearing only in the 7th century in a territory already strongly marked by several Christian Churches.
The Quran will echo the canonical gospels and the various late apocryphal traditions concerning Maryam (/ Mary) as the proto-gospel of James, the gospel of pseudo-Matthew, the Arabic gospel of childhood or the gospel of childhood according to Thomas .
In the Koran Maryam is a virgin entrusted to the prophet Zechariah. Like Christians, Muslims confess the virgin birth of Isâ (/ Jesus) and consider her one of the few perfect women (like Fatima, daughter of Muhammad).
According to the Koranic account, Maryam will give birth alone, “in a place towards the East”, at the foot of a palm tree. In the face of accusations against her, she makes her word a young man (she remains silent) and it is the newborn baby himself who presents himself as a prophet sent by God.
The Virgin Mary and Marian devotion
Marian worship is very early in Christianity, as the Apocrypha testify. In 431, at the Council of Ephesus, Pope Pius V officially recognized the title of “Theotokos”, which officially acknowledged that Mary is the mother of God and that her motherhood is of divine origin.
The Marian worship extended very quickly; the Virgin appeared as a privileged intercessor between men and her Son. In the sixth century, the Byzantine Emperor Maurice established August 15 as a Marian feast day, already widespread in the East. The same date was chosen in the West at the Council of Mainz in 813.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Marian and Christic figures were almost inseparable. In 1630, Louis XIII consecrated France to the Virgin Mary to thank her for a cure that he considered miraculous.
Since then, the Kingdom of the Lilies made a place for Mary in each of its churches: either the church was totally dedicated to her, or at least one chapel was dedicated to her. Even today, Mary is officially the first patroness of France.
The 19th century was a golden age for Marian worship, marked by numerous apparitions, particularly in France.
It is not a question here of determining the nature of these apparitions (metaphysical, psychological, mythomania…), but the fact is that the 19th century is extremely rich in Marian apparitions: Rome in 1842, La Salette in 1846, Lourdes in 1858, Champion in 1859, Pontmain in 1872 and Gietrzwald in 1877.
Of these six apparitions, half took place in France. For believers, these apparitions gave concrete expression to Mary’s role as intercessor: Marian devotion took on a new vigour.
As an echo of this fervor, Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854 the dogma of the Immaculate Conception according to which Mary is free from all sin.
The 20th century cannot be surpassed in terms of Marian apparitions: Fatima (Portugal) in 1917, Beauraing and Banneux (Belgium) in 1933, Amsterdam (Netherlands) in 1945, Isle of Bouchard (France) in 1947, Bethany (Venezuela) from 1940 to 1990, Akita (Japan) in 1973, Kibeho (Rwanda) in 1981…
The regularity of the apparitions, of which we only mention those recognized by the Catholic Church, maintains an already very strong Marian fervor.
In 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, celebrating Mary’s ascension to heaven in body and soul.
On the other hand, the Orthodox do not consider that Mary was elevated in body and soul; they do not speak of the Assumption but of the Dormition, and simply consider that she died without suffering in a perfect state of spiritual peace.
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