Who is Mary?
Well…she’s a biblical character, specifically the mother of Jesus, the pregnant virgin, and the woman visited by the angel Gabriel.
If you’re in any sense familiar with Scripture there is little doubt you will be ignorant of this little synopsis of Mary. But who exactly is Mary? And why should we care?
For many Mary is simply the vessel used by God to bring forth the Christ, the anointed one of Israel; whatever significance anyone may attribute to her outside of this sphere is, by their estimations, to miss the point of Mary! After all, doesn’t attention to Mary take away attention due Jesus?
For others Mary is the new Eve, the Ark of the New Covenant, and the mother of God. After all–they would say–God has honoured her, and for us to honour her in return is to fulfil Luke 1:48: ‘For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed’. A Scripture which comes from the very mouth of Mary.
Why the disparity? Why the extremity of opinion?
Writing as an charismatic evangelical I do feel some justification is needed to explain why I’ve chosen this topic to write on. After all, the protestant ‘knee jerk’ reaction toward anything supposedly Catholic is a common occurrence. It is thus with a spirit of sensitivity and an appeal to intellectual honesty that I would like to simply reveal what I have discovered about Mary from the Bible. I don’t really have any big agenda.
For many raised like myself, Mary was a character you only heard about each Christmas. I remember the feeling of unease knotting in my stomach whenever I saw catholics, or indeed traditional protestants, hold her up to be something more than a mere girl chosen arbitrarily by God to birth God in human form. Given my background the uneasy question of whether or not this could be considered idolatry was always in the back of my mind.
However, I stand surprised by what a careful reading of the Bible suggests about Mary. It would appear to me that catholics and traditional protestants do have Biblical basis for their claims about Mary. There is one claim today I wish to address: her perpetual virginity [the belief Mary remained a virgin her whole life] and I can–at least–present an argument for her immaculate conception [the belief that God preserved Mary from the taint of original sin from the moment she was conceived].
I am not here today to present anything new–actually this has been taught for a very long time! If you choose to agree with me or not, that, of course, is completely up to you. I merely want discuss the case for Mary’s perpetual virginity from Scripture.
To do so, I must first state that Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli–fathers of protestantism–believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity. Furthermore John Calvin undoubtedly favoured it, and 200 years later John Wesley, founder of Methodism, taught it. Moreover, it must be honestly taken into account that it was believed almost unanimously for 2000 years! So why do so many evangelicals today disbelieve it?
But let us move on as to why, from Scripture itself, one could have logical reasons to believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary.
The Old Testament: let’s be honest, we sometimes can have a prickly relationship with it; we love the Psalms but can feel bored to tears by Leviticus. Yes, I admit, I would benefit from reading it more. But isn’t that only logical? After all it’s just as much the Word of God as the New Testament. It is just as valuable. It’s common knowledge that if you don’t know the Old Testament you’ll have a difficult time understanding the New Testament. They go hand-in-hand. Why is this? Because the Old Testament consistently points to the New Testament, and in turn the New Testament finds it’s fulfilment in the context of the Old.
Now speaking from the Old Testament, I am sure many readers are familiar with the Ark of the Covenant, first mentioned in Exodus, and which plays a vital role throughout the Bible.
The Ark of the Covenant was the dwelling place of the very presence of God. Literally, God’s presence overshadowed the Ark. It was holy and it was made with the purest of gold because it would contain the most sacred artefacts owned by the Israelites.
Sadly the Ark of the Covenant has been missing since the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews 2600 years ago…and only one man has seen it since.
Who is this man? John, the disciple whom Jesus loved. In the book of Revelation John, while in a vision, begins to describe the Ark but then–bizarrely–suddenly stops in order to describe a woman.
“Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant.” (Revelation 11:19)
…and then the next verse reads:
“A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.”
This is Revelation 12:1, though we ought to remember that the original Greek manuscripts did not have chapter divisions, and so this is connected to the previous verse.
Why does John go from talking about the Ark of the Covenant in one breath to then immediately begin describing a woman? A mere 4 verses later in Revelation 12:5 it says that this woman gave birth to a son who ‘will rule all the nations’. This can only refer to Jesus…So who does the woman refer to?
But let’s take a step backwards and ask: what did the old Ark of the Covenant contain inside it? According to Hebrews 9:4 it contained the word of God in stone, the manna bread from heaven, and the rod of Aaron the high priest.
Well, there is a woman who, in her womb, contained the word of God in flesh, the true bread from heaven (John 6:58), and the eternal high priest, Jesus.
So why does John the disciple, after seeing the Ark of the Covenant in Revelation chapter 11 suddenly begin describing a woman? Could it be that the very reason the old Ark of the Covenant has been missing for 2600 years is because it is no longer needed? Since ‘the old has passed away, and the new has come’? (2 Corinthians 5:16-18).
Is there a new Ark of the Covenant…and could it be a woman? Could it be Mary?
In the Gospel of Luke I was surprised to find that Mary is often compared to the Ark of the Covenant.
Let me show you: let’s compare the Old Testament to the Gospel of Luke. Since, as I said earlier, the Old Testament and the New Testament go hand-in-hand.
1) The presence of God overshadowing the Ark/Mary
- The presence of God overshadowed the Ark (Exodus 40:34)
- “And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35)
2) A sense of unworthiness to be in the Ark’s/Mary’s presence
- David was afraid of the LORD that day, and he said, “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9)
- “She [Elizabeth] exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43)
3) Leaping before the Ark/Mary
- It happened when the ark of the covenant of the LORD came to the city of David, that Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and celebrating; and she despised him in her heart. (1 Chronicles 15:29)
- “For behold, when the sound of your [Mary’s] greeting came to my ears, the baby [John the Baptist] in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:44)
4) The movement of the Ark/Mary
- “And the ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months” (2 Samuel 6:11)
- “Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home” (Luke 1:56)
And this is by no means an exhaustive list comparing the Ark of the Old Testament and Mary of the New Testament.
Furthermore, in Luke 1:28 the Angel Gabriel addresses Mary as follows: “Greetings, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!”
Nowhere throughout the Bible does an angel address a human being with such honour. You simply won’t find it anywhere else. In fact the original word used here for ‘O favoured one’ is the Greek word ‘χαριτόω’ which means to be given a highly special honour–this is quite a title for an angel to address a woman.
I mean, seriously, the Angel Gabriel doesn’t even address Mary by her actual name but by the title ‘O favoured one’. Sounds rather significant, doesn’t it?
In fact some translations translate ‘O favoured one’ as ‘Full of grace’.
Could it be possible that this provides support to the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary? Since one could potentially argue that it is illogical to be ‘full of sin’ and yet ‘full of grace’ simultaneously. The two are polar opposite states of being.
[And on that note, the Ark of the Covenant was made with the purest of gold, could it be argued that it would be appropriate for Mary to also be made of the ‘purest gold’ metaphorically? I.e. without sin.]
But let’s return again to the Ark of the Covenant: any honour given by the Israelites to the Ark of the Covenant was never seen as taking away honour from God; in fact the opposite was true, any irreverence towards the Ark of the Covenant was considered as an insult to God. Do you remember Uzzah who was struck dead by God for daring to think he could touch the Ark of the Covenant with his hands? (2 Samuel 6:7)
So…how does all this pertain to the claim that Mary was a perpetual virgin? I would imagine the links are quite obvious.
1) If the Ark of the Covenant was set aside for a special purpose, wholly devoted to God, it is not unreasonable to suggest Mary also was set aside for a special purpose, wholly devoted to God in a vow of perpetual virginity.
2) If Uzzah died by inappropriately touching the Ark of the Covenant, why shouldn’t God also protect the uniqueness of the new Ark, Mary?
I am positive more links could be made…but I would also remind my readers that vows of virginity were not wholly uncommon in Jesus’ day even for Jews, e.g. the Essenes, a famous Jewish sect of that time, practised celibacy.
But then surely someone will be thinking: “but doesn’t the Bible mention Jesus’ brothers and sisters?”
Good point. But we must also consider that the Greek word for brother, ‘adelphos’ has a broader meaning than uterine brothers. It can mean a biological brother, but it can also mean an extended relative, or even a spiritual brother.
Take Genesis 13:8 for example. Here the word brother is being used to describe the relationship between Abraham and Lot, who were not biological brothers but uncle and nephew:
So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers” (Gen 13:8, see also Gen 14:12).
Furthermore, these “brothers” are never once called the children of Mary, although Jesus himself is (John 2:1; Acts 1:14).
Finally, the early Christian writers from as early as 150AD wrote about Mary’s perpetual virginity and explain away the usage of the word ‘brother’ in the Gospels in a similar vein.
But what about Matthew 1:25?
He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus (Matthew 1:25).
Some argue this passage suggests that there is a change of state after Mary gives birth to Jesus, i.e. that she has ‘relations’ with Joseph after giving birth to Jesus. But nowhere in the original Greek does the word ‘until’ carry that sense.
In the Bible, ‘until’ means only that some action did not happen up to a certain point; it does not imply that the action did happen later, which is only the modern sense of the term.
In fact, if the modern sense of the term is forced on Scripture, some ridiculous meanings result.
Consider this line: “Michal the daughter of Saul had no children until the day of her death” (2 Sam 6:23). Are we to assume Michal gave birth to children after she had died?
There is also the burial of Moses. The book of Deuteronomy says that no one knew the location of his grave “until this present day” (Deuteronomy 34:6). But we know that no one has known since that day either.
The examples could be multiplied, but you get the idea–nothing can be proved from the use of the word “until” in Matthew 1:25.
And so, in conclusion, I find myself personally convinced and in agreement with, among others, Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Wesley, as well as the almost unanimous belief of 2000 years of Christianity.
Could it be that Mary is simply more than we’ve made her out to be? Shouldn’t it be time we fulfil Luke 1:48: ‘For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed’?
I, for one, feel we have unfairly taken the ‘blessed’ and ‘virgin’ out of her title: ‘the Blessed Virgin Mary’. Catholic or protestant aside, I feel we ought to give credit where it is due, especially to the mother of our Lord (Luke 1:43).