Virgin Mary

5.1 The Historical Mary: Setting the Scene

The Historical Mary: Setting the Scene

Whether you are religious or not, Mary’s story is an important part of world heritage. She is obviously the great female figure throughout Christianity, but she is also highly honored in the Koran. There have been over 2000 sightings of her claimed since the year 40 BCE. Millions of people pray to her daily. Millions more read her story regularly. The modern world was shaped in part by people who believed in her whole heartedly. So many legends have grown up around her, and those legends have also shaped the world and are worth studying, but in this series I will focus on what history can tell us about her. In this episode, I set the scene, talking about the situation for the Jews in the early 1st century. And I’ll discuss to what extent the Bible can or cannot be treated as a historical source. In the next episode, I’ll describe what life was like for an ordinary Jewish girl of the period.

Selected Sources

In the Footsteps of Jesus by Jean-Pierre Isbouts is a beautiful book with background, social details, and many gorgeous photographs about the time and place of Jesus. It does focus on Jesus, so a great deal of it was not about Mary, but it was a major source for this episode (and next week’s as well).

As I referenced in the episode, there are many conflicting views on the authenticity of the Gospels. Bart D. Ehrman is a New Testament scholar who wrote How Jesus Became God : the Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee among many other bestselling books. He is a leading proponent of the prevailing idea that the Gospels were originally anonymous and therefore not eyewitness or even reliable second hand testimony. Reza Aslan’s book ZEALOT: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth accepts that position and takes a positive, but secular, view of Jesus as a teacher and humanist. The other side of the argument can be found in The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ by Brant Pitre. He argues for earlier authorship of the gospels, by the authors as traditionally claimed.

This reading list is not even remotely complete. The University of Dayton’s Marian library has over 100,000 volumes on Mary. Obviously, I haven’t read them all, and even the most cursory search of the Internet will bring up a wealth of other information. Much of it is extremely dubious, so a better way to get more information would be to take a look at the bibliographies of the books listed above.

Mary was a poor, peasant girl, so it is unsurprising that there are no images of her from her lifetime. What probably would have been a surprise to her is that since her death right up to the present day, she has been such a popular subject for art that images of her crop up all over the world in every medium, giving her a wide variety of features, ethnicities, clothing, setting, etc. Historical accuracy varies greatly, but often historical accuracy was not really the point of the image. The feature image for this post is by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay.


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