Maryra, also known as Hazrat Mariam by Muslims, is one of the most popular names given to Christian girls living in Western Europe. If you are firmly established in your Christian faith, then as a girl you would know that you had been named after the Virgin Maryra, or maybe a parent or a grandmother—but in most cases it would most likely be associated with your faith background. The Virgin Maryra is greatly revered by Roman Catholics, so in Catholic families you would see that there would normally be a Mary in a Catholic family, either your mother or your grandmother or an aunt. As a former Roman Catholic brought up in the strong tradition of Catholicism, I was fully aware from a very young age of the presence and influence of the position and reverence given to Mary in my home and my grandparents’ home and indeed, my great-grandparents’ home, all being influenced by Blessed Virgin Mary—the title she is known as.
In my family, there were many people named Mary. The most influential was my most beloved grandmother from my mother’s side, and who was actually my spiritual mentor from a very young age. But aside from her, the other person who was named Mary in my family was my father. This was a common practice many years ago: those boys born on the day of the Assumption of Mary—a celebration and remembrance of Mary ascending into heaven with her physical body on the 15th of August—were named Mary, usually as their middle name.
Another sign of the influence of Mary in the lives of Catholics: you will find in most Catholic (and Irish) homes, with no exception, portraits of either Maryra or the Sacred Heart (Jesusra). Also, you might find some other saints—or all of them. If not portraits, you will find statues of Mary and of the Sacred Heart in most, if not all, Irish homes, schools and hospitals, along with the hundreds upon hundreds of grottos of Maryra in every town, village, and city in Catholic countries.
In my home, we had both, as my Mother was influenced by Sacred Heart (Jesus) and my father, the Virgin Mary. And I too, as I grew up, was very much attached to Maryra, which increased as the years went by, as she was always seen as a role model of a good mother. Like many others, I would pray daily for her and visited the cathedral and spent time praying to the Novena of the Immaculate Conception, who was seen as a role model and incomparable to all others.1 And the fact was that she was also seen as a means to gain redemption; a theology on Maryra developed over time. Alongside the many other titles and attributes, which slowly over time was attached to her, the evolution of Marian theology grew to her being titled Theotokos, or considered a co-redemptrix.2 Everything that I have discussed so far is from my experience as being raised as a Catholic Christian, and much of what I said is only a glimpse of how she was seen and understood. The theological view is far more complex, and cannot be discussed in this article. What I have mentioned above has come from how Catholics viewed—and indeed, still view— Maryra. As my journey of exploring more of my faith continued, I found the image and understanding of the Maryra of my faith was not of the Maryra that was found in scripture.
Mary According to the Gospels
When one looks at Maryra, based purely on what the New Testament presents, we see a simple and dignified human picture of Maryra, and more of women placed at a particular time, which was first century Palestine. This is quite far removed from the images, ideas and concepts that developed about Maryra over many, many decades. As a Catholic I was of course, brought up to believe in these ideas and concepts; those brought up in Catholic countries like Ireland would certainly know what I am talking about. There will be, perhaps many today, who would not know any better and certainly just accept that what is being taught is correct, just as I did before embracing Islam.
The sad part, I suppose, is when somebody studies Christian theology, or more appropriately Catholic theology, which is in its own right Christian theology, but with slight theological differences to Protestant theology, with regards to the position of Maryra in the Church. Of course, we have the vast theological gap with evangelist theology with regards to Maryra, in respect to how they see Maryra from the Biblical accounts. One such well-known evangelist Biblical scholar and Christian apologist, Dr. James White, gives us a taste of how Protestants view Maryra. He says:
“Marian devotion and teaching is so far removed from most Protestants that they observe the entire issue a mere Roman Catholic superstition, one of the clearest indications of how the ‘Catholics believe all sorts of things not found in the Bible.’”3
With regards to what the Bible teaches us, I find myself in agreement with James White on this point, but we must also be fair to the Roman Catholic understanding about how they view Maryra. Roman Catholic scholars can point to what they see as something that can be inferred from scripture, and from other traditional texts, written by early Church fathers, who they believe to be viable sources of historical information with regards to Maryra. We must also appreciate that this is an area of huge theological debate.
What is very interesting is that many scholars would admit that the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John edited the accounts of Maryra according to their own aspirations.4 They only mentioned what they wanted their readers to know, which of course, allowed the door of curiosity to be opened and many questions to be asked: namely, why was so much edited about Maryra?
In light of such academic manifestations, it is perhaps fair to say, we will not ever really know the complete, accurate historical picture of Maryra. Therefore, we are simply left with fragments of information which need to be put together like a jigsaw, and we can only hope to be able to gain a true reflection of Maryra, of whom very little is mentioned in the New Testament. And yet over the span of over two thousand years, a huge amount of theological concepts, literature, prayers, reflection and icons—with their many symbols of expressions and meditation—refer to Maryra. Also, we must keep in mind the amount of material which has been written about her, which has become the cause of so much love and respect towards her, by all nations of the world; and the respect given to her by all faiths, in particular Islam.
The Gospel Accounts
When we look at what is presented by the New Testament, we begin to see an image emerging of who Maryra might have been, and how she was a woman belonging to a specific time in history and very much belonging to a specific religious community. She was very much part of a social society, and also belonged to a particular cultural background, namely, Jewish: and this image is far from the Maryra that is presented today within Christendom.
So who was Maryra? What does the New Testament tell us about Maryra? One of the first things we learn about Maryra is that she was a young Jewish girl, around the age of 12 to 13 years of age. This is derived from the very word handmaiden, since Jewish girls were not allowed to remain in temple service after puberty. The reason for this is that they would have had to be married by the time of their menstruation, and this would have applied to Maryra as well. What we find is that Maryra was dedicated to serving God in the temple, which was common practice in those days. In Luke 1:36-38, it clearly mentions that she was the handmaiden of God and that she was a very pious young girl.5 So the first thing we learn about Maryra is that she was devoted to God Almighty: her life was simply for the sake of worshipping and serving God. When we read Luke, we find her extremely pious and concerned about her chastity, such as when she clearly responded to the angel who brings her glad tidings, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?”
These words of Maryra speak volumes of the purity of Maryra, and indeed show the atmosphere and religious traditions she would have been brought up with in Palestine during the first century CE. She was a young girl conscious of her religious obligations.
Another remarkable thing about Maryra was her obedience to the command of Almighty God, and putting her full trust in Him. Again this can be observed in Luke where she said: “Behold I am the handmaiden of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.” I say remarkable, because here is a young Jewish girl, who was very conscious of her morals and ethical behaviour. Plus, she was very lucid when faced with a divine being—such as an angel—with regards to her moral position. And yet, as soon as she became fully aware and mindful of the spiritual experience she was having, she put her trust in Almighty God fully and submitted to His Will. This is one of the first pious incidents that we learn about the young girl Maryra from the New Testament.
The next thing we learn from the New Testament is how Maryra became a very young mother. This is an area of perhaps much debate, with regards to her age; as highlighted earlier, she was around the age of 12 to 13 when she reached puberty; therefore, it would seem, that she was around 13 or 14 years old when she gave birth to Jesusas, in what seems to be very humble and simple circumstances.6
Also mentioned in the New Testament, we find some very spiritual events which took place as signs of the birth and truth of the advent of the much awaited Messiah Jesusas. We also find Maryra displaying the normal characteristics of a Jewish mother: obeying and implementing Jewish purification ritual laws with regards to the circumcision of her first born son Jesusas, all being done according to laws of Mosesas, where every first-born male must be consecrated to the Lord7 as well as offer a sacrifice of a pair of doves, or two young pigeons. What we learn from this is Maryra was like all other Jewish women and mothers acting upon their religious beliefs, and followed the laws of Almighty God which were given to Mosesas.
In another incident, we find that like all mothers, Maryra was no different, when it came to being worried about her offspring when unexpectedly they go missing, as was the case when Jesusas went missing for over three days. Three days is indeed quite a long time for any child to go missing. But the narration in the New Testament informs us that Maryra and Joseph finally found Jesusas in a synagogue, listening to a Rabbi’s teaching from the Torah, and that Jesusas was asking many questions, apparently instructing them in some thought-provoking theological conversation. The image that we get from the New Testament was of a Jewish mother who was restless, fearful and frightened and her clearly rebuking tone in the New Testament is something which one would expect from any apprehensive and concerned mother.8 Mary’sra words which were in the passage of Luke, show us the natural temperament of both Maryra and Joseph: “and when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.’”9
Again we see a normal Jewish family expressing all the natural feelings of parenthood. In the same passages further on, we are informed by the New Testament that after that incident, Jesusas remained obedient to his parents from then onwards.10 In the New Testament, the next chapter in the life of Maryra is at the wedding in Cana. This wedding shows us again the natural role of a Jewish mother towards her son, and also the relationship between both the mother and son.
There have been some incidents between Maryra and Jesusas, where Jesus’as responses to her have been questioned and even criticized; many have also endeavoured to explain the seemingly harsh responses by Jesusas to his mother on certain occasions. Of course, while I have my position on this issue, this is not the place or the article to indulge in them. Perhaps in a future article I will expand on it, but from what we observe, from the narration of the wedding feast in the Gospel of John, it is the natural relationship of a Jewish mother and her eldest son. During the wedding, the wine ran out. Maryra mentioned this to Jesusas, and Jesus’as response was quite harsh, but it is these words that show us the role of Maryra as a mother, who knew her son’s personality quite well: His mother told the servants ‘Do whatever he tells you’ and, of course, the water turned into wine.11 This is a classic example of an early Jewish family’s relationship. Even though Jesusas seemingly rebukes his mother or is upset with his mother for asking him do something which he felt was not the appropriate time for him to do whatever she expected of him. And that is, of course, an open and complex discussion. Was she expecting her son to show some signs, to hint that he was the Messiah? But what we should observe is a bond between a mother and son and their normal and natural relationship.
The last point I would like to speak of is how Maryra as a mother had to endure witnessing her son being arrested and mishandled and ultimately crucified, and dying on the cross, as understood by Christians. We can try to imagine, for the moment of the celebration of the Passover meal, leading to Jesus’as arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, from being brought before Caiaphas, the high priest in the Sanhedrin, to being accused of committing blasphemy. And also the demands from the scribes, and elders for the death penalty for Jesusas shouting “let him be crucified”.12 One can only imagine the pain and heartbreak of his beloved mother, who had to suffer and observe all of this unfolding in front of her very own eyes; yet this is something many mothers have had to suffer through the history of religion.13 But indeed, how much she must have suffered, with every footstep she took, seeing her son walking through the streets of Jerusalem, carrying a huge and heavy piece of wood on his back making his way to being crucified at Golgotha.
We find it mentioned in Matthew that many women watched from afar Jesusas being crucified. Of all those who followed Jesusas, it mentions two women named Mary were present; one being Mary Magdalene and the other being Maryra, the mother of James and Joseph.14Strangely, there has been much debate about who was the Mary being mentioned here; was it the mother of James and Joseph, was she also Maryra, the mother of Jesus? The real question is why not mention Maryra, the mother of Jesusas? Which has been questioned by scholars and continues to be questioned today, due to the surprising fact that the Gospel account does not mention Maryra, the mother of Jesusas; it only informs us of a Mary who is the mother of James and Joseph. Why say, “Mary, the mother of James and Joseph”? Why is the Gospel account silent about it and why is she not mentioned? One would have imagined she must have been there; why is she not mentioned in the accounts of the cross? It would seem to be an area that has a tendency to be debated by many scholars, however a small minority holds the view that the Mary mentioned here was indeed Maryra the mother of Jesusas.15 This, of course, is another area of much-needed exploration, and perhaps an explanation in future articles on Maryra. But what is significant is that we are given a description of a scene of Jewish ladies; ladies who would seem to be followers of Jesusas and most likely, one of them was Maryra, the mother of Jesusas. Also, she had to endure watching her son suffer as nails were driven into his wrists and feet. Just like many mothers who would have had to endure witnessing their sons suffer for their religious beliefs and claims, who would ultimately face persecution at the hands of mobs, just like the noble Prophet and Messiah Jesusas did and sadly Maryra was helpless. All she could do was watch the events of the crucifixion unfold and pray for her son. One of the last things we learn about Maryra was that Jesusas instructed one disciple to take Maryas as his mother, a noble deed, to ensure that she would be looked after.
It is truly a moving incident, if one takes the time to ponder over the unfolding last moments of Jesus’as life, in the Gospel of Luke, as understood by most Christians. There is an intense description of women wailing and mourning, all watching from a distance. In John it is narrated that as Jesusas saw his mother, he said to a disciple whom he loved, “Here is your mother,” and he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son.” It mentions that, from that moment on, her home was with that beloved disciple. Although it is an area of scholarly dispute, many believe that disciple to be John.
These are the last fragments and narrations from the Gospels regarding Maryra. The remaining narrations are in Acts 1:14, which describes all the apostles meeting in a house, Maryra was amongst them, demonstrating that after the ascension of Jesusas to heaven, as understood by most Christians, that there was unity amongst this newly formed sect of Jews who had accepted the Messiah. Maryra is only mentioned again in Galatians 4:4, by Paul, who mentions that Jesusas was born of women. There is a huge amount of dispute about the narrations mentioned in the Book of Revelation 12:1-6, which describes a seemingly fantastic, celestial being, in the form of woman, who seems to have divine power and authority, which Mariologists suggest is about Maryra. Again, this needs careful study and discussion.
As mentioned from the beginning of this simple commentary on Maryra, my sheer aim was to highlight the absolute humanness of Maryra, through the fragments of information we have about her from readings of the Gospels. But with careful examination it is not difficult to see that the writers of the Gospels chose how much they wanted to reveal about Maryra, some being positive aspects and some negative.16 Therefore, what we learn from the Gospels is that there is nothing in the Gospels to suggest anything else with regards to her disposition other than she was a normal human being living a normal life as a Jewish woman of her time. What the Gospels did manage to demonstrate was her simplicity, her moral character, her love for Almighty God and her complete obedience to the Will of Almighty God. The Gospels’ accounts showed a young girl who became a young mother to an extraordinary child who became a prophet and Messiah; but also a caring and loving and an understanding mother who at times endured difficulties with raising a blessed child who was to become the awaited Messiah. She had a lot to bear like most mothers, but she had a child who was to become a prophet, so she had to bear the jibes, the laughing, the insults and the sarcastic remarks. And even at times the threats to the very life of her beloved son—something that happens from time to time when a prophet of God alludes to or declares that he is a prophet or Messiah, (or both as was the case with her son Jesusas).
This reminds me of an incident mentioned in the New Testament, which remains highly problematic for Christians today, where the family of Jesusas is mentioned as being involved in an incident involving Jesusas. One would assume ‘family’ would certainly mean that Maryra would have been amongst the family members who went to take Jesusas home. It is narrated that people were saying that he was not in his senses, or beside himself.17 The importance of this is to show the type of issues Maryra as a mother would have had to deal with, showing the humanity of Maryra.
Without a doubt, Maryra was an extraordinary lady in every respect, being chosen by Almighty God to become the mother of a prophet and Messiah. She even reached the highest levels of righteousness and closeness to Almighty God, being declared as the best example for all humanity to follow. Perhaps, many of our Christian brethren would be surprised to learn that this statement is not to be found in the Bible, but in the Holy Qur’an.18 Also to be noted is that nowhere in the Gospels is she revealed as being either a co-redeemer, co-mediator or Theotokos, ‘mother of God’.19 These are concepts which developed from the mid-first century to the second century onwards and evolved over time. 20 However, if anyone was to say, where in the New Testament is the evidence which suggests Maryra was the Theotokos, then one would have to say there is none.
1. Bill McCarthy and James Tibbetts, Mary in the Church Today: Official Catholic Teachings on the Mother of God: From the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (McKees Rocks, PA: St. Andrews Productions, 2000), 2.
2. Bill McCarthy and James Tibbetts, Mary in the Church Today: Official Catholic Teachings on the Mother of God: From the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (McKees Rocks, PA: St. Andrews Productions, 2000), 5.
3. James R. White, Mary: Another Redeemer? (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1998), 14.
4. Sarah Jane Boss, Mary: The Complete Resource (London: Continuum, 2009), 14.
5. Sarah Jane Boss, Mary: The Complete Resource (London: Continuum, 2009), 13.
6. Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 154 & 337.
7. Luke, 2:22-24 (Revised Standard Version 1971).
8. Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 154 & 337.
9. Luke, 2:48 (RSV 1971).
10. Luke, 2:51 (RSV 1971).
11. John, 2:1-12 (RSV 1971).
12. Matthew, 27:22 (RSV 1971).
13. Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: Prophet for Our Time (London: HarperPress, 2006), 48.
14. Matthew, 27:55-56 (RSV 1971).
15. Sarah Jane Boss, Mary: The Complete Resource (London: Continuum, 2009), 12.
16. Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 1080.
17. Mark, 3:21 (RSV 1971).
18. Malik Ghulām Farīd, The Holy Qurʼān: Arabic Text with English Translation & Short Commentary (Tilford: Islam International, 2006), 1157-1158.
19. Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 1084.
20. Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 1082.