Was Mary simply a devout young Jewish woman of ordinary means but sterling character—one whom God greatly honored by choosing her, a virgin, to miraculously conceive and bear His Son, the Savior; the wife of Joseph the carpenter, who later bore at least six children by him? Or is she the immaculately conceived New Eve—a perpetual virgin who, since being assumed body and soul into heaven upon her death to be enthroned as the Queen of Heaven, intercedes as Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix with Christ on behalf of the faithful, answering their prayers and even visiting some of them in apparitions? Such are the widely divergent views of Mary, the mother of Jesus, held in varying degrees by hundreds of millions of people.
Who was the real Mary, and why the great disparity of beliefs about her? Which version is the correct one, or does it matter? What we will see is that what one believes about Mary depends in large part on the source of those beliefs.
The second, far more elaborate, of the above two characterizations of Mary is simply a thumbnail sketch of the Roman Catholic Church’s body of belief relating to the virgin Mary, which it refers to as Mariology. It stands in stark contrast to the first description, held to more or less by non-Catholics who claim to base their beliefs only on the Bible. The principal dogmas—established by the church as authoritative—of Mariology are:
431 C.E., Mother of God
This title for Mary was made official and incorporated into prayers at the third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus.
649 C.E., Perpetual Virginity
At the Lateran Synod convened by Pope Martin I, Mary was deemed to have remained a virgin throughout her life.
1854 C.E., Immaculate Conception
Pope Pius IX declared, ex cathedra (i.e., “from the chair,” a dogma established by a Pontiff, which means he invoked infallibility and made it an article of faith), Mary to have “been preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”
1950 C.E., The Assumption
Pope Pius XII proclaimed the dogma that at the end of her life Mary was taken up, body and soul, to heaven—thus sparing her body decay.
There may yet be more dogma bestowed on Mary in the coming years. Millions of Catholics unsuccessfully petitioned the late Pope John Paul II to officially confer the following titles on Mary by declaration: Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix of all graces and Advocate of the people of God. Perhaps Pope Benedict XVI or a successor will take this step.
In light of these post-biblical claims made about Mary, the Catholic Encyclopedia understandably comments: “The reader of the Gospels is at first surprised to find so little about Mary.” Indeed, the biblical narrative regarding Mary is decidedly scant. She is mentioned only in conjunction with several significant events in the life of Jesus. The most well known are the angel Gabriel announcing to her that she would bear the Savior (Luke 1:26-38); her giving birth to Jesus in Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-20) and participating in His presentation at the Temple (Luke 2:22-33); the flight into Egypt and return to the land of Israel (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23). Next was her visit with Joseph and extended family to Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 (Luke 2:41-51). Early in Jesus' ministry, she was with Him at a wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11). Another time, she was present in Galilee (Mark 3:31-35), where He was preaching and healing. Then we find her at the foot of the cross as He was being crucified (John 19:25-27). Her final appearance in the New Testament record is with the disciples and Jesus’ brothers in the upper room shortly after the resurrection (Acts 1:14).
So when presented with only the biblical record, one might justifiably be puzzled as to the origins of Mary’s elevation in Catholic dogma.
The Defense of Mariology
In response to critics of Catholic Mariology and the paucity of a biblical basis, Robert Payesko authored a trilogy titled, The Truth About Mary: A Scriptural Introduction to the Mother of Jesus for Bible-Believing Christians. In it he “sets out to show that the [principal Marian doctrines] are inescapably rooted in Scripture.”
Payesko begins from the premise that the traditional church from the second century C.E. onward is a continuation of the one that Jesus Christ and His original disciples established in the mid-first century—an idea that does not take into account the body of scholarship that reveals a great disconnect in the nature of the church between the first and second and third centuries. In 1918, Dr. Jesse Lyman Hurlbut expressed a traditional view of church history when he named the last third of the first century: “The age of shadows . . . because of all periods in the history [of the church], it is the one about which we know the least. We have no longer the clear light of the Book of Acts to guide us; and no author of that age has filled the blank in the history. We would like to read of the later work by such helpers of St. Paul as Timothy, Apollos and Titus, but all these and St. Paul’s other friends drop out of the record at his death. For fifty years after St. Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church-fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul” (The Story of the Christian Church, 1961 edition, emphasis added).
This view is strengthened by a greater appreciation of the diverse nature of second-century ‘Christianity.’ Authors such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch wrote around the turn of the century. For them, Mary’s role is limited to being the mother of Jesus. Even the spurious Epistle of Ignatius to Mary, known to us today from a Latin copy, conveys no trace of the doctrines that were to develop around her, while the Epistle to John (also spurious), probably from the same writer, comments that James the Just and Jesus were so alike that they were considered twin-brothers from the same womb. The concept of the perpetual virginity of Mary was not part of the thinking of this second- or third-century author.
Payesko also overlooks more recent—including Catholic—scholarship that reinforces this point in the rediscovery of the Jewish character of the original church that was established in Jerusalem. Another weakness in Payesko’s pro-Catholic perspective is that there is no credible evidence that the apostle Peter ever set foot in Rome. Thus, the continuity of the Jesus movement and its teachings in Rome under Peter’s authority cannot be established.
The fact is, Marian doctrine departs dramatically from the beliefs held by the first-century church. The Catholic Church invokes Scripture when setting forth its theological position on Mary, but it places far greater weight on the traditions and dogmas that evolved long after the eye-witness accounts about her were recorded. More important for the Catholic teaching is its claim to authority to interpret the writings of the original apostles in light of the dogmas settled on centuries later in the various creeds and councils. Payesko confirms this approach: “To fully understand the truth about Mary we have to first understand what the Councils taught about her and read Scripture in the light of these proclamations” (The truth about Mary: a summary of the trilogy, 1998, emphasis added). This is circular reasoning at best.
The fact that the very first of the councils (Nicaea, 325 C.E.) was convened by Constantine, himself hostile to some of the doctrines and practices of the first-century church, should lead one to have serious misgivings about the veracity of Marian doctrine.
So, in light of Payesko’s premises and the gap in the historical record, it’s no surprise that while he sees an unbroken record of Marian teaching since her death, the vast majority of his historical citations are from the late second and third century and beyond. The dearth of first- and early second-century references is due to the fact that the earliest followers of Jesus Christ—the original apostles—held no such Marian beliefs.
Payesko repeatedly asserts that the Marian doctrine rests on an abundance of scriptures, but he cites mostly obscure ones that can only be used by the process of eisegesis—the reading of meaning into Scripture resulting in the circular reasoning addressed above. The plain statements of Scripture and the facts of history immediately following Mary’s time do not support these interpretations. This can be illustrated by a brief look at three of the most important Marian dogmas:
Conceiving an Immaculate Conception
According to Payesko, “Luke 1-2 . . . gives us a magnificent affirmation and summation of the major Marian doctrines” and constitute “a masterpiece spanning the entire spectrum of Marian doctrine.” Having said that, the best scriptural proof he can offer for the doctrine that Mary “in the first instance of her conception . . . was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin,” is Luke 1:28, which reads, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”
But to believe that the dogma can be found in that simple verse certainly requires an exercise in creative extrapolation. The Catholic Encyclopedia, in effect, contradicts Payesko when it states: “No direct or categorical and stringent proof of the dogma can be brought forward from Scripture.”
Purporting Perpetual Virginity
In discussing the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity, Payesko states that “Luke 1:34 has traditionally been considered a reference by Mary to a vow of life-long virginity.” Here again we are asked to take a considerable leap of faith, because the verse merely states, “Then Mary said to the angel [Gabriel, who had told her that as a virgin she would conceive Jesus], ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?’”
The reading of perpetual virginity into that verse is contradicted by Matthew 1:25, which says that Joseph “had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son” (New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added, a translation supported in the Catholic Douay Rheims Bible and the New American Bible), which of course indicates that she and Joseph did consummate the marriage after Jesus’ birth. A later event verifies this: When Jesus returned to His hometown of Nazareth during His ministry, the townspeople were astonished at His miracles and teaching, and asked: “Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2-3). To support the idea of perpetual virginity, Catholics seek to explain that this is speaking of cousins, not brothers. But the Greek word for “brothers,” adelphos, is used. A different Greek word (anepsios) is used for “cousin” in Colossians 4:10. Another thesis offered is that the children were Joseph's from a previous marriage, but there is no evidence of this and it was certainly not in the thinking of the writer of the Epistle of Ignatius to John.
Assuming an Assumption
The doctrine of The Assumption of Mary into heaven itself rests on an assumption: that something happened to Mary other than the fate that befalls all of God’s faithful—they die and are resurrected or are transformed at Christ’s return to earth. But is there any hint in Scripture of an exception being made for Mary? The Catholic Encyclopedia again invokes tradition as the principal source of this doctrine:
“Regarding the day, year, and manner of Our Lady’s death, nothing certain is known . . . Catholic faith, however, has always derived our knowledge of the mystery from Apostolic Tradition [albeit the tradition that started after the original apostles were deceased]. Epiphanius [who died in 403 C.E.] acknowledged that he knew nothing definite about it (Haer., lxxix, 11). . . . The belief in the corporeal assumption of Mary is founded on the apocryphal treatise De Obitu S. Dominae, bearing the name of St. John, which belongs however to the fourth or fifth century.”
The basis therefore is a tradition built on a fourth- or fifth-century fictional story of the death of Mary. In reality it is a novella. The writer used biblical language and imagery to create this scenario, without providing any biblical support. Rather than accept that, Payesko insists on trying to find scriptures to justify his point.
What these examples illustrate is that when one begins with a faulty premise, arguments built upon it produce erroneous conclusions. Early Marian theology, without scriptural authority, designated Mary as the new, or second, Eve, who participates in the work of salvation with the second Adam—Jesus. This eventually led to the dogma of Mary as the Mother of God (notwithstanding that the first Eve was Adam’s wife, not his mother). Along the way the notion grew that it would have been unthinkable for her, in that elevated status, to have had marital relations with Joseph after Jesus’ birth. Thus she was portrayed as a virgin in perpetuity. Additionally, the church fathers had theological qualms about Jesus being carried by a woman polluted by original sin. This dilemma was finally resolved after 18 centuries when the dogma of her immaculate conception was announced. But that left the problem of how to reconcile her insulation from original sin with her death—the consequence of original sin. This was solved by The Assumption, proclaimed as dogma just 59 years ago by Pope Pius XII.
But this domino effect of extra-biblical conclusions is toppled by the simple, first-century biblical evidence that, apart from God blessing her with Jesus’ miraculous conception while she was still a virgin, Mary was just a normal wife, mother, homemaker and virtuous follower of God.
Payesko’s writing is that of an apologist—seeking to justify doctrines by tenuous use of Scripture. Such an approach is needed to justify the doctrine against the charges of Protestant critics that the doctrines are not biblical. In this regard the Catholic Encyclopedia shows itself to be more honest than the apologetics of Payesko.
Does It Matter?
Does it really matter that Mary has been made larger than life—more than a woman—by Catholic teaching? Should a fallible human being be venerated and given as much or more attention than the Messiah? Jesus had strong words for those who would put stock in human traditions and doctrines rather than God’s Word (Mark 7:8). Those who focus on Marian doctrine rather than scriptural teachings may find themselves distracted from the biblical message of the Messiah, including His intention to return to earth to establish His government. The Bible has much more to offer about the hope of that event and nothing in support of Mariology.