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Portraits of Mary in the Gospels

The four Gospels in the New Testament present different portraits of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

portrait  of Mary - Hagia - Sofia
Mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Child (detail)
Just as the four Gospels present different portraits of Jesus, so too do they present different portraits of his mother Mary. A minor figure in the earlier Gospels of Mark and Matthew, she becomes more prominent in Luke and John. Mary plays a visible role in Mark, the earliest Gospel. She is mentioned by name in Jesus’s rejection at Nazareth, when the locals ask, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon…?” (Mark 6:3). The designation of Jesus as “the son of Mary” rather than associating him with his father’s name insinuates something unusual about his paternity, but Mark says nothing more. In fact, Mark’s attitude toward Jesus’s blood relatives is fairly negative: some of them try to restrain him for insanity (Mark 3:21) so Jesus defines his true kin—his “brother, sister, and mother”—as those who do the will of God (Mark 3:35). Matthew expands Mary’s role with his account of Jesus’s nativity. Most memorably, Matthew has Mary fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin will conceive and bear a son called Emmanuel (Matt 1:23, Isa 7:14). Beyond this, however, her figure is largely passive, especially in comparison with her betrothed Joseph. In Matthew’s account, it is Joseph who agonizes over Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, and it is Joseph whom the angel visits—to order him to take Mary as his wife and move to Egypt (Matt 1:20, Matt 2:13). Joseph, not Mary, makes the decisions. Matthew’s focus on Joseph over Mary fits his emphasis on the royal lineage that runs from David to Joseph (Matt 1:6-16). By contrast, Mary takes center stage in Luke’s nativity account. She is the one whom the angel Gabriel visits (Luke 1:26-28), and she is the one who wrestles with the announcement of the virginal conception (Luke 1:29-38). We learn more about Mary in Luke, including her hometown (Nazareth, Luke 1:26) and her family connections (her relative Elizabeth belongs to a priestly lineage, Luke 1:5, Luke 1:36). Mary also has more to do. She travels to visit Elizabeth (Luke 1:39), stays with her for three months (Luke 1:56), and sings the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). She is the dedicated mother, traveling to Bethlehem while pregnant, giving birth to Jesus, wrapping him in swaddling clothes, and placing him in a manger (Luke 2:5-7). Luke even reveals her state of mind, reiterating that she treasured in her heart the things that had happened (Luke 2:19, Luke 2:51). Despite not having an infancy account, John’s Gospel also has an important role for Mary. She was there for Jesus’s very first sign of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11). Unlike the first three Gospels, John 19:25 explicitly makes her a witness of the crucifixion. (Mark 15:40 mentions a certain Mary, the mother of James and Joses, but it is unclear whether she is the mother of Jesus or another Mary.) Indeed, it is at the cross where Jesus proclaims the mutual adoption as mother and son between his mother and his beloved disciple, the figure behind John’s Gospel (John 19:26-27). The mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple have something else in common: neither of them are ever called by name in this Gospel. The Gospels exhibit an increasing fascination with Jesus’s mother. The earliest, Mark, portrays her in the barest of terms, calling Jesus the “son of Mary” and preferring instead to focus on spiritual kinship. Matthew and Luke augment Mary’s role in Jesus’s story with the infancy accounts. Finally, in John, Mary becomes an important witness to the end of Jesus’s life. This fascination with Jesus’s mother does not end with the Gospels but continues to grow in the succeeding centuries.

  • Stephen C. Carlson

    Stephen C. Carlson is a research fellow in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University. He is the author of The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Kataluma in Luke 2.7.