The Virgin Mary

January 4, 2005 · updated December 14, 2023

Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, is one of the most important figures of the Christian religion. Mary is known by many titles in Christianity, including the Blessed Virgin Mary (sometimes abbreviated BVM), Queen of Heaven, Theotokos (Mother of God) and Our Lady (Notre-Dame in French; Madonna in Italian). According to the New Testament, Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant with Jesus (e.g. Matthew 1:18)

Because of Mary's humility, piety and role as the mother of Jesus Christ, the Savior of humanity, she has been accorded great respect in all branches of Christianity and is a favorite subject in art, music and literature. In Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, Mary is the pre-eminent saint and the focus of much popular devotion. In recent years, Protestant Christianity has sought to recover the importance of Mary, even though it doesn't elevate her as highly as do other branches of the Christian faith.

Mary in the New Testament

The Virgin Mary plays a prominent role in the New Testament gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), especially in the birth stories of Matthew (Ch. 1-2) and Luke (Ch. 1-2). According to Luke, Mary was of the tribe of Judah and the lineage of David (1:32).

When Mary was a young woman engaged to Joseph, the Angel Gabriel announced to her that she would give birth to a son that would be born of the Holy Spirit. Mary humbly accepted her divinely-appointed role, saying, "May it be unto me as you have said." She then conceived and gave birth to Jesus while remaining a virgin (Lk 1:31f; Mt 1:20, 23).

Mary appears periodically throughout Jesus' ministry, death and resurrection. She was present at Jesus' first miracle, which he performed reluctantly at her suggestion (John 2:1f).

At the crucifixion, Mary and a small group of women were present (Jn 19:25). Speaking from the cross, Jesus entrusted her care to his disciple John (Jn 19:26). One of Michaelangelo's most famous sculptures (right) depicts Mary mourning her son's death.

According to traditional interpretation, the Virgin Mary was not the "other Mary" who visited the tomb after Jesus' death (Matthew 28:1) – it is said she did not visit the tomb because she already knew he would not be there.

In addition, there is no biblical record of the resurrected Jesus appearing to Mary. In 1997, the Pope speculates that it is highly likely Jesus did appear to his mother (Vatican Information Services, May 21, 1997). After the resurrection, Mary was present in the Upper Room at Jerusalem with the disciples (Acts 1:14), but this is the last biblical mention of her.

Mary in Apocryphal Texts

The Gospel of James contains biographical material about Mary considered plausible by some Orthodox and Catholic Christians. It states she was the daughter of Joachim and Anna, who were quite old when she was conceived. They took her to live in the Temple in Jerusalem when she was three years old, as Hannah took Samuel to the Tabernacle in the Old Testament. The Gospel of James also teaches Mary's perpetual virginity.

Mary in Early Christian Theology

In the writings of the early church fathers, Mary is mentioned only occasionally and primarily in contrast to Eve. Justin Martyr (d. c.165) and Irenaeus (d. c.202) contrasted Mary's obedience with Eve's disobedience. The apocryphal Gospel of James (as seen above), Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and especially Athanasius affirmed Mary's perpetual virginity. This doctrine was accepted by both Western and Eastern Churches from the fifth century onwards.

The doctrine of Mary as Theotokos (God-bearer) arose in Alexandria and was probably first used by Origen. It became common in the fourth century, was opposed by Nestorius, and accepted at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Mary played a lesser role in the West than in the East at this time. Western theologians like St. Ambrose primarily spoke of Mary as a "type" or symbol of the Church.

The doctrine of the bodily Assumption of Mary was formally developed by St. Gregory of Tours (d. 594), although it had been present in apocryphal tests since the late fourth century. The Feast of the Assumption became widespread in the sixth century, and sermons on that occasion tended to emphasize Mary's power in heaven.

Mary in the Reformation and Protestantism

Despite the Reformers' rejection of the veneration of Mary and other saints, most Protestants have shown a great deal of honor and respect for Mary. Martin Luther said Mary is "the highest woman," that "we can never honour her enough," that "the veneration of Mary is inscribed in the very depths of the human heart" and that we should "wish that everyone know and respect her."

John Calvin said, "It cannot be denied that God in choosing and destining Mary to be the Mother of his Son, granted her the highest honor." Ulrich Zwingli said, "I esteem immensely the Mother of God," and, "The more the honor and love of Christ increases among men, so much the esteem and honor given to Mary should grow."

Some Reformers rejected the Immaculate Conception, and the Assumption of Mary, but some affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary and all accepted the Virgin Birth.

Since the Reformation, Protestants have tended to pay little attention to Mary, primarily in reaction against the excessive level of adoration they believe is relegated to her in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. But this may be beginning to change. In the summer of 2004, Christian History & Biography magazine (affiliated with the Protestant Christianity Today) dedicated an entire issue to Mary. Included were articles suggesting the value of making a larger place for her in Protestantism. [6] In December 2004, the Southern Baptist dean of an evangelical school in Alabama said:

I would like Protestants today, evangelicals today, to go back to the reformers. I don't think we have to become Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox believers to recover a truly Protestant, reformational, scriptural understanding of Mary. [7]

Professor Beverley Roberts Gaventa of Princeton Theological Seminary, whose writings have called for more Protestant emphasis of Mary agrees, pointing out:

What happens in the story is that Mary is chosen entirely by God's own initiative. This is a primary example of what Protestants emphasize as God's divine grace, God's initiative. [7]

The Immaculate Conception

The Most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.

-- Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus (1854)

According to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, Mary was born without the stain of original sin. Both Catholics and Orthodox accept this doctrine, but only the Roman Catholic Church has solemnly defined the teaching, and the title "Immaculate Conception" is generally used only by Catholics. Most Protestants reject the idea as having no foundation in Scripture.

In Eastern Orthodox Churches, the matter is seen somewhat differently. Orthodox Christians reject the western doctrine of original sin, preferring instead to speak of a tendency towards sin. Thus they believe Mary was born without sin, but so is everyone else. However, Orthodox still affirm Mary was "immaculate" (i.e., sinless) in that the grace of God preserved her from any actual sin during her lifetime.

Unlike the Virgin Birth and the Assumption of Mary, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has not gone uncontested within the Catholic Church. It was the source of great controversy among medieval theologians, primarily because it was believed original sin was passed on to one's offspring through the sexual act and no one denied Mary was born in the natural way. Those opposing the doctrine included St. Anselm of Canterbury and the Dominicans; it was defended and explained by Anselm's student Eadmer, Duns Scotus, the Franciscans and the Jesuits. The Assumption of Mary was formally affirmed and defined for Roman Catholics in 1854. [1]

Mary as Virgin Mother

The notion that Mary gave birth to Jesus while remaining a virgin is taught explicitly in the birth narratives of Matthew (1:18 ff.) and Luke (1:34 ff.), but these seem to be the only references to the Virgin Birth in the New Testament. The Gospel of Mark begins with Jesus as an adult, and the Gospel of John, while beginning with Jesus' pre-birth existence, does not mention any miraculous aspects of Jesus' birth. Galatians 4:4, the earliest allusion to Mary in Christian literature, states only that Jesus was "born of woman." Most scholars do not attach special significance to this phrase on the basis that "as parallels such as Job 14:1 and Matthew 11:11 suggest, the phrase is a Hebraic way of speaking about the essential humanity of a person."[3]

After the New Testament, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth became prominent. It appeared frequently in early Christian literature, it was formalized in the ecumenical creeds, and it was accepted by the Reformers, who rejected most other Catholic doctrines regarding Mary. Today, the Virgin Birth continues to be accepted by Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants alike.

Mary as Theotokos or the Mother of God

The doctrine of Mary to attract the most controversy within Christianity is her title of Theotokos (Greek for "God-bearer" or "Mother of God"). This term first arose in Alexandria, Egypt, around the fourth century and quickly gained popularity. Despite centering on a title for Mary, the issue actually has much more to do with Christology. The notion of Mary as God-bearer was intended to reflect the then-established belief that Jesus was fully divine. However, for some (most notably Nestorius), it did so at the expense of Jesus' full humanity. In 431, the Council of Ephesus affirmed the use of Theotokos as acceptable and condemned Nestorius. Today, Theotokos is used often by Orthodox Christians as a synonym for Mary, and Catholics regularly refer to Mary as Mother of God.

Mary as Perpetual Virgin

Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy teach that Mary was not only a virgin before she gave birth to Jesus, but she remained a virgin her entire life. Some Protestants also hold this view, including Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, but most modern Protestants believe she later had other children with Joseph since the Bible speaks of Jesus' brothers and sisters. Catholics and Orthodox explain references to Jesus' brothers as either cousins, or as step brothers who were Joseph's children by a prior marriage. {2}

The Assumption of Mary

According to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox tradition, between three and fifteen years after Christ's Ascension, in either Jerusalem or Ephesus, Mary died while surrounded by the apostles. Later when the apostles opened her tomb, they found it empty and concluded that she had been bodily assumed into Heaven. {2}

This doctrine was present in apocryphal works since the end of the fourth century, and was formally taught by St. Gregory of Tours in the sixth century. The bodily Assumption of Mary seems to have been accepted in both Western and Eastern Churches from the sixth century onwards, and went virtually uncontested until the Reformation. {1}

In 1950, speaking ex cathedra (infallibly) in his encyclical Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII proclaimed the Dogma of the Assumption, in which he stated that "at the end of her earthly course, Mary was assumed into heavenly glory, body and soul." {4}

Mary as Coredemptrix and Mediatrix of All Graces

An additional doctrine of Mary believed by many Catholics, but not yet formalized by the Pope, is that of Mary as Coredemptrix. This title indicates that Mary participated in some way in Christ's redemption of mankind. At its simplest, this doctrine is based on Mary's free acceptance of her opportunity to give birth to the Savior, as indicated by her reply, "May it be unto me as you have said" (Lk 1:38). This event is sometimes referred to as the "guarantee of the Incarnation."

Over the years, however, the term Coredemptrix has come to denote a more active role for Mary than her assent. The Second Vatican Council declared, "in suffering with Him as He died on the cross, she cooperated in the work of the Savior, in an altogether singular way, by obedience, faith, hope, and burning love, to restore supernatural life to souls" (Lumen gentium 61-62). However, Catholic theologians differ as to the precise nature of Mary's participation in the redemption, and, as aforementioned, the Pope has yet to speak ex cathedra on the subject.

Closely related to this doctrine is that of Mary as Mediatrix of All Graces, which affirms that all graces Christ obtains for humanity are dispensed by and through Mary. The Second Vatican Council also touched on this subject when it stated that "the Blessed Virgin's salutary influence on men... flows from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on His mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it" (Lumen gentium 60). This also has not been formally affirmed by the pope, but it is popular among many Catholics.

A lay Catholic organization, the Vox Populi Mariae Mediatrici (Voice of the People for Mary Mediatrix), has been founded with the goal of winning formal recognition of the "fifth doctrine of Mary," which includes Mary as Coredemptrix, Mediatrix of All Graces, and Advocate for the People of God. The organization is currently collecting signatures that will be included with a letter to the Pope asking that he "define and proclaim the Blessed Virgin Mary as Coredemptrix, Mediatrix of all grace and Advocate for the People of God." {5}

Mary in Other Faiths

Islamic theology accepts that Jesus was the result of a virgin birth. The Quran tells the story of Maryam (Mary) in two places, 3:35-47 and 19:16-34, but provides much less detail than the New Testament. It says Maryam was dedicated to God's service by her mother while still in the womb (Quran 3:35), that she was cared for by Zakariya (Zecharias) (3:36), and that in her childhood God provided for her to help her grow strong and pious (3:37). God then sent an angel to announce that she could shortly expect to bear a son, specifying that "O Mary! Allah hath chosen thee and purified thee - chosen thee above the women of all nations." (Qur'an 3:42). It specifies that she conceived Jesus despite being a virgin: "She said: "O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?" He said: "Even so: Allah createth what He willeth: When He hath decreed a plan, He but saith to it, 'Be,' and it is!" (3:47). {2}

Many followers of Wicca associate Mary with the Earth Mother of various Neo-pagan traditions. Some Buddhists have linked Mary to Kuan-Yin, a Bodhisattva of compassion venerated by various Chinese Buddhist faiths. {2} Followers of the New Age movement or those interested in general spirituality have also found inspiration in Mary.


  1. F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, eds., "Mary, the Blessed Virgin." Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford UP, 1997), pp. 1047-48.
  2. "Mary, Mother of Jesus." Wikipedia. January 4, 2005.
  3. "Mary." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. January 4, 2005.
  4. Munificentissimus Deus - Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius XII issued November 1, 1950.
  5. Petition for the Papal definition of Mary, Coredemptrix, Mediatrix and Advocate.
  6. Mary in the Imagination of the Church – Christian History and Biography Magazine, Summer Issue 2004.
  7. Protestant Mary - PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, December 17, 2004

External Links on Mary

Books on Mary

General Sources

Jaroslav Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture (Yale UP, 1998).

Catholic Perspectives