Adapted by Elsa Henderson from                                           Mary of History, by Robert P. Maloney[1]

WHAT DO WE REALLY KNOW about Mary, the mother of Jesus? So much of our image of Mary has been conditioned by the beautiful portraits of medieval artists. But carefully examining the religious, economic, cultural and political circumstances of Mary’s daily life revels quite a different scene.

WHAT DOES HISTORY TELL US? Mary was actually called Miriam, after the sister of Moses. Most likely she was born in Nazareth, a tiny Galilean town of about 1,600 people, during the reign of Herod the Great, a violent puppet-king propped up by Roman military might. Nazareth was of little consequence for most Jews. Nathanael sneered, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”[2]

Mary spoke Aramaic with a Galilean accent,[3] but she also had contact with a multilingual world. She heard Latin as it slipped from the tongues of Roman soldiers, Greek as it was used in commerce and educated circles and Hebrew as the Torah was proclaimed in the synagogue.

She belonged to the peasant class, which eked out its living through agriculture and small commercial ventures like carpentry, the profession of both Joseph and Jesus. This group of peasants made up 90 percent of the population and bore the burden of supporting the state and the small privileged class. Their life was grinding, with a triple-tax burden: to Rome, to King Herod the Great and to the Temple (to which, traditionally, they owed 10 percent of the harvest).

The picture of the Holy Family as a tiny group of three living in a tranquil, monastic-like carpenter’s shop is highly improbable. Like most people at that time, Joseph, Mary, Jesus, his four brothers[4] and unnamed sisters probably lived in an extended family unit in close proximity within the same compound. Usually three or four houses of one or two rooms each were built around an open courtyard, in which relatives shared an oven, a cistern and a millstone for grinding grain, and where domestic animals also lived.

Like women in many parts of the world today, Mary most likely spent about 10 hours a day on domestic chores like carrying water from a nearby well or stream, gathering wood for the fire, cooking meals and washing utensils and clothes.

In Palestine at that time, women ordinarily married at about age 13, in order to maximize childbearing and to guarantee their virginity, so it is likely that Mary’s espousal to Joseph and the birth of Jesus occurred when she was very young.

Mary gave birth to Jesus during a census required by the Romans in a cave or stall where animals were stabled. A feeding trough served as his crib. This is easy enough to visualize, since today poor refugees use cardboard boxes and other homemade artifacts as makeshift beds for newborn infants.

It would be a mistake to think of Mary as fragile, even at 13. As a peasant woman capable of walking the hill country of Judea while pregnant, of giving birth in a stable, of making a four- or five-day journey on foot to Jerusalem once a year or so, of sleeping in the open country like other pilgrims and of engaging in daily hard labor at home, she probably had a robust physique in youth and even in her later years.

We err when we picture Mary as a gorgeously dressed, blue-eyed, blond-haired Madonna, a European beauty who often adorns Christmas cards. Whether she was beautiful or not, she would have had features like those of Jewish and Palestinian women today, almost certainly with dark hair and dark eyes.

It is doubtful that she knew how to read or write, since literacy was extremely rare among women of the time. Most people acquired information and culture by listening and speaking. People didn’t read books and magazines; they listened to public reading of the Scriptures, shared in storytelling, recited poems and sang together.

Mary’s culture was Jewish. She kept a kosher kitchen. On the doorpost of her family’s modest home in Nazareth was a mezuzah, containing the Ten Commandments, as a small reminder of the Passover.

Mary’s husband Joseph seems to have died before Jesus’ public ministry began, but Mary herself lived through the time of that ministry. Mary was present at Jesus’ crucifixion. At that time she was probably close to 50 years old, well beyond the age at which most women in that era died. She lived on at least into the early days of the Church.

Following Jesus’ ascension into heaven, Mary was part of a community of 120 believers which included other women, the 11 remaining apostles and Jesus’ brothers.[5] After Pentecost, Mary disappears from history. The rest of her life is shrouded in legend. Tradition portrays her as moving to Ephesus in the company of the apostle John. There is a shrine there, in modern-day Turkey, honoring that tradition.

WHY FOCUS on the historical Mary? I would suggest there are three good reasons:

  1. Her history brings her nearer to us. While there is an alluring quality to the gorgeous Madonnas depicted by medieval artists, Mary didn’t look like that. This first-century Jewish woman, living in a peasant village, was much more like billions of people today than like the women in those beautiful paintings.

Though her culture was quite different from that of our North American society, it was not unlike that of women in thousands of villages today in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Her daily life and labor were hard. With Joseph, she raised Jesus in oppressive circumstances, struggling to pay the taxes by which the rich became richer at the expense of the poor. As with the vast majority of people in world history—the poor— most of Mary’s difficult life went unrecorded.

  1. She listens to God’s Word. In fact, her holiness lies in persistent, faithful listening to God’s word. Holiness consists mainly in persevering faithfully in the midst of everyday life, whatever it holds. This is what the “historical Mary” exemplifies.

As events unfold around her, often to her surprise, she has to figure out continually what God is asking of her. She looks for the word of God in people and events, listens to that word, ponders it and then acts on it. She doubtless repeats again and again what she said to Gabriel, “May it be done to me according to your word.” [6] Every day is a “pilgrimage of faith.” She finds energy in her trust in the God of Israel and in her solidarity with the growing community of Christians who experienced the promise of life in the death and resurrection of her son.

  1. She sings freedom’s song. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian-martyr executed by the Nazis in 1945, spoke these words during a sermon in 1933:

          The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is that passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerless of humankind.

Today we recognize Mary’s Magnificat as a rousing freedom song of the poor. Mary, the lead singer, epitomizes those marginalized by society, for whom there is “no room in the inn.” [7] God is her only hope, and she sings the divine praises with exuberant confidence. While it may be difficult to imagine this revolutionary hymn coming from the mouth of a beautiful Madonna painted by an Italian master painter, it is easy to envision it issuing from the lips of the historical Mary.

Galilee was the spawning ground for first-century revolts against a repressive occupying power and its taxes. The Christians of Jerusalem, who with Mary were the nucleus of the post-Resurrection church, suffered from real hunger and poverty.

The historical Mary experienced poverty, oppression, violence and the execution of her son. Her faith is deeply rooted in that context. Before the omnipotent God, she recognizes her own “lowly estate.” She is not among the world’s powerful. She is simply God’s “maidservant.” But she believes that nothing is impossible for God. In the Magnificat she sings confidently that God rescues life from death, joy from sorrow, light from darkness.

The historical Mary stands in solidarity with the poor. In fact, she is their spokesperson, especially in Luke’s Gospel. She cries out with gratitude for God’s gifts, especially for the son in her womb: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” [8] She believes that, in Jesus, the power of God can turn the world upside down, ushering in a new era – a kingdom of justice, love and peace. This message is relevant today.


[1] Robert P. Maloney, C.M., the former superior general of the Congregation of the Mission, lives in Washington, D.C., and serves as administrator for a joint project of the Community of Sant’Egidio and the Daughters of Charity for combating AIDS in Africa. The article from which this is adapted appeared originally in America magazine.

[2] John 1:46

[3] See Matt. 26:73

[4] James and Joses and Judas and Simon

[5] Acts 1:12-15

[6] Luke 1:38

[7] Luke 2:7

[8] Luke 1:46-47

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