the mother of Jesus

© 2006 Dr. Barbara Thiering

From humble peasant girl to Mother of God? Neither of these images of Mary has an authority in history. But both say a great deal about one of the functions of religion, to give a language and images to satisfy a human need. The mechanism of our survival, the sexual drive, is the cause of necessary suffering and necessary fulfillment. When the fulfillment is denied, in either the short term or the long, mental images can substitute. The hellenistic culture of the Greco-Roman world in which Christianity arose had abundant female icons, goddesses worshipped in temples. They were revered as virgins, understood as a symbol of sexual purity. Women following them acting as priestesses formed communities such as the Vestal Virgins. When Christianity was competing with paganism it needed an equally satisfying image, and the cult of the Virgin Mary was the result.

She came to her ascendancy only after the political struggles we have been tracing. Initially, in the community of Essene solarists, the Virgin was the wife of the Zadokite who should become high priest. The rules for Zadokites set down in Ezekiel 44:15-27 include "They shall not marry a widow, or a divorced woman, but only a virgin of the stock of the house of Israel, or a widow who is the widow of a priest." As the Zadokite represented all people in the rite of atonement, and had to be sexually "pure" at the time of its performance, his wife the Virgin, equally "pure", represented the particular needs of women. Elizabeth the wife of Zechariah the Zadokite, the mother of John the Baptist, held the office of Virgin at the time of the birth of Jesus (Luke 1:5). Women who lived as Essene nuns, whether sexually experienced or not, were called Virgins, and were under the leadership of the Chief Virgin. It was when Jesus aimed at and achieved the status of high priest in the eyes of Christians that a Virgin counterpart for him was needed. But at the time he attained that status, at the schism of the forties AD, his wife Mary Magdalene, who should have become the Virgin, had divorced him because of their intense political differences. His mother Mary was still alive in 44 AD, as is shown by her appearance as Mary the Mother of John Mark in Acts 12: 12. She was the head of the female order of Dan, a Mother Superior to nuns, as well as of Gentile celibates such as John Mark who had at first been placed in the female order. Her title Miriam, giving the Greek Mary, was that of all women who were potential queens of the dynasty of the Davids. They acted in the community of Therapeuts as the "Miriam", sister of "Moses" in the liturgical dance. Mother Mary became the substitute for Mary Magdalene as the female counterpart of Jesus as high priest.

She would not have begun as a humble peasant girl. Indications of her age show that she was born in December 26 BC. She was born into the exclusive society of Essenes who aspired to regain the Zadokite high priesthood and the David kingship. Their women were protected by married men, the village Essenes of the north, who as pilgrims supplied food to the exiled Essene priests and dynasts at Qumran. Although outwardly working as craftsmen, these men in their secret meetings hoped and planned to restore the great dynasties, the pretenders to the temple and throne. Women of suitable connections would be intended from birth to become the wife of a dynast of the David line.

A form of the David line had survived despite the cutting off of the royal line by the Seleucids. From the junior branch of Nathan Joseph was descended, the son of Heli who had joined Herod the Great's ambitious mission project. According to the dynastic rule Joseph, born September 44 BC, was to marry at the age of 36 in September 8 BC. Mary, aged 17 1/2 in June of 8 BC, was chosen for him, and at the council at that season they went through a binding betrothal ceremony. Then, as has been seen in the biography of Joseph, "his passions became strong" and Jesus was conceived six months earlier than the rule allowed. Sexual intercourse, regarded by Essenes as defilement, should take place for the first time in December, the season when there were no traditional ancient feasts. Because of his pre-nuptial conception. a lifelong accusation of illegitimacy was brought against Jesus by his enemies. (See "the Virgin Birth" in Section 2

Mary and Joseph went through their first wedding in September 8 BC, treated by a liberal priest as the equivalent of the second wedding of the Essene rule, when the bride was normally three months pregnant. Because of doubts about the legitimacy of Jesus, they set about conceiving a second child in December of 1 BC, later than would have been necessary, so that he could be treated as the legitimate heir if politics required it. Mary's history of childbearing indicates that she was healthily fertile, and remained so until her mid-forties. James the next brother of Jesus was born in September 1 AD, and thereafter her successive sons - with no daughters- were conceived according to the rule, each one six years or some months more after the birth of a previous son. The next brother Joses, who became Barnabas, was born in September 8 AD; the next, Jude, in 15 AD, and the final one, Simon, who became Silas, was conceived September 21 AD, when Mary was approaching 46. Born June 22 AD, Simon-Silas appears in Acts 21: 23 as "man 4 under a (Nazirite) vow." He "shaved his head", meaning marrying, at the age of 36 in June 58 AD. Joseph Mary's husband, had died in 23 AD.

In December of 32 AD Mary was 57, and she then began the 3 year process of education that would give her a form of ordained ministry, that of a Widow at the age of 60, according to the rule of 1 Timothy 5:9. She appears in Luke 13:11 as the "crippled woman" because being now aged she was one of the Poor, Crippled, Lame and Blind, the four categories of Therapeuts and Nazirites from which the village ministry was drawn (Luke 14:21). At the following season, March 33 AD, she was promoted to the class of Poor, being the Poor Widow of Mark 12:42. She gave "all her living" into the treasury because all the meagre proceeds of her work were shared among the nuns, who had no private property.

Her work was that of a seamstress. She also appears as the Widow Dorcas of Acts 9:36-42. The crafts of leading village Essenes were employed for religion, so the garments she sewed were the holy garments of the priests and celibates. Mary was in charge of the nuns who wove the linen for their vestments and other religious purposes - many examples of which were found at Qumran - and shaped and embroidered them.

It was as the Widow Dorcas in 43 AD that her change of politics took place. As is shown by Jesus' own record in John, there had been a certain tension between her and Jesus because of his advanced views that were removing him from traditional Judaism. At the time of his "turning water into wine", that is giving full equality to Gentiles, he said to her sharply in the surface narrative, " Woman, what is there between you and me?" She, however, told the deacon, "Do what he tells you" (John 2:4-5). Mary with Joseph had experienced both Sadducee and Pharisee dominance in the mission. Under political pressure she could side with her more conservative son James, who at some of the stages of the history held nationalist pro-Pharisee views, claiming to be himself the heir of David. But since her order of Dan was protected financially by the Chief Pilgrim Peter, she also bowed to him. In 43 AD Peter was changing to uphold the Herodian monarchy that Joseph had always detested. He brought James back from the Damascus anti-Herodian party, and went on to formalize the same change of commitment for Mary-Dorcas, "raising her from the dead".

As heads of mission, Peter and Mary with James brought the many initiates serving under them into the court of the Agrippas. Once the unstable Agrippa I was put out of the way at his assassination in March 44 AD, they remained in the court of Agrippa II, being instrumental in the establishment of Christianity as its practicing religion. It was there that Mary was appointed to the office of supreme Woman, revered by Christians in the Diaspora.

In Ephesus there is a house that is believed to be the house of Mary.

Photo WW

Photo WW. The house in Ephesus said to be that of the Virgin Mary.

The Pope went there during his visit to Turkey. Although it is unlikely that it was the original house, there is good reason for believing from the historical record that the Christian mission in Ephesus gave Mary prominence from its very earliest days. The Jewish mission in the Diaspora had first to combat the pagan cult of Artemis-Diana, whose magnificent temple in Ephesus was one of the wonders of the ancient world. When it gained ground its Magian element introduced as a substitute the veneration of Helena the mistress of Simon Magus and her successor Bernice. Their missionary method encouraged syncretism, deliberately identifying pagan deities with their own priests and priestesses, as is illustrated in Acts 14:12. The story in Acts 19:23-41, apparently about worship of Artemis in Ephesus, is actually about the Magian Chief Woman using her title at the time of crisis in the 50's AD when the Christians were in schism from Magians. Christians saw the process as idolatrous, especially when the rival Chief Woman was lacking moral integrity. The crisis helped establish the veneration of Mary as a symbol of perfection.

Thereafter, in the hellenistic world in need of a female icon, she became wholly supernatural. She herself had been conceived of a virgin, remained a perpetual virgin after the birth of Jesus - Joseph being only a stepfather- and at her death underwent a bodily assumption into heaven. She became the Mother of God, interceding for mercy on behalf of humans. It is a theological rather than historical task to interpret these developments, and the parallel development of Jesus as a supernatural male icon. A historian can only contribute by showing the setting from which they grew, and raise the question of whether such a setting still has relevance to the world 2000 years later.

Continue to next entry in Biographies: Peter or click title above to return to menu.
(if you are using the "without frames" entry, please return to previous page containing the menu via the "Back" browser button.)

Information from this page is subject to copyright at:
The Pesher Technique web site (with frames)
(without frames)