In light of the significance that Mary, mother of Jesus, would attain in later Christian tradition, it is perhaps somewhat surprising how infrequently she appears in the New Testament. The various Gospel writers preserve different memories of her role in the beginning of Christianity, and there is some tension among the various accounts of Jesus’ relation with his mother and the members of his family. While some sources portray Mary as the model of faith and discipleship, others suggest instead that Jesus was estranged from her and his family.
Did you know…?
- Mary is mentioned only infrequently in the New Testament.
- Mark and Paul have almost nothing to say about Mary, while in Luke and John Mary figures prominently.
- At the Annunciation, Mary effectively becomes Jesus’ first disciple and the model for other disciples.
- In John, Mary is actively involved in the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry at Cana.
- John identifies Mary at the foot of the cross, where she is entrusted to the care of the beloved disciple.
- In Acts, Mary is present in the upper room at Pentecost.
- Some traditions suggest discord between Jesus and his mother and family.
- A noncanonical gospel called the Protevangelium of James, from the second century, tells the story of Mary’s life from her own conception through the Nativity.
Was Mary Jesus’ first disciple?
If one were to judge simply on the basis of Mark’s Gospel and the letters of Paul, this question would be entirely absurd, since Paul notes only that Jesus was born of a woman and Mark is just a little more informed in knowing Mary’s name. Matthew relates her betrothal to Joseph and her virginal conception, as well as some traditions of the Nativity, including the flight into Egypt. Nevertheless, it is in John and especially in Luke that Mary occasionally comes to the fore. In John she is present for the wedding at Cana, which inaugurates Jesus’ public ministry in this Gospel, and it is there at her urging that Jesus performs his first miracle. And when Jesus then departs Cana for Capernaum, Mary remains in his company with the disciples. Although she is largely absent thereafter, she again appears at the foot of the cross, implying that she was a disciple from beginning to end.
Luke’s Gospel offers the most developed reflection on Mary and her role in the beginnings of Christianity, particularly at the Annunciation. There, Mary is the first to hear and receive the gospel message of salvation from the angel Gabriel, to which she responds with faith, saying, “let it be with me according to your word.” Thus Luke presents Mary as the first faithful disciple of her son and also as one who is “blessed among women” and will be called blessed by all generations. Then in the Magnificat, which completes this sequence, Mary speaks prophetically, recalling the promises of the prophets and foretelling the themes of her son’s preaching. Such representation of Mary as the model of belief and discipleship in Luke forms a sharp contrast with the silence of Paul and Mark.
Was Mary estranged from her son’s ministry?
Despite John’s and Luke’s portrait of Mary as effectively the first of Jesus’ disciples, other passages from the Gospels suggest a decidedly different relationship between Mary and her son’s religious movement. The most important of these is a passage from Mark (
Nevertheless, it is also possible that such passages instead serve a literary and theological purpose in highlighting the importance of discipleship over the bonds of family, a recurrent theme in the Synoptics. Perhaps Mary’s more prominent role in John and Luke reflects changing attitudes toward the bonds of kinship and families or simply a growing interest the life of Jesus beyond the time of his ministry.
Of course, one should not completely exclude the possibility that Mary was possibly more involved in her son’s ministry than Paul and Mark would suggest. Some scholars have suggested that Mark’s tradition may reflect a polemic against the influence that members of Jesus’ family had within the early Christian movement after his death, as members of his biological family struggled with some of his other disciples for leadership of the movement. Moreover, it seems clear that Jesus’ brother James was an important leader in the primitive community soon after Jesus’ death, a point which calls into question any possible estrangement between Jesus and the members of his family.