Lessons Print Article
Lesson One: A Biblical Introduction to Mary
1. To understand the basic outlines of the New Testament’s witness to Mary.
2. To appreciate how the Old Testament forms the essential background for what the New Testament teaches about Mary.
3. To understand “typology” and its importance for reading the New Testament texts concerning Mary.
- From Scripture to Creed
- Reading Mary in Matthew
- Reading Mary in Luke
- Reading Like Jesus
- Discussion Questions
I. From Scripture to Creed
A. Mary of the New Testament
What the New Testament has to say about Mary fills only a few verses.
She is the focus of several passages in the Gospels and is referred to once in the Acts of the Apostles.
The Scriptures do depict Mary at every stage in her Son’s life - at His conception and birth; during His childhood; at the start of His ministry, at the foot of the Cross, and following His Resurrection and Ascension.
But in most of these cases, Mary’s presence amounts to little more than a mention.
Basically, this is what we learn from the Scriptures:
An angel announced that Mary would bear Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit (see Luke 1:26-38). While pregnant with Him, she paid a long visit to her relative, Elizabeth (see Luke 1:39-56).
She bore Jesus in Bethlehem (see Matthew 1:18-25) and was by His crib as magi (see Matthew 2:11) and shepherds (see Luke 2:15-20) paid Him homage. Under threat of danger, she fled with her newborn and Joseph, her husband, into Egypt (see Matthew 2:14).
Mary presented Jesus in the Temple (see Luke 2:23,33-35), and later, when He was twelve, found Him there teaching (see Luke 2:48-51).
Mary was at the wedding in Cana where Jesus performed His first miracle (see John 2:1-11). She was there, too, at Nazareth when He was rejected by His own people (see Matthew 13:54-58; Mark 6:1-6).
She watched Him die on the Cross (see John 19:25-28), and was among those gathered with the Apostles in Jerusalem awaiting Pentecost and the sending of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:14).
There are also a few indirect mentions of Mary in the New Testament. An anonymous woman cries out to Jesus: "Blessed is the womb that carried you" (see Luke 11:27-28). Paul mentions her but not by name (see Galatians 4:4). And she is apparently the woman depicted in a fantastic vision in the Bible’s last book (see Revelation 11:19-12:18).
B. Mary of Doctrine and Devotion
Even counting indirect mentions, Mary is referred to just fourteen times in the New Testament. That’s far less than some of the Apostles - certainly less than Peter, who is mentioned about 155 times.
How then did she come to be one of only two people mentioned by name in the Apostles’ Creed ("...born of the Virgin Mary")? How did she come to inspire some of the Church’s earliest liturgies and prayers, as well as some of its most controversial and misunderstood dogmas?
These questions have long been sticking points for many Christians, who can find no basis in Scripture for what Catholics believe and pray about Mary.
At best, they look upon our Marian beliefs and devotions as products of a pious but misguided imagination. At worst, they call it "Mariolatry" - a false worship that undermines the perfect saving work of Christ and robs Him of His glory.
Unfortunately, many devout Catholics would be equally hard-pressed to explain the connection between the Mary of the Bible and the Mary of Catholic doctrine and devotion.
That’s why this course is important.
We’re going to discover that when it comes to Mary, there’s far more to Scripture than what first meets the eye. We’ll see why prayers such as the "Hail Mary" are composed largely of biblical words, and see how the Church’s Marian dogmas and doctrines are definitive interpretations of Scriptures concerning Mary.
In fact, through close study of the Bible, we’re going to find the seeds not only for Catholic devotions such as the Rosary, but for dogmas and doctrines such as Mary’s Immaculate Conception, her Assumption, and her crowning as Queen of Heaven.
Catholic devotion to Mary, rooted in the biblical witness of Christ’s first followers, is far from blasphemy or idolatry. At the end of this course, you may wonder whether it is blasphemy not to honor Mary - as God’s most perfect work, the human person who most truly conforms to the image of God (see Genesis 1:27; Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 15:49).
To appreciate the connections between the Mary of Scripture and the Mary of doctrine and devotion, we need to learn how to read the Scriptures as they were written. When we do, we’ll discover that, though the biblical data is scant, it is rich in divine meaning.
II. Reading Mary in Matthew
A. Of Her Was Born. . .
Consider this a "reading lesson." We’re going to learn how to read from the New Testament writers themselves. We want to start by simply understanding the "literal" or literary sense of these texts - what the words on the page tell us about Mary.
Mary’s first appearance in the New Testament comes in its very first chapter - at the end of the long genealogy that begins the New Testament.
She is introduced as: "Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah" (see Matthew 1:16).
We have to read these words in context. These are the final words of a list of descendants Matthew has drawn up to demonstrate that Jesus is "Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (see Matthew 1:1).
To understand the literal meaning of this text about Mary, then, we have to know some background about the Christ, and about David and Abraham.
Abraham was the founding father of God’s chosen people, Israel. God made a covenant with him, promising that through his descendants "all the nations of the earth shall find blessing" (see Genesis 22:18).
God promised Abraham that kings would stem from his line (see Genesis 17:6) and later swore an oath to Israel’s King David - that his kingdom would have no end, that David’s son would be His son and would reign forever, not only over Israel but over all the nations (see 2 Samuel 7:12-13; Psalm 89:27-28; Psalm 132:4-5; 11-12).
But David’s kingdom crumbled and the people were dispersed into exile (see Matthew 1:11; 2 Kings 24:14).
From that time forward, Israel’s prophets taught them to hope for a "Christ" (or "Messiah" in Hebrew). He was expected to be the son of God promised to David, who would liberate Israel’s scattered tribes and reunite them in a new and everlasting kingdom that would be a light to the nations (see Isaiah 9:5-6; 49:6; 55:3; Ezekiel 34:23-25,30; 37:25).
Read in context, then, the few words that Matthew gives us about Mary are no trifling matter.
In this short sentence, Matthew has effectively positioned Mary at the center of Israel’s history - the history of God’s chosen people. Of her was born the Christ through whom God would fulfill His covenant promises to Abraham and David.
As mother of the royal Messiah of Israel, Mary is also necessarily at the center of human history. For the fruit of her womb will be the source of the world’s salvation. Through Christ, born of Mary, God will bestow His divine blessings upon all nations and peoples.
B. . . .Through the Holy Spirit
Matthew continues this theme in the verses that follow, as he describes how Mary was "found with child through the Holy Spirit" (see Matthew 1:18-25).
He tells us that Mary’s conception by the Spirit fulfills a promise God made through the prophet Isaiah - that a virgin would bear a son who would be called Emmanuel, which means, "God is with us" (see Matthew 1:18,22-23; Isaiah 7:14).
This was an obscure prophecy. Nobody that we know of at the time of Jesus believed it had anything to do with the coming Messiah. Some rabbis said the prophecy had been fulfilled in Isaiah’s lifetime - when King Hezekiah was born.
Hezekiah was indeed a mighty reformer who "pleased the Lord, just as his forefather David had done." In addition, Scripture tells us, "the Lord was with him" (see 2 Kings 18:1-7; 2 Chronicles 29-32).
But Matthew seems to be telling us that Hezekiah was at best only a partial and imperfect fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Its perfect fulfillment awaited the Spirit’s conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb.
Mary is "she who is to give birth," as Malachi foretold in a prophecy Matthew will later quote (see Micah 5:1-2; Matthew 2:6). Through Mary, mother of the long-awaited Messiah, "God is with us."
Again, to understand the literal meaning of this passage, we have to understand the deep Old Testament context that Matthew assumes.
Matthew expects that his readers will hear in these words the promise that echoes throughout salvation history - the promise of the divine presence, that God will one day come to dwell with His people (see Isaiah 43:5; Zechariah 8:23; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18).
This was one of the great messianic hopes stirred by the prophets. Ezekiel, for one, prophesied a new King David and an "everlasting covenant" by which God would promise: "My dwelling shall be with them; I will be their God, and they shall be My people" (see Ezekiel 37:24-28; Revelation 21:3).
And we hear echoes of Isaiah’s Emmanuel prophecy throughout Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus repeatedly describes how He will be "with us" for all time, especially in the Eucharist (see Matthew 18:20, 25:40,45; 26:26-28). His last words resound with the promise: "I am with you always, until the end of the age" (see Matthew 28:20).
Matthew’s reference to Mary as the Virgin prophesied by Emmanuel once more places her at the center of God’s saving plan - for Israel and for the world.
The literal meaning of this text is that Mary is the divine "sign" that long ago God promised to give - the sign of His faithfulness to His eternal covenant with David, the sign that He has come to fulfill His purposes for all creation.
III. Reading Mary in Luke
A. The Lord Is With You
We turn now to Luke’s Gospel.
We want to look closely at his account of the Annunciation (see Luke 1:26-38). Here again we simply want to read the literal text in its literary context. As it is written, we want to know what this passage tells us about Mary.
Luke, like Matthew, introduces Mary as a virgin betrothed to Joseph, a descendant of David. She is greeted by the angel Gabriel: "Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you."
The angel uses a word - variously translated hail or rejoice - that the prophets used to foretell the joy of the people at the Messiah’s coming (see Joel 2:23-24; Zechariah 9:9).
In fact, the angel’s announcement seems to be drawn almost word-for-word from a prophecy of Zephaniah (see Zephaniah 3:14-18)
Luke 1 Zephaniah 3
Hail, Shout for joy,
favored one! O daughter Zion! .
The Lord The King of Israel, the Lord
is with you…. is in your midst…
Do not be afraid, Mary Fear not, O Zion…
You will conceive in your womb Your God is in your midst,
...[the] Son of the Most High a mighty savior
Luke seems to be depicting Mary as Daughter Zion - the representative of her people - called to rejoice that God, as her Savior and King, has come into her midst.
As in Matthew, then, we see the historic hopes of Israel focused in the person of Mary. The words the prophets taught Israel to long to hear - "Say to daughter Zion, your Savior comes!" (see Isaiah 62:11) - are heard now by Mary.
The angel also tells Mary that her Son will be "Son of the Most High" and will be given "the throne of David His father."
For the literal meaning of this passage, we have to return to the Old Testament background of God’s covenant with David
In fact, in the angel’s words we hear echoes of God’s covenant with David (see 2 Samuel 7:12-16; Psalm 89:4-5; 27-30).
God swore that David’s son would be "a son to Me." And the angel promises that Mary’s child will be "Son of the Most High" - another way of saying "Son of God" (see Mark 5:7; Luke 1:35; 8:28).
God swore that David’s son would rule on his throne forever. The angel promises that Mary’s Son will be seated on "the throne of David his father…forever."
Mary is shown here to be the "sign" that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah from David’s dynastic line.
B. Handmaid of the Lord
We’ll focus on other elements of Luke’s Annunciation story in future lessons. For now, let’s jump ahead to the conclusion of Luke’s account.
Mary has asked how she, as a virgin, will conceive the child promised by the angel. The angel replies: "For nothing will be impossible for God" (see Luke 1:37). These words, too, are freighted with Old Testament meaning.
An angel spoke almost these same words to Abraham’s wife, Sarah, when she laughed at the notion that in her old age she would bear the son that God had promised to Abraham (see Genesis 18:14).
Luke appears to be showing us that Mary, too, is being called to bear the son of God’s covenant promise.
In fact, through a close reading of Luke’s Annunciation story, we can hear echoes of a number of miraculous births in the salvation history.
In addition to the birth of Isaac to Sarah, we can hear echoes of Rebekah’s conception of Jacob and Esau (see Genesis 25:21-22); Rachel’s conception of Joseph (see Genesis 29:31; 30:22-24); and Manoah’s wife’s conception of Samson (see Judges 13:2-7).
Mary’s response to the angel takes up the story of still another barren woman who found favor with God - Hannah the mother of Samuel (see 1 Samuel 1:11, 19-20).
In presenting herself as "the handmaid of the Lord," she recalls the oath of Hannah - who pleaded with God for a son, vowing to consecrate him to the Lord.
Three times Hannah described herself as the Lord’s "handmaid" (see 1 Samuel 1:11,16,18).
Made a gift to the Lord by his grateful mother (see 1 Samuel 1:11,22; 2:20), Samuel became a holy and righteous priest and prophet, chosen by God to anoint David as King.
In describing herself as the Lord’s handmaid, Mary too is vowing to dedicate her child to God. Her child, too, will be a holy prophet and priest, anointed to be a Davidic king.
IV. Reading Like Jesus
A. Literal, Historical, Divine
What do we learn from our literary reading of these Marian texts from Matthew and Luke?
First, the literary reading gives us knowledge of an historical truth - the birth of Jesus through the Holy Spirit to a virgin named Mary.
This historical truth at the same time conveys to us a divine meaning.
That is to say: the historical events, and the manner in which these events are written about, communicate far more than factual information. They reveal the existence of a plan of salvation that God is working out in human history.
Matthew and Luke’s accounts assume the existence of a divine economy, in which the covenant oaths God swore to Abraham and David centuries earlier are meant to find their ultimate fulfillment in the future coming of Christ.
Indeed, Matthew and Luke seem to envision a sort of golden thread connecting the events, figures and institutions of the Old Testament with those of their New Testament.
The reason for the evangelists’ careful use of quotes and allusions to Israel’s past is to reveal that unity between the Old and New Testaments - to show how what happens to Mary is a continuation and culmination of what has gone before.
B. Typology and Mary
This way of reading and writing is broadly known as typology. And typology is critical to understanding what the Bible has to say about Mary.
Typology is the way Jesus taught the Apostles to read the Old Testament.
He referred to Jonah (see Matthew 12:39-41), Solomon (see Matthew 12:42), the Temple (see John 2:19) and the brazen serpent (see John 3:14) as "types" or "signs" that prefigured Him.
On the first Easter night He said that, "Everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled" (see Luke 24:44-45).
What He showed them was that the persons, places, things and events of the Old Testament were written to prepare us for Him.
Jesus and the Apostles were already familiar with this way of reading from the Old Testament and the liturgical readings they heard in the synagogue. In the writings of the prophets and psalmists, often we find typological readings of earlier events, deployed to prepare Israel for its coming savior.
Isaiah spoke of a new creation (see Isaiah 65:17) and a new exodus (see Isaiah 11:10-11,15-16; 43:16-22; 51:9-11).
He and others, notably Ezekiel and Jeremiah, spoke of the coming of a new Davidic shepherd-king and the restoration of the kingdom (see Isaiah 9:1-7; Jeremiah 23:5-6; Ezekiel 16:59-63; 34:24-30; 37:23-28).
The New Testament writers saw each these great "types" - creation, the exodus and the covenant-kingdom of David - gloriously reprised in the New Covenant of Jesus.
Jesus was the New Adam, the first born of a new creation (see Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:21-22; 45-49). His Cross and Resurrection mark a new exodus (see Luke 9:31; 1 Corinthians 10:1-4). His Church is the new Jerusalem and the new Kingdom of David (see Galatians 4:26; Acts 1:6-9; 1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 1:6).
As we will see in the lessons ahead, the New Testament writers also developed a typological understanding of Mary’s role in salvation history - as the new Eve, the new Ark of the Covenant, and the new Queen Mother of the Kingdom of God.
What we will find is that Mary is depicted as mysteriously inseparable from the saving mission of her Son. We see this already in Matthew’s repetition of the phrase "the Child and His mother" (see Matthew 1:18; 2:11;13,14,20,21).
This is how Mary is portrayed in one of the earliest biblical confessions of the faith: "When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law to ransom those under the Law, so that we might receive adoption" (see Galatians 4:4-5).
What the New Testament has to say about Mary fills only a few verses. But it tells us all we need to know: Mary was made holy, destined from all eternity to give the Word flesh, to bear God’s only begotten Son, and to be crowned mother over all who enter into His kingdom.
V. Discussion Questions
• Where in the New Testament is Mary depicted at her Son’s conception? His birth? At the start of His ministry? After His Resurrection?
• How does Matthew position Mary at the center of Israel’s history? At the center of human history?
• How does Luke portray Mary as "Daughter Zion"? What Old Testament mother does Mary recall in declaring herself the "Handmaid of the Lord"?
• What biblical covenant does Luke’s Annunciation account refer to?
• What is typology? What are the origins of typological reading of the Bible?
For personal reflection
• In your own prayer and devotion, do you hold Mary to be most blessed among women? Are you honoring the New Testament prophecy that all ages shall call Mary blessed (see Luke 1:42,46; 11:27-28)?