In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mary

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Dictionary and Encyclopedia Entries
  • Essay Collections
  • Mary in Late Antiquity and Byzantium

Biblical Studies Mary
Carly Daniel-Hughes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0139


Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, has inspired some of the Christian tradition’s most majestic art, architecture, and music. Devotion to her has also generated deep piety among the Christian faithful for centuries. Yet Mary’s prominent role in Christian culture and practice bears a complicated relationship to early Christian materials, which provide sparse, and at times, conflicting accounts about her. This article focuses on the earliest and richest sources for the study of Mary, the New Testament Gospels, considering as well Christian Apocrypha and patristic writings that shaped Marian tradition that developed in later centuries. Scholars have noted that the canonical Gospels provide only a smattering of details about Mary, which are not entirely harmonious: she was a Jewish woman from Nazareth, betrothed and married to Joseph with whom (it seems?) she had additional children. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the Acts of the Apostles indicate that she was called Maria (a shortened version of the name Mariamme, or in Hebrew, Miriam), whereas the Gospel of John calls her only the mother of Jesus. John also asserts that she was a witness to the Crucifixion, while the Synoptics are less clear on this point. Only Matthew and Luke refer to Jesus’ virgin birth by Mary, though their accounts differ. Early Christians also crafted narratives that exist outside the canon, which addressed questions about Mary’s own parentage, early childhood, her relationship with Joseph, the nature of her labor of Christ, and her death and fate in the afterlife. The earliest and most important of these writings is the Protevangelium of James (or “Proto-Gospel of James”). Asserting Mary’s virginitas in partu (that Mary remained virginally intact during her labor), it was widely circulated by ancient Christians, and it exerted tremendous influence on Christian devotion to her as well as becoming an inspiration for Christian art and iconography into the Middle Ages. Differing stories about Mary’s death and fate in the afterlife, her Dormition, and in some cases her Assumption into heaven, also deeply informed Christian piety. Dated from the 5th to 7th centuries, these narratives reflect the burgeoning of her cult and feast days devoted to her. At this time, Mary also became the object of theological speculation and debate. Ambrose in the Latin West, and Ephrem and Proclus in the Greek East insisted upon her role in effecting salvation for the faithful, establishing the foundations of Mariological discourse for centuries.

General Overviews

This section includes foundational studies of Mary in the Christian tradition (other important general studies are cited under Essay Collections). They emphasize Mary’s role in Christian doctrine and devotional life, and many of them concentrate on theological issues, commonly from a Catholic and feminist perspective. (For a consideration of Protestant views, see the essays in Gaventa and Rigby 2002, cited under Essay Collections.) All studies consider to some degree the role of scripture and early Christian writings in the development of Marian traditions. Graef 2009 offers one of the earliest historical-theological treatments of Mary, with an emphasis on Catholic doctrine. Warner 1983 is an early feminist critique of Mary in the Christian tradition, and has to a large extent informed feminist readings of her within Catholicism. Beattie 2002 gives more of an early-21st-century reading of Mariology within contemporary Catholic life, looking closely at early patristic sources. Beattie employs a feminist psycholinguistic approach to construct a vision of Mary as a positive symbol of the feminine. Johnson 2003, conversely, rejects a feminist theological reading of Mary as a symbol, emphasizing instead how scriptural traditions present us with a figure that inspires social liberation and justice with whom women can feel solidarity. Tavard 1996 considers Catholic Mariology from the perspective of ecumenism, arguing that Mary offers a site for interreligious dialogue. Pelikan 1996 and Rubin 2009 take a more historical approach to the subject, looking chronologically at the ways in which Mary has been part of Christian culture. Rubin offers a remarkably detailed analysis of Mary up to the 16th century, whereas Pelikan looks more generally across the Christian tradition, even considering Mary in the Qurῑan.

  • Beattie, Tina. God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate: A Marian Narrative of Women’s Salvation. London: Continuum, 2002.

    A Roman Catholic lay theologian reclaims Marian symbolism (emphasizing patristic writings) in light of contemporary feminist concerns. Employs a feminist psycholinguistic approach to reexamine Mariological traditions and outlines a constructive theological account of the female body within Christian salvation.

  • Graef, Hilda. Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion. Christian Classics. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 2009.

    Originally published in two volumes, 1963 and 1965. A foundational study of Mariology. This edition contains a chapter by Thomas Thompson, S. M. (director of the Marian Library University of Dayton) on Mary in Vatican II and beyond (pp. 401–448). The book considers Mary in Church doctrine and religious devotion from the period of early Christianity to that council.

  • Johnson, Elizabeth A. Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints. New York: Continuum, 2003.

    A Catholic theologian offers a feminist vision of Mary emphasizing her as an historical woman rather than a symbolic figure. Focuses on scriptural passages as a productive source for imaging Mary as a figure of strength and solidarity for contemporary Christian women.

  • Pelikan, Jaroslav. Mary through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

    Prominent Yale church historian explores Mary in Christian theology and culture, from antiquity to the present day. Theological discussions are often paired with rich treatments of Christian art and architecture, as well as poetry and hymns. A discussion of Mary in the Qurῑan also appears. Includes eight pages of color images.

  • Rubin, Miri. Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.

    A historical-cultural analysis of Mary from the 1st to the 16th centuries, emphasizing the medieval and Reformation periods. Literature, poetry, images, and popular narratives are examined in order to consider Mary’s ascendancy in Christian devotion and culture. Includes twenty-nine color images.

  • Tavard, George H. The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996.

    An accessible study considering Mary from a Catholic ecumenical perspective. Outlines how Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants have historically understood her as a religious symbol. Attention is given to Mary in Islam and the feminine divine in Asian religions, presenting her as a resource for ecumenical dialogue in Christianity and across traditions.

  • Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. Vintage Series. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 1983.

    Originally published in 1976. A pathbreaking feminist examination of Mary as a symbol of the feminine divine in theology, art, and devotion in Western Europe from early Christianity to the early 21st century (with special attention to Catholic doctrine). Includes fifty-two black-and-white images and appendix with chronology.

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