Biblical Overview: The Blessed Virgin Mary

Thursday, February 05, 2004




Mary is the true physical mother of Jesus Christ, Who is truly God; hence Mary is the Mother of God. The doctrine was defined at the Council of Ephesus in 431 in order to counter Nestorius, who thought that Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ's human nature only. The Catholic Church responded by stating that persons, and not natures, are conceived and born, and that Jesus Christ was a Divine Person, and God-Man. The purpose of this doctrine was, and is, to safeguard the Divinity of Jesus Christ. As such, it is Christ-centered, not Mary-centered. In no way does it imply that Mary is greater than, or prior to, God.


The most holy Virgin Mary was, in the first moment of her conception, by a unique gift of grace and privilege of almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ the Redeemer of mankind, preserved free from all stain of original sin.

{Formal Definition of Pope Pius IX, 1854}


Mary, the immaculate perpetually Virgin Mother of God, after the completion of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into the glory of heaven.

{Formal Definition of Pope Pius XII, 1950}


Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Jesus Christ, who had no siblings, as many Protestants hold, although all orthodox Protestants maintain belief in the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ.


Mary freely cooperated with God in consenting to the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, thus, indirectly, she shares as a channel of grace to mankind. Mary also constantly intercedes on our behalf, thus participating in graces entirely originating from, and conferred by, God, by virtue of the merit of Jesus Christ. God willed for Mary to be a channel of blessing in this fashion, in a subordinate and indirect way, without taking away any of the prerogatives of the Creator.


Jesus Christ gave to John - and by implication, all Christians - His Mother, to be our Spiritual Mother (Jn 19:26-27; cf. Rev 12:1-2,5,17). Thus, we can ask for her prayers on our behalf, which have great efficacy due to her exalted holiness (Jas 5:16) and closeness to our Lord Jesus Christ.


An infinite distance separates [Mary] from the Infinite, from Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And she has no grace, no virtue, no privilege, which she does not owe to the divine Mediator. Both in her natural and in her supernatural being, she is wholly the gift of God. There is nothing, therefore, so misguided and so preposterous as to decry the Mother of God as some 'mother goddess,' and to talk of Catholicism having a polytheistic character. There is but one God, the Triune God, and every created thing lives in awe of His mystery.

{Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism, 1924}


There is only one person in all humanity of whom God has one picture, and in whom there is a perfect conformity between what He wanted her to be and what she is, and that is His Own Mother. The model and the copy are perfect. As Eden was the Paradise of Creation, Mary is the Paradise of th Incarnation. The closer one gets to the fire, the greater the heat; the closer one is to God, the greater the purity. But since no one was ever closer to God than the woman whose human portals He threw open to walk this earth, then no one could have been more pure than she. We do not start with Mary. We start with Christ. The less we think of Him, the less we think of her; the more we think of Him, the more we think of her; the more we adore His Divinity, the more we venerate her Motherhood. It may be objected: 'Our Lord is enough for me. I have no need of her.' But He needed her, whether we do or not. God, Who made the sun, also made the moon. The moon does not take away from the brilliance of the sun. All its light is reflected from the sun. The Blessed Mother reflects her Divine Son; without Him, she is nothing. With Him, she is the Mother of Men.

{Archbishop Fulton Sheen, The World's First Love, 1952}


1. Mary is called "Mother of the Lord" (Lk 1:43) and the "Mother of Jesus" (Jn 2:1), thus she is the Mother of God, since Jesus Christ is true God, the 2nd Person of the Holy Trinity (see also Is 7:14; Mt 1:18; Lk 1:35; Gal 4:4).

2. Our own mothers did not have any part in the production of our souls, which was the work of God alone. Yet we would not say she was the "mother of my body," and not "my mother." Likewise, Mary, under the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, communicated, as mothers do, to the Lord Jesus Christ a human nature of the same substance as her own. From this unfathomable privilege flows her surpassing dignity and excellence. If Mary were not a truly human mother, then Jesus Christ is not a truly human Person, and both the Incarnation and Jesus Christ's Human Nature would be in peril.

3. The Founders of Protestantism held firmly to this title for Mary, on the same grounds (e.g., Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, Zwingli, and Bullinger).


1. Luke 1:28 "And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, {thou that art} highly favoured, the Lord {is} with thee: blessed {art} thou among women."

The Gk. word rendered "highly favoured" here (KJV) and in many translations, is "kecharitomene." Catholic Bibles usually translate it "full of grace," which is permissible, and not merely a biased position. E.g., the Protestant Amplified Bible mentions in a note that "endued with grace" is the "literal translation." W.E. Vine's Expository Dictionary of N.T. Words, a standard Protestant reference, states that the word means "to make graceful or gracious . . . grace implies more than favour; grace is a free gift, favour may be deserved or gained."

If this be true, the Catholic rendering makes more clear the Catholic position that Mary's Immaculate Conception is entirely unmerited on her part, a sheer act of mercy and grace performed solely by God. "Favour" may imply otherwise. "Kecharitomene," in any event, is derived from the root "charis," whose literal meaning is "grace" (it is translated as "grace" 129 out of 150 times in the KJV). The angel is here, in effect, giving Mary a new name ("full of grace"), as if he were addressing Abraham as "full of faith," or Solomon "full of wisdom" (characteristics which typified them). Throughout the Bible, names were indicative of one's character and essence, all the more so if God renamed a person.

2. Catholicism needs only to show the harmony of a doctrine with the Bible. It is not our view that every doctrine of Christianity must appear whole, explicit, and often, in the pages of the Bible. We have also Sacred Tradition, Church Authority, and an acceptance of the development of understanding of essentially unchanging Christian truths. A belief implicitly biblical is not "anti-biblical" or "unbiblical," as many Protestants would have us believe. In fact, many Protestant doctrines are either not found in the Bible at all (e.g., "Bible alone" and the Canon of the Bible), are based on only a very few direct passages (e.g., the Virgin Birth), or are indirectly deduced from many implicit passages (e.g., the Trinity, the two natures of Jesus Christ). Likewise with the Immaculate Conception and other Catholic Marian beliefs.

3. Luke 1:35 "And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."

This verse explicitly establishes a link between Mary as bearer of the New Covenant and the Ark of the Old Covenant. The Gk. word for "overshadow" ("episkiasei") was used of the bright cloud at the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ (Mt 17:5; Lk 9:34) and is reminiscent of the Shekinah of the OT, which represented God's Presence (Ex 24:15-16; 40:34-8; 1 Ki 8:4-11). Mary became like the Holy of Holies in the Temple, where God dwelt. God gave extremely detailed instructions on constructing the ark, since it was to contain His Law (Ex 25-30 and 35-40). Mary had to be that much more holy, since she was to carry the Word of God in the flesh (Job 14:4). Further parallelism between Mary and the Ark is indicated in comparing Lk 1:43 with 2 Sam 6:9, Lk 1:44 with 2 Sam 6:14-16, and Lk 1:39-45,56 with 2 Sam 6:10-12.

Mary had to be sinless in order to be in such close proximity to God Himself. The whole Bible teaches this (e.g., Ex 3:5; Deut 23:14). God's Presence imparts and requires holiness (1 Cor 3:13-17; 1 Jn 3:3-9). The Jewish high priest entered the Holy of Holies (where the Ark and God's Special Presence were) only once a year, under threat of death if God's instructions were violated (Lev 16:2-4,13). The Ark itself was so holy that only a few were allowed to touch it (Num 4:15; 2 Sam 6:2-7). Thus, Mary, due to her ineffable physical and spiritual relationship with God the Son, the Holy Spirit (as "Spouse"), and God the Father (as "Daughter of Zion"), necessarily had to be granted the grace of sinlessness from conception, just as we all will be cleansed utterly in order to be present with God in heaven (Rev 21:27). Seen in this light, the Immaculate Conception, though still technically a deduction from the Bible, is a very biblical doctrine indeed.

4. Other biblical parallels to the Immaculate Conception exist. Jeremiah (Jer 1:5) and John the Baptist (Lk 1:15) were sanctified from the womb for the serious tasks to which God was calling them. The Apostles were endowed with many extraordinary gifts for their unique role in the history of Christianity (Acts 2; 2 Cor 3:5-6). Adam and Eve, before the Fall, were immaculate and without sin. They were brought forth from an immaculate earth, just as Jesus came forth from the immaculate Mary. Mary is the "second Eve" just as Jesus was the "second Adam" (Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 15:22,45). Mary, by her profound obedience (Lk 1:38), "undoes" Eve's disobedience in the Garden. The angels were created sinless and have remained so (except for the rebel demons). Saints in heaven are completely holy (Rev 14:5). God saved Mary by preserving her from the "pit" of sin, while He pulls the rest of us out of it. This is why God is every bit as much her Savior as He is ours (LK 1:47).

The Immaculate Mary prefigures the perfected Church (Eph 5:25-27). Catholics venerate in Mary no more than the glory promised by God to every creature who stays the course. The doctrine of Original Sin is more difficult to believe than Mary's Immaculate Conception. It is no difficulty to believe that God can unite a soul to flesh without sin. It is much harder to accept the notion that millions of souls are conceived with it.

5. It is abundantly strange that so many Protestants see Catholic Marian beliefs as idolatrous, when in fact, the Immaculate Conception is nothing if not a case where God saves absolutely independently of human effort or "works," without even the possibility of them - pure grace and nothing but grace. Protestants hold that this is what saves everyone who attains salvation. So how can Catholics be chided for applying this notion of unmerited grace to Mary? The only difference is that Catholics believe that God's applied grace obliterates sin, whereas in Protestantism, it merely "covers it up." This notion, however, is unbiblical, and was originated, by and large, by Martin Luther.


He who held back the waves of that Jordan, that the ark of the Old Testament might pass untouched and honored through its bed, could hold back the wave of Adam, lest it overflow the ark of the New Testament beneath its defiling floods. For He, who could have limited Adam's sin unto himself, can ward off that sin from Mary. And what He could, that He willed to do. For why should He not have willed it?

{Bishop William Ullathorne, The Immaculate Conception, 1855}


1. The Assumption is not an arbitrary presumption; it follows from Mary's sinlessness. Since bodily decay results from sin (Ps 16:10), the absence of sin would allow for instant bodily resurrection at death. Mary, since she was sinless, was preserved from the three-fold curse of sin (Gen 3:16-19), as well as from a return to dust. The Assumption is not the Ascension. Mary is taken to heaven by the power of God, not her own power, as with Jesus. The Church Fathers refer to such passages as Ps 132:8 as indications of the Assumption. Biblical parallels very similar to the Assumption exist:

Hebrews 11:5 "By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him: for before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God." {Cf. Gen 5:24}

2 Kings 2:1,11 ". . . the Lord would take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind . . . And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, {there appeared} a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven."

Enoch and Elijah, according to Protestant commentaries, were taken bodily to heaven, exactly what the doctrine of the Assumption maintains with regard to Mary. Furthermore, OT saints were immediately resurrected after Jesus' Resurrection (Mt 27:52-3); Christians at the Second Coming are resurrected and meet Jesus in the air (along with the dead saints) - some Protestants regard this as the "Rapture" (1 Thess 4:15-17). Lastly, Paul describes an experience whereby he was "caught up to the third heaven," possibly "in the body." Such evidence does not establish the Assumption in and of itself, but it does make such a notion plausible and not at all unbiblical, as is so often charged by Protestants.

Again, Catholicism does not believe in sola Scriptura, or "Scripture Alone" as the ultimate source of Christian truth. This is the Protestant principle of authority, curiously not found in the Bible, which points to a Tradition larger than itself (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15; 2 Tim 2:2).

2. Mary is again here a sign and type for every Christian. She anticipates our eventual bodily resurrection with her Assumption, just as she prefigures our redemption from sin by her Immaculate Conception.


Can we suppose that Abraham, or David, or Isaiah, or Ezekiel, should have been thus favoured [referring to the mass resurrection of Mt 27:52-3], and not God's own Mother? Was she not nearer to Him than the greatest of the Saints before her? Therefore we confidently say that our Lord, having preserved her from sin and the consequences of sin by His Passion, lost no time in pouring out the full merits of that Passion upon her body as well as her soul.

{John Henry Cardinal Newman, Meditations and Devotions, 1893}


1. Many Protestants assume that whenever they read of Jesus' "brothers," this is referring to His siblings, other sons and daughters of Mary. But it is not that simple. "Adelphos," the Gk. word for "brother" in the NT, has multiple meanings (like the English word), and they all appear frequently in Scripture. In addition to sibling, it can also denote (1) those of the same nationality (Acts 3:17; Rom 9:3); (2) any man, or neighbor (Mt 5:22; Lk 10:29); (3) persons with like interests (Mt 5:47); (4) distant descendants of the same parents (Acts 7:23,26; Heb 7:5); (5) persons united by a common calling (Rev 22:9); (6) mankind (Mt 25:40; Heb 2:17); (7) the disciples (Mt 28:10; Jn 20:17); (8) all believers (Mt 23:8; Acts 1:15; Rom 1:13; 1 Thess 1:4; Rev 19:10). Clearly, then, this issue is not at all settled by the mere word "brother"/"adelphos" in the Bible, and a more in-depth examination of the biblical data will be necessary.

2. "Brethren" - Biblical Exegesis

A. By comparing Gen 14:14 with 11:26-7, we find that Lot, called Abraham's "brother", is actually his nephew.

B. Jacob is called the "brother" of his Uncle Laban (Gen 29:10,15).

C. Cis and Eleazar are described as "brethren", whereas they are literally cousins (1 Chron 23:21-2).

D. "Brethren" as mere kinsmen: Deut 23:7; 2 Sam 1:26; 1 Ki 9:13; 2:32; 2 Ki 10:13-14; Jer 34:9; Amos 1:9.

E. Neither Hebrew or Aramaic has a word for "cousin." The NT retains this Hebrew usage by using "adelphos," even when non-siblings are being referred to.

F. In Lk 2:41-51, Joseph and Mary take Jesus to the Temple at the age of twelve, with no sign of any other siblings.

G. Jesus Himself uses "brethren" in the larger sense (Mt 23:1,8; 12:49).

H. By comparing Mt 27:56; Mk 15:40; and Jn 19:25, we find that James and Joseph - mentioned in Mt 13:55 with Simon and Jude as Jesus' "brethren" - are also called sons of Mary, wife of Clopas. This other Mary (Mt 27:61; 28:1) is called Mary's "adelphe" in Jn 19:25 (two Marys in one family?! - thus even this usage apparently means "cousins" or more distant relative). Mt 13:55 and Mk 6:3 mention Simon, Jude and "sisters" along with James and Joseph, calling all "adelphoi". Since we know that James and Joseph are not Jesus' blood brothers, it is likely that all these other "brethren" are cousins, according to the linguistic conventions discussed above.

I. Even standard evangelical Protestant commentaries such as Jamieson, Fausset & Brown admit that the question is not a simple one: "an exceedingly difficult question . . . nor are opinions yet by any means agreed . . . vexed question, encompassed with difficulties." {commentary for Mt 13:55}

J. Some Protestant commentators maintain that Mt 1:24-5 ("Joseph knew her not till . . .") implies that Mary had marital relations after the birth of Jesus. This does not follow, since "till" does not necessarily imply a change of behavior after the time to which it refers (cf. similar instances in 1 Sam 15:35; 2 Sam 6:23; Mt 12:20; Rom 8:22; 1 Tim 4:13; 6:14; Rev 2:25).

K. Likewise, "firstborn" (Mt 1:25) need not imply later children. A mother's first child is her "firstborn" regardless if any follow or not (Ex 13:2). Also, in the Bible, "firstborn" often means "preeminent," and even applies to those who are not literally the first child (Jer 31:9), or, metaphorically, to groups (Ex 4:22; Heb 12:23). Thus, "firstborn" in Mt 1:25 actually is more of an indication that Jesus is Mary's only child, than that there were others. This position is held by many evangelical Protestant scholars on these criteria, rather than Catholic dogmatic grounds.

L. Jesus committed his Mother to the care of John from the Cross (Jn 19:26-7). This is improbable if He had full brothers of His own then alive. Again, many Protestant interpreters agree.

M. Who would want to have God for a brother anyway?! Talk about sibling rivalry and an inferiority complex! The whole notion, if pondered, seems more and more improper and unbecoming - out and out implausible, even apart from the biblical data.

3. Early Christian Tradition was unanimous in holding to Mary's Perpetual Virginity. It was first doubted, as far as we know, by one Helvidius, who tangled with St. Jerome in 380, but by few others until recent times. All the Protestant Founders firmly held the belief, as did later notable Protestants such as John Wesley, and many more to this day, on biblical grounds alone.


1. John 19:26-27 "When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! (27) Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own {home}."

Many scholars, and not just Catholic ones (e.g., Lightfoot) suggest that in a text to which John attaches such importance more is involved than simply asking the disciple to take care of Mary. Jesus addresses his Mother first. In Gen 3:20 we find that "Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living." Likewise, John, who represented Christians, was to consider Mary his "mother," since she, as the Second Eve, is a type of the Church, and the Spiritual Mother of all Christians. To take it further, the Church is also a "mother" of Christians (Gal 4:26), since it nurtures and guides them into the fullness of the faith. Jesus' phrase evokes the OT covenant formula of 2 Sam 7:14: "I will be his father, and he shall be my son . . ."

2. Revelation 12:1,5,17 "And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars . . . And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and {to} his throne . . . And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ." {Cf. Ps 2:9)

This woman is the mother of the Messiah, Jesus Christ (12:5) and also of Christian disciples (12:17); possibly an extension of the Mary/Eve symbolism of Jn 19:26-7 (the same John may have written both). She is in conflict with a dragon who in 12:9 is identified with the ancient serpent of Genesis (cf. Gen 3:15 which also has Marian import). It would not be unusual for this passage to have a double symbolic interpretation, referring both to Mary and the Church (of which Mary is a type, anyway).

3. Mary as a Type of the Church: Just before the scene in heaven described in Rev 12 (the immediate preceding verse: 11:19), the ark of the covenant appears in the "temple of God." This is no coincidence, given the Mary/Ark parallelism as examined previously (it should be noted that the original Bible had no verses or chapters either). Mary symbolizes both the whole people of Israel and the Church. As Israel produces the Messiah, so Mary bears Him and gives birth to the Church in that same act. She is the first Christian, and the Mother of believers, in the sense that Abraham is called the Father of believers. Abraham inaugurated the Old Covenant by an act of faith. Mary does the same at the dawn of the New Covenant.

Moreover, Mary appears to fulfill the typology of the "Daughter of Zion", who is the personification of Israel (see Lam 1:15*; 2:13; Is 62:5*; 62:11; Jer 4:31; Micah 4:10; Zech 2:10; 9:9; Zeph 3:14; cf. Rev 21:2-3 / * = described as a "virgin"). In Zeph 3:14 and Zech 9:9, the Gk. word "chaire" ("hail") appears in the Septuagint (the Gk. translation of the OT in the 3rd century B.C.). This is the same word as that in Lk 1:28 ("Hail, full of grace . . ."). "Chaire" is used in prophecies regarding the messianic deliverance of the Jews.

4. Mary as Mediatrix:

There is but one mediator (1 Tim 2:5-6). But Mary's function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin's salutary influence on men originates not in any inner necessity but in the disposition of God. It flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Jesus Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it. It does not hinder in any way the immediate union of the faithful with Jesus Christ but on the contrary fosters it. The Blessed Virgin is invoked in the Church under the titles of Advocate, Helper, benefactress, and Mediatrix. This, however, is so understood that it neither takes away anything from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficacy of Jesus Christ the one Mediator . . . The unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source.

{Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, ch. 8, "Our Lady", III, 60,62}

Mary cooperates in the application of the grace of Redemption to man. She participates in the distribution of grace by her maternal intercession which is far inferior in efficacy to that of the intercessory prayer of Jesus Christ, the High Priest, but surpasses far the intercessory prayer of all the other saints . . . [We are not] obliged to beg for all graces through Mary, nor [is] Mary's intercession intrinsically necessary for the application of the grace, but according to God's positive ordinance, the redemptive grace of Jesus Christ is conferred [with] the intercessory cooperation of Mary.

{Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma}

God often involves Christians in secondary roles in which He is preeminent. He is the Creator, yet he calls us to be procreators as parents. Jesus is the Shepherd (Jn 10:11-16; 1 Pet 5:4), yet he delegates Peter as a shepherd (Jn 21:15-17) and others in lesser capacities (Eph 4:11). Jesus is High Priest, yet Christians are called to share in Jesus' priesthood (1 Pet 2:5-9; Rev 1:6; 20:6). Jesus is the supreme Judge, but Christians will be judges in heaven (Mt 19:28; Lk 22:30; 1 Cor 6:2-3; Rev 20:4). He is the sovereign King, but we will reign with him (Matt 19:23; Rev 3:21; 5:10). Jesus forgives our sins, but we are vessels of that forgiveness as well (Mt 18:18; Jn 20:23; Jas 5:14-15). Similarly, Mary can be a "mini-mediator" of God's graces, just as we all are, to a lesser extent, when we pray for each other. The role of "Mediatrix" is not a blasphemous Christ-usurping function, as many Protestants fear, but, like all other Marian doctrines, eminently Christ-centered and biblical.

5. Marian Apparitions: These are what are called private revelations, as distinct from the public revelation of the Bible and Christian Tradition. The Catholic Church doesn't require anyone to accept the validity of any particular apparition. In the most widely accepted apparitions, such as Lourdes and Fatima, the utterances of Mary are always Christ-centered, and emphasize prayer, repentance, and conversion, just as the teaching or evangelization of any Christian on earth might stress. Furthermore, an apparition by a figure other than Jesus is not unthinkable by any means. Angels appear to men throughout Scripture, giving messages. Moses and Elijah returned to earth on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt 17:1-3). The two "witnesses" of Revelation 11:3-13 are saints come to life (possibly also Moses and Elijah, or Enoch and Elijah). The prophet Samuel appears to Saul (1 Sam 28:7-20), and many OT saints arose in Jerusalem after the Resurrection of Jesus (Mt 27:50-53). In the "Apocrypha" (accepted as Scripture by all Christians until the Protestant Revolt), Jeremiah returns to earth (2 Maccabees 15:13-16).

Any excesses which have occurred among Catholic laypeople in the area of Mariology are regrettable, but these are constantly warned against in the official documents of the Catholic Church (such as Vatican II). Abuses and corruptions must not cause a fair inquirer to reject a position, as this is illogical (an instance of "throwing the baby out with the bath water"). One must examine the actual theological positions of a group and judge accordingly. The same holds true for the sects of Protestantism, where various abuses are by no means less prevalent.