To sort out one Mary from another in the New Testament, the name is often qualified by association with a place. So today we refer to Mary Magdalene and to Mary of Bethany (the latter appearing in John's Gospel, chapters 11 and 12): two different women from two different places. When it comes to Jesus' mother, however, the practice of the New Testament changes. She can be referred to simply as Jesus' "mother." The fact of that relationship takes precedence over any other concern.
Classic Christian theology pursued that focus and came to refer Jesus' mother with the Greek title, theotokos -- "God-bearer." In the theology of both the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking West, Mary stood for Jesus' genuine humanity; following the words of Saint Paul (Galatians 4:4), he was "born of a woman." At the same time, when Mary is called theotokos, she stands for the divinity that emerged into history from her womb. Veneration of Mary progressed in the West to the point that in 1950 Pope Pius XII declared as an infallible doctrine that Mary was assumed into heaven at the end of her life. The Assumption of Mary is observed on Aug. 15. In the East, the same day celebrates the Theotokos and has been celebrated for many centuries.
From the second century on, Mary's special role in the birth of Jesus resulted in legendary developments. In some stories, she was a virgin after Jesus' birth as well as before, and grew up with a miraculously delayed menstrual cycle. In order to know about Mary historically, we need to place her in the context of the Judaism of her time in Galilee.
Jesus had been conceived before Mary and Joseph were living together. Matthew's Gospel states, "His mother Mary was contracted in marriage to Joseph; before they were together she was found pregnant from holy spirit" (1:18).
Controversy about whether God, Joseph or another man impregnated Mary has been intense and perennial. Departure from established doctrine has sometimes resulted in punishment and persecution. Yet, the New Testament itself represents various views of Jesus' birth.
The charge of illegitimacy plagued Jesus all his life. Even far from his home, during disputes in Jerusalem after he had become a famous teacher, Jesus was mocked for being born as the result of "fornication" (John 8:41). The people of his own village called him "Mary's son," not Joseph's (Mark 6:3). But his followers did consider him Joseph's son (John 1:45), and believed he was descended from King David through Joseph.
The historical challenge is to explain why Jesus was accused of illegitimacy, why he was called Joseph's son and why the view developed that he was born of a virgin. By examining the ancient Jewish commitment to the maintenance of family lineage, which was the cultural context of Jesus' birth, we can explain all these features of the New Testament and discover one of the most profound influences on Jesus' personal development.
Mary would have been some 13 years old -- the age Jewish maidens of that time married -- when the widower Joseph came to her village of Nazareth, perhaps to repair the house of her parents. Joseph was a journeyman from nearby Bethlehem (in Galilee, not Judea), a roofer, stonemason and rough carpenter. It makes sense that he would have met Mary in the early spring; he could ply his trade then before he was needed at home to tend his fields of wheat and barley. The calendar of Christianity from centuries after the New Testament -- bowing to the Imperial Roman feast of Sol Invictus, the invincible sun, which became ensconced during the third century C.E. and was applied to Christ a century later -- has Jesus born on Dec. 25. But reckoned from his parents' probable time of meeting, his birth was earlier, probably in the autumn.
Mary's family had agreed to a contract of marriage with Joseph, but the couple was not yet living together when her pregnancy became obvious. The wording of the New Testament itself, although written many years after the events and richly laced with legends concerning Jesus' birth, attests to this simple fact: before they resided together she was obviously pregnant (Matthew 1:18).
That precise statement in Matthew's Gospel explains how, over time, Jesus was considered illegitimate by some, the product of a miraculous birth by others and Joseph's son by others still. The early pregnancy touched off vicious rumors in Mary's village of Nazareth: perhaps Joseph was not really the child's father. So, for the birth, Joseph brought Mary to Bethlehem of Galilee, where he had lived with his first wife, to shield her from Nazareth's gossip.
Christmas cards, of course, make Bethlehem of Judea (near Jerusalem) the place of Jesus' birth, instead of the far more logical Bethlehem of Galilee. That is because Matthew's Gospel (2:1-6), written around the year 80 C.E. in Syrian Damascus, relates the nativity to a prediction in the book of the Prophet Micah (5:2) regarding the coming of the Messiah from Judean Bethlehem. Matthew fills in details of Jesus' birth by declaring that the events "fulfilled" texts from the Scriptures of Israel. Another example of Messianic fulfillment is the biblical text: "Look, a maiden shall conceive," culled from the book of Isaiah (7:14) and applied by Matthew to Mary's conception of Jesus before she was actually living with Joseph (Matthew 1:22-23).
The famous text in Greek, "a maiden (parthenos) shall conceive," became "a virgin shall conceive" when Matthew was translated into Latin during the second century, and that fed the development of belief in Jesus' miraculous birth. Both almah in Isaiah's Hebrew and parthenos in Matthew's Greek (and even the Latin virgo) refer to a "maiden" more than a biological "virgin."
Mary's biological virginity became an axiom in a Hellenistic environment that saw sexuality at odds with divinity. But her role as theotokos goes deeper than that. Whatever one may think about Jesus, and whether one accepts any aspect of Church teaching or not, the central contention of Christianity is that God and humanity have met together, so that God cannot be understood without reference to humanity, and humanity cannot be fathomed without reference to God. God's mother symbolizes that claim, presenting a young peasant woman as a vehicle of the divine.
Bruce Chilton is the Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College and the author of "Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography" (Doubleday).