Miriam of Nazareth: A Jewish Galilean

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By Merle Salazar, O.L.S.H.

Merle Salazar, O.L.S.H. holds a BS in Business Administration from the University of the Philippines, Quezon City, Philippines. She teaches theology at Maryhill School of Theology and at the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies, Manila, where she graduated summa cum laude. Her thesis research, Making Sense of Mary: The Mother of Jesus Today, will appear in future issues of the EAPR. Her previous publication was Confident Hope in the Forgiving Love of Yahweh: A Reading of Hosea 3:1-5.


Today, there is a wealth of material for, or about, Mary, the mother of Jesus. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in her and a number of books have been published proposing specific marian theologies. Elizabeth Johnson’sTruly Our Sister (E. Johnson 2003), which proclaims Mary as a "friend of God and prophet," and Charlene Spretnak’s Missing Mary (Spretnak 2004), which proclaims Mary as the "queen of heaven," are but two examples. A study of these recent proposals also shows that there is no consensus as to how the mother of Jesus is to be proclaimed today.

As I was reading through recent published materials on Mary, I felt the need to "make sense" of Mary and to find a "framework" or "an organizing key" which I could use in classifying and understanding the materials available to me. I needed a "template" broad enough to accommodate the different ideas about Mary and integrative enough to show the connections between and among these ideas. Sandra Schneiders’1 "four Jesuses" was the answer to my search. Schneiders says that there are "four Jesuses" operative in the Christian faith: the actual Jesus, the historical Jesus, the proclaimed Jesus, and the textual Jesus. I believe that analogously, one can also speak of "four Marys"—the actual Mary, the historical Mary, the textual Mary, and the proclaimed Mary—and that the "four Marys" can be used as a framework within which the different ideas about Mary will find a place.

The actual Mary refers to the real person, the biological mother of Jesus. She lived in Palestine during the first century (the earthly Mary) and "when the course of her earthly life was finished, she was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven"2 (the glorified Mary). The other three Marys are not persons but constructs that mediate our encounter with the actual Mary. The historical Mary bears upon the earthly Mary, Miriam of Nazareth; the textual Mary is the Mary enshrined in the New Testament texts; and the proclaimed Mary is the product of people’s collective imagination and it primarily bears upon the glorified Mary. This article is about the historical Mary. It is a study of the mother of Jesus in her concrete historical context.

The Quest for the Historical Mary

The quest for the historical Mary is an offshoot of the quest for the historical Jesus. If one is to establish the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, it is inevitable that that work would also involve establishing the historicity of his mother. Beverly Roberts Gaventa3 rightly observes that the historical quest for Mary poses many difficulties (1999:5-11). Nevertheless, scholars have embarked on the quest, and their findings and consequent insights add to the general knowledge about the "world" in which Mary of Nazareth lived; such knowledge is occasioning additional insights about her and ultimately about her son, Jesus. In fact, Elizabeth Johnson’s recently published book on Mary, Truly Our Sister, is a theology of Mary that is largely based on knowledge about the historical Miriam of Nazareth.

Where can information on this construct be found? The first place to look is of course the New Testament. "The Gospels are not in any sense of the term historical chronicles or biographies of Jesus—much less of Mary—[but] they are nevertheless the primary sources for a person named Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus" (Buby 1995:40). Aside from the New Testament, references to Mary can also be found in the apocryphal writings, the most popular of which is theProtoevangelium of James.4 This gospel contains a lot of information on the life of Mary that many Catholics believe to be historically true (e.g., the names of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, and Mary’s infancy and childhood stories; that Joseph was an old widower when Mary was betrothed to him, etc.). It has "dominated the development of the marian legend, providing much of the basic material for Mary’s biography" for it "recounts in legendary fashion the background and life story of Mary" (Brown, et al., 248). In spite of the fact that its stories are well known, this writing never made it to the canon. It is obvious from a single reading of the text that the writing is "legendary." For this reason, the Protoevangelium of James will not be used as a resource in our search for the historical Mary. Instead the New Testament writings will be used. In addition to the New Testament writings, information on the historical Mary, as the historical "questers" have shown, can also be deduced from archeological findings and other studies about first century Palestine.

The Historical Mary According to Scripture

Let us begin with a general inventory of the references to Mary in the New Testament.5 The references to Mary (direct and indirect) in the New Testament are in the Letters of Paul, the Gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles.

In Paul’s letters, Mary is not mentioned directly but some Pauline verses have been thought to refer to her, particularly Galatians 4:4 "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law." After thorough investigation, Brown and his companions have concluded that "Paul does indirectly refer to her (Mary) but it is a reference to her simply as mother, in her maternal role of bearing Jesus and bringing him into the world" (Brown, et al., 43). Therefore from the Pauline letters, what is established is simply that Jesus was born of a human mother, and so Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a historical figure.

Mary is referred to in all four gospels. The least number of references is found in the gospel of Mark where there is only one scene in which Mary appears (Mk 3:20-35) and only one other scene where she is clearly mentioned (Mk 6:1-6). In both passages, Mary is mentioned together with the other members of Jesus’ family, particularly his brothers and even his sisters. There is no reference to Joseph, Mary’s husband, in any of the said passages. What information do these verses give about the historical Mary? First, these verses possibly indicate that historically, the family of Jesus (his mother included) misunderstood him, thinking "he was beside himself" and did not follow him during his ministry (ibid.). "Historically, there is no evidence that the closest members of Jesus’ natural family were active disciples during his ministry, i.e. joined his company and followed him" (ibid., 53, footnote#93). Not all scholars agree. An example would be Pheme Perkins who agrees with the interpretation of the verses but does not think that such information can be considered historical (Perkins 1995:566). Second, Mark refers to Jesus’ brothers and sisters. If this is interpreted to mean blood brothers and sisters, it means that the historical Mary had other children beside Jesus. If this is interpreted to mean relatives, then it supports the position that Jesus was the only child of Mary. Arguments for both positions abound.6 At the end, Brown and his companions "agreed that there is no way to be certain [regarding]… the relationship between Jesus and those called his brothers and sisters" (Brown, et al., 72). Third, the absence of any reference to Joseph may simply mean that historically, during this time, Joseph might have been dead already. Finally, the Markan verses say that Jesus was a tekton,7a woodworker. This was his occupation. The historical Mary was therefore the mother of a tekton.

The next two gospels, Matthew and Luke, both have infancy narratives which are very different from each other although they share common traditions. A naive reading of the infancy narratives may lead one to think that they are historical accounts that Joseph and Mary provided. In fact, such has been the ancient belief. In the case of Luke, because of the importance he gives to Mary and the many references to her in his infancy narratives, people believed that the historical Mary was actually Luke’s direct source. Today, it is generally accepted that this is not true. The writer of the gospel of Luke in all probability did not meet Mary, the mother of Jesus and what he had as resources were oral and written traditions about Jesus. The same can be said about Matthew’s infancy narrative. So, for purposes of studying the historical Mary, the infancy narratives will not be considered as sources of historical information.8 They belong to another literary genre and their significance is not in their being historical but in their being symbolic and theological.9

The other references to Mary in the gospels of Luke and Matthew outside the infancy narratives are variations of the Markan references (Mt 12:46-50, Lk 8:19-21, and Mt 13:53-58). Both Matthew and Luke soften Mark’s negative portrait of Jesus’ family such that a positive portrait results for Luke while Matthew gives a middle position (Brown, et al., 287).

The gospel of John gives prominence to the mother of Jesus. Although she is not named in the gospel, she appears in two important scenes—at Cana in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and at the foot of the cross at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. But are these scenes historical? It is noted that both scenes are not found in any of the other gospels. To answer this question, the nature of the gospel of John has to be discussed. The gospel of John is "at once the simplest of the gospels and the most difficult" (Culpepper 1998:14). For R. Alan Culpepper, it is best understood as "a narrative that presents Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God who lived in a particular time in history" (ibid.). The gospel of John is a theological reflection. This gospel is highly christological and highly symbolic and the stories about Mary fulfill a christological function. Scholars believe that the Johanine texts, although symbolic, have a bearing on the historical Mary. Joseph Grassi believes that the Cana episode illustrates the actual place of Mary in the life of the Church after the resurrection (1988:70). The same conclusion is reached by the scholars who wrote Mary in the New Testament, particularly from their study of the scene at the foot of the cross. "There is no way to tell whether Mary’s presence at the foot of the cross is historical or not… but if it is not historical, the fact that the story is put there simply heightens the importance of Mary to the Johanine community" (Brown, et al., 209-10). Therefore, there must be reliable tradition behind it; Mary must have been historically a part of the post-easter Church.

Elizabeth Johnson gives additional insights. For her, the Johanine Mary at the foot of the cross is a picture of Mary as the suffering Jewish mother. "Even if she did not stand at the foot of the cross, even if she was still in Nazareth, which would seem likely, news would have reached her" (E. Johnson, 295). "The Mater Dolorosa is not a theological concept or a symbolic image of an archetypal experience, but a real person who one day realized the terrible fact that her first born son was dead by state execution" (296). David Flusser, a Jew writing about Mary, recommends that Mary be seen in the context of Jewish suffering. For him, from a purely human point of view, Mary is a suffering Jewish mother and, as a Jew, he cannot avoid seeing her as that, the sorrowful Jewish mother whose guiltless son became the sacrifice of hatred for Jews (Flusser 1986:12, 15).

What is left among the New Testament references to Mary is the reference to Mary in the Acts of the Apostles. Acts 1:14 includes Mary in the list of those gathered in prayer at the upper room waiting for the coming of the Spirit. R. Alan Culpepper finds this significant saying "the inclusion of Mary cannot be accidental. This is Luke’s first mention of her since the infancy narrative, for he omits the negative implications concerning the family of Jesus found in Mark 3:31-35; 6:3" (1995:34). The question we are interested in is whether this text from Acts has a bearing on the historical Miriam of Nazareth. The scholars of Mary in the NewTestamentactually say it has. They believe that what is behind the text in Acts is a historical fact. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was probably historically a member of the post-resurrection community and the scholars explain their position quite clearly in the conclusion of their study:



Since Mary is mentioned only once in Acts (1:14), it is clear that Luke was not concerned with exalting her role in the post-Easter community. Undoubtedly, his placing Mary in that group of believers is consonant with his portrayal of her in his Gospel; yet the task force did not regard Acts 1:14 as a Lucan creation but as a tradition which should be accepted as reliable (emphasis mine). Although it is impossible to establish the time at which Mary’s belief began, or the cause of it, she shared the faith in Jesus of the earliest Christian community (Brown, et al., 284).

Other scholars share this belief. In addition, this conclusion on the historicity of Mary’s membership in the post-easter community also has a bearing on the historical Mary’s relationship with and attitude towards her son Jesus during his ministry. "Since she was from the first a member of the post-easter community, it is unlikely that her earlier misunderstanding of her son is simply a creation of Mark or of the tradition which he repeats; for it is hard to believe that such a misunderstanding would have been attributed to the believing mother of the risen Lord if there had been no basis for such an attribution(emphasis mine). The basis seems to have been that, in fact, she did not follow Jesus about as a disciple during the ministry" (ibid.).


In summary, based on scripture, from the Letters of Paul to the Acts of the Apostles, it is known for certain that Jesus of Nazareth had a human mother. She was a Jewish woman who lived in Nazareth sometime in the first century. Her name was Miriam.10 She was married to a man named Joseph who was a tekton. Her son, Jesus, was also a tekton. There are strong and convincing indications that she belonged to the post-easter community.

The Historical Mary According to Archeology and the Social Sciences

The information about the historical Miriam of Nazareth from the New Testament is indeed very minimal. This is understandable. Aside from the fact that Miriam is not the subject of the New Testament and that the New Testament is not a history book but a book of faith, the fact that Miriam was a woman also partly explains the very minimal information about her. Carol Meyers discusses the serious problems encountered in using the bible for the task of examining the lives of women (1992:244-45).

Fortunately, the little historical information about Miriam that is known for certain opens a sizable world of study through other sciences, particularly archeology and other related social sciences. Although archeology does not and will not give any additional information about Miriam of Nazareth in particular, it is able to give information about the society she lived in. Excavations of homes and materials inside the homes give an idea how life was lived then which in turn gives 21stcentury people a general sense of the everyday life of people in first century Palestine. In addition, recent sociological and anthropological studies have also helped to show the ethos, mores, and patterns of behavior that were characteristic of the world from which Jesus and Miriam came, namely the eastern and semitic part of the Mediterranean (Buby, 40). Therefore, to understand Miriam of Nazareth, it is im-perative to integrate into Marian theology the findings from archeology, sociology, anthropology, and other related studies.

John Pilch gives another important reason one should look at the world of Miriam of Nazareth. "Authentic devotion to the Blessed Virgin should at the very least be based upon a respectful understanding of her. This should entail respect for her native Mediterranean culture and the roles she played in that culture" (1990:90). Flusser offers a reminder that a real, actual living Jewish woman is being spoken of here. The mother of Jesus was a Jew who lived a Jewish life and it is helpful to students of marian theology, or any student of the New Testament for that matter, to employ a Jewish understanding of the facts in order to make better historical sense of the stories in the gospels. The Jewish aspect of the figure of Miriam is outlined both by her Jewish descent and by her typically Jewish fate, that is, she is like countless Jewish mothers who have lived the way of suffering (Flusser, 8-9).

Religious Context

Miriam was a "Jewish woman who gave birth to Jesus the Jew" Buby, 39). Her religious context is first century Judaism. David Flusser, a Jew, writing about Miriam and Israel puts it very simply: "The mother of Jesus was a Jewess who lived a Jewish life." "She lived that life according to the Jewish religious tradition" (Flusser, 39). Flusser further says "it is incontestable that historically speaking, Miriam is the certain link between Jesus and the Jewish people. The savior of the Christian faith was born of a Jewish woman" (ibid.,16).

"Diversity was the hallmark of the pre-70 CE Jewish Religion" (E. Johnson, 162 also Boys 2000:98-101). Jacob Neusner in fact refers to first century Judaism as "Judaisms." There were Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, various revolutionary groups, Samaritans, to name the more prominent ones. These groups interpreted the Torah and how to live it in different ways. In which group did Jesus belong? In which group did Miriam of Nazareth belong? The answer is not known. But whatever their differences, the Jews were one people, set apart from the rest of the population. The principal unifying factor of Jewish life was a sense of separation and distinction reinforced by the central practices that served as "boundary markers" indicating someone belonged to the Jewish people. These markers are Sabbath, circumcision, and purity laws. Also, central to Judaism is the belief that God made a covenant with Israel: "I shall be your God and you shall be my people." God is loyal to this covenant and calls Israel to live its loyalty through obedience to the way of the Torah. To say that Miriam of Nazareth was a Jew therefore concretely means that she believed she was part of God’s chosen people. She attends Sabbath services and obeys the purity laws. She knows the Torah and hears it regularly. The men in her household are circumcised.

Jewish worship, in which Miriam of Nazareth most probably participated, was performed in three places: the Temple in Jerusalem, the synagogue, and the home (LT Johnson 1999:58). The temple remained an important symbol of Judaism. Miriam of Nazareth, being a Galilean, probably did not spend much time in the Temple but with her household, she would have gone there during the pilgrimage feasts—the Passover, Feast of Booths, and Pentecost. Scholars believe that the Temple did not figure much in the life of Galilean Jews. Nevertheless, the residents of Galilee still bore considerable loyalty to Jerusalem. It would not be difficult to imagine Miriam going up to Jerusalem with her household and, together with other women of her clan, make all the necessary preparations for the pilgrimage.

The second place of Jewish worship is the synagogue.11 In the synagogue, there is no animal sacrifice and ritual actions were held to a minimum. It’s worship centered wholly on the Torah. There were readings followed by homilies. During the lifetime of Miriam, the synagogue probably referred to the local village assembly rather than a building (E. Johnson, 167). This assembly can meet in a house, an open space, or under a tree. Miriam of Nazareth probably attended synagogue regularly.

The third place of worship is the home where the first century domestic liturgy of the meal was celebrated on Sabbath and other important feasts like the Passover. Miriam, as a mother of a household, surely participated in the weekly Sabbath celebration and, like all Jewish mothers, led the lighting of the Sabbath candles.

Miriam was born a Jew and, although she became a member of the post-resurrection Church, she died a Jew. Here, it is well to remember that the post-resurrection Church, the first group of Jesus believers, were Jews who had no intention of breaking away from Judaism. The separation from Judaism happened through a gradual and complex process, long after the time of Miriam of Nazareth.

Family Life12

Israelite society was family oriented. For Mediterranean people, the one great goal in life is the maintenance and strengthening of the kinship group and its honor with the underlying Mediterranean value of kinship or family loyalty (Malina 1990:59). The family’s concern is its honor and shame where the "men compete for honor while the women defend their shame" (Neyrey 1990:65).

The family household in the Mediterranean world was generally patriarchal, that is, it was centered on the men of the family, especially the first born (1990:117). With the man at the center, the woman was his partner in assuring continuity.

Selection of a spouse was a family affair and not for the individual alone to decide (ibid.). At twelve and a half years old, the young Jewish girl normally married and the control over her is passed from her father to her husband. A two-step marriage process is then followed.13 The first step is the betrothal which is the formal exchange of consent between the husband and the girl in front of witnesses. Up to age twelve and a half, a young girl did not have the right to refuse a marriage set up by the father but after twelve and a half, the young girl was then already autonomous in her choice although her father’s consent was still necessary. Upon betrothal, the husband pays the father of his bride. They enter into a legal marriage contract which already gives the young man rights over the girl. The woman becomes her husband’s property at the time of the betrothal and from then on any violation of her is a form of dishonoring him (Stevens 1990:50). This stage usually takes one year. During such time, the young woman continues to live with her parents.

The first step in the marriage process is then followed by the transferal stage. The young woman is now brought into the home of the husband. Women left their families of origin to become part of their husband’s household and these households are extended families which could number as many as a hundred persons at any one time (Malina, 120). Because of the big household, it was particularly difficult for a newlywed bride to feel accepted in such complexity (Buby, 43). The home and Joseph’s household was the immediate world of Miriam of Nazareth. In that household, she was wife and mother.

In Israel, the family household was an economic unit as well as a biological one. It produced and processed virtually all food, clothing, and other implements necessary for survival (ibid.). So it is not difficult to imagine Miriam busy processing food, making clothing, and doing backyard gardening for members of her household. This was no joke. As Carol Meyers points out, the Israelite women, Mary included, would have spent an extraordinary amount of time involved in carrying out life supporting daily activities and that a fairly high degree of technological expertise is involved in most of their tasks. So even if the Mediterranean family was basically patriarchal, it cannot be said that the woman in the household was powerless. Because in fact, both the intricacy and the time-consuming aspects of women’s labor meant that the Israelite women exercised control over critical aspects of household life (Meyers, 247-48). If this can be said of Israelite women in general, it is safe to assume that it can also be said of Miriam of Nazareth in particular.

When a child was born, the mother of the Israelite family undoubtedly assumed the chief responsibility for the care of the small children. This also included the children’s socialization. In addition to this, since the family household was a big household, the senior women also had the responsibility of managing and training those junior to them. So, in Joseph’s household, one could imagine Miriam caring for, educating and socializing Jesus and probably other children in their household. It is conceivable that Miriam indeed exercised clear authority over Jesus in his years at Nazareth (Buby, 43).

Looking at family life in Israel in general, one sees Miriam of Nazareth as having a life busy with activities. She had to be skilled in various life-sustaining activities like food and clothing production and preparation. With this kind of schedule, it is not surprising anymore that she did not follow Jesus around in his public ministry.

Economic and Political Context

Miriam is from Nazareth, a small farming village in fertile lower Galilee. Being primarily an agricultural village, Nazareth could probably not provide enough business for a tekton which is what Joseph and Jesus were. Fortunately for their family, Sepphoris, a Roman city, was only a little more than nine kilometers (3.5 miles) away from Nazareth, a short walk of an hour for the people of that time. Jesus probably spent his childhood or at least some of his youth near Sepphoris so he may have been influenced by its culture. Joseph and Jesus, before Jesus began his public ministry, could have worked on the construction projects at Sepphoris and later at Caesarea Philippi, Tiberias, or Bethsaida Julias. This is possible because construction workers went from place to place where there was work (Buby, 250-51).

The world Miriam inhabited must have been a multilingual world. The Romans spoke Latin; the educated, business, and ruling classes spoke Greek; the Jews heard Hebrew read in the synagogues and they spoke Aramaic as their ordinary everyday language. In addition, there are indications that the Galileans spoke Aramaic in a style distinct from the people in Jerusalem. Evidences point to the fact that Miriam of Nazareth spoke Aramaic with a Galilean accent (E. Johnson, 141-42). In spite of the proximity of Nazareth to the Roman cities, its material culture proved to be simple and more than modest. From the early Roman period, there were no paved streets, no public buildings, no public inscriptions, no marble or mosaics or frescoes (143). Jonathan Reed says of the village "there are no luxury items of any kind" and "it was a small Jewish village, without any political significance, pre-occupied with agriculture, and no doubt, taxation."14 Miriam spent most of her years in this village.

Scholars estimate that during the time of Jesus, Nazareth had a population of about 300 to 50015 people. This would consist of peasants who worked their own land, tenant farmers who worked land belonging to others, and craftsmen who served their other needs (E. Johnson, 141). Miriam was married to a craftsman, atekton.

Galilee was also part of the vast Roman Empire which grew by conquest. Territories, like Palestine, were under the explicitly military governance of Roman procurators. Two significant aspects of life within first century Palestine were shaped by the Roman conquest. First, an already stratified society had its lower levels swelled by large numbers of slaves and other persons displaced by wars. Second was the constant pressure of taxation on the provinces (LT Johnson, 26-27). In their society, the family of Miriam belonged to the artisan class. The artisans did not own land so they could not rely on a steady supply of food. Taxes levied on subject peoples were also especially severe. In Galilee, under Julius Ceasar, as much as a quarter of a year’s harvest could go into taxes to Rome. Add to that the amount skimmed by local chieftains like Herod and the agents hired to do the collecting—the publicans—the amount taken from the local population was even greater (ibid.). But this is only taxes to the government and its agents. In addition to government taxes, the people were also required to pay the temple tax. As Elizabeth Johnson points out, the people were actually triply taxed.

During the lifetime of Miriam of Nazareth, Israel was under various political rulers. The first was Herod the Great who ruled from 37 BCE to ACE.16 In 37 BCE, "Herod, a vigorous athlete, unscrupulous schemer, and passionate autocrat, became the undisputed master of Palestine" (Wright, et al., 1246). Herod was a clever politician. It was during his reign that both Miriam and Jesus were born. His reign can be divided into three parts. The first part was marked by the cold-blooded and systematic elimination of any who might have contested his authority. During the second part of his reign, he embarked on lavish and magnificent cultural improvements which were financed mainly by taxes. In the 18th year of his reign, about 20 BCE, Herod began a major magnificent restoration of the second temple. He never succeeded in gaining the support of the Jews who really hated him and so he resorted to violence to hold the Jews in check and constructed fortresses throughout the land. Finally, the last part of his reign was marked by domestic strife. After his death, the situation became worse. When he died, resentment exploded in revolt all over Palestine. Facing widespread uproar, the Romans responded with brutal efficiency. Villages were burned and their inhabitants were sold to slavery. At this time, Miriam would have been around 15 or 16, a young married woman with a small baby.

Herod’s will divided his kingdom among three of his sons, Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Philip. Family intrigue continued and Jewish hatred for Herod the Great evoked opposition to the succession of his sons as rulers. Delegations from all sides were sent to Rome but emperor Augustus respected Herod’s will. Archelaus, who had a short rule, inherited half of the kingdom covering Judea, Samaria and Idumea. After him, a Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, took over. Herod Antipas, who ruled during the entire lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth, inherited Galilee and Perea as a tetrarch. Philip became tetrarch of the regions East and North of the Lake of Galilee.

Herod Antipas built for himself a magnificent capital at Tiberias on the west shore of the Lake of Galilee, naming it in honor of the emperor Tiberius. Before this, he rebuilt Sepphoris to make it his capital city. So if before, the ruler was far from Nazareth, with Herod Antipas residing in Sepphoris and later in Tiberias, the ruler was less than a day’s walk away from the villagers. With the Roman cities so near, the economic gap between the peasants and the upper class became very obvious. "Their cosmopolitan population and display of wealth and power would have set them clearly apart from the country people in the Galilean villages that surrounded them" (E. Johnson, 155). Herod Antipas had some of his father’s traits. He was vainglorious, indolent, hostile, and crafty. To be able to build the Roman cities, he had to collect more taxes from the people. The reign of Herod Antipas was the political context of Miriam’s adult life.

Aside from client kings, Israel was also ruled by Roman procurators. The procurators were "financial and military administrators who ruled the imperial provinces. They collected the tribute for the emperor and maintained public order" (Wright, et al., 1248). The best known procurator of Judea was Pontius Pilate who was prefect from 26 ACE to 36 ACE. Pilate was a high-handed, stern ruler who never went out of his way to ingratiate himself with the Jews. He was the one who had Jesus of Nazareth crucified in Jerusalem. Surely, the name Pontius Pilate would have been remembered by Miriam, for this was the name of her son’s executioner.

Summary of Findings from Archeological and Socio-Cultural Studies

In summary, the archeological and socio-cultural studies of first century Palestine show that the historical Miriam, a Jew, was a poor woman from a small farming village in Galilee. Economically, she and her household belonged to the artisan class, a sub-group within the lower economic class during their time. Aside from being economically poor, the artisan class with the rest of the Galileans, were also politically marginalized. She and the other Galileans, had to suffer the violence perpetuated by the rulers of their time and, through their labor, finance the vain projects of the same leaders. As a young mother, she witnessed the violence and destruction wrought by the Romans at the end of Herod the Great’s rule. Later, as an adult, she witnessed the rise of the wealthy Roman cities just beside their village. Nearing the end of her life, she also had to suffer the execution of her son by crucifixion by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The historical Miriam of Nazareth is indeed no stranger to violence and social dislocation.


Miriam of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus is a particular person in history. She was a Jewish woman who lived in first century Palestine, particularly, Nazareth, a small farming village in Galilee. She was married to Joseph, a tekton. Her son, Jesus of Nazareth, later became known as the Christ. As wife and mother, she was probably skilled in various life-sustaining activities like food and clothing production. During her lifetime, Palestine was part of the vast Roman Empire. She lived under the rule of client kings, and saw and experienced the effects of their violent characters, vain lifestyles, and massive construction projects. Although from a small village, she must have been acquainted with Greco-Roman culture because of the Roman cities which were just a few kilometers away, Sepphoris and Tiberias. Later in her life, she suffered the death by crucifixion of her first-born son. Finally, from scripture, there are convincing indications that she was part of the post resurrection community of Jewish believers in Jesus.





1. Schneiders 1999. Specifically, see xix-xxx of the Preface to the second edition and 100-10 & 149-51 of the first edition.

2. Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus

3. Gaventa gives four examples of the work done by scholars with regard to the quest for the historical Mary. See Gaventa 1999:8-11.

4. "The Protoevangelium of James had its origin in the second century. Probably written as an expansion of Jesus’ birth story, the book was apparently the first Christian writing to exhibit an independent interest in the person of Mary" (Brown, et al., 1978:248). For a copy of the complete text of the Protoevangelium of James in English, see Gaventa, Appendix, 133-45.

5. The basic reference used is Brown, et al., Mary in the New Testament, a collaborative assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars.

6. "By the fourth century, Church scholars maintained uniformly that Jesus had no real siblings, merely cousins, and most Roman Catholics still believe this. However, Protestant biblical scholars today generally believe that Mary had four other sons: James, Joses, Simon, and Jude, and two or three daughters, not identified by name. Although Catholic teaching has consistently held otherwise, Catholic New Testament scholar John Meier finds no reason not to believe that Jesus had sisters and brothers" (Cunneen 1996:35).

7. This is commonly translated as carpenter. It can actually be used to describe anyone who works with wood and other hard materials (Perkins, 592).

8. "We have no reliable information about the source of the infancy material. This does not mean that the infancy narratives have no historical value, but it does mean that one cannot make assumptions of historicity on the basis of their presence in the Gospels" (Brown 1993:6).

9. "The infancy narratives are worthy vehicles of the Gospel message; indeed, each is an essential Gospel story in miniature" (Brown 1993:7).

10. The mother of Jesus was actually called Miriam—a most typical name for a Jewish woman of that time. Mariamme is an elegant form of Mariam. The mother of Jesus is also called this in the New Testament. At that time, the name Mariam was pronounced as Miriam. From this point, we shall be referring to Mary using her Hebrew name, Miriam (Flusser, 9).

11. It is not known exactly when worship in the synagogue began.

12. The following discussion on family life in Israel in general makes extensive use of the article of Sanders 2002.

13. The following discussion on the marriage process is taken from Buby, 51-54

14. The quotation from Reed is found in E. Johnson, 144

15. E. Johnson puts the estimate from 300 to 400 while Mary Boys puts it at about 480 people in Boys 2000.

16. The following discussions are taken from Wright, Murphy, and Fitzmyer (1993:1219-52).





Boys, Mary

2000 Has God Only One Blessing (New York: A Stimulus Book, Paulist Press).

Brown, Raymond E.

1993 The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke, Updated Edition, (New York: Doubleday).

Brown, Raymond et al.

1978 Mary in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press).

Buby, Bertrand

1995 Mary of Galilee: Woman of Israel - Daughter of Zion, Vol. II, (New York: Alba House).

Cunneen, Sally

1996 In Search of Mary: The Woman and The Symbol (New York: Ballantine Books).

Culpepper, R. Alan

1998 The Gospel and Letters of John (Nashville: Abingdon Press).

Flusser, David

1986 "Mary and Israel" in Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus and Jewish and Christian Perspectives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press).

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts

1999 Mary, Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press).

Grassi, Joseph A.

1988 Mary, Mother and Disciple (Welmington: Michael Glazier Inc.).

Johnson, Elizabeth A.

2003 Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints(New York: Continuum).

Malina, Bruce

1990 "Mother and Son" in Biblical Theology Bulletin: Mary - Woman of the Mediterranean, Vol. 20 No.2, Summer.

Neyrey, Jerome H.

1990 "Maid and Mother in Art and Literature" in Biblical Theology Bulletin, Mary – Woman of the Mediterranean, A Special Issue, Vol. 20 No.2, Summer.

Sanders, James A.

2002 "The Family in the Bible" in Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol. 32, No.3, Summer.

Schneiders, Sandra

1999 The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press).

Spretnak, Charlene

2004 Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and Her Reemergence in the Modern Church (New York: Palgrave, McMillan).

Stevens, Mary Ann

1990 "Paternity and Maternity in the Mediterranean: Foundations for Patriarchy" in Biblical Theology Bulletin: Mary - Woman of the Mediterranean, A Special Issue, Vol. 20, No.2, Summer.

Wright, Addison G., Murphy, Roland E., and Joseph A. Fitzmyer

1993 "A History of Israel" in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (Q.C., Philippines: Claretian Publications).

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