The Historical Mary: Who Was She?

Mary holds a significant place in the life of Christ, though Christians themselves don't agree on the exact parameters of that role. Currently we're seeing a renewed interest in her as an historical figure; what she looked like, etc. (Included in this article are photographs of traditional Middle Eastern Jewish women to help the reader visualize her appearance.) What do we actually know about her and how does that impact our theological approach to her significance? History and archaeology, coupled with the data of the New Testament and earliest disciples provide the following:
  • Mary was a peasant girl, and like most of the women of her ethnicity, she stood approximately five feet tall or less. Her hair would have been dark brown to black, and she would have kept it oiled, parted in the center, with the part painted red or purple, as was the custom. Her complexion would have been olive to quite tan, much akin to the other Middle Eastern peoples.
  • Her teeth would have been healthy, since sugar was an unknown commodity, and honey is something she likely wouldn't have ever had the chance to try, being reserved for the wealthy.
  • She would have worn heavy golden jewelry, the most dazzling her poor family could afford, since this would be part of her dowry. It is very likely she would have worn a gold nose ring as well. These items would have demonstrated she was from a respectable family.
  • She would have worn linen or homespun clothing, loose fitting, and of soft colors such as a faded pink, bluish-grey, cream, or light brown. It would have carried beautiful embroidery, likely done by her own hand. She would have worn a cloth belt as well, likely covered in embroidery, making it stiff. Her shoes would depend on the weather: ankle high boots in cold weather, and sandals in warm. She would have kept her toenails trimmed.
  • She spoke Aramaic with a Galilean accent, which would have been a sign to the upper classes that she was uneducated.
  • In keeping with her culture, she would have shared a plethora of stories with her children, which she would have memorized rather than read from a scroll. Women didn't study Torah, but relied on men to explain the Law to them.
  • Mary would have lived in a small home with at least 8 to 10 relatives, with the men and women working together respectively. She would have worked both in the home and outside the home, since the area where she lived was the breadbasket for her country. She, along with the other women, would have worked the orchards, vineyards, olive groves, and crops.
  • Her entire family would have been involved in her arranged marriage to Joseph. Living in Nazareth, which only held about 400 people, meant that Joseph was likely a very distant relative, which was common at that time. He would likely have been near her age, able to provide for her, knew Torah, and was from a respectable family.
What did the earliest disciples believe about her? Mary was esteemed because of her obedience and faithfulness, which made it possible to reverse the effects of Eve's disobedience. Mary is, then, an example of Christian womanhood in her submission to the will of God even under the most difficult of circumstances, and in the fact that she was declared by the angel to be "full of grace" and therefore in a state of holiness.

"He (Jesus) became man by the virgin, in order that the disobedience which began with the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the virgin Mary received faith and joy when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would  come upon her."-Justin Martyr

"Mary the virgin is found obedient, saying, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word." In contrast, Eve was disobedient. For she did not obey when she was still a virgin...Correspondingly, Mary, who was also a yielding obedience became the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race...So it was that the knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary."Irenaeus

"Virginal disobedience has been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience."Irenaeus

Mary wasn't considered to be a perpetual virgin. There is a potentially dangerous association between the concepts of Mary as a perpetual virgin and her being without sin. The Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and a few smaller sects promote the concept of Mary as a perpetual virgin, likely due to an unspoken underlying gnostic theology of sex, viewing the procreative act as somehow less ideal for the spiritual person. This concept must be rigidly opposed, because God, the author of sexual intimacy, designed humanity with this function, and pronounced it good. (In other words, sex itself is a positive thing, only its misuse is gravely sinful). 

It is also a very clear biblical fact that Mary had other children, which the earliest disciples recognized. 

"While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him."Matthew 12:46-47

"Is not His mother called Mary? And his brothers, James, Joses, Simon and Judas?"Matthew 13:55

"There still survived some of the kindred of the Lord. There were the grandsons of Jude, who according to the flesh was called His brother."-Hegesippus

"As it appears, many even down to our own time regard Mary, on account of the birth of her child (Jesus), as having been in the puerperal state, although she was not."Clement of Alexandria

"Jude, who wrote the catholic epistle, was the brother of the sons of Joseph."-Clement of Alexandria

By the 4th century, we find the first mention of Mary as Theotokos-Greek for "God-bearer". While many evangelicals balk at such a title, the biblical evidence, along with the consensus of the undivided church, demonstrate that the title Theotokos is in fact biblical and orthodox. Theologians of merit understand that to say she's not the Theotokos is to suggest there is a division in Christ's humanity and divinity, which is a grave heresy. 

"The Spirit could not abide upon all men, but only on Him who was born of Mary, the God-bearer."
                                                                                                  -Disputation of Archelaus and Manes

"Our Lord Jesus Christ in very deed (and not merely in appearance) had a body, which was of Mary, mother of God."- Alexander

As we can see, the Apostolic (and sub-apostolic) Christians possessed a healthy respect for the Blessed Mother. However, we find no hint of the dogma of Mary's "Immaculate Conception", nor of  the "Assumption". We find no evidence of prayers or devotionals in her honor, nor of titles such as the "Queen of Heaven", nor "Co-Redemptrix". It is enough to note that she is the Second Eve, a truly Blessed Mother, and the Theotokos.