Portraits of Mary in the Gospels by Stephen C. Carlson

Just as the four Gospels present different portraits of Jesus, so too do they present different portraits of his mother Mary. A minor figure in the earlier Gospels of Mark and Matthew, she becomes more prominent in Luke and John.

Mary plays a visible role in Mark, the earliest Gospel. She is mentioned by name in Jesus’s rejection at Nazareth, when the locals ask, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon…?” (Mark 6:3). The designation of Jesus as “the son of Mary” rather than associating him with his father’s name insinuates something unusual about his paternity, but Mark says nothing more. In fact, Mark’s attitude toward Jesus’s blood relatives is fairly negative: some of them try to restrain him for insanity (Mark 3:21) so Jesus defines his true kin—his “brother, sister, and mother”—as those who do the will of God (Mark 3:35).

Matthew expands Mary’s role with his account of Jesus’s nativity. Most memorably, Matthew has Mary fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin will conceive and bear a son called Emmanuel (Matt 1:23, Isa 7:14). Beyond this, however, her figure is largely passive, especially in comparison with her betrothed Joseph. In Matthew’s account, it is Joseph who agonizes over Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, and it is Joseph whom the angel visits—to order him to take Mary as his wife and move to Egypt (Matt 1:20, Matt 2:13). Joseph, not Mary, makes the decisions. Matthew’s focus on Joseph over Mary fits his emphasis on the royal lineage that runs from David to Joseph (Matt 1:6-16).

By contrast, Mary takes center stage in Luke’s nativity account. She is the one whom the angel Gabriel visits (Luke 1:26-28), and she is the one who wrestles with the announcement of the virginal conception (Luke 1:29-38). We learn more about Mary in Luke, including her hometown (Nazareth, Luke 1:26) and her family connections (her relative Elizabeth belongs to a priestly lineage, Luke 1:5, Luke 1:36). Mary also has more to do. She travels to visit Elizabeth (Luke 1:39), stays with her for three months (Luke 1:56), and sings the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). She is the dedicated mother, traveling to Bethlehem while pregnant, giving birth to Jesus, wrapping him in swaddling clothes, and placing him in a manger (Luke 2:5-7). Luke even reveals her state of mind, reiterating that she treasured in her heart the things that had happened (Luke 2:19, Luke 2:51).

Despite not having an infancy account, John’s Gospel also has an important role for Mary. She was there for Jesus’s very first sign of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11). Unlike the first three Gospels, John 19:25 explicitly makes her a witness of the crucifixion. (Mark 15:40 mentions a certain Mary, the mother of James and Joses, but it is unclear whether she is the mother of Jesus or another Mary.) Indeed, it is at the cross where Jesus proclaims the mutual adoption as mother and son between his mother and his beloved disciple, the figure behind John’s Gospel (John 19:26-27). The mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple have something else in common: neither of them are ever called by name in this Gospel.

The Gospels exhibit an increasing fascination with Jesus’s mother. The earliest, Mark, portrays her in the barest of terms, calling Jesus the “son of Mary” and preferring instead to focus on spiritual kinship. Matthew and Luke augment Mary’s role in Jesus’s story with the infancy accounts. Finally, in John, Mary becomes an important witness to the end of Jesus’s life. This fascination with Jesus’s mother does not end with the Gospels but continues to grow in the succeeding centuries.

Stephen C. Carlson, "Portraits of Mary in the Gospels", n.p. [cited 3 Dec 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/portraits-of-mary-in-the-gospels


Stephen C. Carlson

Stephen C. Carlson
Research Fellow, Australian Catholic University

Stephen C. Carlson is a research fellow in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University. He is the author of The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: Kataluma in Luke 2.7.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Birth, often accounts about the birth of Jesus.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

The notion that Mary became pregnant with Jesus without having had intercourse with a human man but rather was impregnated by God.

Mark 6:3

3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at ... View more

Mark 3:21

21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

Mark 3:35

35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Matt 1:23

23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”

Isa 7:14

14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

Matt 1:20

20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as yo ... View more

Matt 2:13

The Escape to Egypt
13Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to ... View more

Matt 1:6-16

6and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,7and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Ab ... View more

Luke 1:26-28

The Birth of Jesus Foretold
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,27to a virgin engaged to a man whose nam ... View more

Luke 1:29-38

29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found ... View more

Luke 1:26

The Birth of Jesus Foretold
26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,

Luke 1:5

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
5In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. Hi ... View more

Luke 1:36

36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.

Luke 1:39

Mary Visits Elizabeth
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country,

Luke 1:56

56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

Luke 1:46-55

Mary's Song of Praise
46And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of ... View more

Luke 2:5-7

5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.7An ... View more

Luke 2:19

19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Luke 2:51

51Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

John 2:1-11

The Wedding at Cana
1On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.2Jesus and his disciples had also been invited t ... View more

John 19:25

25And that is what the soldiers did.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Mag ... View more

Mark 15:40

40There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.

John 19:26-27

26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.”27Then he said to the disciple, ... View more

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