For Christians around the world, the basic elements of the story are the same: Mary, a Galilean virgin, was visited by an angel from God, who told her that she was about to give birth to the long-promised Messiah. When the time came for the child's birth she traveled to Bethlehem with Joseph, her espoused husband, and delivered the baby in a stable. She shared her miraculous story with shepherds and wise men traveling from the east. She was at the Messiah's side later during his ministry, and was also present at his death.
Those essential facts about Mary are not in dispute among contemporary Christians. Beyond those facts, however, there is considerable variance of belief and doctrinal teaching regarding Mary in various denominations of Christian faith — and even beyond Christianity.
"The maternity of Mary is very important in the Catholic Church," said Father Javier Virgen, vicar for Hispanic affairs and vocation director for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. "A mother nurtures, cares, loves. These qualities are very significant in Mary's role as the mother of Jesus.
"She was chosen by God and endowed with all the gifts and capacity to become the mother of Jesus," Father Virgen continued. "We worship only God, but we venerate Mary and the saints. In Catholic teaching, you have to distinguish between worship and veneration. We do not worship (Mary); we venerate her. She has a special place in our thoughts and our hearts."
Pastor Logan Wolf of the New Morning Free Will Baptist Church in Provo said, "You can't underestimate Mary's role in the gospel story."
"Mary is the perfect example of a woman who yielded herself to God, yielded herself to truth," Pastor Wolf said. "But there's a danger of elevating her beyond what the scriptures tell us she was. She wasn't sinless. She wasn't perfect. She was a regular lady who God used in an extraordinary way."
A typical life
Camille Fronk Olson is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and chair of the university's Department of Ancient Scripture. She has spent a good deal of her academic life studying the life and traditions of Middle Eastern families, and published "Mary: The Mother of Jesus" through Deseret Book.
"Because no reputable ancient record preserves anything about her life or her family before the angel Gabriel appeared to her in Nazareth, we therefore assume Mary's was a typical life for a Jewish girl," Olson said. That means she would have been taught primarily by her mother to work around the home and in all ways to prepare for marriage and motherhood, which would have happened fairly early in a girl's life — at least, according to contemporary standards.
"According to the Mishnah (the ancient Jewish oral law as it was written in A.D. 200), a girl was considered a minor when she was younger than 12 years old, of age to marry between 12 and 12-and-a-half years, and 'past her girlhood' when she was older than 12-and-a-half years," Olson writes in "Mary: The Mother of Jesus."
At the same time, she notes, young men were considered "fit for the bride-chamber" at 18.
And so Olson reasonably speculates that if Mary and Joseph were typical of other Jewish young people of their time, they were likely around 12 and 18 years old, respectively, when their families formally consented to — or even more likely, arranged for — their marriage.
The New Testament says that Mary and Joseph were "espoused" at the time of the angel's visit to Mary. According to Olson, this "constituted a legal marriage in that the young woman was permanently bound to the young man."
"In other words," she continued, "it was not simply an engagement in the way we use that term today. Any compromise of the groom's marital rights over the young woman made her liable to being legally punished for adultery … She was the wife of her betrothed."
Yielding to God
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