In a recent video Mary the Mother of WHO??? I briefly discussed how Mark and Luke offered radically different portrayals of the Mother of Jesus: the former has Mary as an unbeliever, the latter shows Mary as the first and most faithful of disciples. This has long been noticed by New Testament scholars. A ground-breaking ecumenical study by Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant scholars produced an agreed statement on Mary in the New Testament (Mary in the New Testament A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars). I discussed some of their findings in an essay I wrote a few years back:
The Virgin Mary in Mark, Matthew and Luke.
On a first reading of the gospels it is tempting to take these stories at face value: here are ancient texts that tell us what Mary the Mother of Jesus said and did. Their reliability and facticity is usually assumed without question. And this way of reading of the gospels has been ubiquitous in the Christian churches for much of the last 2000 years.
Today, however, such a reading of the gospels is no longer possible. As we have seen there are four gospels, and each has a different picture of Jesus and his teaching. It is illuminating to apply the same methodology to the Gospel portraits of Mary that we have employed with such powerful effect concerning the gospel portraits of Jesus. I want to examine how the gospel writers depict Mary the mother of Jesus.
The earliest surviving gospel, that of Mark, portrays Mary (along with Jesus’ brothers) in a negative light, placing them literally outside the crowded circle of those who make up his eschatological family – which is based on faith.
Mark 3:20-35 reads:
‘…and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’
The scholarly consensus is that Mark was the first to be written. Matthew and Luke then used Mark as a source, as well as a hypothetical sayings source known as Q. I think this is the most plausible explanation (though a few scholars disagree). So Matthew relies on Mark as one of his sources. But he clearly thought Mark was inadequate and incomplete. Sometimes Matthew paraphrases Mark, sometimes he deliberately alters Mark. This shows us that for Matthew ‘facts’ could be changed to enhance his message. A good example of this change is to note how Matthew improves the negative portrayal of Jesus’ mother and brothers in Mark: in the latter they are shown as outsiders who think Jesus is mad and they repeatedly fail to understand Jesus’ message.
Matthew has a very different positive picture: perhaps wanting to show the disciples as good role models for Christians, he is happy to change the facts of history to fit his viewpoint.
He omits Mark’s negative story where Mary (and Jesus’ brothers) all try to ‘restrain’ Jesus because they thought he was ‘out of his mind’. So it is clear that there has been a development in the way Mary is presented in the Gospels. In Matthew’s gospel Mark’s negative portrayal is eliminated.
Luke (unlike Mark) also presents a highly positive portrait of Mary. In the scene parallel to Mark’s (with the brothers in the house) she is now included in the eschatological family – those who hear the word of God and do it (see Luke 8:19-21). Luke, like Matthew, omits the embarrassing and offensive passage (Mark 3: 20-21).
In a ground-breaking ecumenical study a team of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant scholars collaborated in producing an agreed statement on Mary in the New Testament (Mary in the New Testament A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars published by Paulist Press 1978, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer and others.)
In reference to Mark’s gospel chapter 3, verse 21, the study concludes:
We understand the verse to mean: “And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him; for they were saying, ‘He is beside himself.’”
Concerning Matthew 12:46-50 (equivalent to Mark 3:31-35) the scholars comment,
‘The Matthean form of the passage is not very different from Mark’s. However, it is not so much in the passage itself that Matthew differs from Mark but in the context. The introductory scene [Mark 3: 20-21] in which “his own” think he is beside himself is completely absent. Presumably the omission was deliberate, and it can be understood if Matthew interpreted Mark’s “his own” to include Jesus’ mother.’ p. 99 (emphasis added).
The study concludes with this assessment of the Synoptic gospels depiction of Mary:
‘We have spoken of a “negative portrait” of Mary in the Gospel of Mark. The principal text which leads to that designation is Mark 3:20-35.
The Matthean and Lucan parallels to Mark 3:20-35 (Matt 12:24-50; Luke 8: 19-21) give a rather different picture, largely by modification of the Marcan text. Both evangelists have dropped the harsh introduction in Mark 3:20-21. Luke goes further in softening the Marcan picture by eliminating also the question of Jesus, “Who are my mother and brothers?” and by transferring the Beelzebul controversy to another place (11:14-23).
Thus, in the Synoptic depiction of Mary during Jesus’ ministry, we have a development from the negative estimation of Mark to the positive one of Luke, with Matthew representing the middle term.’
So what is the truth about Mary? With the gospel writers contradicting each other (Matthew and Luke contradict/disagree with Mark) what has God reliably told us about the Mother of Jesus? Unfortunately the New Testament gospels are not a reliable source of information at this point.
As Muslims we hold Mary in the highest regard. A chapter in the Holy Qur’an is named after her: Surah Maryam.
Surah 3:42 states,
‘The angels said to Mary: ‘Mary, God has chosen you and made you pure: He has truly chosen you above all women.