Any historian who sets out to write a biography of the historical Mary is immediately confronted by two divergent narratives. The first view, held by Catholic and Orthodox Christians (and in part by Muslims) sees Mary as a girl consecrated from birth, who remained completely devoted to the service of God before, during and after the life of Jesus. According to this view, Mary was perpetually a virgin, married in name only, and had no biological children. On the other hand, the Protestant view (as well as that held by many modern critical scholars) is that Mary was a young, poor peasant girl raised, betrothed and married in the normal fashion. After the birth of Jesus she gave birth to other biological children.
Every aspect of her life is muddled by the tension between the two views. Each view of Mary – prototypical nun or wife and mother – comes loaded with its own set of theological implications that are beyond the scope of this article. Most authors simply choose one interpretation, mention the other view in order to quickly dismiss it, and call it a day. But this fails to answer the important question of how we ended up with two narratives in the first place, and why so many people believe one or the other to be correct. Rather, this article will begin at the beginning of Mary’s life, take all sources into account, and work from there.
One immediately runs into difficulties establishing any basic facts about Mary’s early life. Her parents are not named in any 1st century sources, but tradition in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches holds that they were named Joachim and Anna. This cannot be traced earlier than the 2nd century.
Scholars have long grappled with the different genealogies given for Jesus in Matthew and Luke. Matthew traces the descent of Jesus from David and Solomon, through the Judean kings and then through the descendants of Jehoiachin in the post-exilic period. Luke on the other hand traces Jesus’ descent from David’s lesser known son Nathan.
Many scholars beginning with John of Damascus in the 7th century have sought to explain the two competing genealogies by arguing that Matthew shows the ancestry of Joseph while Luke shows the ancestry of Mary. Yet, Luke explicitly identifies Jesus as “the son, so it was thought, of Joseph son of Heli.” Advocates of this view are forced to propose a textual corruption of some sort and that the text originally read that Jesus was a descendant of Heli. The text would be reconstructed as something like “the son (as it was supposed, of Joseph, but really) of Heli.” Advocates of this view further argue that the name Heli is short for Eliakim, another variant of the name Joachim, the traditional name for the father of Mary.
But why is Mary never mentioned in her own genealogy? John of Damascus argued that it was because “it was not the custom of the Hebrews nor of the divine Scripture to give genealogies of women,” ignoring that Matthew’s genealogy lists four of them and the genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1-8 mention numerous women whenever they were deemed to be worth mentioning. It seems rather strange that Luke, who otherwise paid much more attention to Mary than Joseph, would fail to mention Mary in his account of her lineage and substitute Joseph instead. Other scholars came up with different explanations for the discrepancy. For instance, in the early 3rd century, Sextus Julius Africanus argued that the line of Joseph had been muddled with numerous levirate marriages, and that original records had been lost, leading Matthew and Luke to reconstruct the ancestry of Joseph as best they could from oral traditions and private family records. Hence, they ended up with different lists.
Regardless of the names of Mary’s parents, Luke does inform us that Mary was related to Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah the priest and the mother of John the Baptist. Both Elizabeth and Zechariah were descendants of Aaron, the first high priest. Zechariah “belonged to the priestly division of Abijah,” one of the 24 priests named by David in Jerusalem. This implies that Mary did not belong to the tribe of Judah, as is often alleged, but to the tribe of Levi. It also means that, contrary to the common Protestant claim that Mary was a poor peasant, she was in fact born into the hereditary ruling class of Jewish society. She definitely was not some sort of proto-marxist heroine of the lower classes as envisioned by certain neo-Anabaptist authors. Protestant Midrash aside, by the end of the 1st century BC, the priestly families of Jerusalem lived in large houses, had accumulated extreme amounts of wealth and held a lot of political power. Most of them seemed to have belonged to the Sadducee sect which attracted the powerful and wealthy but had little influence amongst the general population.
In all of history, only three women have governed an independent Jewish state: Athaliah, who ruled Judah from 842 to 837 BC, Salome Alexandra, who ruled from 76 to 67 BC, and Golda Meir, who was Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974.
In 163 BC Judas Maccabeus led a revolt against the Greek Seleucid Empire of Antiochus IV Epiphanes due to Antiochus’ repressive policies against the Jewish people. Judas Maccabeus’s successors were constantly at war to retain their independence, and succeeded not only in preventing a new Seleucid invasion but expanded the borders of the kingdom to contain many of the areas controlled by ancient Israel. The first Maccabees served as high priests rather than royalty. It was not until the reign of Simon Maccabeus in 140 that the royal Hasmonean dynasty was established. Simon and his successor John Hyrcanus held the office of prince and High Priest simultaneously.
Despite the anti-Greek character of the Maccabean revolt, by the end of the 2nd century BC Greek cultural influences had begun to affect the ruling Hasmoneans. This led to conflict between the Hellenized Jews of the ruling class and the Pharisees, a religious sect which advocated strict adherence to the Torah and Mosaic Law. The Pharisees viewed the Hellenized Jews as traitors who flouted the Mosaic Law, translated the Old Testament out of its original language and brought in dangerous foreign influences, while the Hellenized Jews tended to view the Pharisees as dangerous religious fanatics. The rift began to deepen under the rule of John Hyrcanus’ son Judah Aristobulus, whom Josephus called “a lover of the Greeks.” Aristobulus was the first Hasmonean to call himself a king and wear a crown, despite the fact that he was not a descendant of King David. He then ruled as just another near Eastern autocrat. His mother had been designated John Hyrcanus’ successor, so she was imprisoned and starved to death. Aristobulus also viewed three of his younger brothers as threats to his rule and had them imprisoned in irons.
It is here that Salome Alexandra first enters into the picture. She was born in 139 BC, and was married to Judah Aristobulus at an unknown date. Despite her clearly Greek second name and marriage to a Hellenized Jewish king, she was the sister of the influential Pharisee Rabbi Simeon Bin Shetach. She was 36 when Aristobulus became king.