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Mary vs. Maryam

Two weeks ago, on May 14, the United States celebrated Mother's Day, where we recognize the hard work and toil our mothers did to raise their children. My wife brought up the topic of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Specifically, the Bible doesn't give us much to go on about Mary. So does the Qur'an provide any more information? Today, I thought I would investigate what the Bible writes about Mary and contrast that to what the Qur'an says.


First, let's get the semantics out of the way. Names in Hebrew, Arabic, or Aramaic have similar but different phonetics in English. For example, Yousef (in Hebrew) or Yusuf (in Arabic or Aramaic) becomes Joseph in English. Miriam, Mariam, or Maryam becomes Mary in English. The Quran never says Mary, but some English translations in their written form put it there. The Quran is primarily an oral transmission of knowledge, and if you listen to some Quran recitations, you will hear them say, Maryam, not Mary.

Mary in the Bible

Five books in the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts, carry the stories of Mary. The Gospel of Luke mentions Mary twelve times by name while describing the early years of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew says her name five times while describing Jesus' birth and early years. The Gospel of Mark names her once (Mark 6:3) and refers to her without a name in other scriptures. While the Gospel of John refers to Mary several times, her name never comes up. In Acts, Mary is mentioned in the company of the eleven apostles (Judas was dead at this point), who are gathered in the upper room after the ascension of Jesus. In addition, the books of Galatians, Revelation, Genesis, Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah all refer to the woman who is the Messiah's mother.

Since the Gospel of Luke seems more detailed than the other books, we will start there. The first we hear of Mary can be found in a short recap of how the birth of Jesus was foretold in Luke 1: 26-38. Essentially, she was a young virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph. The angel Gabriel told her of the forthcoming virgin birth of Jesus, telling her, "…nothing is impossible with God."

The next part of the story (Luke 1: 39-56) tells us that Mary visited Elizabeth, her cousin (some confusion exists about their actual relationship, mainly due to translation). Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John (the Baptist). Elizabeth's husband, Zechariah, was a high priest at the Jerusalem temple.

In Luke 2: 1-39, the Bible shares the birth of Jesus. Mary had a normal delivery, albeit in a stable; the baby Jesus was circumcised at the Temple, several priests made prophecies about Jesus' divinity, and the family returned to Nazareth, where Jesus became strong and wise in the ways of the Lord.

In the Bible, there are a few short stories involving Mary. In Luke 2; 41-48, Jesus was twelve and attended the Feast of the Passover with his parents, Joseph and Mary. After the event, Joseph and Mary were on the road home when they discovered Jesus missing. The parents returned to the Temple and found him discussing spiritual laws with the teachers three days later.

Mary requested Jesus' intervention at the wedding in Cana, where he performed his first miracle and turned water into wine (John 2: 1-11).

Mary did seem to believe in Jesus throughout his life. She was the only person to be there at his birth and his death. She was present at the cross when Jesus was crucified (John 19: 25). Mary was also with the apostles on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:14). Pentecost in the Bible is the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles some 50 days after Jesus' resurrection. Mary is never mentioned again after Acts chapter 1.

The apostles did not give Mary a prominent role. Mary's death is not recorded in the Bible. However, Mary's Wikipedia page identifies her birth year as 18 or 16 BC. Given that Jesus was born before Herod died in 4 BC, her age at motherhood started when she was 13 or 14. Jewish custom in those days encouraged the marriage of Jewish maidens at twelve and a half years old. Mary's death is marked in 48 AD by the famous Christian scholar Eusebius of Alexandria and the Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyana. However, other prominent historians place her death in 57 AD.

The Roman Catholic Church

While the Roman Catholic Church is considered Christian, many Protestant Christians question some of their beliefs about Mary.

First, it is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church that Jesus' mother, Mary, remained a perpetual virgin for her entire life. While we know from scripture that Jesus had brothers and sisters, it is possible they were step or half siblings from Joseph's previous wife. There is one argument that Catholics use to suggest that Mary had no other children. The story comes from John 19: 26-27, when Jesus was on the cross:

"When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, 'woman, behold your son.' Then he said to the disciple, 'Behold, your mother.' And from that hour, the disciple took her into his home."

This act would conflict with 1st Century Jewish custom if Jesus had living brothers. It would have been the obligation of the other children of Mary to care for her in the absence of Jesus. Scripture reveals that James, the brother of Jesus, was still alive as late as 49 AD. If he were indeed her son, he would have cared for her. Another verse in the Bible suggests a different outcome. Matthew 1:25 reads, "But he had no union with her UNTIL she gave birth to a son."

Second, the Catholics refer to Mary as the "Mother of God" and the "Queen of Heaven." Catholics believe Mary to have a holy place in Heaven, with close access to Jesus and God the Father. This belief was ratified in 451 AD at the Council of Chalcedon.

Third, Catholic beliefs suggest that Mary, like her son Jesus, was born sinless, an immaculate conception. Catholic dogma declares that Mary was exceptionally holy and in constant union with the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit. While Muslims do not believe in original sin, in Islam, everybody is born with an immaculate conception. However, this is Christianity we're talking about, and while there is no scripture to justify this belief, in 1854, the Catholics started teaching this as official church dogma.

Fourth and last is the Assumption of Mary. Again, without scripture to justify these beliefs, Catholics believe that when Mary died, she was taken up body and soul into Heaven. In 1950, Pope Pius XII ratified "Mary's bodily assumption into heaven."

Catholics will quickly admit they do not hold Mary to be divine, nor do they worship her. Worship is withheld for God and God alone. Mary is subordinate to Jesus but is above all other creatures. Catholics honor Mary because Mary was honored by God, and a unique Grace was bestowed (Luke 1:28).

Maryam in the Qur'an

Mary and her son Jesus hold a privileged place in the Qur'an. Mary, by herself, is mentioned 34 times and as a descriptor of Jesus as in "son of Mary" another 15 times. Three chapters provide stories and anecdotes about Mary: Chapter 3 is about Mary's early family, Chapter 5 concerning Jesus' miracles, and Chapter 19 gives prominence to Mary and her uncle, the High Priest Zechariah. In general, the Qur'an focuses on two events in the life of Mary: her birth and her time in the Temple. The text emphasizes three points: Mary is favored; she is pure; she is chosen over all women of the world.

Muslim tradition places the Qur'an as God's spoken word through the mouth of the angel Gabriel to Mohammad. However, the material found in the Qur'an matches closely with the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal writing that discussed the early beginnings of Mary and her upbringing. Apocryphal writings were treatises in the early centuries but were not considered divinely inspired. Hundreds of apocryphal writings were evaluated but not considered for inclusion in the New Testament.

The Qur'an and Muslim culture consider Mary the most blessed and prominent of women. Muhammad placed Mary above even his daughter, Fatimah. The Qur'an clearly states that Mary was born without sin and that Jesus resulted from a virgin birth. Muslims recognize Jesus as a great prophet which elevates Mary above all women. However, Muslims do not recognize Jesus as having divinity.

According to the Qur'an. Mary was the daughter of Imran and Hannah. Imran, a progeny of Solomon, son of David, was a leading religious scholar of his time. Imran died before Mary was born, but Hannah vowed to devote their child to the service of the Lord in the Temple Sanctuary. Hanna's brother-in-law, Zechariah, was High Priest, and he took charge of Mary's education and dedication to the Lord.

The story of Jesus' birth is slightly different in the Qur'an than in the Bible. The angel Gabriel did communicate with Mary, but there was no Joseph in the story. Mary was taken to a remote place where she experienced childbirth with no others around. God provided all necessities for a successful birth, and upon completion, she brought back her miraculous baby for people to see. God had made her unable to speak, but the baby Jesus performed his first miracle by testifying to the divinity of God (19:30-33). Worth noting is that there is also another apocryphal writing, the Syriac Infancy Gospel, where Jesus, as a baby, speaks from the cradle.

A minority of Muslims also view Mary as a prophet. She personifies prayer and contemplation in Islam but is NOT considered a deity or the mother of a deity. In summary, the Qur'an mirrors some apocryphal writing that portrays the early history of Mary and her family. These stories add another dimension to Mary; whether true or not, they add admirable qualities to the woman who bore Jesus Christ into the world.

Credit to Chris Light for his 2011 image of Mary, Mother of Jesus (30') at Trinity Heights, Sioux City, Iowa: source Wikimedia Commons.

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