After Jesus himself, his mother, Mary, is the most venerated figure in Christian history. In both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the adoration of Mary forms an integral part of religious life. The importance of Mary for Christians begins in the New Testament, with the Annunciation (see Luke 1) and the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus. Still, although Mary is highly honored in the New Testament, she is never venerated. Rather, veneration is reserved solely for Jesus.
By the mid-second century, however, Christian beliefs regarding Mary had begun to expand, as reflected in the “Infancy Gospel of James” (sometimes also known as the “Protoevangelium of James”), which describes the miraculous birth of Mary to Anna, her dedication to service in the temple and expanded details on the Annunciation and birth of her Son. The stories in the “Infancy Gospel of James” were accepted as authentic by Catholics and Orthodox, and they remain a crucial source of beliefs and art about Mary still today.
A fundamental transformation in the understanding of Mary occurred in the early fifth century. First, a great theological debate erupted about whether Mary was only the mother of the human Jesus or the mother of the divine Christ as well. The issue was resolved in 431, at the third ecumenical Council of Ephesus, where Mary received the title of “theotokos” (“God-bearer”), or the “Mother of God.” Those Christians who rejected this idea as a heretical innovation became known as Nestorians (or the “Assyrian Church of the East”); to a large degree, it is their successors who are now being persecuted by Islamist extremists in Iraq.
The idea of the virgin birth of Jesus was eventually expanded to include belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity. The brothers of Jesus in the New Testament came to be understood as his half-brothers, as Joseph’s children by an earlier wife. Finally, the “woman clothed with the sun” who gives birth to a son in Revelation 12 came to be regarded as Mary. Widespread artistic depictions of Mary as gloriously enthroned in Heaven with her son on her lap derive from this chapter in Revelation.
By the sixth century, the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven was commonly accepted. Like Enoch and Elijah, it was said, Mary did not die, but “fell asleep.” Although her body was laid in the Tomb of the Virgin in the Kidron Valley at Jerusalem, she ascended bodily into heaven, where she was crowned and enthroned beside Christ. (In Mormon terms, we would call this “translation.”) As such, she is the greatest of all the saints and will intercede with Christ and the Father on behalf of those who pray to her.
Today, the adoration of the Virgin has become one of the leading forms of popular piety among both Catholics and Orthodox. Artistic representations of Mary enthroned in heaven and her coronation by the Son are widespread. Most Catholic and Orthodox churches contain icons or statues of the Virgin and Child, to which miracles are often attributed. The “Hail Mary” prayer (based on Luke 1:28, 42), has become the most widespread Christian prayer after “Our Father.” Churches and shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary, such as Lourdes in France and Guadalupe in Mexico, are major centers of pilgrimage and devotion to Mary.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception — not to be confused with the virgin birth of Jesus — maintains that Mary was born untainted by original sin, making her an appropriately pure vessel to bear the Son of God. Disputed among Catholics for centuries, it was not formally adopted as doctrine until 1854 and is rejected by both Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism.
To most Protestants, such veneration of Mary has passed from appropriate honor for the mother of Jesus to Mariolatry: ascribing quasi-divinity to Mary and worshipping her. Some modern historians claim that pagan beliefs and practices regarding mother goddesses in late antiquity were slowly transferred to Mary, making her, in a sense, a syncretized survival of ancient goddess worship.
The significance and role of Mary continue to be debated among Catholics. New feminist views about the “divine feminine” have led some to call for an expanded understanding of the role of Mary in the church, including titles such as the “Mediator of all the Graces” and “Co-Redemptrix” (with Christ). The transformation of Mary from an obscure young Jewish woman to a semidivine figure is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of religion.
Daniel C. Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, is editor-in-chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and a blogger for Patheos. William Hamblin is a professor of history at BYU and co-author of “Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History.” Their views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.