According to ancient Christian sources, Mary was the child of Jewish parents Joachim and Anne and was born in Jerusalem or Sepphoris in Galilee. If, as the sources suggest, Mary's first child Jesus was born around 4 BCE and she was espoused around the age of fourteen, as was common, then Mary was probably born in 18 or 20 BCE.

During her childhood she lived in Nazareth, where she became engaged to the carpenter Joseph, who was descended from King David. The gospel of Luke relates that an angel of God appeared to Mary and told her that she would become pregnant with God's son by the Holy Spirit, even though she was not yet married (see Virgin Birth). Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem where Jesus was born in a stable or, according to later traditions, a cave. As was Jewish custom, Jesus was circumcised and then presented at the Temple in Jerusalem. He was raised by Mary and Joseph and perhaps other relatives in Nazareth and probably learned the carpentry trade. One relative specifically mentioned by Luke is Mary's cousin Elizabeth, who in her old age gave birth to John the Baptist shortly before Jesus' birth. Some of the sources indicate that other children were born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus (e.g., Acts 1.14; see Brothers and Sisters of Jesus).

The gospel of Luke, the principal biblical source for Mary in the narratives of Jesus' infancy and childhood, also tells how, when Jesus was twelve years old, Mary and Joseph took him to the Jerusalem Temple—again, in fulfillment of Jewish law—for initiation into the faith. On the return journey, they lost him in the crowd and subsequently found him in the Temple impressing the religious leaders with his wisdom (Luke 2.41–52).

Joseph, probably considerably older than Mary, disappears from the sources at this time, and Mary's role becomes smaller as Jesus' becomes larger. She is mentioned in the context of the marriage feast at Cana (John 2.1–12), at Jesus' crucifixion (but only by John 19.25–27), and in Acts 1.14, the story of Pentecost. The accounts of Mary's later years, death, and assumption into heaven are found only in traditions outside the Bible, some as late as the fourth century CE. It is not known where she spent her final years, but it is generally believed that she lived with John the son of Zebedee in Jerusalem and died there. The date of her death is almost impossible to determine.

In addition to the gospel accounts, Mary is mentioned in the writings of some of the church fathers, including Justin Martyr, Ignatius, Tertullian, and Athanasius; in apocryphal works such as the Protevangelium of James (second century); and in the deliberations of the Council of Ephesus (431 CE), where she was proclaimed Theotokos, “God‐bearer.” A gnostic gospel of Mary and a Latin work from the Middle Ages called The Gospel of the Birth of Mary also exist.

It is through these and other sources that the powerful cult of Mary was born and grew, especially in the Roman Catholic, Anglo‐Catholic, and Orthodox churches. Various feast days commemorate her importance for devotees: the Immaculate Conception (8 December), her purification in the Temple (2 February), the annunciation of the angel (25 March), her visit to Elizabeth when both were pregnant (2 July), and her assumption into heaven (15 August). Throughout the centuries, Mary has been revered not only as the Mother of God but also as a pure, ever‐virgin woman, the perfect mother, the intercessor between human beings and God, and one who knows the deepest of human suffering, having borne witness to the agonizing and humiliating death of her firstborn son. She has been the object of pilgrimages and visions even to the present day, and the “Magnificat,” attributed to her by Luke at the time of her visit to Elizabeth (Luke 1.46–55), has been part of Christian liturgy and music for centuries. Mary has been widely honored and even worshiped as representing inner strength and the exaltation of the oppressed over the oppressor.

Non‐Christian sources are instructive in tracing parallels to the cult of Mary. Virgin Birth stories (e.g., Hera, Rhea Silvia, Brigid) were circulated in other cultures, as were tales of mothers mourning lost and deceased children (e.g., Demeter and Persephone; Isis and Horus). Iconographically, just as Mary was often portrayed holding or nursing the infant Jesus, so too was the Egyptian goddess Isis depicted suckling her infant son, Horus. Even as Mary was called Queen of Heaven and sometimes depicted surrounded by the zodiac and other symbols, so too were the deities Isis, Magna Mater, and Artemis.

Such parallels show that Mary's cult had roots in the cults of the female deities of the Greco‐Roman pantheon, cults ultimately eradicated by Christianity. While Mary in some ways represents qualities impossible for human beings, especially women, to emulate—ever‐virgin yet motherly; always gentle and obedient to God's will—her attributes nevertheless represent for many devotees important female properties not provided by the traditional all‐male Trinity. For many, the adoration of a female figure is a vital psychological supplement to their faith.

Valerie Abrahamsen