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Mary has always been a central figure in Christianity. She's always been absolutely key, right from that moment early in Luke's Gospel when she's told "Blessed are you amongst women". The interesting thing for modern scholars is that she's being reassessed because we've become much more sensitive to female characters in the biblical story and because female characters in the biblical story are often quieter than the men.

In a contemporary world we want to reimagine Christian origins and involve women much more. And one of the most important women in that story is Mary, of course, and that's why it's worth hearing her voice in a fresh way. One of the reasons that Mary has maintained her popularity is that there were all the makings in the biblical text for a fascinating story, and yet with much of the detail missing. Often when details are missing, tradition will do its own part in trying to fill in those details and imagine those details to make that person's life a little bit fuller and understand a bit more about them.

Reflecting on stained glass images of Mary in a Norfolk church, Sister Wendy Beckett thinks that Mary's popularity in the Middle Ages was due to her depiction as a caring mother. One of the roles that Mary fulfils is the mother that we see in early Christianity; she's the role model for mothers.

She also plays an important role throughout Christian history in providing us with a female that's right at the heart of events. Christianity, after all, can be a fairly male-dominated affair.

Notes and Commentary

The Holy Trinity always sounds to contemporary feminists rather male dominated; there's a Father, a Son and there's a Holy Spirit, and the characters in the New Testament are all male. But here we actually have somebody who we can interact with as a female in Christian tradition. In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed.

Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions. Many people, Protestants particularly, object to the figure that Mary has become. She is seen almost as a goddess figure, possibly derived from the fact that many Pagans became Christians in the early centuries of the church and they believed in goddesses, so Mary became to them the goddess.

Many people would say that was something that went wrong with Christianity. There's nothing about Mary being a goddess in the New Testament. Jesus is God and human so therefore Mary is simply human. Christian theology has always maintained that she was a human being and not God, but nevertheless, she was a human being in a very important and intimate place in the story of Jesus.

Embracing a vision of the New Jerusalem (Rv ) to impact on life and society

There have been many images of Mary through the centuries. Some have derived from the Bible, such as the image from the book of Revelation showing Mary with a crown of 12 stars. She represents the early church with the 12 tribes of Israel represented by the stars. There have been images of Madonna and child; Mary seated in a chair with the child on her lap. Some of these images look very similar to images that we know about from some of the pagan goddesses at the time. When Christianity was spreading across the Empire, it's clear that it deliberately took images from the pagan world in which it lived and into which it spread and used those images.

Old holy wells and shrines were turned into Christian shrines. In Egypt a shrine of Isis was deliberately and self-consciously re-created as a shrine of Mary.

Panel Discussion: People of the Book: Muslims, Jews, and Christians

One of the important cities for Mary was Ephesus, where the goddess Diana was worshipped. It's not surprising that Mary drew upon the imagery associated with the goddesses, because that was the imagery the people knew. In the same way, we have imagery of Christ with a triumphant crowd looking like an emperor. Later Rabbinic sources tell us that Jewish girls could be betrothed as early as 12 years and a day or any time after the age of twelve and a half. The actual marriage involved two stages. First of all there was the betrothal and then - after an interval of several months, perhaps a year - the young girl would have been taken to the house of her husband to be and at that moment, once they started to live together, they were considered properly married.

This could have been quite a traumatic process for a young girl; to leave behind her mother and father and all the people she was used to, and go to live in an alien household. The choice of husband was made by the family, not by the girls themselves. It was a legal agreement between the father and the husband. Girls did not have a part in that legality. A girl who became pregnant out of wedlock would have been terrified. The whole social structure was set up for children to be born within marriage. Genealogy and ownership of children was seen as very important.

Girls who became pregnant outside marriage would probably have had to leave their homes and their families. There was the potential of being sold into slavery or of being stoned to death. She may have been married off quickly or banished from her home and village, which may have led a women to prostitution or slavery when she had no way of supporting herself. According to the New Testament Joseph, after being visited by an angel, decided not to send her away or to expose her but to marry her.

Jewish women in first century Palestine had very limited legal and economic rights. It's particularly in the domain of economic rights that this is a big problem. When a girl was in the household of her father, any work that she did or wages that she earned would belong to her father. Once she married, her wages and products that she made belonged to her husband. There were very few times when she would have any sense of financial and economic autonomy. A woman didn't have the right to divorce her husband, but he could divorce her.

If she divorced she would lose her children as well. Most inheritances that she received would go straight to her husband. The husband would maintain legal responsibility for the children. We have multiple sources for knowing about women's lives in 1st century Roman Palestine. There are literary sources such as the Bible, texts from writers such as Josephus and Pliny and the Apocryphal texts although these have to be read with a pinch of salt as they refer to a slightly later time. There are the early Rabbinic materials, which provide a good deal of information. There's also archaeological evidence and material culture to give us clues about how women lived and what kind of houses they lived in.

There is a great deal of information about Roman women's lives in Roman texts and novels throughout the provinces of Rome. Mary, like most Jewish women and girls of her time, would have spent most of her day working. Almost as soon as she could walk she would have been helping out with the many chores it took to keep daily life going.

Stoves needed to be tended, beds needed to be made, homes need to be kept in repair, food needed to be prepared, animals needed to be tended whether one was on a farm or in a village. Food needed to be prepared for the future, so meat and vegetables needed to be preserved for future times as well.


Water had to be drawn from cisterns and from wells. An incredible amount of work had to be done every day and it was done primarily by women and girls. People at this time ate a fairly straightforward diet. Most days people would have eaten lots of bread from wheat or barley, cereals or gruels. Olives, dates and figs were also eaten.

Meat was eaten every now and again, usually after a big festival and the slaughtering of a lamb or goat. A lot of wine was drunk too.

Politically Mary would have lived at quite a difficult time. She would have seen the end of the reign of Herod the Great and all the revolts that accompanied the end of his reign. She would have seen the Roman Legions coming in to Galilee to put down these revolts and all the atrocities associated with the legions. We know from Jewish writings of the time that the Romans burnt cities and took people away into slavery.

Galilee was politically fairly stable throughout most of Jesus' lifetime but there would have been isolated pockets of resistance and certainly no one would have liked the idea that Judea to the south was a Roman province, or that the Romans were present in the Holy City of Jerusalem and in the temple itself. Galilee in the 20s was occupied by Romans and would have been an oppressing place for the Jews.

If a Roman soldier said "you've got to carry my backpack one mile", they'd have to do it; they had no option. The Romans forced the Jews to pay taxes to Caesar. At night they might have heard the soldiers march by with their swords clanging, and they would have been afraid.

Christian Beliefs

One can imagine there was talk about trusting in God and that maybe in their lifetime he would send a Messiah. The Jews, as they became more and more oppressed, may have became more and more obsessed with God. They may have thought that this could be the time for the Saviour to come. And it was in this highly charged theological atmosphere that Mary wove her way to the well, perhaps holding in her arms the infant Jesus. The immaculate conception of Mary has no historical basis at all. This is something that was invented by later Christians to extend the idea of her holiness.

The purity, the perpetual virginity, all of those kind of themes end up with Mary as well as Jesus having to be conceived immaculately. One of the difficulties that many people today have with the virgin birth is not so much historical, the idea that it couldn't happen, but theological; the idea that it must have happened in order for Jesus not to have had any sin. Early Christians like Augustine tended to think that Adam's original sin was passed on in the act of sex and that therefore in order for Jesus to be holy and sinless it was necessary for him not to have been born from parents who had had sex.

Theologically people now have more problems with the Virgin Birth than they would have done in the past. In the past it was almost necessary to have a virgin birth in order to get Jesus out of this rather sticky difficulty of having been born with ordinary human parents who'd had sex. In the New Testament, many of the women characters are either so holy and pure that it's unrealistic, or they're prostitutes. And Mary falls into the category of being holy and pure and absolutely without sin; and she carries on in that trajectory right through the tradition so that she gets more and more holy and her virginity is stressed more and more and her holiness throughout her whole life is stressed, so that she too becomes sinless.

She is assumed into heaven rather than having to die, she herself gets born of an immaculate conception; so you get a development in the idea of the perpetual virginity, because she's begun a journey to becoming ever more holy, ever more pure which in the end can only end up with those concepts of perpetual virginity. The virgin birth is a very powerful story which explains the theological truth that Jesus is the son of God - not just the son of God from his resurrection or from his baptism, as perhaps the gospel of Mark might suggest, but the son of God from the moment of his conception.

To what extent it's historical is much more difficult to analyse. One of the difficulties is that we hear nothing at all of a virgin birth tradition, until late in the first century. Only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which were probably written in the 80s or 90s of the first century, is there a mention of the virgin birth. Another difficulty with the virgin birth idea is that the texts in Matthew and Luke are clearly overlaid with references to the Old Testament.

They're evocative of the typical Old Testament annunciation narrative: the angel going down to one or two of the parents; the insurmountable problem, which usually in the Old Testament is the fact that the parents are elderly or barren ; the angel proclaiming that the problem is going to be surmounted; and the birth ensues.

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It's very similar to the stories about the birth of Isaac or the birth of Samson or Samuel. The story of the birth of Jesus has to be even better. Mary can't be an elderly barren woman: instead she's a young girl who's also a virgin. There were lots of stories of miraculous births in Greco-Roman society.

(J-1) New Masters for the House of Israel

Famous figures tended to attract these stories as people speculated on what it would have been like to be present at the birth of such a person. Astrology was also important, so it was felt that if a person was going to be very prominent their fate was already preordained, that in their horoscope one would see how wonderful they were going to be.

It's not surprising they began to think that perhaps their birth was miraculous and wonderful. In the Greek and Roman system of gods and goddesses, the goddesses themselves could be said to be virgin mothers. Athene and Artemis were regarded as virgins. They gave birth and then dipped themselves into the rivers so their virginity was renewed. The Greek and Roman stories are not quite the same as the virgin birth stories in the gospels. They differ in that there's a male god and a human mother and the male god comes down to earth and impregnates the mother in a very graphic way.

In the gospel stories there's no mention of God or the Holy Spirit taking the form of a human being and actually coming down and impregnating Mary. There was an ancient legend from the Jewish side that Mary was the victim of a rape. They even gave us the name of the Roman soldier who was supposed to have carried out this rape: a man called Panthera, which apparently was quite a common name for Roman soldiers. Recently some scholars looked at this theory and decided it was simply an ancient slur, anti-Christian slander made up in the second century to try to prevent belief in Jesus.

Some say that perhaps it isn't so impossible as previously we thought. There are certain clues in the New Testament to suggest that Mary was in quite a terrible state after the beginning of the pregnancy. The fact that she went in great haste to see Elizabeth. The fact that she talks about herself as a "lowly handmaid": why is she lowly? Some people believe the lowliness was because she was actually the victim of a crime. Ever since, particularly in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C. And yet, the Eternal One of Israel does not lie , 1 and His eternal covenant with the nation of Israel manifested itself time and again: despite the greatest adversities, our nation has endured.

Communities were reestablished throughout the Diaspora, and many Jews responded to the clarion call to return to Eretz Yisrael, where a sovereign Jewish state arose. Despite innumerable obstacles, the Jewish nation has bequeathed many blessings upon mankind, both in the realms of the sciences, culture, philosophy, literature, technology and commerce, and in the realms of faith, spirituality, ethics and morality.

Undoubtedly, the Shoah constitutes the historical nadir of the relations between Jews and our non-Jewish neighbors in Europe.

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Out of the continent nurtured by Christianity for over a millennium, a bitter and evil shoot sprouted forth, murdering six million of our brethren with industrial precision, including one and a half million children. Many of those who participated in this most heinous crime, exterminating entire families and communities, had been nurtured in Christian families and communities.

At the same time, throughout that millennium, even in very dark times, heroic individuals arose — sons and daughters of the Catholic Church, both laymen and leaders — who fought against the persecution of Jews, helping them in the darkest of times. With the close of World War II, a new era of peaceful coexistence and acceptance began to emerge in Western European countries, and an era of bridge-building and tolerance took hold in many Christian denominations.

Faith communities reevaluated their historical rejections of others, and decades of fruitful interaction and cooperation began. Moreover, though we Jews had achieved political emancipation a century or two before, we were not yet truly accepted as equal, full-fledged members of the nations in which we lived. Following the Shoah, Jewish emancipation in the Diaspora, as well as the right of the Jewish people to live as a sovereign nation in our own land, finally became obvious and natural.

Fifty years ago, twenty years after the Shoah, with its declaration Nostra Aetate No. In its most focused, concrete, and, for the Church, most dramatic 7 assertion, Nostra Aetate recognized that any Jew who was not directly and personally involved in the Crucifixion did not bear any responsibility for it. Through the establishment of this relationship, the Catholic Church showed how it had truly repudiated its portrayal of the Jewish people as a nation condemned to wander until the final advent.

Since then, the last two popes have also made similar state visits. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant. There may be political disagreements between governments and on political issues, but the State of Israel has every right to exist in safety and prosperity.

We applaud the work of popes, church leaders, and scholars who passionately contributed to these developments, including the strong-willed proponents of Catholic-Jewish dialogue at the end of World War II, whose collective work was a leading impetus for Nostra Aetate. The most important milestones were the Second Vatican Council, the establishment of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, the recognition of Judaism as a living religion with an eternal covenant, the appreciation of the significance of the Shoah and its antecedents, and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.

The theological writings of the heads of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews have contributed much to the Church documents which followed Nostra Aetate , as have the writings of numerous other theologians. The transformation of the attitude of the Church toward the Jewish community is strikingly exemplified by the recent visit of Pope Francis to a synagogue, which renders him the third Pope to make this highly significant gesture.

It is my hope that closeness, mutual understanding and respect between our two communities continue to grow. These welcoming attitudes and actions stand in stark contrast with centuries of teachings of contempt and of pervasive hostility, and herald a most encouraging chapter in an epic process of societal transformation. The published declarations from the thirteen meetings of this bilateral commission alternating annually between Rome and Jerusalem carefully avoid matters pertaining to fundamentals of faith, but rather address a broad spectrum of contemporary social and scientific challenges, highlighting shared values while respecting the differences between the two faith traditions.

We acknowledge that this fraternity cannot sweep away our doctrinal differences; it does, rather, reinforce genuine mutual positive dispositions towards fundamental values that we share, including but not limited to reverence for the Hebrew Bible. The theological differences between Judaism and Christianity are profound.

The history of Jewish martyrdom in Christian Europe serves as tragic testimony to the devotion and tenacity with which Jews resisted beliefs incompatible with their ancient and eternal faith, which requires absolute fidelity to both the Written and Oral Torah. The doctrinal differences are essential and cannot be debated or negotiated; their meaning and importance belong to the internal deliberations of the respective faith communities.

Judaism, drawing its particularity from its received Tradition, going back to the days of its glorious prophets and particularly to the Revelation at Sinai, will forever remain loyal to its principles, laws and eternal teachings. Furthermore, our interfaith discussions are informed by the profound insights of such great Jewish thinkers as Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, 17 Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, 18 and many others, who eloquently argued that the religious experience is a private one which can often only be truly understood within the framework of its own faith community.

However, doctrinal differences do not and may not stand in the way of our peaceful collaboration for the betterment of our shared world and the lives of the children of Noah. Despite the irreconcilable theological differences, we Jews view Catholics as our partners, close allies, friends and brothers in our mutual quest for a better world blessed with peace, social justice and security.

As the Western world grows more and more secular, it abandons many of the moral values shared by Jews and Christians. Religious freedom is thus increasingly threatened by the forces of both secularism and religious extremism. One of the lessons of the Shoah is the obligations, for Jews as well as gentiles, to combat antisemitism in particular, especially in light of once again growing antisemiitism.