How the Maiden of the Gospel Became the Virgin Mary


By Carol SymesUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

When we first meet Virgin Mary in the opening of Luke’s Greek Gospel, we are told that Mary’s elderly cousin Elisabeth has improbably conceived a son after years of barrenness. It is now the sixth month of Elisabeth’s pregnancy. The scene shifts from there to the celestial realm “where the messenger [in Greek, angelos] Gabriel was sent from God” to a small city called Nazareth, which was then located in the Roman client kingdom of Galilee.

“Archangel Gabriel; The Virgin Annunciate,“
Gabriel explains to the Virgin Mary that the birth will occur by the power of God. (Image: Gerard David/Public domain)

Nothing Is Impossible

The angelos was an emissary “to a virgin [in Greek, parthenos] espoused to a man named Joseph” who claimed descent from the Hebrew king, David. This latter point is included and emphasized by Luke because another evangelist, Matthew, had also traced Jesus’s genealogy through Joseph, back to David, and through him to Abraham. So in this way, both Luke and Matthew are showing Jesus to be a legitimate successor of the chosen people’s royal lineage through his adopted parent, Joseph. 

That Joseph is not the father of the child Mary conceives is made explicit in Luke’s Gospel. When Mary responds to Gabriel’s greeting, she tells the angel that she has never “known,” or had (carnal) knowledge of, a man. This fact is corroborated when the angel explains that the birth will occur by the power of the holy spirit of God—just as God had intervened to make her cousin Elisabeth’s marriage fruitful. “For with God, nothing is impossible,” Gabriel says. Nothing, one might say, is a Hail Mary.

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Hail Mary

Elizabeth (left) visited by Mary in the Visitation
As Gabriel remarks, God had intervened to make Elisabeth’s marriage fruitful. (Image: Philippe de Champaigne/Public domain)

According to Luke, Mary then immediately goes to see her cousin, who eagerly greets her by repeating the words of the angel: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” So, Elisabeth becomes the first human being to say a Hail Mary, which prompts Mary herself to burst into an amazing song known as the “Magnificat”, from the first word of its Latin translation. 

It’s amazing because what comes out of the mouth of this gentle young maiden powerfully encapsulates her role in the history of human salvation. It also anticipates the main points of her son’s teachings, and prophecies her own lasting importance. This is the “Magnificat”, the lordly King James version of 1611.

And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,

And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.

For He hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For He that is mighty hath done to me great things; and Holy is His Name.

And His mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.

He hath showed strength with His arm; He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.

He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy;

As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.

The Virgin Mary, the Mother of the Divine Child

If Luke portrays Mary as a young woman of astonishing composure and fierce eloquence, the evangelist Matthew reminds us that she is also hugely courageous. In his Gospel, Matthew stipulates that Joseph’s betrothed was “found to be with child by the Holy Spirit”, but it is clear that Joseph doesn’t buy that and “resolves to divorce her quietly”—the adverb quietly hinting at the fact that a public repudiation of Mary would result in the traditional punishment for women taken in adultery, like the woman whom Jesus saves from being stoned in John’s Gospel. 

But Matthew adds that God sends another messenger-angel to inform Joseph that the child is divine and shall be called Jesus. Matthew then clarifies, “Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet [Isaiah], saying ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel,’ which being interpreted is ‘God with us’.”

The Virginity Mattered

For contemporary Jewish audiences of the 1st century CE, these two gospels’ insistence on Mary’s virginity was important, because both are intent on proving that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah foretold by generations of Hebrew prophets. 

Indeed, the claim that great men were begotten of virgins by gods was a pretty standard biographical origin story for heroes in many ancient religions, including that of the Greeks whose Hellenistic culture had also been adopted by many Jews at that time. 

For Luke’s mostly non-Jewish Greek audience, moreover, giving Mary the title of Maria Parthenos would immediately bring to mind Athena Parthenos, the great virgin goddess born from Zeus’s own brain, patroness of the eponymous city where her Parthenon still stands. Both Jews and Gentiles, therefore, would have expected a divinely inspired leader to be product of a God-induced virgin birth.

Common Questions about How the Maiden of the Gospel Became the Virgin Mary

Q: What was Gabriel’s revelation to Mary?

Gabriel was an emissary to the Virgin Mary. The angel greeted her and explained that she will give make her cousin Elisabeth’s marriage fruitful by the power of God.

Q: Who was the first person to say Hail Mary?

Elisabeth was the first human being to say a Hail Mary, and that prompted Mary to burst into a song known as the “Magnificat”, which powerfully encapsulates the Virgin Marys role in the history of human salvation.

Q: Why the insistence on Mary’s virginity was important for the Jewish audiences of the 1st century CE?

Because it was a strong proof that the son of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, was the same Messiah foretold by generations of Hebrew prophets.

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