Down from Her Pedestal: Elizabeth Johnson’s Truly Our Sister

By Mary Thomas

Mary Thomas holds an MA in Spirituality from the Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy, Dublin and an MA in Communications Studies from Dublin University, Ireland. She has taught theology and spirituality at Maryhill School of Theology, the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies, and the Marist Asian-Pacific Formation Center, Manila.


Elizabeth Johnson begins by explaining her experience of many postmodern feminists who find themselves isolated from the images of Mary as ideal woman and mother obediently submissive to the will of God the Father; meekly supportive of her son’s ministry; and retiring from leadership roles. Such imagery of Mary, and the idealization of women and motherhood, has been rejected by many postmodern women and men who, despite their Catholic faith, rarely pray to Mary. In order to redeem Mary for postmodernists and feminists, Johnson has given thought to providing an alternative presentation of the image and role of Mary of Nazareth. Johnson does not say if this task was necessary in her own faith journey; however, she is clear in stating that it was Pope Paul VI who recognized the need and gave the impetus for a “renewed marian devotion” (Johnson 2003:132)1 since “contemporary people, and women in particular, feel alienated from Mary because traditional piety presents her as a ‘timidly submissive woman or one whose piety was repellant to others’” (183).

Johnson first published an article on Mary in 1985 (Johnson 1985:116-35) in which she outlined points towards a marian renewal. These are among the points she now explores in depth in this book. Her interest in ecumenism, liberation theology, the European political theology of Johann B. Metz and Jürgen Moltmann, and her commitment to feminist theology have all influenced her thinking. Her experience of ecumenical dialogue led her to an exploration of the communion of saints. In her introduction to her book on a revision of the communion of saints (Johnson 1998), she explains that she had begun this book on Mary but realized her need to first write on the communion of saints and then finish this book on Mary. The two books are logically connected since Johnson places Mary within the communion of saints, (albeit as an honored member). A strange place to find Mary? Catholic tradition has accorded a special place to Mary, separating her from other saints in prestige and devotion. Johnson’s revisioning “invites Mary to come down from the pedestal where she has been honored for centuries” (xvi-xvii) and focuses instead on the human Mary of Nazareth. It is precisely to this historically human Mary that Johnson hopes feminists and postmodernists from all nationalities and classes will be attracted. 

The journey of faith of Mary of Nazareth is described as a genuine struggle to be faithful to God and the reign of God. In her life of faith and struggle, Mary takes her place in the great cloud of witnesses who form the communion of saints. These are all the living and the dead who have committed themselves to be friends of God and prophets. Their lives encourage us, and they themselves enjoin us to live similarly committed lives—since we are all saints in the Lord (Rom 1:7). Mary, then, has her place equal to all others “who hear the word of God and do it” (Lk 8:21). She is part of the kinship of the disciples of Jesus meriting her place of honor through her life of faith and action, not primarily due to any blood tie. In many ways the two books belong together. The acceptability of Mary’s place in the communion of saints depends largely on the credibility of Johnson’s prior revisioning of the communion of saints, since many may argue: is it honor enough to regard Mary as a historical woman who struggled in faith to be a friend of God and prophet? There are many who regard the blood tie of motherhood to be more important than the kinship of discipleship.

This essay will provide an overview of Johnson’s feminist critique of traditional titles and imagery of Mary (chapters one and two) which logically conclude with the positions taken in the second Vatican Council (chapter six) and the approaches of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Leonardo Boff, and John Paul II, which emphasize complementarity as a model for the church (chapter three). Possible feminist alternatives are summarized and categorized (chapter two). The important question of symbolism, essential to Johnson’s decision to emphasize Mary’s place in the communion of saints, is covered in chapters four and five. Chapters seven, eight, and nine provide an outline of the life of Mary of Nazareth.  The political and economic background, the religious thought, and the socio-cultural context, are all presented in a fine scholarly summary of the best of contemporary research. These chapters alone are a proud achievement for which many will thank Johnson. They provide the foundation for the “memory” of Mary of Nazareth. Johnson’s methodology continues in chapter ten with a revisionist narrative of key scripture texts which feature Mary.  The interpretations here provide an illustration of the merit of her approach: Mary is presented in a way that is liberating for women (and men). Memory and narrative provide the impetus for praxis in Johnson’s methodology and so chapter 11 concludes the book by positioning both Mary and the reader within the communion of saints in solidarity with the living and the dead of this planet earth. The challenge is to deepen our relationships as friends of God, and to work for justice as prophets of God. Mary’s role is our role—we are all called to be saints who reply, “Thy will be done” (Lk 1:38).

Feminist Critique of Traditional Images of Mary

Mary of Nazareth, mother of Jesus, is a significant religious image for Christians.  Mary acts as a friendly, caring mother who is more easily approached than God, since Mary is also a mother to all. However, respect for Mary and the tradition of her perpetual virginity have contributed to idealizing her as a symbol of a romantic eternal femininity. The lack of scriptural hard evidence about Mary has encouraged speculation that reflects more the dominant culture than any serious theologizing. Mary, therefore, functions as a symbol—representing certain cultural values and encouraging their perpetuation.  As a symbol, she can be used to legitimate the status quo, if the symbol is sanctioned by the socio-cultural hierarchy; or, Mary as a symbol could be used to subvert the status quo if alternatively visioned and popularized. Johnson notes the power of the symbolic Mary:  “to promote particular socio-political agendas” (5). In a sense, this too is what Johnson hopes to achieve with her own revisioning of Mary (albeit in a nonsymbolic way).

The problem with many of our Christian symbols is that they have been shaped by male authorities in the church and reflect male thinking (andro-centrism) of Mary and the perfect woman and female follower of Jesus. This is so since the Catholic church’s official decision-making resides with male priests. Also, the church is part of a social system that places power and decision-making in the hands of males (most especially wealthy, white, Euro-American males). The feminist categories of andro-centrism (a way of thinking that presumes the male perspective is normative) and patriarchy (the social system built on andro-centrism that has men act as leaders and power-brokers in society) offer a critique of both church and society. Within this critique, Mary is an important symbol that has been fashioned by men to support their unconscious desire to retain their own privileged position. Their idealization of Mary casts her as sexually pure and sinless, obedient to a male God-figure, submissively following her son, and passively supporting church conservatism. This image of Mary is the role model set by men for the compliance of all women. “In unintended ways [Johnson is being kind here] the role of Mary worked subversively to demote female power and possibility… official views of Mary have been shaped by men in a patriarchal context and have functioned powerfully to define and control female lives” (7).  This is also true within the church: “The marian tradition has functioned negatively to promote an idealized notion of the obedient female self, a construal that legitimates women’s subordinate place in the church” (xiv).

In chapter two, Johnson gives concise, quick definitions of the major terminology in feminist studies—a useful guide with good references. Then follows a feminist critique of four major marian images: Mary as counter-image to Eve, Mary as virgin, Mary as handmaid, and Mary as mother.


In Pauline scripture (Rom 5:12) there is the parallel between Jesus Christ and Adam: as sin entered the world through Adam, now salvation is brought to the world through Christ. Adam’s sin produced the Fall; the life and death of Jesus produces the rising from the dead. Adam’s sin results in punishment and separation from Eden; the obedience of Jesus results in forgiveness and the re-entry into heaven. This Jesus-Adam dichotomy has not served to promote the degradation of men, simply because they are men like Adam. However, that is not so in the case of the Mary-Eve dichotomy. Women, since they share the same sex as Eve, (they also share the same sex as Mary—but she becomes sexless in this prejudiced thinking), are guilty as Eve was guilty. All women, then, are blamed for the Fall and its consequences. The culpability and guilt of Adam is overlooked in this case of sexism.  Eve became the scapegoat, epitomizing all the ills of womanhood: temptress, morally irresponsible, incapable of trust, gullible. This typecasting began in the early church: Tertullian, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, and included Thomas Aquinas.  It is still alive in the thinking of many priests, church members, and theologians. 

The Mary-Eve dichotomy finds its roots in Hellenistic dualism: Eve is human, irrational, sexual, carnal, nonspiritual, earthy—and this holds for all women. Mary is suprahuman, and belongs to the rational, asexual, intellectual, spiritual, heavenly—and these qualities are closer to a male nature. This way of thinking easily supports the androcentric belief that men are rational, reasonable, capable of controlling their passions, spiritual, and good decision-makers. Thus, men are positioned as the pater: the father-figure who provides, decides, and is rewarded in the patriarchal power structure. Women are still being punished for Eve’s sin. They can never hope to attain Mary’s purity.

Mary as Virgin

The virginity of Mary possibly began as a story-type from the scriptural tradition of the birth of a great hero. This form is seen in the birth of Samuel, and also Jacob (both Hannah and Sarah were too old to conceive, so God’s creative spirit caused the conception). A mysterious birth is part of the story form signaling the birth of the hero, or special person. The conception of John the Baptist is also surrounded by unusual circumstances. Mary’s virginity was taken out of the context of its scriptural form to become of theological importance once the divinity of Christ was attested. With their dualistic attitude to sex and women, the early church fathers considered it improper that Mary be imaged as a sexually active woman who may have borne other children. Nor was it proper that Joseph’s sperm be the male contribution to the conception of Jesus. (Note, however, that male sperm was never imaged as evil or shameful. Instead, sperm was valued as something precious, not to be unnecessarily wasted.) Mary’s perpetual virginity was exalted in proportion to the degradation of women’s sexual natures. The sanctity and purity of Mary’s womb was likened to the Holy of Holies, and the tabernacle. A subconscious polarity was set up between the virgin-Mary and the evil-Eve: the virgin and the whore. “The fundamental hostility of this theology to women’s sexuality [the exaltation of women’s virginity masks a fearful misogyny] has perdured through the centuries” (30).

Johnson and other feminists recognize that virginity itself has proven a haven for some women. As Christianity grew in acceptability in the Greco-Roman world, especially after it was officially recognized by Constantine, the occasion for Christian martyrdom decreased and virginity was seen as a chosen form of martyrdom of the flesh. Virginity became a state of life more prized than marriage. The virgin became a symbol of a person committed to her true self, to living an inner wholeness. Women who lived as virgins first had to fight against society’s expectation that they marry. Since women, legally, were possessions under the authority of either their father or husband, women virgins were a legal anomaly. To whom did they belong? Christ, to whom they were said to be married, was in heaven (and had no legal status); therefore, virgins professed obedience to male bishops, or finally, were gathered into convent communities, sometimes under a male authority figure, according to their rules. Despite its restrictions, “virginity offered new options. It opened up possibilities for women that departed dramatically from the traditional role expectations of patriarchal marriage” (29). Women religious virgins gained access to a degree of independence and autonomy within their convents, exercising leadership and having some freedom to study and write.

Mary as Handmaid

In the image of handmaid, Mary is depicted as an obedient, submissive woman who passively agreed to God’s will for her and who gave her silent consent. The qualities of a good handmaid, therefore, became submission, passivity, and silence. This, in turn, became the accepted form for women’s obedience. “Today these virtues are being reevaluated in light of women’s need for their own integrity, a rethinking that engages a hermeneutic of suspicion to subvert the value of submission” (27). The feminist critique of the traditional image of handmaid is that it restricts the full humanity of women by disallowing women the exercise of their critical faculties, to think for themselves, and make their own decisions based on their own criteria and reasoning.  Women’s voices are lost to the public domain in the living out of the unhelpful image of handmaid. Thus, feminists encourage women to question, to speak, to decide, and to act.

Mary as Mother

There is no argument over the motherhood of Jesus. It is the manner of its idealized presentation that is detrimental to women’s development. Johnson condemns an overdue emphasis on Mary’s motherhood that presents it as the main reason for her life. As though if not a mother (albeit the mother of Jesus) then, Mary is nothing and nobody. By association, all women are expected to be mothers: it becomes the primary purpose for women’s lives. Yet, Mary is a mother without having experienced sexual intercourse. Thus, the ideal mother presented as a model for all women, is impossible to imitate. Women are placed in the contradictory position of being told their highest purpose in life is to conceive, bear children, and be a mother—yet they must do this without regard to their sexual identity. Women’s experience of motherhood is separated from the initial sexual act. Feminists, instead, present an ideal of women co-creating life in full bodily participation with God as a mutual partner in the relationship.  The traditional image of mother encourages women to devote themselves totally to their children in a completely self-sacrificing manner. The devoted mother literally has no other self, no identity, no autonomy. She is a mother. She is not a subject.  Johnson retorts: “A woman’s personal worth does not depend on having children” (34). Similarly, such self-effacing autonomy smothers her children, usually binding them in a dependent relationship that stultifies their mature growth and inhibits any healthy adult relationship between mother and children. 

Rather than acknowledge such consequences of this distorted presentation of motherhood, the heavenly family is imaged as perfection. The subconscious pattern of the heavenly family, however, is less than theologically acceptable: Mary as mother, God the Father, and Jesus their son. This is the popular trinity of the uneducated. In this family relationship, Mary acts as the intercessor, begging either the distant, angry father, or the capricious, all-avenging son, to be merciful and grant the petitioner’s request. Nothing in this imagery is positive. It is based on a culture of patronage in which both women and men suffer.2 Finally, the traditional image of Mary as mother overlooks women’s own experience of motherhood; an earthy, sexual experience, with a fierce love for their children. Women’s experience of early breastfeeding tells of an insistent urge to provide milk in response to the baby’s cry—a demand of the mother’s body that gives nurturance a fiercely protective edge.  Since the imagery has been constructed by men, it knows nothing of women’s actual experience of motherhood. It is often wildly inaccurate.

These four images of Mary—as a foil to Eve, virgin, handmaid, and mother—combine in various ways to form the feminine ideal in a patriarchal society. Johnson concludes: “The traditional image of Mary emerges from critical feminist analysis as a male-designed creation that functions to define and control women” (36). This feminization of Mary limits her identity, her role and function, and the potential she has to offer women. Instead, she has been used to denigrate, subject, and belittle women, engendering guilt and humiliation in any woman who may have dared to be or to act in contradiction to the model of the blessed virgin Mary and mother. Recognizing the harm that this image has caused to women throughout the ages, Johnson explains gently to the reader in the first chapter: “It would be difficult to underestimate the repugnance, both existential and intellectual, felt by women who become conscious of the negative ways in which the marian symbol has worked upon them” (11). Women, divided between mothers, virgins, and the rest who are neither, need to cast off these symbols and unite to overcome such modeling of dominance and submission. Feminists offer a liberating rereading of Mary’s Magnificat, which promises to raise the lowly and feed the poor.

Vatican II and Complementarity Theories

Marian theology became the spotlight during the second Vatican Council illuminating major theological differences in church leadership.  Having decided on a document on the church (Lumen Gentium), the innocent question arose:  whether or not to include Mariology as a chapter in the church document?  Mariology, then, highlighted two deeply entrenched theological approaches: a minimalist approach (favoring low christology, inclusive ecclesiology, an openness to secular issues, interfaith dialogue, scripture-based, historical, and seeking liturgical renewal) and a maximalist approach (favoring high christology, a hierarchical ecclesiology, a defensive anti-secular stand, a dogmatic approach to other faiths, using scripture as proof text, suspicious of historical reductionism, and maintaining liturgical traditions). These two approaches influenced the writings of all the Vatican II documents. The two camps each fought long and hard throughout the council to ensure their viewpoints were included in the final texts. 

Johnson could do well to remind the reader that both approaches are alive and thriving today.  A similar debate would probably produce the same level of bitterness and division.  “How could it be,” Johnson laments with feeling, “that the mother of God, in whose womb the fundamental union of God and humanity was achieved, had become the source of such great division?” (127). Johnson, who can be included in the minimalist stand, can never be accused of not honoring or respecting Mary. She shows here the depth of her respect for Mary and the strength of her faith.

The title Mary as Mediatrix was relativized in the Vatican II text, and Johnson summarizes this decision:  the title is founded in pious practice and has no sound theological support; it is only one of many popular titles for Mary. The council decided not to affirm it, or any other title.  Catholic faith was firmly grounded in christology and it was christology which predominated in all the documents. This was nowhere meant as a slight on Mary; it merely curbed excessive attention and relegated marian theology second in importance to christology. Mary’s rightful place in Catholic faith was addressed ten years later by Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, MarialisCultus. Paul VI applauded Vatican II’s successful reorientation of Catholicism back to its scriptural and eucharistic origins. He recognized the passing of much marian piety and practices that were excessive and inappropriate (again, how accurate this is for Asia remains questionable). The encyclical urged, “a careful revision of expressions and exercises… we would like this revision to be respectful of sound tradition and open to the legitimate desires of today’s people” (MC 24, Johnson, 132). Paul VI especially encouraged a revisioning of Mary as an example of discipleship, and “truly our sister” (MC 56, Johnson, 134). It is an encyclical worth reading.  Johnson retains her enthusiasm for it, crediting it for giving her direction and encouragement. The title of this book, Truly Our Sister, comes from this encyclical.

Two trends in marian theology followed Vatican II, though both had their roots in pre-councilar thought: Complementarity Theory, and Mary as Model of the Church. Johnson labels each as a “cul-de-sac” not to be taken. 

Complementarity Theory

 A number of relatively contemporary writers advanced this theory in a variety of guises.  Johnson deals with Boff, von Balthasar, and Pope John Paul II.  Mary is used as a symbol of the ideal woman, the eternal feminine. There is a return here to the dualistic categories of masculine/feminine. However, it is only the feminine category which ever receives attention. Mary is imaged as compassionate, caring, gentle, maternal, nurturing, obedient, even with strength of character and firm resolve—indeed complimentary characteristics.  She is imaged as having listened to God’s word, recognized it, and decided to consent.  Yet all these compliments to her remain in a limited definition of the feminine character: she is a woman and mother.  This defines her and models how women should be, how God created women to be. Mary acts true to her nature. The masculine/feminine anthropology of complementarity, like all androcentric thought, uses divine sanction—God created men and women this way with these natures. The unspoken converse to such femininity is that masculine is strong, decisive, authoritative, reasonable, of leadership quality, not so relational nor swayed by emotions. These qualities, however, are rarely enunciated by complementarist writers.  Attention is given to the feminine qualities which are needed to complement the masculine—each tempers the other. The resulting whole is the ideal family, the ideal community, the ideal church, the ideal God: ideal, certainly for men. That men retain the power of decision making, thus delegating women second place in an unspoken hierarchy of authority, is a point conveniently ignored by complementarists. This dualism finds backing in the psychology of Carl Jung (although Jung does argue that men need to develop their anima, and women need to develop their animus). Johnson’s critique of complementarity names it for what it is: “Historically outdated, unjust to women [and men also], exclusive of those who do not fit the norm, racist and classist, and productive of psychological immaturity, patriarchical, gender-dualism is an obstacle on the journey toward a liberating future” (69).

The writings of John Paul II are more influential to contemporary church thought (Leonard 1995). The pope is an entrenched complementarist thinker. He casts Mary firmly in the role of a mother—a departure from Paul VI’s vision of Mary as disciple and “truly our sister.” Mary as mother models the ultimate role of all women. God created women to be either physical mothers or spiritual virgins (presumably he would prefer nonmarried women to remain physical virgins also). These roles are their true nature—therefore any argument or lifestyle to the contrary is mistaken. John Paul’s accompanying definition of female virtues includes: love, a capacity for long suffering (indeed!), fidelity, ability to work hard, intuition, and the vocation of encouragement. Again, these may seem compliments given to women by the current pope; however, there exist women who would prefer to be given justice, equality, and mutual decision-making. Johnson herself comments: “Mary is intensely exalted, assigned feminine functions, and held up as the model for women, with the result that women continue to be subordinated in fact if not in intention” (62). Complementarity acts as an insidious form of sexism: it flatters women overtly while maintaining an unjust social structure. It is a covert abuse of women, that undermines women’s dignity and full humanity.

Mary as Model of the Church

 The image of Mary as wedded to God and Jesus as is the church is simplified in the symbol of Mary as model of the church. Mary’s special relationship to Jesus as a loving and obedient mother models the church’s aspiration. The church too is obedient to God’s will; treasures the word of God, follows the Son, stands faithfully in the face of opposition, and prays constantly for the coming of the Spirit. The text in Lumen Gentium limits the model of Mary to her faith, charity and union to Christ (LG 63). Johnson points out that the official, active, and decision-making aspects of the church remain attributed to the petrine model, as is the priestly ministry (see page 66, Johnson). Therefore, hidden in this modeling by Mary of the church is a complementarity perspective—the dualism of Mary/Peter is the sexist dualism of feminine/masculine. Mary is passive, obedient, submissive, and silent; Peter is active, decisive, authoritative, with a voice.  Johnson could be excused had she been tired in her dismissal of this marian ecclesiology; instead, she is quite clear: “It is not possible to interpret Mary in a liberating way within the confines of this traditional masculine-feminine dichotomy… Our task now is to free theology from hierarchical power relations encoded in dualistic views of women, situating interpretations of Mary instead within an egalitarian anthropology of partnership” (67).

Having provided a number of cul-de-sacs and unhelpful images and theologies of Mary, Johnson has given a quick overview of alternative feminist categorizations and approaches to Mary. This is a useful beginning point for anyone wishing to study marian theology and an excellent collection of references. Johnson, however, does not enter into any meaningful engagement with any of these writers. This, perhaps, is a shame.  Less time spent explaining and defending the feminist viewpoint (chapters one and two) and more time given to exploring and dialoguing with other feminist writers would have been more interesting. The Latin American writers, Ivone Gebara and María Clara Bingemer, seem to have influenced Johnson’s thought: a discussion would have been fruitful. Similarly, Schüssler-Fiorenza’s categorizations and those of Sarah Coakley merit further discussion.

Mary as a Symbol

Throughout the book, Johnson appears wary of the functioning of Mary as a symbol within Catholic faith even though she recognizes the importance of symbols. As a sacramental religion, symbols are important to Catholic faith. They represent a deep meaning and reality not easily accessible through reason alone. We know Jesus lived his life for others. We know this generous self-giving resulted in his death. We know we too are called to give our lives for the coming of the reign of God. Yet, these beliefs are deepened when liturgically enacted in the symbolic breaking and sharing of bread; the pouring and sharing of wine. Symbol acts on the human psyche in ways reasons cannot approach. Symbol speaks the language of emotion, values, and commitment. Johnson knows this when she warned that Mary has been used in a manner detrimental to women’s growth, (xiv, and passim.). If a passive, submissive image of Mary is set before women to symbolize the ideal woman, then the message is clear: all women should be passive and submissive. Within a patriarchal system, symbols support male dominance and female subordination. Johnson has also argued that values and attributes unacceptable in a patriarchal image of God have been unconsciously absorbed into the image of Mary. Thus, a stern, all-powerful, distant patriarchal God cannot also be kind, forgiving, and compassionate—the images contradict each other. So, it is Mary who is imaged as the kind, compassionate one who tempers justice with mercy. Johnson has consistently argued that these aspects of Mary’s image be returned to God—where they properly belong. God is mother. God is comforter. The Holy Spirit is mediator. In chapters four and five, Johnson explores marian symbolism. These chapters mark a development in her earlier thought and form an important section in her book.

In an early groundbreaking essay (Johnson 1984:441-65), Johnson discussed the idolatry of accepting as real any image of God. The divine totality of God is not to be imaged solely as either male or female. God is beyond gender. A later summary of this point in her 1989 essay is succinct and worth quoting at length: “The holy mystery of God so transcends the capacity of human concepts and finite images that no one of them alone or even all taken together could ever capture or exhaustively express the divine reality” (Johnson 1989:48). The andro-centrism of imaging God in exclusive male images dehumanizes women. All female images of God, including scriptural images are put on to Mary in a symbolic handing-over.  Scripture may speak of God as mother, and Jesus may liken himself to a mother, but Catholic thought has Mary as mother, and Mary as mother of the church. God is father. That is the idolatry that Johnson and others before her have condemned.

It was scholasticism’s borrowings from Helenistic dualism that gave rise to the concept of God as a patriarchical male father figure. Thus, all so-called feminine attributes of God were shifted onto Mary: “Female images of God that were going homeless in official doctrine found a place in Mary’s image to shelter and thrive” (73). In the medieval society, Jesus was imaged as a ruler/judge and patron. Mary then became the mother-intercessor and patroness who pleaded the cases of her devoted followers. None who sincerely turned to her were ever refused.  Prayers, petitions, penances, pilgrimages—all expressed the pleadings of the “poor banished children of Eve.” The merits of the petitioners and their cases were often ignored in a less than morally just exultation of Mary’s powers of intercession: “She was particularly kind to the undeserving, saving all manner of rouges and wrongdoers so long as they called upon her” (77).

Johnson has so far shown the harm marian symbolism has done women throughout history. She has also pointed out that it limits our concept of God, reducing God to masculine categories. 

Poor pneumatology has joined hands with an equally impoverished understanding of the trinity. Mary provides a female presence in an unholy trinity of father, son, and mother Mary—supplanting the Holy Spirit. As far back as 1967, René Laurentin, pointed out that scripture and theology are clear that the Holy Spirit has primacy over Mary. She may be “the privileged sign and witness to the Holy Spirit in the community of the church” (Johnson is summarizing Laurentin here) yet Mary’s “role of mediation and intercession occurs only within the primordial role of the Spirit” (80). Both scripture and theology attest Mary cannot be named co-redemptrix nor co-mediatrix. The images of Mary with her mantle protecting, interceding, bringing to life, sustaining, strengthening, and caring—all these images properly belong to the Holy Spirit who brooded over the void in the act of creation; who mediates God’s presence in the world following Pentecost.

In her writings on Mary in the early 1980s, Johnson was influenced by the scriptural work of Raymond Brown and others (Brown et al. 1978) who concluded that, since there was so little factual evidence in either scripture or history, it was fruitless to attempt to construct a life of Mary. There was too little known about her life to speculate or attempt an accurate model. Mary could not be retrieved. Brown et al., therefore, put forward the argument that it was best to use Mary symbolically in a way that would be productive for a life of faith. In this way, the symbolic imagination could be used constructively. They proposed the model, Mary as the perfect disciple. Mary thus symbolizes a life of faith that every Christian can imitate.

Since she wrote in 1989, Johnson has obviously dialogued with others and rethought her position on the use of Mary as a symbol. Much historical work has been done in the decades since Brown and Pannenburg, questioning their assertion that the historical Mary could never be retrieved. This is a crucial point for Johnson the scholar. She admits: “A basic issue that arises at the outset, then, is whether and to what extent the figure of Mary is or should be symbolic. Over the years my mind has changed considerably on this issue” (95). This is an honest admission from a scholar. It shows the depth of thought of Johnson’s work and the importance of the issue of symbolism to her. It marks a turning point in her mariology. For many readers, however, it will be a puzzle: what difference does it make to regard Mary as a disciple historically, or to regard Mary as a disciple symbolically? A small word of explanation to those uninitiated into the differing methodologies of historical and symbolic criticism is a necessary clarification that Johnson should have given. Also, had the supposed consequences of each approach been given, the importance of the differences between the historical and the symbolic approach would be apparent. A subsequent essay by Johnson on this would be much appreciated.

Johnson has a number of reasons for changing her mind on the issue of symbolism. Mary has also been a symbol of the ideal woman and a symbol of the ideal mother. These symbols cannot be ignored but need to be engaged, critiqued, and redeemed.  Concentration on the symbol of Mary as disciple alone would ignore these other images. Such an oversight also would overlook the harm these other images have done, especially to women, throughout the ages. Ignoring the responsibility the church has for the images it fosters and the consequential oppression such symbolism permits is sinful. Johnson states, “It whitewashes the sinfulness of the church of which there is such ample, scandalous, public evidence” (99).

Focusing on Mary as a perfect disciple conveniently disregards other women in scripture and the scriptural evidence of their challenging roles: Mary Magdalene, of whom there is no scripture evidence of prostitution, but instead was the first disciple to the disciples, (Jn 20:17); Martha, whose affirmation of faith in Jesus (Jn 11:27) is the Johannine equivalent of Peter’s profession of faith (Mk 8:29); and others. Scripture illustrates a number of women whose lives of discipleship gave an example for us to follow.

Johnson points out that the tendency to symbolize Mary has had the unfortunate effect of isolating her from her Jewish roots, her culture, and her religious beliefs. “One amazing loss that has resulted in Mary’s case is her historical Jewish identity” (99).  Jewish-Christian dialogue is important in today’s world and Christians need to be reminded of their Semitic inheritance. Both Mary and Jesus were Jews.

All the symbols of Mary tend to lack historical reality.  Similarly, lack of historical rootedness presents a distorted image of Mary. Without a scriptural or historical foundation, symbols of Mary are inaccurate and falsify the woman she may have been.  Such symbols are untruthful, a lie. Johnson concludes: “Symbolizing is rife with problems” (100). As said earlier, the androcentric and patriarchal context of church and society means that it is an elite male view of Mary that is officially presented in church documents and decision making on behalf of all women and men. Until this unjust context is changed, any symbol remains open to suspicion.

This question of Mary as a symbol is crucial to the success of Johnson’s work. She is not arguing against the Christian practice of using Mary as a symbol. Christian faith, and Catholicism in particular, draws deeply from symbolic imagination. Much of our religious faith is symbolic (sacramental). We cannot avoid symbolizing. What Johnson is arguing for is the solid grounding of our symbols in scripture and historical evidence. “My point is not that we can dispense with symbolic construals, but that because we are dealing with an actual person, however much unknown, her historical reality should tether down insight at every point” (101).

It is important here to remind ourselves of the primary audience Johnson says she is addressing—postmodern Americans. She is writing in response to her years of experience teaching theology. Her audience has been educated to question the validity of symbols. Perhaps unfairly, they seek an historical reality and an intellectual framework against which to measure religious faith. In answer to the intellectual discomfort of this audience, Johnson is advising a demystification of Mary (as she similarly argued in her previous book on the communion of saints) and the repositioning of Mary in her own historical setting.  This process, she argues, is necessary to maintain credibility for her primary audience. To suggest that this approach will not work for other audiences, who have other needs (Asian, African, South American, or non-postmodernists), may be interesting but it is irrelevant. It is not what Johnson set out to do. She is not writing primarily for these other audiences. The masses of people, rich and poor, young and old, who pray to Mama Mary in the Philippines, for example, will not be persuaded that it is really the Mother God to whom they are praying. This may be true, as Johnson suggests, but it will take more than one woman’s scholarly book to change the traditions of a lifetime. Johnson’s writing is an act of faith. She may well influence those who preach and teach, but change will not happen in either her or our lifetimes. However, if she persuades her postmodern audience who, remember, are in danger of losing altogether their interest and faith in Mary and the saints, then her work is well worthwhile.

The Historical Background of Mary


There may never exist sufficient historical evidence to recreate an accurate picture of Mary and the conditions in which she lived. Nevertheless, much work has been done in the last three decades. Archeologists now combine their information with experts in other disciplines resulting in a rich interdisciplinary portrayal of Mary of Nazareth. (Chapters seven, eight, and nine draw on the best findings from archeologists, economists, anthropologists, linguists, sociologists, religious studies, and political studies.)  Despite the large pool of knowledge that now exists, Johnson warns that interpretations of these facts vary widely. There is no such thing as objective opinion. Johnson draws together writers from Seán Freyne in the 1980s, to John Meier (1991, 2001), John Dominic Crossan (1991), E.P. Sanders (1985), Richard Horsley (1996), Paula Fredriksen (1999), Marianne Sawicki (2000), Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann (1999), Jonathan Reed (2000). It is an excellent gathering of major sources.  In her later chapter on women’s socio-cultural situation, she has an equally impressive roll call of major scholars covering a similar period of time. While much of this material focuses on the world and life conditions of Jesus, it serves the dual purpose of illuminating our picture of Mary.

Galilee is primarily an agricultural region—a fertile oasis in the northern Jewish lands ruled then by the Romans. It has a temperate climate with a long growing season. Then, as now, Johnson says, “The landscape is nothing short of beautiful” (140). Nazareth is a hillside agrarian village of about three to four hundred people, near the newly built, Roman-styled city of Sepphoris. Nazareth was not on any major route and, therefore, was an unimportant village. The local dialect of the people was Aramaic, but with their own distinct Galilean accent. All the ordinary houses in the area were much the same—three or four single- or double-roomed homes of close family grouped together forming an inner courtyard. Wood and stone were used for building materials. A group of such family compounds made up the village, with earthen pathways and roadways winding between the clusters of compounds. No form of sewage nor sanitation has been unearthed in these villages. People used the streets and earth to absorb and cover their waste. The floors inside the homes were also packed earth with a thatched roof possibly overlaid with an additional mud protection. No doors fronted the houses. They were “most likely hung with straw mats or curtains for privacy” (142).

The houses were not used throughout the day and most domestic work was done outside in the courtyard sharing the compound’s clay oven, stone grinding millstones, and water cistern. The women from each house worked together, cooking, washing, and preserving food.  Mary probably worked with her in-laws growing and preparing food for their families and weaving and sewing clothes. Most villages were self-sufficient and had nothing for sale or exchange. Within the village, families borrowed and exchanged. The village learned to work together and support each other, sharing in the harvesting, repairing each other’s homes and equipment, supplying food during sickness, and rarely using any money or coinage. The village organized to share communal wine and olive oil presses, storage facilities, and threshing floor. In rural Asia, this describes a common picture of communal rural life with its necessary interrelations of work and barter. The lives of such people bordered on subsistence level, a life-and-death struggle to survive. Jonathan Reed is quoted as describing the poverty of such villages as Nazareth: “There are no luxury items of any kind” (143–144). No shops, no marketplace, nor any decorations were found in neighboring Capernaum. This describes the mundane hardworking life of Mary of Nazareth.


It is a sad fact that Christianity has not only lost its Jewish origins but has also, throughout its history, been responsible for anti-Jewish propaganda and even the violent suppression of Judaism. Such outright bigotry denies the Jewish faith and identity of Mary, Jesus, and the early church. Most Catholics are completely ignorant of the possible daily routine and beliefs of the Jewish Mary and Jesus. Despite Jesus’ frequent criticism of aspects of Jewish tradition and ritual, there is no evidence that he repudiated his Jewish faith.  On the contrary, he lived and died a Jew, as did Mary of Nazareth. Johnson is too gentle in her comment: “At first glance this view may seem strange to the Christian imagination, which for centuries has depicted Mary as a leading member of the Catholic Church, on earth as in heaven” (162). The Catholic imagination is wholly inaccurate and suspiciously derogatory in its image of Mary as a beautiful, white, nonworking, Catholic lady. Closer to the reality of the woman she was in history is an ordinary, brown, rough-skinned, married Jewish woman. Let the symbols reflect the historical truth.

The Jewish faith, at the time of Mary (c. 20 BCE – 40 CE; this is a generous estimate of her possible life-span) had a distinct set of beliefs, setting the Jews apart from their neighbors: belief in one God, not in many deities; a religious law affecting daily routine; sabbath observance; food and dietary laws; ritual cleansing and avoidance of things deemed unclean; daily prayer; male circumcision; a Temple with priests; a body of scripture texts, commentaries, prophetic writings, and psalms.  Added to this, was the belief that Israel was God’s own chosen people, and that God will send a messiah to redeem them again. This “messianic hope... was linked to the coming of the kingdom of God, desire for which increased in proportion to desperation of Roman occupation”  (163).

Mary of Nazareth automatically considered which foods were allowed and which cooking utensils and tools to use as she did her daily work. She spontaneously recited simple blessings as she went through her day, blessing food, work, water, and children.  Most likely, her household recited the Shema together (Deut 6:4-5) when rising and lying down to sleep. She would have taught Jesus the stories of her people, the basic law and traditions, and would have been the first to teach him to pray. Women were expected to teach the faith to their children. In her compound, Mary and the other women would prepare together each week for their family observance of the sabbath.

Mary could not read but she would have memorized more scripture than today’s literate and highly educated Catholics.  Their Jewish faith marked these Galilean people deeply and God’s blessings allowed them life. In return, they lived their lives in daily consciousness of the gratitude they owed God. This gratitude was no mere obligation: Mary and her Jewish neighbors lived and breathed God’s spirit. Their faith shaped their lives and outlook.

The poor agrarian Galileans could rarely afford the two-week walking trip to Jerusalem. Most families would have made the journey at least once in their lifetime. They may have scheduled their Temple obligations to coincide with one of the major Jewish festivals: the spring Passover (Pesach), the summer feast of Pentecost (Shavuot), or the autumn feast of Tabernacles or Booths (Sukkot). If at all possible, some would journey to Jerusalem annually. Otherwise, the major feasts were celebrated in the village with the family. The journey to Jerusalem was a pilgrimage, a religious journey. In the city of Jerusalem, the family would combine a number of religious obligations. The major feast would be celebrated. Purification sacrifices for having given birth, sacrifices for atonement, and for thanksgiving were offered. Children, especially first-born male children, would be dedicated to God. Prayers and incense would be offered in the Temple itself. The Galileans would marvel at the enormous space of the Temple and its outer courts, the huge cut stone blocks, the carved stone and wood, the gold, and the rich cloths. They would feel a mixture of pride and awe together with the haunting question: was this luxury pleasing to God, given its cost in the taxation and forced labor of the poor peasants who struggled so hard to live?  Who knows what Mary of Nazareth thought as she stood in the Temple’s Court of the Women, separated from the men?

Since Mary was part of the post-resurrection group in Jerusalem, she would have joined them in these rituals, adding them to her Jewish observances. Many were Galileans also.  Most remained poor and, as in their village life, they continued to support and help each other and to share the work and food.  Johnson is realistic in saying, “There is simply no historical evidence” (181) as to where Mary died and was buried.  Conflicting traditions place her remains in Jerusalem or Ephesus, with the disciple John. She may have returned to her family in Galilee and died there. Earlier, Johnson estimated Mary’s age and described her at the time of the death of Jesus—it is a poignant description: “She would have been getting on in years, facing old age according to the life expectancy of the poor in that era. We have no idea how old she was when she died” (150). Even today, poor people age quickly. If Mary ever held the dead body of her son in her arms (and it is unlikely she ever did), it would have been an aged, bent woman who cried grief-stricken. Hopefully, she did not live to see the second wave of Jewish rebellion against the Romans that began around 66 CE and ended with the Roman legions moving in again to rape, plunder, and destroy. In 70 CE the Temple was completely destroyed and the Jewish leadership, in its shocked response to the events, separated from the followers of Jesus, expelling them from the synagogues.

The World of Women

So far, Johnson has described Mary as from a rural background, from the province of Galilee, and with a strong Jewish faith. The ninth chapter cleverly opens, “As a rural, Galilean Jewish woman”—thus follows a discussion on the role of women at the time of Mary. 

It would have been the drudgery of sheer hard work that occasioned the oppression in Mary’s life far more than any form of sexism. “All the evidence points to the fact that Miriam of Nazareth, wife of a carpenter in the farming village of Nazareth, lived the bulk of her childbearing years along the rigorous lines [of daily household chores], engaged in the labor of maintaining a Jewish household in a rural village” (203). It was physical hard work that shaped Mary’s life: pounding wheat for flour, grinding grains, kneeding bread, carrying water and other heavy loads, washing clothes, working in the fields, orchards, and vineyards in the heat of the sun—all of this daily labor was necessary for existence. Food had to be prepared and preserved for storage; wool was teased and spun and sewn; crops and domestic animals cared for; children had to be fed, cleaned, educated, kept healthy.  At the end of the day, the womenfolk in the compound went to bed exhausted.

Johnson completes her socio-historical analysis of the background of Mary of Nazareth by describing her as having Jewish/Semitic features, “Mediterranean dark hair and dark eyes. Given her everyday life, she also would have had a muscular body shaped by the routines of hard daily labor” (206). If the medieval Europeans, who first popularized the beautiful, placid, slim, white, blue-eyed and blond-haired image, had first looked at their own servants and village women for their image of Mary; perhaps today’s Asians could look at their maids, washing women, and women in the poor villages for a more accurate image of Mary. Such poor, brown, hardworking, sturdy bodies are far closer to the reality of the physical features of Mary of Nazareth than any plaster statues in our churches and on our altars. That such an accurate image would cause discomfort or even shock is itself the scandal that the church has ignored. The images we choose to worship and reverence is symbolic of a far deeper and more important truth—do our symbols reflect or challenge, support or critique, the unjust societal structures in which we live?

Re-Constructing Mary

Johnson begins her narration of the person of Mary by warning that scripture was written as a testimony of faith with a particular message directed according to the circumstances of the intended audience. Given these summary warnings, Johnson must still use the gospels as her major source for a re-construction of the person of Mary of Nazareth. Her technique is to blend an historical-critical method (in keeping with her method of being firmly grounded in history, and utilizing the historical review of the previous chapters) with the best of critical feminist methods of scriptural research. She offers a good overview of feminist scriptural methodology here, drawing heavily on Schüssler-Fiorenza, and gives a concise example from Luke’s Martha-Mary story (Lk 10:38-42), quoting from Mary Rose D’Angelo and Jane Schaberg. Johnson collects 13 stories of Mary from the gospels and Acts and suggests that careful examination of each story will reveal a piece of information that may be pieced together like a mosaic to give a glimpse of the life and character of Mary of Nazareth.

These 13 stories and their interpretations are the section of the book everyone interested in Mary will want to read.  The historical sections may never be read (except by students and teachers) but these 13 stories could well be republished as a short book that should be distributed widely, and certainly should be given to every preaching priest. They represent a synthesis of scriptural scholarship, historical-critical detachment, liberating feminist hermeneutics, and a respectful revisionist spirituality. Vibrant images of both Mary and Jesus emerge here, together with a morality that prophetically challenges the reader to engage the radical values and way of seeing of Jesus, and to radically act for the poor, for equality, for justice, and for peace. This, in many respects, is Johnson’s alternative to the piety of statues and hymns to Mary.


Mark’s thumbnail sketch of Mary is most often omitted from Catholic tradition since it is not complimentary to Mary and challenges the tradition of Mary’s support for her son and her perpetual virginity.  Mark mentions Mary’s presence once only in his short gospel (Mk 3:20-21; 31-35), and that itself is a telling point. Generally Mark’s portrayal of women is positive. They are given strong characters, have leadership roles, challenge Jesus and the disciples, and even persuade and teach Jesus.  Mark’s women, in feminist opinion, represent a faint echo of the early Christian community where women had strong, leadership positions of importance. If Mary had belonged to this group of women, it is most likely that Mark would have included her among the followers of Jesus. Instead, Mark’s text has Mary appear with the “brothers” of Jesus. They have come to take Jesus home. They oppose his ministry and seek to put an end to his words and deeds. Mary heads the group and probably rallied the support of the family to accompany her in confronting Jesus.  Mary is portrayed, not as a disciple and follower of Jesus, but instead worrying because he has no time to eat, and then in opposition to him. Mark places Mark and his family with the scribes from Jerusalem who also oppose Jesus. 

There is no softening or explaining away Mark’s intent here.  He gives no apology (not knowing how Mary would be symbolized in the future). Mary is in opposition to the ministry of Jesus.  She belongs to the group of hostile opposition and she is rejected in favor of those “who do the will of God.” Jesus here rejects his blood ties and announces a new kinship of faithful disciples.  Johnson concludes her summary of Markan scholars, “The mother of Jesus here is a foil for authentic discipleship” (218).  Her relationship, therefore, with her wayward son had to have been strained, damaged. They disagreed. Mary showed strength of character in organizing and publicly opposing her son.  She sought to shame him in public and thus remind him of his responsibilities as eldest son in the family—how familiar to Asian readers! Jesus places obedience to God’s will above family duties and blood ties. In his inclusive community of equals, the primary obligation is to do the will of God.

This is Mark’s only picture of Mary. She is not present at the foot of the cross. There is no nativity scene. Mark’s picture is stark.  Mary disagreed with Jesus and did not follow him. She, however, did not meekly tremble at home or worry and complain behind his back.  She set out boldly and determinedly confronted him. She acted on her convictions. She may have misunderstood his message and ministry, like the fumbling disciples throughout Mark’s gospels, slow to believe and understand. Or, as Johnson suggests, perhaps Mary and his family “understood him only too well and sought to forestall what they saw as inevitably disastrous consequences” (220). What mother would not at least try to dissuade her child from certain shame and death? Mary was a Galilean and knew from experience how Rome treated troublemakers.  Similarly, the death of John the Baptist would have acted as a warning.  Johnson applauds Mary’s determination: “No submissive handmaid, her memory moves in solidarity with women everywhere who act critically according to their best lights to seek the well-being of those they love” (221). Yet no sympathy nor admiration can cover the point: she misunderstood and opposed her son. Johnson is honest enough to admit:  “Traditional mariology that glorified Mary never knew what to do with this text and as a consequence largely ignored it. In my judgment, it is an irreplaceable antidote to distortions of the tradition as well as a contribution to the memory of Mary in its own right” (219).


Matthew’s treatment of Mary, like Luke’s, shows a move away from Mark’s open picture of opposition between mother and son. Matthew’s account of Mark’s scene omits the opinion of Jesus’ family that he was out of his mind; that anyone would so live and preach a radical message of love must be crazy since it implied arrest, ridicule, and death. Matthew’s account (Mt 12:46-50) still retains Jesus’ reply and rejection of blood ties in preference to the inclusive kinship of equals committed to God’s will.

Matthew has a detailed nativity story to open his gospel, (Mt 1:1-2:23). This literary device is a familiar type: Jesus is given a mysterious and dramatic birth, thus highlighting the birth of a special person. It is not a factual account, it is theological. The Matthean redactor never meant the nativity story to be taken literally. It was meant as a teaching aid. 

The Matthean geneology seems typical of Jewish literature, but departs significantly from the norm. Matthew includes four women all of whom were outside the normal male-female patriarchal relationships. There are suggestions of sexual scandal associated with each. Yet, the stories of these four women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bethsheba—also show that God can act through the most terrible circumstances and bring redemption.  Even if the women were outsiders, God is with them and does heroic actions. Johnson paraphrases Donald Senior,  “Insignificant, illegitimate, defenseless, tabooed people are beloved of God and may become agents of divine action in history”  (226). Mary, who conceived Jesus in such an extraordinary and dubious manner, is placed with these women.  Jesus was seen by many as illegitimate. Mary could have been stoned for adultery, or at least, divorced and shamed. Instead, God acted through her circumstances and saves.

Matthew’s geneology stresses that Mary gave birth to Jesus; he was born of a woman, not begotten by a man. Again, the Matthean writer knew nothing of future mariology: Mary’s virginity before, during, or after meant nothing to him. If there was a question surrounding the paternity of Jesus, and scripture scholars agree there was no need to invent such a scandal, then Matthew uses it for his own theological purposes to show Jesus was from God. This is what was important to Matthew, not Mary’s virginity. It is possible that Mary was raped and so conceived Jesus. Such a possibility does not discredit either Mary or Jesus.  Matthew’s geneology tells us that God can act through such situations to bring salvation. It is God who makes people holy, not their virginity. The doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception does not mean she was a virgin. It means she was born graced by God. If she had been raped, she is not made sinful; God’s grace remains with her. The child is truly a child of God.   

The visitation of the magi represents the recognition of Jesus by the Wisdom tradition and would be familiar to Matthew’s Jewish audience. Notice, the magi honor and present gifts to Mary as well as to Joseph, the patriarchal head of the family.  Matthew’s setting is in a “house,” not a cave or stable— reminiscent of the early church communities who met for the breaking of the bread in the houses of the faithful. Bethlehem, house of bread, is Matthew’s symbol of the ideal church community. Both Mary and Joseph, woman and man, are shown in equal relationship. In this church of equals, the rich share with the poor. This is a fragment in Matthew’s nativity story.  Throughout Matthew’s nativity, Joseph is the dominant character who speaks, acts, decides, believes.  Mary has a backseat.  In this glimpse, however, she sits beside Joseph. Matthew’s gospel, much more androcentric than Mark’s, occasionally forgets itself and allows a glimpse of an alternative reality to break through.

The flight to Egypt provides a dramatic opportunity for women throughout the world to vividly imagine Mary very differently from the traditional images of plaster statues.  Recall the Mary who experienced the violence in the uprisings of the Galileans against the Romans in her youth. Now, picture this same woman, a few years older, fleeing violence once again.  Johnson is right to allow her emotions to give strength to her writing in this section. It is an example of the importance of her argument: symbols are political. They can         either support the status quo by giving us a safe picture of Mary; or, they can challenge unjust situations and act as an empowerment in the work for change. This last century has had an unprecedented number of refugees fleeing their homelands, crossing dangerous territories, enduring famine, extreme temperatures, disease, and with the constant fear of hostility and no hope for a better future.  Mary was a refugee.

Having survived the escape from Herod and his butchery of thousands of women and male children (whatever the truth of this story, Herod had a reputation for savage brutality), Mary and Joseph became migrant workers. They are Overseas Contract Workers (OCWs)—foreigners working in a foreign land. Matthew’s story stresses Egypt for theological purposes—reminding Jewish readers of the exodus from Egypt and thus linking Jesus with Moses. The story has contemporary meaning for many families today who are separated from family and home for financial reasons. How many Filipino women working overseas, for example, who pray the rosary daily seeking comfort and encouragement, are taught by priests and catechists to identify with Mary the migrant worker? Tissa Balasuriya is quoted: “It is a pity that popular devotions to Mary do not recall her in this experience as a poor, courageous woman” (244). Yet a lot of money and energy is being spent on popularizing a new decade of the rosary containing “safe” theological expressions.


Luke’s portrayal of Mary is the kindest and therefore the most familiar. Luke’s treatment of the confrontation scene between Mary, Jesus and the brothers (Lk 8:19-21) is completely different from Mark’s original. In Luke, written later, there is no confrontation, and hence no opposition. Luke, who includes so many more women in his gospel than Mark, has been touted as a women’s gospel; yet, Luke is subtly more oppressive than Mark.  The women in Mark’s gospel, often unnamed and certainly fewer, show more gutsy character than Luke’s submissive women who remain within the patriarchal boundaries set for them. However, in reading between the lines, there is much in Luke-Acts to encourage women.

Luke’s nativity and early childhood scenes (Lk 1:26-2:52), in contrast to Matthew’s, have Mary centerstage. The Annunciation scene is of a type from the Hebrew scriptures. The story form is a call of a prophet. Mary, like the prophets, is called by God—she is presented as a firm believer of Jesus and a model disciple. (Thus, the symbol of Mary as model disciple is taken largely from Luke. This is hardly surprising, but it is as well to remember that it remains a symbol from one gospel source only—not representative of the full information we have and unlikely to be accurate.) The coming of the Holy Spirit on Mary is a theophany experience. The Lukan author intended no sexual connotations whatsoever. The spirit empowered Mary in the prophetic tradition.  A close reading of the text makes it clear that Luke offers no explanation for the origins of the child Jesus. The angel merely tells Mary she will conceive. (Matthew’s gospel, which says Mary was with child from the Holy Spirit, does not intend the Holy Spirit as the father of the child either. Matthew and Luke’s message is simply that the child is holy in his conception and is understood to be from God.)

Mary’s consent to God’s plan is seen by feminist scholars as a freely given consent by an independent woman sure of her dignity in her relationship with God. The description of the role of the Holy Spirit here is reminiscent of the priestly account of creation in the first chapter of Genesis. Luke’s theological purpose is to state that a new act of creation has taken place and Mary’s body is the medium of God’s new creation. God and Mary, therefore, are co-creators. Johnson recalls the early work of Valerie Saiving in stressing the importance to women of making free choices. “Mary’s response carries with it a fundamental definition of her personhood” (257). It is her agreement, her decision. She consults no husband, no father, no priest. It is a choice made between Mary and God. In this sense, Mary is a free woman, full of self-dignity and fulfilled. She is a virgin as understood in that early Mediterranean world of Luke’s primary audience; not necessarily a sexual understanding, but connotating autonomy.

This Yes of Mary is matched by an equally important No.  Mary visits Elizabeth. Two pregnant, prophetic women rejoice together in an unparalleled biblical scene of women empowerment. Johnson chuckles that the only man on the scene, Zechariah, has been struck dumb. Mary’s hymn, the Magnificat is a revolutionary “no to oppression” (258). Mary and God say a firm No to any complacent tolerance of injustice.  God has acted and will act to bring a new reign of justice, equality, and peace. The Magnificat hymn, prayed so often in church tradition, contains prophetic words of denouncement and hope that have been ignored.  Instead, traditional mariology has used the Magnificat to focus on Mary’s purity and holiness. “By stealing this page of scripture,” Johnson writes, “such theology managed to suppress the portrait of Mary as a prophet and to forestall the upheaval that would ensue from oppressed peoples, including women taking a similar stance” (258).

Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus places him among the poor of Galilee. There is no wealth in Luke’s scene. No rich magi visit. Luke’s Jesus belongs to the poor, the outcast, and the sinners—God’s anawim. “Real blood was shed at this delivery, by a poor woman of peasant society far from home, laboring in childbirth for the first time” (277). Mary’s birth echoes the backstreet births in cities and slums across the world. It is the pattern of birth of poor, rural women in fields, ditches, in the sands, in the woods, on the mountainsides. It is the raw experience of being alone, terrified, wracked by the inexplicable contractions of an independent life pushing its way into the world. It is the exhaustion that cannot comprehend that everything has changed so completely—motherhood. Johnson concludes: “And it was holy” (277). Not shameful.  Not disgusting.  Not impure. Mary’s body is as all women’s bodies—holy. Our symbols need to capture this truth.

The two visits to the Temple are opportunities to rediscover the Jewish identity of Mary of Nazareth. The poor Galilean couple made the journey to the great Temple in Jerusalem in fulfillment of the Law. This was the faithful act of a devout Jewish couple. In the Torah, women must be purified after shedding blood: ritual bathing follows menstruation. Having given birth, women are purified in an offering of a bird or a lamb by the Temple priests.  Again, at the age of twelve, Jesus the first-born son, is presented in a Temple ritual. It might be that Mary and Joseph combined these two purposes into one single journey where they made all the necessary offerings and fulfilled their obligations for a number of years. In any case, they joined in the pilgrimage and rituals of their Jewish heritage.

Simeon’s prophesy of a sword piercing the heart of Mary has given rise to the long-standing symbol of Mary of Sorrows. As far back as the 1970s, Raymond Brown and others agreed this interpretation of the sword is inaccurate. In Luke’s gospel (and all three of the synoptic gospels), there is no mention of Mary at the foot of the cross.  She is not included by name among the women who stood at a distance from the cross. Nor in scripture anywhere is there mention of a pieta scene—Mary holding the dead body of her son. Instead, it is most likely that Simeon’s sword is a reference to Ezekiel’s sword of judgment (Ez 14:17) and the correct interpretation is that Simeon is warning Mary that she will need to be discerning in her faith. Luke has Mary pondering, treasuring memories in her heart, considering the meaning of words and events. Luke’s model disciple is a discerning person.  Faith is not a passive, once-and-for-all unchanging gift. Rather, it is an active journey of growth and a struggle through many dark nights. In this sense, Luke’s Mary need not contradict Mark’s Mary who did not follow Jesus. Her discernment may well have led her to understand her son after he had been crucified.  Imagine the new image of Mary finally understanding the words and deeds of her son and her anguish that he never lived to see her conversion.

The losing and finding of Jesus in the Temple when he was twelve has even the ever-positive Luke say, “They did not understand.” However, in Luke’s theology, no one could fully understand Jesus, not even Mary, until the resurrection event and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus in the Temple discussing Torah with the learned old Jewish men is a story-type signaling future greatness. Luke borrows this form from Greek biographies. Luke again chooses to let his character of Mary speak. Joseph says nothing. Who knows, perhaps Luke did know Mary to be an outspoken, strong-minded woman.


Johnson warns against any too-easily accepted interpretation of Johannine material. John’s gospel is greatly debated. This itself will come as a surprise to many who believe that scripture has one single interpretation. The wedding feast at Cana (Jn 2:1-11) is also a story type inserted to make a beginning to the ministry of Jesus. While containing many accurate details of Galilean Jewish tradition, it introduces the Wisdom theme of the heavenly banquet to show the new reign of God has begun. It is a sign, a signal. John is interested in telling his readers that Jesus is the Christ, the messiah who was to come.

Mary is the “woman”; a symbol of discipleship. John places her at the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry, not throughout.  But she is “woman,” not important as a blood mother. At the foot of the cross she is again addressed as “woman,” even if she is also called mother. The kinship is through faith. These scenes are the Johannine attempt to depict the kinship of the community of equals which is based on faith, not blood: “Just as in the Synoptic scene with the mother and the brothers, Jesus is reinterpreting family in terms of discipleship” (295).

This symbolic woman disciple is not a quiet, meekly obedient follower of Jesus. She is dynamic, taking initiative, giving orders, and even contradicting Jesus. If the story arose, like Luke’s Temple story, and circulated to satisfy people’s curiosity about the early life of Jesus, perhaps the original storyteller had heard something about Mary’s character. The headstrong, determined woman who opposed Jesus in Mark’s story, who complained with relief and annoyance in Luke’s finding and losing in the Temple story, shows her face here again in John’s story. Not content with Jesus’ answer, she tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them. Johnson is capable of some beautiful lyrical prose: “Far from silent, she speaks; far from passive, she acts; far from receptive to the orders of the male, she goes counter to his wishes, finally bringing him along with her; far from yielding to a grievous situation, she takes charge of it, organizing matters to bring about the benefit to those in need” (289-90). If the Johannine redactor intended this story to illustrate the way of discipleship, then the characteristics are clear: a proactive, prophetic woman, who courageously confronts, organizes, and makes decisions. Although Johnson does not mention it, there does seem to be a common picture emerging from the shadows of the gospels into her mosaic.

The challenging phrase of Mary to Jesus, “They have no wine,” is used to good effect by Johnson who transliterates, “They do not have” (290). This is a straightforward situational analysis. Mary names the need of the people. Since wine is a symbol of Wisdom’s heavenly banquet, what Mary is saying is: these people need the reign of God to come here and now. She sees their desperate, urgent need and she names it. It is a prophetic appeal. She cries aloud to God on behalf of the people.  Like every prophet, she hopes and trusts in God’s merciful response. God must act; God will act. Sure of this, she speaks to the servants: do whatever he tells you—act according to your conscience. As she considers the situation, names the need, and discerned God’s will; now she challenges others to do the same. She represents the women across history who have confronted armed soldiers and pleaded with them: open your eyes and see, do what your conscience tells you. She represents the starving mothers of Africa who walk miles in the dehydrating sun’s heat to carry their children to the feet of white aid workers and the world’s television cameras to die in a silent, public challenge. “They have no wine,” Mary said to Jesus and the reign of God began—despite Jesus’ protests. What hymn can we write to honor this prophetic woman?

John’s scene of Mary and John at the foot of the cross has passed into Christian sentimental folklore spawning images and theologies. The scripture text mentions neither by name. It is the mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple. Both are symbolic. The story itself is not historically accurate, since none of the synoptics have Mary with the women who stand at a distance from the crucifixion. The purpose of the story here is to inaugurate the new community of faithful. There are no blood ties between Mary and the beloved disciple, yet they are to live community as family. The dramatic “Behold” is a verbal indication that this is a revelation: the new community is a sign of God’s presence; a sign of the immanence of the reign of God. The two are given to each other—an equal give-and-take. The scene resembles God’s creation and intention for the original man and woman in Eden.


The faith journey of Mary of Nazareth was never written in the gospel accounts. It is a sad loss to Christianity. If it is true that she did not agree with Jesus’s choice to speak and minister (for whatever reasons), then the difficult faith struggle and the anguished conversion would have made inspiring reading: “The life of the historical woman Miriam of Nazareth was indeed a journey of faith, with significance for people struggling to negotiate the challenges of faith today” (303). It seems certain to biblical scholars that Mary was indeed present with some of the family of Jesus in Jerusalem. In the upper room, they joined the waiting community and prayed with them. Mary’s story is lost. It is a great loss. Luke’s account tells of about 120 people who were part of that waiting community when the Holy Spirit did come into them (Acts 1:14-15; 2:1-21). One hundred and twenty people were equally filled and appointed by the Holy Spirit. “Mary cannot be separated from the rest of this community. They are all essential to one another. This text does not portray Mary at the center of the community, as mother of the group, or as the one and only ideal member … it positions her amid the community as one more unique member among other unique members….” (303). This group included Mary and her family; the women who faithfully companioned Jesus; and the group of 11 closer disciples—a large group, too large to be contained or hidden in a single upper room in Jerusalem.

Present with Mary were “his brothers.” In the synoptic confrontation stories these brothers were also with Mary. Mark’s version included “brothers and sisters” (v.32), but Luke and Matthew only mention brothers. John also mentions disbelieving brothers (Jn 7:3-5). Catholic tradition has insisted that Mary did not have intercourse and did not give birth to any other children (perpetual virginity). This is a faith tradition developed after the writing of the scriptures. The gospel writers had no qualms about Jesus having brothers and sisters; they were simply uninterested in them. Jewish families were usually larger than one child—perhaps six to eight were normative. Children often died in childbirth or in their early years, especially children of poor families. There is no theological reason preventing Catholics from accepting a larger family for Jesus. Indeed, it would have been normative and healthy for his growth. However, even if these brothers and elusive, forgotten sisters, are considered cousins or adopted foster children, Johnson points out that tradition has conveniently ignored the evidence that Mary spent years of her life caring for a large, extended family. Both Luke and Matthew’s nativity and early childhood scenes give a picture of a married couple, a husband and wife. This is an everyday woman who learned to grow into love in an arranged marriage; who coped with the in-laws; who exhausted herself with feeding and caring for her clan. Her household was not a contemplative, idyllic retreat; cool and inviting. It was a large, noisy family. This was the Mary the Holy Spirit came upon at Pentecost.


This scriptural reading gives us a very human Mary: a woman who was on a journey of faith, just like us. Yet, a woman with a very specific socio-cultural, religious, and historical context, all of which make her very different from us. Johnson’s mosaic of Mary places her very firmly as a companion, not as an exalted patroness. She is a saint within the communion of saints; as we are. As Mary is holy, so too we are called to be holy. Johnson’s methodology of memory and narrative concludes in a call to praxis. As a woman, Mary challenges us to dismantle patriarchy.  Mary, who was a rural nobody, overturns structures of power, since God highly favored her (Lk 1:46-55). She experienced the fear of violence, yet God chose to be with her. She was poor, but rich in God’s favor. Homeless and a refugee, yet blessed by God’s promise to feed the hungry and lift up the lowly. She was faithful to God. Her response to the Spirit showed extraordinary courage. Her Magnificat empowers and makes her “a companion in hope” (322). Johnson’s Mary of Nazareth is an attractive woman who will convince many to reconsider Mary in a non-patriarchal way: “She is truly, subversively, our sister” (322).


  1. All numbers in parenthesis are from Johnson 2003.
  2. See pages 315-17 for Johnson’s critique of patronage. 


Brown, Raymond E., Karl P. Donfried, Joseph A Fitzmeyer, John Reumann (eds.)
1978 Mary in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press).

Johnson, Elizabeth A.
2003 Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (New York/London: Continuum).
1998 Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints (New York: Continuum).
1989 “Mary and the Image of God” in Mary, Woman of Nazareth: Biblical and Theological Perspectives, edited by Doris Donnelly, (New York, Mahweh: Paulist Press).
1985 “The Marian Tradition and the Reality of Women” in Horizons 12.
1984 “The Incomprehensibility of God and the Image of God Male and Female” inTheological Studies 45.

Leonard, Richard
1995 Beloved Daughters: 100 Years of Papal Teaching on Women (Melbourne: David Lovell Publications).