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Mary and Jesus: Mother and Son

This is post 6 of 7 on how ancient records pair Mary, the mother of Jesus, with her son, the Son of God. Many early church communities seemed to imitate the model of shared male-female leadership. We look at records of Mary's life after the resurrection based on chapters 5 and 6 of Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership by Dr. Ally Kateusz.

In post 1 of 7, I introduce Mary as more than a Mother of Jesus.

In post 2 of 7, I review how ancient art preserves the memory of Mary as a liturgical leader.

In post 3 of 7, we look at how ancient manuscripts have edited out the markers of Mary's liturgical leadership.

In post 4 of 7, we looked at stories of four early women liturgical leaders and saw disputes between communities for and against gender equality in church leadership.

In post 5 of 7, we saw Mary as a high priest and bishop, and a Eucharist officiant.



Jesus is our sole Redeemer, and co-eternal with the Father and Spirit in the Holy Trinity. Mary is never shown as equal to Jesus or God. However, in some non-canonical books, Mary is shown as a model for Christians to lay down their lives for Jesus, as are the male apostles. Mary is acknowledged for sacrificing her body and life to submit to God's plan and consent to bring Jesus to humanity. John quotes Jesus saying that the greatest love is shown in laying down one's life for another (John 15:13). Paul also says he is pouring out his life as an offering to God (2 Timothy 4:6). Mary's sacrifice is comparable to that of Paul and the other apostles. These sacrifices are not comparable to that of Jesus, who became God in the flesh to redeem us (Romans 5:7-8). Some theologians have called her a co-Redemptrix, meaning she cooperated in God's plan, not that she in any way redeems us. The Catholic Church and all churches have rejected calling Mary a co-redemptrix, to be clear that we are redeemed only by Jesus.


Art Pairing Mary and Jesus

In my previous post, we saw art and mosaics where Mary raised her hands, led in prayer and blessed people, and Jesus was pictured in the heavens above her. Other art depicts them side by side on chalices, censers, medallions, book covers, relic boxes or other church decorations. Ancient communion chalices show Mary on one side of the cup and Jesus on the other side.

silver flasks
Mary and Jesus shown as a pair

A silver flask for holy oil from the sixth century (Fig. 5.3) shows Mary with a Eucharistic cloth hanging from her waistband, and Jesus is holding an open gospel book.

The Council of Ephesus in 431 AD approved of calling Mary 'Theotokos', which means 'the one whose offspring is God' or 'Mother of God'. They excommunicated Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople, for opposing it, instead calling Mary the mother of Jesus.

In the 16th century, some Reformers thought the term Mother of God gave her undue honour and lifted her equal to Christ, while she was like us - a human in need of God's grace. Fear of seeing Mary as an object of worship led to erasing the memory of Mary as a priest, focusing only on Mary as a submissive mother.

The traditional view is that the study of Mary was initiated after the Council of Ephesus, but art shows that Mary was important to believers prior to the Council of Ephesus. Kateusz points out that as early as the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD some bishops called Mary "Theotokos."

By the time of the Council of Ephesus, scribes were already redacting manuscripts that portrayed Mary as having liturgical authority. Kateusz explains why the large mosaics in the Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome did not elevate Mary, but reflected the doctrine of the time.

Mother Mary present as three magi bring gifts to Jesus

Mary gave birth to Jesus, one of the three persons of the Trinity. Orthodox Christianity states that while the three persons are distinct, the Father is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and Jesus is God. From very early times, Christians called Mary the one who gave birth to God, 'Theotokos'.

Long before the Council of Ephesus, in the 300s, art portrayed Mary elevated on a throne with baby Jesus on her lap as the magi come to worship Jesus. However, in art in the 400s and later, the child Jesus sits alone on a throne, with Mary pictured at the side.

Jesus as a shepherd; Mary with arms raised

A relic box and led vessels from the 300s shows Mary with arms raised and Jesus as a shepherd.

A sarcophagus (or coffin) also shows Jesus as a shepherd side by side with Mary as a priest with arms raised. The arms-raised woman paired beside a shepherd were very popular in Christian art in the third and fourth centuries. Jesus is pictured as a Good Shepherd, or Pastor in Latin. Scholars do not agree on the meaning of the arms-raised woman. It seems to be Mary as a priest, raising her arms, leading in prayer and benediction. Believers saw Mary as a person who might pray to God on their behalf, our support person, helper, and advocate. Those who are uncomfortable seeing Mary in this role see the arms-raised woman as a metaphor for the church or some other symbol.

The Life of the Virgin Manuscript

Historic writers refer to the Life of the Virgin and the Gospel of Bartholomew which show Mary as a high priest and paired with Jesus on liturgical utensils. Mary is portrayed praying at the altar, acting as a priest, when angels come to announce to her that she will give birth to God's son. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is shown teaching the male and female apostles, supervising their preaching, providing them with small books, and sending them out to evangelize, authorizing them to baptize others, and raising her hands to bless them.

This manuscript identifies that Mary was present at Jesus's baptism, perhaps even instructing her Son what to do (much as she told him what to do at Cana). The noncanonical Gospel of the Hebrews places Mary present at Jesus's baptism in the form of the Holy Spirit. Origen of Alexandria, a theologian in the second century, said that Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit being his mother. The 381 Nicene Creed defined the Holy Spirit as the same substance as the other persons of the Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit were all referred to as male. The early Syriac language changed the grammar of the word spirit from feminine to masculine.

The Life of the Virgin refers to women as disciples and apostles. In the report of Jesus healing Peter's mother-in-law, the Gospels in the bible do not specify who was present and sometimes refer only to men. The Life of the Virgin recorded only female disciples present when Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law. Mary Magdalene was an apostle equal in rank to Peter.

The Life of the Virgin states that Mary was inseparable from her son during his ministry and that she was the leader of the women who followed Jesus from Galilee. Those present at the Last Supper included the twelve male apostles as a subset of a much larger group of male and female disciples present at the meal. Mary was both a model of laying down your life for Jesus and she was a rationale for women to officiate Holy Communion.

Therapeutae Jews were accustomed to gender-parallel meal rituals, with a woman representing Miriam and a man representing Moses. It appears that some Jewish Christians continued to have gender-parallel meal rituals where Mary and Jesus co-officiated at a ritual meal. This may explain why some stone carvings portray a woman as 'head of the Synagogue', 'elder', and 'priest'. A third or fourth century called the Apostolic Church Order accepts that both men and women were at the last supper but argues against an apparently widely spread belief that Jesus gave women and men the same authority as ministers and officiants.

In summary, ancient documents showed Mary as an early mentor to Jesus, a close follower of Jesus during his ministry, and a faithful leader after his resurrection. Ancient artifacts, liturgical elements and carvings show that the early church held Mary as a model for women to be ministers, officiants of Holy Communion, leaders and speakers. In the fourth century, Mary was remembered as a priest and liturgical leader, and this aggravated debates about whether or not she was a model for other women in ministry. Protestant Reformers felt Mary was being held as somewhat divine, reduced her position in church worship and tradition, and instead focussed our memories on Mary as a submissive mother.

Post 7 of 7 discusses women and men at the Last Supper and summarizes how the past has been silenced.

Mary and Early Christian Women: Hidden Leadership, by Dr. Ally Kateusz.

Licensed under Creative Commons Open Access:


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