What Jesus Learned from His Mother

What Jesus Learned from His Mother January 24, 2019

I’m delighted to report that a publisher has accepted my proposal for a book with the working title, What Jesus Learned From Women. And so I’m returning to blogging about the topic, with a view to making quick progress on the manuscript, garnering feedback, and hopefully generating interest. Not all posts related to the topic will do all of the above. But I will definitely do all of them, and will include at least some glimpses not just of the broad topic but the specific things I’m hoping to include in the book – without, of course, giving it all away so that you have no incentive to actually buy the book!

In some ways, Mary ought to be the obvious place to start in an exploration of what, when, and how Jesus learned from women. And sometimes there have been wonderful imaginative portrayals of this – such as the movie Mary, Mother of Jesus in which made Mary the author of the parables, stories she told Jesus as a child which he then reused to good effect later in his life. In it the comment is made to her by Joseph when he is dying, “Everything he is, you made him.” See my blog post about the film for more details.

Mary is a natural place to begin because a mother’s influence on a child precedes that of any other human being. And unless one wants to deny the humanity of Jesus (something that many in fact do in practice if not in theory), that Jesus learned from his mother can be safely assumed without any need for controversy. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be controversy. But when there is controversy even though there shouldn’t be, that highlights an area that deserves attention in many theological systems.

And so for these reasons, Mary is perhaps not only a natural but also a necessary place to begin in a book on this particular topic. For those who have difficulty accepting that Jesus learned, the role of a first-century Mediterranean Jewish mother brings the central issue into sharp focus. Apocryphal accounts abound in which Jesus begins speaking immediately after birth, or in which he goes to school only to begin instructing his instructors. However, to embrace those accounts as history – in essence if not in their specific details – is to utterly deny the humanity of Jesus. Before we wrestle with the question of what Jesus may have learned from men and/or women when he was older, therefore, we really do need to begin with the woman who may safely be presumed to have heard Jesus speak his first word, and who was chiefly responsible for helping him to get there.

This brings up one of the major methodological questions about silences in historical sources, one that I’ve discussed before. If we do not have information, should we fill in the silence with what was typical, presuming that something unmentioned was deemed unnecessary to mention because it was nothing out of the ordinary? I discussed this previously in connection with the question of whether Jesus was married, but don’t worry, the book that I am working on will not have a chapter with the title, “What Jesus Learned From His Late Wife” (although you can tell I thought about it). It also highlights the question of whether we can learn about a figure’s teaching by looking closely at those who learned from them. Can close attention to Jesus and his siblings tell us about Mary as mother and educator of her children? (And similarly, can Jesus provide insight into the teaching of John the Baptist, a question I am wrestling with in another book project.)

There was quite a bit of blogging about Mary at Christmas time. But the question of whether we can determine anything about the historical Mary, and what she taught Jesus, should not be relegated to the seasons of Advent or Christmas.

A book that depicts Mary as not a virgin was banned by Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Erin Wathen and D. L. Mayfield talked about the revolutionary character of the Magnificat.

Scot McKnight, John Bergsma, Bob Cornwall, and Richard Beck also had interesting things to say.

The Zondervan blog had a post about women in the Gospel of Luke, including but not limited to Mary.

See also:





Mary with No Assumptions

A new Christmas pageant shows off the fierce side of Mary

The Jesus Dynasty: Seven Main Ideas

Jesus Learned

Spotlighting Student Work #11: Mary–Tradition and Controversy

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  • Congoheart

    I have often thought that Mary probably knew how to read the scriptures, although women were not supposed to know this at the time. I think she must have been very smart and perhaps within a community of those liberal enough to have allowed her access to it. Perhaps her father and mother were quietly enabling her to learn. Perhaps she had a photographic or audio graphic memory. This would explain the comment, “And the Jews marvelled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?”(John 7:15) His mother taught him because she herself knew.

  • Nica

    In Sholem Asch’s 1949 historical novel Mary, the scene I most recall is the Wedding at Cana. When Miriam alerts Jesus to the lack of wine, her son replies (to the effect), “My time has not yet come … Has it? rendering Mary the catalyst for the onset of his mission.

    • Thanks for drawing this to my attention!

      • Nica

        You are very welcome. I look forward to your coming book 🙂

  • Pat Ferguson

    In first century Israel, a woman’s place was in the home.

    In her marital home, young Mary would likely have done all the things first century Jewish house-wifery entailed at any age. Things like cooking, cleaning, laundry, child-bearing, and childcare, as well as helping with gardening, marketing, fetching water, or other outdoor chores.

    So when, and where, might Mary have acquired information and assumed wisdom not related to home-keeping in her time and place? Only from five (5) likely sources:

    • 1) overhearing her father whenever he instructed her siblings, if any, on the customs, parables, and religious traditions associated with the life of first century Jewish citizens he had learned about those things from his father or rabbi;
    • 2) her husband, Joseph (assuming, of course, he and Mary were later married according to Jewish custom), as he learned about such things from his father or rabbi;
    • 3) from her local rabbi while dutifully sitting in the women’s section at synagogue;
    • 4) during home visitations by or to Joseph’s brethren from the local synagogue, or
    • 5) during visitations by or to Mary’s spiritual sisters from the local synagogue.

    Mary’s world was small. Her circle of acquaintances or friends, if any, outside her marital home was also small. Surely she shared what she had learned or overheard from other people with young Jesus, but it’s unlikely she had the spiritual insight/wisdom you seem to assume Mary must have had.

  • Nelson

    Yes, Mary must’ve taught at least the basics of Torah to Jesus; especially, if Joseph wasn’t around. That seems to be likely if we consider that 2nd Timothy 1:5 could reflect 1st Century Jewish practice. Even if women weren’t generally taught by rabbis, that doesn’t mean they were never taught. The fact that Jesus is depicted as teaching women shows that it was a probability, even if the practice wasn’t widespread.

  • Rob Abney

    Have you studied the early Christian writings of the Church Fathers to confirm your assumption that Mary had other children? It will make a big difference for your pondering about what their daily life must have been like.
    You are right to be concerned about an over-emphasis of His humanity but you should equally be concerned about the proper emphasis on His divinity, and Mary Full of Grace is an important part of understanding that nature.

    • Yes, I am taking fully seriously both the New Testament evidence, and the earliest Christian sources from thereafter. I won’t be making the kinds of theological assumptions that you seem to be hoping for, but I do think that some post-NT sources have things that can inform a historical as well as a literary approach to this topic.

      • Rob Abney

        Thanks. What post-NT sources do you refer to when you conclude that Mary had other children?

        • The Protoevangelium of James, Origen, and Epiphanius suggest that the brothers of Jesus were sons of Joseph through a prior marriage. If that is correct, then the brothers of Jesus were his half brothers, and Mary their stepmother. I have a certain sympathy for that view myself, but if one doesn’t adopt that conclusion then the natural alternative is that they eere brothers without qualification.

          • Rob Abney

            It seems as if Origen and Epiphanius both used the Protoevangelium of James to form their opinion. The Protoevangelium was condemned by more than one early council. Do you think that diminishes it as a reliable source?
            But the other alternative is that the brothers were cousins of Jesus, do you reject that view?
            How different will your book be if Jesus is an only child.
            Thanks for discussing this.

          • The attempt to transform Jesus’ siblings into cousins seems to reflect the desire to make Mary a perpetual virgin, and really doesn’t have anything going for it, historically speaking. To give but one example, it is mot the most natural reading of the Gospels to have the people of Nazareth comment on the presence of Jesus parent(s) and siblings but really mean cousins. Why would cousins be mentioned in such a context immediately after parents, using a word the primary sense of which was sibling?

            Whether a work was condemned by later councils is irrelevant from the perspective of historical inquiry. But it isn’t as though I am simply going to embrace as historical all the contents of the Protoevangelium of James! If a historian cannot do that even with our earliest sources, how much less with significantly later ones. But it seems to me quiite plausible that, again as in the canonical Gospels, people who crafted stories about Jesus often knew some details of people, places, and names, and drew on those. There are some details that strike me as quite plausible. You will get an example when I blog about what Jesus might have learned from his grandmother.

          • Rob Abney

            I’m Catholic, so I do believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity, but I ascribe to “faith seeking understanding”, that’s why I’m glad to discuss it with you.
            It didn’t seem as though Mary’s perpetual virginity was a concern if you were concluding that the siblings were half-brothers anyway.
            How do you decide which portions of the Protoevangelium are reliable or plausible?

          • Great questions! The tradition of Joseph having been previously married seems to be traceable back into a time before Christians were discussing Mary’s perpetual virginity. It also envisages a very common scenario in any era but particularly in the ancient world, and seems to circumstantially fit a few detailsin the Gospels – the reference to Jesus as “son of Mary” and the entrusting of Mary to the beloved disciple, which would be odd and perhaps even insulting if Mary had other children whose responsibility it should have been.

            The Protoevangelium of James includes what ee might call throwaway details that seem entirely plausible and could reflect actual knowledge even if the author utilized them in crafting a work that is historical fiction. One example is the detail that Mary’s parents lived in Sepphoris. That city isn’t mentioned in the New Testament, but jt was the former capital of Galilee and walking distance (in ancient terms) from Nazareth. An ancient author without actual information about Jesus’ family, located elsewhere in the world, could not simply look at an atlas to find a plausible location not far from Nazareth, and indeed, might have no reason to introduce another setting at all. Some years ago when I did research about the Acts of Thomas, I found that it utilizes correct names and so genuinely reflects what we should expect in historical fiction, ancient or modern, namely the inclusion of accurate details as backdrop to the fictional story the author crafts.

            I am really glad to have the chance to talk about this here, since I am wondering how much of this sort of discussion needs to be in the book. I want it to be clear when I am engaging in historical speculation, and why I think a particular scenario is plausible, without going into so much detail as to bore readers who don’t worry about some of the things that academics are supposed to when writing for other academics!

  • John MacDonald

    This is interesting: I just found out Dr. Tabor is finishing up his new book The Lost Mary: How the Jewish Mother of Jesus Became the Virgin Mother of God which will be published in 2020.

    • If it is out in time, I’ll interact with it in my own book!