Mary, Catholicism, and the Bible
One unique feature of Catholicism is the role and status assigned to Mary. The official pronouncements of the Catholic Church are forthright and unreserved in declaring her to be the “mother of God,” and in sanctioning the offering of worship to her and assigning to her an intercessory role (see Miller, 2004). Catholics insist that Mary is deserving of respect that surpasses other fleshly mothers, in the same way that a person has greater respect for his or her own fleshly mother. But the New Testament does not make this analogy. While a person’s own fleshly mother certainly deserves more respect than that given to other mothers, Mary is not the fleshly mother of humanity (cf. Genesis 3:20). She is not deserving of any more respect than any other mother. A child views his own mother as the mother—because she bore him. But Mary did not give birth to anyone living today. She is no more the mother than any other mother.
The Catholic Church confuses Mary’s physical motherhood (which is taught in Scripture—earning for her the surpassing respect of her physical children, including Jesus’ respect for her) with an alleged spiritual motherhood—about which the Bible says nothing. Indeed, to embrace the Catholic view of Mary would require one to repudiate Jesus’ own view of His fleshly mother. This view is accentuated in two separate incidents that occurred while Jesus was on Earth.
On one occasion when Jesus was imparting spiritual teaching to a crowd, Mary arrived with her other children and sought to speak to Him:
While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him. Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.” But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers? And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50, emp. added).
Observe that while Jesus was not being disrespectful to His physical mother, he was contradicting the very aspect of Mary’s status that is advocated by Catholic dogma. Jesus clarified that while His fleshly mother certainly was deserving of respect (cf. Luke 2:51; Ephesians 6:1-3), nevertheless, Mary was secondary to His higher, spiritual concerns. Those who were attending to the assimilation of the spiritual principles that Jesus was imparting were held up by Him as transcending the physical/blood ties associated with mere human relatives.
Mark’s account of this incident (3:31-35) is preceded by Jesus’ family (identified in vss. 31-32 as his mother and brothers) questioning His sanity (3:20-21). The Catholic translation (NAB) renders the verses: “He came home. Again (the) crowd gathered, making it impossible for them even to eat. When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’ ” The critical notes that accompany the text of the Catholic Bible make the following comment on these verses: “There were those even among the relatives of Jesus who disbelieved and regarded Jesus as out of his mind (21). Against this background, Jesus is informed of the arrival of his mother and brothers [and sisters] (32)” (1987, p. 1121, italics in orig., emp. added).
The other incident in the life of Jesus that illustrates His true assessment of His physical mother occurred as He responded to His critics. Some accused Him of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, while others tested Him by challenging Him to produce a sign from heaven. Knowing their thoughts, Jesus gave His usual masterful rebuttal. “And it happened, as He spoke these things, that a certain woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!’ ” (Luke 11:27). This unnamed woman in the crowd likely did not intend to accentuate the person of Mary, but simply was expressing her wish that she could have produced such a fine son herself, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of Luke 1:48.
Nevertheless, her statement expresses the viewpoint of the Catholic Church in its veneration of Mary. If this attitude and emphasis were proper, one would have expected Jesus to give a response that confirmed, bolstered, and sanctioned her declaration. One would have expected that Jesus would have said something to the effect that—
Yes, you are right. The one who bore Me and nursed Me is the “most holy Mother of God” who will be “honored with special reverence” by the Church throughout the centuries, “venerated under the title of ‘God-bearer,’ ” and the faithful will “pour forth persevering prayer to the Mother of God and Mother of men,” venerate “images of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints.”
Why would one expect Jesus to have made comments along these lines? Because the portions of this imaginary response that are in quotes are taken directly from the official pronouncements of the Catholic Church at Vatican II (Abbott, 1966, pp. 94-96).
Did Jesus give a response to the woman that in any way resembled these sentiments? Absolutely not! To the contrary, He declared: “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28). Instead of “more than that,” the NAB renders it “rather” (cf. ASV, NIV, RSV)—further underscoring the contrast He was making. The NASB makes the Greek even more vivid: “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.” As University of Cambridge Greek professor C.F.D. Moule noted, menoun in Luke 11:28 functions as “an introduction to a new statement correcting or modifying a foregoing statement” (1977, p. 163, emp. added). Nicoll was inclined to agree: “Correction probably was uppermost in Christ’s thoughts. Under the appearance of approval the woman was taught that she was mistaken in thinking that merely to be the mother of an illustrious son constituted felicity” (n.d., 1:550, emp. added). Dana and Mantey also agree: “In Lk. 11:28...the expression contains both contrast and emphasis, with the significance of in fact, rather” (1927, p. 261, italics in orig., emp. added). In essence, Jesus was contradicting the woman and pointing her to the correct focus and object of commendation: not the physical mother of Jesus, but those who obey God’s Word.
THE PRIMARY PASSAGE
The premiere passage of Scripture that is offered to sustain the view that Mary was assigned a special role in the practice of the Christian religion is the statement that Jesus made from the cross:
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home (John 19:25-27, emp. added).
The fact that Jesus was referring strictly to the physical care for his earthly mother after His death—and not to an alleged spiritual role that Mary was to fill in Christ’s religion—is evident from the context. Jesus spoke the directive to John—not to everyone else present on that occasion, let alone to everyone since. Jesus simply was turning the care of His fleshly mother over to John, since her husband was already deceased and her other children were likely still unbelievers (Mark 3:21; John 7:5). The very verse that refers to this oral utterance of Jesus regarding care of His fleshly mother contains proof of its intended meaning: “And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:27).
Consider the following three observations: First, Jesus did not entrust the care of His mother to Peter! But if Peter were the first pope, Jesus surely would have linked Mary to Peter in order to establish her official spiritual status for all time. Second, Jesus did not arrange to have Mary circulated to the homes of all of the disciples, but only to John’s home. Jesus knew that the “disciple whom Jesus loved” would see to it that she received adequate care in His absence. Third, John took her to “his own home,” i.e., he was attending to her physical needs! He did not take her to any “Holy Shrine of the Blessed Virgin,” or to any other location that would have confirmed a unique role. Indeed, absolutely nothing in this verse leads the objective reader to think that Jesus was assigning a significance or role to Mary that the Catholic Church has since assigned her—“the Mother of us all”!
Interestingly, if when Jesus said to John, “Behold your mother!,” He intended to call for the veneration of Mary, then the immediately preceding statement directed to Mary pertaining to John, “Woman, behold your son!” (John 19:26), would necessitate the veneration of John by both Mary and everyone since!
The fact of the matter is that the Bible makes no provision for worship, adoration, or veneration to be directed to Mary. The Bible forbids offering praise to any human being. All praise, worship, and adoration belongs to God alone (Matthew 4:10; Acts 10:25-26; 14:14-15; Revelation 19:10; 22:9). To extend veneration to other humans ought to be as horrifying to us as it was to Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:14-15). Indeed, when Herod accepted such veneration, he was struck dead by God and eaten with worms (Acts 12:23).
Abbott, Walter, ed. (1966), The Documents of Vatican II (New York, NY: America Press).
Dana, H.E. and Julius Mantey (1927), A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Toronto, Canada: Macmillan).
Miller, Dave (2004), “Mary—Mother of God?” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2234.
Moule, C.F.D. (1977 reprint), An Idiom-Book of New Testament Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, second edition).
Nicoll, W. Robertson (no date), The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
New American Bible (1986), (Nashville, TN: Catholic Bible Press).