On the way to the Assumption a detour through the text

Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth √ñ
These are the opening verses of the gospel for the feast of the Assumption (Luke 1: 29-56) and

Elizabeth Julian rsm

Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth …

These are the opening verses of the gospel for the feast of the Assumption (Luke 1: 29-56) and many of you can recite the rest from memory. What do they tell us about Miriam, the first century Jewish peasant woman? One thing is for certain: they do not tell us what happened to Mary at the end of her life which ‘event’ we in Aotearoa New Zealand celebrate as our patronal feast. By taking a detour – the weather in both our dioceses this winter has made us experts here – through these verses, we gain a better understanding of the particular social, political, economic, and religious conditions under which the pregnant teenager lived before her Assumption. Archaeological excavations in the area since the 1980s have produced many views of the lives of ordinary Galileans such as Miriam of Nazareth.


Miriam (Hebrew for ‘Mary’) would have entered into an arranged marriage with Joseph the Torah-observing Jew, a worker in wood and stone of the artisan-peasant class. The minimum age for marriage for girls was 12, ensuring the maximum use of her childbearing years. It was also easier for the father to guarantee his daughter’s virginity as required by law and custom.

Marriage was a two-stage process. First came the betrothal. This was the formal exchange in front of witnesses of the couple’s consent to marry. It included the bride’s family’s payment of the bride price to the groom. More than engagements of today, this was a legally ratified marriage even though the young woman would have remained with her own family for about another year. The man now had legal rights over his wife and if he died during this period she became his widow. It was during this time that Miriam became pregnant.

In the second stage the wife physically transferred from her family home to become part of her husband’s extended family. He was now financially responsible for her. Now they would begin to have sexual relations.

…set out…

Miriam presumably set out from her home in Nazareth, a fairly insignificant village of 300 to 400 people in the hills of southern Galilee. Nazareth is only six kilometres from Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, but the archaeological material shows no evidence of private wealth or luxury items . No paved roads, public buildings,or public inscriptions have been found.

Miriam’s house was probably made of stone with a mortar of mud and smaller stones. Consisting of one or two rooms with a thatched roof, it would have been built with three or four other houses around an open courtyard.

Households normally comprised multigenerational groups of people linked by marriage and descent. In one household there might be a senior couple living with their adult sons and their spouses, their grandchildren and their unmarried daughters. The household may also have included a widowed sibling or an orphaned niece or nephew.

One or more of these extended households probably shared a compound with common walls, courtyard workspace, oven, water cistern and rooftop area. They would have lent one another tools, utensils and food materials. They probably shared a meal on the sabbath or holidays.

It was in the courtyard area of the compound that Miriam and the other women would have prepared the food. Domestic animals would have shared this space too. Sewage would have been thrown into the alleyways between the compounds, making it a very smelly environment. The village as a whole would have shared a threshing floor, olive press and wine press.

…at that time…

Miriam was alive in Galilee during the decades before and after the year 1. The Romans had conquered Palestine in 63 BCE and before that, during the latter part of the fourth century BCE, the Greeks under Alexander the Great had invaded the Middle East. Both groups, but especially the Greeks, had a strong cultural influence on Israel. When Herod the Great died in 4 BCE the Jews revolted. The Romans responded by looting and burning villages, slaughtering people or selling them into slavery. There would also have been a lot of raping. Miriam as a young child would have witnessed these horrific events and probably hid with other women and children as the tide of violence swept towards Nazareth.

Peasants like Miriam occupied the lower rung of the social and economic ladder. They were triply taxed: the traditional tithe (ten percent), the tribute to the Roman emperor and taxes to the local Jewish client-king. These taxes were taken as a percentage of the villagers’ crops, flocks or catches of fish. They subsisted on what was left.

Women were primarily involved in providing food. Joseph probably cultivated a plot of land for basic food requirements – grain (mostly wheat but also some barley), olives and grapes. There would also be a kitchen garden near the compound to grow legumes, vegetables and leeks. Orchard trees provided figs, nuts and dates. Most families kept a few animals as well – sheep, goats and sometimes a few cows to provide dairy products, occasional meat, wool and skins for clothing. Women worked in the distant fields during planting and harvest times (of which there were three each year) but because they were responsible for childcare they usually worked in the kitchen garden to be near the children. Once the food was picked some of it had to prepared for immediate use while some was preserved for later. Grain had to be soaked, milled and ground. The resulting flour was mixed with yeast, left to rise and then baked. Because bread was the main staple of the family diet, women’s daily work was unending. As well, olives needed to be pressed, grapes fermented and milk made into cheese or yoghurt. Women also had to take care of the domestic animals housed in the courtyard.

Women were also responsible for making clothes. While men probably did the shearing, women had to card and spin the wool, weave it into cloth and then sew the garments. Women also made baskets for containers and pottery for household needs. While there were often enough women to help with childcare, a mother was responsible for the care of small children whom she kept beside her.

…and went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah.

While Miriam was probably a robust young woman because of her physically demanding daily routine, how fast could a pregnant teenager walk? The 120km journey to En Kerem where tradition places the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah would have taken Miriam between four and seven days – fewer if she had had a donkey. The probable route from Nazareth to this small village equidistant from Jerusalem and Bethlehem would have been eastwards to the Sea of Galilee, south along the flat valley of the Jordan River, then up into the Judean hills. What did Miriam do – besides watching out for signs of danger – as she walked along? Accustomed to praying morning and evening, she would have been engrossed in the prayers, songs and rituals of her Jewish religion. She would have heard the scripture readings in the synagogue over and over again and participated in instruction. Because of the recent amazing events in her life, Miriam would have had a lot to discuss with her God who was obviously very up front and personal. Perhaps her days on the road passed very quickly.

When other travellers came towards her what did they see? Not Raphael’s Sistine Madonna but a dark-haired peasant woman with Semitic features.

She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth…

Palestine was an occupied country in a multilingual world. Greek was the language spoken by educated, business and ruling classes throughout the Roman Empire, but Latin was the native tongue of the Romans themselves. Miriam would have heard Hebrew when she listened to the Torah scrolls being read and debated in the synagogue. She herself would have spoken Aramaic, the everyday language of the villagers.

By detouring through the first two verses of the gospel for the feast of the Assumption I have tried to provide an ‘off the wall’ picture of Mary – of the conditions of her life before she got ‘on the wall’ in the traditional Assumption paintings. The dogma tells us this Mary in heaven is the same person as the Miriam on earth – not a ghost or a spirit floating around in the sky. Over the past weeks in particular I’ve seen many of images of her in the media. She’s generally holding a baby with other small children running beside, trying to flee as bombs fall around her. She looks absolutely terrified – nothing at all like the menstruating statue which some people seem to find far more disturbing.

(The information about the historical world of Mary is taken from: Elizabeth A Johnson, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints. New York: Continuum, 2003.)