In Mary in the New Testament, Raymond Brown, Joseph Fitzmyer, and Karl Donfried offer a fairly balanced presentation of the main interpretations of the phrase "son of Mary" that have been suggested by scholars:
- Mark is trying to stress the human characteristics of Jesus in response to "God only" view of his audience. That is, Joseph is not mentioned because Mary is his only human parent.
- Mark is hinting at the virginal conception of Jesus. That is, Joseph is not mentioned because the unusual nature of a "son of [a woman]" passage was a sort of "code phrase" for early Christians by which they understood that Jesus lacked a human father.
- The villagers intended the comment as a slur and Mark simply reported it. That is, the villagers were implying Jesus was illegitimate.
- The phrase was simply the most natural way to refer to Jesus because Mary was more well known (either to the villagers or Mark's audience), possibly because Joseph was long dead.
In "Son of Mary", Harvey McArthur examines these theories in detail, plus another viable theory not mentioned in Mary in the New Testament:
- Mark didn't write "son of Mary" - that phraseology was the result of textual corruption either through scribal error or to avoid a (different) theological difficulty.
He also mentions a minor variation on #4:
- That "son of [a woman]" was the normal way to refer to children of widows.
McArthur examines the the Old Testament cases of a person being identified as as "son of [a woman]", of which there are about a dozen. These generally fall into one of two classes:
- Secondary identification. That is, cases where both parents are mentioned at some point (but not in the same passage) and either the father had children by multiple women or the mother was important to link the child to an important ancestor.
- Matriarchal families. That is, cases where the mother was an important figure and the father was not, so only the mother is mentioned.
However, a couple "miscellaneous cases" where there is no clear reason for the use of the mother's name remain. Usually because there is no context to determine the reason for the usage. McArthur thus examined three ideas possibly found in the Old Testament:
- The father was non-Jewish and the Mother was Jewish. In favor of this possibility, at least three (reasonably contemporary to Mark's text) Rabbis are identified by their mother in Rabbinic literature. Against it, is that none of these three were identified by the mother's name, but instead only her place of origin. Leviticus 24:10-11 and I Kings 7:13-14 might fit into this category.
- The mother was widowed (#6 above). The evidence for this is pretty weak as all the suggested passages (I Kings 17:17, Luke 7:12, I Kings 7:14, II Chronicles 24:7) are ambiguous at best.
- The child was illegitimate (#3 above). On this point, McArthur writes:
There is no doubt that this custom prevailed in some cultures, but the curious fact is that in the case of Old Testament and Rabbinic literature it is difficult to demonstrate that this practice was followed.
The cases for this possibility are pretty weak. There is no indication in Leviticus 24:10-11 that the child is illegitimate; Judges 11:1 ("son of a harlot") is explicit already - there is no reason to imagine "son of [woman] = son of harlot" based on that passage. The only clear case of an insult/doubtful parentage being intended is in the third century Sifre to Deuteronomy. However, the phrase used is "the son of Vespasian's wife", not "the son of Domitilla". As such it's not a strong parallel and McArthur suggests the round-about way of saying it was perhaps used specifically because "son of [woman]" wouldn't carry an illegitimate connotation.
Additionally, the idea is contradicted by Leviticus Rabbah 13 which says:
The last Darius was the son of Esther, clean from his mother's side and unclean from his father's side
and similar passages. If the "son of [a woman]" carried an automatic association of illegitimacy, such identifications would presumably be worded differently or have some clarification.
Explanations #1 and #2 above offer theological reasons why Mark may have used the phrase "son of Mary". While these ideas are not completely without reason (for example, stressing Jesus' humanity is arguably a common theme in Mark), they face significant difficulties. First, there is no "gloss" by Mark explaining his usage, so any suggestion of what he is thinking is speculative. Second, the words are clearly intended by the villagers to belittle Jesus. If Mark wanted to hint at the virgin birth, the mouths of opponents would be an odd place to put it. Thus, McArthur and Mary in the New Testament both reject these proposals as unlikely.
As alluded to above, #6 has the significant problem of being largely unattested to in literature. McArthur sums it up well:
When one considers the function played by genealogical identification through the father ... it would seem obvious that the abandonment of [it] in the event of the father's death would be inconsistent with the intention of the system. Hence until explicit evidence is found ... it will be well to delete this hypothesis.
Illegitimate child explanation
The illegitimate child view (#3) suffers from the same problem as the widow solution - it is not clearly attested to in any Biblical-era literature to such a connotation would be inferred merely by saying "[child] son of [woman]".
Additionally, if this would have been a probably connotation than one must explain why Mark would have passed the insult along without any explanation whatsoever. Based on the evidence, it seems at most it would have been a subtle slur. If Mark wanted his (Greek) audience to understand the slur, why did he not explain it? Elsewhere, he adds glosses to explain even basic Jewish culture.
It has been suggested that perhaps Mark himself didn't realize it was a slur, but that begs the question. If the slur was not obvious, then why think it a common slur at all?
Finally, if Joseph honored his commitment to Mary and raised the child as his own, as suggested by the Biblical accounts, there is no reason for the villagers to have even suspected Jesus to be illegitimate. And if the non-Mark Biblical accounts aren't true, then we have absolutely no evidence to go on. This verse certainly can not itself be used of doubtfulness of the Joseph accounts when trying to determine the meaning of this verse.
Due to these difficulties, both McArthur and Mary in the New Testament dismiss this proposal.
A significant variation on Mark 6:3 exists which reads ὁ τοῦ τέκτονος υἱός καὶ τῆς Μαρίας "the son of the carpenter and Mary" instead of ὁ τέκτων ὁ υἱὸς τῆς Μαρίας "the carpenter, son of Mary". As such, one explanation (#5) is that the alternative reading is actually the original text.
In support of this variation, is the fact that the oldest extant copy of Mark (P45) and several other very old copies and translations (e.g. the Old Latin). Against it is that the traditional reading also has early attestation and somewhat more numerous witnesses overall. It seems like both versions were in circulation at an early date, so either is reasonable and the issue is decided on other grounds.
The traditional text is usually picked because it is thought more likely that a copyist intentionally or subconsciously moved the passage closer to the (more popular) Matthew than moved it away for it. Additionally, there doesn't seem to be a strong motive to change from to text to "son of Mary" (and as such "son of Mary" would be a accident of a change intended to avoid "son of [a man]").
However, this view is not without it's weakness. Assuming Marcian priority, it is much easier to derive Matthew's "Is not this the son of the Carpenter?" and Luke's " Is not this the son of Joseph?" from "Is this not the son of the carpenter and Mary?" than from "Is this not the the carpenter, son of Mary?" While one of Matthew/Luke may have added Joseph, it seems unlikely they both would have made the same exact substantial change. Additionally, In Against Celsus (c. 180), Origen responds to a claim by Celsus that Jesus was a mere artisan by saying the Gospels make no such statement. This implies that his copy of Mark (which would predate P45) had the alternate text.
So, no firm conclusion can be drawn on the original wording of Mark, leaving the textual explanation as viable.
Natural conversation explanation
The final plausible explanation for this use of the phrase "son of Mary" is that this was simply the most natural way for the villagers to refer to Jesus. McArthur points out that the phrase "son of [a woman]" is rare at least in part because the phrase "son of" occurs primarily in genealogical contexts in extant literature. In a patriarchal society, it is hardly surprising that one would (usually) be tied to their ancestors through their father. However, this fact does not say anything about usage in other contexts.
It is clear from the villagers' rhetorical questions in Mark 6:2, that what they are getting at is not Jesus birth, but rather his social standing in general. To paraphrase, "Who is this ordinary nobody who thinks he can teach us as if he is some great scholar?"
Thus it seems the simplest explanation is that, for whatever reason, the villagers identified Jesus and his siblings primarily through their mother. (The likely reason is that Joseph was long dead; however, this is distinct from the widow hypothesis [#6] because it is not a genealogical description, but rather casual usage.)
This explanation would also likely explain most of the "miscellaneous" cases in Biblical and extra-Biblical usage - McArthur examines several of them at finds the simple explanation is far superior to trying to force the usagage into some other category. There is no context as to what the "special" meaning of "son of [woman]" means in these cases, because there is no special meaning. It is simply a way of identifying the person in question.
Both McArthur and Mary in the New Testament endorse this explanation, although McArthur leaves open the textual corruption option.
The most plausible explanation for the origin of the "son of Mary" phrase in Mark 6:3 is that Jesus' townsfolk actually said something along those lines because that is simply how they knew him. Mark didn't change or explain the phrase, because it was not seen as an insult in informal conversation. In the words of McArthur:
I conclude, therefore, that the ancient scholars were correct in assuming that the phrase had no special connotation beyond the fact explicitly stated,1 and that modern scholars have been led astray by regarding "son of Mary" as a problematic phrase.
If that theory is incorrect, the next most plausible explanation is that an early copyist (intentionally or subconsciously) changed the original "the son of the carpenter and Mary" to "the carpenter, the son of Mary" to avoid implying a human father and did not see the change as problematic, because "song of [a woman]" did not have an automatically negative connotation.
If we reject that theory, all that is left is "we don't know why". The remaining theories - widowed mother, illusion to illegitimacy, theological considerations - lack any concrete evidence and are thus based entirely on speculations.
1 McArthurs' footnote here reads:
See H. SMITH, Ante-Nicene Exegesis of the Gospels, vol. III, London: S.P.C.K., I927, p. 53 ff. There is no exegetical exploitation of the "son of Mary" phrase.