In my opinion, I think Mary gets a raw deal in Messianic Judaism. Let’s be honest: in protestant Christianity as well. Because the high churches, in particular Catholicism venerate Mary to the point of almost divine, we non-Catholics go in the other direction and basically ignore her except for the mention she gets in the nativity stories.
Yet, just because we perceive that one group takes things too far, is that a reason to go completely in the other direction? It’s time to redeem Miriam, the mother of our Master, and give her the honor and respect that she deserves and is in fact given in the Gospels themselves.
The best way to do that in Messianic Judaism is to look at how holy figures are honored in Jewish tradition. One of the most common ways that a holy man or woman is venerated in Judaism is by remembering the day of their passing which in Hebrew is yahrzeit. So when is the yahrzeit of Miriam? This is where things get a little tricky.
In church tradition the day of Mary’s death is known as the Assumption of Mary where it is believed by many that she did not die but was instead taken up to heaven. Assumption comes from the Latin word assumptio which means “a taking.” In other words, much like Enoch who never died, she is believed to have been taken by God and removed from this earthly life. Obviously, this is not a scriptural belief and, by all accounts, Mary did die and was probably buried, as church tradition holds today, at the base of the Mount of Olives.
In many liturgical Christian traditions throughout the world the day of the Assumption is celebrated on August 15th and there is a widespread tradition that she died in the year 48 CE. So then we can just take the date of August 15, 48 CE, plug it into a program such as HebCal and come up with Miriam’s Hebrew yahrzeit right? Not so fast. There are a few issues.
First, HebCal assumes you are using the modern Gregorian calendar to convert dates. However, when the August 15 date for this commemoration was originally established, the Julian calendar was in use and not the Gregorian one that we are following today. Some Eastern Orthodox churches prefer to continue using the Julian calendar as the basis for the observance. Due to inaccuracies in the Julian calendar, it slowly drifts over time. This year, August 15th in the Julian calendar falls on August 28th in the Gregorian calendar. If we use a conversion calendar to convert the Julian date of August 15, 48 CE on the Gregorian calendar we arrive at August 13, 48 CE. This is the date we should use to convert from the Gregorian calendar into the Jewish calendar. Fortunately, the Rosetta Calendar clarifies all of this for us by displaying the dates on the Gregorian, Julian, and Jewish calendar simultaneously, making it more useful than HebCal for ancient date conversions. Using this calculation, our target date would correspond to Av 18, 3808 on the Jewish calendar.
One more issue remains. In our time, the Jewish calendar is fixed and determined using complex math. Yet, prior to the fourth century, the calendar was not set in advance using mathematical formulas; it was established by New Moon sightings in Jerusalem, which could vary based on a number of factors. Based on mathematical calculation, Rosh Chodesh Av (the 1st of the month) would have occurred on July 29th of the Julian calendar. However, when my colleague Aaron Eby used a sophisticated astronomy program to see what the visibility of the New Moon would have been on July 29th of the year 48 CE, it seems much more probable that it was not visible until the following day, July 30. This means that in the year 48 CE, the previous month of Tammuz would have had thirty days instead of twenty-nine and that Mary actually died on Av 17, 3808. Confused yet? Here’s a chart that might help:
|Traditional Date on Julian Calendar||August 15, 48 CE|
|Traditional Date on Gregorian Calendar||August 13, 48 CE|
|Traditional Date on Calculated Jewish Calendar||Av 18, 3808|
|Traditional Date on Sighted Jewish Calendar||Av 17, 3808|
So, in other words, we had to make some assumptions about the Assumption in order to arrive at what we believe is the closest possible date for the death of Miriam, the mother of our Master.
Although the August 15, 48 CE tradition is quite old there is no way to know whether it is authentic or not. On the other hand, it’s really the only date we have and makes for a great way to begin to honor Miriam again in a Messianic Jewish manner. This year Av 17 begins the evening of August 8th. I would recommend taking the day as a time to read through the Gospel stories featuring her and think about the tremendous amount of faith and piety she had to have to be selected as the one who would not only bring the redeemer of Israel into the world but raise him in his youth. As Elizabeth her cousin prophesies:
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord. (Luke 1:42-45)
May her memory serve as a blessing!
Note: Special thanks to my colleague Aaron Eby for his help in navigating all the different calendars and issues involved in reconstructing the Hebrew date.