Mystery: The Three Marys (55+)

Mary was a common name for Jewish women in Roman-ruled Palestine. In addition to Mary, mother of Jesus, three Marys are described in the Gospels as witnesses to Jesus’s life: Mary of Clopas, Mary of Jacob and Mary of Bethany/Mary Magdalene. Over the centuries, diverse scholars, contemplatives and artists have explored the mystery of the three Marys through legend, passion narratives, mystery plays, storytelling, poetry, musical lament and praise, and visual art.

Drawing on mysticism and aesthetics, as well as liberation and progressive theologies, we’ll discuss biblical stories of the three Marys. Along the way, we will examine Jesus’s message about the place of women in society and will see how his female disciples, transcending the marginalized status of women at the time, play a significant role in his story.

Note: This small class involves active participation and group discussion, including opportunities for creative expression in response to course material.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

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Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to:

  • Describe your own understanding of the mystery of the Three Marys
  • Describe the various origins of this mystery
  • Give examples of how the Three Marys appear in different religious traditions, and in different forms of artistic expression
  • Discuss the significance of the Three Marys, in the light of liberation and progressive theologies, to Jesus’s message about the place of women in society

Learning methods

You will learn through a combination of discussion, group work, creative exercises, in-class reflection and reading. For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+ students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: Introduction to mystery and the historical Marys

“Mystery” in a theology of revelation is a hidden truth or secret that may exceed our understanding. Undoubtedly, women play a key role in Judeo-Christian history, scripture and tradition. Mary, the historical mother of Jesus and known as the Virgin Mary, is inheritor of layered narratives about significant mothers, sisters, female leaders, prophets and seers—narratives that originate in the story of Eve from the Book of Genesis. In the New Testament, female disciples of Jesus play a significant role in the Jesus story. Three Marys, among other women, were compassionate witnesses at the birth, and at the cross, tomb and resurrection of Jesus. We will read selections of scripture from Old and New Testaments, drawing intercultural parallels with world mythologies.

Week 2: Marys appear mysteriously in alternate sources

In our quest to uncover mysteries of the historical Marys, we will read and discuss selections from a range of alternate sources, texts and narratives written in centuries and locations following Jesus’s early-first-century lifespan. Among faith traditions, there have been diverse responses to stories of the Marys. These writings have either been dismissed or validated as Mariology across denominations within Christianity, and adopted as important narratives within other faith traditions. We will discuss stories about the Marys from extra-canonical, apocryphal, gnostic and early Coptic Christian writings, as well as within Islamic tradition and literature.

Week 3: Centuries of Marian legend and liberation

Over the centuries, multicultural scholars, contemplatives and artists have explored the mystery and legend of the three Marys through passion narratives, Marian devotional material, dramatized Easter mystery plays, storytelling, poetry, musical lament and praise. We will discuss selected works, music and writings since the first century. We will look at moral questions arising from the Virgin Birth story and lifestyles of the Marys in the contexts of history, theology and literature. We will reflect on ways the stories of three Marys might inspire our embodiment of social justice with respect to the place of women in society.

Week 4: The Three Marys and art

We will peruse and reflect on various visual art forms since the first century, such as painting, drawing and sculpture from various cultures depicting narratives of the three Marys, as well as the rich history of portrayals of the Madonna in art, including art that speaks to society and to our contemporary world. We will explore these themes through appreciating the artistic rendering of others, and/or experimenting with artistic media including creative writing, collage and other visual art forms, such as photography.

Week 5: The Three Marys and mysticism

We will reflect on selections of literature that celebrate—through allegory, symbol or accounts of mystical experience—Mary the mother of Jesus and the three Marys. The selections will be from the writing of mystics such as Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), the poetry of monk-mystic-poet Thomas Merton (1915-1968), and fantasy fiction authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973). We will also share our understandings of various historical novels, musical theatre and films that offer innovative perspectives on the legendary three Marys.

Week 6: Further reflections

We will reflect on the themes of the course: the impact of the Mystery of the Three Marys in the context of our times with respect to current ethical, social, aesthetic and philosophical questions. We will share creative expressions in response to the themes of the course.

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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