Thursday, March 29, 2012

Biblical Parallels in the Infancy Narratives

In class, we talked about the parallels that Mary's infancy narratives have to other Biblical stories. I think this resonance is very purposeful, in that it gives these apocryphal narratives the ability to stand in the midst of scripture. We talked about these stories functioning as answers to the questions that linger in the Gospels, and the reason I think these stories are successful in that aim is due to the familiar stories of going off into the wilderness, the mother's barrenness, and the unsureness about a physical body. 

First, we get the image of Joachim going off into the wilderness, after being shamed because of his failure to produce a child. The Protoevangelium of James tells us that Joachim "went into the wilderness; there he pitched his tent and fasted forty days and forty nights, saying to himself, 'I shall not go down either for food or for drink until the Lord my God visits me; my prayer shall be food and drink.'" This is extremely similar to Matthew's account of Jesus' journey into the wilderness. Matthew says, "Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights and afterwards he was famished." Obviously, Joachim is not tested by the devil, but the otherwise similar descriptions of their journey into the wilderness suggests a desire to have Mary's infancy narrative be read from the very start as one that could exist in relationship with the accepted scripture. In the other narratives, there is not as much of an obvious parallel to Jesus' temptation. For example, in Jacobus, it is merely, "He went to live with his shepherds." However, there is present in Mark's telling of the temptation of Jesus an image that appears in all four infancy narratives, which is "the angels waited on him." In the infancy narratives, there is the same image of Mary being waited on by angels; for example, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew tells us that Mary is "fed daily by angels." So, in this sense, a parallel is drawn between Jesus and his grandfather, done perhaps to show a link between Jesus and his patriarchal ancestry, even though they are not technically related according to scripture. The parallel between Jesus and his mother is particularly interesting because it shows that Jesus and Mary are both worthy enough to be waited on by heavenly creatures.

The barrenness of Anna brings to mind particularly the barrenness of Hannah. The similarities with Hannah's story are quite numerous. First, in all of the Mary infancy narratives, Anna promises that if God gives her a child, "I would bring them to you to your temple." (Concerning the Nativity of Mary). There is the same sort of promise in 1 Samuel; Hannah says,"I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death." Both of these women seem to bargain with God in order to receive a child. They are also both essentially forfeiting their rights as mother, to take care of these children until they reach adulthood, but rather they are placing their children in the care of God. In this way, before either of these children are born, they are set aside and designated as special. Perhaps Mary could be seen as being a parallel of Anna and Hannah, because she similarly is chosen to give up her mothering rights, as Jesus is to be the Savior, the one who dies for the sins of the world. Yet, both Mary and Hannah rejoice that they are able to be vessels for Samuel and Jesus, a great man of God, and the Son of God himself. Hannah says, "My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God." While similarly, Mary says, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." These women seem to have such joy in their ability to serve God through mothering (and forfeiting their mothering), and perhaps it is partly this that the cult of Mary seizes on. My mind is particularly drawn to another great image of a joyful woman, Miriam, dancing with her tambourines, which is not particularly relevant, but perhaps an example of the ways in which women in the Bible seem to be able to express great joy in and because of God. I think Mary and her Magnificat are the greatest examples of joy in the Bible.

 Finally, there is another parallel drawn between Mary and Jesus in that some aspect of their physical body is doubted, but then proved to be real or intact. Of course, this is seen in the story of Doubting Thomas in the Bible. After Jesus is resurrected, Thomas does not believe that it has indeed happened and says, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in his side, I will not believe" (John 20:25). Likewise, the midwife Salome doubts that Mary's virginity is intact and says, "Unless I insert my finger and test her condition, I will not believe that a virgin has given birth" (PJ). In a way Salome and Thomas could represent the doubters of the early Christian church. With that in mind, it is interesting to see the kind of punishments each receive for their lack of belief. Thomas is merely chided: "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe" (John 20:29). Salome receives a much harsher punishment - her hand falls off. She says, "Woe for my wickedness and my unbelief; for I have tempted the living God; and behold, my hand falls away from me consumed by fire" (PJ). Thus, we see the punishment for doubting the virginity of Mary is portrayed as much harsher than doubting the resurrected Jesus, which seems counterintuitive, but shows the kind of devotion that people felt towards Mary.



  1. I also immediately thought of “doubting” Thomas as a parallel to the Salome story, and I think that they serve similar moral purposes. (Isn’t Salome’s burned hand ultimately healed?) I am in agreement with genf’s whole post. This is just the kind of thing that we see in the canonical gospels, with Matthew being most at pains to attach the narrative of the life of Jesus to Hebrew prophecy. Without question, this was effective in antiquity, just as it continues to be convincing to Christians today. This raises interesting questions about the pseudo-Jewish customs that we see in the PJ. I am fascinated both by the way that, for so many of us in class, these details can have a “feel” to them that makes them stick out as “invented traditions.” Yet, in some sense, all tradition must be invented and reinvented/reasserted continually, so why do these elements stand out as dubious, while the “new” detail about Mary’s life seem not to arouse the same “suspicions?” Or do they?

  2. Very nice analysis of the parallels in the stories of Mary's infancy with the stories in the canonical scriptures, particularly the parallel between "doubting Thomas" and "doubting Salome"! I had not thought about this before--most scholarship on the Marian story focuses on the "gynecological" aspect of Salome's "exam," but if you think of her test in terms of Thomas', then it takes on a wholly different level of meaning. Interestingly, some scholars have argued for the reverse image as well given certain late medieval representations of Jesus' side wound as somewhat "vaginal". From this perspective, both Salome and Thomas were testing the truth of a birth: of Jesus from Mary's womb on the one hand, and of the Church (body of believers) from Jesus' side on the other.