Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Biblical Vocabulary

I wanted to build off of the work “genf” has done in laying out the biblical parallels-- for while I agree with each observation, I think more can be said about the biblical vocabulary from which the infancy narratives have been constructed. Some of these resonances are quite explicit, as when the author of pseudo-Matthew connects an event in Mary's timeline to a prophecy with some variation on “then was fulfilled that which was said by [prophet],” or when, as we observed in class, the Protoevangelium appropriates language from 1 Samuel to cast Anna as Hannah. But I also think there are less explicit, although by no means accidental, connections to be made.

The sparrow nest in the scenes of Anna's lament, for instance, serves as a point of confluence for two biblical references that I think very much typify Anna's experience. Psalm 84/5 (“How lovely is your dwelling place,” itself quite relevant) includes the lines “even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young— a place near your altar, LORD Almighty, my King and my God.” This association with offspring and proximity to the divine is quite evocative. Likewise, the association in Proverbs 26:2 between sparrows and undeserved censure: “Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest.” Both Joachim and Anna are convinced that they have been cursed by barrenness, yet are in fact made special by this inability to conceive (a point made explicitly in the Golden Legend, “when [God] closes a woman's womb, he does this in order to open it miraculously later on... delayed conceptions and infertile childbearing are usually all the more wonderful!"). It seems to me that the sparrows use biblical associations to foreshadow both the appearance of offspring and the denial of a curse.

If that seems like a stretch, the Golden Legend rendition of Mary and Joseph's betrothal contains most unambiguous vocabulary. The priest sets up the test to determine Mary's husbands with explicit reference to the Isaiah prophecy concerning the blooming of a rod from the house of David. Joseph, in the process of seeking Mary's husband, “brought his branch forward, it flowered at once, and a dove came from heaven and perched upon it.” Given the opening of the Golden Legend text, which traces Joseph's descent from David, could this be anything other than a physical foreshadowing of the allegorical fulfillment of the prophecy concerning the advent of the Messiah? We mentioned in class that the earlier accounts seem to use Joseph's anger and incomprehension as a tool to elevate Mary. This later account seems to me to be rehabilitating Joseph, employing the very familiar image of the Holy Spirit/dove and blooming branch from the line of David to cast some reflected glory back onto Joseph.

Mary's weaving the veil of the temple is another important element of this vocabulary-- it bookends the entire Christological narrative cycle. Mary weaves the veil immediately before the Annunciation, and the veil of the temple is torn at the death of Jesus. (Incidentally, I think something could also be said about the changing colors of the veil in the accounts. The earlier texts allot Mary the purple, and her fellow virgins tease her for its royal connotations, allowing the angel to rebuke them and affirm Mary's role as “virgin queen.” The later accounts give Mary the white, which might reflect a shift in emphasis-- she is not a queen who happens to be a virgin, she is a virgin, elevated to queenship on account of her eternal virginity.)

“genf” notes that “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 quite agree, and I think that the association is in fact very relevant. I too thought immediately of the other dancing Miriam, and think that perhaps the effect is intentional. Mary seems to me to be evoking many important biblical women, starting (as we will see next week) with Eve (we saw this in Joseph's fears that he is a new Adam, and that the new Eve was duped like her predecessor), but also Sarah, Hannah, Rachel, Miriam, etc. This I think is also deliberate, to cast Mary as the culmination, or perhaps synechdochic representation, of all these women, the one who can be all mothers because she bore the one through whom everything came to be.

On a slightly different tack of transferred meaning and biblical resonance, I think there is also something interesting to be said about the slightly differing sequence of events around Anna's pregnancy. In the Protoevangelium, Joachim and Anna are visited separately, and told only that they will conceive a child. In Golden Legend version, the angel comes to Anna and Joachim, separately, and foretells to each the entire narrative-- Anna, in a noble company of biblical barren women, will bear Mary, who will in turn bear Jesus. In possession of all these spoilers, they meet at the gate and are “sure they were to have a child.” Only then is Mary conceived. In the Old English Nativity of Mary, however, it seems to me that the author has arranged the sequence so as to have an internal resonance and parallel with Mary's experience: Joachim leaves Anna in distress, only to be told that she has already conceived a daughter, and that he will return to find her pregnant. His return journey is lengthy enough that in sum, he has been gone from Anna for six months, just as in the Protoevangelium Joseph returns to find Mary six months pregnant. I think there is a transference of qualities occurring here, or at least an argument to explain why Mary is worthy of bearing a sinless being. Her own birth is perhaps elevated by structural association with the birth of her Son.

I feel like these examples could be endless-- the young Jesus encountering snakes and lions, his concern with the alphabet and its first letter, Mary's feeding by the angels, etc. Though perhaps non-canonical, these texts participate extensively in the economy of biblical language.



  1. Excellent analysis of the further parallels to be found (sparrows, rods, veils, women, time of husband's being away) between the "apocryphal" and the "canonical" stories. I think TA's question is a good one: how do we count such parallels as "new" if they are grounded, much like the scriptures, on resonances already there in the older texts? You make a very good case for our reading the later stories as simply continuations of a compositional process rather than a new departure. At the very least, you demonstrate how important it is to know the scriptures so as to catch the references that the non-canonical authors were using!


  2. To “JLST’s” post:

    You write: “Mary seems to me to be evoking many important biblical women…This I think is also deliberate, to cast Mary as the culmination, or perhaps synechdochic representation, of all these women, the one who can be all mothers because she bore the one through whom everything came to be.” I agree that there is an effort in scripture to characterize Mary as the ‘culmination’, as it were, of the other important Biblical women. The Ephrem hymns reading for today’s class (4/2) expands on this theme more explicitly. Specifically, Hymn 8 articulates this sentiment. It mentions important biblical women such as Rachel, Anna, and Rebekah who either cried out to God in their misery or made vows through long and persistent prayer, that they may bear children. Mary is depicted in this hymn as a woman in whose womb God himself came to dwell; and the important contrast of Mary to the other mentioned biblical women is that the incarnation took place in her womb without her asking. This connotes a most particular favor for Mary on the part of God. Moreover, in this sense, Mary can indeed be taken as the culmination of the other women, not only because the Logos of creation came to dwell in her womb, but because It did so without Mary’s behest. This bears significant relation to the plan of salvation that is believed in Christianity, though more of this is discussed in today’s class on “The new Eve.”
    One point that stands out to me in Ephrem’s hymn 8, however, is that—in strata 16—the hymn sings that “…without prayer” she conceived the Lord. I assume that Ephrem is referring to the fact that Mary did not pray to conceive children, but a possibility of misinterpretation should be pointed out. While I can see that Mary, as distinct from the other biblical women, did not in fact pray to conceive, she is—in Christian tradition—believed to have been praying while the angel Gabriel appeared to her and declared the news that she would bear the Son of God. This point should not be neglected, as it further corroborates Mary’s role as the culmination of these women (who also prayed, but explicitly to bear children)—in that she is united to them by devotedness to God in prayer, but transcending them and made most distinct by the fact that she did not pray for conception but was nonetheless favored by God to be a vessel for His incarnation.


  3. Thank you for the additional insight, JLST. Those are keen observations, adding to genf’s comments. The topic of Joseph and descent from David remains puzzling to me. On the one hand, I think you have drawn a convincing connection. But, as Professor Fulton brought up in class, Jesus isn’t “really” a descendant of Joseph (anyone on ancient Jewish kinship custom: what about Jesus still being from the “house of Joseph” or something like that?). My impression of the portrayals of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in the Golden Legend is that Joseph’s behavior is made to cast him as decidedly human, mortal, fallible. Mary and Jesus are made into a much more intimate dyad; they share in the miracle of the incarnation, and they seem qualitatively different from Joseph.

    Nice point on weaving, the veil and “bookending” the gospel narratives, as well as the color differences. I also think that there is much to recommend your idea of Mary “embodying” all exemplary scriptural women as their culmination. On the first day of class, I actually wondered if someone would bring up a comparison between Mary and Noah’s Ark (not Mary as the “new Ark of the Covenant,” as she is later called); through Mary’s womb, the salvation of all mankind is delivered, while the Ark also saved humanity through the flood for the duration of human gestation (the uterine nature of the Ark has perhaps been more commonly noted than have comparisons of the Ark with Mary’s womb). As I have asked before, though, if these elements “work” because of their referents, how do “new” elements in these narratives–those that are without any explicit or implicit link to tradition or scriptural narrative–become convincing? Is it by their narrative association with the recognized elements, by connection with traditions already accepted by the reading community, or by some other “mechanism?”