Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Marian Narrative: Apology or Fantasy?

Of the many possible motives behind the composition of early Christian texts concerning the life of Mary such as the Protevangelium Jacobi (PJ), apologetic considerations certainly emerge as some of the most compelling and immediately identifiable. Early Church members were desperate to defend the legitimacy of their faith to the skeptical (and often polemical) anti-Christian philosophers, Jews, and polytheists among whom they lived, and the gospels inconveniently left an immense dearth of background information and supporting details concerning the lives of Jesus Christ and his first followers. The mysterious development of the Christian movement in a backwater province of the Roman Empire necessitated the appropriation of an older theistic tradition in order for the Church to assert itself as relevant in its contemporary religious context, and this it found in Judaism; however, the obscure heritage of the movement's founding figure provided an easy target for writers seeking to undermine the upstart cult's increasing popularity.

Origen wrote his extensive and seminal apologetic treatise Against Celsus solely to defend the Christian faith against one such attack, the philosopher Celsus' True Doctrine, which has only survived to us in the fragments quoted by Origen. In one especially useful passage (Contra Celsum 1.28) Origen relates the charges presented by Celsus against Mary, who claims that she came from a poor family in a nondescript Jewish village and made her livelihood by weaving. After she married Joseph, a poor carpenter, she was convicted of adultery and driven out of the house, so she wandered down to Egypt where she gave birth to the illegitimate child Jesus, and when he grew up he learned magic and acquired miraculous powers from the Egyptians and returned to his homeland to be worshipped as a god. The outrage such accusations would have provoked among the early Christians is obvious, but Celsus apparently goes even further and claims that the perpetrator of Mary's infidelity was a soldier named Panthera, making Jesus the bastard son of a mixed union between a Jew and a Roman of the lowest classes (Contra Celsum 1.32). The Jewish Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) contains a similar account (in less explicitly vitriolic rhetoric), indicating some kind of common tradition among anti-Christian communities. Such attacks on the blessed Virgin could not be left unresolved if Jesus' ministry and message were to be believed, so the composition of such a text as PJ clearly became an excellent and necessary vessel for rebuttal.

We see in the PJ narrative that all of these counts against Mary's life and background are addressed in detail, so that no further doubts might surface. Instead of a poor family from a small rural village, Mary's parents are some of the richest Jews in Jerusalem (PJ 1.1-3) and also belong to the royal tribe of David (10.1); Mary does not work as a seamstress for wages, but was appointed only to sew a sacred curtain for the temple of God, presumably the same which is later torn during Jesus' crucifixion (10.1-2, 12.1); Joseph (an innocuous old man) is not merely a poor home carpenter but a successful building contractor (9.2, 13.1). Perhaps most importantly, Mary's virginity is safeguarded from her birth, first in the temple and then as a ward in the house of Joseph, until the time of divine conception; her purity is tested and proven by the Jewish high priest in a strange ritual, and finally Salome's postpartum inspection demonstrates the anomalous intactness of her virginal hymen, even after giving birth. Throughout the narrative, there is not a single moment of her life left unaddressed when she could have been defiled. This is arguably the most important doctrinal innovation of the entire PJ text, since it established the concept of Mary's perpetual virginity, and also provided a foundation for virginity to be viewed as a virtue in Christian women, leading to the development of ascetic continence and related movements in the early Church.

With this background established, it seems that critics of Jesus' parentage would have been satisfactorily quelled, and later texts regarding Mary would not need to present further apologetic reinforcement. However, comparison with later writings in the PJ tradition reveals that this was not the case; the "Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew" written several hundred years later even further emphasizes aspects of Marian veneration, and many details are embellished to make her conception and childhood even more glorified. Her father becomes even richer and more pious; Mary is not only protected from defilement, but willfully vows her perpetual virginity; she is constantly accompanied by a group of other dedicated virgins; the high priest's purity test is administered not once but seven times; and the postpartum virginity is confirmed not by only one but by both midwives. The later "Old English Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew" makes Joachim even richer (the wealthiest Jew alive!); Mary's order of avowed virgins in the Jewish temple becomes a standard fixture; she creates the first regimented monastic schedule; she becomes the foremost expert in Jewish law and worship; Joseph is grafted into the tribe of Judah so that Jesus would have both a royal and priestly lineage; and the high priests confirm Mary's purity not only by seven tests, but by countless signs of divine mysteries. Finally, Jacobus de Veragine's Golden Legend creates an entire family tree of apostles and early Christian saints around Mary's lineage, and she receives visitations from angels and the vision of God on a daily basis.

Therefore, many of the tenets of Marian doctrine that we find rooted in the narrative of PJ were apparently promulgated by the early Church for entirely apologetic purposes, addressing specific accusations and attacks against Jesus' background. However, we see the story of Mary's life and heritage become increasingly grandiose throughout the centuries, in spite of the fact that it was no longer under attack or even in question. In fact, after Christianity had become firmly established as the most prominent religion of the Mediterranean in the fourth and fifth centuries, there ceased to be any challenges or disparagements whatsoever of the tradition of Mary's background presented in PJ. So what precipitated this sensational enhancement of the Marian narrative evident throughout these later texts? The simplest answer of course would point to the increased elevation and veneration of the Virgin in the Late Antique and Early Medieval Church, but perhaps the question is unanswerable. In comparison with the original outline of PJ, these later traditions seem ludicrous and completely fantastic, and are likely as much a product of their contemporary cultural and literary environment as any indication of real piety towards Mary on a progressively greater scale. However, in order to defend such an argument, the examination would require an extensive analysis of an enormous and unwieldy corpus of literature, so for now the question must remain open for interpretation and theorization.



  1. Getting this sort of context JRV has provided (here and in class on Wednesday) both provides answers and raises new questions about the development of religious tradition, such as Marian devotion. Would the details that the PJ, Pseudo-Matthew, etc., provide have changed much of the critique Celsus lays against Christianity? (I tend to think not, though I agree with JRV that these critiques/questions have everything to do with the publication of the details he points out from our Wednesday readings). At any rate, JRV’s comments give us a glimpse of the relationship between religious traditions and religious texts: If these “extra-scriptural” texts were written in contestation to Celsus or anyone else, what becomes of historical accuracy, or truth claims of the religious traditions? To put it simply, how far and in what directions can the narrative elements of a religious tradition stretch before the tradition is disfigured? For many Christians, one of the very points of the life of Jesus, for example, is that he was born in the humblest of circumstances, so (as a less eloquent Paul may have put it) he could descend below all things in order to rise above all things. Could/should the details of Mary’s life become all things to all people? I am convinced by JRV’s account here, and it does seem to me that we are seeing a fairly uniform upward curve in Mary’s “worldly” prestige in these textual developments.

    On the other hand, if we look beyond the idea of canon, we could entertain the idea that, rather than purely dialectical response to criticism and/or the paucity of information about Mary in the canonized gospels, these texts reflect traditions that were passed down from earlier but not included in canonical versions for various reasons (which, I think it is fair to claim, is what the authors would argue, or what they were attempting by–sometimes clumsily–bringing Jewish tradition into their narratives). So, which versions have more influenced Marian devotion since being written, the canonical or non-canonical? (Arena chapel would seem to give a fairly clear answer to this.). Would such traditions have lived on if not put into written texts? What tensions between *historian* and *devotee to a religious tradition* does an account like JRV’s present us?


  2. Thank you so much for these details about Celsus and the criticisms of the Talmud! This helps put the concerns of the PJ into much clearer perspective. What interests me is why the accusations and rebuttals took the form that they did: why worry so much about the details of Mary's early life at all? Why did it matter that Jesus was born of a particular kind of mother? Given the interest in the Gospels in Jesus' biography, it is easy to take this interest for granted, but of course it only matters if the theological argument depends in some way upon it. "Increased elevation" of itself is a tautology: we can see that Mary's status mattered in early Christianity. The question (as you rightly point out!) is why.


  3. JRV putting the accounts we read for class in conversation with Against Celsus has left me wondering why it really matters. I certainly understand what was at stake with many of the claims made against Mary by Celsus and in defense of Mary by the authors we read for class, but for others, I do not. What does it really matter if she was poor or not? Or if she made her living as a weaver? I wonder if these issues are partially explainable by differing ideas of what the protagonist of a story should look like.

    Today, we tend to like an underdog. Heroes seem to be most satisfying to us if they become heroes over the course of the story, rising from inauspicious beginnings and overcoming obstacles to grow into the role. What comes immediately to mind as an example is Harry Potter. At the beginning of the story, the Harry Rowling introduces is a scrawny, friendless, maltreated orphan. As the story unfolds, we discover that Harry is very special indeed, not just because of the circumstances under which he gets his scar, but also because of the way he acts—he grows into his role and displays tremendous bravery, skill, intelligence, and loyalty. That is the way I have always heard the story of Mary. Though I have always thought of Mary as being exceptional in her personal qualities, obedient, faithful, and loving, I have never thought of Mary as someone you would have expected to do something so remarkable as give birth to God. I have always thought of her as a normal girl, born to a poor family with nothing remarkable marking her as special until the visitation of the angel. For me, she has always been an underdog who defied expectations not because of the circumstances of her birth, but because of her faithfulness and piety and because of divine grace. To me, that made the story more remarkable.

    There, of course, another option for the protagonist of a story, and that is what we see in these accounts of Mary. She is either poor, promiscuous, and disobedient; or wealthy, miraculously chaste, and unfailingly obedient. She is either wretched from the very beginning, from the very circumstances of her birth, or she is blessed from the very beginning. I certainly do not think that these depictions of Mary are reducible to principles of storytelling, but I wonder if stories told during the time these narratives were being promulgated favored protagonists who, instead of growing to become remarkable, were remarkable at every step along the way.


  4. JRV - You raise several interesting questions in your discussion. It is very interesting that the PJ becomes a sort of primary text for Marian devotion, even though Mary is not given much space in the actual Bible. These questions of how and why things get incorporated into the “unofficial canon” are revealing of the operation of the Church as a whole. Clearly, Church tradition evolves, yet certain key elements of Marian devotion have remained.

    TA, you ask, ”Could/should the details of Mary’s life become all things to all people?” After an entire course on learning about the evolution of Marian devotion, I have to answer no. The beauty of Mariology is that it means different things for different people. If someone wants to use Mary as a model, aren’t her virtues the only things that matter? If someone wishes to contemplate on the awesome power of Mary as Wisdom, then why would it matter what color she was using for the temple veil? Mariology’s lack of presence in the official canon up until the 20th century meant that an entire body of work about Mary arose based on individual need in a specific cultural context.

    That all, folks.