Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Mary and Development

Yesterday we began our approach to Mary and the Marian cult by the texts of scripture in which readers have found and reflected upon the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I think this scriptural path is the best and necessary first approach to Mary. And what do we discover about Mary, that figure whom Walter of Wimborne and others believed to exhaust all human effort at description or praise? We discover it would seem very little. So, in my mind, a question arises: How did the all-pervasive (or is this too strong?) and deep-seated devotion to Mary in much of Christian experience, east and west, north and south, arise from such meager beginnings? That is, how did so much spring from so little?

Our professor sketched some of the ways that Mary and her devotion has been interpreted as a historical phenomenon. Some have seen the virgin birth as a mythical element drawn (not from Hannah) but from stories of divine insemination and birth of demigods among mortals from Hellenistic religions. Some have seen the Marian cult as an accretion that distracts from or disintegrates the reverence due to God alone, thus a form of idolatry (here especially the continental Reformers, Calvin, Luther, Zwingli and so forth). As mentioned, feminist theory can both see in Mary the archetype of the goddess welling up from deep emotional springs, as well as a feminine figure whose subordination to her son Jesus represents the ultimate patriarchal triumph in the subordination of mother to son. I'm sure there are many more theories and interpretations to add here. My point, however, is not to provide a catalogue to point out the multiplicity of interpretations which tackle the same basic problem: How and why did so much arise from so little?

Whichever interpretive grid you or I might adopt, try out or test in our thinking about the Marian cult, it seems clear we are dealing with some sort of narrative of development. In fact, I think one can safely say that Mary is the best case study of development, either in doctrine or liturgy.

I shall say a bit more to fill out that assertion. But first I should clarify what I mean by development. The idea of development of doctrine was classically articulated by John Henry Newman (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1845). Newman revised the successivist view of Christian history that sees no real change or alteration between the preaching of the apostles and the ecclesial teaching in following ages. The primary relationship in successivist view of Christian history might be preservation. Newman's idea of development, which has since seemingly gained consensus, argues for continuity of a different sort. The apostolic message remains the same in essence, but over the course of time, thinkers have deepened it by greater understanding, have broadened it by following out implicit notions and ideas already present in the apostolic message. The classic metaphor of development is the oak tree, whose grandeur came gradually and slowly from the little acorn, while remaining the same in essence.

Mary is the best case study of such development, I would argue. While the Trinity is another such development in my judgment, many still deny this. Certain theologians see the Trinity not as a development but as a correct exegesis of implicit relationships between the three mentioned divine beings, Father, Jesus the Son and the Spirit. While explicit Trinitarian statements may be scarce, such proponents might (and I think do) say that the Trinity is nevertheless everywhere in scripture. The Trinitarian ubiquity is evident only to those who see it aright, that is, with the right hermeneutical readings. (I shall return, I hope, to hermeneutical readings of Mary.)

But I do not think the same could be held with Mary, except with only the most devoted readers. In our scripture readings, we most helpfully read up front many of the passages that will later be seen as fore-shadowing or signifying Mary in the Hebrew Bible as well as the direct mentions of Mary in the New Testament. Even these are rather few in number.

What I am trying here to say is this: Whatever your stripe of seeing or interpreting Mary, one has to admit things have developed from such a small beginning to the broad extension and depth of the Marian cult. I might think it a positive development, an idolatrous one, a patriarchal or a development of feminine resistance, etc. but one is still dealing with a development narrative of one sort or other.

If that is the case, in taking this course we can be looking various developmental narratives regarding Mary and testing them to see which fit. While (thankfully) our reading will deal mostly with primary sources and less theory and interpretation, we may not be deluged with narratives, but I am sure we shall each be bringing our own with us or weaving them as we go. Because of this, I am interested now in trying to clarify specific features in dealing with narratives of Marian devotion. First, if it is a positive or negative development, positive or negative in regard to what standard? Where does this standard derive? Have you any other ideas?

I very much welcome insights for examining and scrutinizing narratives, now or as we proceed. But I want to now turn to a thought of my own on seeing the development of Mary.

As we heard, Mary’s first unnamed mention in history is Paul’s Galatians 4.4 (c50AD) (“born of woman”). While Paul was clearly busy with other matters, Christians seem to have developed more and more interest in Mary. Mark (c. late 70s AD) (and Matthew) gave us Mary and brothers as trying to rein in Jesus and a platform to point out those who ‘do the will of God.’ Matthew (c80AD) also gave us Mary as spouse of Joseph, who received the angelic dreams. Luke (c85AD) went further to focus the attention of the infancy narrative on Mary, the recipient of the annunciation, a fulfillment of Hannah’s sign or type, who gave us Mary’s own voice in the Magnificat, and showed us Mary as distressed mother, the addressee of Simeon’s prophecy, and even a glimpse into Mary’s interior life (2.19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.). John, rich in symbolism (c90), passes over infancy narratives (the primary motive for mentioning Mary hitherto). John still includes Mary, not a Mary who fears that Jesus has gone mad, but a Mary intricately linked to Jesus’ ministry, first at the wedding at Cana, where Jesus and Mary share the secret as to his power and his “hour” which has not yet come (2.4-5). Where else does John place Mary? Why, at the climax of the ministry, at the foot of the Cross, where Jesus in agony made provision for her with his disciple. Thus, John passed over the infancy altogether but still inserted Mary into Jesus’ ministry, at its crucial beginnings and climax. So far is this from Paul’s unnamed mention of the “woman.” 

As for the last two points, Acts (c115AD) went on to include Mary, beyond Jesus’ ministry among the apostles and followers, as they chose the first successor and received the fiery anointing of the Spirit on Pentecost. Here Acts placed Mary at the nascence also of the infant Church. 

Finally, Revelation 12 (late first century) seems to depict allegorically or figuratively a Mary in cosmic import. The unnamed mother of Jesus is again unnamed, but now she is “a great sign… in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. (12.1)” She is now an agent of in the great divine drama of redemption.

What am I trying to argue in setting up this progression within New Testament texts? Presently, I make only a modest claim. I think the progressively prominent role of Mary, which we find working its way through the New Testament texts, is suggestive. If we take the gospels to reflect not merely one author’s view, but also reflecting the interests and needs of that Christian author’s communities, I think we can then see in this (so rough and crude) sketch an emerging and growing interest and value for Mary among some of the earliest Christians themselves. While Paul had bigger fish to fry in his frantic missions, Christian communities themselves preserved, transmitted and brought forth a greater and deeper importance to Mary.

If we then set up the New Testament texts in this way, and infer from the texts to the Christian communities themselves, as I have suggested, we can see a development of Marian devotion, or at least, interest and fascination within the very New Testament itself.

This idea intrigues me. Most of the time, Marian devotion is portrayed or simply asserted to be extra-biblical or a later corruption. However, the Marian material within the chronological New Testament texts suggests that Marian interest emerged among the earliest Christians. Perhaps, one could even suggest that the New Testaments texts might mark out a kind of trajectory of Marian interest that will continue and flower later. In short, that the seed from which the Marian cult grew is itself biblical.

Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the texts from the Hebrew Bible (or Septuagint) in which later Christians, searching primarily from prophecies about Jesus, will find Mary. I look forward to reflecting upon the ways Christian thinkers develop Marian hermeneutics in reading such prophetic, typological or allegorical texts as resources to find and to plumb the depths hidden in the figure of the mother of Jesus.



  1. You have anticipated tomorrow's discussion perfectly: what happens when the development moves beyond the scriptural texts? But I agree: Marian devotion is present from the very beginning of our Christian documents, if not perhaps in Paul or Mark, most definitely Matthew, Luke, and John--otherwise why include these stories at all? It is not that the New Testament says "so little" about Mary, but rather the fact that it says *so much* that should get our attention. After all, Paul didn't even think it necessary to name "the woman" of whom the Son was born.


  2. I’m glad that RJP brought historicism (not in Karl Popper’s sense) into the discussion through “development.” I think this is helpful in considering Mary in scripture. The lecture and discussion also had me thinking of historiographies and hermeneutics. I appreciate the theological compliment to thinking historically about Mary in these readings.

    To stir the pot: If Newman’s insights work doctrinally, are they historiographically “Whiggish” and evolutionary in teleology (i.e., the truest manifestations of doctrine are always in the present and future; the earliest prophets and authors of scripture were only acorns to the oak tree of present understanding)–something similar to James Frazer’s Golden Bough? It’s a predicament, surely, of the “historical religions” to justify predecessors (even if only for the sake of pedigree) while explaining the historical development of doctrine. RJP’s presentation of Newman provides us a good example of one way this tension has been dealt with.

    Can we shortchange both earlier religious devotees and ourselves by adopting such a view rather than, say, seeking to discover what Huston Smith called “forgotten truths” (in this case, modes of understanding and codifying reality in writing)?

    I ask because I approached the Old Testament readings with some skepticism, but experienced them in a new way. I remembered being taught that the Song of Solomon was considered by some to be the most inspired of Old Testament writings, and saw how this piece could be viewed as a coded “manual” for communing with the divine such that–if read the right way and combined with the right meditative practices–it could lead to spiritual experience and knowledge. Would this make it a richer, or even more “developed” source on the Mother of God (and all that accompanies such a concept) than the New Testament scriptures that deal with Mary explicitly.* In this sense, are the Song and (say) Proverbs 8 more keys than signs or types? In RJP’s nice observations about the appearance of Mary in early Christian writings (including chronological notes: thank you!), could Medieval mystics point to the nameless woman from late first-century Revelation as an example of how experience (here visionary) of the “cosmic” Mary precludes or overrides historical particulars like name (i.e., earlier authors like Solomon didn’t include Mary’s name, not so much because they couldn’t know it, but because it falls to the wayside as a minor detail in the face of “cosmic” experience of/with the Mother of God)?

    *Of course, I agree that avoiding historical question begging here requires the notion of prophecy.


    1. Dear TA,
      Thanks for your comment. I decided to wait until after yesterday's session to respond to your question. You asked:
      "If Newman’s insights work doctrinally, are they historiographically “Whiggish” and evolutionary in teleology (i.e., the truest manifestations of doctrine are always in the present and future; the earliest prophets and authors of scripture were only acorns to the oak tree of present understanding)–something similar to James Frazer’s Golden Bough? It’s a predicament, surely, of the “historical religions” to justify predecessors (even if only for the sake of pedigree) while explaining the historical development of doctrine."

      Your 'pot-stirrer' is an intriguing question. I would asnwer that Newman's development of doctrine is not of that evolutionary kind and feels no need to 'justify predecessors.' You seem to worry about a Hegelian picture in which the earlier formulations are less true or lesser manifestations, if I read your comment correctly. But Newman's task is rather to justify the successors. A classic problem for tradition was posed among the continental reformers, Luther and Calvin, who asserted scripture was the gold standard from which all doctrine must be derived (strict view; even more strictly, derived from explicit statement in scripture) or that scripture was the standard which judges all subsequent traditions (less strict). Luther loved to call subsequent traditions (which he decided were not in line with his reading of scripture) "human" or "man-made" in opposition to the inspired scripture, guaranteed not by humans but by the Holy Spirit.
      Newman found himself in a Church of England which he hoped would be a via media between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism (for example, Lutheranism), but holding on to the gold standard of scripture and traditions together. (For various reasons, he found this compromise to be untenable.) His development of doctrine undermined the Reformers' suspicions of traditions by showing the ties from later tradition back to former, undoubted scriptural antecedents.

      I would further argue that development as Newman saw it does not jeopardize or 'shortchange' antecedents but rather elevates and increases their value. Development often (perhaps most often) takes place through extended reflection upon details of a text which finds hidden meaning in those details. Spiritual reflection of the original text finds hidden treasures or resources of meaning in words that seem at first plain. Such products or insights of reflection become developmental when the spiritual community accepts and incorporates the insights. These accepted insights then become a platform or point of departure for a later generation's reflection, and so on. To return to our oak metaphor: The rings of the oak tree then, encircle and pay homage to the golden core. If the core is gone or displaced, like in a hollowing oak tree, the tradition is moribund.


    2. (CONT)

      I've not been too successful looking for a simple example. Perhaps we can take a cue from Monday's readings on Mary as Second Eve. As we shall see, Justin, Irenaeus and Tertullian took their cue from Paul who presented Christ as the second Adam. They found in Mary a second Eve. Our readings show the close attention that Irenaeus and Tertullian show to the scriptural texts in drawing the parallel between Eve and Mary. The hymn (c.9th c. AD?) "Ave Maris Stella," "Hail Star of the Sea" took up the biblical parallelism between Eve and Mary, and found its symbol in Gabriel's simple and non-descript address to Mary, "ave." Noticing that 'ave' is the reverse of Eva (Eve's name in Latin), the hymn found Mary's reversal of the Fall and role in redemption as Second Eve remedying the sin of the First Eve and so on, already present in that one little word, 'ave.' (The hymn-writer and its popularity are apparently not thrown off by the also common spelling of Eve as 'Heva,' including the often silent 'h', changing the look of the word, but not its sound.) Here are the texts (found: http://www.preces-latinae.org/thesaurus/BVM/AveMarisStella.html ; See also: http://divinumofficium.com/cgi-bin/horas/officium.pl) :

      Sumens illud Ave
      Gabrielis ore,
      funda nos in pace,
      mutans Hevae nomen.

      Taking that sweet Ave,
      which from Gabriel came,
      peace confirm within us,
      changing Eve's name.

      Your next question is a good one to raise. [Regarding the spiritualization or allegorization of Hebrew Bible texts to refer to Mary and Jesus:] "Would this make it a richer, or even more “developed” source on the Mother of God (and all that accompanies such a concept) than the New Testament scriptures that deal with Mary explicitly.* In this sense, are the Song and (say) Proverbs 8 more keys than signs or types?"
      This I cannot answer, but I think we would profit by looking carefully at the use of Song of Songs and other texts in each writer's thought to see if they may displace or take precedence over the NT texts.

      ~ RJP

  3. I second your statement that "the same could be held with Mary, except with only the most devoted readers."

    In relation to the Trinity, it can be argued that the Bible begins with the Trinity, if Genesis 1:1-2 and John 1:1-3 are read together. Different places in the Bible but talking about the same point in time (in the beginning).

    For Mary, I do agree that it's much harder to argue that she is present throughout Scripture.

    For instance, Gen. 3:15 "foreshadows" the birth of Christ but as the descendant of woman as the broad category of the sex. From this verse alone you can't say it's directly talking about Mary, though it foreshadows her coming role in the prophesy. At Genesis 3:15, it could be any woman. But the Spirit in Gen 1 can't be any Spirit and the Word in the Beginning in John 1:1 can't be anyone other than Jesus.

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  5. I really appreciated your comments about interpretations of the theological development of the image of Mary. I want to comment on your paragraph about Professor Fulton’s discussion of the way historical phenomenon have shaped our understanding of Marian devotion. I really want to continue to explore this further.

    I wonder how much the interpretation of Mary throughout the centuries reflects the development of societies, of philosophical paradigms, of cultures, of notions of gender. I do not mean to privilege our own understanding of the body, of scripture, of religion, and femininity. But I speculate that differing interpretations since the death of Christ reveal as much about the interpreters and their environment as theological concepts. I think specifically about the increasing awareness of the body in the narratives of Caulibus and Bernard, part of a larger tradition of bodily awareness emerging after 1000 C.E. represented not only in these mediations on Mary but also in increasingly realistic depictions of the human body in art. I think these theological developments must be rooted in larger historical trends of man (and woman’s) concept of his or her self.

    I think the most accessible of these trends are new developments about Mary in the last 100 years. You mentioned the feminist theology re-reading Marian devotion as echoing goddess sentiment. This reveals many things about the individuals of our own society. For one, there is a belief that everything must come from something (i.e. the attribution of Marian devotion to earlier goddess worship.) Two, there is an increasing desire to reinsert the feminine into the masculine narrative of history, at points anachronistically.

    In general scripture is a lens through which we view ourselves and our own beliefs. I love to think about how interpretations of Mary reveals other things about a person and their environment.
    -Mary W