Friday, October 2, 2015

Beata Maria: Portrayal in the Apocrypha, Portrayal in Practice

            This week we wrapped up our initial discussions on Blessed Mary, focusing on the descriptions surrounding her conception and birth in Apocryphal writings. Now, as a newcomer to the field of extensive historical analysis, as well as being raised in the Protestant faith with adherence to the principle of Sola Scriptura (Latin, “by Scripture alone,” a doctrine promoting the strict exegetical study of Biblical canon as the highest, and in some cases, only authority governing one’s faith), I found texts such as the “Protevangelium of James” (PJ) and Pseudo-Matthew (PM) to be at once unfamiliar and fascinating. My primary interest in these writings is that of authorship and intent – given that these early works influenced traditions and worship practices nearly a millennium later, as seen in the Golden Legend by Jacobus, I’m interested in how they portray the Virgin, why they do so in such a manner, and how they resonate with canon scripture.

Many observations were made concerning the emphasis on purity in PJ. This theme begins early in the text when Anna, who has been publicly lamenting her childlessness following Joachim’s rejection at the temple, discards her mourning garments, cleanses her body, and dons her bridal clothing to present herself before the Lord in her garden, asking Him to bless her with child (PJ, 57-8). And shortly after this self-cleansing, an angel of the Lord indeed informs Anna of the impending conception and birth of the Virgin.

Later, after Mary is born, she is able to walk to her mother at 6 months of age, at which point Anna “took her up saying ‘As the Lord my God lives, you shall walk no more upon this earth until I bring you into the temple of the Lord.’ And she made a sanctuary in her bedroom and did not permit anything common or unclean to pass through it. And she summoned the undefiled daughters of the Hebrews, and they served her.” (PJ, 59). Even the earth itself is too base for Mary’s body; the next time she sets foot outside Anna’s sanctuary, it is to dance before the Lord at the temple.

There are many other references to Mary’s physical purity in PJ – her residence in the temple of the Lord, where she was fed by angels daily; her selection among the pure virgins to weave the scarlet and purple for the temple veil; her testing by the “water of conviction” to confirm her virginity before the tribes of Israel.

In class, we discussed the idea associating imagery of the temple with Mary’s purity – just as the temple must be kept clean to house the Holy of Holies and the Lord’s presence, Mary must be pure to contain and produce Jesus Christ, Son of the Most High, Blessed Redeemer, Emannuel. We also discussed the significance of Moses, Miriam, and Aaron with regards to Mary’s name and status. I will admit that I had difficulty seeing any connection between Mary and Miriam at first besides the similarity in name and their shared sex. However, in reading Exodus 15:20-21, we see that Miriam, sister of Moses, leads the Israelites in song to the Lord following their safe passage through the Red Sea: “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. Miriam sang to them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. Both horse and driver he has hurled into the sea.” (NIV). The imagery of this scene resonates with at least two other points in Scripture and the Apocrypha: the procession of the Ark under King David in 1 Chronicles 15, and the dancing of Mary upon the steps of the temple for the pleasure of the Lord and the tribes of Israel. With regard to the former, I recall someone in class mentioning that it was a custom for Israelite women to sing praises after a victory – however, it appears that this practice was flipped by David, who personally danced and sung praise to the Lord in public, petitioning Him to return favor to Israel. Furthermore, the dancing of Mary seems to connect closely with Miriam’s dance in the Exodus, suggesting perhaps that as Miriam’s song signified the end of physical slavery for the Israelites, Mary’s dance preluded the salvation of all humankind through her Son, the Christ.

However, I am wary of drawing too close a connection between Miriam and Mary, based on my reading of Numbers 12, in which Miriam is struck with skin disease following her and Aaron’s dissension of the Lord’s favor on Moses. Even when Moses intercedes to beg the Lord to heal his sister, she is put to shame by being forcibly confined outside the camp for 7 days. So here, she is both physically and socially dirtied, whereas Blessed Mary is and was always pure – indeed, Miriam actually dies and is buried during the journey to the Promised Land (Numbers 20:1, NIV) in a scene significantly more humble than the Assumption of the Virgin. Perhaps this is symbolic of the gap between the two women and the kinds of salvation they represented: one, physical, temporary, fallible, the other, pure, eternal, glorifying.

I have explored to a limited extent the portrayal of the pure Virgin in PJ. I now turn briefly to PM, where our class discussed the scene concerning the taming of the dragons by Jesus, thereby fulfilling David’s prophecy in Psalms. There are several other instances of such fulfillment quite close to this scene: when Christ is placed in a manger shortly after His birth, he is watched over by an ox and an ass, fulfilling prophecies by both Isaiah and Habakkuk (PM, 94). Later, when the Virgin carries Christ into the temple at Egypt, 365 idols prostrate themselves before Him, fulfilling another of Isaiah’s prophecies (96). Even in Scripture, the Gospels are full of references to the things happening “as they were foretold by the prophets,” creating a continuous chronology for Biblical events and affirming Christ’s role as the Messiah.

It is a bit puzzling, therefore, when I read the series of liturgical events described at the ends of both assigned chapters of the Golden Legend and see little mention of either purity or prophecy. Stories like the woman who stole the Son of the Virgin as hostage for her own son’s release seem to have little to do with the Queen of Heaven, nor do stories like her forced reinstatement of the clergy who only knew how to worship her, or saving one of her worshippers from the Lord’s wrath by interceding on his behalf. To me, these stories seem more personal and relate individual encounters with the Virgin, whereas the other Apocryphal texts appear as texts intended to be taken as Scripture. But perhaps that is the beauty of Mary? That one so pure, loving, and beloved could appear before you or I, something we could never imagine from, say, Elijah, the Apostles, or Christ Himself without at least some amount of fear.

I pray that we should be so blessed as to receive further inspiration and insight from Mary’s perfect grace.



  1. I think that the gap that you point to between the presentations of Mary and Miriam are perceptive. Recall that one of the fundamental hermeneutics that Christian interpreters bring to bear on the Old Testament is the idea of prefiguration. Events throughout salvation history mirror each other, and in the distinctions between these events and their ultimate models in the Incarnation, we can see the evolving relationship of God's relation to humanity. In a sense, therefore, the distinctions between Miriam and Mary can be taken to be reflective of the differences between the Old and New covenants in the eyes of the authors of our sources.

    It's also interesting to think of the context of these works in relation to the point you raise about The Golden Legend. Specifically, the importance of sacrifice to the world of the earlier texts. Perhaps Jacobus isn't concerned with purity is because this sacrificial world view has been eclipsed, or perhaps it might be better to say profoundly reconfigured, by the intervening Christian centuries. In the same way that comparing Mary and Miriam reveals the distinctions between the covenants, comparing Jacobus and the PJ reveals the contrasts between emerging and ascendant Christianity.

  2. I like very much the way you are clearly wrestling here with making sense of the stories in the apocrypha based on what you had previously known of the tradition from Scripture. You do a good job pointing us to some of the most puzzling aspects of the apocryphal stories, particularly the emphasis on Mary's purity, and point to several places in Scripture where we might look to begin making sense of these themes. This is definitely the kind of thing we would seem to need Mary's guidance on most! RLFB