Thursday, October 8, 2015

Fitting Mary into the Tradition

Reading these works gives the impression that the path to understanding the person and role of Mary is paved by appeals to what we might term, as we did in class, the “ancient tradition.” Again and again, these writers try to convince us that the Virgin fits into the ancient tradition that they see depicted in the scriptures. I use the word “fits” because Mary is not simply an object of fulfilled scriptural (Old Testament) prophecies, a personage mentioned in the Gospels, nor a historical woman, but a complex combination of all three. The rationale that is often employed to support Mary’s position in scripture, her authenticity as the Mother of God, or her virginal purity, is not a direct argument, but a process of layering her identities and connecting those identities to elements of an extant tradition.

Our readings began with Irenaeus appealing to the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 “Behold a young woman shall conceive, and bring forth a son” (the King James, English Standard, American Standard, and New International Version all translate “young woman” as virgin). But Irenaeus’s claim is interesting because it appeals to two separate elements of ancient traditions; firstly, the authority of Isaiah, which he claims prophesied Mary’s carrying of the Christ; and secondly is the tradition of the Septuagint’s correctness of translation. The Ebionites claim that Jesus was born of Joseph, and thereby deny his genesis of God. Irenaeus tries to disprove them by showing that the ancient scripture predicts his birth of a virgin, and shows that this was translated by a group of Jewish scholars under Ptolemy in Egypt, well before the time of Mary or the Christian tradition. He assumes that his readers will accept the authority of Isaiah, but also that they will (for no one particular reason more so than another) accept the authority of a group of unbiased ancient translators. There is no logical reason apparent to us why the Septuagint would be more authoritative than any other translation, yet Irenaeus makes the argument, appealing to the ancient tradition nonetheless.

In an interesting bit of “fitting,” Irenaeus reminds us that God “has preserved to us the unadulterated Scriptures in Egypt, where the House of Jacob flourished, fleeing from the famine in Canaan; where also our Lord was preserved when he fled from the persecution set on foot by Herod” (Chapter XXI). It seems as if, to Irenaeus’s logic, the fact that these scriptures from the Septuagint were preserved in Egypt (a land that harbored both Christ and the Israelites) makes them even more legitimate. To our modern minds this does not necessarily follow, but to Irenaeus (and probably his readers) it makes perfect sense, and augments the Septuagint translation’s legitimacy.

The numerous analogies and dissimilarities concerning Mary and Eve are fertile ground for both Irenaeus and Tertullian to sow claims, and to tie up various strands between the original Mother and the Mother of God. Mary and Eve are both virgins when the most significant events happen to them (conceiving Christ, and eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, respectively) but even more conveniently they are both betrothed to a husband. The first succumbs by the enticing of a demon; the second prevails by the persuasion of an angel. Because Eve brought sin into the world and happened to be a virgin, a virgin must undo this sin. In the grand scheme of (human and) religious history, obedience of one chosen person undoes the disobedience of a former similar person.

To Epiphanius of Salamis, it is crucially important that the version of Mary in New Testament scriptures and the prophesied Mary in Old Testament scriptures be understood, so as to worship correctly, and not incorrectly. He is preoccupied with the evil of two types of sects that, on one side of the spectrum “belittles the holy Virgin while the other, in its turn, glorifies her to excess” (Panarion, 621). The excessive worship he speaks of concerns groups of women who offer sacrifices of bread to Mary and then partake of it. As the modern Christian might perceive, this act greatly resembles the Eucharist, and thus seems sacrilegious. But Epiphanius does not seem nearly as caught up on this fact (as we might tend to be) – instead, he sees this behavior as a threat because the women are acting as priests. It is their assumed role that goes against the historical/ancient tradition that bothers him. He recites a lengthy history of priesthood, beginning all the way with Abel and finishing near the end of the Old Testament, demonstrating that in not a single place did a woman assume priesthood.

Then he moves on to the New Testament, claiming that if any women were to be a priest it should be Mary – but she herself is a figure of the temple of God, not of the priests that serve in the temple. He subsequently covers many of the contexts in which women are mentioned in the New Testament. He cedes they can be prophetesses, but points out that Paul says they cannot speak in Church.

Ephrem the Syrian too layers on the parallels between Mary and the ancient tradition in his hymns of praise. In a picture of interaction between Mary and Christ he sings “Let His Mother worship him; let her offer Him a crown. / For Solomon’s mother made him king and crowned him.” (Hymn 2). In scripture there does not seem to necessarily be any direct or implied correlation between Mary and Bathsheba, but Ephrem places her in context of the ancient tradition in order to praise her. It is as if the imagined parallel between Christ’s and Solomon’s mother makes Mary all the more splendid and venerable. Ephrem is not trying to prove a point, but he is imagining Mary as the inheritor/continuer of an ancient tradition, thereby making her more praiseworthy.

The ancient tradition – whether it is the Old Testament or the New – occupies a venerated space in the religious imaginations of all of these authors. By appealing to it, they see themselves as being able to prove her worth, invoke her majesty, or set the worship/non-worship of her straight. Reading Mary’s person into Old Testament prophecies lends her credibility as the Mother of God. Likewise appealing to traditions of translation proves to believers-in-scripture-but-not-in-Christ that in fact their interpretations are wrong. But this process of connecting the old to the new, present to the past, is not necessarily a rigorously logical procedure, but rather a process of looking for parallels, fitting one tradition into the context of another.



  1. I like your use of the term "fit" here, it brings to mind Anselm's later discussion of the Incarnation in terms of "fittingness." For Anselm, the Virgin Birth is reasonable precisely because it fits so well within the confines of reason and, implicitly, tradition. Noticing the way in which these arguments proceed is also a good observation, especially noticing that while the arguments aren't necessarily logical syllogisms they're not inherently opposed to reason. Rather, as you note, there are layers here, and reading a human being as a term in a logical argument is not what the authors of Late Antiquity are really interested in. We might wonder, though, is there anything guiding this mode of interpretation and searching for parallels, or is the only constraint the limits of an interpreters imagination? What shapes what they consider licit and illicit readings of the tradition? What's negotiable? Interrogating this might point to some interesting difference of thought that highlight just what precisely is at stake in these discussions, why they are so vital and passionately argued and how they shape later thought.

  2. I would agree with dyingst here: I like very much the way in which you show us the way in which our authors are thinking about and arguing from the "ancient tradition," but what are their criteria for judging what "fits"? Do they seem at all consistent in their appeals to tradition? E.g. you make a very good point about the way in which Irenaeus points to Egypt as somehow clinching the argument in favor of the Septuagint's translation. Does this tell us anything about where the tradition is coming from? Hint: Barker would say yes! RLFB