Saturday, October 10, 2015

Historical Interpretations of Marian Texts

The latest readings this week reveal how much Early Christian devotional writings, specifically those referring to the Virgin Mary, rely on an elaborate tradition going beyond the New Testament. In particular, certain symbols and associations were apparent to the Early Christian theologian and preacher that are not immediately obvious from an examination of Scripture. In some cases, the hymns and prayers we study, as we continue to see, are indebted to an ancient tradition predating the Christian Church and its contemporary version of Rabbinic Judaism, going as far back as before the Deuteronomic Reform. We should keep in mind this sort of lesson while looking at the early Greek texts explaining the aspects of Mary as theotokos – birth-giver of God. With respect to this ancient tradition, the Akathistos Hymn to the theotokos, composed during the sixth or seventh centuries, contains images that – according to Margaret Barker’s “Wisdom Imagery and the Mother of God” – point back to an ancient Israelite tradition involving a female divinity associated with wisdom. In another case we see this week, the texts may allude, without mentioning outright, contemporary changes and controversies during the writer’s time. Proclus of Constantinople’s homilies to Mary as theotokos do not directly address the ongoing Nestorian controversies of 430-1 AD, but they tackle the same issues with which Nestorius and Cyril of Alexandria grappled at the Council of Ephesus. In general, if we want a full understanding of the importance and textual depth of texts like Proclus’ sermons or the Akathistos Hymn, we have to study the historical contexts that underlie the associations their writers used, and the historical background for these particular typologies of the Virgin Mary.

In Proclus’ sermons, various controversies are specifically addressed. The issue of the proper translation of Isaiah 7.14 is mentioned; Proclus has a retort for who follow the Jewish opinion that Mary was not a virgin when she gave birth (Homily 4, lines 77-86). He also saves some words for those who contend that Christ had only divine nature: “Nor was he solely God, without humanity. For he had a body, you Manichee!” (Homily 1, lines 144-5) In both these cases, we have Proclus referencing specific historical controversies that we know from earlier in the class to have preoccupied the early Church Fathers. These particular theological issues had divided Christian from Jewish and gnostic interpretations for centuries at this point, but Proclus, in terms of quantity and passion of images, remains most invested in the more recent question of Mary’s role as bearer of God. This question would become the theological focus of the Nestorian controversy culminating in the Council of Ephesus in 431. Documents collected during the Council would come to define the doctrinal differences between what would become orthodox Christianity and heretical Nestorianism; chief among them was Nestorius’ opinion that Christ’s divine and human natures were separate, and that Mary bore only the latter, human aspect.

It is this tension between Mary as theotokos or christotokos (as Nestorius maintained) that fuels Proclus’ powerful imagery. Within the context of this debate, Proclus’ sermons take a firm stance within this controversy. His insistence on certain images emphasizes his belief that Mary was able to contain more than a human body in her womb. Even confining ourselves to the first homily makes this clear: Mary is described as a workshop, market-place, bridal chamber, the burning bush of Moses, a “swift cloud”, “purest fleece”, etc. (Lines 15-26) All these comparisons are accompanied by scriptural references, Mary is the site of communication and commerce between the human and the divine. Most prominent is Mary’s identification as a loom, a passive vessel and instrument for the weaving of flesh and godhead. Many other demonstrations follow, but Proclus’ position is clear from the first lines of the sermon. The controversy was not purely in the realm of theology either; as we learned in class, it penetrated into the higher echelons of imperial power, with the Byzantine empress Pulcheria taking part in the debate as well. The fact that Pulcheria was an avowed virgin complicates things even further when the question of allegiance to the empress became tied into a conflict that was putatively doctrinal. More to the point, the connection between Pulcheria and the Virgin Mary adds one more interpretative layer to our historical reading of these texts.

But this week, I found the most interesting case of historical events influencing a textual reading to be Barker’s conjecture in “Wisdom Imagery”. The work theorizes that a consistent aspect of early Marian devotion, the conception of Mary as the personification of Wisdom, is really a remnant of an all but extinct sort of early Israelite devotion. As we saw with Epiphanius of Salamis’ invectives against the Collyridians, Early Christian writers were aware of an ancient Judaic tradition that came before the formulations of Rabbinical Judaism that they were familiar with. Barker’s hypothesis is that Mary-as-Wisdom has its rhetorical seed in a cult of veneration for the divine mother of Yahweh, a cult that was stamped out during the reforms of King Josiah in 623 BC. Barker’s approach is partly archeological, partly philological, but the main fuel for her argument is the imagery that pervades Marian devotional literature. In reading the Akathistos Hymn, Barker finds correspondences between the myth and ritual surrounding this pre-Deuteronomic mother of Yahweh, and the titles of veneration included in this hymn. For Barker, certain aspects of Marian tradition have their roots in a past that was not only pre-Christian, but in some sense predated monotheism in Israel. These aspects have survived purges and have become reformulated as key elements in the Christian tradition. It is an important lesson that the writers of the past made both deliberate and unconscious associations that are not immediately obvious from a straightforward textual analysis, namely, our modern readings of the New Testament. The purpose of history should be to conjecture from what other evidence remains in order to better flesh out these hidden associations, even if this evidence lies hidden centuries or even millennia into the past.



  1. Do I take it correctly that you find Barker's reading of the tradition persuasive? I like very much the way you show how the debate in the fifth century involved both the theology of the Incarnation and the tensions at the court. Can we hypothesize similar tensions in King Josiah's response to the cult of the mother of Yahweh? How do we as historians judge between different versions of each story, whether we take Nestorius's or Pulcheria's side, King Josiah's or that of the ones who worshipped the Lady? RLFB

  2. I like how you describe the Theotokos controversy as fueling the proliferation of images in Proclus. It's fascinating to consider the mulitlayered resonances these images must have had and how they shaped the partisans of the actors in the controversy. Trying to dig into these meanings, bother as a window into the specific debate and to the mindset which underlay them is, to my eyes, one of the most interesting tasks in historical research.

    What does the fact that the evocative image of Mary as a loom was apparently viewed as an effective tool in a theological debate say about the understanding of truth and the world in Proclus's time? Perhaps Mary con serve as a window into seeing how this mindset changed over the course of the centuries.