Saturday, October 3, 2015

Mary vs. Eve / Mary vs. Joseph

A scriptural reference that was made several times in the readings alludes to Mary’s role as a parallel and reversal of Eve.  “And why are you afraid of seeing the wicked spirit, since you crushed his head and stripped him of his imperial power?” says an angel to Mary in “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary” (p.78).  This phrase recalls Genesis 3:15, when God curses Eve, Adam, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden: “I will put enmity between you [the Serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head and you will strike his heel.”  The suggestion is that Mary should no longer fear demons because she has “crushed the head” of Satan.  She no longer has to fear what has plagued humanity since the expulsion from Eden.  Similarly, Joseph in The Protevengelium of James despairs when he learns that Mary has become pregnant, saying, “Has the story of Adam been repeated in me?  For as Adam was absent in the hour of his prayer and the serpent came and found Eve alone and deceived her, so also has it happened to me” (p.62, paragraph 13).  Joseph is clearly incorrect, but the parallel between the stories highlights Mary’s exceptional nature as a human exempt from the consequences of the Genesis episode.  As another example, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew claims that “there has been no spilling of blood at [Jesus’s] birth, no pain in bringing him forth” (p.93, chapter 13).  This detail refers to Genesis 3:16, in which God curses Eve (and her descendents) with pain in childbirth.

The theme of Mary as the foil of Eve isn’t revelatory, but I’m curious how well-established it was when the apocrypha were written.  My first thought is that it shows a tie between sexuality and the concept of the first sin, given that Mary escapes the curse of Eve because of her virginity.  However, that falls outside the realm of the questions we’re trying to answer in this class, which are the “historical type B” questions on the board on Thursday.  I think the authors of the apocrypha who allude to Eve in the story of Mary are attempting to presage their understanding of Christ as savior with Mary’s role as a contributor to the possibility of the forgiveness of sins.  In the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew particularly, the divine aspect of Jesus is emphasized over his human aspect and Mary serves as a fully-human component in the story (who is nevertheless surrounded by miraculous occurrences).

The place of Joseph in these stories is interesting, at least in light of the usual modern Protestant understanding of Mary and Joseph as a pair who are both special and important.  In The Protevengelium of James, Joseph is a sympathetic character whose thoughts and feelings are clear to the reader.  However, he is a more of a witness to events than a participant.  In contrast to Mary, whose existence is marked as special from before her birth, Joseph is notable only in relation to Mary and Jesus.  Pseudo-Matthew presents Joseph as a stern man who rebukes Mary during childbirth and who appears foolish when he scolds Mary again for wanting fruit in the desert, only to watch as the infant Jesus says a word and makes fruit fall from the palm tree (p.95, chapter 20).  Joseph later refers to Jesus as “Lord” and respectfully asks permission to change their route—unnecessarily, since Jesus can simply shorten the way (p.96, chapter 22).  In the section summarized by the editor, in which Mary and Joseph cannot seem to discipline Jesus as a child, Jesus says to Joseph, “I have no earthly father.  When I am lifted up from the earth I will make all mention of your descent to cease.  I know when you were born and how long you have to live” (p.90, chapter 29).  Joseph is never in charge or fatherly in this version of the story.  While Jesus demonstrates that there is no need for Mary to raise him like a normal child, he also behaves toward her like a loving son.  As someone mentioned in class, Jesus frequently appears on Mary’s lap in this section.  He also calls her “mother” (p.95, chapter 19).

The contrast between the portrayal of Joseph and Mary in these two texts suggests that Mary is meant by the authors to be worthy of reverence far beyond that of Joseph.  Mary’s role is relative to that of Jesus in the sense that she is notable for being the “vessel” for Christ, yet there is also a clear intention to present her as extraordinary even before her birth and after her death.  Though Joseph is convenient plot-wise because Mary needs a husband, he remains “Joseph” to Jesus, while Mary is “mother.”

I suppose in both of these comparisons, I find it interesting that while Mary comes across as someone worthy of devotion “in herself,” it’s also impossible to say that she is independently significant.  She is, after all, only the Virgin Mary because of her relation to Jesus.  I find myself wanting to determine whether the texts were interested in Mary as a figure of power or significance independently or just as a purified vessel to convey Jesus into the world, but they don’t seem to be resolved so easily.  Mary appears before widows, thieves, clerics, priests, etc. to aid them after her death and in some sense reversed Eve’s deed in the Garden of Eden, but her ability to do so can’t be separated from her relation to her son.

- JF

1 comment:

  1. What would it mean for Mary to be significant "independently"? One of the things that is surely most fascinating about these stories is the way in which the authors make connections between various characters and themes: Mary and Eve, Joseph and Mary, Mary and Christ. The whole point is relational, not to single any one character out. Even Christ is only Christ because Mary is his Mother. RLFB