Saturday, October 3, 2015

Our Pure, Noble, and Priestly Mary (Mary in the Apocrypha)

             Coming to today’s readings, I started with a view of Mary from the Gospels of the Evangelists in the New Testament. As said in class, the information that they provide is scant. We get a sense that there was a woman named Mary who was married to Joseph and birthed someone named Jesus. The information provided mostly portrays Mary in relation to Jesus or Christianity as a mother and focuses less on Mary herself. The authors of the Protevagelium of James (PJ), the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (P-M), and portions of Jacobus’ Golden Legend however felt the need to give Mary more of a backstory. Why do they do so? Why is Mary’s past central to Christianity? This question seems central to the motivation for writing the texts. From my reading and discussions in class, it seems that these readings help provide the link between God and Earth through Mary. If Jesus is God incarnate, then his entrance to Earth (Mary) is important theologically as a link between God and Earth.
            All of the texts stress the purity of Mary’s birth and by extension Jesus’ birth. As elaborated in all of the stories, Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, have Mary because of divine ordinance as communicated by angels (PJ 4, P-M 3, GL p.152). This scene is interestingly portrayed in the Protevangelium of James. Concerned with her lack of children, Anna prays under a “laurel tree” and sings a song emphasizing the “fruitful[ness]” of other creatures that God created (PJ 2-3). The use of trees and fruit is interesting. It evokes the passage from Genesis in which God creates “tree of knowledge of good and bad” that Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from (Genesis 2:17). This connection is strengthened when Joseph later directly cites the story of the fall of Adam and Eve (PJ 13:1). Of course, trees and fruit are symbolic of nature and fertility. However, given the use of trees and fruit remind the reader of original sin and the tainting power of lust. Given that Mary was born free of lust because of Anna’s infertility, she (and later Jesus) can escape original sin.
            This interpretation is in line with Jacobus’ writings (written after the Protevangelium of James). Jacobus makes clear that Mary was born out of “divine generosity” and not “the fruit of carnal desire” (152). The “fruit of carnal desire” here seemingly references the story of Adam and Eve. We see that Mary (and later Jesus) escape original sin because of the circumstances surrounding Mary’s birth. She is born by the grace of God and not because of human sin.
            In addition to escaping original sin, Mary appears to be important because of her lineage (as seen in observations by Jacobus). In the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew begins by describing in detail the lineage of Joseph. While reading this passage for class, I was not struck by anything in particular. However, after encountering Jacobus’ recounting of Mary’s lineage via the line of David and Levi (GL 149-151), I was amazed at how out-of-touch Matthew’s account seems. If we take that Jesus is the child of the Holy Ghost/ Holy Spirit/ God and Mary, how is Joseph’s lineage at all relevant? Jacobus’ insight in to the importance of Mary seemingly makes sense. He tries to use Mary’s connection to the royal house of David and priestly house of Levi to show Christians (through Christ through Mary) as a “kingly priesthood” (GL 151). Like with original sin, Mary’s lineage directly affects Jesus, which has implications for Christianity as a whole.
            Should we be so convinced that Mary’s lineage matters? As told in The Protengelium of James and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Mary’s virginity was left intact (PJ 19-20; P-M 13). This point is seemingly important given what happens when Salome questions Mary’s virginity. In both PJ and P-M, Salome’s hand is greatly hurt – caught on “fire” (PJ 20) and “dried up” (P-M 13). These punishments by God underscore the importance about Mary’s virginity.
            Given that Mary remains a virgin, does that make Jesus less related to Mary’s lineage? While we discussed this point in class, this question still bothers me. One might interpret the importance given to the preservation of Mary’s virginity as a way of confirming her virginity pre conception. The authors could use this point as an additional way of confirming Mary’s virginity for the reader. They might imagine that the reader (like Joseph in the story) doubts Mary’s faithfulness and suspects Mary’s child is a product of sin. This additional confirmation helps dispel these thoughts.
            At the same time, Mary’s preserved virginity seemingly makes her lineage irrelevant. I suspect my interpretation here might be a product of my contemporary notions of heredity. To explore this topic more, I should probably explore Aristotelian science (or other more relevant scientific thought from the time) more deeply.
            By working through these texts, I tried to explore how Mary’s backstory and birth portray Mary as a pure, noble, and priestly vessel for Jesus. The stories surrounding Mary have implications for how people interpret the birth of Jesus and have larger considerations in Christianity. While I focused on details surrounding Mary’s birth, The Protevangelium of James, The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, and The Golden Legend also have other motivations. For example, their numerous references to the Old Testament help lend credibility to the story of Mary and Jesus by fulfilling earlier prophecies. Additionally, while I have thought of Mary in relation to Jesus, this discussion of her birth and lineage could also more generally describe the relationship of God (the father) to Earth with Mary in one of her traditional roles as an intercessor.

- MM-T


  1. The point that Mary's history helps to clarify the relationship between God and Earth (I'm assuming "Earth" here encompasses humanity as well) is an interesting one and worthy of exploration. It may have helped to remain focused on that throughout your post, or to bring the virginity and lineage discussions back to this point. Does the emphasis on her virginity signal a break between God and Earth which remains regardless of the Incarnation? What might be at stake in this, or what in our sources speak for or against it?

  2. In response to your comments towards the end of your piece, I would offer that Jesus is even more related to Mary’s lineage because she remained a perpetual virgin. We know through the original sin of Eve that child-bearing became a painful process for women, but because Mary was conceived without sin, we can also know that she didn’t experience the associated pains of child-labor when giving birth to Jesus. If she experienced no pain, then it follows that her womb, the throne of the Holy Spirit, was not violated after giving birth unlike the wombs of every mother before her. It is precisely because Mary was a perpetual virgin that we can know Christ to be truly God since the prophecies handed down through Mary’s lineage require that the Savior simultaneous be priest, prophet, and king which is a role only God could play. If Mary did not remain a virgin after the birth of Jesus, we would have to face a contradiction in the will of God, namely that He personally wanted to preserve the purity of the vessel of His Son and that He personally wanted to have it violated. Thus the complementarity of the Mary’s perpetual virginity and historical lineage serve to strongly underscore the divine nature and divine purpose of the birth of her son.


  3. The previous comments bring up some of the things that I thought about, too, while reading your post: I would have liked to hear more about the way in which Mary provides the link between God (Heaven) and Earth, and I think as well that there is something of the same question at stake in why both the evangelists and the authors of the apocrypha pay so much attention her lineage. A lineage is, after all, a series of links! RLFB

  4. MM-T commented that it seemed odd for Matthew to lay out Joseph’s lineage. At first glance, I agree that yes, the value of this recounting seems unclear. Yet, I think considered more closely, Matthew is, in fact, doing something important with Joseph’s lineage. I poked around a bit on Wikipedia to try to investigate further what Jewish understandings of lineage were at the time of Christ’s birth. From what I gathered, two details seem especially relevant to the question at hand. First, though in more modern times the Jewish religion has followed a matrilineal model, such does not seem to have been the case at the time of Christ’s birth. Second, marriage usually happened between members of a tribe. Taken together, Matthew is merely reporting lineage as it often would have been recounted at the time. Because most spouses would come from the same tribe, commenting on Joseph’s lineage is also commenting on Mary’s lineage. It’s also worth pointing out that though Joseph may not be related to Jesus, though he may not be Jesus’ father, he nevertheless is someone who would be highly involved in Jesus' life. Thus, regardless of any biological or blood connection to Jesus, it is still important that Joseph be an appropriate parental figure in Christ’s life.