An idea was brought up toward the end of class about things making or not making sense that I wanted to explore further because I think it can help clarify some of what is going on in the text. The question of why some things “made sense” and others didn’t also helped me to focus in on the way in which my approach to the readings affected my understanding of them.
When I read a new text, particularly when I know it is for class, I try to put together what is being said into a coherent argument. I want to make sense of what I am reading and I get frustrated when things do not seem to fit together correctly and I can’t. I assume that there is something that I do not understand, and sometimes this is true. Sometimes I just do not get it; but sometimes the things that I am trying to piece together really do not fit. This is not to say that they do not make sense, but that their pattern is obscured when viewed from the single argument lens that is my default.
A large part of what makes these texts difficult for me is that there is so much built in contradiction, and it takes a while for my mental eyes to adjust. Just to start with Mary being the virgin mother presents in itself and all the imagery and association that come with it a paradox. Many of the descriptors attached to Mary are actually in some way opposites. Her womb can contain that which Heaven cannot. These contradictions make her a very powerful figure, but they also make her very difficult to grapple with conceptually. She is also often not the primary concern of medieval writers. Statements that seem strange when considered from a purely Marian perspective gain meaning when placed in the context of the author’s thoughts on Jesus.
Aside from the built in paradox of Mary’s nature there is also the lack of unity in the arguments put forward about her that can be discombobulating . The cannon of literature concerning her was written by different people, at different times, in different places, with different influences, and for different reasons. The arguments they make are not all working toward the same goal and some of them are almost certainly going to be contradictory. The Christians where in the protracted and messy process of trying to define themselves. During and after this process they “smoothed” things into at least an outward semblance of coherence, but this is sometimes only skin deep, and it can crack under close examination.
Each of the writers whose work we have read, wrote in a specific political context to further a specific aim. Often this takes the form of writing against a specific group or practice, such as the Gnostics, or the “heretical” actions of the Arabian women. For the most part they laid out their arguments about who and what Mary is to counter the claims of rival sects which they saw as threatening or false, rather than to build a single coherent picture of who Mary was. There is more than one way to praise Mary that is not involve female priests and the offering of proscribed cakes, and there is more than one argument for Jesus having a corporeal form. While this method of triangulation could provide a fairly unified picture of Mary given enough time and examples, early on it leaves a rather scattered image.
All of this is made even more uncertain because although the early writers were trying to craft a new Christian tradition and were working in what would become a New Testament space, most of the references to Mary they use come from an older tradition, seemingly shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. There appears to be some divine or divine adjacent female figure associated with an older form of worship onto whom Mary is being mapped. This can be difficult to pick up on because modern readers are not attuned to that tradition. It is also unclear what level of knowledge the early church fathers had about this tradition. They where probably aware of it in some way, as they were much closer to it in time, and they seemed to recognize the worship of the Arabian women as being in some way connected to this older practice. Were they aware enough though to connect the lingering of practices such as those “heresies” with their own desire to cast Mary as the new Eve opposite Jesus’s Adam? This older tradition provides some of the best clues as to why Mary shows up as she does, but it also obfuscates through its far reaching permutation and the difficulties in fully assessing and calibrating for its affects.
The last of the major argument threads are the ideas about Mary mapped out by the Church fathers from their meager facts, collected past practices, and current political needs. These are sometimes easier to deal with because they are intentionally created to be coherent and unifying, However this polished exterior can lull a reader into forgetting that these ideas to are living works created out of a specific set of circumstances, and whether or not they end up as the official church position on an issue, very few of them started out that way.
The idea that Mary as the new Eve is an example of all of these strands coming together. For the typology to work Mary’s virgin status must not be questioned, it is also an idea that is not just about her, the Jesus/Adam parallel is important as well. He argument is politically expedient in the moment because it counters that Gnostics by strengthening the Christian claim that their God is the God of the Hebrews. Mary’s role here as part of a mother and son “ruling” pair refers back to this older tradition that can be glimpsed in Song of Songs and again in some of the early Christian hymns. Tying it all together with Mary becoming the bringer of new and eternal life just as eve had brought forth death becomes a doctrinal argument on original sin and salvation based around typology.
All of these various strands of thought surrounding Mary come together in one place and while they do not exactly work together, they at least work in parallel. On some occasions these points of inflection become far more fraught and contradictory. The sum of these crossroads of ideas and agendas “make much greater sense” when first considered as a group of separate parts.
- M. Coker