Thursday, October 8, 2015

Virgins, Kings and Questions Unanswered

Tuesday’s discussion left many questions unanswered regarding Mary’s parallelisms with Eve, Mary’s functions as the mother of Jesus, and the purpose of Jesus’ conception in the flesh. I’d like to attempt responses to these questions with closer analyses of the readings and by reflecting on our discussion.

How are Mary and Eve essentially the same person? The two were both born out of miracles: Eve was drawn from Adam’s rib, and Mary was born by Immaculate Conception. Then while Eve begets humankind, Mary begets the savior of humankind. We established as a class that Mary absolves the sin of Eve by obeying the angel and begetting Christ who saves humanity, whereas Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit that damns us. But in trying to understand why the parallel exists, we might be looking for an answer that does not. It seems important to understand the significance of the qualities that have interwoven these women in themselves.

Both Eve and Mary are virgins, Eve is a virgin when she is tempted by the devil and causes original sin, Mary is when she gives birth to Jesus who absolves man’s original sin. But unlike Eve, Mary is associated with the word virgin, her epithet is the Virgin Mother. Because virginity is synonymous with moral and spiritual purity, the use of the adjective virgin has both a literal meaning to emphasize the miraculous conception of Jesus given a physically virginal Mary, and a metaphorical one, to show that Mary represents holiness. Eve’s corruption separates her from association with the term, despite her physically virginal state while in Eden. In describing Mary’s birth, Jacobus translates the angel who appears to Joachim as saying that because Mary will be born of Immaculate Conception, she is “not the fruit of carnal desire but of the divine generosity” (152). So the word virgin best encapsulates the qualities of Mary, she is earthy proof of God’s miracles, and she embodies holiness since she was born from the divine and soon begets the holiest one. Interestingly, the word virgin as a symbol of a protective seal can also extend to understanding the womb both as what encloses Jesus at his birth and his death. Ephram in Hymn 8 says “Sealed was the grave which they entrusted with keeping the dead man. Virginal was the womb that no man knew” (130). The use of virginity to describe Mary emphasizes that Jesus was born the most pure, neither corrupted by man at birth, nor at death despite suspicions that Jesus’ tomb had been unsealed by men.

Another thought we addressed was the possibility of Mary having priesthood, given that Epiphanius of Salamis was adamantly against that idea. He said “[Mary’s] womb became a temple, and by God’s kindness and an awesome mystery was prepared to be the dwelling place of the Lord’s human nature. But it was not God’s pleasure [that she be a priest]” (622). Ephram also speaks of Mary being the Ark where the priest serves in Hymn 16. Epiphanius then assumes that God did not choose Mary to be a priest because she never administered baptisms, nor did the church ever include “eldresses” or “priestesses” in their ordinance. But his interpretation of God’s will is too technical and narrow; simply because the New Testament does not identify Mary as a priest by label does not mean she is not a priest by qualification. Defenders of Eiphanius’ argument might use the following logic: If Mary’s womb is the temple, and Jesus is the high priest, therefore by Jesus being in Mary’s womb, he is the high priest within the temple. Thus, with Jesus as the priest, Mary cannot be both the temple and the priest; it would be paradoxical for her to be in her own womb. But Mary is in every way qualified to be a priest and best exemplifies one. If the main function of a priest is to serve the Lord, than no one else is better suited to do so than Mary, who not only in Luke calls herself a “servant of the Lord”, but also contains in her humble human body the Son of God, the creator of all creation, one too grand for the heavens to hold. By conceiving Jesus, she serves God in a way unsurpassable by any priest or other human being. 

Now why was Jesus conceived in the flesh rather than appear on Earth as Adam did in Genesis, and why he was born through the Virgin Mother Mary? One other reason that Jesus is conceived in the flesh might be to fulfill the prophecy of his kingship over man. It is crucial to Jesus’ genealogy that he was a direct descendant of David, the first king. Ephram writes in Hymn 2, “The line reached You and stood still, for you are the Son of David, and there is no other”. In his connection to kings by blood, he solidified his place as the final and most important king in the line of succession that began with David. He had to be conceived by Mary, a descendant of David, and his lineage was legitimized by Mary’s betrothal to Joseph, who was also a descendant of David. I think another reason for his earthly conception is that we see the magnitude of his power in the fact that his creation is powerful enough to create himself in human form. There simply needs to be a physical manifestation of God’s capacity for creation, and that is seen most viscerally, most effectively through the imagery of a mother and her womb holding God’s son. Then the act of kenosis, of humbling himself by surrendering his powers as God and replacing them with man’s helplessness gives him the ability to sacrifice himself, now as a human, for the salvation of the race. As for anticipating his departure from Earth and his followers, there also needs to be a temple, a holy place where Jesus resonates spiritually long after his death and resurrection. The temple as a holy place was begotten simultaneously along with the birth of Jesus as the Savior from the womb of the Virgin Mary.

- A. Z.


  1. The question of Mary’s priesthood is an interesting one, and – as the author noted – Mary in some ways could be thought of as the ideal priestess in that she is not only depicted as the temple for Christ but also as a handmaiden or servant of the lord. Personally, I likewise find this interpretation rather compelling despite Epiphanius’ somewhat narrow objections.

    One argument I found a bit less convincing was the latter reason given for Jesus’ birth by the Virgin Mary. On one hand, it’s true that it fulfills scriptural prophesies as the King of Man from the line of David. However, the idea that the virgin birth is necessary to display “magnitude of his power in the fact that his creation is powerful enough to create himself in human form” – for me – seems to follow from the virgin birth, but it is not the reason for it. That is to say, through the virgin birth we can see his power and his humility in emptying himself of that power by becoming human. As I have understood it, the main reason why he was born through Mary was so he could share in humanity to be a perfect sacrifice for humankind, and the author does make this point later on in the paragraph. However, this line of reasoning seems to put the cart a bit before the horse on how it claims the act of kenosis follows from the need for a physically manifestation of God’s capacity for creation.


  2. You've posed a number of interesting questions here, which open the doors for a lot of fruitful further analysis. So many questions, in fact, that I'd wish you had focused on one or two in particular in more detail. I especially liked your exploration of the parallels between Eve and Mary, and the distinction between physical and spiritual virginity which you draw. However, it might be wise to take more care around the margins of your argument, as some questionable statements call into question what you're arguing as a whole. For example, are Eve and Mary really "essentially the same person"? Is it not precisely their differences which make the parallel between them so striking? Similarly is Mary Immaculately Conceived because of her virginity? The way you've described it appears that the "virginity" (in the spiritual sense) that led to Mary's miraculous conception was on the part of Joachim and Anna. Later thinkers will argue that Mary was miraculously conceived as a consequence of her "fiat", her acceptance of God's mission for her, a sort of before-the-fact consequence of the Incarnation, and it is perhaps in this sense that her virginity caused the Immaculate Conception. This, of course, leads to even more questions and interesting areas of investigation.

  3. Cause and effect are all intricately bound up here, as the previous comments note. What causes what? We talked in class about the way in which the early Christians attempted to defend their interpretation of Isaiah 7:14: as they argued, a "young woman" giving birth would not be a sign in the way that a "virgin" giving birth would. So, by this reasoning, Mary has to be a virgin because otherwise her giving birth to Jesus would not be the sign they were looking for. In this sense, the virgin birth is necessary only if it is the sign that was promised; everything else is an argument after the fact of accepting this sign. RLFB

  4. I definitely agree with you that Epiphanius is severely limiting his conception of what it means to be a priest; it is clear that he is speaking from a Christian tradition rather than an Old Testament one in his discussion of priests performing rites like baptism, communion, etc. I also agree that key to the portrayal of Mary as a priest is Luke’s description of her as the “servant of the Lord” (or, rather, her description of herself within the gospel of Luke). I would argue that Luke himself would have been working from an Old Testament tradition of what priesthood means and, if we also take this view, Mary as a priest makes a lot of sense. If Epiphanius disagrees, maybe it is because he is pretty well locked into the necessary interpretation of a patriarchal society. Perhaps the problem isn’t so much that the tradition does not support the idea of Mary as a priest but rather that, because Mary is female, it is for Epiphanius intrinsically impossible for her to ever be a priest. Besides that, if he is to confirm this idea that Mary is a priest, it weakens his diatribe against the female priests he so rails against. Maybe the effect is in fact the cause in this case.