May is traditionally dedicated to devotion to the Blessed Mother Mary. Some other Christian groups are in the habit of pointing to our so-called “Mary Worship” as proof that Catholics are not “real” Christians, citing our devotion to Our Lady as an un-Biblical, medieval invention. While it is true that devotion to Mary deepened and became even more popular in the 12th and 13th centuries (the rise of the Rosary as a pious practice for lay-people is a prime example of this) Marian devotion was certainly not unknown in the ancient Church– the time which many of my “Bible Christian” interlocutors claim for their own origin. For example, we read in Origen (c. AD 228):
“No one can understand the meaning of [the Gospel of John] unless he has lain on Jesus’ breast and from Jesus has received Mary to be his mother, too.”
Likewise, many of the Church Fathers wrote extensively about the perpetual virginity of Mary and her revered status (see: Jerome, Augustine, and Ambrose), but perhaps the third/fourth century is not quite early enough for some. What if we went back to examine Christian attitudes towards Mary in the second century?
I set aside the obvious Biblical attestations to her piety and her centrality to the early Christian Church because my hypothetical interlocutor knows and dismisses them already. Instead, let’s look at popular piety, which comes through in a very interesting text known as the “Protoevangelium of James,” written some time around AD 140.
We know this story of Mary’s life leading up to the birth of Christ was quite popular, partly because so many extant ancient manuscripts have been found. Origen regards it as a late text and so he seems to exclude it from the accepted canon of scripture (Jerome later does, as well), yet he also indicates that its contents are not without popular support and that the text reflects existing notions about the early life of Mary and the beginnings of the Holy Family (see Origen’s commentary on the Brethren of Jesus). Perhaps even more striking is the fact that the Protoevangelium presents a no-holds-barred approach to squashing any doubts about Mary’s perpetual virginity. So, what is in this text? And why does it matter?
The “Protoevanglium of James” begins with an elderly barren couple: Joachim and Anna. Eager to have a child, Joachim and Anna ask God to bless them as He did Abraham and Sarah. Anna conceives and brings forth a daughter, whom she names Mary. Like Hannah (1 Samuel 1:11), Anna has promised to offer this child up to the service of God at the Temple, so at the age of three, Mary is presented at the Temple, where despite the fact that for three years Anna has made sure Mary’s feet don’t become tainted by touching ground other than the Temple, she dances on the steps as her parents leave. Mary grows up in the Temple and when she is twelve years old, Zacharias (the high priest) summons all of the widowers so that he may choose a suitable husband for the girl. Through the guidance of a dove, Joseph is selected from the group and the two are betrothed. Still a virgin, Mary is chosen to weave the purple and scarlet pieces for the new veil of the Temple. Then one day, as she is filling her water pitcher, Gabriel appears and gives her the world-altering message, which elicits the Visitation. What follows is a detailed account of how Joseph finds his pregnant fiancee as he likens himself to Adam, who through his negligence of Eve allows the serpent to deceive her. The two of them are subjected to a ritual cleansing in the desert, whence both arrive home unharmed– a testimony to their sinlessness in the ordeal. Then a message arrives about the census, so the family heads down to Bethlehem. But since they are not married and Mary is great with child, they elect to stay outside the city in a cave (stable). Joseph finds a Hebrew midwife named Salome, who doesn’t even have to deliver the baby because he just leaps forth from Mary’s womb– yet she will not tend to Mary until she verifies that this woman is, indeed a virgin.* Next we have the magi and their gifts, Herod’s blood-thirsty rage, and finally the episode ends with Zacaharias, murdered because he would not give up the location of his infant son, John. So blind Simeon is elected as the new high priest and James ends his tale.
The whole episode is far too rich to analyze in a single blog post, but here are a few relevant items you shouldn’t miss:
If Anna and Joachim are like Sarah and Abraham, Mary is like Isaac, who himself is a type of Christ. Though she never undergoes an experience similar to Isaac’s aqedah, the themes of sacrifice, obedience, and faith saturate her whole life. More to the point, the scene of the aqedah (perhaps the most memorable and important in the whole Isaac story) is identified as Moriah, which is also the site of the Temple mount in Jerusalem. This foreshadows the crucial event in Mary’s life as mother and disciple: not the near-death of her beloved Son, but His actual crucifixion and identification as unblemished Sacrificial Lamb.
Anna, like Hannah, promises Mary to Temple service. Thus, Mary is likened to Samuel, the great prophet, who as a young boy hears the voice of God and responds: “Speak, your servant is listening.” (1 Sam 3:10)
Mary dances on the Temple steps, as King David “danced before the Lord” (2 Sam 6:14). It is no mere coincidence that the first words of Matthew’s Gospel identify Jesus as “the son of David” (Mt 1:1); the messiah’s kingly identity was a point of contention for Jesus’ would-be followers (and accusers!) who expected an earthly Kingship. Yet this display on the part of Mary shows not only that David is in Jesus’ patrimonial family line (as in Mt), but that His mother was “like” that same king even without an earthly title.
Mary weaves the purple and scarlet for the Temple veil: to a Roman audience, purple and scarlet symbolize royalty and religious feasts, respectively– which point towards her soon-to-be-conceived Son. Even more importantly, these colors would be part of the veil which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the world. The Holy of Holies was the innermost chamber of the Temple, where God Himself was said to dwell. No one was allowed to enter, save the high priest on the Day of Atonement, when he was permitted to offer blood sacrifice for the purification of the people. It was this same veil which was torn in two (Mt 27:51) at the crucifixion, symbolizing the end of Temple sacrifice and the “unleashing” of God upon the world. Though we typically associate Mary with the color blue, there is plenty of attestation to Mary wearing red in religious art, leading to the association also of Mary’s garments serving as the “veil” of the Temple of her womb.
In this Annunciation scene, Mary is drawing water for her pitcher. In the Old Testament, wells were the place of betrothal for the patriarchs (see: Gen 24:15, Gen 29:9-11, Ex 2:15-19 and even the Samaritan Woman at the well symbolizing Jesus’ ‘betrothal’ to the Gentiles in John 4). In this type scene, Mary is betrothed to God Himself.
Joseph’s self-imposed chastisement leads him to associate Mary with Eve. Though he draws this comparison assuming the girl fell to temptation, he couldn’t be more right: Mary is the New Eve as her Son, Christ, is the New Adam (cf. Rom 5:12-18)
Salome’s insistence to put Mary’s virginity to the test echoes Thomas’ demand (Jn 20:24-29) for a physical sign of the Resurrection: “Then said Salome: As the Lord my God lives, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.”
The “Magnificat” (Mary’s canticle in Lk 1:46-55, which is itself an echo of Hannah’s canticle in 1 Sam 2:1-10) resounds throughout as Anna and Salome both find their own souls “magnified” through Mary and twice is it said that God has “magnified [Mary’s] name” long before the Annunciation.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
As I’ve said, this text– though popular– was not considered canonical. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t contain Truth, but that it was not considered Divinely Inspired. Rather than seeing the Protoevangelium as a foundational text which established reverence for Mary (particularly in her perpetual virginity), it makes much more sense to see this text as a reflection of well-established sentiments and stories surrounding the Mother of God. For centuries this text was translated and circulated in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Arabic and ancient Irish– just to name a few languages! And though Jerome effectively suppressed its popularity in Latin-speaking circles, our Tradition stills owes much of our Marian imagery to this text (or perhaps, to the tradition this text represents). Besides what we’ve already discussed, here are just a few of those gems:
- This is the earliest mention we have of Mary’s parents’ names: Anna and Joachim.
Ever seen a depiction of Joseph as an old man? It’s in this text that we have Joseph identified as a widower (and hence learn the origin of Jesus’ “brothers”!)
- Was Jesus born in a stable? Or a cave? The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (and many icons!) indicates these are one and the same.
- Mary and Anna are both the patronesses of seamstresses, thanks to Mary’s role weaving the Temple veil.
That this text and its Marian content were shared and adored by Christians in the East and West for many centuries should prove lie to the charge that Roman Catholics invented and continue to engage in “Mary Worship.” If the first generations of Christians, indeed a large swath of the nascent one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, produced and circulated a document so rich in its devotion and symbolism of Mary, how could we read the Biblical attestations to her in anything but a positive light? Furthermore, while the Bible indeed has very little to say about Mary, we need not infer that the Christian community spoke little of her or downplayed her role in God’s plan of salvation. There are many other sources which provide us a window into the rich devotion the Early Church had for Mary– but The Protoevangelium of James, in particular, shows that even from its infancy, the Church has rightly looked to Mary as her Mother.
*This may be too graphic for some more delicate readers, but the midwife verifies this by manually inserting her fingers and examining Mary’s hymen. If found intact, this is taken as a sign of virginity, as the hymen is generally torn during intercourse. The fact that Jesus is delivered from Mary’s womb without ripping this membrane is nothing short of miraculous. The point of this verification is to signify that Mary was not only a virgin when she conceived, but remained a virgin even after birth.