Friday, May 25, 2007

Bible Woman: Mary, mother of Jesus

The "Bible woman of the week" this week is Mary, the mother of Jesus. There is so much that can be said here about Mary and the traditions associated with her. Thanks to a tip from Lynne (see her post about del Sarto's Annunciation), I thought I would say something here about the extra-Biblical legends associated with Mary, which tell us about her life before the Gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke begin.

One of the important sources for stories about Mary is the "Infancy Gospel" (or "Protevangelium") attributed to James (Jacob). This is a noncanonical book, meaning that it does not form part of the Christian Bible in the Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant traditions. It is, however, a quite ancient text, probably dating to the 2nd century C.E. It was a widely popular text, and there are over a hundred Greek manuscripts, including a manuscript that itself appears to date back to the third century. You can read more notes about the manuscript tradition at Early Christian Writings online.

There are three different English translations you can consult online: Andrew Bernhard, Roberts-Donaldson and M. R. James. There is even a Greek text, although it is done with an obscure Greek font, rather than according to the more current Unicode standard, alas. I'll be relying here on the M.R. James translation.

The story begins with Ioacim, who will be Mary's father. He had been unable to have children with his wife, Anna, which caused him great grief. He left his wife and went out into the desert to pray, remembering the example of Abraham, who had been granted a child in his old age. His wife, Anna, grieved because she was now without a child, and her husband was gone into the desert. Both Ioacim and Anna receive angelic visitations to tell them that they would be granted a child.

And so they were. Anna gave birth to Mary, and after Mary had walked only seven steps, her mother put her back in bed and vowed that she would not walk again on the earth until she was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem. When Mary was finally presented at the Temple, even though she had not been walking, Mary miraculously danced up the steps of the Temple ("And the Lord put grace upon her and she danced with her feet and all tile house of Israel loved her").

Mary grew up in the Temple, but when she entered into puberty, there was a problem: when she began to menstruate, she would pollute the Temple and could not remain there. So the high priest prayed for a solution, and an angel appeared to him and said, "Go forth and assemble them that are widowers of the people, and let them bring every man a rod, and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be." This is how Joseph became betrothed to Mary. Other men received the rods, but there was no divine sign. "But Joseph received the last rod: and lo, a dove came forth of the rod and flew upon the bead of Joseph."

Meanwhile, the priests decided that they wanted a veil woven for the Temple. They cast lots to see which women would weave the veil for the Temple, and Mary was assigned the lot of weaving the crimson thread: "And the lot of the true purple and the scarlet fell unto Mary, and she took them and went unto her house." So you will see Mary spinning a scarlet thread in Orthodox depictions of the Annunciation. As the Infancy Gospel explains, Mary was spinning this thread when the angel brought her the news about the birth of Jesus.

If you are interested in reading a non-cannonical text, this is an excellent place to start. When the Infancy Gospel of James was composed, there was not a "Bible" in the sense that we know it, and people knew the stories contained in this gospel as fully as they knew the stories in the four gospels that did become part of the Bible. Through the Middle Ages in both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, these stories about Mary continued to be widely known and they were depicted in many works of art. Here, for example, is Paolo Uccello's vision of Mary's presentation at the Temple, painted in 1435 for the cathedral in Prato, showing Mary as she dances up the Temple steps:


  1. These are made-up stories. They should not be believed nor used in connection with worship. This is how Mary and her mother and many other "characters" are venerated. There is but one way to the Father, that is through Christ Jesus. Read Revelations. Do not add to, nor take from God's word!

  2. There are many traditions within Christianity that do not share your assumptions.

  3. We already have added, and subtracted. The act of translating does that. See what the Greek transliteration says if you want to see what the Bible says, try Do not add or subtract from the transliteration.

  4. You lost me there - transliteration? The Greek is an original composition in Greek, not a transliteration (transliteration is when you take a word in a foreign language and a foreign alphabet and put that word, letter by letter, using equivalent letters in another alphabet - for example, "logos" is a transliteration of Greek ΛΟΓΟΣ.

    As for the Greek Bible, it is still a secondary experience. While Paul was surely a Greek-speaker, it is not at all clear just who among the group of Jesus and the apostles would have known Greek to speak, much less to write it. So while I am a big believer is reading and understanding the Greek Bible tradition, there is no reason why Christianity should be limited to that particular body of scriptural writing.


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