WHY MARY? September 15, 2013

I recently posted about the historic devotion to the Virgin Mary, and the range of alternative writings and even pseudo-gospels that it inspired. These texts made Mary a close facsimile of Christ, with a comparably miraculous story of conception, birth, death and (in a sense) resurrection. Mary’s birth-story is described in the Protevangelium, and the accounts of her passing from the world in the Six Books Apocryphon or the De Transitu Virginis. But it’s a legitimate question: if these works are utterly unhistorical (as they assuredly are) why should anyone care about them? That question is all the more telling when they present an aspect of Christianity that Protestants at least find unsettling, or even appalling. Let me suggest why we really need to understand these traditions.

By the way, I’m going to be speaking about the “cult” of Mary. That’s not meant to be judgmental or rude, it’s the correct technical term for a particular form of veneration or worship.

Just taking the accounts of Mary’s passing, let me say right away that these texts do not have the appeal of many apocryphal works, which often include quite beautiful stories and high-quality writing. They are wordy and heavy-handed. But for several reasons, they are important reading for anyone interested in Christian history – and not just Catholic history:

1.Works like the De Transitu are immensely significant as historical sources. They tell us nothing whatever about the life or death of the Virgin Mary herself, and church writers throughout the centuries emphasized that ignorance. In the fourth century, bishop Epiphanius noted, cautiously, that nobody knows if or whether Mary died, nor if she was buried, nor the location of her grave. But the fact that these works were written, and became the international bestsellers of their age, tells us a great deal about the Christian world at that time, roughly the fourth and fifth centuries – and about the next millennium, when they continued to read and copied. Why did this interest emerge so powerfully at the time it did? What made Mary’s cult so enormously attractive?

2.This statement might be unfair, but I think many Protestants dismiss the cult of Mary as “medieval” or “Catholic,” something that grew after the much-venerated Primitive or Early Church, which presumably became hopelessly tainted after making its alliance with Constantine’s Roman Empire. That’s simply wrong. The Protevangelium was written no later than the 170s, and highly supernatural interpretations of Mary’s passing were being offered in the third and fourth centuries. They were reaching full flood around the time of St. Augustine, or the era of the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon.

3.Building on that point, there just is no sharp or obvious break between the early and medieval churches, either in East or West. It’s much better to follow Peter Brown’s classic structure of Late Antiquity, running from roughly the third century through the eighth or so. And the cult of Mary was a central and characteristic feature of that age.

4.The continuity from early through medieval times really challenges popular views about the role of women in Christianity. The myth holds that in early times, the church venerated strong female figures like Mary Magdalene, who starred in alternative gospels that the churches then suppressed, out of a fear of uppity women. In fact, texts like the Protevangelium, focused on the Virgin Mary, predate most of the pseudo-gospels of the Magdalene. And if the Magdalene’s stock declined, that of the Virgin rose steadily. Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, the mainstream church made a supernatural female figure absolutely central to its belief system and its everyday practice.

5.The pseudo-gospels of the Virgin demonstrate a vigorous and uncompromising feminization of the Christian story. It was quite possible to read a complete cycle of the Virgin that took virtually everything attributed to Christ and transferred it to this mighty and godly woman. In devotional practice, Mary for well over a thousand years became the second Christ, a co-Christ. If the church officially drew a strict distinction between the worship due to Christ and the veneration due his Mother, that division collapsed in practice.

What does that feminization tell us about the appeal of Christianity? It’s too easy to explain it in terms of the church compromising its beliefs in the face of older pagan beliefs or customs. The Marian pseudo-gospels are deeply rooted in Jewish and early Christian traditions, long before the church made mass conversions in pagan Europe.

6.It is not easy to speak of “the average Christian.” Throughout history, though, we can speak generally about which churches claimed the largest number of adherents at any given times, and in which places. Based on that, we can say that for a very large share of the world’s Christians who have ever lived, this supernatural Mary – with all the legends and the ritual calendar – was an integral part of the belief system. Moreover, that generalization about the weight of numbers holds true today.

Almost at random, I take a painting of the Assumption by Pietro Perugino (1446-1524), an older contemporary of Martin Luther.

For most Protestants, the work can be admired aesthetically or valued as a component of art history. How hard it is to imagine that many millions today take the ideas represented in the painting very seriously.

7.I offer this last point as a basis for debate.

Stories like the Assumption tell us a great deal about the formation of Christian doctrine and belief. They are not grounded in the Bible – or if so, very tenuously – but rather depend on the church’s developing body of tradition and belief, as argued and negotiated over the centuries. In theory, Protestants demand a scriptural basis for major doctrines, but in fact they realize that it is exceedingly difficult to rely on scripture alone for such key doctrines as the Trinity, or the Chalcedonian definition of the Incarnation. Rather, these ideas rely on the collective wisdom and tradition of the early church, as expressed in the works of the Church Fathers and the great Councils – usually, the first four, held between 325 and 451. However, the churches of the fourth and fifth centuries already accepted beliefs and practices that today we might consider quite medieval, including in their attitudes to the Virgin Mary.

So at what point did “tradition” cease to be valid as a source for doctrine?



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  • Building on that point, there just is no sharp or obvious break between
    the early and medieval churches, either in East or West. It’s much
    better to follow Peter Brown’s classic structure of Late Antiquity,
    running from roughly the third century through the eighth or so.

    The key question is whether there really was a change between the apostles and the 3rd century. You put the Protevangelium back in the second century. Can we just assume the apostles had none of this? It seems quite arbitrary. It starts with the assumption that the evangelical attitude towards Mary is obviously correct and therefore obviously what the apostles would have taught. When you start with that assumption you cannot learn from tradition. You can only judge tradition for veering from your own faith which you assume without evidence is identical to pristine Christianity. We cannot open ourselves to the possibility that modern evangelical Christianity has gotten Mary wrong in some important way.

  • Sandra Saunders Traw

    Your last question was: at what point did tradition cease to be valid as a source of doctrine? This was a question you did not answer and one that I would like to have answered. Obviously tradition formed the trinity, the immaculate conception, and since they were the ones at the council who decided which books would. Be included in the Bible tradition actually formed the Bible…is that correct…so I am still wanting an answer to your last question…at what point did tradition cease to be a valid source of doctrine? Was it once the a bible was voted on and put together?

  • Sandra Saunders Traw

    I still did not get my question answered. It was the question you ended with. When did tradition cease to be valid as a source for doctrine? That is my question?

  • Of course, the canon of Scripture itself is a product of Sacred Tradition, so even those who claim “sola scriptura” must rely on an infallible definition of the early Church. I had a friend challenge me on this point once. I asked him to show me the book of the Bible that lists the books of the Bible. Naturally, he couldn’t.

  • Steve

    I’m a Catholic, and I want to thank you for writing this.

    In my interactions with Evangelicals, the topic of Mary tends to oscillate between two radical extremes. On the one hand, I find myself fruitlessly explaining how the reverence shown to Mary is simply a cultural expression of the reverence due to Christ’s beloved mother. That if Christ loved and honored His mother, so can we.

    The other extreme occurs when I try to explain some of the Biblical foundations behind such ideas as Mary being the new Ark of the Covenant, Mary as the mother of all Christians, as the new Eve, and as the Queen of Heaven. Such attempts are usually met by an almost comical cold-sweat and trepidation at the mere mention of her name. Non-Catholic Christians seem comfortable talking about the devil than Mary.

    Perhaps the most frustrating confusion, however, is the belief that a relationship with Mary necessarily subtracts from a relationship with Jesus, because time spent cultivating one is time spent not cultivating the other. This confusion misses the whole family dynamic of the New Covenant. If someone wanted to know me, cultivating a relationship with my mother will only help that. When someone compliments my mother, I don’t feel slighted and jealous. If I, who am sinful, can have that sort of relationship with my mother, how much more can Jesus?

    I know of women who were abused by men and, having a hard time forming a relationship with Jesus, found it more comfortable to start with mother Mary, who showed them the baby Jesus, and then finally ( and after much healing) the man Jesus. Why Mary? Because families need mothers.

  • James Stagg

    I think the foundation for all the veneration of the Virgin stems from one solid teaching in the Orthodox tradition: that Mary is THEOKOTOS, the Mother of God. Stop, briefly, and consider how overwhelming that simple thought may be, a verifiable truth for every Christian.

    Other than the historical veneration, C.S Lewis makes some good sense in considering her as Mother of the Church.

    Moms are really special, don’t you know?

  • Matthew Catalano

    The only major problem with that, Mark, is that there simply was not an “infallible” definition for the canon of Scripture in the early church. Saying that Scripture is a product of “Sacred Tradition” begs the question.

  • philipjenkins

    I did not answer because I don’t know the answer. I’m throwing it out to see what people think. I think it would be very hard to pin down some specific date, eg 400AD.

  • philipjenkins

    Most scholars would put the Protevangelium no later than the 170s. Yes, certainly matters changed between the apostolic era and (say) 250, However, most of the great Protestant Reformers, such as Luther, had enormous veneration for the Church Fathers of the first three or four centuries, up to and including Augustine c.420, and regarded their views as authoritative.

  • Matthew Catalano

    The question would seem to be, what evidence is there that the apostles had any of it? Why should we assume they did unless there is evidence that they did?

  • frjohnmorris

    On what basis do you claim that the Church has failed to honor St. Mary Magdalena? In the Eastern Orthodox Church she is given the titles “Equal to the Apostles,” and “Apostle to the Apostles.” She is so important that her memory is celebrated on the second Sunday after Easter and again on July 22. The tradition that she was a reformed prostitute is an exclusively Western idea first expressed by Pope St. Gregory the Great who died in 604. The Eastern Church has never taught that she had been a prostitute.

  • frjohnmorris

    There was indeed a definition of the canon of the Scriptures by the ancient Church. The Church accepted the Old Testament canon from the Septuagint Greek version. The canon for the New Testament comes from the 39th Festal Letter of St. Athanasius in 367. It was approved by the 3rd Council of Carthage in 397, which was accepted by the Council in Trullo in 692 and ratified by the 7th Ecumenical Council, Nicea II in 787.

  • frjohnmorris

    I think that instead of Immaculate Conception, you mean Virgin birth of Christ. The Immaculate Conception is the Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary was born free of original sin. This doctrine was never approved by an Ecumenical Council, but was decreed by Pope Pius IX in 1854. The Council of Ephesus in 431 declared that Mary is the birth giver of God, Theotokos, because Christ was God Incarnate from the moment of His conception. The honor that we pay to Mary is an affirmation of our belief in the Incarnation.

  • philipjenkins

    I do not suggest that the church failed to honor her, but rather that a common modern myth holds that view. In the West, both Oxford and Cambridge have prestigious and ancient “Magdalene Colleges.”

  • Matthew Catalano

    The problem with that analysis frjohn, is that the Council also accepted the canons of Athanasius and Amphilochius, which differ from the canons of Carthage as well as the Apostolic Canons (the AC’s which, by the way, were condemned by Pope Gelasius and Hormisdas). Thus you end up with four (or five if you include the Laodicean list of the canon, also affirmed at Nicea II, which differs from Carthage) canons of Scripture. The statement “the early church infallibly defined the canon” is simply not demonstrable historically.

  • frjohnmorris

    Sorry, I misinterpreted you.

  • Steve

    Sandra, I’d like to take a crack at it.

    Public revelation ended at the death of the last apostle. [Jude 1:3] That is to say, all doctrines were planted like seeds in the Church at that time. That doesn’t mean, however, that our understanding of doctrine cannot grow and develop. Those seeks were meant for sprouting. [John 14:26]

    The Canon of Scripture wasn’t mean to teach new doctrines, but to faithfully relay what the Apostles taught. That was one of the criteria used by the Councils of Rome, Hippo, and Carthage to determine what was validly in the Canon. The Canon of Scripture wasn’t a new doctrine, rather it was the Church using its authority to preserve and proclaim the apostolic faith.

    In short: Sacred Tradition is not a source of new doctrines. Rather, it is the way the doctrines taught by the Apostles is preserved.

  • mac

    I’m not sure I understand point 6 of your argument. Are you saying because the masses believed this about Mary it is correct or true? Could you possibly elaborate on your comments on Perugino’s Assumption?

  • philipjenkins

    I’m saying that this was a major part of doctrine for a great many Christians for long centuries, and something like the painting illustrates those complex beliefs. I make no comment about whether that makes something true or correct, but it does make it important in Christian history.

  • Serene Scientist

    “So at what point did “tradition” cease to be valid as a source for doctrine?”

    The ramifications of this question are quite profound. It goes to the heart of Protestant criticisms of the Catholic Church. After all, if the Council of Rome, and evidence from Iraneous of Lyon, is good enough to establish the authenticity of the Gospels, why is it not good enough to establish the primacy of Rome, the continued apostolic succession and papacy of the Bishop of Rome, and the real and literal presence of Christ in the Eucharist?

    I have found few if any protestants happy to answer such searching questions. Many I have talked to don’t even know of work of the early Church, or the apostolic Fathers, or their importance in maintaining the basic doctrines and creeds of what we now know as mainstream Christianity, New Testament and all.

  • Nicholas Lund-Molfese

    Mark never said that there was “an ‘infallible’ definition for the canon of scripture in the early church.” He said, “the canon of Scripture itself is a product of Sacred Tradition”. The books of the Bible are not self-authenticating. “Sola Scriptura” doesn’t answer (I could say “begs the question” but that seems impolite in my mind) as to: 1) what counts as scripture and 2) the authority of that scripture.

  • Nicholas Lund-Molfese

    Nicely put.

  • Matthew Catalano

    He certainly did. “so even those who claim ‘sola scriptura’ must rely on an infallible definition of the early Church.”

    To claim the books of Scripture are not self-authenticating is not really germaine to the subject of the authority of Scripture and/or tradition. However, the internal, self-authenticating witness of Scripture certainly did play a factor in the minds of the fathers as to whether it was to be considered inspired. So says Jerome, Origen, Tatian Athanasius, Chrysostom and Clement of Alexandria, at any rate.

    Sola Scriptura doesn’t answer the question of the canon because it doesn’t seek to. The canon is injected into these discussions merely as a red herring. It does, however, speak to the authority of that Scripture, because it directly answers the question, “What is the normative, infallible authority present within the Church by which all teachings thereof are to be judged?”

  • Matthew Catalano

    You are operating under the assumption that Protestants (in general) accept the authenticity of the Scriptures based on the Council of Rome and Irenaeus. We don’t. A factor? Certainly. But not the only, and not even the most important. Even if we did give it as much import as you imply, that does not de facto mean that everything any father or council taught is immediately accepted. You wouldn’t expect us to accept the teachings of Arius on the nature of Christ just because he thought Matthew was inspired, would you?

    As to Irenaeus’ other teachings, it goes without saying that we would dispute that he taught any such thing, as would the Orthodox.

    You are right as to many Protestants not being familiar with the early church, sadly. This would equally apply to most Catholics as well.

  • Serene Scientist


    Fair enough. I would very much appreciate seeing your basis for accepting the authorship and authenticity of the New Testament, and especially the interpretation of the gospels.

    Given that Iranaeus was the first source to authenticate gospel authorship (and his faith can be traced directly to John the Evangelist), was a crucial defender of the faith against early heresies, and was a key source for the Council of Rome at which almost all the early Churches met and accepted his account, finalised the books of the New Testament, and affirmed the primacy of Rome – and the fact that I have heard many Protestants use him as a major source to authenticate biblical authorship – I assumed this was fairly common. But maybe that’s just my experience of Protestants! They’re hardly a homogenous group are they!?! 🙂

    God Bless


  • Nicholas Lund-Molfese

    I am sure you think the gentleman you are name dropping are all swell enough, but I am not use using them like this is really fair to their complicated and quite different ways of thinking.

    What, and who, decides what is and is not Scripture?

  • Matthew Catalano

    As the only supernatural agent in the formation of and knowledge of Scripture, only God decides what is and is not canonical Scripture. It becomes canonical by virtue of God’s inspiration of it, not by any decision of the Church.

    Even the Roman body acknowledges this in the decrees of the first Vatican Council.

  • Nicholas Lund-Molfese

    And how am I to know what God decides?

  • Matthew Catalano

    Since the purpose of Scripture’s inspiration was for the guidance of the Church, the Church received it. You can “know” (not that we live in a Cartesian reality where we can expect to know things infallibly), because of God’s faithfulness to His people.

  • Nicholas Lund-Molfese

    Sorry, I am not following. How do I know what “God decides” about The Letter of Jude, for example?

  • dogged

    Whenever the label “infallible” is attached is a human being or institutions run by human beings, I cringe to my marrow. If the infallibility of Christ, which I acknowledge on faith, is perfectly reflected as “infallibility’ from the Church, then would not its history been rendered less bloody, less hypocritical, less self-serving? It is wonderful to have a Church–even an intricately organized one. But it is inhabited by human beings from top to bottom. Please do not render infallibility to any member of the human race–except One.

  • Nicholas Lund-Molfese

    After much ignoring and evading the central question, the silence here makes clear the difficulty of holding that something called “Scripture” is infallible but we have no way of knowing with certainty what that something is. This epistemological problem is solved in different ways in different Christian traditions, but you cannot reasonably ignore it.

    Hence Mark Gordan’s original statement that the “canon of Scripture itself is a product of Sacred Tradition”. Believing that Jesus Christ founded a human community, The Church, and (while its members and leaders are fallible in most things and may be quite sinful) it unerringly protects the revelation of Jesus Christ from error, in part and including gurarenteeing the authenticity of the Scriptures, is at least a logically coherent solution to the epistemic challenge. Particularly since there were Christians and Christian communities long before there was anything like the Bible in its various current forms.