Becoming Mary

Becoming Mary September 12, 2014

In a recent post, I looked at the mysterious figure of the “Woman clothed with the Sun,” depicted in the Book of Revelation. I suggested that she was likely to symbolize New Israel or the Church, although later generations have usually connected her with the Virgin Mary, and the Revelation passage has largely shaped later iconography of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven.


I do not mean to suggest, though, that the Marian interpretation was a simple pious blunder. What I am arguing is this:

*In the earliest Christian writings, the Epistles and Mark’s gospel, Mary scarcely appears, and certainly not in any leadership role.

*Towards the end of the first century, Mary’s role becomes vastly more important, most dramatically in Luke-Acts. The Magnificat in Luke 1 is a prime example.

*No later than the mid-second century, devotion to Mary is so intense as to inspire major apocryphal writings like the Protevangelium, which present her almost as a parallel Christ figure. Early Fathers like Justin Martyr and Irenaeus are writing about Mary as a kind of anti-Eve, who reverses the Fall. In the medieval Latin world, Eva brought the Fall, which was reversed in Ave – Ave Maria!

So why do we have this process of exaltation, which begins relatively late, but which then takes off at amazing speed between say 90 and 150?

Here’s a suggestion. In the later first century, Christians are already symbolizing New Israel as a heavenly female figure, as evidenced most clearly in Revelation. We also see there the idea that in a symbolic way, she is the mother of the Messiah. It’s not a huge leap from there to identify that female figure with the specific woman who actually was Jesus’s mother.


What I am wondering is whether that emerging idea shaped Luke’s portrayal of Mary in his writings. I don’t suggest that Luke knew Revelation, or that the author of Revelation knew Luke’s writings. Rather, both existed in a common early Christian world in which that imagery, that symbolism and rhetoric, was becoming familiar.

In other words, something like the Magnificat is already deliberately intended to represent the words of Israel as a collective or symbolic entity, rather than just the human Mary. Of course, that text also draws heavily on the Old Testament Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2-10, but there’s more going on.

So perhaps the vision of the Church/New Israel shapes the image of Mary, who is subsequently understood as the Mother of the Church. We come full circle.



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  • Greg

    Well done!

  • I wished I had read this article a few days ago. I wouldn’t have been so upset with that other one in Charisma News, where they attack the Pope for saying that Mary is the mother of all Christians. Not that I’m Roman Catholic. I’m Catholic, just not Roman. This article is one of the best I’ve ever read on the subject. Thanks for posting it.

  • philipjenkins

    and thank you!

  • JIZ

    Reading the prologue of Luke’s Gospel, I wonder whether his Marian emphasis may also have been present in the earlier narratives to which he refers, whether written or oral — in other words, whether his emphasis is simply the earlier surviving text of a tradition that is older.

  • philipjenkins

    Excellent question, but we have no way of knowing. Incidentally, he does not say that he used any of those “many” accounts, rather than he knows of their existence. Presumably though he certainly used at least some, over and above what he found in the tradition.

  • That is really fascinating! I know that when scholars take out in Matthew and Luke what they have in common with Mark, they call that the Mark source.

    Then scholars are left with a bunch of dialogues that Jesus had (such as “The Lord’s Prayer,” “The Beatitudes,” “The Temptations,” etc, etc) that Matthew and Luke have in common but is not found in Mark. These scholars say came from “Quelle” or “Q” which we have no proof of it’s existence outside of the the gospels of Matthew and Luke. When constructed, or possibly reconstructed, Q comes out as a “sayings” Gospel, much like the Gospel of Thomas.

    This is how we know that Matthew and Luke has had more than one source and that they used them, by quoting them extensively. It is quite possible that the writer of Luke, as one of his sources, used an oral or another written tradition that the writer of Matthew did not use (either he did not know of the source or simply did not use it), that had the extensive Marian theology in it. It could be though, that Luke did not have a source, that the writer actually came up with this on his own. I wished we knew.

  • Defensor Autem

    Are you and your parish in communion with the mother Church in Rome? You don’t have to be Roman Catholic to be Catholic however in order to be Catholic, you must acknowledge and follow the teachings of the Magisterium.

  • We’re not in communion with Rome. Our Presiding + Bishop Sid Blalock, out of Corpus Christie, TX, whom we call Taoiseach, was ordained by a +Bishop who in turn was ordained by another +Bishop who was then ordained a +Bishop in the Roman Catholic Church (back in the 1940’s, I believe, though I could be wrong, I must look it up again). So the Apostolic Succession is there. We’re Independent Catholics, Reformed Celtic Church (reformed) from the now dissolved Anamchara Celtic Church.

  • J_Bob

    A well written article.

    I’m probably in the minority, believing the Gospels & Acts, were pretty much completed prior to the destruction of Jerusalem.

    To me, it would seem that Luke probably got his info 1st hand info from Mary, because of the intimate & normal family details.

    In today’s reading of John 19:25, a interesting perspective of Mary.

    Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.

    Could the “brothers” & “sisters” of Jesus have come from Joseph taking his dead brothers wife to raise up heirs (including James “Jesus’ brother”, the 1st Bishop of Jerusalem)?

    Could Clopas been Joseph’s brother?

    On the road to Emmaus, could the two deciples have been Clopas & wife?

    It kind of goes back in looking at my deceased parents photo album, with NO notations. It seems “everybody” knew who they were, back then that is.

  • Clayton

    In addition to Mary as being seen as the Mother of the Church, the early Christians understood Mary as being the Ark of the New Covenant. Luke’s account of Mary visiting Elizabeth in Luke 1:39-45 includes distinct parallels to the story of the Ark returning to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. Mary is the archetype and fulfillment of the ark of the covenant because God made her body His dwelling place. It’s another one of those things where its not a huge leap to make that connection.

  • Clayton

    Also, to tie this in to the point of the article, the Church itself, as the Body of Christ, is also in a sense the dwelling place of God (…”dwell in me and I will dwell in you…”).

  • Hillary Spragg