The Mother of Jesus becomes a powerful symbol for the Johannine community that wrote the Fourth Gospel.
Mother to Jesus, Mary is seen differently throughout various Gospels. Earlier we gave reasons why there is relatively little said about Mary by New Testament documents. We begin with a very negative Markan portrayal of Mary that we explored here. “Matthew” is only a little bit better, as we saw here. But then we saw here how “Luke” massively improves the image of Mary, presenting her from the beginning of his story as the faithful slavegirl of God voice of Israelite poor.
Today we talk about the mother of Jesus in the maverick Gospel called “John.” The Fourth Gospel lacks an Infancy Narrative. It also never names the mother of Jesus. We see her featured in two places within the Gospel, at the start at a wedding in Galilee, and toward the end, beneath the cross. Watch the video carefully…
That’s No Way to Speak to Your Mother!
In the ancient Mediterranean, parents prearranged marriage partners, the ideal of which were patrilateral first cousins (Genesis 24:15; 25:19; 28:1-4). The wedding guests would be mostly comprised of relatives, but nonrelatives could also be present. Note that Jesus and his mother interfere in the wedding without hesitating (John 2:4-7). Since it would be dishonorable for nonrelatives to meddle in this way, the story strongly suggests that Jesus and his mother were related to the wedding party.
The wine runs short, and Jesus’ mother mentions this with the suggestion he should do something about it (John 2:3). Look at how Jesus responds to his unnamed mother in John 2:4—“What to me and to you, Woman?” Sounds harsh!
A form of this phrase pops up now and again throughout the Bible. Whenever someone feels unjustly bothered by someone else, they use it (see Judges 11:12; 2 Chronicles 35:21; 1 Kings 17:18; Mark 1:24; 5:7). Sometimes it is employed by one who refuses to meddle in the affairs of another (see 2 Kings 3:13; Hosea 14:9). Is Jesus bothered by his mother? Is he rebuking her for meddling in other people’s business?
And look at what he calls her—“Woman” (gynai). Is that how you address your mother in our culture? How about the honor-shame culture of first century Palestine? In one sense, “Woman” is a respectful way of addressing females found in ancient Greek literature. And Jesus uses it respectfully all over the Gospels (see Matthew 15:28; John 4:21; 8:10; 20:13). But nowhere in all Hebrew or Greek literature is calling one’s mother “Woman” to be found besides John 2:4.
Marian Mental Gymnastics
Here is usually where some Catholics begin stretching for a Adam-Eve symbolism being implied by “John.” All such Genesis-symbolisms related to this story evolved long after the first century. Reading that back into the text is anachronism. Exaggerated Marian piety has tried to soften Jesus’ retort in John 2:4. But a balanced approach must accept that some of the harshness cannot be removed.
A couple things can be said here. In antiquity, Mediterranean mothers spoiled and pampered prepubescent boys. Indeed they smothered their sons so much that something Western people might mistake for codependent disorder developed between mother and eldest son. But at puberty, males are brutally separated from the world of females and forced into the harsh world of Mediterranean men.
So was the Johannine Jesus, the adult son, embarrassed by his mother’s comment (John 2:3)? Was he establishing independence from her by putting up some boundaries and distance? Knowing what the Fourth Gospel claims of Jesus’ preexistence from the ineffable world of John 1:1, as scholar Francis Moloney says, the unnamed Mother of Jesus simply has no access to the special relationship between the Johannine Jesus and God. “Know your place” makes sense in that regard as well.
The Johannine Jesus rebukes his mother! He seems to dismiss her implied request to do something about the wine (2:4). But then, in the face of the rebuke, the mother does something likewise unexpected, saying “Do whatever he tells you” to the servants (John 2:5). And then Jesus fulfills her request by getting involved and turning water into wine!
A Pattern in “John”
Given all of this, does “John” present the mother of Jesus negatively (as do “Mark” and to a lesser extent, “Matthew”)? Or does he present her in a positive light (as does “Luke”)? Before answering that, we ought to consider a few more things.
First we should consider that within the Fourth Gospel there is a pattern established whereby someone requests a favor from Jesus (John 11:1-3), followed by him dawdling (11:4-6), until, finally, he complies and helps (11:7-8).
This pattern, seen at several points in the Johannine narrative, begins with the Wedding at Cana story. Look here—
Part of understanding how “John” thinks of the unnamed Mother of Jesus depends on the part she plays in pattern of persistent faith and Jesus’ eventual response. As scholars Richard Rohrbaugh and Bruce Malina explain, figures are left anonymous in the Fourth Gospel to make them serve better as types or symbols for the Johannine community. The unnamed mother of Jesus is a made a symbol of the part of Israel that believes into Jesus.
Behold Your Mother
Considering how “John” views the mother of Jesus depends also on his account of Jesus’ crucifixion. In this Gospel, the mother of Jesus is at the foot of the cross. Every Gospel tradition mentions certain women watching the crucifixion from a distance—unlike men, they weren’t considered a threat to Roman order. In the Gospel tradition they witness Jesus’ death (Mark 15:40; Matthew 27:55), burial (Mark 15:47; Matthew 27:61), and empty tomb (Mark 16:1-4; Matthew 28:1). None but “John” mentions the unnamed mother of Jesus at cross, and he places her with others extremely close to it.
Suddenly, popping out of nowhere, is the also unnamed “disciple whom he loved” (v. 26—see also John 1:35-40; 11:3-5; 13:23-25; 18:15-16; 19:25-27; 20:2-10; 21:7; 21:20-24). Somehow he is attached to Jesus’ mother.
Johannine, not Marian
Something deeply symbolic is going on in the exchange between Jesus, the Beloved Disciple, and the Mother in John 19:25-30. The lifted up Sky Vault Man Jesus brings into life a new community of disciples. He does this by breathing life from the Cross (John 19:30). The mother represents faithful Israel that believes into Jesus—she is the Johannine Jesus group. The Beloved Disciple represents all those beloved disciples loyal to the Jesus group to whom Jesus reveals himself and who is authorized to correctly interpret Jesus.
This story is not about Marian in concerns, but Johannine. More is going on in than a mere biographical factoid about Jesus’ honorably caring for his mother and providing for her. In his hour, the lifted-up Jesus hands over his faithful followers (= the mother of Jesus), out of whom will be born further “children of God,” all to be cared for by the beloved disciple. This is the bringing to life a great family,
We’ve come a long way since “Mark.” There, Mary and the brothers of Jesus are outsiders, not part of Jesus’ new family (Mark 3:31-35). But in “John,” while the brothers of Jesus do remain as outsiders (John 7:3-10), not so his mother who is highly symbolized.
As these Gospels were collected together in the fourth century, recontextualizations happened and Johannine and Lukan elements merged in ways unintended by the unknown Evangelists. A road opened for further Marian symbolizing.
We will continue with this later…