Rediscovering the Marys: Maria, Mariamne, Miriam

by Elizabeth Ann R. Willett | January 30, 2021
Cover of Rediscovering the Marys

Rediscovering the Marys: Maria, Mariamne, Miriam, edited by Mary Ann Beavis and Ally Kateusz, consists of seventeen essays by different authors, divided into three sections: Revisiting Which Mary: Does Which Mary Matter?, Rediscovering the Marys in Mission and Leadership, and Recovering Receptions of the Marys in Literature, Art and Archaeology. The authors explore how the biblical Miriam, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene were portrayed in the early Christian era, also touching on Jewish and Muslim interpretations. While apocryphal gospels and other noncanonical writings, as well as artwork, interpreted them as venerable leaders of their faith communities, later versions diminished them when church leadership became patriarchal. While women’s authority was edited out of literature as well as religious art, archaeology has revealed earlier art that portrays women exercising liturgical functions in the early church.

Regarding which Mary, apocryphal gospels conflate the distinct Marys of the canonical gospels, especially Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, but also somewhat the mother of Jesus. The emphasis on one Mary makes her into a unique figure that may reinforce a stereotype of a patriarchal male-only leadership interpretation of the Gospels. In the Gospel of Mary, Mary teaches the disciples, combining phrases from the canonical gospels in different ways with new theological meanings. The ascent of the soul to heaven, overcoming various hostile powers, is an important tradition in the Gospel of Mary. In the book of Acts, Mary is a bridge figure that shows continuity between God’s dealings with Israel and with the new Christian community. As Mary asked God for a sign and then quoted OT phrases in her Magnificat, so the apostles ask God for a sign and Peter quotes Psalms when they choose a replacement for Judas. As the Spirit came over her for pregnancy, so the Spirit will come over the disciples at Pentecost. Although the unspecified Mary in noncanonical texts including the Nag Hammadi codices1 has traditionally been identified with Magdalene, the Mary in these texts may not be any specific Mary from the canon, but when the texts required a woman disciple, the common name was used.

The John 2 story of Mary asking Jesus to meet the need for wine at the Cana wedding is the starting point for her role as intercessor or mediator with Jesus for people in need. In early Christian literature she exercised leadership as a mediator through both words and actions such as miracles, and as a protectress. Mary was not only an ontological mediator through giving her body to birth Jesus. She had leadership and authority to decide what should be done about petitions. She did not delegate that authority to the divine power above her.

The book critiques certain frames post-biblical interpreters use, especially gender norms in male readers’ culture. Some affirm women’s leadership, but redirect it to merely the domestic sphere of procreation and fertility; others suppress traces of their leadership and highlight their negative, bodily portrayal by focusing on sins that men are also guilty of, but creating space between men and the sins of slander and sexual impropriety. Heroines are evoked to reaffirm women’s sinfulness. Both Miriam and Mary Magdalene play crucial leadership roles in the history of Israel and in the church, but their role is limited to life-giving vitality: birth and continuity. Both Miriam’s and Mary’s bodies are marked by their sins, creating a link between sin, penance, and the feminine body. The characterization of Miriam’s and Mary’s penance downplays the penitential force and focuses instead on their sinfulness, with the result of negating their leadership.

John depicts Mary the mother of Jesus as well as Mary Magdalene as leaders among the disciples; for example, John 2:12 names Mary first before Jesus’s brothers and disciples. Early Christian writings cite Mary as the primary source of the Passion Narratives that minimize her, offering the sacrifice as a priest at the Last Supper, and teaching women and sending them out with writings to evangelize their towns around the Mediterranean. Old manuscripts of the Dormition text, the story of Mary’s death, portray her preaching the gospel, leading the male apostles who have reported on their missionary journeys, including balding Paul, in prayer, and setting out the censer of incense to God, a prerogative of Jewish priests. Artifacts show Mary as an authoritative and sacerdotal woman with arms upraised as a liturgical leader or offering incense, wearing an OT ephod or a NT deacon’s garb, stole, or communion cloth, or offering her Son to God (in the Temple or at Calvary).

Later narratives about Mary the mother of Jesus were edited or eliminated as the theological and political culture changed. Every version of her life was redacted by later translators and reduced only to the miraculous virgin birth. Modern commentators emphasize Mary’s virginal motherhood, devotion to her son, emotional laments over Jesus’s suffering, pious fasting and prayers, all respectable female traits.

The original Greek version of the Acts of Philip calls Mariamne, generally thought to be Magdalene, an “apostle” and describes her evangelizing, breaking the communion bread, exorcizing, and baptizing. Later scribes substituted Peter for one of the Marys or redacted the manuscripts to remove markers of liturgical authority.

Early art confirms women in the early church had a liturgical function associated with incense and censers that was later restricted to only men. An ivory pyx2 shows two women, probably two Marys, approaching the altar (probably the Anastasis shrine over Jesus’s tomb) with censers and a liturgical procession of women with arms raised. (In Christian iconography, an arms-raised pose indicates a liturgical function.) A wall painting depicts Jesus’s mother Mary’s deathbed, women swinging censers around her, twelve men sleeping in the background. Later narratives and iconography do not have women with censers, just men, around the dying Mary. Comparison of different manuscripts shows that different scribes excised different parts of the Dormition narrative they deemed offensive or heretical.

Early pilgrim accounts, funerary epigraphs, and other writings attest that female deacons were active in early Christianity. The third or fourth-century Syriac Didascalia apostolorum, based on earlier sources, explains that a female deacon was paired with a male deacon and that they were ranked above presbyters. The male deacon represented Christ and the female deacon the Holy Spirit, which was believed to be feminine-gendered and mother. The presbyters represented the apostles. The two oldest artifacts (ca. 430) that depict Christians in the liturgy of a real church show both women and men with arms raised flanking the canopy over the altar; one shows a man on one side and a woman on the other side of the altar; the other has two women on one side and two men on the other. A veiled woman and a man face each other across the stone altar tabletop. Later scribes redacted passages of women with censers, and later artists replaced the women at the altar with men to reflect later practice.

The book is academic in style, heavy at times, with some technical vocabulary. But, while evangelicals who claim Sola Scriptura might dismiss noncanonical literature and early artwork as mythological or too “Catholic” to carry weight, the evidence presented in this book is encouraging to those who promote women in church leadership as God’s original plan.

Notes

1. That is, certain documents discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Philip.

2. A pyx is a container for the Eucharist, specifically for the consecrated host.

Book info
Publisher:
T&T Clark
Year:
2020
ISBN:
9780567683458