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Early Christians added to biblical stories of Mary
TESTAMENTSOn the Net:
Bible Review: www.bib-arch.org/br2.html
By Richard N. Ostling
The Associated Press
"No woman has had more influence on Christian faith and practice" than Jesus' mother Mary, says Ronald F. Hock of the University of Southern California. Yet "it would be extremely difficult to explain her tremendous role throughout history" solely from the New Testament.
In Bible Review magazine, Hock recently surveyed the development of Mary's prominence as follows:
Paul's epistles, which were written before the four Gospels, contain the earliest surviving reference to Mary, a passing, impersonal mention that Jesus was "born of a woman" (Galatians 4:4). To Hock, that shows "interest in Mary had not yet taken root."
In Mark, often considered the earliest Gospel, Mary speaks not a word and is mentioned in 3:31-35, where the importance of her motherhood is downplayed, and in verse 6:3, which underscores her family's low social standing.
Matthew, which Hock thinks was the next Gospel to be written, tells the story of Jesus' birth. Here, too, Mary remains silent. She's a passive subordinate while husband Joseph plays the leading parental role.
In Luke's infancy account Mary moves to the fore, Hock says, acting for herself and speaking words that will be enshrined through Christian history ("henceforth all generations will call me blessed"). We also get the earliest explanation, however brief, of why Mary was chosen to give birth to the messiah: She "found favor with God."
The early Christians apparently desired material beyond what the Gospels provided, which brings us to the New Testament Apocrypha, early Christian writings that were rejected as inauthentic when the church fixed the list of biblical books.
Hock published a 1995 translation of one such writing, the "Infancy Gospel of James." It was supposedly written by Jesus' brother, but Hock says that's impossible because the book obviously drew upon Matthew and Luke, which were written after James was executed in A.D. 62. Hock dates "James" at perhaps A.D. 125 to 140.
In "James," we're told of Mary's parents Joachim and Anna, who became figures in their own right in later Christian art. "James" also presents the idea that Joseph was an older widower and that Jesus' biblical brothers and sisters were stepsiblings from Joseph's first marriage. That undergirded the tradition, taught today in many churches, that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life.
"James" was written, Hock surmises, to "prove that Mary is qualified to be the mother of God." It depicts a precocious Mary who could walk at age 6 months. At one point the tot is fed by a heavenly dove. And we're told her protective parents "did not permit anything profane or unclean" to defile the future mother of God.
When Mary is pregnant with Jesus, as "James" tells it, she and Joseph are summoned before the high priest. To test their innocence, the couple is sent into the wilderness. When they return unharmed, this is accepted as proof of their sexual virtue.
At this point in the narrative, "James" begins to parallel the birth accounts in Matthew and Luke, but with some variations. For example, Joseph takes Jesus' stepbrothers on the trip to Bethlehem. And Mary is alone at the moment of Jesus' birth because Joseph is out searching for a midwife.
As Jesus is born, the clouds pause and birds are suspended in flight. A light shines from the birthplace so intensely that "their eyes could not bear to look."
Then a passer-by named Salome doubts Mary was a virgin and says she won't believe "unless I insert my finger and examine her." As she does so, her hand bursts into flame and is consumed. However, one touch from the infant Jesus and the charred hand is cured.
Obviously, "James" conveys an atmosphere of miracle and magic quite different from the modest Nativity accounts in the Gospels. Matthew and Luke do describe a mysterious star and angelic heralds, but for them the birth itself is miracle enough.
Note: For the latest thinking on what the Bethlehem star was and how that might establish the year of Jesus' birth, see the December issue of the always intriguing Bible Review, or its Web site.
Richard N. Ostling covers religion for the Associated Press.