Sunday, January 4, 2015

A maiden named Myriam

While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, "Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you." But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." (Matthew 12:46-50)
It is unlikely that Myriam, the mother of Yehoshua, came to the attention of his followers until a moment such as this.

The followers of Jesus were not known to have been his childhood pals. They would not have known Mary as the mom who served them punch and cookies when they came in from playing in the yard (yes, I am placing her in a telegenic 1950s U.S. suburb for the sake of the modern reader).

The much revered Mary has what Hollywood would call a "supporting role" in the gospel narratives.

She appears in the New Testament in the birth and infancy narratives in Luke 1-2, Matthew 1:18-25; in stories about Jesus and his family, Mark 3:31-35 and 6:1-6; at the Wedding at Cana, John 2; and at the foot of the cross, John 19. She may also be the Mary present at the discovery of the empty tomb in the resurrection narratives. Beyond the gospels, Mary is with the apostles at Pentecost, Acts 1:14. Some writers place Mary as the enigmatic woman and the dragon in Revelation 12. Wrapping up  the film analogy, Mary has actual speaking parts only in Luke's nativity narrative and in John's Cana story.

In the gospels the virgin birth is noted as historical, but each narrative raises some fairly large questions. Luke, a Gentile, seems abysmally ignorant of Jewish purification rites and his story cannot have come from the historical Mary. Matthew presents an odd juxtaposition of a paternal genealogy, which makes little sense in light of the story in which Joseph is clearly not the father. Mark passages are typically stark and yield no definitive answer with respect to the actual number and names of Jesus' immediate family members.

The Cana story is so clearly a foreshadowing of the Last Supper's institution of the eucharist rite that its historicity is almost beside the point. Let's again recall that these are not newspaper accounts, much less modern historical writings.

The virgin birth is not a statement of modern biologists. It is a classic narration of the portentous and foreshadowing beginnings of a notable person. This was a common literary technique in the Greco-Roman world: great people were said to be born or raised in extraordinary circumstances.

Followers of Jesus' apostles very likely took all these accounts at face value, but without the modern concern for empirical scientific facts, which were unknown, or rare, in the ancient world.

The gospels, particularly John, were also in part responding to polemic against Mary and her son, at the time in which the followers of Jesus were one of several competing Jewish sects.

The Talmud, for example, speaks of Jesus as a sorcerer, son of Pantera, a Roman seducer of Miriam, who was unfaithful to her husband. This is not a quote, but a summary gloss of many talmudic references; moreover, scholars cannot uncontrovertibly state that these people are the Jesus and Myriam of Nazareth in the gospels. Yet such descriptions of people who could be the gospel characters can certainly explain why Luke and Matthew offered their versions of the Christmas story.

The gospels are discourses about God, not biographies.

Mary is presented as typical of the Anawim, poor oppressed Jews who lived in expectation of a Messiah. There are echoes of Abraham and Sarah in Mary's response at the annunciation and echoes of Hannah and Samuel in the presentation at the Temple.

As for Myriam, the woman, we know very little that could be certified today as historical fact. A little less than we know of Jesus.

Could she have believed an angel announcing that she would bear a child without being with a man? Yes, she could. People of her time and place ascribed all sorts of things, from the common cold to leprosy and cures therefrom, to a constellation of good and evil spirits that animated a world about which they knew little scientifically.

We can suppose that a virgin birth would be scandalous, just as Jesus not marrying is oddly unconventional to the point of verging on scandalous. (Imagine the gossip: "What is that young man doing hanging around those tavern people and whores instead of getting married and taking up a craft?")

Joseph would, indeed, have been Matthew's forgiving man, ready to dismiss her quietly (an engagement was much more serious business then).

Yes, Mary might later have had shocks and surprises along the way to the cross, despite what the angel told her. What could a simple, rural girl from Galilee know about what a Messiah's life and death would be like?

All Myriam's experience allowed her to suppose was that her son was going to learn his craft from Joseph, then marry a nice Jewish girl and give her grandchildren. As for preaching, healing, a trial and crucifixion, I'm sure that at sometime she muttered to herself the Aramaic equivalent of Oy, vey!

1 comment:

Anne Malcolm said...