THE book presumes that in the documents of the first Christian century, women were so neglected that one should assume that women were more important than they seem. This may be so, and mothers are always important in the formation of their children. Neither of these facts is enough to justify the claim made by the title.
Nevertheless, the reader is given an attractive and rich theology of Mary in the New Testament, though it is very often unclear whether the historical events grew out of the theology or the theology out of the events: “this may or may not have occurred” is a recurrent phrase. Jesus was definitely not a miracle-worker nor born without a human father; he never walked on water. The birth of Jesus at Bethlehem tells us nothing of where he was actually born, but only that he was considered to be of the House of David. Such stories are part of the mythology of Jesus rather than history.
These ideas mount up to provide an attractive sketch of a non-miraculous Jesus movement, though it is hard to accept that Jesus “was not chosen by God alone” but that “women were the human initiators of this divine calling.”
Some readers may feel uncomfortable with this attitude to history, especially since no distinction is made (despite the occasional reference to Vatican documents) between those stories that are part of the inspired scriptures and those of later non-canonical texts. The argumentation is often rather loose and incomplete.
To give two examples. Every effort is made establish that Mary was of the line of David (a post-biblical myth), without any consideration of Matthew’s story of the adoption of Jesus into the House of David by Joseph, his adoptive father (Matthew 1.25), which makes such a myth an unnecessary ploy, the result of ignorance of Judaism among Christians of the second century. Similarly, the story of Jesus’s command of the seas (e.g. Mark 4.37-41) makes perfect sense as an expression of his divinity in view of Psalm 107 (Greek 106).23-29, unmentioned in the book.
Nevertheless, there is some interesting and careful speculation towards the end of the book on the plethora of Maries at the cross and resurrection, in view of the later traditions of the leadership of the Jerusalem Christian community. What is the relationship between Mary of Clopas (John 19.23) and Mary the Mother of Jesus? Do the later traditions reinforce the data of Acts to suggest that a strong female, even matriarchal, tradition was at work in the leadership of the community?
Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
Mary, Founder of Christianity
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