The Lost Gospel of Mary: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts
© 2012 Frederica Mathewes-Green
We are presently in the season of Advent, an ideal time to take a look at a question of mine: how do the Orthodox approach Mary? I know she’s held in some regard in the Orthodox traditions, because I’ve heard an exquisitely beautiful canon devoted to her. Frederica Mathews-Greene has been my guide to the Orthodox before, so I began this with great interest and was not disappointed. It is not a full book on Mary; instead, it introduces three ‘texts’ — a Gospel of Mary, a 3rd century prayer, and a similarly ancient hymn — that indicate that Marian devotion is not a not western Catholic novelty, but rather part of the early Christian experience which later became exaggerated or ignored altogether by later traditions. Mathewes-Green joins these materials together with historical and theological commentary, after a clarifying introduction which reveals this Gospel was not “lost”, but simply unknown to the western church.
The Gospel of Mary has the most substance, so I’ll render a quick precis: Mary is born after her aging parents, remorseful about their lack of progeny, pledge any child born to God’s service. Mary is born and enters the service of the Temple at age three, working there until she nears puberty at which point the priests are commanded by God to summon the area’s widowers to the temple. Joseph is among that number, and is barked by a dove to be her husband. Although he has second thoughts when she confesses that’s she’s pregnant, a dream of God assures him that all is well, and he stands by her when the community tries them for sin. They survive the trial, and enroute to Bethlehem for the tax business, Mary gives birth in a cave. Jesus is then hidden in an ox manger from King Herod, who was warned that the king of the Jews had just been born. His cousin John the Baptist is hidden in a mountain, while John’s father is murdered for refusing to say anything.
There are several parallels in the Gospel of Mary to other stories Christians would be familiar with; a midwife not believing Mary’s virginity until she’d personally tested it with her hands recalls Thomas’ doubt in the Resurrection stories, and Frederica points out that a shrouded baby in a cave carries far more meaning when the reader looks ahead to see that same body, again shrouded, again in a cave some thirty-three years later. As much as I value learning how old Mary’s place among Christian devotion is — regarding her with protective affection, then as an elder sister — I also enjoyed Mathews-Green’s commentary in general.
I was thinking of accompanying this with Brad Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary, but at the moment I’m more focused on Brothers Karamazov. Perhaps next year..
Interesting, I hadn’t even heard of this one! I’ve only recently started reading the apocrypha… they do give insight on what people were thinking back then. Might read this next year with my other Orthodox-related reading…
I only encountered it while looking for Orthodox books on Mary — I’d planned to read one Catholic, one Orthodox. Not sure what I was thinking with the Brothers Karamazov sitting there. :p
Good luck with your Orthodox series! They and their music are fascinating.
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