Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
So a couple of weeks ago, an atheist was holding forth in my comboxes on the Blessed Virgin Mary (turns out the atheist is agin' her). What struck me was the interesting combination of quack biblical scholarship and "Babylon Mystery Religion"-level historical scholarship of the atheist's remarks. Behold:
[N]one of the Gospels in their earliest form recorded a virgin birth of Mary: ‘The remark has long ago and often been made that, like Paul, even the earliest Gospels knew nothing of the miraculous birth of our Saviour.’
[T]he church admitted that Virgin Mary was created at the third Council of the church at Ephesus in 431 when Bishop Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) embraced the cause of Isis and anthropomorphized her into Mary, who then became the ‘new’ mother-of-God. The church added to the fabricated nature of Virgin Mary saying that other passages narrating a miraculous birth ‘were later additions to the original body of the apostolic catechesis’ with further aspects of the conception narratives ‘derived from extraneous sources’.
Where to begin? Where to begin?
The first paragraph is an interesting garble. It equivocates between "the earliest gospels" (that would be Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which are both the earliest and the only real gospels there ever were) and "the Gospels in their earliest form" which, you know, nobody knows anything about since they don't exist anymore, if they ever did. My reader knows nothing about what the "earliest form" of Matthew and Luke said concerning the Virgin Birth or the Blessed Virgin. All he knows is what Matthew and Luke in their final form say--and they say plenty about the Virgin Birth.
Similarly, John makes passing references to the Virgin Birth, not in the manner of somebody who has never heard of it, but in the manner of somebody who takes it for granted. That's not super-surprising since scholarship has shown that John is aware of the other three gospels and is not writing to tell his readers stuff they already know from those sources, but to offer a deeper and different perspective. If the first three gospels are giving us the Good News, you might say that John is writing Good News Analysis (though he is, of course, also relating eyewitness material). So instead of giving us the earthly perspective version of the Virgin Birth ("Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem") he gives us the eternal perspective ("The Word become flesh and dwelt among us"). But, in passing, he remarks that the new birth comes "not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God". Likewise, he makes passing mention of the fact that there were rumors among his enemies of something odd about Jesus' parentage (John 8:48). It's a favorite trope of the polemicist to suggest that your opponent is a bastard and John notes that Jesus enemies weren't afraid to suggest it. Jesus comes right back at the suggestion by asserting, not that Joseph, but that God is his Father. For a community that already knows--as John's community does--that Jesus is born of a Virgin, it's a pretty funny nudge in the ribs in the middle of a typical near eastern polemical argument.
Finally, of course, John is careful to mention her as the model disciple at the wedding at Cana, calling the Messiah to begin his mission (that's what all that charged dialogue about the wine is all about, not a pushy Jewish stage mother trying to get her bubbala to impress the neighbors with a nifty trick. The sign of the messianic age is a huge abundance of wine, according to the prophets. Mary is as much as saying, "Come on! Let's get this show on the road!"). And, of course, John also obviously is doing more than making sure we know trivia about how Judean widows were accomodated when he tells us the tale of Jesus saying, "Behold your mother" from the Cross. His point is that Mary is now mother of all the baptized who are his Beloved Disciples.
That's why John also gives Mary a massively exalted portrait in Revelation 11-12, in which he first links her to the Ark of the Covenant (the holiest object in the Old Covenant) and then portrays her as:
a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery....she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne.
Her motherhood of the Word Made Flesh makes her the mother of all the baptized, aka "the rest of her offspring, ...those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus."
That leaves us with Mark, who is giving us the gist of Peter's preaching. What we get in that gospel is an account of the life of Jesus that begins with him as an adult. So yeah, no Virgin Birth. But then again, so what? The Virgin Birth has never been the main event in the Christian story anyway. And Mark is the most "cut to the chase" of the gospels anyway.It starts by linking Jesus, not to his personal past, but to Israel's past by giving us Isaiah's prophecy, the story of John the Baptist, Jesus' baptism, and then away we go at high velocity. It's the shortest gospel, written in a breathless style (the word "immediately" appears in it more times than any other gospel) and it depicts a Jesus who moves at a very brisk clip as he hurries to reach his destination: Golgotha. Mark makes just a couple of passing references to Mary.
First, he recounts the incident when Jesus says that his disciples are his mother, brother and sister.
Second, he notes this curious remark:
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?"
What's notable here is that Mark, in recounting the gossip of the crowd, does not call Jesus the son of Joseph. "Well, that's because Joseph was dead" is the typical reply. In other accounts, however, (such as John 1:45) Jesus is referred to by the normal nomenclature as "Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph" despite the fact that Joseph was just as dead then. Is this a tip of the hat to the Virgin Birth? Hard to say, but it's unusual that Jesus is noted as the son of Mary and not Joseph. What it's not is evidence that Mark never heard of the Virgin Birth, just as my failure to mention John F. Kennedy throughout this article does not mean I never heard of him. He's not germane to my purpose in writing, that's why I don't mention him. The Virgin Birth is not germane to the kind of breakneck account Mark is giving, so he doesn't bother.
In much the same way, Paul never much bothers to mention Mary except for his mention of Jesus being "born of a woman". Lots of moderns read way too much into that. What they forget is that a) Paul is writing his letters, not to give us the story of Jesus but to deal with various pastoral issues in the Churchs to which he writes. Only rarely does Paul recount events from the life of Jesus (though when he does, he sounds just like the gospels). That's not because Paul knows nothing of the historical Jesus. It's because both Paul and his audience are super-familiar with the historical Jesus and can use him is the basis for a meta-discussion of all sorts of other stuff. Paul's letter basically, say, "Given what know of Jesus, here is how we should then live." Paul is putting out pastoral fires, not giving us the life story of Jesus.
So do we have some way of knowing what Paul thought about Mary? Well, if we take seriously the fact that Luke was Paul's companion and deeply influenced by his thought (as I do) then I think the answer is yes. Paul's fingerprints are all over Luke's thought. From Luke's insistence on taking the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam (in other words, telegraphing Paul's conviction that the gospel is for the Gentiles as well as the Jews) to various other passages that show he thinks about Jesus in a deeply Pauline way, Luke makes clear that he regards his gospel as congruent with that of Paul's. So if Paul has so little interest in Mary, how is it that his most prominent disciple also includes more material on Mary and the Virgin Birth than any other gospel writer? Answer: I think Luke's Marian theology is basically Paul's Marian theology, just as Mark's gospel is basically Peter's.
As to the second paragraph, I am intrigued as to when the Church "admitted" that the Virgin Mary was fabricated at the Council of Ephesus in 431. I'm particularly fascinated because if this is true, then all the wonders of Doctor Who's TARDIS must be true as well, given that there is a massive paper trail of prayers, liturgies, devotions and theological writings about the Blessed Virgin that predate the Council of Ephesus by some 350 years. If the Church fabricated the Blessed Virgin Mary at Ephesus in 431 as Mary Truthers suggest, then they have to do a lot more than account for the Virgin Birth narratives in each and every copy of the New Testament floating around the Church in 431. They have to account for fact that Mary is honored as a Virgin in all sorts of art and documentation predating 431, and spanning the whole length and breadth of the Mediterranean world. They also have to account for why even sects who opposed the Church were honoring Mary as the Virgin Mother of God long before Ephesus. Indeed, the Philomarianites were so devoted to Mary they wanted to worship her as a goddess and the Church had to rein them in.
"Mother of God" (aka "Theotokos") was not a title invented at Ephesus in 431 and it had nothing to do with Isis (who was an Egyptian deity, not the center of an Ephesian cult). The cult at Ephesus, during the New Testament period, had centered on Diana or Artemis. Her temple there had been one of the seven wonders of the world and made Ephesus not only a religious center but a commercial boom town as well. (Note that it was the silversmiths who were ticked off at Paulin the book of Acts for bringing his new cult to town and who therefore ginned up a mob against him. He was Bad for Business.)
But the reality is that the cult of Diana was pretty much finished in Ephesus two centuries before the Council of Ephesus. Raiding barbarians sacked the Temple in 268. (not a huge sign of reverence for the goddess) and it pretty much disappears from history after that. Nobody is really even sure if a stab was made at rebuilding it. Why neglect such an important local landmark with all the Seventh Wonder cachet? Simple. The place wasn't pagan anymore. It was Christian and Christians don't worship Diana.
So why did the Council of Ephesus come up with the Mother of God thing if there is no relation to the cult of Diana? Again; simple. It didn't. "Theotokos" or "God-bearer" is a title used to describe Mary for centuries before the Council of Ephesus, not because Christians missed going to the Temple of Diana with Grandma Paganus and wanted to spice things up with a little goddess worship, but because a) Jesus is God, b) Mary is his mother and therefore c) Mary is the Mother of God.
Ephesus was a council convened to deal with a heretic (Nestorius) who had come up with a complicated new theory that involved the brand new notion that Jesus was just an ordinary human who was, if you will, occupied by the second person of the Trinity, but who was not himself, divine. By way of underlining this, Nestorius told his flock that they could (mark this) no longer call Mary "Theotokos" (as they and Christians all over the Empire had done for centuries). Instead, he insisted they could only call her by the brand new title "Christokos" (Christ-bearer). His point was that Mary was only the mother of the ordinary schlub Jesus, not the Mother of God who occupied his body. In other words, he was emphasizing his brand new theory that Jesus was a sort of holy schizophrenic who shared his body with the occupying Logos something like a balloon is filled with gas but never shares in the nature of the gas.
What the Council recognized was that a Jesus who did not share in the divine nature himself was not a Jesus who could share it with us. In trying to protect God from contact with our human nature, Nestorius wound up making it impossible for Jesus to save us. What the Council did was restate the ancient apostolic faith that Jesus is the Word made flesh, fully human and fully God, who makes us "partakers in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). To underscore that, they then told the people who had venerated Mary as Theotokos for centuries to go right on doing what they had always done. The point was not, "Let's slip in a little Diana worship under the radar" but "Jesus is God, therefore Mary is the Mother of God." The was not only not about Diana, it wasn't really even about Mary. The thing about Mary was that the thing was really about Jesus.
What's funny about all this to me is that this whole "Mary is really Isis" stuff from an atheist comes straight out of the crudest sort of fundamentalist Protestant tracts like The Two Bablyons and Ralph Woodrow's Babylon Mystery Religion. What's even funnier is that so far from being cutting edge exposes of the Horrible Truth of Catholic Marian Devotion, the atheist Bright who regurgitated this stuff hasn't even caught up with the fact that Woodrow himself, being an honest Fundamentalist, rethought his book, realized it was based on junk history and theology, took it off the market, and then wrote a refutation of his own work (and of the The Two Babylons) called The Babylon Connection? The Atheist Fundamentalist turns out to be even less well-read than the Christian Fundamentalist.
Here's the deal: The reason the Church venerates the Blessed Virgin Mary is that the Church has taught, since the time of the apostles, that Jesus was conceived in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. That's why there's that big paper trail about her,not just in the Bible, but in the prayers, art, and theological writings of the Church from the gospels to 431 AD. Cyril of Alexandria didn't have a TARDIS and did not go back in time and plant all the Mary stuff all over the Empire in order to make her sudden appearance at the Council of Ephesus plausible and spice up the liturgy with a little coded Isis worship. If you think this is what happened, you should probably refrain from boasting about your superior intellect and grasp of the Hidden History of Our Time, unless you are going to do a guest spot on Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell.