Immaculate Conceptions

Chris LaMountain is a rising 3rd-Year student at Northwestern University, pursuing a Religious Studies Major on the Pre-Medicine track. As an aspiring OB/GYN, Chris was honored to receive the opportunity to spend an entire summer analyzing what many consider the foundation of the Western cultural conception of femininity and motherhood: the Virgin Mary. With an intended semester abroad in Rome, Italy during the fall quarter of his Junior Year, Chris is looking forward to acquainting himself with this popular figure in Roman Catholic iconography. Chris would like to thank his friends and family for their unwavering support through his not-always-conventional interests and topics of conversation; had it not been for the generosity and trust of the Northwestern Office of Undergraduate Research, Chris would never have been afford this wonderful opportunity!

The Immaculate “Conceptions”

Many contemporary theologians consider Mother Mary to the first Christian, as “if she never believed it, she never would have conceived it.” Today we will explore the word “conception” and the ways in which Mary interacts with different types of conceptions, from the physical to the mental. Although there was no linguistic connection between types of “conceptions” that will be discussed today (in the original Greek or Hebrew texts), it will be of great value to explore how this Virgin conceived and how we conceive this Virgin.

As discussed in There is no Rose of Such Virtue and The Big “D” of Divinity, Mary’s physical conception of Jesus is thought to be both miraculous and perfect. Being a virgin, Mary’s genitalia is in pristine condition: yet to be broken by penetration, unpolluted by a stranger’s seed. Along with the physical purity of Mary’s body that resulted from her protected upbringing in the Temple, the divine insemination by the Holy Spirit allows the messianic conception to be “immaculate,” meaning literally “spotless,” as even a masculine human body carries elements of disorder and sin that resulted from Eve’s fatal choices in the Garden. Mary’s virginal conception is so valued among early Christian communities that the writers of the New Testament Apocrypha outlined the concept of Mary’s perpetual virginity, wherein she retains her virginity throughout and after the birth of Jesus. This is rather ambiguous in it’s meaning, but considering the constructions of virginity it would imply that Mary’s anatomy was never stretch or broken during childbirth, she never bled, and she never experienced pain, which were all characteristics of the transition from parthenos (virgin) to gyne (woman). Moreover, even as Mary fulfills her religious telos of motherhood (see Teleios), she is never converted to the physical status that considered the lowest of human potential (woman) and rather remains in the most perfected physical state for a female: a virgin. Even in the Protoevangelium of James, when Queen Salome seeks to disprove Mary’s virginal birth with a vaginal examination, her hand catches on fire, as if it reaffirm the impenetrability, and therefore masculinity, of Mary’s body.

Not only is Mary’s conception immaculate, but her gestation and delivery would therefore have been considered “spotless,” as she left the messianic birth without the characteristic signals of femininity: corrupted anatomy, blood, and pain. Putting Mary in the context of Pandora and Eve, Mary’s “jar” was never self-opened, nor did Mary ever step out of her place and fall into her innately female sexuality; Mary’s willingness to physically submit to her God allowed her to paradoxically “open her womb” without “opening her womb,” per se. Moreover, the immaculate conception implies that through the birth of Jesus, God kept Mary’s womb sealed (see The Purity Test), thereby keeping Mary’s insides, Mary’s soul protected from the encompassing, earthly sin. The perpetually closed nature of her genitalia, therefore, allows her masculinized body to remain in its pure and perfect stay until she is assumed up into Heaven, not requiring the bodily perfection that occurs through death and resurrection.

While Mary’s conception and delivery act as idealized models for female and male readers of the New Testament and its Apocrypha, an issue comes about when one attempts to understand the immaculate conception and the virginal birth. Medicine, as discussed in Physis, gives us a language with which we understand our bodily experiences: diagrams of fetus in the womb or imagery of semen finding an egg are helpful in our own psychological ownership of our bodies. This is why medicine is such a powerful tool, as we can irresponsibly use it to convince people that they, by virtue of their body, are of a lesser class or will be able to achieve less physically. When it came to developing a language for us to understand, and therefore possibly achieve, the bodily perfection of the Virgin Mary, in her pure life, immaculate conception, and virginal birth, writer of the New Testament and the NT Apocrypha often fell very short. In fact, for the obstetric grandeur that is Mary’s motherhood, it seems the NT writers were intentional on glazing over the details of her conception, keeping tucked away in its ambiguity. The writers of the NT Apocrypha seem highly aware of the intellectual complexity of Mary’s character, and drastically out of character for writers of midrashim, they too keep Mary in her mystery. Furthermore, the scientific mystery that is the virginal birth develops value in itself, in that understanding the immaculate conception is something reserved for those of the highest rationality. Our inability to conceive the way in which the virgin conceived and delivered creates a separation between the divine and the human, which again uses the gendered vehicle of rationality. Just as Joseph is masculinized through holy visions that give him logic, the exclusive understanding of the immaculate conception puts Mary among the masculine ranks of the Holy Trinity, all of whom have the superhuman logical require to understand such an obstetric phenomenon. The writers of the NT Apocrypha possibly left the immaculate conception and virginal birth unexplained to provide their readers with a reminder of their persistent human irrationality and misconception of the universe’s mysteries.

While Mary is physically impenetrable by the human body, the things that her body does are also intellectually impenetrable by the human mind. This points to a multidimensionality of the word conception, which the English language has developed to mean both the intellectual housing of an understood idea and the physical housing of a fertilized egg; Mary’s immaculate conception was not only a physically pristine conception of the Messiah, but also a pristine understanding of the divine mysteries of the cosmos. Continuing, Mary’s superhuman understanding of the universe’s mysteries was physically expressed in the messianic fetus, the human God who would answer our every cosmological ignorance and confusion. I believe this level of Mary’s character is incredibly empowering to readers of the NT Apocrypha, as it constructs a system wherein the physical is expressively connected to the mental – there is positive, physical fruit produced of positive mental thought. Moreover, Mary can teach her audiences that if they meditate and concentrate on something, they may be surprised by the superhuman ways their bodies will act on such focuses, be it through physical charity or positive construction. As much as Christianity may tell its followers to deny their bodies, I believe that Mary is telling us to embrace the body as a physical expression of the mind, which can sound quite progressive in contemporary contexts.

There is no Rose of such Virtue

… as is the rose that bare Jesu.

Hold the phone, am I genuinely singing this song about Mary’s virtuous vagina on the steps of Alice Millar Chapel in front of a crowd of pious congregants? It is these moments, when you listen to the words or look up at the broken, bony body of Christ on his cross that you come to see the Christian faith’s obsession with the Body. Let’s unpack this.

Mary’s Infancy narratives, as discussed in the previous post, tell us of how Mary’s upbringing prepared her to be both physically and mentally pristine, without the anatomical or cultural corruptions of a ‘normal’ childhood. A virgin in both body and mind, Mary is presented at the temple as a sacrifice by her parents: her mind is sacrificed from all worldly thought and is thus devoted solely to God and the teachings of the Temple. Her body expresses this mental sacrifice, as she denies worldly occupations of the body, such as eating (“she was fed like a dove and received food form the hand of an angel.” – P. James 8:2) and sex. Joseph is subsequently selected as Mary’s guardian-husband as Mary comes to the age where she is medically considered on her descent toward womanhood through menarche and menstruation. Traditionally, therefore, a teenage girl would be paired with an older men that was able to counterbalance her emerging femininity with his established masculinity; however, the Infancy Gospels tend to characterize Joseph at the beginning of his relationship with Mary, as an old, frail, and thus feminine character. Such characterizations are accentuated by depictions of Joseph’s rod as “the shortest rod” out of all the men in the town, which suggests he diminished phallic character (GPM). Perhaps Joseph’s feminine characterizations function to reduce the potential threat to the masculine nature of the Holy Spirit that will later impregnate his “wife,” or to foreshadow a reciprocal masculine characterization of Mary in order to construct a stable gender balance within the couple.

​Adopting the philosophy that the body expresses the mind and spirit, God so sees a promise in Mary’s devout thought towards the Temple’s teachings and thereby informs her that she will undergo an immaculate conception of the word of the Lord. Moreover, the Infancy Gospels suggest that Mary’s incessant praise of God and incorruptible knowledge of the temple’s teachings led her to produce a physical fruit of thought: Jesus Christ. While many readings do emphasize the Holy Spirits’ primary role in this messianic conception, I do believe that the Infancy Gospels’ detailing of Mary’s role in the understanding of the word of God does empower her character. Although her lifestyle may not have been consented, her resilient work ethic, ascetic behavior, and (male-level) comprehension of God’s word seem to be at least somewhat responsible for the creation of the messiah. This explains Jesus’ nature as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, as every atom of Jesus’ being is gestated out of Mary’s understanding of the word of God. Mary’s immaculate conception, therefore, empowers Christian audiences by serving as a role model for spiritual devotion; it suggests that we all can produce our own soteriological fulfillment of the Old Testament – be it symbolic or physical in Mary’s extreme case.

While these Infancy Gospels do inspire their readers, especially their female audiences, to reach greater depths of spiritual devotion, there arises some problematic implications as the role of gender is considered. New Testament commentary of Mediterranean antiquity is obsessed with the fact that the mother of the Messiah is a “virgin.” In fact, the Protoevangelium of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew both indicate a Marian dogma, called the “perpetual virginity of Mary:” the Messianic Mother was a virgin in her youth, remained a virgin through Jesus’s birth, and persisted to be a virgin beyond giving birth to Christ. Considering the ancient constructions of virginity (See Purity Test) and commentaries on purity discussed in A Highway for our God, the virginal female was the most socially accepted form of the female body, as her body would be physically closest to a masculine body: dry, unpenetrated, and unpolluted. Because New Testament writers and commentators never allowed Mary to develop out of her virginity, she therefore remains in her most masculine, and therefore, perfect state. The detailing of the virginal birth in PJ conveys Mary’s masculine characterization, as she experiences this lowly and uniquely feminine moment of labor without its hallmark feminine attributes, such as blood and pain. Not exhibiting the outpouring of inner liquids that prevails in feminine medical imagery of the time or sickness and decay that was so often connoted with womanhood, Mary essentially becomes a man by the medical standards from which she emerges.

Using Mary’s process of masculinization as a role model, we can ascertain that the road to creating our own symbolic saviors not only involves the sacrificial devotion of the self, but the masculinization of our bodies. Spiritual fruit and the fulfillment of the word of God can only, therefore, be cultivated by men, which reaffirms the idea that salvation will only come through masculinization (See The Big “D” of Divinity). Mary is only deserving of her high veneration because she is a woman that circumvented all negative development towards femininity, and rather was given the gift of masculinization through her perpetual virginity and bloodless/painless birth. Just as Greek goddesses, Athena and Artemis, can only remain among the “divine” by having masculine characterizations of war and hunting, Mary becomes “blessed among women” for her implied destruction of femininity and embracing of masculinity, despite her innate feminine sex. With the “one-sex” model in mind, Mary functions as a mirror the medical understanding of gender at the time, in that she encourages her female and effeminate audiences to strive to be more physically masculine in order to overcome the feminine forces of death and disorder that were brought about by Eve.

VIRTUE: derived from the Latin virtus meaning “moral perfection,” which itself is derived from the Latin vir meaning “man.”

It is nonetheless hauntingly truthful to sing the words “There is no rose of such virtue, as is the rose that bare Jesu,” as Mary’s rose, Mary’s feminine genitalia are suggested to be superior because of their masculine nature. Again, this is not to say that Mary developed a phallus in her masculinization, but rather her ability to demonstrate phallic attributes while keeping a yonic physicality is what makes her so venerable and miraculous. Mary was able to work within the structure of the sexual spectrum constructed by the “one-sex” model, and God rewards her for being the seemingly only woman to have successfully avoided the dangerous fall to femininity. Perhaps it’s time we started to think before we sing.

A Highway for Our God

If Adam and Eve have taught us anything, it’s that there exists an undeniable importance in the genesis. Genesis: the beginning, the coming into, the initial velocity, the big bang that set every particle in motion toward their exact position of this moment. To understand our suffering – the New Testament tells us – we must look at and analyze our genesis. While Jesus acts as the incarnated word of many Jewish prophets, Jesus also becomes as a mirror image to Adam (and Eve), as he saves the world from the death and disorder that this original duo created with their original sin. Moreover, in order to understand and control our current pain, we must look to its source. In the process of excavating the constructions of ancient Mediterranean female bodies, I have discovered a few sources of the sexism, gender expectations, and modes of subordination that prevail against women today. Perhaps we can take this lesson from the New Testament and begin at the beginnings on our conquest to understand. Therefore, today, we will embark on the conception, birth, and childhood of the Virgin Mary, as described predominantly in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (GPM) ​and the Protoevangelium of James (PJ), two important sections of the NT apocrypha.

Behold, a virgin was conceived of Anna and Joachim, an unsuspecting couple in the drier years of their lives. Having been married and without child for over 20 years, stress started weighing on the couple. Failing to perform his masculine duty of life-generation, Joachim flees far from his home (to the desolate desert in PJ and the abandon countryside in GPM) in a suggested masochistic state, hoping to offer himself to God through his self-inflicted alienation. Both parties, Anna and Joachim, suffer during this 40-day-40-night period (PJ), as widow Anna questions her now purposeless existence and Joachim fails to receive any affirmation of God’s presence. In a chilling moment of the third chapter of JP, Anna proclaims: “Oh me, who gave birth to me? What womb caused me to grow? For I was born cursed in from of the children of Israel. I am reviled and they treat me with contempt and cast me out of the temple of the Lord my God.” This raw and dramatic window into Anna’s soul affirms the previously discussed telos of the Ancient Mediterranean female to bear children (See Teleios). Subsequently, Anna experiences a violent identity crisis, showing her own sense of worthlessness, now that she no longer can cling to the possibility of gestating Joachim’s child. Seeing this quasi-suicidal conviction, God sends an angel to Anna to inform her that she will bear a child that will be “spoken of, everywhere people live.” Moreover, it was in her self-sacrifice that God deemed Anna worthy to bear the new holy servant of the temple: the child Mary. As Joachim is also told of Anna’s nonpenetrative conception, he is immediately relieved and returns home to his unwidowed wife; this plot line exposes an interesting performative element to the masculine role within the Christian faith, in that it isn’t necessarily the means of penetration, but the ends of life-generation that confirm the correct existence of the Christian man.

Mary’s youth is build on pure, sacrificial grounds, which reflects the previous raw and masochistic devotions of her parents. Understanding her as a holy and seemingly pure entity, Anna prevents Mary from ever walking on the earth. Anna, therefore, sacrifices much of Mary’s youth, potential social development, and physical growth, in the fear that pursuing a “normal” childhood will corrupt her innate purity. At the age of three, Mary is brought to the Temple to be essentially raised in the spotless holy ground and under the incorruptible supervision of the monks. Without the mental development necessary to allow for agency, Mary’s three-year-old body is effectively brought to the Temple as an offering to God for fulfilling the parental telos of Anna and Joachim, which not only objectifies Mary’s body, but characterizes Mary’s purpose as a servant of God. Herein lies a beautiful schism in Mary’s characterization, as she becomes both subhuman in her sacrificial objectification and superhuman in her “incorrupted” state that is reminiscent of the purity of Adam in paradise. For the apocalyptic audience that would have been the readers of JP and GPM, Anna and Joachim would have served as role models for all parents of newly born children, as the purity/virginity of the child becomes an archetype for praising God. Although Mary herself is not necessarily characterized as a human, her appearance as a girl nonetheless constructs an expectation of virginity for her audiences, which reflects the ancient medicine explored in Parthenogenesis – Creating Virginity.

​Mary’s infancy, as detailed by James and Pseudo-Matthew, points to ancient Mediterranean understandings of purity and virginity. While doing such analysis, we must remember that these Infancy Gospels emerged centuries after the New Testament introduced the virginal mother to our world, and therefore we must constantly be cognizant that these authors were careful when constructing Mary’s body, as the soon-to-be channel through which the incarnated God would come. In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Is. 40:3) Authors of the New Testament apocrypha made Mary into an incarnation of the Jewish prophecies of the Old Testament, by detailing her physical purity that is reached by sacrificing her youth. Continuing, though, these authors indicate that there is a cultural/social dimension to virginity that came with Mary’s upbringing in the temple. By denying her a “normal” childhood, full of social interactions, games, sexual awakenings, Mary is kept pure on the cultural plane of virginity; she is not penetrated by the corrupting forces of society that would have led her (and continue to lead us) to reenact the original sin of Eve. Finally, Mary is not only of the pristine physicality required for the incarnation of God’s word, but she is of the pristine mentality, emotionality, and sexuality that the pioneers of Christian philosophy would deem acceptable to gestate their Lord. May we all take a moment to note that to rationalize the NT’s messianic birth from a woman, the writers of the NTA felt it necessary to deny the Virginal Mother of the most human characteristics, childhood, emotional development, sexual exploration. (We will see Mary’s later denial of femininity, as she becomes ready to give birth to Jesus.)

Let us keep looking at our beginnings. Let us be critical of role models that urge us to reach unattainable, inhuman standards of existence. Let us continue the pursuit of humanizing these monumental characters in our mythologies, and pose questions: Mary, did you choose this life, did you consent to this self-sacrifice? Perhaps in meeting Mary at a human level, instead of the sub or superhuman level that she is constructed to be in the NT, we can alleviate our personal shame around forced, unconsented “purity” and congratulate ourselves for our progress in self-awareness and self-love. Everyday we are given the change to rewrite our own Geneses, just as James and Pseudo-Matthew did roughly five centuries after Mary’s birth. And maybe this time, we will depict ourselves being born on a ground, spotted and dirty enough to grow ambassadors of love, self-acceptance, and maculate humanity.

Your Average Joe

New Testament Joseph was having a masculinity crisis! How emasculating it must feel to have a pregnant fiancee with a child that isn’t yours? To not have been that one to assert your dominating masculinity over your submissive female partner through intercourse? How could the “genealogical” father of the new Messiah exist within the feminine structure that the New Testament constructs for him?

Say no more, various men of the 2nd to 5th centuries CE created what is considered the New Testament Apocrypha, or the collection of “lost gospels” that were excluded from publication in today’s New Testament. These narratives filled in many of the gaps that arise from the often inadequate detailing in the four gospels. As common in the Jewish practice of midrashim, or rabbinic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, these major figures of the emerging Christian tradition, including St. James and St. Thomas, wrote background and tangential stories of primary biblical characters in order to make sense and influence interpretation of the bible, such as with the Infancy Gospels. While not all of these apocryphal stories are accepted as truth in today’s Christian practice, they nonetheless provide us with valuable insights into how people of the time were interpreting the New Testament and the ways in which pioneers of the Christian tradition were hoping to direct the faith, especially given contexts of gender, virginity, and bodies. By investigating characterizations of Joseph briefly in the Gospel of Matthew and largely in The History of Joseph the Carpenter, we can begin to see the constructed context of Virgin Mary, considering Joseph was her espoused guardian. Today, we will investigate the masculine characteristics given to Joseph, and whether these set up an empowering of suppressing environment into which Mary will emerge.

Joseph, like his Mary, appears rather infrequently in the New Testament; he is only prominent in the infancy and burial narratives of the Gospel of Matthew, for example. Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus, starting with Abraham, tracing through King David, and eventually to Joseph. Genealogical lines are of great importance in Jewish tradition, and such an introduction of the Messiah rhetorically gains credence by virtue of demonstrating the divine lineage that led to the creation of the Son of God; moreover, by highlighting Jesus’ genealogical connection to powerful men,m such as David and Abraham, Matthew plays into the masculinized notion of the regeneration of God’s image, thereby implying the genealogical masculinity, and therefore perfection from which the human God is born. However, there arises a break in the lineage, as Joseph is not actually the man to impregnate the mother of the Son of God, which challenges the true masculinity of Joseph. Without the New Testament’s explicit mention of Joseph’s other children and later implications of Mary’s perpetual virginity, Matthew could possibly be implying that Joseph never participated in the masculine process of life-generation through penetration and impregnation, thereby feminizing his character.

Continuing, Matthew works within the cultural construction of men, as rational beings to further create ambiguity to Joseph’s masculinity. Matthew details: “[Jesus’s] mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (Mt. 1:18-19) It is only after that Joseph is given a holy prophecy verifying the Holy conception of his spouse that Joseph understands the situation and agrees to stay with and protect Mary and their future, messianic child. Joseph is given other holy prophecies in his dreams later in the initial few chapters of Matthew, all which give him insight to dangers and direct him in ways to fulfill his “fatherly duty” of protecting his family. Despite Joseph being “just” and “faithful to the law” (dikaios), he seems to innately lack a rationality that is necessary for overcoming challenging concepts and understanding situations, a rationality that is characteristically masculine. Moreover, Matthew establishes a motif of salvation through masculinization, as Joseph secures his spot in the divine lineage by becoming more rational and choosing to stay as the genealogical father of the newborn Messiah. Similarly, Matthew develops this idea that masculinization is a process that cannot be performed by our human selves, but rather a divine, external entity must be the active creator of such masculinity. In ways we will explore in future posts, Joseph’s character manipulations serve to foreshadow the journey of salvation through masculization upon which Mary will embark in her virginal birth and apocryphal characterizations.

​The writer of The History of Joseph the Carpenter ‘s (HJC) aggressive attempt to depict Joseph as a quintessentially masculine character serves as a model for masculinization through faith, justice, and obedience. Firstly, the writer of HJC puts emphasis on the impressive, superhuman age that Joseph to which Joseph stays alive: “one hundred and eleven years his age being prolonged to its utmost limit;” (10) this obsession with Joseph’s late age gives Joseph an air of immortality and thus masculinity. Continuing, the speaker details how although he was able to perform the masculine expectation of labor, he never experiences “bodily weakness, nor had his sight failed, nor had any tooth perished from his mouth.” This falls perfectly within Hippocratic philosophy on the male’s ability to achieve a state of physical perfection (see Wet and Dry Dichotomy). (10) Even Joseph’s constructed job, as a carpenter, evokes imagery of generation and creation which are both masculine processes by ancient Mediterranean medicine. The writer of this section of the NT Apocrypha speaks in Jesus’ voice, and detailing of Jesus’ absolute obedience with Joseph is reminiscent of the submissive/dominant power dynamic of ancient medicine that aligns Joseph with the phallic masculine (I say “phallic” in the metaphoric sense here). Finally, in Joseph’s death, Jesus makes his genealogical father incorruptible, meaning that his body will not endure the feminizing process that his physical decay, thereby gifting him an eternal sense of masculinity.

One must remember that HJC is a memoir and the past-tense nature of the narrative outlines the masculinity that results from divine salvation. With this, it is difficult at times to see Joseph’s trend from feminine to masculine that the gospel of Matthew outlines. Nonetheless, in section 17, Joseph reflects on the (feminine) ignorance that he had before the divine prophecies fell upon him. Similarly, the speaker is quick to remind us of Joseph’s incomplete masculinity in his inability to penetrate the Virgin Mary: “[Mary] brought me forth on earth by a mystery which no creature can penetrate or understand, except myself and my Father and the Holy Spirit.” Moreover, Joseph’s human status prevents him from reaching the ultimate masculinity of the Holy Trinity, despite him reaching the suggested humanly limit of masculinity through his physicality, job, and relationship with Jesus. This pivotal passage as suggests a beautiful quality of the word “conception,” in that the most masculine will be able to break woman’s bodies in the way they would break an impossible mystery; in both the physical and mental penetrations, conception results. This is a rhetorically powerful moment, as it feminizes the entire audience in their inability to conceive the way in which Mary was impregnate, which thus encourages them to support Jesus, in the way that Joseph did, in order to gain their respective masculinizations.

Teleios

Ἔσεσθε οὖν ὑμεῖς τέλειοι ὡς ὁ Πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος τέλειός ἐστιν.

Focus on it. Teleios, as commonly translated, means “perfect,” thereby putting this line from Jesus’ antitheses in Matthew 5 as “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48) However, this translation is surely less than perfect as the original Greek teleois has a much different connotation of wholeness and completeness that happens at something’s end. Just as God, the Father, is whole, free from the pain and anxiety of fragmentation, and perfectly put together, Jesus inspires his disciples to live their lives with this air of completeness, as if they had already reached their final destination. One can see echoes of this important biblical word in modern genetics, with telomeres. When chromosomes are translated or replicated they inevitably will lose part of each end of the strand. In order to prevent coding DNA from being lost in this process telomeres, or noncoding end DNA, is put on either side of a strand in order to preserve the genetic material that keeps us healthy and alive. As telomeres get depleted or weak, cellular destruction results from the degrading DNA, and thus we see bodies undergo the slow process of aging and decay. Just as biological vocabulary and Matthew 5 suggests, we understand some direction, some objective, some ending perfect place for us, be that death, with God, etc. From this idea comes the word telos, used both by ancient and contemporary authors to mean the life goal of a being, the perfect place at the end of their trajectory.

After a month’s worth of excavating the female bodies of ancient Greece and Rome, I would wish to culminate this phase of the research looking at the ultimate medical goal, the telos of the ancient Mediterranean female. After so much degradation of femininity and validating female oppression, both physically and socially, there must be some overall objective in mind of these physicians. Today, we will look at the goals that ancient gynecologists have set for the female body – the methods by which Hippocrates, Aristotle, Soranos, Galen, etc. have informed womanhood to redeem themselves from repugnance, instability, and uselessness that was ancient Mediterranean femininity.

To better our understanding of the feminine telos, we will first approach the outlined goals of the male body. In his innate state, the ancient Mediterranean male body was hot, dry, compact, and full of potential to reach great degrees of athleticism and physical perfection. To be masculine was to be penetrative, in all physical, emotional, and societal senses, and impenetrable; Galen outlines the inverse relation of masculine and feminine reproductive organs, thereby implying that male-initiated intercourse acted to complete a part of the female body that was missing. This transcended its anatomical dimension, and – as Deut. 22 suggests – the phallus begins to adopt an aggressive attitude, to the objective of both physically and emotionally breaking women. With a woman’s eruptive, animalistic, and primitive body expressing her uncontrollable and hypersexual spirit, there emerged an urgency for ancient Mediterranean men to tame and cure their female counterparts via penetration and, hopefully, impregnation. This leads to an interesting masculine telos, when considering Aristotle’s one-seed model (See “One-Sex” Model), in which societal responsibility is assigned to men to procreate to maintain a sense of earthly and cosmological order. Moreover, part of being a man, if not the main objective of manhood, was to generate life. This telos exposes a new characterization of ancient masculinity: immortality. The God of Genesis creates “man in His image” from the earth, and therefore the subsequent generation of man from Adam serves as a physical immortalization of God’s image, if we consider human women as the metaphoric earth that nourishes the regenerative image of the man that impregnated her. The female body, therefore, is an ephemeral tool, an unfortunate necessity to the masculine cycle of life that keeps alive the eternal, earthly image of God, the physical reminder of what we looked like in paradise.

​Very rarely will a male gynecologist of ancient Greece or Rome describe the ways in which a female can fulfill her earthly purpose; rather, we must ascertain her societal expectation through the cracks of her broken body image. Considering imagery of the wandering womb and other animalistic characterizations of the female body (See The Wandering Womb, Broken and Barking Bitches,and Little Lamb, who made thee?), women were expected to suppressed their (supposedly) inherent desires of reckless sexuality and evanescence. With this, virginity develops into a valued characteristic of the female body, as it implies “rational” self-control, pristine female anatomy, and pure flesh for gestation of the male seed. With its not-yet-penetrated status, physical perfection, rationality, and dryness, the pre-menarcheal, virginal female becomes greatly characterized as a masculine entity. However, with the evolutionary need to produce the next generation, and the unspoken male need to fulfill his sexual desires, keeping females in a perpetual virginal state would not be pragmatic; similarly, as virginal women experience menarche, their bodies no longer reflect the dry and compacted perfection of masculinity, and thus the womb becomes a threat to the female body and the order of the cosmos. This constructs a maternal telos to the female body, in which conception and childbearing becomes means of redeeming the post-menarcheal, dangerous physical state. The supposed taming of the wandering womb that comes from the moistening of insemination and the anchoring of gestation reflects a pregnant woman’s difficultly in running away and further engaging in promiscuous sexual behavior. This image of the weakened, immobilized pregnant female body surely no longer bears the masculine characterizations of the virginal female body, but rather serves as a model by which women can best perform their femininity, as passive tools of masculine domination.

​I am of the belief that we are all purposeful.
I am not of the belief that we all have a singular purpose.
Let us empower one another to remove the concept of the telos from our cultural vernacular.

The Big “D” of Divinity – Salvation by Masculinization

The Fourth entry of the Baha’i Twelve Principles of prophet, Baha’u’llah, highlights the connectedness of science and religion: “For God has given humans reason to investigate about the truth of things. If religious matters are against science and reason, they are illusions. For that which is against science is ignorance. And if we say religion is against reason, then the meaning is that religion is ignorance.”

Baha’u’llah here shows this symbiosis between the religious and scientific understandings of the universe; moreover, there is an ignorance that comes when two such modes of understanding antagonize each other. This contemporary Baha’i philosophy mirrors greatly that of ancient Mediterranean society; as medicine was developing in ancient Greece and Rome, the emerging religious practices moved within the curve of the trending science, and vice versa. It is difficult to understand such a linked relationship between science and religion in a society that inexhaustibly pins the two against each other, but ancient Mediterranean culture saw a oneness in religious and scientific thought, as the Baha’i see today. With this, it is not surprising that some of the most influential philosophers of the time, such as Aristotle, also greatly contributed to the scientific understanding of the world. As I have been investigating for the past month, medicine can be read as a mirror for culture. Today, we will take a glance on the inverse and try to understand how culture can be a mirror for medicine. The emerging narrative of the Virgin Mary came at a moment of time in Mediterranean culture when ideas surrounding the pollutabilty, controllability, breakability of the female body where at a scientific peak; she was the essential embodiment of the “scientific breakthroughs” in her context. Continuing, the way the culture and practitioners responded to can give us greater insight to the perspective of the female body, as – in many ways – Mary is made to be archetypal Mother and Female for Christian communities. It is important to remember that Mary is given very little airtime in the Bible (outside of Jesus’ birth and death, she is only majorly mentioned once in the Gospel of Matthew, for example). Nonetheless, today we will exam Mary’s skeleton, as created by the New Testament.

In agreement with the scientific philosophy that connotes masculinity with perfection, the Bible constructs a connection between masculinity and divinity. This can be seen on various Old Testament that precede Mary. For example, In Genesis 2, the Creator constructs Adam (meaning “mankind”) first and then woman is created out of Adam, therein suggesting some order of genders. Genesis continues this gender construction, by developing Eve’s character to be the one creature in paradise that falls into temptation, eats from the tree of Wisdom, and brings death into the lives of all creatures. In this original construction of gender, the writers of Genesis draw connection between masculinity and rationality, strength, and self-control, whereas Eve (a symbol of womanhood) shows tendencies of impulsiveness, gullibility, and primitiveness. In a strong connection to Hesiod’s detailing of Pandora’s creation as a punishment to men that releases evils and disorder from her self-opened jar, it seems that womanhood in Genesis is created to bring about destruction to a stable paradise that solely contained masculinity in its untainted, unfemininized state. If we can play the story of Adam and Eve in retrograde, the only way that life can return to it’s sinless paradise is through the process of destroying femininity.

Fast-forward to the New Testament, Mary and Elizabeth’s bodies are used as vessels through which God, the Father, can express the divinity of masculinity. Luke details the way in which the Holy Spirit impregnates Mary, despite her “not knowing a man,” and Elizabeth, despite her old, infertile age (Luke 1:35-37). Reflecting on the Aristotelian “one-seed” model, which defines the man’s ejaculation as the life-generating substance that uses the female body to grow and develop during gestation, it can be deduced that readers of Luke’s gospel may have considered the generation of life to be man’s biological responsibility. As Luke outlines that Holy Spirits’ role in Mary’s and Elizabeth’s conceptions, the gospel links masculinity to divinity through the audience’s understanding of obstetric medicine. Considering the masculine gendering of the Father and Son, and now the implied life-generating nature and therefore masculine characterization of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Trinity becomes a fully masculine entity, and all that is unholy is therefore feminine. Again, the structure provided by the New Testament, specifically in Luke 1, suggests that in order to achieve goals of salvation and divinity, we must orient ourselves toward the masculine and away from the feminine.

This led me to wonder how such a structure for a religion would grow to the depths it has reached, considering it is rooted in misogyny and excludes both women and effeminate men. However, we must remember the ideology of gender construction that were discussed in the “One-Sex” Model. While ancient Mediterranean gynecologist would attempt at great lengths to ensure that women would never be able to reach the physical “perfection” of the masculine man, the “one-sex” model still permitted woman the hope of approaching this perfection through masculinization. Such a medical conception is culturally reflected in Greek mythology, as Athena and Artemis receive their divine status on through the masculine characterizations, being the goddess of war and hunting, respectively. Thus begins the direction we will head in for the next month: the masculinization of Mary. In what ways do the early commentaries on Mary (the Infancy Gospels and Nativity sermons) work within the ancient gender constructions to comment on the perfection/holiness of Jesus’ feminine mother? How can Mary remain sanctified as the mother of the Lord, who is “highly favored” (Luke 1:28), and remain both a woman and a mother? How does this gender construction of Mary will this invite or deter a feminine audience of the time? Let’s do this, dahlings!

PHASE II

I’ve always hated Autumn. Sure, it’s objectively the most scrapbookable season of Massachusetts, but something about it is so essentially painful for me. Not the departure from the summer’s promise of warm memories, not the reminder of decay and descent in the leaves, not the intolerable tricker-treaters that break silence in my neighborhood every October’s end. Rather, I resent Fall for being transitional, a liminal space. Today, like Autumn, I will leave a characterization of my work that has defined me for the past four weeks: ancient medicine. In doing so, I will open my research to the divine, the religious, the hyper-medical (if you will), something that has been on the back burner in all the words I’ve read and written over the past month. And while I have been collecting data and gathering understanding on Mary’s context, both medically and culturally, there is something so terrifying in departing the safety, objectivity, and criticizability Hippocratic treatises and Aristotelian philosophy. How can I enter into the life of this woman and tell her the reality of her rhetorical existence? How could I possibly be ready to confront the monument that is this mother? It’s that autumnal doubt. But as summer’s crops become winter’s sustenance, we must enter this next season of work in ​full confidence of our preparations.
​Un-timidly, let me introduce you to the second mother to many: The Virgin Mary.

The Purity Test

If Game Show Network were to exist over two millennia ago, “The Purity Test” would surely be of the most viewed features among their male audience. Physicians, clergymen, and your average, ancient Mediterranean Joe were simply obsessed with confirming the virginity, and therefore physical purity of a female body at nuptial question. Various cultural practices and medical surveys were performed on these untrustworthy and ambiguous females in order to soothe the masculine anxiety over imperfection reproduction, uncertain genealogy, and ‘uncontrollable’ feminine sexuality. The following entries highlight some of the fan-favorite methods of testing purity, I hope you enjoy the program:

1) Pregnancy. Easy, if a woman’s womb is swollen, she clearly must be with child, and therefore she must have engaged in sexual intercourse. The Old Testament connote great shame with pregnant women that are not yet betrothed, and urges men who have sexual intercourse with virgins to marry them immediately, the unmarried mother was an unacceptable image in Ancient Mediterranean eyes: “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.” (Deut. 22:28-9)
2) Bloodied Sheets: As briefly discussed in Parthenogenesis – Creating Virginity, the Old Testament featured the nuptial sheets as one of the major articles of evidence for virginity. As women were expected to enter marriages as virgins, it would therefore be expected that the sheets upon which the nuptial consummation occurred would be quite saturated in blood from the breaking of the virginal flesh that sealed the womb. In fact, the bloodied sheets would regularly be presented to the parents of the bride as a means of affirming the legitimacy of the woman that the father presented to the husband. The Old Testament details how the father can use the bloodied sheets as a means of exposing a lying husband that is slandering a wife of which he is no longer fond (Deut. 22:13-20) While this logic does fit within its contextual physes of the sealed womb, it does pose a few problems as a questionable method of testing a bride’s virginity, as it is post-nuptial and, as contemporary science indicates, there would be no guaranteed bloodshed from the virginal bride. Ancient Jewish midrashim detail the bloodied sheets being brought before a court of elders with testifying witnesses in order to determine the purity or fidelity of a bride in her virginity trial.
3) Vaginal Examination: Even modern day gynecologists would leave a vaginal examination without full certainty of the sexual status of a woman, with “hymen integrity” being so subjective and variant depending on the patient. With this, it is not surprising that the first vaginal examinations performed by male physicians would not be without their faults. Ancient gynecologists would perform both pre- and post-coital examinations of the bride to test her virginity, specifically seeking the degree of rupture of the female genitalia. A healthy, intact looking vagina would pass the test, whereas vagina that appeared to have undergone physical trauma would be deemed impure. Clearly, upon post-coital examination of the vagina it would be impossible to determine the premarital purity of the bride at hand, nonetheless the practice persisted.
4) Ordeal Test: Described by Herodotus in his historical accounts of ancient Greece, an annual ordeal test was performed on the young female population of a town in Libya. In such a festival, the unmarried women would be divided into two groups that would proceed to attack each other. The women that remained alive and relative unscathed from the festive attack would be considered “true” virgins, as pristine physicality was associated with virginity and rupture and defilement was associated with promiscuity and “false” virginity. Moreover, Michael Rosenberg notes the religious element of this ritual, in that “virginity is read not through a woman’s anatomy, but rather through divine providence.” (Signs of Virginity, p 25)
5) Snakes and Cakes: Another popular purity test of the ancient Mediterranean culture involved virgins, snakes, and cakes. The questionable virgins would be blindfolded and led into a cave with cakes. The blinded women would present the cakes to the snakes of the cave, and if the snakes accepted the cakes, they would be deemed “true” virgins, whereas a rejected caked would point out the “false” virgins.
6) Virginity by Faith: Rosenberg highlights that among the medical and cultural ways through which men of Mediterranean Antiquity confirmed the purity of the bride at question, there was one newly emerging method that was to be revered above the others: divine oracle. In Matthew’s Gospel of the New Testament, Joseph is seen as a “righteous man,” for trusting in his holy vision of Mary’s valid virginity and refusing to expose her unmarried motherhood to the town. The Matthean infancy narrative itself includes emphatic repetition of Mary’s impregnation by the Holy Spirit and therefore connection to the divine. This implies that perhaps the most valid of virginity tests will not be in a medical examination or a cake challenge, but rather in an observation of the women’s pure demeanor and faith.

Ranging in levels of scientific validity and sheer ridiculousness, ancient Mediterranean virginity tests point to the severe distrust that men felt toward a woman’s understanding of her own body. Such practices and cultural mythologies, for example Pandora and Tamar who both masquerade as virgins, outline a fragility in the masculine conception of women. In medicine of Mediterranean Antiquity, the masculine body was conceived to be perfect, clean, and relatively undefiable, whereas “women [were] pollutable, polluted, and polluting” (Carson, Before Sexuality p 158). This, therefore, puts women in somewhat of an existential game of monkey in the middle, as they wrestle between expectations of purity and impurity. Perhaps the emerging hand of New Testament God will craft the solution to this feminine confusion: the Virgin Mother, Mary of Nazareth.

Parthenogenesis – Creating Virginity (Part 2)

In order to rationalize the “natural order” that allowed the female body to conserve its pure, virginal state until nuptial consumption, ancient culture and medicine constructed the idea of a sealed womb. In the process of nuptial consummation, the woman’s vaginal canal was thought to widen, which was evidenced by the deepening of the girl’s voice, as her throat was thought to symmetrically widen upon her first sexual experience. Similarly, Soranos details the violent breaking of internal vaginal folds and their supporting uterine vessels upon a woman’s first sexual experience, which permanently changes the female body to be more open. Echoes of this “sealed womb” notion can be seen in the contemporary understanding of the “hymen,” or the internal vaginal membrane that partially or fully covers a virgin’s uterus; wedding veils can also be thought as symbolic projections of the hymen, which protects the bride from external dangers in her vulnerable passage between her father’s and husband’s care. As with today’s cultural obsession with “popping her cherry,” Soranos and even writers of Deuteronomy believed that heavy blood flow was to be expected with a virgin’s first experience with sexual intercourse, as the aggressive phallic force of the penis destroyed the protective tissue around or on top of the womb. This actually led to an ancient Jewish and early Christian tradition of checking the nuptial sheets after consummation, with large blood stains validating the virginity of the bride and therefore the legitimacy of the marriage. Hesiod’s myth, in which Pandora opens her own metaphoric womb-jar without phallic help, serves as a cultural cautionary tale against women that elect to change their own anatomy, as they will create evil and disorder in the world.

​The social construction of virginity, while at the center of primary cultural rituals, is surely problematic for many of its followers. Firstly, in connecting nuptials to sex, our cultures define the main objective of marriage to be defloration and eventual procreation; using language, such as “gametes,” only further associates conception with marriage, as if to invalidate any nuptial union that cannot create or does not desire children. Continuing, the sacrificial nature of wedding rituals objectifies women by reducing them to lamb-like entities that shuffle between the masculine protection of their father and their husband. Similarly, wedding attire equates purity to beauty, as if to associate shame and dirtiness with female promiscuity. As Rosenberg states, while much of the cultural and medical constructions of virginity tell young women how to understand their body, these constructions more importantly inform men how best to perform their masculinity. To be a “correct man” who followed the medical and cultural ideas of Mediterranean Antiquity was to be so sexually aggressive that you would make your newlywed wife violently bleed upon her first sexual experience.

Sex does not have to be marital, nor does it have to be painful. What sexpectations made by writers and physicians over two millennia ago do you still hold on to in your body image, marriage plans, or biology textbooks?

Parthenogenesis – Creating Virginity (Part 1)

I was sitting in my high school biology class, during the lecture on bees. The slide that detailed their reproductive systems outlined two distinct paths of procreation: 1) the fertilized egg, produced out of two gametes, 2) the unfertilized egg, produced out of parthenogenesis. What was that, Dr. Ryan? gamete, derived from the ancient Greek word for “wife” or “husband” (think polygamous). Parthenogenesis, derived from the ancient Greek word parthenos or “virgin.” How can these social constructs that relate sex to marital status remain in today’s biology textbooks? Do we really think the queen bee wants or is deserving of all the problematic social baggage that comes with the title of ‘parthenos?’ Let us attack this issue head on… or more appropriately – maidenhead on.

Ancient Greek culture (and not-so-shockingly, into contemporary Western culture) uses marriage as ritual symbolizing the physical union of two individuals. As with most rituals, the actions performed in the ritual are often metaphoric of the internal (physical and emotional) changes that we undergo in the process of developing and moving through life. The study of Ancient Greek wedding rituals can, therefore, be incredibly indicative of the cultural perceptions of the female body, as she changes from parthenos to gyne or ‘unmarried woman’/’virgin’ to ‘married woman.’ Seeing as most girls of Mediterranean Antiquity were expected to be wed between the ages of 14-16 years old and ritual itself culminated to the nuptial consummation, the wedding rituals symbolized such a transitional period of girl to woman. Reflecting on content from Little Lamb, who made thee?, the marriage ritual from this period (and up to today) is strikingly similar in imagery and cultural perception to a sacrifice, thereby expressing then sacrificial killing of the bride’s girlhood. This is further conveyed in the ancient ritual practice, in which the betrothed girl would perform a ritual sacrifice of her childhood toys and garments on an altar the day before her wedding. The customary attire of the bride was also expressive of the symbolism of the marriage ritual: a veil and a girdle was to be worn. Respectively, the veil acted to protect the vulnerable female, as she walked the dangerous liminal space between girlhood and womanhood, and the girdle (called a “zone”) symbolically held the eruptive, feminine sexual energy that she had been preserving for her husband. The husband’s removal of the “zone” was culturally associated with the ritual of consummation, which occurred upon the marriage night. Casey M. Reynolds, in “The Nuptial Ceremony of Ancient Greece and the Articulation of Male Control Through Ritual,” points out that without postnuptial education, citizenship, or societal power, gynes remained children in the emotional and sociological sense. Perhaps the supposed transition to womanhood was, thus, conceived in the physical changes that came with nuptial consummation.

Michael Rosenberg’s Signs of Virginity excellently outlines medical and cultural conceptions of virginity from Mediterranean Antiquity, which will be helpful in navigating this liminal space between parthenos and gyne. Throughout the introductory chapter “Defining Virginity, Making Men,” Rosenberg details that this cultural compartmentalization of virgin vs nonvirgin was most likely generated out of the male fear of infertility or impurity in the female body they selected to bear their progeny. Moreover, a virgin came with the promise of undefiled, pristine reproductive organs, and near full certainty that the child was a product of his sperm only. With this, a cultural importance of virginity emerged, and the medical constructions of the virginal body followed suit.