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.