Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Blessed Mother in the New Testament Scriptures

How earlier Marian Writing Evolved From Oral Traditions 
Through Paul to the Four Gospels 

The four written Gospels are the only New Testament books with passages either naming Mary as the mother of Jesus, or referring to her as his mother without adding the name “Mary.” The source for the Gospels' references to Mary the mother of Jesus are the early Church's oral spreading of the gospel, which began about 34 A.D. These oral accounts of Mary preceded the first of the four written Gospels -- the Gospel of Mark -- by about thirty-six years. Thus the writing of the four Gospels started about 70 A.D. Paul's writings began in 51 A.D. and ended with his death in 62-63 A.D. The overall writing of the New Testament, including the four Gospels and various Letters by St. Paul and other writers ended about 100 A.D.

However, Paul, trained as a rabbi and mainly focused on Jesus – who had appeared to Paul in person (Acts 9:3-6) – would not have considered preaching and writing his evangelizing Letters directly referring to Mary by name. His efforts were completely fixated on spreading knowledge of the Lord's salvation to those whom he evangelized in his travels founding churches. At that beginning phase of Paul's missionary endeavors oral circulation of the gospel was minimal. It was thanks to Paul that the converts he made to Chrsitianity learned the message of Christ and circulated among themselves sharing that message: Hence the oral gospel developed. Our consideration of Paul's writing in relation to the Church's spreading the knowledge of Mary are to be read in the light of Paul's Christocentrism, which is the central theme of all Pauline writings.

His Christocentrism is so strong that the expression “in Christ” appears 154 times in Paul's New Testament writings. Paul never referred by name to “Mary,” the mother of Jesus (although Paul does cryptically refer to another “Mary” whom he encourages the readers of the Epistle to the Romans to treat courteously because of her hard work for them (Rom. 16:6)). Likewise, Paul never used the word “mother” in his writings to refer to Jesus' mother. Yet, we we will take an unusual direction in this article, by considering Paul as the first New Testament writer to have a seminal, if esoteric Marian theme in his writings that indirectly influenced the four Gospel writers.

Thus, even though Paul does not give us the same explicit, direct reference to Mary, as do the Gospels, we will consider below how Paul's thoughts may have moved him in a direction as someone who reasoned at least indistinctly on the role that Mary played in salvation history. If we connect with Paul's thinking we must see him as the first writer of Marian themes, before the Gospels. If we accept Paul's priority in this preliminary, circumstantial and indirect Marian interest, then we should take the position that the Gospels borrowed something from Paul's writings of a Marian nature

During the thirty-six years before the Gospel of Mark appears, the four evangelists received information about Mary the Mother of Jesus from the earliest oral communications about her among the earliest Christians. Thus Mary was known to the four Gospel writers from the orally spread gospel that was developed and spread throughout the growing early Church. The Gospel writers in turn transcribed this, the earliest, genuine Marian theology and spirituality that was developing in oral form, in order to write about Mary in their respective Gospel accounts.

The Gospel writers' access to this oral gospel would have depended on Paul's writings to the extent that Paul created the first churches, from whom the early Christians orally circulated their belief in the gospel left to them by Paul. Paul's missionary evangelization efforts in founding new churches throughout the Roman Empire naturally created groups of Christians who discussed and transmitted their beliefs among one another. And since Paul died in 62-63 A.D., before the authors of the Gospels started to write, we could characterize Paul's writings as a probable input of the oral communications upon which the Gospel writers relied.

This span of recording the oral gospel sources that made their way into the New Testament extends from approximately 51 A.D. To approximately 95 A.D. - 100 A.D., that is, from the date of the first book written in the New Testament to the last of the four Gospels. The first book to appear in writing in the New Testament was Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians, written probably in the year 51. The final editions of the written Gospels appeared no sooner than 95 A.D. (Actually, the publication date of the Gospel of John may have occurred closer to the year 100, or maybe even a year or two later. )

Our initial point is that the Gospel texts about Mary were based by the Gospel authors on their learning the early Church's oral beliefs concerning Mary, and thus their Scriptural references to Mary were by no means completely original. The writers of New Testament texts, first heard the information about Jesus and Mary circulating widely in the oral statements and teachings among Christians who flourished in organizing the new Church. Then, having found this information, the Gospel writers proclaimed it in their writings.

However, we will explore references to Mary, whether direct or circumstantial, but not by starting our discussion with the four Gospels, roughly in the year 70. Instead we will first consider if Paul (writing before the Gospel writers, that is, from roughly 51-62 A.D.) may have referred to Mary in some fashion before the explicit references made to her by the Gospel writers that began and ended after Paul's writing ceased.

Although St. Paul makes no direct reference to Mary, Paul did make indirect allusions to her in his writings about Jesus. These circumstantial references are relevant to Mary if we dig into Paul's deeper, growing awareness relating Jesus to Mary over the course of Paul's writing of Letters to the churches he founded.

The discussion below is technical and critical. Straightening out what Paul actually said is important to the issue of his probable belief in something like the Immaculate Conception, although that phrase and the words therein did not gain absolute, final and doctrinal usage among theologians until Pope Pius IX formally declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception as a doctrine that Catholics must accept. In a summary of his much longer Constitutional expression of the doctrine, Pope Pius IX said:

" The most Blessed Virgin Mary, was from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin." Bull, Ineffabilis Deus, 1854.

The earliest expression of something like the much later doctrine called the Immaculate Conception, regardless of its actual title or awareness of it in St. Paul's day, varied from place to place and from time to time. Well before the future Pius IX's 1854 virtual reproduction of and summary of the ancient belief, it was rejected by many medieval luminaries, including: (1) St. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), an abbot who reformed many abuses existing in some 900 monasteries of the day. He was virtually the leading and most respected spokesman for numerous doctrines in the Middle Ages, as well as the major advocate of the First Crusade. (2) St. Albert the Great (d. 1280) and (3) his student, St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), and (4) the Franciscan scholar St. Bonaventure (d. 1274). The Franciscans were proponents of the doctrine, while the Dominicans, following their brothers in that Order (Albert and Thomas) rejected it.

Because of the variation of thought about the doctrine, Mary, when praised by St. Luke in her Magnificat (Lk. 1: 46-55), said “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” “Blessed,” but not Immaculate, was the general regard for Mary in the earliest centuries of the Church, until St. Paul's elementary and nebulous writings got a better analysis. Somehow, no one closely investigated his writings to determine what this the earliest New Testament author might have said on a belief later called the Immaculate Conception. For this reason, we will analyze Paul's thoughts closely here before reviewing the four Gospels. As the earliest writer in the New Testament, St. Paul is worthy of more study on any belief he might have had on the Blessed Mother.

The seminal verse is Galatians 4:4-5, (written about 54 A.D.). All but two English Scripture versions of Galatians don't say in English what Paul says here in Greek. The quotation below displays in brackets Paul's actual translated words. Yet, almost universally, English translations of the Bible simply translated Paul's Greek (bracketed in the translation next below), by using “born” where Paul states:

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, [then Paul writes literally in Greek]: ['coming into existence,'] or ['becoming,'] under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption. (Gal. 4:4-5) "

The key Greek word Paul uses, placed in the quotation above within the bracketed portions of this passage, is genoumenon (the present participle of the verb, genoumai, which is the infinitive of the English verb, to become, or to come into existence). Genoumai foregoes the respective majority translations rendered in various versions of Scripture, where the bracketed English translation appears as “born.” Thus Galatians 4:4-5 is usually made to read in principle English versions of the Bible, as [...God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, etc...]. But the Greek verb for “born,” or “to be born,” is gennao, not genoumai, the latter of which Paul actually uses in Galatians 4:4, instead of gennao.

Genoumai, as shown in the present participle genoumenon, in the bold-faced quotation from Galatians 4:4 above, literally means either ['coming into existence,'] or ['becoming,']. It is used again, for example, in Philippians, 2:8, where Paul writes, roughly in 62 A.D, that Jesus “emptied himself and took the form of a slave, becoming (genoumenos) obedient until death.” To translate genoumai as “born” is to do Paul an injustice, particularly when Paul had something unprecedented to say pertaining to Jesus' miraculous virgin birth by his mother Mary.

While Paul was by no means a Marian scholar, as were the four Gospel writers, he nonetheless had an idea percolating in his mind that spills over into his writings, such as Galatians 4:4 and Philippians 2:8. This idea sparked the belief in his Greek-speaking readers (namely, all of his early readers) that there is something mysteriously different about the birth of Jesus that is not applicable to the birth of anyone else about whom Paul writes in his Letters, whether of the child or the mother.

Here is the mystery deciphered: Paul speaks of the birth of people other than Jesus (we could say, “ordinary people”) thirty-three times in his Letters, always using the expected Greek verb, gennao, which means “born,” “to be born,” “was born,” etc.” In Gal. 4:23, 24, and 29, where Paul refers to the births of Ishmael and Jacob instead of the birth of Jesus, he uses the verb “to be born,” accurately translating gennao three times, once in each verse.

Yet, in Gal. 4:4-5, quoted in boldface above, where the text refers explicitly to the Father sending his Son into the world, Paul uses the verb genoumai to refer to Jesus' birth, intending to mean something much more significant, even something radical, namely, “to come into existence,” or “to become.” This usage by Paul of genoumai, indicates, as we will discuss below, that Paul came to consider Jesus' mother, Mary, as an important component of the message of Christ that Paul preached in his evangelistic travels.

Without using the word “Mary,” Paul somehow knew fully and completely that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary's womb, yet born “under the law,” that is, like any other birth by a woman of her infant. Paul's reference to “born under the law” means “born in the usual, natural way.” However, Paul, knowing who and what Jesus was -- the divine Son of God -- found it somehow disparaging that this God-man had to be born after nine months gestation in a bodily-ordinary woman's womb from which Jesus would enter into his earthly existence, i.e., “under the law” like any other human being.

Paul wants to emphasize that Jesus could have picked some other means of coming to earth. Yet, Jesus, like any other person, was born from the womb of his mother. Here the miracle of Mary's Immaculate Conception (without that name, but with something like the same meaning) starts to impinge on Paul's mind. Mary said “yes” to the angel Gabriel's proclamation that Mary would “bear a son...[whose] kingdom will have no end.” Lk. 1:31, 33. Jesus, the divine Son, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Lk.1:35, i.e., underscoring his divine nature.

But Jesus, through his human nature, because of his ordinary human birth through a woman's body, could then, as the God-man, save the world from its sin. To be truly human, Jesus had to be born naturally, or as Paul puts it, “under the law,” by which Paul means Jesus had to be born of a woman like any other human being. Jesus thus preserved his divinity through his conception by the Holy Spirit and preserved his humanity through a natural birth by means of a natural woman.

Here is the key concept that all of this raises. The varying use by Paul of the verbs gennao and genoumai, which we discussed above, raises the issue of whether St. Paul had some primitive, undeveloped, belief that Mary herself had been born in the sense of genoumai rather than in the sense of gennao. Paul lived and died too early in the history of the Church to know that the later-proclaimed Christian thinking about Mary came to be known as “The Immaculate Conception.” Yet, without saying so, the cryptic evidence underlying Paul's theology seems to suggest that he may have been the first Christian writer to believe that Mary was, like her Son, Jesus, herself free of sin.

We can only conclude that Paul was coming to a position on Jesus' birth through Mary that was approaching that of the Gospel writers. He did not have the theological insights and training, let alone the words, "Immaculate Conception," or anything remotely synonymous, to view Mary as sinless through her giving birth to Jesus and sinless onward throughout the remainder of her life. That is, Paul had no awareness of the doctrines of the virgin birth and Mary's perpetual virginity.

Concluding Paul's efforts, he should be seen as the first writer in the New Testament to approach, although not reach, the fuller Marian doctrines the Church later adopted. Yet, in any study of the New Testament's position on the Blessed Mother, Paul and his writings should be included as a creative and seminal expression of the same Marian doctrine expressed by the Gospel writers. They began writing on Mary about 70 A.D., several years after Paul died, probably in 62-63 A.D.

Paul's place in Marian theology calls for the promotion of a deeper study of his writings as the starting point by Scripture scholars of the overall meaning of the doctrine of the Blessed Mother.


The account of of the Gospel conception of Jesus clearly affirms that Jesus was not conceived of a human father. (Mt. 1:18-25): "[T]he virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means 'God is with us.'" The same belief is affirmed in the account of the annunciation. (Lk. 1:35): "[T]he angel said to her, 'The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.'"

Mary appears in the story of the birth of Jesus (Lk.2:1-20), her purification after childbirth (Lk. 2:22-39), in the flight to Egypt (Mt. 2) and the story of the finding of Jesus in the temple (Lk. 2:41-52). Luke in particular emphasizes the fact that Mary thought about the things she heard concerning the infant (Lk 2:19, 51). Outside of the infancy narratives, Mary appears in the Synoptic Gospels only in Mt. 13:55; Mk 6:3 (cf. also Jn 6:42), where she is well known to the people of Nazareth, and in Mt. 12:46-50; Mk. 3:31-35; Lk. 8:19-21, where a visit of Mary and the kinsman of Jesus is the occasion of the saying by Jesus that one who does the will of the Father is as close to Him as His nearest relations.

In Jn. 2:1-5 Mary suggests the failure of wine which is the occasion of the miracle; in Jn. 2:12 she goes to Capernaum with Jesus, which suggests that she no longer resided at Nazareth. Only Jn. 19:25-27 mentions her presence at the death of Jesus and the commission of her care to John. This clearly suggests that there were no relations with whom she could live. Mary was present with the disciples during the days which preceded the giving of the Spirit. (Acts 1:14). Neither the New Testament nor any other sources gives reliable information of the further course of her life and her death.

The two basic Christian beliefs concerning Mary, the divine maternity and the virginal conception of Jesus, are clearly stated in the Gospels. Other beliefs are developed from these basic beliefs or are found in the traditional belief and cult of the Church. The relatively minor role which Mary plays in the Gospels is entirely in accord with Jewish life and with biblical history in general, in which women play a minor role, most frequently limited to their feminine functions as wife and mother. The words of Mary are few, and often they contain or are the occasion of an exegetical difficulty

Thus the matrimonial status of Joseph and Mary in Mt. 1:18ff is difficult to define; it seems to be betrothal rather than marriage. The messianic texts of Lk. 1-2, which are frequent, are difficult to combine with the "wonder" which Lk. attributes to Mary (Lk. 2:33, 48) and lack of understanding (Lk. 2:50). Lk.'s sources apparently had two variant conceptions of Mary; in one she was aware to some extent of the messianic character of her son, and in the other she was unaware of it. The messianic texts come very probably from the expansion of the infancy narratives by early Christian teachers, While Luke in his prologue asserts that he has made diligent investigations, there is no direct evidence in the infancy narratives that Mary was the source of his information.

The words which Jesus addresses to Mary in the Gospels cause some difficulty. In general the relationship of Jesus and Mary is not presented as different from the relationship of any son to his mother. But it is undeniable that in Mt. 12:49ff; Mk. 3:34ff; Lk. 2:49; 8:21; and Jn 2:4, the words of Jesus addressed to Mary or mentioning her imply a detachment which is greater than usual between an adult son and his mother. The title of "woman" by which Jesus addresses Mary (Jn. 2:4; 19:25) is unparalleled in Greek literature as an address of a son to his mother. It is important to observe that in none of these passages is a genuine rebuke implied, since no fault is charged to Mary.

One may suggest the hypothesis that these sayings are a part of the primitive teaching of the Church, which removed the implication that any carnal connection with Jesus was a substitute for faith in Him. Jesus, who was a Jew of Galilee and related to the "brethren of the Lord," mentioned in the New Testament (Mt. 12:46; 13:55ff; Mk. 3:31; 6:3; Lk. 8:19; Jn. 2:12; 7:3ff; 20:17; Acts1:14; 1 Co. 9:5; Gal 1:19), was no more of a Messiah-savior to the Jews or to His relatives than He is to anyone who believes in Him.

It is altogether probable that others of His kinsmen than James were members of the early Christian community, and it is not unlikely that some of them considered that this entitled them to a peculiar position. Paul speaks of "a party of Christ" at Corinth (1 Co. 1:12), and in a difficult line denies that any importance should be attached to knowing Christ "according to the flesh" (2 Co. 5:16): ("[E]ven if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer.")

The positive reticence of the primitive preaching not only about Mary, but also about the entire life of Jesus and His family and village connections before the baptism, seems to suggest a movement against any such attempt to make kinship the basis of special claims. A by-product of this reticence is our almost total lack of genuine information concerning the life and person of Mary

--Tony Gilles

This theological reflection courtesy of the parishioners of St Paul Catholic Church in Pensacola, Florida: