Saturday, January 2, 2010

Some Thoughts on Miraculous Motherhood and Christianity

In my previous post I quoted a couple of little known Christian texts relating to the conception/birth of Jesus. One, the Proto-Evangelion of James, should be better known and read, not least because it is the source of much of the back story that now frames the canonical accounts in Luke and Matthew. The other, Ode 19 from the Odes of Solomon, is from an ancient Christian hymn collection of extraordinary beauty and strangeness that should not only be better known but should, in my opinion, be incorporated into the liturgy, if not even the New Testament itself. The Proto-Evangelion is a harmony of the Matthean and Lucan accounts and incorporates other elements (the midwife) either derived from or shared with Ode 19. Matthew and Luke however are separate and independent accounts which don't appear to have influenced each other.

I overlooked another ancient account which, while it shares some elements with Matthew and Proto-Evangelion, is also quite odd. I refer to the Ascension of Isaiah, a Christian modified Jewish text, the Jewish parts of which could date to the 1st/2nd century BCE while the Christian parts of which could date to late 1st or 2nd century CE. The second and Christian part, also known as the Vision of Isaiah includes a birth narrative for Jesus recounted as part of Isaiah's vision. There is also a quite strange conception in chapter 10 account detailing the descent of Jesus' spirit through all the heavens to earth. The overall account can be read here but below is the birth narrative from chapter 11:

11. And after this I looked, and the angel who spoke to me and led me said to me, "Understand, Isaiah son of Amoz, because for this purpose I was sent from the Lord." 2And I saw a woman of the family of David the prophet whose name (was) Mary, and she (was) a virgin and was betrothed to a man whose name (was) Joseph, a carpenter, and he also (was) of the seed and family of the righteous David of Bethlehem in Judah. 3And he came into his lot. And when she was betrothed, she was found to be pregnant, and Joseph the carpenter wished to divorce her. 4But the angel of the Spirit appeared in this world, and after this Joseph did not divorce Mary; but he did not reveal this matter to anyone. 5And he did not approach Mary, but kept her as a holy virgin, although she was pregnant. 6And he did not live with her for two months. 7And after two months of days, while Joseph was in his house, and Mary his wife, but both alone, 8it came about, when they were alone, that Mary then looked with her eyes and saw a small infant, and she was astounded. 9And after her astonishment had worn off, her womb was found as (it was) at first, before she had conceived. 10And when her husband, Joseph, said to her, "What has made you astounded?" his eyes were opened, and he saw the infant and praised the Lord, because the Lord had come in his lot. 11And a voice came to them, "Do not tell this vision to anyone." 12But the story about the infant was spread abroad in Bethlehem. 13Some said, "The virgin Mary has given birth before she has been married two months." 14But many said, "She did not give birth; the midwife did not go up (to her), and we did not hear (any) cries of pain." And they were all blinded concerning him; they all knew about him, but they did not know from where he was. 15And they took him and went to Nazareth in Galilee. 16And I saw, O Hezekiah and Josab my son, and say to the other prophets also who are standing by, that it was hidden from all the heavens and all the princes and every god of this world. 17And I saw (that) in Nazareth he sucked the breast like an infant, as was customary, that he might not be recognized.

The Vision of Isaiah, with its ascents and descents through the various heavens, shows strong affinities with the Enochic literature, in which Enoch is taken on tours of the heavens, also multi-tiered. In this birth narrative, Jesus miraculously appears outisde his mother's body sparing her any travails of childbirth. Thus the birth narrative echoes a miraculous birth narrative found in one of these Enochic texts, the birth of Melchizedek in 2 (Slavonic) Enoch to which I will return.

Now it's often been argued that the miraculous/virgin conception of Jesus as recounted in both Matthew and Luke is a later Gentile intrusion on the original Jewish Christianity deriving from "pagan" misunderstandings of the term Son of God in the gospels and influenced by accounts in the Gentile world of kings (e.g. Alexander) and other figures reputed to be of divine human ancestry. Thus Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, was visited by Zeus in the form of a serpent who had sex with her and begot the world conqueror. The idea of miraculous conceptions at the behest of a divine figure was alien to Judaism as it was a strictly monotheist religion.

However my readings of ancient and even rabbinic Jewish texts made me come to question such thinking. Firstly miraculous motherhood as such is not an unknown in biblical texts. The matriarchs of Genesis, as well as Samson's mother in Judges and Hannah in in 1 Samuel are mothers who conceive by divine intervention and often with annunciation scenes.

Nevertheless the implication in these accounts is that divine intervention enables conception during sexual intercourse with their husbands but with one exception, Sarah. I was struck by a range of inferences in a number of Jewish texts such as the ancient Jubilees and the medieval Zohar, that Sarah's conception of Isaac might have been a non-sexual or 'virgin' one. Some of thses ideas were also found in some ancient Christian texts in which Sarah is understood as a forerunner of Mary and which recount a variety of miraculous elements found in rabbinic texts. In many of these rabbinic texts the miraculous prodigies that accompany Isaac's birth are signs as a guarantee of Abraham's paternity; in other words these texts display an anxiety that Abraham is not the real birth father, begetter of Isaac.

So what was going on here? It was then that a friend of mine told me about the birth of Melchizedek in 2 Enoch. Concerning 2 Enoch, it is a text that has only been preserved by Christians. All the extant manuscripts are in Slavonic and hale from late medieval Russia, 14th 15th centuries (fragments of a Coptic version have been found in Upper Egypt dating from 9th/10th centuries). There is no complete text of 2 Enoch either. It exists in multiple recensions and that relate only parts of the whole. The other thing about 2 Enoch is that not only are these Slavonic versions translated from older Greek forms but it is also clearly not a Christian text. The text narrates an antidiluvian world as we find in Genesis and recounts the experiences of Enoch in the heavenly realm and looks fwd to the destruction of the world in the Flood. Because these narratives are quite critical of the Temple establishment many argue that they originate from the days when the Temple was still operating i.e. pre 70 CE.

Temple themes are prominent in the account of Melchizedek's conception birth. Melchizedek's parents are part of an ancient Temple establishment prior to the Flood. Mechizedek's. mother , Sopanim, is wife to Nir, brother of Noah and priest in this temple. Melchizedek himself is a heavenly being, the heavenly high priest in fact. Here is the account of his conception ( from 2 Enoch 71, short version):

Behold, the wife of Nir, whose name was Sopanim, being sterile and never having at any time given birth to a child by Nir -

Sopanim was in the time of her old age and in the day of her death. She conceived in her womb, but Nir the priest had not slept with her. From the day that that The Lord had appointed him to conduct the liturgy in front of the face of the people.

When Sopanim saw her pregnancy, she was ashamed and embarrassed, and she hid herself during all the days until she gave birth. Not one of the people knew about it.

Sopanim gets no annunciation. Her consent is not canvassed in contrast to Mary and there is no indication that she even desires a child, unlike Sarah. She is nothing but a vessel and she is forced to hide herself from her husband. But pregnancy is not something that can be hidden easily over time, even with a husband like Nir

When 282 days had been completed, and the day of birth had begun to approach, Nir remembered his wife, he called her to himself in his house, so that he might converse with her.

Sopanim came to Nir, her husband; and, behold, she was pregnant, and the day appointed for giving birth was drawing near. Nir saw her and became very ashamed. He said to her, "What is this that you have done, O wife? Why have you disgraced me in front of the face of these people? Now, depart from me and go where you began the disgrace of your womb, so that I might not defile my hand on account of you, and sin in front of The Face of The Lord."

Sopanim spoke to her husband, Nir, saying, "O my lord! Behold, it is the time of my old age, the day of my death has arrived. I do not understand how my menopause and the barrenness of my womb have been reversed." . Nir did not believe his wife, and for the second time he said to her, "Depart from me, or else I might assault you, and commit a sin in front of the face of The Lord."

And it came to pass, when Nir had spoken to his wife, Sopanim, that Sopanim fell down at Nir's feet and died. Nir was extremely distressed and said in his heart, "Could this have happened because of my word? And now, merciful is The Eternal Lord, because my hand was not upon her."

It is only now that there is an angelic annunciation

The archangel Gabriel appeared to Nir, and said to him, "Do not think that your wife Sopanim has died because of your error, but this child, which is to be born of her is a righteous fruit, and one whom I shall receive into paradise, so that you will not be the father of a gift of God."

Nir however takes himself to his brother Noah for help because his main concern is scandal

Noah said to Nir, "Don't let yourself be sorrowful, Nir, my brother! For The Lord today has covered up our scandal, in that nobody from the people knows this. Now let us go quickly and bury her, and The Lord will cover up the scandal of our shame." They placed Sopanim on the bed, wrapped her around with black garments, and shut the door. They dug a grave in secret.

However while they are doing that:

... a child came out from the dead Sopanim and sat on the bed at her side. Noah and Nir came in to bury Sopanim and they saw the child sitting beside the dead Sopanim, wiping his clothing. Noah and Nir were very terrified with a great fear, because the child was fully developed physically, he spoke with his lips and blessed The Lord.

Noah and Nir looked at him closely, saying, "This is from The Lord, my brother." And behold the badge of priesthood was on his chest, and it was glorious in appearance. Noah said to Nir, "Behold, God is renewing the priesthood from blood related to us, just as He pleases.."

Noah and Nir hurried and washed the child, they dressed him in the garments of the priesthood, and they gave him bread to eat and he ate it. And they called him Melchizedek .

Noah and Nir lifted up the body of Sopanim, divested her of the black garments, and washed her. They clothed her in exceptionally bright garments and built a grave for her. Noah, Nir, and Melchizedek came and they buried her publicly. Noah said to his brother Nir, "Look after this child in secret until the time, because people will become treacherous in all the earth, they will begin to turn away from God, and having become totally ignorant, and in some way when they see him, they will put him to death."

Then Noah went away to his own place, and behold, great lawlessness began to become abundant over all the earth in the days of Nir. And Nir began to worry excessively about the child saying, "What will I do with him?" And stretching out his hands toward heaven, Nir called out to The Lord, saying, "How miserable it is for me, Eternal Lord, that all lawlessness has begun to become abundant over all the earth in my days! And I realize how much nearer our end is, on account of the lawlessness of the people. And now, Lord, what is the vision about this child, and what is his destiny, or what will I do for him, so that he too will not be joined with us in this destruction?"

The Lord heeded Nir and appeared to him in a night vision. And He said to him, "Behold already, Nir, the great lawlessness which has come about on the earth, which I shall not tolerate anymore. Behold, I plan not to send down a great destruction onto the earth. But, concerning the child, do not worry, Nir; because I, in a short while, will send My archangel Gabriel. And he will take the child and put him in the paradise of Edem.

He will not perish along with those who must perish. As I have revealed it, Melchizedek will be My priest to all holy priests, I will sanctify him and I will establish him so that he will be the head of the priests of the future."

Nir arose from his sleep and blessed The Lord, Who had appeared to him saying:

Blessed be The Lord, The God of my fathers,
Who has not condemned my priesthood
and the priesthood of my fathers,
because by His Word, He has created a great priest
in the womb of Sopanim, my wife.
For I have no descendants.
So let this child take the place of my descendants and become as my
own son, and You will count him in the number of your servants."

"Therefore honor him together with your servants and great priests and me your servant, Nir. And behold, Melchizedek will be the head of priests in another generation. I know that great confusion has come and in confusion this generation will come to an end, and everyone will perish, except that Noah, my brother, will be preserved for procreation. From his tribe, there will arise numerous people, and Melchizedek will become the head of priests reigning over a royal people who serve You, O Lord."

This is a pretty strange and disturbing story. The Melchizedek child is really quite monstrous and inhuman, as probably befits a heavenly (derived) being. Nir is a vainglorious klutz and Noah is not much better. The only person I can feel any connection with is the hapless Sopanim who is someone monstered in/by the narrative. The longer version which is not available online adds greater dialogue which only enhances the tragedy and horror of Sopanim's situation as well as the utter self centredness and crassness of Nir. Melchizedek in the longer version is no different - he makes no connection with any of the human protagonists. The story continues with Melchizedek being taken up into the heavens to be placed in Edem/Eden until a time after the Flood and concludes with Noah being instructed by the Lord to build the ark.

I wont go into the gender and sexuality issues of this story (I have written an Irigarayan analysis of these dynamics which is on its long journey to publication). Well I will but only in so far as they relate to the Temple themes that predominate throughout. And it's the Temple that's front and centre here. Indeed in some ways the story seems to echo Matthew's birth narrative but in very bizarre and monstrous ways while at the same time providing the Temple context that Matthew's narrative lacks (Luke's narrative focuses primarily on Mary and other women and at the same time puts the Temple in the foreground throughout).

It's important to remember that the ancient Temple/s represented the Garden of Eden. Indeed Eden was the mystico-mythical dimension of the Temple. Temple represents the cosmos and Eden is the cosmos the way it was meant to be, the idealised cosmos, the cosmos in which 'God is with us', Immanuel. The architecture of the Temple represents the 6 days of creation in Genesis 1 (and Genesis 1 is a poetic configuration of the cosmos as Temple). Eden/Genesis 2 represents the space/time complex before death came into life, which is also the sacred space within the Temple, the space where heaven and earth meet and where on the Day of Atonement, the Lord is physically present in the person of the High Priest who comes out of the Holy of Holies to heal the cosmos from sin with the divine life force (as represented by the blood of a sacrificed goat - blood is life). In that the Lord takes physical form in the Holy of Holies, the Holy of Holies is actually a kind of womb space. And indeed in Chronicles, especially, the Temple is configured in its dimensions as a kind of androgenously phallic womb.

As Eden, the Temple is regarded as standing on the site where the first human, the Adam or Earthling was shaped from the ground. A curious feature of this second creation story is that before YHWH Elohim forms the earth creature out of the earth the text says in Genesis 2:6 that "a mist (in some translations a spring or stream) came up from the earth and watered the face of the ground" - this was before the time YHWH Elohim caused rains to fall upon the earth. Rain falls from the sky which is the heavenly realm and the heavens in both ancient pagan and Jewish cosmologies are the masculine realms of the divine, the immortal. The earth on the other hand was the feminine realm of the human and mortal. But what we have here in Gen 2:6 is the earth fecundating itself so that the ground becomes alive in readiness for YHWH Elohim's shaping of the Earthling, the first human, and then all other living things. In other words, it's possible to read the creation of the Adam as a type of Virgin Birth from the potently alive earth.

The motif of Virgin Birth (or more properly conception) appears again in the Adam and Eve narrative this time relating to the birth of Cain, Eve's first born. The name, Cain, is a pun on the words Eve speaks in Genesis 4:1 when she gives birth to him "I have acquired (produced, created) a man from the Lord" Cain is a pun on the Hebrew for 'I have acquired'. Now the interesting thing about this verse, is that even though the earlier text says that Adam had sex with Eve, Eve's words deny any role to Adam at all. This phrase generated two readings in rabbinic texts. The most common one was that Adam was not the father of Cain. Instead the serpent had lain with Eve and begotten her first-born son. Another far more subversive and minority reading was that Cain was miraculously conceived by YHWH in Eve's womb. (Another even more dangerous reading in some Jewish esoteric circles is that Cain was YHWH incarnate through Eve).

So the Eden narrative contains within it two instances of miraculous conceptions, one definite and the other implied. Both instances are connected with new beginnings. In the first the earth can be seen as readying itself to collaborate with the Lord in the process of creating living creatures, human and other. The second involves the first-born human (neither Adam or Eve could be said to be born in any literal sense). The Eden that is the Temple is likewise associated with a miraculous Incarnation of the Lord in the person of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement in the wombspace of the Holy of Holies. The Day of Atonement is part of the larger New Year (Rosh Hashanah) high holy days. As part of the annual new beginning the Lord incarnates in the Temple to atone or heal/repair the cosmos of all the ill that had accrued in the previous year.

So, with this Edenic/Temple, perspective in mind lets return to the three miraculous mothers, Sopanim, Sarah and Mary. Starting with Sopanim, hers is clearly a miraculous conception of a heavenly being, Melchizedek who will be the progenitor of a new priestly lineage in the new world that will emerge after the Flood. Sopanim is wife to a priest, Nir, the last priest of the primordial Temple and so through her is guaranteed a continuity between the old Temple and the new. Even though Nir is not the biological father of Melchizedek, he is, as husband in the patriarchal order, the owner of Nir's womb and the products thereof. He may well have been cuckolded by Heaven but as priest, he stands as guardian of the sacred anyway and Melchizedek's occupation of Sopanim's womb can be interpreted as a claim on Nir's lineage as owner of that womb. The story is itself tragi-comic depending on which perspective you adopt, Sopanim or Nir. And it must not be forgotten that this is an end of the world story. The world is careering down to destruction in the Flood. This unravelling can be seen as affecting even the heavenly realm. And in the Enochic literature the final act in this apocalyptic drama is ushered in when the Sons of God, the Watchers, decide to come to earth and mate with human women, giving rise to the Giants who proceed to oppress and destroy the earth. Sopanim's fate, her death at the hands of a heavenly intervention, her lack of choice in everything that happens can be read as anticipating what will befall the earth itself. The earth is oppressed, suffering the monstrous chaos unleashed by the Sons of God and through which all life is corrupted. In the end the bounds of the earth are dissolved to wipe away the corruption and chaos in the Flood. Sopanim's story is both beginning and ending.

Turning to Sarah, what we have here is a new beginning analogous to the new beginning of Genesis 2. Sarah is the mother of Isaac her only son. Abraham is the father of many sons and thus, mythologically, the father of many nations. Sarah, however, has only one son, Isaac, and thus through him, mythologically, she is the foremother of two nations, Israel and Edom. The Israelites might call themselves children of Abraham but they are more truly and intimately the children of Sarah. Isaac, through Sarah, represents a new beginning. Unlike Sopanim, Isaac is a child long desired by Sarah and, unlike Sopanim, Sarah experiences an Annunciation of her forthcoming pregnancy (in Genesis 18). In this Annunciation she and the Lord speak directly to each other dissolving any patriarchal bounds from her marriage to Abraham. Furthermore, the Temple and more particularly the Day of Atonement come into view through the Binding of Isaac when Abraham takes Isaac to Mt Moriah to offer him in sacrifice to the Lord. Subsequent Jewish tradition associates Mt Moriah with the Temple Mount and furthermore the sacrifice of Isaac as also associated with the day of Atonement, anticipating the annual Atonement rituals in the Temple and thus Isaac is a type of both the High Priest and the Lord who annually make atonement through the metaphorical and symbolic giving of their life (blood). (And thus the Binding of Isaac mythically acknowledges the origins of Atonement rituals - Jewish and pagan both - in the scapegoating rites of human sacrifice). I should also add that Melchizedek's first appearance in the biblical texts is in the Genesis narrative of Sarah and Abraham as king (-priest?) in (Jeru-?)Salem.

Finally Mary. In Christian perspective, Mary marks the ultimate new beginning. Her son, like Isaac, is a child of promise, and, like Melchizedek, is a heavenly being, Son of the Most High. And indeed Psalm 110 with its Melchizedek oracle - The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” (110:4) - is a key text deployed in the New Testament to understand Jesus. Jesus is also the new Adam (and Mary becomes the new Eve) thus evoking and confirming Edenic associations with Jesus. Unlike Sopanim but like Sarah Mary receives an Annunciation (Luke 1: 26 - 38). Unlike Sopanim too, Mary's consent is crucial. Her 'fiat' 'let it be done' has long been celebrated in Catholic traditions east and west as an act of free choice on Mary's part, a choice by Mary alone on which hinged the divine program for salvation. Mary's freely chosen collaboration echoes the earth in Genesis 2:6 which fecundates itself so as to collaborate freely with YHWH Elohim's great project of creating living creatures starting with the Adam. (Protestant traditions played down Mary's autonomy and free choice; in the case of Calvin, as Mary Daly would say, making Mary the ultimate rape victim). According to Luke, Gabriel tells Mary that "the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Lk 1:35). Is this dynamic analogous to what was understood to occur in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement? Certainly the Lucan Infancy story puts the Temple front and centre which the Proto-Evangelion of James repeats and further develops making Mary herself a child of the Temple, a promised child too (with the inference, too, that hers is also a miraculous non-sexual conception). The later cult of Mary applies a myriad of titles to her evoking all manner of aspects of the old Temple. (And just as the Israelites are truly children of Sarah so Mary is celebrated as the mother of the Church, the mother of all Christians). The Christian proclamation too is that Jesus' death and resurrection constitute the final great act of Atonement, linking Jesus to Isaac who represents the originary primordial rite of Atonement. Early Christians saw the Binding of Isaac as foreshadowing the Crucifixion and understood both Isaac and Sarah as protoytypes of Jesus and Mary. Jesus, Isaac and Melchiszedek stand in an Edenic Temple gestalt, as do their mothers Mary, Sarah, and Sopanim together with Eve and the primordial earth itself.

And so I would say that miraculous/virginal conception/motherhood as applied to Mary and Jesus is not a pagan import into early Christianity based on a misunderstanding of the term of Son of God, but instead comes out of the heart of ancient Temple Judaism. It affirms a new beginning - I would suggest, drawing on the Day of Atonement liturgy, it affirms the restoration of Eden, a central theme of the new movement of Christians back in the first centuries. Eden is a time before patriarchy and I think virginal motherhood is based upon, recognises, perhaps even celebrates, the primal maternal power that patriarchy has sought to harness, contain and restrain. This maternal power is equated with the power of the earth itself.


  1. Thanks, Michael. This deserves (and will get!) a much closer reading soon. As an initial thought, though, it's interesting to consider these strands from the perspective of intersex: it's been suggested (see e.g. Ruth Gilbert's Early Modern Hermaphrodites and Alice Dreger's Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex) that one of the reasons people with intersex conditions have been feared at various points is that because within a mindset of Aristotelian biology, a) hermaphrodites are believed to arise via parthenogenesis, and b) the female mother contributes only base matter to the child whereas the male father contributes the rational, spiritual element. In this account, the mythic "hermaphrodite" (who often bears only a cursory resemblance to an actual person with intersex) is "dangerous" because no male element has been involved in their generation. They thus represent not only a figure who queries the either/or nature of human sex through their actual anatomy, but also one who suggests that males are somehow unnecessary or surplus to requirements.

    I think it's J. David Hester who has mused on the fact that if Jesus was indeed conceived without human male involvement, this was a parthogenetic conception and Jesus would thereby have had no Y chromosome and would be in the unusual but not unique position of being a man with two X chromosomes. Sorry for the vagueness of these references but I am currently away from my books! However, I discuss this in more detail in my forthcoming book, Sex and Uncertainty in the Body of Christ: Intersex Conditions and Christian Theology.

  2. Hi Susannah, there's interesting stuff around intersexuality, hermaphrodites and miraculous motherhood. I've written about in the past (not on this blog though). No doubt you're familiar with Sally Gross' essay "Intersexuality and Scripture"

    She refers to Talmudic references that both Sarah and Abraham were intersex or third and fourth gender people. Premodern societies understood gender in hierarchical way rather than the dualistic of our society. So ancient pagan and pre-modern Christian and Jewish societies recgnised the fact that there were more genders than just male and female. Judaism had up to four. Christians recgnised three, male female and hermaphrodite, probably derived from Greco-Roman thought.

    The self fecundating earth of Genesis 2:6 could be read as an archetype of the hermaphrodite and, remember, there are many early traditions that the original Adam or Earthling was created Hermaphrodite.

    There's also curious stuff in Christian treatments of Sarah when referring to Hebrews 11.11. It's been argued that the passage should read that Sarah by faith received power to give seed and certainly that's how it was understood by quite a few commentators in the first millennium.

    It's intersting to read that in light of ancient models of reproduction. The model of duogenesis - both male and female seed contribute to reproduction. That was certainly a rabbinic notion and also for some in the Greco-Roman world. But the more dominant GReco-Roman perspective was monogenesis - only the male emits seed the female provides base matter, a view as you said taught by Aristotle.

    It gets very intersting then if you read Sarah's emitting seed monogenetically. And if Sarah is regarded as a prototype of Mary?

    Te ancient world

  3. Thanks for a thorough exploration of the Magi as astrologers. Rollan is a mutual friend, and yet I had not connected him with the Magi until now. As you know, I wrote an Epiphany post suggesting that the Magi may have been gay ("eunuchs" being a euphemismistic translation of an ancient word for "GLBT.") Gay astrolgers... seems likely that they would honor Christ's birth.