Thursday, November 25, 2010

Foucault and the Virgin Mary

I noticed the other day, over at Mark Goodacre's blog, that he had a post up about a coming BBC Christmas production called Nativity. It's a dramatised retelling of the events around Jesus' birth and seems to be based on the merging of the canonical Infancy gospels in Matthew and Luke. Mark's quoted some of the press release promoting Nativity and I was very struck by this bit

Over four half-hour episodes the drama will tell the traditional tale known to millions from a very human perspective. With Mary and Joseph's enduring love story at the centre this familiar story is given a contemporary twist, as the drama follows Joseph and Mary from their initial courtship – Joseph desperate to win the heart of Mary – to his emotional turmoil at her unexpected pregnancy.

Now maybe I missed something but I had no idea that Mary and Joseph had an "enduring" love story to begin with, let alone that he had been "desperate" to win her heart. This is a BBC production, too. The Beeb has a pretty strong reputation for quality and I'm sure this will be a quality production. Mark Goodacre himself is excited at the prospect and it also gets a good rap at Bible Films Blog. But I am still puzzled by the "enduring love story." Is that what is meant by giving the story a "contemporary twist"? Or is that how the story is understood anyway with the contemporary twist coming from some other feature?

I raise these questions because if we turn to the sources and even to subsequent tradition, an enduring love story is not what's found at all. The story or stories, nevertheless are quite fascinating, powerful even and I think it would be great to see a production based on them rather than the modern love story treatment.

And so right now I want to look at the five most ancient sources we have for the Nativity and the relationship between Joseph and Mary. These sources are Matthew's infancy narrative, Luke's infancy narrative, Ode 19 of the Odes of Solomon, the Ascension of Isaiah and the Proto-Evangelion of James. What they'll show is that ancient Christians had a very different understanding of the relationship between Mary and Joseph, such that they would probably be extremely puzzled by portraying the two in the context of a romantic love melodrama. But I should note by way of preamble that Joseph barely gets a mention in the other two canonical gospels, he's not an active character, he's not in the picture at all. He's really only referred to in passing as the father of Jesus. He completely disappears in one passage in Mark when Jesus is referred to as son of Mary. On the strength of such absence, the understandable tradition developed that Joseph had died when Jesus was young, certainly long before he began his public life.

So I'll start with Matthew. The infancy narrative comprises the first two chapters of this gospel. More than two thirds of chapter 1 is a genealogy of Jesus (1-17); the remaining 7 verses trace the relationship between Joseph and Mary and Mary's pregnancy. There's no sense of a deep romantic love here. Instead we are told that Joseph was a righteous man and on learning of Mary's pregnancy, decided to dismiss her quietly and not expose her to public disgrace. Perhaps Joseph feels kindly to Mary, but 'desperate' or ardent? - not really. He is only prevented from dismissing Mary by the appearance of an angel, who tells him just what sort of child Mary is carrying. Joseph relents and does not send her away. Chapter 2 relates the coming of the Magi, the flight into Egypt and the massacre of the children of Bethlehem. Here Joseph comes into his own, helping Mary and her child escape to Egypt. Without Joseph, their lives would be in the greatest peril. And yet, never at any time do Joseph and Mary converse. And then, once we quit the infancy narrative, Joseph disappears entirely. He gets mentioned a couple of times; in the parallel to the Mark passage cited above, he's referred to as the carpenter and not by name, while Mary is herself named. So what we have of Joseph in Matthew is an absence, following his appearance in the first two chapters, where the only person he interacts and converses with at all is an angel. There's nothing in Matthew about any enduring, let alone ardent, love.

In contrast, Mary is the main figure in Luke's infancy narrative, chapters 1 and 2 of the Gospel. Mary speaks and interacts with people and an angel too. The first chapter deals with the conception and birth of John the Baptist and the Annunciation, Mary's conception of Jesus and her visit to her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist; we are told that Mary is betrothed to Joseph but he makes no other appearance in chapter 1. His debut comes in chapter 2 but only as background figure: he and Mary go to Bethlehem to be registered in the census; he is present when the shepherds come, as bidden by the angels, to give homage to the Christ child; he accompanies Mary to the Temple for the Presentation scene. But at no time do he and Mary converse. In the Temple Simeon and Anna prophesy over Jesus and Simeon addresses Mary directly but Joseph remains a shadowy figure in the background. It's only in the final part of chapter 2, when Jesus is found in the Temple at age 12 after being lost by his parents, that Mary, when addressing Jesus, actually acknowledges Joseph's existence, by saying that she and his father had been searching for him anxiously. Jesus' response, invoking his heavenly Father, effectively contradicts any paternal claims that Joseph has. After that, Joseph as a character disappears in Luke's gospel. He gets a mention, unsurprisingly, in the genealogy of Jesus in chapter 3, and elsewhere Jesus gets referred to as son of Joseph, including in the Lucan parallel to the passages in Matthew and Mark referred to above. But again there is nothing to indicate any strong attachment between Mary and Joseph, he's a background figure at best and in chapter 1 Mary acts and speaks on her own initiative, apparently beholden to no one.

I'll break from narrative to poetry and turn to Ode 19 of the Odes of Solomon. You can read Charlesworth's translation of the Odes here. He dates the Odes to the 1st century, although others have opted for 2nd or even 3rd century. They've been called the first Christian hymn book and they have strong resonances both with the Johannine New Testament literature and with Qumran texts as well. Ode 19 gives a short but quite striking account of the Incarnation and Nativity not least for its gender bending imagery.

1. A cup of milk was offered to me, and I drank it in the sweetness of the Lord's kindness.
2. The Son is the cup, and the Father is He who was milked; and the Holy Spirit is She who milked Him;
3. Because His breasts were full, and it was undesirable that His milk should be ineffectually released.
4. The Holy Spirit opened Her bosom, and mixed the milk of the two breasts of the Father.
5. Then She gave the mixture to the generation without their knowing, and those who have received it are in the perfection of the right hand.
6. The womb of the Virgin took it, and she received conception and gave birth.
7. So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies.
8. And she labored and bore the Son but without pain, because it did not occur without purpose.
9. And she did not require a midwife, because He caused her to give life.
10. She brought forth like a strong man with desire, and she bore according to the manifestation, and she acquired according to the Great Power.
11. And she loved with redemption, and guarded with kindness, and declared with grandeur.

I've quoted it in full because it's short and because I like it. Now assuming "the Virgin" refers to Mary (and I'm quite happy to allow for an ambiguity here, that the poem describes an event happening in the heavenly as much as the terrestrial realms), it seems that here the Lucan portrait has been brought to its logical conclusion. Mary is front and centre and she is an independent figure, a powerful figure in her own right. She has no need of a man, let alone a husband. If anything she might be reminiscent of the Woman of the Apocalypse (Revelation 12) who is herself a heavenly figure (the Hebrew goddess?) who was assimilated to Mary quite early in Christian tradition, too.

Returning to narrative accounts, our next stop is the Ascension of Isaiah. This text has been dated from the first to second centuries of the Christian era. It only survives in full in Ethiopian manuscripts but fragments also survive in Greek, Latin, Coptic and Slavonic. It's a composite text (Charles' translation of the full text can be read here). Chapters 1-5 relate Isaiah's persecution and martyrdom at the hands of King Manasseh. The second half relates Isaiah's vision in which he ascends through the Seven Heavens to meet Christ and Enoch and where he sees the future incarnation and nativity of Christ. Much of the Vision is reminiscent of the Enoch literature including the nativity of Christ in chapter 11 which I will now quote (from Knibb's translation chapters 6-11 available here):

1. 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."
2 And 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.
3 And he came into his lot. And when she was betrothed, she was found to be pregnant, and Joseph the carpenter wished to divorce her.
4 But 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.
5 And he did not approach Mary, but kept her as a holy virgin, although she was pregnant.
6 And he did not live with her for two months.
7 And after two months of days, while Joseph was in his house, and Mary his wife, but both alone,
8 it came about, when they were alone, that Mary then looked with her eyes and saw a small infant, and she was astounded.
9 And after her astonishment had worn off, her womb was found as (it was) at first, before she had conceived.
10 And 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.
11 And a voice came to them, "Do not tell this vision to anyone."
12 But the story about the infant was spread abroad in Bethlehem.
13 Some said, "The virgin Mary has given birth before she has been married two months."
14 But 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.
15 And they took him and went to Nazareth in Galilee

The account resembles somewhat Matthew's infancy narrative and many scholars argue that it is derived from it. Enrico Norelli has argued that it is independent of the account in Matthew. If anything, I'm reminded of the nativity of Melchizedek in 2 Enoch, particularly in the manner of Jesus' birth. But I guess my main point here is that the author is not interested in any love between Joseph and Mary. In fact compared to the parallel scene in 2 Enoch, Joseph appears relatively nonchalant about being cuckolded by heaven, perhaps because it is very early days in the relationship, whereas in 2 Enoch the couple who have a heavenly child foisted upon them have been married for many (childless) years.

Finally I turn to the Protoevangelium of James also known as the Gospel of James i.e. James of Jerusalem known as the brother of the Lord. You can read this 2nd century text in full here and here. This Gospel is pretty much an infancy gospel only. It relates the conception and nativity not only of Jesus but also of his mother, Mary. It's not generally known in the Western Church and it was never included in any New Testament collection. Nevertheless it gives a considerable amount of 'back story' to the canonical gospels and their infancy narratives, such that it is almost a fifth Gospel. It's from this gospel that we get the names of Mary's parents, Joachim and Anna. It's from this gospel too that we get the idea that Joseph was a lot older than Mary and had children, one of whom being James, from a previous marriage. That way Mary's perpetual virginity is preserved and Gospel references to Jesus' brothers and sisters resolved. Unfortunately, the Western Church, in about the 4th or 5th centuries decided to make Joseph a perpetual virgin too, so the gospel was quietly discarded, even though much of its story entered into the Western tradition. While the East acclaims Mary's perpetual virginity it saw no reason for Joseph to be caught up in the gestalt of perpetual virginity. The East accepted the idea that Joseph had been married before and that James and the other brothers and sisters of Jesus were the product of that marriage. The Protoevangelium wasn't incorporated into the Eastern New Testament but the Eastern Churches hold it in very high esteem, counting it as coming from James and counting it as a key and inspired text of Tradition.

As I said the Protoevangelium relates the nativity of both Mary and Jesus. Mary's conception is miraculous, almost implicitly non-sexual. When she is born she is counted as a special, child of promise and her parents pledge her to the Temple. She's taken there at age two (there's a charming image of the two year old Mary dancing in the Holy of Holies) and she stays living there until she is twelve. At twelve she's on the verge of puberty and menstruation. The priests are concerned that she might breach the menstrual taboos and defile the Temple. So the priests summon a gathering of widowers so that the Lord will determine which of them will take Mary into his care and protection. After a miracle of the staves in which a dove emerges from Joseph's staff and perches itself on his head, Mary is placed in Joseph's custody to which he strongly protests due to his great age and her youth. In the end he relents but then leaves her in his home and goes away building houses. Mary is then summoned back to the Temple along with several other virgins and put to work on making the Temple veil. It's at this time that the archangel comes to her and announces that she will conceive. This she does and then sets off to visit her cousin Elizabeth who of course is pregnant with John the Baptist. While she stays with Elizabeth, Mary's belly starts to swell with her pregnancy and she gets frightened and returns to her home. Joseph then returns from his travels and finds her pregnant for which he berates her. Joseph resolves to divorce her quietly but then an angel comes to him to explain what has happened. Joseph relents and decides to protect Mary.

In the meantime the priests have discovered Mary's pregnancy. Joseph is accused of having violated Mary. Both deny the charge and both are subjected to trial by ordeal which they both pass. They are then allowed to go free and Mary returns with Joseph to his house. The narrative then relates the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, the coming of the Magi, the slaughter of the infants of Bethlehem, the flight of Elizabeth and her baby and the murder of her husband, Zechariah, by Herod's men in the Temple sanctuary for refusing to divulge the whereabouts of his child.

Pretty gripping stuff! But again what I want to highlight is the relationship between Joseph and Mary. It is most definitely not a love match! Mary is in her early teens while Joseph is an old man. It's not clear that they are even married. Mary is addressed and behaves too as if she is Joseph's ward, not his wife. In contrast, there is much more concern and affection among Mary's parents in the text than there is between Joseph and Mary. Why is Joseph under suspicion of having violated her? Although Mary is living in Joseph's house and is in his care, it seems the text does not understand them to be married in any way. I guess what I then want to point out that early Christians were not actually interested in the relationship between Mary and Joseph. What was more important to them as Mary's integrity, her virginity, her autonomy. As Virgin and Mother, Mary encapsulates a suite of ancient motifs, not least the virgin and living soil of Eden, and, of course the ancient great goddesses; Mary is the new Eve and the new Sarah, the Mother of the New Covenant. She represents the end of the old ways, the start of a new way of being, one in which women are no longer subject to the rule of their husbands. We forget that early Christianity had a vision of world without marriage (Matthew 22:23 ff) and many Christians tried to live that vision literally, the majority through celibacy, and a minority by a form of sexual communism. The Acts of Thecla (sadly she was dropped by Rome from the Western calendar of saints in the early 1970s) gives another radical celibate vision of female autonomy.

Early Christians were not interested in any love between Joseph and Mary. Firstly because most marriages weren't contracted for love anyway. They were family arrangements, much as they still are in many parts of the world today. Love might grow during marriage, such that if a woman survived her childbearing years she might hope to have the respect and affection of her husband. Failing that, then, the honour due her as a matron. Hence not only is Mary a Virgin, but she is preserved the pains of (and the mortal threats from) childbirth.

By the high medieval period, Mary has become the Queen of Heaven, enthroned on the ceilings and walls of churches she presides over the mysteries of her Son. If she is represented with anyone it is usually him, but sometimes with her mother (Da Vinci played with that pairing rather delightfully in this image of Mary and Anne with the infant Jesus), and sometimes in the company of other virgins. But rarely, rarely with her husband. Marriage is part of this world which is due to pass way. She is Queen in the world to come, a world in which there is no marriage at all.

Consequently, early Christians would regard this production of the Nativity with puzzlement. A love story between Joseph and Mary would not make sense to them. Likewise with their descendants a thousand years later. For them Mary was the great Queen of Heaven, the Virgin Mother. If she is portrayed with Joseph, it is because he, too, in the West is now counted in the company of virgins. Joseph the ever-virgin makes an oddly queer character in the radical celibate imaginary. The ardent heterosexual lover of the BBC's Nativity is alien indeed to that exotic flower.

The BBC's Nativity signifies that there's been a discursive shift over the last few centuries, hence my nod to Foucault in the title of this post. For medieval and ancient Christians, the notion that Mary and Joseph would be in love, in some kind of romance, would seem bizarre; as it still would to many Eastern Christians, for whom Joseph was an old man and Mary a young teenager, barely into puberty. But for us in the West, it seems, especially the Anglisphere it appears to be unthinkable that they wouldn't be. That this is so is, I think, the result of a process that began in the late medieval period and was accelerated in the Reformation. Mary is kicked off her heavenly throne and made subject to her husband. To the more 'liberal' minded Protestant it's only natural that Mary had all those children after Jesus, because it's only natural, it's what marriage is all about. The Holy Family get to model the ideal bourgeois Protestant family and Mary is reduced to a shadow of herself. The discursive shift that Foucault identifies as taking place in the 19th century is really only a rationalist appropriation of the older Protestant discourse, reconfigured in a secular frame, appropriate to a modern 'progressive' and reasonable society in which religion becomes an individualised and privatised activity, its public and linking functions taken over by the liberal, capitalist and secular state.

The same process happens in the Catholic world too. Following the Catholic Reform around Trent, Mary gets diminished and located more and more within the family, the Holy Family. It's more difficult, of course; there's the whole weight of Marian tradition plus the celibacy of Joseph. This family is not like any bourgeois family out there in the real world. There's a real danger that this family of celibates can flip out of the heteronormative into some very queer spaces. And it's not as if the diminution of Mary happens without a fight, either. Marian apparitions, generally always to women and (mainly girl-) children, become more public and dramatic, Lourdes and Fatima, the most striking of all. Nevertheless, by the post-Vatican 2 period, the Reform push has triumphed and Mary ends up pretty much removed from her throne, kicked out to the kitchen to take her place, the ever-virgin wife, subject to the ever-virgin husband. All this happened with the rise of feminism, too, and sadly many feminists saw Mary as too hopelessly entangled in the webs of patriarchy to be bothered with her.

And yet seen through a feminist lens the Mary of Luke's gospel does not fit that that holy patriarchal family at all. She speaks and acts in her own right without need of any man. Ode 19 might also seem shocking to many (it certainly causes discomfort to conservative evangelicals). A text like the Protoevangelium of James is completely alien to modern sensibilities.

It sounds like Nativity is taking its cue from Matthew - Joseph is front and centre, not Mary. Presumably a toned down version of Luke's account will flesh it out somewhat but it will be framed within the broader context of the modern nuclear family and Western ideologies of marriage and marital love. I doubt we will see any sign of the perpetually virgin Mary, let alone a perpetually virgin Joseph, and from what I can make out Mary and Joseph will be age peers too, no June December romance here. No, it will likely be the Joseph and Mary of the Western bourgeois imaginary even if the central event, a miraculous pregnancy actively agreed to by the woman, would serve to challenge it. Will this Mary say "Fiat! so let it happen, I accept" and will she argue justifying her decision and challenge Joseph and his patriarchal expectations?

Unfortunately the Mary of the Protoevangelium doesn't challenge Joseph either but pleads ignorance of what happened instead. Perhaps she does so to enable the heavenly angelic intervention, a feature of Matthew, Ascension of Isaiah and the Protoevengelium itself. Does angelic intervention maintain patriarchal decorum? Nevertheless, because it is so alien I would like to see a Nativity made using the Protoevangelium to flesh it out, especially if it joins with Luke to put Mary front and centre, not Joseph, and to celebrate her "Fiat!". That would make a Nativity suitably alien to modern sensitivities, a shocking and disturbing story and not one that has been tamed.

1 comment:

  1. Clap, clap.

    What does it say about scripture that each generation makes up their own stories, replete with new meaning that curiously reflects the circumstances and ideology of the day?