Artwork: The Angel of Innumerable Meanings by Elsie Russell.
The conventional concept of Christianity does not offer solace or support for many women today, most of whom are seriously seeking answers. Established churches tend to resist an expanded definition of feminine theological doctrine. Too enlightened to stay, large numbers of women are deserting their traditional roles as the cornerstone of church activities.
Spiritually adrift, they journey through life in earnest quest of alternative beliefs. Church leaders are concerned, but have not offered satisfying revisions. One sticking point is the Bible itself. Historical biblical interpretations have devalued the importance of the women portrayed on its pages. Although Christian women may disagree about valid choices, on this they do agree: they need more than one dimensional perceptions of biblical women.
Mary, famed for being a virgin at Jesus' conception, is a prime example. Is this the most important information we should know about the woman who inspired Jesus and enabled his ministry? She is a genuine and powerful role model, a real woman who affected the course of major religions and history itself. This concept of her has been eclipsed by more than the fulfillment of her son's destiny. Through adroit use of the patriarchal quill, religious scholars have also minimized her achievements.
Elaine Pagels, in The Gnostic Gospels, stated, 'If some gnostic sources suggest that the Spirit constitutes the maternal element of the Trinity, the Gospel of Phillip makes an equally radical suggestion about the doctrine that later developed as the virgin birth... the Spirit is both mother and Virgin, the counterpart-and consort-of the Heavenly Father: 'Is it permitted to use a mystery? The father of everything united with the virgin who came down'-that is, with the Holy Spirit descending into the world. But because this process is to be understood symbolically, not literally, the Spirit remains a virgin...the author ridicules those literal minded Christians who mistakenly refer the virgin birth to Mary, Jesus' mother, as though she conceived apart from Joseph: 'They do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever conceive by a woman?' Instead, he argues, virgin birth refers to that mysterious union of two divine powers, The Father of All and The Holy Spirit.'
The gnostic scriptures to which she refers were found in Israel approximately forty years ago. Their pages, verified as authentic, differ markedly from today's Bible. Religious scholars openly acknowledge many of the Bible stories have their root in other mythologies. The story of Mary is thought to be derived from various legends of Goddesses.
According to Barbara Walker, author of The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, 'The Christian figure of Mary was gradually created during the first four centuries of the Christian era, out of bits and pieces of the Great Goddess who conceived 'sons of God' and Saviors in all the temples of the ancient world.'
The gospels of the New Testament are known to have been written during this time, most penned long after the death of their purported authors. Yet Mary, mother of Jesus, surely existed. If she is not the Biblical figure, than who is she? Without accurate records, we can only surmise. Imagine motherhood with a child such as Jesus. What did she teach him? How did she keep him safe?
We can hypothesize about her talents and authority from the biblical accounts of her son's life, even if they are not historically accurate. John lets us glimpse her interaction with Jesus at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, where he records the first public display of a miracle (John 2:1-11). Mary mentions the lack of wine to her son and calmly instructs the servants to assist him. He dutifully provides as much wine as is needed. Thus, we know she not only had knowledge of his power but also had influence on its use. This acceptance of her authority over servants suggests she was a woman of means and authority. The house may have been her own. Certainly, she was considered important enough to be obeyed without hesitation.
This interaction between Mary and her son is, of course, a normal parental act. Her guidance in his early education would also have been normal. Luke recounts how, at age twelve, Jesus was found in the temple, discoursing with the brethren, both asking and answering questions. The Gospel of Luke states, "And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers." (Luke 2:47)
Undoubtedly, Mary was well versed in religion. She called herself a handmaid of the Lord (Luke 1:38) and further stated, "My soul doth magnify the Lord." (Luke 1:46). Her heritage was that of a religious family. Her uncle, Aaron, is described as a priest.
The Lost Book of The Bible and The Forgotten Books of Eden is a collection of various manuscripts known to be authentic but deleted from the New Testament. The Gospel of the Birth of Mary begins, "The blessed and ever glorious Virgin Mary, sprung from the royal race and family of David, was born in the city of Nazareth, and educated at Jerusalem, in the temple of the Lord." (Mary 1:1)
Thus, not only is her parentage and stature in the community confirmed, she is revealed as an educated woman. To believe she was careful to instruct her child in all important matters, including education, is easy. Given the above quotation from this ancient manuscript, we should also credit her with much of the learning which so astonished the brethren. This would be in keeping with the customs of the time, wherein the mother was responsible for the education of the children.
Jesus loved women and embraced them within his ministry. They served as his hostesses and sat in upon religious discussions. He readily forgave their weaknesses. He chose a woman to be the first witness of his resurrection (John 20:14-18). This may have been directly due to the strong influence Mary exerted. She was dedicated to Jesus' ministry and is mentioned frequently throughout his travels. He commanded her into the care of John when she was sorrowing at his death. The apostles continued to include her even after his ascension (Acts 1:14)
Throughout the travails of her life, she is presented as a strong and respected woman, full of compassion, wisdom, and dignity. From all accounts, her love was a fulfilling and inviting presence in Jesus' and the apostles' lives. Her story is the most complete expression of the steady and tender world of matriarchal power recorded in the Bible.
Contemporary women need the vision of a full-dimensional Mary to inspire their own spiritual achievements in this cynical, wearying world of today. By considering her full capabilities, her role in her society, and her talents which she used as wife and mother, she becomes a broader pillar of support and a truer example of womanhood at its finest. This is the woman the churches should represent if Christianity is to remain a mainstay in women's lives.
The Angel of Innumerable Meanings by Elsie Russell.
Other pieces in this issue by Loretta Kemsley:
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