The basic problem that faces those approaching Mary from outside the Catholic tradition is the seeming disproportion between what Scripture tells us about Mary and the enormous amount of space she appears to occupy in the life of the Church. Part of that appearance of disproportion is due to Catholic devotion and part of it is due, paradoxically, to the exaggerated fears of non-Catholics about Catholic devotion.
Roots of Marian devotion
The dynamic works this way: Scripture doesn’t spell out for us, say, a command to pray the Rosary. But Catholics pray the Rosary anyway (due to the fact that they don’t regard the Bible as the Big Book of Everything given by God to micromanage our prayer lives under the rubric “That which is not compulsory is forbidden”). Non-Catholics, particularly evangelicals, then see Catholics praying the Rosary, note that this is not mandated by the Bible, and then note that for each Our Father (a biblical prayer) there are 10 Hail Marys. Conclusion: Mary must be way more important to Catholics than anything warranted by Scripture.
Or, similarly, the evangelical looks at his Bible in vain for terms like “Immaculate Conception,” or “Assumption,” or “Perpetual Virginity,” or “Theotokos.” Nothing there. So, the conclusion is that the Church just made this stuff up and added it to the Bible, drawing on the only other possible source: paganism. No doubt, the assumption goes, if a doctrine is not explicitly stated in Scripture, it is something that early Christians, half converted from paganism, dragged into the Faith to make it more digestible. There was a lot of goddess worship back then, so converts in the early Church who used to go to the Temple of Diana, or worship Isis, or adore Athena and missed having a woman’s touch in their spirituality, must have started exalting Mary, grabbed a few trappings from Babylon Mystery Religion and voil à : Marian devotion was born!
This narrative is astoundingly common in evangelical circles — and in some badly catechized Catholic circles, too. If it sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it’s the same narrative as “The Da Vinci Code,” which tells us that pagans grabbed a figure out of early Christian history — namely, Jesus — and elevated him to divine status in order to meet the needs of pagans. The trouble is, both narratives suffer from the same fatal weakness: There is no truth there.
There simply is no evidence that early Christians got their notions of Mary from paganism. Oh sure, Christians would sometimes take some pagan piece of bric-a-brac and fill it with Christian content. So, prayer beads get adapted to recitation of the psalms and eventually the Rosary. Or Christmas trees become symbols of the tree of Jesse that brought forth Messiah. Or halos get adapted from pre-Christian art to signify holiness. But so what? When you read a bumper sticker that says, “Jesus: He’s the Real Thing” do you suddenly feel an overwhelming compulsion to worship a Coke bottle? Neither did early Christians acquire the notion that pagan symbols, filled with Christian content, meant that pagan gods and goddesses should be worshipped.
In fact, the early Church’s approach to theological questions was remarkably insular from our modern multicul-tural perspective. What interested early Christians in their deliberations on everything from God to Jesus to Mary to the placement of a feast was Jewish and Christian Scripture and tradition. Period. (See sidebar.) Similarly, the early Christians cared passionately about fine-tuned attempts to clock the exact month and day Zechariah was working his shift at the Temple. They cared nothing at all about what was happening at the Temple of Diana. They saw Jesus foreshadowed by Adam, Noah, Isaac and David. They could not have cared less about Osiris, Apollo or Zeus.
Old Testament precursor
And exactly the same thing holds true when it comes to Mary. The Fathers of the Church were perfectly aware of pagan goddess worship and figures like the Great Mother. But exactly what they did not do was take such things as compatible with their faith, or attempt to paste Mary faces on them. Instead, they constantly looked not to paganism but to the Old Testament as they contemplated Mary. As the early Church grew, a swelling flood of theologians saw Mary prefigured by Eve, Sarah, Deborah, Hannah, Judith and Esther, not by Venus, Athena, Hera, Eostre, Isis, Diana and the like. The gaze was always firmly fixed on Scripture. It is from the Old Testament, not the works of Homer or Ovid, that the Fathers derive images and titles of Mary, such as:
- The “Temple of God” — She is the Holy of Holies in which God dwelt (Ephraem the Syrian, Jerome, Ambrose).
- The “Rod of Jesse” from whom blossomed Christ (Ambrose, Tertullian, Jerome).
- The “East Gate” of the Temple spoken of by Ezekiel (Jerome).
- The “Ark of the Covenant” (Athanasius, Gregory the Wonder-Worker).
In short, devotees of the “Pagan Mary” theory completely ignore the fact that Mary is likened to the Ark of the Covenant, not to Pandora’s box or Artemis’ quiver of arrows. The biblical writers, like the Fathers after them, had hearts, minds and imaginations completely dominated by imagery from Scripture, not pagan myth.
If that is the case, then how is it that the Church supposes that a Bible which never mentions “Immaculate Conception,” or “Perpetual Virginity,” or “Assumption,” or “Theotokos” can support these doctrines? The answer to that question comes by looking at the Bible in what some might imagine to be a whole new way, but which is, in fact, the way in which Jesus and the apostles always read it. Of which, more next month.
This is part two in an eight-part series. Mark Shea is senior content editor at Catholic Exchange.com and writes the Catholic and Enjoying It! blog at markshea.blogspot.com. He writes from Washington state.
Christian Or Pagan Origins? (sidebar)
The common assumption today is that Christmas was established to compete with the feast of the Unconquered Sun. In fact, the evidence points to the exact opposite conclusion, as Richard Ostling reported in an article titled “Why is Dec. 25 the date to celebrate Christmas? Two explanations compete” (North County Times, in California, Dec. 24, 2004). He quotes from William Tighe, a church history specialist at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College.
The Roman Emperor Aurelian almost certainly created “a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians,” Tighe wrote [in December 2003] in Touchstone, a Chicago-based magazine for Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditionalists.
True, the Christians later appropriated Aurelian’s festival into their Christmas. But Dec. 25 “appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences,” Tighe asserted. He said the pagans-first theory originated only three centuries ago in the writings of Protestant historian Paul Ernst Jablonski and Catholic monk Jean Hardouin.
Tighe acknowledged that the first hard evidence of Christmas occurring on Dec. 25 isn’t found until A.D. 336, and the date only became a fixed festival in Constantinople in 379.
However, the definitive “Handbook of Biblical Chronology,” by professor Jack Finegan (Hendrickson, 1998 revised edition), cites an important reference in the “Chronicle” written by Hippolytus of Rome three decades before Aurelian launched his festival. Hippolytus said Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, Dec. 25.
Tighe said there’s evidence that as early as the second and third centuries Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the liturgical calendar — long before Christmas also became a festival.
The New Testament Gospels say the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season. The “integral age” concept, taught by ancient Judaism, though not in the Bible, held that Israel’s great prophets died the same day as their birth or conception.
Quite early on, Tighe said, Christians applied this idea to Jesus and set the Passover period’s March 25 for the feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth. Add nine months to the conception date and we get Dec. 25.