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The New Testament
The presence in the Gospels analysed by a theologian psychologist

More than one Biblical face

 Volti biblici, più di uno  DCM-011
03 December 2022

There is not, nor has there ever been, a single face of Mary. From the earliest traditions known to us, her aspect is multifaceted, multiple and rich. A plurality that is already present in the four Gospel accounts and that very soon undergoes further diversification from other points of view. Of Mary, only a few traits remain defined to this day. For the rest, her figure has undergone a process of amplification and diversification; in fact, the distance between the beginning of the story of Mary of Nazareth and the whole subsequent story is immense.    Here I limit myself to considering only the biblical dimension of her diversity and plurality of faces, because this is what gives an interesting and often unknown intensity to an evangelical character who at first glance appears sober and of few words compared to others. It is one of those cases where it is not the quantity of quotations that creates the depth of the narrative protagonist, because her profiling depends on other parameters such as the place she occupies in the story, her relationships with other characters, her function and the specificity of each evangelical author and their context. Therefore, I have focused my attention on the Gospels by making only a slight reference to other New Testament texts. Recovering the biblical Mary of Nazareth from the Gospel narratives means for me to remove her from patriarchy, that is, from two thousand years of interpretations that have distanced themselves from the biblical sources, thus interdicting them from the people and, in a very special way, from women.  

Gospel of Mark

Mark links the importance of Mary with the crisis of the Jewish patriarchal family caused by Jesus. We read in Mk 3:21-31-35: On hearing this, his own family went out to fetch him; for they said, “He is beside himself”. His mother and brothers came and, standing outside, they sent for him. A crowd gathered and sat, and they said to him, “Behold, your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside looking for you. But he answered them, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?”.  Turning his gaze to those who were sitting around him, he said, “Behold my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother, sister, and mother”. In just five verses, the narrator condenses the character’s evolutionary process, which starts from a taken-for-granted, patriarchal and obligatory position towards her son, who is considered insane, and arrives at a position that is the result of a free choice, which is revolutionary with respect to a great pillar of society and the Israelite religion. From this crisis, Mary progresses to become a part -we do not know if constantly or only sporadically-, of the group of women who follow Jesus and adhere to his project. In commencing from a way of understanding the Jewish religious tradition, the implementation of the divine project stands as an alternative to the Israelite family and its implications.  The brief account in Mark 6:1-6 (“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon? And do not his sisters stand here with us?”) and the two Paschal moments of the women’s presence at the crucifixion (15:40-41) and at the empty tomb (16:1-8) confirm this hypothesis.

Gospel of Matthew

Matthew presents Mary in a different way. He uses literary genres, symbols and mythical elements in the accounts of Jesus' childhood. Both infanticide and persecution by King Herod force the mother with the child and the father to flee. The image of the divine mythical dyad of the mother with the child (her son) is prominent. What gives the character greater intensity, however, is her biblical background, which begins in the genealogy, where Mary is the last in the significant list of four “irregular” women - creating a diversity in the continuity itself - and continues in the midrash. If one does not keep the Hebrew Bible in mind, such intensity is not perceived. Furthermore, it is necessary to see Matthew's Mary in close relationship with Matthew's Joseph, since the way Joseph is presented modifies and illuminates Mary in that social and historical context. Without this relationship one cannot understand the fact that in Matthew's Gospel, Mary is less patriarchal than she appears, and this also applies to Joseph.

Gospel of Luke

Luke uses the annunciation literary genre of the hero’s birth to the mother-to-be (2.26-38), which is based on Greco-Latin myths and draw on various texts in the Hebrew Bible. Luke presents Mary as a young, smart, intelligent, and independent woman, and frees her from a woman’s supposedly unappealable fate of motherhood. There are many who overlook the moment when Mary, who does not understand what the angel tells her, asks him questions for clarification, and also the moment when she accepts without consulting the betrothed, a fact that breaks with the tradition of the man-woman relationship. Luke is the most patriarchal of the narrators, and despite the luminous narrative profile with which he presents Mary in the annunciation, in the visitation to Elizabeth, and in the text on the primacy of listening to the Word over maternal dignity (11:27-28), he is also the one who tries to relocate women in the place pre-assigned to them by patriarchy.

The Fourth Gospel (John)

The author of the Fourth Gospel gives Mary a structural place in his work on the basis of solid biblical foundations. She is the one who inaugurates the public life of Jesus (Jn 2:1-8), under the symbol of a new humanity, on the evocative basis of a fundamental Eve in the birth of the human being, the bearer of life, free because she can choose, and be the bearer of innovation. Mary is woman for Jesus and mother of Jesus. The relationship between these two ways of mentioning her (never by her name) condenses innovative symbols, myths and theological meanings in the Gospel. John’s Mary cannot be understood without a liberating reading of what happens at the wedding in Cana. When the wine ran out, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine” (John 2-3). The evangelist returns to show this at the end of Jesus’ life (19:25-27), opening and closing his life and historical cycle. It is again the door of new humanity and innovative community history.

Other texts

There are other New Testament writings that evoke Mary. The closest to the Gospel accounts is that of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:14) which names her in the context of Pentecost, at the head of Jesus' household at a time of mourning and conflict over the guidance of his inheritance. Luke does not give her the word, but a very significant place instead. Unfortunately, the mentioning of her name has been understood as an exception; for she is alone among men. Instead, the text includes men and women, followers, and family members.

Mary and the Bible

The Mary we know from catechesis, preaching, popular and spiritual devotions, books of exaltation, and art have little to do with the biblical Mary. Mary is part of the Bible, but tradition has separated her from it by decontextualizing her. The Second Vatican Council tried to demystify her and return her to the sources, to reinterpret her, but her figure has undergone a simplistic process. Her jewels and crown were taken away, she was brought down from the clouds, turning her into a Jewish peasant girl with almost no evangelical and theological significance, with little ability to animate and empower women and all humanity with Jesus' plan. Her liberating power has been reduced to the Magnificat and today Mary continues to be a scarcely biblical figure. She has far and above recovered her place in patriarchy.

Lecturer in Old Testament, co-founder of the Association of Spanish Theologians and psychologist