Back in the Advent Season I read the Wisdom Commentary treatment of “The Infancy Narrative” of the birth of Jesus. Wisdom’s Luke 1-9, like all the biblical commentaries in the Wisdom series, is the product of a team of women professional Biblical scholars, in this case Sister Barbara Reid, O.P., whose doctoral degree was awarded by my alma mater, The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., and Dr. Shelly Matthews, who holds a Th.D. from Harvard Divinity School. Both are actively teaching and researching as of this writing. They represent the growing number of professional women theological scholars in today’s Church; there are over 300 alone cited in the commentary Luke 1-9.
Scripture study, with a few exceptions, has been a man’s field in Western Christianity since its modern revival in the late 1700’s. In the United States, as a rule, no woman was even accepted for graduate studies in Catholic theology until after World War II. See two fine essays from a 2012 series from US Catholic, “How the Door Was Opened for Catholic Women Theologians” and “What Women Theologians Have Done for the Church.” In the introduction to Luke 1-9, the authors write that “in bringing feminist lenses to this approach [to modern Biblical study], the aim is not to impose modern expectations on ancient cultures but to unmask the ways that ideologically problematic mind-sets that produced the ancient texts are still promulgated through the text.” [p. xxxi] Put another way, Scripture study must include analysis and critique of male dominance at the time of composition and reassess male supremacy’s distortions of Revelation in the Scripture, Old and New Testaments.
It is hardly a secret that women did not fare well in many Hebrew texts: Deuteronomy 22: 23-24; Deuteronomy 22:13-21: Judges 11: 34-40; and the infamous story of Lot’s poor daughters in Genesis 19: 7ff. “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.” Irony of ironies, Lot was attempting to forestall homosexual rape of his two male houseguests by offering up his daughters, who presumably had no say in the decision.
Twentieth century feminine scholarship on sexism in the Bible follows upon the heels of the Vatican’s teaching regarding antisemitic overtones of several New Testament texts which have been employed—and sadly still employed by some religious/political extremists—to justify hatred of the Jews on the grounds that they are “Christ-killers.” Most infamous is the trial scene from Matthew 27:25, “And all the people answering said, "His blood be on us, and on our children." For a full explanation of the Church’s corrective of New Testament texts, see this essay from America Magazine, “The Bible, the Passion, and the Jews,” February 16, 2004. God’s revelation is pure; its accurate deciphering is a sacred duty of the Church.
In this spirit present day biblical scholarship examines the treatment of women in the Bible, and in our post here, the role of Mary on this observance of the Feast of the Annunciation. Luke’s Gospel is the only New Testament text to describe Mary’s interaction with the Angel Gabriel. In Matthew 1: 18-25 we get a masculinized Annunciation, as the angel appears to Joseph and delivers a full explanation only to him. Mark and John have no accounts of Christ’s birth, beginning their Gospels in Jesus’ adulthood.
In Luke’s account, the Angel’s first revelation comes to Zechariah, married to Elizabeth, and then to Mary, the future mother of Jesus. [Luke 1: 5-38]. Despite their righteousness and blameless living, Zechariah and Elizabeth are childless. Luke states that Elizabeth was barren; in biblical times the inability to conceive fell to the woman’s provenance, though modern science has discredited this one-sided medical analysis. Gabriel’s visits to Zechariah and Mary follow the same formula: a greeting, an announcement of how God’s will be fulfilled in each, a question from the recipient of the message, and an answer and closing summary by the Angel.
In the first instance, the Angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah as he offers sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple. “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah seems to overlook the immensity of the honor and the importance of what he is hearing, for after this momentous proclamation from Gabriel, the senior priest points out the biological impossibility of conceiving a son due to the couple’s advanced age and previous childlessness. Gabriel is not pleased with Zechariah’s skepticism. “And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” Luke notes that Elizabeth, upon hearing of Gabriel’s message second hand [a miracle in itself considering her husband’s speechlessness] is overjoyed and expresses no reservations. Quite the contrary. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
Even serious scholarship has its humorous moments, and I note here the observation of biblical scholar Brittany E. Wilson, who comments: “Zechariah’s silence opens up space for both Elizabeth and Mary to speak” in Luke’s narrative. [p. 11] Whether Wilson intended to be funny or not, it is true that after Zechariah’s speech is restored at the circumcision and naming of his son, the future John the Baptist, we hear next to nothing from Elizabeth or Mary hereafter in this Gospel.
As the narrative progresses, Gabriel next appears to “a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the House of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” The authors of Luke 1-9 make a critical point here: “Many Christians see in this scene a Mary who is a docile, sweet, compliant servant, totally submissive to God’s will, and therefore a model for women to emulate. [Dr. Reid] stands among many feminist scholars who have argued, instead, that Mary is a strong woman who has a direct encounter with God, who does not hesitate to question, and who does not need the mediation to accomplish God’s purposes.” [p. 15] The authors go on to contend that Luke has depicted Mary as a prophet in the Biblical sense of the term.
Luke’s Annunciation narrative is as theologically complex as any text in the Bible. He is providing the Church—already half a century old when he wrote in around 80 A.D.—with its first systematic way of thinking about the Incarnation, God become man. It was important for him to describe Mary as a virgin, to eliminate any possible doubt that her child was fathered by anyone else besides God. Any doubt on this point effectively negates the basic Christian tenet that “God became man.” At the same time, Luke must respect the autonomy and free will of Mary, given that God has granted free will to all humans. To suggest that Mary was “programmed” diminishes the dignity of human free will in the critical moment when a human freely accepts the intervention of God into her life. It is the undoing of the first misuse of free will, Adam in the garden.
We have heard the Annunciation narrative countless times in our churches over the years, Gabriel’s joyful address to Mary. What is curious is why Gabriel took no umbrage when Mary replied, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ Zechariah had asked Gabriel in effect, “How can this be? We are old and my wife is barren.” For his hesitation, he was struck dumb. In Mary’s case, however, the stakes are incredibly higher. Her question allows Luke to assure the reader that her child is truly God’s son. But it also gives Luke/Gabriel an entrée to deliver another eternal truth: Mary’s child would be conceived of the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit who overshadowed Jesus at his baptism and which overshadowed the infant church on Pentecost. Luke’s Gospel and its continuation, The Acts of the Apostles, explains the nature of the Church and from whence it draws its saving power, i.e., through the living Holy Spirit.
Reid/Matthews, in their commentary, point out that most English translation bibles have softened, so to speak, Luke’s terminology for Mary’s obeisance. Many major translations render Mary’s response to Gabriel as “I am the handmaid of the Lord.” Others use the phrase “servant of the Lord” or “maidservant.” None of these correctly renders the Greek doulos as “slave,” in the hard sense of that term. The authors correctly point to a Lucan textual inconsistency: did Mary have to become a literal slave to accept a prophetic mission in which she proclaims liberation from powers that dominate, as she does so eloquently in the Magnificat [Luke 1: 46-55] [p. 33] What I sense in their commentary is a concern to preach and teach the life of Mary in a fashion that does not in any way imply unhealthy subservience to male domination or unjust societal structure which oppress women.
If anything, Luke’s depiction of Mary in what we call “the Infancy Narrative” is that of a very strong woman, and it is a misuse of this Gospel to interpret it as a catechism on “the proper place of a woman” in a pejorative and demeaning fashion. Although I am getting ahead of things, I need to quickly address Luke’s description of Mary after the visit of the shepherds [many of whom were women] in Bethlehem. Luke writes that Mary “pondered these things in her heart.” The Greek word suneterei, usually translated in English bibles as ponder, has multiple meanings, including these: “to preserve against harm or ruin, to protect, defend” and “to keep in mind, to be concerned about.” Reid/Matthews write: “Mary’s action is not the least passive. Like the shepherds who keep watch, Mary guards all that has occurred, putting things together, connecting, and interpreting. Like a feminist theologian, she continually interprets what God is doing in her life and that of her family and her people.” [p.82]
I have barely scratched the surface of Luke 1-9’s remarkable commentary on Mary. What is clear is that the new generations of women theologians are opening or rediscovering rich avenues of appreciation in every branch of Catholic theology, including Mariology