I THE WOMEN OF THE GOSPEL NARRATIVE The study of the early Christian women takes up a phase of the history of woman which is peculiar to itself. It is, in a sense and to a degree, out of historical sequence. It deals with a subject in which ideas and spiritual forces, rather than the effect of racial development, are brought into view. It presents difficulties all its own, for the reason that not only historical facts about which there can be no contention must be mentioned, but also theories of a more or less controversial nature. We shall endeavor, however, as far as is possible, to confine ourselves to the recapitulation of well-authenticated historical developments and to a dispassionate portrayal of those feminine characters who participated in and were influenced by the new doctrines of early Christianity. In writing of the women who were the contemporaries and the acquaintances of the Founder of Christianity the difficulty is very greatly enhanced by the fact that everything related to the subject is not only regarded as sacred, but is also enshrined in preconceptions which are held by the majority of people with jealous partiality. Our source of information is almost exclusively the Bible; and to deal with Scriptural facts with the same impartiality with which one deals with the narrative of common history is well-nigh impossible. There are few persons who are exempt from a prejudicial leaning, either in favor of the supernatural importance of every Scriptural detail or in opposition to those claims which are commonly based upon the Gospel history. We hear of the Bible being studied merely as literature, a method most highly advantageous to a fair understanding of its meaning and purport, but possible only to some imaginary, educated person, unacquainted with the Christian religion and totally unequipped with theological conceptions. That which is true of the Bible as literature is also applicable to the Scripture considered as history. Yet we shall endeavor to bear in mind that we are not writing a religious book, and that this is not a treatise on Church history; it is ordinary history and must be written in ordinary methods. Consequently, in order to do this subject justice and to treat it rightly, we must endeavor to remove the women mentioned in the Gospels as far as possible from the atmosphere of the supernatural and to see in them ordinary persons of flesh and blood, typifying the times as well as the circumstances to which they belonged. Though they played a part in an event the most renowned and the most important in the world's history, yet they were no more than women; in fact, they were women so commonplace and naturally obscure, that they never would have been heard of, were it not for the Character with whom they were adventitiously connected. A memorial has been preserved, coeval, and coextensive with the dissemination of the Gospel, of the woman who anointed Christ; but solely on account of the greatness of the Object of her devotion. Our purpose in this chapter is to ascertain what manner of women they were who took a part in the incomparable event of the life of Christ, what their part was in that event, and how it affected their position and their existence. The whole history of the Jewish race and all the circumstances relating thereto abundantly justify the application to the Jews of the term |a peculiar people.| A branch of the great Semitic division, in many ways they were yet most radically distinguished from every other part of the human family. By many centuries of inspired introspection they had developed a religion, a racial ideal, and national customs which entirely differentiated them from all other Eastern peoples. The Jew is one of the most remarkable figures in history. First there is his magnificent contribution to religion and world-modifying influences, so wonderfully disproportionate to his national importance; then there is the marvellous persistency of his racial continuity. That which set apart the Jews from other nations was mainly their religion. These peculiar people, inhabiting at the time of Christ a small tract of country scarcely larger than Massachusetts, deprived of national autonomy, being but a second-class province of the Roman Empire, nevertheless presumed to hold all other races in contempt, as being inferior to themselves. This religious arrogance, manifesting itself in a vastly exaggerated conception of the superiority, both of their origin and of their destiny, surrounded the Jews with an impenetrable barrier of reserve. That national pride which in other peoples is based on the memory of glorious achievements on the battlefield, on artistic renown, or on commercial importance, found its support among the Jews in their religious history, in their divinely given pledges, and in laws of supernatural origin. And indeed they were a race of religious geniuses; they were as superior in this respect as were the Greeks in the realm of art and the Romans in that of government. These facts, which are so universally acknowledged as to need no further reference here, warrant a closer study of the manner of life of the ancient Jewish women than that to which we can afford space.
In the Gospel narrative women hold a large place. As is natural, a very great deal of the grace and beauty of the record of Christ's life is owing to the spirit and presence of the feminine characters. This the Evangelists have ungrudgingly conceded. There does not seem to have been the least inclination to minimize the part played by women; indeed, their attitude toward Christ is by inference, and greatly to their credit, contrasted with that of the men. The women were immediately and entirely won to Christ's cause. They sat at His feet and listened with gratitude to the gracious words which He spake; they brought their children to be blessed by Him; they followed Him with lamentations when He was led away to death. There were among their number no cavillers, no disbelievers, none to deny or betray. When the enemies of Jesus were clamoring for His death and His male disciples had fled, it was to the women He turned and said: |Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children.| Well might the instincts of the Daughters of Jerusalem incline them to sympathize with the work and suffering of the Man of Nazareth, for it is incontrovertible that no other influence seen in the world's history has done so much as Christianity to raise the condition of woman.
The position of woman in Palestine, though much inferior to that of man, was far superior to that which she occupied in other Oriental nations. Jewish law would not permit the wife to fall to the condition of a slave, and Israelitish traditions contained too many memories of noble and patriotic women for the sex to be held otherwise than in honor. A nation whose most glorious records centred around such characters as Sara, Miriam, Deborah, Esther, and Susanna could but recognize in their sex the possibility of the sublimest traits of character. Moreover, every Hebrew woman might be destined to become the mother of the long hoped for Messiah, and the mere possibility of that event won for her a high degree of reverence.
At the same time, the Jewish women, like those of all other ancient nations, were held in rigid subordination; nor was there any pretence made of their equality with men before the law. A man might divorce his wife for any cause: a woman could not put away her husband under any circumstances. A Jewish woman could not insist on the performance of a religious vow by which she had bound herself, if her husband or her father made objection. Yet, from the earliest times, the property rights of Israelitish women were very liberal. In the Book of Numbers it is recorded how Moses decreed that |If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter. And if he have no daughter, then ye shall give his inheritance unto his brethren.| But tribal rights had to be considered. Possessions were not to be alienated from one tribe to another. Hence it was also decreed that |Every daughter that possesseth an inheritance in any tribe of the children of Israel, shall be wife unto one of the family of the tribe of her father, that the children of Israel may enjoy every man the inheritance of his fathers.| In the time of Christ, however, this restriction on marriage was unnecessary, ten of the tribes not having returned from the Captivity. The house at Bethany where Jesus was entertained belonged to Martha; and we read of wealthy women following Him and providing for His needs out of their own private fortunes. In the early days, among the Hebrews, marriage by purchase from the father or brothers had been the custom; but in the time of which we are writing a dowry was given with the bride, and she also received a portion from the bridegroom.
The inferior position of Jewish women is frequently referred to in the rabbinical writings. A common prayer was: |O God, let not my offspring be a girl: for very wretched is the life of women.| It was said: |Happy he whose children are boys, and woe unto him whose children are girls.| Public conversation between the sexes was interdicted by the rabbis. |No one|, says the Talmud, |is to speak with a woman, even if she be his wife, in the public street.| Even the disciples, accustomed as they were to seeing the Master ignore rabbinical regulations, |marvelled| when they found Him talking with the woman of Sychar. One of the chief things which teachers of the Law were to avoid was multiplying speech with a woman. The women themselves seem to have acquiesced in this degrading injunction. There is a story of a learned lady who called the great Rabbi Jose a |Galilean Ignoramus,| because he had used two unnecessary words in inquiring of her the way to Joppa. He had employed but four.
By the Jews women were regarded as inferior not only in capacity but also in nature. Their minds were supposed to be of an inferior order and consequently incapable of appreciating the spiritual privileges which it was an honor for a man to strive after. |Let the words of the Law be burned,| says Rabbi Eleazar, |rather than committed to women.| The Talmud says: |He who instructs his daughter in the Law, instructs her in folly.| In the synagogues women were obliged to sit in a gallery which was separated from the main room by a lattice.
Yet it is scarcely to be supposed that in everyday Jewish life the pharisaical maxims quoted above were adhered to with any great degree of strictness. Especially in Galilee, where there was much more freedom than in the lower province, it may well be imagined that there existed a wide difference between these arrogant |counsels of perfection| and the common practice. There is no doubt that the rabbis and the scribes observed the traditions to the minutest letter; but inasmuch as in these days it would be misleading to delineate the common life of a people by the enactments found on their statute books, we are justified in concluding that ordinary existence in ancient Palestine was not nearly such a burdensome absurdity as the rabbinical law sought to make it. Human nature will not endure too great a strain. At any rate, we can but believe that, subordinate as she may have been, the Jewish woman found ample opportunity to assert herself. The rabbi may have scorned to multiply speech with his wife on the street, but doubtless there were occasions which compelled the husband to endure a multiplicity of speech on the part of his wife at home. It was not without experience that the wise man could say: |A continual dropping on a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.|
The sayings of the scribes, which are derogatory to the female sex, are abundantly offset by many injunctions of an opposite nature which are found in the sacred and in the expository writings of the Jews. One of the first things drilled into the mind of a young Hebrew was that his prosperity in the land depended wholly upon his observance of the law that he should |honor his father and his mother.| The virtuous woman portrayed by King Lemuel was still the ideal in the time of Christ: |Her sons rise up and praise her; her husband also extols her.| The declaration in the book of Proverbs that |the price of a virtuous woman is set far above that of rubies| is not to be understood in the sense of irony. |Honor your wife, that you may be rich in the joy of your home,| says the Talmud; and there was a proverb: |Is thy wife little? then bow down to her and speak.| The Son of Sirach said: |He that honoreth his mother is as one that layeth up treasure ... and he that angereth his mother is cursed of God.|
As among all other Eastern peoples, the education of Jewish girls was greatly neglected; but it can hardly be said that they were losers on that account. They were simply saved a great deal of profitless labor which fell upon their brothers. The learning of the Jews, so far as higher education was concerned, did not add much either to the grace or the enjoyment of life. It was pedantry of the driest and dreariest kind. It consisted of interminable glosses upon the Law and of the |traditions of the elders.| It exercised no faculties of the mind excepting the memory and such powers of reasoning as are employed in subtle casuistry. There was in it nothing of art or science, or even of history, except Jewish history. Greek learning was abhorred by the strictly orthodox. They said the command was that a man's study should be on the Law day and night; if anyone therefore could find time between day and night he might apply it to Gentile literature. There were schools in abundance; but they are spoken of only in relation to boys. In the fundamental moral precepts, however, and in the highest national ideals, the Jewish girls were no less thoroughly trained than were their brothers. Ozias testified to Judith, who with feminine strategy and masculine courage overthrew Holophernes: |This is not the first day wherein thy wisdom is manifested; but from the beginning of thy days all the people have known thy understanding, because the disposition of thy heart is good.| Of the chaste Susanna it was said that, her parents being righteous, they taught their daughter according to the Law of Moses. Timothy owed his early training to his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. The Israelitish mother, in the dawn of her children's intelligence, carefully taught them the lore of the ancient Scriptures and instructed them in the principal tenets of the Jewish faith. There never existed another nation that cared so thoroughly for the training of its young in the doctrines of morality and in those national memories which are efficacious in the perpetuation of an ardent patriotism. In all this the girls were privileged equally with the boys. As Edersheim says: |What Jewish fathers and mothers were; what they felt towards their children; and with what reverence, affection, and care the latter returned what they had received, is known to every reader of the Old Testament. The relationship of father has its highest sanction and embodiment in that of God towards Israel; the tenderness and care of a mother in that of the watchfulness and pity of the Lord over his people.|
Religion was the breath of Jewish life. It is absolutely impossible to touch on Hebrew history, customs, or ideals, in any period or to any extent, and not to come into contact with Hebrew religion. This, as we know, was full of burdensome ritual and formalities; the Law, with all its elaborate ramifications, governed the minutiae of daily existence. Yet it is again necessary to be careful not to judge too broadly of Jewish life by the rules which the Talmud shows were laid down by the rabbis. The Pharisees, who made the formalities of religion their one business in life, could observe all the multitudinous feasts and fasts, all the ritual of washings, and bear in mind the innumerable possibilities of breaking the Sabbath -- such, for example, as accidentally treading on a ripe ear of grain, which would be the act of threshing; but that the common people lived thus straitly is impossible of belief, and for this reason they were held in contempt by the strictest sect. How some of these troublesome laws related to the women is suggested by Edersheim; |A woman (on the Sabbath) must not wear such headgear as would require unloosing before taking a bath, nor go out with such ornaments as could be taken off in the street, such as a frontlet, unless it is attached to the cap, nor with a gold crown, nor with a necklace or nose-ring, nor with rings, nor have a pin in her dress. The reason for this prohibition of ornaments was, that in their vanity women might take them off to show them to their companions, and then, forgetful of the day, carry them, which would be a 'burden.' Women were also forbidden to look in the glass on the Sabbath, because they might discover a white hair and attempt to pull it out, which would be a grievous sin; but men ought not to use looking-glasses even on weekdays, because this was undignified. A woman may walk about her own court, but not in the street, with false hair.|
These are only instances of regulations which were so numerous as severely to tax the memory of those who did little else but study to observe them. We are sure that they could not have characterized the common Jewish life; yet there was not a man, however loose in conduct or humble of birth, who was not well versed in the moral precepts of Moses and in the exalted national ideals of the Prophets. In the cases -- and they were many -- where this wisdom was not justified of her children, the punctilious observance of outward forms, conjoined with the most extreme arrogance of race, laid the Jew open to the contempt of both Greek and Roman. Yet there was enough latent impetus and genuine religious life in Israel to form the basis of that Christianity which was destined to overreach Greek philosophy and to revolutionize Rome; and there are many indications in the Gospels that the credit for the incalculable service of preserving alive the smouldering embers of piety must, to a predominant degree, be awarded to the mothers and daughters of Israel. Elizabeth, no less than Zacharias her husband, was a type of many who |walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord, blameless.| There was also one Anna whose devotion was so great that she seemed to make the temple her constant home. Nevertheless, in religion, as in other things, the Jewish women, as all of their sex in the ancient world, were obliged to be content with an inferior position. In the great temple at Jerusalem they were allowed to occupy only the second court: to the Court of Israel, where their male relatives worshipped, they could not penetrate. They had no occasion, however, to complain of lack of space, for in this Court of the Women there was room for over fifteen thousand persons; and, for their convenience, the priests had very considerately placed therein the treasury chests. It was here that the poor widow whom Christ eulogized cast in her |two mites.| In this court also was Solomon's Porch, where the Master, recognizing no inequality, taught both sexes alike. In the synagogues, the women of Palestine were obliged to occupy as inconspicuous a position as possible, and on the way thither it was required of them that they should take the back and less frequented streets, in order that the minds of the men might not be diverted from sacred meditations by their presence. This bit of hypocritical phariseeism not only indicates the inferior plane which women were supposed to occupy, but also that, however honored they may have been as wives and mothers, they enjoyed no portent of that chivalry which afterward grew from and was fostered by Christianity.
The existence of the Jewish woman was by no means secluded. She was allowed to mingle freely in outdoor life. She accompanied her family on their journeys to the great festivals which were held in Jerusalem. Indeed, we read of Galilean women following Jesus into Judaea, evidently unescorted by male relatives. Females also entertained mixed companies in their own homes. It is probable, however, that there was more freedom of movement among the lower-class women than was enjoyed by their sisters of high degree. While the former dwelt in mean and small houses, in which there was little possibility of seclusion, the latter had large and luxurious homes, with great interior courts and special apartments for their own use. The luxuriousness of these wealthy women rivalled that of Rome itself. We read of one Martha, the wife of a high priest, who, when she went to the temple, had carpets laid from her house to the door of the temple. Upon the poorer women were imposed the hardships of labor: |two women grinding at the mill| was a common sight in every home.
In that momentous drama the leading figure of which was the Son of Man, women of greatly varying character and position played a part. There were Herodias, and Procla, the wife of Pilate: these were the highest ladies in the land; there were Martha of Bethany, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward, representing the middle class; Mary, the mother of Jesus, from among the poor; and Mary of Magdala, from among a class of women who were numerous in Palestine, one of whom the Gospel designates as |a woman who was a sinner.|
Of the two first mentioned little may be said in this connection, as they were far from being Christian women, though the wife of Pilate earned for herself the respect of all succeeding generations by pleading for the life of Jesus.
Herodias is connected with this story only on account of the cruel determination with which she sought and compassed the death of John the Baptist. The grand-daughter of Herod the Great, she inherited not only his impetuous ambition, but also his ferocity. She had been married to Herod Philip, her uncle. This son of the first Herod was a wealthy private resident of Jerusalem; but Herodias could not be content to stand aside as a mere spectator of the brilliant game of governing. So she seized the opportunity which the presence of Antipas in her house, by her husband's hospitality, gave her to begin an intrigue, which ended in her marital union with the tetrarch. By this conduct she trampled on Jewish law and offended the people. Not that the severing of the marriage bonds was a thing unusual among the Jews; indeed, the facilities for divorce were exceedingly liberal. A man could put away his wife for the most trifling cause. |If anyone,| said the rabbis, |see a woman handsomer than his wife, he may dismiss his wife and marry that woman.| It was considered ample cause for divorce if a wife went out without her veil. The disciples of Hillel even went so far as to hold that if a woman spoiled her husband's dinner, by burning or over salting it, sufficient cause was given him, if he so chose, to put her away. This is the point of the question with which the Pharisees came to try Christ. |Is it lawful,| said they, |for a man to put away his wife for every cause?| So, then, that which shocked the Jews and caused them to agree with John in his denunciation of Herod was not that the latter divorced his first wife, the daughter of Aretas, but that he took Herodias, she not having been put away by her husband, Philip. Here is some very remarkable moral sophistry. It would have been right, in the sight of Jewish law, for Herod and Philip to have exchanged wives, after legally divorcing them for any cause which might have seemed to them proper; but there was no law, nor was there any conceivable wrong, which could give Herodias the right to leave her husband of her own free will. Women could not gain divorce. So, according to the Jewish idea, the fault of Herod consisted solely in the fact that Philip had not yet seen fit to release Herodias. Whether or not John the Baptist concurred with the ideas of his time on this subject we do not know; but the One who came after him put marriage on a far higher basis and restricted divorce to its essential cause.
Herodias plotted and achieved John's destruction perhaps as much on account of her fear of the effect of his influence upon Herod's ambitious projects as because of her resentment at his charges against herself. She was determined that Herod should be a king, like her brother Agrippa; but the latter was a great favorite with Caligula, and when his letters were presented to the emperor at the same time that Herod appeared, in obedience to the importunities of his wife, to press his suit, the husband of Herodias was deposed and exiled to Lyons. The only praiseworthy thing that Herodias ever did, so far as is known, was on this occasion. Caligula wished to allow her to retain her own fortune, and told her that |it was her brother who prevented her being put under the same calamity with her husband.| This was her reply: |Thou, indeed, O emperor, actest after a magnificent manner, and as becomes thyself in what thou offerest me; but the kindness which I have for my husband hinders me from partaking of the favor of thy gift; for it is not just that I, who have been made a partner in his prosperity, should forsake him in his misfortunes.| Thereupon Caligula sent her into banishment with Herod, and gave her estate to Agrippa.
Our curiosity is greatly aroused, but in no degree satisfied, regarding another woman who dwelt at Jerusalem in the time of Christ. Pilate, the Roman procurator, had taken his wife with him to Judaea. Tradition has it that she there became a proselyte to the Jewish faith. This is by no means unlikely, for throughout the Roman world were found women who had become converts to the religion of Zion; Josephus, by his own experience, shows that at a later date even Poppaea, the wife of Nero, was extremely partial to the Jews. The Greek Church even goes further, and places Procla in its calendar of saints. Though there is no evidence extant of her having become a Christian, it need not be considered a thing impossible; indeed, it is extremely reasonable to suppose that, having endeavored to save the life of Jesus, the wonderful religious movement which succeeded His death could not have been unknown or without interest to Procla. At any rate, certain it is that she had some knowledge of Jesus, that she was to no small degree disposed in his favor, and that Pilate's wish to balk the priests in their designs on Christ's life was, in a large measure, the result of his wife's influence. But Pilate was caught with the argument that to save the Prisoner would be a sign of disloyalty to Caesar. This incident is the most prominent instance that history affords of the unwisdom of opposing masculine ratiocinations to feminine moral intuitions.
We now turn to those women of the Gospels who were the acknowledged friends of Jesus and of the founders of Christianity. The central figure is, of course, the Blessed Mother -- Mary, honored by Christians above all the daughters of the earth and adored by many millions as the Queen of Heaven; and yet how inadequate, how meagre is the veritable knowledge we possess of this immortal woman! Never has human imagination so magnificently triumphed as in the evolution of the concept of the Blessed Virgin; never has fond adoration built so marvellous an ideal upon so scanty a foundation of assured reality. A moderate-sized page would contain all that is vouchsafed regarding her in the Gospels, yet who ever disputed the claim for Mary that she is the highest representative of all that is purest and most beautiful in womanhood. This much is not a dogma of any church, but a universal feeling. This prevailing conception of the character of Mary has grown out of the conviction of what must have been the moral worth of the one fitted to bear and rear the Son of Man; and it has also resulted to a large degree from that strong human love for motherhood which seeks a perfect example on which to expend itself. The Blessed Virgin is womanhood idealized. She is the personification of all feminine beauty, both of soul and body; she is the perfect expression of the poet's highest inspiration and the artist's noblest dream. We cannot help wishing, however, that more were known of the home life of Mary; the desire to place the beautiful figure of the Representative Mother in the varied settings of common feminine life is irresistible, but this can only be done by means of what little we know of the manners and customs of her people and time.
As has been said, the sources of information about the Mother of Jesus are the four Gospels. In addition to these, there are the apocryphal Christian writings; but these are of too late origin and contain too many manifestly absurd accounts to warrant credence, except where they are corroborated by the Evangelists. The latter say nothing whatever of Mary's direct parentage. She was an offspring of the regal line, that of David; for though it is most probable that the puzzling genealogies of Matthew and Luke are those of her husband, Joseph, there are many reasons for believing that he and Mary were blood relations. Their home was at Nazareth, a beautiful hill town of Galilee, noted for the comeliness of its women. At the end of the sixth century, Antoninus Martyr remarked that the Jewish women of Nazareth were not only fairer but also more affable to Gentiles than were the other women of Palestine, and modern travellers inform us that both these characteristics are still preserved. Geikie says: |The free air of their mountain home seems to have had its effect on the people of Nazareth. Its bright-eyed, happy children and comely women strike the traveller, and even their dress differs from that of other parts.... That of the women usually consists of nothing but a long blue garment tied in round the waist, a bonnet of red cloth, decorated with an edging or roll of silver coins, bordering the forehead and extending to the ears, reminding one of the crescent-shaped female head-dress worn by some of the Egyptian priestesses. Over this, a veil or shawl of coarse white cotton is thrown, which hangs down to the waist, serving to cover the mouth, while the bosom is left exposed, for Eastern and Western ideas of decorum differ in some things.... In a country where nothing changes, through age after age, the dress of to-day is very likely, in most respects, the same as it was two thousand years ago, though the prevailing color of the Hebrew dress, at least in the better classes, was the natural white of the materials employed, which the fuller made even whiter.|
We are not informed on the authority of the Gospels as to Mary's age when she was espoused to Joseph the carpenter. The apocryphal Gospel of Mary states that she was fourteen, while the Protevangelion places her age at twelve, which is in accordance with the custom of the East, where girls mature much earlier than with us. The betrothal consisted of mutual promises and the exchange of gifts in the presence of chosen witnesses, followed by the engaged couple ceremonially tasting of the same cup of wine, and was ended with a benediction pronounced by a priest or a rabbi. After these solemn espousals the relation between Mary and Joseph was as sacred as though marriage had really taken place; the only difference was that the couple did not yet live together. The woman was not allowed to withdraw from the contract, and the man could not fail to fulfil his promise unless he gave her a formal bill of divorcement for cause, as in the case of marriage; the laws relating to adultery were also applicable. Yet many months might intervene between the date of the betrothal and that of the marriage.
What took place during this interval in the life of the Virgin is a mystery which it would be a vain attempt to investigate. If it be judged of from a purely rationalistic standpoint, there are no historical and no scientific data which will enable us to do otherwise than simply discredit the accounts of the Nativity, as they are given by Matthew and Luke. On the other hand, if the narrative of Christ's birth is accepted with that reverent faith which has endured through nineteen centuries of Christendom, and has been and still is held by men of unrivalled intellect, there is nothing more to be said than the language of worship and wonder. We may well regret that John and Mark, or at least one of the epistolary writers, did not corroborate the testimony of the two first-named Evangelists; the scant importance Mary seems to have acquired in the Apostolic Church may appear inconsistent with the stupendous nature of her experiences; yet here is no subject for vain reasoning; we stand before a mystery which belongs wholly to the realm of faith. The science of Christology demands the acceptance of this supernatural event. But it is as little within the province of this book to defend the faith as it is to apply the canons of Higher Criticism to the writings of the New Testament.
In the picture which the Scriptures give us of Mary there is no touch so human as that which represents her, at the first intimation of the coming of her Son, hastening southward to confer with her cousin Elizabeth. To a woman must the news first be whispered, before it gains the observation of the man to whom she is espoused; and not to the gossips of Nazareth, but to her holy and sober-minded kinswoman alone could Mary impart her hopes and her fears. Poetic expression was a Jewish woman's birthright; Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, and Judith, each had magnified the Lord with a song; let Mary also, in the assurance that her Offspring is to be the Messiah long foretold, voice the exultation of her soul in like manner. |Behold, from henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed.... He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.|
Augustus Caesar sent forth an edict that all the world should be taxed. It was an act of which we should have known little and thought less, had it not marked the occasion of the birth of Him to whom the world will never cease to pay a tribute of homage.
In the birth of Jesus, the mystery of motherhood is glorified, nay, almost deified. Mankind needed that also. The pagan world had always sought to satisfy feelings which are deep rooted in the human heart by conceiving of maternity under the form of a divine personality. A religion which does not, in some way, recognize in its object the loving kindness and the painful solicitude of the mother heart cannot survive. Mary is a symbol of that natural tender reverence and supreme confidence which motherhood inspires. The shepherds knelt before her in the stable which the necessities of poverty made the scene of her lying-in, for the inestimable graces of the mother depend not upon wealth or earthly splendor. The Wise Men from the East brought their gifts, for there is no greater wisdom than that which pays its homage before the babe at its mother's breast.
In the one great experience of maternity Mary's greatness ends, so far as the records show. Did she settle down to all appearances as an ordinary Nazareth housewife? Did she bear to Joseph other children? To many, the latter question seems like sacrilege; and yet there is nothing of authority written to the contrary.
Tradition has it that Joseph died early in their married life. Mary then was dependent for her support upon her Son's labors. Did He refrain from His chief calling until He was thirty years of age in order that He might know not only common toil but also filial duty in the support of the mother? Was it to consult on some family business that His mother and His brethren stood outside the house where He was teaching, being desirous to speak with Him? All these questions are to us unanswerable; but it surely does not detract from the sacredness of the pictures to infuse into it every possible element of human interest.
The Gospels turn their light once more, and for the last time, on Mary. It reveals her at the foot of the Cross. Each of the Synoptists tells us that many women followed Him out of Galilee; by John alone is Mary mentioned as being present at the Crucifixion. |When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple standing by whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, 'Woman, behold thy son.' Then saith he to the disciple, 'Behold thy mother.' And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.| Why was this so if Mary had other living sons? John, who it is probable was her own sister's son, would immediately lead the Mother away from the terrible scene, where a sword was also piercing her own soul, to a place where she could await the announcement of the end. The fact that there is no record of an appearance to Mary after the Resurrection must be accounted for by the belief that her faith did not need this, in its assurance that death could not conquer her divine Son.
Nevertheless, the paucity of the reference to Mary in the New Testament, after the Nativity, is perplexing. For the other legends concerning her history and character, which have been cherished by a very large portion of Christendom, we are wholly indebted to what are known as the Apocryphal Gospels. These consist of writings which were extant, in some cases, before the present New Testament books were selected as being alone authentic, but were not deemed of sufficient worth to be included in the canon. There is The Gospel of the Birth of Mary. In the very early ages this book was supposed to be the work of Saint Matthew. Many ancient Christians believed it to be authentic and genuine, and Jerome, who lived in the fourth century, quotes it entire. Another book, of the same description, known as the Protevangelion of Saint James, is mentioned by writers equally ancient. Then there is the Gospel of the Infancy. This, we are told, was accepted by the Gnostic Christians as early as the second century; but it is full of manifest absurdities, outrageous even to the most compliant credulity. A fair sample of its stories -- not including the miraculous, which are exceedingly puerile -- is the one which relates that at the circumcision of Jesus an old Hebrew woman took the part that was severed |and preserved it in an alabaster-box of old oil of spikenard. And she had a son who was a druggist, to whom she said, 'Take heed thou sell not this alabaster-box of spikenard-ointment, although thou shouldst be offered three hundred pence for it.' Now this is that alabaster-box which Mary the sinner procured, and poured forth the ointment out of it upon the head and the feet of our Lord Jesus Christ, and wiped it off with the hairs of her head.|
The Gospel of Mary has been made the basis of much serious belief in regard to the Blessed Virgin, and especially have Christian artists drawn from its pages suggestions for their subjects. We will summarize the account it gives of the Mother of Jesus. |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. Her father's name was Joachim, and her mother's Anna. The family of her father was of Galilee and the city of Nazareth. The family of her mother was of Bethlehem. Their lives were plain and right in the sight of the Lord.| Nevertheless, for twenty years they suffered what, in the eyes of the Jews, was one of the greatest of misfortunes: they were childless. Joachim is taunted with this fact by Issachar, the high priest. The good man, being much confounded with the shame of such reproach, retired to the shepherds who were with the cattle in their pastures; for he was not inclined to return home, lest his neighbors, who were present and heard all this from the high-priest, should publicly reproach him in the same manner. Thereupon an angel appears to him and informs him that his wife Anna shall bring forth a daughter, and that they shall call her Mary. |She shall, according to your vow, be devoted to the Lord from her infancy, and be filled with the Holy Ghost from her mother's womb; she shall neither eat nor drink anything that is unclean, nor shall her conversation be without among the common people, but in the temple of the Lord; that so she may not fall under any slander or suspicion of anything that is bad.| The angel also appears to Anna, giving her the like information. |So Anna conceived, and brought forth a daughter, and, according to the angel's command, the parents did call her name Mary.|
|And when three years were expired, and the time of her weaning complete, they brought the Virgin to the temple of the Lord with offerings. And there were about the temple, according to the fifteen Psalms of degrees, fifteen stairs to ascend. For the temple being built on a mountain, the altar of burnt-offering, which was without, could not be come near but by stairs; the parents of the blessed Virgin and infant Mary put her upon one of these stairs; but while they were putting off their clothes, in which they had travelled, and according to custom putting on some that were more neat and clean, in the mean time the Virgin of the Lord in such a manner went up all the stairs one after another, without the help of any to lead or lift her, that anyone would have judged from hence that she was of perfect age. Thus the Lord did, in the infancy of his Virgin, work this extraordinary work, and evidence by this miracle how great she was like to be hereafter. But the parents having offered up their sacrifice, according to the custom of the law, and perfected their vow, left the Virgin, with other virgins in the apartments of the temple, who were to be brought up there, and they returned home.|
Mary, we are told, was ministered unto by angels until her fourteenth year, and preserved from all suspicion of evil, so that |all good persons, who were acquainted with her, admired her life and conversation. At that time the high-priest made a public order, that all the virgins who had public settlements in the temple, and were come to this age, should return home; and as they were now of a proper maturity, should, according to the custom of their country, endeavor to be married.| This, Mary refuses to do, she having vowed her virginity to the Lord. Then the high priest convenes a meeting of the chief persons of Jerusalem to seek counsel from Heaven in this matter. A voice from the mercy-seat directs that all the men of the family of David who were marriageable and not married should bring their staves to the altar, |and out of whatsoever person's staff after it was brought, a flower should bud forth, and on the top of it the Spirit of the Lord should sit in the appearance of a dove, he should be the man to whom the Virgin should be given and be betrothed.|
Among the rest there was a man named Joseph, of the house and family of David, and a person very far advanced in years, who drew back his staff, when everyone besides presented his. Joseph, however, was clearly pointed out, in the manner described, as being the chosen man. |Accordingly, the usual ceremonies of betrothing being over, he returned to his own city of Bethlehem, to set his house in order, and make the needful provisions for the marriage. But the Virgin Mary, with seven other virgins of the same age, who had been weaned at the same time, and who had been appointed to attend her by the priest, returned to her parents' house in Galilee.| Then follows an account of the Annunciation, similar to that given by Saint Luke, but somewhat elaborated. |Then Mary, stretching forth her hands, and lifting her eyes to heaven, said, 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be unto me according to thy word.'|
[Illustration 2: CHRIST AND THE DAUGHTER OF JAIRUS After the painting by Albert Keller.
The ready faith of the Gospel women is illustrated by many narratives of miracles wrought in their behalf. The faith of Martha and Mary was rewarded by the restoration to life of their brother Lazarus. There was the woman whom physicians could not cure, yet her faith led her to touch the hem of the Master's garment, and she was made whole. To the widow of Nain, as she accompanied the dead body of her son to its sepulchre, was given that son restored to life. The despised Syrophenician woman proved her humility and her faith, and her daughter was made whole. Christ's commiseration was manifested notably to woman, though not exclusively, as we see in the case of the raising of the daughter of Jairus in answer to the father's faith.]
In the Protevangelion all this is recited, but at greater length. It is there said of Mary that, while she lived in the temple, |all the house of Israel loved her.| It is related also of her that she was chosen by the priests to weave the purple veil for the temple. In this writing, Mary is described as having received the announcement of the angel as she went to the spring to draw water. There is also a curious passage in which Joseph is represented as telling the experiences which came to him as he went to seek a midwife in the village of Bethlehem. |As I was going,| he says, |I looked up into the air, and I saw the clouds astonished, and the fowls of the air stopping in the midst of their flight. And I looked down toward the earth, and saw a table spread, and working people sitting around it, but their hands were upon the table, and they did not move to eat. They who had meat in their mouths did not eat. They who lifted their hands up to their heads did not draw them back; and they who lifted them up to their mouths did not put anything in; but all their faces were fixed upwards. And I beheld the sheep dispersed, and yet the sheep stood still. And the shepherd lifted up his hand to smite them, and his hand continued up. And I looked unto a river, and saw the kids with their mouths close to the water, and touching it, but they did not drink.|
Notwithstanding all that is said in these ancient writings in the attempt to do her honor, we must conclude that the glory of the halo which beautifies the head of the real Mary is derived by reflection from the moral splendor of her Son. Of what intrinsic greatness of soul she was possessed it is difficult for us to surmise from the slight attention given to her in the Gospels. Yet she rightly holds her position as woman idealized. We need such a poetic creation as Mary; and her place at the head of all the daughters of earth is the more secure and effective because her figure in authentic history is but a shadowy outline. The ideal woman whom all mankind loves and reverences as Virgin, Mother, and Saint, is objectified by concentrating in Mary of Nazareth all possible feminine grace, beauty, and purity.
Let us turn now to another Mary who, in the Gospel history, achieved a fame hardly less renowned than that of her great namesake: Mary of Magdala, out of whom Christ cast seven devils. Magdala was a town on the lake of Galilee, as notorious for its profligacy as it was famous for its wealth, derived from the manufacture of dyes. Mary's affliction was doubtless as much of a moral as of a mental nature; it may refer to the abandonment of immoral excess into which she was driven by her passionate nature. The Jews at the time of Christ were wont to ascribe every form of evil, physical and also spiritual, to the agency of demons, who were supposed to have the power of taking possession of human beings as a habitation. The tradition of the Church has always identified Mary Magdalene with the woman who, in Simon's house, anointed Christ's feet with ointment, after washing them with her tears. Still, it must be confessed that there is no certain foundation for this belief. On this point, Archdeacon Farrar says: |The Talmudists have much to say respecting her -- her wealth, her extreme beauty, her braided locks, her shameless profligacy, her husband Pappus, and her paramour Pandera; but all that we really know of the Magdalene from Scripture is that enthusiasm of devotion and gratitude which attached her, heart and soul, to her Saviour's service. In the chapter of Saint Luke which follows the account of her anointing the Lord's feet in the Pharisee's house she is mentioned first among the women who accompanied Jesus in his wanderings, and ministered to him of their substance; and it may be that in the narrative of the incident at Simon's house her name was suppressed, out of that delicate consideration which, in other passages, makes the Evangelist suppress the original condition of Matthew.|
Mary Magdalene's great part in the Gospel history was at the Resurrection. To her ardent love and intense imagination, enabling her to visualize Him who, though dead, she could not relinquish, rationalists ascribe the inception of the doctrine of the Resurrection. According to this theory, as Mary of Nazareth brought Jesus into the world, so through Mary of Magdala His risen Spirit was born into the Church. But this is not the faith of Christendom; nor can the testimony of the Gospels be reasonably disposed of in this manner. To the Magdalene was given the supreme honor of receiving the first greeting of her risen Lord; and her testimony is the chief cornerstone of the most comforting doctrine of Christianity.
The gospel narrative gives a prominent place to woman, -- as a believer in Christ, as His devoted follower and constant ministrant, and also as a faithful and unswerving witness to His wondrous works. The ready faith of the Gospel women is illustrated by many narratives of miracles wrought in their behalf. The faith of Martha and Mary was rewarded by the restoration to life of their brother Lazarus. There was the woman whom physicians could not cure, yet her faith led her to touch the hem of the Master's garment and she was made whole. To the widow of Nain, as she accompanied the dead body of her son to its sepulchre, was given that son restored to life. The despised Syrophenician woman proved her humility and her faith, and her daughter was made whole. Christ's commiseration was manifested notably to woman, though not exclusively, as we see in the case of the raising of the daughter of Jairus in answer to the father's faith. In the life of Christ, the supernal event in the world's history, woman's influence and activity were not less than man's; but, unlike his, her part was marked by unalloyed purity, magnanimity, and faithfulness.