Sunday, October 16, 2005

Mary's Perpetual Virginity in Light of the New Testament Evidence (Part IV)

Continuing from Part I, Part II, and Part III, Paul Owen next introduces Revelation 12 as evidence of his point that Mary:

Revelation 12:1-6 describes a woman “clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet,” with “a crown of twelve stars on her head” (12:1). The woman’s pregnancy plainly symbolizes the birth of the people of Israel (cf. Isa. 66:7-8), and yet she is also identified with Mary in 12:5. The correspondence is rooted in the fact that just as in the Old Testament, Eve gave birth to a nation of twelve tribes (the old Israel), so in the New Testament, Mary gave birth to the Messiah (in whom the Church becomes the new Israel). The cosmic struggle between the Serpent and the seed of the Woman is begun in Eve and consummated in Mary (Gen. 3:15).
I confess, it is difficult to know just where Owen is getting all this. First, the view that the woman’s pregnancy “symbolizes the birth of the people of Israel” is far from the common view of scholars on this passage. Indeed, there is absolutely nothing in the text that lends itself to viewing the woman as Eve giving birth to Israel. Rather, the woman herself is Israel, and the entire scene is an allusion to Joseph’s dream in Genesis 37. In Joseph’s dream, the sun is Jacob/Israel, the moon is Rachel, and the stars are the sons of Jacob who are patriarchs of the twelve tribes (Brown et al, 1978:230). The fact that Joseph counts eleven stars whereas John has twelve should not cause us concern. Joseph could not have made himself one of the stars in his dream, for the dream was intended to show that he was exalted higher than the stars as well as the sun and moon. John’s vision, on the other hand, must have twelve in order to correspond to all twelve tribes of Israel. This is the simplest solution because it is the one that best explains the passage in both its immediate context and its apocalyptic context vis-à-vis Daniel. As such, it renders any allusion to Mary here as little more than a foreign contrivance.

Second, the woman gives birth to the Messiah, not to Israel: “She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.”

Third, contra Owen the woman is never identified as Mary. She is always the "people of God," particularly as she gives birth to the Messiah in v. 5, as well as later when she (in the form of her offspring) is persecuted.

Fourth, and more importantly for purposes of demonstrating “catholicity,” it is significant that no one for the first five centuries of the church held to a Marian interpretation of Revelation 12, not even in a secondary sense. It isn’t until the fifth century (with Quodvultdeus) that we find the first identification of the Woman of Revelation 12 with Mary, and even then it is only in a secondary sense. And the number of patristic writers in the first six centuries who subscribe to the people of God view of Revelation 12 (at least sixteen known to us, counting Quodvultdeus, nine of whom are canonized saints) far exceeds the number of those who see Mary as the primary or secondary referent (only two, none of whom are canonized fathers of the Roman church).

This is quite telling against the Owen's view of this passage. As even Raymond Brown concedes, “The fact that the mariological emphasis on Revelation 12 is relatively recent raises the question of whether it represents an exegesis of the text itself or simply an imaginative theological application as part of a search for biblical support for Marian doctrine” (Brown et al, 1978:236). I suspect Brown's instinct is right. The patristic interpretation of this passage uniformly leans toward identifying the “Woman” as the people of God, not as Mary. And that interpretation is still prevalent today among scholars who comment on this passage. Hence, the question of catholity, originally raised by Owen as a primary reason for his adoptation of this view, ends up militating against him.