Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Lost Gospel of Mary: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts

Paraclete Press sent me a complimentary copy of The Lost Gospel of Mary by Frederica Mathewes-Green. The title might suggest a sensationalistic book which contains some supposedly lost gnostic writings that tell us about the real Mary--a Mary that is nothing like the Mary found in the Christian Scriptures. But that's not the case at all. Paraclete Press is probably trying to attract the attention of those who are interested in gnostic writings but the scholarship within the book is very good. The book contains three texts from the early church that are either about or addressed to Mary with lots of introductory material and commentary.

The first text is the longest and is my favorite. Most scholars refer to it as the Protevangelium of James. Frederica Mathewes-Green calls it the Gospel of Mary and her title is fitting. This was written sometime before AD 150 and is all about the life of Mary from her birth through the birth of Christ. In the early church some regarded it as canonical. It fills in some interesting information about her betrothal and supports the tradition that Mary remained a virgin through the birthing process. Frederica Mathewes-Green writes within the Eastern Orthodox tradition and offers a pretty balanced view of how we should regard this document. I don't see anything in this text that contradicts the Scriptures--just some filling in of details. I'm suspicious of a few of the details in the story but the bulk of it seems believable. There are a few translations of this text floating around the internet but this translations is the easiest read and has lots of helpful notes.

The second text is a prayer addressed to Mary, asking her for protection that was written around AD 250. This text does not really tell us about Mary and who she is. I don't believe this is practice that we should imitate but it does help us understand how some in the early church understood Mary. Mary certainly does pray for us but we have no promise that Mary hears our prayers.

The third text was written by St. Romanos around AD 520. The Eastern Orthodox refer to it as the "Akathist Hymn." Frederica Mathewes-Green appropriately calls it the "Annunciation Hymn." It is sung from the perspective of Gabriel. There are many Scriptural allusions throughout the hymn and some very clever poetic work that brings out some profound theological truth. I'm not saying agree with everything the hymn says about Mary but there is much truth to be found there and some excellent poetry. Frederica Mathewes-Green does caution against taking some of the things that are said about Mary too literally.

I disagree with some of the theology of the book but I still recommend it highly. Frederica Mathewes-Green has a real gift for being able to communicate to those outside of her own tradition without pandering to them or misleading them.

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