by Stephen Ferguson | 13 January 2022 |
Is Christmas more about Mary than Jesus?
This Christmas, I had an interesting discussion with a Roman Catholic friend about the role of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. It occurred to me that as Christmas is the time of year when secular people seem open to discussing Jesus, Christmas is also the time of year when we Protestants (Adventists included) seem open to discussing Mother Mary. Generally avoiding the topic, we Protestants like to cite Jesus’ rather rude takedown:
[Jesus] replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matt. 12:48-50)
Yet that prooftext doesn’t do justice to Mother Mary’s role as recorded elsewhere in scripture: at Jesus’ birth, at His first miracle, at the foot of the Cross, and in the Upper Room.
In that spirit of Christmas, maybe we Protestants should take another look at this amazing woman?
What do Roman Catholics think of Mother Mary?
Probably a good place to start is Roman Catholicism, which has a whole “Mariology” of deep thoughts on the subject, while equally recognising diversity exists within their community. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but looking at Vatican documents such as chapter 8 of Lumen gentium, Catholics have four major Marian dogmas:
- The Immaculate Conception: With the Lumen gentium stating she was, “preserved free from all guilt of original sin”.
- The Assumption of Mary: With an emphasis on her physical resurrection, where she “was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory.”
- Perpetual Virginity: With Mother Mary described as the “ever-Virgin Mary”.
- Mother of God (Theotokos): That Mother Mary wasn’t simply the mother of Jesus the man, but also “being truly the Mother of God”.
Catholics also ascribe to Mother Mary a number of additional titles:
- Queen of the Universe: In the Davidic tradition of a Queen Mother, Jesus as Lord is said to exalt Mother Mary “as Queen of the universe”.
- Mediatrix: Suggesting one can pray to Mother Mary because she has an intercessory role, but with the Luman gentium clarifying this, “neither takes away from nor adds anything to the dignity and efficaciousness of Christ the one Mediator.”
- New Eve: Finally, Mother Mary is described as, “the New Eve [who] brought forth on earth the very Son of the Father.”
What should Protestants think of the Marian dogmas?
As a Protestant, how do I feel about these Catholic claims? To be honest, more bemused than hostile, because these ideas seem kind of made up. As one Catholic theologian admits about their origins, often derived from the Middle Ages:
“By now theology in the West had become increasingly divorced from the Bible… Its structure was simple: God (or Christ) could do something; it was fitting that he should; therefore, he did it. Potuit, decuit, fecit. This principle would play a large role in the development of medieval Mariology.”
The Immaculate Conception seems to rely mostly on speculative reasoning. It is also based on certain presumptions about the nature of sin, a topic itself open to much debate.
As for the Assumption, there is nothing in scripture to suggest Mother Mary was specially called up to heaven, in the likes of Elijah or Moses. However, I guess as an Adventist I should at least be pleased for the emphasis of her literal, physical resurrection.
Belief in the Perpetual Virginity seems contrary to scripture. The Bible seems to explicitly reject the idea:
“But he [Joseph] did not consummate their marriage until she [Mary] gave birth to a son”. (Matt. 1:25)
The Mother of God title seems mostly okay to me, albeit provocative. To deny the title might suggest baby Jesus was only a human, not Immanuel – “God is with us” (Matt. 1:23). However, I would endorse the Catholic fine print, which emphasises Mother Mary as the carrier of God within her womb, not the cause or creator of Him.
The title of Queen of the Universe has a sort of logic to it, although it risks confusion with an ancient pagan goddess of the same name (Jer. 7:18).
By contrast, the title Mediatrix disturbs me a great deal. While I think I understand the Catholic distinction between veneration and worship, which is akin to asking a saint to pray for you to God rather than praying to them as a god, it still smacks of polytheism to me.
Finally, the idea of Mother Mary as a New Eve is fascinating. So much so, I think it lends itself to its own discussion.
Was Mother Mary a New Eve?
Probably the best claim of Mariology, the claim I have seen often used to the greatest success by Catholic apologists, is the idea of Mother Mary as New Eve. After all, the New Testament makes it clear Jesus is the New Adam:
“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive… So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.” (1 Cor. 15:42-45)
Just as the First Adam had a First Eve, then surely the Second Adam had a Second Eve?
The clearest scriptural proof for Mother Mary as New Eve is the primordial title, “woman”, a title the First Adam gave to his original partner (Gen. 2:23-24). Jesus calls Mother Mary “woman” several times in a rather odd and vocative fashion, such as when about to perform His first miracle at the wedding in Cana (John 2:3-4), or at His crucifixion (John 19:26).
I admit this is not conclusive proof. However, I am open to the Catholic argument (which really goes back to Church Fathers Justin Martyr and Irenaeus) that Jesus used the word “woman” here for deliberate and symbolic effect.
As a New Eve, did Mother Mary have a role in salvation?
If we assume Mother Mary is a New Eve, then what role does she have in the plan of salvation? Well, to state what I think all Christians agree on, her major role was as the vessel by which God incarnated Himself into the world to save it. In this way she truly is the New Eve, fulfilling the prophecy given to the First Eve after the Fall, that she would crush the serpent through her seed (Gen. 3:15-16).
While she doesn’t get all that much screen time, the New Testament suggests Mother Mary had a role beyond mere biological incubator. We shouldn’t imagine a woman bold enough to demand Jesus perform a wedding miracle would be meek and silent when dealing with her son’s own followers. Many of whom, like James the Just and Jude, were her own literal family. Therefore, even we Protestants might accept she really was a kind of “Mother of the Church”.
Is there a case for another woman as a New Eve?
Despite the case for Mother Mary as New Eve, she isn’t the only female candidate. Without intending to go full DaVinci Code, Jesus also uses the title “woman” when speaking to another Mary: the reformed prostitute, Mary Magdalene.
The best example of this was at Jesus’ own resurrection, where He exclaims, “Dear woman, why are you crying?” (John 20:15). The link between Jesus’ use of the word “woman” and Mary Magdalene as a New Eve is even greater than compared with Mother Mary, as there are clearer Edenic parallels.
The best evidence is in the very next verse, where Mary Magdalene fails to recognise Jesus because, “She thought he was the gardener”. This seems an ironic allusion back to the First Adam’s role as caretaker of the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15).
As a New Eve, did Mary Magdalene have a role in salvation?
Above all, Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus with oil, an act that arguably made Him “Messiah” (lit. the “anointed one” or “Christ”, Mark 14:3). A role normally reserved, biblically speaking (and in modern equivalents) for the highest-ranking ecclesiastical power (think Samuel anointing Saul and David, or the Archbishop of Canterbury anointing British monarchs). In other words, Mary Magdalene made Jesus the Christ!
Resurrected Jesus also appeared to Mary Magdalene first, with a command to tell the rest of the disciples. In this way she was the messenger (lit. an “apostle”) to the Apostles. In other words, Christian tradition is biblically correct in calling her “Apostle to the Apostles”.
Why is there such a focus on Mother Mary over Mary Magdalene?
Despite some Hollywood explorations, to say Mary Magdalene may have also been a New Eve does not suggest she had a sexual relationship with Jesus, any more than Mother Mary as New Eve does. The New Eve role is a spiritual designation – not a physical one. Yet no doubt some Church leaders felt that point was easier to portray with Jesus’ virginal mother than a reformed prostitute.
That is a shame. Because how then might church history have been different if such devotion was instead attached to Mary Magdalene, the other New Eve candidate?
Is the New Eve role a collective one, and what are the implications?
The fact the New Testament points to two potential New Eves, with critical roles for both in the gospel narrative, raises another fascinating question: Is the “New Eve” concept a collective title? And might we observe the significant number of women in Jesus’ inner circle all called Mary? Is this where Catholics limit themselves in their Mariology?
One might also note a certain parallel to Catholic nuns, who are so-called spiritual “brides of Christ”. Although to be fair, there are biblical parallels in the New Testament offices of virgins and widows.
Does Catholic Marian theology promote feminism or misogyny?
Does giving Mother Mary such an elevated position theologically support the role of women in the Catholic Church? History suggests “no”.
By building a “Marian cult” around the virgin, rather than the reformed prostitute, we probably see an expression of misogyny rather than feminism. Catholic Marian theology probably gives women an unrealistic comparison, which no real-life woman (including the historic figure) could possibly compete with.
What would a Protestant Marian theology say about women in the Church?
Nonetheless, if we consider a biblically grounded and Protestant version of Marian theology, might we recognise the scriptural role of a “Marian Ministry”, embracing not merely one but a whole class of women? Might this help the Church relook at an area long avoided out of some irrational fear of Catholic contamination?
Men might have been made first, but men also get most of the blame for the Fall (Rom. 5:12-19; 1 Tim. 2:13). God so distrusted men that the second time round, as the Second Adam, the Lord performed that male role Himself. Yet to the role of Second Eve, it seems God did entrust the female gender. Think on that.
Does Marian theology promote headship theology?
Some might argue women cannot have authority over their own husbands, just as Adam had authority of Eve (1 Tim. 2:11-15). Yet the Bible illustrates that in the spiritual role of New Eves, Marian ministers were subject to no earthly man except Jesus, the Second Adam and head of the Church.
Thus, far from supporting so-called headship theology, I think a biblically grounded and Protestant Marian theology suggests the reverse. Outside Himself, scripture suggests God reserved the premier leadership, apostolic and ritual roles for women – not men. Women literally birthed God into the world, women ordained Jesus the Christ, women did not flee but stayed loyally with Him at the Cross, and women were the first Apostles who proclaimed Jesus’ conquering of sin and death.
But these are just my thoughts. What do you think about the role of Mary (all of them) in the plan of salvation? And what implications might it have for we Christians today?
 For the rest of the article, I am largely going to use the term “Mother Mary” for Jesus’ mother, for ease of reference. I largely avoid plain “Mary”, as that will likely confuse her with others of the same name, such as Mary Magdalene, whom this article also discusses. Other Christians might prefer the term “Virgin Mary”, but that term is probably more controversial for many Protestant Christians, because as the article also discusses, that title suggests Mary had life-long virginity.
 McBrien, Richard. 1981. Catholicism. New York: Harper & Row Pub.
 Some might ask, then, about the role of John the Baptist. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss that in detail, except to say the ancient Hebrew rite of kingship was often a two-step process: a first anointing as nagid (crown prince, king-designate or war-captain), and then a second anointing as a melek (king). So while Jesus’ baptism made Him prince (officiated by John the Baptist), it was only His death (officiated by Mary Magdalene through His anointing) that cemented Jesus’ status as king.
 I will just flag, because someone will no doubt otherwise make the point, that there is some debate whether some of these various women called Mary are the same or different individuals. The most common issue is whether the reformed prostitute, Mary Magdalene, is the same person as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church.