Mary: Is Mary a Warmed-Over Pagan Goddess?

The basic problem that faces those approaching Mary from outside the Catholic tradition is the seeming disproportion between what Scripture tells us about Mary and the enormous amount of space she appears to occupy in the life of the Church. Part of that appearance of disproportion is due to Catholic devotion and part of it is due, paradoxically, to the exaggerated fears of non-Catholics about Catholic devotion.

The dynamic works this way: Scripture doesn’t spell out for us, say, a command to pray the Rosary. But Catholics pray the Rosary anyway (due to the fact that they don’t regard the Bible as the Big Book of Everything given by God to micromanage our prayer lives under the rubric “That which is not compulsory is forbidden”). Non-Catholics, particularly Evangelicals, then see Catholics praying the Rosary, note that this is not mandated by the Bible, and then note that for each “Our Father” (a biblical prayer) there are ten Hail Marys. Conclusion: Mary must be waaaaaay more important to Catholics than anything warranted by Scripture.

Or, similarly, the Evangelical looks at his Bible in vain for terms like “Immaculate Conception” or “Assumption” or “Perpetual Virginity” or “Theotokos”. Nothing there. So the conclusion is that the Church just made this stuff up and added it to the Bible, drawing on the only other possible source: paganism. Catholics often talk about “sacred Tradition” after all. So it only stands to reason that “tradition” means “human tradition added to Scripture”. No doubt, the assumption goes, if a doctrine is not explicitly stated in Scripture, it is something that early Christians, half converted from paganism, dragged into the Faith to make it more digestible. There was a lot of goddess worship back then, so converts in the early Church who used to go to the Temple of Diana, or worship Isis, or adore Athena missed having a woman’s touch in their spirituality with all that dry macho Hebraic religion must have started exalting Mary, grabbed a few trappings from Babylon Mystery Religion and voila!: Marian devotion was born!

This narrative is astoundingly common in Evangelical circles—and in some badly catechized Catholic circles too. If it sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it’s the same narrative as The Da Vinci Code, which likewise tells us that pagans grabbed a figure out of early Christian history (namely, Jesus) and elevated him to divine status in order to meet the needs of pagans. The trouble is, both narratives suffer from the same fatal weakness: there’s no There there.

There simply is no evidence—none whatsoever—that early Christians got their notions of Mary from paganism. Oh sure, Christians would sometimes take some pagan piece of bric a brac and fill it with Christian content. So prayer beads get adapted to recitation of the psalms and eventually the Rosary. It’s easier to keep count using beads. Or Christmas trees become symbols of the Tree of Jesse that brought forth Messiah. Or halos get adapted from pre-Christian art to signify holiness. But so what? When you read a bumper sticker that says, “Jesus: He’s the Real Thing” do you suddenly feel an overwhelming compulsion to worship a Coke bottle? Neither did early Christians acquire the notion that pagan symbols, filled with Christian content, meant that pagan gods and goddesses should be worshipped.

In fact, the early Church’s approach to theological questions is remarkably insular from our modern multicultural perspective. What interests them in their deliberations on everything from God to Jesus to Mary to the placement of a feast is Jewish and Christian scripture and tradition. Period. (see sidebar). Similarly, the early Christians care passionately about fine-tuned attempts to clock the exact month and day Zechariah was working his shift at the Temple. They care absolutely nothing at all what was happening at the Temple of Diana. They see Jesus foreshadowed by Adam, Noah, Isaac, and David. They could not care less about Osiris, Apollo, or Zeus.

And exactly the same thing obtains when it comes to Mary. The Fathers of the Church are perfectly aware of pagan goddess worship and figures like the Great Mother. But exactly what they do not do is take such things as compatible with their faith, or attempt to paste Mary faces on them. Instead, they constantly and continually look, not to paganism, but to the Old Testament and to Jewish and Christian tradition as they contemplate Mary. As the early Church grows, a swelling flood of theologians see Mary prefigured, not by Venus, Athena, Hel, Eostre, Isis, Diana, Hera, and the like, but by Eve, Sarah, Deborah, Hannah, Judith, and Esther. For all these writers, the gaze is always firmly fixed on Scripture. It is not in Jason’s Golden Fleece, but in Gideon’s fleece wet with dew while all the ground beside had remained dry (Judges 6:37–38) that they see a type of Mary receiving in her womb the Word Incarnate yet remaining a Virgin. It is from the Old Testament, not the works of Ovid or Homer that the Fathers derive images and titles of Mary such as:

  • The “Temple of God” She is the Holy of Holies in which God dwelt. (Ephraim the Syrian, Jerome,Ambrose)
  • The “Rod of Jesse” from whom blossomed Christ (Ambrose, Tertullian,Jerome)
  • The “East Gate” of the Temple spoken of by Ezekiel (Jerome)
  • The “Ark of the Covenant” (Athanasius, Gregory the Wonder-Worker)
  • The “Staff of Aaron” (Ephraim the Syrian)
  • The “Burning Bush that is Not Consumed” (Gregory of Nyssa)

In short, devotees of the “Pagan Mary” theory completely ignore the fact that Mary is likened to the ark of the covenant, not to Pandora’s Box, Artemis’ quiver of arrows, Ishtar’s purse, or Semiramis’ knitting bag. The biblical writers, like the Fathers after them, have hearts, minds, and imaginations completely dominated by imagery from Scripture, not pagan myth.

If that is the case, then how is it that the Church supposes that a Bible which never mentions “Immaculate Conception” or “Perpetual Virginity” or “Assumption” or “Theotokos” can support these doctrines?

The answer to that question comes by looking at the Bible in what some might imagine to be a whole new way, but which is, in fact, the way in which Jesus and the apostles always read it. Of which, more next month.

Sidebar:

The common assumption today is that Christmas was established to compete with the Feast of the Unconquered Sun. In fact, the evidence points to the exact opposite conclusion, As Richard Ostling reported (“Why is Dec. 25 the date to celebrate Christmas? Two explanations compete,” North County Times, December 24, 2004), William Tighe, a church history specialist at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College, points out the following:

Aurelian almost certainly created “a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians,” Tighe wrote last December in Touchstone, a Chicago-based magazine for Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditionalists.

True, the Christians later appropriated Aurelian’s festival into their Christmas. But Dec. 25 “appears to owe nothing whatsoever to pagan influences,” Tighe asserted. He said the pagans-first theory originated only three centuries ago in the writings of Protestant historian Paul Ernst Jablonski and Catholic monk Jean Hardouin.

Tighe acknowledged that the first hard evidence of Christmas occurring on Dec. 25 isn’t found until A.D. 336 and the date only became a fixed festival in Constantinople in 379.

However, the definitive “Handbook of Biblical Chronology” by professor Jack Finegan (Hendrickson, 1998 revised edition) cites an important reference in the “Chronicle” written by Hippolytus of Rome three decades before Aurelian launched his festival. Hippolytus said Jesus’ birth “took place eight days before the kalends of January,” that is, Dec. 25.

Tighe said there’s evidence that as early as the second and third centuries, Christians sought to fix the birth date to help determine the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the liturgical calendar — long before Christmas also became a festival.

The New Testament Gospels say the Crucifixion happened at the Jewish Passover season. The “integral age” concept, taught by ancient Judaism though not in the Bible, held that Israel’s great prophets died the same day as their birth or conception.

Quite early on, Tighe said, Christians applied this idea to Jesus and set the Passover period’s March 25 for the Feast of the Annunciation, marking the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth. Add nine months to the conception date and we get Dec. 25.

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