A Virgin Conceived: Mary and Classical Representations of Virginity
Mary F. Foskett
Indiana University Press
Review in Books in Canada, January/February 2003 Volume 32, No.1.
by Gwen Nowak
In A Virgin Conceived Mary Foskett invites us to join her on a journey into virgin territory. Given the ‘virginal’ destination it is appropriate that Foskett’s chosen path is “a road not previously taken” i.e., she claims to be the first Marian scholar to enter in to [to penetrate?] this virgin world and to fully explore it. Her purpose is “to understand the significance of virginity for the construction of Mary” in early Christian narratives, specifically the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles [Luke-Acts] and the second century Protoevangelium of James [PJ]. As our working guide, she strategically places Luke-Acts and PJ at the centre of the great surround of Greco-Roman and Jewish literature about virgins and invites us to watch as she labouriously sifts the various medical, legal, religious texts for every nugget/aspect of virgin and virginity. In five efficient chapters Foskett catalogues and compares the numerous virgin aspects extracted from her textual sources.
Foskett’s exercise is as complex as the multivalent meanings of virgin that she discovers in the first- and second-century Mediterranean world. In fact she labels the various aspects of virginity as “valences” which is a sure indicator that A Virgin Conceived is not a devotional meditation on the Immaculate Conception of Mary as the title might suggest but rather a doctoral dissertation written in the precise and disciplined discourse typical of that genre. Biblical scholars who inhabit the lofty towers of academe will feel at home in this rarified linguistic environment; but street level Marian enthusiasts may feel that they have stumbled into strange territory indeed where the Blessed Virgin Mary of their meditations and supplications never quite appears.
This should not come as a surprise since Foskett clearly states that hers is not a study of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the reified symbol of Christian tradition. Neither does she seek out the historical Jewish virgin whose literary, not literal, virginity she wants to comprehend. So Foskett narrows her focus to Mariam, the virgin protagonist of Luke-Acts and Maria the virgin protagonist of the PJ. That is, she attempts to examine the mother of Jesus as a literary construct, more as a fictional than a material woman. This subtle distinction ultimately proves unsustainable.
Foskett’s attempt to avoid the historical Mariam and the Blessed Virgin Mary is undermined by the fact that her literary ‘protagonist’ already has an extratextual life in the minds of most readers and unconsciously, in Foskett’s own mind. This is evidenced by the fact that, at cross purposes with her own methodology, Foskett never refers to the virgin protagonists by their given textual names. Instead Foskett arbitrarily discusses Luke’s Mariam as Mary and James’ Maria as Mary. Thus, in spite of her important distinguishing of these two very different female protagonists, the two virgins somehow blur into each other and ultimately into the reified Virgin Mary. And, in the view of this reader, the fact that Luke’s protagonist is based on a real woman bedevils Foskett’s attempt to dismiss her.
Of course the same scholars who argue that there never was an historical Jesus might challenge any claim that Luke was writing about Jesus’ historical Jewish mother named Mariam. They might prefer to see her, like her son, as a literary fiction that somehow morphed into a full blown mythic figure. I am reminded of the cogent warning of D. H. Akenson arguing persuasively that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures were written as history and that a purely literary approach to the Bible and associated texts is more than a little dangerous if one is “consciously or unconsciously...excusing one’s self the labour of learning and understanding the historical background” [Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds].
While Foskett gives the occasional nod to historical context and the New Historicist biblical interpretation, her concern is to stay with literature as the broader context for her attempt to apprehend the meaning of ‘The Virgin’. Hers is formally an “intertextual” exercise. And it is an exercise that yields much fascinating information about virgin phenomena in the literate culture of the first two centuries of the common era. How many readers, scholarly or street level, have any idea how The Virgin, female of course, was engaged, encountered, exploited, or valued in the broader Greco-Roman world in which the Jewish Mariam had to live and move and have her being? The extensive ancient literature focuses its gaze, a male gaze of course, on the virgin body. It monitors the behaviour of virgin priestesses and virgin prophetesses. It presents fictional virgins who resemble protagonists of today’s titillating grade B movies. And it reflects a world in which virgins are both dangerous and endangered. A perfect setting to encounter the two virgins of Foskett’s focus.
Luke’s Mariam/Mary proves to be a more complex and vibrant protagonist than James’ later virgin construct, Maria/Mary, a virgin mother ultimately stripped of all agency and voice. Foskett points out that it is James’ later less believable virga intacta who is the source of “the well-known designation virgin birth.” Thus it is PJ’s proto-propaganda for Mary’s perpetual virginity that has played the major role in how the mythical Virgin Mary was conceptually conceived. An alert reader might notice an intercultural resonance between this mythical Mary and the virgin goddesses Artemis and Athena. Foskett observes that the “anomalous sexuality of both Athena and Artemis enables each to perform a role that sustains, rather than defies, patriarchal cultural norms” [my emphasis]. Many feminist theologians have argued that the patriarchal co-opting of the Virgin Mary, a latter day Athena/Artemis, has been ‘the problem’ for women in Western Christian culture.
In Foskett’s fourth chapter, A Virgin Speaks, the reader enters a hall of mirrors of virgins, each one somehow reflecting the other, with Luke’s Mary, ahem Mariam, at the centre. Already introduced in previous chapters we again meet prophetesses and Vestal Virgins, we meet the fictional virgins Daphne and Leucippe and Jewish protagonists Asenath and Thecla, all serving as intertextual counterparts who add valence to the meaning of the virginity of Luke’s Mariam/Mary. It is a complex exercise, a fulsome and fascinating vision.
But there is a problem with Foskett’s picture. While she notes that Luke is ambiguous in his portrayal of his virgin protagonist Foskett remains uncertain about the source of the ambiguity. Even after all the intertextual enlightenment she documents, Foskett still wonders what Luke is trying to convey about this particular virgin and the nature of her pregnancy. Inevitably this leads her to acknowledge that Luke is working with earlier traditions and sources. She does not seem to notice that such ‘traditions and sources’ might refer to facts on the historical ground of Judea, that Luke is doing something decidedly more complex than constructing a literary character whole cloth, that he may be attempting to convey, and perhaps conceal, something about a real virgin caught in the universally familiar trap of being vulnerable to seduction or rape during foreign occupation.
As some interpreters are aware, the scribal art of conveying while concealing involves word-play. Foskett, like so many other interpreters before her, misses one example of Lucan word-play: The verb Luke uses for Gabriel’s ‘entering in’, eiselthôn, is one that is used often in the Septuagint to denote physical sexual intercourse. David Biale, one of Foskett’s bibliographical references, writes that “if the Bible had merely wanted to indicate intercourse it would have used the phrase “to come into.” [Eros and the Jews]. Because Foskett overlooks this intertextual clue she is comfortable endorsing one scholar’s conclusion that Luke is narrating “an almost-but-not-quite physical impregnation of Mary by the divinity.” And she is equally comfortable dismissing the more exegetically and historically nuanced analysis of Jane Schaberg concerning the scandalous nature of Mary’s pregnancy [The Illegitimacy of Jesus]. Pity.
Nonetheless A Virgin Conceived is an important contribution to the perennial debate about Mariam/Maria/Mary. Marian scholars will engage and profit from Foskett’s study. Devotees of the Blessed Virgin Mary able to tolerate such bracing doctoral discourse might ponder more deeply the meaning of The Virgin.
Gwen Nowak is the author of Miriam of Nazareth: Who can find her?
Mary F. Foskett is Assistant Professor of Religion at Wake Forest University.