A Midrash: ‘Miriam's Story’

Joseph of Nazareth

The Question of Questions

Paul of Tarsus

‘Miriam the First’


Miriam of Nazareth

“These Stones Will Shout”




Notes to Preface



     Miriam of Nazareth: Who Can Find Her? is an unorthodox book. Orthodoxy by definition is grounded in generally accepted views, especially in religion, as well as adherence to established customs and traditions. I violate orthodoxy when I set aside the generally accepted Christian views of the conception of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as the customs and traditions that coalesced, especially in Roman Catholicism, around the person of the mother of Jesus. Nonetheless, I would argue that my re-visioning of the event of Jesus' birth and the story of his mother does not violate the generally accepted orthodox view of Jesus' pivotal role in human history. It has been noted in other disciplines that 'generally accepted views' can be either partially or entirely incorrect, in their basic facts [the Ptolemaic cosmology], or in the distortions that have accrued over time by those who overlooked or rejected aspects of empirical facts - aspects that violated personal or professional agendas. One salient example of this process outside of the field of religion is presented by Stephen Jay Gould in his reexamination of source materials written by the 'fathers of geology,' materials which were selectively re-presented by later 'disciples.'  Two other examples are brought to our attention by philosopher John Ralston Saul: the gradual distortion of the image of Socrates by his disciple, Plato; and the discrepancy between what Adam Smith actually said and what "reigning ideologues of our day" are saying that he said. 

     Miriam of Nazareth: Who Can Find Her? violates other orthodoxies beyond those of traditional interpretations and religious dogma. 'Generally accepted views' about genre and structure of a book are also violated.  In terms of genre, this book is a loose hybrid of personal journey, scriptural exegesis, and imaginative storytelling. I don't apologize for this.  But I do provide an explanation: all three elements - the personal, the academic, and the imaginative - represent how the book itself evolved. Therefore, that is how I choose to present it. The structure, i.e., the sequence or ordering of the material, is almost entirely idiosyncratic. One editor questioned the inclusion of some of the subject matter, as well as the order into which I had placed it - an arguably reasonable order, but nonetheless problematic. Consequently, I decided that I would choose an order that made sense to me personally. Out of respect for the  reader's need to orient herself in the material, I have elected to describe each Section of the book in this Preface. A preview of the material should allow the reader to elect his own order of reading based on personally relevant criteria of interest or enquiry. Various readers may have various interests, some being more compelled by narrative, others by exegesis, and still others by my own personal journey - the insights and events which led me to ask the question which became the title of this book. My hope and expectation, of course, is that ultimately each reader will feel compelled to read the book in its entirety based on interest and enquiries generated by each Section on its own.

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Section I

Section I which follows immediately upon this Preface is entitled "Miriam's Story." Although I consider "Miriam's Story" to be the centrepiece of the entire book, and although it was the last Section to be written, I feel compelled to put it first in the text itself for two reasons. First, it is my question about the historical Miriam, the mother of Jesus, that initiated the whole process of discovery of which this book is the chronicle. The fact that this question focussed on the historical Miriam does not alter the fact that the research forced questions about other significant persons and times in the larger chronicle of Miriam's own people. And these persons, including Miriam of the Moses chronicle, Elizabeth, mother of John called the Baptist, and Paul of Tarsus, are necessarily included. Of course, it should not be surprising that Joseph of Nazareth would receive special attention. But it will be surprising that a historical figure, a Roman legate, is given a voice, even though he goes unmentioned in the New Testament itself. The second reason I place Miriam's Story at the beginning of this chronicle is that I have come to believe that narrative is a more powerful method of communication than is exegesis or argument. After over a decade of digesting and explicating the research that my question about Miriam generated, a whole narrative suggested itself to me " a narrative that I have the chutzpah [or hubris depending upon the reader's point of view] to attribute to the mother of Jesus herself. I see this as a justifiable corrective to the fact that she never did have an opportunity to tell her own story. This type of narrative follows the tradition of Hebrew midrash. The Hebrew word i'drash means to question. Because the canonical texts raise questions by their silences, evasions, inconsistencies, and word play, the early Rabbis felt invited and permitted to create alternative stories " their own versions of character and event. Early Christian writers followed a similar impulse when they created legendary accounts of the biographies of both Miriam and her son Jesus. It is only recently that Jewish and Christian women have given themselves permission to write midrash themselves. And thus: Miriam's Story.

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Section II

"The Question of Questions," will be of interest to those who are either disturbed or curious about how, when, and why I came to my title question; about my understanding of the nature and importance of questions; about why I felt affirmed in my decision to pursue this particular question in the face of various forms of opposition. This Section includes the major part of the material relating to my personal journey. However, brief reflections on my responses to the research material appear in most Sections because I felt that I should register ad locum how astonished, disturbed, encouraged, or even amused I was by a particular insight. As well, I decided to splice more personal data into the endnotes as a way of making the required activity of providing endnotes more pleasant, even enjoyable.

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Section III

"Miriam I," requires the most explanation. Miriam I is not mentioned at all in "Miriam's Story," although, if this midrash were expanded, she would indeed be brought to the reader's attention. That is because the biblical account of Moses' sister, the first Miriam whom I designate as Miriam I, raises many questions. Jesus' mother might well have found herself asking such questions when she became curious about her namesake who appears in the Exodus and Numbers chronicles. I came to this material early in my research because I had realized that, in order to find the historical Jewish mother of Jesus, I would have to bypass all Christian commentary. This made it necessary to look for her in Jewish sources. For obvious reasons, the Jewish sources have very little to say about the mother of Jesus. But they have a great deal to say about the first Miriam. Somewhat curious and determined to make the most of one particular excursion to the library, I decided to read the full commentary on the first Miriam in the Encyclopedia Judaica. The questions this commentary raised for me resulted in my spending months, rather than hours, on the story of this woman. I began to realize that, while the New Testament authors make much of the parallels between Jesus and Moses, they completely pass over any obvious or subtle parallels between the two Miriams, both seminal figures at the formative stage of their respective religious traditions. Curiously, the canonical scriptures treat both of these women rather harshly, but the evolving traditions about both women are marked by extravagantly adulatory midrash and, in the case of Roman Catholicism, dogma. As this phenomenon of parallelism became clearer to me, I felt even more affirmed in my impulse to continue my quest for the historical Miriam. Thus, what began as an unexpected side trip of my research journey, ultimately became a crucial element of the whole process of discovery. What I observed about the relationship between Moses and his sister Miriam is something for which I was totally unprepared. My exegesis and interpretation of the relevant texts will be shocking to many, both Jews and Christians.

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Section IV

"Miriam of Nazareth," can be read either before or after "Miriam's Story," depending upon the reader's preference for narrative or exegesis. What will be surprising to most readers of either Section is the virtually equal billing given to Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah. Section IV is based on the infancy narrative of the Gospel attributed to Luke. This narrative presents the conception and birth of both John and Jesus, Miriam's and Elizabeth's sons, as parallel and complementary events. I investigate the many anomalies and contradictions written into this account of their origins. But I also employ a first-century CE Jewish historian's account to investigate the disturbing realities faced by the Jewish community in the closing years of the reign of Herod the Great. By anchoring my investigation in real history, I am able to observe and explicate a significant connection between the Gospel account and real history. It is important to know that even though Christian tradition has attributed the Magnificat to 'Mary,' it was in fact attributed to Elizabeth in some early manuscripts. This points to the forgotten fact that the Magnificat celebrates the survival of, and solidarity between, two women, Miriam and Elizabeth. My view is that this was a moment of crucial significance, not just for these two Jewish women, but for all of their Jewish sisters, then and now. It is these two women whom I perceive in the images of "The Angel Speaks," the cover art for this book. Elizabeth is speaking with Miriam, whose back is to the viewer.

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Section V

"Joseph of Nazareth," answers my question about what kind of Jewish man would have been moved to become the provider and protector of Miriam and her child. The author of the Gospel of Matthew focusses his infancy narrative on Joseph, so I begin my investigation of Joseph in that text. But I am called by that text to go further into the past of Jewish communal reflection to put together a composite picture of this man. And I do not overlook the account of the Jewish historian, Josephus, who describes the dark forces at work against this Joseph and his Jewish brothers in the final years of the reign of Herod the Great. The Joseph that emerges for me from the shadows of traditional Christian neglect is a visionary man of strength, courage, and faith. We meet him at a time when all of these qualities are being tested to the limit. And we should not be surprised that he quakes before the demands that life - his God - may be making of him. Most Christian art relegates Joseph to the periphery of the picture if, in fact, he appears with his wife and adopted son at all. For centuries, Christians have been distracted about the conundrum of whether this honourable Jewish man ever had sex with his wife. Matthew suggests yes; most Church fathers declare 'never.' "Really?!" you might well exclaim.

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Section VI

"Paul of Tarsus," was a subject I resisted investigating. However, I realized it was compulsory, given that Paul is considered by many to be the real founding father of Christianity. I had previously read Paul's letters and found them occasionally brilliant and inspiring, but also contradictory, manic, tortured, and even desperate. I suspected that he had borrowed key concepts from the Mystery religions of the Mediterranean world of that time. I feel that small sections of Paul's letters provide good material for an exercise in spiritual reading, but the corpus as a whole is more daunting, even disturbing. It was often stated that Jesus' mother and his human origins, the focus of my investigation, were not of major interest to Paul. All of his letters were penned and circulated long before the infancy narratives were even conceived. Such conclusions are presented by bona fide biblical scholars who have spent whole lifetimes and careers on the letters of Paul. What would I find in the 'revelation' of Paul if I submitted myself to the overwhelming task of reading his letters yet again? Would I discover any subtle allusions to Jesus' scandalous origins passed over by others? As with Miriam I, I found more than I ever expected to find about this self-styled apostle to the Gentiles. I support my findings with textual investigation and circumstantial evidence. I am well aware that absolute certainty has eluded more seasoned Pauline scholars, scholars who continue to debate with and debunk each other in their published material. I suggest answers to important questions about Paul; but the answers, not surprisingly, raise more questions.

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Section VII

"Vitellius," is the second midrash which I present. While doing research into the history of Judaea in the first century CE, I found myself meeting over and over again a Roman 'career politician' named Lucius Vitellius. Intrigued, I eventually began actively following his traces through the indexes of contemporary historians like the Jewish Josephus and the Roman Suetonius. While biblical scholars have noted that every one of the Roman officers who appears in the New Testament is "an honest and kindly man," it should also be noted that the secular historical record also includes accounts of Romans who were very positively disposed to the Jewish people. One salient example is L. Vitellius, who was the legate of Syria about the time of Stephen's martyrdom and Saul's conversion. The historical imagination is heightened by the possibility of a meeting between Saul, a self-styled Pharisee in the white heat of persecution of members of his own nation, and this powerful Roman governor, who appears to have been intimately involved with that same nation. In my midrash, Vitellius does all of the talking; Saul is, uncharacteristically for him, totally silent. I conclude Section VII by bringing forward from the shadows a third Miriam, Miriam of Bethezob. She was a woman caught with her infant son in the no-man's land between the terrorist Jewish rebels within Jerusalem and the Roman military machine maintaining siege outside the city. The events described took place sometime between 68 and 70 CE. Josephus records Miriam's desperate and, I argue, prophetic act. Josephus also describes the stunned reaction of both the rebels and the Roman military, including Caesar.

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Section VIII

"These Stones Will Shout," shows the resonance between the image of stones used by the author of the Gospel of Luke with the Hebrew Bible's use of that same image. In order to show the relevance of the dynamic elucidated by examination of these ancient texts, I compare this same dynamic with a relatively recent prophetic analysis presented by Susan Griffin in her book, A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War. My purpose is to demonstrate that the denial of dark truths is a generic human strategy not limited in use to issues of orthodox religious censorship. However, it seems to be an essential characteristic of truth that, no matter how deeply buried, it eventually does find its own way back to the surface of individual or collective consciousness. 

The Epilogue is an account of my examination of the documents of Vatican II. I had expected to find an ecclesiastical door closed firmly against free enquiry about the mother of Jesus. Instead, I found that the Church not only invited but actually encouraged and ultimately even obliged me to research the sacred texts and to share my findings with the larger community of faith. That is what I have done in this book. For translations of biblical texts, I have used both the King James Bible (KJV) and the New American Standard Bible (NASB) in The Hebrew-Greek Study Bible. The latter offers lexical aids for translation of the Old and New Testaments which I occasionally use to offer alternative possible translations to the passages cited. When providing translations of texts not included in the Canon of these editions, I use The Jerusalem Bible (JB) and the New American Bible (NAB). For Josephus' histories, I have used The New Complete Works of Josephus. For citations from Josephus, I use the Loeb Classical Library numbering system provided by this edition.

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The Epilogue is an account of my examination of the documents of Vatican II. I had expected to find an ecclesiastical door closed firmly against free enquiry about the mother of Jesus. Instead, I found that the Church not only invited but actually encouraged and ultimately even obliged me to research the sacred texts and to share my findings with the larger community of faith. That is what I have done in this book. For translations of biblical texts, I have used both the King James Bible (KJV) and the New American Standard Bible (NASB) in The Hebrew-Greek Study Bible. The latter offers lexical aids for translation of the Old and New Testaments which I occasionally use to offer alternative possible translations to the passages cited. When providing translations of texts not included in the Canon of these editions, I use The Jerusalem Bible (JB) and the New American Bible (NAB). For Josephus' histories, I have used The New Complete Works of Josephus. For citations from Josephus, I use the Loeb Classical Library numbering system provided by this edition.

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Notes to Preface:

Gould, Time's Arrow / Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Gould states that his book is not a "conventional work of scholarship, but a quest for personal understanding of key documents usually misinterpreted" (16). His decision to include the "social and psychological sources" in his examination of the texts in question is similar to my own decision to look more carefully at the historical provenance of the New Testament texts, especially as that provenance related to the women of Judaea.

Time's Arrow / Time's Cycle heralds the discovery of deep time as revealed by the earth it[her]self. Gould concludes with a meditation on the statue of the patriarch, Abraham, on the porch of Chartres Cathedral - a statue which embraces both metaphors of time, time's arrow and time's cycle. His closing words are a prayerful and playful ejaculation: "Rock a my soul..."(208). The image of rock/stone is the image which closes this book, which brings me, and hopefully my reader, full circle...Bless a my soul.

Ralston Saul, The Unconscious Civilization. See Ralston Saul's discussion of Socrates and Plato (55-7) and his critique of the "reigning ideologues of our day [who] base their arguments on a very narrow use of Smith and Hume" (8). See also Josef Pieper, Living the Truth: The Truth of All Things. Pieper critiques the philosophers of the Enlightenment for "not knowing firsthand the great teachers of the High Middle Ages " Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus - certainly not through those teachers' own texts and their own language" (20).

Much of what I had gradually come to understand about midrash was confirmed in an essay with midrash by Norma Rosen, "Rebekah and Isaac: A Marriage Made in Heaven" in Christina Buchmann and Celina Spiegel (eds.), Out of the Garden: Women Writers on the Bible. I was reassured in my own assessment of some of the classical midrash I had already read that the early rabbis offered narrative variants that were really "way out" (23). But I actually caught my breath when I read Ms. Rosen's comment that "Traditional midrash might have helped us to trace the heroic development of a woman who began in virginal submissiveness and transformed herself into an autonomous individual, clear-sighted and courageous enough to see " and act " beyond her husband's purview. Such a midrash would walk a road not found in the Bible, yet start in the place where the Bible story begins and end where the Bible story ends" (25). At this point, I had already written a prototype of my Miriam midrash, and Ms. Rosen's comment felt like a description of the dynamics involved in the whole process. I am indebted to Joan Foy, my daughter's mother-in-law, for the timely gift of this book.

The Jerome Biblical Commentary, 43:57. This book was a Christmas present to me from my husband, when I was just beginning this enquiry. Even though he felt significant resistance to my unorthodox hypothesis about the conception of Jesus, he did not feel any resistance to my right to pursue research on that subject.

Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War. This is a challenging, enlightening, and disturbing book, as is Griffin's Pornography and Silence: Culture's Revenge Against Nature.

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-- (1997)Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes: Freeing Jesus from 2000 Years of Misunderstanding. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

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