Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Gospel of Mary - Chapter 1

And now we can get to the actual text!

So the Protoevangelion opens rather abruptly:

1. In the histories of the twelve tribes of Israel it is written that Joachim was extremely rich.

That's it. There's no introduction, no explanation of who Joachim is, nothing. Just boom. Frederica claims that this is because the hearers were already familiar with the players in this story. They knew Christ and so knew who Mary was. Knowing of Mary they would be familiar with the circumstances of her own life - at least in the broad strokes - and so would know that Joachim was her father.

The text continues, outlining how generous Joachim was - he brought a double portion of gifts to the Lord, offering out of his over-abundance for all the people and for himself - a mercy offering for the forgiveness of the Lord. But then someone named Reuben chided/mocked/was an ass to Joachim and told him that he shouldn't be allowed to offer his gifts to the Lord first because Joachim had not 'begotten any seed in Israel!'

So this Reuben person made up some 'rule' that those who had children were more worthy than those who had none. It's nothing new, sadly. If you look back through the Old Testament there was plenty of shame and derision heaped on those who were childless - which may have made it all the more meaningful and sweet when God blessed those people with children and used them for greater things than those who mocked them could ever have imagined.

Regardless of the validity of Reuben's mockery (there was none), Joachim was greatly upset by it and went into the records of the twelve tribes, searching to see if it was true that he alone had raised no children in Israel. According to the text his search showed him that 'all the righteous had raised up seed in Israel.' Which I doubt as a fact. It's very hyperbolic, to tell the truth. Just a moment's reflection will tell the reader that the chances of every Jewish person having had children is nuts. Even if we could restrict it to the 'righteous' members (which one assumes would be fewer than those who merely claimed descent) statistically there would have been some who were infertile. I think the claim that he found no one else who had not raised children is there to highlight his internal shame, the pressure he was feeling from the society and possibly the natural pain of someone who desires children (a natural desire to see ones line continued) and has not been able to have them.

So Joachim, depressed, goes off into the wilderness. He doesn't tell his wife, he doesn't take food or water, nothing. He sets up a tent and determines to stay there and fast for 40 days and 40 nights.

"'I will not go down, not for food nor for drink, until the Lord my God looks upon me. Prayer will be my food and drink.'"


  1. Yes, I remember how Hannah and Rachel both wanted children so desperately and co-wives of each (Rachel's sister no less) mocked them due to their childlessness.

    Enjoyed this! The Amber commentary just makes it extra-good!

  2. I wonder if the word translated as "righteous" might be something that doesn't quite actually mean that but is difficult to translate? I have no idea, but could see it maybe being more believable if it referred to something specific and unique, like high priests. No idea, just a thought. Otherwise, it definitely does sound like hyperbole.

    I sort of like that they're bugging the guy for once. :D It's bad that he felt the need to pick on anyone for it, but elsewhere in the Bible you usually see the women feeling unworthy for not having children. It's interesting to see a note that it goes both ways.

  3. Sanil, Luke's account of John the Baptist gives the impression his father felt sad that he didn't have a child. Granted it mentions Elisabeth was barren, but it seems John's prayer was for a child. That one just came to mind. You are right that it seems usually the women are mentioned such as the examples I gave earlier. Maybe Zechariah didn't have another wife so it was more real to him that he didn't have a child unlike the other two who were polygamous.

    Interesting talk! :)

  4. That's true. :) I tend to think that he was sad but not looked down on, but that might be personal bias. It's hard to tell from the text. Thanks for pointing it out, though, I guess it's not always the women. Maybe I just remember it that way because I've read too many feminist theologians? :D

  5. I wonder if most of the time the men were given a pass because they could have other wives and if they produced children, then obviously it was the barren wife's "fault." But maybe Zechariah was not married to several women,therefore, he and Elisabeth both shared in the sadness of not having children. I much prefer this,but then I am not fan of polygyny!

  6. Susanne,

    I think that because so much emphasis was placed on having children in order to continue the tribe that people sort of assumed that childlessness was a punishment or a sign that that person was flawed or unworthy. We sort of have to give them some leeway since they didn't understand biology as well as we do now.

    In addition the idea that it was always a problem with the woman made the derision go to them more than to the men. I mean, the man's bits clearly *worked* since the couple could engage in sex to the point where a child was possible, but if no child appears then it must be something wrong with the woman's internal workings. Much easier to blame since we can't see if they're working or not. ;)


  7. sanil,

    Maybe. I'll have to go back and look at the notes the author includes to see if she mentions anything about who the 'righteous' might have been. I don't recall anything but that doesn't mean it's not there. :) But yeah, if the 'righteous' could mean a smaller subgroup then it's possible for the text to be correct and literal.

    Hah! It is sort of nice to see a guy getting guff for something that's typically harped on in the direction of the women. But I think the difference is that when they bring it up to women it's very accusatory, a sort of 'what's wrong with you/your marriage/your husband that you don't have kids yet?'. Here Joachim doesn't seem to get the blame for there being no children, just singled out and 'picked on'. I assume that he feels shame because he and his wife really want children and it's been a sore point with them for years. But that's just me reading into the text.


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