Miri Rubin’s Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary chronicles ideas, practices, and images that developed around the figure of Mary from the earliest decades of Christianity through approximately 1600. It is founded on an extensive range of source materials: music, poetry, theology, art, scripture, liturgy, and miracle tales. It provides an invaluable historical understanding of devotional materials regarding Mary, as well as the cultural contexts in which those materials were produced and used. In addition, it illustrates abiding and evolving qualities of religious experience for individuals, families, parishes, congregations, secular groups, religious orders, and nations. Still, readers may wish that Rubin’s social history offered more explanation of the theological complexities of the Marian sacred tradition and of how, for example, it authenticates interpretation of the Bible as a form of continuing revelation.
Unparalleled in scope, clarity, and scholarly reach, the book immerses readers in many forms of private and public veneration. It charts, moreover, a movement toward the immediacy of Mary, how believers brought her into their lives and saw what a vast difference that decision made. The abundant, endlessly rich forms of adoration of Mary came to have global consequences; they remain growing, emergent, and full of untold possibility.
The author’s interest in her subject was initially provoked by the question of how Maryabout whom the Gospels reveal littleconstantly enlarged in presence and substance, becoming a figure of worldwide historical significance and complexity. After her appearances in the birth stories of Christ told in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, she remains in the background in the biblical narratives of His public ministry, until she appears at the foot of the cross and awaits with the disciples the coming Holy Spirit.
Rubin illustrates how early evangelists and their successors accepted Old Testament prophecies of Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus, believing that they proved Christianity to be a fulfillment of Judaism. Moreover, later scholars such as Saint Jerome elaborately commented on Old Testament passages that they believed foretold Mary’s own immaculate conception. Others reinterpreted Hebrew prophecy to help believers imagine the woman all generations would call blessed as a handmaid of the Lord, participant in her Son’s destiny.
Rubin carefully demonstrates that, although the Scriptures themselves contain few details of Mary’s origins or life, other writingsthe apocrypha, legendary tales, and creeds of early Christian sectssoon began to fill in the blank spaces of her biography. The apocryphal books The Gospel of the Birth of Mary and The Protevangelion: Or, An Historical Account of the Birth of Christ, and the Perpetual Virgin Mary, accepted by the earliest Christian churches, gave Mary a fine Jewish ancestry and a pure childhood, and they asserted her perpetual virginity as evidence of Christ’s divine authority as Son of God. Mary’s ever-increasing group of admirers devised ways to make palatable and authoritative the stories of her blessed state, humility, holiness, and other distinctive traits. They focused on Mary’s life as a way of achieving Christian orthodoxy and distinguishing it from Judaism, which denied the incarnate Son of God conceived through the Holy Spirit within the ever-virgin Mary.
Furthermore, Rubin notes how Christianity, as a sect within Judaism, attained favored status within the Roman Empire. This fact had enormous effects regarding Mary’s exact nature and meaning. For example, once the Emperor Constantine publicly endorsed Christianity in the early fourth century, Mary, as a consequence of the Council of Nicaea in 325, became the subject of theological inquiry. Her titles of popular piety, Mother of God or God-Bearer, endlessly open with spiritual and psychological import, were affirmed at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Rubin might have added that imperial or political involvement concerning Mary signaled a view that the state had a natural interest in matters pertaining to the Christian church. The idea that the Church itself should determine its own affairsincluding theological meanings, forms of internal organization, and toleration of variations in liturgywas slow to develop, not beginning to resolve or assert itself until the late seventeenth century in England.
Rubin suggests, however, that rituals involving the Virgin Mary may have been an exception as a cause of conflict between church and state. She recounts the development of the doctrine of Assumption, the belief that after her earthly life Mary was brought bodily into heaven. This doctrine first appeared in New Testament apocrypha dating from the fourth century and was well known by the seventh century, when it was celebrated throughout European...
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