Advent is almost upon us, and I’m planning to mark the season by launching a new semi-regular feature here that I’m calling “Tuesdays with Mary.” I’ll be looking at biblical exegesis, early church traditions, theology, liturgy, etc., related to the mother of Jesus.
Here is an example of the kind of thing I hope to do: Kevin Edgecomb of Biblicalia has made a case that the site of the Dome of the Rock mosque on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount was formerly home to a shrine of Mary Theotokos. He makes some reasonable arguments, but more important for my purposes is that the location of such a shrine reflects an early tradition (at least mid-second century) that Mary lived at the Jerusalem temple when she was a child. This story?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùat least some details of which are clearly allegorical?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùis first found in the Protevangelium of James, is accepted by the Orthodox although I think largely unknown in the west.
Was Mary once a ward of the temple? The New Testament is silent on Mary’s life prior to the angelic visitation recorded in Luke 1. Longstanding church tradition has it that her parents, Joachim and Anna, were of an advanced age when Mary was conceived. Might they have died while Mary was still a child? And if so, who took her in?
As with the question of John the Baptist’s upbringing, we quickly leave the data behind and are tempted to revel in unfounded speculations. John’s parents were also elderly. Did he grow up in the wilderness as an orphan taken in by Essenes? Perhaps, perhaps not. But there are hints in his teachings and behavior that he would not have been entirely out of place in a community that stressed strict asceticism, ritual washings, and Isaiah 40.
There are in fact indications that young women or girls were somehow involved in the temple cultus of ancient Israel. Exodus 38:8 and 1 Samuel 2:22 mention “women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” Might Anna, the daughter of Phanuel (Lk 2:36-37), who “never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day,” have been such a woman? Might such service have involved a vow of chastity? If so?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùand we are clearly in the realm of speculation on this point?¢‚Ç¨‚Äùthen some commentators raise the possibility that Jephthah’s daughter fulfilled her father’s hasty vow (Jdg 11:34-40) not by becoming a human sacrifice but by entering this order of female temple (virgin?) ministers.
Might the memory of such an order, and the assumption that Mary was somehow associated with it, have given rise to traditions of her being dedicated in the temple, living in the holy of holies, and described using the imagery of the ark of the covenant?