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Tuesdays with Mary: Prologue

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?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùat least some details of which are clearly allegorical?¢‚Ǩ‚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?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùand we are clearly in the realm of speculation on this point?¢‚Ǩ‚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?

technorati tags: dome of the rock, protevangelium of james, theotokos, virgin mary



  1. Kevin P. Edgecomb says:

    Hi Darrell! If there were other women such as Anna who essentially lived at the Temple, if we can accept “never left” as literal, they would certainly have to have been celibate, as there was no hanky-panky allowed in the Temple complex.

    The main objection to women having any such attachment to the Temple, as dedicated servants of any kind, is that the Mishnah and other early rabbinic materials never mention such. But they are later, and to a degree tendentious in proferring the developed post-Pharisaic description of ritual and other matters. In a way, their descriptions are somewhat more of a description of how they wanted the Temple service to be, rather than how it truly was. The degree to which this was the case is, of course, debatable, but that it was the case in some part is unquestionable. Incidental information (where not obviously also tendentious) as found in the Gospels, Josephus, and Philo, along with various earlier writings, should be taken as probative, with the rabbinic sources (which are, after all, written at least roughly 130 years after the Temple was destroyed) taking second seat. Interesting stuff!


  2. D. P. says:

    Welcome back, Kevin. I don’t know if such an order of women attached to the temple persisted any later than the period of the judges?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùor perhaps into the early monarchy depending on how you date the source(s) behind Exodus 38. It is still a fascinating possibility, and one that might provide one piece of the framework for how to understand the early traditions that associate Mary with the temple. As you say: interesting stuff!


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