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Religion, Theology and Self-Improvement Sundays: Women, Religion, Theology and Society Part 6

Many have not thought of the influence that the view of the Mary figure of the Bible has had on the world's view of women over the last 2,000 years. But there can be no denying such influence. Whether one believes in God or not, the interpretation of the scriptures regarding "Mary", primarily via the Catholic Church and early Christian theologians, and the spread of that interpretation throughout Europe, eventually affected millions and billions of people and the day-to-day lives of women throughout the world - even today.

From Bishop Spong's Born Of A Woman we quote:

In the constant attempt on the part of the early Christians to define the nature of Jesus, the birth story became a significant weapon, and therefore those narratives grew in use and power. As they grew, the portrait of Mary also began to grow. She became, certainly by the early years of the second century, the dominant female figure in an otherwise heavily masculine religious system. Because Mary was present now in the tradition, she had to be defined. We need to remember that only men were allowed to participate in the defining process. The way Mary was understood and the virtues attributed to her were shaped by the male value system and reflected the things that men appreciated in a woman. She was obedient. Those words became the foundation stones on which the ecclesiastical legend of Mary came to be built.

Paul had once referred to the Christ as the new Adam. "As in Adam all die, also in Christ shall all be made alive" (1Cor. 15:22). "The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven" (1 Cor. 15:47). This fascinating reference was to echo throughout in very interesting ways that had nothing to do with either Adam or Christ but was suggested by both.

Iranaeus, a second-century Christian theologian, fastened on this Pauline connection. For both Adam and Christ, Iranaeus suggested, God had used a virgin substance. God had molded Adam from the virgin mother earth, which had never yet been plowed, and God had formed Jesus from the virgin womb of Mary. This comparison of Adam with Christ soon gave away to a comparison of Eve with Mary, and it proved to be an infinitely more popular contrast. Once more the stature of Mary grew and expanded. This comparison lent itself to homiletical zeal and thereby was repeated and developed in seemingly endless ways by the itinerant preachers of the day. Again it served that constant male agenda that perpetually desired to dominate and control the female.

At the time of the fall, when, according to the literal text, sin entered God's good creation, Eve too was a virgin. Adam did not "know" her until they were both banished from the Garden of Eden (Gen.4:1). Childbirth, the result of Adam's "knowing," was part of Eve's punishment (Gen. 3:16). Sex, guilt, sin, and punishment were coming together in a way that was to defy any power to separate them for almost two thousand years. Eve, the first woman, was disobedient, so this account went. She ate the forbidden fruit (which in fact became a euphemism for sex). She thus brought sin and death to Adam as well as to herself, and through their progeny she became the ultimate source of sin and death for all humankind. Sin, according to this explanation, had entered life through the woman, the weaker sex.

Next week we will come back to the concept of the ideal woman.

Cedric Muhammad

Sunday, November 19, 2000

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