In addition to his twelve disciples Jesus had a group of devoted women followers. Mary Magdalene stands out by the number of times her name is mentioned in the Gospels. She’s the first among all the disciples to acknowledge the resurrected body of Christ. Throughout history her image has been popular in art, celebrated by gnostic advocates and recently praised by the magisterium. To this day there is no theological or academic consensus on her identity. Since the turn of this millennium, tailwinds are stirring up her Spirit. Her role in spreading the Good News is at last recognized, conferring upon her a rightful status similar to Peter. The disciple who was once called Simon whom Jesus gave the metaphorical name of rock. Similarly, Mary’s surname of Magdalene has an etymology that is linked to the Hebrew word migdal, meaning tower. The literary device that the narratives apply to Simon is here applied to Mary. Both are metaphorical attributes: Simon as rock and Mary as tower. The Gospels reveal that Jesus uses parables and metaphors in his teachings. They are central to his message. As such, how essential are literary devices to revelation and the underlying dynamic of the “truth”?
Mary Magdalene is mentioned more times than any other disciple except Peter. The sum would be greater if one takes into account the number of occasions her identity has been obscured by misrepresentation. In the eight times that a list of women is cited, on every occasion Mary Magdalene is named first. Only at the crucifixion is Mary the mother of Jesus mentioned first and Mary Magdalene last. Mary whose womb gave birth to Jesus is present at his death, whereas it is Mary Magdalene who finds the empty tomb who is witness to the risen Christ.
Although these women remained in the background they nonetheless provided financial support to Jesus and his mission. All four Gospels describe a group of women that accompanied Jesus until his last week and were present at his crucifixion. They alone remained until the end, whereas the male disciples fled.
Before I get into Mary Magdalene and the significance of metaphor in establishing her identity, I would like to say a few words about the historical context of the narratives.
The setting: the Gospels
The hero: Mary Magdalene
The quest: the dynamic of “truth”
The adversary: materialism and literal sense of the Word
The mentor: metaphor
The outcome: the tower of the flock (1)
The Gospels vary in their description of an enigmatic female follower of Jesus. Three synoptic Gospels, namely Matthew, Mark and Luke, share a common perspective and chronology of Jesus’ ministry. However, Luke is a bit of a devil’s advocate in his description of a woman’s anointing of Jesus. The event in Mark and Matthew takes place in Bethany in Simon’s house before the Passover. In Luke, the scene is in a different city, in a Pharisee’s house at another time. As for the fourth Gospel of John, the text only shares a similar chronology of Jesus’ mission in these events: The baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, the multiplications of loaves and fishes, the crucifixion, the anointing of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene’s presence at the empty tomb. In Luke and John, Mary anoints the Lord’s feet. In Matthew’s and Mark’s she pours the fragrant oil over his head. Although the woman at the anointing scene remains unnamed in Matthew, Marc and Luke, in John she is described as Mary the sister of Lazarus and Martha from the town of Bethany.
The Gospel of Mark is the oldest text, written between ~65-75 CE. Whereas Matthew and Luke are dated approximately between ~80-90 CE. The Gospel of John was written circa ~90-100 CE. Mark relies mostly on oral tradition for his source and inspiration. Matthew and Luke have two common sources; Mark and “Q” ‒ from the German Quelle meaning source. Matthew is more descriptive than Mark whereas Luke’s version is more embellished and at times confounding. Although Matthew and Luke complement each other, they differ in many factual details. There is no academic consensus on the identity of the authors. None of the Evangelists knew or met Jesus.
The accounts were likely written in Antioch Syria, Ephesus ‒ now Turkey‒ and Rome, outside the confines of Judea, and for the most part after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. In a period where Greek culture ‒Hellenism‒ was dominant in the Greco-Roman empire. The extent of the cultural influence of Hellenism is reflected by Greek gods that were adopted by the Romans as their own. They were given Latin names and made part of their pantheon.
The Gospels were likely written by Jewish men who were knowledgeable of holy scriptures. This is evidenced by their extensive references to the Septuagint ‒ a Greek translation of Hebrew texts, known as the Old Testament in its canonical compilation. The texts use a wide range of literary devices to convey their view of events. The authors were likely spiritual leaders in their respective communities. They shared their lives and celebrated religious practices with Jews and Gentiles alike. They lived by Jesus’ all-embracing commandment of love your neighbor like yourself and obeyed the instruction to teach the Good News to all nations.
The texts were written in Koine, a Greek dialect that became the dominant language in the Mediterranean and the Middle-East after the conquests of Alexander the Great. It is assumed that Greek rather than Hebrew was chosen because it was the lingua franca of its time. And because the Evangelists lived in a cultural environment populated by Greek speaking Jews and Gentiles. Perhaps, these texts were written in Koine as a way to avoid Roman suspicion in the aftermath of the Jewish rebellion and the destruction of Jerusalem. Another reason might be that reading and writing were closely guarded skills and privileges held by Jewish priestly dynasties and scribes.
In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem the political environment changed. Jewish people who were not imprisoned, enslaved or executed fled the city to varied communities of the Diaspora. Those who remained in Judea were under tighter Roman control and monitored for any sign of insurrection. In general, Jewish religious practices were tolerated by the authorities as long as it did not cause any public disturbance. The priestly orders that were affiliated with the Temple were dispersed and dwindled in importance. Surveillance of the Jewish population in the empire increased. Any text or letters addressed to varied churches carried by messengers were likely confiscated by Roman patrols and checked for any sign of rebellion. The irony is that parables and metaphors were used to deflect any misapprehension that the message of the Good News was politically motivated. Jesus chides and explains to his disciples that only enlightened few understand the meaning of his words.
After the crucifixion of their beloved teacher and the destruction of Jerusalem, worshipers could no longer rely on the priesthood of the Temple for religious guidance. Political circumstances shifted the worship to a theology connected to the Jewish experience of exile. Centered on the principle that God does not only reside in the Holy of Holies located in the Temple but is symbolized by the chariot of God. The movable presence of Yahweh, accessible to whom he chooses for his mission.
The Jewish people of the Diaspora more than ever required spiritual direction and hope. To many, Jesus the Nazarene was considered an outsider chastised by the priestly orders of Jerusalem. As such he represented a spiritual model in a post Second Temple era for many Jewish people who heard his message. During his mission, Jesus directed his attention to people who suffered as outcasts, who yearned for hope, integration and salvation. Jesus healed people who suffered a loss: He cured the blind, the deaf and the paralyzed. He brought back to life the dead. He praises the alien like the Samaritan and the occupier like the Roman centurion on their faith. And Jesus welcomed women as his followers. He praised Mary Magdalene for anointing him, foretelling she would play a key role in the aftermath of his death.
There is no scholarly consensus as to the origin of the surname Magdalene. The magisterium’s position is that the name refers to a place named Magdala. A word derived from the Hebrew word migdal. As a result certain versions of the New Testament translate Mary’s surname of Magdala, implying that her name is connected to the city of her origin located on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
The assumption inspired a deep-seated conviction about a connection between the city of Magdala and Mary. However, this relation may not be entirely factual as it does not reflect historical data and the geography of Palestine of the time. Such a place on the banks of the Sea of Galilee no longer existed at the time of Jesus. Writings by Flavius Josephus (~37-100 CE), an historian and author of the The Jewish War, who lived during that era, does not mention a city known as Magdala/Migdal. Instead the site is referred as Taricheae, a prosperous city known for its production of salted fish. In addition the Greek geographer Strabo (64 BCE – 24 CE) in his Geography of Palestine describes the city of Taricheae without any mention of a town named Madgala. Nonetheless, the city later became known as Magdala and led to the support for the popular conviction about Mary’s surname.
Confounding as it may be, recent archaeological findings at the location of Magdala revealed the existence of an ancient city called Migdal Nunia, meaning tower of the fish. A structure that consists of a lower basin built out of rocks. The vessel was filled with water where fish were kept after an abundant fishing expedition.
The name Migdal or Migdol in Hebrew means tower. Other translations render it as fortress, stronghold or watchtower. The word is derived from the root gaddal meaning growing up, and to become great or important; figuratively implying pride and authority. In Exodus (14:2), Migdol is the location of an encampment near where Moses crossed the Sea of Reeds. In Jeremiah it refers to a chastised Jewish colony in Egypt. In many other instances Migdal indicates a tower in conjunction with a geographical location: Midgal-Gad the tower of Gad and Midgal-Eder to tower of Eder. In Joshua (19:38) Migdal-El signifies the Tower of God. And in Micah the term is associated with flock:
Mc 4: 8 And you, O tower of the flock,
hill of the daughter of Zion,
to you shall it come,
the former dominion shall come,
kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem.
Seven Evils Spirits
In 1969, shortly after the conclusion of Vatican II, the Catholic Church officially disclosed that the long held view that identified Mary Magdalene as a prostitute was not based on any factual or scriptural evidence. Cleared of being a prostitute she is nonetheless mostly remembered as a sinner and the woman whom Jesus cast out seven evil spirits, even though the cure’s description consist of two phrases. Mark (16:9) simply states from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons. Whereas Luke (8:2) mentions briefly that; Mary surnamed Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out. This event and the mischaracterization of her as a prostitute overshadowed her more important role in the spreading of the Good News.
Luke describes Mary Magdalene as a sinner. This description likely led to her being depicted in the West as a prostitute. However, sin in the Old Testament does not necessarily convey moral or carnal debauchery. Sin originally meant to miss the mark, to do evil against somebody, especially Yahweh. Sin above all is related to revolt, offense and contempt, especially in violation of the covenant: It is mostly related to idolatry.
The cure of evil spirits is often referred to as exorcism. The term is misleading as it conjures up images of wild and harmful possessions portrayed by the media. This idea of possession does not convey what the original meaning of casting out evil spirits may have been about. It consisted in a process to cleanse a person of unclean spirits in order to allow he or she to be accepted in a community or an inner circle of followers. Evil spirits are also described by the Greek word demons. The term refers to spirits that hover between terrestrial world and the realm of the gods and are not necessarily harmful. Demons in those days did not represent cinematographic images of horrific and dreadful possessions.
Possession of evil spirits was a condition perceived by most devout Jews of the time, including Jesus and his disciples, as unclean and impure. A condition that must be kept out of reach in order to avoid contagion. It conforms to the practice of an orthodox believer in setting himself apart from Gentiles and non-compliant Jews by a strict application of holy instructions, separating what is clean vs unclean, pure vs impure. The instructions dictate how one eats, who he shares meals or who he associates with, who he could touch or who can touch him: the woman he could marry, when to have sex, and what type of sex; how to farm; what type of animals he could eat, and how to kill them, etc.
Back then a wife was man’s property. A woman was typically identified as a sister, a wife or as a mother of some man. Because of Mary’s status and her behavior, she breaks established religious customs of her time. Being unmarried at a late age was viewed with distrust. And her single status might have been at the origin of the suspicion of her evil possession. She is wealthy as noted by the very expensive perfume she uses on Jesus. She throws herself at Jesus’ feet, she touched him, violating religious practices, displaying a wild nature and strong minded character. And most daring of all, she anoints Jesus: An act full of significance and daring.
Jesus’ message of love your neighbor like yourself supersedes all commandments and instructions. It is applied to everybody, including women. Was Jesus’ casting out Mary’s evil spirits a process of removing all restrictions and biases regarding a woman becoming a close follower in an observant Jewish context? Luke (10:39) describes Mary of Bethany listening to Jesus’s teachings instead of helping her sister Martha preparing the meal for the guests. This indicates that she is more interested in absorbing Jesus’ words and becoming a disciple than behaving according to prescribed rules of her time. During the first century of Judaism it was unusual for a woman to sit down and listen to a Rabbuni, meaning teacher in Aramaic. More so for a teacher to accept a woman as a disciple.
The anointing of Jesus is described in all four Gospels. This in itself is a significant event. Nonetheless, each version recounts what happened in varied details. Overall the scene depicts a woman holding in her arms an alabaster vial containing very expensive perfume walking in a room filled with dinner guests. She moves toward Jesus and kneels in front of him. She pours the costly nard over Jesus’ feet and then rubs them. By some accounts the value of the perfume is estimated to be worth as much as one year’s wages. She then wipes his feet with her long lush hair. She does this in full view of Jesus’ disciples and guests in a show of utter submission and love. She deliberately chooses to make the anointing an act of public display.
Lk 7:36 One of the Pharisees invited him to a meal. When he arrived at the Pharisee’s house and place at the table, suddenly a woman came in, who had a bad name in town. She had heard he was dining with the Pharisee and had brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. She waited behind him at his feet, weeping, and her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them away with her hair; then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with ointment.
By her actions she recognized Jesus as her Lord and teacher. The scene has a significant symbolic reference in terms of the anointing of Jesus as Messiah. The disciples are scandalized by such an act of devotion and symbolism. They question why so much money should be spent frivolously instead of feeding the poor. Plus, it is considered a violation of religious practice for a woman to touch an unmarried man. Nonetheless, Jesus tells them to leave her alone, because she has done a good work.
In the Old Testament the ritual of anointing relates to pouring scented oil over a person’s head as a sign of divine election to a position of power. Biblical examples depict the ritual being performed on high priests or kings. The Hebrew word for “the anointed one” is Mashiaẖ. It is translated in Greek into Christ and the term was rendered as Messiah in English. King David is a befitting example of Mashiaẖ. As a young man he killed Goliath and grew to become a successful military leader who united the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He was a poet, a good orator and a musician. As a result of his military skills and political maneuvering he rose in ranks and was anointed king by prophet Samuel. Hebrew prophets regard Kind David as the ancestor of a future Mashiaẖ.
The translation of Hebrew texts into Greek represents a cultural departure from the original religious experiences lived by the Jewish people; especially for Gentiles who were introduced to the Holy scriptures and who did not share the historical background as a people. This also applies to the translation of the Bible in numerous other languages. The term Mashiaẖ does not convey the same meaning for Jewish people as its translation into Christ/Messiah does for Christians. For the Jewish people the term has a religious, historical and geopolitical meaning. For Christians, the word Christ relates more to Savior. And is connected to the commandment of love your neighbor with the mission to teach the Good News to all nations, underlying a universal manner of being as the core of its message.
Mary’s anointing has a symbolic reference to Jesus as a spiritual Messiah and Savior. In retrospect, Mary’s actions show a sign of prophetic insight. Christians a few centuries later would, with the conversion of Emperor Constantine, take over Rome and spread their message to the whole empire and beyond reaching all nations without the help of an army, tax collection or central government.
In Matthew, Mark and Luke the identity of the woman at the anointing scene is unnamed. This is a mystery, especially considering that the event is reported in all four Gospels, all of which describe the behavior of a person filled with symbolic significance. There is one exemption. John does reveal her identity: She is Mary from the town of Bethany, a woman he describes as Mary Magdalene who is present at the tomb.
Jesus says this about his anointing: Let her alone, in order that she may keep it for the day of My burial. He is giving us a clue by revealing a connection between the woman at his anointing and Mary Magdalene with fragrant oil kept in preparation for his burial. Hence, the unnamed woman in Matthew, Mark and Luke and referred to as Mary of Bethany in John, is hypothetically the same person. (2) She is Mary from the town of Bethany also known as Mary with the metaphorical attribute of Migdal.
Jesus’ fate unraveled shortly after his last supper. He was betrayed by one of his followers, abandoned by his disciples, and arrested by the Roman occupying forces. He was denounced by the priests and judged and condemned by the mob under the supervision of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect. He was tortured, humiliated and forced to carry the instrument of his death. He was finally nailed to a cross as a violent display of the sanctioning power of the Empire. Finally, he was left to die between common criminals. Throughout his ordeal the only people that stood by his side were Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joset and Salome.
In John’s version, Mary Magdalene finds an empty tomb and witnesses the appearance of Jesus whom she does not recognize and mistakes for a gardener. Mary asks the gardener if he took the body away? And if so, to tell her where he put it. Suddenly, Jesus calls out; “Mary”. And at the sound of her name she cries out “Rabbuni” in Aramaic. Mary Magdalene, a novice of Jesus’ teachings, has a revelation. She did not recognize Jesus at first because the risen Lord after his death is a different body.
Magdalene was the first to proclaim that Jesus has risen from the dead. She is the chosen messenger to spread the Good News. As it happens, the root word apostle in Greek means messenger. As a result on June 3rd 2016, by the express wish of Pope Francis, the Church gave Saint Mary Magdalene the same rank of Feast celebration that was given to the Apostles in the General Roman Calendar. Stating; the special mission of this woman should be underlined, she who is an example and model for all women in the Church. The Church also acknowledges the opinion of Rabanus Maurus and Saint Thomas Aquinas who called Mary Magdalene apostolorum apostola or the Apostle to the Apostles. Although Mary
Magdalene is considered a Saint by several Christian denominations, her status is pre-Congregational, meaning, she is a saint whose beatification or canonization occurred before the institution of the modern investigations performed by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
In mythology, the first to inaugurate a new reality is elevated in status and consecrated as a supernatural being, a deity or a saint. Myth is essentially a story that describes the events that are at the origin of a new reality created by civilizing people in the beginning of time. The Gospels recount the events that ushered a new era of Christianity, inaugurating a new time with the separation between Before Christ (BC) and After Death (AD). A secularized version of these acronyms are rendered as Before the Common Era (BCE) and Common Era (CE). To sum it up, myth records meaningful events of the world. These events evolve in a time beyond history, in a fuzzy boundary between the supernatural and the ordinary world, between mythology and history. In this respect Mary Magdalene being the first to witness the risen Christ plays a preeminent role in Christianity.
The Metaphor as Code
In order to be able to write in Koine the Evangelists must have been educated in Greek. Among the more noteworthy teachers of Classical Greek schools of thought is Aristotle, who’s writings cover a wide array of subjects including Rhetoric and Poetics. Rhetoric is the art of speaking or writing in an eloquent manner in order to convince and influence an audience. One essential component of both treatises is metaphor: A figure of speech that is as old as Greek literature and can be traced back to the writings of Homer. Metaphor consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.
Metaphor is not the exclusivity of Greek literature, it is extensively used in Hebrew holy scriptures. The following are only a few samples:
Pr 18:10 The name of Yahweh is a strong tower;
the upright runs to it and is secure
The wealth of the rich forms a stronghold
a high wall, as the rich supposes
Ps 18: 2 Yahweh is my rock and my fortress,
my deliverer is my God
I take refuge in him, my rock,
my shield, my saving strength,
my stronghold, my place of refuge
Literary critic Northrop Frye is a guiding source when he states that: Within the Bible itself, all the values connected with the term “truth” can be reached only by passing through myth and metaphor. He is not alone in making the assessment. Literary theorist Kenneth Burke explains that literary devices like the metaphor have their role in the discovery and description of “the truth”. While mythologist Joseph Campbell sees the metaphor as a dynamic way of looking at narrative. During an interview Campbell asked an interviewer this question: What is a metaphor? Bemused he answered: My friend John runs very fast. People say he runs like a deer. There’s a metaphor. Campbell replied; That’s not a metaphor. A metaphor is: John is a deer.
This is what Jesus says:
Jn 10:9 I am the door/gate
Jn 14:6 I am the way
Jesus’ tells Simon that he is rock. He will be known as the foundation on which Jesus will build his community.
Mt 16:18 So now I say to you: You are Peter ‒ rock‒, and on this rock I will build my community. And the gates of the underworld can never overpower it.
During the Last Supper Jesus shares his last meal with his disciples. Jesus picks and holds a loaf of bread, cuts it into twelve pieces and shares it with his followers. He pours wine in a cup and shares it with his disciples and says.
Mk 14: 22 Take it, he said, this is my body…this is my blood
Jesus words are symbolic actions: The bread is his body, the wine is his blood. By taking the bread in his hands, cutting it into pieces and sharing it with his Disciples, Jesus’ biological body becomes a different body and signifies the group of Disciples holding the symbolic pieces of bread formerly made of one loaf. Each individual member makes up the assembly known as the Church, defined by a papal encyclical as the Mystical Body of Christ. The cup of wine is Jesus’ blood, sacrificed for the life of the community after his death. The cup holds an additional symbolic attribute in terms of being a container: A physical object that holds a beverage for consumption. In this sense the mythical Holy Grail is only one material component in the metaphorical equation. The other, is the content of wine turned into blood as a symbol of Jesus’ sacrificial death to give life to his Mystical Body.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that consists in using a word~image to convey~embody something else. It is a break in the normal use of language that modifies habitual social conventions and religious practices. In the case of the Gospels, it is a shift in meaning and in being: A transport from a literal, material and visible level into a metaphorical, intangible and invisible level. The process involves a carrying-over of a material condition into a spiritual state to inspire revelation ‒ to unveil what is hidden. Unraveling a dynamic interaction between the material and the spiritual state of understanding the Word.
Mk 8:18 Have you eyes and do not see, ears and do not hear?
The name Mary Magdalene, depending on the translation, is used at least twelve times in the Gospels. Similarly, the name of Simon Peter, used with a metaphorical attribute, is used fifteen times in the Gospel of John. The narratives show that Jesus privileges the use of literary devices to reveal his message. Simply put, the metaphor is the door to the Good News. It enable us to see Mary as a metaphorical tower. In the same way we see Peter as metaphorical rock. Furthermore, Simon’s surname represents a single element as opposed to a more elaborate structure defined by tower. The distinction suggests a more complex character of Mary Migdal.
Luke, who at times is confounding, is nonetheless helpful when he describes Mary as surnamed the Magdalene, adding support to the idea that Migdal is a metaphorical attribute of tower. Similar to one that is given to Peter, or John the Baptist, or James and John as the Sons of Thunder.
Lk 8:2 With him went the Twelve, as well as certain women who had been cured of evils spirits and ailments: Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out…
Furthermore, it is surmised that the term Migdal might also allude to tower of the fish, and is made in connection to the ancient city of Midgal Nunia. Even though this city was known as Taricheae at the time of Jesus. It is presumed that Jewish people, as an act of defiance against the Roman occupier, did not call the city by its Latin name but continued to referred to it as Migdal. This type of rock basin holding fish were likely found in many other fishing towns around the sea of Galilee.
In another metaphorical example in Matthew (4:8) Jesus says he will make his disciples fishers of men. As it happens the Greek word for fish is ichthys. The word was converted into an acronym during the first century CE meaning; Jesus, Christ, Son of God, Savior, and was depicted by the symbol of a fish. Second-century theologian Tertulian explains: we, little fishes, after the image of our ichthys, Jesus Christ, are born in the water.
Christians were not the only ones using the image of a fish as a religious symbol. It was a common pagan symbol as well. As a result, Christians used the image in times of persecution in order to avoid attracting suspicion from the Roman authorities. It was customary for a believer to mark meeting places and tombs with the icon to differentiate followers from unbelievers. It was also used as a secret meeting code between Christians. One faithful would draw an upper arc and the other would complete the image by drawing the lower arc forming an image of a fish.
To conclude, Simon was named Peter to signify he was the foundation of the Church. Whereas, Mary surnamed Magdalene, is the first to recognize the resurrected body of Christ. According to a literary interpretation of the narratives she is Migdal, a symbolic tower, implying strength and vision. Perhaps alluding to tower of the fish, and as such she embodies the sacred vessel symbolized by the tower of the flock.
Mary Magdalene’s portrait can only be made with a patchwork of evidence found in varied Gospels. Her identity will be subject to continued scholarly scrutiny and debate. Nonetheless, literary devices are essential tools that provide clues in finding the truth about Mary’s metaphorical identity.
Mk 14: 9 In truth I tell you, whenever throughout all the world the Good News is proclaimed, what she has done will be told as well, in remembrance of her.
(1) The original idea of the thematic sequence is taken from A.L. Greimas, Structural Semantics: An Attempt at a Method, Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1983. I have introduced my own sequence which may not be endorsed or approved by the author.
(2) The Church’s position about Mary Magdalene’s identity is split between an old tradition dating back to Pope Gregory I (540-604 CE), who identified Mary Magdalene, the sister of Lazarus and Martha of the town of Bethany, and the woman who anointed Jesus as the same person. According to the Church this interpretation continued to influence western ecclesiastical authors, Christian art and liturgical texts relative to this Saint. However, the magisterium’s current position is that Mary Magdalene should not be confused with Mary the sister of Lazarus and Martha, from the town of Bethany
Bourgeault Cynthia, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Boston, Shambhala, 2010
Burke Kenneth, Four Master Tropes, JSTOR.org
Chilton Bruce, Mary Magdalene, A Biography, New York, Doubleday, 2005
Frye Northrop, The Great Code, Toronto, Academic Press Canada, 1982
Frye Northrop, Words With Power, San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990
King Karen L., The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, Santa Rosa, Polebridge Press, 2003
Kirby John T., Aristotle on Metaphor, JSTOR.org
Ricoeur Paul, La Metaphor Vive, Paris, Seuil, 1975
Sabar Ariel, Unearthing the World of Jesus, Smithsonian.com
Starbird Margaret, Mary Magdalene, Bride in Exile, Rochester, Bear & Company, 2005
No matter if one is religious or agnostic, Paul’s letters are compelling pieces of literature. Part confession, part exhortation, and part reprimand, his epistles are a gripping expression of a call to duty in the face of what the Apostle perceived to be an eminent end of days. Although the world did not cease to exist as he expected, the destruction of Jerusalem and its Second Temple eight years after his death in 70 AD, could very well be considered the end of the world for the Jewish people. The political context that led to Paul’s execution in Rome foreshadowed his dread about the future. To this day his landmark epistle to the Romans remains his most important legacy. Overall, his letters disclose a man set apart for a mission. His calling initiated an identity crisis directly related to his Jewish religious background as a man born in Tarsus, living in a Greek cultural environment, and subject to Roman political control. The context of Paul’s vocation reveals a religious disintegration and the unraveling dynamic of a spiritual experience.
The term religious typically implies an experience that is lived within the framework of a belief system, whereas the term spiritual relates to an experience that can also occur outside the boundaries of an established religion. Paul’s pharisaic background and calling make his experience both religious and spiritual in the sense that his calling shattered the boundaries of his religious beliefs set by tenets outlined in the Torah. With his vocation, Paul went beyond the instructions to reach into a spiritual realm outside his religious beliefs to embrace what he once perceived to be blasphemous and heresy.
Following his calling, Paul undertook to preach the Good News to the world. His travels included cities in Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Cyprus, parts of Turkey, Syria, Asia Minor, Arabia and Judea. On several occasions he visited Jerusalem where several of the Lord’s disciples lived, among them Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. His first journey took place three years after his revelation. On his last visit, approximately fifteen years later, he was arrested, imprisoned and transferred to Rome where he was executed five years later. Paul, the persecutor of Christian Jews, eventually became persecuted by conservative Jews and Christian Jews who did not share his views on the suspension of the law to accommodate Gentile converts.
In order to put Paul’s spiritual experience in proper perspective, it is necessary to describe his religious background and the cultural environment in which he lived. It is also important to emphasize the changes brought about by the translation of the Torah into Greek, a language in which Paul wrote his letters. This applies also to all the languages in which the Bible was translated over time. Important aspects of the original Hebrew words have been obscured from one language to another, and inevitably some of the original significance has been lost in the translation.
Saul, who is better known by his Latin name Paul, was born in Tarsus –south-central Turkey– between 1 and 5 AD. His birthplace was renowned for being a center of Greek culture. Like many other cities of that region, it was under military and political control of Rome. Nonetheless, Greek was a predominant language of that era.
During that period the Jewish population of the Diaspora was approximately 4.5 million, about 7% of the total population of the Roman empire. A majority of Jewish people lived outside Judea, mostly in territories located along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa and the Aegean coast, all the way to Italy and beyond. Paul’s family, like many other Jewish families, lived in voluntary exile, perhaps because Hellenistic rulers had granted Jews extensive rights, special privileges, and protection under the law.
At the time of Paul’s writing the literacy level in the Greco-Roman world was close to 20% of the urban population, whereas in Judea it was about 2 to 3% of the Jewish people. Being born and educated in an urban environment with higher literacy levels might explain why his letters were written in Koine, or common Greek. Traditionally, reading and writing were a closely guarded trade by priestly dynasties and scribes of Israel. It was a family craft that was kept from generation to generation. As a rule, priests interpreted and managed the religious instructions of the law, whereas scribes acted as consultants and accountants for the ruling class. In some cases priestly orders also acted as scribes and performed all the related functions for the rulers.
Another explanation why Paul wrote in Koine is that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Torah, was widely used during his lifetime. According to tradition the Septuagint had its origin in Alexandria, Egypt. It was sponsored by King Ptolemy II (287-47 BC), who had recently established the library of Alexandria. The king was persuaded by his chief librarian to include a copy of the Jewish sacred text in the library. Over time the Septuagint became popular among a growing Jewish population of the Diaspora who were inevitably influenced by Hellenism. This is exemplified by the Epistles and Gospels written in Koine.
Paul’s letters are unique in many respects. They are the oldest Christian writings and predate the oldest Gospel of Mark by 20 years. His epistles are among very few documents written by a historical New Testament individual. Although his letters are compelling pieces of literature, they don’t stand up to rhetorical standard. Paul used a dialect similar to one spoken by Hellenistic Jews of the time. His writing reveals he was not concerned with being eloquent. He did not use the canons of rhetoric and did not give credit to reason, the basic philosophical foundation of Hellenism. The text is comprised of different styles crammed together and best described as letters meant to be read aloud by Paul’s emissary to varied assemblies of believers. His composition represented Paul’s own cultural background and his unique way of expressing himself.
Not all epistles bearing his name were written by Paul. Scholarly consensus attributes the following documents to his authorship: First and Second Letters to the Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon and Romans. Other letters are called Deutero-Pauline, meaning they were written under his name. For the sake of authenticity, the list above will be used as the source of this essay, the reason being that it is hard enough to determine an accurate portrait of Paul without having documents that contradict important events or confuse his theological teachings. A case in point is the Book of Acts written by Luke some forty years later. The book is colorful, full of anecdotes, yet in many instances contradicts or omits some historical facts about the apostle.
Except for the letter to Philemon addressed to a friend, the epistles are centered on pastoral matters dealing with varied churches that have their location as title. Unlike the Gospels, Paul is not preoccupied with describing the chronological life of Jesus or his sayings. Their content varies from giving thanks, to words of support, to criticism or reprimand, and are mostly concerned with expressing his thoughts on the justification through faith in Christ Jesus. His letters outline his interpretation of the law, sin, love, death and the resurrection of the body of Christ as the Church.
The Apostle Paul was a crucial player in the foundation of Christianity. His militant work made him the second most important figure after Jesus Christ. And although he never met Jesus, he did meet Peter, the apostle that the Lord chose as leader of his Church, and James, the brother of Jesus in Jerusalem. As a result, Paul heard first hand their testimony about Jesus’ message.
Saul was raised in the matter of the law as a Pharisee. At the outset he was educated in the school of thought that relied on the written and oral traditions of the Torah, a belief system based on the liturgy and rituals that now constitute Rabbinic Judaism. According to his letters, Paul persecuted Jews who were preaching Jesus’ message, and on some occasions he did so violently. He was actively involved in trying to destroy the early church. As a Pharisee he simply perceived Christian Jews as violating Mosaic Law. He persecuted both Jews and Gentiles alike for proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah and preaching that Jesus was crucified and buried; on the third day was resurrected from the dead and sat at the right hand of God. Christian Jews were also targeted for breaking bread with uncircumcised Gentile converts.
The irony is that on several occasions the Gospels describe Jesus being confronted by Pharisees. They claim that Jesus does not have the authority to forgive sins, and that he should not be eating with sinners. He was chastised for healing a follower on a Sabbath. On one occasion Pharisees confronted him by saying that the law of Moses requires that an adulteress be stoned, to which Jesus replies that he who is without sin throw the first stone.
One day, on his way to Damascus, presumably in order to persecute Christian Jews, Paul’s religious conviction is shattered to the core. His faith is irrevocably altered. His letters do not give any details of what exactly happened, except that Christ appeared to him in the same fashion as he did to the disciples. All we know is that it brought a radical change in his life. His religious experience compelled Paul into having a diametrically opposed view of Christ Jesus and the Jews and Gentiles who proclaimed his message.
What caused Saul’s change? Did he break down, compelled by the message of love thy neighbor made by the people he persecuted? Did he submit to the presence of the body of Christ embodied by Jesus’ followers? Whatever the reason, his experience unleashed a religious disintegration that compelled him to preach the Good News of the resurrected body of Christ.
His calling unravels a drastic change in his religious beliefs. The law that once was responsible for the persecution of Christian Jews is lifted. Christians and Gentiles are now to be part of the Church as one body in Christ. With his calling Paul the Pharisee opens his heart to all who have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Hence, whoever has faith is saved: men, women, Jews, Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, slaves, free men and members of all nations.
Because of his preaching the Gospel, Paul suffered persecution and adverse conditions throughout his mission:
2 Cor 11:23 Are they servants of Christ? I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm…
There is a significant difference between the original meaning of many Hebrew words, their Greek translation and today’s significance. As a result it is important to clarify some of the concepts as Paul understood them. This is especially the case of faith, sin, death and Christ, etc, that don’t have the same spiritual resonance today as it did when he wrote them.
Rom 3: 22 God’s saving justice given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.
In a current Christian mindset, faith is a belief that God exists, that we trust that he will do what he says he will do. It also means we trust the tenets of our religious belief system to be true. In this instance, faith places trust in God or on the system we have faith in. The original meaning of the Hebrew word emunah, translated into faith, implies support, in the sense that it does not only rely on the premise that God is present and will act, but emphasizes the individual’s action in support of God and his commandments. As such, faith is an unfailing duty of reciprocity which exists between contracting parties. It is a covenant involving a personal commitment by the faithful and generating a wholesome ̶ shalom ̶ manner of being with the Divine. This support emanates from the believer as much as from God, reflecting a personal relationship with the Lord. The distinction is important in order to understand Paul’s calling of being one in Christ.
* * * *
Gal 1:15 But when God, who had set me apart even from the time when I was in my mother’s womb, called me through his grace, and chose to reveal his Son in me so that I should preach him to the Gentiles…
The Hebrew word grace does not signify elegance and mercy but describes the establishment of a new order of things. It implies a similar sense as the original Hebrew word, meaning the strategic order of setting up a tent in an encampment that separates the members living within with strangers living without.
Rom 5:12 When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.
As a consequence of his persecution of Christians, Paul equates the Law with sin and death. The root of sin is not related to sexual behavior but is centered on idolatry that enslaves people by diverting man’s support of God and his commandments. It relates to power schemes that interfere with an individual’s close relationship with God: Popular idols and subliminal gods that are set against the true God. Consequently, the wage of sin is death does not mean the physical decay of the flesh but the estrangement from a close relationship with the Divine. The result is an alienation that shatters an individual’s integrity in respect to who one is, his/her personal calling, and his/her role in history: in Christian terms, salvation.
In Genesis, God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit in the middle of the garden or they would die. The story reveals that Eve listened to the serpent that tempted her by saying that by eating the fruit they would be like gods knowing good and evil and would not die. Adam’s sin stems from listening to Eve and eating the forbidden fruit rather than obeying God’s commandment, an offense that resulted in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The transgression initiated an alienation from God’s presence, a loss of Adam’s holiness that introduced sin and a spiritual death into the world. According to Paul, Jesus’ mission on earth redeemed Adam’s sin by restoring God’s presence with his own death and resurrection. Jesus was exalted at the right-hand side of God and restored a divine holiness among all who believe. For Paul, sinfulness is the condition of being devoid of faith in Christ who died to restore a reconciliation with God.
Paul uses the same expressions of Lord and God used in the Old Testament. He refers to Jesus as Lord and Christ. The latter is the Latin translation of the Greek Christos meaning messiah. The word Christ does not share the same original significance with the Hebrew mashiach. The term signifies “the anointed one” related to the Jewish practice of the anointing with oil of a king, a sovereign who is a descendant of King David, one who is anticipated to be a great political and military leader of Israel. Mashiach is linguistically, politically, and religiously distinct from the Greek Christos, translated into savior ̶ and more closely related to moshiah. The translation sets the term outside the theological and political jurisdiction of Israel. Saul most likely knew the difference between the two words. However, the scope of his calling demanded that he include Christian Jews and Gentiles who were living outside the political realm of Israel into the body of Christ.
There are many instances where God sets apart people in the Bible. We have very few examples of an actual self consecration. Paul is an exception. God sets Saul apart for a mission to reveal his Son in Paul.
Rom 1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God the gospel he promised before and through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures.
There are two separate issues to note from the quotes above. The first: Paul is setting himself apart. The second: the apostle uses a link of Holy Scriptures to justify the unwritten Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul separates himself and commits his life to Christ. The action of setting apart constitutes a consecration, making someone holy. The separation sets boundaries with the profane, the common and the unclean. It is the action of separation that bestows upon a person or object a quality of being holy or sacred. It is not an intrinsic quality of a person or an object in itself.
Paul at the outset believes in the sacred instructions of the Torah. He abides by the exclusive rules of the Holy Scriptures. As a result he opposes Christian Jews who go against God’s commandments. As such he persecuted whoever violated the law whom he considered unclean. Prior to his calling Paul believed in the exclusive rule of the written code consisting of a strict separation between those who abide by the instructions and those who violated them.
After his calling, the law is no longer necessary and is associated with sin because it is an obstacle to the message of love thy neighbor that includes Gentiles. The exclusive nature of the Jewish law prior to the Christ event is lifted. It is supplanted by an all-inclusive commandment of love, generating a wholly manner of being that includes Jews, Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, slaves, free men, women and members of all nations: God’s holy people.
Rom 13: 8 For to love the other person is to fulfill the law.
However, the Jewish law is not abolished. It is encompassed by the commandment of love thy neighbor. If you love your God and neighbor as yourself, you will fulfill law and will not break any of the commandments. As a result, love covers two separate but interacting manners of being consisting of being set apart as a Pharisee, and being one in Christ. It generates an interaction between being exclusively ruled by the written code and by being called into the profane world that was once opposed. It is a movement from an exclusive application of the law to the all inclusive commandment of love.
Among all of Paul’s epistles, Romans stand out as his theological testament: It is addressed to Gentile converts he never met, to a church he did not organize, and a city he never set foot in. In the letter he introduces himself and announces his long planned visit to the church in Rome. He informs its members of his project to continue his mission to Spain. He commends Phoebe who will most likely read Paul’s letter to the assembly. He gives thanks to his friends and fellow-workers, among them, Aquila and Priscilla on whom he relied for updates about the congregation. Paul explains that he had to put off his trip on many occasions because of a duty he had to carry out first, the completion of which was a collection of money meant as an offering to the mother church on the occasion of his second visit to Jerusalem. He also confesses that he viewed his journey with some apprehension, concerned that the members of the church would not welcome his visit or accept his offering. He asks the congregation to pray for the success of his mission.
The apostle introduces to the Roman assembly basic theological principles of the Holy Scripture, many of which we have outlined. He uses the example of Abraham and God’s covenant to justify his premise that circumcision is preferable but not necessary because Abraham’s justification by faith occurred prior to his circumcision. Abraham’s covenant secured a promise to all descendants and consecrated the Patriarch as the father of many nations not only to those who rely on the law and who are circumcised but to all who have faith.
PAUL’S TRIPS TO THE MOTHER CHURCH
His first of two journeys to Jerusalem proved to be crucial for the unity of the early church, even though Paul did not expect to be welcomed with open arms. Members of the mother church had reasons to view Paul with suspicion, foremost because he used to persecute Jewish converts with notable zeal. Also, the Apostle was considered to be too much of a Hellenist. The Apostle knew his teachings would be questioned by Jesus’ disciples who were more conservative Jewish Christians, particularly James, the brother of Jesus. Among the more contentious issues is Paul’s belief on the suspension of the law to accommodate Gentile converts.
Although the members of the mother church believed that the law, including circumcision, should be required of all new Christian converts, the meeting ended with a tacit compromise which allowed Paul’s interpretation of the Gospel to be more tolerant toward the Gentiles. However, after the meeting, both sides stuck to their original beliefs. Paul did not change his mind that the church he was building was God’s new creation in which there are neither Jews nor Gentiles but one body in Christ.
Gal. 2:9 For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles.
Paul’s calling and mission made him many enemies among the Christian Jews as well as the religious Jews who viewed his teachings as a violation of the law. He stood out as a controversial figure and a source of trouble. In 57 AD he was arrested in Jerusalem. He was most likely denounced to the local authorities by religious conservatives during a period when the city was rife with unrest. His arrest took place only a few years prior to the Jewish-Roman wars in 63-73 AD. Coincidentally, like Jesus, Paul’s incursion in Jerusalem would lead to his arrest and death, a convenient scapegoat sacrificed at the altar of political turmoil. Two years after being taken into custody he was transferred to Rome. He was executed under the reign of Emperor Nero in 62 AD.
In my essays, The Book of Job, I outline a theory of an interaction between the sacred and the profane. I attempt to show a spiritual dynamic generated by a fuzzy principle defined as the wholly other: a lexical ambiguity that implies solely or exclusively in terms of separate but also signifies completely or entirely as a totality. The dynamic takes place in a sphere in which two distinct entities of the holy and profane interact and transcend each other. The process dissipates any religious boundaries into an all inclusive totality establishing equilibrium between the conflicting outlooks.
Keep in mind that the Book of Job is an ancient work of fiction whereas Paul’s calling is a personal account written in his own words. His journey reveals a path from one mode of existence to a wholesome manner of being. It reconciles his Jewish religious background and his Hellenistic cultural environment in which he was born and lived.
Paul lives through an experience that moves him from an exclusive reliance on God’s commandments into a profane world of Christ and the Gentiles. In the process he transcends the law’s confinement. He lives through both realities; the Holy Scriptures and his calling to the commandment of love. He moves from one order things to a wholly other way of being.
At the outset, Saul as a Pharisee believed in the exclusive application of the law and opposed Christian Jews who did not abide by it. He viewed Christians as unclean, to be chastised. With his encounter with the Christ, his opposition is lifted and he embraces what he once negated. In essence, Paul’s faith lies in a struggle between the law and Christ’s message of love. He overcomes the confines of the written code with the divine power of compassion. His mission henceforth is to preach to all Christian Jews and Gentiles as being part of the holy people.
A similar spiritual dynamic is illustrated by Jesus Christ: Jesus the son of man, a title that simply means the profane nature of ordinary human being and the resurrected body of Christ as Lord and sovereign being.
Gen. 32:28 Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.
Paul’s calling, like Jacob’s, involves a struggle, one that must be undertaken in order for the dynamic to unfold. It is only after Jacob has striven with God ̶ or his angel ̶ that he became known as Israel. The ensuing battle with the Lord engendered a new religious identity. Like Jacob, Paul struggled with the Gospel and Christ took over.
1 Cor 13:7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
For Paul, love bears all things. He is no longer divided by the demands of the law that led him to segregate both Christian Jews and Gentiles. He reconciles being a Pharisee living in a Greek cultural environment embracing all who have faith in the commandment of love.
Rom 13:9 You must love your neighbor as yourself.
The meaning of neighbor does not only imply any urban individuals living next to each other. In the context of Paul’s travels to preach, neighbor is whoever one sets up camp next to: men, women, Jews, Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, slaves, free men and members of all nations.
1 Cor 13:13 As it is, these remain: faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of them is love.
Paul’s spiritual journey is referred to as a universal manner of being for the simple reason that the central driving force of his message is love. It is considered to be a principle that is readily accepted as being universal. The term universal has been used instead of the synonym catholic because today it is associated with a religious denomination. It no longer conveys its original significance of katholikos ̶ throughout the whole, or universal ̶ as it was used during the Greek classical period. The term was also popular with the earlier Christian writers who used it in its non-ecclesiastical sense.
Love is a powerful force that shakes us and moves us, a drive that helps us see beyond the barriers of prejudice, doctrine and dogma. It opens our hearts to a possibility of making us wholesome by settling internal and external conflicts. Moreover, love unites and reconciles the individual with self, family, friends, community, homeland and the universe.
Paul’s words and actions make him an exceptional man not only because of his contribution to religion and civilization. But because his message is universal and immortal, one that reaches out to members of all nations.
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of Christianity’s most central creed. It is also one that is subject to literal as well as spiritual interpretations. The contention between the two stems from a lexical ambiguity of the term “body,” a word that, in respect to spiritual salvation, signifies a group of believers; an assembly, hence the church, rather than the anatomy, the flesh. The Good News proclaimed by Paul and the Apostles reveals that despite the crucifixion, the Lord has risen and is present among his believers. The cross is the symbol of tyranny of this world that consists of the political, legal and priestly institutions that have judged and condemned Jesus for claiming to be the Son of God and the Messiah. Thus, the Good News proclaims that although the worldly powers attempted to dispose of Jesus by putting him to death, he was exalted and risen from the dead. With his passion and resurrection of the mystical body of Jesus Christ, the living Church is henceforth sovereign and risen above the tyranny of this world.
For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (Rom 12:4)
What is conveyed by certain words in the Bible is different from their ordinary, everyday use. Many of the terms used in the Old and New Testaments have a distinct and specifically religious connotation. This is especially true of the meaning of body, death and the resurrection. Consequently, it is essential to put the original meaning of some of terminology in proper perspective. The expression, “Good News,” synonymous with “Gospel,” is equally used here as it conveys a better mental representation of what the Apostles and the first Christians meant about the message of the risen Lord and the church as the resurrected body of Jesus Christ.
Apostle Paul was a determinant figure in the spreading of the Good News. His militant work made him the second most important figure in Christendom after Jesus Christ. Moreover, his epistles are the oldest documents relating to the development of the early church. In his letters, he outlines the basic tenets of the resurrection of the body of Christ. Although he has never met Jesus, he did meet Peter, the apostle that the Lord chose as leader of his church, in Jerusalem. As a result, Paul heard Peter’s testimony of Jesus’ message firsthand. Nonetheless, Paul is a controversial figure. Some blame him for a fateful opposition between Jews and Christians; others contend that too much emphasis has been given to Paul instead of Jesus Christ. Regardless, Paul was Christianity’s most persuasive and crucial organizer. Without him, Christianity would not be what it is today.
Saul, who is also called Paul, was born between 1 and 5 A.D. in Tarsus, a city in south-central Turkey renowned for being a center of Greek culture comparable to Athens. He was an orthodox rabbi and according to his letters, he was a Pharisee. The book of Acts reveals he was a Roman citizen, but some scholars suspect the assertion. He was raised and educated according to the strict rules of Rabbinical law. There is no explanation on his part as to why he wrote his epistles in Greek. Nevertheless, his exhortations – meant to be read aloud – reveal a traditional Jewish, rather than Hellenistic, mindset.
According to his letters, Paul persecuted Jews who were proclaiming Jesus’ message and was actively involved in trying to destroy the early church. As a result, Christian Jews were either beaten or chastised according to the law. Paul doesn’t give any details about his persecution and the level of violence, except that he was driven by Pharisaical zeal in defense of his ancestral tradition. He simply perceived Christian Jews as violating Jewish law.
The irony is that, on several occasions, the Gospels describe Jesus being confronted by Pharisees, who claimed that Jesus did not have the authority to forgive sins and that he should not be eating with sinners. He was also admonished for healing a follower on a Sabbath. On one occasion, Pharisees confronted him by saying that the law of Moses requires that an adulteress be stoned, to which Jesus replied that “he who is without sin throw the first stone.” (John 8:7)
One day on his way to Damascus – presumably in order to persecute Jews who believed in Christ – Paul heard a mysterious voice calling him and was shaken to the ground by a vision of Jesus. He gave no details of what exactly happened. Nonetheless, the event brought a radical change in his life. This religious experience compelled Paul into having a diametrical view of Christ Jesus and the Jews who believed in him and, as a result, he submitted to the revelation of “Christ and I are one” and in “One body in Christ.”
From the outset, Paul was educated in the school of thought that relied on the oral and written tradition of the Torah, or instructions, a belief system based on the liturgy and rituals that constitutes rabbinic Judaism. As a result, he opposed Jews who believed in Jesus whom he perceived to be violating the law. His calling unraveled a shift where the law that was responsible for his persecution was no longer necessary. With Jesus’ message of “love thy neighbor like yourself” (Mark 12:31), Paul the Pharisee opened his heart to all followers of Christ: Men, women, Jews, Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, slaves, free men, and members of all nations. Hence the term “neighbor” is no longer limited to a group of chosen people but to all who submit to the commandment of love.
As it is, these remain: faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of
them is love. (1 Cor 13:13)
As a consequence of his persecution of Christians, Paul equates the law with sin and death. For the apostle, sin is the condition of being devoid of faith in Jesus Christ, who died for our sins. It is linked to Adam’s original sin that resulted in being cast out of God’s presence, ensuing in a spiritual death. Whereas, with His mission and presence on earth, Jesus redeems Adam’s sin by restoring God’s presence among the believers.
When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. (Rom 5:12)
In Genesis, God commanded Adam and Eve to not eat the fruit in the middle of the garden or they would die. The story reveals that Eve listened to the serpent who tempted her by promising that, if they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve would be like gods knowing good and evil and that they would live forever and would not die. Adam’s sin stems from listening to Eve and eating the forbidden fruit rather than obeying God’s commandment. The betrayal resulted in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden and incurred an estrangement from God’s presence and dominion. Paul equates this original alienation from God to a spiritual death – a death that is redeemed by the Son of God’s presence on earth among the people who have faith.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written between 70 A.D. and 90 A.D. after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are considered “synoptic” because they share a similar chronology of the life of Jesus. Mark, the oldest gospel, was written approximately 20 years after Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians. The Gospel of John was written the latest, circa 90 A.D., with a chronology and style all of its own. None of the authors knew or met Jesus. The narratives are recollections of oral testimonies of Jesus’ mission. The authors were likely all Jews. They took great care of linking the Old Testament to the messianic legitimacy of Jesus. All of the text was written in Greek and share a similar allegorical style in respect to their use of metaphors, parables, signs and miracles.
The synoptic Gospels share a similar chronology of the last supper, the passion and resurrection. The accounts use the same metaphors to describe Jesus’ central message of his body. During the last supper, Jesus breaks the bread, drinks the wine and shares it with his disciples and says:
Take and eat; this is my body
Drink from it; this is my blood (Matt 26-28)
In terms of literary criticism, the metaphor is a figure of speech. Whereas in terms of messianic expectations these words inaugurate a shift away from the normal use of language, an exile from a former way of being in respect of communication, community and communion. The metaphor is used as a code to reveal the spiritual meaning of the Good News. It implies a shift in meaning, a break in the ordinary use of language instituting a new symbolic reality in terms of religious commandments and ritual practices. The metaphor expresses an expansion of being as an assembly of believers as the body of Christ.
The breaking of a loaf of bread and sharing with all the disciples constitutes the one body. This institutes a living church comprised of Jesus and his disciples. Jesus giving the commandment to do the same in his memory and preach his message to all. The same goes for the sharing from one cup of wine that become the blood of the new covenant. Thus the Good News proclaims that all are welcomed to partake in the breaking and eating of the bread in remembrance of Jesus Christ.
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me. Cor 11:25
Although the Gospel of John does not have a last supper scene, he does confirm the importance of the metaphor in order to understand the Good News.
I am the gate ─ door (John 10:9)
I am the way (John 14:6)
Jesus told his disciple Simon that he would be known as Peter (literally meaning rock) on which he would build his living community, his church. This is an additional confirmation and an allegorical allusion that the metaphor holds a vital role in understanding the meaning of the Word.
You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my community ─ Church. (Matt 16:18)
Jesus’ fate unraveled shortly after his last supper. He was betrayed by one of his followers, abandoned by his disciples, and arrested by the Roman occupying forces. He was denounced by the priests and the mob in Jerusalem and judged and condemned by the crowd under the supervision of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect. He was tortured, humiliated and forced to carry the instrument of his death and was finally nailed to a cross as a violent display of the sanctioning power of the Empire. Finally, he was left to die between common criminals. Throughout his ordeal the only people that stood by his side were Mary of Magdala, the mother of James, Joset and Salome in the books of Matthew and Mark, and Jesus’ mother in the book of John.
During Jesus’ ministry, a number of women followed Jesus but typically remained in the background of the twelve male apostles. These women, among them Mary of Magdala, provided financial support to Jesus’ ministry. Early on, Jesus cured Mary of Magdala of her possession of seven demons (possession was a term used to imply an illness for which there was no known explanation or cure.) In the eight times that a list of women is mentioned in the Gospels, on every occasion Mary of Magdala is named first. All in all, she is mentioned more times than any other disciple.
There is no scholarly consensus as to the origin of the surname Magdala. The Church’s position is that it refers to a place named Magdal (Migdal in Hebrew and Magdala in Aramaic), meaning tower or fortress. However, such a place on the banks of the Sea of Galilee no longer existed at the time of Jesus. Nonetheless, the surname Magdala should be viewed as a metaphor and symbolic attribute in terms of fortitude similar to John, who was also known as John the Baptist, or Simon, who was given the metaphorical name of “rock” by Jesus.
Mary of Magdala is not only mentioned in the synoptic Gospels but is also present in the book of John. All four accounts describe women that accompanied Jesus during his last week and were present at the crucifixion. They alone remained until the end, whereas the male disciples fled. Foremost, these female followers were the first to witness that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb.
It was Mary of Magdala who discovered the empty tomb and was the first to witness the risen Christ. She was also the first to proclaim that Jesus had risen from the dead, a messenger to the Good News. As it happens, the root word apostle in Greek means “messenger.” Consequently, the narratives bestow the attribute of apostle to Mary of Magdala and the other women.
The Gospels describe Simon as the metaphorical rock on which Jesus builds his Church. Mary of Magdala, who was the first to witness the risen Lord, is alluded to in the narratives as the metaphorical tower proclaiming the Good News of the resurrected body of Christ to the believers. In addition, the name Madgal-eder also appears in Micah 4:8-10 and refers to a symbolical “tower” or “stronghold of the flock,” a biblical link that infers that Mary of Magdala is a stronghold of the church.
Paul’s letters reveal that Jesus appeared to him in the same way he appeared to the Apostles following his crucifixion. The appearance is described as establishing a communication and a spiritual union between the risen Christ and his followers. In this sense, Jesus does not re-assume his physical life on earth but he is present with his disciples who are living witnesses and members of his risen body. His resurrected body rising up above the tyranny of the ruling system of this world.
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. (Cor 15:42)
Sovereignty & Tyranny
Paul and the Gospels proclaim that the Son of God has inaugurated a new covenant, one that consists of the inclusion of Jesus’ commandment of love. Consequently, the old meaning of neighbor is supplanted and expanded to include not only a chosen people but all who have faith in the resurrected body of Christ: Men, women, Jews and Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised and people of all nations, and members of all walks of life; the disfranchised, the outcasts, the powerless and the poor.
The Good News proclaims that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and that he was exalted as Lord/sovereign. With his resurrection, the Lord granted a divine birthright to all who have faith, a birthright that bypasses one established by a worldly order and its institutions. However, his messianic message is not to be understood as political but as spiritual. It does not challenge any political system. It is a body that lives in but is not of this world.
The Epistle to the Romans were meant to be read to Christians living in Rome. Although Paul had planned to visit the church personally, he never made it willingly. He was arrested in Jerusalem in 56 A.D., likely for sedition. He finally ended up being extradited and sent to prison in the capital. Paul’s letter planted the Good News at the center of the empire. His exhortations, seen as a challenge to the spiritual legitimacy of the ruling order, in all likelihood led to Paul and Peter being executed in Rome. History shows that the Roman empire eventually collapsed. It was unable to destroy the living church in its midst. And although the tyranny of a worldly power can put Christians to death, it is incapable of eradicating the Good News of the Sovereignty of the body of Christ.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come
Michael A Rizzotti
The Holy Trinity is the most fascinating but also the most misunderstood of all theological doctrines. It’s an unfortunate situation, because the Trinity may hold the key to understanding an important facet of the dynamic dimension inherent in all religious experience.1
The first principle of the doctrine stipulates that the Trinity is an absolute mystery. Its revelation is only possible with the help of two spiritual activities: love and knowledge. With love, one is open to the fullest to life’s mystery. Through love, we may live the Trinity, although we may not be able to express its mystery. With knowledge, life could be experienced with the greatest of insight. Yet words and symbols may be inadequate to describe the whole reality of the Trinity. Its mystery is only accessible through God’s self-communication, which is a process of everlasting realization; herein lies the mystery.2
The Old Testament does not contain a doctrine of the Trinity per se, even though, in retrospect, it may appear to confirm it. For instance, the name Elohim implies a divine plurality. Furthermore, the Lord appears to Abraham under the guise of three men who tell the skeptical patriarch that his wife Sarah will bear a son despite her advanced age.3
The Bible says that there is one God, yet God is not alone. He created man in his image in order to communicate his creation to him. In the same fashion, he created woman so that man would not be solitary. Therefore, God needs an interlocutor with whom to talk. As the narratives show, God chose to speak to Moses and his prophets. Yahweh reveals himself to whomever he chooses in order to establish a relationship with his people throughout history.
With the Gospels, the Trinity is inaugurated. The narratives recount the story of Jesus who speaks of his Father, but also of the Holy Spirit. This development introduced an alternate dimension to the reality of God.
Throughout the centuries, the Church developed the doctrine apologetically. Most of it has been developed during the first fifteen centuries of the Church’s history. It has remained basically the same for the last five hundred years.
Not until late in the fourth century did the Church’s teaching begin to take shape.4 The fundamental tenets developed by the magisterium define the Trinity as an absolute mystery and believe that one God exists in three persons: they are equal, co-eternal and omnipotent.5 God is one divine nature, one essence, and one substance. In the Trinity, the three persons are distinct from one another. The Father has no principle of origin. The Son is born from the substance of the Father. The Spirit is not begotten, but proceeds from the Father and the Son, from one principle, in one single spiration; e.g., action of breathing.
As the definition above shows, the Trinity is a complex doctrine, rendered even more difficult by the elaborate lexicon developed by the magisterium over the ages. Yet, in order to understand any of its basic tenets, one must first comprehend a fundamental concept, that of person.
In the Old Testament, the word person -nepes in Hebrew- has a broad range of meanings which includes: living being, soul, breath. In several instances, it is similar to adam.6 The New Testament uses the Greek translation of the word anthropos which has basically the same meaning. In the course of history, the Church developed the concept of person gradually to reflect the more complex definitions of the Incarnation and the Trinity.
Foremost, the word person is not used in the psychological sense of independent center of consciousness or personal center of action.7 The persons of the Trinity, in these terms, would imply three states of consciousness with three free wills, which is not only misleading but incorrect. The persons of the Trinity are not three different centers of activity.
Person is not understood as a separate physical entity, but more as Karl Rahner describes it, as a “distinct manner of being”. Therefore, each of the three persons is not separate, they are selfless and complementary, where God is one essence and one absolute self-presence. There are not three consciousness either, but rather one spiritual and absolute reality that subsists in a threefold manner of being.8
The concept of person, although somewhat confusing and vague, is nevertheless necessary. It is useful because it allows us to fathom the idea of relationship, from which communication stems. More precisely God’s dynamic self-communication. In this sense, the three persons are fully and totally open to each other as a unity, as One God.
If we replace the word person by modes of being, as suggested by Karl Barth, or, distinct manners of being, as proposed by Karl Rahner, we gain clarity in respect to the three-ness of God, but lose in terms of the dynamic tri-unity inherent in one God. The image of person is retained because it is easier to envision God in terms of a person rather than a mode of being or a distinct manner of being.9
Therefore, the person exists only in terms of relationships. Personality exists only as inter-personality. In the Old Testament, the person exists foremost in relations of the I-Thou-we kind.10 The case in point is the relationship between God, Moses, and the people of Israel as revealed in the Bible. However, the relationship expounded by Martin Buber is characteristic of the Old Testament’s theological tradition of God’s paternal majesty, emphasizing the otherness of God, whereas the concept of the Trinity, as expounded in the New Testament, is Christological. It presents the relation as of the me-you-we type. Jesus, as the God incarnate, reached out to the profane realm: the here and now. His relationship with the world is transformed into a more mundane kind. As a result, he breaks the master/servant relationship between God and his creation, between the land-lord and his servant.11
Jn. 1:1 In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God;
all things were made through him,
and without him was not anything made that was made.
In him was life,
and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it. 12
In the New Testament, communication of the Word is only possible through a medium of which Jesus is the prototype. The unfathomable presence of God’s spoken Word in Genesis becomes incarnate in the Son through the life given by the Spirit in Mary.
God literally spoke the world into existence. Without the Word, God could not be heard or known. Man and woman are created in his image and bear witness to his Word and creation, emphasizing the possibility of a relationship between the Word and the hearer.13
Furthermore, God shares his knowledge and his love through the Word in a twofold manner. God reveals himself through the “economic” Trinity, which discloses itself in history, and through the “immanent” Trinity, which inspires the Spirit of the Word to the hearer.14
In essence, the “economic” and “immanent” Trinity are one dynamic reality breathing life into each other. The “immanent” Trinity could not subsist without the “economic” Trinity, and vice versa. Similar in fashion to the Spirit, as the breath and the wind that is breathed in and out, reflecting the inner and outer mystery of God.
Mt. 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”15
The sacred triad: the sacred
We have already outlined the three principles of the religious experience in terms of the sacred, the profane, and the wholly other. At this point, we will parallel their definitions in analogy to the Trinity.
It is practically impossible to talk about the sacred without referring to the profane, since the identity of the first depends on its dynamic opposition/relation to the second.
sacred vs profane
God vs Satan
holy vs common
pure vs impure
clean vs unclean
This dynamic opposition is the realm of religion. At this point, we must clarify that the lived experience of the religious must be distinguished from the interpretation of the experience. While the experience of the sacred is unique, the expression of that experience belongs to the field of language that relates the experience with the use of words and symbols, either spoken or written.16
Individuals experience the sacred everyday in varied forms: through the ecstasy of love, a revelation, nirvana, or even a UFO sighting. Although we may not understand or agree with a person’s interpretation of his or her sacred experience, we cannot deny that he or she lived an extra-ordinary happening. His or her personal experience is unique, unfathomable, and even ineffable; i.e., language may not be an adequate medium to communicate that experience.
An example may be helpful. Everybody has experienced a dream at one time or another in their sleep. And each person’s dream is unique. When the dreamer relates his or her dream, he or she does so with the help of language. However, language cannot accurately translate the dream which involves the total visual and participative experience of the dreamer. Consequently, it would be better to say that a person lives a dream. In relating his or her dream, the dreamer makes a linguistic account which is different than the original experience itself. In linguistics, the language of the dream is the object-language, whereas the account is a metalanguage. If a psychoanalyst, for instance, becomes involved with the interpretation of the dream, he or she is left only with an account of the dream of which the dreamer is the mediator. As such, the interpretation rendered through language is an obstacle to the full experience and full content of the dream.
In the study of the sacred, we are faced with a similar problem. We can only interpret the expression of the sacred, never its unique experience since we deal only with words and symbols that relate to the sacred. Language only reveals one aspect of religious experience, albeit an important one. Nevertheless, by exploring the manifestations of the sacred, we gain insight into the fundamental composition of the religion phenomenon as it manifests itself in language.
The word sacred is the Latin translation of the term sacer. The Romans used the word to describe what was under their gods’ jurisdiction. When they referred to the sacrum, it implied the location where a ritual was performed; namely, the temple. The sacred place was also intrinsically tied to the cult. Both, place and cult, were closely circumscribed and distinct from the outside space called the profanum. The profane literally means the space outside the temple. Hence, profanare meant to bring the object of sacrifice out of the temple, transgressing the boundary between the sacred and the profane.
The Bible uses mostly the word holy -in Hebrew qadosh– instead of sacred which has a similar meaning.17 The temple, but especially the Holy of Holies, is separate from the common space. Similarly, the ritual performed in the temple distinguishes the sacred from the profane activity outside it.
Priests are especially privileged persons who can be designated as sacred. Jerusalem, but more specifically, the temple of Jerusalem, was the sacred place par excellence and the center of the world, as the Holy of Holies was at the center of the temple and the ark was at the center of the Holy of Holies.18
Ex. 3:1 Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Mid’ian; and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” When the lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush , “Moses, Moses !” And he said, “Here am I.” Then he said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
The passage above reveals a central aspect of the sacred. The place where the hierophany occurs is described as the mountain of God. As we have outlined, the mountain is a privileged place where the sacred appears. It is a universal symbol found in the most important mythologies of the world. It is where heaven and earth meets.
The appearance of the angel of the Lord announces the coming of a hierophany. Moses’ sighting confirms a mysterious event, although it is yet without meaning. God’s words finally reveal the purpose of the apparition. At the outset, God sets the boundaries between the holy and the common ground. The holy imposes a distance, a buffer zone if you will, that separates the divine from the human, the extra-ordinary from the ordinary, the sacred from the profane.
the holy vs the common
Israel vs outsiders 19
priests vs ordinary men
The power of the holy, which is Yahweh’s exclusivity, is bestowed upon Moses, his spokesman. Moses is the only one to whom Yahweh reveals his name. Yet, by the same token, the people of Israel are also consecrated by Yahweh as a holy people and a holy nation.20 Yahweh’s identity and the identity of his people are consecrated and set apart from other gods and other people.
Lev. 20:26 You shall be holy to me; for I the lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.
The origin of the sacred is described in the text as stemming from the center flowing toward its periphery.21 The whole process emanates around the holy at the center of which Yahweh’s words are the source of everything. In order of importance, Yahweh is the holy one, followed by Moses as the prophet, then the priests, and finally the people, all into one single entity: Israel. The holy people becomes a social and religious entity which is set apart by Yahweh. He is holy, and so is Israel. God is separated from other gods and Israel is set apart from other people to become the matrix of their religious identity.
Hence, only Yahweh’s words enable him to reveal the holy. Without his words, his will could not be known. It goes without saying that the spoken word cannot be separated from the written word, since the Bible is a literary work. Without the written word the experience of the holy would not have been preserved. The Bible is the medium that is used to propagate the story of Israel. Without the priests and scribes that have written and preserved the sacred heritage it would have been lost forever.
Mt. 17:1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Eli’jah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is well that we are here; if you wish, I will make three booths here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli’jah”. He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe. But Jesus came and touched them saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the account of the transfiguration is almost identical.22 The parallels with the text in Exodus are striking. The similarities are abundant: the mountain as a sacred place, the holy ground that sets boundaries apart, Jesus’ face that shines like the sun, the voice of God which is heard from nowhere, the awe, and the fear. Similar also is God’s manifestations of power displayed in the thundering, the lightning, and the fire shared with the hierophanies on Mount Sinai and on Mount Carmel. 23
Furthermore, Jesus is seen talking with Moses and Elijah. His association with the two biblical heroes is presumably meant to associate and connect Jesus with two of the most powerful and charismatic personalities of the Old Testament.
As we go further, the similarities begin to fade. The most notable difference being the appellation of Jesus as the Son of God. This affiliation shatters and redefines the biblical concept of the holy.
Except where Moses is Yahweh’s mouth, none of the Patriarchs are identified with the Word of God. They are significantly his prophets, his people, in other words, they are God’s instruments. None of them were called his sons. And although the idea of affiliation is prominent in the Old Testament, as typified by the title God of your fathers, the relation is meant to confer the idea of the sovereignty and authority of the patriarchal lineage rather than that of son-ship. Furthermore, the Gospels inaugurate the Son of God as the holy.
Ex. 3:14: (Yahweh) I am who I am
Jn. 8:58: (Jesus) Before Abraham was, I am 24
Therefore, Jesus shares the exclusivity of God’s sacred identity/presence. As a human being he becomes a visible and identifiable image of God. As such, he transcends the first and second commandments given by Yahweh. And, by performing miracles on the Sabbath, he transgresses yet another commandment. As a result, Jesus becomes a law onto himself. He breaks the boundaries of the sacred’s exclusivity.25
Jn. 17:19 And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.
As we have mentioned earlier, the profane is closely related to the sacred. The very existence of the sacred thrives on it.
The Latin word profane literally means pro, outside, and fanum, temple. The sacred and the profane are separated into two distinct arenas. Foremost, the sacred protects its own exclusive area of control from which the profane is excluded. This exclusion is the essential characteristic of the profane. Hence the profane is described as the other reality. It is a vague and common reality outside the realm of the sacred in sharp contrast to its compelling and powerful identity.
In the Old Testament narratives the word profane shares some similarities with the Latin etymology. Its most frequent use is in the verbs to defile and to pollute. It is also used to imply the opposite of holy, as ritually unclean or impure. However, the profane is generally translated into common, especially in connection to being apart from the holy. To profane something holy is to make it common, ordinary, in stark opposition to the uniqueness of the holy. As the following examples show:
Ez. 42:20 It had a wall around it, five hundred cubits long and five hundred cubits broad, to make a separation between the holy and the common.
Ez. 44:23…and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean.
The Gospels depict Jesus as abiding by the law, but sometimes he is also portrayed as challenging the law. Although he may appear at times to transgress the commandments, he does not condemn them. He does, however, castigate the hypocrisy of the priests that regulate the law. Foremost, Jesus is depicted as the prototype who inaugurates a new law.
His new rule supplants all other commandments: he says to love your God above anything else, but also to love your neighbor as yourself. The emphasis of the message is not the opposition between one God and other gods, but love. Jesus transcends the dichotomy between the holy and the common, yet he does not dull the distinction between the two. In fact, he inaugurates a new kingdom; ie, Christianity.
Mt. 22:21 “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Jesus reverses the order of worldly things. What was profane is now sacred. He consecrates the common and makes it sacred, while he denounces the sacred hierarchies of the worldly powers.
Jesus’ realm is outside the reach of the worldly powers. His kingdom, however, is not inaugurated to overthrow the worldly system, since it is based on the power of love. His kingdom is not of this world either, but from a world yet to be created by faith and solidarity between the believers. It is a place for those who forsake their share of this world for a part in the other.
As he explains to his disciples, only those who understand the language of the parables have access to his kingdom. And Jesus is the door to another realm of meaning: from the physical to the spiritual, and from the literal to the metaphorical. In essence, the parable is nothing else than an allegorical story, which is nothing more than an extended metaphor.26 In the quote below, Jesus explains the meaning of such parables to his disciples, who themselves cannot yet understand:
MT. 13:10 Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”27
Jesus takes great care to point out that the key to his message will be lost by those caught up in the material aspect of the worldly existence. In the same manner as the true meaning of the message from the miracles is lost to the marvel and spectacle of the sign. The world would soon rather forget that Jesus cures the unclean, the outcasts and the excluded which society abhors and segregates. His miracles transgress the boundaries of the sacred and transcend them. By doing so, he shatters the structure of the sacred and the hierarchy on which society is built.
There is more to the profane than one might expect, even though the sacred consolidates all the attention on itself and dismisses the profane as a non-entity, as something remote and insignificant. We have seen that the profane is repudiated as the common, the ordinary, the hidden; it is decried as the other. And as such it is kept apart from the sacred hierarchy. The sacred tries to keep this other reality overshadowed and hidden so as to highlight its own power and play down the reality of the profane.
Even though the sacred deliberately tries to deprecate the profane, it is nonetheless a reality, a dynamic entity essential to the existence and the survival of the sacred experience.
As Jesus focuses on the profane reality of the poor, the sick, the prostitutes, the possessed, the foreigners, the Gentiles and the slaves, he points to a reality that is excluded from the Jewish religious world dominated by the priestly order. In spite of the religious authority of the priests, he elected the outcasts as the beneficiaries of his kingdom. He reveals that the other reality is the essence of his message of love which exposes the true purpose of religion. As a result, he broke the foundation of the old precepts of the religious structure and activated a new reality that transcends the old religious order.28
Yet the profane has a specific function in the realm of the religious: it is an adumbrated and hidden quality that symbolizes the unacknowledged side of reality.
Lk. 1:35 “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
Here, Mary’s identity is overshadowed from the holy. Her role has been kept in the background so that Jesus can accomplish his mission. We have also seen how the segregation is characteristic of the profane; as the hidden, the other and the excluded reality. Mary, first as a mother and then as a woman, is excluded from the symbolic triad of procreation; e.g., the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Even though the Holy Spirit is the only person that does not have a gender connotation, it does have numerous feminine attributes; ie, life-giving Love and the giver of life.29 In contrast to the affiliation of the Father and the Son, the identity of the Holy Spirit is, to say the least, overshadowed. Nevertheless, behind it lies the mystery of an-other hidden spiritual vitality.
The Holy Spirit is a profane representation of the giver of life.30
The wholly other
Emile Durkheim first introduced the dichotomy between sacred and profane in his book on “primitive” religion31. Several years later, a landmark work on the holy was published. It was written by Rudolf Otto.32 Unlike the sociological method of Durkheim, Otto was more preoccupied with the feeling aspect rather than the rational expression of the holy which he labeled the numinous. It is in this work that he first introduced the expression wholly other.33
Otto developed the concept because he perceived a need to expand the inventory of expressions to better describe the mysterium aspect of the holy. As he would explain: “…something of whose character we can feel, without being able to give it clear conceptual expression.”34 Concepts like supernatural and transcendent were usually used to define such a unique quality of the numinous.
As we will see, this concept is not only useful but indispensable. It helps to fully understand the whole religious experience. It becomes essential to show the whole interrelation and the transcendental link between the sacred and the profane into the wholly other.
Otto did not develop his idea of the wholly other as a logical result of the dynamics between the sacred and the profane. He defined the wholly other as what stands beyond the realm of the intelligible. The sphere where the divine manifests itself, namely, the unfathomable and the ineffable. First, the unfathomable suggests that one is unable to understand and express his feelings of awe in the face of the holy. Second, the ineffable implies that words are inadequate to explain such an experience. Better still, no known language is able to fully disclose the mysterium.
Unlike Otto, we are not so much concerned with the feeling as with the expressions of the holy as related by the narratives. We are less concerned with what Moses felt at the sight of the burning bush, than how the writers/editor have related the experience. The Holy Bible is full of accounts of such mysterious experiences. Consequently, it is possible to explore the symbolic nature of that experience through the account. In other words, the text is the data that allows us to analyze the holy in its systematic dynamic representation.35
Etymologically, the adverb wholly has two meanings. The first, an older sense derived from whole, means in its entirety, in full, the sum total, all of it: hence, inclusively. The second sense is implied by the word entirely, as to suggest the exclusion of others, solely: hence, exclusively. The terminology may appear ambiguous, and even contradictory at the outset, but it will become hopefully clearer as we go along. And, as we will see, it is rather insightful. The equivocalness of wholly fits exactly into the essence of the two-ness or twofold-ness of the sacred and the profane. Adding the word other to wholly we further expand the scope of its meaning.
>wholly other; is the mysterium because of a separation between the holy and the profane. It is represented by Yahweh the exclusively other and Moses standing at distance in awe and fear of God’s voice and his message.
<wholly other; the whole and the dynamic reality that is beyond the separation. It is Moses who hears the message and accepts God’s mission and becomes one with Yahweh, his commandments and his people as the inclusively other spiritual reality.
Only when the sacred opens up to and includes the profane does it ascend to the wholly other. When the separation is lifted between the holy and the profane it opens the way to experience the wholly other inclusive reality as shown by Moses’ acceptance and embracing of God’s message, commandments and mission.
In Exodus, the words of Yahweh preempt the sign of the burning bush as the source of the holy. It is Yahweh’s words that are at the center and from which he reveals his will. Yet Yahweh’s identity -image- remains obscure and exclusively other.
Whereas the profane reality and space are excluded from the holy, God separates the Holy ground from the profane, from the common. This realm of the other is the reality of the profane, comprised of such examples as Moses reluctance to accept God’s mission. Yet when he finally does, Moses become one with Yahweh, his commandments and his people. Yahweh is no longer an outside reality but One presence with Moses.
In the Gospels, the transfiguration reveals Jesus Christ at the center with God: “his face shone like the sun”. Again, God reveals his beloved Son to the world through his spoken Word.36 Here too, the voice of God comes from nowhere. The Word of God reveals that God is with us and that Jesus Christ, as his Son, is himself God and as such he shares a place at the center.37 This time, Jesus Christ’s identity is fully disclosed by his own physical body.
Jesus Christ as the Son of God is himself holy, but as the son of Mary he partakes in the profane reality of the human condition. Jesus’ twofold origin -that of God and man- embodies the whole spectrum of the religious reality and the two poles of a true spirituality: the sacred and the profane. This twofold unity transcends the exclusive holiness of God and reaches beyond the boundaries of his divine essence through his human nature and into the wholly other. Jesus Christ, as the wholly other, transcends the exclusivity of the holy into the inclusively whole spiritual reality: Divine and human. The wholly other is both holy/center and its outside profane reality. It is a totality, one single reality. It is expressed by the commandment of love thy neighbor like yourself.
Jesus~man – Christ~God
Hence, the profane reality becomes as important as the sacred in the spiritual experience. Only then can the dynamic interrelation between the sacred and the profane become alive in the wholly other and transcend the two distinct entities into one whole spiritual reality of being.
Christ, as God, is the mysterious holy center from which everything originates and everything flows. As God he is the center of power, as man, Jesus is the door to that power, the hope of the outsider. The Gospels dispel the notion that the profane reality of the impure and unclean should be excluded. It recounts that it should be embraced instead. Jesus dissipates the barriers and highlights what is at the heart of faith: the wholly other as the inclusiveness of love. He denounces the segregation of the powerful and their institutions. He reaches out to the forgotten and the segregated by society: the sick, the poor, the possessed, the foreigners, the women, the Gentiles, the sinners, the slaves.
Jesus inaugurates a law, that of love. Love as the total openness that blurs the boundaries between the sacred and the profane into the realm of the wholly other. His new command undoes the boundaries imposed by the sacred institutions. It exceeds the borders of the sacred and overflows into the profane world. The holy is no longer an exclusive arena accessible only to a limited few of the priestly hierarchy. What was out of reach becomes accessible to all who believe. With love one can bypass the sacred institutions and have access to God. The power of Jesus’ being opens the door to the wholly other realm.
Jesus Christ talked of two worlds. One that he identified with Caesar and the other with God. The two kingdoms, however, do not oppose each other in a political fashion.38 The kingdom of God that Jesus speaks about is not of this world. It is a place where the faith in the Word creates a world onto itself, outside the boundaries of time and space. It is proclaimed in the resurrected body of Christ as the Church of believers.
To conclude, the sacred triad and the Holy Trinity share some fundamental principles which can be illustrated as follows:
God the Father………the holy/the wholly other/the exclusive
Jesus Christ………….the wholly other/the whole and inclusive
the Holy Spirit………the profane/the overshadowed/the other reality
As outlined earlier, the Holy Spirit has no gender status, yet it is called the giver of life. Furthermore, the third person overshadows Mary’s identity. As such, the Holy Spirit conceals an-other reality, that of the profane reality of the Mother of God.
Lk. 1:35 The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.
The narrative describes that the power of the Most High overshadows Mary as the Mother of Jesus, and as a woman. As we have said, it is in the nature of the sacred to overshadow the profane. We have also seen how the metaphors and attributes associated with Mary are closely associated with the Holy Spirit. The most prominent of which are related to life and procreation in terms of the giver of life.39 The Gospels describe how the unique intersession between the Holy Spirit and Mary results in the conception of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of man.40
Therein lies the mystery of Trinity in the dynamic relation of the Holy as Father, the profane Holy Spirit and the wholly other Son of God as three manners of being consubstantial with a fourth essence of One God into a wholly other dynamic spiritual reality.
1 In that respect I share Raimundo Panikkar’s view. See Raimundo Panikkar’s, The Trinity and the Religious of Man, New York, Orbis Books, 1973, 42.
2 Although I have studied Theology, I am not a theologian. I am not trying to develop a theory on the Trinity, I leave that to the theologians. I merely used the Trinity, which I believe to be the most important theological doctrine of Christianity, as an analogy to the sacred, the profane, and the wholly other.
3 Gen. 18:2f.
4 Doctrines on the Trinity have been developed during the Council of Nicaea (325 ad), the first Council of Constantinople (381 ad), the Eleventh Council of Toledo (675 ad), the Fourth Lateran Council (1215 ad), the Second Council of Lyons (1274 ad) and the Council of Florence (1439-45 ad). Other important documents that relate to the doctrine are the Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed, and Paul VI’s Confession of Faith.
5 The magisterium dictates that God exists in three persons, subsistences, hypostases. These terms were used to distinguish the dual nature of Christ as divine and human. Karl Rahner, SJ, Divine Trinity, in Sacramentum Mundi v.6, Montreal, Palm Publishers, 1970, 295-303.
6 Gen. 46:18f; Ex. 1:5 etc.
7 In theological terms, person implies individuum vagum or vague being. Karl Rahner describes “person” as a “rational subsistent”; ie, a rational being existing substancially or really of or by itself. In trying to clarify the concept he alternatively uses “way of subsistence” or “distinct manner of subsisting”. Equivalent expressions have been proposed by Karl Barth who has suggested the words “modes of being”. They are mostly used to clarify the distinctness of each person while maintaining their unity in one God so to avoid the trap of tritheism. See Karl Rahner, SJ, The Trinity, New York, Herder & Herder, 1970, 111, and, Divine Trinity, in Sacramentum Mundi, Montreal, Palm Publishers, 1970, 295-308. Also, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics vol.1, The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part One, Edingburgh, T & T Clark, 1975, 348 f.
8 A further analogy might be in order, although it might be viewed as too “modernistic”. At the time when conception actually occurs, there are three distinct genetic entities that coexist: the egg from the mother, the spermatozoid from the father, and the embryo, which become the child’s new genetic entity. We might say that the three genetic “persons” are distinct, yet they are one human being.
9 The magisterium further states that there are three distinct relations and properties in God. There is also a distinction between the essence of God and the relations that constitute the persons. The “relative” persons in God are not really distinct from the essence of God and, therefore, do not form a quaternity. In God, all is one, except where an opposition of relationship exists. Each of the divine persons is fully in each other, and each of them is one true God. The divine persons cannot be divided from one another, in being or in operation. They form only a single principle of action. Their activity is one and the same even though only the Logos became “man”.
10 See, Martin Buber, I and Thou, New York, Scribners, 1970.
11 In the English language the capital “I” implies a sense of majesty of the subject, characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon mentality, which is not present, say, in French or Italian.
12 Taken from The Jerusalem Bible. The word “overcome” is better rendered into understand or grasp.
13 See Karl Rahner’s, Hearers of the Word, Montreal, Palm Publishers, 1969, and, Luis Alonso Schokel’s , S.J., The Inspired Word, Montreal, Palm Publishers, 1965.
14 Additional clarification about the meaning of “economy” may be necessary. Originally, the word meant the
divine government of the world, until Voltaire and his contemporaries began using the word with its modern sense. A devout anticleric, he, in all probability, used the word as an act of defiance toward the Catholic Church. Since we are on this subject, something else comes to my mind. I have noticed the frequent use of the word “theology” by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Although I fail to understand the exact meaning he confers to the word, he may also be inaugurating a new use for it.
15 The scriptures tell us that the Son is sent by the Father, and the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son. Ergo, the Father is the sender, the Son is the mediator, and the Holy Spirit is the receiver. Jn. 3:17; 6:57.
16 Of course the meaning of “language” encompasses much more. All forms of communication, linguistic or semiotic, could be categorized as such.
17 Assuming that the root qd means “to set apart”. There is also the possibility that the root qdsh, related to the Akkadian qadashu, means “to become pure”, and in that sense it has more of a ritualistic connotation. From the same root as the Hebrew word for holy -qdsh- the word qedesha is used to describe the prostitute consecrated to Astarte.
18The Sabbath also typifies the special time consecrated to Yahweh. Objects like the ark, the priests’ adornments, and certain animals, especially the sacrificial ones, are also prescribed as sacred.
19 Ex. 30:32,33.
20 Ex. 19:6; Isa. 62:12; Ezra 9:2.
21 Edward Shils, Center and Periphery, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1975, 17f.
22 Mk. 9:2-8; Lk. 9: 28-36.
23 Ex. 20:18; 1 Kings 18.
24 Jn. 8:24; 13:19.
25 The holy is at all times in danger of being misrepresented. The origin of the holy, as we have said, is Yahweh, not the persons, the places or the objects upon which is conferred a sacred quality. The nuance is important since it is Yahweh’s promise that is eternal while his prophets are mortal.
26 As the Dictionary of the French Academy explains, the allegory is nothing else than an extended metaphor: “La parabole est en quelque sorte une autre forme de l’allégorie et l’allégorie est une figure qui n’est autre chose qu’une métaphore prolongée” Dictionnaire de l’Académie, Paris, Hachette, 1932.
27 Also, Mk. 4:1-20; Lk. 8:10-15.
28 Segregation is an integral part of the system on which society is built. It appears to be a vital part of it. Society lives by the dynamic interaction between the integrated structure and the outcasts. Apparently, the survival of society is based on the outcasts as scapegoats. In other words, the sacred opposes the threat from the outer reality -the profane- which it does not understand and fears. See Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization, New York, Pantheon Books, 1965.
29 The appellation of “life-giving Love” is taken from the Encyclical, Divinum Illud Munus, by Pope Leo XIII on the Holy Spirit, May 9th, 1897. While “the giver of life” is taken from the Encyclical Letter, Dominum et Vivificantem, by Pope John Paul II, on the Holy Spirit as well, given the day of the Pentacost May 18th, 1986.
30 This is true for most religions, since belief is amplified by the dynamic opposition to other cults. For more insight about the opposition of the sacred and the profane see Roger Caillois, L’Homme et le Sacre, Paris, Gallimard, 1939, and, Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, New York, Harper & Row, 1959, and, Cosmos and History, New York, Harper & Row, 1959.
31 Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, New York, Free Press, 1965.
32 Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, London, Oxford University Press, 1923.
33 Idid. 25-30.
34 Ibid. 30.
35 I first began to develop the idea about the wholly other in my Masters thesis entitled: l’Interprétation Religieuse de l’Origine Mythique de la Nationalité: l’Inauguration de Monuments Nationaux (1840-1940), Montréal, Bibliothèque de l’ UQAM, 1978.
36 Mt. 17:1-8, Mk. 9:1-8; Lk. 9:28-36.
37 At Jesus’ baptism, God speaks through the heavens while the Holy Spirit is revealed by the dove descending on Christ, testifying to the reality of the three persons of the Trinity. Mt. 3:13-17; Mk. 1:9-11; Lk. 3:21-22; Jn. 1:32-34.
38 One might think of the “quasi-religion” typified by Marxism where the sterile antagonism of working class and ruling class just replaces one dictatorship by another.
39 The reference to “the giver of life”, in connection with Mary, is taken from the definition of the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary, by Pius XII, 11-12. See also Yves Congar, I Believe In The Holy Spirit, v. 1, New York, The Seabury Press, 1983, 163.
40 Catholics have always been loyal devotees of Mary. In many instances she usually plays a role occupied by the Paraclete. They attribute to her the titles and functions of comforter, advocate, the defender of the believers. But mostly she is worshiped as the Mother of God; the kind and gentle intercessor, the giver of life. Yves Congar states that “There is a deep relationship between Mary, the mother of God, and the Holy Spirit”. He further continues: “The part played in our upbringing by the Holy Spirit is that of mother -a mother who enables us to know our Father, God, and our brother, Jesus…the Holy Spirit has often been replaced in recent Catholic devotion by the Virgin Mary.”. He also points out the close link between the motherhood in God and the femininity of the Holy Spirit. See Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, New York, Seabury Press, 1983, vol.1, 164, and vol.3, 154-155.
Michael A Rizzotti
Archaeological findings show that the earliest and the most prevalent type of artifacts discovered in Old Europe show an overwhelming concern with female symbolism. They were, in all probability, connected to some form of cultic origin or purpose.1 The discovery of sculptured images and cave paintings of female figures from numerous sites, some dating as far back as twenty five thousand years, reveals a pervasive interest in female artistic representation that suggests some form of Goddess worship. One typical example of the earliest expressions of these figurines was found in the region of Dordogne, France, it depicts a pregnant woman. These little statues, also called Venuses -named after the Roman goddess of love- outnumber their male counterparts ten to one.
These discoveries have a tremendous implication on the theories of the origin and development of the earliest forms of religious beliefs and mythological expressions. According to the archaeological data, these female cultic representations appear to have been pervasive during most of the prehistory of Old Europe. Although archaeologists and anthropologists do not agree on a single theory to explain these discoveries, they nevertheless recognize that they reveal the basis of an elaborate system of cultic life in connection with attributes associated with the goddess worship.
A great number of the figurines, though not all, are early evidence of fertility cults linked to the emergence of agriculture. The sheer abundance of these Venuses confirms nevertheless, an overwhelming feminine presence in the cultural and religious life of prehistoric cultures.
These artifacts represent a wide variety of female functions such as, maturation, menstruation, copulation, pregnancy, birth, and lactation. These goddesses came in different shapes and forms. In some instances, they are represented by animal forms like a snake or a bird. Among the water and air deities some are believed to be cosmic symbols of regeneration and life. Other cases show the figurines as faceless, nude, and corpulent. Others represent women with enormous breasts, buttocks, and protruding abdomens. While the more common ones show women in an advanced stage of pregnancy.
What is most interesting about these discoveries is the consistency and continuity with which these cults evolved from the early stages of history. Gradually, goddess’ representation developed into a complex symbolism of human needs. They presumably arose with the development of agriculture and domestication, and are believed to be responsible for the development of a more complex form of social organization.
It is during the Neolithic Revolution that we begin to see signs of humans mastering their natural environment. Slowly, the main forms of subsistence evolved from hunting and food gathering, to agriculture and the domestication of herd animals.2
Foremost, goddess artifacts have been associated with the fertility cults. Although the survival of the species must have been a central concern of the fertility cults, these goddesses were also, in a broader sense, life creators, a symbol of renewal and socio-cultural regeneration. It is probable that these symbols reflect an important stage in the evolution of symbolic representation of culture in general. As Marija Gimbutas points out, the Great Goddess is much more than a mere fertility goddess.3 She played an essential part in the development of religious symbolism and culture.
Goddess worship cannot be dispelled as only a stage in the evolutionary process, but must be recognized as a fundamental aspect of the primal representation of the human psyche, which Mircea Eliade calls archetypes.4 These discoveries demand a closer scrutiny and a greater attention. They are an indispensable key to fully understanding the past and present religious and mythological world we live in.
And as we have already outlined, gooddess profane representation has been deliberately overshadowed in the Bible. For this reason alone, the continuous study of the primal essence of her being is important. If one takes notice of the growing interest and the ever greater number of books on the subject, her obscurity may only be temporary. And if the momentum persists, we might find the key to unraveling the whole reality of human spirituality.
Between the fifth and fourth millennia BCE, the peaceful, sedentary and agricultural societies of Old Europe, in which the Great Goddess, it is believed, played a major role, began to endure the invasion of nomadic patriarchal tribes. The warrior mentality of the god(s) worshipers began to challenge the goddess’ dominion and they began to impose their own cults.5 One possible scenario is that, in time, none of the goddesses retained their supremacy; they were forced into subservience and cast into oblivion.
As centuries passed and as the major cultures of ancient Near East like Egypt and Sumer developed, goddess’ worship retained some its popularity as she shared equal devotion with her male counterparts. In the semi-nomadic tribes of Israel, however, the Goddess was undergoing a propaganda campaign to completely eradicate her reality from their cultic practices. Back then, women were literally and legally the property of men who submitted to the tribal rule of the God of the fathers. These laws and practices reflected the exclusion of the goddess principle from the cultic life of Israel: the God of Israel was believed to be the only superior God, no other god could be worshiped except him. In the process, monotheism thrived at the expense of other gods and goddesses.
We have seen in Genesis and all through the text of the Pentateuch how critical it became to control the progeny through the dominion of women’s fertility. The female’s sexuality had to be checked and maintained under male authority so to preserve the racial origin of the offspring. Women’s behavior was closely regulated by the patriarchal laws, in stark contrast with more ancient matrilineal cultures where life in society was ruled by the legitimacy of the mother’s offspring regardless of who the father was.
As the community life developed into more complex forms of social organization, the symbolic manifestations of the gods and goddesses evolved as well. Cosmologies became more elaborate as they reflected a more complex form of the socio-cultural life they depicted.
From the early stages of prehistory to the emergence of more developed cultures, worship of the Goddess remained more or less pervasive. Although she may have assumed different identities, her essence remained basically the same. Many such goddesses in the ancient Near East were extremely popular and could be found in the most important cultures at the dawn of history.
Among them is Asherah, a Canaanite goddess, alluded by tree symbol in Genesis.
The 1929 discovery of the Ugarit tablets in Ras Shamra, Syria, enabled scholars to decipher that Athirat, of which Asherah is a dialectical variant, is described as the wife of El, the chief god of the Ugaritic pantheon. While El is described as the God, the strong, powerful one, the father, and the creator of creatures, Athirat is portrayed as the creatress of the gods.6 As we have mentioned, El is one of the most ancient references to the Semitic God.
The presence of Asherah in the Bible has provoked considerable scholarly debate. This goddess was worshiped by the Canaanites, a people who spoke a Semitic language in the area that is commonly known today as Palestine and Israel. At different periods of Israel’s history, the goddess was also revered by the Hebrews to the great consternation of the prophets. Ample evidence of her influence is related in the Bible.
One particular episode of Israel’s history is revealing. Following the secession of the northern kingdom of Israel from the southern kingdom of Judah, during Jeroboam’s reign, Asherah was worshiped in the temple of Jerusalem as late as 586 BCE. Even Solomon, who built the temple, worshiped Asherah.7
The goddess principle is a blend of several Near Eastern goddesses: among them, the Canaanites Athirat and Astarte, the Egyptians Qudshu and Anat, as well as the Mesopotamian goddesses Inanna and Ishtar. Asherah was a giver of life and a symbol of fertility, and her cult involved some form of temple prostitution.
The extent to which this particular form of worship had influenced and penetrated Judaism can be seen in details in Biblical texts themselves.8
2 Kings 17:16 And they forsook all the commandments of the lord their God, and made for themselves molten images of two calves; and they made an Ashe’rah, and worshiped all the hosts of heaven, and served Ba’al.
Asherah, in the Old Testament, mostly refers to a cultic place or to objects in the form of a wooden stela representing a tree. The tree, as we have outlined, is a predominant symbol of the creation in Genesis. These upright pillars, usually carved with inscriptions, were, for the most part, symbols of human and agricultural fertility. These sculptured wooden images set in the ground next to the god Baal were located on hilltops.9
The Asherah was an important household cult. Numerous small clay figurines of nude women were found all over Palestine. They can be dated from all ages of the Israelite period. These nude clay figurines were kept for private use by the worshipers. Several of these are typical representations of Asherah shown as a woman with protruding breasts. According to this evidence, the worship of the goddess must have been popular among all segments of Hebrew society. The cult, it seems, did not meet serious opposition until the end of the Israelite monarchy.
Asherah was known to the Hebrews since the first settlement in Canaan, after the exodus. Having to depend on agriculture as a means of survival, they probably also turned to the local customs related to the fertility cults, of which Asherah was a predominant goddess.
There is no such thing as a Hebrew goddess in the Bible. There is, however, ample evidence of a strong opposition to her cult. There are numerous passages attesting to the threat that the goddess posed to Yahweh.
Among the many interesting accounts that reveal the presence of Asherah, is the episode in the royal court of Israel during the reign of King Ahab (873-852 BCE). He had married Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon, in order to cement an alliance with her father. Acting under her influence, King Ahab built an altar to Baal in Samaria and made an Asherah.10 In Sidon, Asherah had been worshiped for at least five centuries prior to that. Evidence of her popularity is reflected by the number of guests that are said to have been invited at a feast. On that occasion, the king’s court was filled with 450 prophets of Baal, and 400 prophets of Asherah. The intrusion of these aliens infuriated the prophet Elijah who challenged the Baal prophets to a rain-making contest. The Canaanite god was defeated in a violent uproar led by Elijah and his people. Yahweh was vindicated. Although the account mentions the slaughter of all of Baal’s prophets, there is no word of the outcome of Asherah’s prophets. Why were they spared Yahweh’s wrath? One explanation could be that she was a popular deity among the people. Perhaps, as David Noel Freedman suggests, Yahweh defeated Baal to take Asherah as his own consort. 11
2 Kings 13:6 …the Ashe’rah also remained in Samar’ia.
Although Asherah was a predominant figure, other goddesses were also popular; among them, Astarte, also called Anat, the daughter of Asherah and El. Although Astarte is mentioned 9 times in the Bible compared to 40 times for her mother, she nevertheless surpassed her mother in popularity during certain periods of history. The name Astarte means literally the womb, and she was often called she of the womb. The name is in itself revealing. She, like her mother, was a goddess of fertility, and her brother and consort, was the symbol of male fertility. They were known as the divine couple, and as the begetters.
There are abundant archaeological discoveries that link Egyptian and Canaanite divinities. The discovery at the malachite mines of Serabit el Khadim, on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, reveals a similarity between the goddess’ cults in Canaan and Egypt. Numerous small relief plaques have been found in these areas on which the image of the goddess Astarte bears a very close resemblance to the Egyptian images of Isis and Hathor. The latter was also called the Lady of the Sycamore, a common representation that links the symbol of the tree to Asherah. These plaques, for the most part, were found marked with the inscription quadosh -holy. Albright observed that the Canaanite divinities might be more primitive than other forms of worship. He also noted that these Canaanite gods and goddesses have a fluidity of personality and function. In other words, these divinities can change physical shape and form, alter their relationships and identity with other divinities at will, and adopt names of other goddesses with incredible ease.12
As we explained, Yahweh emerged from a revelation in the desert. The exodus was the return to a semi-nomadic way of life similar to the herdsmanship of the Patriarchs before their move to Egypt. Furthermore, the journey toward the promised land was favorable neither for agriculture nor for the cults related to fertility, as evidenced by the manna, the food God sent from the sky. Yahweh thrived in the desert where the isolation helped to develop the fundamental precept of the opposition to other gods and Asherah.
Judg. 2:13 They forsook the lord, and served the Ba’als and the Ash’taroth.13
The worship of the goddess Asherah was reported in the scriptures as continually antagonizing Yahweh.14 The texts often refer to the deity as Ashtoreth, a derogative name that implied shame.
1 Sam. 7:3 Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ash’taroth from among you, and direct your heart to the lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So Israel put away the Ba’als and the Ash’taroth, and they served the lord only.
The commandment is very explicit. It does not allow the worship of any molten image or any goddess. Although the prohibition to worship any other gods does not exclusively refer to Asherah, the goddess of fertility is, without a doubt, a primal target. Was the first commandment specifically directed toward the popular goddess Asherah? One thing is certain, the goddess’ worship was a threat to Yahweh’s patriarchal precepts.
What is remarkable about Exodus is that it remains, for the people of Israel, the most sacred event, and the most sacred narrative. Everything in Judaism is centered around the text: Yahweh, Moses, the alliance, the commandments, the law, the ark, and the promised land. Most of the original religious experience stems from the revelation of Yahweh as a jealous God opposed to any other god.
Yet Judaism is not devoid of the feminine aspect of the divinity. The shekhinah is often used by the Talmudic tradition to describe a mystical presence of God. The concept eventually developed into a spiritual entity that personified a compassionate figure, mostly with feminine attributes, that sometimes argued with God in defense of the humans. The shekhinah was a mediating agent between the divine and the human. The Hebrew word shekhinah means dwelling or resting place, but it is more commonly used in the sense of presence. The word first appeared in early rabbinical literature as it referred to the divine presence in the tabernacle. It eventually came to signify God’s presence among the people of Israel.
The rabbis believe that the shekhinah had a close and privileged relationship with Moses. According to the Talmudic tradition, the feminine companion was present from his childhood through his adult life, continually communicating with him. Moses even left his wife to be closer to his shekhinah.15
The Mother of God
The Gospels herald a new era. A transition from the Old tradition to the New. The Bible’s emphasis on God of the Fathers is shifted to God the Son. The imageless features of the Father become visible in the Incarnation of the Word. The promised land of old is replaced by the quest for the kingdom of Heaven. The two kingdoms are visionary anticipations of an-other world created by the Word.
The new Christian era also inaugurates new relationships: between the divine Father and his Son, but also between the Mother of God and her child Jesus.
The Incarnation brings forth the question of the birth of Jesus. Although John the Evangelist identifies the origin of Jesus with the Word in Genesis, Matthew and Luke relate the birth of Christ to his virgin Mother. Mary’s motherhood is, henceforth, put in the foreground. In Genesis, man’s inception is shaped by divine hands, with the dust from the ground, then God breaths life into it, while the woman is an afterthought, ironically born of man’s own flesh. In Matthew and Luke, however, Mary is the matrix of the Messiah’s birth. Perhaps inconspicuously, the narratives open the door to Mary as the Mother of God, a symbolic link toward the primordial Great Mother.
Except for the birth narratives, her image is overshadowed by her son’s mission. Yet while Jesus speaks constantly of his absent Father, it is his mother who is present at the most crucial moments of his life. She conceives Jesus Christ with the spiritual intervention of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is born human through her, and divine through the Spirit; hence, the Incarnation. At Cana, Mary asks Jesus to perform his first miracle, the first of his signs, which inaugurates his public life. At his crucifixion, the culmination of her son’s mission, she witnesses her son’s whole life cycle: his birth, his mission, and his death. Her presence symbolizes her son’s sacrifice as well as hers.
It is another Mary, however, that is present at Jesus’ resurrection. It is Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ loved one, who first sees the resurrected body of Christ. Finally, at the Pentecost, both Marys and all of the other disciples are reunited and are filled with the Holy Spirit.
Mary is described, in the Gospels, as the mother of Jesus. Only later, at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, would she gain the title of theotokos; ie, the Mother of God.
Ephesus, by a freak historical coincidence, was also the site of the most famous temples of Artemis. In Greek mythology, she was the goddess of chastity and of the hunt, similar to her Roman counterpart Diana. Although she is known as parthenos, as both maiden and virgin, she was also the goddess of childbirth. In many ways, Artemis also typifies the prehistoric archetype of the goddess of fertility and regeneration popular in Old Europe.
At the outset, Artemis was the prototype of the Great Goddess. Later, her role in Greek mythology was transformed into that of a virgin. This image of the maiden or the virgin could be seen as further evidence of the patriarchal/hierarchical representation of women’s sexuality in mythology.16
The title of God’s bearer, given to Mary at Ephesus, does not confer upon her the divine attribute of goddess, even though the sacred affiliation to her Son gives her somewhat of a divine right. Although Christianity has no goddess per se, the Mother of God shares many similar attributes and functions. And despite the fact that Mary does not play a prominent role in the New Testament, her image has developed into a cult of great following and devotion. Mary’s devotion, especially if seen by non-Catholics, is, in many ways, comparable to a goddess’.
The birth narratives are the most eloquent about Mary’s identity.17 It is through these texts that she has been immortalized as the Mother of God. It is that image that is most present in our minds. Foremost, the virginal conception has been the center of important theological debates, especially with the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception defined by Pius IX in 1854.18
The virginal birth of Jesus is one among many examples of the role that virginity plays in the world of mythologies. There are other parallels to be found among founders of other religions who were also born of virgins: Buddha, Krishna, the son of Zoroaster, and, in some versions, Zoroaster himself. In Greek and Roman mythologies, heroes born to virgins are typified by Dionysos, Romulus and Remus. The concept of virginal birth can also be found in most ancient cultures like Egypt, Greece, Persia, and India. The concept is also prominent in the native North American cultures like the Inuit, the Apache, and the Navajo.
Most of the examples point to the heroes whose mothers were virgin as a sign of their greatness, but not necessarily to the virginity per se. In other words, the fact that these heroes were portrayed as being born to a virgin is a sign of their supernatural origin. In the language of myth, the supernatural quality of the heroes is attested through a virgin mother as a sign that separates them from ordinary people. In a sense, the cause of their greatness might be connected to the unique and exclusive relationship they had with their mother. The virginity may be tied to the unconditional nature of the relationship between the mother and the child. It also infers the woman’s independence and self-sufficiency in her role of mother. It suggests that the fertility is rooted in herself and is self-contained.
In mythology, there seems to be no apparent contradiction in the belief that a mother can also be a virgin. In order to understand the virginal conception, one has to see it in the light of mythological significance. As a specific form of language, myth deals in a metaphysical and metaphorical dimension. The physical world is differentiated from metaphysical as it relates to two distinct semantic realities. Such is the distinction between spiritual conception and the physical -or sexual- conception of Christ. Moreover, the word conception is equivocal. Both the physical and metaphysical sense can be implied. It allows for two types of relationships; between man and woman in procreation, and between mother and child in gestation.
The virginal conception depicts the relationship between Mother and Son as one of devotion, a unique and special spiritual bond, so to speak. It implies a dynamic revelation of the Holy Spirit by Mary in her conception of Christ. Her virginity relates more to her spiritual relationship with her Son than to a biological state or her sexual behavior with a father who remains in the background.19 In other words, between mother and child, we can speak of a pure, spiritual, and unconditional love.
Mother >child>virginity = spiritual conception
woman>man>sexual relation = physical conception
The word conception should be understood here in the context of its two meanings. First, in the spiritual sense, as the faculty of conceiving in the mind. Second, as procreation, the action of conceiving in the womb. On one hand, the Virgin Mary, through the spiritual revelation of the Holy Spirit, conceived of Christ according to tradition. In this sense, the Holy Spirit is not to be understood as the male element in the intervention, but as God’s presence which Mary acknowledges.20 On the other hand, the birth of Jesus the man is biological, historical. Here, the parthenogenesis of Jesus underlines the unique relationship between Mary and Jesus. Both conceptions make up the mystery in which the Son of man and the Son of God meet in the Incarnation of Jesus/Christ, the Son/God.
Holy Spirit > Virgin Mary > Christ = Jesus Christ
Mary’s revelation > Mary’s body > Jesus
Another important event in Mariology took place in 1950 when Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. This dogma confirms that Mary, the virgin mother of God, was taken into heaven in body and soul.
The likeness between God’s Mother and her divine Son, in the way of the nobility and dignity of body and soul -a likeness that forbids us to think of the heavenly Queen as being separated from the heavenly King- makes it entirely imperative that Mary “should be only where Christ is”.21
The epithet Queen of Heaven is a title also shared by Astarte and Asherah.22 Even though theological doctrine forbids any connection between the Virgin Mary and the pagan goddesses, it remains interesting that a similar name came up to describe the Mother of God. It just shows that the archetype of the Goddess principle is always present deep in the human psyche. If we compare some other attributes and names associated with the goddess we come up with this:
heavenly Queen Queen of heaven
Mother of God Creator of gods
mother of Jesus fertility goddess
conceived in her womb Astarte, the womb
We have seen how the goddess principle has been opposed in the Old Testament and overshadowed in the New, until only a glimpse of her image could be perceived in the background. Throughout history, her epithets and names may have changed yet her essence remained the same.
The Church, in its own spiritual way, acknowledged her being since the mid-nineteenth century. In 1858, Mary appeared in Lourdes, France, where her Spirit performed numerous miracles. She appeared again in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. And lately, visions of her being have been reported in Medugorje, Yugoslavia. Her apparitions are expressions of a deep longing for her spiritual being and are signs of spiritual as well as political change.23
1 See Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1989.
2 James Mellaart, Earliest Civilizations of the Near East, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1965.
3 Marija Gimbutas, Ibid., 316-317.
4 Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History, New York, Harper Torchbooks, 1959.
5 The abundant discoveries of that period’s arms may help corroborate and justify such a theory.
6 A common trait of the divinities of the time is that the male gods tended to represent a reality statically, whereas their female consorts were thought of as bringing that reality into action. See William J. Fulco, SJ., The Canaanite God Resep, New Haven, American Oriental Society, 1976.
7 1 Kings 11:5; 15:13; 2 Kings 17:16f.
8 The name Asherah with the more commonly masculine plural Asherim was used in the Bible. See also Kings 18:17-19; 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 13:6, 21:7, 23:6f.; Jeremiah 7:17-18; 44:17-25, etc.
9 See Raphael Patai’s chapter on Asherah in, The Hebrew Goddess, New York, Avon Books, 1978.
10 1 Kings 16:32-33; 18:19-40.
11 See David Noel Freedman’s, Yahweh of Samaria and His Asherah, in, Biblical Archeologist, December 1987, 249. In another event, the narrative describes how Asherah also escaped the Baalist massacre and the destruction of Baal’s temple in Samaria during yet another Yahwist uprising.
12 William Foxwell Albright, Archeology and the Religion of Israel, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1968, 71 ff.
13 Also: Judg.10:6; 1 Sam. 7:3-4; 31:10.
14 Judg. 2:13, 3:7; 1 Sam. 7:3-4.
15 The Talmud also associates the divine essence with the Spirit of God. Both expressions relate to God’s presence and closeness with his people.
16 Carol P. Christ, Symbols of Goddess and God in Feminist Theology, in, The Book of Goddess Past and Present, ed. by Carl Olson, New York, Crossroad, 1983, 231-251.
17 The Koran also makes some eloquent and reverential references to Mary (Surahs 3 and 19).
18 Pius IX, Immaculate Conception, Ineffabilis Deus, DS 2803, issued December 8, 1854, Boston, St-Paul Books and Media.
19 The narratives describe man’s participation, as portrayed by Joseph, as secondary. Mary is described as “betrothed” to Joseph, but he did not “know” her -a word used to imply sexual union. Nevertheless, Joseph, by recognizing Jesus as his child though he was not his own, became his legal father according to Jewish law.
20 In Hebrew, the word for spirit has a rather feminine connotation which corroborates, in this instance, Mary’s “spiritual” act of conceiving God.
21 Pius XII, Assumption, Munificentissimus Deus, DS 3903, issued November 1, 1950, Boston, St-Paul Books & Media, 15.
22 Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman, San Diego, Harvest/HBJ Book, 1976, 163 ff.
23 As Karl Rahner points out, visions and apparitions must be interpreted as spiritual expressions of deep mystical feelings rather than inexplicable physical marvels. When the Church investigates the validity of such visions, for instance, it does not examine the physical evidence of the apparition but the spiritual trustworthiness of the people who experience such happenings. See, Karl Rahner’s, Visions and Prophecies, London, Burns and Oates, 1963.
Michael A Rizzotti
We have dealt with two of the persons of the Trinity in other essays. In order to complete the triune essence of God, we will now focus our attention on the Holy Spirit. Among the three, its identity is the most evanescent.
The Spirit is the most enduring epithet of God. We can find it from the first verses of Genesis to the last pages of the Book of revelation.
In the Old Testament, the Spirit is portrayed as the vitalizing force behind God’s activity. The word ruah, spirit in Hebrew, also means wind.1
The words spirit and breath are also linked in a special fashion to the creation of the world. As related in Genesis, God breathes his Spirit into man and gives him life.2 Breathing suggests the physical act of inhaling and exhaling the wind. It also depicts the inner and outer omnipresent reality of the Spirit of God in nature. As such, the life giving Spirit alludes to the unfathomable mystery of the origin of life.
The concept of a deity breathing life into man is not exclusive to Judaism and was prevalent in the ancient Near East. Similar Babylonian and Egyptian mythologies associate the breathing activity with the origin and animation of all life.
Although the Old Testament uses the epithet Spirit of God, it does not speak of the Holy Spirit per se. The appellative Spirit of God became popular in late Old Testament narratives to replace the name of God by its attributes. The epithet did not infer the idea that the Spirit was a person either. Nevertheless, the meaning of Spirit of God and Holy Spirit are synonymous, since one meaning of the word holy is “of God”. Only in the New Testament narratives did the Holy Spirit take an identity of its own.3
In the Scriptures, the Spirit of God became the inspiration given to prophets called to speak the word of God.4 In this sense, the presence of the Spirit is akin to the unfathomable ways in which the wind, of which the prophet is filled, blows in the desert. Similarly, speaking gives the un-vocalized Hebrew alphabet meaning and sense.
Ezek. 1:28 Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. And he said to me “Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak with you.” And when he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me upon my feet; and I heard him speaking to me.
The Spirit infuses the gift of understanding and communication. Without this gift, the prophet would not be able to understand the word or message of God: in the Spirit of the Word lies the essence of all meaning.
Similarly, Mary is filled with the presence of the Spirit and understands the full extent of the message of God in regards to the virginal conception of her son Jesus Christ.
In Isaiah, the Spirit of God is linked in a special way with the covenant. The original expectations of the Spirit of God were mainly centered on the physical strength and power of Israel, especially in the heroic exploits of war. These hopes were successively transformed into a more messianic message of salvation.
John the Baptist, in the Gospels, is paralleled to the prophets of the Old Testament when he acknowledges the presence of the Holy Spirit descending as a dove on Jesus at his baptism, John under-stands the presence of the Spirit of God in Jesus.
Jesus’ birth, baptism, and resurrection all share the presence of the Holy Spirit. All three are symbols of conception and re-birth. At the baptism, the Father and the Holy Spirit are present revealing the Trinity at work. They all bear witness to the power of God’s self communication as the Word becomes flesh in Jesus Christ. The Incarnation is the proof of the ongoing relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
At the baptism, the Holy Spirit is described in all four Gospels as a dove descending from heaven.6 The symbol of the dove is a privileged metaphor that describes the essence and identity of the Holy Spirit. It is a symbol rich in significance even in the Old Testament.
The doves referred to in the Scriptures are of two species: the turtledove and the young pigeon. The Hebrew word yona is a general designation for various species of doves that lived in the Middle-East.
In the Old Testament, the dove is mentioned in the flood as bringing back a “freshly plucked olive leaf” to confirm that the land is now safe and fertile again.7
A popular character of the Old Testament also bears the name Yona; i.e., Jonas. The word literally means, moaner. This is the same Jonas who was swallowed up by the whale and spit out three days later: an allegory that parallels the inside of the whale to the womb in which the hero undergoes the mythical journey of death and rebirth.
The dove is also paralleled to the sacrificial offerings. In Leviticus, the law prescribes the offering of two turtledoves or two young pigeons for a woman’s purification after childbirth.8 One bird is set aside as a burnt offering and the other for sin offering. These doves are prescribed as substitutes when the woman cannot afford the sacrifice of the more expensive lamb, further correlating the dove with the poor.
Isa. 38:14 Like a swallow or a crane I clamor,
I moan like a dove.
My eyes are weary with looking upward.
O Lord, I am oppressed; be thou my security! 9
In the symbolic representations of Old Europe, the dove was associated with the Goddess.10 In ancient Near East, the bird was usually identified with the chief female goddess of fertility. In the temple of Ishtar, the dove was connected to the goddess, and the prostitutes who participated in the cults were called the doves of the temple. The dove was also known to represent the goddess Aphrodite.11 We know from the writings of Homer that Athena and Hera also assumed the guise of the dove.
Because of the widespread influence of Hellenism in Palestine in Jesus’ times, the four Evangelists must have been aware that the dove was the symbol of the goddess Aphrodite. The New Testament was written in koine, a Greek language. It was commonly spoken throughout Palestine during the time the Evangelists wrote the Gospels. In light of this, might it be possible that their representation of the dove as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit was meant to suggest a connection to the goddess principle?
Mt. 10:16 …so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.12
The Holy Spirit’s presence at Mary’s conception of Christ inaugurates his own sacred identity.
Later, Jesus is depicted as being full of the Holy Spirit. He is led by the Spirit to the desert to fast for forty days, at the end of which period he is tempted by the devil. A parallel is made to the people of Israel’s own journey in the wilderness. When he returns to Galilee, he comes back with the power of the Spirit.
At the end of his public life, Christ tells his disciples that he will send another “Counselor” as soon as he leaves this world. The narratives use the word paraclete which is taken from the Greek parakletos meaning helper, intercessor, and advocate. This term commonly refers to the Holy Spirit. This Counselor is present at all times, ready to teach and guide into all truth. He is described as another entity with a mode of being all of his own, distinct from the Father’s and the Son’s. And although he has a life of his own, he shares the same divine substance as God.
Mt. 28:19 Go therefore make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Baptism is the most celebrated symbol of spiritual re-birth. In the quote above, Jesus’ last words give his apostles the authority to baptize in the name of the three persons of the Trinity. He also breaths on them the Holy Spirit. The same gift of life given to Adam by God at the beginning.
The synoptic accounts end with Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. More evidence of the life of the Spirit is found in the Acts of the Apostles to fulfill the promise Jesus had made to his followers.
At the Pentecost, the additional sign of the presence and identity of the Holy Spirit manifests itself as all the disciples are gathered in an upper room where Mary the mother of Jesus is also present. Luke takes special care to mention that a group of women who followed Jesus throughout his public life, and who remained in the shadow of the male disciples, are there as well. Suddenly, a mighty wind fills the room and tongues of fire appear on every single one of them. Everybody is swiftly filled by the power of the Holy Spirit. They soon realize that they can speak in other tongues. The Paraclete vented to them the gift of communication. But most important of all, the Holy Spirit provided them with the power of Christ’s authority.
Acts. 4:13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus.
It is through the Holy Spirit that the disciples spread the Word to small groups of ecclesiae who began to diffuse throughout Palestine and Rome.13 These early Christians, who were for the most part Jews, believed in the impending return of Christ and the imminent fall of the empire. Neither materialized.
Their faith remained steadfast despite the Roman persecution. They were unaware that unforeseeable events would soon favor their faith to expand throughout the Roman empire.
One of these events was the sudden conversion of Constantine, in 312 AD. Constantine reportedly witnessed the sight of a luminous cross in the sky. The vision had a message attached to it which read: In hoc signo vinces; e.g., With this sign you will win. He ordered that the symbol of the cross be put on all of his soldiers’ shields. The battles he fought and won afterwards strengthened his belief on the benefit of this emblem symbolizing the new faith. As soon as he became Emperor, he made Christianity the official religion of Rome.
As the Church flourished, it spread to the limits of the Roman empire and beyond. Church officials soon gathered in councils to resolve matters of faith and doctrine in order to dispel a number of heresies that were emerging among the believers. During the councils of Nicaea (325 CE) and Constantinople (382 CE), the creed of the Holy Spirit was promulgated. At these councils, the Holy Spirit was defined as the Lord, the giver of life.
1 In ancient Near East, the wind was regarded as the mysterious force associated with fertility, and the bringer of life. See Walter Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, vol.1, London, SCM Press, 1967, 46.
2 See Gen. 1:2; 2:7; 6:3; Ps. 33:6; 104:99f; 146:4; Job 12:10; 27:3; 34:14f; Ezek. 37:7-10.
3 See Yves M.J. Congar, The Word and the Spirit, San Francisco, Harper & Row Publishers, 1986; also, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, vol. 1 to 3, New York, The Seabury Press, 1983; and, Esprit de l’Homme, Esprit de Dieu, Paris, Les Editions du Cerf, 1983.
4 The Hebrew word for prophet is nabi’ which is translated into “called”. 1 Sam. 10:6; 16:14; Hos. 9:7; Ezek. 2:2; 3:12f.
5 Is. 59:21.
6 Mt. 3:16; Mk. 1:10; Lk. 3:22; Jn.1:32.
7 Gen. 8:11.
8 See also, Lk. 2:24; Lev. 1:14; 12:1-8.
9 The Old Testament links the symbol of the dove to the poor and the oppressed.
10 See, Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1989, 318-319.
11 Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, vol.8; Pagan Symbolism in Judaism, New York, Pantheon Books, 1958, 27-46.
12 Although the quote which is attributed to Jesus may appear at first hand innocuous, it is in fact an older Syrian aphorism which invocates the attributes of the God and the Goddess. See Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1983, 252-254.
13 Which translated into assemblies or the more common churches and the Church.
14 This creed also states that the Holy Spirit spoke through the Prophets.