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There's Something More About Mary

USC College Bible scholar explores the life of Jesus’ mother

There's Something More About Mary

Religion Professor Ronald Hock opened a coffee table-sized art book to Leonardo da Vinci’s, “The Last Supper.”

Hock pointed to the figure at the right hand of Jesus in the 15th century painting, based on John’s gospel in which Jesus announces that one of his 12 disciples would betray him.

The New Testament scholar doesn’t buy author Dan Brown’s argument in his bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, that the person at the place signifying the most beloved disciple is Mary Magdalene, and not John.

“The iconography of John is always as a young, beardless youth,” Hock said recently inside his USC College office. “When you look at the da Vinci picture of ‘The Last Supper’ all the other disciples have beards, and the like. It’s John who’s to the right of Jesus. He looks a little feminine, but that’s only because he’s a youth.”

Hock has strong opinions about many issues swirling around the historical Jesus — a subject currently all the rage in countless books, television programs, plays and films, including director Ron Howard’s new big-budget thriller starring Tom Hanks.   

An expert on the topic, Hock has appeared on public television programs about Jesus’ life. But recently, he has turned his attention to Jesus’ mother, Mary. In his book, The Banned Book of Mary: How Her Story was Suppressed by the Church and Hidden in Art for Centuries, (Ulysses Press, 2004) the author explores the history of Mary, including the Christian belief of her virgin birth.

Hock’s book analyzes a long-forgotten document, the Infancy Gospel of James. Written around 150 AD by an unknown Christian, it focuses on Mary’s life, beginning with her parents, an elderly couple named Joachim and Anne.

Although excluded from the Bible and banned by the church, it may be the most influential of all gospels, Hock said. The document was the basis of many masterpieces by Renaissance artists such as Giotto di Bondone, Raphael and Robert Campin.

“It’s a lovely story,” Hocks said. “I appreciate the way it influenced Orthodox Christianity, directly. How it influenced Latin Christianity, indirectly, and how we can still see its influence in manger scenes and Christmas cards. We still unknowingly now, pick up traits and details that go back, not to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but eventually to the Infancy Gospel of James.”

While the New Testament chronicles Jesus beginning with Mary and Joseph, the Infancy Gospel describes a childless couple whose prayers are answered when Anne delivers Mary. The overjoyed couple vow to dedicate their child to God. At age 3, Mary is presented to the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem, where she is raised.

At age 12, the high priest summons the widowers of Israel and tells each to bring a staff. One will take Mary as a wife. On the staff of one widower, Joseph, an old man with grown sons, a dove appears. He is chosen. Joseph protests, arguing that he is too old, but agrees after he is allowed to be Mary’s legal guardian, rather than husband.

While Joseph is out of town building houses, an angel tells Mary that she will have a divine child and is to name him Jesus. Upon finding Mary pregnant, Joseph resolves to leave her, but an angel informs him that Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit.

In the Infancy Gospel, Joseph and Mary stop en route to Bethlehem, where a census has been ordered. Mary delivers a son — not in a stable, but in a cave.

Deviating from the New Testament, this document says two midwives visit the cave. After one midwife claims a virgin has given birth, the other is skeptical. But when she tries to examine Mary, her hand begins to burn. A voice tells her to pick up the baby. When she does, the midwife’s hand is healed.

The Infancy Gospel further contradicts the traditional story. Rather than Joseph leading Mary and the baby into Egypt to escape King Herod’s soldiers, Mary is the hero. It says Mary wrapped the child in swaddling clothes and hid him in a manger in Bethlehem.  

The church shunned this gospel because of one man, Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, known today as Saint Jerome, the patron saint of librarians and translators. Jerome was assigned to create the Latin Vulgate Bible in 382 AD.

Jerome had several problems with the Infancy Gospel. First, it clashed with Luke 2:7, which says Mary gave birth to her first son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes. There was no mention of midwives in Luke. Also, the Infancy Gospel has Jesus performing his first miracle as a newborn. That conflicted with John’s gospel, which says Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine.

But Jerome’s real problem was the way in which the Infancy Gospel explained the mention of Jesus’ “brothers” in the canonical gospels. The references to Jesus’ brothers in many of the gospels suggest Mary was not a perpetual virgin. Jerome wouldn’t have that.

“The issue of the day was what was the greatest form of Christian piety, is it normal marriage or is it celibacy?” Hock said. “Jerome was on the side of celibacy. He wanted Mary to be the role model for that form of piety.”

Jerome explained that when Mark and Matthew spoke of Jesus’ brothers and sisters, they really meant cousins. Jerome didn’t like the Infancy Gospel explanation that the brothers were Joseph’s sons from a previous marriage. So, the Infancy Gospel was pushed aside.

Despite the Western church’s prohibition, manuscripts survived. In the 7th century, during the rise of Islam, many Christians fled Jerusalem for Rome. They brought with them their love and traditions surrounding Mary, which dovetailed with the Roman interest in Mary as a celibate figure. The Infancy Gospel of James reemerged. But longer, more detailed versions changed, among other things, the birthplace to a manger and added an ox and donkey in attendance.

Hock said that Joseph is most likely Jesus’ biological father. But little else is clear about key points such as the birth of Jesus.

“The truth is we don’t know the circumstances of Jesus’ birth,” Hock said. “If Paul was right and it was an ordinary birth, he was probably born at home in Nazareth, with Joseph and Mary and family in attendance.”