The Expansion of Marian Tradition
In the canonical gospels, Mary’s primary claim to exceptionality is not inconsiderable – she was a virgin who by the power of the Holy Spirit conceived and gave birth to Jesus, Israel’s promised messiah1. But outside of this, little is known of Mary that cannot be gleaned from occasional encounters with Jesus and the Apostles recorded by the gospel writers.
This dirth of information became the cause of much interest, and in the late second century the Protoevangelium of James was written, setting forward a tale of Mary’s life before the immaculate conception. Although this document has little claim to valid history or orthodoxy, it does hold one of the first examples of an expanding Marian tradition. Also in the second century, orthodox writers, namely Justin Martyr2 and Irenaeus3 set forward a view of Mary as the “New Eve” – In contrast to Adam’s Eve, who’s disobedience led to sin and death, Mary, the New Eve, brought life in the form of Jesus Christ, through her obedience.
What began as an analogous comparison opened the gates to fresh traditions based upon the first. If Mary was the New Eve, what does that tell us about her? If Eve did not have Original Sin – the guilt inherited by all mankind from Adam – perhaps the New Eve didn’t either*. If the New Adam is our Mediator with God, surely the New Eve is as well (albeit in a subordinate sense), and if The New Adam’s body was spared from the corruption of the grave, surely the New Eve’s was**.
Much is owed to this equivalency between Eve and Mary, but is this a valid comparison? Should we see Mary as the New Eve?
Jesus Christ: The New Adam
In Romans, Paul sets down a clear analogy between Adam and Jesus Christ4. Adam, as the “Federal Head” of mankind, brought death by his disobedience. As a result, all mankind (since all mankind is related to Adam) has inherited his sinful nature. Christ, on the other hand, is the New Adam – as Adam brought death through disobedience, Christ has brought life through his obedience. Thus death is undone by the New Adam.
This analogy is supported by the unique nature of Christ’s birth, since he has no father save for God, in a similar sense as Adam had no father but his creator. If then Christ is the New Adam, is there then a New Eve? And if so, who?
Is Mary the New Eve?
Saying Mary is the New Eve does have its temptations. Justin and Irenaeus noted that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Christ and Eve at least seems to have been a virgin at the time of the fall2,3. In a similar vein, Justin describes Eve as “conceiving the word of the serpent^” which led to death, while in contrast Mary conceived the Word of God who brought life.
These parallels are enchanting, and in some ways they’re worth noting, but even at a glance there is an obvious problem in taking the comparison any further – Eve was Adam’s wife.
One could argue, of course, that this is being a bit too exacting on an analogy, except when you consider two points. First, that there is no actual reason there must be a New Eve at all, since the Scriptures make absolutely no effort to overtly suggest there was one. And Second, that there is, in fact, a more obvious and consistent analogy to Eve given to us in the Bible – the Church.
Who is the New Eve?
If Christ is the New Adam, does he have his Eve? Arguably the answer is yes, but it is not a woman, but the Church. In Scripture the Church is presented to Jesus as a flawless bride and Christ, as the Bridegroom, comes to receive5. Indeed, the words which describe the first marriage, after which all marriages follow, are applied specifically to the union of Christ and his Church.
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is great—but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 6” – Ephesians 5:31-32[NET]
The fall of man is attributed to Adam, even though it was Eve who sinned first. Ultimately the reason for this is that Adam was responsible for Eve as she was made for Adam and he was to be her leader7. But he failed to faithfully carry out his authority, so she fell into temptation and he fell after her. Ultimately the responsibility was his. Inversely, Just as Adam failed to execute his authority faithfully, Christ succeeded. Adam’s failure made his wife sinful and unclean, Christ’s faithfulness makes his bride pure and spotless8.
The bride of Christ furthermore has no father except God, since everyone who is a part of the Church has been born of the spirit9. She was made for her husband and is subservient to him, and since she has been reborn, she has no guilt of original sin nor is she it bound to a sinful nature. In every way, the church becomes as Eve was before the Fall.
Mary the Mother of the Lord
In closing it should still be noted that Mary is a very important figure in the Bible. The virgin birth was to be a sign of the messiah11, she gave birth to our lord and savior, raised him, and endured the pain of seeing her son crucified on the cross. Ultimately, Jesus’ love for her was such that he remembered her even in the midst of his suffering when he entrusted her to John12.
None of this should be ignored, all of it is important, but to go beyond the clear teachings of scripture, or to force an analogy which is not without its flaws, is no more honoring to Mary than it is to Jesus Christ – her son, our Lord, the New Adam, and the bridegroom betrothed to his incorruptible Church.
* To the best of this author’s knowledge, the first attestation to this belief comes in the fifth century – a period when a number of Marian traditions experienced explosive growth – Augustine demonstrates this, though there is reason to doubt he held this view. c.f. On Nature and Grace, On Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants, Book II, Chapter 47. For a fuller list of citations from Augustine concerning Original sin, see here.
** See Pius XII’s Marian Bull, MUNIFICENTISSIMUS DEUS, section 39, which builds its case for the bodily assumption of Mary on her status as the New Eve.
^ “For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God” – Justin Martyr, Dialogue, chapter 100
1. Luke 1:26-35
2. Justin Martyr, Dialogue, chapter 100
3. Irenaeus, “The Demonstration of Apostolic Preaching,” chapter 33 and “Against Heresies,” Book 3, chapter 22, section 4
4. Romans 5:12-21
5. Ephesians 5:22-32, Rev 21:2, 9-10
6. c.f. Genesis 2:24
7. 1 Timothy 2:12-14
8. Ephesians 5:25-27
9. John 3:1-7
10. Romans 6:1-4
11. Isaiah 7:10-14
12. John 19:26-27