A week ago Evan posted a comment that piqued my curiosity. He raised a case study of a seventeenth-century “historical figure” whom historians have come to deem was completely fabricated. Those with a strong interest in arguing for his historicity pointed to oral traditions, the earliest written testimony, even a personal physical artefact, in support of their case. Scholars casting doubt on this person’s historical reality have in turn pointed to silences where one would expect outspoken witness, and to a few coincidences with motifs from tales that preceded the supposed historical events.
It is very hard to avoid comparing the kinds of evidence cited for the historical existence of Jesus, and to reflect upon the arguments scholars will advance for questioning the existence of Juan Diego and how similar they are to those arguments advanced by some today to argue that Jesus, also, was not a true historical person.
A special thanks to Evan for taking the time to prepare the following when I explained to him that I had not investigated the case of Juan Diego myself but would be very interested if he could write something to bring me up to speed. I’m sure there are others who would be just as interested.
Juan Diego and Jesus
St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin is an interesting figure. Numerous reports of his life exist and there is a strong prima facie case for his existence. We have a known date of birth, a definite date of his death, and several other facts that almost all sources agree on. We have known historical figures with whom he is purported to have interacted, and a proven location and even artifacts that date to the time of his supposed existence.
Yet even the former head priest of the Basilica of Guadalupe, Guillermo Schulenburg, doubted publicly in 1994 that he existed. The primary arguments about his historicity have been entirely within Catholicism until very recently. Those arguing against his existence view the entire cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe as baptized paganism worthy of no official church recognition. According to Schulenburg it would recognize a cult to canonize him.
The story of Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in brief
Juan Diego (July, 1474 – May 30, 1548) was born prior to the conquest of New Spain by Hernan Cortes. He is reported to have been born in the calpulli of Tlayacac in Cuautitlan. He converted to Catholicism shortly after the completion of the conquest of New Spain and is reported to have taken a vow of chastity with his wife, Maria Lucia.
She passed away and Juan Diego remained loyal to the church. One day in December of 1531, on his way to the church in Mexico City, he had an encounter with one claiming to be the Virgin Mary. She spoke to him in Nahuatl and told him to tell the bishop, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, to build a temple for her at the spot they were speaking, Tepeyac. Juan Diego spoke with the bishop but failed to convince him. Over the next two days, the “Virgin Mary” appeared to him three more times, each time increasing her pressure on him to convince the bishop.
Finally she had Juan Diego pick some roses and take them to the bishop in his overcoat or tilma. When Juan Diego unrolled his tilma to show the roses to the bishop, an image of the Virgin Mary was imprinted on his overgarment and the bishop was brought to his knees and ordered the chapel to be built. Prior to the Virgin doing this, she had told Juan that his ill uncle would be cured. Juan went to his uncle’s house and he was miraculously healed. In her final appearance she told Juan Diego that she wanted the title Guadalupe.
Juan Diego requested the privilege of working at the temple for the rest of his life and Zumarraga approved this. They both died within the same month.
Time line of the appearance of the story
The first mention of the story of Juan Diego in print was in 1648, one-hundred and seventeen years after the events that are narrated. The author, one Miguel Sanchez, openly equated Juan Diego with Moses at Mt. Horeb in his work titled Imagen de la Virgen Maria, Madre de Dios de Guadalupe, Milagrosamente aparecida en la Ciudad de México (= “Image of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God of Guadalupe, who miraculously appeared in the City of Mexico”) . He compared the goddess of the apparition with the great woman of the Book of Revelation. Sanchez stated openly that his sources were oral tradition among the indigenous Nahuatlophone residents of Mexico City.
The second mention is a Nahuatl text that was published in 1649 by Luis Lasso de la Vega entitled Huei Tlamahuicoltica (= “The Great Event”). De la Vega was the vicar of the temple at Tepeyac and he neither before nor after the publication of this text was known to be fluent in Nahuatl. Yet the Nahuatl of the text is widely agreed upon to be very elegant and full of learned expressions. The central telling of the Juan Diego pericope takes place in a segment that is often referred to by itself as the Nican Mopohua (= “Here it is Told”).
The third mention takes place in Origen milagroso del Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (= “Miraculous Origin of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Guadalupe”) , written by Luis Becerra Tanco and published in 1666. He agreed with Sanchez that there was no written record of the story prior to the mid 17th century, but agreed with Sanchez that there was a flourishing oral tradition.
The fourth source is a document referred to as the Informaciones Juridicas 1666 (= “1666 Juridical Information”) which delivers the testimony of multiple Nahuatlophone witnesses who reported there was a longstanding native tradition regarding Juan Diego. The document is the proceedings of a Catholic investigation sent to Rome in support of recognition for the Guadalupe event from the Vatican. Again, there is no documentary evidence that predates 1648, but strong testimony for a pre-extant oral tradition.
The final source for the Juan Diego tradition is Estrella de el Norte de Mexico (= “Star of the North of Mexico”), written by Francisco de Florencia. This text was written in 1688 and published in Mexico. The author, a Jesuit, felt that the tilma of Juan Diego was all the proof anyone should ever need to trust the tale. However he also claimed to have two sources that dated to 1531, which nobody ever saw. He also relied on an oral tradition as indisputable testimony.
Reasons for skepticism
The primary reason for skepticism towards the existence of Juan Diego is our old friend the argument from silence. Here is a list of characters who should have mentioned Juan Diego yet never did:
- Francisco Placido – A Nahuatlophone governor of the Tepeyac region in 1531, the time the image was first documented to be in Mexico, who authored a song “Teponazcuicatl” written in Nahuatl that makes no mention of any Juan Diego. Some scholars have suggested that this song has older Mexica roots and actually is an older Nahuatl song that referred to the fall of Tula the capital of the Toltecs but was then baptized.
- Fray Juan de Zumarraga – Bishop in 1531 and a key presence in the narrative, never put pen to paper to describe his experience.
- Bernardo de Sahagun – Author of a voluminous work on the natives of Mexico, written in 1571, documenting extensively their traditions and ways. He mentions the location of Tepeyac as a location where there were festivals to the Lady of Guadalupe, but makes no mention of Juan Diego or any story of any native who petitioned for a temple in that location.
- Frays Alonso Montufar and Francisco Bustamante – There was a controversy in Mexico City in 1556 over the cult that had developed in Tepeyac with Fray Bustamante petitioning the King of Spain to have Alonso Montufar, the current archbishop, defrocked and put under charges for promoting the worship of idols. He referred to the cult of Guadalupe as something that was “invented yesterday” and claimed the tilma had been painted by an Indian named Marco. Of interest is that Montufar never defended himself by describing the story of Juan Diego, even though Fray Zumarraga was his direct predecessor.
- Juan Batista – A native Nahuatl speaker, wrote a diary in Nahuatl, including two entries that mentioned the Virgin of Guadalupe. The first dates the appearance of the Virgin in Tepeyac to the year 1555. The second gives the date of the festival of the Virgin in Tepeyac as September 15, 1566. Since the 17th century, the festival has been celebrated on the 12th of December.
The list above, is of necessity and space an incomplete list, but highlights the major sources. It is of great interest that not a single document mentions Juan Diego until Sanchez. The argument from silence may have a bad reputation in some circles, but in this case there are multiple descriptions where we would expect some mention of the apparition of the Virgin Mary in the guise of a native to Juan Diego and we don’t see them until the story is brought forth fully formed in 1648. After that, the story has very few changes and there is very little legendary development.
The primary argument about the historicity of Juan Diego has taken place almost entirely within the Catholic Church. The critics of Juan Diego have been assumed to have an animus towards the indigenous people from the beginning of the investigation into his historicity. Additionally, the existence in Extremadura, Spain of a Virgin of Guadalupe, one of the three “Black Madonnas” and the most important Marian shrine in Castile in the 15th century, whose appearance is quite similar to that painted on the tilma, is strong evidence of the translocation of a pre-existing mythology to a new land.
In addition, Tepeyac was known as a site where the indigenous goddess, Tonatzin, an avatar of Coatlicue was known to have been worshipped prior the conquest.
Skepticism regarding the existence of Juan Diego has continued from the time of the first telling of the story to this date. Father Schulenberg retired from the priesthood after his investigations at the Basilica led him to doubt the existence of its canonized saint.
Parallels and distinctions between Juan Diego and Jesus
The most important parallel between Juan Diego and Jesus of Nazareth is the silence of all sources regarding them during their supposed lifetimes. Nobody who was alive at the time that Jesus of Nazareth was alive put pen to paper to say they met him, as is also the case with Juan Diego.
In addition, there are no artifacts associated with the person of Jesus of Nazareth that can be reliably shown to date to his time, in contradistinction to the tilma (cloak) that is purported to have come from Juan Diego and has been reliably dated to the 16th century.
Both stories have roots in the mythologies of two cultures that came into conflict prior their development. In the case of Jesus, you had Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures that fought one another over a prolonged period, with the final defeat of the Jews in 70 CE and the development of Christianity as a separate religion after this event. In the case of Juan Diego, the Aztec or Mexica had been defeated by the conquistadores of Spain in 1521, there was a rapid conversion subsequently to Catholicism. Yet concerns about the authenticity of the Christianity of the natives continued for several centuries, at least by the Spaniards.
Just as Jesus’s story had roots in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Babylonian, Egyptian and Greek myths circulating in the Hellenistic age, Juan Diego’s story had roots in the Hebrew Scriptures (Moses is mentioned directly in the first reference, and there is intertextuality with other stories as well, such as those with Samuel and Eli), the New Testament and Aztec mythology. The fact that significant elements of both stories can be found in texts that pre-date the stories themselves is an additional strong argument for ahistoricity.
The existence of a person can never be categorically ruled out. In the case of Mexico City in 1531, it is almost certain that there was a native Aztec whose Christian name was Juan Diego. The name has been likened to John Doe in English, and so if the minimum necessary to assert historicity is that there was a person with the name, then Juan Diego would qualify as a historical person. However, this is not the case. For Juan Diego to be historical, some significant portion of the story we know him by would need to be true in the proper sense – to have taken place largely as the story describes. In this sense, I think we can definitively assert that the Juan Diego of the 17th century narratives is a fictional character whose primary existence is only in texts.
If one agrees with this judgment, the judgment one makes in the case of Jesus of Nazareth would, by the commutative principle, be the same.
http://www.proyectoguadalupe.com/acervo.html — all in Spanish and Nahautl.
http://www.sup.org/ancillary.cgi?isbn=0804752524;gvp=1 Stafford Poole’s book on The Guadalupan Controversies in Mexico
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