Symbolic Characters #3: Mary, Personification of the Jewish People, “Re-Virgined”

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the series on Nanine Charbonnel’s Jésus-Christ, sublime figure de paper . . . .


After this post I will pause from addressing NC’s book for a little while because I want to get a firm grasp of the next section before posting, and I think it is a very critical section, one that addresses the formation of the figure of Jesus in the gospels.

Here we continue the theme of suggesting what collective groups different individual persons in the gospels represent. The key takeaway is that there are reasons to think that certain names stand for larger entities, e.g. John the Baptist represents the Prophets of the “Old Testament” pointing to Jesus, the twelve disciples represent the foundation of the “new Israel” or Church, and so forth. In this post we have a look at the virgin mother of Jesus.

On “Twelve disciples” as the foundation of a “new Israel”: I have tended to think that the idea of the Twelve Disciples as a foundation of the Church was a second-century attempt to rebut Marcionism (i.e., the belief that Paul alone was the one true apostolic founder of the church). If so, the Gospel of Mark which arguably depicts Peter and the Twelve as failures (see Ted Weeden), was in some sympathy with Marcionism, but the later gospels with their positive spin on the Twelve stand in opposition to Marcionism; if so, they would have been authored closer to the mid-second century. Perhaps even the Gospel of Mark was written as an attempt to denounce attempts to establish a certain “orthodoxy” on the myth of The Twelve as opposed to Paul.


Other Vridar posts on the Cana miracle are by Tim Widowfield:

Mary and the Cana Wedding

Again we notice evidence of symbolism in a gospel story. We have a wedding narrative consisting of inversions of passages in the Jewish Scriptures. Other figurative language in the gospels leads us to see this wedding as a representation of an end-time event, a successful marriage to supplant the failed marriage of “old Israel” with Yahweh.

The following table blends parts of what I read in both Charbonnel and Mergui‘s books:

Jn 2:1  On the third day, Hosea 6:2 “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence. (i.e. a New Creation)
 a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee The Wedding = the covenant of Yahweh with his people Israel;

Galilee = the land of gentiles. (Isaiah 9:1)

Cana = from late Hebrew qanah meaning to acquire, to gain, to possess (c.f. Cain)

The scene represents the end time wedding of the enlarged Israel that includes gentiles.

 Jesus’ mother was there The mother is also the people, the bride (Isaiah 22)
2:2  and Jesus [= YHWH who Saves] and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. The messiah is the husband of his people (Jer. 31:3)
2:3  the wine was gone,

“They have no more wine.”

The wine is the Word or Law of Yahweh (Prov. 9:5; compare Ps. 73:10 where “waters” = word of Yahweh).

The old wine thus suggests the first (Mosaic) Law.

The words of the mother of Jesus, or the old Israel, contains a recollection of the rebellion of Israel with its complaining to God of what they lacked, or rebellion against the law. This may explain Jesus’ distant response.

2:4  “Woman” = Eve (Genesis 2:23)
2:5  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” = the text of Genesis 41:55 — “Go to Joseph and do what he tells you.” (Jesus is the new Joseph who has come to feed his people.)

Obedience leads to a new wine, one that is much better — the new Law that replaces the old.

2:6  Nearby stood six stone water jars Six is the number of incompleteness: we are on the cusp of the last days.

The purification jars are filled with water (for purification of the Jews) but wine replaces mere water of purification

2:8  Then he told them, “Now draw some out” The messiah brings new wine: Joel 3:18; Isaiah 25:6; Hosea 14:7


Virgin Mothers of Moses and Jesus

Jochebad was said to be 130 years old when she gave birth to Moses. (Pedro Américo: Misés e Jocabed, Wikimedia Commons)

Keep in mind that NC is not merely saying that gospel characters are symbolic. The point is much richer than that. The figures and actions are constructed in dialogue with (and with the use of) extracts from the Hebrew Bible. This is their midrashic nature.

NC shares an idea from  Armand Abécassis (who has set out his own case for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew being a form of Jewish midrash on the Old Testament) in which the gospels have engaged with a rabbinical view of their time that Moses was born of a virgin. Again, we find the clues in the later writings of the Talmud and suspect the claim that they represented very early traditions may have some factual basis.

Exodus 2:1-2 (NKJV)

And a man of the house of Levi went and took as wife a daughter of Levi. So the woman conceived and bore a son. And when she saw that he was a beautiful child, she hid him three months.

In the Babylonian Talmud’s Sotah 12a we read that Amram and Jochebad, the parents-to-be of Moses, divorced when learning of Pharaoh’s decree that all male children of Hebrew marriages would be killed. Their daughter Miriam, however, advised Amram that he had been wrong to put her away and to take her back and remarry her.

At this time Jochebad was 130 years old. In several ways Jochebad was seen to represent the entire body of Israel. Though conceived outside Egypt she was born to Levi in Egypt, so her life had spanned the entire time of Israel in Egypt, and her actions were reported to and followed by all of Israel. Just as Egypt, a representative of the pagan nations, carried within its own womb the hope of her salvation, that is Israel, so Jochebad, bore in her womb the future liberator of Israel. The fact that she was taken back by her husband who had decided not to have any more relations with her is interpreted by the Jewish tradition as the symbolization of the renewal of the community.

Now when Jochebad was restored to Amram God performed a remarkable miracle. He changed her back to a young maiden, a virgin even.

Virginity is restored as a condition of acceptability to the messianic figure and salvation. The ideal was to return to the pure condition of Eve at creation. From this virginal condition a new creation as God intended could emerge.

The importance of the “virginal mother” is repeated in 4 Maccabees 18:6-9

The mother of seven sons expressed also these principles to her children: “I was a pure virgin and did not go outside my father’s house; but I guarded the rib from which woman was made. No seducer corrupted me on a desert plain, nor did the destroyer, the deceitful serpent, defile the purity of my virginity. In the time of my prime I remained with my husband . . . .

Abécassis comments as follows:

It is, in fact, in the minds of the Jews of this first century, helping their people to regain their virginity by returning to the beauty of Eve before her defilement by the serpent. Now, this “return”, this reunion, this revirginization, occurred at the foot of Sinai, according to the Midrash which teaches that the Hebrews at that time got rid of the impurity of the serpent. Even more, there were no longer lepers, dumb, blind, or deaf among them … Their physical disabilities as well as their psychological, social and spiritual disabilities disappeared. The community of Israel, at the foot of Sinai, was thus presented by Moses to YHWH as a perfect, beautiful, undefiled bride, virgin in her social body, in her freedom and in her desire. The Sinai alliance between YHWH and its people – Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Jochebad, etc. – was a conjugal alliance because revirginized Israel regained its messianic dynamic. Receiving the word of YHWH, answering him: “What YHWH said we will do” (Ex 19: 8), he became able to give birth to the son of man.

(Google translation of the excerpt quoted by NC (p. 245) from En vérité je vous le dis. Bolding is mine.)

Abécassis is referring to the Numbers (or Bamidbar) Rabbah 7:1,

Said R. Tanhuma son of R. Abba . . . when Israel came out of Egypt the vast majority of them were afflicted with some blemish. Why? Because they had been working in clay and bricks and climbing to the tops of buildings. Those who were engaged in building became maimed through climbing to the upper layers of stone; either a stone fell and cut off the worker’s hand, or a beam or some clay got into his eyes and he was blinded. . . . 

When they came to the wilderness of Sinai, God said, “Is it consonant with the dignity of the Torah that I should give it to a generation of impaired people (baalei mumim)? If, on the other hand, I wait until others take their place, I will be delaying the giving of the Law.” What then did God do? He bade the angels come down to Israel and heal them.

(Translation found in Marx, Tzvi C. 2002. Disability in Jewish Law. London ; New York: Routledge, p. 15, 18)

Another attestation to the idea of the virginity of God’s people is in the Testament of Joseph, II.74

And I saw that from Judah was born a virgin wearing a linen garment, and from her, was born a lamb, without spot . . .

From the Aramaic Targum to Canticles or Song of Songs:

And when wicked Pharaoh pursued the people of Israel, the Assembly of Israel was compared to a dove trapped in the clefts of a rock – a snake threatening it from within and a hawk threatening it from without. In the same way, the Assembly of Israel was trapped in all four directions: in front of them was the sea, behind them the enemy pursued, and on either side were wildernesses full of fiery serpents which wound and kill people with their sting. Then immediately the Assembly opened her mouth in prayer before YY and an echo came from the heaven above and this is what it said, “You, O Assembly of Israel, who resemble a dove, pure and hiding in the hiding-place of the clefts of the rocks or in the hidden places of the stairs: show me your face and your worthy deeds and let me hear your voice. For your voice is sweet when it prays in the small Temple and your face is beautiful when you perform good deeds.”

. . . .
An echo came forth from heaven and this is what it said, “How beautiful you are, O Assembly of Israel, and how beautiful are those leaders of the Assembly and the sages sitting in the Sanhedrin, they who enlighten forever and ever the people of the House of Israel (who resemble turtledoves, the nestlings of a dove) 

(Book 2 and book 4)

Another image of innocence and purity is found in the Targum on the Song of Songs. There it is the image of the threatened but divinely protected “pure and beautiful dove”. I have quoted the relevant sections in the side box. One is compelled to recall the image of Jesus being possessed by the dove from heaven at the outset of his ministry, arguably another indication of Jesus being the personification of Israel. (Again, are we looking here at ideas that emerged in rabbinic Judaism in late antiquity or do these ideas originate from the Temple or intertestamental period?)

We also have Philo whose interpretations seem to fluctuate between symbolic and literal and hence allow for almost unlimited applications. In two works he finds ways to conclude that God himself has begotten leading biblical persons:

In Allegorical Interpretation III, 219

For, also, when happiness, that is Isaac, was born, she says, in the pious exaltation, “The Lord has caused me laughter, and whoever shall hear of it shall rejoice with Me.”(Gen. 21:6) Open your ears, therefore, O ye initiated, and receive the most sacred mysteries. Laughter is joy; and the expression, “has caused,” is equivalent to “has begotten.” So that what is here said has some such meaning as this, “The Lord has begotten Isaac.” For he is the father of perfect nature, sowing and begetting happiness in the soul.

In On the Cherubim, part 2: 41-48

for since we say, that woman is to be understood symbolically as the outward sense, and since knowledge consists in alienation from the outward sense and from the body, it is plain that the lovers of wisdom must repudiate the outward sense rather than choose it, and is not this quite natural? for they who live with these men are in name indeed wives, but in fact virtues. Sarah is princess and guide, Rebecca is perseverance in what is good; Leah again is virtue, fainting and weary at the long continuance of exertion, which every foolish man declines, and avoids, and repudiates; and Zipporah, the wife of Moses, is virtue, mounting up from earth to heaven, and arriving at a just comprehension of the divine and blessed virtues which exist there, and she is called a bird.

Philo warns his reader that he is about to explain a “deep mystery” that only the truly pious are worthy to hear:

But that we may describe the conception and the parturition of virtues, let the superstitious either stop their ears, or else let them depart; for we are about to teach those initiated persons who are worthy of the knowledge of the most sacred mysteries, the whole nature of such divine and secret ordinances. And those who are thus worthy are they who, with all modesty, practise genuine piety . . . .

The “sacred mystery” is that God himself impregnates the woman:

But we must begin our explanation of these mysteries in this way. A husband unites with his wife, and the male human being with the female human being in a union which tends to the generation of children, in strict accordance with and obedience to nature. But it is not lawful for virtues, which are the parents of many perfect things, to associate with a mortal husband. But they, without having received the power of generation from any other being, will never be able by themselves alone to conceive any thing. Who, then, is it who sows good seed in them, except the Father of the universe, the uncreated God, he who is the parent of all things? This, therefore, is the being who sows, and presently he bestows his own offspring, which he himself did sow . . . 

. . . where he says that “God opened her Womb.” (Gen. 29:31) But to open the womb is the especial business of the husband. And she having conceived, brought forth, not to God, for he alone is sufficient and all-abundant for himself, but to him who underwent labour for the sake of that which is good, namely, for Jacob; so that in this instance virtue received the divine seed from the great Cause of all things, but brought forth her offspring to one of her lovers . . . 

Again, when the all-wise Isaac addressed his supplications to God, Rebecca, who is perseverance, became pregnant by the agency of him who received the supplication; but Moses, who received Zipporah, that is to say, winged and sublime virtue, without any supplication or entreaty on his part, found that she conceived by no mortal man.

Now I bid ye, initiated men, who are purified, as to your ears, to receive these things, as mysteries which are really sacred, in your inmost souls; and reveal them not to any one who is of the number of the uninitiated, but guard them as a sacred treasure . . . .

Wikimedia Commons

Yes, God has the power to “revirginize” women, or at least wait till they “revirginize” through becoming old and barren:

But when God begins to associate with the soul, he makes that which was previously woman now again virgin. Since banishing and destroying all the degenerate appetites unbecoming a human being, by which it had been made effeminate, he introduces in their stead genuine, and perfect, and unadulterated virtues; therefore, he will not converse with Sarah before all the habits, such as other women have, have left her, (Genesis 18:11) and till she has returned into the class of pure virgins. (2:350

The gospel story of the virgin birth of Jesus may well be drawing upon such ideas:

  • Just as Joseph put away Mary, yet took her back again after the advice of the angel,
    • so Amram had put away his wife Jochebad, yet took her back again after the advice of Miriam;
  • Just as Mary’s virginity was maintained until she gave birth to Jesus,
    • so Jochebad was restored to virginity to give birth to the saviour of Israel, Moses;
  • Just as Mary can be understood as a personification of a pure Israel ready for the messiah,
    • so Jochebad was understood to be a personification of Israel ready to deliver the saviour.

If so, the gospels are looking increasingly like other intertestamental works of midrashic thought such as Judith, Ruth and Esther.

Mary, the new Body, the Mystical Body

Van Eyck’s Madonna fills the entire cathedral thus signifying she personifies the holy Church (NC 247)

If in Hebrew literature we find a thread of interpreting key women as representative of Israel, it is not unreasonable to suspect the Mary in the gospels is likewise a literary creation to represent the new Israel, one worthy to bring forth and unite with the messiah at the end time.

This concept is an extension of the Jewish interpretations of holy women representing Israel, and Israel being a virginal bride of God for Him to father a new Israel.

In Jewish mysticism we find the more blunt and striking idea that the Holy of Holies in the Temple was the nuptial chamber of the groom, God, and his glory, the Shekinah, which was equated with bridal body of Israel. Easily dismissed, you might think, but we have none other than Moshe Weinfeld, in an article primarily focused on archaeological evidence that the God of Judea was known at one time to have a consort, reminding us that

Jewish mysticism whose main features can be traced back to the beginning of our era . . . 

(Weinfeld, 515)

Mary, who gave birth to “the Word”, was herself, it can be believed, created by “the word”. Historical records may even point this way:

On Monday, June 22, 431, about 160 bishops1 gathered in the principal church of Ephesus, which bore the name of Mary *

* This name might in strictness be that of a Foundress. I consider, however, that it is much more probable that it is that of the mother of the Saviour, though such a dedication, at so early a date, has something surprising about it. We must notice further that the official form, that of the formal records of the Council, is not the Church of Mary but the Church Mary, the church called Mary. In these circumstances, one might conceive of a mystical conception, a sort of union of John and Mary, in which the memory of the mother of Christ and that of the Church of Ephesus were mutually intertwined. The Church of Ephesus, like Mary, had been entrusted to the Apostle John. John and Mary, the patron Apostle and Ephesian Christianity, the sanctuary of the Apostle and the Cathedral of Ephesus : the symmetry goes on from the historical personages to the religious conditions, and from these to the buildings which symbolize them. If there were apart from this name any tradition whatever of a sojourn of Mary at Ephesus or of her burial in that town, we might attach to it the explanation of this puzzle. Unhappily there is none, except for some alleged visions with which it is quite impossible for me to deal. Besides they are not connected with the town of Ephesus but with a place in the neighbourhood.

(Duchesne, L. 1924. Early History of the Christian Church. Vol 3. London: John Murray. 244)


Continuing . . . . 

Charbonnel, Nanine. 2017. Jésus-Christ, Sublime Figure de Papier. Paris: Berg International éditeurs.

Duchesne, L. (Louis) 1924. Early History of the Christian Church: From Its Foundation to the End of the Fifth Century. Vol 3 – The Fifth Century. Translated by Claude Jenkins. London: John Murray.

Marx, Tzvi C. 2002. Disability in Jewish Law. London ; New York: Routledge.

Mergui, Maurice. 2005. Un Étranger Sur Le Toit: Les Sources Misdrashiques Des Evangiles. Paris: Editions Nouveaux Savoirs.

Weinfeld, Moshe. 1996. “Feminine Features in the Imagery of God in Israel: The Sacred Marriage and the Sacred Tree.” Vetus Testamentum 46 (4): 515–29. https://doi.org/10.1163/1568533962581774.

See also

Scholem, Gershom. 1996. On The Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. New York: Random House.

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Symbolic Characters #3: Mary, Personification of the Jewish People, “Re-Virgined””

  1. I am an aspiring write myself, both of pure fiction and historical fiction. And using a character as a symbolic personification isn’t proof they’re not also based on a real person. Sometimes a person’s real life happens to make a good allegory. For example if I wrote something about the reign Justinian I would treat Theodora as a personification of Egypt.

    1. And using a character as a symbolic personification isn’t proof they’re not also based on a real person.

      Quite so. But we have evidence that a real person lies behind the literary figure? (If not, it does not follow that there was no real person, of course, but a possibility is nothing more than a possibility.)

  2. The main problem I have with symbolic or allegorical interpretations of “Scripture” is where does it end? It’s great for those who have the time to “decipher” Scripture or “find hidden wisdom” in Scripture but that “meaning” is entirely subjective and only exists in the mind of the beholder. It tells us nothing about the “real world” nor how to live in it.
    This like this idea that all the characters and events of the Gospel are symbolic personifications of OT events. It is perhaps the best “explanation” for why all the events of the Gospels (and most of the “events” in the OT) have no verifiable historical basis.

    1. We may never know the specifics of what much of the original gospels meant to their authors and first audiences. What interests me is learning sorts of literature they were and comparing this with other types of literature of the day. It’s a purely historical interest in the nature of our early evidence and the origins of Christianty. Nothing practical at all. I would never recommend the gospels or anything in the Bible as an ethical guide for anyone today. (Besides, we don’t need ethical guides at all, do we? Unless we’re really screwed up and need some outside intervention. Some inspiring examples are nice to have, but they stir within us what we already know is good.)

  3. Of course, the ultimate question is why Yahweh creates his “son” through human procreation when he is perfectly capable of creating fully-formed adults, e.g. Adam and Eve. Why put Jesus through the indignities of swaddling clothes and all of the useless efforts being being a child when what Yahweh needs is a Jesus on mission, 30-ish years old? Certainly there was nothing to be learned from the experience, etc. Why delay his mission another 30 years?

    Again, we have an historical trope that just gets manifested to make a story more interesting, but not more understandable or meaningful.

    1. @ Steve — interesting point. The Gospels of Mark and John, of course, have no need for an infant or child Jesus, and Marcion, we believe, had Jesus appear fully formed “like a man” from the outset of his appearance on earth. We have posted a series on Tyson’s book setting out reasons to think an ur-Luke was supplemented with anti-Marcionite passages such as the nativity chapters. That Galatians 4:4, “born of a woman”, comes with reasons to propose it is an interpolation has also been discussed in other posts on both Ehrman and Couchoud.

      I don’t know yet what Charbonnel thinks of the dates of composition of the gospels or what place she has, if any, for Marcion in her thesis.

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