The Banned Book of Mary: How Her Story Was Suppressed by the Church and Hidden in Art for Centuries
by Ronald F. Hock
Published by Ulysses Press
110 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Mary Ward Menke
As a writer, I appreciate the importance of a backstory; i.e., the story leading up to the main plot, so I have always found the lack of information about Mary, the mother of Jesus, problematical in the New Testament. I attributed the deficiency to the patriarchal times in which it was written. As it turns out, I was only partly correct.
Apparently, a gospel telling the life story of Mary did exist in the early years of the Church. The Birth of Mary, Revelation of James, (referred to by modern scholars as The Infancy Gospel of James) was discovered among documents buried at the world's oldest Christian monastery near the Egyptian city of Dishna, along with the oldest known copy of the Gospel of Luke. The papyri had been concealed for about 1500 years before being unearthed by local peasants in the mid-20th century. They are now archived at the Bodmer Library and Museum near Geneva, Switzerland.
Ronald F. Hock holds a Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale and is a professor of religion at the University of Southern California, so it's not surprising that his book, The Banned Book of Mary: How Her Story Was Suppressed by the Church and Hidden in Art for Centuries, is written in an academic format. It is comprised of three sections: the first 40-plus pages serve as an introduction, relating the history of the long-forgotten documents. The second section contains all the information about Mary as it appears in the New Testament. The last section is the translation of The Infancy Gospel of James.
Hock details the efforts of the Roman Catholic Church's patriarchy to suppress The Infancy Gospel of James, condemning it as heresy. The story had been circulated and discussed in the early years of the Church, but when Pope Saint Damasus blocked its translation into Latin in 382 AD, it disappeared for over a thousand years. The Banned Book of Mary includes photographs of Renaissance artwork which support the legend of The Infancy Gospel of James. These paintings, many of which appear on the walls of some of Italy's most famous churches, depict Mary's story. One photograph is of a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, entitled The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, which hangs in the Louvre in Paris. Since there is no mention of Anne in the New Testament, it's obvious that da Vinci was familiar with the banned gospel.
While the New Testament focuses exclusively on Mary's life in the context of Jesus and Joseph, The Infancy Gospel details her life leading up to that period. It tells of her own birth to an elderly childless couple, Joachim and Anne, who despite their wealth and prominence had been ostracized because they had no children. In answer to their prayers, Mary is born, and the couple dedicates her life to God. Anne creates a sanctuary for her daughter where nothing unclean can touch her. When Mary is three years old, her parents take her to the Temple in Jerusalem where she lives out her remaining childhood years.
The Infancy Gospel's story of Mary and Joseph differs from that portrayed in the New Testament. According to The Infancy Gospel, when Mary is 12 years old and about to become a woman, the priests summon all the widowers of Israel to come to the Temple so a husband can be selected for her. In this account, Joseph is described as "an old man with grown sons." When he is chosen as Mary's prospective husband, he protests due to his age and is allowed to take her as his ward instead.
From this point, there are similarities as well as major differences among The Infancy Gospel and those of Luke and Matthew. As in the New Testament, Mary is visited by an angel who tells her she has been chosen to conceive a divine child whom she shall name Jesus. But in The Infancy Gospel, Jesus is born in a cave before Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem. At the moment of the birth, Joseph experiences a vision in which time stands still. And when Herod orders the murder of all male infants, instead of Joseph leading Mary and Jesus into Egypt to escape the decree, Mary saves her son by wrapping him in swaddling clothes and hiding him in a manger.
There is no doubt that The Infancy Gospel of James exists; the only question is: Who wrote it? While it purports to have been written by James, the brother of Jesus, biblical scholars argue that James could not have been the author. The document contains elements that would make sense only to readers already familiar with the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which were written some 20 years after James died. The author probably lied in order to lend credibility to the document. That he succeeded is evidenced by the fact that it was so widely accepted in the early days of the Church.
The Banned Book of Mary raises some questions while answering many more. And for those of us who believe Mary was given short shrift in the New Testament, there is some satisfaction in knowing she's finally getting the attention she deserves. | November 2004
Mary Ward Menke is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The Toastmaster, Dog Fancy and Science of Mind magazines, in the Suburban Journals (a weekly St. Louis community newspaper) and on STLtoday.com. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and two dogs. Her Web site is www.writeupuralley.com.