This is another post about the pseudepigraphical Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, which is dated in the Charlesworth Pseudepigrapha to the second century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E. My focus today is on what the book says about Mary the mother of Jesus. The relevant passage is 11:1-16.
There are two things that stand out to me in that passage:
1. In 11:2, Mary is said to be a descendant of David. The prominent (albeit not necessarily the only) teaching of Second Temple Judaism was that the Messiah would be descended from King David. In Romans 1:3, Paul, perhaps echoing an earlier Christian tradition, says that Jesus, according to his flesh, was from the seed of David. In Jesus’ genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3, Jesus is descended from King David, through his father Joseph.
But there is a problem: Was Joseph technically Jesus’ father, when Jesus was born of a virgin, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke? People offer various solutions to this problem. One proposed solution is that Joseph was Jesus’ adoptive father, and thus that Jesus was descended from David and Solomon through adoption. Another proposed solution is that Jesus was descended from David through his mother, Mary, and that Luke 3 actually contains Mary’s genealogy. According to this view, Heli, the father of Joseph in Luke 3, was actually Joseph’s father-in-law and Mary’s father. But the second century Christian work, the Protoevangelium of James, says that the father of Mary was named Joachim.
The Christian who wrote chapter 11 of the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah just out-and-out says that Mary was a descendant of David. Maybe this writer is trying to solve the problem of how Jesus can be born of a virgin yet be a descendant of King David.
2. What is interesting in this passage of the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah is how Jesus is born. I’ll quote to you 11:6-9, according to M.A. Knibb’s translation: “And [Joseph] did not approach Mary, but kept her as a holy virgin, although she was pregnant. And he did not live with her for two months. And after two months of days, while Joseph was in his house, and Mary his wife, but both alone, it came about, when they were alone, that Mary then looked with her eyes and saw a small infant, and she was astounded. And after her astonishment had worn off, her womb was found as (it was) at first, before she had conceived.”
What seems to me to be going on here is that Mary is pregnant, and at some point she sees her infant outside of her, after which her womb goes back to how it was prior to her pregnancy. Jesus has been born, albeit without Mary going through the painful process of childbirth. The child was inside of her womb, then it appeared outside of it. Later in chapter 11, people report that a midwife did not go in to assist Mary, and that they did not hear Mary screaming in pain.
Why would the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah present this? I have a guess, but it is only a guess. Perhaps the Christian writer here wants Mary to circumvent becoming ritually defiled under the rules of Leviticus 12. Under those rules, a woman is unclean for seven days if she bears a male, and for two weeks if she bears a female. She is required to bring a sin offering to make atonement. The impurity could relate to all of the blood that comes out in the process of childbirth; this commentary says that she is bringing a sinner into the world, and that is why she is impure, but I cannot vouch for whether that is an accurate description of Leviticus’ rationale for the rule. In any case, perhaps the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah is depicting Jesus coming into the world apart from childbirth because of the rules in Leviticus 12. The Christian writer here may have wanted to distance Mary, Jesus, or perhaps the entire process of Jesus coming into the world from sin and impurity.
There is a problem with my speculation, however, apart from the fact that it is based on a guess. According to Luke 2:22-24, Mary after the birth of Jesus is purified according to the law of Moses and brings two turtledoves to the sanctuary, which are arguably the sin offering that poor women are required to bring to the Tabernacle after childbirth, according to Leviticus 12. Was the Christian contributor to the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah unaware of this?
I should note that the Christian contributor to the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah stresses that Mary and Joseph were to keep the nature of Jesus’ birth secret from others. In v 17, Mary nurses Jesus like he is an infant, and the verse says that this is so that Jesus might not be recognized. This arguably coincides with the book’s ransom view of the atonement: Satan is attacking Jesus, without fully realizing who Jesus is; Satan is overstepping his bounds and disqualifying himself from ruling the earth by attacking Jesus, a divine being. I also wonder if there is a bit of docetism going on here: v 17 says that Jesus “sucked the breast like an infant.” Does that imply that, according to the Christian writer, Jesus was not exactly an infant, but was a divine being who only appeared to be an infant? Maybe the Christian writer’s view is that it would be unsuitable and undignified for a divine being such as Jesus to come into the world through the normal means of childbirth, and to do things as humans normally do them. At the same time, I cannot take my appeal to docetism too far, for the book also seems to present Jesus as a Messianic descendant of David, which would imply his humanity.
In any case, the writer could have agreed with Luke 2:22-24 that Mary would go through the outward motions of what was expected of her ritually, in order to conceal from others who Jesus truly was. But the writer was saying that she knew the truth, regardless of what others thought.
I have long wondered if certain Christian ideas about Mary have their roots in Old Testament ritual rules. For example, take the Catholic view that Mary was a perpetual virgin, that she never had sex or children after the birth of Jesus. Could that relate to laws such as Numbers 19:2, which says that the purifying red heifer is to be an animal on whom has come no yoke? The idea may be that the red heifer is holy, and is only to be used for holy purposes. Could the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity be echoing that kind of sentiment: that Mary was holy, and her primary purpose on earth was to give birth to the holy Son of God, and thus it would be improper for her to have other children?
UPDATE: See Vridar’s post on Mary in the Ascension of Isaiah.