Could the Mother of Jesus have had a greater role in the mission, Passion, and Resurrection of her son than the evangelists tell us? Could women have been important church leaders in early Christianity?

The earliest complete biography of the Virgin, by the Byzantine theologian St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580–662), takes such things for granted. After centuries of neglect, his seventh-century Life of the Virgin became available in a 1986 French translation by Michel van Esbroeck. Its effect is to radically change our understanding of Mary’s earthly role.

Maximus portrays Mary as a lifelong companion in her son’s mission, a leader of the early Jewish-Christian church, and the source of many gospel stories about Jesus’ life. He has carefully constructed his material from canonical biblical texts and known apocryphal material, as well as from sources unknown to us, particularly those related to the Passion and to Mary’s Dormition and Assumption. Above all, his Life of the Virgin assumes that Mary and other women were significant actors in the early church at a time when Latin church fathers were sharply separating the one perfect woman from the rest of womankind, urging these daughters of Eve to imitate Mary’s purity and obedience.

Maximus is hardly a household name among Western Catholics. An aristocrat from Constantinople who left the service of the Emperor Heraclius to become a monk, he created a bridge between East and West through his firm defense of the Chalcedonian decree that Christ had two wills, divine and human. Bitter wars over heresies were endemic at this time; because Maximus opposed the monothelite heresy and supported the view that Christ was fully human and fully divine, he was brutally tortured and ultimately died for his belief. His position accurately represented the faith of Christian Byzantium with its emphasis on the Incarnation and the intimate connection of the divine and human in Mary’s body. To Eastern believers, the Word became flesh, and the flesh was hers, graceful, truthful, and earthy. Feast days and elaborate prayers to Mary abounded in Constantinople, after she was declared God-Bearer in 431, and veneration of the Theotokos was at its peak in the reign of Justinian, builder of the great Hagia Sofia, not long before Maximus was born. The emperors and their families chose Mary as their patron and clothed her in imperial dress in the mosaics and paintings of her new churches. But devotion to the Theotokos was not confined to the nobility; it was as widespread as the icons of the time, treasured in particular in Constantinople where Eastern believers saw this mother as their protector against the constant invasions of the period.

The language Maximus uses in his Life of the Virgin recalls the elaborate praises of Mary in the poetic hymns of the sixth-century Romanos the Melodist, originally Syrian, but later a cantor of the Theotokos Church in Constantinople. At the opening of Maximus’s narrative biography (121 pages in the French translation), he asks people of all nations to listen as he celebrates the “immaculate and fully blessed Theotokos, the ever virgin Mary.” Fusing scholarship and personal devotion, he makes us feel Mary’s living presence with him as he composed the Life.

The biography begins with a record of Mary’s birth and childhood. It neatly combines material from the apocryphal Protevangelium of James with references to the canonical Gospels. Maximus insists that in using the former material he is following the example of great bishops—Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Athanasius of Alexandria. The reader’s first surprise comes when the Archangel Gabriel delivers an unexpected message during the Annunciation, telling Mary that this divine invitation reveals God’s intention that women should no longer be subordinated to men. Through the Incarnation, the curse of Eve will be lifted, and women can be independent. But this independence comes only to virgins, Gabriel goes on to explain. He points out that this life choice, which Mary has made possible, gives women the chance to escape from the pains of childbirth, obviously an appeal to later women. In this totally patriarchal society, Mary’s virginity could be seen as a positive affirmation of humanity in relation to the divine.

Mary’s perpetual virginity was not only universally accepted within Christianity at this time, but it had been confirmed over a century earlier at the Council of Chalcedon (451). In Byzantine eyes, it glorified the physical body and character of the woman who had made the mystery of Christianity possible.

More surprises follow. Maximus reports that “the incorruptible mother never separated herself from her gracious son and king,” knowing even in his infancy that he was the Lord. She was a warm, supportive mother who expressed her feelings, and it was later “the desire of her heart” to see her son perform the miracle John’s Gospel records at the marriage in Cana. Though reprimanding her gently, Jesus fulfills her desire and begins his mission. From then on, she follows him and listens to his words, says Maximus, “all the days of his stay on earth.”

What is most unusual in this Life is not just Mary’s close companionship with Jesus, but the leading role she and other women take in his mission. She constantly stands beside him, always understanding his messages. Joseph, portrayed in the Protevangelium as a widower with children when he married Mary, stays at home because of his advanced age, according to Maximus, but his sons James and Jude are said to follow Christ as his disciples, while his daughters become disciples of Mary.

Maximus says that many women followed Jesus as disciples, and the “holy mother of the Lord” guided and advised them, acting as their mediator with her son. The Byzantine scholar Stephen J. Shoemaker, who wrote an excellent article on Mary’s ministry in the Maximus biography (Harvard Theological Review, October 2005), suggests that although the origins of such traditions are not entirely clear, it is quite possible that they reflect lost apocryphal traditions that once circulated in late antiquity. The important contributions of women reflected in these writings give a sense of women’s role in the early Byzantine church. Because of the total seclusion and segregation of the sexes in that Eastern Mediterranean society, women needed other women for many pastoral services. Orders of widows and women deacons were formally assigned to provide these. Byzantine scholar Valerie Karras says that these early female deacons shared the sacramental duties connected with baptism and the Eucharist. Despite their exclusion from the ordained priesthood and episcopate because of Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, a position forcefully argued by St. John Chrysostom (c. 347–407), archbishop of Constantinople, Karras says that “women continued to play active and ecclesiastically recognized roles in the Byzantine church even during and after the decline of the ordained female diaconate by the late twelfth century.”

Chief among the women working with “the holy Theotokos,” according to Maximus, was her good companion Mary of Magdala. Magdala’s extraordinary position and missionary travels made her an apostle who ultimately received the crown of martyrdom in Rome. As Peter was zealous among the men, says Maximus admiringly, so was she among the women.


Most striking in this Life is Mary’s central presence throughout her son’s Passion, beginning at the Last Supper. Maximus says that she is in fact the source of most of the information in the Gospels about her son’s last day, the only person who remained with him at all times from his arrest to his Resurrection. She saw and heard everything. When the guards prevented her from watching his appearance before Annas and Caiphas, the biography tells us, she questioned witnesses going in and out, gathering a complete account of what happened.

Maximus’s Mary is a deeply grieving mother during Jesus’ final trials. She overcomes her fear of crowds and armed soldiers to accompany her son on his way of the cross, and stands beneath it at the end with the beloved disciple. Maximus makes the extraordinary claim that the majority of words and actions accomplished before and after Jesus’ death were recounted to the apostles and the other disciples by his mother. “And so, O Mother of the Lord, the sword penetrated your heart as Simeon had predicted…. The nails penetrated your hands too, you suffered even more than he.”

Lamenting first at a distance with Mary of Magdala and other women followers of Jesus, Mary holds out her hands and beats her breast. When the crowd finally disperses, she approaches the cross and speaks to her dying son. Their talk is filled with the intense emotion characteristic of late medieval Europe, unlike anything in earlier Western writing or art. “Show me,” she cries, “the Resurrection and the glory as you often promised.” His response is to speak his dying words to her and the beloved disciple as recorded in John’s Gospel.

When Jesus finally gives up his spirit, Mary reveals her strength and ingenuity. She searches for a suitable tomb and finds it surrounded by a garden near Golgotha. Learning that it belongs to Joseph of Arimathea, she begs him to give it to her. When he graciously agrees, she and her women companions accompany him to ask Pilate for the Lord’s body. In doing so, they are rewarded for their “audacity and intelligence.” Joseph and Mary remove Jesus from the cross, and the mother embraces her son’s broken body, crying out in this verbal Pieta: “O death more admirable than Incarnation! Now reveal your force.... I know you will revive and talk again, for you are clearly God and Lord of the living and the dead.”

Joseph and Mary place Jesus in the tomb and roll the stone before it, and eventually all the others leave Mary alone to pray, making her the first witness to the Resurrection. Recognizing that his account differs from the gospel stories, Maximus explains that this strategy was adopted by the apostles “so that no one would disbelieve because the vision of the Resurrection was reported by the mother.” Then as now, such maternal testimony might well be considered unreliable.

Controversy regarding the first witnesses to the Resurrection was active in the early church. While the evangelists cited the myrrh-bearing women who came to the empty tomb, Paul reported that Jesus appeared first to Peter and the twelve apostles. These different traditions hardened in the following centuries, with those in leadership backing Paul. Theologian Shoemaker points out that a similar split occurs in early Marian literature, in which the first report by a female witness to the events of Mary’s death is replaced by a later emphasis on the additional presence of male apostles. Although only a vestige of female leaders remained in the diaconate at the time Maximus was writing, his biography stresses women’s key role, even after Christ’s Ascension. He implies that leadership status for women in the early community was not at all exceptional.

Mary, says Maximus, “prescribed the fasting and prayer for the holy apostles until Pentecost.” He cites Acts 1:14 regarding her presence in the upper room at Pentecost, but adds something not found in Luke. When, afterward, Mary tries to travel with John (like the apostles), taking Mary of Magdala and other women, she is told by Jesus in a vision to turn back and let the others go without her. He wants her instead to head the church in Jerusalem along with James. She obeys his wish and becomes a teacher of the apostles, the one to whom they report, the one who maintains the unity, order, and doctrine of the early church.    

Living in Jerusalem, her mercy extends to strangers and to enemies, and the faith of many is fortified by her. She works hard till she is nearly eighty, when the Archangel Gabriel appears to her again. Handing her a palm, he announces her forthcoming death as he had announced her son’s birth. In response, completing the pattern, she replies: “Be it done to me according to your word.” This indefatigable woman then walks to the Garden of Olives to pray, selects her tomb at Gethsemane, and prepares the house for the ceremonies to come. From her couch she receives crowds of disciples and apostles arriving from the ends of the earth. Prayer, grief, and blessings abound, a heavenly odor permeates the room, and at last her Son appears, flanked by angels, and takes her soul to heaven. The pattern of the Nativity is reversed in icons of the Dormition, in which Christ holds his mother’s tiny soul.

Three days after the burial, Thomas the apostle arrives all the way from India, but when they open the tomb for him, Mary’s body is gone. Maximus tells us that it was the will of her son that “the always glorious Theotokos” be taken up so she can be available to all; she is in heaven “before us to give us hope of a common resurrection.”

Mary’s biography continues, however, with a carefully composed synthesis of ancient accounts related to her Dormition. Some of these remind us that we have yet to fully face up to the frightening hostility to Jews that early on became a strong undercurrent in Christian tradition.

The mix of political and ecclesiastical power in the Byzantine Empire made Mary central to its identity; she was considered the protector of Constantinople as well as the guarantee of orthodoxy. Thus she also became the focus of heated encounters between Jews and Christians. By the fifth century, a Jewish version of the Gospels had appeared that called Jesus a magician and repeated the old accusation that his birth was the product of fornication. Maximus passes on the legend that Jews attacked Mary’s house with stones. He includes among other legends the widespread story of Jews attacking Mary’s funeral, then being forced by angels to convert. Maximus also retells the wide accepted story of two Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land and piously stealing Mary’s robe from a holy Jewish virgin. This was especially significant since the robe was then placed in the Blachernae Chapel as part of the empire’s attempt to make Constantinople, not Jerusalem, the holy center of Christian life. As historical theologian Gary Macy advises, “The universality that is ‘catholic’ should allow all the Christians of the past to counsel, comfort, illuminate, disquiet, upset, and most importantly, liberate us.”

Although Maximus’s biography was influential among later Byzantine biographers of Mary, notably George of Nicomedia (end of the ninth century) and John the Geometrician (the tenth century), it was the much shorter biography by the late tenth-century Simeon the Metaphrast (“The Reteller”) that was passed on to the West. He retained material giving Mary a central role during the Passion, but eliminated almost all references to the active work she and other women disciples performed in the early church. The tradition of Mary as central to her son’s mission and as a leader of the early church along with other women seems at the end of the first millennium of Christianity to be preserved, ironically enough, only in monasteries. Shoemaker suggests that was the case because there “the absence of actual women may have made this representation considerably less threatening than it would have been in a mixed, urban setting” in the tenth century.

As a layman in a setting populated with women, Simeon would have been aware of the potentially subversive nature of the material in Maximus’s Life and perhaps felt the need to trim it accordingly. His carefully edited version prevailed, dominant even in monasteries during the second millennium of Christianity. It became the biography the medieval era passed on to European Catholicism, while that of Maximus was hardly remembered. The recovery of Maximus’s long-neglected work suggests how self-censorship in conformity to changing political and institutional opinions has limited our awareness of the great diversity of Catholic tradition. It also reveals how that tradition has changed since those early centuries.

Today the church would officially reject the tone of the legends about Jewish “impiety,” as well as women’s need to be virgins if they are to gain the human equality God desires. But we might well be receptive to a view of Mary as an active, competent woman carrying out her son’s mission of mercy in the world alongside other women and men. Long considered the model of faith all believers should follow, Maximus’s Mary seems singularly appropriate today. Perhaps the early sources that led him to present her and other women in leadership roles can be traced. In any case, this portrait of Mary, held for centuries by Byzantine believers, helps us appreciate the power of the Eastern Catholic belief that in her son, Jesus, God joined humanity so that humanity can join God.

The late Sally Cunneen was professor English at SUNY, and was the author of In Search of Mary and The Icon Reborn.
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Published in the 2009-12-04 issue: View Contents
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