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One of the few Protestant women to write about the mother of Jesus, Beverly Roberts Gaventa takes a fresh approach to the figure who has fascinated Christians for twenty centuries and about whom we have such slender evidence. Rather than attempt to reconstruct Mary's life or assess her theological significance, Gaventa employs literary analysis to explore her varying characterizations in four early Christian narratives - Matthew, Luke-Acts, John, and the Protevangelium of James. Gaventa contends that each document offers a distinct portrait and that John's Mary is no more interchangeable with Luke's than a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe is with an icon of the Queen of Heaven. Gaventa demonstrates that Matthew portrays Mary as the mother whose maternity poses a threat to the status quo and who is threatened by it in return. In contrast, she shows that Luke assigns three separate roles to Mary - disciple, prophet, and mother - and that it is in her role as the pondering, questioning mother that she enlivens the story. Gaventa reveals that the Johannine Mary serves to heighten awareness of Jesus' humanity and that the Mary of the Protevangelium is so pure she seems scarcely human. Without diminishing the individuality of these portrayals, Gaventa shows that each is colored by the dynamic of scandal that runs so powerfully through early Christian writings. She suggests that the scandal surrounding Jesus' conception in Matthew continues the history of scandal which punctuates God's relations with Israel; that the scandal threatening the Lukan Mary revolves around whether she will remain a disciple in spite of Jesus' perplexing behavior; that the theological scandal inherent in theincarnation of the Word subsumes the Johannine Mary; and that the Protevangelium responds to the scandal surrounding Mary's pregnancy by presenting her as the pure virgin of God.
Author Beverly Roberts Gaventa tells us there are 85,000 books and pamphlets on Mary in the Marian Library at the University of Dayton. Why one more? A number of things make this slim yet delightful book distinctive. First, the author is both a woman and Protestant (Gaventa is the Helen H.P. Manson Professor of New Testament Literature and Exegesis at Princeton Theological Seminary and the author of numerous New Testament studies). Second, she approaches the study of Mary not from an historical point of view (searching for the facts about Mary), nor from a theological point of view, but from a literary one. As she summarizes this approach, "the primary questions to be addressed here have to do with the ways in which early Christian writers portray Mary as a character and the role or roles she plays in their re-presentations of the Jesus story." In separate chapters she explores three of the Gospels (and the Book of Acts) along with the second-century work Protoevangelium of James, concluding that what unites these various so-called glimpses of Mary is the way in which she "participates in the larger theme of the scandal of the gospel." In particular, she identifies three motifs: the vulnerability of Mary, her reflection on events (especially in Luke's Gospel), and Mary as a witness of Jesus. In this way, she concludes, "Mary remains a model for all Christians." --Doug Thorpe
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