The early Christians had a lively devotion to the Blessed Virgin. We find evidence of this in their surviving literature and artwork and, of course, in the New Testament, which was their foundational document. While the Mariology of the first three centuries was at a primitive stage of development (compared to that of a later age, or even our own), it was perhaps more consciously scriptural than many later expressions, and more consistently presented in the theological context of creation, fall, incarnation, and redemption. So it sometimes can speak to us with greater clarity, immediacy, and force. For Mary’s role makes no sense apart from its context in salvation history; yet it is not incidental to God’s plan. God chose to make His redemptive act inconceivable without her.
Mary was in His plan from the very beginning, chosen and foretold from the moment God created man and woman. In fact, the early Christians understood Mary and Jesus to be a reprise of God’s first creation. Saint Paul spoke of Adam as a type of Jesus (Rom 5:14) and of Jesus as the new Adam, or the “last Adam” (1 Cor 15:21-22, 45-49).
The early Christians considered the beginning of Genesis—with its story of creation and fall and its promise of redemption—to be so christological in its implications that they called it the Protoevangelium, or First Gospel. While this theme is explicit in Paul and the Church Fathers, it is implied throughout the New Testament. For example, like Adam, Jesus was tested in a garden—the garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:36-46, Jn 18:1). Like Adam, Jesus was led to a “tree,” where He was stripped naked (Mt 27:31). Like Adam, He fell into the deep sleep of death, so that from His side would come forth the New Eve (Jn 19:26-35; 1 Jn 5:6-8), His bride, the Church.
Cutting the Unbiblical Cord
The motif of the New Adam is nowhere so artfully developed as in the Gospel according to Saint John. John does not work out the ideas as a commentator would. Instead, he tells the story of Jesus Christ. Yet he begins the story by echoing the most primeval story of all: the story of creation in Genesis.
The most obvious echo comes “in the beginning.” Both books, Genesis and John’s gospel, in fact, begin with those words. The book of Genesis sets out with the words “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). John follows closely, telling us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God” (Jn 1:1). In both cases, we are talking about a fresh start, a new creation.
The next echo comes soon afterward. In Genesis 1:3-5, we see that God created the light to shine in the darkness. In John 1:4-5, we see that the Word’s “life was the light of men” and it “shines in the darkness.”
Genesis shows us, in the beginning, “the Spirit of God . . . moving over the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2). John, in turn, shows us the Spirit hovering above the waters of baptism (Jn 1:32-33). At that point, we begin to see the source of the new creation recounted by John. Material creation came about when God breathed His Spirit above the waters. The renewal of creation would come with the divine life given in the waters of baptism.
Counting the Days
John the Evangelist continues to leave hints of Genesis throughout his opening narrative. After the first vignette, John’s story continues “the next day” (1:29), with the encounter of Jesus and John the Baptist. “The next day” (1:35), again, comes the story of the calling of the first disciples. “The next day” (1:43), yet again, we find Jesus’ call to two more disciples. So, taking John’s first discussion of the Messiah as the first day, we now find ourselves on the fourth day.
Then John does something remarkable. He introduces his next episode, the story of the wedding feast at Cana, with the words “On the third day.” Now, he cannot mean the third day from the beginning, since he has already proceeded past that point in his narrative. He must mean the third day from the fourth day, which brings us to the seventh day—and then John stops counting days.
Do you notice anything familiar? John’s story of the new creation takes place in seven days, just as the creation story in Genesis is completed on the sixth day, and sanctified—perfected—on the seventh, when God rests from His labor. The seventh day of the creation week, as of every week thereafter, would be known as the Sabbath, the day of rest, the sign of the covenant (see Ex 31:16-17). We can be sure, then, that whatever happens on the seventh day in John’s narrative will be significant.
I Beg to Defer
Jesus arrives at the wedding feast with His mother and His disciples. A wedding celebration, in the Jewish culture of the time, normally lasted about a week. Yet we find, at this wedding, that the wine ran out very early. At which point, Jesus’ mother points out the obvious: “They have no wine” (Jn 2:3). It is a simple statement of fact. But Jesus seems to respond in a way that is far out of proportion to His mother’s simple observation. “O woman,” he says, “what have you to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.”
In order for us to understand Jesus’ seeming overreaction, we need to understand the phrase “what have you to do with me?” Some commentators claim that this represents Jesus’ brusque reproach of His mother. However, that does not hold up to careful study.
First, we should note that in the end, Jesus does fulfill the request He infers from Mary’s observation. If He intended to reproach her, he surely would not have followed His reproach by complying with her request.
The decisive evidence against the reproach reading, however, comes from the alleged reproach itself. “What have you to do with me?” was a common Hebrew and Greek idiom in Jesus’ day. It is found in several other places in the Old and New Testaments, as well as in sources outside the Bible. In all other occurrences, it certainly does not signify reproach or disrespect. Quite the opposite: it conveys respect and even deference. Consider Luke 8:28, when the line is used verbatim by a man possessed by a devil. It is the demon who puts those words in the possessed man’s mouth, and he means them to acknowledge Jesus’ authority over both the man and the demon. “I beseech you, do not torment me,” he continues, thereby affirming that he must carry out whatever Jesus commands.
At Cana, Jesus defers to His mother, though she never commands Him. She, in turn, merely tells the servants, “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:5).
But let’s return for a moment to Jesus’ initial response. Did you notice how He addressed her? He called her not “Mother” or even “Mary,” but “Woman.” Again, non-Catholic commentators will sometimes claim that Jesus intended the epithet “Woman” to convey disrespect or reproach. After all, shouldn’t He address her as “Mother”?
First, we should point out that since Jesus was obedient all His life to the law, it is unlikely that He would ever show dishonor to His mother, thereby violating the fourth commandment.
Second, Jesus will again address Mary as “Woman,” but in very different circumstances. As He hangs dying on the cross, He will call her “Woman” when He gives her as mother to His beloved disciple, John (Jn 19:26). Surely, in that instance, He could mean no reproach or dishonor.
Yet we miss more than Jesus’ sinlessness if we reduce the word “woman” to an insult. For Jesus’ use of that word represents yet another echo of Genesis. “Woman” is the name Adam gives to Eve (Gen 2:23). Jesus, then, is addressing Mary as Eve to the New Adam—which heightens the significance of the wedding feast they’re attending.
Still, we can anticipate some outraged objection: how can Mary be His bride if she’s His mother? To answer that, we must consider Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming salvation of Israel: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken . . . but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married. For as a young man marries a virgin, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Is 62:4-5; italics added). There’s a lot suggested in those two compact verses: Mary’s virginal motherhood, her miraculous conception, and her mystical marriage to God, who is at once her Father, her Spouse, and her Son. The mystery of divine maternity runs deep, because the mystery of the Trinity runs still deeper.
“Woman” redefines Mary’s relationship not only with Jesus but also with all believers. When Jesus gave her over to His beloved disciple, in effect He gave her to His beloved disciples of all time. Like Eve, whom Genesis 3:20 calls “mother of all the living,” Mary is mother to all who have new life in baptism.
At Cana, then, the New Eve radically reverses the fatal decision of the first Eve. It was woman who led the old Adam to his first evil act in the garden. It was woman who led the New Adam to His first glorious work.
The figure of Eve reappears later in the New Testament, in the book of Revelation, which is also attributed to John the Evangelist. There, in chapter 12, we encounter “a woman clothed with the sun” (v. 1), who confronts “the ancient serpent, who is called the devil” (v. 9). These images hark back to Genesis, where Eve faces the demonic serpent in the garden of Eden and where God curses the serpent, promising to “put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed” (Gen 3:15). Yet the images of Revelation also point to a New Eve, one who gave birth to a “male child” who would “rule all the nations” (12:5). That child could only be Jesus; and so the woman could only be His mother, Mary. In Revelation, the ancient serpent attacks the New Eve because the prophecy of Genesis 3:15 is fresh in his memory. The New Eve, however, appears prevailing over evil, unlike her long-ago type in the garden of Eden.
The parallels between the gospel of John and Genesis are striking. Still, I know that some skeptics will dismiss them as the product of an overexcited imagination. Have we Catholics, perhaps, read too much into John’s text? Are we just imposing medieval and modern doctrines onto an author who would never have dreamt them up?
Those are fair questions. We begin by investigating evidence from the early Christians, beginning in the circles closest to the apostle John. As we study these earliest fathers of the Church, we find that they did indeed speak of a New Eve. Who did they say she was? Overwhelmingly, they identified her as Mary.
The earliest surviving testimony to this is in Saint Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho. Written around 160, the Dialogue describes conversations Justin had had with a rabbi around 135 in Ephesus, the city where Justin was instructed in the Christian faith. According to tradition, Ephesus was also the city where the apostle John lived with the Virgin Mary.
Justin’s doctrine of the New Eve resonates with that of John himself, and may be evidence of a Mariology developed by John as bishop of Ephesus and continued by his disciples in Justin’s day—which was little more than a generation after the apostle’s death.
Justin’s statement is compact, but rich:
Christ became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience that proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her, and the power of the Highest would overshadow her: wherefore also the Holy Thing begotten of her is the Son of God; and she replied, “Be it unto me according to Thy word” (Lk 1:38). And by her has He been born, to Whom we have proved so many Scriptures refer, and by Whom God destroys both the serpent and those angels and men who are like him.
In comparing and contrasting Eve with Mary, Justin follows Paul’s discussions of Christ and Adam. Paul points out that “in Adam all die,” while “in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22). “Adam became a living being,” while “the last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45). Adam passed on our mortal and earthly family resemblance; but Christ made us part of an immortal and heavenly family (1 Cor 15:49).
Justin, in turn, notes that Eve and Mary were both virgins; Eve conceived the “word of the serpent,” while Mary conceived the Word of God. By God’s providence, Justin concludes, Mary’s obedience became a means of undoing Eve’s disobedience and its most devastating effects.
The Lyons Den
The Marian paper trail continues from Justin to Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, who further refined the Church’s understanding of Mary as the New Eve. Irenaeus, too, could trace his pedigree as a disciple back to the apostle John. Irenaeus learned the faith from Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, who himself took instruction from John. Perhaps, again, it was the influence of John that led Irenaeus to speak of Christ as the New Adam and Mary as the New Eve, as he did in several places.
The doctrine, in fact, was essential to one of Irenaeus’s central ideas: what he called creation’s recapitulation in Christ. Building on Saint Paul, he wrote that when Christ “became incarnate, and was made man, He recapitulated in Himself the long history of man, summing up and giving us salvation in order that we might receive again in Christ Jesus what we had lost in Adam—that is, the image and likeness of God.”
Like John, Irenaeus saw the important place of the New Eve in this recapitulation. “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. The knot which the virgin Eve tied by her unbelief, the Virgin Mary opened by her belief.” In the subsequent paragraphs, Irenaeus contrasts Mary’s obedience with Eve’s disobedience, analyzing the scriptural texts.
In a later book, he developed the idea further: “If the former (Eve) disobeyed God, the latter (Mary) was persuaded to obey God, so that the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so it is rescued by a virgin.” Here, Irenaeus’s discussion of Mary as advocate (which he takes up again in his Proof of the Apostolic Preaching) suggests, to this reader at least, her intercessory power at Cana.
Finally, Irenaeus extends Mary’s maternity from Christ to all Christians, as he speaks of her as a type of the Church. He describes Jesus’ birth as “the pure one opening purely that pure womb which regenerates men unto God.”
Out of Africa
Justin in Ephesus and Irenaeus in France might both claim spiritual descent from the apostle John. John himself taught from a mighty experience; for he had lived for three years beside Jesus and then, in the following years, in the same home as the Virgin Mary. Cardinal John Henry Newman reflected:
If there is an apostle on whom our eyes would be fixed, as likely to teach us about the Blessed Virgin, it is St. John, to whom she was committed by our Lord on the cross— with whom, as tradition goes, she lived at Ephesus till she was taken away. This anticipation is confirmed; for, as I have said above, one of the earliest and fullest of our informants concerning her dignity, as being the Second Eve, is Irenaeus, who came to Lyons from Asia Minor and had been taught by the immediate disciples of St. John.
Yet there were others, possibly outside John’s direct line of influence, who saw Mary as the New Eve. Tertullian—in North Africa at the beginning of the third century—spoke of this reality with precision:
For it was while Eve was yet a virgin that the ensnaring word had crept into her ear which was to build the edifice of death. Into a virgin’s soul, in like manner, must be introduced that Word of God which was to raise the fabric of life; so that what had been reduced to ruin by this sex might by the selfsame sex be recovered to salvation. As Eve believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other effaced by believing.
His precision is all the more remarkable considering that his Mariology, in other areas, is quite confused, erring, and at odds with all other sources.
The New Eve, then, is hardly a medieval or modern innovation in reading the gospel. Rather, it is an ancient and sacred tradition passed—probably from the apostle John himself—down through the ages, to be taught by Saint Justin, Saint Irenaeus, Tertullian, Saint Augustine, Saint John Damascene, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and many thousands of others.
All those teachers clearly discerned the message of the New Eve. It is this: Obey God, Who is her Son, her Spouse, her Father. “Do whatever He tells you.” The medieval poets summed it up neatly by pointing out that the angel Gabriel’s Ave (the Latin greeting) reversed the name of Eva. So also did it reverse the rebellious inclination Eve left to her children—to you and me—and replace it with the readiness to obey, which Mary wants to teach us.
Dr. Scott Hahn is a former Protestant minister and now an internationally recognized Catholic theologian and apologist. He is Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and author of several books. This article was excerpted from Hail, Holy Queen, Doubleday, 2001.