Mary’s Voice in the Gospel According to John:
A New Translation with Commentary
by michael pakaluk
gateway editions, 354 pages, $28.99
Michael Pakaluk has opened my eyes to something hidden in plain view. Taking the fact that Mary the mother of Jesus lived with John the disciple whom Jesus loved, as per Christ’s instruction from the cross, Pakaluk interprets John’s soaring Gospel as informed by conversations the two must have enjoyed over thirty years of living and communing in their common home. As he writes, “it should be possible to discern the influence of Mary upon John’s Gospel . . . [T]he memory of each helped that of the other; the insights of each informed the thoughts of the other.” The thesis is plausible and exciting.
How could Mary and John not have had countless mealtime and fireside conversations about the person they loved most? How could John not have asked her about Jesus’s growth, about what she had consented to when the angel Gabriel announced God’s designs to her, about what she knew, and when? Recall that it is John who records Jesus’s first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, which attests to Mary’s already “deeply informed faith”: “Whatever he should say to you—do it” (Jn. 2:5; Pakaluk translation). How could she not have shared with him what she had “pondered in her heart” concerning Jesus’s divinity? Who else besides Mary would have known, and how else might John have known, that “in the beginning, the word was, and the word was with God, and the word was God . . . And the Word came to be flesh, and he tabernacled among us” (Jn. 1:1, 14)?
Rather than attempt to prove Mary’s influence on John’s Gospel by means of decisive clauses and verses, Pakaluk examines texts and characteristics to glean which of them could reasonably be the result of such influence, and which might be illuminated anew by such a hermeneutic. He allows the weight of apposite text, if found, to supply the argument for his thesis. This would seem to be standard hermeneutical practice.
Proceeding thus, Pakaluk posits four possible modes or causal pathways of Mary's influence: by virtue of John’s deference to her; by his familiarity with her and custom acquired by living with her for so long; by his love for her and attraction to her person and thought; and by the mutual influence and love she shared with Jesus, which beckons discipleship. He posits six types, marks, or forms we might expect her influence to take, each predicated on a particular role that John could not occupy: as Theotokos or God-bearer; as woman; as mother; as perpetual virgin; as spouse; and as handmaiden. How would things look from the perspective of one who conceived and bore God incarnate? How would one expect the roles of “woman” or “handmaiden” to color Mary’s experience and John’s account?
Pakaluk finds what he seeks in several features of John’s Gospel. For example, he points out how it consists mainly of conversations rather than accounts of deeds or teachings—a mode of communication that he argues is especially characteristic of women. Similarly, John’s Gospel is told from the point of view of a sympathetic observer who identifies with Jesus, much as a mother and Theotokos might tell it. Throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus clearly and consistently proclaims his divinity by referring to himself in God’s name: “I am.” Mary would have understood from longer and more intimate knowledge of Jesus what the synoptics could only grope at in confusion; this would explain why John highlights Jesus’s startling revelation of his name when the synoptics could not, and did not, mention it in theirs.
Pakaluk also finds the significant role that women play in John’s Gospel to fit with the working hypothesis of Mary’s influence. He notes John’s general character of deference, discernable in his Gospel, to women—i.e., Mary Magdalen and Mary. A final feature of John’s Gospel congenial to Pakaluk's thesis is its steady orientation—from chapter two onward—to the events of the Passion and Resurrection. While John might have elected to tell Christ’s story this way—or, indeed, adopted any of the preceding conventions—without Mary’s influence, it would make sense for the story to be understood this way from the perspective of one who knew from the time of her child’s Presentation that his life would imply suffering for her, and the rise and fall of many. In Pakaluk’s words, “[a] Gospel dominated by the themes of sorrow and separation at death and the joy of reunion and rebirth is exactly what one would expect the mother of the Christ to tell.”
Venturing into the thicket of feminist biblical scholarship, Pakaluk writes that his proposition of finding Mary’s “outlook and heart” in John’s Gospel accords with the traditional view of Christianity as the greatest feminist force in history—liberating women from sexual servitude and children from exposure in the ancient world, raising the dignity and status of wife to that of a genuine partner with her husband, and positing a woman as Theotokos, mother of the transcendent God. As he puts it, “[t]o look for her influence here seemed consistent with the organic development of the mind of the Church.” Mary’s conceivable influence on John’s foundational contribution to the Christian faith also points to the probable origins of Christianity’s historical contribution to our understanding of the dignity of women. It contrasts the postmodern feminist interpretation of John’s Gospel with a “feminine-maternal-virginal-spousal-filial” reading.
It is not Pakaluk’s project to argue that John’s account must be explained by Mary’s influence. Rather, he is satisfied to suggest and pursue a plausible and reasonable thesis that is interesting and attractive without posing a danger to one’s faith. This account of Mary’s influence seeks to recover what Pakaluk argues is the understanding that the original readers of John’s Gospel would have had. It is also one that he hopes will lead our hearts back to that household in Ephesus with Mary and John, and through their profound love of Jesus, to him.
Max Torres is Centesimus Annus Della Ratta Family Endowed Professor at Catholic University of America’s Busch School of Business and Economics.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.