• A Virgin Shall Spin and Bear a Son: Reconsidering the Significance of Mary's Work in the Protevangelium Jacobi

    Eric Vanden Eykel (see profile)
    Biblical Studies, Religious Studies
    Church history--Primitive and early church, Bible. New Testament
    Item Type:
    Conference paper
    Conf. Title:
    Society of Biblical Literature 2013 Annual Meeting
    Conf. Loc.:
    Baltimore, MD
    Conf. Date:
    November 24, 2013
    Mary, ProtevangeliumJacobi, Virginity, Christian Apocryphal Literature, Early Christianity, New Testament
    Permanent URL:
    In the so-called Protevangelium Jacobi, Mary spins thread for the temple veil while receiving news of her impending pregnancy. Some have argued that her work is apologetic, countering the unflattering claim (of Celsus) that she spun in order to make ends meet, others that it is indicative of her virtue, intended to portray her as laudable. Without questioning the validity of these observations, I argue on literary grounds that Mary’s spinning establishes a threefold relationship between Jesus, the young Virgin, and the Jerusalem temple, and that it indicates a correspondence between the temple veil and Jesus’ flesh. Three sources of intertextual resonance layer the significance of Mary's spinning. First, the Moirae of Greco-Roman mythology allow the reader to interpret her work metaphorically, as a participation in the forces that govern divine as well as human destiny. Second, in light of the association between Mary and the Moirae, the Synoptic rending of the temple veil (velum scissum) demonstrates that the thread spun by Mary, symbolizing Jesus own life span, is cut by God at the crucifixion. Finally, the Epistle to the Hebrews (specifically 10:20) provides a sounding board for the aforementioned connections, namely, that the destruction of the veil, itself emblematic of Jesus’ flesh, represents a literal opening of the entryway into the holy of holies. The virgin spinner emerges as one with considerable authority, if qualified. As the willing vehicle of the incarnation, her role in the process of redemption—and thus human destiny—is undeniable. On the other hand, the correlation between the work of her hands and the child in her womb, understood as none other than the God of whom she declares herself a servant, locates the Virgin squarely within the divine plan, subordinate to the very thread she spins.
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