Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Mariology of John 1:13


"The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were (was) born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father." (John 1:9-14 RSV)

John 1:13: This passage's translation is the subject of considerable controversy. Some scholars, both ancient and modern, prefer a singular reading, one found in old Latin and Syriac translations, ("who was born, not of blood...") that points to the birth of Jesus through Mary. The Greek manuscripts, however, contain a plural reading ("who were born, not of blood..."), that refers to the rebirth of Christians into the life of God. It must be said that all modern translations use the plural form--so does Saint Jerome's Vulgate--and is the primary interpretation. This does not mean, however, that there is nothing to glean from the secondary, singular reading of the text.

The Greek Manuscripts: Settimio Manelli notes that "it is true that no Greek manuscript of the gospel gives the reading for verse 13 in the singular. But one should keep in mind that the earliest manuscripts we posses of the fourth gospel all date from the fourth century, with the exception of a papyrus fragment of the second century, one without [this verse], however." [1] Many writings that predate our earliest manuscripts of John's gospel, however, reveal something interesting about how John 1:13 was read in the early Church. Ignatius de la Potterie, in his book Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant, reveals that "all the 'witnesses' of the second century support a reading in the singular" [2] and that "these witnesses are not all confined to one locality, but are found throughout the Mediterranean basin." This means that the reading was not a local interpretation that rose out of some single community, but was accepted over a widespread area.

How the Ancients Read It: Let's look at some of the "witnesses" from which we might read John 1:13 in the singular:
  • Saint Irenaeus (b. 115?) (Against Heresies: Book 3, Chapter 16): In arguing that John knew Jesus was the Son of God and Son of Mary, he says that "He is Emmanuel, lest perchance we might consider Him as a mere man: 'for not by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man, but by the will of God was the Word made flesh;' and that we should not imagine that Jesus was one, and Christ another, but should know them to be one and the same."
  • Saint Irenaeus (Against Heresies: Book 3, Chapter 19): "He who 'was not born either by the will of the flesh, or by the will of man' is the Son of man, this is Christ, the Son of the living God."
  • Tertullian (d. 225?) (On the Flesh of Christ: Chapter 15): "For, as I have read in some writer of Valentinus' wretched faction, they refuse at the outset to believe that a human and earthly substance was created for Christ, lest the Lord should be regarded as inferior to the angels, who are not formed of earthly flesh; whence, too, it would be necessary that, if His flesh were like ours, it should be similarly born, 'not of the Spirit, nor of God, but of the will of man.'"
  • Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ: Chapter 19): "What, then, is the meaning of this passage, 'Born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God?' [Many] maintain that it was written thus (in the plural) 'who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God,' as if designating those who were before mentioned as 'believing in His name,' in order to point out the existence of that mysterious seed of the elect and spiritual which they appropriate to themselves. But how can this be, when all who believe in the name of the Lord are, by reason of the common principle of the human race, born of blood, and of the will of the flesh, and of man...? The expression is in the singular number, as referring to the Lord, He was born of God. And very properly, because Christ is the Word of God, and with the Word the Spirit of God, and by the Spirit the Power of God, and whatsoever else appertains to God. As flesh, however, He is not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of man, because it was by the will of God that the Word was made flesh."
  • Tertullian and Saint Irenaeus, then, definitively use John 1:13 in the singular; Tertullian even defends against a plural interpretation.
  • Saint Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) (The Stromata: Book 2, Chapter 13): Saint Clement of Alexandria, however, is a contemporary of Tertullian who uses the verse in the plural: "He, then, who from among the Gentiles and from that old life has betaken himself to faith, has obtained forgiveness of sins once. But he who has sinned after this, on his repentance, though he obtain pardon, ought to fear, as one no longer washed to the forgiveness of sins. For not only must the idols which he formerly held as gods, but the works also of his former life, be abandoned by him who has been born again, 'not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh,' but in the Spirit; which consists in repenting by not giving way to the same fault."
In Light of Other Johannine Literature: Settimio Manelli, building off of the work of de la Potterie, draws further conclusions regarding the singular reading of the text in light of Saint John's other writings. He says that "this verse cannot be read in the plural, because it would then refer to the spiritual rebirth of Christians. But when John speaks of this theme, he always makes use of the present perfect tense (cf. 1 Jn 5:18), never the aorist found in Jn 1:13... But the aorist tense found [in Jn 1:13] is appropriate for a reference to the Incarnation of Christ, a historical fact of the past, while the rebirth of Christians is a continuing fact, one therefore best expressed by a verbal form in the present perfect tense. Textual comparison, therefore, favors a reading of verse 13 of the prologue in the singular." [1]

Further still, the text surrounding verse 13 supports a singular reading. Everything preceding is entirely about Jesus and verse 13 appears to be a continuation of this thought, showing by what manner those who believe in his name are to become children of God. In addition, the following verse about the Word becoming flesh fits perfectly with a singular reading, one where Christ's Incarnation is logically drawn from the statements of verse 13; Saint Irenaeus actually attaches the verse to the end of 13! In fact, verse 14 seems a little out of place and awkward if verse 13 is not referring to Christ.

The Mother of Jesus: Pope Benedict XVI, in his newly released third volume of the Jesus of Nazareth series, comments on the singular reading of this text and what it means for the Virgin Mary: "One version of the manuscript tradition preserves a reading of this sentence not in the plural but in the singular... This makes the sentence into a clear reference to the virginal conception and birth of Jesus." [3]

Manelli, following de la Potterie (who was following another fellow named Hofrichter), reveals a profound connection between the phrase "born, not of blood" and an Old Testament understanding of that phrase. "De la Potterie holds ... that the plural [form] of 'blood,' is used in the text of Leviticus 12 in reference to the laws of purification of the mother, rendered impure by bloods lost at the moment of parturition (the process and action of labor and childbirth)." [1]

If John 1:13 is in fact referring to Jesus, then, in light of this, we can conclude that John is alluding to the Virgin Birth during which no blood of Mary's was shed. (This article of faith, that Mary's virginity was preserved "even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man," (CCC 499) and that, in fact, Jesus was born without causing any physical damage to Mary, has been a constant teaching of the Church. [4]) As Manelli concludes by quoting de la Potterie, "at the moment of Jesus' birth there was no need 'of ritual purification by the Mother of Jesus, because in her there had been absolutely no loss of blood.'"

In regard to this, Hans Urs von Balthasar beautifully explains that the Virgin Birth "took place as a miracle, as the sudden beginning of what is final and definitive. At the birth, every pain was dissolved in pure light. How her womb opened and closed again we do not know, and it is superfluous to speculate about an event which for God was a child's game, something much less important than the original overshadowing by the Holy Spirit. Someone who accepts this first miracle as valid--and as a believer one has to, otherwise Jesus would have had two fathers--should not toss and turn over accepting the second miracle, the Virgin Birth." [5]

Conclusions: By way of these considerations, we can conclude that a singular reading of John's prologue gives it a profoundly Marian element. First, we can see a beautiful affirmation of Christ's Virgin Birth "not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." Second, and quite profoundly, we can see a remarkable insight into Mary's role as Mother of All Christians. As de la Potterie concludes: "According to John 1:12-13 we may 'become' progressively children of God, in the measure in which we believe in him who is our model, the Son of God. We are 'sons in the Son.' ... It is necessary, therefore, to say that if Mary is the Mother of the Son of God made man--our model--she will play a role in the repetition of this "incarnation" in the souls of believers. The maternity of Mary which initiated the Incarnation of Jesus, is prolonged in the life of Christians." [2]

Again, this singular reading of John 1:13 is not frequently referred to; Pope Benedict XVI calls it "secondary" and refers to the plural reading as "the authentic text of the Gospel." At the same time, the singular texts can provide beautiful insights into the life of Jesus Christ and the role of his Blessed Mother in the Incarnation. 

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[1] Settimio Manelli; The Virgin Mary in the New Testament; from Mariology ed. by Mark Miravalle
[2] Ignatius de la Potterie; Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant; found in Mariology
[3] Pope Benedict XVI; Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives
[4] Ryan Erlenbush; Blog Post at The New Theological Movement; The Virgin Birth of Christ
[5] Hans Urs von Balthasar; Mary for Today

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