Mary, Elizabeth, Sarah and the Rest of the Women: Rethinking The Birth Narrative

Over Christmas I found myself meditating on and reflecting on the Gospel of Luke, specifically the parallel stories of Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph. I came across an interesting thesis titled The Blessed Mother Sarah: The Figure of Sarah in Genesis Rabbah in Light of Christian Exegesis and the Rise of the Virgin Mary by Rami Schwartz.

One of the things the paper explores is the development of the figure of Sarah in the midrashic tradition and second temple Judaism. It then parallels this with the development of Sarah in relationship to Mary in the NT texts and later christian traditions (specifically Origen). There are a couple key observations that emerge from this:

  1. As the thesis points out, one of the challenges of locating this within the NT text is that it was written in a world where Jew and Christian did not yet represent a separation and divide. At the same time however, to quote, “often the Christian Bible presents a unique worldview or containsexegetical developments without precedent in the Jewish world.”

Here in lies the challenge for engaging such questions like- who was Sarah, how did the early texts see her, how does later midrash see her, how does the NT text see her, how does later rabbinic and Christian tradtions see her (especially in light of the then divide). This is never as simple as saying that Sarah develops from this to that.

  1. As a Christ follower there do arise some interesting questions when it comes to paralleling Sarah with Mary, especially when it comes to locating the miraculous birth story in Luke and Matthew (and I would argue John). Even for those who simply reject the miraculous birth out of hand, they must still contend with the question of where the story came from, what it’s doing, and why it’s included.

Perhaps the most interesting question, which the thesis fleshes out, is how when we arrive at the Gospel narratives what seems clear in the way those stories are constructed is that they are deliberately paralleling the Abraham-Sarah story as it fleshes out Zechariah and Elizabeth/Mary and Joseph. Why do those stories, which place Elizabeth and Mary at the center, clearly raise up the figure of Sarah rather than Abraham? Further, if it seems clear that the literary design of Zechariah and Elizabeth is structured to parallel Abraham and Sarah (which I would argue the evidence shows), where do we then position Mary within the story alongside Sarah as the seemingly “mother” of the faith? Is it that the early texts represent Sarah this way in a patriarchal society that goes on to assume an emphasize on Abraham, and later writers are pulling out what is already there? Is it that later midrash reclaims Sarah from the shadows? Reformats Sarah? And then the Gospel writers use this to write the story of Jesus through a Mary centric lens? One interesting aspect of the early texts is that not only does Sarah fit within a thread of many women that often get glossed over in modern readings, but it is no small thing that Sarah is afforded the same covenantal words as Abraham.

  1. The other challenge that surfaces here is how the Gospels present Zechariah and Elizabeth as precursers, as a type of the one who is to come (which of course brings in discussions of Elijah’s messianic figure and the Moses-Joshua paradigm- and not coincidentally close readings of the Moses text also seem to place key women figures at the center). Thus Sarah becomes both a type (Elizabeth) amd the true expression (Mary). This grapples with early evidence of Sarah being positioned as the mother of Israel in the same way Mary is the mother of Jesus. From this flows the seeds of the miraculous birth which forms their stories according to the shared promise, with later iterations actually articulating Sarah’s story as both one of old age (Elizabeth) and virgin (Mary).

Anyways, it’s interesting to think over especially when one is reflecting on the Gospels and the arrival of Jesus. There’s a lot going on there to be sure, and it reflects important conversations that can shed light on a text that features a strong and intentional literary design. This is part of, for me, being able to hear what the text is wanting to say both to them in their world and to me today by way of the shared spirit. One thing I am compelled by, which comes from the conviction that the Gospels were being practiced liturgicaly already at the time when Paul was writing, is that one of the key defining points of the Jewish and Christian texts is its appeal to positioning women throughout the larger narrative as the key movers and shakers within God’s ongoing faithfulness to the covenant promise. It is no small thing that the Gospel writers are so well positioned to place these women front and center at the heart of the Gospels arrival in the person and work of Jesus

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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