Blessed Among Women? Moms, Bodies, and Theologies in the New Testament

Mothers “embody” Christian theologies because ancients, just like us, had very particular understandings of bodies. And, like us, they occupied bodies—even if we don’t often like to acknowledge this in church or scholarly settings. Ancient understandings of bodies were quite different than contemporary constructions. Such an observation is perhaps obvious, but it is not one we often ponder. These differences come to a head in presentations of mothers and motherhood, and have significant implications for interpreting these characters and metaphors in the New Testament, as well as the theologies of the early Christian movement.

See Also: Blessed Among Women? Mothers and Motherhood in the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2017).

By Alicia D. Myers, PhD
Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek
Campbell University Divinity School
January 2018

As Christmas approaches, many churches will turn their attention, at least for a moment, to Mary—the blessed virgin and mother of Jesus. Indeed, for many Protestants this is probably the only time of the year that we pay much attention to Mary at all. Such are the after-effects of an inherited nervousness of over-attachment to Mary from the Reformers of the sixteenth century (Gaventa and Rigsby 2002). As we of diverse backgrounds take a little time to think about Mary this year, then, let me encourage us also to think a bit about the other mothers of the New Testament as well. Although we may readily identify Mary as a mother, we may forget the other mothers who occupy the pages of the New Testament, such as Elizabeth, the mother of James and John, the mothers who seek healing for their children in the Gospels, John Mark’s mother in Acts, or even Paul and Jesus who either use or are described with maternal imagery (e.g., Matt 23:37; Luke 13:34; John 16:20–22; Gal 4:19–21; 1 Thess 2:7; 1 Cor 3:1–3). These passages, however, hide the presence of so many other mothers, those who birth and nourish the rest of our New Testament characters and authors but who are never described, as well as those mothers who participated in the burgeoning Christian movement and who sat listening to the stories and letters read to them, and perhaps read them out as well (Rom 16:1–2).

Even though these mothers and characters can be easy to miss, or simply to be read over, I suggest that our New Testament authors live in a much richer world than we often notice. Flattened in our Bibles, and as words on a page, we can easily forget the flesh and blood that inspired, composed, spoke, and preserved the writings that eventually came to make up the New Testament. I encourage us to remember. Rather than characters to be dismissed, or quaint metaphors to warm our hearts and then ignore, these mothers, whether metaphorical or not, embody early Christian theologies in ways no other identity can.

Mothers, Maternal Metaphors, and Ancient Bodies

Mothers “embody” Christian theologies because ancients, just like us, had very particular understandings of bodies. And, like us, they occupied bodies—even if we don’t often like to acknowledge this in church or scholarly settings. Ancient understandings of bodies were quite different than contemporary constructions. Such an observation is perhaps obvious, but it is not one we often ponder. These differences come to a head in presentations of mothers and motherhood, and have significant implications for interpreting these characters and metaphors in the New Testament, as well as the theologies of the early Christian movement.

The Ancient Assumption: A Real Woman Is A Mother

Ancients, of course, understood that all people are “of woman born” (Shakespeare, MacBeth IV.1.80–81; cf. Gen 3:20). Undergirding their understandings of just how conception, generation, and birth occurred was the pervasive assumption that women existed for the purpose of being mothers. In fact, it was through the process of marriage and childbirth that a girl became a “woman,” although such a possibility was only available to freed or free-born girls. For ancients, particularly the male elites whose writings have survived the great stretch of time, women were incomplete on their own. They needed to be made complete, or masculinized, by means of a man. This is because, for these authors, and as reflected in the artifacts of the ancient world, to be perfect was to be masculine: impervious and penetrating. And women, as female and feminine—and, thus, porous and penetrable—were necessarily imperfect. The justification for their imperfect existence was motherhood. The second-century physician Galen summarizes, “Indeed, you ought not think that our Creator would purposely make half of the whole race imperfect and, as it were, mutilated, unless there was to be some great advantage in such a mutilation” (On the Usefulness of Parts 1.300). The “great advantage” is, according to Galen, reproduction.

Motherhood, therefore, both sustained mankind through the reproduction of children (ideally, sons), but also of womankind not only through the reproduction of deficient (but necessary) daughters, but also by purposing the otherwise unpredictable, leaking, and porous female bodies. Inseminated by the masculine force of male semen, girls became women and fulfilled their purpose for the stability of their own bodies and for the stability of all humankind (Myers, 2017, pp. 18–41).

It is not surprising, then, that when we read ancient theories of conception, generation, childbirth, and the physiological constructions of breastmilk, we find that they reinforce these assumptions. Pregnancy is predominantly healthful for women, and even a sign of her restored heath the Hippocratics (King 2004). Theories of conception and generation, whether resulting from the combination of male and female seeds (pangenesis) or the infusion of male seed alone to form the passive material of unused blood in a woman’s womb (epigenesist), reflect the assumption that masculine forces and forming were superior and resulted in a superior child. Breastmilk and breastfeeding, too, were significant topics for reflection as elite male authors encouraged noble-women to nurse their own children in order to “shape” and stabilize infants’ bodies and souls.

From all these writings, ancients demonstrate that they invested themselves, much as we do, in trying to understand the origins of life and what this means for female bodies in particular. As bodies on which humanity relies, female bodies exist at the precarious juncture between life and death. In an irony balanced on the assumption of masculine superiority, women are necessary for life, but perceived of as weak and deficient, requiring male intervention to supply their purpose. In the New Testament, authors reflect and reshape these assumptions in light of their own, often apocalyptic, views of the world. Claiming a Gospel of completion for all by means of God’s Christ, Jesus, the crucified and risen Savior, these earliest Christians wrestled with what this means for the men and women in their midst. Must women still become mothers? Or does God now complete, or save, them in other ways?

Maternal Bodies and the New Testament: Conceiving Christ and Community

When we encounter girls and women in the New Testament, therefore, we should keep these corporeal assumptions and constructions in mind. When female bodies appear on the scene, whether as characters in the stories, figures addressed in letters, or in metaphors taken on by male bodies, these cultural assumptions are likewise present. This does not mean, however, that New Testament and later early Christian works simply subsume these constructions. Rather, they engage with them, using the aspects that articulate their theologies while subverting and challenging those that do not. In what follows, I will offer a brief overview of just a few passages from the New Testament to illustrate my point: 1) the presentations of Elizabeth and Mary in Luke’s Gospel and 2) the use of milk metaphors.

Pregnant Prophecies: Elizabeth and Mary

Elizabeth and Mary take center stage early on in the Gospel of Luke. Although different, of course, both women experience miraculous pregnancies and births to bring forth divinely inspired, and divinely-formed, sons. Both of these women also utter prophecies, proclaiming not only the astounding realities of their pregnancies, but also truths about the son Mary carries and the God who caused the conceptions. Elizabeth’s proclamation is short, but in her statement she acknowledges the “blessedness” of both Mary and her child, as well as their superiority to her and her offspring (1:41–45). Mary’s “magnificat” in 1:46–54 is likewise robust in its praise, but demonstrating that the child within her is greater than the fetal John, she offers not only a much longer statement, but also one that is full of understanding of God’s actions toward Israel throughout scriptural history, setting forth themes of rescue, humility, and the Abrahamic covenant that will recur throughout Luke and Acts.

Nevertheless, once their children are born, the presentations of these women change dramatically. Elizabeth, for one, disappears entirely from the narrative. It is Zechariah in 1:67–79 who is filled with the holy Spirit and utters the prophetic words concerning the now-named John. Mary remains in pockets, but her understanding dwindles and she, too, must be guided by inspired males. When Mary reappears in chapter 2 she is warned by Simeon that Jesus’ ministry will result in “the falling and rising of many in Israel” and that “a sword will pierce [her] own soul too” (2:34–35). And in 2:41–52, she is she is confounded when Jesus disappears unannounced from the family to stay in Jerusalem after Passover. The boy Jesus confronts her, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (2:49). How could Mary herself have forgotten the story of her own impregnation?

Although others have offered a variety of answers to this quandary, I suggest that ancient corporeal and maternal constructions clarify Luke’s presentation. This is because, for ancients, while Elizabeth and Mary were pregnant, they too were physically filled with the holy Spirit. Regardless of specific embryological theory, ancients understood the spirit, or breath (pneuma), to have a formative and substantive role in the generation of a fetus. Either imparted by male semen alone (epigenesis) or taken in by a woman while pregnant (pangenesis), the spirit is that which animated a child, particularly in Jewish contexts (Kessler 2009). What sort of pneuma shaped a child, therefore, had implications on what type of child would result.

More than this, however, ancients also portrayed female bodies as though they had an internal path, a hodos, that stretched from the orifices in their heads (ears, mouths, noses) to the orifices on their chest (breasts) to the orifices of their genitalia below. The existence of such a pathway meant that things taken in at one end had implications for what happened at the other (King 2004; Myers 2017, pp. 35–38). It also means that a pregnant woman is literally full of the spirit working within her to shape the developing fetus. Not only does this spirit, and the growing child, result in the filling of her breasts with milk, but it also means that she could speak words inspired by this spirit. Thus, when Elizabeth and Mary are given an extra-potent supply of God’s Spirit to empower the conception of their children, they are likewise physically inspired. They bubble over with ecstatic, prophetic activity while pregnant.

Indeed, for Elizabeth it is when the forming John “leaps” in her womb that he seems to force this Spirit up and into Elizabeth’s mouth. It is at this moment that she offers her prophetic words: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (2:43 NRSV). Mary’s pregnancy, of course, required a much more robust supply of Spirit since, as Luke emphasizes, she is a virgin. Not only does this result in a much more inspired child—a child who is really God’s Son—but it results in her more profound prophetic ability while pregnant (1:46–54). When their children are born, however, and certainly after they have weaned, the Spirit physically leaves their bodies. No longer are Elizabeth and Mary inspired; the Spirit that dwelled within them continues inspiring their sons, who are now separated from their womb and, eventually too, their breasts. In Acts, therefore, Mary must be present with the other disciples to receive again the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:14). In this way, Luke shows his audience that Jesus’ ministry is just as much for Mary as it is for everyone else (cf. Luke 11:27–28; see Myers 2017, pp. 42–70). It is not her motherhood itself that brings salvation, rather it is the Son whom she bore and nursed.

You Are Who You Drink: Breast-milk as Ancient Soul-food

Milk metaphors, too, appear repeatedly in the New Testament. Paul describes his provision of milk for the Corinthians (1 Cor 3:1 –3) and the Thessalonians (1 Thess 2:7), and the authors of Hebrews and 1 Peter likewise incorporate milk imagery in both admonishing and encouraging their audiences. The prevalence of milk language in the New Testament reflects its use in educational literature and stories from the ancient Mediterranean. Ancients understood food and drink to become the literal “stuff” out of which bodies and souls were made, and shaped (Penniman 2017). Thus, “nurture” included both verbal instruction as well as physical nourishment and ancients could both be praised or condemned for what they ate. Good foods made bodies and souls firm, impenetrable, and therefore, masculine; luxurious foods made bodies and souls soft, penetrable, and therefore, feminine. Infants and children, the most malleable of bodies and souls, required the most perfect food to shape their bodies and souls toward virtue and, when possible, toward ideal manhood (Myers 2017, pp. 75–90).

Breast-milk, according to our ancient authors, is especially unique soul-shaping food because it actually conveys the seeds, spirit, and soul of the parents to the nursing infant through a woman’s body. Recalling the corporeal construction of the female body above, we remember that ancients thought women’s bodies had a hodos. Just as the spirit could well-up and prompt speech, so too, did the spirit-filled blood press upward into a woman’s breasts during pregnancy. This is breast-milk: the semen-infused menstrual blood out of which a child was shaped and by which it was nourished in the womb. Formerly passive and excess, in pregnancy female blood is filled with spirit, heated so that it becomes white, and is pressed into the upper reaches of the female body, literally filling her breasts with purpose (Aullus Gellius, Attic Nights 12.7 –9; Galen, Usefulness of Parts; b. Ber. 31b).

The significance of this physiological construction can hardly be over-estimated. It is for this reason that Pliny the Elder regards mother’s milk as a cure-all in contrast to menstrual blood, which was a destructive substance (Natural Histories 28.123). Milk is powerful because it is the only substance that continues to convey the life-shaping blood conveyed to a child in the womb. It is for this reason that ancient philosophers and orators urged noble-women to breastfeed their own children, regardless of the well-established practice for them to hire wet-nurses. In educational literature, these authors argued that milk formed the “mind” and “soul” of children. If left up to “foreign and barbarous” wet-nurses, the newly formed noble-blooded children could be warped, turning “foreign and barbarous” themselves (Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 12.1.12–14). When they drink in the familial seeds imbued in breast-milk, kinship bonds are reinforced—or even formed (Plutarch, Cato 20.3; Lib. ed. 5e; on Jewish contexts see Chapman 2012). The the milk, therefore, needed to be of the highest possible quality and it needed to be administered for the appropriate amount of time (Soranus, Gynecology 2.21.46; t. Nid. 2.3).

This context brings to life the milk metaphors of the New Testament. Paul’s use of these metaphors is meant to reinforce the bonds between Paul and his churches, as well as between the members of these communities. He desires from them loyalty and unity. Moreover, he argues, it is by means of his “milk” that he conveys to them the teachings that he has received from God through Christ. Thus, it is through him that the Corinthians can know the “mind” Christ (2:16). Paul is mother and Paul is nurse (Gaventa 2007; Eastman 2007). Although Hebrews and 1 Peter use this metaphor for differing ends, they too reflect the common physiological construction of breast-milk. Indeed, when we understand what breast-milk is the otherwise odd encouragement of 1 Peter 2:2–3 makes sense: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual (logikon) milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good (chrēstos)” (NRSV). In 1 Peter, they have tasted the Lord by means of his “precious blood” that is now figured as milk. It is by this blood and this milk that the believers are re-begotten and reshaped as God’s children, “not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word (logou) of God” (1:23 NRSV). When they continue to rely on this milk, the believers are assured that they can imitate Christ in life, in death, and in resurrection.

Maternal Cults Ancient and Modern: Reconceiving Blessedness

The discussion started here could be multiplied—and, in fact, I have multiplied it in my recent book (Myers 2017). However, the implications of these constructions are more than simply the clarity that they provide for otherwise confusing sections of the New Testament. Instead, they reveal the reality that the New Testament, regardless of the positive messages it contains, nevertheless assumes the same perspective of the ancient Mediterranean: perfection is masculine. What is debated in these writings, and in their use of maternal imagery, is not that assumption, but rather the means by which the world—women included—are to move toward perfection, toward completion, toward masculinization. In the larger Roman imperial context, female masculinization was predominantly assumed to come through pregnancy and childbirth. Augustus reinforced this agenda in his architectural projects, his writings, and his laws (Milnor 2005). For Augustus and the age that he inspired, to be a good woman was to be a good mother, one who raised “princes” for the state (Tacitus, Dialogues 28–29).

New Testament authors, claiming a God revealed through the person and work of a crucified and resurrected Christ, had to interact with differing narratives of completion from their Roman world. For them, God was working through Jesus and not through Augustus. Not only does such a view require a reshaping of masculine constructions (Wilson 2015), but it also requires reshaping feminine constructions: what is ideal womanhood in a world completed by Christ? Is motherhood still the telos for girls?

New Testament and early Christian writings do not offer a unified answer to this question. While motherhood is most pointedly indicated by 1 Tim 2:15, the Gospels and Acts arguably distance biological motherhood, although they do not excise it entirely. Motherhood is also often shifted away from actual female wombs and breasts, to male bodies: that of Jesus, Paul, or other implied epistolary authors who birth and nurse infant(ile) disciples. In these contexts, it is God’s conveyance of blood and spirit through Jesus and then through these male teachers that results in perfected, masculine children and sons. A number of early Christian writings include female heroines who reject marriage and motherhood so that they might be filled with God’s word and Spirit instead. Like Mary, they are filled with word and Spirit comes from God himself, inspiring them to confess and teach even against their fathers and husbands (Acts of Thecla, Acts of Andrew, Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas). After Christ’s resurrection, these women do not lose access to God’s Spirit as Mary did, but they are completely filled. They need not seek masculinization from any other male source.

As we debate issues of gender today, we continue to wrestle over the importance of motherhood for women. In order for us to see the true blessedness of motherhood, however, we need to remove the assumption that aligns masculinity with perfection that has undergirded our interpretations of mothers and motherhood for so many millennia. This de-coupling will help us to see not just the blessedness of parenthood—whether biological, adoptive, or metaphorical—but of life. For Christians, especially as we walk through the season of Advent, it should remind us that it is God who completes and perfects, not any other human being. And God does so in some surprisingly unmasculine ways—ways that we do well to remember.

Works Cited

Cynthia Chapman, “Oh that you were like a brother to me, one who had nursed at my mother’s breasts: Breast Milk as a Kin-ship Forming Substance,” JHebS 12 (2012): article 7.

Susan Eastman, Recovering Paul’s Mother Tongue: Language and Theology in Galatians. Eerdmans, 2007.

Beverly Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul. Westminster John Knox, 2007.

Beverly Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigsby, eds., Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary. Westminster John Knox, 2002.

Gwynn Kessler, Conceiving Israel: The Fetus in Rabbinic Narratives. Divinations. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.

Helen King, The Disease of Virgins: Green Sickness, Chlorosis and the Problems of Puberty. Routledge, 2004.

Kristina Milnor, Gender, Domesticity, and the Age of Augustus: Inventing Private Life. Oxford University Press, 2005.

Alicia D. Myers, Blessed Among Women? Mothers and Motherhood in the New Testament. Oxford University Press, 2017.

John David Penniman, Raised on Christian Milk: The Symbolic Power of Nourishment in Early Christianity. Synkrisis Series. Yale University Press, 2017.

Brittany E. Wilson, Unmanly Men: Refigurations of Masculinity in Luke-Acts. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.