Mary draws on a biblical tradition of male virgin asceticism that she appropriates for her own womanhood. Her purity, in other words, is based on everyday rituals and the performance of chastity as a defining identity trait throughout the narrative. As she reveals in her own speech, Mary relies on models of previous virgins even as she enacts a new model for others to follow.
See Also: The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary, Early Christian Apocrypha 7 (Cascade Books, 2019).
By Brandon W. Hawk
Assistant Professor of English
Rhode Island College
Across the history of Christianity, adherents to this religion composed hundreds of works about biblical subjects that never made it into the canon. Known as “apocrypha,” these works reveal stories and beliefs beyond those that many might know from the Bible. We find such apocrypha in places as distant as the North Atlantic, North and East Africa, the Middle East, China, and India, in a diverse array of languages like Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Coptic, English, Ethiopic, French, Georgian, German, Greek, Hebrew, Irish, Italian, Old Norse, Latin, Slavonic, Spanish, Syriac, and others. While some apocrypha were obscure and esoteric, others were wildly popular and continue to influence beliefs in certain Christian communities today. Apocrypha about the Virgin Mary proved to be especially widespread in early Christianity and through the Middle Ages.
One of the most popular Christian apocrypha in the medieval period was the Latin Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which related the story of Mary’s birth and life up to Jesus’ childhood. Equally popular was the later adaptation of this apocryphon known as the Nativity of Mary. These apocrypha retell how Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, are unable to conceive children, how they overcome that challenge with a miracle from God with the conception of Mary, Mary’s childhood as a virgin in the temple, her betrothal to Joseph, the conception and birth of Jesus, and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt after Herod orders the slaughter of the innocents.
Both apocrypha sparked major surges in Marian devotion in Western European during the medieval period. Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary survive in hundreds of manuscript copies, adaptations, and translations into many European languages. They influenced many material media, such as manuscript illuminations, sculptures, wall paintings, textiles, and other types of visual arts. These stories even became part of the repertoire of medieval plays during the resurgence of drama in the later Middle Ages and into the early modern era.
The author of Pseudo-Matthew found the main narrative for this apocryphon in the earlier Greek Protevangelium of James, although the Latin work constitutes a major adaptation. In addition to the sorts of changes that might be expected of a translation from Greek into Latin, parts of the Protevangelium are wholly left out, while Pseudo-Matthew contains many expansions and added details. Many of these changes reflect the cultural values and audience that the author of Pseudo-Matthew must have been working to address. These adaptations, in fact, help to date the composition of Pseudo-Matthew between the middle of the sixth century and the end of the eighth century—with the seventh century as the likeliest period in this range.
Similarly, the Nativity of Mary represents another moment in the literary history of the story of Mary’s life. Composed by about the year 1000, this Latin work is clearly based on Pseudo-Matthew but is much more condensed to eliminate details that might have made some ecclesiastical authorities suspicious. The Nativity of Mary comprises much more deliberate and sustained synthesis with the canonical Gospels, which are interwoven into the narrative. In fact, much of the Nativity of Mary consists of a sort of harmony between parts of Pseudo-Matthew, the canonical Gospels, as well as various Patristic and early medieval biblical commentary traditions.
Although these apocrypha are often classified as “infancy gospels” because they depict Jesus’ birth and childhood, the central narratives revolve around Mary and her life. The Protevangelium, Pseudo-Matthew, and Nativity of Mary were informed by and, in turn, contributed to the continual development of the cult of the Virgin Mary in the late antique and medieval periods. All of these apocrypha contain a concerted focus on women and their representation as chaste figures. Pseudo-Matthew especially provides unique contributions to the development of these depictions in literature particularly significant for the history of Christianity in the European Middle Ages.
The following examines representations of women in Pseudo-Matthew and what they might tell us. I focus on three different facets of women’s representation: women’s interactions together, the depiction of Mary as an ascetic virgin, and a thematic tension between men and women that runs throughout the work. My purpose is not to offer an in-depth analysis (nor to address all of the nuances of interpreting through the lens of gender studies), but to point out a variety of related ways that women are represented and might be fruitfully examined further. By looking at these different features of the work, we find a number of complementary ways that women are represented. There is no single, static view of women in Pseudo-Matthew, as its portrayal of gender is multifaceted.
A Bechdel Test for Historical Literature?
In Pseudo-Matthew, Mary is clearly the main protagonist, but a number of other women and their perspectives are also centered. In fact, while the perspectives of men are centered at certain moments, there is a consistent focus on women and their experiences. We might gain some insights by considering Pseudo-Matthew in relation to recent discussions about the importance of greater representation of women in twenty-first-century media.
The Bechdel Test (or Bechdel-Wallace Test) presents one means of critique worth pursuing. Named after feminist cartoonist Alison Bechdel, this measure of women’s representation in media (mainly in films, but also applied other forms) seeks to identify a baseline of three requirements: the narrative must have 1) “at least two women” (preferably named) who 2) “talk to each other” 3) “about something besides a man.” This is a relatively low bar, and only one measure of representation among many, and this way of assessing representations of women has been superseded in many feminist discussions of our own pop culture media. Although the Bechdel Test has been criticised as reductive in some ways, it does offer a lens for homing in on particular instances that deserve more critical attention.
So how does Pseudo-Matthew fare in terms of the Bechdel Test? A short answer is that it passes the test at multiple points in the narrative. As with many cases of gender representation, however, there are more interesting subtleties to explore in the details. Even more, and beyond the scope of this essay, is how voices of men and women are vocalized, silenced, believed, disbelieved, and prioritized in terms of power dynamics. After all, while there are some strong women in Pseudo-Matthew, there are also strong men who talk quite a lot.
The first instance of women speaking to each other appears in chapter 2, as Anna laments her infertility and her husband’s disappearance. Much of this chapter consists of a conversation between Anna and God, with God’s message mediated by an angel. After the angel departs, Anna “called to her servant girl and said to her, ‘You see me as a widow in anguish, but do you not want to come to me?’” (2:11). Looking for comfort and companionship, Anna turns to another woman who might understand her plight. The servant girl’s response, however, is less than generous: “Then, murmuring, she responded, ‘If God closed your womb and took your husband away from you, what might I do for you?’” (2:12).
It is true that the servant girl does mention Joachim (and God, presented as a male in this narrative), but this conversation does not center around him and is not actually about him. Instead, the whole chapter and this conversation in particular center Anna as subject, her voice of lament, and her infertility. Given the complicated nature of fertility and childbirth for women and their identities—and the historical and religious reasons for this issue in Pseudo-Matthew—there is much more depth to this representation of women than the basic requirements of a pop culture benchmark. Arguably, this scene is more nuanced than the rules of the Bechdel Test allow.
Another instance worth examining appears after Mary’s betrothal to Joseph. At the end of chapter 8, Mary goes to live in Joseph’s home (while he goes off to work in Capernaum). As she has just left the temple after years of ascetic life among a community of virgins, Mary is joined by five other virgin companions, named Rebecca, Sephora, Susanna, Abigea, and Zahel (8:31-32). All of these women receive fine yarns from the high priest and spend their time spinning this material into cloth for the temple (8:32-33). Mary receives the purple, a symbolic indicator of royalty often typologically linked to Jesus in Christian literature. The other virgins, however, make fun of Mary, saying, “Since you are the last and humblest, how are you worthy to receive the purple?” (8:35). The text relates, “Saying these things mockingly, they began to call her ‘Queen of the Virgins’” (8:36). Soon, an angel appears to rebuke the virgin companions, and they ask for forgiveness and change their mean girl ways. In fact, the title is then repurposed as an honorific, just as the phrase “Queen of the Virgins” was used as an epithet for Mary throughout the medieval period. In this scene, Pseudo-Matthew presents several named women talking to each other and centering an enduring aspect of Mary’s identity in the history of Christianity.
The most prominent moment of women interacting in Pseudo-Matthew directly follows Jesus’ birth in chapter 13. Characteristically, the narrative in Pseudo-Matthew foregrounds Mary and her experience. From a Christian soteriological perspective, the Nativity is a centerpiece of this apocryphon; but that is not the case from a narrative perspective, as Pseudo-Matthew continually focuses on Mary. After Jesus is born, Joseph brings a midwife named Zahel to attend to Mary (13:12-16). The following scene unfolds while Joseph and Jesus recede into the background. Zahel examines Mary and makes a grand declaration:
“Great Lord, have mercy! Never before has it been either heard or suspected that the breasts might be full of milk, and yet this newborn makes manifest that his mother is a virgin. No stain of blood is on the child, and no pain was evident in the birth. A virgin has given birth and after giving birth she has continued to be a virgin.” (13:17-20)
This declaration adheres to developments in belief and doctrine in the early medieval period, emphasizing Mary’s perpetual virginity. In fact, Zahel’s speech is similar to formulas in texts written after the Lateran Council of 649, when Mary’s perpetual virginity was defined. Pseudo-Matthew presents some of the earliest evidence for the representation of this doctrine in literature as the cult of the Virgin Mary began to blossom in Western Europe.
The scene becomes more complicated when another midwife named Salome overhears Zahel’s declaration and intervenes. Doubting what she has heard, Salome says, “Certainly I will not believe this unless indeed I verify it” (13:21). Mary consents to another examination by Salome, but the midwife’s hand withers from her disbelief—until she confesses and is directed by an angel to touch Jesus’ swaddling cloths for healing (13:23-28). Again, all of this confirms the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity that emerged in Western Europe around the same time as the composition of Pseudo-Matthew. Even more, this scene revolves around conversations and intimate interactions between Mary and the two midwives. In terms of the Bechdel Test, the scene includes three named women who all talk to each other in a way that emphasizes Mary at the center of this whole narrative.
Mary’s Ascetic Life
Even more than low-bar expectations for representations of women like the Bechdel Test, there are other aspects of Pseudo-Matthew that demonstrate a strong focus on women. At the core of the representation of women in Pseudo-Matthew, one remarkable feature is the depiction of Mary’s life in the temple with extended details about her asceticism (chapter 6). While the general idea of Mary living in the temple was already established in the Protevangelium, the author of Pseudo-Matthew draws a much more full picture for the depiction of Mary’s asceticism.
For the depiction of Mary’s ascetic life in the temple, the author drew on both literary accounts of virgin asceticism and contemporary monastic life. For example, the narrative specifies “the rule (regula) she had set for herself” (6:4) and describes Mary’s daily routine according to the observance of prayer and work according to the canonical hours of monastic communities. The general routine follows the precept of ora et labora (pray and work) prescribed by Benedict of Nursia, and the details of Mary’s life follow daily observances laid out in monastic regula like the Rule of the Master and the Rule of St. Benedict—just as monks and nuns would have lived.
Mary’s commitment to the ascetic life and her knowledge of the Bible are exemplified in a speech she gives in chapter 7, as a sort of sermon about chastity. She emphasizes the virtue of purity, beginning her sermon with the claim, “God is primarily esteemed and worshipped in chastity” (7:4). She then continues by discussing the figures of Abel and Elijah as virgin models from the Hebrew Bible. Although the historical figure of Mary would have been Jewish, the author of Pseudo-Matthew places in her mouth a sermon filled with details from early Christian writings. Mary’s sermon echoes works by authors like Paul, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, and Gregory the Great. All of this, she states, she “learned in the temple of God from... infancy: that a virgin may be very dear to God,” and she uses that as the basis for her choice to remain chaste (7:9).
In many ways, Pseudo-Matthew upholds certain normative prescriptions for women to remain virgins, as Christian authors had developed them in late antiquity. Specific resonances are evoked in parallels with patristic authors, as already mentioned. At the same time, this depiction reveals the performativity of Mary’s asceticism, regardless of gender. In fact, Mary draws on a biblical tradition of male virgin asceticism that she appropriates for her own womanhood. Her purity, in other words, is based on everyday rituals and the performance of chastity as a defining identity trait throughout the narrative. As she reveals in her own speech, Mary relies on models of previous virgins even as she enacts a new model for others to follow.
Battle of the Sexes
One major tension throughout Pseudo-Matthew is the wisdom of women and the folly of men in power. Men often make judgments and impose patriarchal standards onto women and situations, only to be exposed as foolish just as women are proven to be in the right. In many of these cases, men seek to control women’s bodies, especially in terms of sexuality and reproductive rights. Yet the narrative affords women certain authority and autonomy over their own bodies that are continually vindicated. A few examples highlight this theme.
At the beginning of the narrative, Joachim is chastised by the temple priest for his and Anna’s infertility, and Joachim flees into a self-exile in the wilderness, while Anna turns to prayer and answers from God. In return, Anna is rewarded with an answer that proves the temple priest wrong and brings Joachim home. Later, Mary’s chastity is in doubt because of her Immaculate Conception, and she and Joseph are tested by the community of male priests; yet Mary holds true and is vindicated. There is, therefore, a subsequent subversion of expected gender norms even as values like female chastity and asceticism are lauded.
Such examples demonstrate a subversion of power and hierarchy that challenge intersectional oppression, as they disturb structures of power within established cultural institutions. Anna and Mary are continually depicted as lower class, not part of the elite class of priests who hold control of religious, political, and economic power. Since Pseudo-Matthew was written by a Christian author, the Jewish religious institution and temple priests imposing upon women are obviously fabrications. Still, these fictional depictions are based on certain aspects of temple life and religious community as depicted in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Gospels. There is also more to be explored in how the representation of Jewish culture by a Christian author might further feed into the racial imaginary constructed between Christians and Jews in the medieval period—even to the point of feeding into anti-Judaism. Despite the imaginary nature of these depictions, Pseudo-Matthew highlights elements of patriarchal culture and hierarchies of power that are then challenged throughout the narrative.
Throughout its narrative, Pseudo-Matthew offers a complex depiction of the women at the heart of the narrative and exposes intersectional forms of oppression that affect their experiences. Readers are given a glimpse of intimate interactions between women, an elaborate depiction of Mary as virgin ascetic, and clear themes about gendered tensions. Although many gender norms are ultimately reinscribed and upheld, the apocryphon poses complications to certain early Christian views of women as well as other cultural hierarchies that inform religion, politics, and the oppression of lower classes by the educated, wealthy, and powerful elite. We might consider how these themes expose early medieval cultural values that the author of Pseudo-Matthew wished to address, or even who the author might have been. We might even speculate that the author could have been a female religious—perhaps a nun or an abbess—seeking to address some of these issues.
 I quote and cite by chapter and verse numbers according to my translation in Brandon W. Hawk, The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Nativity of Mary, Early Christian Apocrypha 8 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).
 For the Protevangelium, see Lily C. Vuong, The Protevangelium of James, Early Christian Apocrypha 7 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019).
 On these themes in the Protevangelium, see Lily C. Vuong, Gender and Purity in the Protevangelium of James, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2/358 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013).
 See Brandon W. Hawk, “The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the Rule of the Master, and the Rule of Benedict,” Revue Bénédictine 128 (2018): 281-93, https://doi.org/10.1484/J.RB.5.116423; and commentary in Hawk, Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.
 The classic work on this subject, addressing the first through fifth centuries, is Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988). For details about which works are echoed, see Hawk, Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, 22-24.
 On constructions of race in the medieval period, see esp. Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018). On later medieval representations of Jews related to the transmission of Pseudo-Matthew, see Pamela Sheingorn, “Reshapings of the Childhood Miracles of Jesus,” in The Christ Child in Medieval Culture: Alpha es et O!, ed. Theresa M. Kennedy and Mary Dzon (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 254-92; and Mary Dzon, The Quest for the Christ Child in the Later Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), esp. 174-81.