The following is a paper that I wrote for New Testament Class on “the Woman clothed with the Sun” in Revelations 12. I argue that although others say that she can be multiple images, (ie. The Church, Israel, People of God) she is firstly the Blessed Virgin Mary, and only because of that can she also be seen as other images.
Written for Mr. Mark Reasoner, Ph.D. Marian University April 2016.
The woman, “clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12:1 has been identified in a variety of ways. Some interpret that she is symbolic of Israel or the Church, and still others say that she is the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. Through a careful reading of Sacred Scripture it is obvious that the woman cannot be at one time, universally all of these symbols…or can she? In this paper I will highlight how the “woman clothed with the sun” in Revelations 12 is firstly the Blessed Virgin Mary, then how because of this fact, she is also able to be seen as Israel, and the Church as a whole. We will accomplish this specifically by highlighting what makes the woman appear to be Mary, and why that keeps being affirmed throughout history, specifically through the way the Catholic Church uses the text in it’s worship. Then we will highlight the woman’s role in Revelation itself, and how the Sacred Scripture leads us through the text to understand who she is and thus the ways in which those who object to the woman as an allusion to Mary, the Mother of God try to make their case. Finally we will close by examining all of these “attributes” of Mary that we have pulled from the Scripture, as well as the objections posed by others and identify whether or not the woman is indeed, Mary, Israel, and the Church at the same time.
If you ask any Catholic who has a small idea of the role Mary plays and will play in Salvation history, you will discover that most believe that she in the end will “crush the head of Satan with her foot.” This outlook on Mary’s unique role as co-redemptrix is too large a discussion for this paper, but for the purposes of setting up the idea of Mary in Revelation 12, it is necessary to return for a moment to Genesis in which is said: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (RSV, Gen. 3:15) This phrase is important to remember as it is because of a mistranslation of the Latin Vulgate from the Hebrew and Greek texts that “she” replaces “he.” This “translation error” has gone so far that even Pope Pius XI used it in his Apostolic Constitution Ineffabilis Deus to describe Mary as crushing satan with her heel. While, the idea lines up with Christian theology that anything Mary triumphs over is only through Christ, it has now made its way into how we look at the woman in Revelation 12, polluting in some sense the interpretation of the chapter.
The following is the text of Revelation 1:19-12:12 as it appears in the Lectionary for reading on the Solemnity of the Assumption. Those verses, which are not included in the Lectionary, I have italicized:
“Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant could be seen in the temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder, an earthquake, and a violent hailstorm. A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman* clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon,* with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne. The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God, that there she might be taken care of for twelve hundred and sixty days. Then war broke out in heaven; Michael* and his angels battled against the dragon. The dragon and its angels fought back, but they did not prevail and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The huge dragon, the ancient serpent,* who is called the Devil and Satan, who deceived the whole world, was thrown down to earth, and its angels were thrown down with it. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have salvation and power come, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Anointed. For the accuser of our brothers is cast out, who accuses them before our God day and night. They conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; love for life did not deter them from death. Therefore, rejoice, you heavens, and you who dwell in them. But woe to you, earth and sea, for the Devil has come down to you in great fury, for he knows he has but a short time.” (NABRE Rev. 11:19-12:1-12)
The reading of this text, without the italicized words on the Feast of the Assumption, works beautifully in describing Mary as the Mother of the Messiah and thus outlining the reason she was assumed into Heaven. Primarily by leaving out the text of the battle between Michael and the dragon, the battle or enmity of the woman and the dragon are left in limbo. So much, that no one knows from the text who will triumph in the fight. Insert the mis-translation of Genesis and you have your answer. Mary, of course will triumph, because she is the New Eve, and with the first part of Revelation 12:10 ending the reading from the Lectionary; the role of Mary as Mother of God is affirmed. Further, by being paired with the Gospel of Luke 1:39-56, Mary, the Queen of Heaven is “blessed among women” as she praises the God of Israel whose victory (over the dragon) has manifested his mercy and covenant with his people in the person of the Messiah.
Through identifying Mary as the woman in Revelation 12, no real theological error has occurred. Everything that Mary does always points back to God. In Luke 1:46 she states that she “magnifies the Lord!” Because Christ was born of Mary, and took his flesh from her, she was the first sharer in Christ’s victory over sin on the Cross. Thus through Mary every man, woman, and child also shares in Christ’s victory, in a sense, crushing the head of Satan with their own heel.
Throughout Revelation 12, the woman plays a specific role, everything about her, including the way she appears gives witness to interpretations of who she really is. Jerry L. Sumney in his 2001 work: The Dragon Has Been Defeated – Revelation 12 quotes Eugene Boring as saying: “She is not Mary, the Church, or Israel; rather she is the experience of the people of God at all times. So she is all of these, yet more than any or all of them.” (105) That final line stating that the woman is all of them, yet much more than any or all of them has profound depth to it. If we were to rearrange Boring’s quote and say that the woman is not just the Church, Israel, or the experience of the people of God at all times, she is all of these, yet more than any or all of them; because she is firstly Mary, the Mother of God.
Mary, is often seen as the daughter of Zion, because she is seen as the new Ark of the Covenant. Throughout the Gospels, typology is used, where different parts of them reference the Old Testament. This can be seen for example on the Cross in Mark 15:34 when Christ exclaims: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christ was reciting Psalm 22, for a Jew reading the Gospel they would think back to the Psalm, for us as Christian’s we have lost some of that over time. In Luke 1 the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive and bear a son, not just any Son, but the Son of God, thus a God, thus God himself. A Jew could read this and see how God came and made himself present to the Israelites by the Ark of the Covenant, which was his dwelling place when they would set up camp and as they moved around. Mary, then would receive God in the flesh inside of her, thus she is the perfection of the Ark of the Covenant, as God does not bind himself to breakable stone tablets, but to human flesh itself, impregnated within the womb of Mary.
In Rev. 11:19, John says: “Then God’s temple in Heaven was opened, and the Ark of the Covenant could be seen in the temple…” After this verse the 12th chapter starts, but for John who wrote Revelation, there were no chapters or verses until around the 12th century. For John, there was no division; the text was seen as a whole. If we look at it that way, then after John beheld the Ark of the Covenant in Heaven, he saw the woman clothed with the sun. Mary who is seen as the daughter of Zion, the people of Israel in Zephaniah 3:14-17 and as the Ark of the Covenant for Luke is now seen as the new Ark of the Covenant, a more perfect dwelling place for the woman who “was with child” (Rev. 12:2) “a Son…destined to rule the nations.” (Rev. 12:5) The Ark had been lost for 600 something years by the time John wrote Revelation and now, seeing the Ark again as the woman, bears new light on who she really is.
Mary is then seen as the new Ark, the daughter of Zion, a representative of the people of Israel. She is the New Eve, as she is seen delivering her child in pain (Rev. 12:2) a stipulation because of Eve’s sin in Genesis 3:16. The woman is also seen in Revelation 12:1 as wearing “on her head a crown of twelve stars.” The word for “crown” according to Joy A. Schroeder in her work: Revelation 12: Female figures and Figures of Evil is stephanos. (179) Stephanos, as they were called are used to “describe the reward given to those who are faithful unto death. (Rev. 2:10 & 4:4)” (179) The crown the woman wears then denotes victory, triumph over the enemy, a sign of her faithfulness to what God has asked of her. The crown denotes 12 stars, symbolic of both the 12 Tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles, a symbol of the Christian Church, just beginning their mission at that time. John, a Jewish-Christian, paints the woman as the continuity between the Jewish and Christian faith; “For John, Israel’s true children are the faithful Christians who are persecuted by the dragon… Satan, the ancient enemy of God.” (Schroeder 179)
The woman then is also seen as a symbol of the Church, the people of God as a whole (both Jews and Christians). Christ is often called the New Adam, with Mary being the New Eve; their children cleansed in the blood of the lamb are those members of the Christian church who are being persecuted by “the Roman imperial cult, which opposes the worship of the Lamb of God. (Into the World of the New Testament, Daniel Smith 192) The woman can be seen in some sense then as the Church, the people persecuted by Nero, or the “dragon”, and having to flee into a place prepared for them by God, where after staying true to him they will receive a stephanos of victory, but this argument doesn’t seem to be very valid. How could the woman, give birth to the Son of God, if she is the Church? Maybe it is supposed to mean in the sense of giving witness to Christ and to his message, but the argument seems to have several flaws and lapses in the ways with which to explain it properly. Truly, Mary was with Christ along each part of his earthly life. From his birth to the Wedding at Cana, and then to his death on the Tree, Mary walked beside him and said yes as she gave him repeatedly to the world, to the church.
Mary and Christ’s other “Brothers and sisters” then are the members of the Church, in Revelation 12:17, the dragon is seen as going off to fight against the other offspring of the woman. Mary was given to the Church and the world as their Mother as Christ hung upon the Cross. (John 20:26) her other offspring in Revelation can very well be seen as the persecuted Christians of John’s time who were being killed and persecuted for their faith.
What makes Mary then seem to be the first and best explanation for who the woman of Revelation 12 really is? We have seen a few examples now of how the Old Testament is perfected in the New. Mary is seen as the New Eve, the fulfillment and reclamation of the flesh of woman, tainted by sin in the beginning. Mary is the daughter of Zion, the one chosen by God in whom he would choose to come to dwell. Mary is because of that, the new Ark of the Covenant. She is the perfect Ark, which would not be lost as the old had been, but who would stay with the people. She is seen by John as the new Ark, and the imagery of her bearing a child, delivering him in pain, and the acknowledgement of the child’s opposition to Satan, the dragon are undeniable. Mary must be at least one of the images presented in Revelation 12 as the woman.
The woman’s role as the Church is believable as well. The church as giving birth to Christ, can be argued, but there does seem to be some faulty reasoning behind it, it would be safe to say that the woman cannot solely be the Church. There has to be someone or something else that she is as she cannot stand as an example of the Church only. Nor can she stand as Israel only as she is a perfection of Israel, which is revealed in and through the Church. Mary seems to be the only viable option of who the woman in Revelation is primarily. Yes, she can be seen as the Church, and yes she can be seen as Israel and thus the people of God as a whole, but she can only be seen as those things because of who she is first. Mary, the Mother of God, the New Ark of the Covenant, the daughter of Zion, the Mother and Help of Christians, the one who was assumed into Heaven as evidenced by her stephanos and the wings of an Eagle, which allowed her to fly to her place of safety and comfort.
There are many Marian dogmas and teachings, which are defined or at least described by Revelation 12 and the “Woman clothed with the Sun.” Yes, arguments could be and are made against the woman as being Mary, but it is only because of Mary, that the images take on meaning. According to tradition, after Christ gave Mary to John upon the Cross, John cared for her until she was assumed into Heaven. Because of that, John did not die the death of a Martyr. He lived his life with Mary, learning and being formed by her much in the same way Christ was. Mary was a person John knew and of whom he no doubt thought of as he wrote the Book of Revelation. For John, and for us, the Woman Clothed with the Sun can only and must be firstly Mary, the Virgin Mother of God from Nazareth who gave birth to the Savior of the World, Christ who has defeated sin and death and ended the reign of the dragon among the people of God.
Added for this post: The woman then is clothed not just with the “sun,” but with her “Son.” For Mary always leads us to Christ and points us to him. The Woman clothed with the sun in Revelation 12 is only seen as so many different images, because she is the Woman clothed with the Son.
Ruiz, Jean-Pierre. “The Apocalypse of John and Contemporary Roman Catholic Liturgy.” Worship 68.6 (1994): 482-504. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 20 Apr. 2016
Schroeder, Joy A. “Revelation 12: Female Figures And Figures Of Evil.” Word & World 15.2 (1995): 175-181. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 20 Apr. 2016
Smith, Daniel Lynwood. Into the World of the New Testament: Greco-Roman and Jewish Texts and Contexts. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. Print.
Sumney, Jerry :. “The Dragon has Been Defeated—Revelation 12.” Review & Expositor 98.1 (2001): 103-115. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 20 Apr. 2016
The New American Bible: Translated from the Original Languages with Critical Use of All the Ancient Sources: With the Revised Book of Psalms and the Revised New Testament. IA Falls, IA: World Bible, 1991. Print.