Friday, May 05, 2017

Stump the Priest: The Feast of the Entry

Question: "Is the story of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple historical?"

There are many questions that we cannot answer as fully as we may wish, simply because we are limited in terms of the information that is available to us, and I think this is one of those questions. We have all the information that we really need... just not all that we may wish we had.

One point that I think is often misunderstood about this is that this tradition is not based on the Protoevangelium of James -- that text reflects to a large extent the oral tradition of the Church which preceded it. Were this text our primary source, it would have been included in the New Testament. We should instead look to our services, and to the writings of the Fathers as our best sources of information on this question.

Looking at this question from what we know of history, it is certainly unlikely that the Virgin Mary literally entered into the Holy of Holies of the Temple -- which was the most sacred inner sanctuary of the Temple, that only the High Priest was allowed to enter. If this did literally happen, it would have been something that would have, by divine intervention, remained hidden from most people,

The fact that it was unlikely, does not mean that it did not literally happen. Miracles are by definition unlikely occurrences. However, I think it is possible that the services use the phrase "Holy of Holies" as a more general reference to the Temple as a whole, and I think they do this in part because the Holy of Holies was a foreshadowing of the Lord's incarnation in the Virgin Mary's womb. In a very real sense, she became the Holy of Holies in a way that was more of a reality than the literal earthly Holy of Holies ever was. God was given flesh in her womb, and dwelled there bodily.

What is not unlikely about this story is the idea of a female going to live in the Temple precincts. We have an example in Luke 2:36-37 of a woman who lived in exactly that way:
"And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; and she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day."
Furthermore, we know that the Prophetess Anna was not a unique example of such a woman from the Old Testament. In Exodus we have a very interesting, but brief mention of such women who served at the Tabernacle, which was  the Tent version of what became the fixed Temple in Jerusalem:
"He made the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting" (Exodus 38:8 NRSV).
Interestingly, in the Septuagint Greek, the word "served" is translated  "fasted," which was probably a paraphrase intended to describe their primary activity, which was to pray and fast (as seen in the case of the Prophetess Anna in Luke), though they no doubt had other duties related to the Temple.

And these women are mentioned again in 1st Samuel, in the context of a description of the abuses the sons of the Priest Eli engaged in:
"Now Eli was very old. He heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting" (1 Samuel 2:22).
One thing that this passage indicates is that these women were likely not all widows in their 80's, for Eli's sons to be seducing them. And it was especially egregious that they slept with these women, because they were women who were dedicated to serving the Lord.

The Hebrew word translated as "served" is very interesting. It is tsâbâ' (צבא) which has the same root as the word "Sabaoth," as in "Lord of Sabaoth" -- which means "Lord of Hosts" or more literally "Lord of the Armies". This word means "to serve," like a soldier, in troops... and is often translated as "to fight", and it is similarly used in reference to the male Levites who also served in the Tabernacle and the Temple. And so this refers to a band of women who were dedicated to the service of the Lord, and who served at the entrance of the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple.

Unfortunately, I am limited by the reference material I have available to me, and it is striking that the Protestant sources I have generally show a surprising lack of curiosity about who these women were, or what they did. However, Brevard Childs's commentary on Exodus says:
"This verse, which has no earlier correspondent, has evoked much discussion as to its meaning. Who were the 'ministering women'? Why is  their work described by the verb sb' which denotes an organized service like the professional Levites? Some commentators have suggested a cleaning and repairing service, others singing and dancing. The only parallel is I Sam. 2.22 which is of little real help. Driver suggests that the verse implies that the service of the tabernacle had already been under way. There is insufficient evidence to decide whether older historical material is involved or later midrashic exegesis. The literary form would favor the first alternative" (The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974), p. 636).
The Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos is undoubtedly part of our Tradition, and we know that we are celebrating both an historical and theological truth in this feast. However, when it comes to hymnody in particular, how literally we should take what is said will vary -- that is the nature of any kind of poetry, including much of the poetic material we find in Scripture. For example, the Prophet Isaiah, in foretelling the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian captivity says:
"For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands" (Isaiah 55:12).
This prophecy foretold the joy of the return of the Israelites to their land, but we do not need to believe that they were literally greeted with singing mountains and clapping trees for this to be true.

Likewise, in the Akathist to the Theotokos, when it speaks of the Archangel Gabriel speaking to the Theotokos, I don't think anyone would argue that this is intended to be a stenographic account of was actually said at the Annunciation. But in the form of the poetry of the Akathist, we are given a truthful reflection of the meaning of that historical event.

For More Information, see:

Homily on the Entry of the Theotokos, by St. Gregory Palamas

Mary in the Protevangelium of James: A Jewish Woman in the Temple? (Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 53 (2013) 551–578), by Megan Nutzman

Did Jewish Temple Virgins Exist and was Mary a Temple Virgin?, by Dr Taylor Marshall