The Virgin Mary on Trial

431px-Alfonso_boschi,_presentazione_di_maria_al_tempio
The Trial by Bitter Water showing Mary on the Temple Steps with the High Priest. Adultery “…also prevailed to such an extent that a new halakha (regulation) was recommended by Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai to abolish the ancient custom of the “water of bitterness” observed in the Temple, namely on the steps leading from the Women’s Court to the beautiful Nikanor Gate. This was notorious as the place where women suspected of adultery were tested. According to ancient law (Num. 5, 18-28), such a woman was given the “water of bitterness” to drink – a potion mixed with cereal offering, over which was pronounced a traditional curse. If she were guilty, “the water that brings the curse shall enter into her…and the woman shall become an execration among her people.” In addition, the judges could wear down the woman’s opposition to admitting guilt by making her go up and down the steps to the gate. (Mishna Sota 9).Footnote 562[b] (Wars V.IX.395 Gaayla Cornfeld, General Editor, Josephus, the Jewish War, Zondervan,Michigan 1982.)
Having just noted the trials and legal debates around the abuse of the virgins Mariamne III and Herodias in the last post, it is worth mentioning that there is a late tradition that Mary herself was also put on trial. The story surfaced in a Middle Ages document I have quoted before: The Protoevangelion claiming to be written by Mary’s second son James. The author tried to answer every question still “out there” about Mary; for instance, we learn parents’ names for her, Anne and Joachim, and the story of her being raised as a Temple Virgin in Jerusalem, and about her trial by “bitter water” before the High Priest for being defiled.

The Trial by Bitter Water

The Trial by Bitter Water is an ancient ordeal found in the Old Testament where God or Nature makes the determination of a woman’s guilt when a husband or betrothed thought that his betrothed/wife had “cheated” on him but he couldn’t prove it…[i]

Then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall…set her before the LORD: and the (High) priest shall…uncover the woman’s head…and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse…and when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass that if she be defiled…that the water that enters into her shall become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot; and the woman shall be a curse among her people. And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed. (Book of Numbers 5:18-31)

According to rabbinic tradition, the trial took place on the steps in the Temple leading to the Women’s Court[ii]. In the Protoevangelium, Mary was a virgin dancing on the same Temple steps, perhaps a ghost of a persistent rumor about her being there. The author also does not understand what the trial entails as he has both Joseph and Mary receive the bitter water. The author is following Matthew’s birth story featuring Joseph. (1-22)

13. And she was in her sixth month; and, behold, Joseph came back …and…discovered that she was big with child. And he…wept bitterly, saying:…I received her a virgin out of the temple of the Lord, and I have not watched over her…Who has done this evil thing…and defiled the virgin?…Joseph…called Mary, and said to her…Why have you brought low your soul…? And she wept bitterly, saying: I am innocent….[iii]

Joseph then determined to “put her aside” quietly and in the night the angel of the Lord came to him and persuaded Joseph to keep her…but then…

15…Annas the scribe…saw that Mary was with child. And he ran away to the priest…and said to him…Send officers, and you will find the virgin with child… And the officers…brought her along with Joseph to the tribunal. And the priest said: Mary, why have you done this?…And she wept bitterly, saying: As the Lord my God lives, I am pure before Him…And Joseph said: As the Lord lives, I am pure concerning her…16…And the priest said…: I will give you to drink of the water of the ordeal of the Lord…And the priest took the water, and gave Joseph to drink and sent him away to the hill-country; and he returned unhurt. And he gave to Mary also to drink, and sent her away to the hill-country; and she returned unhurt. And all the people wondered that sin did not appear in them…

There is a lot of magic in the stories that I cut out for word count considerations…but I will go into one crucial example here; the “Dust Out of the Temple.” The High Priest has the option to…

…(take) some dust out of the temple, (if any happened to be there,) and put a little of it into the vial, and gave it her to drink…(Antiquities of the Jews III.XI.6.)

If the woman was

…unjustly accused, she conceived with child, and brought it to perfection in her womb in the tenth month; but if she had broken her faith of wedlock to her husband, and had sworn falsely before God, she died in a reproachful manner; her thigh fell off from her, and her belly swelled with a dropsy. (Antiquities of the Jews III.XI.6.)

I am not the only one who sees the “dust of the temple” as an abortifacient or as a poison given at the discretion of the High Priest.

Several commentaries on the Bible maintain that the ordeal is to be applied in the case of a woman who has become pregnant, allegedly by her lover. One reading is that the ordeal results in a prolapsed uterus if she is guilty. Some interpretations of the ordeal describe the bitter potion as an abortifacient, which induces a purposeful abortion or miscarriage if the woman is pregnant with another man’s child, and which confirms her innocence if no miscarriage is observed.[iv]

Two Trials

While Mariamne III in Josephus was more or less the subject of two trials—Pheroras’ wife’s trial for her abuse and the debate by the sages over how long a pre-puberty virgin could have sex and still be a virgin—oddly, the Protevangelium also includes a second form of trial for Mary. Again, Joseph is the narrator. (19, 20) When it is her time, he brings her to a cave in Bethlehem and sets out to find a “Hebrew’ midwife to deliver the baby. One is just then happening by but does not believe the virgin birth story Joseph tells her. But she agrees to enter the cave in time to see a “luminous cloud” that turns out to be the baby Jesus beginning to manifest himself and settle at Mary’s breast. The midwife is overcome with joy and steps out of the cave in time to meet a woman named Salome happening by and tells her …

20. I have a strange sight to relate to you: a virgin has brought forth—Then said Salome…unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth. And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show yourself; for no small controversy has arisen about you. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire. 

These “trials” are not evidence of anything, I know. Just one more little bit of circumstantial coincidence. Further, if such a trial as this last one were required—and events around Mariamne III may require it, as we will see—the one who might, perform such a trial would be her grandmother Salome. “No small controversies” were in the air around Mariamne III…as we have seen…in the last days of Herod the King and his sister Salome will be called upon to perform other acts for her dying brother and for his legacy.

[i] See Jewish Women’s Archive’s article on “Sotah,” the name given to a woman who undergoes the trial. .

[ii] See side bar under picture.

[iii] Protoevangelium continues with: And she said: “As the Lord my God lives, I do not know whence it is to me.” It struck me how similar Mary’s words in the Protoevangelion are to the widow words who urged her seven sons to martyrdom in II Maccabees 7:1-41 “I do not know how you appeared in my womb.”

[iv] See Wikipedia for an excellent well-footnoted entry on the trial. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ordeal_of_the_bitter_water

2 thoughts on “The Virgin Mary on Trial

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