Some time ago, while browsing the lootbusters.com site, I came across an image of Mary, Peter and Paul in a section of Nazi loot. It is a Roman roundel dated to the fourth century. I have no further information about it at all, and I do not know its original location or where it is now. Presumably, it has been lost since the war. (I no longer seem to be able to access the lootbusters site.)

The most interesting feature of this image is the prominence given to Mary. She is flanked by Peter and Paul, who in the post-Acts era were regarded as the two greatest apostles of the church. Yet it is Mary who is in the centre of the image and who is shown much larger than the two male apostles. This artefact is by no means unique in showing Mary as the centre of the church. But here Mary is shown alone, without the infant Jesus. So we can be sure that she is given central billing in her own right, and not because she is holding the baby Jesus.

Mary is holding her arms out in what is known as the Orans pose. It looks like she is preaching, but she is actually praying. The Orans position put an individual in the place of Jesus, imitating a crucifix, as this quote from the early Odes of Solomon shows:

I extended my hands
and hallowed my Lord
for the extension of my hands,
is his sign.
(Ode of Solomon  27 1-2)

I have been fascinated by depictions of Mary in the Orans position ever since coming across an icon of Our Lady of the Sign. This shows Mary in Orans pose with the infant Jesus in a circle in her midriff. It was a striking visual statement of my Shaman Paradigm, with the shaman Mary as “temple” for a spiritual Jesus. So I requested a version of this icon on the cover of my book, The Rock and the Tower. Our Lady of the Sign is a Russian icon but has much earlier antecedents. Indeed, there is a painting of Mary in Orans pose in the catacombs in Rome that is among the very earliest Christian images.

As soon as the Christians were making images, they were making images of Mary. How do we explain this prominence? Under the historical Jesus paradigm, the cult of Mary develops from the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke. These stories are seen as secondary development, with the earliest Gospel, that of Mark, not even mentioning the birth of Jesus. The special role given to Mary in these stories, as a virgin who gave birth to the son of God through conception from the Holy Spirit, results in her becoming an object of veneration second only to Jesus.

There is no evidence to support this account of the development of the cult of Mary. It is a “just so” story, an ad-hoc explanation that has been added to the historical Jesus theory to account for the phenomena that we actually observe, which is the veneration of Mary from an early stage. Indeed, instead of the nativity stories giving rise to the venation of Mary, we can turn this around. The nativity stories give us evidence that the veneration of Mary already existed in the 80s/90s AD. The historical Jesus paradigm cannot explain the cult of Mary in a natural sense, without an ad-hoc explanation. If Jesus were really a crucified Jewish preacher and religious firebrand, would we expect his mother to become the object of worship?

What is interesting about the feelings of reverence and veneration, is that they are persistent quantities. They are passed down from teacher to pupil, and from generation to generation. It is all but impossible to erase a feeling of veneration for a historical figure within a cultural tradition once it is well established, and almost as impossible to start a new feeling of veneration. The natural way of accounting for this veneration of Mary is that it existed from the beginning. It was present when the Jesus movement was a very small group and scaled up with the expansion of the movement. Anyone who joined the movement would have caught this feeling for Mary from those who were already members. Because it originated in the origins of the movement, Christians all over the Roman Empire would share this emotion of reverence.

In The Rock and theTower I suggest that this feeling of reverence occurs because Mary is the shaman who starts the Jesus movement. We can turn again to the Odes of Solomon to find a picture of Mary preaching, which recalls that on the roundel:

However the perfect Virgin stood,
who was preaching and summoning and saying:
Oh you Sons of men, return,
and you their daughters, come.
[….]
Hear me and be saved,
for I am proclaiming unto you the grace of God.
(Ode of Solomon 33 5-6;10)

(Translations of the Odes of Solomon by J.H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Vol. 2)