The Ark Returns to the Temple

One of the most devastating events in the history of ancient Israel was the capture of the Ark of the Covenant by the Philistines. In scenes almost reminiscent of Steven Spielburg, however, plagues began to befall the Philistines and they sent word to Israel to please come take their Ark back. The story of its return includes its arrival in Jerusalem and King David’s rather problematic dancing in the streets to welcome it (he apparently did so while naked). The meaning of all of that is fodder for Old Testament scholarly debates. It was, however, a Big Event.

The Ark was lost a second time when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. What they did with the Ark is anybody’s guess. The Ethiopians claim to have it in the village of Aksum, with a strangely cogent tale of how it might have wound up there. Since it remains hidden, it is still a matter of guess-work as to whether it is truly that Ark.

There is a different Ark that has its own story regarding the Temple. It is this Ark that comes into view in the Feast of the Entrance of the Virgin into the Temple (Nov. 21 – Dec. 4 Old Style). The story of this event comes from the Infancy Gospel of St. James, a book that was never part of the canon of Scripture, but whose stories have come down into the liturgical life of the Church and created some of the most endearing images of Christmas (such as the ox and the ass at the manger).

That story is of the child Mary being presented by her parents (her father was a Levitical priest) for service in the Temple. For many centuries, scholars dismissed the story by saying that there were no virgins serving in the Temple. More recent research has suggested that this conclusion is incorrect (much more attention is being given to Second Temple Judaism these days). Nonetheless, the presentation of Mary in the Temple is a feast rich in symbolism.

For this virgin child is the true Ark of God, of which the earlier one, wrought of gold, that rested in the Holy of Holies, was but a type. For, unlike that Ark, she would bear in her womb, God-in-the-flesh. The Temple she entered had no Ark within it – the Babylonian Captivity had either destroyed it or left it lost (I suspect the former). The story of the original Tabernacle of Moses, and the First Temple of Solomon, had stories of the glory of God filling them at their inauguration. The Second Temple had no such stories – it was the second terrible fulfillment of the prophecy related in 1 Sam. 4:21, when the daughter-in-law of the priest, Eli, gave birth to a son, dying in the process. In her last words she named the child “Ichabod” (“the glory is gone”), for she had heard the news of the Ark’s capture by the Philistines.

The child Mary enters a Temple in which the glory of God has departed. Without fanfare, she is the True Ark entering the Temple without notice, just as she will eventually give birth to her God/Son. In her, the glory has returned.  The Infancy Gospel of James describes her being taken into the Holy of Holies by her kinsman, Zachariah.

The Old Testament, according to the Fathers, was the “Shadow” of the Truth. The Ark of gold, though wondrous no doubt, was still but an object of human making. The Cherubim that overshadowed the Mercy Seat (it’s lid) were made of gold. They did not speak. But this child would speak face-to-face with an archangel, and carry the Hope of all creation within her womb. That Hope was the Manna, she was the jar. She was the Lampstand, He was the Light.

“All generations will call me blessed,” she sang. And so we do!

More honorable than the cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you!



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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55 responses to “The Ark Returns to the Temple”

  1. Scott Avatar

    Just the title. That’s as far as I’ve gotten, but I have to say I immediately understood as if scales had fallen from my eyes. Thanks for pointing out another “obvious” thing, Father.

  2. Janine Avatar

    Amen. Thank you Father. It saddens me that this beauty is lost on so many.

  3. Byron Avatar

    Glory to God in All Things, indeed!

  4. Janine Avatar

    Second thought: as it was once totally lost on me, fairly chief among the clueless 🙂

  5. MamaV Avatar

    Glory to God!

  6. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. Despite many years of religious education, it has only been in recent years that I have gained some understanding of the profound “shadows” that the Old Testament Scripture offers regarding what was to come in the New. The image of Mary as the Ark is very beautiful.

    I am confused about how Orthodoxy regards the Theotokos vs. how Catholics regard her in terms of her purity and sinlessness. I know that Orthodoxy has a different view of what the RCC calls “original sin” and hence does not hold to the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Yet I know that Orthodox greatly honor the Mother of God.

    By no means am I trying to start an argument as, frankly, I find it all rather puzzling. I am simply trying to deepen my understanding of this mystery. If it is too much to try to explain here, I would appreciate a recommended resource. Online searches do not always produce a clear result of what either church teaches.

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We believe Mary to have been without sin – in the sense that she never intentionally (or unintentionally) sinned. However, you’re correct, we do not generally think of original sin in quite the same way – at least a way that was once common in the West – as an inherited guilt. However, we tend to think of sin and death as synonymous. Thus, everyone born is “immaculate conceived” – we have not contracted some sort of guilt from our parents, much less from a sin of concupiscence in their having sex. Rather, we are born into a world of death. Mary was mortal and we teach that she truly died. We do believe that she was bodily assumed into heaven afterwards – but, that would have been a resurrection.

    These things, I think, are good for meditation and for pondering in our hearts the wonderful grace of God. We do not do well when these becomes points of argumentation.

  8. Janine Avatar

    Father, I have an off-topic question which I think you can help me with; at least I will discuss it with a professor but I feel that you would be a good person to ask. So, I hope you’ll bear with me. As we discussed in some comments before, I’m taking a class on Christianity and Violence. In reading on the Crusades, it seems clear that for the Crusaders, there was an assumption that if they went on crusade to Jerusalem, it was a way of remitting or doing away with their sins. Just that simple, following what we think Pope Urban II said, as that speech has been pieced together from witness reports, and not totally clearly. My question is this: I don’t ask to argue, but as an Orthodox. I don’t understand how one gets from metanoia/repentance (plus confession) in terms of dealing with past sin, to “do X and your sins will be taken away.” I wonder if you are in a position to explain this to me. I also don’t know if there was /is an Orthodox parallel.

    Sorry for off-topic, feel free to disregard/not post
    And thank you for your patience
    (I will admit, I tend to blame Augustine as with the question on immaculate conception, but I digress. Again fee free to edit or discard as the case may be!)

  9. Janine Avatar

    “We are born into a world of death” — I will have to remember that. Thank you for it.

  10. SUSAN HANCOCK Avatar

    Wonderful, wonderful ,wonderful! Thank you.

  11. Isaac Avatar

    “More recent research has suggested that this conclusion is incorrect (much more attention is being given to Second Temple Judaism these days).”

    Can you help me find this research? I would enjoy reading it.

  12. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Thank you Father…a mystery and great wonder, the life and love of the Theotokos.
    So many types of Her in the OT.
    To use a biblical word, I “marvel” at how as a Protestant I unquestionably fell for false representations given Mary as really nothing special, on par with the belief that Saints should not be venerated. When I became Orthodox no one had to tell me I had been taught wrong. I knew. I regretted it, and I remember I asked Her to forgive me. And very much wanted to know Her. So I just began to pray, and talk, to Her, asking for Her to show me (in my own words, whatever they were…). That was four years ago. This “knowing” takes time, just as getting to know another person you want develop a relationship with takes time. So it’s ongoing, but it is a joy. I look to Her as a child would look to her mother, and as a woman who would look to an honorable woman, for guidance. Not to mention, Her intercession. All the while digesting more and more that She is more honorable than the Cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim (etc). It is amazing. But over and above, I ask Her to show me Her Son…because you can’t know One without the Other.

    I have drew near to two particular saints in the past year, and I believe She had something to do with this…that She “sent” them. They are female. I needed this. Don’t need to go into why…but it was needed. Just like I needed to get to know Her.

    All I can say is I’m very thankful…so much to give thanks for. It’s endless…

  13. nancy Avatar

    Such a lovely painting of the little Theotokos going up the steps of the temple.
    Obviously not an Eastern icon. Who is the painter?

  14. Karen Avatar

    Thank you for this!

    I second Isaac’s request for reference to resources on 2nd Temple Judaism.

  15. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Thanks, Fr. Stephen. I think the RCC teaches about original sin a bit differently now than it used to – not having changed the doctrine necessarily but explaining more clearly through Scripture the tie between sin/death and redemption. I recall the concrete imagery that was taught in my childhood: that there was a “stain” on our souls that needed to be cleansed. I don’t recall associating guilt with the stain but it was a lead-in to why we needed to be baptized, i.e. to remove the stain. It sounds odd repeating this now but, to a young child, it made a certain sense.

    If I might try your patience with one more question: in Orthodoxy, is the practice of infant baptism associated with having been born into a world of death – or is it practiced for a different reason with a different meaning?

  16. Meskerem Avatar

    Father, blessed feast! The Holy Mother is in the Holy of Holies to resemble She replaced the lost Ark in all Orthodox churches that’s where we see Her. But your topic scared me a little thinking Oh no!now the Israelites went and got it from Ethiopia until I read further. It’s where it’s supposed to be, it’s the Lord’s Will, Father. We (Ethiopians) have certain rules and Traditions to keep it the way we are keeping it. The rules are for a reason too, things have happened before. Not showing it is the best guidance we have from the Lord. Believe me when others claim we don’t have it we are heartfelt happy since that way no one will bother. We had suffered wars and bad rulers who burned churches and Holy items, but with the Lord’s guidance and care it is still safe. When Christians ( non-Orthodox) say untrue claims or reason their unbeliefs, we understand since they do not know traditions. I wish other Orthodox learned more and write about the true history though. Unfortunately it’s non- Orthodox who dare to try. One thing, did you know the last King did a church for the ark and the name of the church is dedicated to the HolyMother Mary. How appropriate.

  17. Meg Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for such a beautiful post. I hope you have a blessed feast!

  18. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Isaac and Karen,
    Father I’m sure knows more references, but if I may, Fr Stephen De Young’s blog The Whole Counsel of God has a lot on Second Temple Judaism. Also the Marquette site, Jewish Roots of Eastern Christian Mysticism, I think you’ll find quite interesting.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Paula, your route is similar to mine. It works. Of course I also love the Akathist to the Mother of God. So many functions, so much poetry.

  20. Jp Esnouf Avatar
    Jp Esnouf

    How beautiful Fr Stephen!

    11 months ago i would have never even considered Mary to be of any importance other than “available space”. Now i know the Gospel is void of beauty without her – even my life.

    I have a small Icon of Her on my desk at work, while reading this post i was looking at her and felt an overwhelming presence. She is not just a historical biblical character to me anymore, Glory to God.

    Your previous post (Venerating Icons – It’s so much other than you think), together with (John of Damascus: In defense of Icons) has given so much clarity on veneration and worship (and several other things), i feel my heart making more “space” for God. Its beyond words. Its seems Orthodoxy functions best in silence, silence of mind, silence of reason, and silence of necessity – (trust) – well at least for me.

    Questions i thought were important seem to have become, how can i put it, “not real questions”. It feels more like a hunger and a thirst in me. I don’t ask why am i hungry, or why am i thirsty, i just am, and i know it is mercy from God. His table is so richly spread, and the crumbs of modern secular Christianity has lead me to Orthodoxy. I still catch myself eating crumbs, but His steadfast love and mercy always lifts me back up and seats me back at the table. Christ is risen!

    “I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks” – Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

    “More honorable than the cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, without corruption you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you!”

    Truly, when we honor Gods friends, we are honored in return. So humbling.

    Thank you


  21. Dino Avatar

    St Gregory Palamas’s theological homily on the Entrance of the Theotokos makes the point of Her silent dwelling in the Temple being the ultimate ‘hesychastic’ method . This pregnant silence remained a key characteristic of the Mother of us all, written down in Scripture.
    Despite the many words that various theological Fathers have left us, the definitive theological mode is this silence.
    It’s why all the patristic writings put together cannot compare to a few moments of that quiet inner heart of the Theotokos in the Holy of Holies that brings about the incarnation of the Divine Logos in her womb.

  22. Steve Avatar


    It’s by the Italian Renaissance painter Paulo Ucello

  23. Janine Avatar

    Dino, wow. I’ll have to find that Palamas homily. And it speaks so much of her. I have gone through some very difficult struggles with family members. So often it has been prayer with her that I needed to turn to. Every once in awhile, I would just an image of her, putting her finger to her lips as if to tell me, better not to speak, quiet is better. It was good counsel. In your image I recall the pregnant silence of the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters, or the holy flame that engulfed the bush but did not burn. Thank you!

    And thanks to all for your comments.

  24. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Oh I agree with you, Dino and Janine, about St Gregory’s homily! It is beautiful…a complete overview of salvation history. You will quickly notice that if you took Mary out of that plan, it would no longer be speaking of the fullness of the Faith. This homily praises the fullness of God’s love for mankind…and Mary has that love for us. The Son, Her Son, shares her humanity, that in His Person humanity, through Mary, may be saved. Her role, if diminished, entirely diminishes the truth of salvation in Christ. She was chosen before the ages to be the Queen of Heaven…the King’s daughter! God be praised!
    Here’s a link to the homily (scroll down a bit, it’s after the intro):

    Janine and Dino, you noted this holy silence. Janine, I love the vision of the Spirit hovering over the waters and the fire of the burning bush! Dino, I am glad you said
    “all the patristic writings put together cannot compare to a few moments of that quiet inner heart of the Theotokos in the Holy of Holies…” because if I am given even one moment of inner silence, that is a miracle in itself! But even that one moment of grace is enough to carry us through these present circumstances we find ourselves.

    Oh Most Holy Theotokos, Queen of Heaven, in the strength of the Spirit in which you dwell, and Your love for all your children, through your intercessions, save us!

  25. Janine Avatar

    Thank you, Paula. God bless!

  26. shannon Avatar

    Without the Ark to place in it, why did the returning exiles even include a Holy of Holies, if there were nothing to place inside it? And if the Second Temple lacked the Shekhinah glory of God, why did Jesus still call it His “Father’s house”, if God was not dwelling there still? And if the Ark (man’s “intersection” with God) was gone, why was the Temple curtain rent in two at the Crucifixion? Not doubts, just real questions revealing my ignorance.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Well, it’s not like there was nothing else in the Temple.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Isaac, I suggest looking at Fr. Stephen De Young’s blog site. He does a lot of 2nd temple work.

  29. MamaV Avatar

    I was blessed to hear that homily by St Gregory Palamas read at trapeza while I was staying at a women’s monastery. Beautiful.

  30. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Fr Stephen,
    Thank you for this wonderful description of iconography in your writing about the ark which is the Theotokos, returning to the temple. There is such rich depth here thank you!

    I appreciate Mary’s questions as well as Dino’s and Paula’s references to St Gregory’s homily.

    A very helpful book on the Theotokos is “The Orthodox Veneration of Mary the Birthgiver of God” by St John Maximovitch. If I recall he describes the distinctions between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology among other topics. (It’s been a few years since I read it)

    From my (not always accurate) memory: in the Orthodox theology, there is an emphasis on the Theotokos’ humanity, which contrasts with the ‘immaculate conception’ of the Roman Catholic theology. In my own conversion and catechism, I was taught that this distinction was very important to the meaning of both incarnation and Trinity in Orthodoxy. In my own interpretation the emphasis of distinction has less to do with the theology of sin. (Father please correct me as needed)

    The ‘need for’ and continued perpetuation of the ‘immaculate conception’ involving the Theotokos in western theology, however, suggests that the perception of sin in western theology (that is, as it is expressed in Roman Catholic theology), is still functioning as a distinction as well. And this does have to do with the continued misunderstandings of what sin is.

    I sincerely love my brothers and sisters in Christ who are devout Roman Catholics, however I don’t think it is helpful to inquirers or to catechumens entering Orthodoxy to obfuscate these distinctions. I make this point for the sake of those desiring to have a clear understanding (including myself) and not to make arguments.

    Dear Fr Stephen, if I’m remiss I apologize and ask for correction.

  31. Susan Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, Thank you for this beautiful reflection on the ark and the Theotokos. Is it possible that the story of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the temple was part of the Tradition of the church and that the writer of the Gospel of James merely incorporated it? I have not read the Gospel of James, but have heard that some of the material contained in it is false, that it was not authored by St. James, and was rejected by The Church.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, I think it’s entirely possible that there are authentic traditions found in the Infancy Gospel of James. Although it seems to be written somewhere in the 2nd century – that’s actually quite early. Matthew and Luke contain infancy material that is not in St. Mark’s gospel or in St. John’s. We have no need to assume that those authors don’t know that material – they simply chose not to use it. But, we can say with assurance that material on the infancy of Christ is part of the earliest layer of the Tradition (witness Matthew and Luke). The relationship between the Gospel of James and those earlier gospels is simply not known.

    What we know, if that largely all of the material in St. James Infancy Gospel finds its way into the Feasts and teaching of the Church. That’s more than enough for me. Protestantism worries about history – because it has a mistaken notion of history – I think. Thus, if they feel that it’s possible to question historical reliability – then somethings not trustworthy. That’s a dumb idea.

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “Thus, if they feel that it’s possible to question historical reliability – then somethings (sic) not trustworthy. That’s a dumb idea.” Father Stephen. A hearty AMEN!

    History is a living, breathing participation with other human beings sharing in the Providence of God’s grace and mercy across time and space despite our many obvious failings. Our interpretations of it on the other hand always reflect our own bias. The Holy Spirit can even overcome that if we allow Him to.

    I have studied and explored history all of my life, through that study I began to see some of the workings of Jesus Christ and still do but I have no concrete idea of what the heck “historical reliability” is. That depends so much on who is asking the questions. Time and facts are so mutable. Only the person of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and God the Father do not change.

  34. Karen Avatar

    Is the “Infancy Gospel of James” another name for “The Protoevangelion of James”?

  35. bob Avatar

    Where does the idea come from that historicity is something we can discard? That’s a very dangerous thought. Dumb? Who taught this? The story of the Theotokos in the temple simply is not history. Fr. Thomas Hopko came as close to being serious about this item in the Church year as I have seen. I’d suggest listening to his Ancient Faith broadcast on this. When someone insists on hand waving and feelings in place of history they are close to venerating James Pike and John Spong. History matters. Non historical things need to be recognized for what they aren’t.

  36. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You misunderstand and misinterpret my comment. I said:

    “Protestantism worries about history – because it has a mistaken notion of history – I think. Thus, if they feel that it’s possible to question historical reliability – then somethings not trustworthy. That’s a dumb idea.”

    This does not suggest that historicity is unimportant. It suggests (and says!) that the Protestant treatment of the question is wrong (and dumb).

    Protestant critical theory is reductionist. “If the reliability of something can be questioned – it is not true.” That’s the sort of thing that Spong used all the time. And it’s dumb. It presumes that the nature of the written record, or the place of something in the Church, is a trail of historical proof. It assumes that those who went before us were as anxious about historical proofs as modern Protestants are.

    The ancients were quite capable of making a “provable” case as anyone, when they wanted to. St. Paul, in 1Cor 15, made pretty much an air-tight case when we presented the eye-witness testimony to the resurrection of Christ. He did so, because those to whom he was writing were having problems in that area and it needed to be presented to them that way.

    But, Scripture is largely written to believers – and it’s not trying to argue a case in front of us. The critics like Spong (he had such a small mind), assume that anything not written as an air-tight proof must be trying to hide something or make something up. That is nonsense, and dumb.

    “Hand waving and feelings in place of history” – I’m not sure who you’re referring to – surely not to me.

    I think the case for most of the material in the Protoevangelium is pretty solid – but not because it’s got some air-tight historicity character to it. The protoevangelium did not enjoy that kind of confidence in the early Church – it was questioned (as a document). However, the consensus of the Church on the reliability of some of its central features is clearly manifest in their liturgical/dogmatic place within the Church’s life. That life is my life – and, as I said, “It’s enough for me.” I don’t go and stand outside with the liberal Protestantants and try to demand that historical writing conform to some sort of made-up set of rules for historical reliability.

    I’ve had conversations with Fr. Tom on this topic – I don’t think there’s any space between how I see this and how he did.

    By the way, please be careful in suggesting someone (like myself) is “venerating Pike and Spong.” I fought that stuff long and hard and have scars to show for it(including Spong to his face). Don’t leap to conclusions. Thank you.

  37. Karen Avatar


    I believe Fr. Tom is the author of this article:

    To acknowledge the basis of this Feast is not (directly) attested in the biblical record is simply to acknowledge it belongs to the wider Tradition of the Church. The latter is attested in the Fathers’ treatment of the OT prophecies and in the Liturgy of the Church.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good note. I should emphasize that it is not merely the conclusions of people like Spong and Pike that are wrong, it is the methodology and assumptions by which they reached those conclusions. It is that which I declared to be “dumb.”

    On the other hand, for many years, people have had to tolerate the nonsense of the bibilical/historical critics and are, no doubt, wearied by the fighting. That tends to make people see enemies where they should see friends. The battles of what is historical have, oftimes, been little more than children arguing, “Is too!” “Is not!” in which case nothing is gained.

    When I have written on the nature of history and its relationship to doctrine and Scripture, I have sought to break free of that interminable argument (whose parameters were set by the critics) and actually dismantle their entire project. Apparently, as I’ve seen from time to time, not everyone sees or understands what I’m up to.

    It is, nonetheless, quite painful to be accused of doing the very thing which you’ve fought for 40 years. I feel tired.

  39. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bob, what do you mean by historicity?

  40. Isaac Avatar

    Fr Stephen, you said:

    >Protestant critical theory is reductionist. “If the reliability of something can be questioned – it is not true.” That’s the sort of thing that Spong used all the time. And it’s dumb. It presumes that the nature of the written record, or the place of something in the Church, is a trail of historical proof. It assumes that those who went before us were as anxious about historical proofs as modern Protestants are.

    >The ancients were quite capable of making a “provable” case as anyone, when they wanted to. St. Paul, in 1Cor 15, made pretty much an air-tight case when we presented the eye-witness testimony to the resurrection of Christ. He did so, because those to whom he was writing were having problems in that area and it needed to be presented to them that way.

    >But, Scripture is largely written to believers – and it’s not trying to argue a case in front of us. The critics like Spong (he had such a small mind), assume that anything not written as an air-tight proof must be trying to hide something or make something up. That is nonsense, and dumb.

    Do you have any suggested reading on this approach the scripture and historicity? A general counter to the “Protestant” and historical-critical methodologies? I feel it would be a great blessing to me to read more about this approach, if you know of a work that fleshes it out more.

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Off the top of my head, I don’t know of anything that does this at the moment. Someone among our readers might be able to suggest something. Orthodoxy has been somewhat weak in “Biblical” studies – for a variety of reasons. My own influences come from a variety of sources that I’ve pulled together in my own understanding as I’ve tried to find a way to think about these things.

    The historical/critical method and its assumptions have largely reigned unquestioned in academic circles for a very long time. Some sources that I found helpful were “post-modern,” i.e. questioning the truth claims of so-called objectivist historical studies. For example, it was long called the “science of historical-critical studies.”

    Stanely Hauerwas, whom I studied under at Duke, once said that he felt it was his job to “put the Bible-boys out of business.” What he meant by that was to force Bibilical scholars to quit hiding behind false claims of a “science” of historical/critical work, and admit that what they were actually doing was theology. And, to force them to examine the theological assumptions behind their work.

    It’s interesting, for example, that a real primary concern of the Church when the canon was taking shape had to do with whether a book was actually read in the Church or not – was it an accepted part of the lectionary? There were debates, even then, about various books and historical questions. Who wrote Hebrews? for example. (I think it was St. Paul).

    But the Scriptures have a liturgical function and that is their primary setting – something ignored by the historical/critical crowd. My Orthodox experience has been that it’s almost impossible to really understand the “passion narrative” unless it is heard in the context of Holy Week/Pascha. It has to be “walked through” to be understood. The hymns and such of the Church provide a running commentary around those Scriptures.

    But, having said that, the Scriptures come to be best understood in the context of the worshipping Church, from which we go forth to live, and to which we return, over and over. The Divine Liturgy is the life of the Church, par excellence! Historical/critical studies abstract the Scriptures from the life of the Church and read them as though they had the same context as the daily newspaper. It presumes that there is a sort of “secularized truth” that is the true measure of things.

    The Holy Eucharist is the truth (on a spoon!). I do not want to think like a secularized, modern man when I read the Scriptures. This is not to deny historical questions – but those questions for me differ from those asked by a secularist. There are secular/historical questions that I find uninteresting – sort of like wondering what size shoes Jesus wore.

    Slowly acquiring the mind of the Church (the nous) includes losing something of the secularized habits we have inherited in our culture.

    I’ll continue to ponder any resources that might be useful…

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Isaac, I do not have a single source either but having read history all of my life(in the old meaning of the word “read”) and been Orthodox over 30 years, it is essential to look at history differently than most are used to. History is not linear nor is it strictly “factual”.

    As Father points out the historical meaning of events and things is dependent, primarily, on two things: the context from which some past thing or event is evaluated AND the context in which the thing or event lived.

    The interrelationship between the two combined with the evaluators’s bias is the essence of the study of history. Within all of that “facts” are frequently mutable.

    There is no such thing as scientific history. The attempt to make a science out of history is relatively new, a bit over 100 years or so and that attempt is interwoven with the attempt to analyze the Bible as an historical document separate from the community within which in was created.

    The Orthodox understanding of the interrelationship between God and man plus the living reality of the Orthodox worshipping community is the context in which the Bible was assembled: including what was included and what was not included.

    Father said years ago on this blog that it is impossible to understand the Bible fully outside the Orthodox Church. That is true because of the genuine nature of historicity.

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    BTW, a small concrete point to illustrate what I mean. The theology one holds and believes will highly influence how one interprets the Bible. All theology has within it a specific understanding of time among many other things.

  44. Mark Northey Avatar
    Mark Northey

    Father, can you help give shape to the way we should trust most of the details from the Protoevangelium are historically accurate? I am trying to understand this more, as it’s clearly deeply important in our Tradition (having a Feast celebrating it).
    But I read another blog post claiming it’s mostly inaccurate, with some clear biblical inconsistencies (e.g. Zacharia was not high priest; the protoev. gets the date of herod’s infantacide wrong; no girl could actually stay in the holy of holies; there were no ‘virgin attendants’ at the hebrew temple (this is an extrapolation from pagan temples); etc.)

    Can you please help address some of this, and help people like me who are totally open to the perspective you are sharing, better understand how we can ‘think’ about history, to make room for some of this?

    Thank you.

  45. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    “what size shoes Jesus wore”…had to laugh at that Father!

    After reading your response to Isaac, I am not sure if I understand properly what he is looking for, though now I see he asked about historical-critical methods (which I would have trouble defining). My answer comes from a different angle. I thought he may be alluding to the beginnings of modern secularization (tradition replaced by scientific method; literalism).
    In any case, with the risk of misunderstanding, I offer my thoughts:
    Isaac…you may want to start by using the blog’s search box and enter “history vs tradition”. I received 29 results. I also entered “history and tradition” and received over 200 results.
    In addition, Father has mentioned several authors who have written about the significant changes that took place back in the 15-1600’s. One that comes to mind is Eamon Duffy. Also, Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor have written about the impact of secular culture on our society.

    Hope that is of some help.

  46. Byron Avatar

    But I read another blog post claiming it’s mostly inaccurate, with some clear biblical inconsistencies (e.g. Zacharia was not high priest; the protoev. gets the date of herod’s infantacide wrong; no girl could actually stay in the holy of holies; there were no ‘virgin attendants’ at the hebrew temple (this is an extrapolation from pagan temples); etc.)

    Mark, I think the nature of the question indicates the dominance of the modern literal methodology not only in history but in our general mindset. As a different way to look at it, consider that

    (1) it doesn’t matter “that Zacharia was not a high priest”. Instead consider the role of the Priest and what he did.

    (2) it doesn’t matter that “no girl could actually stay in the holy of holies”. Instead consider what her being (physically or otherwise) in the Holy of Holies signifies and how it fits into Tradition and the movement of God in the Gospels.

    (3) I’m not sure what there were no ‘virgin attendants’ at the Hebrew temple might signify. I am not well-versed enough to know about whether that was “an extrapolation from pagan temples” or something else.

    The Church, not the historical scholar, is communicating something here. So only the view of the Church will properly communicate it. Consult the Tradition, the hymns, the Liturgy.

  47. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There’s been a bit more 2nd Temple study that is reaching some different conclusions (for instance regarding girls serving in the Temple). As to the Theotokos entering the Holy of Holies, we don’t exactly know what the case was, since there was no Ark there. Frankly, those critiques were pretty typical of an earlier time in which less was known historically (rather than more).

    The precise relationship between history (“facticity”) and a theologically-constructed account is a bit problematic, as in, it’s hard to tell since the point of the writing is not primarily driven by facts alone. For me, it means that I live with an element of agnosticism regarding some historical questions – and allow the text to direct my heart and mind. God knows the “facts.”

    One thing the Protoevangelium does is to put forward a number of dogmatic teachings regarding the Theotokos in a form that is not a dogmatic form (it’s a story-form). We might ponder the author’s reason for this. There’s lots of things that can be pondered in these things.

    What can also be done is to assume that “if it shows up in a canonical feast, it’s fact,” and even include in that anything asserted in the poetic hymns written hundreds of years later. I’ve encountered that approach. I strikes me as an approach that refuses to ask certain questions and protects itself by not allowing such questions. I don’t find that helpful. Neither do I find a historical/critical approach to be helpful for reasons I’ve already stated.

    For some things – we have what we have. I am able to live with that with an untroubled heart. The Entrance of the Theotokos is one of my favorite feasts.

  48. Mark Northey Avatar
    Mark Northey

    Thanks Fr. Stephen, and Byron.
    Both responses are helpful

    Byron, I am trying to better understand the meaning of these things in our Tradition. Also trying to understand how they were received in a non-Modern setting; insight into this latter helps me to think more like a Christian.

    One of my challenges is that I am puzzled by some of the possible symbolic or theological meanings of what may or may not be factual events.
    I can guess, but I feel a bit like the Ethiopian, desiring a proper Apostolic explanation of these things I am reading! 🙂

    Byron, or Father, would you please just answer (1) for me in Byron’s comment? I dont understand the meaning or significance fully.

    If anyone can help with this please do.

    (the link to Fr Tom’s article, which connects this document/feast with psalm 45, then connects this to the infancy narrative in Luke was an excellent start).

    Thanks for any further help understanding these things.

  49. Isaac Avatar


    “There’s been a bit more 2nd Temple study that is reaching some different conclusions (for instance regarding girls serving in the Temple).”

    This is the second time in a few months that you’ve mentioned this. I am still curious to see this research. Last time I asked for a source on this I was told to read Fr De Young’s blog — which I have searched unsuccessfully for anything mentioning young girls serving in the temple. (I may simply be bad at googling.)

    Can you point me to something specific about this? It’s a very interesting claim that would illumine a lot of understanding for me, I’d like to read something that is about the topic, rather than simply stating that it is so, if that makes sense.

  50. Byron Avatar


    My response was quite general–more about how to consider the information than a specific response to what it may mean in the Protoevangelium. I will only recommend asking your Priest and discussing it with him. Father may say more on the subject of the Priest as well.

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Here’s a sample of some of the work I’ve seen. You might google “second temple protoevangelium” and find more. This particular article pretty much destroys the notion of no women’s function in the Temple. There’s more stuff out there. Frankly, a lot of stuff about Judaism at the time of Christ came out of 19th century German historical make-believe. They invented a form of Judaism (iconoclastic, etc.) that never existed, largely in support of various versions of the Protestant/modernist narrative. So much of it has completely collapsed in the face of much more serious research – most of which is gathered under the heading of “Second Temple Judaism.” My Archbishop, Alexander Golitzin, taught patristics at Marquette for a number of years and has been deeply involved in that project. It’s opened up a lot of reading for me that I had not known about. This page is a link to a lot of the material.

  52. Isaac Avatar

    Thank you very much, Father. I’ll read through those resources!

  53. Ziton Avatar


    Thank you for drawing our attention to this marvellous poem. It is very interesting, and good. Given you are a Hopkins man, if you are up for it, I would be very interested in anything you had to say about ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’ , which I find overwhelming both in some stanzas and images, and overall, actually. But some amazing and memorable. This (approachable) one I actually use for myself sometimes :

    His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
    For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.

    Anyway, about this post’s poem, while I find it powerful and beautiful, I also find it slightly troubling too. That central image comparing Mary to the wild, world-mothering air is surely an intentional comparison with the Holy Spirit, is it not? I couldn’t help but think of the mighty wind (Ruah) passing over the waters at the beginning of Creation. I found Michael Bauman’s comment about Holy Sophia an interesting and apt question in this regard.

    Do you think Hopkins is claiming Mary is the Holy Spirit? If that is the case, then the Protestants really will be out saying “see, we told you so”. If not, then how would you describe the relationship.

    If I were to pick an elemental form that I would have thought that Mary represented, my pick would actually have been earth, because we are earth, and the Spirit (breath, air, as you say in comments) came down to her and as a result Christ was born into our muddy form. On that score, I loved your recent article on Mary as the Ark. That made complete sense to me. It is a very different image to that of her as the mighty wind!

    That said, I can see one argument (probably not the right word, as I am not trying to argue anything) for her being air, and that is that for a word to be spoken it needs the breath of the speaker to speak it, and in a sense a spoken word is really just a particular configuration of air formed by the breath. That is an image I have found useful when thinking about the Pneuma and the Divine Logos. And in a sense the God Bearer (which is my English translation of Theotokos, as ‘bearer’ has other resonances) also plays a similar role. The Word could not be spoken in the world without her, and as He is eternally begotten, she is eternally begetting Him

    My apologies if I have gone into an abstract realm of uninformed speculation on all of this (as we know, a problem!). But I find all of this heady symbolism very powerful and engaging. It’s the downside risk of that, I suppose.

    But thank you again for a wonderful – and likely to be returned to many times – reflection as we approach the Feast of Our Lady’s 🙂 Dormition.

  54. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Comparing Mary to the wind is unusual – but it’s simply a poet’s work. He refers to her as “merely a woman” in the poem – thus no Protestant can object. Sometimes it’s good to just read and let the anxieties rest.

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