A common claim by some modern Roman Catholics, especially within Catholic apologetic circles, is that the woman of Revelation 12 is the Virgin Mary. Pope John Paul II stated in a 1987 encyclical that she has an “ecclesial identification” as the woman clothed in the sun (Redemptoris Mater, 47; source). Indeed, the Roman Catholic Catechism identifies her with the woman.
“Recapitulated in Christ,” these are the ones who take part in the service of the praise of God and the fulfillment of his plan: the heavenly powers, all creation (the four living beings), the servants of the Old and New Covenants (the twenty-four elders), the new People of God (the one hundred and forty-four thousand), especially the martyrs “slain for the word of God,” and the all-holy Mother of God (the Woman), the Bride of the Lamb, and finally “a great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes, and peoples and tongues.” [source; emphasis mine]
In the early twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux identified the Virgin Mary as the woman in Revelation 12 in his sermons, saying “the twelve stars [are] the twelve privileges of grace that constitute Mary’s unique adornment” (source). The famous priest Louis de Montfort (late seventeenth, early eighteenth century) said that “according to biblical commentators, this woman is the Blessed Virgin” (source).
Pope Paul VI wrote in a 1967 letter:
The great sign which the Apostle John saw in heaven, “a woman clothed with the sun,” is interpreted by the sacred Liturgy, not without foundation, as referring to the most blessed Mary, the mother of all men by the grace of Christ the Redeemer. [Signum Magnum; source]
More recently, in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI stated:
We read today in the verse from Apocalypse proposed by the Church for our meditation: “And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (12: 1). In this woman, resplendent with light, the Fathers of the Church have recognized Mary. In her triumph the Christian people, pilgrims in history, catch a glimpse of the fulfilment of its longing and a certain sign of its hope. [Angelus; source]
The interpretation is seen in the spiritual life of Roman Catholicism as well. In 1648, Miguel Sanchez took the vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe and connected it to Revelation 12 in order to justify the Spanish invasion of the Americas (source). The Little Crown of the Five Stars (also known as the Twelve-Star Devotion) is a special rosary devotion dedicated to the Virgin Mary, using a special chaplet, and was inspired by the “twelve stars” seen with the woman in Revelation 12 (source). One Roman Catholic mass – The Blessed Virgin Mary, Image and Mother of the Church – draws on Revelation 12 for its wording (source).
Some even state that Revelation 12 displays a literal conflict between the Virgin Mary and Satan. John Corapi, the (former) priest who used to say to Roman Catholics of the Virgin Mary “your mama wears combat boots,” drew this from Revelation 12. Regarding this section, he has said:
The church throughout the ages – many of the Fathers, Doctors, and Saints have interpreted that to mean that’s the Blessed Mother, that’s involved in war with the enemy – the devil. [transcribed; source]
A similar opinion, from another source:
With the miracle of the sun at Fatima, one cannot help but think of Revelation 12 in which we see the heavenly reality underlying our current earthly battle, “A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars . . . and behold a great red dragon . . .” This is the real war we see being played out the in the world today . . . and in every human heart. That is why Mary, the Queen Mother of Jesus Christ, is being sent to us today. She is her Son’s last resort for a rebellious world, for nobody ever held the hearts of a king’s people more than a loving and solicitous queen. [source]
Likewise, in reference to verses 6 and 14:
In that “place prepared by God for her” the woman is both with God in total safety and security, and nevertheless is the object of persecution on the part of the dragon. In plain words, this may be a reference to the fact that after Christ’s Ascension, Mary too was removed to safety in the mansions of the Father above, yet continues to be an object of Satan’s fury in the Church which she embodies in her person and for which she stands. In persecuting the Church, Satan vents his wrath and hatred on Mary. [LeFrois, pg. 93]
And yet again:
In an analogous way, we Christians pray the rosary and ask Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant, to intercede on our behalf and use her prayers as a weapon of grace against the evil one, the Red Dragon spoken of in Revelation 12. Mary and her Church are the “woman” who does battle with the Dragon… [Madrid]
Still others use the passage to defend her title as the “Queen of Heaven.”
…once we see that this woman is Mary, the mother of Jesus, it is important to note how she is portrayed as queen in this passage. Her royal office is hinted at by the imagery of the sun, moon, and twelve stars, which recalls the Old Testament story of Joseph’s dream in which the sun, moon, and stars bow down before him, symbolizing his future authority (Gen. 37:9–11). Her queenship is made even clearer by the crown of twelve stars on her head. Just like the queen mother in Jeremiah 13:18, here Mary is wearing a crown, symbolizing her royal office in the kingdom of heaven. In sum, Revelation 12 portrays Mary as the new queen mother in the Kingdom of God, sharing in her son’s rule over the universe. [source]
Other Roman Catholic apologists say it proves the bodily assumption of Mary into Heaven. In 1950, Pope Pius XII cited the woman in Revelation as evidence for the Bodily Assumption of Mary:
Moreover, the scholastic Doctors have recognized the Assumption of the Virgin Mother of God as something signified, not only in various figures of the Old Testament, but also in that woman clothed with the sun whom John the Apostle contemplated on the Island of Patmos. [Munificentissimus Deus, 27; source]
Another quote, from Roman Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid:
The following passage [Revelation 12:1-8] shows us that Mary, Ark of the New Covenant, is truly the mother of all Christians (even of those who refuse to acknowledge her as their mother). This passage also shows us a vision of Mary, queen of heaven, and hints at her Assumption. [Madrid]
Another quote from Joel Peters, another Roman Catholic apologist, mocking Sola Scriptura:
One example of this interpretive memory involves Revelation 12. The Early Church Fathers understood the “woman clothed with the sun” to be a reference to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For someone to assert that this doctrine did not exist until 1950 (the year Pope Pius XII formally defined the doctrine) represents ignorance of ecclesial history. [Peters]
And another quote:
The fourth infallible Marian dogma is her Assumption, body and soul, into the glory of heaven. Since Patristic times, the “woman clothed with the sun” of Revelation 12:1 was identified with Mary reigning with her Son in heaven.” [Coulter, 195]
And another quote regarding the passage, affirming that this belief goes all the way back to the earliest patristic sources:
I don’t care whatever interpretation your pastors must have told you that this Woman is, but what was received from the Apostles and held and believed for over 1500 years by all Christians before the birth of the impious Martin Luther is that this Woman is MARY! [ObiMaria]
From here it’s clear that many doctrines, practices, and beliefs within Roman Catholicism seem to rely, either partially or fully, on the interpretation of the woman in Revelation 12 as the Virgin Mary.
Obviously, to comment on the entire chapter would be a serious undertaking, given the breadth of interpretations (and misunderstandings) regarding Revelation. Martin Luther himself remarked that “some have brewed into [Revelation] many stupid things out of their own heads.” Many people have been long influenced by past explanations of Revelation, therefore I recognize there will be many reading this blog post who will not agree with every single thing I have to write on the subject. However, we will, for the sake of discussion, cover the sections dealing specifically with the woman in the twelfth chapter, and I hope that I can present as coherent a case for my explanations as I can with my limited knowledge. Thomas Paine, in his Age of Reason, quipped that Revelation is a “book of riddles that requires a revelation to explain it.” Hopefully, I can avoid needing any personal revelation, and show how Revelation, in light of scripture and John’s time, would have been understood by the original audience.
Below is the chapter from Revelation in full.
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; and she was with child; and she cried out, being in labor and in pain to give birth.
Then another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads were seven diadems. And his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child.
And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that there she would be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
And there was war in heaven, Michael and his angels waging war with the dragon. The dragon and his angels waged war, and they were not strong enough, and there was no longer a place found for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying,
“Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death. For this reason, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them. Woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has come down to you, having great wrath, knowing that he has only a short time.”
And when the dragon saw that he was thrown down to the earth, he persecuted the woman who gave birth to the male child. But the two wings of the great eagle were given to the woman, so that she could fly into the wilderness to her place, where she was nourished for a time and times and half a time, from the presence of the serpent. And the serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, so that he might cause her to be swept away with the flood. But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and drank up the river which the dragon poured out of his mouth. So the dragon was enraged with the woman, and went off to make war with the rest of her children, who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. [Revelation 12:1-17]
John has a vision where “a great sign appeared in heaven,” meaning something clearly meant to be symbolic or represent something greater. What he sees is a woman “clothed in the sun, and with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (v. 1). This woman is in labor, crying out and in pain (v. 2) – a stark contradiction to the popular notion among some Roman Catholics that the Virgin Mary experienced no labor pains (but that will be covered later).
Obviously, we must immediately recognize that John is dealing with a symbol – a “great sign.” This is not meant to be a literal representation of anything or anyone. Even if, for the sake of discussion, the woman is supposed to be the Virgin Mary, we cannot expect this to mean she literally has a crown of twelve stars on her head anymore than we can believe Christ appears in heaven as a giant lamb with seven horns and seven eyes (Rev 5:6). We must likewise seek to avoid reading anything backward into the text, but read forward – that is, remembering that John is using prophetic language, and is drawing heavily from the Old Testament. Much of the more insane interpretations of Revelation (the locusts are helicopters, Obama is the antichrist, etc.) could be avoided if one studied the Old Testament and the symbolism found therein. Ethelbert William Bullinger, in his own commentary on Revelation, estimated that the book contains “no less than 285 references to the Old Testament” (source).
The symbolism around the woman, and the woman herself, is certainly worth pondering over. The sun, with which she is clothed, is used by John to represent God’s glory (cf. Rev 1:16, 10:1). The moon is seen by some to be the Jewish Law, which made use of the moon for the timing of its ceremonies (cf. 2 Chr 8:13); the Law also led us towards the gospel, hence being a “lesser light” of sorts. The twelve stars are most likely the twelve tribes of Israel, similar to the dream seen by Joseph regarding him and his other brothers (Gen 37:9). In fact, many have pointed to that dream, which also included the sun and moon, to show that all the symbolism around the woman points towards believing Israel as a whole. The possibility of a female representation of God’s church, or the Old Testament Israel (both of which would be accurate and convey the same meaning), is not entirely unheard of, even for John’s time. In scripture, the church under the old covenant was often portrayed as a woman: for example, Isaiah referred to Jerusalem as the “virgin daughter of Zion” (2 Ki 19:21); another example is seen in God’s references to unrepentant Israel as an adulterous wife (Jer 3:1, 20; Eze 16:32-35; Hos 2:2). Jewish commentators of antiquity commonly saw the Song of Solomon’s bride and groom as an allegory for Israel and God. Adam Clarke, in his commentary for this chapter, presents yet another interesting notion from Jewish tradition regarding the symbolism of a woman for the church:
In Sohar Exod., fol. 47, col. 187, we find a mystical interpretation of Exodus 21:22 : If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart – he shall be surely punished, as the woman’s husband will lay upon him. “If men strive, i.e. Michael and Samael, and hurt a woman with child, i.e. the Israelitish Church, so that her fruit depart, hoc fit in exilio, he shall surely be punished, i.e., Samael. As the woman’s husband, that is, the holy and blessed God.” [source]
That the woman was in labor and crying out in pain is most likely a reference to repeated language throughout scripture that speaks of a struggling church crying out to God for redemption (cf. Mic 4:10, 5:3; Isa 26:17-18, 66:7). Christ Himself employed the use of labor pains to describe the anguish of the disciples during the period of His passion, contrasting it with the joy they would feel after the resurrection (John 16:21). The strongest passage is perhaps seen in Isaiah 26:16-19, in which the people of God cry out for deliverance and resurrection, only to find nothing; by contrast, Revelation 12 sees the positive fulfillment of this longing.
Certainly the identity of the child can be without a doubt Christ. He is said to be one who will “rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (v. 5), a reference to language used about Christ (cf. Psa 2:9; Rev 2:27, 19:15). In the same verse, the child is said to be taken (literally “snatched away” in the Greek) up to God and His throne, as Christ went post-ascension. In the case of the woman in the midst of delivery, a redeemer is quite literally “delivered” to God’s people.
The next “sign” that John witnesses is a “great red dragon” with “seven heads and ten horns,” and on each of his heads is a diadem (v. 3). This dragon uses his tail to sweep away “a third of the stars of heaven,” which are thrown down “to the earth.” This dragon then stands before the woman and prepares to devour her child (v. 4).
The dragon is universally understood to represent the devil, given he is later on referred to as “the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan” (v. 9); he will again be identified as such later on in the book (Rev 20:2). The Greek word δράκων is often used for giant, lizard-like monsters, but is likewise used in reference to evil kings (cf. Isa 27:1, 51:9; Ez 29:3). The use of the color red is often used in scripture to allude to war and bloodshed (cf. Zec 1:8; Rev 6:14). When it says that the dragon swept away a third of the stars with his tail, this comes from an ancient belief that dragons held as much strength in their tails as they did in their mouths. The stars are most likely angels (cf. Rev 1:20), and this is a description of the first rebellion by Satan. (Similar language regarding spiritual beings can be found in Job 38:7 and Isa 14:13.) John is in essence seeing a vision of Satan’s backstory, both in his rebellion against God and in his hostility towards the coming Messiah.
Some have drawn here allusions between the dragon attempting to devour the child and Christ’s nativity, and that’s certainly understandable given the hostility towards Christ from Herod (Matt 2:16). The problem is that the “ascension” of the child is seen immediately after he is born (v. 5), therefore it is more likely that the birth of the child is a representation of the incarnation and Christ’s life in general. The dragon’s hostility to the child is Satan’s general hostility towards Christ during His earthly ministry. Referring back to the description of the dragon (v. 3): if the seven heads are to be understood as earthly power, the horns military or superior power (cf. Dan 7:7-8), and the diadems as high authority, then it is very similar to the hostility Christ experienced, both from the Roman occupational forces under Pilate, the civil government under King Herod, and the religious government of the Jewish Sanhedrin. In the end, however, Christ is not destroyed, but ascends to His throne.
After this ascension, the woman flees “into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, so that she would be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days” (v. 6), which is the same amount of time given to the two witnesses to testify (Rev 11:3). This is clear language used in reference to God’s preservation of His church (cf. Ez 20:33-38, 34:25).
Verses 7-9 detail a battle between Michael and the angels against Satan and minions, after which Satan is cast down to the earth. Verses 10-12 is a song of praise for God for the defeat of Satan and the triumph of Christ.
The narrative then returns to the events of verse 6. Having been cast down to earth, the dragon “persecuted the woman” (v. 13). The woman, however, is given the wings of a “great eagle” so that she could fly to the wilderness. Wings, especially eagle wings, are used in scripture to reference God’s protection (cf. Exo 19:4; Deu 32:11-12; Isa 40:31). The woman is taken to the wilderness “for a time and times and half a time” (v. 14), language taken from wording regarding the fourth beast of Daniel 7:25, who will “speak out against the Most High and wear down the saints of the Highest One.” In other words, this is in reference to Satan using his powers to persecute the church.
Verses 15-16 give the curious imagery of the dragon pouring from its mouth “water like a river” hoping to sweep the woman away “with the flood,” but the earth “opened its mouth and drank up the river.” Rushing waters are seen as symbols elsewhere in scripture (cf. Pro 18:4; Isa 59:19; Jer 47:2); however, this passage may be best understood if we remember rushing waters are at times used to represent persecution and external threats (cf. Psa 124:1-5). Therefore, these two verses are merely a visual extension of verse 14, signifying just how serious Satan was with his intent to persecute the church.
The final verse in the chapter tells us “the dragon was enraged with the woman,” and so went to make war “with the rest of her children,” who are those that “keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” Given this latter trait, these “children” can be no one else but believers, who are referred to with such terminology throughout John’s book (cf. Rev 1:2, 9; 14:12; 20:4). The Greek word for “children” here is σπέρμα, similar to our own word “sperm” – which, as one might infer, means these children are the literal “seed” of the woman. Obviously this doesn’t mean there was a woman who gave birth to a huge amount of children, but, given the woman has constantly been used in reference to God’s church, these are most likely those produced by the woman – that is, believers under the new covenant, stemming from the coming of Christ and the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets. Similar language is seen in regards to those who followed “Jezebel” in Thyatira (Rev 2:23). Christ likewise made a similar reference to old covenant followers, contrasting with their corrupt rulers, in his lament over Jerusalem (cf. Matt 23:37).
The narrative will then roll into the next chapter, where the dragon will summon the Beast from the Sea, who will be given the power “to make war with the saints and to overcome them” (Rev 13:7). He will likewise summon the Beast from the Earth, who will institute the infamous marking of 666 (Rev 13:18). In other words, the two beasts summoned by the dragon are the an extension of his desire “to make war with the rest of [the woman’s] children” (Rev 12:17).
Some concluding thoughts, after this exegesis:
- What John is witnessing here is a visual representation of the coming of Christ, who was born in the flesh, and within the midst of God’s promises in the prophets and testimony – “born of a woman, born under the Law” (Gal 4:4). The devil, who had already revolted against God, now seeks to undo the coming of the one who would step on the head of the serpent. Having failed this, Satan turns against the church. Unable to destroy God’s elect as a whole, he seeks to destroy them individually, in various forms of persecution and oppression.
- There is no combat happening between the woman and the dragon. While the dragon is indeed attempting to harm the child, and later pursues woman, the only person to directly fight back against the dragon in this chapter is Michael. The woman is taking a passive role in this conflict. Any notion that the woman is “at war” or “making war” with the dragon is read into the text.
- Any connection made between the Virgin Mary and the woman in Revelation 12 cannot be immediately derived from the text, save for the fact that this is a woman in labor, and the child born is quite clearly pointing to Christ. Given the rest of the passage, however, this is a superficial connection at best.
Some Roman Catholics have attempted to argue scripturally that the Virgin Mary can be the woman in Revelation 12. A review of some of these arguments will be done here.
Some Roman Catholics will hearken back to the previous chapter, and the mention of “the ark of His covenant” appearing “in His temple”; they will then argue that the woman, who appears in the next chapter, is the Virgin Mary, as Mary is perceived by Roman Catholics as the new ark. Roman Catholic apologist Tim Staples argues as such:
Let’s first take a look at the text of Rev. 11:19:
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within in his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, loud noises, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.
In order to appreciate the identity of “the ark,” let’s first take a look at the identity of “the temple” that St. John sees as housing the ark. John 2:19-21 and Rev. 21:22 tell us quite plainly that the temple St. John speaks of is not a temple made of brick and mortar.
Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”. . . But he spoke of the temple of his body (Jn. 2:21).
I saw no temple [in heaven], for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the lamb (Rev. 21:22).
When St. John views the temple in heaven, he is not viewing the Old Testament temple. He is viewing the true temple, which is Christ’s body. In the same way, St. John is not seeing the Old Covenant ark. He sees the new and true Ark of the Covenant. And remember: this would not just be talking about Mary but Mary’s body! It was Mary’s body that housed the Son of God, the fulfillment of the various types of Christ that were contained in the Old Covenant ark.
The conclusion is inescapable. Where is Mary’s body? In heaven, according to the Book of Revelation! [source]
Readers might be forgiven for being utterly confused by Tim Staples logic here, which tells us that, not only did Mary (the ark) house Christ’s body (the manna), but Christ’s body (the temple) apparently also housed Mary’s body (the ark), which in turn housed Him (the manna).
Putting this aside, this argumentation is begging the question in numerous ways.
First, it presupposes the Roman Catholic belief that the Virgin Mary is the new ark, and reads this into the text, as if every representation of the ark must be expected to reference or represent Mary. Scripture points more so towards the idea that Christ is the new ark of the covenant. This is seen, for example, in John’s language in John 1:14a: “and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us”; the word rendered “dwelt” is literally “tabernacled,” drawing towards the language of the tabernacle. Within Revelation itself, the temple in heaven, where the ark is located, ties itself more in with the judgments of God found within the book, rather than any direct female symbolism (cf. Rev 14:15, 17; 15:5; 16:17).
Second, it presumes the vision of the woman in labor is tied to the vision of the ark in the previous chapter. Given John’s wording at the start of chapter twelve (describing the appearance of a new vision), the two visions have more of a disconnect. This doesn’t even cover the fact that there is no apparent connection made within the text itself between the ark and the woman – that is read into the chapter by Roman Catholic apologists. Consider, for example, that the vision with the ark is on the tail end of a vision of the seventh trumpet, while the woman in labor ties itself more with the narrative of the two beasts. This is most likely why, for many commentators and scholars alike, Revelation 12 represents a division within the book as a whole; or at the very least, the start of a brand new series of visions.
Any supposed connection between the vision in the twelfth chapter and the end of the eleventh chapter is, at best, a weak case to make, unless presented with a stronger case that takes into consideration the flow of the events and symbols.
Some Roman Catholics have pointed to the crown of stars on the woman’s head as carrying significance. One example:
In the book of Revelation, the symbol of the crown is never a superfluous decoration, but connotes a real reign. It often refers to the share the saints have in Christ’s kingship and the reward they receive for victorious perseverance during times of persecutions and temptations. […] Thus, the woman having a crown of her own shows that she, too, has a royal status. [Sri, pg. 101]
And from another source:
Revelation 12 presents a royal woman (12:1) giving birth to the messiah-king (12:5). Although corporate interpretations often view the woman as a symbol for God’s people, no Old Testament or Jewish text speaks of a queenly figure personifying the collective people of God and giving birth to the messiah. [Burke, pg. 483; italics in original]
It is certainly true that the woman is said to have a “crown of twelve stars” on her head, or στέφανος ἀστέρων δώδεκα in the original Greek. The word στέφανος, used for “crown,” is indeed used elsewhere in Revelation: regarding believers (Rev 2:10; 3:11); regarding the elders before the throne (Rev 4:4, 10); on the head of the first horseman (Rev 6:2); upon the head of the locusts (Rev 9:7); and in a vision of Christ (Rev 14:14).
Nonetheless, this argumentation still runs into dilemmas. Of course, the immediate issue is that it takes the modern Roman Catholic belief of Mary as the Queen of Heaven and reads it backwards into the text. A more important dilemma involves the connection made between bearing a crown and having “a royal status.” This is backed up by referencing the uses where there is a share the saints have “in Christ’s kingship and the reward they receive for victorious perseverance during times of persecutions and temptations.” We surely cannot expect, however, that, in all references made of a στέφανος, those who wear them have the same power allotted by Roman Catholics to the Virgin Mary as “Queen of Heaven.” Do the locusts who bear the στέφανος on their heads hold as much power as the “Queen of Heaven” holds? Will all believers granted a στέφανος by Christ hold the same power that Mary does as the “Queen of Heaven”? Even if “the woman having a crown,” as is argued, “shows that she, too, has a royal status,” we would have to conclude it is one similar to the fellow believers she is equated with. Hence, by this exegetical logic, Mary is glorified as just another believer, and not as the “Queen of Heaven.”
Likewise, to argue that there is no metaphor of a “queenly” woman in labor is to argue semantics; it’s quite clear throughout scripture (as seen before) that a woman in labor is often used to denote great stress or suffering, let alone is a woman used to represent Israel. Likewise, the idea that a queenly representation of a woman is foreign to representations of Israel, or God’s church, is simply untrue. The woman in Song of Solomon, the wife of the king, has, as previously stated, been seen as far back as Christ’s time as a representation of God’s people. Likewise, Psalm 45 describes the marriage of the king’s daughter, a metaphor for the church and the Messiah.
There is no denying that many commentators, even among Protestants, associate this imagery with Genesis 3:15a, which reads: “and I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” For example, Bullinger writes:
The promise of Gen. iii. 15, as to the coming “seed” of the woman to crush the head of the great Dragon, was fundamental to the ground of Israel’s faith. This chapter, therefore, takes us back to the beginning of evil wrought by Satan, and carries us right forward to the great crises of human history. It shows how “the mystery of God” and “the mystery of Iniquity” will be finished; and take some 6,000 years to work out. The birth of that “seed” became, therefore, the object of Israel’s hope; the subject of Israel’s prophets; and the “joy” of Israel’s mothers when a man was born into the world (John xvi. 21). [source]
The issue with Roman Catholics who wish to tie Revelation 12 and Genesis 3 with the Virgin Mary is that, in declaring this curse to Eve, God placed the curse upon all her seed, which included all mankind, who sprung from her. As the NET commentary explains, the “her offspring” is a “collective singular.” The point is that it was from a fallen humanity from which a Savior would be born, and from among God’s people and promises would Christ arise – hence it is said by the apostle Paul that Christ was one “born of a woman, born under the Law” (Gal 4:4). Can one tie the Virgin Mary in with the prophecy regarding Eve and her seed? Certainly…but one can likewise exegetically tie in everyone. This is why most commentators (even Roman Catholic ones, as we’ll soon see), when tying this passage in with Genesis 3:15, do not associate it uniquely with the Virgin Mary herself, but humanity, or specifically ancient Israel, as a whole.
Hence, any connection made between the Virgin Mary, Genesis 3:15, and Revelation 12 is superficial at best, but weak when considering everything in context.
Earlier we made mention of the Roman Catholic belief that the Virgin Mary suffered no labor pains during her birth; yet here, in Revelation 12, the woman is suffering labor pains. The answer for many Roman Catholic apologists, in regards to this supposed contradiction, is to say that those pains are metaphorical. For example, Jimmy Akin argues, “Mary did not experience literal pain when bringing forth the Messiah, but she suffered figuratively (the prophecy that a sword would pierce her heart at the Crucifixion)” (source). Likewise, Tim Staples writes:
Mary’s “labor pains” began at the Annunciation and would continue from the cradle to the cross, where she suffered with her Son as prophesied in Luke 2:34-35 and as painfully fulfilled in John 19. Mary’s deep love for and knowledge of her divine Son brought with it pains far deeper than any physical hurt could ever cause. [ibid]
The issue here is that, if we can argue that the labor pains are figurative, why, therefore cannot anything else be read as figurative? This is especially interesting as Mr. Akin disputes the idea that the woman could be the church giving birth to Christ, as if it is apparently impossible to imagine a figure of Christ arising from the old covenant church and the prophecies of the Law and Prophets. Why are the pains of labor figurative, but the labor itself is not? There’s no denying that the apostle John is using imagery and symbols, but when one creates a symbol from a symbol, things become complicated.
The bigger issue is in regards to the original Greek for “and in pain to give birth” (NASB), which is καὶ βασανιζομένη τεκεῖν. The verb βασανίζω (“pain,” “torment,” etc.) is in participle form, affecting the verb τίκτω (“to produce,” “bear fruit,” “beget,” etc.). In other words, the pain and torment is directly tied to the giving birth: the reason she was in pain is because she was giving birth; she was giving birth, therefore she was in pain. It is therefore completely nonsensical for Roman Catholic apologists like Mr. Akin or Mr. Staples to argue for a “metaphorical” pain to be interpreted here when the apostle John quite clearly ties the pain in with the childbearing. Like it or not, the woman giving birth was experiencing the pains of labor – and if one is supposed to believe that the Virgin Mary did not suffer pains during labor, then that same person cannot believe that this woman is the Virgin Mary. Even if one wishes to argue that these aren’t supposed to be literal labor pains that happened in a point in history, the fact remains that, within the imagery itself, they are still pains of labor; to separate the labor from the pain itself is absurd thinking.
In either case, we must remember that the apostle John is hearkening back to Old Testament language. As we saw earlier, there is a far stronger scriptural case that the woman in labor pains is in reference to a suffering people in need of a redeemer, and the redeemer finally being delivered.
Some Roman Catholics have attempted to tie the woman being carried into the wilderness to Mary fleeing with Joseph into Egypt (Matt 2:14). Tim Staples writes:
Though we could discover many spiritual levels of meaning for the flight of “the woman” in 12:6, 14, Mary and the Holy Family literally fled into Egypt in Matt. 2:13-15 with divine assistance. [ibid]
This leads us into two dilemmas:
First, the flight of Mary and Joseph into Egypt happened shortly after Christ was born, but before the ascension. In Revelation, the woman going into the wilderness happens after the ascension and Satan being cast down onto earth.
Second, the woman’s time in the wilderness happens for an extended length of time (“one thousand two hundred and sixty days”), during which the devil persecutes believers (seen in Revelation 13 onward); therefore, it cannot be referencing the temporal incident with Mary and Joseph. Again, any connection is completely superficial.
To again quote Tim Staples:
There are four main characters in the chapter: “the woman,” the devil, Jesus, and the Archangel Michael. No one denies that the other three mentioned are real persons. It fits the context exegetically to interpret “the woman” as a person (Mary) as well. [ibid]
This is a common argument for Roman Catholics to make, and it’s a fair one. Certainly scripture itself specifically identifies the child as Christ, the dragon as Satan, and the archangel Michael as himself. However, the argument ultimately works against the positive, for the simple fact that, while the child, the dragon, and Michael are identified, the woman is not. One would think, if the woman was indeed the Virgin Mary (and John held as high a view of her as Roman Catholics today), then John would have taken some effort to have her identified more clearly as such. The very fact that John did not must lead us to conclude that he either did not think it was important enough (in which case, his view of the Virgin Mary may have been minimal compared to modern Marian dogma), or he did not have the Virgin Mary in mind at all, and the symbolism of the woman was meant to portray something more abstract.
In fact, we must not forget that John calls this vision of the woman in labor a “great sign” (σημεῖον μέγα); in other words, it’s a symbolic act, meant to point to something else. Hence Christ says of that generation, and referencing His death and resurrection, “a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Mt 16:4). Christ was not saying that He would literally do what Jonah did (ie., spend time in the belly of a fish), nor that Jonah’s action represented something that would happen literally in the future; rather, Christ was illustrating that Jonah being in the belly of the fish three days and nights before being released was a shadow – a “great sign” – of the coming death, burial, and resurrection of the Messiah. Similarly, when John sees a “great sign” of a woman in labor, giving birth to the Messiah, it’s not intended to be a literal person, but pointing us to a greater meaning.
An example of this argumentation:
And it shouldn’t surprise us that John simply calls her “woman” and doesn’t use the name “Mary.” In the Fourth Gospel, John never mentions Mary’s name, but usually refers to her as “woman” (Jn. 2:4; 19:6). [Barber, 149]
And yet Christ also used “woman” for the Samaritan woman (John 4:21) and Mary Magdalene (John 20:13, 15), but no one would put forward that either the Samaritan or Mary Magdalene are the “woman” in Revelation 12. The actual fact of the matter is “woman” was simply a title of respect in those times when speaking to a female; even in ancient Greek and Roman literature, it can be seen used when speaking to queens or women of high authority. When Christ called someone “woman” – whether it be the Virgin Mary, the Samaritan woman, or Mary Magdalene – it was merely out of politeness, not to hint towards any kind of larger Marian dogma.
Likewise, John not only refers to Mary as “woman,” but also simply “the mother of Jesus.” In fact, he refers to her by that far more times (John 2:1, 3, 5, 12; 19:25-26) than he does “woman” (John 2:4; 19:26).
Thus, for Roman Catholics to misinterpret this use of “woman” to mean some great form of prophetic idolization is just as off the mark as those Evangelical preachers who misinterpret “woman” to mean our modern context of “Woman, get me a beer!”
Did the early Church Fathers believe that the woman of Revelation 12 was meant to symbolize the Virgin Mary? Obviously, it would be unfair to expect that every single Church Father made a comment on this, let alone that every single Church Father wrote a commentary on Revelation. Nonetheless, within their writings, many Church Fathers did speak on the symbolism found within this part of Revelation, or made reference to it. We’ll now analyze the comments by various Church Fathers throughout the early part of the church in regards to the woman in Revelation 12.
Hippolytus of Rome (second-to-third century) interpreted the passage quite clearly as the church:
By “the woman then clothed with the sun,” he meant most manifestly the Church, endued with the Father’s word, whose brightness is above the sun. [Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, 61; source]
Methodius of Olympus (late third century), in a work concerning virginity, referenced the section from Revelation, and identified the woman with the church.
The woman who appeared in heaven clothed with the sun, and crowned with twelve stars, and having the moon for her footstool, and being with child, and travailing in birth, is certainly, according to the accurate interpretation, our mother, O virgins, being a power by herself distinct from her children; whom the prophets, according to the aspect of their subjects, have called sometimes Jerusalem, sometimes a Bride, sometimes Mount Zion, and sometimes the Temple and Tabernacle of God. [Concerning Chastity, Thekla, Ch. 5; source]
Victorinus of Pettau (late third century), who actually wrote a commentary on the book, identified the woman with the church of the Old Testament and apostolic period:
The woman clothed with the sun, and having the moon under her feet, and wearing a crown of twelve stars upon her head, and travailing in her pains, is the ancient Church of fathers, and prophets, and saints, and apostles, which had the groans and torments of its longing until it saw that Christ, the fruit of its people according to the flesh long promised to it, had taken flesh out of the selfsame people. [Commentary on the Apocalypse of the Blessed John; source]
Epiphanius of Salamis (fourth century) is said by some to have been “the first known example of a writer who interprets the Woman of the Apocalypse” (source). This however, is misunderstanding what he originally wrote regarding the identification of the woman. Elucidating on the subject of the Virgin Mary – and whether or not she died (he was apparently ignorant of her bodily assumption) – Epiphanius wrote:
For I dare not say – thought I have my suspicions, I keep silent. Perhaps, just as her death is not to be found, so I may have found some traces of the holy and blessed Virgin. In one passage Simeon says of her, “And a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also, that the thoughts of many may be revealed.” And elsewhere the Revelation of John says, “And the dragon hastened after the woman who had born the man child, and she was given the wings of an eagle and was taken to the wilderness, that the dragon might not seize her.” Perhaps this can be applied to her; I cannot decide for certain, and am not saying that she remained immortal. But neither am I affirming that she died. [Against Antidicomarians, 11:3-4; pg. 609]
Epiphanius states the possibility that the Virgin Mary might be found as the woman in Revelation 12, but cannot himself affirm it. Far from interpreting the passage as such, he merely entertains the idea.
Gregory the Great (sixth century), mentions the passage in Revelation in a commentary on Job, and likewise applies it to the church.
Holy Scripture often so mixes up past and future times, as sometimes to use the future for the past, sometimes the past for the future. For it uses the future for the past, when there is pointed out to John a woman, who is about to bring forth a male child, to rule the Gentiles with a rod of iron. For since this had already taken place by the coming of the Lord in the flesh, an event which had occurred was being announced. […] Whence also John says; A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet. For by the ‘sun’ is understood the illumination of truth, but by the moon, which wanes and is filled up every month, the changeableness of temporal things. But Holy Church, because she is protected with the splendor of the heavenly light, is clothed, as it were, with the sun; but, because she despises all temporal things, she tramples the moon under her feet. [Moralia in Job, 34:12, 25; source]
Rabanus (eighth century) saw within the symbolism of twelve stars as referencing the church.
Rabanus, and cf. Tertullian, cont. Marc. iv, 13: This number is typified by many things in the Old Testament; by the twelve sons of Jacob, by the twelve princes of the children of Israel, by the twelve running springs in Helim, by the twelve stones in Aaron’s breastplate, by the twelve loaves of the shew-bread, by the twelve spies sent by Moses, by the twelve stones of which the altar was made, by the twelve stones taken out of Jordan, by the twelve oxen which bare the brazen sea. Also in the New Testament, by the twelve stars in the bride’s crown, by the twelve foundations of Jerusalem which John saw, and her twelve gates. [quoted from Thomas Aquinas’ Golden Chain; source]
The testimony of the earliest Patristic sources and documents appears to be that the woman in Revelation 12 was not seen as the Virgin Mary, but as the church. While the words from Epiphanius may hint that it existed in some circles, or in some minds, the belief did not have the “ecclesial identification” which John Paul II claimed it did.
While we won’t be covering many Church Fathers or Roman Catholic “saints” after the time of the early church, one big name is worth mentioning: Thomas Aquinas, considered one of the Latin Doctors of the Roman Catholic Church, and the patron saint of universities. In his famous Summa Theologica (written in the thirteenth century), he brings up an objection that makes reference to Revelation 12:6, and speaks of “the woman who represents the Church.” While Thomas Aquinas disagrees with the contention that the time of our resurrection is not hidden, Aquinas does not contradict the idea that the woman represents the church, or bring up the Virgin Mary. In fact, he affirms it speaks of the church, and her time in the wilderness as the time of its persecution.
The thousand two hundred sixty days mentioned in the Apocalypse denote all the time during which the Church endures, and not any definite number of years. The reason whereof is because the preaching of Christ on which the Church is built lasted three years and a half, which time contains almost an equal number of days as the aforesaid number. Again the number of days appointed by Daniel does not refer to a number of years to elapse before the end of the world or until the preaching of Antichrist, but to the time of Antichrist’s preaching and the duration of his persecution. [source]
Thomas Aquinas does not see the woman as the Virgin Mary, but – like the objector he is disagreeing with – sees her as the church. On top of this, he does not see the time in the wilderness as reflecting Mary’s flight to Egypt (as Tim Staples does), but rather, as we showed earlier, a time of persecution for the church.
Contrary to Pope Benedict’s claim that “the Fathers of the Church have recognized Mary” in this passage, it appears that the notion of the woman being the Virgin Mary is nearly absent from the minds of the earliest learned men who analyzed the passage. Earlier, we saw Joel Peters say “the Early Church Fathers” interpreted the woman in Revelation 12 to mean the “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” and yet we’ve just seen that not only did the earliest Church Fathers not teach the bodily assumption of Mary, but they didn’t even see Mary herself in the passage. The “ignorance of ecclesial history” is not among Protestants, but rather with Joel Peters and other Roman Catholics who argue like him.
More scholarly circles within Roman Catholicism confess the difficulty in applying the identity of the woman to Mary from patristics or Holy Tradition. For example, the Catholic Encyclopedia admits that “commentators generally understand the whole passage as applying literally to the Church, and that part of the verses is better suited to the Church than to Mary” (source). The Hadock New Testament, a Roman Catholic commentary done by the priest George Leo Haydock (late eighteenth, early nineteenth century), likewise affirmed (in contrast with Louis de Montfort’s claim, seen earlier) that the general opinion among Bible commentators was that the woman was the church.
By this woman, interpreters commonly understand the Church of Christ, shining with the light of faith, under the protection of the sun of justice, Jesus Christ. [source]
Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Edward Brown sees in the imagery of the woman a symbol of the Old Testament church:
Certainly some of the imagery of Gen 3:15-16 and the struggle between the serpent and the woman and her offspring are part of the background for chap. 12 (see 12:9). The woman clothed with the sun, having the moon under her feet and on her head the crown of twelve stars, represents Israel, echoing the dream of Joseph in Gen 37:9. […] In Rev the woman brings forth her child the Messiah (Ps 2:9) in pain; this is an instance of Jewish expectations of birth pangs of the Messiah, meaning the wretchedness of thew orld situation that becomes a signal for the coming of God-sent deliverance (Micah 4:9-10). [Brown, 293]
The commentary notes for the New American Bible (Revised Edition) likewise see Israel, or the church, in view with the woman.
[12:1–6] The woman adorned with the sun, the moon, and the stars (images taken from Gn 37:9–10) symbolizes God’s people in the Old and the New Testament. The Israel of old gave birth to the Messiah (Rev 12:5) and then became the new Israel, the church, which suffers persecution by the dragon (Rev 12:6, 13–17); cf. Is 50:1; 66:7; Jer 50:12. This corresponds to a widespread myth throughout the ancient world that a goddess pregnant with a savior was pursued by a horrible monster; by miraculous intervention, she bore a son who then killed the monster. [source]
Jan Fekkes mentions, in a footnote of his book:
It is widely acknowledged that the woman clothed in the sun, moon and stars is the anti-image of another collective figure in Rev. 17 – the Harlot-Babylon – and symbolizes Mother-Zion, the persecuted messianic community, or some similar idea. Even Catholic interpreters have generally come to accept this conclusion and accord to Mary only a secondary allusion… [Fekkes, 180]
In fact, Roman Catholic scholarship admits this application of Mary as the woman of Revelation 12 did not become popular until much later in the church’s history.
From the earliest times, it was this image of the Church which predominated the exegesis of the pastoral theologians of the first five or six centuries. After Oecumenius of the sixth century, the interpretation of the exegetes and theologians chose Mary as the woman. St. Bonaventure [thirteenth century] was most explicit among them, saying that in its literal meaning chapter 12 refers to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. [Buby]
The Jerome Biblical Commentary agrees, likewise affirming that this chapter better suits the church rather than Mary:
a woman: Most of the ancient commentators identified her with the Church; in the Middle Ages it was widely held that she represented Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Modern exegetes have generally adopted the older interpretation, with certain modifications.
In recent years several Catholics have championed the Marian interpretation. Numerous contextual details, however, are ill-suited to such an explanation. For example, we are scarcely to think that Mary endured the worst of the pains of childbirth (v. 2), that she was pursued into the desert after the birth of her child (6, 13ff.), or, finally, that she was persecuted through her other children (v. 17). The emphasis on the persecution of the woman is really appropriate only if she represents the Church, which is presented throughout the book as oppressed by the forces of evil, yet protected by God. Furthermore, the image of a woman is common in ancient Oriental secular literature as well as in the Bible (e.g., Is 50:1; Jer 50:12) as a symbol for a people, a nation, or a city. It is fitting, then, to see in this woman the People of God, the true Israel of the OT and NT. [quote taken from here]
Other Roman Catholic scholars agree that “the meaning of that chapter [Revelation 12] and its relation to Mary are far from clear” (Achtemeier, 218), and any connections “have dissimilarities as well as similarities” (Achtemeier, 238). They go so far as to question whether or not such an ancient tradition, upheld by popes and others as true and real, is an “open question.”
Whether, in fact, an ancient tradition existed in which Mary was symbolically identified with the church either in reference to scriptural passages or independently must remain an open question. [Achtemeier, 281]
Wilfrid Harrington, a Dominican priest and Roman Catholic biblical scholar, not only affirmed that this passage referred to ancient Israel, but also confessed that the Marian interpretations occurred later on, completely separate from the apostle John’s original intent.
The woman, though first seen in a setting of splendor, is with child and close to delivery. Her birth-pangs may be those of Eve (Gen 3:16); they are, more immediately, the birth-pangs of travailing Israel. See Mic 4:10, “Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail.” In rabbinical literature “the birth-pangs of the Messiah” is a familiar phrase. Verses 5-6 identify the woman more closely. Whatever his background, and whatever the later use of the text (in Mariology), for John this woman is the heavenly Israel, depicted in terms of the woman in Gen 3. […] She is, all the while, the people of God who gives birth to the Messiah and the messianic age. [Harrington, 130; emphasis mine]
Clearly within Roman Catholic scholarship, those who have dealt critically with the text, the original language, and the development of history do not find within this chapter a clear vision of the Virgin Mary.
The famous Anglican-Catholic convert John Henry Newman was himself well aware of the problems with applying the woman of Revelation 12 to the Virgin Mary, precisely because it was poorly supported by the Fathers. Nonetheless, his contention was:
Christians have never gone to Scripture for proof of their doctrines, till there was actual need, from the pressure of controversy; if in those times the Blessed Virgin’s dignity was unchallenged on all hands, as a matter of doctrine, Scripture, as far as its argumentative matter was concerned, was likely to remain a sealed book to them. [Anglican Difficulties, taken from the Catholic Encyclopedia; source]
This, however, is a poor contention, in part because, whenever the earliest Church Fathers did deal with this passage, they never attributed it to the Virgin Mary, hence the notion of her “dignity” seemed to have been completely lost on them. Likewise, the idea that “Christians have never gone to Scripture for proof of their doctrines, till there was actual need,” is simply refuted by a cursory reading of the works of the Church Fathers. Even when not dealing with heretics, the works of the Fathers are rife with quotations from Holy Writ. The contention that scripture “was likely to remain a sealed book to them” is simply erroneous.
Newman likewise attempted to appeal from a philosophical standpoint:
Now I do not deny of course, that under the image of the Woman, the Church is signified; but what I would maintain is this, that the Holy Apostles would not have spoken of the church under this particular image, unless there had existed a blessed Virgin Mary, who was exalted on high, and the object of the veneration of all the faithful. No one doubts that the “man-child” spoke of is an allusion to our Lord: why then is not “the Woman” an allusion to His Mother? [Anglican Difficulties, taken from The Quotable Newman, pg. 237]
Newman’s conclusions run into some difficulties. First, nowhere in Revelation 12 is the woman venerated by the faithful. Second, Newman’s argument rests on the presupposition that the Virgin Mary could have been the only possible influence for this imagery; as shown before, during our exegesis, to represent God’s people as a woman, especially as a woman in labor, was quite common among the Jews. Furthermore, as we have seen with a review of history, the idea that the Virgin Mary could be portrayed in such a glorious fashion came after misinterpretations of this verse were spread, not before. Of this, Roman Catholic scholars are in agreement.
Another contention is that the woman in Revelation 12 represents both the Virgin Mary and the church. This is seen both in modern Roman Catholic apologetics and documentations. A “mysterious” unity is seen between the Virgin Mary and the Roman Church, both connected together and in essence being “mother of believers.” Pope John Paul II wrote in a 1995 encyclical:
The “woman clothed with the sun”–the Book of Revelation tells us–“was with child” (12:2). The Church is fully aware that she bears within herself the Saviour of the world, Christ the Lord. She is aware that she is called to offer Christ to the world, giving men and women new birth into God’s own life. But the Church cannot forget that her mission was made possible by the motherhood of Mary, who conceived and bore the One who is “God from God”, “true God from true God”. Mary is truly the Mother of God, the Theotokos, in whose motherhood the vocation to motherhood bestowed by God on every woman is raised to its highest level. Thus Mary becomes the model of the Church, called to be the “new Eve”, the mother of believers, the mother of the “living” (cf. Gen 3:20). [Evangelium Vitae, 103; source]
Likewise, from another source:
If the Church brings forth Christ amid the sufferings of her temporal vocation, it is in reality Mary sharing her spiritual Motherhood which brought forth each and every member in the birthpangs of Golgotha. If the Church is open to the attack of the Dragon with all his fury and venom, it is really Mary on whom he is venting his venom and whom he is trying to defy. [LeFrois, pg. 94]
And here, from Pope Benedict XVI:
Without any doubt, a first meaning is that it is Our Lady, Mary, clothed with the sun, that is, with God, totally; Mary who lives totally in God, surrounded and penetrated by God’s light. […] Yet, this woman who suffered, who had to flee, who gave birth with cries of anguish, is also the Church, the pilgrim Church of all times. In all generations she has to give birth to Christ anew, to bring him very painfully into the world, with great suffering. Persecuted in all ages, it is almost as if, pursued by the dragon, she had gone to live in the wilderness. [Homily from August 15, 2007; source]
This analogy gets somewhat confusing when it’s taken to its logical conclusion – that is, when it is argued by some Roman Catholic scholars that, not only is Mary the mother of the child seen in Revelation 12, but likewise is she the bride of the Lamb in Revelation 21. In other words, Mary is portrayed by the apostle John as both Christ’s mother and wife.
Behold, the Woman of chapter 12, the Mother of the Christ, has become the Spouse of the Lamb. There is nothing contradictory or repellent in this statement. Mary is the Mother of the Incarnate Divine Word and Mother of the Mystical Christ. As such she is the archetype for the Church, which is her family of children. [LeFrois; 103-104]
Hence Roman Catholics, much like Hyper-Charismatics attempting to read modern events into Messianic passages, attempt to argue their position from an appeal to “dual-prophecy.” While it certainly won’t be denied that many times scripture can portray a symbol with more than one meaning, or can prophesy or represent something that has two fulfillments, one has to first present that this is the case. For example, Psalm 2 is about David’s own contemporary conflicts, and yet it quite clearly shows (especially in the latter half of the psalm) that David foresaw it as a Messianic prophecy as well.
Nonetheless, when a dual-prophecy is argued, it is a burden upon the person making the argument to show, first, that such a dual-prophecy is even possible, and, second, such a dual-prophecy would have been expected by the biblical readers, whether contemporaries or those in a later date. We return back to the example of Psalm 2: it was clearly seen as both a present and future prophecy in David’s time, and was seen as such by the apostles of Christ (Acts 4:25-28). If we are to expect the woman in Revelation 12 to be seen as both the Virgin Mary and the church, then it must be seen in the context of the passage itself, or by the original readers. As we have seen, not only is any connection with the Virgin Mary superficial at best (and contradictory to Roman Catholic doctrine about her), but the earliest Church Fathers did not even mention her when speaking on the passage.
This sort of argumentation likewise leads into logical problems, in which the Roman Catholic apologist must play a game of selective allegorization. In other words, we must pick and choose what we find to be more allegorical, and what we interpret to be more literal. The woman clothed in the sun and crowned with stars is supposed to be a literal depiction of the Virgin Mary, but the wings given her are allegorical. The birthing is literal, but the birth pains are allegorical. The woman clothed with the sun is the Virgin Mary now, but her running from the dragon is the Virgin Mary shortly after the nativity. In the end, one has to in essence compartmentalize their thinking when it comes to this. It’s similar to Muslims who have to find Muhammad in various parts of the Bible, and engage in selective allegorization to force Muhammad in passages where he clearly is not.
Most of all, we must also remember the words of the Church Fathers from earlier: the woman in Revelation 12 is “most manifestly” the church (Hippolytus), and this is “according to the accurate interpretation” (Methodius). Even if it might be possible it could be the Virgin Mary, such a claim is one we “cannot decide for certain” (Epiphanius). Even Gregory the Great, an early pope, saw the woman in Revelation as representing the church, with no mention of Mary. Hence, this is not a mere argument from silence; the testimony of history, affirmed by even Roman Catholic sources, says that the idea Mary was even on the table as representing the woman didn’t appear until more than six hundred years after the time of Christ. This is affirmed even on the Roman Catholic side, among their scholars.
It would be erroneous to give any kind of definitive assertion that the Virgin Mary is the woman of Revelation 12. Contrary to the words of Pope Benedict XVI, many of “the Fathers of the Church” have not “recognized Mary” in these passages, and those that did came much later in the church’s history. Contrary to the words of Pope Paul VI that Mary can be referenced to the woman “not without foundation,” there is very little foundation for doing so.
As stated earlier, any true scriptural connection between the Virgin Mary and the woman of Revelation 12 is superficial at best. Roman Catholic lay apologists have to jump through logical hurdles and connect about twenty dots before they can try to interpret the passage, whereas an honest examination of the text, and its connection with previous symbolism or scriptural language, comes out much more clearer. We likewise see here not only a conflict between the teachings of modern Roman Catholicism and what Christians of the past have said, but a conflict between the more passionate circles of Roman Catholic apologetics and the more scholarly circles of Rome. While the more passionate lay Roman Catholics will say that identifying the woman as Mary was “received from the Apostles and held and believed for over 1500 years” before Luther, the more scholarly and knowledgeable Roman Catholics will readily confess that John’s intent with the woman in Revelation 12 was to represent the church or ancient Israel, and that the Marian interpretations and applications came much later.
Hence we see that the various doctrines and dogmas, created by Roman Catholic leadership and defended by Roman Catholic apologists, which are grounded upon an understanding of the Virgin Mary being the woman in Revelation 12, are on shaky ground, and have to rely upon an external authority – even above and beyond the apostle John himself – to validate them. In the end, any application between the two rests on shaky ground, and cannot be taken seriously.
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