Jesus’s mother was a young Jewish girl living in a small town. Her son grew to become the savior of the world. Along the way, she endured the hardship of watching him ridiculed, crucified, and then raised. There has been a lot written about Mary as the mother of Christ, the mother of God, and the mother of the Roman Catholic Church. We forget something, though. She wasn’t just the mother of Jesus. She was also the adopted mother of John the Apostle.
Being Jesus’s mother during Jesus’s life couldn’t have been easy. Being his mother after his resurrection must have felt impossible. We don’t hear much about Mary after the gospels. Acts mentions her once very near the beginning, but that’s it. We also don’t hear much out of John directly in the Acts of the Apostles. This is almost strange to me, after reading so much from early in Christian history. John had some of the most vocal followers in the first century of the church after the Apostles died. This may have been because he was the last to go. Polycarp was a student of John’s. Ignatius isn’t exactly credited as a disciple of John, but he is presumed to have communicated with John. John’s thoughts can be seen in Ignatius’s letters.
By all accounts, when John left the cross, he left as the caretaker of Mary. What did that mean for Mary, though? John didn’t have an easy life. He was exiled to Patmos at some point. He is said to have acted as a priest at the Jerusalem Temple. Then he is said to have left Jerusalem due to a combination of pressure from the priestly class and noticing that Christ’s prophecy that Jerusalem would be destroyed being nearly ready to come true.
There may not be many early church sources for Mary. A tradition developed that Mary was a caretaker of the poor and that she imparted wisdom and insight wherever she went. She apparently settled in Ephesus with John. Ancient tradition holds that either as she was dying or shortly after she died, her body was taken from the Earth and carried away into heaven. This historical (or perhaps legendary) fact was used by some early in the tradition to make some level of equity between Jesus and his mother. The tradition developed that as Jesus was the new Adam, Mary was the new Eve. Protestant thinkers would use this as evidence of just how far the corruption of Roman Catholic doctrine extended. The Protestant thinkers concluded that Mary was a woman of integrity, but not the Queen of Heaven or Mother of the Whole Church. Roman Catholic mystics continued to have visions of Mary, however. The Catholic fever for Mary was not cooled by Protestant dampening.
I the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, Anne Catherine Emmerich started having visions of Mary and Jesus. She was a nun in Dülmen, Germany, and later became bedridden at the monastic community she belonged to. Her visions were novel enough to attract the attention of the well to do free thinkers of her days. I imagine these to be like the UFO or Bigfoot enthusiasts of today’s world. The Pope and other religious authorities really only took her serious when it was politically expedient. They never really came out and said that she was wrong, but they never really said she was right, either.
One of those that was interested in what she had to say was poet and novelist Clemens Brentano. Brentano recorded the visions that Emmerich told him through a translator. Emmerich passed away in 1824. Brentano passed away in 1842. In 1881, Julien Gouyet, a Catholic priest with access to Brentano’s notes on Emmerich, traveled to Ephesus and followed the path described by Emmerich. He traveled out of Ephesus on the road that would lead to Jerusalem, as the notes described. That eventually led him to the ruins of a house. The ruins matched Emmerich’s description for the house Mary lived in. The foundation of the house was dated to the first century, but the rest of the house showed signs that it had been rebuilt in the sixth century.
A moment to clarify: I’m not saying Emmerich was a prophetess, that her visions were accurate, or that Mary appeared to her. I’m just laying out some facts about how the shrine currently designated “Mary’s House” was found according to its current curators, and how these facts lineup with our historical perspective on Mary. There are a lot of moving parts here with alternate explanations. It could be that Emmerich read or heard an accurate description of the typical first century home in the area of Ephesus, or that Brantano had such a description and added it to his notes on Emmerich’s visions. If the settlement was sufficiently dense, then any description of an average home of that time would have led to something. Take a moment to ponder how close Emmerich comes to a valid, explicit, verified vision, though. The description attributed to her turned out to be accurate, we just can’t be certain that it was accurate because it was a divine vision or careful study and high probability. I’m not converting to Catholicism over her vision, but I’m definitely raising an eyebrow just a little.
Regardless of whether or not Emmerich was a visionary, I do think we can use her as a sort of measuring stick. If she’s still disputable, then you must be this tall to be called a prophet. Anything less, and you slip into the realm of either liar or lunatic.
At about the same time Emmerich was having her visions, a man named Joseph Smith Jr was having visions of his own in America. The story goes that an angel appeared to Smith, revealing a message from ancient America. Smith was told about people who lived in ancient America called the Lamanites and the Nephites, among others. These people were supposed to have established kingdoms and great stone cities in North America, then left writings for their descendants.
Along with some of these, Smith was supernaturally empowered to translate an ancient Egyptian papyrus. Sadly, much of the original papyrus that Smith translated was lost, but some of it remains.
Since Smith’s century, some significant seeds were sown to substitute our stupidity by studying secrets. The Rosetta Stone revealed a lot about Egyptian writing. Now you can take a college course in reading Egyptian. We can grade Smith’s translation of the Egyptian papyrus. We’ve excavated lots in North America. We’ve gained an understanding of life in North America before the arrival of Europeans. We’ve created genetic profiles of the people that lived here and can gauge the likelihood of their relationship to people groups in Europe, Asia, or Africa.
With all this material to grade Smith, how does he stack up? Let’s start with his translation of the Egyptian papyrus. His translation is a complete fabrication. Even the LDS website admits that his translations don’t match what egyptologists know about hieroglyphs today. What he said about the Egyptian papyrus has nothing to do with what the papyrus actually says. In every place where we are able to compare what Smith’s translation to those of established, proven egyptologists, the translation is not even remotely related. How about archeology? Here we have at least some interesting developments. It turns out that there were giant cities of stone in the New World. These people had written language. Unfortunately for Smith, they weren’t in North America, they were in Central and South America. Also, their histories, names, and architecture do not line up with the descriptions Smith gave. It doesn’t seem that Smith’s angel communicated anything related to the facts.
Joseph Smith and the Mormon church have always maintained that they are not allegory. It’s possible that the cities in question remain buried under some hill in the American South, but at this point that seems unlikely. As it stands, this doesn’t seem to be the case, however. With Smith, we are looking for any evidence at all to justify his claims. With Emmerich, we’re looking for alternate reasons why her claims match the evidence so well. As it stands, if I were to place my faith, I would choose Mary over Joseph.