So what’s the deal with the woman in Rev 12? Is the woman in Rev 12 Mary or someone else? This can be a hotly debated issue between Catholics and Protestants. Here’s the issue, as it is often presented by Roman Catholic scholars:
- The birth of the one ‘who would rule with a rod of iron’ (Rev 12:5) is obviously the birth of Jesus. Therefore the woman who gave birth to him is obviously Mary.
- The Dragon is a spiritual manifestation of Satan’s power, and in the Christmas story stands for Herod.
- Therefore we can read back into the story a spiritual statement of Mary; that she is a queen of heaven as the chosen vessel of Jesus who was immaculately conceived (i.e. Mary was conceived with original sin). She was also was free from sin during her whole life, and she was taken up to heaven without dying. And because she was without sin, she did not suffer the pain in childbirth (since the curse to Eve after the Fall in Gen 3 was the pain in childbearing it follows: no sin, no pain).
You can see now why Protestants might have skin in the game! My response to this is two-fold: 1) Mary cannot be not identical to the woman as Roman Catholics claim, but 2) Mary does resemble somewhat the scenario in Rev 12.
To the first response, Mary cannot be identical to the woman, and this can be shown easily from just looking more closely at Rev 12. First of all, the woman in Rev 12:1-6 is in the pain of childbirth, yet according to Roman Catholic theology, she cannot experience pain because Mary is supposed to be without sin (See Catechism of the Council of Trent, Part 1: The Creed, Article III). Many Catholic scholars counter that the ‘pain’ here is symbolic; but if the pain is symbolic, then why can’t the rest be symbolic also? One can’t have it both ways. Secondly, the woman of Rev 12 sees her child born, taken up to his throne and THEN flees to Egypt, while Mary gives birth to Jesus, flees WITH him and Joseph. The ‘assumption to the throne’ in the Gospels doesn’t take place until after the death and resurrection of Christ some thirty years later. The timing doesn’t make sense if we are to read this as a picture only of Mary. Third, this woman must be more than one single woman since her children are those who hold to the testimony of Jesus (Rev 12:17). If this passage were showing the spiritual motherhood of Mary, then it is doing so without any hint in the Gospels, in the life and practice in the church in the Book of Acts, the writings of Paul, or Peter or John.
A better model would be that this woman is representative of the Old Testament church i.e. Israel. Israel is sometimes portrayed in the OT as a woman, sometimes unfaithful (Isa 1:8, Jer 6:2,23, Joel 1:8, Amos 5:2), sometimes as a restored woman (Isa 54:1-4, Isa 62:1-5). Paul describes ‘our mother’ as ‘Jerusalem above’ (Gal 4:26-27), in which he cites Isaiah 54:1. This shows that there is precedence for speaking of OT Israel as a singular woman (and the NT talks about the church in this manner too, see Eph 5:23-27). A hint of this type of use is in the crown of twelves stars (Rev 12:1), signifying the 12 tribes of Israel. What makes much more sense is that her birth pangs are the yearnings and longings of the OT people, expressed in Simeon’s song (Lk 2:29-32). As commentator Greg Beale says, “The woman’s labor also partly represents the imminent, agonizing expectation of the Messiah’s birth and assumption of kingship, which is about to take place within the OT community of faith.” (The Book of Revelation, p.630)
So is there ANYWAY Mary is connected to this passage? I think so, but only as in a shadowy sort of way. Just like King Herod may be a small agent of the demonic force of the Dragon, he can only, in a shadowy, incomplete, and analogous way mirror the dragon, so too Mary does for the woman. She is in birth pains, gives birth to the Messiah, and does flee to Egypt. So instead of reading back into the character of Mary spiritual realities that don’t fit her, perhaps we should see the Christmas story is a miniature version of the greater reality talked about here in Rev 12. It is far more fruitful to talk about Mary being a part of the OT people who get to witness the coming of the Messiah, rather than somehow the people are a part of her.