Knowing Mary Through the Bible: Decoding the Woman of the Apocalypse
Who Is the Woman in Revelation 12?
by Edward P. Sri
Decoding the woman in 12 is not an easy task.[1 ] Although a strong Catholic tradition sees Mary in this woman who appears in heaven “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet” and wearing “a crown of twelve stars,” most Biblical scholars today rule out a Marian interpretation. Instead, they hold that the woman is a symbol for a collective group of people, either Israel or the Church.
Let’s consider this passage. Three main characters emerge in this scene: the woman, her male child, and the dragon. The woman gives birth to the male child, who is attacked by the dragon. The child is caught up to God and enthroned, while the dragon is defeated and cast down (Rev. 12:1–9).
Two of the three characters are easily identifiable. The dragon is explicitly identified as “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan” (12:9). The male child is Jesus, for he is described as destined to “rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:5) — a reference to the description of the messianic king in Psalm 2:9. Furthermore, since the child is caught up to God and sits on His throne, most scholars identify the child as Christ.
However, the identity of the woman is not as explicit. We must first consider five key facts we learn about the woman in Revelation 12.
The Third Character
First, the woman has a crown of 12 stars, which recalls the 12 Apostles and the 12 tribes of Israel.
Second, she delivers her child with birth pains. This recalls the Daughter Zion prophecies of the Old Testament. Zion was the mountain of Jerusalem that was personified as a mother figure who endured labor pains before giving birth to a child. This image of Lady Zion giving birth became a powerful symbol for how the faithful Jewish people would endure many sufferings in the period leading up to the messianic age (cf. Is. 26:17; 66:7–8).
Third, the woman gives birth to the Messiah, the one who “rules all nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:5; cf. Ps. 2:9).
Fourth, the woman’s son fulfills Genesis 3:15, which foretold how the woman would have a descendant who would defeat the devil. Revelation 12:5–10 dramatically depicts the fulfillment of this prophecy as the dragon (Satan) is cast down to earth and defeated while the woman’s male child emerges enthroned in heaven.
Fifth, the woman experiences the blessings of a new exodus. After her son’s victory over the devil, the woman flees to the wilderness, where she is protected by eagle’s wings and nourished by God (12:6, 13–16) — images that recall the Exodus story in which Israel was brought out into the wilderness, protected by eagle’s wings (Ex. 19:4) and nourished with manna.
With this background, we are prepared to examine three common views about the woman. The first two identify the woman not as an individual person (Mary), but as a symbol for a collective group of people.
1. The woman is a symbol for the Church. This ecclesial interpretation is supported by the depiction of the woman being protected and nourished by God in Revelation 12:13–16 — imagery that describes God protecting His People in the New Covenant age. However, the ecclesial interpretation by itself does not make sense of all the data, for Revelation 12:1–5 portrays the woman as the mother of the Messiah. If the woman represents the Church, we must ask, how could the Church give birth to Christ? Rather, it should be the other way around!
2. The woman is a symbol for Israel. This view makes sense of the woman’s crown of 12 stars, which recalls the 12 tribes of Israel. It also explains the birth pains image, which recalls the Daughter Zion prophecies about the trials God’s People would face. However, seeing the woman exclusively as Israel fails to explain 12:13–16, which portrays the woman fleeing into the desert to be protected and nourished by God after the messianic child has been enthroned in heaven. These verses clearly describe what God does for His People of the New Covenant after Christ’s coming, not the Israel of the Old era.
Therefore, although the woman is depicted in ways that recall Israel and the Church, interpretations that identify her only as a collective group do not make sense of her entire portrait in Revelation 12. Furthermore, since the other two main characters are identified as individuals (the male child being Jesus, and the dragon Satan), it seems unlikely that the third major character is only a symbol for a collective group. Rather, if the dragon and the child represent individuals, the woman also is likely to be an individual. Thus, we will see how a third interpretive option which identifies the woman as Mary is preferable.
Room for Mary
3. The woman is Mary. On a most basic level, there must be room for seeing Mary in this scene. While the woman still may have some symbolic meaning pointing to Israel or the Church, we must keep in mind that she is portrayed as the mother of the Messiah. And wouldn’t reference to the Messiah’s mother bring to mind Mary? It seems virtually impossible that the earliest Christians would have not seen Mary at all in this woman. As one commentator asks, “Is it conceivable that a Christian author of the late first century could speak about the Mother of Christ while prescinding entirely from the Virgin Mary?”[3 ]
A Marian interpretation avoids the pitfalls of views that see the woman not as an individual at all, but only as a symbol for the People of God. Such an either-or proposition itself is foreign to the biblical worldview in which individuals often symbolically represent collective groups (e.g., Romans 5:19, where Adam represents all humanity, and Psalm 44:4, where Jacob stands for all of Israel). Given this biblical notion of individuals representing larger groups of people, the woman in 12 could be understood as both an individual (Mary) and a representative of God’s People as a whole. And Mary is just the right person to embody both the Old and New Covenant since she herself stands at the hinge between the and the New. If there was one woman in salvation history who could represent both Israel and the beginning of the New Covenant People of God, it would be Mary.
The Same Woman: Mary in John 19
But there is still one stronger argument that makes the Marian interpretation of the woman in Revelation 12 even clearer. Here, we will consider 12 in light of another passage in the Johannine tradition: Mary at the Cross in John 19:25–27. In John 19, we see from an earthly perspective what happens on Calvary: Jesus is crucified by the Romans while His mother and the beloved disciple stand at the foot of the Cross. Revelation 12 portrays the same scene, but from a heavenly perspective, so we can see with the eyes of angels what really happens on Good Friday: Calvary is the climactic cosmic showdown between God and the devil, and the real force behind Christ’s crucifixion is not the Romans, but Satan.
While John 19 presents soldiers nailing Jesus to a cross, Revelation 12 shows us the dragon waiting to devour the male child and fiercely battling the forces of heaven (Rev. 12:4–5, 7) and the son emerging victorious, enthroned in heaven, while the devil is defeated and cast down (12:5–9).
In the midst of this ultimate battle stands the “woman” in both scenes. In fact, there are four key parallels between the way the woman in Revelation 12 is portrayed and the way Mary at the in John 19 is described, highlighting how the Book of portrays the woman in ways that bring to mind Mary.
1. “Woman.” Just as 12:1 presents a figure who is called a “woman” and is the mother of the Messiah (12:5), so Mary in John 19:25–27 is called “woman” and stands at the as the mother of the Messiah.
2. Birth Pains. Both women are portrayed in scenes involving the Daughter Zion birth pains theme. This is explicit with the woman in Revelation 12:1–2, but the scene of Mary at the Cross in John 19 also has birth pains imagery in the background when the passage is read in light of something Jesus says earlier, in John 16:20–21. While discussing His imminent Passion and death, Jesus tells an allegory of a woman who experiences the pains of labor and the joy of finally giving birth to her child. This allegory foreshadows what Jesus’ disciples will soon experience: pain when they see Him crucified and great joy when they see risen from the dead.
Since this birth pains allegory foreshadows Calvary, its mention of a “woman” in her “hour” symbolizing Christ’s Passion and death clearly stands in the background of the scene of Mary at the Cross — a scene which similarly involves Mary being called “woman” (19:26) at the very hour of Christ’s Passion (cf. Jn. 12:27–31). With this birth pains imagery in the background of Jesus’ crucifixion in John 19, we find further connections between Mary at the and the woman in birth pains in Revelation 12.
3. Satan’s Defeat. Just as the woman in 12 gives birth to a male child who is victoriously taken up to a throne in heaven while the devil is conquered and thrown out (12:5–9), so Mary in John 19 stands at the Cross with her messianic Son in His “hour” — which John’s Gospel portrays as the victorious hour when the devil is cast down (Jn. 12:27–31).
4. Two-Fold Maternity. Both women are described as the mother of Jesus and as having a special motherly relationship with all of Christ’s faithful followers. Just as the woman in 12 is the mother not only of the individual Messiah (Rev. 12:5), but also of who “keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (12:17), so Mary at the Cross is presented not only as Jesus’ mother (Jn. 19:25–26), but also as the mother of the beloved disciple — a figure who represents all faithful disciples.[4 ]
All these parallels — “woman,” birth pains, Satan’s defeat, the mother of Christ, and the mother of Christ’s followers — show a unity of thought about the woman figure in John’s writings. Therefore, if the woman in John 19 is clearly understood to be Mary, the woman in 12 also should be seen as Mary.
- For a more in-depth treatment of this complex passage, see my book Queen Mother: A Biblical Theology of Mary’s Queenship (Emmaus Road, 2004), pp. 88–103.
- If such a depiction is related to Mary, it would not necessarily be opposed to the Catholic teaching about Mary remaining a virgin while giving birth to Jesus, and thus not experiencing birth pains. In the New Testament, John’s Gospel uses birth pain imagery not to describe a physical birth, but death and Resurrection (Jn. 16:20–21). Similarly, the Book of Revelation itself uses birth imagery to portray (Rev. 1:5). Thus, 12 is likely presenting not Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but the metaphorical birth of His death and Resurrection.
- A. Feuillet, Jesus and His Mother (Still River, Massachusetts: St. Bede’s Publications, 1984), p. 23.
- See my reflection in “Mary’s Last Words: The Spousal Meaning of ‘Do Whatever He Tells You’” (September/October ’07 issue of Lay Witness).
Reprinted with permission from the March/April 2008 issue of Lay Witness magazine. © 2008 Catholics United for the Faith / www.cuf.org/Laywitness/index.asp