While it’s true that the Apostle Paul didn’t directly write much about the Virgin Mary, like elsewhere in Scripture, she definitely seems to have been a major figure in the background of his theology. This is especially evident in one of the few places where Paul does explicitly mention Mary, and that’s in Galatians 4:4 when he states that Jesus was “born of woman.” As Fr. Thomas Crean points out, the word that gets translated as “born” here is different from the word that’s used later in this same chapter to refer to the “birth” of Ishmael and Isaac (Gal. 4:22-23, 29). In the latter case, the word is γεγέννηται, which is the standard “beget” that we see in places like the genealogy of Matthew 1. The former, however, is more accurately rendered as “becomes” or “made.” So a better translation of Galatians 4:4 is that Jesus was “made of woman” or that He “came from woman.” The fact that the birth of Jesus is linguistically contrasted with the births of two mere men, seems to indicate that St. Paul had Jesus’ miraculous birth in mind, and remember what was miraculous about it: The fact that it was virginal, i.e. it occurred through only a woman.
Fr. Crean suggests that this is connected to Paul’s discussion of gender relations in 1 Corinthians 11:8-12. It’s undisputed that Paul’s statement, “man was not made from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man,” is a callback to Genesis 2:20-22, when the woman was made from the man in order to be his helper. What Fr. Crean proposes is that Paul doesn’t drop the Adam and Eve, man and woman, dynamic as he moves from verses 8-9 to 11-12. Instead, when Paul says, “as the woman was of the man, so [now] the man is by the woman” (1 Cor. 11:12), he was referring to the fact that, just as Eve was miraculously from Adam alone, without a female partner, so now is Jesus miraculously from Mary alone, without a male partner. In other words, Paul explicitly identifies Mary as the new Eve while identifying Jesus as the new Adam. Not only does this interpretation perfectly balance out the “mutual dependence” of man and woman (1 Cor. 11:11), but it’s further supported by the fact that, later on in this same letter, Paul makes another direct comparison between the origin of the first and last Adam: “the first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:47).
Thus, it seems that when St. Paul speaks about Jesus’ miraculous birth from a Virgin, he already has in mind the idea that Mary is “the new Eve,” just as Jesus is “the new Adam” (a comparison that’s made even more explicit by 2nd century writers like Ss. Irenaeus and Justin Martyr). This provides important context for Galatians 4, which not only begins by noting Mary’s role as the new Eve in miraculously giving birth to Christ, but is also centered around the tale of two women, who represent two covenants. Paul writes that Jesus was “made of woman, made under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons… So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal. 4:4-7). Mary gave birth to Jesus in order that He might free us from bondage to “the elements of this world,” i.e. the old covenant world, and make us free sons. From here, St. Paul “allegorically” interprets the story of Sarah and Hagar in order to further illustrate this relationship between the old and new covenants (Gal. 4:21-26).
Paul explains how the slavewoman Hagar corresponds to “the present Jerusalem,” that is, the Jews who had rejected the Messiah and were thus still in bondage to the old covenant, while the freewoman Sarah corresponds to “the Jerusalem above” who is “our mother.” Paul then quotes the words of Sarah from Genesis 21:10, “Cast out this slavewoman with her son, for the son of this slavewoman shall not be heir with the son of a freewoman,” and explains, “we are not children of the slave but of the free woman” (Gal. 4:31). The overall point St. Paul’s making is that the old covenant was never God’s ultimate promise, but it was always intended to pave way for the new covenant. The fact that he ties this to the story of Abraham’s wife is very significant because, like many women in the Old Testament, the promise made to Sarah was a continuation of the promise made to Eve; and understanding this helps explain why Paul seamlessly uses the imagery of women, cities, mothers, and covenants, to make his argument about this promise being fulfilled in Christ.
As most people are aware, the Lord granting children to women is a major theme throughout Scripture, and especially the book of Genesis. Not only was the miraculous birth of Isaac promised to the barren woman Sarah (Gen. 17:15-21), but the barren wife of Isaac, Rebekah, was also miraculously granted two sons (Gen. 25:21). This theme ultimately stems from Genesis 3:15 when the first promise concerning the birth of a child was made to Eve, “I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The entire Genesis narrative is essentially just tracing the history of this seed, which is why it comes as no surprise that women like Sarah and Rebekah, the ones through whom the seed of promise continued, are portrayed as “new Eves” in their own right.
We know this because, while the woman in Genesis 3 was deceived by the serpent and thereby fell under his power, the daughters of Eve began to reverse this by deceiving serpents in order to protect their promised seeds. Sarah is the first to do this by deceiving the wicked Pharaoh in Genesis 12, in order to escape from him and protect the birth of Isaac (Exodus 4:2 reveals the connection between Pharaoh and the serpent; Moses ran from the serpent just as he ran from Pharaoh). Likewise, Rebekah deceives Isaac who, like the serpent, was trying to prevent the promised seed from receiving his rightful inheritance (Gen. 24). She does this because, just as God promised Eve that her seed would crush the serpent, so did He promise Rebekah that Jacob would rule over Esau (Gen. 25:23), not the other way around.
So we can see that, just as men like Noah, Abraham, and Joseph are types of Adam, so too are women like Sarah and Rebekah types of Eve. Understanding this explains why St. Paul makes Sarah interchangeable with the heavenly Jerusalem in Galatians 4:24-25, and refers to this city as our mother: It’s because the connection between women and cities is also something that goes back to our mother Eve. Unlike everything else in Genesis 2, the woman was not “made” (יָצַר) from the man, but rather “built” (בָּנָה) from him, a word that’s used throughout Genesis to refer to the construction of cities (Gen. 4:17, 10:11, 11:4-8). Eve is the prototypical city. This is why cities like Jerusalem are always portrayed as feminine in Scripture, and Paul even quotes Isaiah 54:1, a text about Jerusalem as “the barren woman” who “rejoices” (linking her to barren women like Sarah and Rebekah), to cement his connection between women and cities in Galatians 4:27; a connection that’s ultimately rooted in the original “mother of all living.”
So let’s recap. St. Paul begins Galatians 4 by speaking about our Lady’s miraculous birth-giving of Jesus, which we know from 1 Corinthians 11:8-12 brings in the idea of her being the new Eve, adjacent to Christ being the new Adam. This already implies that, just as all Adam-types in Scripture culminate in Jesus, making Him “the last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:42), so do all Eve-types in Scripture culminate in the Virgin Mary. And this is further suggested as Paul proceeds to trace the history of the covenantal promise made to Eve through the Matriarchs of old, which culminates in the “heavenly Jerusalem” who is “our mother.” Now, it’s certainly true that the Church is in mind here, however it’s important to realize that the Church herself is the corporate embodiment of the Virgin Bride of God. This is why, in 2 Corinthians 11:2-3, St. Paul speaks of the Church as the “pure virgin” who he’s afraid will be led astray just “as the serpent deceived Eve.” The Church is called to be like her true type, the new Virgin Eve, and not like her old type, the fallen and enslaved Eve.
This is important to understand because this is the very message of Galatians 4. With the relationship between Mary, Eve, and the Matriarchs understood, we can easily reframe Paul’s example of Hagar and Sarah with Eve and Mary, to illustrate how the Church is set free in Christ. We can do this reframing because the old Jerusalem being “in slavery with her children” (Gal. 4:25), ultimately goes back to the original mother of Genesis 3. Remember that the woman only becomes a mother, which is what “Eve” means, after she and her husband fell into the bondage of sin. Eve’s role as the mother of humanity was thus bound up with humanity being held in slavery to the devil, and even old covenant Israel was not free from this slavery. This is why Galatians 4:3 states that both Jews and Gentiles were in slavery to “the elements of this world,” and it’s from this primordial slavery, the slavery of Eve’s banished children, that Christ redeemed us.
Christ redeemed us from the original curse of the Law, that is, the curse that was on all humanity, the curse of Genesis 3: “God sent forth his Son, made of woman, made under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” Jesus was born of the one in whom the promise to Eve was fulfilled, thereby transferring Eve and her children (those who were under the Law of Genesis 3) from slavery to freedom. This is why we’re called “adopted sons,” and said to have a “heavenly mother” as opposed to an earthly mother, it’s because we’re no longer in bondage with our old mother Eve, but we’ve taken on a new mother, a new Eve. The Virgin Mary is the ultimate symbol of the Church precisely because she’s the new, free, and redeemed Eve who, by her birth-giving, has saved the world.
If this sounds “scandalous” to say, then consider 1 Timothy 2:12-15 when St. Paul once again speaks about the two genders, and again roots his teaching in Genesis 2-3. Paul writes that the reason he doesn’t permit women to have authority over men is because, “Adam was formed first, then Eve; Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Tim. 2:12-14). Contrary to popular sentiment, this is not so much a “put down” on Eve, but more so on Adam. Eve’s sin in the garden was due to deception, she just didn’t know any better, while Adam’s sin was not due to deception but rather deliberate choice. This is the difference between “sinning unintentionally” and “sinning with a high hand” (cf. Num. 15:27-31), Adam did the latter. The reason this entails men having authority over women is because, even though Adam failed his duty, it nonetheless reveals what that intended duty was: The man protects the woman, not the other way around.
Thus, according to St. Paul, the role of the male gender is to guard the female gender from the guile of the devil. The first Adam failed this task, thus plunging the male gender into sin and death, but the last Adam succeeded, thus liberating the sons of Adam from bondage. Likewise, even though her sin was indeed less severe than Adam’s, Paul nevertheless says that Eve “became a transgressor” through her sin, but he adds something curious: “Yet she will be saved through the childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control” (1 Tim. 2:15). This is often looked at as a bit of a “grammatical anomaly,” however at this point I think we can fully understand what Paul meant here.
The “she” who will be “saved through the childbearing” is clearly Eve, given she’s the closest referent. However, “she” refers to both the historical woman Eve, and the female gender as a whole. This makes sense of how Paul can seamlessly pass from “she” to “they,” with the former emphasizing the historical woman, and the latter emphasizing the whole gender. And so, given the salvific nature of “the childbearing” is predicated on the historical woman Eve, I think it’s almost certain that this action refers to Mary, the new Eve, bearing the Christ Child. This is because, as was shown above, Paul views Mary as the one in whom the redemption of Eve takes place. Just as Eve cast disgrace on the female gender, so Mary removed it. And the reason why this childbearing being salvific is placed in the future tense, “she will be saved,” is because of the latter sentence, “if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” Eve, women, will be saved just like anyone is saved, by persevering in faith, love, and holiness, but what’s saving them? It’s “the childbearing” of the one who redeemed their gender, the Theotokos, the God-bearer, the first woman to ever be redeemed by the Incarnation of Christ (this is actually why I believe the apostles used the term “Theotokos”).
This makes perfect sense given the context of 1 Timothy 2 described above. In this text, St. Paul berates men for failing in the garden, but comforts them with the knowledge that, in Christ, they’ve retained Adam’s authority. Likewise, women are rebuked for being “transgressors” in the garden, and under the authority of men, however they’re comforted with the reminder that it was a woman who brought salvation into the world, and they too will receive this salvation if they continue in faith, love, holiness, and self-control. Remember, this “comforting” of the two genders is the same thing Paul did in 1 Corinthians 11, when he discussed the “mutual dependence” of man and woman being fulfilled in Jesus’ role as the new Adam, and Mary’s role as the new Eve.
So, the Orthodox prayer, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” is clearly rooted in the teaching of St. Paul, who elsewhere affirms that it’s the duty of wives to “save” their husbands (1 Cor. 7:16). If this is true of earthly brides, how much more is it true of Christ’s heavenly bride, the Virgin Mother? Once we see how all of this feminine imagery in Scripture ultimately centers around the Immaculate Theotokos, the Orthodox veneration of Mary not only makes perfect sense, but the notion of down-playing her role in our salvation becomes absurd. If the city of God can be called “the joy of all the earth” (Ps. 48:1-2), then our Holy Mother, the one who represents this city, can likewise be called the joy of all the earth; if the nations are called to “walk by the light” of the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24), then they’re also called to walk by the light of the Theotokos; and if Jesus can prophetically say to His Mother, “Behold, you are beautiful, my love… You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride… Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one” (Song 4:1, 9, 5:2), why should we say anything less?
Most blessed art thou, O Virgin Theotokos, for through Him that was incarnate of thee is Hades despoiled, Adam is recalled from the dead, the curse is made void, Eve is set free, death is slain, and we are endowed with life. Wherefore, in hymns of praise, we cry aloud: Blessed art Thou, O Christ our God, Who is thus well pleased, glory to Thee.