Biblical Intertextuality: The Virgin Mary as the Ark of the Covenant

Jan Kozłowski

“Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” This phrase is uttered hundreds of millions times everyday by Christians of various denominations living on this planet, since it is a part of the Hail Mary prayer. In the Catholic rosary prayer Hail Mary is said up to 212 times. The text of the whole prayer is:

Ave Maria, gratia plena,
Dominus tecum,
Benedicta tu in mulieribus
Et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.

Hail, Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.

The first two sentences are quotations from the original Greek text of the New Testament (Luke 1:28 and 1:42), and are the most frequently spoken phrases from ancient literature.

The Visitation, Giotto di Bondone, 1310s (North transept, Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi, Italy).

In this piece I want to talk about the second of those phrases in the context of intertextuality in the New Testament. ‘Intertextuality’ comes ultimately from the Latin word textus (whence English “text”, which means “something weaved”, or “fabric”). This ‘cloth’ consists of various threads of different colours and texture. The text is thus not only just the ‘threads’ which you can see at the surface (the so-called “surface text”), but also those threads underneath that are invisible at first glance. But they make the text no less, and contribute further to its meaning. The meaning hidden below the visible, surface text is defined primarily by references and allusions to earlier literature that is known to the readers. The identification of these often substantially modifies an interpretation which would otherwise be limited to the surface text.

An earlier text to which the author refers is called a “hypotext” or, less precisely, an “intertext”, while the entirety of relationships between a surface text and the earlier texts which the author intentionally invokes from the memory of the readers together form what we call “hypotextuality” or “intertextuality”.

Let us take a look at how it works in the ‘Visitation’ scene of the Gospel of Luke (1:39–56), a text written in the 1st century AD. Mary, who is pregnant, travels in a hurry through the mountains to her relative Elisabeth, who is the mother of John the Baptist. She does this in part because she wants to check whether the words spoken to her earlier by an angel (namely, that she has conceived “the Son of God” in her womb) are true. Elisabeth greets Mary with the words with which I began this piece: “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Εὐλογημένη σὺ ἐν τοῖς γυναιξίν, καὶ εὐλογημένος ὁ καρπὸς τῆς κοιλίας σου (Eulogēmenē su en tois gunaixin, kai eulogēmenos ho karpos tēs koiliās sou; in Jerome’s Latin translation, the Vulgate: benedicta tu inter mulieres et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Luke 1:42).

The Judaean mountains, near Jerusalem, Israel.

An obvious source of intertextual references for the New Testament is the Old Testament and in the overwhelming majority of cases the references are to the Septuagint, that is, to an Ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament that was produced in the community of Hellenized Jews living in Alexandria, Egypt. The title means “seventy” and comes from a legend that seventy rabbis translated the Old Testament without consulting each other only to discover that all of them produced exactly the same text. An index of the citations from the Old Testament in the standard edition of the New Testament (Nestle-Aland, ed. 28) has over 2,000 instances. 

The words spoken by Elisabeth are an almost exact quotation from the Book of Judith (2nd century BC), where Oziah, a representative of the elders of Israel, shouts to Judith who is returning to Bethulia with the severed head of Holofernes: “O daughter, blessed art thou of the most high God above all the women upon the earth; and blessed be the Lord God, which hath created the heavens and the earth, which hath directed thee to the cutting off of the head of the chief of our enemies” (Jdt 13:18).[1] The context for both of those utterances is very similar. We have a young woman whose sexual status is atypical and who, after an event which is epochal and salvatory for the whole community, goes to a town placed in the mountain region of Judah, where she is welcomed by the host of the place. The reader who identifies this parallelism, immediately notices two things.

Judith with the head of Holofernes, Andrea Vaccaro, c.1630 (for sale by Robilant+Voena).

First, the conception of Jesus, by virtue of its analogy to the beheading of Holofernes (who was a menace to Israel) is presented as a salvational event. There is also an earlier reference in the scene of Annunciation (Luke 1:26–38) to the Book of Judges, where an angel makes Gideon the leader of Israel (6:11–24): in a climactic scene, Gideon gives an order to behead the two Midianite leaders (7:25).[2] It allows us to interpret the conception of Jesus as a fulfillment of the protoevangelium of the Book of Genesis (that is, the first announcement of salvation, preceding the Incarnation of Christ and the four Gospels): “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (Gen 3:15).

Second, instead of an intertextually expected phrase “the Lord God, who hath created the heavens and the earth” (from Judith 13:18), in the Visitation scene from the Gospel of Luke we hear the words “the fruit of thy womb”. For Luke, the embryo in Mary’s womb is the Lord God, the Creator Himself. Such an interpretation of this reference to the Book of Judith seems even more probable when we remember that Luke employs exactly the same literary device in Acts 1:1, where the opening sentence – “The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach” – is an allusion to the Septuagint text of the Book of Genesis (2:3). In Luke’s text “Jesus” appears in a context where “God” is expected.[3]

Moses and Joshua in the Tabernacle, James Jacques Joseph Tissot, c.1896–1902 (Jewish Museum, New York, USA).

We may ask, therefore, who is this woman who brings about the Creator who is ‘enclosed’ in her womb, and whose individual figure was sketched so vividly by the author of the Gospel. Mary had been already depicted as Gideon in the Annunciation scene, as the “daughter of Zion” (in Luke 1:28), the mysterious Virgin of Isaiah 7:14 (in Luke 1:32) and Judith of the Book of Judges (13:18). But now there is only one parallel in the Old Testament which comes to mind when we read about Mary’s bearing God in her womb: the Ark of the Covenant. This was a movable, wooden, ornate box, which lay at the centre of the Old Covenant worship of God. Wherever the Ark of the Covenant appeared, it meant that the God of Israel was directly present. We can argue on the basis of intertextuality that the author of the Third Gospel wanted the readers to see in the Ark of the Covenant a type of the Mother of the Son of God.

Elisabeth realizes that the mother of “her Lord” came to her thanks to the reaction of her child to the greetings spoken by Mary. We read: “And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.” (Luke 1:42–4). The only parallel to this leaping of John the Baptist before the Holy One of Israel, who is inside a moving and enclosed space, is provided by King David. In the Second Book of Samuel, in chapter 6, there is a scene in which David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. We read there: “And David and all the house of Israel played [Greek paizontes] before the Lord.” (2 Sm 6:5) And also: “And David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod.” (2 Sm 6:14). And “as the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal Saul’s daughter looked through a window, and saw King David leaping and dancing [orchoumenon] before the Lord.” (2 Sm 6:16).

David brings the Ark into Jerusalem, illustration from the Morgan Picture Bible, France, 1240s (Morgan Library & Museum, New York, USA).

What is more, David does all that out of joy: ἐν εὐφροσύνῃ (en euphrosunē, 2 Sm 6:12), just as John also leaps out of joy: ἐν ἀγαλλιάσει (en agalliasei, Luke 1:44). The parallel becomes even more significant, when we take a look at the words spoken by Elisabeth in verse 43: “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”[4] Those words are, both formally and conceptually, very similar to those uttered by David after Uzzah has been stricken dead for supporting the Ark, when it was about to fall from the carriage, because he broke the Lord’s commandment not to touch the Ark: “How shall the ark of the Lord come to me?” (2 Sm 6:9).[5] The meaning of both phrases is analogous. Both of them express sacred respect and a feeling of being unworthy in the presence of the Holy One of Israel.

The intertextual link becomes even stronger, when we take into consideration what is immediately before the prophetic words uttered by Elisabeth: “And she spake out (anephōnēsen) with a loud voice, and said” (Luke 1:43).[6] The Greek verb anaphōneō is no ordinary verb. It appears five times in the Septuagint: 1 Chr 15:28; 16:4; 16:5; 16:42; and 2 Chr 5:13. In all of those cases it is used in the context of the liturgical activities which accompany David’s bringing of the Ark to Jerusalem!

David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, Giulio Clovio, c.1540 (Städel Museum, Frankfurt, Germany).

Should anyone have doubts whether Luke does indeed weave his narrative in such a way as to make the reader see in the Ark of the Covenant a type of Mary, the last parallel seems conclusive. In the Second Book of Samuel we read that David, after the death of Uzzah, gave up the idea of bringing the Ark to Jerusalem, but decided to place it at the house of Obed-Edom. There we read: “And the ark of the Lord continued in the house of Obededom the Gittite three months: and the Lord blessed Obededom, and all his household” (2 Sm 6:11). Only after that does David finally bring the Ark to Jerusalem (2 Sm 6:12). And Luke writes: “And Mary abode with her [Elisabeth] about three months, and returned to her own house.” (1:56).

Certain scholars who noticed those intertextual references drew attention to the allegedly different character of the two scenes. Whereas in Luke 1:39–56 we are dealing with a mild, almost idyllic image of pregnant women bound by a friendly relationship, the atmosphere in 2 Sam 6 is full of fear and awe. However, if we look deeper into this, these scenes are conceptually not so distant from each other. We must remember that in the scene of the Visitation we have a revelation of YHWH Himself, the same God who is a consuming fire (Deut 4:24) and whom “man shall not see and live” (Exod 33:20). The intertextual reference to the Second Book of Samuel would discreetly remind the reader of it by introducing into the narrative an element of tremendum, of an expected theophany. At the same time, the detection of the hypotext would subtly emphasize the gentleness of the incarnated God.

The death of Uzzah, Giulio Quaglio the Younger, 1704 (Ljubljana Cathedral, Slovenia).

Once again the author of the Third Gospel appears as a writer who uses the hypotext in a masterly way, reminding us that the word “text” etymologically means “fabric” – something which consists of threads that are invisible at first sight but, once found, prove essential for a proper understanding of the whole.

Jan Kozłowski is a Classicist working as Associate Professor in the Institute of Classical Philology at the University of Warsaw, Poland. When it comes to ancient literature, he works on authors who fascinate him and about whom he feels he has something new to say: from Homer through Catullus to the early Christian literature. Privately, he loves the nature of Greece which gives him an intuitive insight into ancient mythology and religion. He is careful, though, not to cross the thin boundary between engaged contemplation and participation.


1 εὐλογητὴ σύ, θύγατερ, τῷ Θεῷ τῷ ῾Υψίστῳ παρὰ πάσας τὰς γυναῖκας τὰς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, καὶ εὐλογημένος Κύριος ὁ Θεός, ὃς ἔκτισε τοὺς οὐρανοὺς καὶ τὴν γῆν, ὃς κατεύθυνέ σε εἰς τραῦμα κεφαλῆς ἄρχοντος ἐχθρῶν ἡμῶν.
2 More can be read on this in my article “‘The Lord Is with You’ – ‘The Lord Is in You’: Intertextuality of Luke 1:28,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 97 (2021) 131–4.
3 I write about it more in my article “‘The Fruit of Your Womb’ (Luke 1:32) as ‘The Lord God, Creator of Heaven and Earth’ (Judith 13, 18). An Intertextual Analysis,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 93 (2017) 339–42.
4 καὶ πόθεν μοι τοῦτο ἵνα ἔλθῃ ἡ μήτηρ τοῦ κυρίου μου πρὸς ἐμέ;
5 πῶς εἰσελεύσεται πρός με ἡ κιβωτὸς Κυρίου;
6 καὶ ἀνεφώνησεν κραυγῇ μεγάλῃ καὶ εἶπεν.