Mary, Daughter of Zion

Christ on the Cross with the Virgin, Mary Magdalene, St. John, and St. Francis of Paola, detail, by Nicholas Tournier (1590-1639).

In the ancient Near East, a woman, often evoked as a virgin, was frequently used to symbolize a city or a country. For example, at Isaiah 47:1, the city of Babylon is called a “virgin daughter”: “Step down! Sit in the dust, virgin daughter of Babylon.” That is to say, Babylon is termed a “virgin daughter.” The origin of this custom is not at all certain. Perhaps it arose from the custom of municipal dancing in festivals by unmarried women who symbolized the fertility of a city on which its future and that of the surrounding country depended. See Isaiah 23:12 (Sidon); Jeremiah 46:11 (Egypt).

The authors of the Bible applied this usage to their own country. See Lamentations 1:15 (Judah). But the usage was reserved especially for Jerusalem. See Zephaniah 3:14-16 and Lamentations 2:13. This tradition of using a woman to symbolize a city was honored by Michelangelo when he planned the Campidoglio, the famous piazza fronting Rome’s medieval city hall. There, in the center of a display involving rivers, a woman clothed in gold and purple (Rome’s colors) sits, a symbol of the city she overlooks from this famous perch.

The author of the fourth Gospel (John, the beloved disciple, who is also John the apostle in Matthew, Mark and Luke) was well aware of this imagery involving a woman to symbolize Jerusalem. He evokes it in John 12:15 (“Fear not, daughter of Zion”—a citation from Zech 9:9). He alludes to the imagery in John 16:21 (see Mic 4:9-10).

Once it has been established from the context of the fourth Gospel that its author not only is well aware of the use of the imagery of Daughter of Zion, but makes use of it, it remains to be seen how he does so.

Biblical exegesis deals in that which is plausible, not that which is certain, unless the Church has pronounced with its authority over some given text. (Cf. Jn 20:23.) So, applying the use of the imagery of Daughter of Zion to the fourth Gospel is necessarily a scholarly and spiritual exercise in plausibility.

The author of the fourth Gospel did not live in isolation from the other Christian communities of the immediate post-resurrection era. He must have been well aware of the many traditions involving Our Lady. Indeed, tradition has it, that he was her guardian after the death of her Son until she departed this world. So he must have been well aware of the many ways in which she appeared in the earthly life of her Son. But, in writing his Gospel, he obviously chose to ignore all but two of these appearances: the wedding feast of Cana (Jn 2:1-12) and the final moments of Jesus on the Cross (Jn 19:25-27).

The wedding feast of Cana is obviously of symbolic importance to John, for he calls it the first of Jesus’ “signs” (Jn 2:12). The mother of Jesus is never mentioned by her name “Mary” in the fourth Gospel. Instead the term “woman” is used. This argues for a symbolic importance. The reply of Jesus to his mother when she observes that the wine at the wedding feast has failed—“Woman, my hour has not yet come”—implies that at the moment she has no authority to make a request, but that when his hour does come, it will be appropriate for her to do so. The “hour” of Jesus is the moment of his exaltation on the cross, when his entire earthly life comes to a climax. The implication of the reply of Jesus to his mother is that, under the cross, she will undergo a change of roles, and that, at that moment, it will be appropriate that she make such a request of him.

The wedding feast at Cana, therefore, points to John 19:25-27, the only other place in the fourth Gospel where Mary (again under the symbolic title of “woman”) appears. There Jesus gives his mother to John, the beloved disciple, and at the same time, entrusts the beloved disciple to the care of his mother—both under the aegis of the symbol-evoking “woman.” When this scene is placed in juxtaposition with the wedding feast at Cana, where the symbolism of “woman” is also involved, and when the two scenes, lapidary in the prominence they give to the mother of Jesus in the fourth Gospel, are interpreted in the light of John’s interest in the imagery of the “Daughter of Zion,” it would seem that, in the wedding feast of Cana, Mary symbolizes Jerusalem. Or, if Jerusalem is taken for the entire economy of the Old Testament, she stands for the old dispensation.

In contrast, under the cross, Jesus gives this “woman” a new identity. Here, she accordingly becomes the fulfillment of that which the old dispensation foretold. Some would say, in order to balance the symbolism with the city of Jerusalem, she becomes the city of the new dispensation, Rome. As such she becomes the symbol of the Church, the lived faith which replaces the lived faith which Jerusalem symbolizes. And the beloved disciple stands for all the disciples of this woman with the new identity.

But it would seem that, in the fourth Gospel, more is at hand which transpired at the deepest level under the cross. For John’s Gospel is radically different from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These three evangelists believed that Jesus was both human and divine, but they wrote from the perspective, primarily, of Jesus as human. John reverses this perspective, and looks on Jesus primarily as divine. This reversal of perspective is most evident at the moment of Jesus’ elevation on the cross. There, the words of the evangelist at John 19:30 have profound implications: “… and bowing His head, he handed on the Spirit.” The implication of these words is, of course, that Jesus died. But this is not the primary implication. The primary implication is that Jesus handed on the Spirit. For John is viewing Jesus primarily as divine, and Jesus, as divine, cannot die. The words in Greek “hand on the spirit” are not used in Greek literature, profane or biblical, to signify death. But here they are pressed into service in a secondary meaning given the importance of their primary meaning. For John, when Jesus bowed his head, he handed on the Spirit. And, he died.

But to whom did Jesus hand on the Spirit? Clearly, from the context, Jesus handed on the Spirit to the woman who, at his bidding, has taken on a new identity. His handing on the Spirit to his mother indicates why she has taken on this new identity. For in this simple scene, Jesus, as divine, founds the Church by his gift of his Spirit. And thus is launched the adventure of the new dispensation, where the Church begins its long and contested witness to Jesus Christ and the message of redemptive love which he launched on a hilltop outside the city of Jerusalem 2000 years ago. This exegesis seems, to this interpreter, the least implausible way to view the two cameo appearances of Our Lady in the fourth Gospel.

Fr. James Swetnam, SJ About Fr. James Swetnam, SJ

Fr. James Swetnam, SJ, entered the Society of Jesus in 1945. He was ordained in 1958 and spent 50 years in Rome at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. During his Jesuit training, he acquired licentiate degrees in philosophy, theology, and Scripture, and a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Oxford. He maintains a website,, and is now in residence at Jesuit Hall in St. Louis, Missouri.


  1. Comment by author: As I read the published version of my article I realized that the words which I wrote and for which I alone am responsible, can easily be misconstrued: “Some would say, in order to balance the symbolism with the city of Jerusalem, she became the city of the new dispensation, Rome.” The interpretation of Mary, Daughter of Zion, is relatively new. I am the only one who has ventured this opinion explicitly as far as I know. But once the symbolism of Daughter of Zion is made explicit, I feel that others would think as I. This implies, of course, that Peter and Paul ended in Rome because God had picked it as the New Jerusalem, and not vice. versa. This seems to me now the least implausible way to view the text and the implications of the text. I would quite willingly stand corrected.

  2. Avatar alienus dilectus says:

    Why not say, “she became the city of the new dispensation, the New Jerusalem”? It seems that this would fit better with notions of the heavenly Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God, and “my kingdom is not of this world.” Additionally, it would certainly be friendlier to Eastern ecclesiologies.

    • Thank you for this thought-provoking comment. I think the primary responsibility of an exegete is to work within the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. I do not consider myself competent to speculate as regards “Eastern ecclesiologies”. But your citing of the “New Jerusalem” is for me more helpful. For the phrase is an evocation of Revelation cc. 17-21. There pagan Rome seems to be contrasted unfavorably with this “new Jerusalem”. Pagan Rome is certainly a specific city used as a metaphor. Thus the apparent use of “the new Jerusalem” as a metaphor would seem to demand a basis on a specific city. And this would then be not pagan Rome but Christian Rome. The exegesis of Revelation is a constant challenge, of course. More that this, I would not feel warranted in surmising at the present time.