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Do you believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity? 3

posted by xscot mcknight

Two days ago I observed that there is an early and widespread belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity in the Church. Today I want to begin to begin looking more particularly at the debates and actual comments by the early theologians. Today’s post will begin the examination of the major biblical texts, but they will be more clear tomorrow.
The first real debate occurred around two figures: Tertullian and Jerome. We’ll stop for a coffee with Tertullian today, tomorrow look at Jerome, then the next day look at Matthew 1:25 and the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus.
Tertullian (born in 155 and converted, after a successful law practice in Rome, in 193 AD) returned to Carthage to become the first Christian writer in Latin. He tragically got himself entwined with the Montanists later, but all recognize the profundity of his contribution to the development of Christian thinking. His Christology anticipates Chalcedon by 2.5 centuries! One person, two natures, Trinity … . In particular, he fought against the Docetists, who thought Jesus only “seemed” to be human; for Tertullian, Jesus was human.
In Against Marcion, 4.19, Tertullian thinks Jesus was upset that his own blood family stood outside while others trusted him and were inside. Jesus does not deny his family but disavows them. This, so he argues, can only occur if he has a blood family. And the implication is that a blood family means Mary had other kids; if so, she was not perpetually a virgin. So, for Tertullian, Mark 3:31-35 and the like deal with real mother and real brothers and sisters.
Mary’s real maternity demonstrates the real humanity of Jesus. In speaking of this in On the Flesh of Christ, 20.1, Tertullian suggests (it is not all that clear in my mind) that Mary was not perpetually a virgin. Some suggested that Jesus was only born “through” but not “of” a virgin, that is, the body simply passed through Mary but was not really a part of her body as normal reproduction works. Tertullian fiercely defends the real humanity of Jesus from the real pregnancy of Mary and the real birth of Jesus “of” Mary.
To be born “of” Mary is clearly a contention that Jesus was not simply born “through” Mary: that is, that she really was in his body and really broke her hymen and really partook of her body.
And then later, chp. 23, he says what he also says in On Monogamy, 8, where he makes the case that Mary was not perpetually virgin. Mary was a virgin when she conceived and gave birth, so that it was Christ’s birth that ended her “virginity” (here he defines virginity by in tact hymen and non-virginity by breaking the hymen at the birth). This breaking of the hymen is important to the argument, and some thought the “birth was miraculous” in that the hymen was never broken and Mary’s birth was painless. Why? Because she was immaculately conceived and preserved from the stain of original sin (which led to pain in childbirth).
These texts, according to most, imply that Mary’s marriage was normal after the birth. That is, she engaged in intercourse with Joseph and had other children.
What I find most interesting in Tertullian is that he seems unaware of a view that would claim Mary was perpetually virgin, though he may have thought some thought Jesus was born “miraculously” (that is, merely “through” Mary), and it makes me think he may have paused to refute such had it been there. He goes along, esp. in Against Marcion 19, in such a way that “brothers” means “blood brothers.”
Tertullian, then, at an early date, as a profound and well-known theologian, believes Mary was not perpetually virgin and he believes this is found in the Bible, in particular, in the word “brothers”.
From an Eastern perspective, here’s a good source: Ever-Virgin. (HT: Georges Boukalsky)



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John Frye

posted June 14, 2006 at 8:08 am


Scot,
I read the Eastern perspective article “Ever-Virgin” that you linked to after I read your summary of Tertullian’s views. It appears we have very early witnesses to both views. I thought Fr. Hainsworth’s discussion of the term “until” in Matt. 1:25 was quite insightful. I also appreciated his comments about the “importance” of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Can we really conclude that our position on this doesn’t really change anything theologically and pastorally?



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RJS

posted June 14, 2006 at 9:10 am


It is an interesting perspective in the link to “Ever-Virgin”. Some of the arguments in this article are why I would fall into the don’t know/doesn’t matter camp. That is – there are good rationalizations for both points of view. Tertullian is interesting – in that his argument about virginity appears to be a refutation of the point of view put forth in the Protevangelium of James. The trap that Christians have fallen into all too readily and all too often is to deny the true humanity of Jesus (and of Mary).
Virginity – and celibacy – were important topics of contention in the early church in general. My reading of the early church fathers is not not exhaustive, but have read many, because church history and the development of Christian orthodoxy interests me. The topic comes up in many ways in the early texts – including the early texts purporting to be by Clement of Rome “On Virginity”. So – is the importance attached to the perpetual virginity of Mary a consequence of second and third century views on viriginity/celibacy in general or vice versa? Because of the way the arguments are phrased, I tend to think the former rather than the later. (i.e. Views on virginity/celibacy dictate views of Mary, rather than Views of Mary contribute to views on virginity.)
It is a topic worth thinking about.



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Dennis Martin

posted June 14, 2006 at 9:30 am


John Frye RJS:
Nothing in the Protoevangelium of James, as I read it, denies that Mary and Joseph were fully human. I’m not sure where you get the idea that the PEvJ is part of a tradition that portrays them as somehow not fully human (quasi-divine?). They are portrayed there as devout, prophetic figures on whom the Spirit rests, but not as demi-gods.
Implicit in your assumption is, perhaps, the notion that those who choose ascetic paths, are sexually continent, are not fully human? This has come up again and again on these threads. It reflects some post-Reformation and modern notions (that circle back, ironically, to Gnostic notions). Sexual continence, ascetic discipline were common both to ancient Jewish and Graeco-Roman cultures. One actually affirms the goodness of sexality by learning to control it–that’s the ascetic principle. Manichees and Gnostics could go either way–because the body and matter are evil, they could become body-hating ascetics or wild libertines. But Christian/Jewish/ancient Roman asceticism (philosopher’s life) is not dualistic body-hating and thus not a denial of full humanity or the goodness of the body. It comes from a different angle entirely: the very goodness of the body means that to employ the body well one needs to use one’s head and heart, not give way to mere bodily passion, hence “training” (ascesis) as body-loving, not body-hating. Athletic training today rests on that assumption.
The Protoevangelium of James portrayal of Mary and Joseph as devout Jews seems to fit within that healthy form of prophetic asceticism, not into a Manichean or Gnostic dualism.
Did you have specific passages from the PEvJ in mind when you assimilated it to a “denial of full humanity” tradition about Mary and Joseph?



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Dennis Martin

posted June 14, 2006 at 9:31 am


I’m sorry, my last comment should have been directed at RJS rather than John Frye. My apologies.



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RJS

posted June 14, 2006 at 9:51 am


Dennis,
There are other parts of the PEvJ as well – but primarily this one:
“And the widwife said to him: Is this true? And Joseph said to her: Come and see. And the midwife went away with him. And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because mine eyes have seen strange things—because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: This is a
great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight. And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to thee: a virgin has brought forth—a thing which her nature admits not of. Then said Salome: As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.
And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire. … ”



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Aimee

posted June 14, 2006 at 10:26 am


For some perspective on Tertullian, if what I have read about him is correct, he was a pagan until mid-life, and his “conversion” was brief, only a few years (10 at the most), before he went off into the Monatist heresy, then broke from that to found a sect of his own. He never recovered from heresy.
His writings on Mary date from the later years of his Christian period, when many theological problems were emerging in his views and coloring his writings, problems that culminated in his formal heresy and separation from Christianity.
For this reason, he may not be the most reliable witness for the tradition of the earliest Christians.



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Phil

posted June 14, 2006 at 10:34 am


It has been argued that John 19:26-27 suggests that Jesus did not have any brothers: If Jesus had brothers, then Jesus would not have needed to entrust his mother to John.
However, one must consider that Jesus’ mother and “brothers” were very close; they are mentioned together in Matt. 12:46-50 (par. Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21), Matt. 13:55-56 (par. Mark 6:3), John 2:12, and Acts 1:14. Why would Mary stay with John, a non-relative, instead of these “cousins” or “stepbrothers”?
If John 19:26-27 proves that Jesus did not have any brothers, then doesn’t it also prove that he did not have any cousins or stepbrothers? But this conclusion is ridiculous. Therefore, John 19:26-27 does not prove that Mary did not have children besides Jesus.
Perhaps Jesus entrusted his mother to John because Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him before his Resurrection (see John 7:5).



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Scot McKnight

posted June 14, 2006 at 10:44 am


Phil,
I think your conclusion is sound, and I made the same in the comment box on the 2d in this series. We have to consider everything, and one thing that is sure is that it is unfair to jump from “committed to John,” therefore “no brothers”. That’s not fair. If those brothers were not there, and if they were still unbelievers, then it is entirely logical to have a commital to John and have brothers and sisters.
But, we’ve got an issue: they are present in Acts 1:14. That means they may have been believers by the time of the crucifixion. Our evidence, therefore, is not that clear.



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saint

posted June 14, 2006 at 10:48 am


“It has been argued that John 19:26-27 suggests that Jesus did not have any brothers: If Jesus had brothers, then Jesus would not have needed to entrust his mother to John.”
Who is my mother, my brother, my sister? Perhaps Jesus was telling us something significant by entrusting his mother to John. Something about the family of God. Even in the midst of sufferring on the cross.



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Scot McKnight

posted June 14, 2006 at 10:52 am


Saint,
You are right, and if you are not careful you’ll have Mary as the Mother of the Church by this commital! She is, after all, now called “John’s mother”.



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saint

posted June 14, 2006 at 11:15 am


Heh. I also love Edward’s “The Excellencies of Christ”, and was disappointed he figured that low in my little “test”. :-). Doesn’t make for perpetual virginity though. Still listening.



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saint

posted June 14, 2006 at 11:24 am


Er make that “The Excellency of Christ” (blame this on the World Cup)



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RJS

posted June 14, 2006 at 11:26 am


Ok – this comes of replying without reading carefully. I never said that the PEvJ protrayed Joseph as more than human – I said that it denies the true humanity of Jesus and the passage that I quoted concerns this aspect. It also – in defending the divinity of Jesus in this way – attaches great importance to the intact virginity of Mary.
With respect to Mary, she is talked about in terms that are somewhat mystical – walking at 6 months, that she was given to the temple “And Mary was in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there, and she received food from the hand of an angel.” etc. Nothing that denies her humanity, but great emphasis put on her purity and holiness. Certainly no impression or admission that she may have been a normal (sinful) child.



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saint

posted June 14, 2006 at 11:55 am


RJS – I agree there is a sort of “elevation” in PEvJ, a sort of “hagiography” or “whitewashing” that you also find in the intertestamental literature of some OT figures and in early biographies of saints.
I don’t discount miracles, but I have never understood God’s miracles from (protestant) canonical Scripture to be “frivolous” which makes me question just what the authorial intent is.
(Also I should add Scot that Jesus spoke to both his mother and John…)



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Bob

posted June 14, 2006 at 3:41 pm


Scot,
I haven’t read all of the comments on this series but I find it very relevant to some discussions I am having with my Catholic dad.
Has anyone brought up 2 John and the identity of “the chosen lady and her children”?



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Jorge

posted June 14, 2006 at 8:15 pm


Scott,
Are you aware of the book by Eric D. Svendsen, Who Is My Mother? The Role and Status of the Mother of Jesus in the New Testament and Roman Catholicism (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 2001)?
Here are two recommendations of the book:
“While many North American Catholics today play down their tradition’s historic devotion to Mary, pronouncements about her exalted status remain official Catholic dogma and prove highly influential on most other continents. Svendsen painstakingly examines every biblical reference to Mary, in dialogue with major apologists for traditional Catholicism, and convincingly demonstrates how little biblical support there is for treating Mary differently from any other believer. No other work available today surveys this landscape in quite this way.”
Dr. Craig L. Blomberg,
Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary
“…For solid exegesis and judicious theological judgments, Eric Svendsen both demystifies the later Marian dogma…and shows Mary to be a faithful Christian disciple, like many of her generation, from whom we can learn a great deal about everyday, consistent, biblical piety. In so doing Svendsen is able to show by clear and careful biblical scholarship that later Roman Catholic Mariology is not, as it claims, a natural theological development of the biblical data, but rather an unfortunate and tendentious distortion.”
Peter Jones
Professor of New Testament, Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies, Westminster Theological Seminary, California.



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Scot McKnight

posted June 14, 2006 at 8:24 pm


Jorge,
Thanks for this. I hadn’t actually heard of Eric Svendsen’s book, but am glad to know of it.



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