Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Did Mary stay a virgin?" A conversation with a friend

David,

I have recently been doing some reading on the history of the early Christian Church. Most of my understanding of early church history has come from reading the new testament. It had always been my understanding that Mary was a virgin only until after Jesus was born, and then Joseph consummated their marriage and they had other sons and daughters (Matthew 13:55-56). I have recently read some interesting theories that I had not heard before. One theory is that Joseph had a previous wife that had died before he married Mary and that he already had children through this previous wife. My problem with this is that it seems to be pure speculation with no scriptural evidence to back it up. The other theory is that Jesus brothers and sisters that are mentioned are actually cousins of Jesus (through Cleopas the brother of Joseph), and when the scriptures say "brother" this really means a very close relative. The catholic apologist use the reference from the gospel of John when Jesus asks John to take care of his mother; their argument is that if Mary had other sons that they would have taken care of her and their wouldn't have been a reason to ask one of Jesus' close disciples to take care of her.

I have also read that this idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary dates all the way back to the time of Constantine and that early Church leaders like Jerome and Eusebius promoted the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary. I also read that early on denial of the perpetual virginity of Mary was considered a form of heresy. Some sources say that even early protestant leaders, like Luther and John Wesley, still believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary.

I was curious what your thoughts on this matter were. Take your time. I'm not expecting a quick response here. I'm sure you could come close to writing a book on this subject if you wanted to. 

Friend


Hey Friend,

I’ll respond in blue.

I have recently been doing some reading on the history of the early Christian Church. Most of my understanding of early church history has come from reading the new testament. It had always been my understanding that Mary was a virgin only until after Jesus was born, and then Joseph consummated their marriage and they had other sons and daughters (Matthew 13:55-56). This is certainly the predominate view among all Protestants. I have recently read some interesting theories that I had not heard before. One theory is that Joseph had a previous wife that had died before he married Mary and that he already had children through this previous wife. My problem with this is that it seems to be pure speculation with no scriptural evidence to back it up. I concur with you. It’s certainly possible. There is just no evidence for it at all. The other theory is that Jesus brothers and sisters that are mentioned are actually cousins of Jesus (through Cleopas the brother of Joseph), and when the scriptures say "brother" this really means a very close relative. Yep, this is the standard Catholic view. The term for “brother” and the term for “cousin” are different terms in Greek (and Old Testament analogies are irrelevant because they are not in Greek). The Greek terms are not ambiguous. Now, there apparently is some (scant) evidence that ancient authors weren’t always strict in their usage. So, again, it is possible. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of instances of those Greek terms are the “plain” meanings of “brother” and “cousin.” And every time those terms are used in the Gospels, it sure seems like the natural readings are most appropriate: Jesus had brothers and sisters (e.g., Mk 6:3). The catholic apologist use the reference from the gospel of John when Jesus asks John to take care of his mother; their argument is that if Mary had other sons that they would have taken care of her and their wouldn't have been a reason to ask one of Jesus' close disciples to take care of her. Again, that’s not true. Jesus’s ministry was not the typical “Jewish” way of things. He was adamant that kingdom allegiance always outweighed family allegiance (e.g., Mk 3:33-35; Matt 8:22). It is not compelling to me to presume that “if Jesus had siblings then they would have…”anything. Again, it’s possible; I just don’t find their suggestion persuasive. (BTW: John was almost certainly considered very special in the Johannine community from which the Gospel was written. Most scholars argue that John includes Jesus’s statement here to emphasize John’s respect in the community.)

I have also read that this idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary dates all the way back to the time of Constantine and that early Church leaders like Jerome and Eusebius promoted the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary. That is correct; it is a very early belief. Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and many other argued/assumed that Mary stayed a virgin. A few leaders disagreed (like Bonosus, bishop of Sardica or Naissus; or Helvidius in Rome). I also read that early on denial of the perpetual virginity of Mary was considered a form of heresy. That is correct, by many leaders and councils. Some sources say that even early protestant leaders, like Luther and John Wesley, still believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. As far as I understand, that is correct. But…of course they did. J Especially Wesley, who was Anglican (and Anglicans are closely related to Roman Catholics in theology; this is why Methodists baptize children, call baptism and communion a “sacrament,” etc.).

Really, it’s possible they’re right. I just don’t find any of their arguments compelling. While I’m sure there are Catholics who find their arguments compelling, it seems to me that the majority of them are making these arguments because of a deeply-held history of believing that virginity is much more Christian than marriage (modern views of sex in Catholicism vary; I’m referencing the view held for centuries in Roman Catholicism). This is an ancient idea (in fact, there are numerous ancient writings we know of by church leaders praising/cajoling/convincing their congregations--singles and married--to remain celibate. Why? Because they believed that virgins spent more time with the Lord (e.g., 1 Cor 7:34) and because (they thought) sex made one lust, which was a sin. And there’s “no way” that Mary would lust. Unfortunately, Jesus never suggested that celibacy was more “Christian” than marriage. He seemed quite ambivalent to the whole thing (Matt 19:3-12).

At the end of the day, I still find this verse convincing enough:
Isn't this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And aren't his sisters here with us?" (Mar 6:3 NET)

My thoughts! (And I’m aware Roman Catholics will disagree! J)

I also forgot to mention Gal. 1:19, when Paul mentions who he saw in Jerusalem… “except James, the brother of our Lord.” = εἰ μὴ Ἰάκωβον τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου.

Every single NT scholar on the planet that I know of concurs with me that this doesn’t mean James was Jesus’s “cousin” or “buddy” or “close relative.” We believe the Greek term’s most basic use is right: James is Jesus’s brother. And James is considered an “Apostle” because he saw the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor 15:7). This doesn’t mean he was part of The Twelve.

For more on this issue, click here to listen for a little bit to Mark Goodacre, a NT scholar.

DP


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