Monday, January 17, 2011

A Defense of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary Part I

I want to note that before you begin reading that this is the first of probably many notes I'll be writing on this subject. A particularly good blogpost can be found in the references by Seraphim who I am thankful for personally messaging me some information when I asked him. I'm purposely trying to avoid polemics and harsh language as you are all my friends and are Christians.

God Bless you all,

- Nick

A Defense of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary Part I

As the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord approaches, a topic that had never really given me concern before began to arise in some of my conversations: the ever-virginity of Mary. Now, I know that those of my friends tagged in this note that, for a lack of a better word, are Protestant, probably don't see this as an issue one way or another. However, I'm writing this to explain why the Orthodox Church believes that Mary indeed was an ever-virgin and why that matters. This short defense will primarily be referencing Scripture as I know using the Holy Tradition would bring in a plethora of other questions. Also, being short, this is by no means a full defense of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary and will only cover basic ideas.

Matthew 1:25

The Theotokos (Greek for 'god bearer') has been a controversial figure ever since the Protestant reformation as Roman Catholics were accused of worshiping Mary. Though early reformers such as John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary (1), the dogma eventually came to be questioned and rejected by many other Protestants. The first key verse that is usually brought up to support this claim is in Matthew 1:25:

“and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son.”

The first word in question is “till”, as it seems to imply that after Christ was born Mary would go on to have sexual relations with Joseph (1). However, this is merely an issue of translation; the word “till” in Koine Greek is ἕως ὅς, the transliteration being heós hos (2). The word heós in Greek means “till, until” and functions as a primary particle (3). The word hos is a primary pronoun that makes a reference as to what the primary particle is affecting (4). The word heós is used multiple times throughout the New Testament, and while meaning until, it implies that the action will go beyond the stated event (5). For instance, in Matthew 28:20, our Lord says:

“and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age”

Note that where it says “even” it is again heós (6). Yet, we don't believe that at the end of the age Christ will not be with us, for He is with us unto ages of ages, for all eternity as He reigns in the Kingdom of Heaven (7). The same word is also used in the Greek Septuagint (Genesis 8:7; Deuteronomy 34:6; II Kings 6:23) and has the same meaning, that the event at hand will continue on afterward (8). Hence the linguistic argument of the word “till” in Matthew 1:25 cannot be used to show that Mary had sexual relations after her marriage. In fact, if we follow the logic of the word heós as seen in the other passages, this seems to be evidence for the ever-virginity of Mary.

The second word in question is “firstborn”, which in Greek is πρωτότοκος, prototokos (9, 10). The word again has a very different connotation in Greek than it does in English; whenever we use the word firstborn in English, we usually imply that more children came after (11). However, in Greek the word does not necessarily carry the same implication (11). Prototokos was often used in the Greek Septuagint in order to show the authority of a figure (12). In Psalm 89:27, the passage reads:

“'Also I will make him My firstborn'”

This passage would make little sense in the way prototokos is used referring simply to birth order. Instead it was used to assert the power of the coming Messiah (13). Thus I've hopefully shown that the linguistic argument in Matthew 1:25 doesn't work due to translations.

The Holy Innocents

One argument that I have heard comes, again, in the book of St. Matthew. When Herod learns of the betrayal of the three wise men, he orders for the death of all male children the age of 2 or under in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-16). The argument given is that if Joseph's children were from a previous marriage, why is the Scripture silent of them on their trip to Egypt? The answer is simple enough; assuming that Christ's brothers and sisters are indeed older than him, then they were probably old enough so that Herod's orders wouldn't affect them. Hence one can assume that the children weren't taken since they could remain at a relatives, giving Mary and Joseph more maneuverability while going to Egypt (having that many kids with you is only going to slow you down that much more).

The Brothers and Sisters of Christ

Another common argument given against the perpetual virginity of Mary is the mentioning of the Lord's brothers and sisters in verses such as Matthew 12:46 and Mark 6:3 (14):

“While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him”
“'Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?'”

The problem here is obvious: if Jesus Christ had brothers, then how could Mary be an ever-virgin (15)? However, the bible uses the word brother in far more ways than a only literal blood-brother (15). For instance, Genesis 12:5 says:

“So Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother's son and all their possessions and every soul they acquired in Haran, and they departed for the land of Canaan. Thus they came to the land of Canaan.”

The word translated for “his brother's” is the word אָח, whose (16) transliteration is “ach” (17). Now in Genesis 13:8 (18) we read:

“So Abram said to Lot, 'Let there be no strife between you and me, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are bretheren.”

The word for “are bretheren” is again ach (19). Hence we see that the Hebrew word in the OT used for brother can have multiple meanings and is not only subjected to a literal brother (20). This is again seen in Genesis 29:12 and 1 Chronicles 23:22 (21). Now, the Greek Septuagint translates this word as ἀδελφός , adelphos (22), which means brother in either a literal or figurative fashion (23). This same word is used in Matthew 12:46 for the word “brothers” (24) and Mark 6:3 for the word “brother” (25). However, as I explained, this word has more than just the literal meaning for brother, so it could very well mean step-brother (the position of the Orthodox Church) (26).We even see a similar use of language in the gospel of St. Luke when St. Joseph is referred to as Jesus' father in Luke 2:48:

“So when they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.”

Obviously St. Joseph is not the actual father of Jesus, for He is the only-begotten Son of the Father, the head of the Holy Trinity (27).

This brings me into my next point: let's grant for the sake of the argument that brothers and sisters of Christ were indeed born by the Virgin Mary. The biggest problem comes in the end of St. John the Theologian's gospel (28). John 19:26-27 says:

“When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing by, He said to His mother, 'Woman, behold your son!'”

The customs of the time required that the eldest son take care of his mother if the husband died (9). Yet here Jesus is delegating the task to St. John, something that would be against the law if he shared the same mother with His brothers and sisters (30). However, this behavior makes complete sense if He was the only Son of Mary as it would be His duty to find a caretaker for His mother before His death (31). Seeing as Christ cannot break the law because he came “to fulfill” the law (Matthew 5:17), it makes more sense to have the reading that Christ's brothers and sisters were of Joseph's previous marriage.

Ending Thoughts

Such a discussion is by no means complete, though I hope I've shared a few things here. I'll probably be updating this paper over time: particularly I'd like to give more examples of prototokos. I'd like to go over typology as well as words within prophecies to further back up the ever-virginity of the Theotokos, but as of the current moment I think I'll wait until after Christmas. I also want to eventually touch on the theology of the matter, why her virginity is so important -- but that is something that I myself still need to research.

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8 - The Orthodox Study Bible: Ancient Christianity Speaks to Today's World
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13 - ibid
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15 - ibid
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21 – ibid
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29 – ibid
30 – ibid
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