Monday, January 10, 2011

Telling Mary's Story - Purity

One of the claims of the Gospel is that Mary was a virgin, not only in the conception of Jesus but also during the delivery.

It's sort of an odd thing to mention, or even to really care about. What difference could it make if Mary remained virgin through childbirth?

"The common assumption today is that early Christians fussed about such things because they were uncomfortable with the human body, and particularly touchy about sex. But that's anachronistic. In the Scriptures as here, material Creation is affirmed; the very idea of the Incarnation shows that a real flesh-and-blood body can bear the divine, as a candlewick bears flame."

Today this concept is taken for granted by a majority of people who call themselves Christians. I won't say all because I know that neo-Gnostic sects come up all the time. So 'a majority' it is. But back then it was a completely insane and new concept in a Jewish faith. God dwelling within a mortal form? But today we know that salvation does not just involve our souls but also our flesh. Do we not also look forward to a bodily resurrection?

The early Christians had a very high respect for the physical body. It's why they sought to gather the remains of martyrs, even at great danger to themselves. Until recently it was not allowed for Roman Catholics to be cremated because of the possibility that they were doing it out of a disregard for the body which God created. It's still (to my knowledge) discouraged heavily in the Orthodox Church. The point is that if the early Christians had been uncomfortable with the human body they would not have treated the remains with such veneration. If there was a disregard for it or a belief that the body was tainted or superfluous then it would have been ignored.

"After all, it is not the physical body that is the problem. Jesus taught that it is not what a person eats that defiles him, but rather what comes out of his mouth and heart. He explained that the damage inside a human being is integral, like a sickly tree that cannot bear good fruit. So sin is not so much a culpable deed as a self-inflicted wound."

Most ancient cultures tended to be less squeamish about the body and its functions than we are today. They lacked modern facilities, remember. Many of them lived in very small spaces with large families. Not that long ago my own great grandparents and their children lived in a one room house. They had six kids. Think about it for a second there. We shelter our children now from things that we don't think they should know, for fear that they will act on this knowledge before they're old enough. But in the past this wasn't an option and would have been viewed as odd.

In this Gospel there is frank discussion by a priest about what they're going to do when Mary is due to begin her periods. References to breast feeding are plenteous. At the end of her labor Mary says, bluntly: "That which is within me presses me to come forth." As opposed to a more fanciful recounting of the same scene in a work entitled 'The Ascension of Isaiah' where Mary, after two months of pregnancy suddenly sees a baby appear and then discovers she's no longer pregnant. Mary's post-birth virginity is even verified within the story in the only practical way it could have been - and there is no indication that any of this shocked the devout original hearers.

The fact is that there was really no good reason for the early Christians to claim a virgin birth for Christ. It wasn't something likely to win over Jews - they weren't expecting the Messiah to be born of a virgin. Nor were they expecting Him to die on a cross. The claims of the virgin birth opened the Christians up to derision and accusations of fabricating the story. In addition, admitting that St. Joseph, Mary's husband, was not the father of Jesus invited the obvious charge that He was 'born of fornication'. "There was no rhetorical advantage to claiming a virgin birth for Jesus, and the likeliest reason the early Christians stood by it so stoutly was that they believed it was true."

But why would Mary remain a virgin through the birth? As we said, there's no rhetorical advantage to any portion of this story. So why? Gregory of Nyssa suggests as a theory that the pain of childbirth is one of the consequences of the Fall, so when God acts to reverse the damage, every element becomes a joy. "Just as the bush Moses saw was filled with the blazing presence of God yet not destroyed, so Mary's bodily integrity was not altered by childbirth."

-Ever Virgin?

The Protoevangelion shows that Mary was a virgin up to, and through, the birth of Christ. It does not, however, comment on whether or not she remained a virgin her entire life. Her perpetual virginity was the consensus of the early church and was universally believed until recent centuries. Even some Reformation leaders, Zwingli and Luther among them, upheld Mary's perpetual virginity.

Some people have tried to argue that because of the verse: "Joseph knew her not until she had borne a son." that meant that Joseph obviously knew her after she had borne Jesus.

That argument just sort of fails. If we're sticking to Biblical examples, Michal in the Old Testament is said not to have borne any children until she died. Does that mean that she had children after her death? No.

Likewise, Jesus' status as first born does not necessarily mean that there were second, third, etc. born children. First born is simply the first child born to a couple or a person individually. I would still be my mother's first born even if she'd never had any other children.

Many consider the strongest evidence for Mary not having any other children the fact that Jesus consigned her care to St. John at the cross. If she had had any biological sons her care would have gone to them.

This, of course, is just extremely brief mentioning of different arguments. People write books and treatises on these subjects.


  1. A Muslim Facebook friend had a short video from YouTube on his profile the other day. He was saying how sexually-explicit the Bible was in using such terms in Ezekiel that he said should embarrass us. "Kids read these things?!" was the charge!

    So when did we become so prudish in regards to sexual anatomy and functions. I admit there are things in the OT especially that would make ME uncomfortable talking about in mixed company that they say outright with no embarrassment. So I'm guessing my embarrassment is cultural since it didn't come from my faith.

    I wonder when things changed.

    And, yes, I believe the story of Jesus giving his mother's care to John IS the best proof that Mary had no more sons. I remember when you did a post awhile back on this topic and that was the most compelling argument to me.

    I'm learning lots from these posts.Again,thanks for sharing about them! I'm really enjoying so much about them!

  2. You know, I really don't know. I think we place a lot of the blame for our prudishness on the Victorian age, but I think the Puritans had a good deal to do with it too, at least here in the States. And I wouldn't even hazard a guess as to when or how the Muslims became such prudes about things.

    Oh, I'd forgotten I'd done a post on that. :)

    Some day my posting will catch up to my reading and you'll get into the actual text and not just the lead in!

  3. I really enjoyed this post. I especially found myself nodding at the reference of childbirth pains and the Fall.

    Could it be possible that Mary had more children after Jesus but perhaps the sons didn't survive beyond infancy?

  4. Other interpretations of John and Mary - From a more skeptical point of view, it is interesting that as far as I can remember, that only occurs in John - generally believed to be the latest and least in common with the other gospels. It always seemed strange to me that Jesus had the time and energy to force out that sentence when he didn't say anything else. I would read it as something put into the gospel specifically to counter any ideas that Jesus had siblings, where that wasn't a part of the tradition before. So this may have originally been an idea that was unique to that community, or one that was starting to emerge later, after the eyewitnesses had passed on and there was no one to ask. Of course, that only works as an argument if you accept that the community of John's disciples produced the gospel, rather than John himself. Either way, it doesn't mean it's not true, but at least opens the possibility that it wasn't something known and set in Christianity as a whole to that point. (Of course, a lot of things weren't, and there were many movements that are mostly disregarded now, so that may not be worth much. :D)

    You point out there's no reason the virgin birth would be included to appeal to Jews, which is true. Have you considered that it may be a result of pagan beliefs and designed more to appeal to Greeks/Romans? Other things in John (the wedding at Cana and cursing the fig tree are the ones I remember off the top of my head) that are thought to be designed to remind the reader of Dionysus and therefore show Jesus as superior to him, performing miracles and having authority over things that supposedly belonged to a pagan god who had a similar cult. (Dionysus was involved in mystery religions that promised eternal life.) In that case, a virgin birth may be the one-upping version of Dionysus being born from a human woman and Zeus without sex. (Not that she was a virgin or even that she didn't sleep with Zeus, but Zeus actually impregnated her magically, as Dionysus had already been conceived and then "killed" before birth. ...I think i want to do a post on this, actually. :D I was going to suggest you look at it from the opposite side and it would be interesting to see a post like that from you. It still would, but now you've inspired me to do one too. Whee! I have topics again! :D

    Anyway. Interesting post! It was fun to read and I think you make good points. I like the way you point out that they don't shy away from talking about sex, so that isn't a reason. that shyness is a part of so many churches today we forget it wasn't there from the beginning and was very much a modern thing. Lots to think about!

  5. Sanil, where do you think this shyness started? The Puritans?

    I enjoyed your take on this subject and look forward to your post. Yay that you have topics again! :D

  6. Suroor,

    It's possible, certainly, though you're the first person I've ever seen make the suggestion. :)

  7. sanil,

    I can't recall if you're right about it only appearing in John. But we'll assume that you are! :)

    I remember reading somewhere that each of the Gospels was written for a specific audience. So the emphasis was slightly different. We also know from studies of eyewitness reports that each person recalls events at variance because the experience is being filtered through their own perceptions. So the differences between the Gospels don't really seem out of the ordinary or bizarre to me.

    Jesus actually did a fair bit of talking on the cross. He spoke to the thief at his side, He spoke to God. It's weird, I just looked it up and John doesn't seem to spend a whole lot of time of the crucifixion at all. Only 20 verses, I think. I'm going off the top of my head but I think it's a much longer piece of the other Gospels. Interesting.

    You point out there's no reason the virgin birth would be included to appeal to Jews, which is true. Have you considered that it may be a result of pagan beliefs and designed more to appeal to Greeks/Romans?

    It's possible, I suppose. Unless the belief was there from the beginning, which it appears to have been. In that case the Christians were not yet trying to convert the Gentiles, but were still basically a Jewish cult.

    Other things in John (the wedding at Cana and cursing the fig tree are the ones I remember off the top of my head) that are thought to be designed to remind the reader of Dionysus and therefore show Jesus as superior to him, performing miracles and having authority over things that supposedly belonged to a pagan god who had a similar cult.

    All assuming, from the skeptical point of view, that these miracles didn't happen. If we're looking at it that way, then it does look like these could be myths that were taken and absorbed by the new religion in an attempt to give converts or potential converts something familiar (the same theory holds with taking over pagan holidays and changing them into Christian ones) and to 'one up' the old gods at the same time. From the other point of view, where these miracles actually took place, it doesn't matter what the cults of Dionysus taught or believed. I've heard people claim that the devil laid out such stories in the pagan cultures so that there would be doubt when Christ came. I'm not saying that's the answer, just one idea that I've heard.

    Plenty of gods in the past had 'virgin' or at least unusual births. Horus' conception and birth could be called very similar. Heck, Zeus hatched Athena out of his head. Admittedly she was technically born inside of him after he ate her mother who then carried her to full term, but still. Head birth! :)

    I want to see your post on this! Get to it! *cracks whip*

  8. Susanne - I really don't know. The Puritans sounds like a good guess to me! Church history is not my strong point. I think that to an extent, purity was a concern in the ancient world as well (women veiled themselves, for example), and maybe in an attempt to keep this purity the church (or parts of it) eventually went to extremes? Total guesses, though.

    Amber - The differences don't concern me, either. :) Definitely, there are good reasons for the differences that don't take away from their reliability, except possibly for groups that insist God wrote the Bible and was just using human hands. But even then one could argue that the words are carefully chosen for their audiences. But what I meant to say there was that if this is the best evidence for Mary staying a virgin, the fact that it is only in the latest may mean it was put there to establish an idea that had no firm in-writing foundation before.

    None of that means it's not also true. I would also say that the Dionysus links don't mean that the miracles didn't happen. As a skeptic I tend to say they didn't, but when I was at my most conservative and insisted on the absolute truth of every word of the Bible, I still held that these links were important. At that time, I believed that God designed these elements of Jesus' life to one-up the pagan gods. And in the same way, I think a valid argument would be that John was inspired to set down those verses to canonize Mary's perpetual birth and keep the church from error, the same way Catholics believe (I think?) that the church tradition can be trusted as much as the Bible because God continues to speak through it.

  9. Sanil,

    Ah. Okay, I see what you were saying there. Still, all of the stories in the Gospels existed in verbal form before they were written down. So really none of the stories had any firm written footing in the beginning. That doesn't negate your point by any means of course. :)

    As a skeptic it's your job to doubt things! :) I've seen a similar argument to the one you mentioned about God arranging things so Christ's life would one up the older gods saying that the similarities in stories were there to prefigure Christ to the pagans who didn't have the benefit of the prophecies that the Jews had.

  10. Oo! That's C.S. Lewis' argument, isn't it? Or something similar. I've had his books on my to-read list for months and still haven't gotten around to actually reading them. I think that will be my next project, after the Christianity/Greco-Roman Paganism post. :)

  11. Is it? I really don't remember where I heard it, so it might very well be. :)

  12. I do think it's really sad/strange that we've gotten such a negative relationship with anything and everything sexual. What used to be beautiful and natural has become something that one shouldn't talk about. I think the Puritans is a pretty good bet as well, though I also think the Catholic Church might've had something to do with it (thinking about the focus on celibacy).

    Well, I grew up thinking/believing that she married Joseph afterwards and that they might've had kids, though the information on that was never really too clear. I honestly never thought about the issue of her purity too much.

  13. It's true that there is a focus on celibacy in the Roman Catholic tradition, but only for certain people. And it didn't always exist either. There was some sort of shift and I tend to think it was societal - a rejection of a previous generations behavior in reaction to a large upheaval that made people start demonizing sex and making it something scary and dark.

    And I grew up believing that Mary was a virgin forever. It likely has something to do with the denomination a person is raised in. I never thought about it or considered how odd it might be, it was just one of those facts of life. :)

  14. Is definitely an interesting question, I'd be curious to read a book on how and why our view on sex has changed so drastically.

    So funny how which denomination you grow up in greatly affects your view on this. It wasn't until recently that I even realized that not everyone believed she didn't stay a virgin :P

  15. If I ever find one, I'll let everyone know. It comes up in bits and pieces in other works, and I'm sure someone's done a study on it, but I just haven't come across it yet.

    I love that. There're so many things we grow up just knowing and knowing that everyone else thinks the same thing and then we meet someone who doesn't and it's, 'Wait, what?'

  16. Yeah there are so many things we just take for granted that we don't even think to stop up and explain it to other people.

    Definitely do keep us informed if you find a book on it!


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