Home > christmas, faith/religion, sex > Some Christmas Theological Pot-Stirring

Some Christmas Theological Pot-Stirring

Saturday, December 25, 2010, 20:09 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

I had a profoundly protestant experience last night at Christmas vigil mass. At such moments, I am reminded that my genetics come in part from my paternal grandfather, a devout Protestant, and that is why I periodically find myself scratching my head about some or another Catholic teaching. Among my doubts is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus, which is not a solely Roman Catholic teaching but is also not universally held across Christendom.

Last night’s doubt came when I was in church, minding my own business and listening to the gospel reading from Matthew, chapter 1, which details the lineage of Jesus and how he came to be born to the virgin Mary after Joseph was told by an angel in a dream that he needn’t divorce Mary because she didn’t actually cheat on him. The reading ends with verses 24-25, taken directly from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops web site:

When Joseph awoke,
he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home.
He had no relations with her until she bore a son,
and he named him Jesus.

It was the word “until” that caught my attention, so I looked it up at Merriam-Webster online:

1until (preposition)
1 chiefly Scottish : TO
2 —used as a function word to indicate continuance (as of an action or condition) to a specified time <stayed until morning>
3 : BEFORE 2 <not available until tomorrow> <we don’t open until ten>

2until (conjunction)
: up to the time that : up to such time as <play continued until it got dark> <never able to relax until he took up fishing> <ran until she was breathless>

Even though none of the definitions say so, they suggest a change in whatever is being described. They indicate continuance of something to a specified time, after which whatever had continued to that point now ceases. “Stayed until morning” implies that once morning came, the person left. “We don’t open until ten” implies that at ten, we open. “Until she was breathless” implies that whatever she was doing to make herself breathless ceased once she became breathless.

And “He had no relations with her until she bore a son” implies that once she bore a son, he had relations with her.

But, is the use of the word “until” consistent among other bible translations? According to the online Blue Letter Bible, other versions say:

Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:
And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.
—King James Version

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.
But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
—New International Version

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife,
but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.
—Revised Standard Version

The verb “to know” is widely understood in biblical context to have a sexual meaning, and each of these three translations contains “until” or “till.”

So whence comes the Catholic Church’s belief? According to the English translation of the Cathechism of the Catholic Church (499), the church uses the old that’s-what-we’ve-always-done-and-we’ve-never-done-it-any-other-way explanation, which doesn’t address the source of the belief:

The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man.154 In fact, Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.”155 And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the “Ever-virgin”.

In other words, the belief that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born (a scripturally-supported doctrine) led us to believe that she remained a virgin for the rest of her life. But there seems to be no rationale for such an extrapolation.

Going a step farther, the web site of EWTN, a traditionalist Roman Catholic cable television channel, addresses several arguments used to cast doubt on the doctrine. Most of the responses are defenses I find unpersuasive, such as citing the historic consistency of the teaching, even among some of the protestant reformers (unpersuasive to me because other long-held traditional teachings, such as the teaching that our earth was at the center of the universe, have since been abandoned).

The EWTN article does address the word “until,” though:

A second objection to Mary’s virginity arises from the use of the word heos in Matthew’s gospel. “He (Joseph) had no relations with her at any time before (heos) she bore a son, whom he named Jesus” (Mt 1:25, NAB).

The Greek and the Semitic use of the word heos (until or before) does not imply anything about what happens after the time indicated. In this case, there is no necessary implication that Joseph and Mary had sexual contact or other children after Jesus.

I will have to defer to others who know Greek, since I don’t. Yet even if this interpretation of the original word is accurate, there is still no biblical support that I can see for Mary’s perpetual virginity. Now obviously, absence of evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The bible never says that Jesus urinated, for example, but it is reasonable to think that he did so several times a day, since he had a human body. Likewise, it is reasonable to think that Mary and Joseph might have had sex after Jesus was born, even though it’s never mentioned in the bible.

We can look at the historical view of sex on the part of the so-called church fathers to get some insight into why they might have wanted to believe that Mary never lost her virginity. For many centuries, celibate vocations such as priesthood and religious consecration were consider higher vocations than marriage. The overwhelming majority of people canonized were virgins. There are even saints, such as Maria Goretti, who are upheld as symbols of virtue because they preferred to die than allow themselves to be defiled sexually:

In 1902 an eighteen-year-old neighbor, Alexander, grabbed [Maria] from her steps and tried to rape her. When Maria said that she would rather died than submit, Alexander began stabbing her with a knife.

As she lay in the hospital, she forgave Alexander before she died.

[ . . . ]

She was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1950 for her purity as model for youth.

She is called a martyr because she fought against Alexander’s attempts at sexual assault.

It’s a severe message indeed that it is better to lose one’s life than to lose one’s virginity, however involuntarily. Maria Goretti essentially died not to avoid sinning, but to avoid being sexually penetrated. It’s a stigma that even today leads some rape victims to avoid pressing charges, some teenagers to seek dangerous abortions to avoid being found out, and some parents to turn their backs on their sexually active children. It isn’t a stretch to embrace the idea that virgins are better than non-virgins, and if that’s the case, then someone as supremely special as Jesus’ mother must be a virgin.

Having said all that, I remain open to the possibility that Mary did indeed remain a virgin throughout her life. But I consider that no more likely than the opposite, and that thought doesn’t bother me one bit. A sexually active Mary is still a powerful role model for obedience to God’s will and would also be a role model for the sacredness of human sexuality.

Categories: christmas, faith/religion, sex
  1. Wednesday, January 5, 2011, 19:56 EDT at 19:56

    Thanks for posting!

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