Saturday, July 19, 2008

St. Luke 2:7, On the Virginity of St. Mary.

Continuing on through our reading of St. Luke's gospel we read the passage in discussion tonight as follows;

"And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." (Luke 2:7, RSVCE).

The problem tonight is the question over the so-called "perpetual virginity" of St. Mary. Or in other words, did Mary have other children after Jesus? It is not rare to find some polemically driven material that holds just that position and is drawn from this very text. However, is this stance tenable in light of the proper principles of biblical hermeneutics here or is this just plain old eisegesis?

First let's deal with the Greek. The accusative adjective πρωτότοκον is straight forward in translation as "firstborn" and can be literal or figurative depending on context. Here it is manifestly literal since it is dealing with a historical birth, a birth of a firstborn male. Thus it would be misleading to argue from the Greek alone that it demands a sense of "first born with the idea of others coming later[1]." Nothing in the immediate nor larger context demands this idea - furthermore, this would have been a great place if such a notion was true to be added to give a fuller backdrop to the family of Jesus.

It is much better to understanding the meaning that St. Luke is trying to drive home here. The entire pericope has a clear Jewish motif, one that is steeped is the LXX[2]. The birth of Jesus Christ is unfolded in continuity with the promise to the Patriarchs not divorced to the Old Covenant but intrinsically attached too it and fulfilling it. The original audiences of Luke's time would have immediately understood the Jewish import of this first-born of Mary. The infant is then circumcised and divinely named, two acts with incredibly large Jewish significance.

The motif of "first-born" in the Old Testament designates possession over the right of inheritance as texts such as (Exo 13:2, Num 3:12-13, Deut 21:15-17) make clear. Surely in light of the genealogies in the other synoptic gospels the inheritance that belongs to the Jewish Messiah is the Davidic Kingdom[3]. The note in the RSVCE here hits the nail on the head when it notes,

"first-born: The term connotes possession of certain rights, privileges, and obligations; cf. Ex 13:1-2, 11-16. The word is used even in modern times without necessarily implying subsequent births." (p. 50).

Perpetual Virginity of St. Mary in the Fathers.

Is very strong and well attested. A brief selection of some of the Fathers makes this pellucid. Origen states,

"I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in perpetual chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity" (Comm. Matt. 2, 17).

St. Hilary of Poitiers makes the point that if Jesus had siblings the words that He spoke at His crucifixion to the Apostle John do not make sense,

"If they (the brethren of the Lord) had been Mary’s sons and not those taken from Joseph’s former marriage, she would never have been given over in the moment of the passion (crucifixion) to the apostle John as his mother, the Lord saying to each, ‘Woman, behold your son,’ and to John, ‘Behold your mother’ (John 19:26–27), as he bequeathed filial love to a disciple as a consolation to the one desolate" (Comm. Matt. 1, 4).

St. Athanasius,

"Let those, therefore, who deny that the Son is by nature from the Father and proper to his essence deny also that he took true human flesh from the ever-virgin Mary" (Adversus Arianos orationes. 2, 70).

Epiphanius of Cyprus,

"And to holy Mary, the title ‘Virgin’ is invariably added, for that holy woman remains undefiled" (Medicine Chest Against All Heresies. 78, 6).

St. Jerome states at length,

"Helvidius produces Tertullian[4] as a witness to his view and quotes Victorinus, bishop of Petavium. Of Tertullian, I say no more than that he did not belong to the Church. But as regards Victorinus, I assert what has already been proven from the gospel—that he Victorinus spoke of the brethren of the Lord not as being sons of Mary but brethren in the sense I have explained, that is to say, brethren in point of kinship, not by nature. By discussing such things we are . . . following the tiny streams of opinion. Might I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men, who against the heretics Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus, held these same views and wrote volumes replete with wisdom. If you had ever read what they wrote, you would be a wiser man" (Contra Helvidius. 19).

Didymus the Blind agrees with the Regula Fidei,

"It helps us to understand the terms ‘first-born’ and ‘only-begotten’ when the Evangelist tells that Mary remained a virgin ‘until she brought forth her first-born son’ (Matt. 1:25); for neither did Mary, who is to be honored and praised above all others, marry anyone else, nor did she ever become the Mother of anyone else, but even after childbirth she remained always and forever an immaculate virgin" (De. Trinitate. 3, 4).

Ambrose that ancient bishop of Milan records,

"Imitate her (Mary), holy mothers, who in her only dearly beloved Son set forth so great an example of material virtue; for neither have you sweeter children than Jesus, nor did the Virgin seek the consolation of being able to bear another son" (Letters. 63, 111).

St. Augustine notes that it is soley the heretics who deny the perpetual virginity,

"Heretics called Antidicomarites are those who contradict the perpetual virginity of Mary and affirm that after Christ was born she was joined as one with her husband" (Haeresies, 56).

So strong and unified is the Patristic Voice on this dogma that some of the Protestants Reformation leaders held and sternly defended it; Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli to name a few.

[End Notes.]

[1]. Cf. G. Schneider (Lukas: OTZNT. 1. 66) who convincingly argues that it is misreading the passage to think of Luke's intention to speak of siblings of Jesus. Rather, the message of the text is clear, πρωτότοκον here has a clear Jewish precedent, a relationship to God. See also Bovon, "As such, the adjective πρωτότοκον could not furnish a decisive argument for the existence of brothers of Jesus according to the flesh" (Luke 1: Hermeneia. 85).
[2]. In fact πρωτότοκον is very rare outside the Bible and it is then only found most frequently in the Old Testament LXX. Cf. the article in TDNT. 6. 871-76.
[3]. Cf. rightly on this understanding of the inheritance here, J.B Green (Luke: NICNT. 128).
[4]. Tertullian already falling into the Montanist heresy toys with the idea that Mary had sexual relations with Joseph after Jesus. Jerome rebukes Tertullian on this matter claiming that he went against the "entire world" on this tradition.


~Joseph the Worker said...

That was quite an exposition of one small passage. It's amazing how you can do that sometimes, when something strikes you the right way. Very nice thoughts here.

R. E. Aguirre. said...

Thanks Joseph and yes indeed it's wonderful when the Spirit leads you.

Charles said...

In light of this commentary, I wonder how we can interpret Matthew 1:25

R. E. Aguirre. said...

Good question Charles, when I get the time I will do a short exposition of it in light of the Lukan text,

God bless.