02662_virgin_platytera_apse_wd0037_800x600 The church claims that it was there from the beginning and that it was not forgetful about many important matters. I agree with this premise.The problem comes when modern churches and Christians claim more than what was there in the beginning. Because certain ideas were present does not mean they were universally embraced by all ancient Christians and teachers. Such is the case regarding Mary and the holy family.

Earliest tradition suggests that Mary remained a virgin because of the prophecy of Ezekiel 44:2. The prophet said, "This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered in by it. Therefore, it shall be shut." Some evangelicals will balk at this reading of the Old Testament but again the early Protestant Reformers read the text in this way.

Joseph has generally been considered as older than Mary. This is suggested by the fact that he had apparently died by the time of the crucifixion. He is in the infant story and then disappears sometime after Jesus was twelve years old. James was very likely an older brother, not a younger one. The time-line of his conversion suggests that he came late to believe in Jesus. Some have argued that younger siblings , including those five mentioned in Mark, would have attached themselves to an older brother of such charisma as Jesus. This would likely have happened from childhood on. Just think about the episode in the temple and you see the implications here. Only James remains in the record of the early church. Tradition says he was the author of the New Testament letter by this name.

It is hard for me to imagine that Jesus had younger brothers and sisters. If Mary and Joseph had other children (naturally) then the church would have very likely kept a record of them in some way. It makes sense given the Jewish culture and the role of family. Considerable scholarly discussion has taken place around this question but the most natural understanding would be that they never had children together.

Catholic teaching says the womb that brought the one who is very God of very God into the world would never have been used for any lesser purpose. This is why the idea that Jesus had step-siblings, or cousins, has gained acceptance. Some scholars, mostly Protestant, have suggested that Jesus very likely did have real blood brothers and sisters.

I do not think this issue is crucial to faith but if I had to draw a conclusion then I see, like Luther and Calvin, no good reason to reject the tradition of the church about Mary. One thing I am sure of—evangelicals desperately need to develop a much higher view of Mary. We can begin by stopping the reaction to tradition just because we do not agree with some of the added dogmas that came later in the development of Christian doctrine.

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  1. Laurie Miller August 9, 2009 at 9:21 am

    Hmmm…once again, John, you gave me something new to think about, something to challenge me, a new way of looking and/or seeing.

  2. Ray Prigodich August 9, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    I was somewhat taken aback by your sympathy for the idea that Ezekiel 44:2 is somehow a cryptic prophecy of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Yes, I know it’s an ancient interpretation — but it’s one that’s based on a thoroughly allegorical approach to the text. And with an allegorical hermeneutic, it’s possible to impose upon any given passage of scripture almost any meaning at all. That’s why allegorical interpretation ended up being rejected by nearly all Protestants. Such an approach is limited only by the fertility of an interpreter’s imagination. It’s entirely subjective and ignores authorial intent — and most probably the Holy Spirit’s intent, as well.

  3. John H. Armstrong August 9, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    Ray says “I was somewhat taken aback.” I would guess this represents the view of more than a few readers. What I find interesting is that my words are not read carefully by some who have commented on them. I did not endorse the views of the Fathers entirely, though I expressed obvious sympathy. Why not? Why should we simply reject their reading of such texts as allegorical for our more literal “modern” views? The Protestant hermeneutic is generally to be preferred but there are some marvelous exceptions to this conclusion. The New Testament shows how the Old was often read in ways that do not readily fit this Protestant view.
    This raises more questions than my blog intended but I will say that the propensity to reject all allegorical interpretation out of hand is typical evangelical reaction and one I do find sometimes unsatisfying, especially the more I read patristics.
    One thing stands out to me in such dialogue. Catholics often react to non-Catholic biblical readings and vice versa. I still recall asking Father Baima why Catholics do not do serious Bible study very often. He said, “Because you do!” I believe many evangelicals will not consider ancient readings that see Mary differently than their own tradition because Catholics see things in this way. The same is true with regard to the real presence of Christ in the sacraments, to cite but one other important illustration.
    My real desire, as always, is to foster a genuine ecumenical reading of the text AND of the catholic tradition. Sadly, many evangelicals have little interest in ecumenism or tradition. Such reading humbly requires us to ask, “Could my reading of the text be wrong?” Or, “Could there be something here that the Fathers saw that I do not?”
    Interpretation must not be done by employing “scientific” methods of textual interpretation without the church and the tradition involved. This is what many evangelicals find difficult thought this is slowly changing as paleo-orthodoxy becomes important to a growing number of us.

  4. George C August 9, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    It seems to me that the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary comes more from peoples’ degrading view of sex than from a plain reading of the NT.
    Why would sex after Jesus’ birth be any sort of tainting of her stature or character?
    It is entirely possible that the perpetual virginity of Mary is fact, but the text most definitely do not clearly state it.
    The question must ultimately be “Do the sources who promoted this dogma have special knowledge or not?”
    In Calvin and Luther’s case the answer is obviously “no”, but it may be possible that some of the earliest “fathers” had first hand or even second hand knowledge to such information.
    We would have to know that the dogma was indeed based upon such knowledge to give it credence; otherwise it is just speculation; speculation that is old and believed by many people, but that neither of those things make it any more reliable.
    As far as being ecumenical goes, it is not the differing views on this that creates division, it is that one group tends to try to demand faith in it for real inclusion and the other requires it be declared anathama.

  5. Anthony Caruana August 9, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    As a relatively new student to the study of hermeneutics I tend to shy away from allegorical interpretation as it’s too easy to convince ourselves that scripture says something we want it to say rather than what it actually says. However, I accept that I’m still learning good hermeneutical methods (under the excellent tutelage of Andrew Reid at Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia)
    As a Protestant who was brought up in a Roman Catholic home I find the entire discussion about Mary quite fascinating.
    When it comes down to it, we need to look at scripture to get a full understanding of Mary’s place. I fully accept that Mary was a virgin and that she conceived by the Holy Spirit. He role as the “Queen of Heaven” and her ascension after death are not found in scripture which leads me to two conclusions.
    1 – They are man-made traditions; or
    2 – They are not important. If they were then they’d be in the Bible
    As such, I agree that Mary’s “position” ought not be a cause of division when asking whether someone is a Christian.

  6. Nick Morgan August 10, 2009 at 12:32 am

    Hi John,
    Thanks for writing these very fair and insightful articles about Mary. I’m saddened by how Evangelicals tend to give Mary little, if any mention, beyond the birth of Jesus. To my Evangelical brothers and sisters who wonder where some of our Marian doctrines are found or justified from the scriptures, I would strongly recommend they read the book “Hail Holy Queen” by Dr. Scott Hahn. He does an excellent job of explaining how the Catholic Church developed her Marian Dogmas and tries to answer many Protestant challenges to them.
    God bless!

  7. Chris Criminger August 10, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    Hi John,
    Thanks again for another thought provoking and challenging words to Evangelicals. It is refreshing for me to see and Evangelical respond sympathetically and positive to the ancient tradition of the church.
    In response to the negative remarks concerning allegory, for starters , it is simply not true that allegory had not hermeneutical limits or rules for interpretation. ‘The Rule of Faith’ was the standard for allegorical interpretation. Only recently have Evangelicals started gaining understanding in regards to Patristic theology and its biblical intepretation while our modern scientific methodologies continue to turn more and more Christians into skeptics and naturalistic modernists.
    Protestants have over-reacted in so many areas that this is just one of several areas where the proverbial baby has been tossed out with the bathwater. We have lost the mystery and beauty of the early church’s faith, its sacramental character, as well as the use of smell, touch, and use of art and icons.
    There is a wonderfully challening article on the internet for those who want to do further studies by David Steinmetz called “The Superiority of Pre-critical Exegesis.”
    This will be controversial for some but I think he is overall correct. “The midieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstratable virtues is false.”
    For people willing to do the study, the Catholic Church’s four levels of meaning to Scripture derived and continued this tradition from its Jewish roots immersed in the hermeneuticss of Jesus day.

  8. Anthony August 11, 2009 at 1:03 am

    Regarding the issue of hermeneutics, a lot of what I would have written has been already been written by other commenters. I would just like to add that I seem to remember reading that Paul’s appropriation of the Old Testament, his hermeneutical approach, in developing his Christological arguments would be considered suspect according to the typical principles of Modern Protestant hermeneutics. So, it is a bit ironic that those who confess a high view of Scripture, as well as who uphold Paul’s apostolic authority, generally don’t employ his theological method.

  9. LKH August 12, 2009 at 12:03 am

    Thanks SO much for all the recent posts on Mary. My husband now teaches at a Catholic school, and having been raised as a low Protestant I have much to learn!
    I am curious about Matthew 1:25 that implies Joseph did have “union” with Mary after she gave birth to Jesus. Without looking into the Greek I am unsure of the terminology, but wondered if you have some commentary on that verse?

  10. Hodge August 12, 2009 at 2:25 am

    I have no problem with allegory, but the NT does not typically participate in the type of allegory seen in Origenic hermeneutics. The NT hermeneutic, as opposed to the common 2d Temple, and sometimes Patristic hermeneutic, is Christological and Soteriological in focus. It is bound to these themes. It therefore interprets nothing in the OT as allegorical about other people like Mary; but instead is concerned about Christ and His work. This is what separates a fulfillment hermeneutic of the OT from a wildly allegorical one.
    As to the main question, to say that Mary and Joseph never had sex is to say that they never got married. Marriage was a contract only finalized by consummation. If they did consummate the marriage, then we must then assume that God did not bless the consummation as He promised to the faithful Israelite couple that He would (Ps 128). The real issue is whether she remained a virgin, and since Joseph married her, this by definition means that they consummated that marriage. If they consummated it, I see nothing to suggest that God would not bless the union with further life, which is what a blessed woman produced.
    It is important to note that Jerome’s view was heavily criticized by others in his day, so it is not exactly the oldest tradition concerning Mary on the subject.

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