Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Perpetual Virginity of Mary (part II)

8jeromeIn part one of this post I discusses the famous “until” of Matthew 1:25.  Another type of evidence that is taken by modern Protestants as self-evident proof that Mary did not remain a virgin is the fact that the New Testament Scriptures frequently speak of the “brothers” and “sisters” of the Lord.   We can see that there was a group of persons closely connected with the Jesus in the New Testament who are called “his brothers or sisters” or “the brothers of the Lord” (Matt 12:46, 13:55; Mark 3:31-32, 6:3; Luke 8:19-20; John 2:12, 7:3-5; Acts 1:14; I Cor 9:5). 

The normal use of the word “brother” is for one who is the son of the same parents.  This would naturally seem to imply that  Mary and Joseph entered in to normal conjugal relations after Jesus was born.  What initially seems self-evident can sometimes dissolve in cloud of possibilities.  I personally have a brother but we were both adopted and, therefore, this fact does not say anything about our biological relations to our parents.
Three Views Since Antiquity:
In fact there have been three views on this subject since antiquity.  It seems that the tradition of the Church strongly remembers Mary’s perpetual virginity.  The consensus both East and West was that Mary had remained a virgin.  This consensus was challenged by Helvidius in the late forth century.  Helvidius maintained that the Scriptures, by naming the brothers and sisters of Jesus, demonstrate that Mary did not remain a virgin.  This view was condemned by the Church as a heresy.  It might be interesting for modern Protestants to realize that even Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, acknowledged Mary's perpetual virginity.  How then did the Church answer what seems today as self-evident in Scripture?

The early forth century bishop St. Epiphanius recorded the Eastern tradition that the “brother and sisters” of Scripture were in fact children of Joseph by a previous marriage.  According to this tradition Joseph as a young man married a woman who was not Mary and had a family.  Later his wife died and as older man he marries the virgin Mary who intends from the start not to have relations with him.
This view affirms that the perpetual virginity of Mary since the brothers would merely be "half-brothers" of Jesus, at least in the eyes of the public (Jesus has no earthly father).  It would be natural in a blended family to refer to each other as brother and sister without more careful qualifications. 
In the West St. Jerome proposed  that the “brothers and sisters” were not the children of Joseph or Mary but were cousins of Jesus. 
During my teaching career in public school I taught English as a Second Language for a few years and I recall one instance where I was teaching a group of South Asia students from the Punjab province of India.  I asked one of the young students how many brothers and sisters he had and he answered with a surprisingly large number that I now cannot recall, but I think it was something like 16 or 21.  The other boys then laughed and spoke to him in Punjabi and he said, “Oh, I mean three.”  The boy was speaking English which clearly distinguishes between “brother” and “cousin” but because this boy was thinking in Punjabi he made a mistake in English.
Jerome proposes a similar problem in the Biblical text. He argues that the confusion which exists between “cousin” and “brother” in Aramaic affected the use of this term in the Greek New Testament.  Jerome proposes that the “brethren” are actually the sons of Joseph’s brother Clopas who is also married to a women named Mary. 
One could take the possibilities further and ask what might have happened if Clopas had died and Joseph had taken over the care of both families.  Clearly the mere fact that Scripture mentions individuals call “the brothers of the Lord” does not conclusively prove anything.  One must reconcile the data of Scripture with the strongly held memory of the Church both East and West that Mary remained a virgin.  As I also pointed out above this memory was not even abandoned by the Protestant reformers! Apparently what is self-evident depends on whether you are wearing ancient or modern glasses.

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