Saturday, May 5, 2007

Mary, quite contrary

Any journalist will tell you the same thing -- it's always the stories you don't think twice about that come back to bite you.

A couple of weeks ago, a Christian writer named Frederica Mathewes-Green was scheduled to speak at Givens Books on a Friday night and a Saturday afternoon. Two of her old friends live in Lynchburg, and they informed me of her appearance and asked me to write something in advance. Which I was glad to do.

Unfortunately, although Ms. Mathewes-Green proved a pleasant and interesting subject for a telephone interview, there were a couple of problems. One, I was delving into matters of denominational hairsplitting that were beyond my comprehension or education. Two, either because of her softly modulated voice or a subpar cell phone connection, I had a great deal of trouble hearing and understandsing what she was saying.

Anyway, when the article came out, I received a letter and two e-mails pointing out a list of errors in it and asking for a correction. Interestingly, none of this correspondence came from Frederica Mathewes-Green herself.

As it turned out, most of the errors were of the sort that harmed no one and would be obvious only to people who would already know they were wrong. The one thing that did concern me, though, was that I quoted Ms. Mathewes-Green as saying many in the early church didn't believe that the Virgin Mary was really a virgin -- and that, in fact, "no one expected that of her."

Actually, she was referring to the question of whether or not Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. So at the risk of causing more confusion, I'll just let Ms. Mathewes-Green, recent author of "The Lost Gospels of Mary" explain it:

"Though the Gospel of Mary shows her virgin before and after the birth of Christ, it does not comment on whether she remained a virgin all her life. That was the consensus of the early church, however, and it was universally believed until recent centuries. Even some Reformation leaders, including Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther, upheld it. Though many Christians today assume Mary and Joseph entered normal marital relations after Jesus’ birth, that belief was not accepted by any orthodox Christian writer for over 1500 years.

"In the fourth century, a rare attempt to advance this view was made by a writer named Helvidius. He offered as evidence Matthew 1:25: “[Joseph] knew her not until she had borne a son.” Surely that meant Joseph “knew” Mary after the birth of Jesus, Helvidius said.

"We know of Helvidius only through St. Jerome’s indignant rebuttal. Jerome fired back that, if we say, 'Helvidius did not repent until his death,' it doesn’t mean he repented afterwards. What’s more (waxing sarcastic, which Jerome could certainly do), if 'until' means normal marital relations began after the birth of Christ, on what grounds could Helvidius allow even a moment’s delay? Midwives would have to bustle the child out of the room 'while the husband clasps his exhausted wife.'

"This 'until' did not trouble early Christians, who understood it to mean 'before.' Matthew consistently tells the story of Mary’s pregnancy from Joseph’s point of view, and is here restating that Joseph had no part in Jesus’ conception. Likewise, Luke’s reference to “her first-born son” (in Luke 2) is a formula indicating inheritance status, and requires no subsequent sons. 'Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.'

"The strongest evidence that Mary had no other sons is that the crucified Jesus consigned her to John’s care (John 19:26-27). This makes sense if Jesus’ death was going to leave her unprotected, but not if it meant wresting her from the home of biological sons.

"Apart from Helvidius, only Tertullian (who was less than fully orthodox; Jerome dismisses him as “not of the Church”) proposed that Mary entered an ordinary married life with Joseph. Tertullian saw in this a blessing of both the virgin and the married state. But the remainder of the early Christian writers are united in upholding her life-long virginity—an assertion, similar to the virgin birth above, that would be unnecessary, and awkward to defend, and thus unlikely to be invented, if it were not believed true."

There, my conscience is clear. We move on.


Jim Martin said...

Well, that sure cleared things up didn't it?
So the answer is, we don't know.
Of course, we don't "know" anything about any of this do we? It's all on faith, right?
Well, for me, I hope Mary and Joseph got together. If they were married wouldn't their getting together be ordained by God? Wouldn't they be expected to get busy and multiply?
But, if you had a child with God Joseph might have a hard time measuring up. I know I'd be a little insecure.

Anonymous said...

OK, Jim, that's funny! Your profile is kind of cute too. You must be a lot of fun at the office...