Saturday, October 15, 2005

Mary's Perpetual Virginity in Light of the New Testament Evidence (Part II)

Continuing on from Part I of our response to Paul Owen, Owen writes:
Luke’s description of Mary in his infancy narrative is very carefully crafted. When he records the angel Gabriel being sent to her, he doesn’t call her a woman, but a “virgin” (1:27). Why would he need to highlight this fact? We get a clue in 1:34, where Mary asks Gabriel how it is possible for her to have a child: “How can this be when I do not know a man?” It is important to keep in mind that Gabriel did not announce to Mary that she was pregnant. He announced to her that she would become pregnant in the future (1:31). If all Mary means in verse 34 is that she has not been intimate with a man yet, then her question makes no sense. Obviously, in that case she would simply assume that she will become pregnant after she physically consummates her marriage with Joseph. Since Gabriel’s announcement speaks to a future pregnancy, Mary’s question can only make sense on the assumption that she never will be physically intimate with a man.
This argument could have come from the pen of any Roman Catholic apologist, and in fact appears to have come directly from the transcript of my debate with Gerry Matatics—he made this point nearly verbatim. Owen is a better scholar than that, and it is disappointing to know this is coming from him. What is even more disappointing is that I specifically addressed this argument in my book on Mary, which I know Dr. Owen has. He might have at least conferred with my book to see what the scholarly opinion is on this issue. And if after reading it he was still convinced of his own view, he might at least have interacted with the arguments against it.

Moreover, Owen has insisted that he is a “Reformational Christian,” and that his mentors include Calvin, Luther, et al. Calvin’s comments on this view are therefore of special significance:
The conjecture which some have drawn from these words, that she had formed a vow of perpetual virginity, is unfounded and altogether absurd. She would, in that case, have committed treachery by allowing herself to be united to a husband, and would have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage; which could not have been done without mockery of God. Although the Papists have exercised barbarous tyranny on this subject, yet they have never proceeded so far as to allow the wife to form a vow of continence at her own pleasure. Besides, it is an idle and unfounded supposition that a monastic life existed among the Jews (Harmony of the Gospels, vol. 1).
So, the view to which a “Reformational Christian” like Dr. Owen subscribes is characterized by Calvin himself as “unfounded and altogether absurd.” Moreover, this view is expressly rejected by scholarship. I will reproduce below an abridged version of the relevant section of my book, Who Is My Mother?, to show just why Owen’s view is rejected by the majority of NT scholars who specialize in this issue, including Roman Catholic scholars.


c. “How will this be since I do not know a man?”

The RSV translation of Luke 1:34, “since I have no husband,” is misleading since Mary did indeed have a husband at that time (cf. Luke 1:27; Fitzmyer, 1981:348). In Matthew 1:19 Joseph is called Mary’s “husband” (ho aner autes) while still in the betrothal stage. Both Matthew and Luke presuppose the two-step marriage process of that day. In the first step, ’êrûsîn (betrothal), which is a “legally ratified marriage” (Brown et al, 1978:114), the couple exchanged vows before witnesses but continued to live separately for a period of about a year, although at least one conjugal visit by the husband during the interim period was not uncommon (Brown et al, 1978:83). In the second step, nîśű’în, the husband received the woman into his home, initiated regular marital relations with her, and took financial responsibility for her (Brown et al, 1978:84).

McHugh has shown from Mishnahic sources (Kiddushin “Betrothals,” and Ketuboth “Marriage Deeds”) that sexual relations between the betrothed were allowed in Judaism, at least after the Jewish Revolt of AD 132-135. He notes that a betrothed girl whose fiancé had died was to wait a period of three months before marrying again in order to ascertain whether or not she had conceived a child (McHugh, 1975:161). However, according to the Babylonian Talmud (Ketuboth 3b) and the Jerusalem Talmud (Ketuboth 1:25c) the apparent reason for this allowance of sexual activity prior to the second step of the marriage process was to prevent Roman soldiers in Judaea from seizing a girl on her wedding day whom they assumed to be a virgin. Around AD 150, R. Judah (in Yebamoth 4:10) indicates that the practice of sexual relations during betrothal had diminished except in Judaea. The normal practice by and large was to abstain from normal sexual relations until nîśű’în. This is assumed in Ketuboth 1:1-5 where instructions are given for legal action to be taken by the man if after the wedding it is discovered that the girl is not truly a virgin.

Mary’s words in this passage (“I do not know a man”) indicate that she and Joseph abstained from sexual relations during the ’­êrûsîn (“betrothal”) period of their relationship. Yet some Catholic exegetes go even farther and suggest that Mary, by these words, indicates that she had taken a prior vow of virginity. This view, first posited by fourth-century fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose and Augustine, argues that Mary’s question makes sense only if Mary had already made up her mind to remain a virgin, “so that her objection takes on the tone of a resolve: ‘How can this be since I shall not know a man?’” (Brown et al, 1978:114-115).

Keating (1988:283) goes so far as to suggest that any opposing view encounters “insuperable” problems. According to Keating, Mary’s response would make no sense if she had not taken such a vow, for why would Mary ask “how” she would be pregnant if she knew she would be having sexual relations upon marrying Joseph (1988:283)? There is no reason to assume Mary was wholly ignorant of the rudiments of biology. She presumably knew the normal way in which children are conceived. If she anticipated having children and did not intend to maintain a vow of virginity, she would hardly have to ask “how” she was to have a child, since having a child the normal way would be expected by a newlywed (1988:283).

Keating cannot understand how Mary’s response could make sense in light of the angel’s announcement that she would bear a child. But Keating’s objection assumes that Mary is thinking of her future relations with Joseph and does not understand the conception to be immediate. Yet we have every indication that Mary does understand the angel to mean that she would conceive immediately. First, Mary does not say, “How can this be, since I will not know a man,” which is what we might expect if Mary had taken a vow of lifelong virginity. Instead, she says, “How can this be, since I am not knowing a man.” The present tense, not the future, is used in this statement. Many modern-day Catholic apologists, including Keating, argue that the present tense here is to be taken as a futuristic present. Yet they do so without warrant. A present tense verb can be labeled a futuristic present only when it is obvious from the context that the verb is future referring. For instance, in John 14:2-3 Jesus tells his disciples: “I am going [poreuomai] to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back [erchomai] and take you to be with.” Both “I am going” and “I am coming” are present-tense verbs, but both are unambiguously future referring and are therefore futuristic presents. Such is not the case with ginosko (“I am knowing”) in Luke 1:34. The present tense makes good sense in its context as a present-referring verb, and so is not a legitimate example of a futuristic present. Mary could not fathom how she was going to become pregnant in the present situation since in the present situation she was not currently having sexual relations with Joseph. In light of our earlier observation that sexual relations were not uncommon for a betrothed Jewish couple in the first century, it would make perfect sense (in spite of Keating’s insistence to the contrary) for Mary to ask “how” this would happen since she and Joseph were not engaging in what was otherwise considered an acceptable practice: “How will this happen, since (unlike some other betrothed couples) we are not having sexual relations?”

Second, the subsequent narrative indicates that Mary did conceive immediately. She is already pregnant when she visits Elizabeth—who, according to v. 36, is six months pregnant at Mary’s Annunciation—for Elizabeth blesses the “fruit of [Mary’s] womb” (v. 42). We are further informed that Mary stayed with Elizabeth three months (v. 56), but left before Elizabeth’s child was born (v. 57). If Elizabeth was six months pregnant at Mary’s Annunciation, and Mary was able to be with her for three full months afterward—but before Elizabeth gave birth—then Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth (as well as her pregnancy) could only have been immediately after her Annunciation. This is borne out by v. 39, which tells us that Mary went to Elizabeth “with haste.” If Mary asks her question under the assumption that the angel is referring to the immediate future, then, in the words of Landry, “she turns out to be right” (Landry, 1995:74).

Both Fitzmyer (1981:348-350) and Brown (1977:303-308) reject the historical reading of Mary’s question, seeing it instead as a literary device intended to introduce to the reader how the birth would take place. However, both agree that of all the “psychological” explanations, the immediate-conception view is the strongest, and their only objection to this interpretation seems to be that the angel’s words are in the future tense (“you will conceive”): “But Luke’s Greek is clearly future. . . . The conception is yet to happen” (Brown, 1977:306); “[The immediate-conception view] tends to obscure the future tense that the angel used in v. 32 and will use in v. 35” (Fitzmyer, 1981:350). Yet, curiously enough, both of these scholars seem to miss the point of the immediate-conception view. Landry takes Fitzmyer to task for this objection by noting the (seemingly) obvious. Quoting J. Schaberg’s work, Landry notes that Fitzmyer’s objection is valid only if “the conception is thought of as ‘then and now’ but not if [it is thought of] in the future before the still distant home-taking” (Landry, 1995:75): Landry sums up the matter this way:
After considering the various alternatives, it seems clear that an ancient reader would conclude that as a betrothed virgin, Mary objects because she assumes that the angel is telling her that she will become pregnant almost immediately, before she could possibly have sexual relations legally with her husband (Landry, 1995:73) (emphasis in original).
Mary’s question, therefore, “certainly cannot be read as a vow of virginity: There are far too many more obvious senses of the statement to make that probable” (Wansbrough, 1988:128). Calvin’s comments on this phrase of Mary are lucid:
The conjecture which some have drawn from these words, that she had formed a vow of perpetual virginity, is unfounded and altogether absurd. She would, in that case, have committed treachery by allowing herself to be united to a husband, and would have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage; which could not have been done without mockery of God. Although the Papists have exercised barbarous tyranny on this subject, yet they have never proceeded so far as to allow the wife to form a vow of continence at her own pleasure. Besides, it is an idle and unfounded supposition that a monastic life existed among the Jews (Harmony of the Gospels, vol. 1).
The underlying assumption that leads Keating to his conclusions is that virginity is somehow a higher calling than marital relations. But just what this assumption is based on is not readily apparent. No appeal can legitimately be made to 1 Corinthians 7 in support of Keating’s position. There Paul tells his readers that it is better to remain single so that one can serve the Lord in an undistracted way. The text is referring to singleness, however, not virginity per se. Even if we were to grant that Mary took a vow of virginity, she was, nevertheless, still a married woman with a son, and so was obligated to devote herself to the mundane distractions of life to which Paul refers in this text. It is singleness, not married virginity that is the higher calling here.

Senior (1989:104) explains where this teaching may be based: “Traditional mariology has presumed that the virginity of Mary is presented in Luke’s text as treasured virtue. But there is reason to suggest that Luke considers it an impoverishment, a promise unfulfilled and with prospect in sight.” Senior shows the link between Elizabeth’s circumstance as a “barren woman” who is promised a son, and Mary’s circumstance as a virgin with no husband who is promised a son. The angel counters Mary’s protest of impossibility (“how will this be since I am not sexually active,” translation mine) by noting Elizabeth’s “impossible” conception (v. 36), and reminding Mary that nothing is impossible with God (v. 37) (Senior, 1989:104-105). Mary’s designation of herself as “the Lord’s servant” (v. 38) may echo the words of the mother of Samuel (1 Sam 1:18) who was also the recipient of divine intervention in regard to her pregnancy; and the angel’s words, “not any word [rema] will be impossible with God” may be an allusion to the LXX of Gen 18:14: “Is a word [rema] impossible with God?” Both “words” are promises of an otherwise impossible pregnancy. “The ‘low estate’ of Mary in Luke’s narrative is her virginity. She is destined to bear the messiah but she has no husband” (Senior, 1989:106)—that is, she was not yet married.

Keating (by positing a married virgin) has, moreover, introduced a historical novum; namely, that there was such a thing as a married virgin. Yet, such a notion cannot be supported either biblically or historically: “Such an interpretation of 1:34 reads into the text later concerns; and the idea that a Galilean village girl, who had already entered into marriage, did so intending to remain a virgin and childless is out of harmony with the Jewish mentality of Jesus’ time” (Brown et al, 1978:114-115). Jewish culture looked to the bearing of children as a great blessing and considered childlessness a disgrace—hence, Elizabeth’s remark that God had “taken away [her] disgrace” by giving her a son (Luke 1:25; cf. the cases of Rachel, Sarah and Hannah). Moreover, though some have attempted to marshal historical evidence for this interpretation by appealing to the Qumran practice of celibacy, this offers no real support since the practice itself is uncertain and is unrelated to virginity within marriage in any case (Brown et al, 1978:115). Brown (1977:304), goes so far as to insist that the “vow of virginity” view is “totally implausible” because, “in our knowledge of Palestinian Judaism, there is nothing that would explain why a twelve-year-old girl would have entered marriage with the intention to preserve virginity and thus not to have children.” What is more, the celibacy practiced at Qumran “throws no light whatsoever on the supposed resolve of virginity made by a young village girl who had entered matrimony” (Brown, 1977:305) (emphasis in original).

Even more importantly, the idea of a married virgin is biblically untenable. There is never any indication from the Old or New Testaments that it is acceptable to be married and at the same time a virgin. Commenting on Luke 1:34, Fitzmyer (1981:349) says that “the words in themselves merely express a simple denial of sexual intercourse and have nothing to do with an antecedent vow or resolve of perpetual virginity; the context in which they occur scarcely implies anything of the sort. . . . A vow of virginity is unknown in the OT.” Catholic apologists often argue that Mary and Joseph planned to be married—even though Mary had taken a vow of virginity—for reasons of financial expediency, or so that Mary would have a protectorate to provide for Mary and to protect her from other suitors. Yet Paul gives just the opposite directive for virgins in 1 Corinthians 7. There he tells us that, while it is ideal to remain unmarried (agamos) so that one can better serve the Lord (vv. 32-35), this would be impractical for those not having the “gift” of celibacy (vv. 7-9). However, if one does marry, that person has a marital debt (v. 3; opheilen, “that which is owed”) that is owed to his or her spouse; namely, not to deprive the spouse of his or her body—which, by virtue of marriage, no longer belongs to him or her, but to the spouse (vv. 4-5). He would like unmarried widows and virgins to remain unmarried (agamos), but if their passions flare up they too should marry (vv. 8-9, 25-28).

Several points need to be made about Paul’s words here. First, it is clear by these passages that Paul assumes that if one is married, he or she is also sexually active. Second, Paul maintains that if one is not sexually active within a marriage, that person is depriving his or her spouse of what is "owed" (opheilen). Moreover, if one wants to live a life of sexual inactivity and undistracted devotion to the Lord, that person is to remain "unmarried" (agamos)—not to marry for financial expediency. Marriage between two avowed virgins violates the divinely instituted intent of marriage, which is to demonstrate the intimate relationship between Christ and his church (Eph 5:22-32). To marry for reasons of financial expediency, or the like, is to misrepresent that original intent. Unconsummated marriage, therefore, is not only unsupported biblically and historically, but also seems to be averse to biblical teaching. If this was Mary’s practice, then Mary is open to these charges. In any case, as Landry notes, though the “vow of virginity” interpretation has been popular among Roman Catholics in the past, its adherents are waning: “One seldom hears this line of thought in more recent scholarship. Many scholars regard the idea of a vow of perpetual virginity in the first century as an anachronism” (Landry, 1995:66).


Owen continues:
This provides us with a clue as to why Luke calls her a virgin in verse 27. It is not simply that she is a virtuous woman who has abstained from sexual intercourse prior to marriage; rather, she is a virgin whose dedication to the Lord involves the renunciation of sexual intercourse.
She is called a virgin, rather, to set the context for the virgin birth. To adduce from this text evidence for any other point is to engage in eisegesis, which contradicts the majority opinion of scholars as well as the Reformers themselves. No one holds the “vow of virginity” view today except for the most polemic of Roman Catholic scholars and apologists. Why Owen would choose to adopt a view that is on cusp of dying off altogether is baffling. Owen continues:
We get a few brief glimpses of such virgins in the Old Testament. According to one interpretation of Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11:31, Jephthah dedicates his daughter to serve the Lord at the tabernacle. This dedication causes the young girl to weep, because of her virginity (Judg. 11:37). Once the time came for the vow to be fulfilled, from that time forward “she knew no man” (11:39). Jephthah’s daughter became one of “the serving women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting” (Exod. 38:8). It is these holy women whose virginity was defiled by Eli’s wicked sons, who “lay with the women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting” (1 Sam. 2:22).
No one denies that one might have chosen a life of celebacy (not a "vow of virginity" per se) in dedication to the Lord—Paul himself chose that lifestyle and encouraged others to do so as well. The difference between the case of Jephthah’s daughter and that of Mary is that Mary was engaged to be married during the same time period as her supposed “vow of virginity” and temple dedication. And she entered into the confirmation stage of that marriage in spite of the fact that she was now supposedly “dedicated to temple service” (i.e., virginity). We have already seen Paul’s view of such an arrangement. We have already noted that there is no precedence for such an arrangement. And we have already shown that such an arrangement would make absolutely no sense before or after the angel’s visitation to Mary.

I will address Owen’s reading of Luke 1:38, 2:37, John 19:25-27, and Revelation 12, as well as his reliance on the Protoevangelium of James our next installment.