Sunday, October 16, 2005

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

Continuing from Part I and Part II of this series, Paul Owen cites several points that he thinks confirms his thesis that Mary was dedicated as a “virgin temple servant”:
1) Mary calls herself the doule ( “female servant”) of the Lord in Luke 1:38.
The word doulos and its feminine cognate doule is so common in the NT (although the feminine form occurs only a few times) that it’s difficult to understand how Owen could see any significance in this word. There is certainly nothing inherent in the word that supports the notion of temple dedication. Moreover, the word is never used in the context of “virgin temple dedication,” which is really what Owen needs to show to advance his point. And so this point really cannot stand apart from the validity of the subsequent points that Owen argues. Indeed, Owen’s second point militates against his first. He writes:
2) Luke mentions another woman named Anna who in her old age “never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers” (Lk. 2:37). Apparently, such female Temple servants were not prohibited from marrying, though they maintained their virginity. There is no mention of Anna having children, though she “lived with a husband” (2:36). These women apparently did not spend all their time at the Temple during their younger years (until age 60? cf. 1 Tim. 5:9), but performed their service only when called upon, much like the priests (cf. Lk.
). In the case of married Temple servants, their husbands would have provided them with a home and companionship when they were not serving at the Temple.
Owen points to the single case of Anna as an example of virgin temple dedication; yet, not insignificantly, Anna is never called a doule. And although Owen argues that Anna was an example of a “married virgin,” he deduces this based solely on the lack of any mention of Anna having children. On this view, whether Owen thinks the husband was also a virgin dedicated to the temple we are not told. What we do know from both the NT and the OT is that those expressly dedicated to temple service were priests, and there was no rule of celibacy concerning them.

Yet there are so many other simpler explanations of this that Owen’s solution seems not only unnecessary, but far fetched. Perhaps Anna, like a host of her biblical predecessors, was barren. Or, perhaps she had many children and Luke simply does not mention them (Luke’s purpose in this narrative is not to give an exhaustive biography for Anna). In any case, to conclude from the lack of any mention of children an entire reconstruction that sees Anna as a perpetual virgin and her husband as a mere “protectorate,” is absurd on its face.

Owen turns next to the Protevangelium of James for support:

3) A very early Christian text, the Protoevangelium of James (ca. 125) preserves a tradition that Mary’s parents dedicated her to the service of the Temple from her earliest childhood. This tradition appears to be firmly grounded in Luke’s narration of Jesus’ infancy. According to this early Christian text, Mary’s barren mother vowed in a manner recalling the words of Samuel’s mother Hannah (cf. 1 Sam. 1:11): “As the Lord lives, if I bring forth either male or female, I will bring it for a gift unto the Lord my God, and it shall be ministering unto him all the days of its life.”
On this point Owen could have also cited the Ascension of Isaiah, the Gospel of Peter, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, each of which preserves a similar tradition, and each of which is absolutely steeped in Gnosticism. Moreover, the historical value of all these writings is suspect. Both the Protevangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas are, according to Richard Bauckham, “certainly works of imagination, not of historiography” (1994:696); and both of these, along with the Gospel of Peter, are apocryphal works of dubious historical value (Meier, 1992:6). Meier characterizes the Protevangelium of James as “a wildly imaginative folk-narrative that is outrageously inaccurate about NT events as well as things Jewish” (1992:16). Similarly, Elliott (1993:51) tells us in his preface to the Protevangelium of James that its historical value is “insignificant,” citing numerous inaccuracies and inconsistencies. Graef (1964:36), who is sympathetic with the Roman Catholic view of Mary, notes that this writing betrays “great ignorance of Jewish conditions” and is therefore of “little theological significance.” Notwithstanding the consensus of scholars on this point, this writing stands as a major support for Owen’s view.

Owen next cites John 19:27 in support of his view:

2. John 19:27 tells us that Jesus committed Mary into the care of the apostle John at the time of his death. His words to Mary, “behold your son,” strongly imply that the loss of Jesus would leave Mary without a son. This, in addition to the fact that the commandment to honor your parents (Exod. 20:12) would have obligated Mary’s other sons to care for their aging mother (cf. Matt. 15:4-6), strongly implies that Jesus was Mary’s only son, which in part explains why Jesus entrusted her into John’s care.
On the contrary; all it implies is that Jesus is severing biological ties in favor of spiritual ones. By telling Mary that John was now her son and John that Mary was now his mother, He establishes the eschatological family. Jesus had biological brothers, but at this point they were unbelievers (John 7:5). Jesus would have been remiss not to have provided for the spiritual welfare of his mother (who was by this time a disciple); and leaving her in the hands of his unbelieving brothers would have contributed nothing to her spiritual welfare even if her material needs had been fully met.

Owen continues:
The objection that Mary’s other sons were not believers at this time holds no merit, for the obligation to care for one’s mother is rooted in the Law of Moses, not in a distinctive Christian ethic.
Owen’s reasoning is deeply flawed here and betrays a marked lack of awareness of Jesus’ teaching about biological vs. eschatological relationships in the kingdom. First of all, whether the brothers of Jesus would have been willing to care for their mother is not what is at issue. Let’s grant for the moment that Jesus’ brothers were not only willing to do this based on the law of Moses, but that they even eager to do so. That doesn’t change the fact that in the new eschatological family believers are obligated to provide for the material and spiritual welfare of one another in spite of any other obligations (by “law” or otherwise) their biological family members may be under, all the while “accepting nothing from the pagans” (3 John 7; in context, “Pagan” or “Gentile” is synonymous with “unbeliever”). There is no “law of Moses” that prohibits John from taking Mary into his house, and indeed the “law of Christ” demands it, particularly in light of Jesus’ teaching that kingdom relationships are not based on biological ties. The unbelieving brothers of Jesus, as well-meaning as they may have been at the time, simply could not provide for Mary's spiritual need and emotional consolation. That required a believer, and one close to the Lord himself. Neither time nor space allows me to reproduce the relevant points made in my book on this issue, and I will refer the reader there.

Owen cites one final passage in support of his view; namely, Revelation 12, which he believes is a reference to Mary. Due to the many issues surrounding the interpretation of this passage, I will address it separately in the final installment.