Thursday, December 9, 2010

Circumstantial Evidence and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

In Luke 1:26-33, the angel Gabriel informs Mary that she will give birth to a child. Her response in verse 34 is quite interesting:

"'How will this be,' Mary asked the angel, 'since I am a virgin?'"

Notice that Mary's self-description of her virginity is in the present tense. She doesn't state that she will forever remain a virgin. On the other hand, Gabriel's declaration is in the future tense. Why, then, does Mary not just assume that in the future she will conceive in the natural way? Catholics, Orthodox, and some Protestants (but most Protestants today do not hold to this) believe that Luke 1:34 is indicative not only of Mary's present state, but also of her vocation.

The awkwardness of Luke 1:34 for the contradictory view is manifest in the gratuitousness of Mary's question. Where e = evidence (in particular, the passage we are discussing), h = the hypothesis that Mary remained a virgin throughout her entire life, and k = any background knowledge, P(h/e&k) > P(h/k). In other words, Luke 1:34, while not necessarily demonstrative evidence of Mary's perpetual virginity, does make this hypothesis more likely true than it would be without Luke 1:34.

18 comments:

  1. I'm sorry, but this doesn't make sense. There is no awkardness in Luke 1:34 for the denial of Mary's perpetual virginity. Nothing about this section even implies perpetual virginity.

    Where did Gabriel make any statement about her virginity, other than to affirm that though she is indeed (as she points out) a virgin she shall conceive, via the Spirit of God, the aforementioned son -- who will be called the Son of God?

    Then, the Matthew birth narrative says that Joseph didn't have sexual relations with Mary until after the birth of her son.

    Then, the Gospels make reference to Jesus having brothers, not merely kinsmen. And, James is specifically knonn as "the brother brother of Jesus," not merely as his kinsman.

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  2. Walter Van den AckerDecember 10, 2010 at 10:05 AM

    Is there actually anyone who cares whether Mary was a virgin or not or whether she was only a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus and married afterwards and had the borthers and sisters described in the Bible?
    I was born and raised a catholic myself, went to mass every Sunday until I was over 23 and went to catholic high schools and a catholic university and in all those years I never once heard that Mary was supposed to have been a perpetual virgin.
    Is there any intrinsic value in remaining a virgin? Would Christ have been any less if he had been the child of a non-virgin mother?

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  3. The Jewish people referred to all relatives (and sometimes all fellow Israelites) as "brother" and "sister." See, for example, Genesis 14:14, where Lot is called Abraham's "brother," when in fact, Lot was literally his nephew.

    The term, "until," [Greek: heos hou] doesn't indicate the cessation of the preceding verb. Take, for instance, 2 Peter 1:19: "Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as a lamp shining in a dark place, until [heos hou] the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts." Obviously, we're not free to be unattentive to the prophetic message afterward.

    Walter, Mary's perpetual virginity is a dogma of the Catholic Church. No, Christ would not have been any less divine had Mary afterward lost her virginity. Nevertheless, Mary is considered to be the holiest of those who are deemed merely human creatures. As such, it was better for her to remain a virgin (see 1 Corinthians 7 on the holiness of celibacy).

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  4. That's a pretty good account of how the terms "brother/sister" and "until" are used in Holy Scripture.

    It is much more probable that Our Lady would have understood that she'd become pregnant soon by the natural manner, unless she was going to remain a virgin the rest of her life. If it was just a lapse in thinking on her part then I don't think Saint Luke would have included such an unimportant detail.

    Also, we notice that Our Lord entrusted Our Lady to Saint John at the crucifixion. I think the probability of Our Lord entrusting her to someone outside the family (like Saint John) is very low given the hypothesis that she had other children.

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  5. That's a good point. If e1 represents Mary's question in Luke 1:34, and e2 represents Jesus' entrusting Mary to John, then we have the beginnings of a cumulative case for Mary's perpetual virginity, the formula of which would look like this: P(e/h&k) > P(e/~h&k). Also included in e would be the almost unanimous tradition of the post-Biblical Church.

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  6. Walter Van den AckerDecember 13, 2010 at 4:39 AM

    Awatkins69 said
    "It is much more probable that Our Lady would have understood that she'd become pregnant soon by the natural manner, unless she was going to remain a virgin the rest of her life. "

    If she wasn't in a relationship at the time how would she 'have understood that she 'd become pregnant soon by the natural manner'?
    I can imagine that my 17-year-old daughter, if someone was to say: 'You will become pregnant soon', would probabaly say,'You must be joking, I'm not even in a relation'. AFAIK she is not planning on remaining a virgin for the rest of her life, still her reaction would sound normal to me.
    And as for entrusting Our Lady to Saint John, this happened in Jerusalem, and Mary's children would be in Nazareth, so they were not around (or maybe their cell-phones were out of order). Not that this is of any importance, but there just does not seem to be any biblical support for Mary's perpetual virginity. Of course, if you really want her to be a perpetual virgin, I suppose you can interpret some verses in that way, but then, you can find support for everything using some interpretation of the bible.

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  7. Walter: "If she wasn't in a relationship at the time how would she 'have understood that she 'd become pregnant soon by the natural manner'?"

    Mary was betrothed to Joseph at the time of Gabriel's visitation.

    Walter: "And as for entrusting Our Lady to Saint John, this happened in Jerusalem, and Mary's children would be in Nazareth, so they were not around"

    The family of Jesus, although living in Nazareth, would have been visiting Jerusalem for the Passover celebration.

    Good questions.

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  8. Walter Van den AckerDecember 13, 2010 at 8:35 AM

    Doug said
    "Mary was betrothed to Joseph at the time of Gabriel's visitation."

    When I said she wasn't in a relationship I meant she wasn't in a sexual relationship or a relationship that she thought would lead to sexual intercourse in the near future.
    If she had been in a sexual relationship, she wouldn't have been a virgin, would she? (Well, I suppose god, being almighty, could arrange for Mary to remain a virgin while being sexually active).
    Now I do not exactly know what 'betrothed to Joseph' meant in those days.
    The point is, nowhere does Mary promise to remain a virgin all her life, even if she didn't want to have a sexual relationship with Joseph, she might have married someone else later on after Joseph died e.g.

    And is it so that every Jew from Judea and Galilea and everywhere else would come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover every year? I can hardly imagine that. Sure, lmots of people would have come to Jesrusalem, but lots would not have been able to afford it.

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  9. Yes, Mary was already betrothed to St. Joseph.

    "And as for entrusting Our Lady to Saint John, this happened in Jerusalem, and Mary's children would be in Nazareth, so they were not around."

    As Doug says, they would have been in Jerusalem for the Passover. Moreover, Our omniscient Lord knew that his "brethren" would be in Jerusalem very soon at Pentecost (cf. Act 1:14).

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  10. The Jewish people referred to all relatives (and sometimes all fellow Israelites) as "brother" and "sister." See, for example, Genesis 14:14, where Lot is called Abraham's "brother," when in fact, Lot was literally his nephew.

    And yet, they were able, somehow, to say “kinsman” when they wanted to.

    Moreover, the Gospels are written in Greek (at any rate, what has come down to us are in Greek). It seems rather odd, doesn’t it, that if it was common knowledge among the early Church that Mary was perpetually a virgin, which is to say, that James was not Jesus’ brother, but his cousin, that the writings would consistently call him Jesus’ brother.

    The term, "until," [Greek: heos hou] doesn't indicate the cessation of the preceding verb. Take, for instance, 2 Peter 1:19: "Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as a lamp shining in a dark place, until [heos hou] the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts." Obviously, we're not free to be unattentive to the prophetic message afterward.

    Obviously, someone is misunderstanding something. The prophetic message passes away when the “until” is fulfilled, for it has served its purpose, it is complete. Sort of like “not one jot or tittle shall in any wise pass away until all things are fulfilled.”

    Also, we notice that Our Lord entrusted Our Lady to Saint John at the crucifixion. I think the probability of Our Lord entrusting her to someone outside the family (like Saint John) is very low given the hypothesis that she had other children.

    How odd! The men who are explicitly called Jesus' brothers are only cousins ... until the Crucifixion, at which time they’re not even relatives.

    It wasn't until some time after the Resurrection that Jesus' brothers (James, at any rate) were counted among his followers.

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  11. Ilion, James is indeed called Jesus' brother. However, the fact that these references were written in Greek shouldn't take anything away from the fact that we're talking about Jewish authors who retained their uses. The Greek Septuagint, for example, translates the Hebrew into Greek as "brother" for that very reason, even in instances such as Abraham and Lot.

    The term, "kinsman," is just an English rendition.

    Ilion: "Obviously, someone is misunderstanding something. The prophetic message passes away when the 'until' is fulfilled, for it has served its purpose, it is complete. Sort of like 'not one jot or tittle shall in any wise pass away until all things are fulfilled.'"

    We're not free to break the Law after these things are fulfilled. Here's another example of what I mean. 2 Samuel 6:23, "And Michal, Saul's daughter, had no child until the day of her death." Surely she didn't give birth after she died.

    Ilion: "How odd! The men who are explicitly called Jesus' brothers are only cousins ... until the Crucifixion, at which time they’re not even relatives."

    It's not odd under a Jewish paradigm. After all, Lot was just as explicitly called Abraham's brother.

    Ilion: "It wasn't until some time after the Resurrection that Jesus' brothers (James, at any rate) were counted among his followers."

    That's true.

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  13. Walter: " . . . The point is, nowhere does Mary promise to remain a virgin all her life, even if she didn't want to have a sexual relationship with Joseph, she might have married someone else later on after Joseph died e.g."

    Keep in mind that we're not talking about explicit references to Mary's perpetual virginity which, I admit, are not found in the Bible. What we're talking about are circumstantial evidences: sayings and facts that make it more likely that Mary remained a virgin than it would otherwise be.

    Walter: "And is it so that every Jew from Judea and Galilea and everywhere else would come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover every year? I can hardly imagine that. Sure, lmots of people would have come to Jesrusalem, but lots would not have been able to afford it."

    I can't imagine that, either. However, we have references to Jesus' brothers being in Jerusalem at or around the time of the Passover. Acts 1:14 is one such reference and it immediately follows this short period of time.

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  14. Walter Van den AckerDecember 14, 2010 at 8:42 AM

    If Mary was engaged to Joseph, she was most probably not expecting to remain a virgin her whole life.
    And while the word 'until' doesn't indicate the cessation of the preceding verb, but it is clear that Matthew, if he had wished to even hint at Mary's perpetual virginity, would have said something along the lines of "Joseph never had sexual intercourse with Mary.
    And indeed, in acts the 'brothers' are suddenly present, together with Mary, who, according to Luke wasn't present at Jesus' death and resurrection (GJohn is the only one who mentions Mary there). The story suggests that Mary and Jesus'brothers were not in Jerusalem for the passover but hurried to Jesrusalem after hearing about Jesus' execution and resurrection.

    Anyway, while I enjoy an academic discussion now and then, I still fail to see why any of this has any relevance at all. The latest Catholic Bible translation in Dutch even replaces the word "maagd" (virgin) by "meisje"(girl).
    And it's atyranslation officially apporved by the Dutch and the Belgian Arch Bishop.

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  15. Walter: "If Mary was engaged to Joseph, she was most probably not expecting to remain a virgin her whole life."

    It's debatable, at the very least. It wasn't uncommon in those days for young women to marry older men for the sake of protection and financial stability. Tradition has it that Joseph was much older than Mary and that the two were betrothed for those reasons, and not for sex and child-bearing. This would actually explain why there is no hint that Joseph is still alive during Jesus' ministry.

    Walter: "And while the word 'until' doesn't indicate the cessation of the preceding verb, but it is clear that Matthew, if he had wished to even hint at Mary's perpetual virginity, would have said something along the lines of 'Joseph never had sexual intercourse with Mary.'"

    Matthew's purpose was to point out that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that's all. If his focus had been on Mary, and not Jesus, then maybe Matthew would have included something about her perpetual virginity.

    Walter: "And indeed, in acts the 'brothers' are suddenly present, together with Mary, who, according to Luke wasn't present at Jesus' death and resurrection (GJohn is the only one who mentions Mary there). The story suggests that Mary and Jesus'brothers were not in Jerusalem for the passover but hurried to Jesrusalem after hearing about Jesus' execution and resurrection."

    Where do you find this suggestion?

    Walter: "Anyway, while I enjoy an academic discussion now and then, I still fail to see why any of this has any relevance at all. The latest Catholic Bible translation in Dutch even replaces the word 'maagd' (virgin) by 'meisje' (girl).
    And it's atyranslation officially apporved by the Dutch and the Belgian Arch Bishop."

    That's interesting, but it doesn't surprise me. Modernism has had its influence on contemporary translations. It's always best to go back to the original languages if at all possible.

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  16. Walter Van den AckerDecember 15, 2010 at 7:48 AM

    "It's debatable, at the very least. It wasn't uncommon in those days for young women to marry older men for the sake of protection and financial stability. Tradition has it that Joseph was much older than Mary and that the two were betrothed for those reasons, and not for sex and child-bearing. This would actually explain why there is no hint that Joseph is still alive during Jesus' ministry."

    I have heard that too, but I'm not sure that this practice really existed in the Jewish society of the 1st century. Anyway, it's also possible that Mary, still being relatively young, married someone else after Joseph's death and had children with that guy.


    "Where do you find this suggestion?"

    I think it is a logical inference from the fact that neither Mary, not the 'brothers' was present in Gluke's account of the execution and resurrection. It would make sense that they only heard of Jesus' crucifixion a few days later. I imagine travelling from Nazareth to Jesusalem took a considerable amount of time in those days, it's not as if the family received a phone-call telling: "Your son will be executed later today, please hurry up"

    The translation I refer to shows that for lots of present-day Catholics,especially in Europe, Mary's virginity, perpetual or not, is not really important at all. I personally do not know any Catholic who cares about this.

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  17. How is the absence of mention of Mary in Saint Luke's Gospel evidence that Saint John is wrong? And you think Acts is wrong as well? The Annunciation and Nativity are absent from Saint Mark's. Does that prove the Nativity and Annunciation did not happen?

    The way things are these days, you probably don't know many "Catholics" who care about Christ. However, doctrines aren't based on "relevance" or popularity. They're based on fact. It's a very important doctrine for all Christians which can trace their sacramental lineage to the apostles (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Catholic).

    I'd also be very weary of anything related to defining Church doctrine which doesn't have its root in an official statement from the papacy or a Church council. Many bishops these days are extremely bad, especially in Europe.

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  18. Walter Van den AckerDecember 16, 2010 at 7:19 AM

    "How is the absence of mention of Mary in Saint Luke's Gospel evidence that Saint John is wrong? And you think Acts is wrong as well? The Annunciation and Nativity are absent from Saint Mark's. Does that prove the Nativity and Annunciation did not happen?"

    It isn't conclusive evidence, of course, but it is an indication that either Mark and Luke and Mattew are wrong, or John is. Of course, it's possible but highly unlikely that Luke forgot to mention Mary.
    Anyway, even if Mary was present in Jesrusalem, there is no indication that Jesus' brothers (or cousins) were also in Jerusalem. If one of the cousins had been present, why didn't he stand by his "aunt"?

    And doctrines are not based on fact. They are based on what some people think. The completely absurd doctrine of the immaculate conception, e.g. is not based on any fact.


    And I leave it to your judgment whether bishops are bad or not. Fact is that they are appointed by 'the papacy'. But maybe the pope is also "extremely bad" these days?

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