Swimming the Tiber 26: How Will This Be?

And the angelhere and throughout, (messenger / envoy) said to her, “Fear not, Mary, for [thou] found [on a particular occasion] grace(favor) besidehere and throughout, (before / with / in the presence of) God. And behold, [thou] will conceive in [thy] belly and [thou] will bring forth a son and [thou] will call his name Jesus. This [man] will be great and will be called [the]1 son of [the] highest [one] and the lord God(God, as lord,) will give to him the throne of his father David, and [he] will be king(rule) over the household of Jacob unto the ages and of his kingdom [there] will not be an end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since [I] do not know a man?” And having answered, the angel said to her, “A holy spirit will come upon thee and a power of [the] highest will overshadow thee; wherefore also the holy [one] being brought forth2 3 will be called [the] son of God. And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, also herself has conceived a son in her old age and this is the sixth month for the [one] called barren; because no word will be powerless4 beside God.” And Mary said, “Behold the slave of [the] lord; may [it] come to be for me according to thy word.” And the angel departed from her.

– Luke 1:30-38 (my translation, emphasis added)

In my experience, most Protestants don’t think often of this passage; without any devotion to Mary, evangelical/Baptist communities don’t ascribe much importance to it. Sure, it mentions a few crucial details about fulfilling prophecies and such (Jesus was born of a virgin), but its details don’t come up very often.

It doesn’t help that interpretation often interferes between the text and the English translation in most Bibles. The passage I have made bold above, being the second most important quote from Mary in the passage, is often translated, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” or, “How can this be, since I have not known/lain with a man?” The former is passable, but I think cleverly evades the point; the latter is outright fabrication because the tense is objectively and purposefully wrong.

There are a lot of comments available in the above passage, most of which are interesting, but beside the point–but I left out my especially nerdy commentary on the bold text because I wanted to make sure you saw it. First, let’s look at the easy part: “a man.” Even bad translations of this passage get this part right, and the meaning is obvious: Mary does not know (Biblically) any man. She knows no man. This is indefinite specifically because no particular individual is mentioned (nor any particular class, since it is a singular noun). It is the generic noun “man.” She doesn’t know man. It’s not that she doesn’t know the man; she doesn’t know any man.

Well, fair enough, you say. That seems straightforward.

Then let’s look at the harder part, the part that Protestant translators avoid translating accurately: “[I] do not know.” This is in the present tense. As I said above, it is bad translating to render it in the perfect tense (an action in the past–or in this case, a lack of action in the past–with an effect on the present, emphasizing the current state of affairs). Translating this as the perfect relegates it to the past quite naturally; if she has not known a man, then she may yet know a man. It implies a malleable state–this thing has not happened, but it can.

The present tense isn’t like that. Where the perfect tense refers to past events with an effect on the present, the present tense does the opposite: it refers to events happening right now. Now, obviously, she’s not in the process of knowing a man, which the angel can plainly see, so that’s not what she’s saying. The present tense here indicates imperfective aspect in the primary sequence. That means that it refers to habitual or ongoing action in the present or future. As I just said, ongoing is ruled out because she wouldn’t need to mention it (like the dad joke where someone asks, “What are you doing?” and the answer is, “Talking to you”–it’s funny because it’s unnecessary and obvious). The alternative is habitual action–it’s not that she hasn’t yet known a man, it’s that she doesn’t do that kind of thing. She’s not a virgin just because she isn’t married, but because she has chosen to be a virgin.

Of course, you’re free to disagree. I’m sure more than one Greek-literate person out there is yelling at their computer screen, “No, it’s because she’s habitually virtuous up to that point!” That’s fair, I guess, although I maintain that the perfect tense would suit that meaning… perfectly. ( YEEEAAAHHH!)

But consider that this also explains why she asks “how” this can happen. She’s not woefully uneducated; she surely understands the logistics. And the angel’s word is prophetic (you will conceive), so if she were about to enter a normal marriage to Joseph, this doesn’t seem like a complex question. Compare this to Zachariah’s confusion in Luke 1:18 or Sarah’s in Genesis 18:12. The main difference here is that Mary is asking not because pregnancy is technically impossible (she is not barren), but because of her vow to remain celibate before God. The question is not doubting God’s power, but trying to reconcile her duty to her vow and her wish to accept the word of the angel.

If you’re still wondering what I’m talking about, it’s this: the Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, which is to say, there was no point in Mary’s life during which she was not a virgin.

If you’re like I was, you’re saying, “Wait, what? Why? What about Jesus’ brothers? What about Joseph?”

Legitimate questions, all. First, I’ll repeat myself: It is a doctrine of the Catholic Church that Mary remained virginal her entire life.

As for the why, you’re bound to get a few mixed responses on that. The quickest answer is always, “Because that’s the way God wanted it,” which is pretty unsatisfying, let me tell you. Another reason is to maintain the purity and virtue of Mary (recall my post on the virtue of virginity?) as the holy vessel through which God Himself entered the world. (You may recall that some earlier vessels for God required absolute reverence–Exodus 3:1-6; 2 Samuel 6:6-7.)

Tradition is pretty strong on this point, generally speaking. St. Augustine, considered by many historically-minded Protestants to be one of the “good ones,” points to the east gate in Ezekiel’s vision as a type of Mary:

Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut. Only the prince, because he is a prince, may sit in it to eat food before the Lord; he shall enter by way of the vestibule of the gate, and shall go out by the same way.

– Ezekiel 44:1-3 (NRSVCE)

Reading that in the context that Augustine did, it doesn’t seem to mean anything but the perpetual virginity of Mary.

An early (second century) document called the Protoevangelium of James (though not canonical) points to the ancient status of this teaching. The story goes like this: Mary’s parents devoted her as a child to the Lord (in the manner of Samuel, in 1 Samuel 1:11, and of the women serving in the temple of the Lord, who, though meant to be virginal, were defiled by Eli’s sons in 1 Samuel 2:22, and also in the manner of Anna in Luke 2:36-38). Eventually, it became necessary that Mary be married, in order to protect her virginity, and so Joseph (according to the Protoevangelium, a widower with children from his first marriage) was chosen for the job. Not all of those details are part of the doctrine, but the story was intended to explain confusion about that relationship in particular.

For the first few centuries of church history, the “brothers” of Jesus were considered step-brothers (the children of Joseph’s first marriage). St. Jerome (a strong proponent of Mary’s virginity and virginity in general) suggested that, because of a Jewish idiom of the time, the term could also refer to Jesus’ cousins.

This latter use is reinforced via a particular reading of the Gospels. In Mark 6:3, we see that the list of Jesus’ brothers includes “James and Joses and Simon and Judas.” In Mark 15:40, we see that a certain Mary, the mother of James and Joses, was at the crucifixion. In John 19:25, we see that Jesus’ mother Mary, and also Mary’s sister Mary (not even the Romans, who numbered their children, gave two living children the exact same name, so “cousin” makes sense here, too), and Mary Magdalene were present at the crucifixion. A syncretic reading of the two passages suggests that Mary, the wife of Clopas, is the same Mary, the mother of James and Joses. Of course, those were all common names, so that James and Joses might not be the same James and Joses mentioned nine chapters earlier, but Mark did have a tendency to name-drop (cf. Alexander and Rufus in Mark 15:21).

There are other points of contention for this issue. Many Catholics point to John 19:25-27 as evidence in favor of Mary’s virginity. After all, if Jesus were the eldest, and Mary had other sons, he should pass off responsibility for her to one of his brothers, but instead he chooses the beloved disciple (the apostle John, according to tradition). That he chose John as his replacement suggests that he had no brothers to choose. (The counter-argument, of course, is that he was not on good terms with his brothers, or perhaps simply that none of his brothers attended the crucifixion. This is reinforced by Matthew 12:46-50–see also Mark 3:31-35; Luke 8:19-21–and John 7:1-10. It’s a fair point, so these arguments balance out, in my estimation.)

Consider also that in Luke 2:41-52, there is no mention of siblings at a time when siblings should be appropriate to the story. Consider that the behavior of the “brothers” toward Jesus are like that of older relatives (see John 7 again, and Mark 3:21), but would not have been appropriate to younger siblings.

In response to the so-called linguistic arguments against Mary’s perpetual virginity–that “until” in Matthew 1:25 implies a change in behavior, or that “first-born” implies that a “second-born” must have existed, I have little to say, because I remain flabbergasted that I also used these arguments in the past.

The words “until” and “till”–in English, in Greek (ἕως), or in Hebrew–do not strictly require a change in behavior after the time described. If I say, “He did not write another word until he died,” did he start writing again after death? The point of the word is to describe a span of time (from point A to point B) during which a certain fact was true. If nothing states that things changed afterward (and nothing in Scripture does), then we cannot assume Mary and Joseph began to have sexual relations after the birth of Jesus on the basis of this word alone.

This supposition about “first-born” implying the existence of a “second-born” is utter nonsense. If a woman bears only one child, that child is her first-born (because no child has been born from her before that one). In the same way, if I drive a motorcycle tomorrow, that will be my first time driving a motorcycle, even if I never drive one again; or if I were called upon to coach the Green Bay Packers, I would coach my first professional football game, and then I would never coach another–but the one I coached would be no less my first.

One final point to address: “What about Joseph?” For a long time, this was a sticking point for me. It was unfair, said I, even unconscionable that Joseph should be married to a beautiful young woman and be forbidden from intercourse with her. Withholding sex can even be grounds for an annulment in some cases, suggesting that one or both parties did not comprehend marriage before entering into it. But recall again my post on the virtue of virginity, and recognize that any family containing the only-begotten Son of God is going to be holy, set apart, and dedicated to purity and devotion to God. In that context, it’s important to recognize that Joseph knew what he was getting into (even if he were not an old widower, Mary’s vow of celibacy would have been specified up front, not a surprise for the wedding night).

Consider also the words of Sts. Augustine and Jerome:

Thus Christ, about to be born from a virgin, who–before [she] knew who had been about to be born from her–had resolved to remain a virgin, [Christ] preferred to approve holy virginity, [rather] than to command [it]. And thus also in the woman herself, in whom he accepted the form of a slave, [he] wanted virginity to be freely chosen.

– Augustine, De Sancta Virginitate 4 (my translation)

You say that Mary did not remain a virgin: I assert to you more that Joseph himself was a virgin on account of Mary, in order that a virgin son was born out of a virgin union. For if fornication does not befall a holy man, and [it] is not written that he had another wife: but to Mary, whom [he] was reckoned to have [as wife], [he] was a more capable guardian than husband: [it] remains that he who merited to be called the father of the Lord stayed a virgin with Mary.

– Jerome, De Perpetua Virginitate Beatae Mariae
Adversus Helvidium
19 (21) (my translation)

All that to say, St. Joseph is even more saintly than I thought. Hardly a rip-off, especially when you get to raise the Son of God, teaching him your trade and getting to know him intimately as only a father can, all while living alongside the greatest of the saints, Jesus’ own mother, Mary.

But just how great is Mary? Let’s dig deeper next week, when we talk about the Catholic doctrine that, in order to prepare a holy vessel worthy of himself, God ensured that she would be born without the stain of original sin.

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The Queen Mother

Back to the passage
1 Whether the definite article is implied here or not is not clear. Because this (as in verse 35 below) is a predicate (that is, the same construction as the subject, but only describing the subject, not working as one), the definite article is omitted even when it would otherwise be included specifically to denote this as the predicate. Including the article would either make it the subject or indicate that no new information was being provided. The former makes no sense, and Mary’s reaction to this suggests that the latter use would be inappropriate (this is new information to her). You a perfectly free to translate this as indefinite (“[he] will be called [a] son,” etc.), but there is no reason to weigh that interpretation more heavily than the one I have rendered.
2 This phrase is neuter, probably agreeing with the implied τέκνον, “child.”
3 Some manuscripts insert: from you; others: in you
4 Literally every word will not be powerless; there is also a good chance this is a Hebraism rendered in Greek, where ῥῆμα–here and in the next verse rendered “word”–means “the matter at hand” or “the subject of which I am speaking.”

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