Mary holy for only nine months?
In a bizarre post by the standards of First Things, Peter J. Leithart attempts to explain the meaning of St. Matthew’s statement that Joseph “took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son.” Leithart, who is a minister in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches, takes the position that Mary’s womb was a sacred space while Christ was present there. Since sexual relations rendered a person unclean under Jewish law, Joseph refrained from sexual relations with Mary for those nine months, but no longer.
Protestants generally reject the perpetual virginity of Mary, but it is nothing short of astonishing for a scholar to suggest that such a conclusion is required by the gospel text. Leithart reads the text as requiring an explanation for why Joseph and Mary refrained from sexual relations before Jesus was born, but not afterwards. This is because he thinks the use of the term “until” implies that Joseph “knew” Mary after the birth of Christ, and the references to Our Lord’s “brothers” elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel proves that Mary and Joseph had other children.
But this betrays an ignorance of the text which has been exposed again and again over the centuries. We can see why some readers could misunderstand this situation if they were to read the English text in a vacuum, impervious to the witness of other Scriptural texts and without reference to the Christian tradition, including the testimony of the earliest Christian writers. But that an alleged scholar should think the gospel text requires such an interpretation beggars the imagination.
Back to basics
In the original languages (whether Matthew first wrote in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek), the word translated as “until” does not imply (as it often does in English) that the action changed after that “until” was reached. In the same way, the term we translate as “brothers” refers to a broad set of relationships, for the Jews had no term which distinguished what we consider brothers from cousins of various degrees. The point here is quite simple: There is nothing in the text which so much as hints either (a) that Mary and Joseph had sexual relations after the birth of Christ or (b) that Mary and Joseph had other children conceived apart from the singular miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit.
At the same time, the original text does give us good reason to believe that Jesus was the only child. For example, as Luke recounts, Mary did not understand how what the angel told her could come to pass because she did not “know” man. This is a very strong indication that she had taken a vow of virginity, for otherwise the ordinary path of conception would remain wholly open to her (Lk 1:34). In addition, since Our Lord entrusted Mary to St. John just before he died, we must assume that Mary did not have any other sons to look after her (Jn 19:27). And these brief notes leave aside passages which suggest Mary’s virginity in both Old Testament prophecy and in the last book of the New Testament, Revelation.
Leithart is reasonably clever in suggesting that the Jewish laws governing uncleanness provide an adequate explanation for the lack of sexual relations while Our Lord was in Mary’s womb, and he is no doubt happy to see in these laws and customs evidence that does not require him to extend Mary’s virginity even one tiny moment beyond the birth of our Savior. He is rather self-evidently reluctant to ascribe any holiness to Mary herself, she who uniquely treasured Our Lord both in her womb and in her heart. But cleverness is a poor substitute for actually understanding the text, which does not even remotely require any such explanation, especially one which it has taken us two thousand years to think up.
Scripture in context
To speak more broadly, but still quite frankly, I ought to point out that it also betrays a complete lack of scholarship to suggest that Scripture was intended to be interpreted without benefit of the Christian community’s continuing awareness of the fuller details that were passed on through the original preaching and teaching of the apostles. A good deal of the New Testament is ad hoc, especially in the letters which address particular concerns in particular communities with constant reference to the fuller instruction that each Christian community had already received through those who had formed them in the faith—before the New Testament canon had been established, and even before some of it had been written.
The unbroken Tradition, from the earliest times, testifies to the perpetual virginity of Mary, in exact conformity to the obvious implications of the sacred texts, as they were understood by those who knew the languages in which they had been composed. The early Christians had no need to devise explanations such as Peter Leithart has proposed, and this for the simple reason that nothing they had been taught by Christ and the apostles (as well as others who labored under their authority) had raised even the shadow of a suspicion that some clever hypothesis was needed to explain why the Blessed Virgin was anything other than what the early Church understood her to be.
These and many other reasons which could be adduced—for example, the likelihood that Joseph was a member of an Essene community in which the men also took vows of virginity—are sufficient to explain why such a misconstrual of the text may be forgiven in those who read the gospels in a historical and cultural vacuum as if, like the New York Times, St. Matthew wrote in modern American English at the ninth grade level. But it is unforgivable in a scholar. For while we know many things only through Faith, it is through reason, research and study that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Peter Leithart has proposed a convoluted solution to a problem which the sacred text simply does not raise.
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