Perpetual Virginity as Prophetic Sign
by Mark P. Shea
Last week, we looked at the basic evidence for the perpetual virginity of Mary: the “why the Church thinks that the record shows, as a matter of historical fact, that she remained a virgin” evidence. But, of course, the question remains, “Why does the Church think this is a big deal?” There are, after all, lots of true things you can say about Mary. Mary had red blood. Mary ate food. Mary drank water. Mary breathed oxygen. Yet the Church does not bind the faithful to believe and profess these things as articles of faith. So why is her perpetual virginity one of the Four Essential Things Catholics are bound to believe and profess about her (along with her title Theotokos, or “Mother of God”; her immaculate conception; and her assumption)?
To get at the answer to that question, we need to realize that the perpetual virginity of Mary is, of course, a kind of extension of the virgin birth into history. In other words, the perpetual virginity of Mary matters to the early Church because the virgin birth matters to the early Church. And the reason the virgin birth matters is because it is not merely a stunt, but a fulfillment of prophecy.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Is 7:14)
Signs signify. And so the early Church Fathers sought to understand the full meaning of the sign of the virgin birth, the sign of Immanuel.
The Witness of the Prophets
Given the witness of Mary, Joseph, the evangelists, and Jesus Himself, we saw last week it’s not surprising to find the early Church Fathers firmly embracing the belief that Mary was ever-virgin. They, too, recognized the connection between Mary and the ark, and saw in Mary’s perpetual virginity something that attends everything else about Jesus’ life – the fulfillment of prophecy. So, for instance, in the Fathers, we see Mary, just like Jesus, repeatedly linked to sundry Old Testament types. In Gideon’s fleece, wet with dew while all the ground beside had remained dry (Jgs 6:37-38), Ambrose sees a type of Mary receiving in her womb the Word Incarnate yet remaining a virgin. Likewise, the Fathers derive images and titles of Mary from the Old Testament, such as:
- the “Temple of God” – she is the Holy of Holies in which God dwelt (Ephraim the Syrian, Jerome, Ambrose)
- the “Rod of Jesse” from whom blossomed Christ (Ambrose, Tertullian, Jerome)
- the “Ark of the Covenant” (Athanasius, Gregory the Wonder-Worker)
- the “Staff of Aaron” (Ephraim the Syrian)
- the “Burning Bush that is Not Consumed” (Gregory of Nyssa)
This is the same pattern at work in the patristic reading of the prophet Ezekiel. And we do well to pay close attention to it to see how the early Church, following Jesus’ guidance on the road to Emmaus (cf. Lk 24:44-47), sees in this prophecy, as it sees in all prophecy, that everything in the law and the prophets is ultimately about Him and His body, the Church – since He is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.
Ezekiel lived about 500 years before Christ. In Ezekiel’s day, the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel had been scattered by the Assyrian Empire (hence the “Ten Lost Tribes of Israel”), while the southern “rump” kingdom of Judah had itself been carted off to captivity in Babylon after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. It seemed that Israel was doomed to be annihilated, crushed between the hammer of Assyria and the anvil of Babylon.
But then God raised up prophets like Ezekiel to promise that Israel had not been forsaken and that the Almighty would restore her fortunes, return her to her land, send her a Messiah, and use Israel to bless all the nations of the earth, just as He had promised Abraham long ago (Gn 12:1-3). In Ezekiel’s case, this prophetic message included a lengthy vision –recorded in Ezekiel 40-48 – describing a restored temple, a revived land of Israel, and a renewed city of Jerusalem.
Now the temple was indeed rebuilt (cf. Ezra and Nehemiah), but it didn’t (and couldn’t) look like the temple of Ezekiel’s prophecy. Why? Because in Ezekiel’s visionary temple, things like this happen:
Then he brought me back to the door of the temple; and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. Then he brought me out by way of the north gate, and led me round on the outside to the outer gate, that faces toward the east; and the water was coming out on the south side.
Going on eastward with a line in his hand, the man measured a thousand cubits, and then led me through the water; and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water; and it was knee-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water; and it was up to the loins. Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen; it was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through. And he said to me, “Son of man, have you seen this?”
Then he led me back along the bank of the river. As I went back, I saw upon the bank of the river very many trees on the one side and on the other. And he said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the stagnant waters of the sea, the water will become fresh. And wherever the river goes every living creature which swarms will live, and there will be very many fish; for this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. Fishermen will stand beside the sea; from En-gedi to En-eglaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea. But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt. And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” (Ez 47:1-12)
There never was (and never will be) a physical temple with a river flowing out of it. So what is Ezekiel getting at? To find out, we must pay attention to a rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth as He comes to a rebuilt temple 500 years later to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (Jn 7).
The Feast of Tabernacles is described in Leviticus 23:33-43 and Deuteronomy 16:13-16 as a commemoration of Israel’s living in tents in the wilderness (Lv 23:43) and a thanksgiving for Israel’s permanent home in the Promised Land. In addition, the feast also offers thanks for the temple, the successor of the Mosaic tabernacle (Ex 25-31) as a permanent place of worship. Note that both the tabernacle and the temple were home to the Ark of the Covenant until the ark vanished several centuries before Christ’s birth.
As Israel wandered in the wilderness during the Exodus, the people suffered from thirst. In answer to their complaints, Moses strikes a rock, from which water flows to quench Israel’s thirst (Nm 20). By Jesus’ day, this event was commemorated in the Feast of Tabernacles in a curious ritual: Every morning during the feast, a priest went down to the Pool of Siloam and brought back a golden pitcher of water to the temple (the successor of Moses’s tabernacle). This water was poured on the altar of holocausts amidst the singing of the “Hallel” (that is, Psalms 112-117) and the joyful sound of musical instruments. Interestingly, this practice became part of the feast after the rebuilding of the temple following the Babylonian Exile – that is, after the prophecy of Ezekiel’s river flowing from the temple.
So, during the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus announces to the crowd, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (Jn 7:37-38). As we already know, Jesus uses the image of living water to refer to the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 4). Yet curiously, there’s no passage in Old Testament Scripture that says, “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.” What, then, is Jesus referring to?
He is referring to Ezekiel 47 and following. After all, Jesus has already told us what the true temple is when He declared, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19). As John makes crystal clear, “He spoke of the temple of his body” (Jn 2:21). So Jesus is declaring to all at the Feast of Tabernacles that Ezekiel’s vision is not a physical description of a stone building, but a spiritual description of the true temple, the Body of Christ. For the same reason, John says that Jesus “tabernacled” among us (Jn 1:14) when He became man. Paul makes the same connection, referring both to individual Christians and to the mystical Body of Christ as the temple (1 Cor 3:16-17; Eph 2:21).
So Jesus is identifying Himself with the temple of Ezekiel’s vision. He is making clear that He is the true temple and His heart is the Holy of Holies. The waters of the Feast of Tabernacles, the water flowing from the rock of Moses, from the rock on which the visionary Temple of Ezekiel is founded, flows from His heart. The rock, as Paul makes clear, is Christ (1 Cor 10:1-4). And, as we shall see presently, John will make this even clearer as his Gospel reaches its climax.
In other words, the Incarnation is being likened to God coming to dwell in His temple in majesty. Or rather, the Old Testament moments in which God descended in majesty on the tabernacle and the temple in the pillar of cloud (cf. Ex 40:34-38; 1 Kgs 8:10-11) are revealed to be prophetic foreshadows of when God truly came to dwell in His temple: when the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.
Now the interesting thing, the Fathers noticed, is that Ezekiel speaks directly to this image of the Lord coming in majesty to dwell in His temple. For the prophet wrote:
Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. And he 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.” (Ez 44:1-2)
In short, the gate into the Incarnation (i.e., Mary) shall be holy to the Lord and not for any common purpose. And in token of this, the gate of the mystical temple shall be shut to all but the Lord.
As an Evangelical, I had long regarded the reading of Ezekiel 44:1-2 to support Mary’s perpetual virginity as mere “proof-texting.” I thought the Fathers were beginning with this passage and then trying to build a doctrine of perpetual virginity on it. But the more I saw how the early Church (including the New Testament authors) linked the tabernacle, the temple, and the Body of Christ, and the roles of Mary, the ark, and the gate of the temple, the more I came to realize that the Church’s faith in Mary’s perpetual virginity was not derived from Ezekiel 44:1-2 any more than her faith in the virgin birth was derived from Isaiah 7:14. Matthew did not sit down, stick his nose in Isaiah, read something about virgin, and then declare, “Hey! If we’re going to cook up a Messiah, we should say he’s the son of a virgin, because this random passage in Isaiah says something about a virgin.”
Rather, the virgin birth happens, and it is only with hindsight that Matthew connects it with the passage in Isaiah and realizes that this event (which he can only know about from the Blessed Virgin) fits the pattern of prophecy in the Old Testament. It’s exactly the same with the perpetual virginity of Mary. As with the virgin birth, the perpetual virginity of Mary happened, and only afterward did the Church begin to realize that the events of her life, like the events of her Son’s, were strangely – one might even say prophetically – foreshadowed in Ezekiel 44:1-2. There is a real, organic, un-manufactured connection between Mary and something the prophet Ezekiel had been inspired to see.
The Witness of the Fathers and the Church
Patristic sources who affirm that Mary’s perpetual virginity was taught by the apostles include the author of the Protoevangelium of James, Origen, Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius, Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome, Didymus the Blind, Ambrose of Milan, Pope Siricius I, Augustine, Leporius, Cyril of Alexandria, Pope Leo I, and the dogmatic teaching of the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople. And they’re only the beginning. For the entirety of Christian history until roughly the 17th century, Christians agreed with them – except for two guys.
Those two guys are:
Tertullian. A fierce North-African lawyer and defender of the faith who lived in the late-second and early-third century. He fell prey to a spiritual disease that sometimes afflicts those who come to love apologetics more than they love Jesus: Tertullian got so intent on building up antibodies against heresy that he eventually contracted a sort of spiritual autoimmune disease and started building antibodies against the Body of Christ itself. Eventually, he abandoned Christianity for Montanism. But along the way, Tertullian wrote some brilliant – and virulent – stuff. He did nothing by halves, and he was no stranger to the deep end when it came to contradicting his opponents. And so, when he encountered Docetists (people who denied Jesus was truly human), Tertullian countered by arguing that not only was Jesus human, but his mother, being herself fully human, must have had a bushel of other kids, too! True to form, Tertullian didn’t argue this from biblical evidence (because, as we’ve seen, there isn’t any), but from his own polemical needs at the moment. In fact, Tertullian’s passionate opposition to Docetism also prompted him to argue that Jesus was ugly! He was an extremist with an axe to grind and a blinding need to win an argument at any cost, not a very reliable witness to the constant faith of other Christians.
Helvidius, who lived in the fourth century. He wrote a pamphlet (lost to history) that argued most of the same things that Evangelicals argue against Mary’s perpetual virginity. How does Helvidius know Mary had other kids? He doesn’t. He just cites Tertullian and says that it seems to him she must have had them, using all the misreadings of Scripture we have just looked at and discredited.
It’s worth noting that when Jerome wrote his famous refutation Against Helvidius in defense of Mary’s perpetual virginity, his argument was seen by his all contemporaries as completely non-controversial: It was Helvidius who was universally regarded throughout Christendom as the kook. Jerome’s view was regarded as simply normal by Christians everywhere. And that remained true right down through the Reformation, whose leading lights – such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and even John Wesley – also accepted Mary’s perpetual virginity as clear and unarguable biblical teaching. Far from “contradicting” Scripture, the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity is at least as well attested, both biblically and historically, as the dogma of the Trinity and is universally regarded (until well after the start of the Reformation) as the fulfillment of Scripture.
So what does that have to do with our relationship with Christ today? More on that next week.
- Part 1 – Biblical Evidence for the Perpetual Virginity of Mary
- Part 3 – Mary’s Perpetual Virginity: Why Does It Matter?
- Part 4 – Mary the Virgin Mother
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