Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Perpetual Virginity of Mary

Catholic Apologist Robert Sungenis engaged in a debate with Protestant theologian Eric Svendsen regarding the meaning of the greek "heos hou" (english: "until") in Matthew 1:25.

The reason for this debate is that Svendsen reads this verse as proof against the perpetual virginity of Mary. Unfortunately, the Catholic is clearly in over his head, as Dr. Svendsen wrote his PhD thesis exactly on the use of this greek term in the New Testament. The critical point that Sungenis and Svendsen both miss in this exchange is that it is really rather irrelevant precisely what the word "until" means in this context. As the commentators on the New American Bible point out, the evangelist is concerned to emphasize that Joseph was not responsible for the conception of Jesus. Matthew isn't concerned here with Mary's perpetual virginity. Which ever way one reads "heos hou," this particular scripture doesn't relate to the point of their debate.

Let's instead look at Luke 1:34. Here, the evangelist is concerned with Mary's virginity. Setting the stage, Luke tells us that Mary was already betrothed to Joseph. Then, the angel tells her that she will conceive a son. Now, any young woman who is engaged to be married and is then told that she will conceive a son is naturally going to assume that this will come about through normal relations with her husband after she is married. Instead, Mary says "how can this be, since I have no relations with a man?" What kind of question is that! A more familiar translation of this text is "I do not know man." Now, I'm no greek scholar -- I didn't even join a fraternity in college -- but I have noted that in every translation I have ever seen of this verse, the verb is in the present tense. I reasonably conclude that in the greek it is also in the present tense. Now, a present tense objection to a future prediction only makes sense if the present state is expected to be ongoing. In other words, Mary specifically says that it's not just that she is a virgin right at the point of the angel's visit, but that she expects to remain a virgin throughout her life, even after she is married.

Given Mary's word that that is her intent, and no record in the New Testament indicating anything else (Jesus's relatives, called "brothers" having been widely dealt with by Catholic scholars) we can reasonably conclude that she fulfilled her plans. Furthermore, the continuing tradition of the Church, especially strong in Ephesus, where Mary lived out the remainder of her days after the resurrection, that Mary remained a virgin, really lays the burden of extraordinary proof on anyone who would deny the teaching. A difficult parsing of an adverb in a passage having nothing to do with Mary's perpetual virginity is not going to provide extraordinary proof, and hou!

I hope this clears the air a little.


At 9:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good, succinct explanation about Mary's perpetual virginity. I see that you're in Fairfax, my old stomping grounds (just moved to So. Va from Sterling) and in engineering. Would that be civil engineering?


At 12:01 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So where did Jesus' brothers come from? Were they also divinely conceived?

At 8:12 PM, Blogger Esperu said...

The simple answer is that aramaic has a single word that means both "brother" and "cousin." In the East, the tradition is that Joseph was an old man who had other wives. Scripture does not contradict this, and Catholics are permitted to believe it. I should like to point out that if you look at James, called "the brother of the Lord," you will find that his mother is called "Mary the mother of James." If this was the same Mary as the Blessed Virgin, why not call her "Mary, the mother of Jesus?" There is some textual evidence that James, "the brother of the Lord" is the son of Mary and Cleopas, one of whom was related to either Joseph or Mary. As I said, this issue has been dealt with extensively on line by various Catholic scholars.

At 12:04 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mi ne kredas. Jesuo havis fratojn. Ili ne estis kuzinojn. Gxi estas simpla. Sxi ne estis virgulino.

At 4:49 PM, Blogger Esperu said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 12:42 PM, Blogger Esperu said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 12:50 PM, Blogger Esperu said...

It is instructive to see that Anonymous tries to translate the English word "cousins" as "kuzinojn" (accusative case). The word he wanted was "kuzojn," which indicates male cousins. "kuzinoj" (indicative case) indicates female cousins. Esperanto does not have a word that indicates "cousin" in the generic sense, only in the sense of specific genders. A better translation of the word "cousins" (plural) would have been "gekuzoj" which indicates multiple cousins of indeterminate gender.

He rejects out of hand that the word "brother" could have any other meaning that "son of the same parents," yet he illustrates the very opposite point, by showing that some languages have different levels of specificity about familial relations, and translating between those languages is not always straightforward.

It certainly seems that Anonymous's post does well to illustrate that the translation of an aramaic word for "kin" could have been overspecified as "brother" in Greek without too much difficulty.


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