A dialogue about Mary’s virginal conception

Occasionally on freelance theology dialogues have been published between Jon the freelance theologian and correspondents. Recently a point-by-point critique was sent in by TR of an earlier post regarding the belief in the virginal conception of Mary found in Roman Catholic dogma. Because this response was point-by-point, it is reproduced here with the original material written by Jon the freelance theologian in italic text, TR’s critique in bold, and further comments by Jon the freelance theologian in plain text.
NB: TR uses Hebraic names for Mary, Joseph, Jesus etc. and these have been preserved in the text of the dialogue.

Jon FT originally wrote:
Question from ELC, United Kingdom
I’ve been having some discussions with some Catholic friends about Mary. They argue that Mary must be sinless because Jesus would be tainted by sin if his mother was sinful. As the mother of God she must have a special status in our worship. I would have thought original sin of Mary would help answer the question, but if your first premise is that Mary MUST have been sinless (i.e. an exception) then where do you go?
And of course, her mother must have been miraculously conceived so that no taint of sin was passed on to her so there was no taint of sin for her to pass on to Jesus and her mother’s mother must have been miraculously conceived…
Now, that obvious hole in the argument has been addressed, let’s talk about Mary.

TR’s comment:
The thing here is that I see an obvious hole in your reasoning: In paying close attention to the stories of the Patriarchs, we are confronted with a principle: before an aging person can beget or conceive a promised child (from whom the MESSIAH will descend), a perfecting must occur, that the parent, brought to a State of Grace, may pass on the same Covering of Grace to the one to be brought forth. After the Hagar fiasco, my forefather, `Avraham, had to wait 14 years to, through intense Purification, to be readied to finally receive his promised firstborn, Yits’aq.
Channah, the mother of Miryam, was born as you were, though to parents in a State of Grace. She and her husband, Yo`achiym, had no child until they had been thoroughly purged of their sins. Only in that purified state did they then receive their firstborn, Miryam, from GOD. Had they not been in a State of Grace, their sins would have weighed upon their firstborn also – but, in the environment the Faith of her parents afforded her, Miryam was saved by the Grace of the ONE she would one day bear, in that way knowing HIM as SAVIOR from her conception. No one else could rival such intimate appreciation for the SAVIOR as she did in her Prayer known as the Magnificat [named – though according to Latin translation – in the Hebraic manner of calling a Unit of Prayer, Praise, or Narrative by its opening words].

Jon FT’s response:
The ‘intense purification’ referred to here is presumably the rite of circumcision. However, this is described in Genesis chapter 17 as being a seal on the covenant God is making with Abraham. If it was about personal purification, why does God command that all the males of Abraham’s household be circumcised (chapter 17, verse 10)? Unless of course, you are drawing on some extra-Biblical stories to account for the fourteen years Abraham had to wait to ‘be readied’ for Isaac’s arrival. Similarly the story of Mary’s own special birth comes from extra-Biblical sources, the main one being the Protevangelium of James which dates from the second century.

While the infancy narratives in the canonical gospels are often regarded as historically questionable, the non-canonical works that the infancy stories mentioned above appear in are much less reliable in terms of origin and historical trustworthiness. All that can be said in their favour is that they record some beliefs that were in vogue in the heterodox Christianity of the time, but which were regarded as unreliable when the current canon was assembled.

The Magnificat (Luke chapter 1, verses 46-55) is addressed to God (the Lord in the Greek text usually points to the Jewish name for God, Yahweh) and it is God who Mary calls “my saviour” (verse 47). There is no indication in the text that Mary’s prayerful song of praise is addressed to her unborn child.

Jon FT originally wrote:
Pope Pius IX declared the Immaculate Conception of Mary as official Catholic doctrine in 1854. It has had a long history in Christian folklore before that. Mary, as the ‘first believer’, was accorded a special status and many extra-Biblical stories appeared. Some Christian writers liked to style her as a ‘New Eve’, reversing the sin of the first Eve through her obedience to God. The Immaculate Conception of Mary does away with the question of ‘Original Sin’ being passed onto Jesus. Original Sin is the sin that is passed on, so the thing to note here is that Mary’s ‘sinlessness’ is about Original Sin.

TR’s comment:
She was perceived as the Second Eve from the very beginning. Even GOD referred to her in the presence of the first Eve, in mentioning the Woman and her SEED. In the Gospel, the SEED is referred to as developed into the “FRUIT of [her] womb”. `Elizabeth calls her the equivalent of “Mother of GOD”, calling her either the “Mother of YHWH”, or the “Mother of `ADHONAY”. The NAME used for the LORD here is more exclusive to GOD alone even than the mere term “GOD” [“`ELOHIYM”].
She was the only one that was told that her own heart would be pierced in the Passion of the LORD, in addition to HIS own suffering in It. Either the words to Miryam from the Cross mean that she bore Yoseph no children, or it can only mean that she became a mother in a special way to Yochannan, who already had a living mother of his own.
YESHUA’ passed through all times of life – even old age, upon the Cross – as a MALE. Through her participation with the Life of the REDEEMER, Miryam was the Second Eve, in whose femininity CHRIST showed the first fruits of the redemption of women, prefacing her part in things with the guarantee that she shall be blessed among women. HIS Death was the Sacrifice for all, but the LORD didn’t live as a perfect woman, but made Miryam to.

Jon FT’s response:
It is, of course, the traditional Christian interpretation that the words spoken in judgement on the serpent in Genesis chapter 3, verse 15, refer particularly to Jesus Christ defeating Satan. However, this etymological myth may just be to account for the natural ‘enmity’ between Eve’s offspring (i.e. the human race) and snakes. Neither Satan nor Christ are mentioned in the Genesis account by name, and it is a later tradition to associate the serpent of Eden with Satan, just as it is a later theological development to assume that God was referring to Christ.

Elizabeth uses neither of the Hebrew words cited above. In the original Greek text she calls Mary ‘mother of my lord’, using the Greek word Kyriou (Lord). Admittedly this word is probably interchangeable with the Hebrew word Adonai, but the word kyriou was not used exclusively for God – not even in the New Testament.

The fact that Jesus commissioned ‘the beloved disciple’, usually thought to be the apostle John, with caring for his mother does not necessarily mean that Mary had no other children. It is clear from the gospel accounts that Jesus’ own family opposed him and did not recognise his messiah-ship. In Mark Chapter 3, verse 21 ‘his family…went to take charge of him for they said “He is out of his mind.”’ Furthermore, John Wenham, in Easter Enigma, his study of the Easter accounts, lays out a possible hypothesis that James and John, were the sons of Salome. She is named in Mark as being present at the cross Mark chapter 15, verse 40), whereas Matthew describes her as ‘the mother of the sons of Zebedee’ (Matthew chapter 27, verse 56) and John’s gospel describes her as ‘Jesus’ mother’s sister’ (John chapter 19, verse 25). It would seem from this study that John was therefore Jesus’ cousin, and if John was ‘the beloved disciple’, then it would not be completely out of the question for Jesus to commit the care of his mother to a believing member of his family.

The comment that “HIS Death was the Sacrifice for all, but the LORD didn’t live as a perfect woman, but made Miryam to” seems to follow a theological red herring. The point is that Jesus lived as a perfect human being. Men and women did not need to be redeemed separately, for in the Hebrew view of humanity, women were created from men anyway (Genesis chapter 2, verses 21-24), therefore by redeeming men, Christ would also redeem women.

Jon FT originally wrote:
The story of the Immaculate Conception can be traced to third century ‘lost gospels’ (see previous freelance theology answers for more on that topic). Put briefly, the story goes that she was miraculously conceived when her childless aged parents, St Anna and St Joachim, were visited by an angel and promised the child they had longed for. St Anna kissed her husband and was with child.
There is no Biblical basis for this, or for the other great Catholic doctrines of Mary’s perpetual virginity or her preservation from death (the Assumption). Sadly, they seem to have been the product of the very fertile imaginations of Christian storytellers. The power in the stories, however, can be seen in the way they have been absorbed into Roman Catholicism – arguably one of the oldest continuous expressions of Christianity. For example, faith in the Blessed Virgin’s virginity led St Jerome to translate Jesus’ ‘brothers and sisters’ as ‘cousins’ and this translation continues today in some Catholic Bibles.

TR’s comment:
The Assumption is true. The idea of her never having children for Yoseph has never been pronounced ex Cathedra. The Pope has been kept from ever saying such a thing in the Capacity that matters for Dogma. What Providence! As for her Assumption, it is one of many things the Bible doesn’t mention. Was `Eliyahu really born? It sure isn’t mentioned! Did Noach’s wife have a name? Of course not! It’s not mentioned in the Bible! Did Paul die? You guessed it!
So where is the evidence that anyone knew Miryam’s remains to still be on the earth? That speaks volumes!

Jon FT’s response:
Unlike the other examples cited of things the Bible doesn’t mention, none of them have been accorded dogmatic status or pronounced as doctrine, but Mary’s virgin birth has been. The argument that Mary’s tomb doesn’t exist therefore she was assumed bodily into Heaven, would naturally lead to the conclusion that any Biblical character with no recorded resting place was similarly translated without dying. The earliest accounts of Mary’s assumption date from the fifth century, making the Protevangelium of James appear reliable in comparison.

The simple fact is that the early church incorporated a large amount of pagan goddess imagery into Christianity and attached it to Mary. Ephesus – where Mary is reputed to have lived with the apostle John until her death/assumption – coincidentally happened to be a city with a thriving cult of the goddess Diana, and later became a major centre for veneration of the Virgin Mary. Imagery of the Egyptian goddess Isis with her son Horus was copied in iconography of Mary and the infant Jesus. Even haloes around the head resemble the rays of Ra or Apollo as found in pagan art. The title ‘Queen of Heaven’ was appropriated from the pagan cults of such deities as Isis and Artemis.

Jon FT originally wrote:
Non-Catholics also have difficulty with the status given to Mary. She has been regarded as ‘theotokos’ (‘God-bearer’) since the Nestorian controversy in the fifth century. Technically this is incorrect, as she only bore the human incarnation of the divine Son. But the school of thought who wanted to use the term ‘theotokos’ wanted to assert the absolute divinity of Christ against various heresies around at the time that denied it. ‘God-bearer’ thus became part of orthodox Christian belief, when perhaps it should not have.

TR’s comment:
No Catholic says she conceived anything but CHRIST’s Humanity. It is correct to call her Theotikos, because the MAN CHRIST’s PERSON remains that of GOD – borne, but not conceived!

Jon FT’s response:
‘Theotokos’ was a divisive term when it first came into use. True the Council of Chalcedon (451AD) allowed its use because of the unity of Christ’s person, but the stress on Christ’s unity could lead to monophysite christology, which states that Christ only had one nature, a divine-human hybrid. The Chalcedonian definition of Christ being ‘one person with two natures’ remains the norm for orthodox Christianity.

Given the development of Kenotic theology, which see Christ as ‘emptying himself’ or denying his divine nature in order to become human, ‘theotokos’ has come to be regarded as incorrect in non-Catholic theology. It is undeniable that the term strengthened devotion to Mary, especially after it was endorsed at Chalcedon.

Jon FT originally wrote:
Asserting that Mary was sinless goes beyond the Biblical accounts. It is unnecessary and, in a strange way robs her of the honour she is due as the ‘humble handmaiden of the Lord’. If she was sinless, then becoming the ‘God-bearer’ is not the inspiring tale of a young girl being willing to suffer the public disgrace of being unmarried, yet pregnant. It takes away the very humanity that Mary passed on to her son.

TR’s comment:
How is this to be taken as a logical conclusion?

Jon FT’s response:
Because Mary would be more then human – she would be sinless, a potential co-redeemer of humanity and totally unlike every other human being. The sinless Mary cannot be a role model for Christians because there is no way sinful humans could emulate her. The child she bore would share in her version of humanity, but would not be human like everybody else. To quote Gregory of Nazianzus: “What has not been assumed, has not been healed” (Letter to Cledonius). So Jesus Christ must have been completely, naturally, human in his human nature, in order to save the rest of humanity.


The state of the soul before resurrection

Question from MN, USA

What is the state of the soul or spirit, after the death of the body until resurrection? So often, usually at funerals, you hear that the person in question is now in Heaven with those that have gone before, but nowhere does it state that. Resurrection occurs with the return of Christ and “believers will receive new, immortal, perfect bodies“. I am interested in the time between bodily death and resurrection.

One of the big problems in the early church, as seen by references in the New Testament, was what happened to the believers who had ‘fallen asleep’ (i.e. died) before Christ’s return. Within New Testament studies, the difference between the earlier books with an emphasis on the imminent return of Christ (parousia), and the later books when it seemed that said return was not going to happen immediately, is frequently referred to.

Various ideas were proposed. For example, the ideas of ‘limbo’ and ‘purgatory’ as holding areas for souls after death and before the end-times resurrection developed in the middle ages. However, there is no need for a celestial waiting room, when one aspect of God’s nature is considered. If God is eternal, not bound by time, or the restrictions of the physical universe, then this ‘time lag’ becomes irrelevant. For those ‘with God’, chronological time is already wrapped up. Another way of saying this would be to describe death as crossing into another dimension. In that place, outside time, Christ’s return into the physical universe has already happened, the world has ended, judgment day has come. For those still living in the physical universe, all these things are yet to take place.

It is confusing, but the idea that the ‘God’s eye view’ of the universe is one of past, present and future, underlies several attempts to understand how ‘prophecy’, for example, works. It also means that there is no hanging around for disembodied souls. The deceased are already resurrected and to them it would have felt instantaneous.

Thanks for your question, MN.


Becoming ‘one flesh’ – a theological statement about marriage

Question from DM, United Kingdom

I am getting married later this year and am wondering what the Bible actually means when it says we will become “one flesh”? I presume in God’s eyes it means more than just entering into an intimate physical relationship?

The idea that “…a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis Chapter 2, verse 24) follows the account of the creation of Eve, moulded from Adam’s rib (verse 22). In some sense the reuniting of man and woman in the covenant of marriage could be viewed as a return to that original state of ‘perfect’ humanity before humanity was split in two. As stated previously on freelance theology, the specific account of the creation of human beings in this way explains why there are two genders, but one race, in pre-scientific terms.

In the New Testament, Jesus refers to this creation story as an argument against divorce in Matthew chapter 19, verse 5 and Mark 10, verse 8. This is where the phrase commonly found in the wedding liturgy, “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder” is applied to the state of marriage. It is interesting that in these gospel instances, Jesus is answering a ‘test question’ about divorce put to him by the Pharisees. He is asked whether it is ‘lawful’ for a man to divorce his wife for any reason. Referring back to this passage in Genesis, Jesus is effectively saying that women are not to be regarded as possessions or accoutrements to be discarded at will.

Paul uses the verse differently in 1 Corinthians chapter 6, verse 16. In a comment on moral behaviour he argues against casual sexual relationships, in this case with a prostitute, because uniting with a prostitute causes a man to ‘be one with her in body’. Paul’s interpretation of this verse has given rise to the relatively recent idea that ‘soul ties’ to previous sexual partners can have a long-lasting effect on the spiritual health of Christians.

However, whether Paul actually thought that sex had such a permanent effect could be debated. His main aim in this passage is to convince the Corinthian believers that they should be sexually continent, because they were united to Christ and this had a physical effect as well as a spiritual effect.

One of the earliest heresies to creep into the early church was the idea that because Christians’ souls were saved, any physical activity could not be sinful. This was a corruption of Hellenistic (Greek) philosophy that firmly separated the ‘divine spark’ of the soul from the physical body it was trapped in. With a more holistic view of humanity, Paul railed against this idea. This is also one of the reasons why he insists that the resurrection is experienced bodily (1 Corinthians chapter 15, verses 35-49).

In Ephesians chapter 5, verse 39, Paul quotes this verse again, as a “profound mystery” (verse 40). In a way his use of the verse again echoes Jesus’ principle. By telling Christian men that they must “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (verse 25), he ignores the contemporary cultural idea that wives were the possession of the husband. This whole passage in Ephesians is often misquoted to demand that wives ‘submit’ (or ‘respect’) their husbands, but in reality, a better understanding of the culture at the time sees the revolutionary message that Paul presents.

Three powerless groups are listed in this passage, which continues into chapter 6: wives, children and slaves. None of them had any rights in law and were at the mercy of the head of the household. Each is encouraged to respect or obey their husband, father, or master – in reality they had little choice but to do so. The sting in this section is that the powerful head of the household was being told to love their wives ‘Christly’, or ‘as yourselves’ (chapter 5, verse 33); to ‘not exasperate’ their children (chapter 6, verse 4); and to treat their slaves with the same respect as the slaves treat them (chapter 6, verse 9). This was a manifesto of societal revolution and one that is often overlooked in current church teaching.

To conclude: becoming one flesh implies a change on a semi-mystical level, where both parties treat the other as an equal extension of themselves and perhaps, in that unity, discover the original nature of undivided humanity.

Thanks for your question, DM, and congratulations on your forthcoming marriage.

Caveat: This is a theological interpretation of one aspect of marriage, in response to a specific question. freelance theology recognises that marriages do break down, for Christians and non-Christians, for a number of different reasons.