Mary 6 – Brothers

Posted: January 16th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 6 – Brothers

In the comments to Elizabeth Esther’s post, there were primarily two objections from Scripture raised against the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The more common one asks about his brothers — two of whom are also considered to have written books of the New Testament. If Mary didn’t have any more children, how is it that Jesus had brothers? I think the fact that it’s such a common and sincere question illustrates how completely disconnected so many modern Christians have become from the historical tradition of the Church. It was my impression that most of the people who asked about Jesus’ brothers in the comments on EE’s post weren’t consciously disagreeing with the tradition of the Church; rather, they knew nothing about it.

The oldest, and I believe most likely, tradition is that Joseph was an older man, a widower, and a father. Thus the siblings of Jesus were Joseph’s children from his prior marriage. That feels right to me on multiple levels. First, we are told that Joseph had earned the name or reputation of tsadiq or righteous. In the context of an externalized honor-shame culture, that public name is even more significant. While I suppose it’s possible a young man could be numbered among the tsadiqim, it feels more like the sort of recognition an older, more established man would have earned — especially in a culture that already tended to respect age over youth.

Also, the snippets of encounters in the Gospels (Mark 3:31-32 and Matthew 12:46-47) have always felt to me more like older brothers trying to straighten out a younger sibling who isn’t doing what they expected him to do. But perhaps that’s just the eldest sibling (and eldest first cousin, for that matter) in me.

And finally, we know that Joseph died sometime after teaching Jesus a trade, but before the Theophany at our Lord’s baptism. While people can and could die at any age from many causes, this fact fits with the idea that he was an older man when he was betrothed to Mary.

A different tradition arose in the West, casting Joseph as a younger man closer to Mary in age. In that tradition, the brothers of Jesus are actually his cousins raised in close proximity to him and possibly even in the same household. (The nuclear family as we understand it is quite different from ancient households and families.) That’s certainly possible. It’s true that ancient Aramaic used the same word for all close male relations of a similar age or generation. And the Greek word used also does not necessarily describe a sibling relationship, though it can. From everything I’ve been able to discover, this tradition arises later and exclusively in the West. Jerusalem and the regions in the Gospels are all in the East and this tradition never took root there. For both those reasons, it seems less likely to me.

Finally there is John 19:25-27 to consider.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

I’ve only been a member of a Southern Baptist Church as a Christian, so I’m familiar with the modern, Protestant understanding of the above passage. Basically it goes that as the eldest son, Jesus was responsible for his widowed mother and since his brothers did not believe he was the Messiah and had rejected him (an assertion, I’ll note, for which there really isn’t any evidence), he chose to have John care for Mary. I suppose that makes sense to our modern sensibilities, but it’s completely anachronistic. First, all the sons of a widow were responsible for her care. And it was an automatic obligation on the eldest surviving son. It wasn’t something that had to be passed along.

Now, think back to my post on the way honor-shame culture works. In that culture, if others believe that I have done something wrong, even if I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong, I am still shamed and dishonored. So under the above interpretation of John’s gospel account, what’s really happening is that Jesus, John, and Mary are all colluding to publicly shame her other sons. I just don’t believe that’s the case. It doesn’t fit the character of any of them as captured in the gospels. It’s certainly difficult to imagine James, after being so dishonored by Jesus himself, becoming the first leading Bishop of the Jerusalem Church and such an influential early Christian figure.

No, the most reasonable interpretation of the text is that Jesus was Mary’s only son so he gave her into the care of John to ensure she didn’t suffer the fate of widows with no sons. (The ancient world was pretty harsh and there was no social safety net. Widows with no sons often did not survive long.) That’s not to say that his community of followers and extended family wouldn’t have cared for Mary anyway, but by doing this Jesus faithfully discharged even this last obligation. Remember, in Christian understanding, Jesus is the one, true faithful man and the fulfillment of faithful Israel.

Of course, John is known as the theological gospel and everything in it has multiple layers of meaning. This text is no different. However,  those layers of theology are grounded in an actual event. At least, most Christians agree it’s an actual event.

Mary 4 – Ever Virgin

Posted: January 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The next point, the perpetual virginity of Mary, tends to be controversial among my fellow modern Protestants. I will note that the modern objection is not inherently Protestant in nature. Indeed all the initial reformers, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, held firmly to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. As late as the 18th century, John Wesley affirmed the doctrine. No, the objections to this particular doctrine seem more related to our modern sexualized culture than anything historical. There seems to be a sense that living without sex makes you less than a ‘complete’ person. I understand that modern perspective probably better than I do the ancient one. After all, I am also a product of our culture. Nevertheless, I try to avoid imposing my cultural lens onto ancient texts and traditions in an anachronistic manner. It’s clear from the NT texts that living a celibate life was hardly unknown in an ancient Jewish context. John the Baptist lived such a life. Paul also did. (And it appears that he had started down that path in his zeal even before his dramatic conversion.) Notably, Jesus lived a celibate, unmarried life. So there’s nothing inherently odd or out of place in ascribing such devotion to Mary in her context.

Moreover, in the context of their honor-shame culture, it’s a perfectly reasonable response by both Mary and Joseph. We know from the texts and from the tradition of the Church of which those texts are one part that they were both faithful to God. They both sacrificed their own personal honor in order to uphold God’s honor and be obedient to him. And God produced a child with Mary. In both their minds, that would have certainly marked Mary as belonging to God. For Mary to then have sex with Joseph would have been perceived as adulterous and dishonoring God. Joseph would have seen himself as a protector and provider chosen by God for Mary and for God’s son. It’s not that I think they consciously thought through everything and decided to live together celibately. Rather, I find it hard to imagine them, within their context and with their cultural shaping, responding any other way. It’s strange to us, but it fits perfectly in their context.

And as I mentioned, it’s also the universal tradition of the Church until very recently. That’s not to say that you can’t find individuals here and there in the past who thought otherwise. But that means virtually nothing. You can find individuals over the course of history, including priests, bishops, and even patriarchs, who believe almost anything. You don’t find answers by looking at the beliefs of one (or several scattered) individuals, especially when their beliefs left no lasting impression on the Church. No, you look at what’s believed everywhere and in all places. And up until the last few hundred years, this is as much the universal perspective of the Church as almost anything we believe. I’m skeptical that we somehow know better now.

I know there are a handful of Scriptures modern Protestants like to trot out in their objections. I plan to deal with those in a later post. However, I will point out that I tend to find the attitude of Protestants toward Scripture somewhat strange. They tend to point to verses in these discussions as if they had just discovered those verses and the centuries of Christians who preceded them had never read or heard them. And there’s something a little crazy about that attitude. After all, it’s the ancient Church that preserved and eventually canonized what we call the New Testament. They read it, preached on it, and incorporated it the liturgy for century upon century. There’s no verse we can point to that would have been unknown to them. No, Protestants aren’t pointing out anything new in the verses they use in this or other discussions. Rather they are asserting they understand those verses better than the ancient Church did. They are asserting their interpretation over and against that of Christians who preceded them.

Maybe it’s because I practiced Hinduism, studied Lao Tzu, read the life of Prince Siddhartha, and have studied other ancient authors, but I’m a little more humble in my approach. I don’t automatically assume I’ll understand a text better than those who came before me. I don’t believe I’m smarter than those who lived in the ancient past (which does seem to be a modern conceit). I tend to give some deference to those who practiced this faith and lived this life long before my time.

Was Mary perpetually virgin? That’s the teaching of the Church and as I researched and tried to understand her culture, I also found it a reasonable contextual conclusion. I’m familiar with the modern arguments to the contrary and I’m unconvinced by them. Does it matter? Well, I tend to believe it’s better to have an accurate rather than an inaccurate view of reality. Beyond that I can’t really say. I will note that it seems to have had a measurable impact on the honor given to Mary. Among those Protestants who do not believe Mary remained a virgin, she’s almost become an after-thought or a biblical footnote. And that attitude is certainly contrary to Scripture. So if the resulting practice is any indication of the significance of belief, then I find that telling.

Mary 3 – Virgin Birth

Posted: January 9th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Mary 3 – Virgin Birth

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”

And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”

Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)

Take a moment to read the text above again. It often seems to me that many Christians have become so familiar with it, they miss its impact. There are a number of points to note. First, the angel, a messenger of God and presumably speaking with God’s voice, calls Mary highly favored and blessed among women. Later, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth calls Mary (and the fruit of her womb) blessed. Mary, also under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, even prophesies that all generations (except many modern Protestants, apparently) will call her blessed.


Without having sex with a man, the angel tells Mary she will conceive a child through the power of the Highest and that child will be called the Son of God. This is central to Christian belief. Jesus was not just a special human being used by God. We believe him to be the Dabar Yahweh, the Word of God, made flesh. His eternal, divine nature is joined to a fully human, mortal nature through the agency and with the active cooperation of Mary.

Make no mistake, there is no evidence in Scripture or any other source that Mary was merely a vessel and that any such vessel would have sufficed. There is no evidence or indication that a ‘plan B‘ existed. Mary’s consent and cooperation with God were essential. There is a strong thread of ancient theology which calls Mary the new Eve. As her son, Jesus, is typologically compared to the first Adam, so Mary’s ‘yes’ to God is seen as healing Eve’s ‘no’ to God. ‘Eve’, of course, means life or life-giver as ‘Adam’ means man or mankind. Through her ‘yes’ to God, Mary consents to give life to he who as the new Adam joins the nature of God to the nature of man, defeats death on our behalf, and gives true and lasting life to humanity.

And her ‘yes’ required a courage that should be clearer after my previous post on honor-shame cultures. Mary certainly recognized that she would be perceived as having engaged in adulterous sex and she knew the shame and dishonor that she and her family would experience. She knew she could be killed, but trusted in God nonetheless.

And Joseph was also courageous and faithful. The text tells us that he was righteous, but I think most miss the true import of that phrase. Being named ‘tsadiq’ or righteous in his honor-shame culture was a big deal. He was counted among the ‘tsadiqim’ and much honor accrued from that. Having a betrothed become pregnant was shaming enough, when he was instructed to marry her anyway, that meant giving up his standing as ‘tsadiq’ and assuming a name of shame instead. But Joseph was faithful to God first. He counted God’s honor as more important than his own. It’s important to understand that about Joseph.

I recognize there are many today who choose not to belief in the virgin birth, but who do still call themselves Christian. All I can say is that those who have done so have redefined Christianity to an extent that their version of Christianity is discontinuous from any historical or traditional strand of Christian belief. There are many ways people do that today, and it’s one of the reasons modern ‘Christianity’ is so confusing. There are thousands upon thousands of sects which, if you dig even a little below the surface, hold outright contradictory beliefs, but which all still call themselves Christian in some sense. If you do not believe in the virgin birth, but you do believe that Jesus was in some sense the divine Son of God (and if you don’t at least believe that, then it’s hard to see how your belief can still be labeled ‘Christian’), then of necessity you must believe that Jesus was a normal human male child who at some point after conception was in some sense divinized. That’s actually one of the ancient heresies reborn in slightly different clothes.

However, this is a dogma on which most Christians agree. It’s even incorporated in the Nicene Creed, with which I think I’ll close this post. Hopefully I’ve provided some food for thought.

I believe in one God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages; Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.

And He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; of His kingdom there shall be no end.

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of life, Who proceedeth from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the prophets.

In one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church;

I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins;

I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.


Mary 2 – Honor-Shame Culture

Posted: January 6th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: Mary | Tags: , , | Comments Off on Mary 2 – Honor-Shame Culture

Before I delve into the individual posts on Mary I have planned, I think it’s necessary to discuss some of the elements of an honor-shame culture. Most human cultures throughout history (and essentially all cultures in the ancient world) have been honor-shame cultures. However, those cultures are essentially alien to most of us shaped within modern Western cultures. Our cultures are mostly what sociologists call guilt cultures. Obviously there’s no way I can go into the topic in depth in a blog post, but it’s necessary to grasp some of the basics.

We have plenty of examples of modern honor-shame cultures — though some of them may be in a slow process of shifting at least partially to a guilt culture under the influence of Western cultural products. Most Far Eastern cultures, such as those in Japan, China, and Korea, remain honor-shame cultures. Many Latin America cultures are honor-shame cultures. Arabic culture is an honor-shame culture. The list goes on. So how do honor-shame and guilt cultures differ?

Though it’s an over-simplification, there’s a rubric that provides a good place to start. Let’s say there’s cultural expectation or standard of behavior which can be violated. It could be anything, but it’s something your culture holds is wrong. Tension arises in any such situation when the belief I hold about my behavior differs from the belief of the group about my behavior. That tension is resolved differently by guilt and honor-shame cultures.

If I believe I didn’t do it and others believe I did it, in a guilt culture I protest my innocence and fight the accusation. In an honor-shame culture, I am shamed and dishonored by their belief.

If I believe I did it and others believe I didn’t do it, in a guilt culture I am expected to feel guilty anyway. In an honor-shame culture, I am not shamed since others do not know.

These are not conscious processes through which we work. Culture doesn’t operate at the conscious level. Rather, it shapes the way we perceive reality and our automatic reactions to those perceptions. A guilt culture is more internalized and individualistic. An honor-shame culture is more externalized and group-oriented. It tends to be familial rather than individual. That’s why, for instance, ‘face‘ (a concept difficult for us Westerners to grasp) is such a central element in Chinese and Japanese culture.

Honor-shame culture tends to also lead to disproportionate rather than proportionate reaction. We see that today, for example, in cultures where relatives of a woman perceived as engaging in sexually immoral acts (again, remember the shame comes from the group perception of the truth of the accusation, not its actual truth) feel they must kill her to regain their familial honor. When you read the Mosaic law through that lens, you see that many of its provisions (other than those dealing with sacrificial/worship practices and ritual purity) are designed to temper disproportionate reactions and make them more proportionate.

It’s not really possible to change our cultural lens. The best we can do is recognize that it exists and try to consciously think through the way a different lens would have shaped behavior.