In my last post, we covered why Mary is venerated by the Orthodox Church, as well as her title as Queen of Heaven, and then finally the Church referring to her as “blameless and pure”.
Today, I want to share some thoughts on Mary’s state as an eternal virgin and her title, Theotokos.
The easiest of these to cover is her title of Theotokos. The word itself is literally translated as “God-bearer”. It is simply her title as the mother of God, and recognizing her as such. I found out that the title of Theotokos was defended at the Third Ecumenical Council held in Ephesus. Nestorius was arguing that her title should be “Christotokos” limiting her to only giving birth to Christ’s humanity and not his divinity.
This was argued against by Cyril of Alexandria and others, who defended the title of Theotokos, arguing that to say she was only the birth giver of Jesus’ humanity destroyed the perfect union of the divine and human natures of Christ. This is not to say that Mary birthed Christ in eternity past, but that there was a set point in time in which Mary gave birth and the child that came forth was both human and divine, also known as the hypostatic union of Christ’s natures.
This was very easy for me to understand. I was happy with this, and could readily accept it, as it was what I had already believed. Theotokos was for me at the time, just a Greek term for the Mother of God.
However, the concept of Mary eternally being a virgin was more difficult to understand. Didn’t the gospels mention Jesus’ brothers and sisters coming with Mary? And what James the Lord’s brother?
I was first pointed to the Old Testament. Genesis 14:14 states that Lot was Abram’s brother. If you look at the original Greek and Hebrew, the word is literally translated as brother, not as nephew, which Lot was. (Newer translations such as ESV or NASB translate the same word as relative/kinsman, most likely to reduce confusion). 2 Samuel 1:26 states that Jonathan, the son of Saul, was David’s brother. So the use of the word “brother” in the Greek texts does not necessarily have to mean literal progeny of the same mother and father.
I could see the logic in this statement then, that it was possible for the ones labeled in the Gospels as Jesus’ brothers and sisters could simply mean a relative or a friend.
My problem however was more of a physical one. Being married myself, I couldn’t fathom a man being married to his wife and never entering into the marriage bed together. It just didn’t make sense. Why would you marry someone and never take them physically as your spouse?
Father Phil asked me how old I thought Joseph was. The most frequent age I heard at other churches was that Joseph was probably 40 years old, and that Mary was around 15-16 years old. Father Phil stated that Church History records Joseph as being much older than that, probably closer to 70-80 years old. And not only that, but that he had a previous wife and that James and the other brothers and sisters of Christ were actually half-siblings from Joseph’s previous marriage.
“But even at 70 years old, taking a spouse means that you have a level of physical expectation,” I said.
We talked the issue through and he pointed out that Mary was one of the virgins that lived within the temple, serving God. At one point, these servants were removed from the temple and given to their families or as a spouse to another. Joseph was chosen to take Mary, not because he wanted her physically, but simply as her protector. Mary had taken a vow of chastity, to never lay with a man, and Joseph was chosen by lots and by God to be a protector of her.
Father Phil then asked me to think about Mary. She has become the new Ark of the Covenant, literally bearing God within her. The holy things of God that were used in the temple were always treated with the highest level of reverence. And when they weren’t, there was severe punishment. Think of the ark, when the oxen stumbled, and the ark was about to fall, Uzzah reached out to stabilize it, and was killed, because the holy item was not treated with the reverence it was due. Why would Mary be any less?
Father Phil then showed me, Ezekial 44:2. “The LORD said to me, “This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the LORD God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut.” This is viewed as a prophecy of Mary that where God has entered, no man shall enter in after Him.
This definitely took me a long time to work through. For so long I had thought that there was no basis for the Roman Catholic and Orthodox teaching of Mary’s ever-virginity. I thought that they were blindly ignoring scripture. And here was evidence of “brother” being used for family and close-friends. I was torn. I know that many heresies find at least a miniscule piece of scriptural evidence to support themselves. I didn’t want to fall to one of those.
I prayed to God a lot, asking him to give me wisdom in addressing this issue, and after many weeks of prayer and study into these things, I had to say that there was sufficient (for me) proof that Mary was an eternal virgin. There were two nails for this particular coffin. The first was when Jesus was on the cross, he tells John that Mary is his mother, and that John is now her son. Why would he need to do this? When fathers and eldest sons died, the responsibility for the mother fell on the next of kin. If Mary had other children, surely they would take care of her, and there would be no need for Jesus to tell John to take care of his mother. The second was finding out that even during the Reformation, even John Calvin and Martin Luther believed that Mary is an eternal virgin. The idea that Mary had other sons and daughters is a relatively new concept within Christendom as a whole.
My final post on this topic will deal with prayers to Mary as well as some other thoughts about the Theotokos.
Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us!