Questions About Mary

By Oswin Craton

Few personages in the entire corpus of Scripture cause as much consternation in Protestant circles as does Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Protestants are especially bewildered by the traditions upheld in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic faiths that raise the stature of Mary to what would seem almost blasphemous proportions. As a former Protestant myself, I know that it was the question of Mary that was one of the last holdouts in my own acceptance of Orthodox faith and practice. The veneration of Mary that I as a Protestant saw in Catholic and Orthodox churches made me consider that these were traditions steeped in erroneous medieval superstition and could in no wise be condoned by a Bible-believing Christian.

The eleventh chapter (“Mary and the Departed Saints”) of my book deals extensively with this topic, but below I have presented a number of other questions often raised when the subject of Mary comes up. In some cases these questions are the same as the ones discussed in the book, only in more detail; in other cases I will refer you to the book or to my Orthodox Questions & Answers website for greater clarification in order to avoid too much redundancy. It is my hope that a fuller understanding of the nature of Mary’s role in our lives, and of the Orthodox traditions surrounding her veneration, may ensue. The questions are presented in no particular order.

Q.  Why do people in the Orthodox and Catholic churches worship Mary? Isnít worship supposed to be directed to God alone?

A.  Please consult the book for a fuller answer to your question, but allow me to state here categorically that Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians do not worship Mary. Often when a Protestant, unaccustomed to our traditions, sees someone venerating an icon of the Virgin Mary it is misconstrued as worship. While we in both Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions do indeed venerate Mary (that is, we show her great honor and respect, just as she herself prophesied we would in Luke 1:48b), we do not worship her. There are many biblical examples that we could cite of people venerating angels, kings, and other personages in ways that would appear to the typical Western Protestant eye to be worship, but which are in fact simply means of showing great respect. Please consult the ninth (“Icons”) and eleventh chapters of the book for more detailed clarification on this matter.

Q.  Orthodox and Catholic churches call Mary “Ever-Virgin,” yet Scripture itself plainly says that she and Joseph had other children. On what basis do you use this term? And if Mary is “Ever-Virgin,” who were the other brothers mentioned?

A.  Mary is referred to as “Ever-Virgin” because ancient tradition maintains that she was a virgin not only before the birth of Christ but also throughout the remainder of her life. The Church teaches that Joseph, the husband of Mary, was an elderly widower who served as her protector, and that the brothers referred to in Scripture were children of Joseph by a previous marriage.

Almost immediately some malign this tradition because (a) there seems to be little to no Scriptural evidence to support it and (b) they cannot believe that a man with a young bride could refrain from having normal marital relations with her.

In terms of (a), I refer you primarily to chapter two of the book (the chapter called “Scripture vs. Tradition or Scripture and Tradition?”) to explain why ancient church traditions are so important to the Orthodox mind.

Regarding (b), the belief that a man would find it almost impossible to refrain from sexual relations is a sad reflection of our own degenerate society. While sex permeates almost every facet of our highly secularized Western culture today, this has not always been the case. I do not deny that the idea of gratuitous sex existed in ancient times and in cultures more religious than ours, but it certainly was not as prevalent then as it is today. We have been led to believe that it is virtually a physical impossibility for anyone — much less a man — to deny his animal lusts for any reason for an indefinite period of time.

Yet in more reasonable times the sex drive was looked upon as something that not only could be but should be controlled.

But first let us get a bit of grounding in the tradition of Mary and Joseph. According to church tradition, Mary was born to Sts. Joachim and Anna who, like Zechariah and Elisabeth, were childless for most of their lives. Joachim and Anna prayed diligently for a child and vowed, if so blessed, to dedicate the child to the Lord. In due time Anna did conceive, despite her advanced age, and Mary was borne to her. In accordance with the couple’s vow, Joachim and Anna brought Mary to the Temple at age three. There she grew into a young woman.

From her youth Mary delighted in serving the Lord and vowed to remain a virgin in His service all her days. But it was not customary for Jewish maidens to remain single, as they were expected to marry. In order to keep Jewish tradition and yet not cause Mary to forsake her vow of virginity, the priests in the Temple decided to betroth Mary to a much older man who was a widower. Joseph was chosen because, being older and already with children of his own, he would not be expected to fulfill marital relations with the young virgin but would serve as her protector in a society that frowned upon single women.

We all know the story of the betrothal through to Jesus’ birth, since that is recorded in Scripture. We know that Mary conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit while yet a virgin, and that Joseph “knew her not.” The Virgin Birth fulfilled a number of Old Testament prophecies, Isaiah 7:14 being undoubtedly the most well-known. But the early church also saw Mary prophesied in Ezekiel 44:1-2, where it states, “Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary which faces toward the east, but it was shut. And the Lord said to me, ‘This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter by it, because the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut.’”

Traditionally, this passage has been seen to present a picture of the Virgin Mary, who is the gate through whom the Prince of Peace came into the world. It is a picture of Christ’s passage through the door of Mary’s womb. What it is saying is that, since the God of Heaven entered through this gate, it shall henceforth be holy, and no man shall enter it.

But if this be the case, then what of the statement that Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son”? Doesn’t this imply that Joseph only refrained from marital relations until some time after Jesus was born?

The confusion surrounding this statement has to do with the English word until. Certainly in our contemporary usage the word would seem to imply that after a certain event occurred then something different might take place. But in both Greek and Hebrew, the words translated “until” or “to” do not always carry that connotation. For example, when II Samuel 6:23 says that Saul’s daughter Michal did not have any children “to [until] the day of her death,” it definitely does not mean that she had children after her death. Or to switch from Hebrew to Greek, Matthew 28:20, where Christ says, “Lo, I am with you always, even to [until] the end of the age,” is not taken to mean that after the world ends He will no longer be with us. In like manner, when Matthew 1:25 says that Joseph did not know (i.e., have marital relations with) her until she had borne a son, it does not mean that he did have relations with her afterward.

As for the brothers (and sisters) of Christ, tradition holds that they were children of Joseph and his late wife (whose name is believed to have been Salome — not the daughter of Herodias). At one time the Roman Catholic Church maintained that these “brothers” actually were cousins, since the same word is used in Scripture to refer to both relationships. But according to ancient tradition, these were instead the sons of Joseph by an earlier marriage. Thus they were what we today would call “step-brothers.” But ancient Hebrew and Aramaic had no such term for this legal relationship, so they are described simply as “brothers.”

The fact that Jesus on the Cross entrusted the care of his Mother to St. John rather than to one of his brothers is a further indication that these were not the children of Joseph and Mary. Had they been uterine sons of Mary, these other brothers would have been required by Jewish law to see to the care of their widowed mother. Instead, that care was passed to St. John, a literal cousin of our Lord. Since Mary was the step-mother of the other brothers of Jesus and not their actual mother, she did not have the protection of Jewish law that would require them to care for her.

But beyond these technical and linguistic issues, a greater point is to be considered regarding the relationship between Joseph and Mary. Joseph knew that Mary had been chosen by God for a very special purpose. He knew that she had borne a child by the power of God in a miraculous fashion and that God Himself in the flesh had occupied her womb. It is even possible that Joseph knew the prophetic meaning of Ezekiel 44. And no doubt he considered also an incident recorded in I Chronicles 13:9-10 where King David’s servant Uzza reached out his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant and was struck dead. The Ark can be seen as a type of the Virgin Mary, because whereas the Ark contained the word of God written on stone tablets Mary bore the Word of God made flesh. Understanding that the Ark itself was so revered that it should not be touched, is it any stretch to believe that the devout Joseph would consider the woman who bore the Word of God in the flesh any less holy and revered than an Ark made of wood?

However much he understood, Joseph knew for certain that Mary was a chosen vessel that God had made holy. Is it even imaginable that the saintly Joseph could have considered entering into normal marital relations with someone so special? This does not mean that we consider marital relations impure (they are in fact a blessed sacrament), but only that the awe such knowledge would engender would make it most unlikely that anyone would have entered into physical relations with her. As one writer has put it, “had my betrothed been the woman chosen by the Father to bear His eternal Son in the flesh, my view of her would have been utterly transformed and my honor for her infinitely heightened. Imagine being betrothed to the Mother of God” [emphasis added]. Or, to put it more succinctly, if you knew your wife had borne God in the flesh, would you feel worthy to have sex with her?

Q.  A virgin is someone whose Hymen membrane is intact. Even if Mary and Joseph did not have marital relations after Jesus’ birth as you claim, she still was no longer a virgin after Christ was born. So how can you possibly refer to her as “Ever-Virgin”?

A.  First of all, your definition of virginity is a highly technical (and incorrect) one. If your definition were true, how would it be possible for a male to be a virgin? And what of innocent young girls who, through some kind of traumatic injury, have their Hymens ruptured? Does that injury make them no longer virgins, despite their never having had sex?

The correct definition of a virgin is someone who has never engaged in sexual intercourse.

But even assuming your argument, consider these points: According to tradition, one of the midwives called in to assist in Jesus’ birth arrived only after Jesus had been born. But in examining Mary, she found that Mary was still a virgin! How would it be possible for a child to pass through the birth canal and the Hymen remain intact? (“With God all things are possible,” Matt. 19:26.) Is it any more outrageous to believe that Mary retained even the physiological signs of virginity after Jesus’ birth than it is to believe that she conceived Him without sexual intercourse? And also remember that at His Resurrection, Christ did not unwrap Himself from the burial windings but literally passed through them (John 20:5-7). After He was resurrected, He also passed through solid walls while in the flesh (John 20:26). Is it any greater wonder that, just as He passed through the burial clothes after His death, He should at His birth have passed through the womb of Mary while leaving it intact?

Q.  Why should we believe these “ancient traditions” you describe? In point of fact, very little information about Mary is revealed in Scripture. How is it that the Orthodox and Catholic churches maintain that we know so much about her life?

A.  Personally I find it somewhat ironic how people who have no problem whatever accepting extrabiblical accounts of other historical figures like Caesar, Pilate and Herod (or even lesser-known kings from yet more ancient times) will simultaneously reject all extrabiblical accounts of the life of Mary and other New Testament figures — even though much of this information has been handed down reverently in Holy Tradition from the very church that also gave us the New Testament. While it is one thing to say that an extrabiblical report would perhaps raise questions if it is regarding church dogma, it is another to dismiss it as patently untrue out of hand simply because it was not recorded in the New Testament documents.

Most Protestants readily accept, for example, the belief that when Jesus was a child he went to school, since we know for a fact that He could read and write (Luke 4:16; John 8:6). While it is possible that He was taught these things privately at home, we know that the custom of the day was for children from the ages of six to 15 to attend formal classes so that they could learn to read the Torah. Since there is no reason to believe that Jesus did not follow this custom, we can accept this belief based on tradition.

The deaths of only two of the Apostles (Judas Iscariot and James, son of Zebedee) are given in Scripture, yet most Protestants accept the accounts of the various Apostles’ deaths (that St. Peter was martyred upside down on a cross in Rome, that Sts. Jude and Simon were martyred in Persia, that St. John was the only apostle to die a non-violent death, etc.), even though the reports are extrabiblical and are accepted largely on tradition.

Furthermore, we know that Jesus Himself accepted Sacred Traditions that were not part of the written Scripture. He went to synagogue and even taught in the synagogue, although there is no written instruction to ordain synagogues anywhere in the Old Testament Scriptures. (They are mentioned in Psalm 74:8 as an institution that already exists, though there is no record that God ever prescribed them.) Jesus also evidently recognized the validity of other Jewish customs, such as the use of phylacteries, as good and holy practices, though they weren’t prescribed in Scripture. (Note that Jesus never condemned the use of phylacteries, He only condemned their ostentation for purposes of presenting oneself as self-righteous.)

For more detail on this question, see chapter two (“Scripture vs. Tradition or Scripture and Tradition?”) of the book.

Q.  Why do you call Mary the “Mother of God”? That seems like utter blasphemy.

A.  In Orthodoxy Mary is usually referred to as the Theotokos which literally translated means “God-bearer” or “Mother of God.” Protestants sometimes think that means that Orthodox and Roman Catholics believe Mary is the source of God the Father; one Protestant publication actually states that this phrase teaches that “we would have to conclude that the creature was the mother of the creator.” But the phrase “Mother of God” really has less to say about Mary than about her Son. Christ is indeed God incarnate, and yet there arose a heresy in the early centuries of the church which denied His divinity — a heresy that claimed that while Christ was fully man he was not fully God. In calling Christ’s mother the Theotokos, or Mother of God, we proclaim our belief that Jesus Christ was truly God made flesh. In no wise does this term imply that we believe Mary to be the ultimate source of God the Father, but it states profoundly the doctrine that Christ is truly God. (Consult also chapter eleven in the book, especially pages 126-128.)

Q.  Did Elisabeth call Mary “Theotokos” when she greeted her in Luke 1:43?

A.  In the Greek New Testament Elisabeth here refers to Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (ee Meeteer tou Kyriou mou). While the actual word Theotokos is not used, the same doctrinal statement is made because Elisabeth used the word Kyriou to mean “Lord.” Hellenistic Jews at the time of Christ used this specific term only in reference to God. Coupled with the fact that John’s fetus leaped for joy in Elisabeth’s womb as Mary approached, we see clearly that Mary was carrying no ordinary human babe.

Q.  Why do you teach that Mary can save us? The Bible says that salvation can come only through Christ.

A.  Please consult the penultimate question (“While visiting a local Orthodox church, I heard repeated several times during the Liturgy: ‘Most holy Theotokos, save us!’ Isn’t it Christ who saves us? How does this fit in with the biblical view of salvation?”) on my Orthodox Questions and Answers website for a discussion of this issue.

Q.  Why do you pray to Mary? I thought the Bible said we are to pray only to God. On what grounds do you call Mary an “intercessor”?

A.  First, it is not correct to say that the Bible says we are to pray only to God. This attitude evinces a clear misunderstanding of what prayer is. Please see a rather detailed discussion of the concept of prayer and prayers to Mary and the saints in chapter eleven of the book, especially pages 131 ff. As the chapter points out, we always ask those whom we feel closest to God to bring our petitions to Him, and who closer to our Lord than His very mother? As for why specifically Mary is viewed as an intercessor, the miracle in Cana (changing water into wine) is often chosen to illustrate the Theotokos’ intercessory nature. Here Mary intercedes on behalf of the bridegroom, bypassing the chief steward (who normally would have been consulted) and going directly to her Son on the bridegroom’s behalf. The Church teaches that she has continued to intercede in such manner throughout the ages.

Q.  Does the Orthodox Church believe in the doctrine of Immaculate Conception?

A.  The Roman Catholic doctrine of Immaculate Conception teaches that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin — the belief that every child is born with the stain of Adam’s sin. The Roman church maintains that all children (excepting Mary) are born with the guilt of original sin; Orthodoxy teaches that we each are born not with the guilt of original sin but rather with the propensity to sin. Since Orthodoxy does not accept the Roman doctrine of original sin, by extension it cannot accept the doctrine of Immaculate Conception. It is worth noting that this doctrine did not become dogma in the Roman Catholic church until the nineteenth century.

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