Tuesday, 17 December 2019

The Making of a Virgin Birth

Mary as Theotokos 6th century St Catherine's monastery, Sinai

From The Quest for Mary Magdalene by Michael Haag.

Celsus and The True Word 
The earliest known comprehensive attack against Christianity was written by the pagan philosopher Celsus in the AD 170s.  The myths put about by the Christians, he wrote with some exasperation in The True Word, were now becoming better known than the doctrines of philosophers.  ‘Who has not heard that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he was crucified, and that his resurrection is an article of faith among many?’, he wrote, adding that reason does not enter into their argument; instead Christians will say, ‘Do not question, but believe’, and ‘Your faith will save you’.  When Christians’ views are challenged, writes Celsus, they retreat behind the remark that ‘to God everything is possible’.

Yet for these fables, wrote Celsus, Christians were willing to die.  Though the emperor Hadrian would not tolerate actions against Christians for their faith, only if they broke the law, there had been some sporadic persecutions and executions of Christians under his predecessors Nero and Domitian in the first century and under Trajan in the early second century, and there would be more to come.

The Christian Threat
The imperial government and many citizens were anxious about Christianity, seeing it as a danger to social cohesion.  Romans owed an allegiance to the state and to the emperor and occasionally performed rituals which involved offering a sacrifice but Christians refused to participate, saying it was idolatry and the worship of a false god.  This Christian refusal seemed all the more threatening after the Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman rule in Judea in the 130s which was a rejection of any authority other than the Jewish God.  But as Celsus remarked, Christians were a threat in another way; they were so divided into rival sects, denouncing one another, that simply the instability of their faith could prove harmful to social harmony and the Roman state. 

Very little is known about Celsus who was probably a Greek and probably an Alexandrian.  Nothing remains of his original writings and we know about The True Word only because Origen, an early Christian theologian and Clement’s successor as head of Alexandria’s Catechetical School, responded to its arguments with his own work, Against Celsus, written in 248.  Origen so completely quotes Celsus in his refutation that it has been possible to reconstruct The True Word in almost its entirety.

The number of Christians in the latter half of the second century was still very small but Celsus’ attack is testimony to how seriously the danger from Christianity was taken while Origen’s exhaustive rebuttal is testimony to how seriously Celsus’ arguments against Christianity were taken by the Church.

Celsus compared Christians to members of other cults, to the noisy followers of the Phrygian sky god Sabazius; the acolytes of the bull-killing god Mithras; the begging priests of the fertility goddess Cybele; and to travelling rogues who called up apparitions of demons or of the triple-bodied Hecate, a goddess associated with sorcery.  Moreover ‘Jesus went about with his disciples, and obtained his livelihood in a disgraceful and importunate manner’, meaning sponging off Mary Magdalene and the other women. 

As for the Christians’ story that when Jesus was dead ‘he rose again and displayed the marks of his punishment and showed how his hands had been pierced by nails, who saw this?  A frantic woman’, again meaning Mary Magdalene, ‘and perhaps one other person, both deluded by sorcery’.  Celsus was as much against the gnostics as he was against other Christians; elsewhere in his text he mentions followers of Mary Magdalene, and knowing that she was the gnostics’ visionary he attacks them by reducing her to a delusionary female.  (The phrase ‘gyne paroistros’ in Greek is variously translated as a frantic or fevered or hysterical woman.) 

Interestingly Celsus mentions only Mary Magdalene and possibly one other person as witnesses to the risen Jesus which suggests that the gospels in circulation in Egypt in the mid-second century were an early form of Mark and a version of John to which the final chapter 21 had not yet been added (the Church Father Tertullian writing in about 200 knew nothing about it), a late addendum which serves Rome and the purpose of apostolic succession by having Jesus appearing before the disciples and declaring Peter his leading apostle.  That Celsus does not mention Matthew or Luke seems to confirm other literary sources and the archaeological record which show that while versions of John and Thomas and Mark were circulating widely in Egypt in the early second century the gospels of Matthew and Luke appear not to have circulated until the end of the century, meaning that versions of gospels carrying verses justifying apostolic succession were largely unknown in Egypt.  Also as Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels that include stories of the nativity and describe Mary the mother of Jesus as a virgin, their written accounts were unknown too.  So when Celsus attacks the Christian belief that Jesus was born of a virgin, and when Origen defends that belief, they might both be arguing from oral tradition, not from infancy narratives attached to the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Geza Vermes, the leading Jesus scholar, is not alone in regarding the infancy narratives as pious fictions.  The infancy narratives, he says in his Jesus, are ‘late additions’ to the main accounts in Matthew and Luke.  He notes that Matthew and Luke contradict one another (the former taking Jesus off to Egypt, for example, while the latter has him go to Jerusalem and Nazareth) and are unsupported by history (such an egregious event as Herod slaughtering the infants is not remarked upon by any source other than Matthew; not even by Luke).  Moreover, as Vermes observes, the idea of a virgin birth is in direct contradiction with Jewish-Christian tradition.  It is unlikely therefore to have been set down before the Bar Kokhba Revolt, its audience Hellenised gentiles rather than Jews.  Clement of Alexandria does mention that both gospels were read in Alexandria in the late second century but we do not know their contents; the earliest known copies of Matthew and Luke discovered in Egypt date only to the third century and these are so damaged and incomplete that they tell us nothing about the infancy narratives.  Not until the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, both dating to the fourth century, do we have the complete gospels of Matthew and Luke as we know them today. 

Jesus a Bastard, His Mother Mary an Adulteress
The reality, writes Celsus, is that Jesus was a sorcerer and his mother Mary was an adulteress who had deceived her husband Joseph and conceived her child by a Roman soldier called Panthera.  ‘He invented his birth from a virgin.  His mother was a poor woman of the country who was thrown out of her home by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; and after being driven away by her husband and wandering about for a time she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitmate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having acquired there some magical powers on which the Egyptians pride themselves, returned to his own country where his sorcery won him a great following, by means of which he proclaimed himself a god’. 

There are indeed hints in the gospels that stories were going round in the lifetimes of Jesus and of Mary his mother saying that he was a bastard and she was an adulteress.  ‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?’, says Mark 6:3.  In Judaism a son would be identified by naming his father even if Joseph had been dead for a long while but Mark, who mentions every other member of the family, leave Jesus’ father unknown.  Nor does Mark mention Joseph in any other part of his gospel.  And in John 8:41 during a confrontation at the Temple the pharisees say to Jesus, ‘We be not born of fornication’, insinuating that he was. 

In The Illegitimacy of Jesus, scholar Jane Schaberg argues that Matthew and Luke knew a tradition that Jesus was conceived by a rape rather than by a virginal conception and did what they could to erase the truth in their gospels, Matthew by concentrating on Joseph’s dilemma and both Matthew and Luke by attributing the conception to the Holy Spirit. Schaberg, however, has simply made up the rape; as a Catholic and a feminist it seems that she prefers Mary to have been a man’s victim rather than a willing adulteress.  At any rate Celsus knew the story of Jesus’ illegitimacy which was in general circulation among Jews, Greeks and others. 

Origen in his Against Celsus replies to this charge of illegitimacy by writing, ‘Is it at all agreeable to reason, that he who dared to do so much for the human race ... should not have had a miraculous birth, but one the vilest and most disgraceful of all?’  From ‘an act of adultery between Panthera and the Virgin’, from ‘such unhallowed intercourse there must rather have been brought forth some fool to do injury to mankind, a teacher of licentiousness and wickedness and other evils; and not of temperance and righteousness and the other virtues’.  Celsus would not have been impressed by Origen’s circular reasoning, that because Jesus is the saviour of mankind then of course he would not have been the child of an adulterous relationship.  But for Origen there were two kinds of faith, that of simple people (simpliciores) who take scripture literally, and a more profound understanding which requires allegorical interpretation of the spiritual mysteries. The virgin birth was one such mystery. 

Mary the Mother of God
Origen understood that a vital defence against the charge that Jesus was a sorcerer and a bastard was to insist that Mary his mother was a virgin.  Origen further shored up the reputation of Mary the mother of Jesus by being the first to call her Theotokos, literally God-bearer in Greek, but mistranslated in the West as the Mother of God.  As no original copy has survived of Origen’s Commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans written in 246 in which Socrates of Constantinople, a fourth-century Byzantine historian, said Origen had used the term, some have questioned the authenticity of the claim.  But the term was certainly in use just a few years later, in about 250, when it was used by Dionysius, the patriarch of Alexandria, in an epistle to Paul of Samosata.  In about the same year Theotokos appeared in a Christian hymn in Egypt, preserved in a papyrus written in Greek and known in the West by its Latin title Sub Tuum Praesidium, literally Under Your Protection.  One of the oldest Christian hymns and certainly the oldest to Mary the mother of Jesus, it is used in the Coptic and Eastern Orthodox liturgies to this day as well as by Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans, and it has been rendered in Byzantine and Gregorian chants and in Mozart’s K198 Offertorio.

We fly to thy protection, O holy Mother of God; despise not our petitions in our necessities, but deliver us always from all dangers, O glorious and blessed Virgin.

The hymn states the theological doctrine that Mary the mother of Jesus is a virgin and the mother (or bearer) of the divine as chosen (blessed) by God.

Over the next century or so the use of Theotokos, or Mother of God, became widespread throughout the Church, East and West, and in 431 at the Council of Ephesus the matter was enforced: Mary the mother of Jesus was declared the Mother of God and those who disagreed were anathematised. 

Mary’s elevation to Mother of God was a remarkable transition for a woman who is close to being a nonentity in the gospels. The gospel of Mark mentions her only twice, once by name (6:3), the second time as the mother of Jesus without naming her (3:31).  The gospel of Matthew mentions her name five times, on four occasions in the infancy narrative (1:16,18,20; 2:11) but otherwise only once and by name (13:55).  The gospel of Luke mentions Mary twelve times by name but only within the infancy narrative (1:27,30,34,38,39,41,46,56; 2:5,16,19,34); otherwise Luke has nothing to say about Mary the mother of Jesus.  The gospel of John twice mentions Mary as the mother of Jesus, first at the marriage at Cana (2:1-12), which is the only time anywhere in the gospels that Jesus has a conversation with his mother, and a rather testy one at that; and on the second occasion at the foot of the cross (19:25) in the company of Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and the beloved disciple; but on neither occasion does he mention her name.  Finally in Acts Mary is mentioned once and by name. 

Strip away the infancy narratives and Mary the mother of Jesus is mentioned in the New Testament only six times and only three times by name.  Had the infancy narratives been there from the beginning, as part of the original composition, one would expect more mentions of Mary in the later parts of the gospels.  As Geza Vermes says in Jesus, ‘The ultimate proof that the birth story is not a natural introductory section of a biography is the absence of continuity between it and the rest of the Gospel’. 

In short we are left with the real possibility that the setting down of the infancy narratives with their claims of the virgin birth were a reaction to widespread criticisms and doubts as expressed by Celsus and others and also a response to the eclecticism of Christianity in Egypt.  In particular it was a reaction to gnosticism which spoke of the secret message that Jesus had to bring and which valued Mary Magdalene for her vision but was not interested in the crucifixion nor in apostolic succession nor in the virgin birth which gnostics regarded at best as naive misunderstandings, the delusions of this world of the demiurge from which gnostics wanted to escape.

But not only was Mary a virgin, she was a perpetual virgin, which Origen also argued early on.  Not that this is stated anywhere in the New Testament; indeed it is contradicted by the gospels themselves which mention four brothers by name, James, Joses, Judas and Simon, and at least two sisters (Matthew 13:55-56; Mark 6:3).  Moreover Matthew 1:25 says of Mary that Joseph ‘knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son’, with its implication that after ‘till’, that is after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary had conjugal relations and that she bore six more children.  But Origen explained these verses away by claiming that the children were Joseph’s from a previous marriage. That Joseph should not have to lead a chaste life with his virginal wife the fiction was invented that he was an old man who died early on, though again the gospels say absolutely nothing about his age; all we know is that Joseph does not appear after about Jesus’ twelfth year by when he could have fathered all Jesus’ sisters and brothers. 

In these arguments put forward by Origen in Egypt more than reason and even more than faith were at work; the arguments were driven by necessity, the need to establish conformity and authority within the Church in order to counter the heterodox nature of Egyptian Christianity.  By the fourth century Mary’s virginity before, during and after the birth of Jesus was almost universally accepted as was her status as the God-bearer, the Mother of God.