Monday, July 8, 2013

There's Something About Mary, Part III: The Ret-Conned Mary

This is part 2 of a series investigating the Marian Doctrines of Catholicism.

Part 1:  Introduction
Part 2:  The Historical Mary
Part 3:  The Ret-Conned Mary
Part 4:  Doctrine 1 - Perpetual Virginity
Part 5:  Doctrine 2 - Theotokos
Part 6:  Doctrine 3 - Immaculate Conception
Part 7:  Doctrine 4 - Assumption
Part 8:  Doctrine 5 (proposed) - Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix
Part 9:  Conclusion


In the last post in this series, we began to study the historical Mariam of Nazareth. We saw that in the earliest documents available to us--both the Biblical and extra-Biblical--there is not even a hint of Mary remaining a virgin after giving birth to Jesus. In fact, quite a bit of the Biblical record makes by far the most sense when we follow the traditional, historian's approach to Mariam suggested in our last post.

However, obviously something has changed. Because by the year 1000, veneration of Mary is a central part of Catholic and Orthodox doctrine. Now it is tempting for Protestants to say that the whole thing started there in the Middle Ages...but that is not quite correct. Mary was important in the early church and was honored--though as we saw last week there is no solid evidence at all that indicates the apostolic Christian churches thought of her as ever-virgin.

So how did we get from a group of people who, late in Mary's life, saw her as an honorable Jewish mother of seven (or more), to a group of believers who see her as eternally virgin, conceived without sin, and taken into heaven?

The Growth of Mariology - the historical records

If we look into the historical records, let's track the growth of Mariology from where we left it in Part II (roughly 50 years after Jesus) to the modern Catholic conception of Mary. Then we shall see how the contradictions to the first 50 year documents (i.e., the New Testament) are explained or "ret-conned."

Below is the evidence--which both sides must explain!

30-33 AD:  Jesus' ministry and crucifixion

33-100 AD:  Apostolic Christianity
  • Mark's gospel introduces Jesus' mother (Mariam), four brothers, and unnamed "sisters." (Mk 6:3)
  • Matthew's gospel repeats what Mark says. (Mt 13:55)
  • Matthew says that Joseph kept Mary as a virgin until Jesus was born--implying he did not do so afterward. (Mt 1:24-25)
  • Matthew's gospel records an incident in which Jesus' "mother and brothers" stood outside while awaiting Him to finish a teaching to His disciples and the crowds. (Mt 12:46)
  • Paul is discussing why it is okay to have a believing wife, using leaders of the church as an example. He names as these leaders: "other apostles," "the Lord's brothers," and Cephas (Peter). Clearly he is separating the Lord's brothers as neither Peter nor the apostles, so he is not using the term brothers as simply meaning "fellow believers." (1 Cor 9:5)
  • Paul refers to James the Just as Jesus' brother. (Gal 1:19)
  • Luke records that Mary, Jesus' brothers, and Jesus' disciples gathered together for prayer after His death. (Acts 1:14)
  • John recorded that Jesus traveled with His "mother, brothers, and disciples"--again, indicating that the disciples are not the same as the brothers. (John 2:12)
  • John records that Jesus' brothers encourage Him to show His miracles so that people will believe Him. (John 7:3-10)
Note that no one else in this period or the next gets the title, "brother of the Lord" except for those named as His brothers in Mark 6:3. As we noted last week, the evidence of this period overwhelmingly suggests a view of Mariam as the mother of several children, remaining a virgin only until Jesus is born.

100-200 AD:  Post-Apostolic Christianity - the Apostle's followers become the leaders
  • 125 AD:  Hegesippus wrote that James, leader of the church of Jerusalem, was "the brother of the Lord."
  • 140-155 AD:  Justin Martyr compares and contrasts Eve and Mary, who were both virgins at the time where they made the choice of whether or not to follow God. He says nothing about her continuing to be a virgin.
  • 150 AD:  The Gospel of James (also called the Protoevangelium of James) is written, saying that Mary was a virgin before and after the birth of Jesus. It says that Joseph was an aging widower, that the other brothers of Jesus were His step-brothers from James' first marriage, and that Mary remained a Temple servant after Jesus' birth.
  • 189 AD:  Ireneus makes the same comment as Justin Martyr before: that Mary choosing obedience while a virgin ultimately led to the undoing of sin, which started when the virgin Eve chose disobedience. Again, nothing is said about how she lived afterward.
  • 200 AD:  Tertullian, in his writing On Monogamy, says that Mary awaited to marry until after the birth so that she would still be a virgin at the time of the birth. 
In the next hundred years of Christian history, most of the church writings follow in the same vein as before, never mentioning Mary as an ever-virgin.

The first one to do so is the Protoevangelium of James--a work that no one ever considered to be from the apostles, and no early churches considered Scriptural. This work describes how Mariam remained a virgin--but it did so by introducing a process wholly unknown to Judaism: the process described in this work is clearly taken from the Roman pagan religions and the vestal virgin tradition. It also contains statements which directly contradict the nativity story of the Gospels. No scholar of note (modern or historical) holds that this work is at all representative of actual events. Origen, writing about it a hundred years later, comments that it is a highly dubious document of "recent" appearance. 

200-300 AD:  Persecuted Period - heavy persecutions force most of the Church underground, a new generation of leaders
  • 235 AD:  Hippolytus compares Mary to the Ark of the Covenant--that the Ark carried the Law and Mary carried Grace via Jesus. Therefore, Hippolytus argues, Mary had to be free from sin and thus was conceived miraculously.
  • 244 AD:  Origen says that Mary remained pure and was a virgin even after Jesus' birth.
  • Other Christian leaders question this, including Tertullian, Euonimus, Helvisius, and Bonosus.

In this next period we see the first theologians begin to claim that Mary was ever-virgin and conceived without sex--though they do not do so by referring to some knowledge that they received from the apostles, or from Scripture. Rather, it is a theologically-derived idea: they believe that Jesus could not have been born of original sin unless the egg from Mary was also free of original sin, which they see as proof that she was conceived as a virgin as well. (Though why the same principle doesn't apply to her parents, and their parents, etc. on for eternity is not clear).

300-600 AD: Rise of Rome - the Roman church begins to take a leadership role as Christianity is made legal by the Roman Emperor
  • 354 AD:  Hilary of Poitiers argues that Jesus probably would have turned over care of Mary to his brothers instead of the Apostle John if they were truly his brothers; therefore Hilary concludes that they were step-brothers or cousins.
  • 361 AD:  Ephraim the Syrian writes a worship song saying that Mary is without stain of sin.
  • 387 AD:  Ambrose says that Mary was without sin
  • 415 AD:  Augustine repeats that he too does not doubt that Mary had to have been without sin in order to give birth to Jesus
  • 446 AD: Proclus says that Mary must have had no sin in order for Jesus to have no sin.
  • 521 AD: Jacob of Sarug argues that God had to pick the holiest and purest woman of all time to bear Jesus, and therefore Mary must be her.
The theological argument continues to grow over the next 300 years, repeating essentially the same argument but gathering a growing consensus. (Many others make the same argument besides those listed above. This is truly the period where Marialogy began)

600-1500:  The Medieval Period and Rise of Catholicism - During this period the Roman Catholic church as we know it rose into prominence, above all other churches. Mary's veneration went from being a debated subject to official doctrine.
  • 1476 AD:  Pope Sixtus IV establishes a feast celebrating Mary as immaculate (conceived without sin). 
  • 1400s AD:  Catholic leaders begin teaching Mary is a co-redemptrix of Christ.
Another 900 years pass, in which the belief changes from widespread to official doctrine of Catholicism

1500-2013:  Post-Reformation Catholicism
  • 1854:  Immaculate conception becomes official doctrine by Pope Pius IX
  • 1918:  Mary officially called Co-Redemptrix by Pope Pius X
  • 1950:  Pope Pius XII makes the Assumption official church doctrine

Over the 600 years afterward, we see it continue to gain prominence and the Marian doctrines we have today are formed.

Understanding the Timeline

I find that it is hard to picture the timeline of this. 300 AD seems close to 50 AD...when viewed from 2000 AD. But is it actually close in terms of developing historical doctrine?

Let's picture the American Revolution. Let's say that the common story of Betsy Ross sewing the flag is accurate. We don't know much more about Betsy Ross other than that story. Let's say that every historical document we have from 1776 until WWII (1943) all tell the same story. There is only one exception--a book written in 1893 says that Betsy Ross was an escaped slave who sewed the flag in a single night by candlelight. The book is full of other tall tales and is rejected by everyone at the time. Every other book from 1776-1943 repeats the same story.

Now let's say that a group of philosophers--without finding any evidence and based purely upon philosophical arguments--begin teaching that the escaped-slave-sewing-by-candlelight story is true. This starts a bit in the years from 1943-2043, but really doesn't gain steam until about the year 2076. Then this eventually becomes the widespread belief about Betsy Ross. a historian...which Betsy Ross story seems most legitimate? The one which didn't pop up at all for over 117 years (and only then in a book universally deemed to be "tall tales")? The one that didn't really become popular for over 300 years (and only then based upon philosophical argument, not based upon old teachings)?

Of course not. You, and I, would continue to believe in the original story in lieu of some actual evidence. 

Also do not miss one thing here: Catholics in general say that the Marian beliefs come from apostolic tradition (i.e., handed down through the generations through a God-protected process), rather than Scripture. Yet none of the earliest writers made such claims, and NO ancient writers who I am aware of claim that they received these through tradition. They knew at the time that this was a theologically derived belief, not one handed to them by the apostles (either by tradition or Scripture).

Mariam Gets Ret-Conned

As I mentioned in my book (seriously, how have you not read this??), ret-conning (or "retroactive continuity") is when we come up with a new explanation to try and rectify contradictions in a story. Episodes of Doctor Who contradict each other due to writer mistakes; therefore, later writers make up a new story which ties the seemingly contradictory events together into a new coherent story.

And the Catholics, of course, are faced with just such a concern with regard to Mary. On the one hand, you have the historical Mariam and the writings of the first 200 years of the church, which do not match any Marian Doctrine. And even when Marian doctrines do begin to develop about 300-400 years after Jesus died, the authors of such works never claim to have received this information from the apostles, but rather that it is a belief they have derived from their man-made theology.

So how to explain this drastic variance between the modern doctrinal teaching and the early church writings? Well, essentially the argument goes like this:

1.  All of the early church members knew these doctrines to be true, so they did not have to write it down.

2.  Though the Protoevangelium of James is wrong about most things and was rejected by writers, it is right in every regard relating to Mary's ever-virginity. 

3.  The writings referring to "brothers and sisters" either refer to: (a) cousins, (b) step-siblings, or (c) disciples in general.

4.  References to Mary and the sons/daughters might be referencing Mary, wife of Cleopas instead of Mariam.

5.  When the Bible says that Joseph kept Mary a virgin until Jesus was born, it is reading too much to assume that this means he did NOT keep her a virgin afterward.

Now I would disagree with all of these as being highly suspect, for the reasons below (#1 below answers #1 above, and so on):

1.  The early Christians being written to in the letters knew virtually nothing about Christianity--which was the entire point of the letter. Jesus' divinity and teachings are constantly having to be explained, yet it is just expected that everyone somehow knew these Marian doctrines in such detail that they did not warrant a single mention for over 200 years? Luke writes his Gospel specifically to fact-check the doctrines told to Theophilus, and spends more time talking about Mary than any other author--and still mentions none of it! Are we to believe that this is the only part Theophilus fully accepted? Are we to believe that he accepted Mary's virgin birth without another word, but required chapters of details to validate that Jesus' was legitimate? Really, this argument strains credulity.

2.  When your only scrap of evidence from the first 200 years of a supposed event is completely untrustworthy, this is a tough argument to make.

3.  It is noteworthy that this is an after-the-fact explanation--not one made until the aforementioned questionable document dated 117 years after the facts. It is a theology of convenience--it could theoretically be true, but there is no textual reason to believe it to be so: you only believe this if you are already trying to prove the Marian doctrines. No neutral scholars read it in such a way.

4.  In this case several passages make absolutely no sense. When Jesus contrasts His natural family with His spiritual family of disciples, that only makes sense if He is talking about people who in at least some way are actually His brothers and sisters. Furthermore, in many of these cases the Mary in question is explicitly identified in neighboring verses as being Jesus' mother.

5.  Again, this could be true--but the only reason to believe so is if you already believe in the Marian Doctrines.


Ultimately, I find the Marian ret-con to be unacceptable for four  reasons:

1.  The reasoning is circular: each of the ret-con points is believed in only if one already believes in the Marian Doctrines...therefore they cannot then be used as evidence of those doctrines.

2.  None of the earliest Christians espouse such a view, and even the early ones who do so admit that it is for theological/philosophical reasons, not due to something handed from the apostles (either Scripture or tradition). 

3.  Expanding on #2: the Marian doctrines developed not from a position of authority outward (such as apostolic tradition or Scripture).  Rather, they became popular among rank-and-file Catholics first, then with the theologians, and then became doctrine. This "grassroots doctrine-building" is commonplace in Catholicism (this blogger refers to it as the "common consensus of the faithful")--yet the fact that something is of widespread belief does not make it legitimately true. Our doctrines--particularly those which change the way we pray and worship--must be based on firmer stuff than just widespread belief.

4.  Ockham's Razor tells me that the simplest theology is probably the truest one: Mariam is exactly who the Gospels and letters and early works portray her to be, and thus I need make no assumptions or ret-conning at all to stay with my position.

One final comment: no matter how much I might respect Catholicism--and I do...indeed I often miss the ability the Catholics had of inspiring awe and wonder in their services--the Marian doctrines will always be a deal-breaker preventing me from returning. I find the Marian doctrines dangerous because if they are untrue, then they constitute idolatry in its most ungodly form: the elevation of a servant of God to being a co-Redeemer, co-sinless person. Mary, if these are true, is something much more than what the Gospels portray, and may well be worthy of being prayed to...but if they are not true, then to engage in these activities is blasphemous, idolatrous, and (frankly) heretical. 

For this reason, the burden of proof must be on the Catholics to provide actual evidence of their views--not just theological statements 300 years after the fact and ret-conning to avoid Scriptural concerns.

In the next posts, we will examine each of the Marian doctrines individually, and discuss what they mean, how they developed, and how we should approach them.

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