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Mary in the Bible (Part 4)

September 21, 2006

Mary in Galatians and the Gospel of Matthew

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Preliminaries
Part 3: Mary in the Gospel of Mark

Leaving no stone unturned, I will now turn to two other New Testament books that mention Mary in various capacities. While Luke and John provide more substantial reflections on Mary’s role in salvation, I would be remiss if I were to fail to look over Paul’s Letter to the Galatians and the Gospel of Matthew.

Let’s begin with Paul. Paul refers to Mary in Galatians 4:4 where he writes of Jesus: “(God’s) Son, born of a woman, born under the Law”. The phrase “born of a woman” (genomenon ek gynaikos) is a Jewish expression used to indicate human condition (cf. Job 14:1; Mt 11:11; Lk 7:28). Thus, Paul’s fleeting mention of Mary is primarily intended to speak about Jesus’ complete human condition, born of a mother under the Law of Moses. Paul intends to say nothing directly about Mary in this passage.

This is no cause for alarm. Paul’s evangelical agenda centers on the death and resurrection of Jesus. If we depended completely on Paul for our knowledge of Jesus, then we would miss out on the entire life and ministry of the Lord. Providentially, Paul is not the last word on Christ. The four Gospel writers, the Evangelists, fill in our picture of Christ, the mission of the Twelve and Mary.

Turning now to the Gospel of Matthew, we encounter virtually the same passages on Mary and Jesus’ brothers as those mentioned in Mark. However, there are some passages on Mary that are unique to Matthew. Let’s start with the genealogy of Matthew 1.

Matthew includes four women within the genealogy of Jesus (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah). The precise intention behind the insertion of women in this Jewish genealogy is not certain, though their inclusion is unusual. What is common among these women is the fact that they each had irregular marriages. Perhaps Matthew intends to show that unusual marriages occurred in the genealogy of Solomon, which sets the stage for the unusual union of Mary and Joseph (Mt 1:16). Perhaps Matthew is hoping to assuage any concern over, or quell any objection to, the extraordinary and exceptional event of the Virginal Birth of Jesus (Mt 1:18-25). If it can be shown that the great Solomon came from a line of unusual, unorthodox marital unions, perhaps the unusual conception and birth of Jesus from within the marriage of Mary and Joseph would be better received among the Jews, Matthew’s intended audience.

Staying within the context of Matthew 1 and the Virgin Birth, Matthew 1:25 is frequently cited by those who dispute Mary’s lifelong virginity:

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but he knew her not until (heōs) she had born a son; and he called his name Jesus.

Does this verse, indeed, indicate that Mary and Joseph engaged in normal marital relations after the birth of Jesus? Not likely. The context of the entire genealogy and birth of Jesus centers on his legitimacy as the heir to the Davidic Messianic office. Matthew intends to portray Jesus as both the new Moses and the new David, descending from the royal line of David and Solomon, proclaiming a radical vision of the Kingdom that is not earthly. Matthew has no concern for Joseph or Mary beyond their lineage and their role as parents and guardians of Jesus. Thus, whether or not Mary and Joseph engaged in marital relations after the birth of Jesus is not an issue for Matthew.

Matthew seeks only to describe the extraordinary birth of Jesus from a virgin, thus fulfilling the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14 (“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be Emmanuel”). What Mary and Joseph did after this event is of no concern to the Evangelist. The Greek term that is translated “until” in Matthew 1:25 is heōs, a temporally restrictive term that is employed to indicate the limit of a period of time. In this case, Matthew wants to say that Mary conceived and bore Jesus as a Virgin. The limit which heōs imposes is the fulfillment of the Isaiah prophesy, after which Matthew shifts away from the Virgin Birth and into his Gospel narrative. It is important that we understand how meaning can be so easily lost through translation and outside context. We often interpret words of Scripture in terms of our modern language. In our case, “until” is commonly taking to note cessation of some action or timespan (I will sit here until I am called by the doctor). But the Greek heōs in Matthew 1:25 denotes the timespan from the betrothel of Joseph and Mary to the birth and naming of Jesus. Whatever happened to Mary after this time is unknown. Therefore, neither Catholics nor Protestants can use Matthew 1:25 as proof for their respective positions on Mary’s virginity after she gives birth to Jesus. The Greek of Matthew 1:24-25 simply does not permit us to conclude a thing on the matter.

Another commonly misunderstood verse is Matthew 12:46 (cf. Mk 3:31-35; Lk 8:8:19-21):

While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood outside, asking him to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brethren! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.’”

Does this passage indicate that Jesus had little regard for his own mother, that he is no longer concerned to honor familial relations because he now preaches a spiritual family with God as the Father? And if so, does this mean that Catholics honor a woman who Jesus would not honor himself? Perish the thought that our Lord would suddenly forget to observe the Third Commandment! In all seriousness though, this passage in Matthew follows the main theme of the Gospel: Jesus’ Messianic mission and kingship. Matthew desires to emphasis the spiritual reality of the Kingdom of God where all believers become adopted sons and daughters of God (cf. Rom 8:29; 1 Jn 3:1). And if Mary is indeed a believer who embraces the will of God, which Luke explicitly affirms in his Gospel (Lk 1:38), then Mary is indeed the mother of Jesus both by nature and in spirit!

In sum, the passages I have discussed in Matthew, Mark and Galatians point to Mary either directly or indirectly. However, each of these passages is focused on illuminating who Jesus is and what Jesus did. It is not the case that these passages discredit Mary’s role in Jesus life or minimize her role. Rather, these passages mention Mary only insofar as she can clarify certain aspects of Jesus’ life (i.e. his birth and mission). But let us remember that silence or scarcity does not necessarily entail irrelevance or marginalization. Returning to my earlier remarks on Paul’s silence on Jesus’ life and ministry, the Four Evangelists fill in the enormous gaps left by Paul. In similar fashion, what is lacking in detail on Mary in Mark and Matthew is remedied by Luke and John, both of whom have an understanding of Mary that surpasses anything given to us by all the other New Testament authors combined.

It is time now to shift gears. To this point I have only been discussing biblical passages that touch on Mary. Now I will turn to those passages that were written specifically to emphasize her person and function in salvation. The Gospel of Luke and its portrayal of Mary is the topic of the next posts.

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