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Mary in the Bible (Part 5)

September 22, 2006

The “Firstborn” of Mary

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Preliminaries
Part 3: Mary in the Gospel of Mark
Part 4: Mary in the Gospel of Matthew

In the comment box of Mary in the Bible (Part 3): Mary in the Gospel of Mark the webmaster of Answering Catholicism repeats a common misunderstanding among many who attack the Catholic position on Mary’s lifelong virginity. The webmaster asserts the following:

Did you notice that the Bible calls Jesus the firstborn son of Mary? Why would the infallible Word of God call Jesus the Firstborn if He is supposed to be the last-born, as well as the one and only son of Mary? According to Catholic doctrine this can’t be. But I ask, how can Catholic doctrine call Mary a virgin until death when the Bible states the exact opposite numerous times?

And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son:” [Matthew 1:24,25] It seems rather plain. Joseph went ahead and did as the Angel told him to and married Mary. Then we see the Bible tells us Joseph “waited” to consummate the marriage “till she had brought forth her firstborn son” This easily proves Mary was no virgin. No matter how Roman Catholics twist and deny this It is easy to say that her “firstborn” actually means she had MORE. And that declares openly that she had children other than Jesus.

First, I find it humorous that the Bible is being used here like a geometry textbook: just cite the various lines, axioms and theories without any regard for where they came from and, presto!, you have proofs!

I believe that the webmaster of Answering Catholicism actually meant to cite Luke 2:6-7:

“While (Joseph and Mary) were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son.”

The word for “firstborn”, prototokos, does not even appear in Matthew 1:24-25. But we must not let this biblical blunder by the webmaster of Answering Catholicism to obfuscate the bigger issue: What does Luke mean by “firstborn” (prototokos)?

As I have said numerous times, we must consider the Bible in its entirety when we really want to understand isolated passages. If we do not, then we end up interpreting the Bible wrongly or reading-in our own understanding of contemporary English words into an text written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. This is the error of Answering Catholicism. The problem with the webmaster’s analysis is that he does not read the entire Bible, but focuses on one word, “firstborn”, which he doesn’t understand biblically but idiosyncratically. Allow me to elaborate.

Anyone who has at least skimmed the Old Testament would recognize the word “firstborn”. It’s a very common term used throughout Scripture. The New Testament Greek uses the word prototokos to translate the Hebrew term bekur, which means “firstborn”. The best policy, at least in my opinion, is to let the Bible do the talking.

“Firstborn” appears in many Old and New Testament passages: Gen 27; Ex 4:22, 13:2; Nm 3:12-13; Dt 21:15-17; Ps 89:28; Pr 8:22; Jer 31:9). We need only look to the Bible for an understanding of what Luke means by “firstborn”.

The title “firstborn” in the Old Testament indicated a primacy and a power of rank, as well as divine favor in love. Israel, God’s chosen people, is His son and “first-born” (Ex 4:22; cf. Jer 31:9). The pre-Levitical priesthood is made up of “every first-born that opens the womb among the Israelites” (Ex 13:1). Every “first-born son must be redeemed” (Ex 13:13), which is why Moses says, “This is why I sacrifice to the Lord everything of the male sex that opens the womb, and why I redeem every first-born male” (Ex 13:15). The Lord God declares of David, king and magistrate, “I myself make him firstborn, Most High over the kings of the earth” (Ps 89:28). The “firstborn” holds specific rights above his “siblings” (Dt 21:17).

“Firstborn” does not have anything to do with parents having later children. Does calling Israel God’s “firstborn” indicate that God had other nations for children? Are we to assume that the “firstborn” that God calls to be redeemed and set apart as priests in Exodus 13 only includes those men who have younger siblings? Does David’s title as God’s “firstborn” (remember, David was the youngest of his human family!!!) indicate that God later adopted other children?

To answer these questions in the affirmative is absurd, just as it is absurd to think that Jesus’ title as the “firstborn” of Mary implies or ‘easily proves’ that Mary was the mother of other later children. The Scripture is very clear. The term “firstborn” (Greek: prototokos, Hebrew: bekur) describes either a unique relationship with the mother (the one who opens her womb – Ex 13) or a unique relationship with God (as the chosen, privileged and priestly – Ex 4:22; Dt 21:17; Ps 89:28). In the case of Christ, he is both the one who opens the womb of Mary (Mt 1:18-25; Lk 1:26-2:7) and is the privileged, sovereign King under God (Pr 8:22; 1 Cor 15:20; Col 1:15-18).

If we are to be biblical Christians, then we really ought to interpret the Bible on the Bible’s terms, not our own. “Firstborn” is one of the most common words in Scripture, and its meaning is quite plain from the text. Christ is the “firstborn” of Mary because it was he who opened her womb, which goes along with being the first child of any mother. Luke, who has a very exalted view of Mary (which I will begin expounded on in Part 6 of this series), is striving to identify Jesus with his Virgin mother and not with Joseph, his foster father, when Luke 2:6-7.

It’s not that Catholicism doesn’t know the Bible. On the contrary, it’s that it knows the whole Bible, and it knows the Bible well.

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