The Calvinist theologian Peter Leithart has a fascinating (but incorrect) article on the perpetual virginity over at First Things. There is much to praise about the short piece. First, he’s asking the right question. As the article’s teaser puts it, “why didn’t Joseph have sex with Mary during her pregnancy?” So many Protestants focus on the fact that they believe St. Joseph and the Virgin Mary did have sex after Christmas that they ignore the explicit Biblical evidence that they didn’t have sex before (Matthew 1:25). Second, much of Leithart’s answer is correct, and points to the radical Biblical truth about the Virgin Mary. Finally, even when Leithart’s argument goes off the rails, he shows his work, so it’s easy enough to see how he goes wrong.
I want to really unpack his short article. In doing so, I’m going to make two side-points: one on St. Joseph and “the Numinous,” and one on the Abomination of Desolation. For brevity’s sake, feel free to skip these points. I find them interesting, but they’re not critical to the argument. You can also skip section IV, since it’s responding to a sort of throwaway argument on Leithart’s part, that saying Joseph and Mary didn’t have sex “until” the birth of Christ, St. Matthew is implying that they did afterwards. I responded at greater length simply because it’s one of the most common arguments against Mary’s perpetual virginity.
Joseph did not know his wife until she gave birth to a Son (Matthew 1:25). Why not?
In Matthew’s account, the conception of Jesus is attributed to the “Holy Spirit” (1:20), and Luke makes it explicit that the one conceived by the Holy Spirit is Himself holy: “the holy thing begotten shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
So far, so good. This might all seem like obvious so far, but again: how often do we see Protestant theologians even asking this question?
Joseph might have reasoned: Since Mary was inhabited by the Spirit, and by the Holy One conceived by the Spirit, she was, or at least her womb was, holy space. If she is holy space, he cannot have sex with her, since by the rules of Torah sex defiled both the man and the woman (Leviticus 15:18). Having sex with Mary during her pregnancy would have been like a leper or a menstruant entering the temple of God. It would have been like having sex in the temple court itself.
This is a great point, tainted by an inaccurate understanding of how the Jews understood sex. So let’s leave that bit about “defiling” to one side for now, and focus on what he does well.
We Catholics often focus on the fact that Mary seems to have taken some vow of perpetual virginity prior to her encounter with the angel Gabriel. Hence her odd question to the angel, in which she boggled at the possibility of pregnancy by asking, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34 KJV).
Let me say a few words on that before returning to Leithart’s argument, and what I think it adds to the discussion. Luke 1:34 is a passage that many Christians misunderstand. They assume that Mary and Joseph couldn’t have had sex at the time of the Annunciation, because they were only “betrothed.” But the Jewish kiddushin was quite different from an American engagement. As Dr. Lynn Cohick (a Protsetant professor of the New Testament at Wheaton College and Northern Seminary) explains in Christianity Today:
Mary was betrothed to Joseph, which was a legally binding arrangement in the Jewish culture. All that awaited the couple was the wedding. If they engaged in sexual intercourse with each other, that was not seen as a violation of any cultural norm. Later rabbinic writings allowed that a future groom who had sexual relations with his bride-to-be at her father’s house was not guilty of immoral behavior.
The Bible agrees with this, which is why Matthew 1:19 already refers to Joseph as her “husband,” and says that he contemplated “divorce.” You’ll note that Mary was also regularly in the Temple (Luke 2:22-27, 41-52), which would have been impossible if she were (or was believed to be) a fornicator.
So Mary and Joseph could have been having sex and yet weren’t. Why not? Leithart’s argument doesn’t really give a good answer (and virtually any good answer would point to Mary’s perpetual virginity). But he does add another reason for her perpetual virginity: “holy” means “set apart,” and there are certain objects, places, and even people who are set aside for God as holy. To have sex with her, to treat her like she wasn’t set apart specifically for God, would literally profane her (a term coming from the Latin profanus, meaning “outside the temple, not sacred”).
The Bible also agrees with this. Luke describes Mary using the language of the Ark of the Covenant (compare Luke 1:39-56 and 2 Samuel 6:2-14) and the Temple (compare Luke 1:26-33 and 2 Sam. 7:11-16; the Church Fathers also saw Ezekiel 44:1-2 as referring to Mary as the Temple Gate), and in the span of two verses, the Book of Revelation refers to the Ark, the Temple, and the Mother of God (Revelation 11:19-12:1).
Sidebar: St. Joseph and the Numinous
Leithart’s explanation explains a strange thing that the angel says to St. Joseph. When people encounter angels or the glorified Christ, they often are depicted as experiencing a particular kind of fear. For example, Mark describes St. Peter’s reaction to the Transfiguration by saying “he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid” (Mark 9:6). And the Apostles’ reaction to the Resurrection: “they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). C.S. Lewis uses the term “Numinous” to describe this sort of awe-filled fear:
Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a mighty spirit in the room,” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words “Under it my genius is rebuked.” This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.
The glorified Jesus and the angels respond to this by telling people not to be afraid. So, for example, the angels at the Empty Tomb begin their proclamation of Easter by telling the women, “Do not be afraid” (Matthew 28:5). Jesus begins the exact same way in Matthew 28:10.
Gabriel says it when he appears to Zechariah in Luke 1:13, and (after saluting her as “full of grace”) says it to Mary in Luke 1:30. The angels say when they appear to the shepherds in Luke 2:10. Jesus says it when He appears to St. Paul in a vision (Acts 18:9), as does the angel in Acts 27:24. That’s the general pattern. But there’s a fascinating partial-exception. When the angel appears to St. Joseph in a dream, he says (Matthew 1:20-21), “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
You might expect the angel to calm St. Joseph’s numinous fear towards being in the presence of an angel of the Lord. But Joseph’s numinous fear is towards…. having Mary as a wife. I’d suggest that there’s something of a parallel between this and Luke 5, when Peter catches a glimpse of Who Jesus Is, and is suddenly terrified (Luke 5:8-10):
But when Simon Peter saw it [the miraculous catch of fish], he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zeb′edee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.”
St. Peter wanted to send Jesus away, because Peter was aware of his own unworthiness. That, not suspicion of adultery, seems to be why Joseph wanted to send Mary away. As a good Jew, Joseph would have known that a Virgin birth was possible (Isaiah 7:14). What we’re seeing isn’t mistrust of Mary, but a holy fear, like that of the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 6:6: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Joseph wants to send her away because he knows he’s sinful, and thus, he’s not worthy of being married to the Mother of God, and it’s that fear that the angel comforts.
[the rules of Torah sex defiled both the man and the woman (Leviticus 15:18)…]
(In the new covenant, we are all inhabited by the Spirit, all “saints.” Does this mean that sex is forbidden? No: Sex no longer defiles, since all have been purified by Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice.)
Leithart’s argument starts to go badly awry here, and for two reasons. First, he seems to be conflating ritual uncleanliness with sin. Jesus warns against the conflation in Mark 7. The chapter opens with the scribes and Pharisees shocked after they “saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed” (Mark 7:1-2). Jesus ultimately responds by saying that “there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him. […] For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man” (Mark 7:15, 21-23). And Mark tells us in Mark 7:19 that in this way, “he declared all foods clean,” even before His once-for-all sacrifice.
But ritual uncleanliness is different from sin, including the sin of profanation. Being a leper isn’t in the same category as having sex in the Temple. St. Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 6:13b-20 by using the fact that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit to argue against spiritual defilement.
Second, Leithart is making a false equivalency. Jesus is the Son of God, and we are sons (and daughters) of God, but in different ways. What’s fitting to Jesus as Son of God (e.g., divine worship) isn’t necessarily fitting to us as sons of God. Likewise, Mary is the Temple of the Holy Spirit and had Jesus Christ dwelling with her, and we do, but in different ways. Leithart’s own argument betrays this false equivalency. Mary prior to the Annunciation is already a holy woman. The angel Gabriel greets her by saying “Hail, full of grace” (Luke 1:28), and she’s not even pregnant yet. So Mary, prior to the Annunciation is already a temple of the Holy Spirit in the sense of being holy. Something radically different and more happens to her at the Annunciation.
Logically, there are two implications of Leithart’s argument: (a) that prior to Good Friday, it would be unholy to have sex with a Saint, since he or she is filled with the Holy Spirit; and (b) that after Good Friday, it would be morally permissible to have sex in the Temple. Both of these are obviously false.
If this is the reasoning, it sheds some light on the question of perpetual virginity. Matthew’s phrasing implies that Joseph did have sex with Mary after Jesus was born, and the reasoning above would imply the same.
The first problem with this grammatical argument is that it assumes that the connotations of the English “until” are the exact same as the Greek ἕως (heōs). In English, saying that something didn’t happen “until X” generally means that it happened at X. That’s not always true, even in English. For example, if I say that someone kept his good spirits “right up until the end of his life,” I might mean that he lost those good spirits at the end of his life, but I might mean the opposite. But generally, I say “I didn’t eat until 7,” I mean that I ate at 7.
That can’t be the case for Matthew 1:25. It says that Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son.” Taken in the normal way we take “until,” this would mean that Joseph and Mary had sex on Christmas. Jerome points out that “there was no place suitable for married intercourse in the inn.” More importantly, we know that Mary observed the traditional 40-day Jewish period of ritual purification after giving birth to a son (Leviticus 12:2-4; Luke 2:22). So it’s just not possible that she “knew” St. Joseph immediately after giving birth.
So both Protestants and Catholics should start from the admission that Matthew 1:25 can’t mean what it appears to mean at our first glance of the English. Otherwise, as St. Jerome points out, we’d have to conclude that Mary and St. Joseph consummated their marriage in a barn on Christmas, meaning that “the mother must go unpurged from her child-bed taint, and the wailing infant be attended to by the midwives, while the husband clasps his exhausted wife.” But even this isn’t possible: that there was no midwife is clear from the fact that Mary swaddled the Christ Child herself (Luke 2:7). Besides, Mary and Joseph were quickly joined by the shepherds (Luke 2:16).
Significantly, the Greek heōs is more flexible than the English “until.” When Jesus says to the Disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:36, “Sit here, while I go yonder and pray,” guess which Greek term is being translated as “while”? If you guessed anything other than heōs, you’re a surprisingly bad guesser. And notice that Jesus isn’t saying “sit here until I go and prayer, and then fall asleep.” When the Disciples do fall asleep, He rebukes them for it (Mt. 26: 41, 44-45). So perhaps it’s not surprising that the modern Protestant argument that heōs means that Mary and Joseph had sex after the birth of Christ didn’t impress the early Christians who actually spoke Greek.
The fourth century Church Father St. Jerome (fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) gives several Biblical counter-examples from both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures in which the Biblical authors use a measure of time without suggesting that it’s a hard limit. For example,
- In Isaiah 46:4, God says, “even to your old age I am He, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.” But of course, God remains God even after that.
- In Matthew 28:20, Jesus says, ” I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Jerome comments, “Will the Lord then after the end of the world has come forsake His disciples, and at the very time when seated on twelve thrones they are to judge the twelve tribes of Israel will they be bereft of the company of their Lord?”
- In 1 Corinthians 15:25, St. Paul says that Christ “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” But He doesn’t stop reigning then. As Revelation 11:15 shows, that’s just the beginning: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign for ever and ever.”
- Psalm 123:2 says that “our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he have mercy upon us.” But of course, we don’t stop looking to Him when He’s merciful towards us.
- Deuteronomy 34:5-6 says that Moses was buried “in the land of Moab opposite Beth-pe′or; but no man knows the place of his burial to this day. ” And we still don’t know where Moses is buried.
Temples are holy only when the Holy One inhabits them. Once Yahweh abandoned the temple, it was an empty shell for demolition and burning. If Mary was holy because the Holy One lived in her, then His birth exodus from her body would have ended her temporary holiness. She would have reverted to normal “common” status. And Joseph would have known her as his wife.
Joseph refrained from sex with Mary because she was the ark, bearing the glory; but only for nine months.
This is the most important part of Leithart’s whole argument. You might have been wondering, “if Leithart recognizes that the Virgin Mary’s womb was a sacred space in which the Incarnation of Christ occurred, and Mary was herself the Temple of the Holy Spirit, how could he possibly disbelieve in Mary’s perpetual virginity?” It’s because he thinks that the Temple was only holy when the Holy of Holies was present, and was otherwise an “empty shell” fit for “demolition and burning.”
As I said, credit to Leithart for showing his work. Many Protestants seem to assume this, but few say it so explicitly. As it happens, this assumption is totally false.
Due to the Israelites’ sin, the Glory of the LORD did depart the First Temple shortly before its destruction. This is recounted in Ezekiel 10, and v. 18 says that “the glory of the Lord went forth from the threshold of the house.” And yet the Temple continues to be referred to as “the house of the Lord” (for example, in Ez. 11:1). In fact, even after the First Temple is entirely destroyed, the Jews continue to offer sacrifices at the Temple site and to speak of the Temple as though it exists: both Jeremiah 41:4-5 and Baruch 1:10 bear witness to this fact. At no point did the Jews just treat the site as a garbage dump, and it would have been a profanation for them to do so.
Likewise, in 2 Kings 13:21, we hear of a dead man brought back to life simply from touching the prophet Elisha’s bones. These sort of relics are impossible in Protestantism: by Leithart’s logic, whatever holiness was attached to Elisha should have dissipated upon his death, leaving his body as an empty shell for demolition and burning.
In his reply to Helvidius, St. Jerome shows how implausible it is that St. Joseph would have treated Mary like an empty an unholy shell after she gave birth to Our Lord:
We are to believe then that the same man who gave so much credit to a dream that he did not dare to touch his wife, yet afterwards, when he had learned from the shepherds that the angel of the Lord had come from heaven and said to them, “Be not afraid: for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people, for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord;” and when the heavenly host had joined with him in the chorus [Luke 2:14] “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men of good will;” and when he had seen just Simeon embrace the infant and exclaim, “Now let your servant depart, O Lord, according to your word in peace: for my eyes have seen your salvation;” and when he had seen Anna the prophetess, the Magi, the Star, Herod, the angels; Helvidius, I say, would have us believe that Joseph, though well acquainted with such surprising wonders, dared to touch the temple of God, the abode of the Holy Ghost, the mother of his Lord?
Leithart has, bafflingly, treated the Nativity of Christ like the Lord abandoning the Temple in Ezekiel 10. The abandonment of the Temple happened because of the gross sinfulness of the people; the birth of Our Lord was nothing like that. But even in the case of Ezekiel 10, the Temple didn’t stop being the house of the Lord. Even when it was destroyed, the site stayed holy.
Sidebar: The Abomination of Desolation
Finally, consider the “abomination of desolation” in Daniel 9:27. The initial fulfillment of this passage occurred in 167 B.C., when Antiochus Epiphanies built an altar to Zeus on the altar of burnt offerings (an event recounted in 1 Maccabees 1:54). In Matthew 24:15, Jesus applies this verse to refer to the destruction of the Second Temple (Mt. 24:2) and also apparently the end of the world (Mt. 24:3). Christ’s connection between the desolating sacrifice and the destruction of Jerusalem is clearer in light of the parallel passage in Luke 21:20, “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near.”
But here’s the thing: the Temple was in disuse when the first abomination of desolation happened in 167 B.C., and the glory of the Lord departed before the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. The Jewish historian Josephus records the departure of the Glory of the Lord in a remarkable passage in Book VI of Of the War:
[O]n the one and twentieth day of the month Artemisius, [Jyar,] a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable; were it not related by those that saw it; and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals. For, before sun setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armour were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities. Moreover, at that feast which we call Pentecost; as the priests were going by night into the inner [court of the] temple, as their custom was, to perform their sacred ministrations, they said, that in the first place they felt a quaking, and heard a great noise: and after that they heard a sound, as of a multitude, saying, “Let us remove hence.”
That is, shortly before the Romans entered, the Glory of the Lord departed the Temple, in what seems to have been a direct fulfillment of Christ’s prophecies. Only after this do the Romans enter and desecrate the Temple:
And now the Romans, upon the flight of the seditious into the city, and upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the buildings round about it, brought their ensigns to the temple, and set them over-against its eastern gate. And there did they offer sacrifices to them: and there did they make Titus Imperator with the greatest acclamations of joy.
Josephus concludes “And thus was Jerusalem taken, in the second year of the reign of Vespasian, on the eighth day of the month Gorpeius [Elul] [A.D. 70]. It had been taken five times before: though this was the second time of its desolation.”
Why do I bring this up? Because if Leithart was right, then then the Romans didn’t desecrate the Temple, since the Glory of the LORD had already departed. It was just “an empty shell for demolition and burning,” and that’s exactly how the Romans treated it. But of course, that’s not how the Jews understood the holiness of the Temple at all; and more importantly, it’s not how Jesus Christ describes the holiness of the Temple.
At heart, Leithart’s making three arguments:
- Mary’s body became a “holy space” in bearing the Incarnate Christ;
- As such, it would have been a profanation for St. Joseph to have sex with her; and
- This holiness only continued until the birth of Christ.
The first of this is true, although it ignores the way that Mary was already “full of grace” prior to the Incarnation. The second is true, and a good insight. The third is wrong, and clearly so. It’s a bad way of viewing Mary’s dignity, particularly her maternal dignity, and a bad way of understanding holiness or consecration in general. Once you account for this error, Leithart’s actually presented quite a case for Mary’s perpetual virginity.