The Feast of the Presentation: a Smoking Gun for Mary’s Sinlessness

Hans Memling, The Presentation in the Temple (1463)

Do the Virgin Mary’s actions at the Feast of the Presentation prove or disprove her sinlessness? Here’s the passage in question (Luke 2:22-24):

And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they [Joseph and Mary] brought him  [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
As a Catholic, I think that this passage shows Mary’s unique role in salvation. Both she and Jesus are submitting to the Law, even though they are each rightfully free of it. Protestants typically see it quite differently, as a smoking gun debunking Mary’s sinlessness. Here’s how Matt Slick of CARM put it:

Roman Catholics teach that Mary never sinned. But, if that is the case, why did she need to offer an atonement according to Old Testament Law (Lev. 12:1-8) after giving birth to Jesus? According to the Old Testament, it was only the mother who needed purifying after a birth because of the issue of blood. She was ritually unclean. If she had a male child, the days of her period of uncleanness was seven days, then the child was circumcised, then she remained unclean for 33 days (v. 4), for a total of 40 days. If she bore a female child, her period of uncleanness would be 14 days plus 66 days for a total of 80 days. Notice in Leviticus 12:2 it says if she bears a male child she shall be unclean for seven days. If Mary was sinless how could she also be unclean?

One answer would simply be that ritual impurity isn’t the same as sin. Everything from touching a dead body to menstruating led to ritual impurity, but those things aren’t sins. Christ Himself sat to eat without ritually washing (Luke 11:37-38), and He was pretty explicit in denouncing obsessing over ritual impurity, and conflating it with sin (see, e.g., Matthew 15:1-3, 10-20; Luke 11:37-41).

But I think that Luke 2 is a smoking gun… but for the Catholic side. Let me show what I mean.

There’s no question that Luke 2 needs to be read alongside Leviticus 12, since Luke quotes the chapter directly to explain why this sacrifice is being offered. Protestants are right to see the two passages are connected. So let’s start with that passage, Leviticus 12:2-8:

“Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed. But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.

“And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her; then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.”

So far, it sounds like the Protestant side is right. But here’s where it gets fascinating. Leviticus 12:2 is being translated very loosely here, as it is in many other English-language Bibles, in saying that the sin offering applies whenever “a woman conceives, and bears a male child.” It doesn’t say that. The Hebrew literally says that it applies if “a woman receives seed, and bears a male child.” The Hebrew is clear here:

  1. In prophesies about the Virgin Birth, like Isaiah 7:14, the word used is hareh, which means “pregnant.”
  2. In Leviticus 12:2, that’s not the verb used. Rather, it’s zara’, which means “to sow,” or “to receive seed.” For example, this is the verb used for sowing in Genesis 47:23 and Exodus 23:10. In both Hebrew and English, 

In other words, Leviticus 12 only applies to a woman if she’s inseminated. The KJV gets this right, but most translations use the more polite “conceives.” Normally, that’s no big deal. Here, it’s huge, because Mary conceives Jesus, but she was never inseminated.

John Opie, The Presentation in the Temple 

This means that regardless of your views on Mary’s perpetual sinlessnessLeviticus 12 clearly doesn’t apply to Mary, simply due to the Virgin Birth. This is huge. It means that Mary was free of this legal burden by right, but we still see her freely submitting to it. St. Bede the Venerable (672-735 A.D.) mentioned this in a homily:

Mary, God’s blessed mother and a perpetual virgin, was, along with the Son she bore, most free from all subjection to the law. The law says that a woman who “had received seed” [Lev 12:2] and given birth was to be judged unclean and that after a long period she, along with the offspring she had borne, were to be cleansed by victims offered to God. So it is evident that the law does not describe as unclean that woman who, without receiving man’s seed, gave birth as a virgin. Nor does it teach that she had to be cleansed by saving sacrificial offerings. But as our Lord and Savior, who in His divinity was the one who gave the law, when He appeared as a human being, willed to be under the law…. So too His blessed mother, who by a singular privilege was above the law, nevertheless did not shun being made subject to the principles of the law for the sake of showing us an example of humility. 

If this is right, and the Scriptures seem pretty clear, it’s huge. It means that Mary voluntarily submits to the Law along with her Divine Son, playing a singular role in salvation. Once you understand this simple fact about Mary: that she plays a unique role in salvation, which is why she freely submitting to a Law she was free from, you can understand how she was able to die prior to the Assumption, despite being free from original sin.

Simeon, the prophet that they’re visiting in the Presentation, refers to Mary’s unique role in salvation, saying to her (Luke 2:34-35):

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.

This is somewhat cryptic language, admittedly, but it points to Mary’s singular role in accompanying her Son in His Passion. St. Ephraim the Syrian says that the sword that passes her soul is the flaming sword held by the cherubim barring the way to Eden and to the tree of life (Genesis 2:24). That certainly seems fitting: that the New Eve, by her obedience, re-opening the door that the old Eve barred by her disobedience.

24 Comments

  1. Protestants target Mary, the Mother of God, because of their hatred of the full truth, which is theone holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

    1. “hatred of the full truth”? I will not dare speak for all “Protestants” on this issue, but I can speak from my own experience and heart. First, it is hard for people to understand practices of piety that they do not grow up with. It was (still is) hard for me to understand the fine line between worship and veneration of Mary that I see in the Roman church. Second, Mary is not the main star of the gospels. Jesus is clearly the star of the gospels. There are some passages that portray Mary as a very real Jewish mother. How does Jesus treat Mary in Luke 11:27-28?

      The underlying principle to my post is to treat the Bible with more esteem than the church fathers. There is a clear development in veneration of Mary from the time of Jesus to us today. It is not static. There is an ebb and flow with a clear building from the early church fathers through the Middle ages. The easy thing is to drop the “Doctrine of Perpetual Virginity of Mary” down as a hammer to crush any serious discussion or inquiry. The messy truth is that Mary is not always treated the same way in the Bible as she was in Lyon in 1122 AD. The early church fathers did not treat her the same was as people in Mexico treat Our Lady of Guadalupe do today. I am sure that Joe will have some eloquent explanation for how it is the same through all time, but the reality is that doctrines develop (Joe might say the church “clarifies” doctrine over time) and practices change over time.

    2. How does Jesus treat Mary in Lk 11:27-28 –

      27 As he said this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” 28 But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

      Go back to Luke chapter one –

      38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

      Mary is the prime example of “those who hear God’s word and keep it.” Jesus isn’t disrespecting Mary, if he was he’d be sinning against the fourth commandment (honor thy father and mother). We know Jesus wasn’t sinning b/c He is like us in all things EXCEPT sin.

      You are right that doctrines develop, in the sense that the Church understands them more fully with time, but doctrines do not change. We never can go from believing Mary to be sinless to believing she sinned (as Protestantism has done, Luther believed in Mary’s sinlessness).

      You can read more on why Mary must be sinless here – http://adoroergosum.blogspot.com/2014/01/was-mary-born-without-sin.html

    3. Please allow me to apologize for my sweeping statement about Protestants. It’s unacceptable for me to take some of my experiences with Protestants and apply them to all Protestants. I can certainly understand what you mean when you say that if you don’t grow up with a certain understanding, then one may be wary of it. What I will say regarding the rest of your post is that if anyone says Mary is the “star” of the Gospels, they are wrong, and I don’t know of any Catholic that would say otherwise. Secondly, Mary is a very real mother. That shouldn’t be in dispute either. Finally, the Bible doesn’t discount or disprove anything the Church Fathers are saying. Mary is, however, the tabernacle of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ. And how much more precious, protected and venerated is it demanded that she be than the tabernacle of the Old Covenant which only a High Priest under very restricted circumstances was able to enter for the offering?

  2. Hi Joe. Thanks for engaging my objection with your post on John 6. After further reflection, I agree that it does teach the Real Presence. Also, that quote from Ignatius I presented doesn’t count toward a metaphorical view; he seems to be teaching the Real Prescence in the Letter to the Smyrnaeans.

  3. AWESOME find Joe!!

    I looked this passage up in some Protestant commentaries, and even though I found no references to Mary specifically, I did find this in John Calvin’s Commentaries:

    =============
    2. If a woman have conceived seed. … For although Moses seems only to speak of the mother, St. Luke [2:22], his faithful interpreter, includes also the infant. [Harmony of the Law, Volume 1 – Leviticus 12.]
    =============
    22. And after that the days were fulfilled On the fortieth day after the birth, (Leviticus 12:2,4,) the rite of purification was necessary to be performed. But Mary and Joseph come to Jerusalem for another reason, to present Christ to the Lord, because he was the first-born. Let us now speak first of the purification. Luke makes it apply both to Mary and to Christ: for the pronoun αὐτῶν, of them, can have no reference whatever to Joseph. But it ought not to appear strange, that Christ, who was to be, made a curse for us on the cross,” (Galatians 3:13,) should, for our benefit, take upon him our uncleanness with respect to legal guilt, though he was “without blemish and without spot,” (1 Peter 1:19.) It ought not, I say, to appear strange, if the fountain of purity, in order to wash away our stains, chose to be reckoned unclean. [Commentary on Luke 2:22]
    =============

    It turns out, in many translations Luke 2:22 is rendered: “And when the time came for *their* purification,” which is speaking of more than just Mary, but also Jesus. So Matt Slick was wrong to say, “it was only the mother who needed purifying,” as even John Calvin rejects this.

    This detail would mean the one mention of “purification” applies to both, and thus logically if it was a voluntary purification then it was voluntary to both Jesus and Mary. If it was a necessary purification, then it implies Jesus had sin/guilt along with Mary. I think the ‘insemination’ argument is more cool/solid though.

    One ‘dodge’ I can envision a Protestant making is that they could say Mary didn’t need purification because all/part of the causing the woman to be unclean is the child, and since Jesus was clean, Mary didn’t become unclean (at least in this instance). But Leviticus seems to imply it’s not just the child/seed that causes uncleanliness, so that dodge doesn’t necessarily work.

  4. Protestant Greek scholar Dr Daniel Wallace has a brief article on Luke 2:22 and firmly concludes based on the manuscript evidence: “In sum, the evidence for the feminine singular is virtually non-existent, while the masculine singular αὐτοῦ was a clear scribal blunder. There can be no doubt that “their purification” is the authentic reading.”

    Interestingly, Wallace doesn’t really go onto explore “their” meaning Mary & Jesus, and instead focuses on Mary & Joseph. But the Mary & Jesus reading makes the most sense, especially because included in this ritual is Jesus’ circumcision.

    From Googling around, it appears this “their” issue is pretty well known among scholars, some of whom unfortunately conclude Luke must have been wrong to say “their” :-p

    1. Nick, good use of Dr. Wallace’s work. I have noticed that many great scholars will bring up points, like the one you made above, but they do not fully explore, explain, or research the point. My personal belief is that the scholars are more focused upon a later point and spend most of their time and writing on that later point. Too bad because I am sure we would all love to hear a more full explanation!

    2. Nick and Rev. Hans,

      Good discussion on this point. I have a theory about this. We’ve already seen, from the above post, that Leviticus 12 applied by right only to a woman who conceives and gives birth in the natural way, and that Jesus and Mary voluntarily submit to a Law that they are, by right, free from.

      This fact, I think, ties in very well with both Luke’s shift in grammar and the animals sacrificed. Leviticus 12 calls for a lamb and either a pigeon or turtledove. For the poor, like the Holy Family, an exception is allowed; they can sacrifice two pigeons or turtledoves instead.

      The Fathers, in their commentary, tend to focus on Luke’s decision to purposely omit whether it was pigeons or turtledoves (both animals are symbolic). But I think it’s extremely significant that, as in every account of the Last Supper, the sacrificial lamb is absent. Why? Because the lamb points to Christ, and Christ was necessarily present in some way for any of the Old Testament sacrifices to be of any value.

      So even in what the Holy Family doesn’t sacrifice, we’re reminded that Christ was always present (and prophesied) in the Levitical sacrifice. Perhaps, then, we can see Luke as acknowledging that even under the Old Covenant, the person offering sacrifice was never truly acting alone, if she was acting justly. Her sins were removed by the power of Christ. In changing the verbs, Luke just makes Christ’s involvement explicit.

      As a related angle, I suspect that the two spotless birds represent Jesus and Mary – who, like the birds in Leviticus 12, are innocent, yet brought under the Law for the good of sinners. Your thoughts?

      I.X.,

      Joe

    3. Joe,

      Great insights as usual! I wasn’t sure what else to add, except maybe explore the fact one dove was to be a burnt offering while the other dove was to be a sin offering. If these prefigured Mary and Jesus, then it makes sense that the original lamb as a burnt offering was ‘downgraded’ to a dove to better correspond to Mary. I have taken great interest in the different types of offerings/sacrifices in the OT, and it seems to me the burnt offering is principally associated with giving thanks and honor to God (e.g. Gen 8:20) while the sin offering is for expiating sin (especially for ritual purity). So if the typology holds, Mary’s life signified the burnt offering while Jesus’ life signified the sin offering. Just throwing out some thoughts; need to meditate/explore this some more.

      That said, I think I might have found a more straightforward answer for why Luke said “their” in 2:22. Consider the passage again:

      ==============
      22 And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” … 27 And he [Simeon] came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law , 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God …. 39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.
      ==============

      While it is certainly possible that “their purification” refers to the “two turtledoves” incident, the way this is structured is that possibly two purification took place: one consecrating the first born; the other the purification of the new mother. This fits with the fact Luke immediately follows “their purification” with “as it is written in the Law” regarding first-born males in Exodus 13 (Num 18:15-16).

      ==============
      CH13: 1The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.” … 11 “When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, 12 you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. … Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.
      ==============

      The way I see it, this “redeeming” of Jesus could be a purification rite of sorts in the consecration/sanctification redemption ritual. How’s that for a title sure to get under the Protestant’s skin: “Mary, redeemer of Jesus.”

      One catch would be that the phrase “opens the womb” would not *technically* apply to Mary, since it’s part of the dogma of the Perpetual Virginity that She remained a Virgin *during* birth, and thus at His birth Jesus ‘passed through Her’ as sunlight passes through glass.

      I don’t think this new information overturns your ‘smoking gun’ nor do I think the Protestant is out of a ‘bind’ for the fact ‘purification’ is used once and applied to both (meaning the purification cannot be for actual guilt). The bonus of this new approach is that it solidifies that “their” poses no problems whatsoever, including the ridiculous charge that Luke was incompetent.

    4. I would add that the concept of “redeeming” was closely related to the concept of sacrificing and atoning both in the Old and New Testament (e.g. 1 Peter 1:18-19 & Heb 9:11-15).

  5. ” St. Bede the Venerable (672-735 A.D.) mentioned this in a homily:”

    Wow what a homily to hear on a Sunday morn. My stupidest question is why were these Church Fathers so smart? I mean, why such a deep insight when they hadn’t even gotten to those dark ages yet? Even before the ‘historical critical method’. They answered the protestants’ questions even before there were protestant. It just makes me wonder.

  6. Matt Slick routinely stops his research once he finds something that he thinks supports his position. He never examines history and I suspect he’s never delved into translation issues. He probably thinks that Jesus had “blood” brothers because how the word “brother” is used today. He likes half truths and does not believe in the metaphysical/supernatural on this earth today. I’m not aware of anyone in early Christian history refuting Mary’s sinlessness, let alone a group of “believers” who held such belief and existed until today. Until you get the Protestant mind to accept the possibility that the metaphysical/supernatural exists on this world today it’s almost impossible to get them to believe in Catholicism.

    1. I should also add that the modern Roman Catholic belief of Mary as Co-Redemptrix is not found in the 33 ad – 500 ad era of the early church. And it probably would have been condemned as heresy had it been promulgated during that time.

    2. John Smith,

      Can we talk about the post for a second? Do you agree with the analysis above? If not, why not? If so, does it impact your beliefs in any way?

      I ask, because your comments seem to suggest that it doesn’t matter if Protestants are wrong about the sinlessness of Mary because you think that they’re still right (or that Catholics are still wrong) about her Assumption.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      P.S. The title Co-Redemptrix is confusing, and potentially misleading. I agree with the prudence of Pope Benedict XVI, who said that it was unnecessary to declare it dogmatically, since what the dogma is trying to express is already defined, and the title causes more confusion than clarity.

      Properly understood, it means that Mary plays a unique role along with Christ in salvation: and that is exactly what Luke 2 points to. Jesus and Mary submit to the Law in the Presentation. While there, Simeon prophesied about Jesus and Mary’s role in the Passion of Christ. She gets “invited in” to the act of Redemption in a way that no one else was, before or since.

      A simple way of showing this is just to read Luke 1:41-45 and Luke 2:34-35, and the way that Elizabeth and Simeon speak of Jesus and Mary. What other individual in Scripture gets spoken of alongside Jesus like that?

    3. I’ll grant that your analysis is correct. But I still want to know why important beliefs such as Mary’s “unique role” in salvation and her alleged assumption into heaven weren’t believed in the early church. (33 ad – 500 ad era)

    4. John,

      We do hear about Mary’s unique role in salvation in the early Church, well before 500 A.D. Irenaeus of Lyons, in Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 22 says:

      “4. In accordance with this design, Mary the Virgin is found obedient, saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”3747 But Eve was disobedient; for she did not obey when as yet she was a virgin. And even as she, having indeed a husband, Adam, but being nevertheless as yet a virgin […], having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and to the entire human race; so also did Mary, having a man betrothed [to her], and being nevertheless a virgin, by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and the whole human race. And on this account does the law term a woman betrothed to a man, the wife of him who had betrothed her, although she was as yet a virgin; thus indicating the back-reference from Mary to Eve, because what is joined together could not otherwise be put asunder than by inversion of the process by which these bonds of union had arisen;3750 so that the former ties be cancelled by the latter, that the latter may set the former again at liberty. And it has, in fact, happened that the first compact looses from the second tie, but that the second tie takes the position of the first which has been cancelled.3751 For this reason did the Lord declare that the first should in truth be last, and the last first.3752 And the prophet, too, indicates the same, saying, “instead of fathers, children have been born unto thee.”3753 For the Lord, having been born “the First-begotten of the dead,”3754 and receiving into His bosom the ancient fathers, has regenerated them into the life of God, He having been made Himself the beginning of those that live, as Adam became the beginning of those who die.3755 Wherefore also Luke, commencing the genealogy with the Lord, carried it back to Adam, indicating that it was He who regenerated them into the Gospel of life, and not they Him. And thus also it was that the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.

      Those words are a ringing endorsement of Mary’s unique role in salvation, are dated to 180 A.D. By way of reference, the first recorded use of the word “Trinity” is in 181.

    5. Likewise, the following words of St. Epiphanius (315-403) give evidence of an early belief in the Assumption:

      “Whether she died or was buried we do not know … Say she died a natural death. In that case she fell asleep in glory, and departed in purity, and received the crown of her virginity. Or say she was slain with the sword according to Simeon’s prophecy. Then her glory is with the martyrs, and she through whom the divine light shone upon the world is in the place of bliss with her sacred body. Or say she left this world without dying, for God can do what He wills. Then she was simply transferred to eternal glory.”

      The Saint acknowledges that there is a dispute over whether Mary died before the Assumption or not. But he takes it as a given that, either way, she is in Heaven with her body. That much doesn’t appear to be in dispute.

      There also were popular legends which claimed to recount the precise circumstances of her Assumption. While we can’t rely on these for their historicity, they do support the fact that the early Christians believed in the Assumption well prior to 500 A.D.

      I.X.,

      Joe

      P.S. I would caution against taking a “Protestant until proven otherwise” view of history: in other words, assuming that nobody believed the Catholic position until there’s explicit evidence, and that everyone believed the Protestant position until the Catholic position became prominent. That’s an ahistorical approach. If you think that the Protestant belief was what was held, where is the historical evidence for it? Where do we see anyone claiming that Mary’s body saw corruption? Or better yet, where do we see anyone claiming to have relics of Mary’s body, the way that relics were (and are) claimed of all of the Apostles and major Saints?

  7. If I may tread into controversial waters, Dionysius the Areopagite details her assumption in the first century in On the Divine Names.

    There are many many good people whom I respect that labels that work as a 5th or 6th century work penned under a fake name, but the Rev John Parker–at least in my opinion–demolished those objections in his work on the subject.

  8. Just as dedication is, so is baptism. Was Jesus sinful when he agreed to be baptised since John’s baptism was that of remission of sin?

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