Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH):
The Virgin Mary -- Fact or Fairy Tale?
In spite of the fact that in the Gospels the Messiah is plainly said to have had brothers -- and that James is referred to several times as "the brother of Jesus" -- it is hard to understand how the idea of Mary's perpetual virginity was accepted and what the motive was for attempting to teach this errant doctrine. But when we study comparative religion we find that this idea is an old one. The mothers of each successive Buddha are said to have died shortly after giving birth to their divine children. Their wombs had become holy, and no other child might occupy them. From this came the idea of perpetual virginity.
by Jocelyn Rhys
Enough examples have been given to show that the story of a Virgin Birth is not a new one. It was simply a not unusual account of the birth of gods who had come down to earth as men. The details given in Matthew and Luke do not differ from those given in the stories of older cults in any greater degree than the details in one work of fiction differ from those in another that deals with the same theme.
Later on, in early Christian history, we find that the Virgin Mary inherits the festival of Cybele -- mother of the pagan gods. That day (the 25th of March) was observed as "Lady Day" by the early Christian Churches in the same way as the Hilaria, the festival of the goddess, had been held by pagans at Rome before Christianity had ever been heard of. The Pantheon at Rome, which had been dedicated by Agrippa to Cybele, was, when Christianity became the State religion, re-dedicated as a Christian edifice to the Virgin Mary. The ancient ceremonies connected with the worship of Cybele were performed until quite recent years in honor of Mary. In Rome an image -- said to be of the Virgin Mary -- was carried down to the Tiber every year, in the same way as it had been carried, with another name attached to it, long before the Christian era.
In Asia Minor the Ephesians worshipped the Virgin Mary with the very same ceremonies as they had previously performed in honor of the goddess Diana.
The festival of the "Assumption of the Virgin" is still celebrated in Christian churches at the same time of year as that in which the festival of Diana previously took place.
Wherever Christianity spread the same thing happened if a goddess had previously been worshipped. The rites continued, but the name of the goddess changed to Mary. The Virgin Birth doctrine offered no hindrance, as all the goddesses of ancient mythology were regarded as capable of giving birth to children without prior male impregnation -- and most of them as having actually done so.
So the doctrine was easy to believe. But in addition to this it was, in that age, a welcome doctrine.
In religious and philosophical circles there was a violent reaction going on against the Eastern contempt for unmarried and intact females. There was still more of a reaction against religious prostitution on a large scale -- as it was known in many places such as Alexandria, Corinth, and the Hindu temples. Stories of the religious prostitution had probably reached the near East. Today, in a very modified form, contempt is still shown in many places towards "old maids" and men who don't marry. The licentiousness of the age was regretted by many pagan philosophers, and chastity and virginity were glorified by every moralist.
This reaction, as such reactions always do, went beyond any rational limit. The relation of the sexes was spoken of as if it were at all times and in all circumstances evil.
"Behold I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me," was the kind of sentiment expressed by the extremists, who taught that the spiritual life was all that men should think of, and that all carnal things were essentially wicked.
Some theosophists taught that Matter was something apart from or in opposition to the Absolute; and they might possibly -- if their premises were accepted -- justify so sweeping a doctrine.
But to all others it must appear that this implication that human generation by natural processes is in itself always sinful, merely casts a slur upon the supreme wisdom which, ex hypothesi, ordains that all species must be propagated in such a fashion.
It is an implication which has worked untold harm in the past leading, in many cases, to those very excesses against which it had been intended as a protest and, as every student of medieval history knows, to the peculiar moral aberrations which disgraced monasticism and asceticism.
Meanwhile it led, coupled with the Jewish-Christian doctrine of original sin, to a curious further development of the Virgin Birth doctrine.
According to that doctrine, the Messiah had not, like other men, been conceived in iniquity. He was therefore, unlike others, free from that taint of sin; but still theologians found it difficult to maintain the theory that he was altogether free from the taint of original sin inherited from Adam. Through his mother, even if he supposedly had no human father, he inherited that taint.
And so in the twelfth century the doctrine that the Virgin Mary's own birth had been immaculate and supernatural began to be accepted by many sects of the Catholic Church and led to heated controversies between various bodies of "Christians" -- more especially between the Dominicans and Franciscans. The great order of Dominicans always (or, at any rate, until quite recent years) denied the doctrine of Mary's immaculate conception while their rivals, the Franciscans, strenuously upheld it.
It does not seem to have been recognized that to logically get around the doctrine of original sin, every ancestress all the way back to Eve must be regarded as immaculately conceived! The Church found sufficient difficulty in gaining support for the doctrine of one more miracle without inventing a hundred others, so it was not until quite recently (in 1854) that the Catholic Church officially accepted it. It is a doctrine which has been widely held throughout the history of Christianity, and which narrowly escaped becoming, seven hundred years earlier, a fundamental dogma of the Christian faith. Many other doctrines, no less miraculous and no better founded upon historical evidence, have become accepted as fact during the centuries that have elapsed since original Christianity was born.
The mother of Mary was named Anna, and many Christian churches were dedicated to her long before the dogma of Mary's immaculate conception was fixed in the Roman Catholic Church.
Yet another doctrine sprang from this same sanctification of virginity. This, the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, was debated by some of the early Fathers of the Church who quoted, in support of their theory, the words of Ezekiel (xliv, 2): "This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut." That words plainly referring to a gate of the Temple should be taken as prophesying about the womb of a future mother of the Messiah is typical of the exegetical methods practiced by early theologians and accepted by later ones.
Moreover, in spite of the fact that in the Gospels the Messiah is plainly said to have had brothers -- and that James is referred to several times as "the brother of Jesus" -- it is hard to understand how the idea of Mary's perpetual virginity was accepted and what the motive was for attempting to teach this errant doctrine.
But when we study comparative religion we find that this idea is an old one. The mothers of each successive Buddha are said to have died shortly after giving birth to their divine children. Their wombs had become holy, and no other child might occupy them. From this came the idea of perpetual virginity. The motive was also bound up with the doctrine of original sin -- a doctrine which was inconsistent with human-born divinity unless the mother was herself without original sin, in which case doctrinal difficulties arose about the birth and nature of any further children.
So the brothers of the Messiah, though at first correctly considered in the Gospels as his full brothers, were next described by the Church Fathers as the children of Joseph by another wife in order to preserve the virginity of Mary throughout her life. Then, when the Church, in her desire to glorify chastity, taught that Joseph had lived as a perpetual celibate they were described as being really the first cousins of the Messiah! Thus do myths grow among a corrupt priesthood.
In the middle of the fourth century Jovinian, an Italian monk, had the temerity to assert that Mary ceased to be a virgin when the Messiah was born. For this offense he was flogged and banished to a desolate island. In this way do priesthoods ensure the survival of their myths.
Even though it never became a fundamental dogma of Christianity, the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity has been widely held -- and is even found to be taught in many early Protestant theological works.
It is interesting to note that during the first four centuries of the Christian era nothing was known about the death or burial of Mary. Then the city of Ephesus (at the Synod held with reference to the "Mother of God" controversy) claimed the honor of being the place of her burial. This was affirmed by the Synod to be a fact, and much later Jerusalem claimed the same honor -- which was eventually conferred on her by the Christian Churches.
At Jerusalem, in proof of their claim, the clergy used to show an empty sepulcher and explain that the Virgin had also been raised from the dead and had bodily ascended into heaven!
But these attempts to enlarge the original doctrine, and to get over difficulties by postulating still further miracles, were not the only questions about the Virgin Birth theory with which the "Christian" Churches had to deal. When we study the disputes which arose in the fourth century, at the time when the Trinity doctrine was first formulated, we find that many quarrels and much bloodshed ensued over the thorny questions connected with the "nature" of the Messiah. How far was he divine, and how far human? A host of difficulties attended every attempted solution. And again, if we study the beliefs held by various sects of Christians who were suppressed as heretics by the Catholic sect when it became allied with the Roman emperors and rose to power, we find that a large number of conflicting beliefs divided so-called Christianity over this very question of the birth of the Messiah.
The story of these disputes and heresies is too long to tell here, and can be studied in the pages of Gibbon. We note them now only because surprise is sometimes expressed by those who have not studied the doctrinal controversies of the Christian Churches, that this doctrine, being not well founded, should have been accepted without objection by so many and for so long. This surprise is based upon a misapprehension or ignorance of two facts. First, the fact that the doctrine has actually been repeatedly questioned; and, secondly, the fact that from the fourth century, when the Catholic Church became all-powerful, until the nineteenth century when the State Churches began to lose their power, those who questioned it were effectually silenced by the overwhelming power of orthodoxy.
From the writings of the very earliest "Fathers of the Church" we learn that not only Jews and pagans, but also many Christians, rejected the Virgin Birth story.
Celsus, the principal refuter of Christian doctrines in the second century, asserted that the Virgin Birth story had never been heard of until a few years before he himself wrote. Since he probably wrote between 177 and 180 A.D., this statement agrees very well with the dates given elsewhere regarding the first appearance of Matthew's and Luke's stories. According to Celsus, the Gospel story was continually being altered and added to with a view to counteracting criticisms and objections made about it. The Church Fathers tried to answer, in their usual manner, any accusation that was made, not by bringing evidence to show that it was untrue, but by declaring that it was the "heretics" who were attempting to falsify the books!
Celsus, before his own philosophical attack on Christianity, brings in an imaginary Jew who alleges that the Messiah was the bastard son of a soldier in the Roman Army, named Panthera or Pandira -- and that Mary was divorced by Joseph because of this intrigue. But the story is not very convincing since it appears for the first time in the second century and is not supported by any evidence. This story was often resurrected by uncritical opponents of Christianity (especially by the Jews) and has even been accepted by critical historians of Christianity. These latter identify the Jesus of Christianity with a Joshua or Jesus ben Pandira, who is alleged to have lived about 100 B.C., and of whom the Jews relate many stories similar, in certain respects, to those of the Gospels. Some critics believe that it was around the name of this teacher that the Gospel legends afterwards gathered. However, it seems more likely that the whole story was invented as a satire on, and refutation of, the Christian story.
However that may be we know from Origen, who wrote Against Celsus in the first half of the third century, that these accusations were made; and we know from the writings -- not only of Origen, but of all the early Church Fathers -- that the Virgin Birth doctrine was constantly disputed, and was not even believed by some of those who held the highest positions in the "orthodox" Christian Church.
For example, Paul of Samosata taught that the Messiah was a man who was not divinely born, but was anointed by the holy spirit at his baptism and, keeping himself free from sin, he eventually became united to YEHOVAH God. This was the doctrine of the "Adoptionist" sect of Christians.
Paul does not seem to have been criticized for holding and for teaching such a doctrine. However, he also taught a doctrine which appears to be diametrically opposed to the above -- viz., that God the Son was consubstantial with God the Father. This latter doctrine, which very soon afterwards became the very nucleus of the Athanasian Creed, was condemned at Antioch in the year 269 by a large council of the Church. Paul, who was then patriarch of Antioch, was sentenced to be deposed by this council. He did not, however, surrender his position until the Roman emperor Aurelian confirmed the sentence in 272. In this way a pagan emperor aided in settling what was to be the orthodox faith for some considerable time.
But the Virgin Birth doctrine still seems to have been regarded as an open question. A belief in it became obligatory among Christians only when the "Catholic" sect of Christians allied itself with the Emperor Constantine and assumed the name of orthodox. Its doctrines, aided by the secular arms of the State, were enforced upon all men at the point of the sword. All doctrines other than its own were then suppressed as heresies. Fertile countries were turned into deserts, and hundreds of thousands of men perished in the wars by which this policy was carried out.
When the Catholic Church eventually triumphed, any expression of doubt was prohibited, and any criticism of the Virgin Birth doctrine was, for many centuries, answered by the imprisonment or death of the offender. But in spite of all this, some sects of Christians besides the original Ecclesia founded by the Messiah, did not believe in the doctrine. A few, in spite of the cruelest persecution, managed to escape total suppression. Of these we will now refer only to the most important survivor -- the Unitarians. There are some hundreds of Unitarian churches in England at the present time; in the United States some thousands. They only worship as God the First Person of the orthodox Christian Trinity, and they regard the Messiah as a man and a prophet. They number among their precursors Servetus, a very learned man, who, in addition to other distinctions, is famous for anticipating part of Harvey's doctrine of the circulation of the blood.
Servetus was burnt to death in 1553 at Geneva, at the instigation of the Protestant reformer Calvin, for printing a tract denying the miraculous birth of the Messiah. The first Unitarian to be burnt to death in England suffered at Norwich in 1579. A spasmodic persecution of the sect, between that date and the beginning of the nineteenth century when they obtained the protection of the Act of Toleration, ensured that their views and arguments should not become widely known. Very few persons ever heard the Virgin Birth doctrine questioned, and fewer still heard or could understand the arguments against its acceptance. Whenever and wherever the ecclesiastical authorities were sufficiently powerful, the prospect of being burnt at the stake -- together with the books in which their arguments were published -- deterred even the boldest skeptics from attempting a task which seemed useless. So men, who themselves doubted, refrained from imparting their doubts to others. Even when the Church became less powerful and the State more humane, rude treatment, disgrace, and secular disabilities awaited those who expressed any doubts, while honors, position, and wealth might be attained by those who professed orthodox opinions. Until the numbers of nonconformists, dissenters, and skeptics became large enough to enforce toleration, and some small measure of freedom of speech was attained for all men, unorthodox doctrines were heard by only a very small number of men. Those men were generally classical scholars with ecclesiastical or educational positions to lose if, like the eccentric but honest Whiston, the translator of Josephus, they were too conscientious for the "protective mimicry" of discreet ambiguities.
Even learned theologians, classical scholars themselves, lived in an atmosphere in which "faith" was so firmly established by centuries of unquestioned (or rather of not openly questioned) tradition that they mostly totally ignored those very difficulties which nowadays loom so large before the defenders of the faith.
If we read Milman's celebrated History of Christianity, published in 1840, and turn to what he has to say about the Virgin Birth, we find no attempt made to explain or to reconcile the different stories told by Matthew and Luke. We discover, indeed, no reference to the fact that there are any differences between the two evangelists, nor to the fact that nowhere else in the New Testament is the Virgin Birth referred to. We find no comment on the fact that many passages in these books are irreconcilable with the story of a virgin birth.
We do find, it is true, (mostly in brief footnotes) references to some of the exegetical difficulties which confront the orthodox commentator. The era of historical criticism had already dawned, and an ecclesiastical author could no longer, like his predecessors, entirely ignore those difficulties. So now they are not entirely ignored, but are brushed aside as of no great importance.
And so the myths of the virgin birth and the immaculate conception continue.
-- Edited By John D. Keyser.
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