After visiting a Greek Orthodox Church a few weeks ago, I wanted to take the time to work through the liturgy that they used in order to have a clearer understanding of what is believed by those of the Orthodox tradition, as well as interact with their belief with Scripture. So here’s the first installment:
“Remembering our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.”1
This isn’t about Mary being the theotokos, a transliteration of the Greek term Θεοτόκος which means “one who gives birth to God” – but rather about the “ever virgin” part.
Origen writes about this thought in his commentary on Matthew (written around 248 A.D.): “they said, ‘Is not His mother called Mary? And His brethren, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us?’ They thought, then, that He was the son of Joseph and Mary. But some say, basing it on a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or “The Book of James,” that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honour of Mary in virginity to the end, so that that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word which said, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee,” might not know intercourse with a man after that the Holy Ghost came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the first-fruit among men of the purity which consists in chastity, and Mary among women; for it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the first-fruit of virginity.”2
Here is what Origen thought about the perpetual virginity of Mary: “I think it in harmony with reason…”
I think that about says it all. It is not Biblical, it is what men think – Origen did not think that the “Protoevangelium of James” was on the same level as Scripture – otherwise he would not have said the idea of Mary being a perpetual virgin was “in harmony with reason.” He would have said it is what Scripture testifies.
Origen wrote his commentary about 200 years after the final books of the New Testament were written, and he doesn’t even sound like he would die for that belief, rather that some people believe it, and it seems to make sense – though not based on Scripture.
Just because a church has held to a belief for a very long time doesn’t mean it is right – Augustine and Athanasius both referred to Mary as an ever-virgin. But I believe, as Origen did, that they based it on a reasonable argument, and were not convinced of it from Scripture, nor did they think it important as the Catholics and the Orthodox have made it.
Believing Mary is an “ever-virgin” is not a huge deal, if in fact she and Joseph never had relations (but who cares? Why dance around the passages where Jesus’ brothers and sisters are referred to? Do we really need to know – the Bible doesn’t tell us, do I really need to know if she was always a virgin or not?) – but I think this belief leads to other things that are a huge problem. And these things are present in this liturgy, and I will get to them in the coming weeks.
1 “The Divine Liturgy,” http://www.ocf.org/OrthodoxPage/liturgy/liturgy.html (accessed November 16, 2007).
2 “Origen: Commentary on Matthew (Roberts-Donaldson),” http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/origen-matthew.html (accessed November 16, 2007).