Was Mary Really a Virgin?

OK, so one last Christmas-related question.

Mary’s virginity, it’s reality, it perpetual existence, its origins and the way it either fulfills or simply echos Old Testament prophecy is one of those topics in the life of faith that seems ever green. People never seem to tire, that is, of debating about whether this detail is the stuff of saving faith or simply a point of doctrine to be ignored.

I don’t believe for a moment that the next couple of paragraphs will settle anything. But allow me to shed what light I can on this  hot topic.

I think the most important thing to understand about the virginity of Mary is the role that language plays in the whole deal.  In all of the principal languages of the Bible and its epoch (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin) a single word is used to represent both a “young woman” and a “virgin” at least in a secular case. Some of these ancient languages have words that describe cultic virgins – think “vestal virgins”, but this is a different thing all together. Suffice it to say that arguments that suggest that in some biblical texts Mary is referred to as a “virgin” and in others a “young woman” are red herrings. Its always the same word.

“Why,” you may ask. Wouldn’t it be important to ancient cultures that place so much value on purity and sexual morality to have a more robust lexicon when it comes to this type of stuff.  One would think. But I believe that it is exactly the purity and morality standards that drive use of a single word. In a culture where all young woman are assumed and expected to be virgins, having two words is a redundancy. better and more efficient to have extra words for the minority of women who do not fit the mold. Such women are harlots, often prostitutes, but occasionally “blessed.”

What this points to , in my estimation, is that it is Mary’s youthfulness that sets her apart rather than her sexual purity. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt the purity for a second, but I don’t think that that is exactly the point that the biblical authors are trying to get at when they talk about her being a “young woman” or even “virgin.” I think what is being set up in the story of Mary (and in the prophecy from Isaiah, too) is the way in which God is not just doing something miraculous and mildly scandalous in the life of this young woman. Rather, God is doing a NEW TYPE of miracle filled with new types of scandal. Where the standard birth miracle of the Old Testament was children being born to women that were thought to be barren (Sarah, Rebekah, Hannah), the new promise of God was to bring about life from places of unrealized potential – like young, unmarried women.

Reading back over this post, I’m pretty sure I’ve left the basic question unanswered. I hope you’ll forgive. What I’m trying to say is that I think all of the fuss about whether Mary was really a virgin, or stayed a virgin or whatever is missing the point. In and though Mary, God was breaking down old categories and replacing them with new potentials. That’s what we should be celebrating.


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