Rounding off the “Virgo in partu” debate – the Proto-Evangelium of James

I know that we cannot declare a debate of this nature “closed” (I won’t close the comments on this post), but I do what to make a final statement (for now) on the “virgo in partu” doctrine, ie. the dogma that (as the Second Vatican Council – the highest authority teaching this doctrine – put it) “the birth of Our Lord…did not diminish His mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.”

We have had two rather lengthy discussions on this matter (here and here), and I have learned a very great deal from the conversation. Joshua asked at one point in the discussion, “David, are you going to treat us to all your favourite conundrums of dogma?” The answer is “yes, very probably”. That’s really what this blog is for. You are all participants in (what some philosophers call) my “extended mind”. That ought to be a scarey thought…

One of my main concerns about the “virgo in partu” doctrine was that it was making a theological claim about an historical event. I could understand the theology – especially within an honour/shame culture such as existed in ancient Palestine and the Greco-Roman world – but I had difficulty with the claim in so far as it could (at least theoretically if not in fact) be known historically. In my original post about the doctrine I stated like this:

The question about whether or not Mary experienced pain or the breaking of her hymen in giving birth to Jesus seems to me to be a conclusion primarily based on theological ideas (and, in respect to the hymen question, cultural ideas). I guess that, if Mary experienced no pain in giving birth to Jesus, this is something that could have been known by the early Christian community, but it boggles the mind how anyone could have known for certain one way or another whether her hymen was ruptured.

I simply had difficulty imagining such “knowledge” being passed to the Apostle and down to the Church as part of the deposit of faith about the “historical Mary”. But as Shakespeare had his character say: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” History has a way of throwing up things that we could never imagine. And so I am very grateful to Chris Jones, who eventually directed us to this story from the legendary account of the Proto-Evangelium of St James:

[Mary] said to her [the midwife]: ‘Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to you: a virgin hath brought forth—a thing which her nature admits not of.’ Then said Salome: ‘As the Lord my God lives, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.’ And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: ‘Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee.’ And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: ‘Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire.’ (Protevangelion vv 19-20)

Now, of course, as Chris himself pointed out,

this is not “documentary evidence” of our Lady’s virginity in partu; but it is certainly evidence of the exactly how “virgin birth” was understood by those who lived in the time and culture in which our Lord was born. And it reflects what the Church’s oral tradition was, and what issues that tradition was concerned with, at a time a century or less from the Resurrection.

Chris is quite right. Like the reference to sacrifice for the sins of the departed in Maccabees (also regarded by some Christians as a non-canonical work), it is enough to show a belief and an attitude that existed in the early stage of the Tradition. It shows that the early Christians not only knew the doctrine “virgo in partu”, but were aware of the kind of claim that they were making, ie. a claim about a real historical person and a real historical event. Interestingly, the story seems to be provided in the Proto-Evangelium precisely because “no small controversy” had arisen about Mary’s status as a “virgin”. Now of course, it is quite possible that the author of the Proto-Evangelium invented this story – the Church in no way requires us to accept this document as infallible scripture or factual history. That’s not my concern right now. The fact is that it demonstrates how Mary’s “in partu” virginity could have been known and that the idea meant then what it has always meant in the teaching of the Church since.

For me, for now, that is sufficient.

UPDATE: But not, it seems for you guys…

Two objections have arisen in the Combox so far, and I wish to deal with these up front.

1) The second, and least serious, is the question about the “importance” of the “virgo in partu” doctrine. Stephen K raised the question, and Tony is pressing it. My first reaction is to say “No, it isn’t important in the hierarchy of Truths” – it isn’t the “article on which the Church stands or falls”, as the Lutherans would say. But then I pause for a bit and think: who am I to say how important it is? Chesterton once used the example of a man who comes across a closed gate with the sign on it which says “please close the gate”. If I can’t see any stock in the paddock, can I judge that the gate can be left open? There may be ramifications of this doctrine that I am not currently aware of, but which may become crucial one day.

2) The more serious charge is expressed by Marcel, Joshua, Louise, and Terra: viz. my audacity and disrespect for Our Lady in discussing “a subject so delicate and so sacred” in the first place, which I should have simply have allowed to remain “shroud[ed]” in “mystery”.

This I take very seriously. I think that while it shows an admirable respect for and devotion to Our Lady, as theological method it verges upon gnosticism, if not doceticism. It is precisely the nature of our faith that it makes certain claims which are indeed “mysterious”, but precisely so because they are said to be “real”. The best example is that of the Sacrament of the Altar. The Sacrament is shrouded in mystery, but that hasn’t stopped our theologians trying to work out and explain how it could be “real”. Lutherans say we have gone to far in using Aristotelian terms like “transubstantiation”, but we use such terms because we are convinced of the reality of the mystery, and hence believe that it must be able to be approached in terms of some kind of philosophy of reality.

The same goes for the doctrine, for eg., of the Assumption. Yes, a great mystery, but one which is grounded in the belief that Mary really was assumed body and soul into heaven. No one says “This is a great mystery, don’t enquire too much about whether it was historical or not.”

But when it comes to the “virgo in partu” doctrine, just because of the subject matter, we are supposed to step back and say “Yes, that’s true, but don’t investigate too closely.” Sorry, I’m not buying that. If it is true, it is real, and if it is real, it can and should be discussed as a way of furthering our understanding of the faith which we confess.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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21 Responses to Rounding off the “Virgo in partu” debate – the Proto-Evangelium of James

  1. William Weedon says:

    You will no doubt forgive me chuckling over the fact that it is a fellow Lutheran (and one whom I treasure as a dear friend in Christ) who brought the matter to a sufficient resolution for you…

  2. marcel says:

    The wisdom of the great theologians, nay Church doctors, in teaching us about the Virgo in partu, was to shroud in yet more mystery a subject so delicate and so sacred that every generation of Cathoics would forever more approach this subject with an appropriate sense of unworthiness and scrupulous care, lest the Queen of Heaven and Earth be spoken of in a degrading manner.

    Unfortunately, this whole discussion of the doctrine on this blog has confirmed the wisdom of these Church Doctors in the very manner of the reckless treatment of this sacred mystery. We are Catholics, and unlike rigorist Calvinists, we need not treat as a dispassionate mathematical exercise the search for a sacred truth which by its very nature negates meticulous discussion. Those who transgressed the inner sanctuary of of the Tabernacle in the Old Testament were treated severely. I have stayed out of this discussion largely because some people are unable to practice custody of the keyboard when talking about this matter . The doctrine is sound, this extensive discussion has not been.

  3. Joshua says:

    Yes, I hope we can learn from this discussion what a holy reserve is, what respect for modesty and intimate, private matters entails.

    May I quote the sacred liturgy? This is one of the glorious antiphons for the Octave Day of Christmas, the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God – texts ultimately from the Byzantine Liturgy:

    Rubum quem viderat Moyses incombustum, conservatam agnovimus tuam laudabilem virginitatem: Dei Genitrix, intercede pro nobis.

    [In] the [burning] bush which Moses saw unconsumed, we acknowledge the preservation of thy laudable virginity: Mother of God, intercede for us.

  4. Terra says:

    Can I second Joshua’s sentiments!

    The lack of female posters on this subject noted in an earlier exchange should perhaps give some posters ont his subject pause to reflect (and not on female disdain for the theoological, which is certainly not the case!).

  5. Tony says:

    My summation, or musings, FWIW:

    I suspect that this kind of exchange is something you’d never encounter in the average parish even among long term parishioners. I also suspect that if you did an anonymous survey among practising Catholics most would either cast doubt on believing that Mary was a virgin or would say they don’t believe it or that it wasn’t particularly important either way.

    We live in an era where people’s world view is pretty much governed by science because that view best equate’s to how we experience the world ‘out there’. We don’t see miracles of the ‘scriptural kind’ anymore or, if we do, they’re usually from people who are later found out to be frauds.

    So when the argument for Mary’s virginity is said to be an ‘historical fact’ with little or no evidence that a dispassionate historian would regard as strong, it’s a big ask to say ‘believe it because we say so and because we’ve said so for a very long time’. Surely it doesn’t matter what the consequences are of not believing it, it has to stand on its own first.

    Finally, I think Stephen K’s point cuts to the chase:

    … I’m going to ask you to answer the question no-one’s yet addressed: how important it is. If a person were to believe in everything else but this in partu doctrine, were to lead an otherwise exemplary moral life, would you say it was of such importance that said person was no longer a Catholic, and/or no longer in a state of grace?

    Could it be that in the 21C such a teaching is not only not important, in Stephen’s sense, but that it’s an impediment to people connecting with Catholicism?

    • Gareth says:

      Tony: Could it be that in the 21C such a teaching is not only not important, in Stephen’s sense, but that it’s an impediment to people connecting with Catholicism?

      Gareth: On your second point, I hardly think so. This conversation has taken place within a blogspot where the contributors would have a certain level of faith to begin with, not the average parish. I think issues that are more likely to be an impediment to people connecting with Catholicism would likely to be the usual suspects: lack of genuine community or parish life, lack of devotions in parish, crappy music, lack of moral teaching, crappy preaching, bad liturgy and the list could go on and on, as it does in the average Australian Catholic parish each week.

  6. Louise says:

    I’m not queasy about gynaecological matters myself, but you know, I wouldn’t like to discuss my mama’s bits over the ‘net (or anywhere). Goes double for Our Lady.

    I have no problem in believing in the perpetual virginity. I mean, if one believes in a God who created everything out of nothing, then this question isn’t particularly difficult, surely.

    But I don’t see what the 21st Century has to do with the issue.

  7. Schütz says:

    Nb. [I have added this comment as an update to the original post]

    Two objections have arisen in the Combox so far, and I wish to deal with these up front.

    1) The second, and least serious, is the question about the “importance” of the “virgo in partu” doctrine. Stephen K raised the question, and Tony is pressing it. My first reaction is to say “No, it isn’t important in the hierarchy of Truths” – it isn’t the “article on which the Church stands or falls”, as the Lutherans would say. But then I pause for a bit and think: who am I to say how important it is? Chesterton once used the example of a man who comes across a closed gate with the sign on it which says “please close the gate”. If I can’t see any stock in the paddock, can I judge that the gate can be left open? There may be ramifications of this doctrine that I am not currently aware of, but which may become crucial one day.

    2) The more serious charge is expressed by Marcel, Joshua, Louise, and Terra: viz. my audacity and disrespect for Our Lady in discussing “a subject so delicate and so sacred” in the first place, which I should have simply have allowed to remain “shroud[ed]” in “mystery”.

    This I take very seriously. I think that while it shows an admirable respect for and devotion to Our Lady, as theological method it verges upon gnosticism, if not doceticism. It is precisely the nature of our faith that it makes certain claims which are indeed “mysterious”, but precisely so because they are said to be “real”. The best example is that of the Sacrament of the Altar. The Sacrament is shrouded in mystery, but that hasn’t stopped our theologians trying to work out and explain how it could be “real”. Lutherans say we have gone to far in using Aristotelian terms like “transubstantiation”, but we use such terms because we are convinced of the reality of the mystery, and hence believe that it must be able to be approached in terms of some kind of philosophy of reality.

    The same goes for the doctrine, for eg., of the Assumption. Yes, a great mystery, but one which is grounded in the belief that Mary really was assumed body and soul into heaven. No one says “This is a great mystery, don’t enquire too much about whether it was historical or not.”

    But when it comes to the “virgo in partu” doctrine, just because of the subject matter, we are supposed to step back and say “Yes, that’s true, but don’t investigate too closely.” Sorry, I’m not buying that. If it is true, it is real, and if it is real, it can and should be discussed as a way of furthering our understanding of the faith which we confess.

    • Louise says:

      Well, David, I’ll only add that I was expressing my own reluctance to discuss such things in detail, and gave the reasoning as best I could, but I’m only describing my own sensibilities. I’m not judging yours. As far as I know, the catechism does not declare it to be immoral to disuss this topic, so that’s my standard for passing judgment on actions.

    • Tony says:

      Chesterton once used the example of a man who comes across a closed gate with the sign on it which says “please close the gate”. If I can’t see any stock in the paddock, can I judge that the gate can be left open? There may be ramifications of this doctrine that I am not currently aware of, but which may become crucial one day.

      It may also be that the sign was a legacy of an old use of the paddock. It’s been there so long, nobody bothered to ask if was needed anymore, they just assumped that it was there for a reason.

      • Schütz says:

        You follow the analogy exactly, Tony! And I agree. If we find an old sign on an old gate with weeds growing all around it that looks like it is never used any more, we would have good reason to investigate further. That’s what I have been doing. At this point, I think the Church’s judgement (remember the title of this ‘ere blog!) is that it remains important. There’s still something in the paddock…

        • Tony says:

          But what seems to happen though, David, is that people don’t even ask, indeed, some are offended by asking because … well … you just don’t go there. Others just close the gate and don’t give it a second thought. Most find the rusty old thing so hard to open and close that they go to another paddock.

          Meanwhile, the family in the homestead wonder why they don’t get as many visitors as they used to.

    • marcel says:

      You have nearly captured my thoughts neatly David. However, I was not advocating some kind gnosticism in placing a veil over certain subjects. It is simply that I believe some words are appropriate for a discussion about Our Lady and others are not. The word ‘inviolate’ in the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary is rich in meaning and covers the doctrine we have been discussing. It is a profound word and denotes more than a single aspect of Our Lady’s journey.

      To illustrate my objection to the conduct of this discussion I will use an analogy:

      A father may speak proudly of his daughter on her wedding to his soon to be son in law, “I give you our daughter, pure of heart and not yet known to any man. Protect her.” Alternatively he could just inform the groom, “My girl has not sex with anyone. Oh, and treat her nice.”

      You have daughters David, and perhaps you would not like their biology discussed in such graphic detail, even 2000 years after they leave this Earth.

      • Schütz says:

        Yeah, I take your point, Marcel. Still, in explaining how sex works to my kids, I have found that I have to use exact and precise language, and not general euphemisms. The euphemisms are easier, but are apt to be misunderstood. So one kind of language is appropriate in hymnody, and another kind of language in scientific investigation. It is interesting to see the language and mode of description used in the Proto-Evangelium on this matter. A bit shocking! We would never use such language as we have used in this discussion in public discourse, but I think we do need to understand what exactly is meant by the Church’s doctrine and what is not. We have, through this discussion, become aware, for instance, of the great cultural difference between what our society calls “virginity” today and what that word meant to ages past. That is a useful outcome of the discussion, and could not have been achieved without rather more precise, if blunt, language.

        • Louise says:

          There’s a difference though between saying to a girl or young woman, “sexual intercourse breaks the hymen” and talking to all one’s friends about her hymen etc!

          Tony seems to believe that this kind of doctrine keeps people out of the Church. I find that hard to believe. Most people would be unaware of this teaching at all.

          • Tony says:

            Blimey Louise! If someone coming into the church doesn’t realise that Jesus’ mother is a virgin, then they’re deaf. How often do we hear expression like ‘The Virgin Mary’, etc?

            • Louise says:

              Don’t be silly, Tony, I didn’t mean her virginity at the time of Our Lord’s conception, I meant the idea that she remained a virgin, with all the details that involves. Not everyone realises the full meaning of the expression The Virgin Mary.

            • Tony says:

              There may be people with different views of what ‘virgin’ means, Louise, and there may be a very superficial understanding of the actual teaching, but at any level the notion of accepting a woman can be a virgin after giving birth is a big ask in our present understanding.

              I mean, if one believes in a God who created everything out of nothing, then this question isn’t particularly difficult, surely

              And if one believes that, there is no reason to assume God could not bring his Son into being in the same way the rest of us are.

  8. Matthias says:

    Louise it is nice to see you writing again. ah i feel that as a proddy ,nay one brought up in the atmosphere of, to quote Marcel ,where Scripture is treated “as a …….. mathematical exercise ” in the search for truth,the nature of Mary ‘s Virginity was treated as possibly ending some time after Jesus was born. But what struck me was that whilst our Pastors quoted THE MAGNIFICAT,the rest of the subject of Mary was treated with contempt,because “Catholics “commit idolotary around Mary”,thus there was no fruther discussion -to do so was to fall into being suspected of being a Mick,and worthy of a visit,to check up on one’s spiritual condition by our verison of the Holy office-THE ELDERS

  9. JoyfulPapist says:

    As a mother and a convert, I was surprised when I first came across this doctrine. I had assumed that Our Lady had given birth like all the rest of us, with all that this implies pre, during, and post partum. (I’ll spare your manly blushes and skip over the details.)

    I’ve never understood why this doctrine existed, and I’ve followed the conversation with interest. Thanks, all.

    My sole contribution is to pick up on a point someone made earlier about the infant Jesus not being able to pass through His Mother as He did not have a resurrected body. Given the Transfiguration, the walking on water, the going without food for forty days, and various other things, it would seem that even before the crucifixion and resurrection, His body was not quite as tied to the laws of physics as most of the rest of us (some of the saints also seem to be an exception).

    I’ve read recently of a series of visions in which the visionary saw the life of Christ in detail. In her view of the birth, a light shone from Our Lady while she was at prayer, and grew brighter until it was impossible to look at it. When it faded, Jesus was at His Mother’s feet, not her womb. This was a private revelation, so private piety rather than Church teaching – but it is particularly interesting in the light of the book recently published that purports to be a translation of the memoirs of the Magi. In that book, apparently, the star that the Magi follow is identified as Jesus himself.

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