Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Short Exegetical Argument

A couple of weeks ago, after attending Midnight Mass for Christmas, a friend of mine inquired about the apologetics problem that often arises in discussion of Matthew's infancy narrative. The passage in question is at the end of the first chapter of that Gospel, which reads: "When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus" (Mt. 1:24-5; RSV). The problematic phrase, highlighted in this excerpt, is sometimes used to argue against the Virginity of Mary during and after the birth of Christ. Of course, for Catholics, the consistent teaching on the Virginity of Mary is that she is semper Virgo, always Virgin - in the words of Saint Augustine, quoted in the Catechism, "concipiens Virgo, pariens Virgo, Virgo gravida, Virgo feta, Virgo perpetua: a Virgin conceiving, a Virgin bearing, a Virgin pregnant, a Virgin bringing forth, a Virgin perpetual" (CCC 510).

However, according to the argument, the word "until" from Matthew's birth narrative makes it plain that the abstinent marriage of Joseph and Mary ceased after the Nativity of Christ.

At the time my friend brought this up, I made reference to him of various other passages in Scripture where the word for "until" - donec in the Latin, eos in Greek - simply denotes passage in time and doesn't imply anything about what comes after. (In fact, there's nothing essential about the meaning of the word in English that it would imply a change in a course of events coming after the moment modified by "until" - it simply has come to be that we use the word thus idiomatically. English authors have sometimes used the word in its literal sense simply as a way of describing a passage in time without setting up some kind of apposition. For example, one could write, "We were in the restaurant until around 1:00 when Bob showed up, and he sat down and had lunch with us. We spoke about many things." Here, the implication is clearly not that we left the restaurant after Bob showed up; the "until" simply takes care of describing the expanse in time before he did arrive.)

The reason I bring this up this week is that the Old Testament reading for today's Mass gives us an instance of this usage of the Scriptural "until" that illustrates the kind of reading one should give Matthew's. In Isaiah, the Prophet describes the Lord's Servant in this way: "He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth, and the coastlands wait for his law" (Isaiah 42:4). This is the same word "until" as we have in Matthew 1:25. And here, we can clearly see that what the Servant is not doing before (failing and being discouraged) doesn't suddenly begin happening after justice is established. In fact, this usage relates perfectly to the passage in Matthew because it is idiomatically very similar in its use of a negative description in the time described by the "until." Just as the Servant did not suffer discouragement or failure before and neither will start to suffer them after justice comes to pass, so Mary and Joseph had no relations before and none after the birth of their Son. At least, while the text may not establish certainly that it was NOT the case (either that the Servant then suffered or that Mary and Joseph became intimate), it doesn't necessarily imply the contrary.

If anyone has any examples at the ready from English literature, I'd appreciate them: I know this usage of "until" is a common formula which I've come across, I just can't recall where at the moment. For whatever reason, Dickens seems to come to mind. Anyone have any more thoughts?

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