An excavated insula in CapernaumIn Part I of this series, we examined the need to view the entire Christmas story arc, and in Part II we discussed the probability of Jesus’ birthday on Sukkot (mid-September to early-October), as opposed to the semi-synchretistically chosen date of December 25.

In this installment, we will examine Jesus’ parents, comparing common belief/depiction of them to a contextual probability of who they were.

Marriage Customs

In Middle-eastern Jewish culture in the first century, like today, girls are considered to have reached an “age of accountability” at the age of twelve, or their first menstruation, whichever comes first. Upon reaching that age, the family would search for a prospective future mate for their daughter.

Upon finding an appropriate “match”, the families would gather together and announce a betrothal between the daughter (the lesser party, in that culture) of one family and the son (the greater party) of the other family. In that celebration, a blood sacrifice (typically a goat) would be made and a binding covenant declared between the families. Once declared, the betrothal could only be nullified in agreement between the two families, without cause. If there was cause, such as infidelity, to break the covenant, the patriarch of the family violating the covenant could be subject to death, if the offended family so desired. This was a serious thing! (See here for more information on the bloodpath ceremony, which also has significance in the Easter story.)

In the Galilee region, once a betrothal was declared, the son would build a room onto his family’s house, preparing it as a place for he and his bride to live (these multi-room, multi-family houses, called insula, have been extensively excavated in Galilee cities in the past several decades). Once the father of the bridegroom decided that the time was right for the wedding to come about, he would tell his son, and the entire family would go to pick up the girl and bring she and her family back for the wedding celebration. At the culmination of the first night of the wedding feast, the bride and groom would enter their new home together and consumate the marriage (while everyone else waited and celebrated outside – talk about pressure to perform!). This image of bride and groom, preparation and wedding feasts is used in multiple stories told by Jesus.

But that’s a topic to examine a different day.

Mother Mary

All cultural indications from the Jewish culture and the Galilee region would suggest that Mary was 12-13 years of age at the time of her betrothal. Also, considering that most betrothal periods would last from 6 months to two years (at most), these cultural indicators would suggest that Mary was 12 – 14 years old when she received the visit from the angel Gabriel.

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18)

How often do we see Christmas reenactments on TV or at our churches in which Mary is a young twentysomething girl, as opposed to a 6th-, 7th- or 8th-grade girl? Not only that, but she’s 9 months pregnant!


If we only know a little bit about Mary, we know even less about Joseph.

Once again, if we follow Galilean Jewish tradition, Joseph would have been at least 13, though it is possible he was a few years older, since he is identified with a profession, which he would typically have learned from his father between the ages of 12 and 16.

There are a number of religious traditions which have suggested that Joseph was significantly older and a widower when he was betrothed to Mary. However, this came from the Catholic tradition which insisted this had to have been the case, specifically because of the belief that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth (a mistaken interpretation of Matthew 1:25). Thus, since Jesus had at least 4 brothers and 2 or more sisters (see Mark 6:3), many Catholics will argue that these siblings had to have come from Joseph via a prior marriage. However, this is highly unlikely and not supported by scripture. How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mary-uh?

In Matthew 1, we read about Joseph:

Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
So, already, we can see Joseph’s an honorable fellow, unwilling to have Mary and/or her father disgraced (or potentially, killed) for her “infidelity”. What we might miss, not knowing this culture, is that Joseph was, in turn, exposing himself to a great deal of public disgrace in not divorcing her.

In not taking action to distance himself from Mary, Joseph was de facto admitting that he was the father of Mary’s baby (which would have been seen as a moral failure on his part, in primary responsibility), which should have resulted in an immediate binding declaration of marriage (without celebration) and a disgrace to him and his family.

Hold this thought for a minute.

In Luke, we learn about the census of Caesar Augustus in approximately 4 B.C., and the events around Jesus’ birth.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David . He went there to register with Mary clomid without prescription, acquire clomid. , who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn .

This passage is all we have in the Bible about the events specifically around the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. And it begs some questions, based on the context we’ve discussed – questions that don’t often get asked.

1) If Joseph was of the house and line of David, so was his father. Since he was not yet married, it would be sufficient for his father or grandfather to register his family in the Roman census. Instead, we have a 15- or 16-year-old boy taking his 9-months’-pregnant, 13-year-old bride-to-be on a dangerous 40+ mile journey on foot (owning a donkey was a symbol of wealth, which does not seem to be indicative of Joseph’s circumstance). If he was not yet married, he should not have been responsible for registering his family-to-be. Why isn’t Joseph’s family with him?

2) There was no room for them in the inn. In the middle-east, hospitality is prized above almost all other social values, so for there to be no room – in a town from which Joseph is descendant – is very strange. No, make that incredibly strange. So – why would there be no room for a boy and his imminently expectant bride-to-be in a community which should have relatives, and where his father’s family should be staying?

Culturally, the best answer to these questions (and other similar ones) is that, in taking an obviously expectant Mary as his bride, Joseph was ostensibly admitting “guilt” in the circumstances. he had brought some degree of shame upon himself and his family, and was living out the consequences. This would explain why Joseph and Mary didn’t have any support from their extended families, why he would have to take Mary with him, and why nobody in Bethlehem would have room for them.

[NOTE: Another possibility which has been suggested is that Joseph had no extended family, but this does not make as much sense, as Joseph was learned in a profession - as a tekton, a mason - that would have required familial apprenticeship to learn.]

So What?

All too often, we paint an incredibly sanitized Christmas in our own cultural context, missing out on the desperate and dire circumstances of Jesus’ birth and the cultural lowliness and shame surrounding them. In trying to exalt Jesus (which is a good thing – don’t get me wrong), we miss how low God allowed himself to go on the cultural and societal ladder in entering this world.

He came in the circumstances of the lowliest of the low, exhalting Himself in serving all other people, and dying the worst of deaths on our behalf. If we do not let him be who he was, we cannot fully appreciate who he is and what he went through for us – in life and in death. clomid for cheap, generic clomid.


This entry was posted on Monday, November 24th, 2008 at 5:20 pm and is filed under Hebrew Context, Lessons, Religion/Philosophy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

10 Comments so far

  1. Lorianne Lozinski on November 26, 2008 8:05 pm

    very, very interesting.

  2. Craig Augenstein on December 3, 2008 1:04 am

    I’m enjoying this series. However, if we are truly “de-sanitizing” Christmas, lets be honest about history. The idea that Joseph was an older man, possibly a widower, is NOT a Catholic contrivance, nor is the perpetual virginity of Mary. In fact, the vast majority of Christians have always believed this to true from the very beginning (including the early reformers Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc.). Wide acceptance by some Christian groups of a young Joseph and a Mary that did NOT remain a virgin, is a very RECENT development.

    If you’re wondering where Joseph’s father and grandfather were, the answer is simple. No need to jump through hoops. They were already dead. Joseph was the head of his household and could very well have had one or two other offspring with him on this trip (perhaps James and/or Jude). There may actually NOT have been room at the inn.

    In those days, there would have been nothing at all unusual about this scenario. I know it doesn’t match the “Hallmark Card” “sanitized” image of the modern American manger scene. But it is very faithful to our SHARED Christian history. And, in fact, this is the view held by those who canonized the New Testament.

  3. Chris L. on December 3, 2008 11:15 am


    I’m going to have to disagree with you on this one. The tradition of the Mary’s perpetual virginity isn’t supported by Scripture, and seems to have arisen in the post-Jewish Christian church more than a century after Mary’s death in Ephesus (based on a supposed testimony of Mary’s midwife!?! – where the heck did she come from? – if there was no room in an inn, and there was no family to take them in, having the wherewithal to procure a midwife stretches the imagination more than a little bit).

    As for the reformers, you might want to check out my group blog, as I’m not all that big of a Cheerleader for Calvin, Luther and the boys (to say the least). My chief interest is in the first-century, first-generation church and their understanding of Jesus and God (in that context), skipping over the Reformation (and the Great Schism and the Roman codification under Constantine (which introduced some elements from Mithraism)).

    Matthew 1:25 even suggests that her virginity ended after Jesus’ birth. The only Jewish sect we know of to have institutionalized vows of celibacy were the Essenes, and neither her cultural context (nor Church history) suggest that she was an Essene. Paul, who was Pharisee (not Essene), from the accounts of Josephus, would have been seen as ’strange’ for his single status, though he justified his choice in his writings, based partially on the immediacy of coming persecution. We have no such reference or justification for Mary to have been miraculously, perpetually, a virgin.

    [Just to note, the veneration of Mary most likely arose from the (traditional) fact that she outlived all but one of the Twelve (save John), and that she was a prominent figure in the Ephesian church, accorded a great deal of respect as Jesus' mother. As such, she was the most prominent physical connection of the Gentile church to Jesus - she was seen and known by many in the early church - since there is no record of Jesus' resurrected incarnation appearing to Gentiles, since he ascended prior to Pentecost.]

    Back to Bethlehem – even if Joseph’s father & grandfather were dead, he would have had relatives in Bethlehem, and it would have been shameful for them to have not made room for Joseph and his wife. Additionally, the word we translate “inn” (kataluma is better translated ‘guest quarters’), often referred to space on the roof of one’s home. It is doubtful there was some sort of public hotel, as we experience them, in Bethlehem. At best, there was the equivalent of a B&B, where you normally had some sort of relationship with the owner. To not make room for two relatives – even if they were distant relatives, and even if only on the roof of your own home – would have been (and in the middle-east, still would be) a HUGE social faux pas that could only be justified by a blood feud or some sort of shunning.

  4. Craig Augenstein on December 4, 2008 1:46 am

    No prob. I didn’t really expect you to agree :) First, THANK YOU for recognizing the difference between “veneration” and “worship.” You’d be surprised how many people don’t get that. Worship is ONLY reserved for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The next person that calls me a Mary-worshipper gets slugged (in Jesus’ name, of course).

    I am also greatly encouraged that you have opted not to fawn all over the Reformers.

    The reason more details are not included in scripture about Mary is because the scriptures aren’t about her. They are about Christ. Christianity is not based on the Bible, its based on Christ. The Bible is a divinely-inspired collection of books that constitute a written record of Christ which the church deemed suitable to be read in its services.

    Scripture is part of the tradition of the church. But it does not contain all that is known.

    I’ve never heard of the midwife story, but I have no problem imagining that a building full of people would contain at least one compassionate woman who could come out to assist in the birth. I’ve never heard that story, but I don’t see why that would be a stretch.

    Here’s what I think is a stretch: We accept that an angel came to a teenage girl, told her the Holy Spirit would impregnate her, she gave her consent, the angel appeared to Joseph and clued him in too, then the second person of the Holy Trinity (the divine LOGOS – God the Son – creator of heaven and earth) grew to term in her womb, His cousin John the Baptist greeted him while still in-utero, Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, gave birth to the incarnate GOD… in a manger… in a cave, wise-men from the East were guided by a special star… to worship the baby, angels appeared to SHEPHERDS and told them to go worship a baby. Then Mary and Joseph raised this god-man as a child to maturity… etc. etc. These we all accept as fact.

    BUT… the very thought that a married woman can live without sex? Whoa Kemosabe! That’s just too much to handle. We can’t possibly believe that. What are we crazy?

    Constantine has nothing to do with this. We know the tradition of an aged Joseph and a perpetual virgin Mary goes back way farther than that. The “Protoevangelion of James,” while not canon scripture, relates these traditions. It is an apocryphal work, yes, and written in poetic language. But, Origen directly cites it in the 2nd century. Which puts these traditions much earlier. This has nothing to do with the Catholic church “needing” a perpetual virgin. It is simply what Christians have always known about her.

    One thing we DO know from scripture: Joseph was gone by the time Christ was crucified and Mary had no offspring. How do we know? Because Christ entrusted her to the apostle JOHN’s care. Talk about a major faux pas! This is far more unthinkable than not finding room at the inn. In Jewish society back then, why on earth would Jesus entrust Mary to someone OTHER than family if she had a husband and other children?

    Think about this for a minute. GOD lived in Mary for 9 months… GOD PHYSICALLY LIVED in a person! Our God, who is a consuming fire, took up residence inside a teenage girl, by her consent.

    We call Mary holy, because God lived in her. Whatever He touches is holy. Moses couldn’t even LOOK at God, much less CONTAIN God, and his face was blindingly radiant.

    We call Mary blessed because God blessed her. The angel said so: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Mary was right when she said “henceforth all generations will call me blessed,” they have.

    We call Mary the “Mother of God” because the child in her was God. He was born of her. She’s His mother. She gave Him flesh. Elizabeth recognized this when she testified by the power of the Holy Spirit that she was the “Mother of my Lord.”

    This is straight out of scripture, not some folk-tale. She was obviously SPECIAL with a capital S. This HAD to affect her drastically, don’t you think?

    Would Joseph feel comfortable having sex with her after this? I sure wouldn’t if I were him. She received a special calling by God. She was faithful to Christ to the end. She is the icon of Christian faithfulness. She said YES to God, and followed him to the end.

    Christians honor (venerate) her because GOD honored her. We honor her because of who she is not because of some story from a supposed midwife in Ephesus.

  5. Chris L. on December 4, 2008 6:05 pm


    Believe it or not, but it’s unusual (and quite nice) to be able to have civil, but disagreeing, discourse on the ‘net… Thank you!

    Scripture is part of the tradition of the church. But it does not contain all that is known.

    I would agree, though I would note that any tradition/interpretation apart from Scripture is conjecture (even if very well-informed, nearly certain conjecture, as in some cases), and needs to be accorded a proper level of uncertainty.

    I’ve never heard of the midwife story, [...] but I don’t see why that would be a stretch.

    As with the idea of post-marital virginity, neither idea fits culturally with first century Israel.

    When reading the Bible, there are three primary cultural lenses to consider – Ancient Hebrew (the OT), Second-Temple Hebrew (the Gospels), and Hebrew within Hellenism (Acts – Revelation). Unfortunately, all too often, we inject our own cultural context (or European/Greek contexts from Church fathers and theologians in between) into the story.

    I think it is best to assume, from the Text and from contemporary accounts (such as Josephus) that Jesus, Mary, Paul and the Apostles were all Jewish, from birth to death. Even after Pentecost 33 AD, the Apostles worshiped in synagogue. It is not until after the fall of Jerusalem (70 AD) that the Jewish and Christian traditions diverge, with the divergence mostly completed after the Bar Kochba Revolt (135 AD).

    So, with those dates in mind, we are pretty safe in our assumption that Mary was a pious Jewess, and not a God-fearing Greek.

    In Jewish culture, everything in life is a gift from God. As such, when married, sexual intercourse is a gift to be enjoyed, both for pleasure, and to carry out the first command in Torah (Gen 1:28). In the Jewish culture, maintaining virginity post-marriage would be considered sinful and an insult to God – a rejection of a gift given, not an ‘honor’ to Him.

    However – the Greek Gnostic movement (condemned by Paul and the Apostles) held to a dualism between “flesh” and “spirit”, in which all things of the flesh are evil (which would include sex) and are things that should be denied, whereas all things of the spirit are good. This movement was at a peak in the first and second centuries, and would have seen marital maintenance of virginity as a virtue.

    Greek asceticism also arose during this time period, which took a chunk of gnostic philosophy, extending it to eschew all thing which are pleasurable as “carnal”. Again, this philosophy, which was prevalent in parts of the second and third-century church, would have seen marital maintenance of virginity as a virtue.

    In both of these Greek philosophies (and in much of the early non-Jewish Christian church), abstinence from sexual intercourse (along with long periods of fasting, etc.) would be seen as “denying the flesh” – which all boils down to the Greek view (based on human perspective of what is pleasurable and unpleasurable) versus the Hebrew/Eastern view (based on the perspective of God, and what is meant to be pleasurable and what is not).

    BUT… the very thought that a married woman can live without sex? Whoa Kemosabe! That’s just too much to handle. We can’t possibly believe that. What are we crazy?

    My case in point (culturally) – you are approaching this from a Western view, which is self-centric, “the thought that a married woman can live without sex”…

    No, where I am trying to come from is a Second Temple Jewish perspective (since Mary was a Second Temple Jew) which says “The thought that a woman who was so godly would turn around and insult Him by refusing His gift is difficult to believe”.

    The most ascetic Jewish sub-culture we know of were the Essenes (who were Levites, unlike Mary) – We know that there were Essenes who took a vow of celibacy, though they were not the norm. While Q’umran was all-male, most evidence points to it as a place of retreat, not for full-time living of all of its members. In fact, from the Dead Sea Scrolls, we know that many of the Essenes were married, and did not see abstinence within marriage as a virtue. Again, if you were married, part of your covenant with God was to go forth and multiply, and to marry without accepting all of the gifts of marriage would have been an insult – to God.

    So, to boil it down, coming from the original context, I would suggest it is highly unlikely that Mary would have remained a virgin, because to do so would have struck her (and her community) as sinful, not as God-honoring.

    On the other hand, when her story was re-told centuries later by (Greek/Western, Hellenistic) gentiles, steeped in the influence of hellenistic, gnostic and ascetic philosophy, abstinence from sex within marriage would be seen as “denial of self” (rather than “denial of God”), and would be something commendable (venerating). Thus, I would conclude that perpetual virginity was an invention of the second- and third-century church tradition, and not from Mary of the Apostles.

    Now – back to the midwife.

    My reason for bringing up the “midwife” is because this is the earliest source that the story of Mary’s perpetual virginity is supposedly tied back to.

    It arises in the mid-second century (likely at least 100 years after the death of Mary and any potential midwife from AD1, Bethlehem), decades after the Bar Kochba Revolt (which means there there was likely little or no Jewish context to be had to even test the story for veracity). This happens right at the time that the church is, for the first time, almost exclusively Gentile, and also the same time that gnosticism is at its peak, creating all sorts of heresies within the church. With this in mind, traditions that confirm the biases of the culture while denying the original context ought to be treated similar to “friend-of-a-friend”/Urban Legends of today – possibly true, but highly suspect.

    Now – as to whether there even was a midwife – culturally, if you don’t have room for someone to stay in your home – even on the roof – then you certainly are not going to walk a mile or more into the countryside (since livestock and mangers are not kept within a town) to assist with the delivery of a child. It would be like you asking me to give you $5, and me turning you down, but then handing you the keys to my car (with a full tank) for the day. It just doesn’t fly.

    To close, the hermeneutical analysis I’ve been trying to learn and practice these past 15 years or so I would sum up as this – first, understand Scripture in the cultural context in which its listeners would have first experienced it. Next, apply what has been learned to our culture. In doing so, though, it is possible that you will jettison interpretations, conclusions and traditions that have arisen in the 1900 years after the last of the original authors died – especially ones that arose from missing the original culture and injecting the contemporary culture into the Scripture, instead.

    I understand the reasons we would honor Mary, and it seems – from a cultural standpoint, and from what is implied in Scripture – it would be much more honoring her to see her as a cultural Jew, who received a special calling from God, and who lived out her days in obedience and deference to God and Torah. As such, she would not have denied God’s gift in her betrothal to Joseph, but would have fulfilled it joyfully, as all of us married believers should, in celebration of a good gift given…

  6. Craig Augenstein on December 9, 2008 1:16 pm

    I’m so sorry it has taken me this long to respond. The closer we get to Christmas the busier life gets, forgive me. Yes, I enjoy discussions like this too. Frankly, though, writing on blogs is a little outside my comfort zone. These kinds of discussions, for me, usually include a pint of ale at the corner pub. But, I’ll do my best.

    Perhaps it is fitting that I finally found the time to reply on this important day on the Church calendar. It will help me to clear up a misconception from your earlier post. December 9 is the feast of the “Conception of the Theotokos” (“Theotokos” is the Greek word for “God bearer”). Yes, today we celebrate the conjugal union of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna. The idea that sex within marriage is somehow “bad” or “unclean” is completely foreign to the Orthodox Church. In fact, in many icons of today’s feast, you will actually see Mary’s parents hugging each other in their conjugal chamber with their bed in the background. It is seen as a very holy act. We actually celebrate three such conceptions during our church year, those of Mary, Christ, and John the Baptist.

    I must emphasize at this point that Orthodox Christians emphatically reject the Western doctrine of Immaculate Conception. God did not bestow “merits” upon Mary to tidy-up any sinful stain which may have been transmitted to her. If He had intervened in any such way Mary would not be fully human as we are. If Mary is not completely human then Christ cannot be fully human either. If He is not fully man and fully God, we are still lost in our sin. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception grew out of the Western concept of Original Sin, that somehow the guilt of Adam’s sin is passed down to each successive generation (we reject this concept too, but that’s another discussion).

    So, why celebrate today?

    We celebrate true worship and thanksgiving to God. Joachim and Anna’s story contains both. They were godly people. Anna was the youngest daughter of the priest Nathan from Bethlehem, a descendant from the tribe of Levi (so don’t be so quick to rule out an Essene connection). Joachim was from Galilee. These two were barren. You’re correct; barrenness was a bad state if you were an ancient Jew. Both prayed fervently to God. As we often see in the Bible and in history, Anna promised God that if she conceived, she would dedicate her offspring to His service in the temple. He granted their request and they followed through on their promise with joy and thanksgiving.

    Mary spent her childhood with other virgins under the care of the priests. When she was about 12 or so and beginning mature it was not proper for her to remain. Joseph, a widower, was chosen to care for her. And that’s where the biblical narrative picks up.

    There really is nothing fantastically unbelievable at all about this story. An important story to remember is the story of Hanna in the Old Testament (see 1 Samuel 1). It’s the same story. It is my opinion that as a young Jewish girl in her circumstances, Mary would have been very attached to the story of Hanna and it would have been a beloved story by her. Evidence that this was the case is the beautiful hymn that Mary sings in Luke 2:46-55 (the “Magnificat”). Compare the similarities to the song of Hanna in 1 Samuel 2:1-10.

    Your argument, Chris, relies on an assumption. You assume that if there is no written record of an event, it is automatically suspect or conjecture. If this were the case, then we should be very skeptical of the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their histories weren’t written down until many generations after the events took place. But, we have confidence in their stories because they were faithfully passed down within the community of believers. It’s part of the Jewish family tradition. It’s the same thing here. The story of Joachim and Anna didn’t appear out of thin air, it was passed down.

    There are several instances of this throughout scripture. Another example comes from the New Testament. Paul mentions the names of the two magicians who resisted Moses in 2 Timothy 3:8. Those names aren’t recorded anywhere in the Old Testament. How could he possibly know them? Simple, it was part of known tradition which was passed down. Do we doubt those names because we don’t see them written in Old Testament scripture? Of course not. Why should we?

    Yes, the Bible is authoritative. However, it has authority because the community (the church) gives it that authority. It is part of the “family tradition” of the church. Answer this question: Does the Bible give the church the right to exist, or does the church give the Bible the right to exist? Well, that’s another discussion.

    As far as Greek Hellenization, that took place before Christ. The first century Jews lived in a Greek-speaking world. The version of the Old Testament they were using was the Septuagint (Greek translation). Most of them didn’t even speak Hebrew. To this day, the Orthodox Church continues to use the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. Whenever Christ or his apostles quote the Old Testament, it is almost always the Septuagint which is being quoted.

    Neither the Jews nor the Greeks “corrupted” Christianity. The message of Christ and the apostles was offensive to both. Christians believe Christ joined Divinity to Humanity. The Jews could not accept Christ’s divinity (that he could be God). The Greeks could not accept Christ’s humanity (that God could take on human flesh). Thus Christ crucified was a “stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” In other words, BOTH camps rejected Him. But as the “chief cornerstone which the builders rejected,” he joined both of these walls, both the Jews and the Greeks. The church was born in that world, not in Constantinople.

    Your assumption that Gnosticism or Greek philosophers somehow corrupted early Christianity is also unfounded. The very incarnation of Christ disproves it. God took on flesh. He took on matter. This is totally offensive to Gnostics and Greeks. They were the ones who tried to “spiritualize” Christ. Christians, however, believe flesh and spirit are ONE. No duality whatsoever! Our spirits do not inhabit our bodies (that is a Gnostic teaching).

    So, the concept of “evil flesh” vs. “good spirit” is foreign to Christianity. In the Orthodox Christian Church today, as always, we believe matter MATTERS. God created all matter and it is therefore good. Christ also sanctified all of creation when his body was baptized in the Jordan. He used existing matter in his first recorded miracle in Cana (water into wine). He used existing matter when healing blind men (spit and mud), He raised dead flesh (Lazarus and two others), He used existing matter when he fed the 5,000 and the 4,000 (loaves and fish). He sent demons into swine. And he uses bread and wine to feed us His body and blood.

    In our churches you will see LOTS of matter. You’ll see pictures (icons) of Christ, His mother, the Saints, the Cherubim, etc. We light candles, we kiss, we are anointed with oil, sprayed with water, eat bread, wine, and wheat. Our worship is completely tactile, messy, fleshy, and absolutely beautiful. It is a celebration of God’s creation, not a denial of it. We worship a God who is “everywhere present and fills all things.” If a Gnostic or Greek philosopher (and some Protestants, for that matter) entered the nave of one of our churches during worship he would probably run screaming. No, Christianity is not corrupted by Greeks, Gnostics or anyone else.

    So likewise, for us fasting is not a denial of the “evil flesh.” It is a tool we use on occasion to help us re-direct our wills to God. It is seen throughout the Old Testament. Directing the will toward oneself is the opposite of Love. That’s what separated mankind from God in the first place. Love, on the other hand, is self-emptying, putting the other before oneself. These is why in order to follow Christ, one must first deny himself and take up his cross.

    Therefore, since increased love and communion with God are the primary goals, fasting is only permitted when it is accompanied by increased prayer and almsgiving (acts of mercy). Those are the requirements we see in Matthew 6. And we do it only within the community of the body, the church, not individually. This is not “works salvation” this called being ourselves. We believe that to “love your neighbor as yourself” does not mean to love your neighbor as you love yourself (the opposite of love). It means that when you love your neighbor you are actually BEING yourself. Not to love your neighbor, is a failure to be what you were created to be (i.e., sin). Besides, let’s face it, if you cannot deny yourself a Whopper from Burger King from time to time, how can you expect to lay down your life for your brother?

    Well, I’ve already said enough. I better stop. Sorry for the lengthy response. I would love to talk to you about Constantine because I think modern Christians use him as an easy target when they run into things they don’t like about Christianity. But that’s a topic for another day.

    In Christ,

  7. Chris L. on December 10, 2008 6:55 pm

    Frankly, though, writing on blogs is a little outside my comfort zone. These kinds of discussions, for me, usually include a pint of ale at the corner pub. But, I’ll do my best.

    I’ve gotten much more used to it than I was several years ago (though it’s pretty calm on this blog, the group one I manage is pretty rough and tumble…)…

    You assume that if there is no written record of an event, it is automatically suspect or conjecture. If this were the case, then we should be very skeptical of the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their histories weren’t written down until many generations after the events took place. But, we have confidence in their stories because they were faithfully passed down within the community of believers. It’s part of the Jewish family tradition. It’s the same thing here. The story of Joachim and Anna didn’t appear out of thin air, it was passed down.

    I do appreciate historical context, but you’ll have to forgive me if I take all of it (including what I dig up in my own studies) with a grain of uncertainty.

    I’ve actually put in a great deal of study these past few years on the topic of Oral Histories (primarily to lend support to them, not to call them into question), so I hear where you’re coming from. However, I would point out that the Hebrew Oral histories were a product of a pre-print culture, whose primary means of communication was communal and oral. Both of these components actually lend themselves to a more reliable legacy than that of written/recorded knowledge.

    However, the advent of parchment and institution of libraries and the rise of the individual have made oral histories much less reliable – beginning in about 400 BC for Greek culture and in about 200 AD for Hebrew culture (resulting, for instance, in the need for the Jews to record the Talmud, rather than continue carrying on the Oral Traditions separately from Torah). As such, the early church (post 70-AD), as a primarily Greek/Gentile institution is not as reliable at passing of oral history as the Hebrew culture (whose members had much of Scripture memorized by age 12-14). [For more background on this, I'd suggest Brad Young, Richard Moseley and David Bivin (theologically), and Neil Postman (technologically).]

    As far as Greek Hellenization, that took place before Christ. The first century Jews lived in a Greek-speaking world. The version of the Old Testament they were using was the Septuagint (Greek translation). Most of them didn’t even speak Hebrew. To this day, the Orthodox Church continues to use the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. Whenever Christ or his apostles quote the Old Testament, it is almost always the Septuagint which is being quoted.

    Actually, there is a good deal of evidence that the religious Jews of the first century still spoke Hebrew – predominantly when dealing with religious discussion – and that the use of the Septuagint was primarily for the benefit of ‘God-fearers’ (see Bivin & Blizzard’s “Difficult Words of Jesus”). This is particularly evident in a number of phrases Jesus uses which are Hebraisms that have been translated to Greek, not original Greek phrases.

    Your assumption that Gnosticism or Greek philosophers somehow corrupted early Christianity is also unfounded.

    Maybe I wasn’t being very clear – I don’t see that they “corrupted” Christianity. Rather, I see that, as each generation experiences, certain teachings and interpretations are direct responses to ‘current’ cultural leanings.

    For example, it was assumed by many Christians that the earth was the center of the solar system, based on their interpretation of Scripture. However, when Galileo’s findings challenged that assumption, parts of the church developed explanations of how Galileo’s heliocentrism was a mistaken reading of the facts, whereas others adapted their interpretation of Scripture to match the evidence of Creation.

    [And today, we're dealing with 'postmodernism', and different streams are reacting in different ways, doctrinally, to deal with this cultural force. Does that mean that the church is being 'corrupted' by post-modernism? Not on the whole, though I think some churches have chosen an unwise embrasure of this philosophy.]

    Thus, when studying the origins of doctrine, it is always helpful to see what cultural streams were in play during the time that doctrine came about, and why the doctrines of the church at that time may have arisen.

    With the doctrine of perpetual virginity, I see a response to Gnosticism and Aseticism that is about 100-150 years too late to have come from eyewitnesses. The teaching that Joseph was a widower shows up 250-300 years later, in the Coptic “History of Joseph the Carpenter” (which is an apocryphal work).

    Now, contrast that with Matthew 1 -
    When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.
    Here, the second clause is completely unnecessary if perpetual virginity were the case – otherwise, it would be “But he had no union with her, even after she gave birth to a son.”

    I realize I’m probably stepping on toes here, somewhere, as I don’t know all that much about the EO church, so my apologies if my comments/questions are offensive.

    So likewise, for us fasting is not a denial of the “evil flesh.” It is a tool we use on occasion to help us re-direct our wills to God.

    I hope you don’t think I was suggesting that it was a ‘denial of the flesh’ – fasting arose out of a thankfulness to God’s provision, and (as with a Nazarite vow) was always seen as something done for a season, not permanently.

    My point with perpetual virginity is that it differs from fasting in its permanence (i.e. it’s not something done ‘for a season’), and it has no culturally positive ‘virtue’ associated with it, until more than a hundred years after Mary’s death – and then not even in her cultural context.

    It is like Shakespeare’s clock-tower that shows up in Julius Ceasar (hundreds of years before mechanical clocks were invented).

    I would love to talk to you about Constantine because I think modern Christians use him as an easy target when they run into things they don’t like about Christianity.

    My primary issue with Constantine was his institutionalization of Christianity, and some of the synchretism he may have introduced.

    Blessings -


  8. Craig Augenstein on December 18, 2008 1:16 am

    No worries, you’re not stepping on my toes. There is no offense taken. We simply have two very different perspectives.

    Your perspective seems very “archaeological” to me. It seems that you dismiss 2,000 years of Christian Tradition as “suspect” in favor of some sort of new light shown by modern day scholars who can dig more accurately into history. The assumption being that if we can just strip away all the “debris” and get to the heart of the matter we will have a pure understanding of Christ. That we will get into the “mind of the Apostles.”

    My perspective, however, is that Christ left us only ONE THING… His Church. If you want to find the mind of the Apostles you must first turn to His Church (remember, the Bible is a product of the Church. No church, no Bible. Anyone who claims the Bible as an authority is, whether he or she realizes it, affirming the authority of the Church which produced it).

    So I start with Christ, then the Apostles, then the post-apostolic fathers and so on. If you do this you will learn very quickly that there was NO BREAK in the Apostolic Faith. Many of the things modern Protestants like to say were later corruptions by the Catholic Church or Constantine, were in fact in place in the very beginning. They were passed down by the men who knew Christ and those whom they personally selected to succeed them.

    My approach is this. If I am going to trust anyone, it is NOT a modern day scholar trying to put puzzle pieces together. I’m going to trust the body that has preserved and passed down the “faith once for all delivered to the saints.” To appropriate a line from G.K. Chesterton, I’m going to give my “ancestors a vote.” I’m not interested in new novel interpretations. I’m interested in what has always been believed (incidentally this, for me, rules out BOTH Protestantism and Roman Catholicism).

    The Jewish mindset in Jesus’ day is important to know. But also know this, Jesus corrected the Jewish mindset of his day. He showed them that their scriptures were about HIM.

    As you say, there may be many lenses through which to view the Old Testament, but I believe there was only one lens used by the Apostles. They viewed the Old Testament through Christ. He brings all of scripture into focus.

    So, the ultimate question is the same question Christ asked Peter: “Who do you say that I am?”

    Who is Christ? Perhaps you and I simply answer this question differently.

    Anyway, if you’re interested in the Eastern Orthodox take on Mary, I recommend reading this article:

    It addresses many of the points you raise.

    In Christ,

  9. Carla on December 18, 2008 3:20 pm

    Okay – I’m confused. If scriptures are God-breathed, then why would you say the church created the Bible? As a believer in Christ I’m a member of “The Body of Christ” which is considered to be the church. Yes it is made up of men, but it is the “hands and feet” of God’s love. Jesus didn’t leave only His church. He gave us the Holy Spirit, which is God in us. No church can save us. It’s about a living relationship with God. Okay, so here’s where I get confused with your blog – “My perspective, however, is that Christ left us only ONE THING… His Church. If you want to find the mind of the Apostles you must first turn to His Church (remember, the Bible is a product of the Church. No church, no Bible. Anyone who claims the Bible as an authority is, whether he or she realizes it, affirming the authority of the Church which produced it).”

    Isn’t the Bible a product of God? You say No Bible, no church. But wouldn’t it be, no God would mean no Bible, no church. So then, no church, wouldn’t mean there is no God or no Bible, it would mean people aren’t reading it. The church is a product of God and His Bible.

    Also, knowing the Apostle’s mind helps understand some things, just as it helps to know what was going on historically and culturally. However, it’s the mind of Christ that enables us to understand God – and it is the center of the Apostle’s writing. They write of Jesus and His teachings. They write by the inspiration of God. It’s not about rules and laws. These rules and laws are recorded and they are important as they are a benchmark to show us what we are capable of doing and not doing, but it is God, through Jesus that freed us because of grace, and mercy, and love. Not by works, not by man, but by GOD.

    I don’t know if I’m making sense. Wish I was better at it.

    Okay, so would it be

  10. Craig Augenstein on December 19, 2008 2:27 am

    I wholeheartedly agree that Christ is the center of everything. We must first know Christ before any of this has any relevance. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees on who Christ is (I’m speaking only of Christians now). The method we use to come to know Christ will invariably affect how we view who He is.

    I’m not sure I should get too in-depth on this issue because it’s not directly related to the whole “Mary and Joseph” thing. But as their story is part of Christian History, I had to at least give history a nod.

    I also agree with you that the mind of the Apostles is how we learn about Christ. They were eye-witnesses to Christ. Christ is the foundation of the Church. The Church is based on Christ. The Bible is a written account of Him.

    You say it was given to us by God, but it most certainly did not fall out of the sky. Is it inspired? Yes. But written by men.

    The way the Apostles spread the Good News of Christ was by preaching about Him and occasionally writing some letters. Both the teachings of the Apostles and the letters they wrote were passed down WITHIN the body of believers, the Church.

    Some of those letters were read in the churches and continued to be read for many years.

    Some OTHER letters were also written which were not in keeping with the teachings of the Apostles or didn’t have the same weight. The Church decided that in order to avoid confusion it should make a decision as to which letters should and shouldn’t be read in Church.

    Eventually in 397AD The New Testament as we know it was officially canonized (at the Council of Carthage).

    In other words, the Church existed for nearly 400 years before it had “The Bible.” And it was the Church that decided which books were and weren’t to be included. When making their decision, they not only took authorship and antiquity into account, but they also based their decisions on whether or not a particular book agreed with what they had been taught, or what had been passed down to them. If a book didn’t hold up, it wasn’t included.

    In short, the authority of the Bible rests on the Apostolic Faith. The Faith gives the Bible its authority not the other way around. So, if you agree on the authority of the Bible, then you are implicitly agreeing with the decision of those who gave it to us.

    My point is this: Are we being completely honest with ourselves when we say the men who gave us the Bible were divinely inspired to the point of deciding which books to include… but NOT divinely inspired enough to understand what they meant? That’s an assumption that makes no sense to me. In fact, I think that assumption makes a joke out of Divine inspiration itself.

    None of this has anything to do with salvation or rules or “works salvation” or anything of that sort. Salvation comes by Christ alone and is a completely separate issue. I’ve not said, nor implied, anything about salvation.

    Nor am I denying the Holy Spirit. Far from it. I believe Christ DID send the Holy Spirit as He promised. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and descended upon the Apostles on Pentecost. That, in many ways is the birthday of the Church. Christ is the head of the Church and the Holy Spirit is what animates her. The Holy Spirit directed the Apostles and their preaching and writing and the Holy Spirit continues to direct the Church today.

    I disagree with the idea that all a person needs is his or her Bible and the “discernment of the Holy Spirit.” Proof that this doesn’t work is evident in the thousands upon thousands of denominations in existence today. They cannot all be correct and the Holy Spirit cannot be divided in what He says.

    Rather, I have a tremendous amount of faith in the Bible and find that it has so much more meaning and is much richer, more vibrant, and more USEFUL when understood within the Christian Tradition of which it is a part.

    I guess it bothers me that many Christians are so quick to reject Christian Tradition when that tradition doesn’t agree with what the “Holy Spirit” says to them on any given day, or doesn’t make sense to their “rational” minds, or doesn’t fit a “normal historical model.” Or worse… doesn’t fit their own PERSONAL interpretation of the Bible.

    There is much wisdom to be learned from Christians who went before us.

    Anyway, if you want to know more about where the Bible comes from, here’s a good article:
    “Which Came First: The Church or the New Testament”

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