First, I must acknowledge that there is no explicit verse that directly settles this issue. At the same time, I don't think that an explicit verse is necessary to prove that something is scriptural. I think that if a doctrine is implied in Scripture or logically follows from what we find in Scripture, and if there is nothing in Scripture that directly refutes it, then that belief can be considered scriptural. I think most people agree with me on that point, but it bears repeating, especially when considering the Marian dogmas. When it comes to Catholic beliefs about Mary, people tend to place demands on the evidence they will accept that are way more stringent and unyielding than the demands that they place on their own beliefs.
The Devil and the Woman
That said, on to the evidence. The best place to start is at the very beginning, with the words of God to the serpent after it has been exiled from the Garden of Eden:
Gen 3:15 I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel."The passage is called the Protoevangelium (or "first gospel") because it is the first time in Scripture where we see the promise of a Savior for mankind. While, literally, the woman in question is Eve, many scholars admit that Mary fulfills this prophecy. After all, it is her seed, Jesus Christ, who will crush the head of the serpent, defeating Satan with His own Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
But, this passage also says something about the woman. It says that God will place "enmity" between her and the serpent. Enmity is a state of animosity and direct opposition. The woman and the serpent are utterly at odds with each other. They are mutual enemies. What's more, the serpent cannot conquer her, no matter how hard he tries. We see this enmity played out in the Book of Revelation where, again, the woman and the serpent (this time, a full-fledged dragon) are at odds with each other:
Rev 12:13-17 And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with the flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river which the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.As much as the devil wants her, he cannot have her. Why? Because the woman has been spared by God. When I see all this play out, I am left to wonder: If the "woman" is in fact Mary, how has enmity been placed between her and Satan? How has Mary been spared by God? Could it be that God preserved her from the stain of original sin? Could it be that she is "the woman" who the devil could not have?
Beyond the plain fact that she is the mother of the offspring that will crush the head of the serpent, further support for identifying Mary with this "woman" is seen in Elizabeth's words to Mary in Lk 1:42 and Jesus' own way of addressing Mary in John's Gospel. I would like to take each one in turn.
In Lk 1:42, Elizabeth addresses Mary with words once spoken to Jael and Judith in the Old Testament. Compare this verse with Judges 5:24 and Judith 13:18:
Lk 1:42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!What's interesting about Jael and Judith is that both women are declared the most blessed above of all women. Why is this? Because in faith and courage they warded off enemy armies hostile to Israel. How did they do this? By literally dealing a mortal blow to the head of the commander of each army. Jael "put her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen's mallet; she struck Sis'era a blow, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple" (Judges 5:26). Judith, as we have just seen, was guided by the Lord to "strike the head of the leader of our enemies" (Judith 13:18).
Judges 5:24 "Most blessed of women be Ja'el, the wife of Heber the Ken'ite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
Judith 13:18 And Uzziah said to her, "O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to strike the head of the leader of our enemies.
Now, Elizabeth is declaring Mary to be "blessed among women." Yet how can Mary stand in line with Jael and Judith, of whom similar statements were made, unless she too dealt a crushing blow to the enemy? If Mary is the "woman" from Gen 3:15, then we know exactly how she did this: by bringing forth the offspring that would bruise the head of the serpent.
Jesus' own words of address to His mother are important here, too. In John's gospel, Jesus only refers to Mary as "woman." At the beginning of His ministry (cf. Jn 2:4), He says to her, "O woman, what have you to do with me?" (or, more literally, "Woman, what is that to me and to thee?" [DRB] or "Woman, what does that have to do with us?" [NAS]). On the Cross, upon the culmination of His saving work, He addresses her again: "Woman, behold, your son!" (Jn 19:26). In this, interesting parallels emerge between the "woman" who is the mother of Jesus and the "woman" of Gen 3:15 and Rev 12:
- Just as the "woman" appears in the books of Genesis and Revelation, at the beginning and the end of "the Word" (the written Divine Revelation of God), so too does Mary, the "woman", appear at the beginning and end of "the Word" Jesus Christ, the final word of the Father.
- The apostle John, a symbol of the Church, becomes the son of the "woman" Mary just as all those who "keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus" are the offspring of the "woman" from Rev 12 (cf. vs. 17).
The Ark of the Covenant
Another indication of Mary's sinlessness can be found in the parallel between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant from the Old Testament:
- Lk 1:28,31,42,45,48 (DRB) and Psa 93:5: Mary was a house of the Lord, and the house of the Lord is forever holy.
- Lk 1:35 and Exo 40:35: God overshadowed Mary just as He overshadowed the ark.
- Lk 1:39 and 2 Sam 6:2: Both Mary and the ark arise and go to Judah.
- Lk 1:41 and 2 Sam 6:16: David leaps with joy at the presence of the ark, just as John leaps at the presence of Mary.
- Lk 1:43 and 2 Sam 6:9: What David says at the coming of the ark is almost exactly what Elizabeth says upon the coming of Mary.
- Lk 1:56 and 2 Sam 6:11: Both Mary and the ark reside for 3 months in their new locations.
- Heb 9:4 and Jn 1:1; 6:51; Heb 5:4-5: Just as the ark of the Old Covenant contained the word of God on the stone tablets, the manna from heaven, and the rod of Aaron the great High Priest, so did Mary contain Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God, the Manna from Heaven, and the great High Priest.
[E]very time the expression is used in the Old Testament, it forms part of the stories surrounding the Ark of the Covenant. In particular, it refers to the melodic sounds made by Levitical singers and musicians when they glorify the Lord in song. It thus describes the "exulting" voice of instruments that were played before the Ark as David carried it in procession to Jerusalem (1 Chron 15:28; 16:4-5) and as Solomon transferred the Ark to its final resting place in the Temple (2 Chron 5:13). Alluding to these episodes, Luke connects this same xpression with the melodic cry of another Levitical descendant, the aged Elizabeth (Lk 1:5). She too lifts up her voice in liturgical praise, not before the golden chest, but before Mary. (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, "The Gospel of Luke," pg. 21).But what does "Mary as Ark" have to do with her sinlessness? Don't forget: the tablets, the manna, and the priestly rod that were contained in the Ark were the holiest of all Jewish relics and represented the very presence of God to the Jewish people. As such, the container or "ark" that held them had to be made of the purest and most perfect materials. The ark itself was considered so holy that no one was allowed to even touch it, lest they die (cf. 2 Sam 6:7; 1 Chron 13:9-10).
Just as the contents of the old covenant ark demanded a perfectly pure container, so does Christ, not as a matter of strict necessity (God could have took on human flesh from any woman) but because His holiness demands and deserves it. By preserving Mary from sin, God has prepared her to be the pure Ark of the New Covenant.
The Salutation of Gabriel
With this section, I am attempting to synthesize information taken from the following articles:
- Lk 1:28 and the Immaculate Conception: Linguistic and Exegetical Considerations
- Dialogue on the Exegesis of Lk 1:28 and the Immaculate Conception
- The Meaning of Kecharitomene: Full of Grace
- Translating Lk 1:28: "Highly Favored" or "Full of Grace"?
- Our Blessed Mother and the Saints: Kecharitomene
- White Man Can't Jump: A Response to James White's Book, Mary, Another Redeemer
- CRI's Attack on Mary: Part II
- How to Defend the Immaculate Conception
- Resources for Learning New Testament Greek
Now, let's turn to the Angel Gabriel's salutation to Mary:
Lk 1:28 (RSV-CE) And he came to her and said, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!"The Greek word that is being translated as "full of grace" here is κεχαριτωμένη (transliterated: kecharitomene), the perfect passive participle of χαριτόω (transliterated: charitoo), which denotes grace. Some versions translate kecharitomene as "hail, thou that art highly favored," but that doesn't really capture the full meaning of what the angel Gabriel is saying here.
For one, to translate charitoo as "favor" instead of "grace" is really to give a bare minimum translation of the word. Ultimately, kecharitomene is derived from the word χάρις (transliterated: charis): charis --> charitoo --> kecharitomene. The KJV translates charis as "grace" over 83% of the time. The KJV NT Greek Lexicon defines charitoo as "to make graceful, to peruse with grace" as it's primary meaning. When the favor is divine favor, "grace" is the better translation.
Various well-respected and scholarly reference works confirm this understanding. For example:
- "Charitoo can mean to Grace as in Luke 1:28 and Eph. 1:6, provided we understand that this grace is endowed by God..." [The Pocket Word Study of the New Testament, Atlanta Ga., Bernard & Brothers publishing, 1982, pg 348]
- "Charitoo...Highly favored as in Luke 1:28 meaning to bestow grace upon...it really does not mean to show favor, but to give grace to" [Lexicon To The Old and New Testaments, edited by Spiros Zodhiates, TH.D, 1988 Iowa Falls, Iowa, World Bible Publications Inc.Pg. 1739]
- "Charitoo: Grace. To Grace.. as to the virgin Mary in Luke 1:28,... as in Eph. 1:6 were believers are said to be "accepted in the beloved" i.e., objects of Grace" [The Complete Word Study Dictionary New Testament, copyright 1992, printed by AMG International, Inc. Pg. 1471]
- "Luke 1:28 This is all one word in Greek kecharitomene a perfect passive participle of the verb Charitoo (only here and Eph. 1:6)... Abbott- Smith defines Charitoo as follows: endow with charis i.e. 1. (a.) to make graceful; (b.) to endure with Grace (i.e. Divine favor)" [Word Meaning in the New Testament, copyright 1986, printed by Henndrickson Publishing, edited by Ralph Earle Pg. 52]
- "...Highly favored as in Luke 1:28 meaning to bestow grace upon...it really does not mean to show favor, but to give grace to" [Lexical Aides To the New Testament, copyright 1992, printed by AMG International, Inc., p. 966]
- "Charitoo. . . kecharitomene, full of grace, Luke, i. 28 (RV. in margin, endued with grace) " [Greek- English Lexicon to the New Testament, by W.J. Hickie M.A, 1945, p. 208]
- "Charitoo: to bestow grace upon, Lk 1:28 Ep 1:6" [The New Englishman's Greek Concordance and Lexicon, by Wigram - Green, 1982, p. 915]
- "28. kecharitomene... to bestow grace" [A Linguistic Key To The New Testament, copyright 1970, printed by Zondervan Publishing House, edited by Cleon L. Rogers, Jr. Vol. 1, Pg. 140]
- "Charitoo. . . to endue with grace... : Lk 1:28, Eph 1:6" [A Manual Lexicon of the New Testament, by G Abbott- Smith D.D, D.C.L., 1929, p. 480]
- "Charitoo: akin to A., to endow with charis, primarily signified to make graceful or gracious... Luke I:28 'Highly favoured' (Marg., 'endued with grace')" [Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, (unabridged edition), by W. E. Vine, printed by Riverside Book and Bible House, Pg. 424]
You get the idea. Now that we know that charitoo is better understood in this instance as "grace" and not simply "favor," we must now consider what the perfect passive participle would mean.
The website NTGreek.org, which provides instruction on the Koine Greek of the Gospels, tells us (here) in the section "Grammatical Voice of Verbs" that the passive voice indicates that the subject of the sentence is being acted upon (instead of performing the action, which is the active voice). Further down on this same page, in the section on "Verb Tenses" we learn that the perfect tense indicates that this action was completed in the past, with results that continue into the present and are in full effect. The action is the giving of grace. So, kecharitomene, the perfect passive participle of charitoo, would literally mean, "you who were and continue to be full of and completed in grace." Blass and DeBrummer's Greek Grammar of the New Testament says [emphasis mine]: "It is permissible, on Greek grammatical and linguistic grounds, to paraphrase kecharitomene as completely, perfectly, enduringly endowed with grace." This supports Mark Bonocore when he says (here) that kecharitomene literally means "perfectly graced" or "completed in grace."
This is the single instance in all of Scripture where the verb charitoo is used in this way. There is a completeness here with a permanent result. There is a fullness and a perfection to the grace that Mary has received. She wasn't given grace like we are given grace. She was filled with grace, completed in grace, perfected in grace, and this fullness of grace persisted, it continued up to and through the present.
Put aside your presuppositions for a moment and just look at the evidence. This is amazing what has happened here! Note that sin and grace are opposed (Rom 5:20-21), and grace saves us from sin (Eph 2:5,8). Where there is fullness of grace, there is no room for sin. That's why we claim that Lk 1:28 points to the sinlessness of Mary.
Something else that is interesting about this word kecharitomene is that it is in the vocative case. NTGreek.org tells us (here) that the vocative is "the case of direct address. It is used when one person is speaking to another, calling out or saying their name, or generally addressing them." In other words, Gabriel is literally calls Mary "full of grace" as if that were her name.
This is important because in the Bible, a person's name often points to an essential element of that person's nature, or the person's defining characteristic. Jacob's name was changed to "Israel" because he wrestled with God. Abram was called "Abraham" because he was to be the father of many nations. Now the angel has called Mary by a different name: kecharitomene. No one in the Bible is so defined by the grace he or she has received that this state of grace becomes that person's name. Yet, so it is with Mary. More and more I think that, as we dig deeper into the meaning of kecharitomene, we find that Mary is a uniquely graced individual.
Blessed Are You Among Women
Elizabeth's words to Mary continue to be important here:
Lk 1:42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!We have already seen how Elizabeth's words echo similar exclamations from the Old Testament and how this confirms Mary's identity as the "woman" of Gen 3:15; Rev 12 and the Ark of the New Covenant. Even with all this, we have yet to exhaust the implications of this verse upon Mary's sinlessness. What I would like to address here is what the phrase, "Blessed are you among women" would have meant to the people of Elizabeth's time and culture.
The Greek here is attempting to express a Hewbrew/Aramaic idiom that Elizabeth is using in response to seeing Mary. The idiom is baruchah att minnashim, "blessed [are] you from women," which is another way of saying, "You [are more] blessed than [other or all] women." Hebrew and Aramaic do not have superlatives, but they do have ways of expressing the superlative sense: for example, "Holy of Holies" means "Holiest." Technically, this phrase in Lk 1:42 is a comparative, but when you have a comparative where one party is an individual and the other party is everybody else, it ends up with the force of a superlative. If Mary is more blessed than other women, then she is the most blessed of all women. It's a grammatical comparative with the force of a superlative.
You may be asking yourself, "Why is this important?" For some reason, most Catholic apologists simply point out that Mary was the most blessed of all women and they never tell the reader what bearing that has upon the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. I think the answer is found once we examine why it is that Elizabeth called Mary, "blessed among women."
The obvious reason, of course, is because Mary, out of all the women who have ever lived, was chosen to be the mother of our Lord. That certainly makes her the most blessed woman there ever was. But, I think there is also another reason. After all, Mary said of herself, "henceforth all generations will call me blessed" (Lk 1:48). Why? "for he who is mighty has done great things [plural] for me" (Lk 1:49). Her unique motherhood would only be one thing. So, what else has God done in her life that has made her more blessed than any other woman?
I think that something else is the unparalleled divine favor, or grace, that He has given her. Within the context of the account of the Annunciation and the Visitation, the Incarnation and her miraculous motherhood is ever present. But, her very real gracefulness is there too. "Hail, O favored one" [or "full of grace"] (Lk 1:28); "you have found favor with God" (Lk 1:30); "My soul magnifies the Lord" (Lk 1:46).
Why else did God choose her above all other women to be the mother of our Lord? What was it about this particular woman that made her suited for the task? Only Catholics have an answer to that question, and we believe that it is found in the words of the angel. The Holy Spirit overshadowed her and caused our Savior to be conceived within her because God had already prepared her for motherhood by filling her with his grace. Thus, she is "blessed among women" not just in her motherhood but in the preparation for motherhood that she received.
Taken together, Scripture provides some very strong indications that Mary's grace-filled life precluded sin. The early Church, through meditating upon these examples and with the guidance of the apostles and their successors, came to understand that Mary was a creature whom God had spared from the stain of original sin and who, consequently, committed no sins in her life. See, for example, the following collections of early Christian witness:
- Mary: Full of Grace
- Immaculate Conception of Mary
- The Early Church Fathers on the Immaculate Conception
There is really no point in history in which this was not the common belief of all Christianity until the Protestant Reformation, one thousand and five hundred years after the birth of the Church. I realize that some Protestants couldn't care less about that, but to me that is very significant. The mere novelty of the Protestant objection is I think the first mark against it.
In Part 2, I will tackle some of the objections that are often raised against this dogma.