Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Birth Pangs of Mary: Part 3

My critic responded to my latest post on the birth pangs of Mary. As usual, his words will be indented and italicized.

My friend, you just used the word, "witness." What those Fathers/Doctors stated was not a "witness," but a theological opinion, based on faulty reasoning. They did not OBSERVE (witness) Our Lady having no pains, and it seems awfully unlikely that she volunteered to the first Christians that she gave birth with zero pain.
You misunderstood my use of the word "witness." I didn't mean that they were all crowding around Mary when she gave birth, or that they received some special revelation from Mary about it. What I meant was that, with their writings, they are witnessing to a particular belief and tradition regarding Mary.

There is no record of such a thing in the scriptures nor in the earliest Church Fathers.
Don't speak so soon. There is in fact a substantial record on this point.

From the early Church fathers:
"[T]he report concerning the child was noised abroad in Bethlehem. Some said, ‘The Virgin Mary has given birth before she was married two months.’ And many said, ‘She has not given birth; the midwife has not gone up to her, and we heard no cries of pain’" (Ascension of Isaiah 11 [A.D. 70]).

"So the Virgin became a mother with great mercies. And she labored and bore the Son, but without pain, because it did not occur without purpose. And she did not seek a midwife, because he caused her to give life. She bore as a strong man, with will . . . " (Odes of Solomon 19 [A.D. 80]).

"Mary's virginity was hidden from the prince of this world; so was her childbearing, and so was the death of the Lord. All these three trumpet-tongued secrets were brought to pass in the deep silence of God." (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians, 19; c. 107 AD)

"Of Him then His mother's burden was light, the birth immaculate, the delivery without pain, the nativity without defilement, neither beginning from wanton desire, nor brought to pass with sorrow. For as she who by her guilt engrafted death into our nature, was condemned to bring forth in trouble, it was meet that she who brought life into the world should accomplish her delivery with joy." (St Gregory of Nyssa, Homily on the Nativity 388 AD)

"How can death claim as its prey this truly blessed one, who listened to God's word in humility, and was filled with the Spirit, conceiving the Father's gift through the archangel, bearing without concupiscence or the co-operation of man the Person of the Divine Word, who fills all things, bringing Him forth without the pains of childbirth, being wholly united to God? ... It was fitting that she who saw her Son die on the cross, and received in her heart the sword of pain which she had not felt in childbirth, should gaze upon Him seated next to the Father." (St. John Damascene, Second Homily on the Dormition of the Mother of God)

"So far as He was born of woman, His birth was in accordance with the laws of parturition, while so far as He had no father, His birth was above the nature of generation: and in that it was at the usual time (for He was born on the completion of the ninth month when the tenth was just beginning), His birth was in accordance with the laws of parturition, while in that it was painless it was above the laws of generation. For, as pleasure did not precede it, pain did not follow it, according to the prophet who says, Before she travailed, she brought forth, and again, before her pain came she was delivered of a man-child (Isaiah 66:7)." (St. John Damascene, On the Orthodox Faith, IV, 14)
For more from Scripture, the scholastics, popes, councils, and catechisms of the Church, see The Virginity of Our Lady In Partu: The Painless, Miraculous Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Instead, the Fathers/Doctors whom you mention apparently didn't WANT Our Lady to have suffered in giving birth, so they (mis-)reasoned that she could not have had pain. It is as though they approached the whole matter too "romantically" and not with reason.
On the contrary, they have very good reasons for their belief in the painless birth of Jesus.

For one, they see it as following from her preservation from original sin, since one of the results of the original sin is pain in childbirth. I realize you think Gen 3:16 means that God simply multiplied a pain that would have already existed, but the analysis from Brant Pitre that I provided seems to refute that claim. You'll have to prove otherwise before you can sell me on that point.

Secondly, a painless birth follows from the theological notion of Mary as eschatological icon. If Mary experienced the first-fruits of Christ's redemption in her own Immaculate Conception as the New Eve, it is easy to see why they would believe that she would similarly be able to taste the fruits of the eschatological age described by Isaiah (66:7-8), when women would be delivered from the curse of Eve.

The fathers provide other reasons too, which you can read in the quotes I provided. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, "For as she who by her guilt engrafted death into our nature, was condemned to bring forth in trouble, it was meet that she who brought life into the world should accomplish her delivery with joy" (Homily on the Nativity, 388 AD). According to St. John Damascene, it was fitting that the pain which is typically felt in childbirth would be for Mary reserved for Calvary, when she suffered with Christ to give birth to the Church.

I previously explained why a sinless Mary COULD have had pain, just as a sinless Jesus could have had, and did have, pain.
I never said that Mary was incapable of pain. I just said she didn't experience the pain of childbirth.

As a mother who suffered both at her Son's birth and death, Mary is an excellent role model for mothers of today. She would not be as good a model if she did not suffer in giving birth.
That doesn't follow any more than it would follow from her other unique prerogatives that she failed then to be a role model. Is she no longer a role model for us b/c she committed no sin? No. What about because she conceived by the Holy Spirit, or b/c she was a perpetual virgin, or b/c only she can say that her son was divine? All of these things make her unlike any other human being or woman, yet she doesn't fail for all these reasons to be an exemplar and role model for us. Well then, her painless childbirth should not disqualify her either.

The fact is that Mary is a role model for us because of these special gifts. They point to her as the realization of what we all hope to receive in Christ:
  • perfect sinlessness (Immaculate Conception);
  • purity, complete commitment to the Lord, life without pain (Perpetual Virgin);
  • resurrection of the body, new life in heaven, crown of glory (Assumption);
  • bearing Christ within us (Mother of God);
  • bringing His salvation to all the world (Coredemptrix)

Pax Christi,

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Birth Pangs of Mary: Part 2

Someone who I believe is a Catholic recently posted some words of criticism in response to my post from September on the birth pangs of Mary. I would like to respond to these criticisms. His words will be indented and italicized.
I'm sorry, my friend, but you are very wrong. The fact that Mary "did not receive the stain of original sin" did not render her incapable of physical pain in childbirth. Her Son experienced the most exquisite pain in the history of mankind even though He "did not receive the stain of original sin" and even though He was divine.

I believe that Mary could and did experience physical pain in giving birth to Jesus. Such pain is not necessarily a punishment for one's own sins. If it were, one would have to say that Jesus was a sinner.
Your logic doesn't follow. The original sin only guaranteed the pain of childbirth, not the pain (both physical and spiritual) of dying on the Cross for all man's sins. In other words, the preservation from original sin would remove the pain of childbirth, but not the pain that Christ experienced. The example of His pain doesn't really prove anything.

Some people have claimed that all pain in childbirth is the result of original sin. This is incorrect, and it arises from a misreading of Genesis 3:16. Note what that verse states (RSV): "I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing." Aha! Even before the original sin was committed, there was to be pain in childbearing. The sin caused that pain to be "greatly multipl[ied]." Had Eve given birth in the Garden of Eden, she would have felt pain -- just as our Blessed Mother did (even though she did not lose her virginity).
I find Dr. Brant Pitre's analysis of the passage to be more convincing. From a follow-up comment to his post on the birth pangs of Mary, we read:
While the English translation of Gen 3:16 make make it sound as if Eve experienced pain in childbirth before the Fall ("I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing" RSV), this is the result of a loose translation; the Hebrew original has no such implication. Literally, it reads "Great, great, will I make your pain and your travail" (Hb Harebah arbeh itzboneka weheroneka) (Gen 3:16). The Hebrew is simply a superlative meaning "Exceedingly great." There is no implication that pain in childbirth was pre-Fall; nor does the text of Genesis in any way suggest that Eve had children before the Fall. Indeed, when the literary unity of Genesis is taken into account, Gen 4:1 ("And Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain..") implies the opposite, with Cain as the first of a series of problematic first-born sons (Ishmael, Esau, Reuben, etc.)
I think that yours is the misreading.

That said, perhaps there can be a legitimate diversity of opinion regarding the pain that Mary experienced in giving birth to Jesus. I believe that Mary did not experience pain in childbirth and I am defending that belief, but as I understand it, Catholics are not bound to believe anything in particular about it. It is noteworthy that the early Church Fathers (as well as many medieval theologians and doctors of the Church) are unanimous in their belief that Mary did not experience this pain. I think that is a very strong witness.

Pax Christi,

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Jesus Was a Seamster

[Note: A seamster, one who sews garments, not a teamster, a member of a labor union]

One of the things I love the most about my job as a Director of Religious Education is that every day it affords me the opportunity to learn more about my faith, which has been a passionate hobby of mine ever since my conversion in 2002. Today, a parishioner called and asked if I would explain to her Jesus' words to the rich man, "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mt 19:24; cf. Mk 10:25; Lk 18:25). She was confused because sewing needles seemed to her to be a modern invention, and she seemed to recall a priest telling her once that the "eye of a needle" was actually a reference to a small passageway into a city.

I was delighted to help, primarily because I had always just assumed that Jesus was referring to a sewing needle and had never stopped to consider whether or not this was an anachronistic interpretation. Could Jesus be referring to something else here? I couldn't wait to find out!

What Exactly Is the "Needle"?

After about an hour reading through the various commentaries on my bookshelf and consulting sources online, I discovered that my initial reading of the text was correct. Jesus is indeed referring to a sewing needle.

Here are the sources that confirm this interpretation:

Robert Sungenis, The Catholic Apologetics Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, pg. 97:
Greek: ῥαφίδος (raphidos = needle). Some have understood this to refer to the passageway through a walled city, such that the camel would have to stoop to enter. But this has no precedent. Classical Greek (e.g., Corpus Hippiatricorum) and the LXX (Exo 27:16; 38:23 [37:21]) use the word ῥαφίδευτού (raphideutou = "needlework") containing the root ῥαφίδευ in reference to a needle for stitching.

Ronald Knox, A New Testament Commentary for English Readers, Volume 1: The Four Gospels, pg. 43:
In verse 24, there is no need for such ingenious conjectures as that the "camel" meant a kind of rope, or that the "Needle's Eye" was the name given to some gate-way. Our Lord deliberately exaggerates his effects; cf. Matthew 7:3.

David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, pg. 60:
Needle's eye. It is obviously impossible for the largest known animal in the region to pass through the smallest opening normally encountered. Late manuscripts and versions which substitute "cable" or "rope" for "camel," likewise commentaries which suppose the "needle's eye" refers to a small gate kept open in a large gate closed to protect a walled city, are later efforts to tone down Yeshua's starkly incongruous image.

Catholic Biblical Association, A Commentary on the New Testament, pg. 134:
To try to explain camel by a similar-sounding Greek word meaning "rope," or to interpret an eye of a needle as meaning a low gate in the walls of a city through which pedestrians, but hardly camels, can pass, are futile attempts to whittle down the force of Christ's words.

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible, pg. 438:
The eye of a needle, we are sometimes assured, is a metaphor; the reference is to a small opening giving independent access or egress through a much larger city gate. ... But this charming explanation is of relatively recent date; there is no evidence that such a subsidiary entrance was called the eye of a needle in biblical times.

Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Roland E. Murphy, The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Vol II: The New Testament, pg. 97:
24. easier for a camel: The figure of the camel and the eye of the needle means exactly what is said; it does not refer to a cable or a small gate of Jerusalem.

George W. Knight, The Illustrated Everyday Bible Companion, pg. 237:
NEEDLE. A tool for sewing. Jesus compared the difficulty of the wealthy reaching heaven with a camel passing through the eye of a needle (Matt. 19:24).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, "Needle":
Some writers have attempted to show that rhaphis referred to a small gate of a walled oriental city. No evidence of such a use of the word exists in the terms applied today in Biblical lands to this opening.

Easton's Bible Dictionary, "Needle":
Some interpret the expression as referring to the side gate, close to the principal gate, usually called the "eye of a needle" in the East; but it is rather to be taken literally.

Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament, "Matthew 19:24":
Jesus, of course, means by this comparison, whether an eastern proverb or not, to express the impossible. The efforts to explain it away are jejune like a ship's cable, kamilon or rapi as a narrow gorge or gate of entrance for camels which recognized stooping, etc. All these are hopeless, for Jesus pointedly calls the thing "impossible" (verse 26). ... The word for an ordinary needle is rapi, but, Luke (Luke 18:25) employs belonh, the medical term for the surgical needle not elsewhere in the N.T.

J. W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton, The Fourfold Gospel, "Mark 10:25":
It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. ... Lord George Nugent (1845-6) introduced the explanation that Jesus referred to the two gates of a city, the large one for the beast of burden, and the small one for foot-passengers. This smaller one is now called "The Needle's Eye", but there is no evidence whatever that it was so called in our Savior's time. In fact, as Canon Farrar observes, we have every reason to believe that this smaller gate received its name in late years because of the efforts of those who were endeavoring to soften this saying of Jesus.

Is It Likely That This Is What Jesus Was Referring To?

Of course, all of this begs the question: Is it likely that Jesus was referring to a sewing needle? Did people in his day even have sewing needles? Would Jesus and his audience have known of such things? The answer here is yes.

Wikipedia, "Sewing Needles":
The first needles were made of bone or wood; modern ones are manufactured from high carbon steel wire, nickel- or 18K gold plated for corrosion resistance. ... A variety of archaeological finds illustrate sewing has been present for thousands of years. The Romans left elaborate traces of their sewing technology, especially thimbles and needles. Even earlier Stone Age finds, such as the excavations on the island of Öland at Alby, Sweden, reveal objects such as bone needle cases dating to 6000 BC. Ivory needles were also found dated to 30,000 years ago at the Kostenki site in Russia.[3] The oldest needle in the world was made of bone, dated to Aurignacian and discovered in Potok Cave (Slovene: Potočka zijalka) in the Eastern Karavanke, Slovenia.[4] Native Americans were known to use sewing needles from natural sources. One such source, the agave plant, provided both the needle and the "thread."

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, "Needle":
This saying ought to be accepted in the same sense as Matthew 23:24, "Ye blind guides, that strain out the gnat, and swallow the camel!" Christ used them to illustrate absurdities. A rabbinical parallel is cited, "an elephant through a needle's eye." ... The fact that needles are not mentioned elsewhere in the Bible should not be taken to indicate that this instrument was not used. Specimens of bone and metal needles of ancient origin show that they were common household objects.

Catholic Biblical Association, A Commentary on the New Testament, pg. 134:
A camel through an eye of a needle is a proverbial expression meaning that something is impossible. Similar paradoxical expressions are found not only in the Talmud but also in Greek and Latin literature.

Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible, pg. 438:
"To contrast the largest beast of burden known in Palestine with the smallest of artificial apertures is quite in the manner of Christ's proverbial sayings" (H.B. Swete, The Gospel According to St. Mark, 3rd ed. [London: MacMillian, 1909], p. 229). In Jewish rabbinical literature, an elephant passing through the eye of a needle is a figure of speech for sheer impossibility (cf. Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berakot 55b).

Easton's Bible Dictionary, "Needle":
The Hebrew females were skilled in the use of the needle (Exodus 28:39; 26:36; Judges 5:30).

Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament, "Matthew 19:24":
The Jews in the Babylonian Talmud did have a proverb that a man even in his dreams did not see an elephant pass through the eye of a needle (Vincent). The Koran speaks of the wicked finding the gates of heaven shut "till a camel shall pass through the eye of a needle." But the Koran may have got this figure from the New Testament.

John Gill, Exposition of the Bible, "Matthew 19:24":
it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God: thus, when the Jews would express anything that was rare and unusual, difficult and impossible, they used a like saying with this. So ... to one that had delivered something as was thought very absurd, it is said, "perhaps thou art one of Pombeditha who make an elephant pass through the eye of a needle." ... And not only among the Jews, but in other eastern nations, this proverbial way of speaking was used, to signify difficulties or impossibilities. ... All which show, that there is no need to suppose, that by a camel is meant, not the creature so called, but a cable rope, as some have thought; since these common proverbs manifestly make it appear, that a creature is intended, and which aggravates the difficulty: the reason why instead of an elephant, as used in most of the above sayings, Christ makes mention of a camel, may be, because that might be more known in Judea, than the other; and because the hump on its back would serve to make the thing still more impracticable.

J. W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton, The Fourfold Gospel, "Mark 10:25":
The needle's eye here is that of the literal needle, and the expression was a proverbial one to indicate that which was absolutely impossible.

The various entries on embroidery were interesting to me because it confirmed in my mind that the Hebrew people were accustomed to using needle and thread, and were in fact quite skilled at it:

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, "Embroidery":
em-broid'-er-i (riqrnah; the King James Version Needlework): Riqmah was applied to any kind of cloth which showed designs in variegated colors. The method of manufacture is unknown. The designs may have been woven into cloth or drawn in by a needle or hook (Judges 5:30; Psalms 45:14; Ezekiel 16:10,13,18; 26:16; 27:7,16,24). Ma`aseh raqam is translated "the work of the embroiderer" in the Revised Version (British and American) instead of "needlework" (Exodus 26:36; 27:16; 28:39; 36:37; 38:18; 39:29; Judges 5:30; Psalms 45:14). Raqam, "embroiderer," occurs in Exodus 35:35; 38:23. The fact that this word is used instead of `aragh, "weaver," would lead us to suppose that the embroiderers' work was either different from that of the weaver or that a "raqam" was especially skilled in fine weaving. Another word, choshebh, is used to describe a skillful weaver. "Cunning work" in the King James Version of Exodus 26:1,31; 28:6,15; 35:33,15; 36:8,35; 39:3,1 is rendered in the American Standard Revised Version "work of the skillful workmen." The passage has been freely rendered "designers." In the Revised Version (British and American) of Exodus 28:39 shabhats is translated "weave." In Exodus 28:4 occurs the word tashbets, which is translated "broidered" in the King James Version and "checker work" in the Revised Version (British and American). If this kind of work is what it is supposed to be, it is more truly "needlework" than the embroidery.

George W. Knight, The Illustrated Everyday Bible Companion, pg. 237:
NEEDLEWORK. Embroidery or delicate sewing. Embroidered robes and curtains were used in the tabernacle (Exod. 28:39; 36:37).

Smith's Bible Dictionary, "Embroiderer":
Various explanations have been offered as to the distinction between "needle-work" and "cunning work." Probably neither term expresses just what is to-day understood by embroidery, though the latter may come nearest to it. The art of embroidery by the loom was extensively practiced among the nations of antiquity. In addition to the Egyptians, the Babylonians were celebrated for it.

Concluding Remarks

By way of summary, one could condense all of the information provided here into the following points. Regarding the identity of the needle:
  1. The Greek word used here for needle, ῥαφίδος (raphidos) is used both in classical Greek and the Septuagint to refer to a needle for stitching
  2. That this would refer to the smaller gate of a city is an interpretation that is considered novel, modern, or recent in origin, and likely used to tone-down the force of Jesus' language.
  3. There is no evidence that people from biblical times referred to this gate as "the eye of the needle".
  4. It's worth noting that the word for an ordinary needle is rapi, but, Luke (Luke 18:25) employs belonh, the medical term for the surgical needle. This reinforces Jesus' intention to refer to an actual needle.

Regarding the likelihood that Jesus was referring to a sewing needle:
  1. People in Jesus day, and even in Old Testament times, used sewing needles and were familiar with them. They were common household items.
  2. Jews around Jesus' time and even those of other middle-eastern nations would liken anything that was impossible or absurd to an elephant passing through the eye of a needle.
  3. Jesus was probably borrowing this expression, substituting the more familiar camel.
  4. It was typical of Jesus to speak in such a proverbial and/or hyperbolic manner.

This certainly settles the question in my mind. If you have any questions or comments, let me know.

Pax Christi,
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