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Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Years Post for 2010

The New Year of 2010 is almost here. I look eagerly to the new year, wondering what might happen. So much has changed over the last 365 days. I went from a middle school teacher who had not started work on a Masters degree to an unemployed man who has completed three graduate school courses. It has been a stressful year, but one which opened the door to great promises and new hopes. The start of a new year provides me the chance to make myself a better man and a better Catholic.

January 1 is not merely the start of the new year. For Catholics it is the Feast of Mary Mother of God. It is the greatest title given to Our Lady, one which she deeply deserves. In honor of this great Marian feast, i am posting below my paper for my Patristics class. It examines St. Jerome's work defending the perpetual virginity of Mary against a heretic named Helvidius. The work itself is a good read. This precis, however, might not be as well written as Jerome's treatise, but it is shorter, and if you don't get the chance to read the actual document, at least skip my summary.


Few Church Fathers had the personality and genius that are the trademarks of St. Jerome. Jerome was a man of great learning, educated in the best classical and theological education of the time. He could read and speak several languages, including Hebrew, and was renowned for his faith in Christ and His Church and his cynicism against his fellow man. He was a defender of orthodoxy, and he used all of his intellect against the Church’s enemies. Nowhere is this clearer than in his treatise against Helvidius, where he defends not only Mary’s perpetual virginity and the merit of virginity as a state in life.

Jerome wrote Against Helvidius on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary around the year 383, while Jerome was the secretary of Pope Damasus. It was written against a certain layman named Helvidius, who had written a tract in response to a monk named Carterius. Carterius had tried to defend monastic virginity, holding the Virgin Mary as the supreme example of holy virginity. Helvidius attacked Carterius’ work, insisting that not only did Mary loose her virginity to Joseph after the birth of Christ, but also that all the praise given to virginity as a higher calling in life compared to marriage was false. Both vocations, Helvidius held, were equal. Helvidius cited Scripture in defense of both points, and caused a spiritual scandal among the Christians. Jerome initially ignored Helvidius’ work, but the cry for help from his friends in Rome inspired him to draw is pen against Helvidius.[1] The result is Against Helvidius, which captures the style and themes of the rest of Jerome’s writings, and truly demonstrates the genius of Jerome.

Jerome divides his work into four main parts. The first two parts examine passages from the Gospels that discuss Mary and Joseph’s married life. First, Jerome attacks the argument of Helvidius that the phrase “before they came together” in the gospels means Mary conceived before they had sexual relations, although they did have relations later. The second part discusses the phrase “he knew her not till she had brought forth a son,” which Helvidius held meant Mary had sexual relations with Joseph immediately after the birth of Jesus. The third part deals with a related issue, that of the “brethren” of Jesus mentioned throughout the Gospels, which Helvidius claimed was again evidence that Mary did not remain a virgin after Christ’s birth. The last section defends the theological superiority of holy virginity as a way of life over that of marriage. Jerome uses wit and wisdom throughout the work. He begins his argument with the Gospel passages cited by Helvidius, but then proceeds to argue his points from both the Old and New Testaments, as well as earlier Christian theologians.

Jerome begins by explaining why he is writing, offering to some extent a thesis statement for the work as a whole. He hardly writes two sentences before he notes that the reason he has delayed writing a document against Helvidius is “not because it is a difficult matter to maintain the truth and refute an ignorant boor who has scarce known the first glimmer of learning, but because I was afraid my reply might make him appear worth defeating.”[2] He attacks the intellect of Helvidius, and then invokes the Trinity to aid him in his defense. It reminds one of a classical Greek or Roman poet invoking the muses for support. For Jerome, though, the prayer is more than a matter of style. It is a prayer that God might defend His mother’s dignity through Jerome’s words.

The first statement Jerome cites from Helvidius looks at the Gospel According to Matthew. Helvidius notes that Matthew says Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph, not “entrusted,” as if Mary was to become Joseph’s wife later. He references the phrase “before they came together” to show that Mary conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit before she and Joseph “came together” in sexual intercourse, but they did “come together” afterwards (3). Jerome attacks this philological claim by showing other instances where similar words do not imply immediate action. He gives the example of a man who says “Before dining in harbour I sailed to Africa” (4). “His words could not hold good,” Jerome explains, “unless he were compelled some day to dine in harbour” (Ibid.). Jerome also uses the example of St. Paul, who “before he went to Spain was put in fetters at Rome” (Ibid.). Paul, Jerome rightfully says, is not forced to travel to Spain upon release. Jerome summarizes the thought by saying “Must we not rather understand that the preposition before, although it frequently denotes order in time, yet sometimes refers only to order in thought?” (Ibid.). Jerome also notes that it is common to call a betrothed woman a “wife”, and he cites several examples from Deuteronomy as proof. He also explains why Mary conceived after she was betrothed, not before. Three reasons are given:

First, that by the genealogy of Joseph, whose kinswoman Mary was, Mary's origin might also be shown. Secondly, that she might not in accordance with the law of Moses be stoned as an adulteress. Thirdly, that in her flight to Egypt she might have some solace, though it was that of a guardian rather than a husband. For who at that time would have believed the Virgin's word that she had conceived of the Holy Ghost, and that the angel Gabriel had come and announced the purpose of God? (Ibid.)

These same reasons, Jerome explains, are why Joseph is called Jesus’ father, even though Christ’s patrimony is from the Father. It was to protect Mary and Jesus, which Joseph rightfully saw as his sacred duty.

Jerome next attacks Helvidius’ argument that Joseph did not know Mary “till she had brought forth a son” (Mt. 1:25), meaning that Joseph had intercourse with Mary after Jesus was born. “Till” for Helvidius implied a “fixed and definite time, and when that is fulfilled, he says the event takes place which previously did not take place” (5). Jerome counters by stating that “till” and “knew” often have multiple meanings in Scripture, and “till” in particular often means “time without limitation” (6). Jerome cites seven different occurrences from both the Old and New Testaments where the word “till” could not mean a “fixed and definite time.” Each one seems laughably obvious, but they hit the heart of Helvidius’ argument. For example, Jerome cites Isaiah 46:4 where God says “Even to [till] old age I am he.” Jerome, following Helvidius’ logic, asks “Will He cease to be God when they have grown old?” (Ibid.). The answer is obviously no, and this reductio ad absurdum, along with Jerome’s other Scriptural proofs, show the major flaws in Helvidius’ arguments.

Jerome takes Helvidius’ argument a step further, asking, if he wanted to have intercourse with Mary “why Joseph refrained until the day of her delivery” before knowing her. Jerome answers by referring to the holiness of Joseph, who would not dare defile Mary, nor even touch her out of sexual desire, since she was the God-bearer. If Helvidius is true to his arguments, Jerome continues, Joseph would have had intercourse with Mary immediately after she delivered Christ, since his lust could not wait the forty day purification period required by the Mosaic Law. Jerome cites the law in full, and maintains that the Joseph Helvidius depicts is a man who would leave the newborn child with midwives to “clasp his exhausted wife,” (10), not the just man depicted in the gospels. It could not happen that way, Jerome maintains, even if Joseph wanted it, since a midwife was not there at Christ’s birth. It was only Mary and Joseph at the manger.

Satisfied with his attack on Helvidius’ first two arguments, Jerome turns to his third point, that Christ had brothers, which are referenced in the gospels as Christ’s “brethren.” Jerome first examines the claim that Christ had younger siblings because he is called the “first born” of his parents, not the “only begotten,” the latter phrase more commonly used to denote an only son. Jerome points out, however, that a son does not need to have siblings to be the first son born. If one follows the logic of Helvidius, Jerome argues, a child could not be declared the “first born” until his mother births another child. A child is declared a first born not by his birth but by that of his siblings. It is illogical, and Jerome points it out as such. If the “only begotten” and the “first born” could not overlap, Jerome continues, then God was wrong when he killed “only begotten” children as well as “first born” in Egypt. Again, Jerome cites examples from the Old Testament to explain the New, and again Helvidius’ points fall before Jerome’s logic.

Jerome next deals with the problem of Jesus’ “brethren,” evidence, Helvidius says, that Mary and Joseph had later progeny. Again, Jerome examines the exact words used in the Scripture, in this case the word “brethren” and “sisters.” Jerome does concede that there are many apparent references to “brethren” of Jesus throughout the New Testament, but at the same time he states they are not really blood relations of Jesus. Otherwise, why would Christ entrust Mary to John the Beloved if he had several brothers and sisters? Could they not take care of their mother? Also, it seems that the mother of one of the “brethren” of Jesus was at the Cross, another Mary, but not Mary the mother of Jesus. Jerome also points out that there were four types of brethren in Scripture: by nature, race, kindred, and love (16). Brethren by nature are blood brothers, like Jacob and Esau. Brethren by race are the Israelites, and Jerome quotes Deuteronomy and St. Paul in reference to their mention of fellow Israelites as “brethren.” Brethren by kindred are not necessarily blood brothers like Jacob and Esau, but they are from the same family. Abram and his nephew Lot are given as examples for these brethren. Finally, brethren by love are divided into two groups, one spiritual (in that all Christians are brethren of each other) and one of “the general relationship,” as Jerome says, which refers to the general patrimony of God as mankind’s Father (17).

Which of these four, Jerome asks, applies to the “brethren” of Jesus? It is not by nature, since the Scriptures disagree with that belief, as discussed above. It is not by race, because any and all of the Jews would be called brethren, but that is not the case. It is not by spiritual or general relationship, because if that were the case there would not be the special reference to the brethren, since all of Christ’s followers are brethren by spirit and all men are brethren as children of God. Jerome determines they are brethren by kindred, brothers of Jesus in the same way that Joseph is Jesus’ father. The same idea is captured by the word “cousin.” They are “brethren in point of kinship not by nature” (19). As a final point in his argument, Jerome cites earlier Church Fathers from the Eastern and Western parts of the Church in support of his exegesis.

In the final section of the document, Jerome attacks with particular ferocity Helvidius’ claim that consecrated virginity and marriage are theologically equal. He takes particular care in this section, for as he says, “when we are dealing with saints we must not judge rashly” (21). Sacred virginity, Jerome argues, is a sacrifice to God. It is a way that Christians can separate themselves from the distractions of the world and give themselves fully to God. Jerome points out the problems with marriages and how a married person runs the risk of putting his or her spouse and what the spouse wants before God. Those married people who live exemplary lives are those whose married state closest resembles the life of a virgin. Jerome turns back to the example of Joseph and Mary, presenting the theory that Joseph remained a virgin during his life with Mary, since he was the husband of a virgin and the foster father of one too. If a couple does not remember God and imitate the holy virgins, their marriage will be a disaster. Likewise, if a virgin does not follow her vow, it is not holy virginity’s fault. The woman at that point cannot call herself a virgin. Jerome summarizes this by saying, “I maintain that she who is engaged in huckstering, though for anything I know she may be a virgin in body, is no longer one in spirit” (23). Consecrating oneself to God is crucial for Jerome, and none of those who downplay such a gift, be it Helvidius or the woman who rejects her vowed virginity, can escape Jerome’s wrath. With that, he ends the treatise.

Against Helvidius is an important work for several reasons. It gives the reader a glimpse into Jerome’s ascetical beliefs. The discussion of the importance of virginity is a reflection of Jerome’s own spiritual experience and his journey away from the sins typically found in a city like Rome. The work also references other Fathers of the Church, showing that even in the fourth century respect for Tradition flourished. As far as Jerome’s exegetical skills are concerned, the treatise shows that Jerome “is equally at home in the Old and the New Testament.”[3] It also provides a glimpse into the philological exactitude Jerome possessed, even with his non-native languages.

Against Helvidius is the quintessential work of St. Jerome. It demonstrates most of the qualities found in his other works, and it incorporates important aspects from his own life. It shows his knack for witty insults, which have become synonymous with Jerome’s name. More importantly, however, it shows that Jerome was a man of deep faith and stirring genius, a combination which is unparalleled in today’s world, and might never be matched again. He truly was a great defender of the Church he loved so much.

[1]Jean Steinmann, Saint Jerome and His Times, trans. Ronald Matthews (Notre Dame, Indiana: Fides Publishers, 1959), 118.

[2]Jerome, Against Helvidius on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary (handout). All further citations of Against Helvidius are from this copy and are henceforth be cited parenthetically by paragraph number.

[3]Steinmann, 119.

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