He’s an Only Child

A bogus Greek argument against Mary’s perpetual virginity is making the rounds.
By Ronald K. Tacelli, S.J.

Recently, in some Internet discussion groups, a few Protestant apologists have been expending quite a bit of energy trying to refute the Catholic doctrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s perpetual virginity. “Ho hum”, you might be saying to yourself. “What’s new or interesting about that? The ‘Mary-had-other-children’ canard has been effectively demolished by Catholic apologists a hundred times over. Who cares about this latest twist on a worn-out claim?”

Well, as one who believes in Mary’s perpetual virginity, I care, and you should, too. You see, this new argument is based on two Greek terms that mean “until”: heos and heos hou.

These Protestant critics of Mary’s perpetual virginity are training their guns on Matthew 1:25, claiming that the Greek term for “until” used by St. Matthew – heos hou – implies a reversal or cessation of the condition that is expressed in the clause preceding it. Thus they’re attempting to show from linguistic evidence alone that Scripture contradicts the Catholic dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity. And that is a very big deal.

These Internet Intellectuals willingly admit that the Greek word heos all by itself does not imply any such reversal or cessation. This is true of 1 Timothy 4:13, for example: “[heos] I come, attend to the public reading of scripture.” But in Matthew 1:25, heos is not used by itself; the word for “until” is heos hou. And in the New Testament heos hou always indicates reversal of the preceding clause – or so they claim. One of the Protestant apologists involved in this Internet argument wrote:

“We have insisted that the basic meaning of heos hou in the New Testament, when it means ‘until,’ always implies a change of the action in the main clause” (emphasis in the original).

Now if this were true it would indeed indicate that there is linguistic reason for denying the teaching of the Catholic Church on Mary’s perpetual virginity. So on that little conjunction, heos hou, a great deal seems to depend.

My old history professor at Boston College, Vincent McCrossen, God rest his soul, used to scream at us in class: “Matthew 1:25, where it says that Joseph did not know Mary until she had given birth to Jesus, does not – repeat: does not – prove that Mary was perpetually a virgin!” He went on to say (or rather scream) that the Greek word for “until” (heos) leaves the matter open. It does not necessarily imply that what didn’t happen before the birth (ie. Joseph’s “knowing” Mary) did happen after it.

My reaction, each time Professor McCrossen ranted about this, was: What’s the big deal? No reasonable person would take the phrase “He knew her not until she gave birth” as somehow proving that he never knew her at all. Why rail away against a position no sensible person is likely to take anyway?

That was my first reaction. But upon further reflection, part of what he said seemed reasonable. Even in English the word “until” need not imply that what didn’t happen before some point in time did happen after it.

Think of Granny. She started taking an antibiotic last night; this morning her skin has broken out in welts. We call the doctor and he tells us: “Don’t give her any of that medicine until I get there!” In this case the word “until” means pretty much the same as “before”; and there is no implication that Granny will get the medicine after the doctor arrives. In fact, it’s implied that she probably won’t. So I concluded at the time: Better to say that Matthew 1:25 does not disprove Mary’s perpetual virginity; that considered in itself and from the point of view of language alone it does indeed leave the matter open. Catholics can read it as consistent with their Faith; Protestants, as consistent with theirs. Both readings are possible. In any case, it’s no big deal. Right?

Wrong. The heos hou argument is bogus.

I’m fluent in classical and koine Greek (koine is the simpler style of Greek used by the New Testament writers), having studied it for many years prior to my ordination to the priesthood and before I earned my Ph.D. I’ve taught high school and university courses in Greek, and I regularly read Scripture in Greek. But none of that qualifies me as anything close to being an expert in Greek. So rather than trust my own judgment, I checked it out with the experts.

I printed out transcripts of the online heos hou arguments made by these Protestant apologists and showed them to several Greek scholars. They laughed, treating them with scornful derision. They confirmed what I already knew: that heos hou is just shorthand for heos hou chronou en hoi (literally: until the time when), and that both heos and heos hou have the same range of meaning. But do they? Professional scholars can sometimes be dismissive because they’ve been scooped by unpedigreed amateurs. Could that be the case here? What does a hard look at the evidence reveal?

For one thing, it reveals that not every occurrence of heos hou in the New Testament plainly indicates reversal of the condition being described in the main clause.

Consider Acts 25:21: “But when Paul demanded to be kept in custody until [eis] the Emperor’s verdict, I gave orders that he should be kept in custody until [heos hou] I could send him on to Caesar” (Anchor Bible translation, slightly amended; my bracketing).

Now when St. Paul was to be sent on, he was surely going to remain in custody; for his original request was to be kept in custody until the Emperor’s verdict. Hence the use of heos hou in this verse does not imply that Paul ceased to be kept in custody after he had been remanded to Caesar. It implies the very opposite.

Another example of heos hou being used without any sense of a change in condition after the “until” happens is 2 Peter 1:19:

“Moreover, we possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as a lamp shining in a dark place, until (heos hou) the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” Clearly, St. Peter was not insinuating that we should cease being attentive to the truths he was presenting after “the day dawns and the morning star rises in [our] hearts.” Here, as in Matthew 1:25, heos hou does not imply a change.

Think of a comparable case. Luigi, a mob informant in Chicago, tells agent Smith that he wants to be held in protective custody till he can meet with the head of the FBI in DC. Agent Smith phones his superiors and says: “I’ve put Luigi in protective custody until I can arrange for transportation to DC.” Will Luigi cease to remain in protective custody once he leaves for DC? Of course not. The force of agent Smith’s “until” obviously concerns the time before Luigi’s leaving. He might have said to his superiors: “Luigi is in protective custody now and will remain in protective custody during the whole time before I’m able to arrange for his transportation to DC.” But we express this in normal English by the word “until.” If agent Smith had been speaking koine Greek, it seems clear he’d have said heos hou.

But suppose all this is wrong. Suppose that, apart from Matthew 1:25, every occurrence of heos hou in the New Testament clearly indicates a reversal of the main clause. That would still not prove that reversal is implied by Matthew 1:25. It would merely prove that Matthew 1:25 may be the only place in the New Testament where reversal is not implied. If this is supposed to be a linguistic argument, we need to ask ourselves: Did heos hou really have a range of meaning significantly different from heos all by itself? Is there evidence that between (say) 300 B.C. and 300 A.D., Greek speakers recognized that heos hou, unlike heos by itself, always implied reversal or cessation of what is expressed in the main clause?

The answer is no.

One Greek text well known to the authors of the New Testament was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. It was in place roughly two hundred years before Christ. And there, lo and behold, we find that heos hou does not always indicate reversal or cessation. In Psalm 111 (112):8 we read: “His heart is steadfast, he shall not be afraid until [heos hou] he looks down upon his foes.” Obviously the man who delights in the Lord’s commands is going to continue to have a steadfast heart and to be unafraid even after he looks down upon his foes.

Skip ahead now to the third century A.D. Clement of Alexandria wrote: “Thus thirty years were completed until [heos hou] He [Jesus] suffered” (Stromateis, 1.21; Patrologia Graeca, 8.885a). There is no reversal of the main clause here; once again, heos hou is equivalent to “before.” So two hundred years before the New Testament and two hundred years after the New Testament, heos hou could be used, like heos all by itself, to mean extent of time up to a point – but with no negation of the idea expressed in the main clause.

Do our Cyberspace Savants really expect anyone to believe that for a brief period in the middle of this consistent usage, heos hou suddenly had to indicate reversal of the main clause? Or maybe they think that the New Testament was written in a special kind of Greek – one raised uniquely above the mundane flow of usage that preceded and followed it. Or maybe they’re blowing smoke concerning a language they really don’t know very much about. Or maybe these Protestant apologists do know a good deal about Greek, but they are either ignorant of this particular issue (and are trumpeting their ignorance over the Internet), or they do know their argument has no merit on linguistic grounds and are sneakily persisting in using it.

But regardless of how well or poorly these men know Greek, St. John Chrysostom, one of the greatest early Church Fathers, surely knew the Greek language immensely well (he wrote and spoke it fluently) and was sensitive to its every nuance. Let’s look at what he had to say on the subject of Mary’s perpetual virginity and the meaning of heos hou.

In his sermons on St. Matthew’s Gospel (cf. Patrologia Graeca, 7.58), St. John Chrysostom quotes Matthew 1:25 and then asks, “But why . . . did [St. Matthew] use the word ‘until’?” Note well here: In quoting the verse, Chrysostom had used heos hou; but in asking the question, the word he uses for “until” is heos all by itself – as if he were unaware of a difference in meaning between these two expressions.

He answers his question by saying that it is usual and frequent for Scripture to use the word “until” (heos) without reference to limited times. Then he gives three examples. The first is his own paraphrase of Genesis 8:7: “The raven did not return until the earth was dried up.” Here Chrysostom uses heos hou for “until.” (But the actual text of the Septuagint has heos alone.) The second example is from Psalm 90:2: “From everlasting to everlasting you are.” The verse quoted (correctly) by Chrysostom has heos all by itself. The third example is from Psalm 72:7: “In his days justice shall flourish and fullness of peace until the moon be taken away.” And here the word for “until,” as in the Septuagint text, is heos hou.

It’s clear that for St. John Chrysostom, heos has exactly the same meaning as heos hou. That’s why he framed his question about “until” in terms of heos alone, even though the verse giving rise to the question, which he’d just finished quoting, had heos hou instead. That’s why it was natural for him to use heos hou in his paraphrase of Genesis 8:7. And that is why, in his list of analogues to Matthew 1:25, he used both heos and heos hou without the slightest hesitation – his linguistically sensitive ear registered no difference in meaning between them. (But there is a syntactical difference: heos hou came normally to be used as a conjunction; heos by itself as a preposition.)

If an unbridgeable linguistic chasm separated these two expressions, how could it be that the greatest master of the Greek language in all Christendom was unaware of it? The plain answer is that there was no such chasm. The whole “heos hou vs. heos” argument is a bunch of hooey. And both Sophocles in his Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods and Stephanus in his Thesaurus Graecae Linguae agree; they state explicitly that heos and heos hou are equivalent in meaning.

And finally, we have the testimony of the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament that the Apostles and the early Church Fathers almost always quoted from in their writings.

So in this corner, ladies and gentlemen, we have Sophocles, Stephanus, the Septuagint, St. John Chrysostom, and modern Greek scholars; in that corner, we have the “Pentium Pamphleteers,” swashbuckling Internet polemicists who are pretty clumsy in their wielding of this particular “argument” from the Greek. If you were inclined to wager money, I’d ask you: Where would you place your bets?

But beyond all this, it’s the surrounding context, not words considered simply in themselves, that will usually tip the balance of interpretation. If we hear someone say: “I’m not going to eat anything until Thursday,” we figure that come Thursday he’s going to eat something – because people normally eat. Likewise when we read that a married couple did not have intercourse until a certain time, we figure that they did have intercourse after that time – because this is one of the ways married people normally express their love. And no doubt most (though not all) Protestants read Matthew 1:25 as they do, not out of any pedantic pseudo-scholarship or desire to derogate Mary or compulsive hatred for the Catholic Church.

Rather, they simply desire to see Mary and Joseph as a normal, loving couple. And to all such people of good will, I would close with the following question I’d ask them to ponder before they deny Mary’s perpetual virginity: If Joseph was a just man and a faithful Jew, if he believed that the God he worshipped, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who was present in the Holy of Holies, was present also in Mary’s womb as Father of her Child – is it really likely that he would have had relations with his wife once the Child had been born?

And if that question does not give you pause, be assured of my prayers until (heos hou) it does (and afterwards as well).

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