Ancient views of Mary, the mother of Jesus, reveal the growth of the story
August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption, relating to the Roman Catholic dogma of Mary’s assumption into heaven. This was the last dogma established relating to Mary, the mother of Jesus, decreed by Pope Pius XII in 1950 a mere 59 years ago. It was the latest in a succession of dogmas relating to Mary. Recently I was doing some research on how she was viewed by the early, non-Biblical writers. Clement of Rome is considered the earliest of these and he makes no comment about Mary at all. In light of the subject he is addressing that is not surprising.
Ignatius of Antioch wrote a number of epistles to various church groups in Asia Minor, and the time of his writing is placed around C.E. 125. Mary is simply mentioned as the mother of Jesus in his epistles. No other significant detail of her is given. But the Latin version of Ignatius’s epistles is interesting as it contains what are considered—rightly so—to be spurious letters to the Virgin Mary and the Apostle John. I question the title of the first epistle especially considering the contents of the Second Epistle to John. The title of “Virgin Mary” may well have been supplied by the translators rather than being in the original. The subtitle, "Her friend Ignatius to the Christ-bearing Mary," probably was all that was attached to the original document. As I can only work from a translation, I’m not able to establish the title provided by the writer.
In the second of the Epistles to the Apostle John, the writer makes reference to James the Just, also known as the brother of Jesus. Catholic doctrine presents James as being a child of Joseph by a former marriageto preserve the concept of Mary's virginity. Yet the writer talks of James in this way:
And in like manner [I desire to see] the venerable James, who is surnamed Just, whom they relate to be very like Christ Jesus in appearance, in life, and in method of conduct, as if he were a twin-brother of the same womb. They say that, if I see him, I see also Jesus Himself, as to all the features and aspect of His body.(1)
To make a statement that James was like a twin brother of Jesus and hence of Mary indicates that the idea of perpetual virginity was not an understanding of this writer. In that this was preserved only in Latin is a fair indication that this doctrine was probably a late second or third century addition to the Catholic Church. We know that it was a factor by the time Jerome translated the Vulgate, finishing in the early fifth century. A footnote to Matthew 1:25 in the Douay Rheims translation provides this detail attributed to Jerome:
"Till she brought forth her firstborn son". . . From these words Helvidius and other heretics most impiously inferred that the blessed Virgin Mary had other children besides Christ; but St. Jerome shews, by divers examples, that this expression of the Evangelist was a manner of speaking usual among the Hebrews, to denote by the word until, only what is done, without any regard to the future. Thus it is said, Genesis 8. 6 and 7, that Noe sent forth a raven, which went forth, and did not return till the waters were dried up on the earth. That is, did not return any more. Also Isaias 46. 4, God says: I am till you grow old. Who dare infer that God should then cease to be: Also in the first book of Machabees 5. 54, And they went up to mount Sion with joy and gladness, and offered holocausts, because not one of them was slain till they had returned in peace. That is, not one was slain before or after they had returned. God saith to his divine Son: Sit on my right hand till I make thy enemies thy footstool. Shall he sit no longer after his enemies are subdued? Yea and for all eternity. St. Jerome also proves by Scripture examples, that an only begotten son, was also called firstborn, or first begotten: because according to the law, the firstborn males were to be consecrated to God; Sanctify unto me, saith the Lord, every firstborn that openeth the womb among the children of Israel, etc. Ex. 13. 2.
I make the point about the late second century based on the comments by Irenaeus about Mary. By the time of his writing, ideas about a special role for Mary were starting to develop in the West. If that is correct, then the spurious letters attributed to Ignatius must have been written before that time.
1). Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol.I: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 125.