By RAYMOND DE SOUZA, KM
“And he [Joseph] did not know her till she brought forth her firstborn son. And he called his name Jesus” — Matt. 1:25.
In the previous article we have seen how the words till and until do not carry the strict meaning given to them by anti-Catholic writers. The Jerusalem Bible gives us the correct meaning of the passage: “Although he had no intercourse with her, she gave birth to her firstborn son.”
In this article we shall examine the words “firstborn son,” since some have suggested that, since Jesus was the firstborn, there must have been at least a second born, if not a third and fourth, since most synagogue-going Jews of those days did not practice contraception, unlike many churchgoing Catholics and Protestants today.
The first thing to observe — again — is that St. Matthew did not write his Gospel in American English, with all the cultural connotations of the language spoken today in the United States. No, he wrote it in Aramaic, and had it translated into Greek shortly thereafter, as scholars tell us. Therefore, he wrote in the cultural context of his time and country, which was quite different from Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Alabama.
We find the words “firstborn” in Exodus 13:2 — “Consecrate to me every firstborn that opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and beast, for it belongs to me.”
Notice in the first place that not only the human firstborn ones were to be consecrated to God, but those born of animals as well. Why so?
God Himself explains it, in same chapter, vv.12-15: “You shall dedicate to the Lord every son that opens the womb and all the male firstlings of your animals shall belong to the Lord. . . . Every firstborn son you must redeem. If your son should ask you later on, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall tell him, ‘With a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, that place of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, every firstborn of man and of beast. That is why I sacrifice to the Lord everything of the male sex that opens the womb, and why I redeem every firstborn of my sons.”
God did not spare the firstborn of the Egyptians, not even the firstborn of their animals. Any Hebrews, who did not celebrate the Passover in Egypt, also lost their firstborn children. Subsequently, the firstborn had to be consecrated to God shortly after being born, usually 40 days (seven days for the purification of the mother and 33 days for the child to be presented equal 40 days).
But notice a most important detail added by God: Only the firstborn of the male sex had to be consecrated. If your firstborn child was a girl, you did not have to consecrate her. Wait until you have a boy, and he will be your firstborn male. Firstborn is a legal title, not the first of a series!
“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). Then we see why St. Luke refers to the Baby Jesus as the firstborn son immediately after His birth, without waiting to call Him such only after a second child was born.
The boy’s circumcision took place the day after the Mother’s seventh day of purification. Thirty-three days later, Joseph and Mary took Jesus to the Temple to be presented and consecrated “According to the Law of Moses” (Luke 2:22). They consecrated their firstborn because it was a boy — no need to wait for a second child to be born to consecrate the one born first.
Yes, that was the way God wanted it. His firstborn and only Son, Jesus Christ, was a male child consecrated to Him to redeem the people.
Thus it becomes evident to all whose eyes are not closed to evidence that in the Hebrew culture of the time, the firstborn was a legal title, applicable to the firstborn boy only, not just a number to identify the first child of a couple.
Again, the firstborn would receive the double portion of the father’s inheritance. For instance, as a father of seven children realized his approaching death, he would not divide his inheritance into seven portions, but in eight portions, giving a double portion to the firstborn and one portion to each of the other six children. The firstborn was the Prototokos — legal term, heir, he who receives the double portion. That’s the Hebrew culture of the time. We may disagree with it today, but our disagreement does not change the facts.
The firstborn was a legal title, which granted special privileges and responsibilities. St. Paul himself refers to Jesus as “the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29). We are His brethren, and in this sense the Blessed Virgin Mary had millions of children!
The Eastern Gate
Of God’s Temple
Mary’s perpetual virginity was foreseen in the Old Testament in several ways, especially in the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of God’s Temple, in which the East Gate was reserved for the Lord God of Israel: “This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it; because the Lord God of Israel has entered in through it, and it shall be shut” (Ezek. 44:1).
How did the early Christians understand this symbol?
The great doctor of the Early Church, St. Augustine of Hippo, who died over one thousand years before Protestantism was even a thought, taught: “It is written (Ezek. 44:2): ‘This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it. Because the Lord God of Israel has entered in by it. . . .’
“What does this closed gate in the House of the Lord mean, except that Mary is to be ever inviolate? What does it mean that ‘no man shall pass through it,’ save that Joseph shall not know her? And what is this, ‘The Lord alone enters in and goes out by it,’ except that the Holy Ghost shall impregnate Her, and that the Lord of Angels shall be born of Her? And what does this mean – ‘It shall be shut forevermore,’ but that Mary is a Virgin before His birth, a Virgin in His birth, and a Virgin after His birth” (De Annunt. Dom. I, ii). This is the Faith of the Early Christians.
St. Athanasius, the great defender of the divinity of Jesus Christ against the Aryan heresy, places the denial of the divinity of Christ side by side with the denial of Mary’s perpetual virginity: “Let those, therefore, who deny that the Son is by nature from the Father and proper to His essence, deny also that He took true human flesh from the Ever-virgin Mary” (discourse against the Arians, between AD 358-362).
A quote by way of conclusion: “Our Lord Jesus Christ is called the firstborn. This is not because there was a second or a third, but because the Gospel writer is paying regard to the precedence. Scripture speaks thus of naming the firstborn whether or not there is any question of the second.”
Who wrote this? Again, no Early Father, no medieval Pope, no contemporary lay apologist — but John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian religion (Calvini Opera, Corpus Reformatorum, Braunschweig-Berlin, 1863-1900, Sermon on Matthew, 1:22-25, published in 1562).
Here we fully agree with John Calvin!
Next article: Mary, the Virgin Ark of the New Covenant.
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(Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; EWTN program host; regional coordinator for Portuguese-speaking countries for Human Life International [HLI], president of the Sacred Heart Institute and a member of the Sovereign, Military, and Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Malta. His web site is: www.RaymondeSouza.com.)