Monday, November 24, 2014

Victorinus And The Perpetual Virginity Of Mary

Not much of what Victorinus of Pettau wrote is extant. But he apparently made some comments relevant to the perpetual virginity of Mary in his writings that didn't survive. In response to Helvidius, who argued against Mary's perpetual virginity, Jerome commented:

"Feeling himself to be a smatterer, he there produces Tertullian as a witness and quotes the words of Victorinus bishop of Petavium. Of Tertullian I say no more than that he did not belong to the Church. But as regards Victorinus, I assert what has already been proved from the Gospel—that he spoke of the brethren of the Lord not as being sons of Mary, but brethren in the sense I have explained, that is to say, brethren in point of kinship not by nature. We are, however, spending our strength on trifles, and, leaving the fountain of truth, are following the tiny streams of opinion. Might I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men, who against Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus, held these same views, and wrote volumes replete with wisdom. If you had ever read what they wrote, you would be a wiser man." (The Perpetual Virginity Of Blessed Mary, Against Helvidius, 19)

Who should we believe concerning what view Victorinus held? Helvidius or Jerome? Or is there no way to discern who's more credible? Are we left with no reason to prefer one side over the other? I want to argue that we have good reason to trust Helvidius over Jerome on this point.

First of all, notice that Helvidius' position is more restrained and reasonable upfront. He only cites two fathers in support of his opposition to Mary's perpetual virginity, even though he could have brought forward more than those two. By contrast, Jerome claims that "the whole series of ancient writers" is on his side. It seems that Helvidius was being more careful about what he claimed.

And much of what Jerome says about the fathers is inaccurate. His dismissal of Tertullian is inconsistent with what earlier sources said about him and how influential he was during his day and beyond. See here. Tertullian can't be dismissed as easily as Jerome suggests. But, even worse, none of the fathers Jerome names actually advocates the perpetual virginity of Mary in their extant writings, and we have no reason to think that any of them advocated it in writings no longer extant. In fact, elsewhere Jerome only mentions the eight documents of Ignatius and Polycarp that we have today, suggesting that he wasn't aware of any others available in his generation (Lives Of Illustrious Men, 16-7). Eusebius, writing several decades earlier than Jerome, confirms that those eight documents were all that had been preserved from Ignatius and Polycarp (Church History, 3:36, 4:14). But neither Ignatius nor Polycarp advocates Mary's perpetual virginity in any of those writings. And in his writings that are extant, Irenaeus seems to contradict the perpetual virginity of Mary rather than affirming it (Eric Svendsen, Who Is My Mother? [Amityville, New York: Calvary Press, 2001], 101-2). Thus, not only does Jerome fail to establish his assertion that "the whole series of ancient writers" agrees with him, but his claim is demonstrably false with regard to three of the four individuals he named and unproven with the fourth (Justin Martyr).

Furthermore, Jerome attempts to dismiss what Helvidius cites from Victorinus by saying that he interprets Victorinus the same way he interprets the Biblical passages cited against Mary's perpetual virginity. But since Jerome's view of the Biblical material is incorrect, his view of Victorinus is undermined by his acknowledgement that he applies the same sort of reasoning to Victorinus in order to reconcile Victorinus' comments with Mary's perpetual virginity. And there may have been more in Victorinus' writings that was problematic for Jerome's position. Given how much Jerome misrepresented the other fathers, we shouldn't assume that what he said about Victorinus is accurate. Even if we limited ourselves to what Jerome addresses in Victorinus, his acknowledgement that he applies the same sort of reasoning to Victorinus that he applies to the Bible is sufficient to justify siding with Helvidius over Jerome. But there may have been even more against Jerome's position in Victorinus than he acknowledges.

J.N.D. Kelly summarizes some of the problems with Jerome's response to Helvidius:

"The New Testament evidence is still debated, but the great majority of critical scholars are agreed that his [Helvidius'] interpretation of it, and not Jerome's, is the correct one. Jerome's efforts to get round the obvious meaning of the texts strike most people today as special pleading, the by-product of his prior conviction that sexual intercourse is defiling. His roll-call of orthodox fathers who supported him was a dishonest smoke-screen typical of his debating style; it is doubtful whether he had any close acquaintance with the writers he listed, more than doubtful whether they held the views he attributed to them." (Jerome [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000], 106-7)

Kelly also makes the point that Jerome's view of Mary's perpetual virginity changed over time, in that he initially rejected her virginity in partu, but later accepted it (106 and n. 10 on 106). That development gives us further reason to trust Helvidius over Jerome. While Jerome portrays himself as maintaining the universal tradition of the orthodox by upholding the perpetual virginity of Mary, we see his view of her virginity in partu changing over time, going along with the rising tide of asceticism.

To sum up, in the context of their discussion of Victorinus, Helvidius seems to be more careful, more accurate, and more consistent than Jerome. And Jerome's own description of what he does to reconcile Victorinus with his position gives us reason to trust Helvidius' reading of Victorinus more than Jerome's. Victorinus ought to be included in the list of fathers who probably denied the perpetual virginity of Mary.

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