Eusebius on Mary and Joseph’s Marriage

Apropos a few posts back about Jesus’ siblings, have a look at this excerpt from Eusebius:

Nor was it profitable to reveal publicly that Jesus’ conception and birth from Mary were not Joseph’s doing, because surely the Virgin would then have actually undergone prosecution, under the law of Moses, for losing her virginity prior to her wedding. Th at is why the Scripture rightly indicates, with precision, that “before they came together, she was found to be pregnant.” Th is tells us, more or less explicitly, that her conception was not prenuptial, or prior to her moving in with her husband, but took place aft er she had married Joseph, moved in with him, and been publicly recognised as his wife. It was when they were together, just about to have conjugal intercourse, that at the very moment “before they came together, she was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit”. Now that was a wholly practical dispensation to avoid its becoming generally known.[1]

Eusebius’ version very much diverges from the early apocryphal account of Mary and Joseph, where their marriage was nominal from the moment of its inception, allowing Joseph to serve as an elderly caretaker. This version was cited by some later authorities, such as Epiphanius in Panarion 78.

In fact, Eusebius goes on to say that it was crucial for Mary’s conception of Christ to be discovered first by Joseph. Otherwise, her parents might have prosecuted her for adultery under the law of Moses:

If her pregnancy had occurred while she was still with her parents, it would quite probably have been bruited about that she had been impregnated by some unknown man, and she would even have been summarily put to death under the law—or, short of that, she would in any case never have been free from disgrace and slander. As her own witness to her character, and to what had happened to her, she would obviously have carried no conviction. If she told them about the angel’s appearance and Gabriel’s message to her, no-one would have been convinced; nor, if she had already been pregnant, would Joseph, who, we are told, was “an upright man”, ever have taken her into his house. That is why, with good reason, she became pregnant at the time when she was in his house with him, virtually in the married state itself, and not with her parents; it was “before they came together,” as the scripture testifies, that “she was found to be pregnant”.[2]

Again, this is most definitely not the apocryphal account, which identifies Mary’s parents as Sts. Ioachim and Anna, who themselves conceived Mary miraculously (although some variations of the story seem to imply Anna herself had a virginal conception of Mary). That is, Mary’s apocryphal parents understood from the beginning that she was special, and they would have been the first to believe her story about Gabriel, as they had experienced much the same thing themselves.

Eusebius—ever the pragmatic, apologetic historian—wants nothing to do with that story. There are two implications here, neither of which are especially flattering to the apocryphal account:

  1. Eusebius didn’t know the apocryphal stories. That would mean that those apocrypha—and the elements of their narratives that are in question—were not well known in the Christian world, even to a scholar and bishop of Eusebius’ caliber. At Caesarea, Eusebius had inherited a large (i.e., very expensive) library, which he clearly put to great use in constructing the Ecclesiastical History, which, as ancient histories go, is impressively full of references for backing. If we would expect anyone at the turn of the fourth century to have access to a good copy of the these early Christian apocrypha, it would be Eusebius. Thus, in this scenario, those elements of the apocryphal Holy Family that eventually worked their way into later, more mainstream tradition must have been incredibly niche in Eusebius’ lifetime: hardly a fixture of early Christian dogma or identity.
  2. More likely, Eusebius did indeed know these apocrypha. His famous predecessor at Caesarea, Origen, had himself mentioned the so-called “book of James” (i.e., what we moderns call the Protevangelium of James) specifically in reference to this stuff about Mary in a commentary on Matthew. If memory serves, Eusebius directly references that particular commentary (and there almost certainly would have been a copy somewhere in the library), so he would have known of the “book of James.” Moreover, Origen had associated this “book of James” in the same sentence as the so-called Gospel of Peter, which Eusebius did absolutely know and scorn. Again, assuming Origen was familiar with this cluster of books, it stands to reason Eusebius was, too. On the whole, however, Eusebius took a rather dim view of books masquerading as apostolic. Read Ecclesiastical History 3.25. He knows universally agreed upon texts (what would later be our “canon”), a few shorter, debated books (also typically included in our “canon”), a handful of highly dubious, “bastard” texts that at least look quasi-apostolic. Everything else with an apostolic name attached—and there are many of them, apparently—Eusebius skewers.

Readers will rightly wonder what Eusebius himself directly says about Mary and some of the early Mariological traditions. It’s a project I’m currently working on, but a preliminary answer for now is that Eusebius proves to be maddeningly evasive on this subject compared to the vast bulk of patristic sources.

  1. Ad Stephanum 1.4: Οὐδ’ εἰς πολλοὺς ἐκφέρειν ὅτι μὴ ἐκ τοῦ Ἰωσὴφ ἡ Μαρία συλλαβοῦσα τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐγέννα λυσιτελὲς ἦν· ἦ γὰρ ἂν καὶ δίκην κατὰ τὸν Μωυσέως νόμον ἡ παρθένος ὑπέσχεν ὡς πρὸ ὥρας γάμου διαφθαρεῖσα τὴν παρθενίαν· διόπερ εἰκότως ἐπισημαίνεται ἀκριβῶς φήσασα ἡ γραφή, πρὶν ἢ συνελθεῖν αὐτούς, εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα· μονονουχὶ διδάσκουσα ὅτι μὴ πρὸ γάμου συνείληφε· μὴ δὲ πρὸ τοῦ παρὰ τὸν ἄνδρα ἐλθεῖν· μετὰ δὲ τὸ συναφθῆναι τὸν Ἰωσὴφ καὶ παρ’ αὐτῷ γενέσθαι, παρὰ πᾶσί τε γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ χρηματίσαι, συνόντων ἀλλήλοις, καὶ τῆς γαμικῆς ὁμιλίας ἅπτεσθαι ἤδη γοῦν μελλόντων αὐτῆς ὡς εἰπεῖν ὥρας πρὶν ἢ συνελθεῖν αὐτούς, εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου. Καὶ τοῦτό γε παγχρησίμως εἰς τὸ λαθεῖν τοὺς πολλοὺς ᾠκονόμητο. Text and translation adapted from Roger Pearse et al., eds., Gospel Problems and Solutions, Ancient texts in translation 1 (Ipswich: Chieftain Publishing, 2010), 8–10.
  2. Ad Stephanum 1.5: Εἰ γὰρ δὴ παρὰ τοῖς αὐτῆς γονεῦσιν οὖσαν ἔτι συνέβη κατὰ γαστρὸς λαβεῖν, κἂν εἰκὸς ἦν βοηθῆναι τὸ πρᾶγμα ὅτι μὴ ἐκ προδήλου ἀνδρὸς ἐκυοφορήθη, θᾶττον δ’ ἂν καὶ ἀνῄρητο κατὰ τὸν νόμον· ἢ εἰ μὴ τοῦτο, αἰσχρᾶς δ’ οὖν οὐκ ἂν ἠλευθέρωτο ὕβρεως· οὐ γὰρ δήπου μάρτυς αὐτὴ ἑαυτῆς καὶ τῶν περὶ αὐτῇ πεπραγμένων ἀξιόπιστος ἦν· οὐδ’ ἂν ἐπείσθη τις ἢ ἀγγέλου ἐπιφάνειαν καὶ τὰ πρὸς αὐτὴν εἰρημένα πρὸς τοῦ Γαβριὴλ αὐτῇ διηγουμένῃ· οὐδ’ ἂν κύουσαν ἤδη προσήκατο εἰς τὸν ἑαυτοῦ οἶκον Ἰωσήφ, ἀνὴρ δίκαιος εἶναι μεμαρτυρημένος· διόπερ εἰκότως οὐ παρὰ τοῖς αὐτῆς γονεῦσιν, ἀλλ’ ἤδη παρ’ αὐτῷ γενομένη ἐγκύμων σὺν αὐτῷ γενομένη, παρ’ αὐτὴν ὡς εἰπεῖν τὴν τοῦ γάμου τάξιν· πρὸ γὰρ τοῦ συνελθεῖν αὐτούς, ὡς ἡ γραφὴ μαρτυρεῖ, εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα. Pearse, 10–1.


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