Prepositions and Perpetual Virginity

Since Christmas has just passed, let’s talk about what happened after Jesus was born. Virtually all ancient interpreters considered the Perpetual Virginity of Mary to be a dogma or a pious–-even preferred––opinion. The biblical case usually involves stressing how the ἕως-PP in Matthew 1:25 codes the extent of a durative state of affairs: 

  1. καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως οὗ ἔτεκεν υἱόν (THGNT)
    [He] did not have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son (CSB)

A good example comes from John Chyrsostom (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew):

[Matthew] has here used the word until, not that you should suspect that afterwards [Joseph] did know [Mary], but to inform you that before the birth the Virgin was wholly untouched by man.

Chrysostom is an astute interpreter and appears to get the semantics right. For our purposes, let’s represent the logical form so we can distinguish the semantics (code) from the pragmatics (inference) of the utterance:

  1. ∃e ∃t [before Jesus was born(t)]  t < n  knew Mary (Joseph, e,t)  ¬ ∃e’ ∃t’ [t∈C  t'<t  knew Mary(Joseph, e’, t’)]
    Roughly: There exists an event e and a time t, and e happened before t, and there does not exist an event e‘ and a time t‘ where the reverse happened.

That is, the ἕως-PP describes a state of affairs e as holding true for all sub-intervals of the time t (Giannakido 2003: 120): Before Jesus was born, Joseph did not know Mary. Period. But what happened after

There are (probably) three meanings for ἕως: durative, eventive, and purely temporal (Giannakido, 103-109). Durative means a state of affairs lasted throughout the subintervals of some time t (and perhaps after). Eventive involves negation: a state of affairs lasted before but not after some time t. The purely temporal meaning (not available for English until-PP) involves a state of affairs holding during some interval t1 of time t but not t2, t3, and so on. It can be illustrated from Standard Modern Greek:

  1. Θα το τελειώσω αυτό μέχρι αύριο
    I will finish this by [=until] tomorrow (Giannakido 2003: 108)

In our case, Chrysostom assigns a durative interpretation to the ἕως-PP in Matthew 1:25. He illustrates why with Ps. 89:2:

  1. ἀπὸ τοῦ αἰῶνος ἕως τοῦ αἰῶνος σὺ εἶ (Ps. 89:2 LXX)
    From age to age, you are

This seems like a good example. Clearly, what was true during the period ‘age to age’ holds true after it: God is. Chrysostom seems to get the semantics right again:

  1. ∃e ∃t [age to age(t)]  t < n  are (you, e,t)
    There exists an event e and a time t, and e holds true at t

We are also tempted to trust Chrysostom because he was a native Greek speaker. Each of these things seem to make a good case to assign the same interpretation he does to the ἕως-PP in Matthew 1:25. But there are problems. Let’s begin with interpretation and native speaker intuition. Moises Silva (2005: 27) puts it well:

Educated speakers are notoriously unreliable in analyzing their own language. If Chrysostom weighs two competing interpretations, his conclusion should be valued as an important opinion and no more. If, on the other hand, he fails to address a linguistic problem because he does not appear to perceive a possible ambiguity, his silence is of the greatest value in helping us determine [the meaning]. 

Search your feelings. You know what Silva says is true. 

As this blog’s esteemed linguist overlord has noted, appeals to native speaker intuition actually prove the opposite: Chrysostom felt need to go into detail defending this particular meaning precisely because it was counter-intuitive to his audience. In fact, his entire defense is meant to persuade his audience that their intuitions are wrong! But this isn’t the main problem. 

Language is fascinating and complex, and meaning cannot be reduced to words. Perhaps the vast part of the meaning that we communicate is inferred. Consider this example:

  1. Do you want to come to tea tomorrow at 5?
    Oh, my sister is here.

The two sentences have no meaningful relation beyond their context. And yet we all understand that the intended meaning of the sentence, “Oh, my sister is here” was “I can’t.” How? Linguists call this an implicature––an inferred meaning that was intended by the speaker but not directly coded in the utterance. Inference is a rich design feature of natural language. It solves an important problem that Levinson (2000: 6, 27-30) calls the “articulatory bottleneck”: we compute information inestimably faster than we can articulate it in speech production. To solve this problem and speed things up, we use inference: “[I]nference is cheap, articulation expensive, and thus the design requirements are for a system that maximizes inference.” Without inference, we would be talking to each other for hours to communicate even simple things because we would need a surface form for literally everything we intended to communicate. Natural language is different. It is minimally-specified and relies on triggering interpretations that assign maximal informativeness to each utterance. Basically, we squeeze as much meaning from an utterance as can be licensed by the grammar and use-context. 

Returning to Matthew 1:25, ancient interpreters were right to claim the point of the text was to delimit the state of affairs: before time t where t is the time at which Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary had not consummated the marriage. This state of affairs held true for all subintervals prior to and leading up to t. But they miss the fact that this is only the semantics of the utterance. When attached to a negated stative, the ἕως-PP receives an eventive interpretation and triggers an implicatureafter but not before. If I say in English, “I wasn’t sure where I was until I opened Google maps”, I do not mean that I continued to be unsure after I opened it. I used the until-PP to delimit the extent to which the negated state of affairs held true, and I inferred that it no longer held true after the event. The same is true here. It was not before Mary gave birth but after that Joseph knew her, resulting in the siblings described in Matthew 13:55. As Kartunnen (1974: 7) notes, the eventive until-PP marks the interval during which an event begins to take place. This is why an inchoative interpretation is now assigned to the state of affairs: Joseph began to know Mary after Jesus was born, but certainly no earlier than that. This meaning is not present as code––it is inferred

This doctrine may be supported on other grounds, but it cannot be the ἕως-PP in Matthew 1:25. 

Merry Christmas!