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Menstruation and Mary

Menstruation and Mary

Where Angels Fear to Tread


Where angels fear to tread—A fitting theme for the treatment of such a "delicate" theological question: Did the Blessed Virgin Mary menstruate? On one hand, it seems that such a distasteful question should never be asked; it might be referred to as one of those finer theological points that would better be left a mystery. On the other, imagine the fuss it might raise in certain sectors we might call "feminist" which lay claim to a woman's menstrual cycle as a sacred rhythm that synchronizes her with cosmic forces. Keeping both of these objections in mind, it is a question that I will still attempt to analyze here with the deepest respect for both Mary and women in general.

I plan to look at this question mostly from a scriptural-theological perspective, not a biological one. My arguments will not hinge so much on the physiology of menstruation as much as on the theological significance behind it, primarily for the Jews of the Old Testament. There are biological factors though that do raise questions and thus need to be taken into consideration, and when appropriate I will make reference to them.

Before we begin to treat the question of whether Mary menstruated or not, we need to look at what scripture has to say about the woman's menstrual cycle. The first two references to menstruation can be found in the Book of Genesis. First in describing the patriarch Abraham and the fact that his wife Sarah had reached the age of menopause, "Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the way of women." The second occurs when Rachel tells her father Laban that she cannot come to meet him since she was in the seclusion that was mandatory for menstruating women: "And [Rachel] said to her father [Laban], 'Let not my lord be angry that I cannot rise before you, for the way of women is upon me.'" Explicit references to menstruation can be found twice in the writings of the prophet Ezekiel. He writes of the ritual impurity that menstruation brings about in a woman and all she comes into contact with during that specified time—"[A man is righteous] if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbor's wife or approach a woman in her time of impurity." "Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelt in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their doings; their conduct before me was like the uncleanness of a woman in her impurity." But the most substantial scriptural text, the one that deems women ritually impure for the interval of time surrounding her period is Leviticus 15. This chapter deals with unclean discharges from the genitals in both men and women. The first half speaks of various forms of seminal and venereal emissions and men, and the second of the flow of blood and menses in women. I quote that section, Leviticus 15:19-30 in full:

v. 19 When a woman has a discharge of blood which is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening.

20 And everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean.

21 And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening.

22 And whoever touches anything upon which she sits shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening;

23 whether it is the bed or anything upon which she sits, when he touches it, he shall be unclean until the evening.

24 And if any man lies with her, and her impurity is on him, he shall be unclean seven days, and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean.

25 If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean.

26 Every bed on which she lies, all the days of her discharge, shall be to her as the bed of her impurity, and everything on which she sits shall be unclean, as in the uncleanness of her impurity.

27 And whoever touches these things shall be unclean, and shall wash his clothes, and bathe himself in water, and be unclean until the evening.

28 But if she is cleansed of her discharge, she shall count for herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean.

29 And on the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, and bring them to the priest, to the door of the tent of meeting.

30 And the priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for her before the LORD for her unclean discharge.

In focusing on this text, we will not be so much concerned with the details of the Levitical legislation, as much as why such discharges in women render them ritually impure.

We have two important observations to make here. First, Leviticus 15 follows, and is intimately linked to Leviticus 12 which deals with the purification of women after childbirth. Even though we will not be considering this chapter in detail here, it is important to mention it for two reasons. First, since there appears to be a connection between these two chapters, the reason that the discharge of menses or blood renders a woman ritually impure in Leviticus 15 would presumably be the same reason that the flow of blood and other fluids from the woman's genitalia during and after childbirth would render her ritually impure in Leviticus 12. Second, we know, as a dogma of faith that Mary was a virgin, before, during, and after the birth of Christ—not just spiritually, but physically. This would seem to make her exempt from the impurities mentioned in Leviticus 12 for women after childbirth. So if she did not bleed (or have discharge, although this might be disputed by some theologians) as a result of her pregnancy and birth, then why would she have menstruated? (A much more thorough discussion of this topic will follow later.) The second observation, and a crucial one, is that from what has been said so far, it can be seen that the fundamental question here is not so much if Mary menstruated, but if she could have been considered ritually impure. For one to admit of menstruation, one must admit that she would have been ritually impure during the course of her life.

The Purpose of the Law: The Principle of Holiness

Leviticus 15 is the key text for trying to answer our question - but first we have to see the purpose of these laws regarding menstruation. Why was a menstruating woman considered ritually impure? And for what purpose were these laws created? In order to answer these questions, we must situate Leviticus 15 within the context of the entire Levitical law - what was the general purpose of the Jewish Law? There appear to be two major reasons for Law of the Old Testament—one horizontal and one vertical. The first reason is to keep Israel separate from the pagan nations surrounding them. Indeed, the whole purpose of the ancient law was to set Israel apart from the pagan, gentile nations. Each of the over six hundred separate precepts in the Jewish law found their root in this verse. After listing the Law of Holiness in Leviticus 17-19 the Lord says in summation,

You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my ordinances, and do them; that the land where I am bringing you to dwell may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation which I am casting out before you; for they did all these things, and therefore I abhorred them. But I have said to you, 'You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.' I am the LORD your God, who have separated you from the peoples You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.
Yahweh, the one true God, wanted Israel to follow Him and to worship Him in a totally unique way in order to set Israel apart from the gentiles and to show his holiness and majesty to them. Thus, the Law became pressed under distinctions of clean and unclean that symbolized the difference between Israel and the gentiles. At whatever cost the Jew must remain clean, and if he were to become unclean for whatever reason, he must immediately engage in the prescribed ritual to be restored to normalcy. Anything from touching a dead body, to having certain diseases, or even associating with certain types of people could render a person unclean. And in a particular way the prohibitions that dealt with the impurity resulting from sexual relations, discharge from the sexual organs, and their relation to the Yahweh cult, find their root in the setting apart of Israel from the orgiastic fertility rites of the Canaanites.

But on the vertical level, these laws existed not just to show Israel as separate, but separate and holy for Yahweh. Again, the entire law serves the first commandment, "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me." Yahweh had set them apart as a nation of priests, a holy nation (cf. Ex 19:6), to be holy as He is holy (cf. Lev 11:44). Even though it imputed no moral guilt, the irregularity, in this case the flow of blood and menses and, for a space of time, the impossibility of fertility in the woman, shows a lack of physical integrity. For the Jew, bodily integrity and regularity symbolized the integrity of Israel as a nation whole and undefiled before the nations and before God. And for the Jews people who suffered from such irregularities—the deformed, the sick, menstruating women - even if they were Jews themselves, represented the Gentiles because of their irregularity, and thus must be avoided, even if for a short period of time until the irregularity passes.

This principle of holiness, bodily integrity, and separateness for Yahweh is the hermeneutical key for understanding Leviticus 15. Verses 30-31 demonstrate this well as they describe the liturgical rite of purification: "And the priest shall offer one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her before the LORD for her unclean discharge. Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst." But as evidenced here, it is a key that has a very practical application. Those deemed ritually impure (here "irregular" menstruating women) must be kept from the sanctuary and the tabernacle in the temple, which was the dwelling place of God, for risk of defiling it in their unclean state. Ritual impurity was ordered toward Jewish ritual - the unclean individual could not perform in cultic ceremonies until he or she had been restored to regularity physically and to purity ritually. Thus the necessity of a sacrificial offering for the woman once her time of "irregularity" is over.

This separateness from the tabernacle dates back to before the construction of the temple, to when the presence of Yahweh dwelt in the tent during the Hebrew's sojourn in the desert. The Book of Deuteronomy reads, "Because the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp, to save you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, that He may not see anything indecent among you, and turn away from you." The Lord dwelt in the tent at the center of camp, but because of his presence the entire camp was seen as holy, like a sanctuary. Thus certain laws of purity and impurity applied, all things deemed impure had to remain outside of the camp. This system of purity and impurity later translated to the Temple where those considered ritually impure could not enter the sanctuary since it had been made holy by the presence of God in the tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies.

A final transitional point before moving on to the next level of our analysis. We must keep in mind one particularly important thing when studying scripture, particularly the Old Testament. The Hebrews were not writing "history" as we know it, attempting to give precise historical details. It is not that they did not care about recording events honestly, but they saw these events, indeed all of history theologically—not so much as isolated history, but as God working to save his people throughout history. Thus what we might consider lack of historical accuracy was simply them interpreting events in light of a certain theological viewpoint. For our particular purposes here it is important to note how the Jews used later theological development—ideas of cleanliness, holiness, the construction of the temple, even the Deuteronomic and Levitical laws and interpreted (and some might even say "re-wrote") past events in light of them. These things were projected back in time, to the earliest events in salvation history (even the creation story) to help them understand the saving plan of Yahweh better.

The Garden of Eden—Primeval Sanctuary

As we journey onward to see how ideas of holiness and the sanctuary were projected backwards to interpret the creation story found in Genesis, I would like first to point to the connection between prelapsarian Eve, and Mary, the Immaculate Conception. In fact, on several levels, this analogy/comparison will be the key for answering our proposed question. We know that since she was conceived without original sin, and never sinned in her life, Mary was like Eve before the Fall. So to know if Eve would have menstruated before the Fall, we can have a clue to seeing if Mary, the New Eve, would have done so during her life.

As we have already established, a woman who is deemed ritually impure because of menstrual discharge could not enter the sanctuary of the temple (nor the previous tent and camp in the desert). As quoted earlier, the Book of Deuteronomy states, "Because the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp, to save you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, that he may not see anything indecent among you, and turn away from you." It was also noted that this is a key text for understanding our question, in particular because of the phrase that reads God "walks in the midst." The original Hebrew word used here is hithallek. What is important for us is that very same word is also used in the first chapters of Genesis: "And [Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the LORD God walking (hithallek) in the garden [of Eden] in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden." As the camp in the desert is Holy because God walks in its midst, so too was the Garden of Eden. But there is more, the dual usage of the word hithallek leads us to a much greater insight. It was the ark and the presence of God that made the camp holy, it was the sanctuary that made the temple holy, so too was the "cosmic temple" of creation made Holy by the very presence of God within the "sanctuary" of the Garden of Eden.

Indeed, one might argue (and it is a reputable proposition) that the author of Genesis described the Garden of Eden in terms of the temple and sanctuary in Jerusalem. The parallels that exist between the two suggest that the Garden of Eden is to be understood as a sort of primeval sanctuary. A brief description of these parallels should suffice. The first parallel is with the word hithallek. The second are the kerubim (cherubim) stationed at the east of the Garden to guard the way to the tree of life. These kerubim must have been positioned here because the garden was to be entered only from the east, as was the Jerusalem temple. In addition two kerubim guarded the inner sanctuary of the temple (1 Kings 6:23-28). Two others were on top of the ark that formed the throne of God in the inner sanctuary (Ex 25:18-22) and kerubim decorated the curtains of the tabernacle and the walls of the temple (Ex 26:31; 1 Kings 6:29). The third feature that suggests the garden should be viewed as an archetypal sanctuary is the tree of life, whose fruit gives eternal life. These trees were common in sanctuaries for worship of the patriarchs (Gen 21:33). Also, many scholars believe the tabernacle menorah (seven branched candlestick) in the temple (Ex 25:31-35) was viewed as a stylized tree of life.

Next, Yahweh's order to Adam "to till [the garden] and keep it" (Gen 2:15) uses two Hebrew words (abodah and shamar) which both occur together elsewhere in the Old Testament where priestly duties are assigned to the Levites in the tabernacle (see Numbers 3:7-8; 8:26; 18:5-6). The Levitical priests must then have seen themselves doing work similar to Adam's in the garden sanctuary of Eden. The idea of Adam as priest is heightened when we see the parallels between him and Aaron, the high priest of Israel. Adam was "clothed with garments" (Gen 3:21) as Aaron was clothed (labas, ketonet) at God's command (see Ex 28:42; Dt 23:12-14). Neither Adam nor Aaron could draw near to God with their "nakedness" exposed (see Gen 3:10; Ex 20:26; 28:42).

If we look at the geography of the garden in Gen 2:10-14, we see four rivers described. Elsewhere in scripture we see water running through sanctuaries. Psalm 46:5 a river runs "making glad the city of God," and Ezekiel 45 describes a great river running through the New Jerusalem temple. Gen 2:12 mentions the "good gold" and different types of stones decorating the garden. Most items in the temple sanctuary were made of or covered with gold, and stones of the same time were found there also, especially adorning the vestments of the priests (Ex 25:7; 28:9, 20; 1 Chr 29:2). Also, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil being near the center of the garden has parallels with the tablets of Decalogue and the book of the law kept inside the holy of holies in the center part of the temple (Ex 25:16; Deut 31:26). And finally we see parallels between the creation of the world in six days and the building of the temple described in Exodus 25-40. And as Yahweh rested on the seventh day, after the completion of the temple, He rested there in the Holy of Holies.

If we are to interpret the Garden of Eden as an archetypal sanctuary, then this helps us to better understand the states of Adam and Eve before and after the fall. Before the fall, they were in a state of moral and ritual purity, and could go about freely in the sanctuary of the garden where "God walked in the midst." But after the fall, when they became impure, they were forced to leave the garden, to leave the sanctuary which was sanctified by God's presence. So because the Garden of Eden was understood in light of the Tabernacle and the laws of purity that we instituted with it, in reality and in the mind of the author, nothing impure would have been allowed into the sanctuary of the Garden of Eden. Thus Eve could not have been seen as menstruating before the fall since that would have rendered her ritually impure and incapable of being in the garden/sanctuary.

And from this we derive our first argument and answer for whether Mary would have menstruated. If Eve before the fall, because of the sanctuary parallels could not have menstruated, neither could Mary, the new sinless Eve have done so. It is her connection with the prelapsarian Eve that gives us a negative answer on this level to our proposed question. But this tie between Mary and Eve which leads us to our next area of analysis, one based in the already mentioned connection between legislation on menstruation (Leviticus 15) and on bloody discharge at birth (Leviticus 12).

Leviticus 12 and 15: The Meaning of "Bloods"

To further explore our question regarding the Blessed Virgin we need to look at the connection between legislation on menstruation (Leviticus 15) and bloody discharge at birth (Leviticus 12). Leviticus 12:2 reads, "Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean." This passage makes it clear that it is not the birth of the child that makes her unclean, but the discharge, like at the time of her menstruation, that does. The passage makes it quite evident that there is indeed a connection between these two types of discharge and their respective legislation. Here is Chapter 12 of Leviticus quoted in full:

Holy Family Luberoff

12:1 The LORD said to Moses,

2 "Say to the people of Israel, If a woman conceives, and bears a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as at the time of her menstruation, she shall be unclean.

3 And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.

4 Then she shall continue for thirty-three days in the blood of her purifying; she shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying are completed.

5 But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean two weeks, as in her menstruation; and she shall continue in the blood of her purifying for sixty-six days.

6 "And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the door of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering,

7 and he shall offer it before the LORD, and make atonement for her; then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female.

8 And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean."

In looking at Leviticus both 12 here and chapter 15, we see they share several things in common: 1) statements that a certain type of discharge renders the woman "unclean," 2) precepts regarding the communication of the impurity to other individuals and objects, 3) certain durations of the impurity, and 4) the things needed to lift the impurity. From these similarities, and from verse two quoted above we can see that there is a similarity between these two passages, but why is it significant? It is significant because if Mary did not have a bloody discharge at birth to render her unclean, then it should be safe to assume that neither did she menstruate since they appear to be so "connected" in the mind of the author of these two passages from Leviticus. I would like to approach this aspect of our discussion both from scripture and from Catholic dogma.

First, we must return to Eve. We have already seen that because the Garden of Eden was conceived of a sanctuary Eve could not have menstruated since that would have rendered her unclean. From that it seems safe to presume that neither would she have had a discharge at childbirth. Even though scripture is not explicit in pointing this out, Yahweh does tell Eve after the fall that he "will greatly multiply [her] pain in childbearing; in pain [she] shall bring forth children." This passage has been applied to Mary throughout Catholic tradition to argue that she would have not had physical pain in her childbirth since she was free from the stain of original sin. We might take note of a connection between pain and discharge of fluid here on "physiological" level - could the pain of menstruation (and menstruation itself) be tied to the intense pain of childbirth? I would argue yes, since it is already evident that menstruation did not exist before the fall, and thus must be a result of original sin, like pain in childbirth. The discharge seems to be intertwined with the pain as a result of the fall. Indeed we know that the terrible thing for the woman in both of these events is not so much the spilling of fluids at childbirth or menstruation, but the pain and discomfort that accompanies it. The connections between discharge and pain and the effects of the fall all point to the fact that Mary would have been free of all of these.

But we do know dogmatically as Catholics that Mary would not have "bled" during her giving birth to Jesus. We know this from the dogma of Mary's Perpetual Virginity - before, after, and particularly during the birth of Jesus. It is an article of divine Catholic faith that Mary preserved her virginity—inviolate from any physical damage or destruction. This would mean, on a physical level that Mary's hymen remained intact. This can be a contentious issue for some, since we know that the hymen can be burst outside of sexual intercourse or giving birth and the girl would still be considered a virgin. But theologically, it is different for Mary because of her integral involvement with the Incarnation and Redemption worked by Jesus. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger explains in his book Daughter Zion:

The cavalier divorce of "biology" and theology omits precisely man from consideration; it becomes a self-contradiction insofar as the initial, essential point of the whole matter lies precisely in the affirmation that in all that concerns man the biological is also human and especially in what concerns the divinely-human nothing is "merely biological." Banishment of the corporeal, or sexual, into pure biology, all the talk about the "merely biological," is consequently the exact opposite of what faith intends. For faith tells us of the spirituality of the biological as well as the corporeality of the spiritual and divine. On this point the choice is between all or nothing. The attempt to preserve a spiritual, distilled remainder after the biological element has been eliminated denies the very spiritual reality which is the principal concern of the faith in the God become flesh.

All of this being said though, I will argue that there is more. In being a virgin in partu (in birth) Mary not only preserved the physical integrity of her hymen, but also she did not have the discharge of fluids mentioned in Leviticus 12. We shall see this by a closer analysis of the relevant scripture texts. Leviticus 12 mentions in the English translation cited above the phrase "blood of her purifying" appears two times. But this is an incorrect translation from the original Hebrew. The Hebrew word here is damim, the plural form of the word dam, meaning blood. So the proper translation should be "bloods of her purifying." Where else do we see this use of the plural form of blood in scripture? For this we must look to the Gospel of John: "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." Again, the translation is incorrect. The original Greek word is haimaton, plural for blood. The proper rendition should be "who were born, not of bloods." There seems to be a connection between these two passages (a connection supported by recent biblical scholarship). These studies show that in the Jewish tradition that bloods in the plural meant the bloody discharge during birth or menstruation, not just the blood from a broken hymen. But what does it mean in the context from the verse of John's Gospel? To understand this, a further analysis of the text is needed.

The problem is one of textual criticism. The Greek text of the New Testament that we base our translations on is not the original that the evangelists wrote, nor is it the only text that exists. Quite a number of early texts exist and all of the them have minor variations depending on when they were written. The job of textual criticism is to look at these early texts, compare them and try too see which is the most authentic of the differing passages. John 1:13 is an important passage for textual criticism because the passage we use now is not the one we use now, nor is the one most of the Fathers of the Church used most of the time. All of them are universal of rendering blood(s) in the plural, but the problem comes with these words "who were born " The Greek text we derive our translations from now has the infinitive to be in the past plural—were, but the earliest Greek texts (and all of those from the second century) have it in the past singular—was. The earliest texts read "who was born " So we might argue that the proper translation of John 1:12-13 would be: "But to all who received him (Christ), who believed in his name; he who was born, not of bloods nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God, gave [them] power to become children of God." By translating the verb to be in the singular past, it then refers to Jesus. And this combined with the proper translation of haimaton as the "bloods" mentioned in Leviticus 12, we see that John is making an argument for the virginity of Mary in the birth of Christ (he was not born of bloods) and thus her ritual purity.

This is not a new interpretation, though, if one were to read the writings of the early Church Fathers. We will see the same interpretation of the verse and reference to Christ not being born of bloods. It is also important to note here that in using this verse, Mary's moral purity as Virgin and Mother is tied to her ritual purity. Again this is possible (and some might say necessary) because of Mary's significant role in the drama of salvation. In addition, de la Potterie also refers to Luke 1:35 as a possible reference to the Virgin Birth. The RSV translation reads," And the angel said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.'" Because of confusion in the Greek text it is possible to read the last part of line not referring to the future calling of Jesus as holy, but a reference to his birth as holy. It would be translated thus: "That is why the one who will be born holy will be called the Son of God." This holiness in birth would refer to his ritual purity, Mary's birth without bloods. And again he quotes several early Church Fathers to support this interpretation. Thus, looking back to Leviticus 12:6-8 and the ritual for purification, the one in which Mary and Jesus participated in the temple (see Luke 2:22-24), and keeping what we have said so far in mind, we can say that Jesus did not have to be offered in the Temple, nor did Mary have to offer her two turtle doves because they were both still ritually pure from her virginal birth. They submitted to the Law out of humility and deference to the Father.

Conclusion and Final Reflections

Having seen the arguments that demonstrate that the Virgin Mary would not have menstruated, nor have given birth to Christ in a ritually impure manner ("of bloods"), we must now ask ourselves what the deeper theological significance of this answer is. The answer comes from Hans urs von Balthasar. Balthasar notes that ever since the entrance of original sin into the world (with Adam and Eve), sexuality has been ordered towards death. Before the fall, the union between man and woman would have been in utter harmony, even in the way they physically expressed their love for each other. The sharing of love would have been a complete sharing of self, an act of perfect balance and justice. But after the fall, with the tensions that were created between man and woman, it became very difficult to express sexual relations in a way that was not tied up with egoism. Sin, of course was at the root of this discord, and death was its ultimate end. Thus, with death becoming a reality after the Fall, mankind realizing that this was his destiny, in an "effort" to overcome this fate, feverishly engages in the propagation of the race in order to further and also "lose ourselves in the species" and to escape such a death. This is why Christ, the savior, could have never been born of the type of birth we know. He was born of the Immaculate Virgin, who remained a virgin during and after the birth, for his birth was to be a sign that His incarnation and life means the breaking out of the vicious circle of sin and death, the cycle so linked with sexuality and birth. Every action of his life from the moment of his conception, to his ascension into heaven sanctified and transformed every moment of our lives. Thus by his being born "not of bloods," the bitter sting of death that comes with every birth has been ordered toward life, eternal life.

This brings me to my conclusion and a sort of appendix, one composed of seven points / reflections for further consideration on this topic:

1. Blood and Death. Some scholars say that the reason menstruating women and those after giving birth are considered impure is because of the contact with blood, and blood, of course was tied to death. This theory fails for two main reasons. First, blood was tied to life more than death for the Jews (see Lev 17:14; Deut 12:23). The only real prohibition dealing with blood was in regards to its non-consumption. Contact with blood did not necessarily render one impure, especially in the context of Leviticus 12 and 15, for bleeding hemorrhoids does not render one impure. As mentioned earlier, the prohibition is more linked with sexuality here than with blood.

2. Menstruation and Original Sin. Scripture implicitly points to the fact that menstruation is as a result of original sin (just as the pain that comes with childbirth). It is a sign of humanity's fallen nature. It is that time when the egg and menses are flushed from the body, that the woman becomes infertile, and thus physically (in the eyes of the Law) would not have been capable of reflecting or living out the command to be fruitful and multiply. Yet, because of Christ's Holy Birth, even though it still remains painful, for this very reason in fact, it becomes a means to salvation, particularly for the woman - a symbol of the passage from life to death even.

3. Theology of Menstruation. Stemming for this, one might be inclined to develop a "theology of menstruation," aimed at helping women seek perfection and redemption through this event which can be such a cross for many women. Of course, such an endeavor might lead some down the path of pure foolishness. Yet this fact, nor the sensitivity of the subject of menstruation, should not hamper us from bringing the message of Christ's redemption into every aspect of our lives.

4. Jesus and the New Law. Yet what of the New Testament story of the woman with the flow of blood who touched Jesus' cloak and was healed (see Mk 5:25ff; Luke 8:43ff)? She touched Jesus, and thus under the Law Jesus would have been considered ritually impure, yet Jesus applauded her for her faith. We must remember first of all that Christ came to fulfill the law, and thus, if our exegesis is correct, in being born holy of the virgin, he would have fulfilled the precepts of Leviticus 12 and 15 in that act. Thus, even though the woman did not realize it, she was no longer bound by these precepts. But what is more significant is the fact that most illness we see Jesus heal in the gospels find their root in sin (ex. the man lowered through the roof on a plank). Even though it is not explicitly mentioned in this story, could the healing of her flow of blood been a sign of a deeper spiritual healing she received? Could it even be seen as a type of baptism (baptism of blood) that destroys original sin? Could she be symbolic of humanity restored to a state of harmony and justice?

5. The Age of Menstruation in the Time of Christ. I am not aware when this would have been, although I do know the times that woman begin to menstruate change depending on diet, hormonal production and societal factors. This question is in regards to Mary's remark to the angel that she could not conceive and bear a son since "she had not known man." True, this was a statement of her virginity, but it does involve biological factors. A woman must have her first period before she can become pregnant—so was Mary aware of this when she made her comment (otherwise would she have said, "I am not of the age yet to be able to bear a son")? Of course, with the Holy Spirit anything is possible, yet the egg that was "fertilized" must have come from Mary, since Christ took his humanity from her. So it seems the two options would be that she was of age to have a child (which we have ruled out, that she could not have menstruated) or somehow in her perfect humanity, she was always fertile. This is as far as our explorations can go here though, the inner workings of the conception of Christ will remain a mystery.

6. Ark of the Covenant. Another argument for Mary's ritual purity comes from the fact that she is considered to be the new "Ark of the Covenant." I will not get into the theology of that now, but there are several biblical clues (especially the connection between Revelation 11:19 and 12:1 and passages from Luke) that point to the fact that Mary was seen as the Holy Ark which held the Word of God (for a more in depth study of this topic see Scott Hahn's Mary Ark of the Covenant or the book A Scientist Researches Mary - The Ark of the Covenant by Courtenay Bartholomew). If Mary is the Ark, the Holy Seat of God's Presence inside of the Holy of Holies of the Temple, there is no way she could have been considered ritually impure.

7. The Temple in the Book of Revelation. Finally, stemming from Mary being Ark of the Covenant, a closer analysis of the Book of Revelation shows Mary as the Temple, the New Jerusalem come down from heaven. Again, I will provide no theological exploration of this topic here. It is sufficient to say the same arguments which show Mary being pure as the Ark of the Covenant would apply here: "And in the Spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal." (Rev 21:10-11)

Sonya Orleth proposes A Different View

There is a serious error present under point 5 “The Age of Menstruation in the Time of Christ.” Rev. Sibley writes “A woman must have her first period before she can become pregnant.” A woman can most certainly become pregnant before her first period, as the first period is preceded by the first ovulation. The first period occurs as a result of that first egg released not meeting up with any sperm in the woman’s body —therefore no fertilized egg implanting itself into the lining of the uterus, and hence the shedding of that lining (i.e.: the first menstrual period) . It is a common misconception (though not so common in recent years) that a woman cannot get pregnant before she has her first period. Many girls have been talked into sex by men using this argument —and undoubtedly many have become pregnant as a result.

As to the argument that Mary never in her lifetime had a period because it would have rendered her impure according to Jewish Law: Mary was the first Christian—the first human to say “YES” to Jesus. She therefore would not be bound by such laws—Jesus is indeed the Incarnation of the Word and of the Law—she was the first beneficiary of the New Covenant. Jesus said “See, I make all things new.” From the instant the Incarnation occurred, and she became the Ark of the New Covenant, she too would become a new creation through Jesus. Therefore, any subsequent menstruation Mary experienced after the birth of Jesus could not have rendered her unclean. Furthermore, any bodily fluids that would have issued from her as a result of giving birth to Our Lord and Savior could not be rightly concluded to render her unclean. Of course, she would not have realized any of this, and as pointed out in the article, she was a devout Jew and would have therefore completed all of the necessary rituals a woman having just given birth would be obliged to.

That being said, I would argue that the Mary menstruation question could be answered by maintaining that the Incarnation occurred (her contribution towards it, that is) as a result of her first ovulation. If the Incarnation occurred at the time of her first ovulation (and undoubtedly God knew when she was fertile), then Mary would not have menstruated prior to her great “YES” to God’s invitation, and any subsequent menstruation would not have rendered her unclean because she was a new creation in Jesus Christ. According to my daughters’ pediatrician, onset of menses is considered normal anytime between the ages of 8 and 17, so she could have been even an older teenager when this occurred, which would square with what tradition teaches us about her age at the time of Jesus’ birth (i.e. later teen years).

Ms. Sonya Orleth may be contacted at

All About Mary includes a variety of content, much of which reflects the expertise, interpretations and opinions of the individual authors and not necessarily of the Marian Library or the University of Dayton. Please share feedback or suggestions with


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