I frequently lament the pernicious influence of Neo-Platonic philosophy on Christianity, an influence that came from the period when the early Church was swallowed up by the Roman Empire in the personality of the Emperor Constantine. The Platonic influence that produced an unhealthy dualism of flesh/spirit, good/evil, heaven/earth and a long train of self-loathing led to the enshrinement of virginity, both in the concept of Jesus as celibate and of his mother Mary as perpetually virginal.
One might ask what reasons in particular would make it necessary or desirable that Mary ought to be a virgin mother or a lifelong virgin. The answer is that the Platonic hatred of physical reality led the Church to frame the Christian story in terms of virginity and purity as a protest against what they perceived as the loose morals of Pagan worship. Over time, the concept spread to Jesus and the Church began to portray him as celibate, although in order to be referred to as a rabbi he would have had to be a married man.
It shows us what can happen in a group, depending on "where you are coming from." The early Church grew out of Judaism, but when it was taken over by Rome the new Christians--who far outnumbered the Hebrew Christians--were coming from the Pagan model or worship. Greco-Roman Platonism passed into the Church unnoticed by those who were so familiar with it that they could not help but view Christianity through its prism.
But it was not only Mary and Jesus who were caught up in the Church's evolving concepts of good and evil. The rise of men's and women's orders in the Church, descending from both Jewish and Pagan sources, provided a context of renunciation and humility that were thought to be possible only in a context of celibacy. The Jewish sect of the Essenes, who may have been an early influence on Jesus, promoted simplicity and renunciation as gateways to spiritual development. When the Romans arrived in the British Isles they found men's and women's orders among the Celts who lived there.
The famous Druid culture gave us the Lady of the Lake and the Merlin, studied extensively by the author Marian Zimmer Bradley who wrote the series of historical novels dealing with Arthurian history that begins with her book The Mists of Avalon. The women's order headed by the Lady of the Lake worshiped the female creative force, which lent itself to the Christian cult of the Madonna.
This Neo-Platonism ballooned into the Middle Ages with self-flagellation, "mortifying the flesh" and eventually the Papal decree that enforced celibacy on the priesthood. During all these centuries the denigration of the human body and sexual pleasure continued to have the influence that is hardly mitigated even today. The division of the Church during the Reformation may have permitted a more realistic sexual agenda for clergy, but the antipathy towards "the Flesh" was only reinforced by the Old-Testament model of the cruel and punishing God who could hardly wait to inflict eternal torture on anyone who fell short of whatever standards the Protestant community decided to choose out of the many laws that were enumerated in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Today we have some scholars who are trying to untangle this conflict between the two Testaments, and as I have written, it turns out that there is no such thing as Old-Testament Christianity. In exploring the aberrations that have cropped up in Christianity over the centuries, Bishop John Shelby Spong discovered so much that he put some of it in a book called Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism. In this national best-seller, he explores many of the unquestioned assumptions that we can no longer use dogmatically in defining Christianity.
The famous idea of the three-tiered universe, with earth in the middle, the heavens over our heads (with little holes that allow its light to peek through) and the waters underneath can no longer work with what we now know about structure of galaxies and the size of the universe--even though our knowledge, as we know, is far from complete. Just the fact that the earth goes around the sun--rather than the reverse--has a profound effect on theology and tells us that humanity and the earth that we live on are not the center and focus of all creation.
Bishop Spong seeks to make us understand that in attempting to literalize Scripture we make up nonsense, and that the only way to understand Scripture without shrinking it to fit our limited knowledge is to keep an open mind. This is, of course, opposite to the fundamentalist idea that the only security is to be found in literalism. But it also destroys faith.
You do not "have faith" in what you know. We don't have faith in mathematics, because we can lay out objects, count them, and know for sure that 2 + 2= 4. That is going to hold true whether we are counting apples, stars, galaxies or human beings.
We do have religious faith when we trust in God, because we do not (and quite possibly cannot) comprehend God's nature or even know for sure that there is such an entity. This allows us also to disbelieve, which fits with my belief that God never interferes with human freedom. It isn't possible to intimidate or force anyone to worship; we can placate and make offerings to avoid punishment and ingratiate ourselves with a cruel and capricious God, but love and worship are nowhere to be found in that paradigm.
Christians believe that God exists "out there" somewhere, and that he reached out to human beings in the person of Jesus. Theology deals with just how Jesus understood God the way he did, and there isn't a whole lot of agreement about it. Personally I feel that if you want to know what Jesus thought of God you ought to look at what he did: feed the hungry, heal the sick and tell us to treat each day as though it were our last chance before we would be compelled to give an accounting of ourselves to God.
Jesus was also a Jewish man who believed passionately in a God of love and justice; his main complaint to his contemporaries was that they didn't understand that God was more loving than they believed. Jesus never started a new religion, nor did those who knew him; it was a generation later that the Followers of the Rabbi from Nazareth were no longer welcome in Temple worship.
That explains why, by the way, Christians no longer observe the Jewish Sabbath. When they were no longer able to observe the Temple calendar, they decided to have their day of worship on the first day of the week, which was traditionally associated with the discovery of the Resurrection. Contrary to the teachings of some Protestant denominations, it was not an oversight. Rather it was a symptom of how the influx of Pagan converts changed the Jewish orientation of the Faith.