The Virginity of Mary
Question Do you believe Mary was a virgin her entire life? Many Catholics I talk to believe she was a virgin forever.
Answer Mary was a virgin when Christ was conceived in her womb. Centuries before his birth, the prophet Isaiah had predicted: "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14).
This prophecy was fulfilled in Christ, as affirmed by the evangelist Matthew: "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us" (Matthew 1:23).
All Christians believe that Christ was born of a virgin woman. This is important, firstly, because it was necessary for Jesus to fulfill the prophecies of Scripture about the Messiah. Otherwise Jesus of Nazareth could not possibly be the promised Messiah. Secondly, the doctrine on the virgin birth of Christ is foundational because Jesus is not merely human; He is also the Son of God. The virgin birth of Christ allows for the dual nature of Christ; he is both God and man.
But did Mary remain virgin throughout her lifetime?
It is curious why we should even ask this question. What is the theological significance of the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary? Should we perhaps look at virginity as a more blessed state than marriage? The Catholic Church so teaches and curses you if you think otherwise. “If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, Session 24, Canon 10).
Early in church history, asceticism, monasticism and celibacy begun to be viewed as means of sanctification. Sexual relations, even within the context of marriage, were seen as defiling. Given this prejudice, it is not surprising that the cult of the Virgin arose. Thus, for example, Epiphanius (A.D. 375) wrote: “And to the holy Mary, the title Virgin is invariably added, for that holy woman remains undefiled.”
But this is contrary to the teaching of Scripture. “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4). The Bible compares the love relationship between Christ and His church to the marriage relationship between husband and wife. “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31,32).
So, putting aside the bias against God’s holy gift of marital sex, we should expect that Mary and Joseph her husband had a normal married relationship after the birth of Jesus Christ.
After showing that Christ was born of a virgin, the evangelist Matthew goes on to say that Joseph "knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS" (1:25). "Knew her" is the biblical expression for the act of marriage. Joseph did not know Mary "till" she gave birth to her firstborn, Jesus. The implication is clear enough.
Also, the gospels mention that Jesus had brothers and sisters. "Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things?” (Mt 13:55,56). And again: "There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee” (Mark 3:31,32).
Catholic writers stumble on each other trying to find excuses to explain away how Jesus could have brothers and sisters and yet Mary remained a virgin all her life. They appeal to apocryphal writings, such as the so-called Protoevangelium of James, saying that they were actually Joseph’s offspring from a previous marriage. Others say that they were his cousins or relatives. If this was the case, why would the biblical authors use the word ‘brothers’ instead of ‘relatives’ and ‘cousins’? (cf. Luke 1:36; Colossians 4:10).
From an honest reading of the New Testament, one concludes that Mary was a virgin until the birth of Christ. In order to uphold the doctrine of perpetual virginity, the Scriptures has to be strained to near breaking point. Yet, despite the lack of Biblical evidence, the Catholic Church curses every Christian who does not believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. If anyone does not confess that Christ “was incarnate by the holy, glorious, God-bearer, ever-virgin Mary, and born of her, let him be anathema” (The Second Council of Constantinople).
Catholic defense and rebuttal
After publishing the article above, a Catholic friend sent me a defense of the Roman Catholic doctrine. This is a brief rebuttal to the main Catholic arguments. The Catholic argument is in blue; the rebuttal is in black.
The comparison with Luke 1:80 is misleading because the grammatical construction in different. In Luke 1:80 the Greek word heos is used alone whereas we have heos hou in Matthew 1:25.
If Joseph and Mary never had sexual relations, why didn't Matthew simply write, "He knew her not until the day of his death"? Rather he reported the limits of their unusual behaviour as a married couple: Joseph knew her not until the birth of Jesus. The assertion that Joseph never knew his wife is pure speculation and cannot be supported by this text.
The New Testament was written in Greek, not Aramaic. In Greek there are words both for brother adelphos and for cousin anepsios (as in Colossians 4:10). The Holy Spirit who inspired the New Testament could have employed anepsios if James, Joses and the others were merely Jesus' cousins. He could have used the word suggenes (as in Luke 1:36) if they were relatives. But of course He didn't. The Holy Spirit chose the word adelphos that means brothers!
We do not contend that adelphos always means natural, blood brothers. As in English, adelphos (brothers) could also be used in a spiritual sense. The Bible calls all Christians “brethren,” and Jesus is called our elder “brother” (Hebrews 2:11). However it is clear that this is not the sense used in Matthew 13:55 and the other passages, for these brethren were hardly His friends or disciples! They did not even believe in Him! "Neither did his brethren believe in him" (John 7:5).
For this argument to have any merit, you need to prove without a shadow of a doubt that James and Joseph, the children of the Mary at the foot of the cross, are the same James and Joseph mentioned in Matthew 13:55. Failing to do so, the conclusion is uncertain.
Eric Swendsen writes:
Though we greatly respect these Reformers, they were not infallible. Our ultimate authority is the Bible.
Mary's statement would make no sense at all unless she intended to remain a virgin. The angel said: "You will conceive" not. “ You have conceived”. Surely Mary knew the facts of life. If she were to conceive, her normal thought would have been that at some future time she would have relations with a man. Her protest could only have meant that she was a virgin and that she would like to keep it that way.
This is a case of reading too much into a text! Mary's question was the obvious one to make because she was not at the present time having a sexual relation with a man. If Mary made this vow to perpetual virginity, she would have had to ask, "How can this be, since I will never know a man?" Of course, she said nothing of the sort. She asked: "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" Besides, why should a Jewish woman preparing to get married make a vow to life-long virginity?
You remember that His brothers did not believe in Him, at least up to this point. Jesus would rather entrust His believing Mother to the care of His beloved disciple John, than to His unbelieving half-brothers.
Mary was a virgin at the conception and the birth of Jesus, her first-born son. However, the perpetual virginity of Mary is not taught in the Bible. This belief is an invention of human tradition.
Copyright Dr Joe Mizzi. Permission to copy and distribute this article without textual changes. < BACK TO Q&A