For most of Christian history, Mary’s perpetual virginity was a commonplace belief, even well into the Protestant Reformation. But in our hyper-sexualized culture – and, like it or not, this is the culture in which Christians and non-Christians are now submerged like fish in the sea – people find it extremely difficult to contemplate the possibility of a life of virginity as anything but one of unbearable deprivation. So before we ever get to discussing what Scripture says about the perpetual virginity of Mary, we’ve got a gigantic cultural hostility to virginity to overcome.
Moreover, of course, our cultural biases aren’t confined to sex. Many card-carrying members of our consumer culture will wonder why anyone would choose to believe in something like Mary’s perpetual virginity. Behind such thinking is the notion of the Catholic faith as a mere smorgasbord of “belief options” that are there to accessorize our fashion choices. And so, conventional wisdom says: If you’re one of those strange souls who “like” virginity, then you can choose to believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity because it “suits your lifestyle.” But if you’re not one of these odd ducks, then why bother believing it?
The answer is that the Catholic faith is not a product of consumer culture. It proposes certain truths to us not because they suit our lifestyle, but because they’re true. Nobody prefers a universe in which it’s necessary to “take up your cross” (versus, say, a universe in which you just have to take up your TV remote) in order to find life eternal. It’s just that the universe Jesus describes happens to be the universe we live in, like it or not. In the same way, the Church tells us Mary is a perpetual virgin not because it suits somebody’s lifestyle, but because she is a perpetual virgin, and that has real implications for us.
Of course, we’re always free to deny the truth. But the problem with that approach is that the faith is not a cafeteria. It is a whole weave – an “ecological system,” if you will. The supernatural Catholic faith, like the natural world, is a complex web of truth, love, and power that is just as perfectly balanced as any wetland on the shore of Puget Sound. When one tries to remove some “pointless doctrine” from this supernatural ecosystem, one gets results similar to removing some “pointless” ozone layer from the atmosphere: a catastrophic upheaval and a whole series of unforeseen side effects.
So when the Church proposes the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity, the questions we ought to start with are, “Is this teaching true and, if so, what is the point of it?” Below I will attempt to answer the question, “Is this teaching true?” In future essays, we’ll look at the question, “What is the point of it?”
Modern Protestant Difficulties
Of course, serious Christians of whatever stripe recognize that sex belongs in the context of marriage. But that, for many Protestants, is the problem: For Joseph and Mary were married. So what on earth would have kept them from marital relations? And given that Scripture says Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son” (Mt 1:25); repeatedly refers to Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” in passages like Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55-56; and records Paul speaking of James as “the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19), the natural conclusion for the Protestant reader is that Mary’s Perpetual Virginity is a case in which the Church isn’t just filling in some scriptural silence with a flight of fancy but is deliberately and directly contradicting Scripture – probably because of some pathological fascination with celibacy.
The Difficulty with the Protestant Reading of Scripture
The difficulty for the Protestant critique here is that the supposed Scriptural evidence for “Mary’s other children” is only an apparent, not a real, contradiction of the Church’s tradition. For, in fact, every text adduced to “prove” Mary had other natural-born children encounters some fatal difficulty when we look closely.
So, for instance, the attempt to find absolute, ironclad proof of sexual relations between Joseph and Mary in Matthew’s remark that Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son” suffers from the fatal ambiguity of the word “until.” The whole value of the passage as an argument against Mary’s virginity depends on some supposed “rule” that “until” means “the same before, but different afterward.” But if we try to apply this “rule,” we wind up with strange results. Thus, Deuteronomy 1:31 tells Israel, “The LORD your God bore you, as a man bears his son, in all the way that you went until you came to this place.” Does the author really mean to say that God would henceforth not be carrying Israel?
Likewise, Deuteronomy 9:7 says, “From the day you came out of the land of Egypt, until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD.” Does the sacred author mean to imply that Israel magically stopped being rebellious after that? Or again, John the Baptist “was in the wilderness until the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Lk 1:80, emphasis added). Does Luke therefore mean to imply that once John appeared to Israel, he never lived in the desert again? No. Similarly, neither is Matthew saying anything beyond, “Mary conceived Jesus in virginity.” He is making no implications whatever about any sexual relations between Mary and Joseph.
In the same way, the texts concerning Jesus’ brothers and sisters were consistently read by the early Church with the understanding that the apostles had taught that Jesus was the only son of the Blessed Virgin. And once we get past our modern prejudice that “they simply can’t mean that,” we find to our surprise that they easily can.
Take James. Paul describes him as the “brother of the Lord,” but James himself does not. Why not? And even more oddly, Jude describes himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1). If Jude is a sibling of Jesus, why does he talk in this weird way?
The answer comes from a close reading of the Gospels. Matthew and Mark name the following as “brothers” of Jesus: James, Joseph (or “Joses,” depending on the manuscript), Simon, and Judas (i.e., “Jude”). But Matthew 27:56 says that at the cross were Mary Magdalene and “Mary the mother of James and Joseph,” whom he significantly calls “the other Mary” (Mt 27:61) (i.e., the Mary who was not Mary the Mother of Jesus). John concurs with this, telling us that “standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (Jn 19:25, emphasis added).
In short, James, Jude, and their brothers are the children of “the other Mary,” the wife of Clopas, not Mary, the Mother of Jesus. This is further supported in an almost accidental way by the early Church historian Eusebius, who routinely records the succession of bishops in the major churches of antiquity. After recording his account of the martyrdom of James, the first bishop of Jerusalem (commonly referred to as “the brother of the Lord”), he tells us that James’s successor was none other than “Symeon, son of Clopas.” Why choose Symeon/Simon for the next bishop? Because James, the “brother of the Lord,” and Symeon/Simon were the sibling children of Clopas and the “other Mary,” and we are looking at a kind of dynastic succession.
Interestingly, this “other Mary” is described as the Blessed Virgin’s “sister.” Is it really possible that two siblings were both named Mary? Probably not. Rather it’s far more likely they were “sisters” in the same sense Jesus and the other Mary’s son, James, were “brothers.” That is, they were cousins or some other extended relation. And, indeed, we find Jewish culture could play fast and loose with the terms “brother” and “sister.” For instance, Lot, who was the nephew of Abraham (cf. Gen 11:27-31), is called Abraham’s ‘âch (“brother”) in Genesis 14:14-16 (which is exactly how the translators of both the New International Version and the King James Version render it). And these English-speaking translators are simply following the example of the ancient Jewish translators of the Septuagint version of Genesis, who also rendered the Hebrew word as adelphos: the same Greek word that is also used to describe Jesus’ relatives.
So the biblical evidence for siblings of Jesus slips steadily away until all that is left is the school of criticism that argues that, since Jesus is called the “firstborn” (Lk 2:7), this implied other children for Mary. But in fact the term “firstborn” was used mainly to express the privileged position of the that child, whether or not other children were born. That is why a Greek tomb at Tel el Yaoudieh bears this inscription for a mother who died in childbirth: “In the pain of delivering my firstborn child, destiny brought me to the end of life.”
Beyond that, all the critic of perpetual virginity has left is just the gut sensation that “it’s weird for a normal married couple to practice celibacy.” And that might be an argument – if Joseph and Mary were a normal married couple and not the parents of the God of Israel.
Mary’s Witness to Her Perpetual Virginity
It is no secret that ancient Judaism, like the Church, prized the goods of marriage and family. But Judaism had room for celibacy too, if practiced for religious reasons. The best known example is the rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth. In addition to Him, we also have the example of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 16:1-2), St. Paul (cf. 1 Cor 7), and St. Philip’s “four unmarried daughters, who prophesied” (Acts 21:9). Beyond the record of Scripture, we also find Jewish groups like the Essenes and the Therapeutae, who likewise consecrated themselves to virginity. Consecrated virginity was not unheard of in ancient Judaism.
Indeed, there’s even room in ancient Judaism for celibacy within marriage:
Living a celibate life within marriage was not unknown in Jewish tradition. It was told that Moses, who was married, remained continent the rest of his life after the command to abstain from sexual intercourse (Ex 19:15) given in preparation [for the Theophany on Mount Sinai. Likewise,] the seventy elders abstained thereafter from their wives after their call, and so did Eldad and Medad when the spirit of prophecy came upon them; indeed it was said that the prophets became celibate after the Word of the Lord communicated with them (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 19; 46.3; Sifre to Numbers 99 sect. 11; Sifre Zutta 81-82, 203-204; Aboth Rabbi Nathan 9, 39; Tanchuman 111, 46; Tanchumah Zaw 13; 3 Petirot Moshe 72; Shabbath 87a; Pesachim 87b, Babylonian Talmud).
The question, of course, is whether Mary was among those devout Jews who chose to live a life of virginity. And the biblical evidence says, “Yes.”
Consider: You are at a bridal shower for a friend and somebody remarks to the bride, “You are going to have such adorable kids!” Everybody laughs, but the bride gapes in astonishment and says, “How shall this be?” At that point, you would begin to notice something unusual about your friend. Because, for a woman who is betrothed to be married, there are only a limited number of explanations for such a reaction. Either nobody has ever explained the birds and the bees to her, and she genuinely has no idea how babies are made and what she’s about to sign on for with her husband-to-be – or she has every intention of remaining a virgin after marriage.
The astonishing thing about Mary is that she’s astonished. For she, too, is a woman betrothed. She knows about the birds and the bees. Yet she reacts with amazement at the news that she, a woman betrothed, will bear a son. Notice that the angel does not say, “You are pregnant.” He says, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son” (Lk 1:31, emphasis added). This is a promise that has been made to other women in Jewish history such as Sarah, Hannah, and the Shunammite woman (cf. Gen 18; 1 Sam 1; and 2 Kgs 4). All of them understand the promise to mean, “You and your husband will conceive a child.” So why should the same promise astonish Mary, a young woman who also plans to marry – unless she had already decided to remain a virgin throughout her life?
Joseph’s Witness to Mary’s Perpetual Virginity
The average modern reader of Matthew assumes Joseph disbelieved Mary and wanted to divorce her as an adulteress. Pictures come to the mind very easily of a Mary “pregnant out to there” and fumbling to explain to a skeptical Joseph that, well, it’s not the way it looks – and there was this angel, you see . . .
But surprisingly, there’s another view of Joseph, one that I think Scripture supports better than the “suspicious Joseph” portrait commonly accepted by modernity. In fact, it’s a way of viewing Joseph’s actions that was remarked on with approval by such Church Fathers as Origen, Rabanus, and even Jerome, the greatest biblical scholar of antiquity.
Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. You are a first-century Jew, not a 21st-century materialist. Not just God, but angels, the afterlife, miracles, visions, and the whole supernatural world is, for you, as normal and real as daylight and sun on the flowers. Mary is a deeply godly woman you have known extremely well for years, whom you both love and trust. She tells you she received a visitation from an angel, hours – perhaps minutes – after the angel has departed, not months after she becomes pregnant. She is breathless and astonished. But she’s not given to hysteria or tall tales, and she’s dead serious. She tells you the angel said she would bear a son by the Holy Spirit. She’s not “pregnant out to there” when she says this. She just says it. Perhaps she’s not even sure she’s pregnant, since the angel has given no timetable for when this shall happen. There’s no guilt or shame in her eyes. And you know her. the idea of her a) sleeping around (with whom? This is a small town!) and b) coming up with this wild story to cover is simply alien to her character. So, to your amazement and fear, you find Mary’s story is less incredible to you than the proposition of Mary’s unchastity.
Especially since (continuing our thought experiment) that’s not all Mary says. She also reports that the angel said her aged cousin Elizabeth is pregnant, too. There’s been no news from Zechariah and Elizabeth for several months. Then, a few days later, word comes from the Judean hill country: Elizabeth ispregnant despite her advanced age. The hair stands up on the back of your neck. And as weeks and months roll on, you find that your beloved Mary is indeed pregnant, too. She looks at you with absolutely honest eyes and says, “Remember what I told you about the angel and his message?”
I don’t know about you, but if it were me and my wife, I would believe her – and feel deeply unworthy even to be in her presence. Incredible as it sounds, I would find it even more incredible to think that the woman I’ve known all these years could be making all that up. I trust her that much.
I think Joseph trusted Mary that much, too – particularly since his behavior looks for all the world to signal that he believed Mary. He acts not like an outraged and betrayed man, but like a man who, as the months progress, feels more and more the crushing weight of his appointed task and the dread of the Holy One in the words Mary relayed to him from the angel:
He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Lk 1:32–33)
Joseph does not act angry at Mary. And he knows perfectly well there’s no danger of public disapproval, because the assumption would have been – and was (Jn 6:42) – that the child was his. Only Joseph and Mary know that the child is . . . Whose? That appears to be the question weighing on Joseph. That appears to be why he contemplates finding some escape hatch, hoping to “send her away quietly” (Mt 1:19) so that she won’t incur the public shame of his “rejection,” while he avoids the terrifying burden God is laying on his feeble shoulders.
In the midst of all this turmoil, Joseph then has a dream in which an angel speaks to him. And remember, Joseph believes in dreams, visions, and the like. The dream confirms everything Mary told him: “That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:20-21). But even more than that, the dream also strongly suggests that Joseph was grappling not with disbelief, but belief – and a profound sense of unworthiness. For the angel in the dream does not say, “Don’t suspect Mary of adultery.” Rather, the angel says, “Do not fear to take Mary your wife” (Mt 1:20, emphasis added). He addresses Joseph as “son of David,” thereby reminding him that the Messiah is to come through David’s line. In short, the angel reminds Joseph that this task has been appointed to him by God, despite Joseph’s sense of unworthiness.
Now, both Luke 1:35 and Revelation 11:19–12:1-2 make it clear that it didn’t take long for the Jewish mind to discern a connection between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant, since both were “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit and both the dwelling place of the living God among His people. How easy would it have been for Joseph, knowing what he knew, to make the same connection – and to remember what happens to people who touch the ark without the Lord’s permission?
And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Sam 6:6-7)
So, even from a human perspective, it becomes very probable that Joseph would have chosen celibacy in this rather unusual situation. But beyond such negative factors influencing Joseph’s thought, it is also worth noting that he was a devout Jew who not only feared but loved God. Thus Joseph might very well have recognized another parallel between his stewardship of Mary and Moses’ stewardship of the “Holy of Holies” wherein the Lord dwelt:
Jewish tradition mentions that, although the people had to abstain from sexual relations with their wives for only three days prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai (Ex 19:15), Moses chose to remain continent the rest of his life with the full approval of God. The rabbis explained that this was so because Moses knew that he was appointed to personally commune with God, not only at Mount Sinai but in general throughout the forty years of sojourning in the wilderness. For this reason Moses kept himself “apart from woman,” remaining in the sanctity of separation to be at the beck and call of God at all times; they cited God’s command to Moses in Deuteronomy 5:28 (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 19:3 and 46:3).
The weight of Scriptural evidence therefore suggests that, from motives of both holy fear (of illicitly touching the New Ark) and of love for God in imitation of Moses, Joseph realized he had been charged with foregoing marital relations in this wonderful and special case. Once again, Scripture winds up reflecting the Tradition preserved by the Church.
John’s Witness to Mary’s Perpetual Virginity
Another point also deserves mention. Suppose, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that Mary did give birth to other children besides Jesus. What, then, are we to make of the fact that Jesus, in His final moments of earthly life, gives Mary into John’s care?
When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (Jn 19:26-27)
As Paul makes clear, both Jews and Christians customarily entrusted the care of widows to their own families:
Honor widows who are real widows. If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God. She who is a real widow, and is left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day; whereas she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. Command this, so that they may be without reproach. If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tm 5:3-8, emphasis added)
Caring for one’s widowed mother was not regarded as some sort of extraordinary or saintly duty, any more than it is regarded that way today. It was regarded as one of the things that anybody calling themselves “human” was expected to do.
So, if Mary really had other children, why was she commended into the care of John and not, say, of James, “the Lord’s brother?” Some will argue Jesus chose John because he was a believer and James was not. But the reality is that John was not much more of a believer than James at this point. Scripture notes John’s confusion at the Resurrection – which he neither expected nor believed at first (Mk 16:11) – and Scripture is clear that John had not yet received the Spirit, since the Spirit had not yet been given (Jn 7:39). Of course, as we know, John came to full faith in Christ shortly thereafter. But then again, so did James (1 Cor 15:7). So if James, not to mention all the other supposed “siblings” such as Jude, aren’t only believers but siblings of Jesus, why did Jesus entrust Mary to John? The obvious inference is that James, Jude, and the rest were not the Blessed Virgin’s children.
The New Testament evidence, then, is overwhelmingly in favor of the Church’s tradition here. The question remains, however, “So what?” Why does any of this matter? Of which, more next week.