When I typed in the title of my post into Google to see what answers would come up, I was surprised to find that reputable, academic affiliated, Catholic sites were still espousing the idea that Mary was a perpetual virgin. It should be no surprise that traditional Catholic sites still push this theology.
Below we will examine the evidence. I will be taking some of the argument points from a book written on the issue, by Dr. Robert Schihl, A Biblical Apologetic of the Catholic Faith.
Evidence from the church fathers
One of the things that is repeated about Mary’s virginity is that it is attested to by the early church fathers. These and a number of others have spoken on the subject.
- “O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word?” (Homily of the Papyrus of Turin)
- “The holy virgin may have died and been buried—her falling asleep was with honor, her death in purity, her crown in virginity.” (The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis)
- “Now how could Joseph dare to have relations with the Virgin Mary whose holiness was so great? But even if she had sexual relations—and perish that thought!” (The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis)
- Jerome wrote an entire letter on the matter called, “Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of The Blessed Virgin“
- Augustine actually tries to use OT prophecies to point to the perpetual virginity of Mary. He was known for making all scripture take on multiple meanings rather than the plain meaning.
- “This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall pass through it. Because the Lord the God of Israel hath entered in by it” (Ezek 44:2).What means this closed gate in the house of the Lord, except that Mary is to be ever inviolate? What does it mean that ‘no man shall pass through it,’ save that Joseph shall not know her? And what is this:“The Lord alone enters in and goeth out by it,” except that the Holy Ghost shall impregnate her, and that the Lord of Angels shall be born of her?And what means this – “It shall be shut for evermore,” but that Mary is a Virgin before His birth, a Virgin in His birth, and a Virgin after His birth.”
While these seem to be suggesting that their is something to this theory of perpetual virginity, let’s keep in mind that just as many church fathers disagreed or were neutral on the perpetual virginity issue. Below are some that disagree with the ones listed above.
- Basil commented that the view that Mary had other children after Jesus “was widely held and, though not accepted by himself, was not incompatible with orthodoxy” (le Museon)
- Hegesippus apparently didn’t believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Hegesippus refers to Jude as “the Lord’s brother according to the flesh” (church history of Eusebius, 3:20)
- He refers elsewhere to Symeon, a “cousin of the Lord” (church history of Eusebius, 4:22)
- “To this effect they testify, saying, that before Joseph had come together with Mary, while she therefore remained in virginity, ‘she was found with child of the Holy Ghost” (Against Heresies, 3:21:4)
- When Told of His Mother and His Brethren. Explanation of Christ’s Apparent Rejection Them. (Against Marcion)
I only point these out because some people believe that the church fathers are infallible and they get quoted to prove something right or wrong. While I have great respect for the church fathers, there is no reason to believe that they all agreed on every subject, this one included.
Evidence from the Bible
This is where I think the meat of the discussion really starts. Naturally being a protestant I weight the biblical evidence a bit more than the church history evidence. Either way, here are some very interesting biblical passages related to Mary from the Bible.
Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!
I want to just point out a few things here that are telling.
- The gospel writer labels Mary and the others as Jesus’ brothers. Clearly the gospel writer did not have an issue with Mary not being a virgin. Neither did the other gospel writers either who paralleled this passage (Luke 8, Matthew 12)
- The crowd was the voice that stated “your mother and brothers(adelphos) are outside looking for you.” Even the crowds listening to Jesus were aware that Jesus had brothers.
- Jesus then uses this stated fact “your mother and brothers are looking for you” to make a sermon illustration. It was common for Jesus to do this sort of thing. (“Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone”). He took the physical reality to make a spiritual point.
- Some have pointed out that adelphos (adelpha) in Greek is a loose fitting word that can be used to describe also a cousin or near kinsmen. This is mostly thought to be true because the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT sometimes used adelphos to refer to someone who was a relative and not a cousin. (Gen 13:8; 14:14; 24:48; 29:12; Lev 10:4; 1 Ch 9:6). But once again this is subjective because “cousin” is an English rendering of the Hebrew word “אָח” which actually mean’s brother. But just like most languages it can be used as an idiom to mean close relative. So “cousin” is not being translated into adelphos (brother). אָח (brother) is being translated into brother. Adelphos only ever gets used to mean near kinsmen when used idiomatically by people groups who know the idiom. It is not a universal Greek translation.
Given the reasoning above, it is clear that people clearly believed Jesus had brothers and the gospel writers did too.
but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus (ESV)
In this passage we can see that Matthew is telling the reader that Mary and Joseph refrained from sex until after Jesus was born. The argument that I have heard from many people is that the word “until” does not denote that anything happened after Jesus was born. It only means that they refrained from sex before Jesus was born.
Now, common sense would dictate that the word “until” indicates that something either happened or didn’t happen until a certain point, at which it inverted. If I said that I did not check my mail until after noon. That means that after noon time I checked my mail. Before noon I did not. I shouldn’t have to argue the meaning of the word “until”. I feel like people should be able this understand how to word works in a sentence.
If we used the idea that “until” only designates activity preceding an event and not after then we have a slew of Bible passages the need re-interpreted. (Matthew 5:26, Matthew 10:23, Matthew 16:28, Matthew 24:34). In fact, just looking at Matthew 24:34 “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place,” it is clear that “until” must imply that something is not happening until it is happening. If not then the verse could just read “this generation will not pass away.”
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?” Matthew 13:55-56
“These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.” Acts 1:14
It seems that the biggest arguments for the perpetual virginity comes from the church fathers, but the points they make are not backed by scripture. They are making arguments based more on Gnostic principles than anything else; believing that somehow virginity makes Mary more holy. Which brings me to my final thought.
Why does it matter that she is a virgin? Seriously, think about it. Does it improve the gospel somehow? Is Jesus a better savior because of it? Is God honored more because of it? No, none of the above. The only thing it does is elevate Mary as someone to be praised, but that really isn’t necessary. She would be praised with or without perpetual virginity.