Biblical Evidence for the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

This being V Month, I thought it might be novel to turn our thoughts away from PC obsessions with sex and have a little fun subverting of the Dominant Paradigm. To that end, I thought it might be good to run a little series on the perpetual virginity of Mary, both the evidence for it and why it matters.

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 is pregnant 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.

Mark P. Shea

By

Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

  • Bender

    Some good points here.

    But let’s not make the same mistake of others in reducing Mary’s perpetual virginity to simply what she did or did not do in the bedroom (much less the mechanics of giving birth or what was or was not the physical state of her body parts).

    Mary’s virginity goes far beyond mere human sexuality. To be sure, her motherhood is distinctly united to her virginity. Virgin mother is not a contradiction in terms. Mary is not a mother in spite of her virginity, she is a mother because she is virgin.

    To begin to understand the mystery that is the virgin mother is to begin to understand the full extent and full meaning of Mary’s perpetual virginity.

    And it is also to begin to understand the eschatological significance of that virginity, how, Mary leading the way for us in all things, we are called to follow her in that respect as well.

  • Michael PS

    The Fathers cite this, as a proof text

    “Then said the LORD to me; This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.” Ezekiel 44: 2

  • Mark Shea

    Bender and Michael:

    All this will be discussed.

  • Jason Negri

    Mark-

    This piece is very good. Well done, sir!

  • Don Schenk

    Acts 1:14-16 tells us that the Apostles gathered together “with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers.
    In those days Peter stood up in the midst of the brothers–there were 120 persons–and said, ‘My brothers.'”
    Most Protestant translations translate adelphoi, “brothers,” differently in these three verses. Even the NAB claims that the term “brothers” in the first verse refers to Jesus’ biological relatives, but apparently in all thtreee verses it refers to “the rest of her children, those who obey God’s commandments and witness to the truth.” (Revelation 12:17)

  • Tom in Ohio

    Mary is the woman by whom, or, better, through whom and with whom God

  • Andy

    I never considered that Mary had decided on a life of celibacy even before she was married. That makes the Scripture much clearer. Thanks, Mark. Maybe I should read those Mary books after all…

  • Maryanne

    I thought this post very interesting. And I am not in any way suggesting a disbelief in Mary’s perpetual virginity or that it is not an important part of Christian faith. However, Mark, when you talk about Joseph likely trusting Mary even from the beginning, aren’t you minimizing the Scripture that says that Joseph was planning to put her away privately? If she was sent away (in a small village) there would be bound to be talk and shame; surely the only way he could save her from that, if he believed her, was to continue with their betrothal. If he sent her away, where would she go (the story would follow her to relatives, no doubt) and who would provide for her (pregnant with no husband)? I admit, I just think this Scriptural passage does not fit the “trust from the beginning” theory!

  • Sarah

    1. If Mary had already planned on staying a virgin her entire life, why was she betrothed to Joseph?

    2. Would it have been acceptable to God if Mary and Joseph decided to have sexual relations? Did they not have sexual relations because it would have been a sin?

  • Observer

    This is excellent. This is not the first writing suggesting Joseph’s reasoning/feelings were due to his own realization of unworthiness of such a situation – he was perfect in humility so this reaction would be expected … not the more expedient one of doubt and perhaps suspicion. Why wouldn’t such a reaction (and we see something similar in Peter when confronted with the actual evidence of his chosen role – at least twice) be expected?? He was actually making himself look the bad guy if he sent her away with no excuse – as if he couldn’t handle the responsibility of marriage … or something else!!!

  • Jennifer

    One question: Shortly after Gabriel’s visit, Mary left and went to visit Elizabeth, staying for at least three months. If we assume Jesus was conceived immediately after Gabriel left, then by the time Mary returned from Elizabeth’s, she would have been visibly pregnant. Scandalous, yes? Since she’d been away from Joseph, and they were not yet married?
    Doesn’t it seem likely that this was when Joseph decided to divorce her quietly and then had his own angel visitation?

  • Therese Z

    Sara’s question #2: Would it have been acceptable to God if Mary and Joseph decided to have sexual relations? Did they not have sexual relations because it would have been a sin?

    I (note that there is no resemblance to an actual theologian) have figured that since Mary was essentially betrothed to the Holy Spirit, if she had relations with Joseph, it would been sort of, kind of, adultery. They would have understood somehow that He who overshadowed her had first claim.

    I rejoice in the concept because we can consider the deep union that joins a couple in the marital embrace, and know that it is only the faintest whisper of the depth of union we will experience with the Holy Spirit in Heaven, and only an infinitesimal sample of what Jesus meant when He considers the Church as His Bride.

    Our physical intimacy is yet another sign of the greater Mystery. I for one say Yay.

  • Observer

    One of the great points that Mark makes is that “fiated”, permanently established relationship with the Father that Mary makes. That didn’t stop for other “roles” beyond that. That’s a big commitment – to cooperate in the redemption of God’s children. And that began at the moment of conception – that naturally constant union of the two Hearts, as was JPII’s theology, wasn’t to be interrupted by anyone or anything. That early evidence of such was the reaction of cousin John in the womb to the One also in the womb he would prepare for. So that redemption had begun and Her cooperation as possible “Co-redemptrix” (already referred to by several Popes even if not declared) was not to be distracted from.

    Also, marriage at that point had not been declared a sacrament in the new covenant – that covenant already in actualization process by the existence of the One Who in Himself is the fulfillment of scripture. Was there to be some kind of reblessing of Mary and Joseph at some later point? That would be some kind of necessary addition to what was something completely strange and established via the Fiat.

    And, again, we have Jesus referring to the Mother as “Woman”, designating her all encompassing and true mission from all eternity.

    This is truly a case to remember that God’s ways are far above our understanding, but we can at least respect that very special role within God’s Will … for the sake of our own redemption it would only be expected.

  • Mark Shea

    Maryanne:

    Joseph believing Mary and Joseph struggling with cowardice are not mutually exclusive propositions. I think the story is easily reconcilable with those two propositions. If Joseph had thought her guilty of adultery, his obligation before the law was not to put her away, but to have her stoned to death.

    Sarah: You ask

    1. If Mary had already planned on staying a virgin her entire life, why was she betrothed to Joseph?

    2. Would it have been acceptable to God if Mary and Joseph decided to have sexual relations? Did they not have sexual relations because it would have been a sin?

    1. We know little about the circumstances of the marriage. She may have been in an arranged marriage. We know they loved each other and, as the article points out, celibate marriages were not unheard of in ancient Judaism.

    2. Way above my pay grade. Our concern here is to answer the question “What happened?” not “What would God have thought in an alternate universe scenario?”

  • Bender

    Mary, full of grace, gave the entirety of her being, in love, to God, including her sexuality. Joseph, following her, gave himself and his sexuality in love to God as well.

    In their mutual gift of self to God, in the fullness of their being, they did not take away anything or deprive themselves of anything in terms of their own marital love. To the contrary, their total gift of self to God was in itself a total gift of self to each other.

    The virginal love of Mary and Joseph for each other, being centered in the Lord in this way, was not only unitive, but procreative as well. And the communion and fruitfulness of their spousal love, by and through the fullness of their love of God, was and is far greater than any sexual marriage that one might imagine (even more so than the Duggars, with their 19 children).

    Had they had a conventional marriage, had they said, let us “be fruitful and multiply,” it would not have been sinful per se, but would have been contrary to God’s plan, and would have been a lesser love for each other than what God had envisioned for them.

    What God had envisioned for both of them. Joseph was not and is not merely some awkward bystander to the “spousal” relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit. He is her spouse as well, and it was and is intended that he too have a spousal love for her, a spousal love that is the fullness of love. And because that fullness of love was, for each, centered in God, there is no hint of “adultery” here. Rather, their relationship of love looks forward to our own eschatological future.

  • Charles E Flynn

    For Joseph everything is different. He was subject to the law of original sin, and he cannot help noticing the contradiction between the married state and virginity. The betrothal is for him a prelude to a normal earthly marriage. He is chaste and just; he lives in the spirit of justice inherited from his fathers. His chastity has nothing to do with the lackluster impotence which most pictures seem to give him. If he will have to make a renunciation, then his whole manhood will achieve it and will thereby be strengthened in its very masculinity. The intensity of his renunciation will give him the strength to keep growing within his mission. He will not stand languishing next to Mary; instead, he will stand beside her as a man who knows his strength but has sacrificed it in simplicity and generosity. His renunciation is made with strength and intensity and then forever concealed in silence. Everything is so thoroughly in order and so complete that the entire matter need never be spoken of again.

    In the betrothal, however, he experiences real feminine love, and this love of his bride enriches him as only feminine love is able to fulfill a man. In the light of this love he sees before him the life which he is to shape for his family as the husband. He has chosen marriage in freedom and responsibility and he will receive from God marriage and not the religious life. And within the married state God will impose abstinence on him. He is not removed to a cloister for this. He lives in his house with wife and Child, outwardly indistinguishable from other married men. In the midst of the world, he must learn abstinence.

    -From “The Handmaid of the Lord” by Adrienne von Speyr, pages 56-57, Ignatius Press, 1985.

    According to the biographical work “First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr,” she learned about the birds and the bees in medical school, in which she was the only female student.

  • Stanley

    Wonderful article covering lots of bases. I was especially pleased to see the the bridal shower illustration. Sometime back our priest had mentioned in a homily that celibate marriages were not unheard of (and even suggested that it was practiced at that time, at least by some, in a building anticipation of the Messiah, and that Joseph and Mary may have been of that mindset, even before Gabriel’s appearance to Mary). Upon hearing this, I began to think along the lines you mention in the article and even posted a comment in an internet forum using a similar illustration of a woman engaged to be married and talking to her doctor. The illustration had strikingly similar comments about the doctor’s reaction to this seemingly naive woman who either doesn’t know where babies come from or has other intentions, unthinkable as they might be to a modern “liberated” mind. Anyway, I’m not naive enough to think I had come up with an original thought, but I hadn’t seen that point made before. So I was quite pleased to see verification that it was not in fact an isolated “wild” thought but a reasonable possibility.

    I mention that because I’m curious about another point I suggested at the time that I would also hope (and expect) is not “original” but has some possible reasonableness. I had noted the OT seems to stress the idea of children being a blessing from God, especially to women (who, if barren, see it as a curse, or at least a lack of blessing from God in that way). I conjectured that if Joseph and Mary had intended a celibate marriage, this might explain Mary

  • John

    Mark,
    Thanks for putting so many of the pieces of this puzzle together. Great Job.
    You write,

  • John

    I meant to say we could understand

  • Cord Hamrick

    One of the funniest retorts I ever heard to the notion that “brothers” refers to biological children of Joseph and Mary comes from Catholic apologist John Martignoni.

    He notes that Acts 1 tells us the eleven apostles were gathered together with Mary mother of Jesus, and “the women,” and “the brothers of the Lord,” and that there were 120 in all.

    Now, “the women” probably refers to the women who were at the foot of the cross, so, three or four. But let’s just suppose, to be generous there were many more than that…fifty even, or sixty.

    Even so, 120 – 11 leaves 109 after we take out the apostles. Take away another for Jesus’ mother. Then take away “the women.” Even if “the women” meant fifty or so unnamed women and not just the few women who were at the foot of the cross, that still leaves nearly sixty “brothers of the Lord.”

    Martignoni asks, “Do Protestants believe that all these persons were the biological children of Joseph and Mary? She would not have been a Perpetual Virgin; no, according to that view, she’d have been in perpetual labor.”

    So there’s your difference: Catholics and Orthodox believe in Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and Protestants believe in Our Lady of Perpetual Labor.

  • Joshua Chamberlain

    that it would be worth pointing out that your reading of these texts is not on the face of it the most probable?

  • Observer

    I think, in these days of conjecturing all kinds of possibilities due to present day culture, we forget that these are two very special individuals, chosen in the eternal will of God for the MOST unique role in history. And they both, unlike ourselves, were given the special preparation of being “immaculate” – one from the moment of conception and the other from the moment just after conception (this from traditional mystical tradition – esp. in the messages from Joseph in the apparitions of “Our Lady of America”, already having received initial approval by the seer’s spiritual adviser, Bishop Leibold, and now promoted by Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura):

    http://www.ourladyofamerica.com/whatsnew/StJosephVirgin-FatherandCo-redeemer.pdf

    “It is true, my daughter, that immediately after my conception, I was, through the future merits of Jesus and because of my exceptional role of future Virgin-Father, cleansed from the stain of original sin. I was from that moment confirmed in grace and never had the slightest stain on my soul. This is my unique privilege among men.”

    “My pure heart also was from the first moment of existence inflamed with love for God. Immediately, at the moment when my soul was cleansed from original sin, grace was infused into it in such abundance that, excluding my holy spouse, I surpassed the holiness of the highest angel in the angelic choir.”

    “After the Annunciation, it was Joseph who was visited in dreams by the angel who gave him God

  • Liz

    Well done! I think this is the best article I’ve ever read on this subject.

  • chrisb

    “The New Testament evidence, then, is overwhelmingly in favor of the Church’s tradition here.”

    I think you’re overstating it, Mark. “…is arguable consistent with…” might be more like it.

    Wrt to the “until”, I’d say the Old Testament examples you’ve cited seem linguistically weird in modern English. In modern English, the sentence

    “I never liked peaches until I tried my Aunt Mabel’s pie”

    implies (1) Aunt Mabel’s pie was peach pie and (2) I liked the peach filling.

    Does this help us interpreting these Biblical passages? Not really. We need to look at the original Greek and Hebrew, and something tells me they’ll be ambiguous too.

    I pray to the Blessed Virgin, but, rationally, I feel doubt.

  • Vince

    Torn in Ohio, good point. What prevented Joseph from having relations with Mary before Jesus was born? It can’t be to prove that Jesus was born virginally — who would know?. I’d guess the same thing prevented them from having relations after Jesus was born. Mary ‘belongs’ to someone else.

    On the other hand, isn’t it possible for people to check that someone is still a virgin? I saw a movie about early England where a female royalty was checked for virginity (checked visually? by a nurse). Why did no one prove Jesus’s divine origins by checking that Mary was a virgin while pregnant?

    One thing I hadn’t read anyone deal with before though: Is Joseph Mary’s son? (in the same sense that we are her sons).

  • Mike

    Mark, I love your writing. Your treatment of the word “until”, however, fails to address the word in its original languages.

    The Greek word in Matt 1:25 (???) seems to carry the idea of something that continues up to a point. The same word is used in Matt 2:9: “…And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.” Clearly, the word refers to the star, which “went before them, until… it came to rest”. It was moving, then it stopped.

    The Hebrew word in Deut 1:31 (???) is actually a noun, which can be used as a preposition to mean “as far as”. The noun is one which means “eternity”. Deut 1:31 clearly conveys a sense of perpetuity and continuity into the future.

    The Greek word used in Matthew might, as you say, allow for Mary’s perpetual virginity, but that would mean that the author obscured this truth by choosing such a word. The word in Deuteronomy, however, is chosen by the author to clearly convey the idea of perpetuity.

  • John

    Here is a crude web page from notes on my hardrive.
    Sorry, I don

  • Mike

    Yes, It is obvious that the Greek word by itself does not necessarily imply a change after the end of the time period described.

    But look again at Matt 28:20–the word for “age” (????) means “for ever, an unbroken age, perpetuity of time, eternity”.

    So where that word for “until” is used, the context makes it clear what the author is saying. God is saying that he is with us until the end of eternity.

    In light of Matt 2:9, which comes so closely after the verse in question, and because the context of 1:25 gives no indication that “until” means “until the end of eternity”, I think that Matthew 1:25 does not help the case for Mary’s perpetual virginity in any way.

    That is not to say that Matt 1:25 necessarily negates Mary’s perpetual virginity, just that this particular argument does not hold up against careful study of the text.

  • Michael PS

    ???? has a number of meanings, not all of which connote eternity.

    In Homer, it means life in the concrete, as where he describes Achilles pursuing Hector around the walls of Troy and says they ran for Hector’s ????. It is obviously from ??, ????, meaning “to breath”

    By extension, it can mean life-span, like ????, for which it is exchanged, Xenophon, Cyrop. iii. 3. 24

    Finally, it can mean age or epoch, in the sense of the Stone Age, or the Age of Discovery. In this sense, it is frequently translated “world,” as in John 9:32.

    Liddell & Scott give many classical and biblical instances of these usages.

    The adverb, ??????? does mean eternally, but the adjective ??????? often means “for life” (in the case of an office) or “for a long time”

  • Mike

    It is true that ???? does not always connote eternity. But if we keep in mind the entirety of the scriptures, we know that God promises,

  • Mike

    Matt 1:25 cannot be used strongly on either side of the argument. The verse is not about Joseph’s relationship with Mary–the verse is there to show us that Joseph believed God that the boy in her womb was indeed Immanuel, and he therefore named him Jesus.

    But, if the point of the passage is to tell us that both Mary’s & Joseph’s virginity was perpetual, the burden of proof lies with those who wish to show that “until” does, in this case, imply such a thing.

    Please show me how the context of the verse fills in your understanding of the word “until”.

  • Jennifer Thieme

    I enjoyed this post about Mary very much. It’s very well written and reasoned. Thank you!

  • Bender

    To focus on an individual word or phrase, or even a single verse, or even a single entire episode, in scripture is a surefire way to misinterpret it and misunderstand it.

    One must read individual words, not merely in the context of a verse, but in the context of the entirety of the Bible, especially the Gospels, as well as in the context of Sacred Tradition — the longstanding understanding and teaching of the Church, as guided and protected by the Holy Spirit, which was sent, as promised, by Jesus.

    The word “until” means precisely that Mary never had any other children, period. It means that because that is what the Church has always authoritatively taught, and that is what was believed from the earliest days of the Church, from the first pope, Peter, up until the present.

  • cmatt

    I admit, I just think this Scriptural passage does not fit the “trust from the beginning” theory!

    Well, trust from the beginning does not mean never being puzzled or having normal doubts. The passage seems to show a natural enough reaction and a sort of “thinking through the options” normal to any human being. Heck, what would you do in such a situation – perhaps he was just trying to divine God’s will in this situation (maybe He wants me to send her off quietly to accomplish the mission He has for her), was a little off, and therefore the angel had to set him back on the right track.

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