Perpetual Virginity of Mary
Why do Catholics believe Mary remained a virgin, when the Bible says Jesus had brothers and sisters?
And, why is Mary’s virginity so important to Catholics?
The simple answer is: Catholics believe Mary remained a virgin throughout her lifetime because it is true. It is a teaching solemnly proclaimed by Christ’s Church, “the pillar and foundation of truth” (see Paul’s First Letter to Timothy 3:15); revealed through Sacred Tradition; and in agreeance with Sacred Scripture (see Paul’s Second Letter to the Thessalonians 2:15).
So, Catholics believe that the “brothers and sisters of the Lord” mentioned in the Bible were near-relations of Jesus, but not siblings (as we’ll explain in detail below).
Lastly, and most significantly, Mary’s Perpetual Virginity is essential to Christianity because of what it affirms about Jesus. Ultimately, this belief points to the holiness of Christ and to the uniqueness of the Incarnation: the act of God becoming man.
The prophet Ezekiel declared the prince “shall go out, and after he has gone out the gate shall be shut” (see Ezekiel 46:12), and the Church understands this to be a reference to Christ’s birth and Mary’s lifelong virginity (see Saint Ambrose, Consecration of a Virgin 8:52). So, it was fitting that Mary would retain her virginity after the birth of Jesus because of who He is: God in human form!
Scripturally, one might reflect upon the story of Moses and the burning bush. As Moses approached the bush, the Lord said, “Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).
This story helps us to understand Mary’s Perpetual Virginity in two ways.
First, we see that the ground was sanctified because the presence of the Lord had descended there. We should not forget that this same God, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, was conceived in the womb of Mary.
So, it would only be fitting to say that she, like that holy ground in Exodus, needed to be sanctified, specially prepared, that is, to receive the King of kings and Lord of lords.
Second, the Church Fathers saw the image of the burning bush itself–a bush aflame, yet not consumed–as a metaphor of Mary’s giving birth without forfeiting her virginity. For example, in the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “What was prefigured at that time in the flame of the bush was openly manifested in the mystery of the Virgin. … As on the mountain the bush burned but was not consumed, so the Virgin gave birth to the light and was not corrupted” (On the Birth of Christ).
Essentially, Mary’s Perpetual Virginity proclaims to the world that because Christ was so holy–God Himself–it would have been inappropriate for Him to have been formed in the womb of an ordinary woman; and, likewise, for sinners to have come from that same womb after Him–the womb specially prepared to bear the Messiah. Again, consider Ezekiel, “[The prince] shall go out, and after he has gone out the gate shall be shut.”
Mary’s virginity at the time of the Lord’s birth is indicated by the prophet Isaiah, who states, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (7:14; see Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:27). Isaiah, after all, affirms her virginity in conceiving and in bearing. Moreover. Mary’s response, to the Archangel’s announcement she would conceive and bear a Son–“How can this be since I do not know man?” (Luke 1:34)–clearly suggests that she was a virgin. Her reaction hardly makes sense otherwise.
Her perpetually virginal state is implied in the Song of Solomon, which says, “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a fountain sealed” (4:12).
How are we to understand this given the fact that she and Joseph were betrothed and subsequently married? There is an ancient tradition which holds that Mary was dedicated to the Lord as a consecrated virgin from infancy; and that when she came of age was entrusted to Joseph, a widower much older than she (cf. Protoevangelium of James).
The concept of chastity within marriage under certain conditions is, indeed, a biblical concept. For example, in the First Book of Kings 1:4, King David takes a maiden, Abishag, to be his wife to care for him in his old age, but abstains from relations with her.
Moreover, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul recommended a state of consecrated celibacy or perpetual betrothal to those who can accept it (see 7:37-38).
Clearly, in light of her call to bear the Son of God, Mary’s marriage to Joseph was far from ordinary. It was ordained by God for the care and protection of the Virgin and Her Son–to keep the Incarnation hidden from the world for a time. “The virginity of Mary, her giving birth, and also the death of the Lord, were hidden from the prince of this world,” wrote Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John, in about the year 107: “–three mysteries loudly proclaimed, but wrought in the silence of God” (Letter to the Ephesians 19:1).
In Matthew 1:19, Sacred Scripture tells us Jospeh was “a just man.” Thus, having heard Mary had conceived a child by another, he resolved to put her away quietly to save her from probable execution under the Mosaic Law (as per Deuteronomy 22:23-24).
The Lord intervened, though, telling him through an angel in a dream, “Do not fear to take Mary your wife, for 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” (Matthew 1:20).
Joseph would not have taken these words to mean, though, that Mary was to be his wife in the ordinary sense of the word. As Saint Ambrose of Milan wrote,
“Neither does it make any difference that the Scripture says: ‘Joseph took his wife and went into Egypt’ (Matt. 1:24; 2:14); for any woman espoused to a man is given the name of wife. It is from the time that a marriage begins that the marital terminology is employed. It is not the deflowering of virginity that makes a marriage, but the marital contract. It is when the girl accepts the yoke that the marriage begins, not when she comes to know her husband physically” (The Consecration of a Virgin and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary 6:41).
That she bore the Son of God made her first the spouse of the Holy Spirit (per Luke 1:35); and Joseph was forbidden under the Law to have marital relations with the spouse of another.
What about the “brothers and sisters of the Lord?”
First, it should be pointed out that there is a danger in quoting verses from Scripture out of the context of the whole of Scripture. The fact that Jesus entrusts Mary to the Apostle John, for example, is a strong indication He did not have actual siblings (see John 19:27). For if Mary had other children, Jesus would not have had to ask someone outside of the family to care for her. (An argument against this gaining some traction in Evangelical circles is the notion that Jesus entrusted Mary to John because James and the Lord’s other “brethren” were not yet Christians. But this argument is tenuous. If this were the case, one would expect the Gospels to give some explanation to this effect. The fact that Jesus gives Mary to John without explanation indicates Mary had no other children.)
How, then, are we to interpret verses such as Matthew 13:55, in which people in the crowd remark, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t Mary known to be his mother and James, Joseph, Simon and Judas his brothers? Aren’t his sisters our neighbors?”
The Catholic position that these “brothers” and “sisters” were close relatives, such as cousins, but not siblings, agrees with the ancient Jewish custom of calling one’s kinsman “brother” (per Genesis 13:8; 14:14; 29:15, et al.). As Pope John Paul the Great wrote, “It should be recalled that no specific term exists in Hebrew and Aramaic to express the word ‘cousin’, and that the term ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ therefore included several degrees of relationship.”1
Moreover, it is elsewhere revealed in Matthew that “James and Joseph” were actually sons of a different Mary, who stood with the rest of the women at the foot of the Cross and accompanied Mary Magdalene to the tomb on Easter morning (27:55-56; 28:1).
This other Mary is commonly believed to be the wife of Clopas, who may have been an uncle of Jesus (see John 19:25; see also Eusebius, History of the Church 3:11).2 It is telling, furthermore, that the Lord’s “brethren” are nowhere in Scripture referred to as sons of Mary, as Jesus often is called (see Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3, et al.).
There are two other Gospel verses that opponents of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity often cite: Matthew 1:25 and Luke 2:7.
Matthew 1:25 says that Joseph “had no relations with her at any time before she bore a son.” As Ludwig Ott explained in Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, though, this verse “assert(s) that up to a definite point in time the marriage was not consummated, but not by any means that it was consummated after this” (Tan Books, 1960, p. 207). The goal of Matthew 1:25 was to affirm that Jesus had no earthly father, and was truly the Son of God. It was not meant to suggest anything about Joseph and Mary’s relationship after Jesus’ birth. Consider the Second Book of Samuel 6:23, which says that Mary “had no child to the day of her death.” Obviously, this does not mean she had a child after her death. In Matthew 28:20, Jesus promises to be with His followers “to the close of the age.” Again, this does not mean He will cease to be with them beyond that point.
In Luke 2:7, Jesus is called Mary’s “first-born.” However, as Pope John Paul explained:
“The word ‘firstborn,’ literally means ‘a child not preceded by another’ and, in itself, makes no reference to the existence of other children. Moreover, the Evangelist stresses this characteristic of the Child, since certain obligations proper to Jewish law were linked to the birth of the firstborn son, independently of whether the mother might have given birth to other children. Thus every only son was subject to these prescriptions because he was ‘begotten first’ (cf. Luke 2:23)” (“The Church Presents Mary as ‘Ever Virgin'”)
Michael O’Carroll, furthermore, reported, “The Jewish burial inscription in Egypt, dating from the first century, … helps answer the objection against Mary’s perpetual virginity based on St. Luke’s use of the word ‘first-born’ (prototokos) (2:7). That the word did not imply other children is shown by its use in this case to describe a woman who died after the birth of her first child, who could not obviously have had others” (Theotokos: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Michael Glazier, 1982, p. 49).
What Did the Church Fathers Say?
Since both sides in the dispute over Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, pro and con, make scriptural arguments to support their position, how are we to determine who is right? Who is interpreting Scripture correctly, in the authentically apostolic way?
One way to provide support is to consult Christianity’s ancient historical writings, commonly known as the writings of the Early Church Fathers.
Clement of Alexandria, for instance, at the start of the third century wrote, “This Mother alone was without milk, because she alone did not become a wife. She is at once both Virgin and Mother” (The Instructor of the Children 1:6:42:1).
Clement’s pupil, Origen, in the first decades of that century, confirmed that Mary “had no other son but Jesus” (Commentaries on John 1:6). Elsewhere, he wrote, “And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the first-fruit among men of the purity which consists in chastity, and Mary was among women; for it were not pious to ascribe to any other than her the first-fruit of virginity” (Commentaries on Matthew 2:17).
Along with his extravagant praise for her, Athanasius (d. 373) described Mary as “Ever-Virgin” (Discourses Against the Arians 2:70).
In about 375, Epiphanius argued, “Was there ever anyone of any breeding who dared to speak to the name of Holy Mary, and being questioned, did not immediately add, ‘the Virgin?'” (Panarion 78:6).
“Surely,” wrote Pope Siricius in 392, “we cannot deny that Your Reverence was perfectly justified in rebuking him on the score of Mary’s children, and that you had good reason to be horrified at the thought that another birth might issue from the same virginal womb from which Christ was born according to the flesh” (Letter to Anysius, Bishop of Thessalonica).
Ambrose commented in 396, “Imitate her, holy mothers, who in her only dearly beloved Son set forth so great an example of material virtue; for neither have you sweeter children, nor did the Virgin seek the consolation of being able to bear another son” (Letters 63:111).
Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) remarked, “A Virgin conceiving, a Virgin bearing, a Virgin pregnant, a Virgin bringing forth, a Virgin perpetual. Why do you wonder at this, O man? It was fitting for God to be born thus, when He deigned to become a man” (Sermons 186:1).
Pope Leo the Great declared in 449, “He was conceived of the Holy Spirit within the womb of His Virgin Mother. She brought Him forth without the loss of virginity, even as she conceived Him without its loss” (Tome 28). Elsewhere the Pontiff wrote, “For a Virgin conceived, a Virgin bore, and a Virgin she remained” (Sermon on the Feast of the Nativity 22:2).
Thus, do we find an historical continuity of this teaching from the early years of the faith down to today.
- See “The Church Presents Mary as ‘Ever Virgin;'” L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, September 4, 1996. ↩
- “An argument against this, though,” observed Karl Keating, “is that James is elsewhere (Mt 10:3) described as the son of Alphaeus, which would mean that Mary, whoever she was, was the wife of both Cleophas and Alphaeus. One solution is that she was widowed once, then remarried. More probably Alphaeus and Cleophas (Clopas in Greek) are the same person, since the Aramaic name for Alphaeus could be rendered in Greek in different ways, either as Alphaeus or Clopas. Another possibility is that Alphaeus took a Greek name similar to his Jewish name, the way that Saul took the name Paul” (Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Ignatius Press, 1988, p. 288). ↩