Mary’s Perpetual Virginity

Someone emailed me several months ago asking why Catholics believe that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth. His original questions are in bold below, with my answers beneath them:

Do you really think little miss Mary was a virgin?

Yes, I do – we are told in Scripture that she was a virgin when Jesus was conceived (Luke 1:27). Surely you believe that as well.

Christ had numerous brothers and sisters from his mother Mary

I’m sure you are referring to Matthew 13:55-56 where it is written, “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?”

Like you, I once thought that this showed that Mary and Joseph had other children after Jesus was born. But I later learned that the early Protestants – including giants like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Wesley – all believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Consider these quotes:

  • Luther: “It is an article of the Faith that Mary is the Mother of the Lord and still a virgin…Christ, we believe, came forth from a womb left perfectly intact.”
  • Zwingli: “I esteem immensely the Mother of God, the ever chaste, immaculate Virgin Mary.”
  • Wesley: “I believe… he [Jesus Christ] was born of the blessed Virgin, who, as well after as she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.”

Seeing how these men – certainly not Catholics! – viewed Mary, I had to modify my opinion. It seemed that the idea that “brethren” and “sisters” meant Jesus’ half-siblings was a fairly modern innovation in Protestant circles.

What are we to make of the “brethren” then? In Biblical times, “brethren” or “brothers” can refer to any male kinsmen. For example, Abraham was Lot’s uncle (cf. Genesis 14:12), but in Genesis 14:14 and 14:16 Lot is called Abraham’s “brother.”

Returning to the “brethren” in Matthew 13:55, James and Joses are also mentioned in Matthew 27:56 as being the sons of another Mary; perhaps they are sons of Mary’s sister, also named Mary, who was the wife of Clopas mentioned in John 19:25.

The Biblical use of the term “brothers” or “brethren” to refer to extended relatives – plus the mention that James and Joses were sons of another Mary – makes the claim that Jesus had biological half-siblings very weak indeed.

You may also be familiar with Matthew 1:25, which says Joseph “knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son.” In our modern usage, the word “till” or “until” frequently implies a change of state after an event occurs. But in Biblical times, that was not the case. Other passages in Scripture help make this clear:

  • Luke 1:80 – “And the child [John the Baptist] grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel.” But John the Baptist remained in the desert even after his ministry began.
  • 1 Timothy 4:13 – “Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.” Does that mean that they were to ignore reading, exhortation and doctrine after Paul arrived?
  • 1 Corinthians 15:25 – “For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.” Does this mean that Christ will cease to reign after he has put all enemies under his feet? No, Christ’s reign will continue.
  • Hebrews 1:13 – “Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool?” Will Christ no longer sit at the Father’s right hand after his enemies are subdued?

Seeing in these passages how “till” or “until” does not necessitate a change of state after an event occurs, Matthew 1:25 is seen in its proper light. The sacred author was emphasizing Mary’s virginity, not making a statement that it ended at some point in the future.

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