One of the four Marian dogmas is Mary is Ever-Virgin. Not only was she a virgin when Jesus was conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit, but she remained a virgin her entire life.
My last post reviewed the common objection to Mary’s perpetual virginity that the Bible speaks of Jesus having brothers and sisters. In short, the Greek word adelphoi has a much broader usage than biological siblings. We see it used to note half brothers (Acts 7:13), cousins (1 Chronicles 23:22), or nephews (Genesis 14:14, Genesis 29:15). The Bible does not give us the parentage of these adelphoi of Jesus, and it can only be an assumption they are children of Joseph and Mary. One thought from the ancient church is they were simply cousins, part of a larger clan of family. Another understanding is they are children of Joseph’s from a previous marriage. Those two thoughts are not mutually exclusive and the Bible rules out neither of those possibilities. If a person wants to speak from Scripture alone, then the most one can profess about whether Mary remained a perpetual virgin is the Bible is silent on the topic. Nonetheless, there are those who will maintain this belief is not Biblical, even though that would be based on assumptions derived from Scripture, not Scripture itself. People assume any reference to adelphoi of Jesus proves Mary had other children, even though a contextual study of the word shows that can only be an assumption.
In this post I will look at three other Scriptural passages that are often offered as “proof” Mary was not a perpetual virgin. The first of these is Matthew 1:24-25 – “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.” James McCarthy writes in his anti-Catholic work “The Gospel According to Rome” that “Matthew writes that Joseph, after taking Mary to be his wife, kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a son. The implication is plain enough.”
The definition of the word “until” is this — “used as a function word to indicate continuance (as of an action or condition) to a specified time.” You will notice there is nothing in the meaning of the word that defines anything that happens after the specified point in time. The definition is not “a continuance of an action to a specified time, and then that action ceases or the previous state changes.” Nonetheless, people can tend to assume based upon what they think will happen. If they think a change should or is likely to occur, they assume that change happened. This is what Mr. McCarthy does when he says “the implication is plain enough,” meaning he assumes Scripture is telling us Mary and Joseph had sexual relations after Jesus was born. But if people don’t think a change is likely when the word until is used, they will assume it does not occur.
For example, let’s assume for a moment Mr. McCarthy has a family, and engages a babysitter so he and his wife can enjoy an evening out. It would be very common to tell your children “Be good until we get home.” Should his children assume the implication is plain that once their parents return home, they no longer must be good? I’m guessing he wouldn’t see things that way at all. In that situation he would not place a required change in state after the point of time designed by the “until.” But he does so in the case of Mary and Joseph because in his mind, that is what should happen. But it’s not based on the text, it’s based on his pre-conceived idea of what should happen.
In the case of telling a child “Be good until I get home,” the purpose is not to make any kind of statement about what will happen after the timeframe marked by the “until” has passed. The purpose is to place emphasis on the timeframe up to the point of the “until” – in this case stressing how important good behavior is when left with a sitter and not under a parent’s watchful eye. Likewise, the purpose of Matthew’s statement is not to relate anything about what happened after the “until.” His singular purpose is to profess the truth that Jesus is not the biological child of Joseph. Nothing else.
The case McCarthy wants to make becomes even weaker when we understand he is relying on a translation from a transcript written in another language 2000 years ago. The Greek word “ἕως” (eōs) most definitely doesn’t require a change or imply one. Some examples from Scripture:
Genesis 8:5 “And the waters continued to abate until (eōs) the tenth month.” When one reads this text about the great flood, one might assume after the tenth month the waters ceased to recede and the flood was over. But you would be wrong. It is simply a marker in the story – a checkpoint where the tops of the mountains are now seen. The waters continued to abate after the checkpoint.
2 Samuel 6:23 – “And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to (eōs) the day of her death.” Would McCarthy say here that the implication is clear she had children after she died?
1 Timothy 4:13 – “Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching.” Would McCarthy say here the implication is clear once Paul comes Timothy would no longer preach and teach?
Matthew 28:20 – “and lo, I am with you always, to (eōs) the close of the age.” Would McCarthy say here the implication is clear that once the age ends Jesus is no longer with us?
The fact Matthew wants to make clear in no uncertain terms is that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. People can make assumptions about what happened after the timeframe, but that is a far cry from Scripture validating their assumption.
The second passage I’d like to review is Luke 2:7 – “And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” People want to make the case because Scripture refers to Jesus as Mary’s “first-born,” this is evidence she had other children. This would mean an only child is not their parent’s first-born. That is not consistent with how Scripture uses the term. First-born within Scripture is a term to simply denote a child who was born first. It does not imply there are other children. In Judaism, certain rights, privileges and customs were associated with being the first-born, and the reception of these were not dependent upon there being a second-born.
For example, in Exodus 13:1-2 we read “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.’” This consecration of the first-born is not dependent upon waiting to see if another child is born. We also read in Numbers 3:40 “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Number all the first-born males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward, taking their number by names.’” This would be an impossible task if in order to be counted as a “first-born male” by age of one month if a child is not considered to be a first-born unless another child follows. This “evidence” that Mary was not a perpetual virgin is easily dismissed.
The third passage of Scripture I’d like to review is Psalm 69:8 that says, “I have become a stranger to my brethren, an alien to my mother’s sons.” McCarthy cites this passage and says “Furthermore, among the Messianic psalms we find a prophecy of the animosity that the Lord Jesus initially experienced from his brothers. There, the Messiah laments, ‘I have become estranged from my brothers, and an alien to my mother’s sons’ (Psalm 69:8). The relationship between Jesus’ brothers and his mother could not be more explicit.” McCarthy is tying this passage to John 7:3-5 – “So his brethren said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples may see the works you are doing. For no man works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ For even his brethren did not believe in him.”
I must admit upon first reading this passage I was given pause. In my opinion, on the surface it is the most compelling argument to be made from Scripture to contest Mary’s perpetual virginity.
Upon further study however, a few things become clear. First is to recognize the psalms are distinct from traditional prophecy. They’re a blend of present concerns of the psalmist that can indeed foreshadow certain aspects of Christ. But every aspect is not a literal truth about Christ. For example, this specific psalm is about a person accused of thievery (verse 4). And in verse 5 the psalmist says “O God, thou knowest my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from thee.” Quite obviously this is not written about Christ. But is the reference to “my mother’s sons” a specific Messianic reference to children of Mary who reject Christ?
McCarthy ties this psalm to the New Testament passage about Christ’s “brothers” who did not believe him. The New Testament itself has a direct quote and tie to this passage, and it’s not the one McCarthy cites. When we include the next verse, Psalm 69:8-9 reads “I have become a stranger to my brethren, an alien to my mother’s sons. For zeal for thy house has consumed me, and the insults of those who insult thee have fallen on me.”
In John 2:13-22, at the onset of Jesus’ ministry, John records the first major confrontation Jesus has with the Jewish authorities. He visits Jerusalem and discovers the temple has been turned into a house of trade. He drives out the sellers and the money changers with whips, and an admonition that “you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade” (John 2:16). And in verse 17 we read “His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for thy house will consume me.’” St. John clearly makes the correlation in Psalm 69 of the Messiah becoming an “alien to my mother’s sons” not to any specific children of Mary, but to the nation of Israel who will ultimately reject Christ and advocate for his death.
The understanding that “my mother’s sons” is the nation of Israel is also supported by Genesis 27:29 when Isaac blesses Jacob – “Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.” Jacob’s mother is Rebecca, and she only has two sons – Esau and Jacob. When Isaac blesses Jacob and says “may your mother’s sons” (plural) bow down to him, this is not simply referring to his one biological brother. But Jacob will become Israel, and all the sons of Israel do certainly bow down to him.
It is interesting to me when Catholics view the image of the woman in Revelation 12 to be Mary, people like James McCarthy would strongly disagree with that and would instead say the image is Israel. In that scene, we have a woman literally giving birth to Christ, but there is a rejection that could have anything to do with Mary. In Psalm 69:8 when there is a reference to “my mother’s sons,” McCarthy wants to directly tie that to Mary, even though John’s Gospel directly ties it to Israel. That kind of scholarship seems to not have the purpose of understanding Scripture and where it leads us, but rather the explicit purpose to try to disprove Catholic theology.
My next post will discuss St. Paul and his views on marriage, and how they apply to Mary and Joseph.