Mary Ever-Virgin and a “Normal” Marriage

One of the four Marian dogmas is that 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.

In his anti-Catholic work “Mary – Another Redeemer,” author James White states the idea of a married virgin is an oxymoron.  “The idea of a married virgin is simply out of harmony with the Bible’s teaching concerning the nature of marriage (let alone the Jewish custom of the day).  As Paul taught (1 Cor 7) there is a marital debt involved (v.3) that would preclude the idea of a married virgin: the man’s body is not his own but is his wife’s, and vice-versa.  Sexual relations are completely natural in the married state, and, in fact, are assumed if a true marriage exists.” 

White uses the word “assumed” here, and the arguments made from the Bible against Mary’s perpetual virginity are always based on an assumption.  It is assumed the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in Scripture are biological children of Mary even though Scripture never states that and a study of Scripture shows the Greek word adelphoi has a much broader usage.  It is assumed because Matthew speaks of Mary and Joseph not engaging in sexual relations until the birth of Christ that they did so afterward, though neither the Greek word eōs nor the English word “until” implies that conclusion.  It is assumed because Jesus is referred to as first-born there are other children that follow, even though that’s not the nature of the Biblical term first-born.  It is assumed when Psalm 69 speaks of “my mother’s sons” these are children of Mary even though St. John ties the passage to the nation of Israel.  And White assumes that sexual relations must occur in a true marriage. 

The passage White refers to from St. Paul is 1 Corinthians 7: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote.  It is well for a man not to touch a woman.  But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.  The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.  For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does.  Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control.”  (1 Corinthians 7:1-5)

Paul supports the celibate life as he has dedicated himself to the singular purpose of spreading the Gospel.  He continues writing in verses 6-7 “I say this by way of concession, not of command.  I wish that all were as I myself am.  But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.”

Paul supports the concept of the single and celibate life.  He does not command marriage, but rather concedes that for some it is the better path, and his reason is because of the temptation to immorality.  But would he support the idea that within marriage celibacy would also be a valid option?  James White indicates he would not.  But the answer to that question is yes.  When you continue to read 1 Corinthians 7, you find this:

“If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin.  But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well.  So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.”  (1 Corinthians 7:36-38)

Keep in mind in the Jewish tradition, “betrothal” is not the same as what we would consider to be an engagement.  Betrothal was legally a marriage.  This is why when Joseph believed Mary had been unfaithful, he could not simply walk away from the situation but had to consider divorce (Matthew 1:19 NIV).  Couples lived in a state of betrothal for some period prior to moving in together to consummate the marriage, but from the moment of the betrothal they were legally married.  For example, in Deuteronomy 22:23-24 the Mosaic law tells us if a man lies with a bethrothed virgin, he has violated his neighbor’s wife.  Mary was already Joseph’s wife even though she was a virgin.  This is why the angel told Joseph in Matthew 1:20 to not fear to take Mary his “wife,” yet even after he has taken her into his home she was referred to as his “betrothed” (Luke 2:5).

Some translations do not use the word “betrothed” in 1 Corinthians 7:36 as the RSV does.  The KJV refers to her as “his virgin” and the NIV as “the virgin he is engaged to.”  Neither in my opinion convey the reality that we’re talking about a man who is in a legally binding contract.  But that is the only thing that makes sense in the context – that if he is “firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well” (1 Corinthians 7:37).  If there was no legally binding contract involved, the passage would make no sense.  But St. Paul clearly indicates the marriage does not have to be consummated; if a man is willing to maintain responsibility for his betrothed and not consummate the marriage, he will “do well.”

The state of betrothal is where we find Mary and Joseph when they received the news she was to be the mother of Jesus.  There is nothing in Scripture that ever indicates they left that state, and St. Paul affirms that is a valid choice.  While White and others want to make the case St. Paul thinks a marriage that does not include sexual relations is “out of harmony with the Bible’s teaching concerning marriage,” he chooses to completely ignore that St. Paul indicated it to be a viable option in some circumstances.

The entire basis for White’s argument is that a marriage without sexual relations is not “normal.”  The thought I always have when I hear that reasoning is this – what about Mary and Joseph’s situation can in any way be described as “normal?”  They experienced a once in eternity event that will never be experienced by another married couple.  I’m not sure how “normal” can even enter the discussion regarding their lives and experience. 

The understanding of Mary as ever-virgin does not contradict a view that sexual relations between a man and woman in marriage are a good thing.  According to both Scripture and the teaching of the Catholic Church, they are indeed good.  Why then would it be important Mary remain a virgin after giving birth to Christ?  My next post will look at the Catholic understanding of Mary’s perpetual virginity based on Scripture, followed by a post that details why this dogma is important to understand and believe.

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