Mary Ever-Virgin and The Biblical Evidence

In my last few posts, I have covered some of the main Scriptural objections to the Catholic belief Mary was ever-virgin, and how they are all based upon an assumption.  It is true there is no explicit statement in Scripture that Mary lived her entire life as a virgin.  There is also no explicit statement that she and Joseph had other children.  For those who claim the Catholic dogma is not Biblical, it is assumed the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in Scripture are biological children of Mary even though 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 they did so afterward, though neither the Greek word eōs or 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.  It is assumed sexual relations must occur in a true marriage, even though St. Paul clearly provides a circumstance where that may not be the case.

While there is no explicit statement in Scripture that Mary lived her entire life as a virgin, Catholics too can point to Biblical evidence that supports our view.  The first is based on the scene when Gabriel comes to tell Mary she is to be the mother of Christ.

When I reviewed the position held by many Protestants that the “brothers” of Jesus referred to in Scripture proves Mary had other children, I mentioned that the understanding of the eastern church has always been that these “brothers” are children of Joseph’s from a previous marriage.  In that tradition, Mary’s parents had waited many years for a child, and much like Hannah did in the Old Testament, they dedicated their child to the service of God at her birth (1 Samuel 1:11).  Mary was singular in her devotion to God and had pledged to remain a virgin her entire life.  While this may not have been the norm in Judaism it was not unheard of – Jeremiah was commanded by God to remain celibate (Jeremiah 16:1-4) and Paul himself was dedicated to celibacy in service of God (1 Corinthians 7:1-7).  But Mary was a woman, and the culture required she be supported by the patriarchy in some fashion so Joseph, who was a widower agreed to take her as his wife with the understanding she would remain a virgin.

While this story will seem foreign to many, it is interesting to note there is nothing in Scripture that would contradict this perspective.  People can assume Mary and Joseph were simply a normal young couple who were in love and planning to marry and have a family.  But Scripture doesn’t tell us that.  I will note here that the dogma Catholics believe is Mary is Ever-Virgin.  The specific identification of the “brothers” of Jesus as children of Joseph or as cousins as St. Jerome proposed falls under the realm of theological opinion and nothing more.  But the idea that Mary planned to remain a virgin even within marriage can open our eyes to how much can be assumed in Scripture that is not stated there.

And there is one reference in Scripture that does seem to support the idea Mary planned to remain a virgin even within her marriage to Joseph.  When the angel Gabriel visits Mary, he tells her “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son” (Luke 1:31).  Gabriel is clearly speaking of an event that has not yet occurred but will occur in the future. 

Mary was betrothed to Joseph.  This was a legally binding covenant of marriage – she was already his wife per Jewish law (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).  They were simply experiencing the normal waiting period before she would move into Joseph’s home and the marriage would be consummated. 

The promise of a future child was made to other Jewish women in history like Sarah (Genesis 18), Hannah (1 Samuel 1), and the Shummanite woman (2 Kings 4).  In each case, they interpreted the promise of a future child to mean they and their husband would have a child together. 

Mary however was quite surprised to learn that in the future she was going to conceive a child and have a son.  Her response to Gabriel is “How will this be since I am a virgin?”  (Luke 1:34 NIV).  The KVJ translates the passage as “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” 

Some try to make the case the angel is speaking about an “immediate” conception that would occur before the period of betrothal is completed.  But there is nothing in the text that indicates the timing except for that it is clearly in the future.  And the most reasonable conclusion Mary could have made is that like other women in Jewish history, she and her husband would have a son.  There is no reason for her to question how she was going to become pregnant, unless of course she knew her arrangement with Joseph was not to be a normal marriage in the sense of consummation.  Then her question makes perfect sense.

A second place in Scripture Catholics will identify that supports Mary had no other children is at the cross, when Jesus placed her in the care of St. John, and “from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:27).  Church history tells us she remained with St. John (primarily in Ephesus) for the remainder of her life.  If Mary had multiple other children (at least four men and two women are identified as “brothers” or “sisters” of Jesus), then this would not be necessary.  Also, a non-family member took responsibility for the body of Christ after his crucifixion.  (Matthew 27:57-60)

Opponents of this view hold the position the reason Jesus placed Mary in the care of John is because Scripture records that his brothers were not believers (John 7:1-5), and he wanted her in the care of one of his faithful followers.  If so, that would be a serious consequence to his family.  Jesus himself stressed how important was the obligation to care for one’s parents (Matthew 15:1-6).  To refuse his siblings the opportunity to fulfill their obligation and to separate Mary from the rest of her children for the remainder of her life would be quite grave and impact all of them greatly.

However, there is one major problem with that view.  Paul recounted a trip he made to Jerusalem to see Peter and stated he “saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18-19).  And indeed, in the list of the “brothers” of Jesus identified in Scripture there is one named James (Matthew 13:55).  If those who want to claim that the adelphoi (brothers) identified in Scripture are children of Mary, that means at least one of them not only became a believer at some point (at least after the resurrection if not before), but also became an apostle and bishop of Jerusalem.  Christ would certainly have been aware of any future event where he would have a conversion.  That he would have still been denied by Christ the privilege of caring for their mother because he initially was not a believer seems quite unthinkable.

Scripture records two apostles named James.  The first is the son of Zebedee and brother to John.  He is sometimes referred to as James “the greater” as he, John and Peter are the three apostles who were often separated by Jesus as his most intimate companions (Matthew 17:1, Mark 5:37, Mark 9:2, Mark 14:33, Luke 8:51).  The second is James the son of Alphaeus, sometimes referred to as James “the lesser” or “younger” (Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13).  Both are obviously not biological siblings of Jesus as Scripture is clear Joseph is not their father.  Scripture records no event where a third man named James has a conversion experience and becomes an apostle.  Rather, the Catholic understanding would be the apostle visited by Paul is James the younger, as James the son of Zebedee had already been martyred by Herod (Acts 12:1-3).  And this James who Paul refers to as the “Lord’s brother” is part of a broader clan that had a familial relationship to Jesus which would be a common usage of the word adelphoi (brothers) as was discussed here.  Rather than accept that adelphoi does not necessarily denote a biological sibling but is more generic and can reflect a relationship to a larger clan, those who oppose Mary’s perpetual virginity would require us to believe the following – there is a third apostle named James who was initially not a believer in Jesus but at some point experienced a conversion and rose to the rank of the apostles, even though none of that is ever recorded in Scripture.  Furthermore, because he did not initially believe in Jesus, Jesus denied him the privilege of caring for Mary and separated her from her son the apostle as well as the rest of her children for the remainder of her life.  That is certainly inserting a great deal of assumption into the text of Scripture, and places Jesus in the position of appearing to hold a grudge against his sibling even though he converted.  That would seem to be a difficult position to hold. Nor does it seem likely if he really were a “third” James who had a conversion experience and then became an apostle Scripture would not refer to him without giving us the background story of how this man became an apostle at all.

My next post will look at some of the Old Testament passages that support the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity, and address the key question – why does it matter?  Even if it’s true Mary remained a virgin all her life, what does that have to do with the central Gospel message of salvation and our lives today?

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