Mary's Perpetual Virginity
How do you defend the Catholic Church’s teaching that Mary remained a virgin after giving birth to Jesus? It clearly states in the Bible that she was a virgin “UNTIL she bore a son.” Mary having sex with Joseph is no big deal, so what is the Catholic Church’s deal? I don’t understand why you have such a hard time understanding that she didn’t stay a virgin – when the Bible clearly says that?!? Are you stupid or blind?
Wow…somebody needs to take a step back and find their morning coffee.
Okay, rather than get insulted or angry – both of which are possible, since I’m Irish – I’m gonna assume you’re angry because you’re passionate. So, take a deep breath and act like the Christian you proclaim to be, cool?
There’s a lot of issues you’re trying to unravel that are getting lumped into one big ball of misconception, poor information, expectation and confusion. So, let’s take this ball of clay and make some sense of it…or, at least, some little figurines and animals.
Are you speaking my language?
First, you should realize (before you start doggin’ me or the Church) that the Bible you are reading and attempting to quote to “prove” your point is a translation of a translation of a translation. That is, assuming you’re not using a devotional, a youth Bible or another edition (that is great for reading but not quite as useful when attempting to get into deep Scripture study), which would make it a “fourth” level translation. The Bible you’re quoting is most likely a translation from Hebrew, Greek, Latin and/or olde English – to a contemporary version.
Not to go real heavy into the original Greek of that verse, but the actual Greek used for until is heos hou. Note that it can be read “before” or “until” but neither imply that “after Jesus was born”, that Mary and Joseph had sex. That’s not what the phrase reads…it reads that they did not have sex to insure that the readers and hearers of the Gospel would know there was no way that Jesus was Joseph’s biological son – St. Matthew put it there, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to insure no misunderstandings. And it’s not just Catholics who “read it this way”. It is an ecumenical (multiple denominations) truth that the finest Biblical theologians and scholars – Catholic and Protestant – have attested to for decades.
Proper study and exegesis from the original languages (not from your translations) are neutral on this fact – to suggest that “until” means that they must have after Jesus’ birth isn’t common sense or good attention, it’s poor study. Don’t be afraid to crack the Catechism on this one, either (CCC #496-501, 510) and read specifically what the Catholic Church teaches.
What about Jesus’ other brothers, isn’t that proof?
Sometimes people fall into the trap that because their Bible occasionally refers to the “brothers of Jesus” (Mk 3:31-32, Jn 7:3-10) that Mary must have had other kids following Christ. Again, the translation is an important issue. First, realize that the Greek language is not like the English that you speak. The word “brothers” in these translations encompasses far more than “blood brothers” – it includes (but is not limited to) stepbrothers, adopted brothers, cousins, close family friends and (in some cases) even the children of handmaids or servants. Second, the “brothers of Jesus”, James and Joseph, are sons of another Mary whom St. Matthew un-affectionately called (the other Mary) (Mt. 28:1, CCC #500). Third, many Biblical scholars attest and believe that the “brothers” are sons of Joseph from a previous marriage – thus, making them stepbrothers. Though I’m not a Biblical scholar, after extensive, extensive study into the life of St. Joseph, I find this assertion to be quite a compelling argument, as well. Lastly, for the first 1600 years or so (until the Protestant Reformation) it was a commonly held belief that Mary was a perpetual virgin – which goes to show not the Church’s dominance in thought, but the commonly held Tradition passed down from generation to generation, especially among the Johnnine (St. John’s followers) communities of the early Church, with whom Mary lived following the Passion of our Lord (Jn 19:27).
Does it really matter?
Third, the question you raised and the assertions you have made beg the question, ‘Does it really matter?’ Well, yes it matters on several levels. There is a lot to learn from this truth. It says a lot about her, about Joseph, about God, about the Church, about our modern society and about your and my call to holiness.
The Church celebrates the Blessed Virgin Mary and her perpetual sacrifice calling Her Aeiparthenos or Ever Virgin (CCC #499, Lumen Gentium 52). The Church honors Joseph as the patron saint of chastity for his self-control and self-sacrificing nature. In this modern culture, when we are told that to deny our own sexual urges is wrong or “unnatural”, we are reminded of two courageous young souls who thought more of God than of one another. As a husband, who is madly in love with his wife and incredibly attracted to her, this is a great example to me, too. Today’s culture teaches that “within marriage, everything is okay” but that can quickly lead to people having and using their spouses for sex and (at times) very selfish, personal fulfillment only – contraceptives work toward that very purpose.
I love my wife more than anyone...except Jesus. I love my wife, but not more than my God. She is second and always will be. She loves me, but not more than God. I am happy to be second to God in her life and would not want it any other way. That is a healthy and holy relationship (as the Scriptures affirm) – one after God’s own heart, and Mary and Joseph perfected that relationship.
Mary totally consecrated Herself to God (as Sacred Tradition affirms). She had respect for the fact that God, Himself, perfect and undefiled, had dwelt within Her womb. What other human child would be worthy of sharing that dignity within Her womb? How and why would sin be allowed within her, through Joseph? Her call to be the Mother of Jesus proves and solidifies Her call to be the Mother of all Christians, since Jesus is, absolutely, our brother and Lord. And honestly, it’s not like Mary was “missing out”. One can only imagine what an amazing and intense reality it would be to have the Holy Spirit so profoundly within you that you conceive a child. Bearing that in mind, what need* would Mary have for a human concept or experience of conception following that reality? None, really, it would just be a matter of self-control on both her and Joseph’s part.
(*Sidenote: if you’re wondering if the marriage was “consummated” that question has already been answered in detail in this BG section).
Mary’s perpetual virginity is intimately tied to Her Immaculate Conception, which is a different answer, as well, but worth reading more about (CCC #491-492).
Do only Catholics believe this to be true?
Simply put, no. The early Church Fathers and first Christians – who were all Catholic, because “Catholic” simply means universal Christians – believed it, yes. Nowadays, many scholars believe it, and not all Catholic. There are many people who do not, because to admit Mary’s perpetual virginity (which seems inconsequential) opens a floodgate in terms of doctrine and dogma – a debate that many do not wish to get into.
I’m not the only one. I’m not the first one. I won’t be the last one to believe this. You don’t have to believe it, but it didn’t hurt you to ask, to read this or to read more. Most important – it’s vital that you pray and that you show respect when approaching others about doctrine, discipline and dogma when you are curious.
I didn’t “defend” anything here, because I have nothing to defend. This teaching of Mary’s perpetual virginity, for instance, is just another in a long line of teachings that have been held, taught and safeguarded for thousands of years by the Catholic Church.
Early non-canonical writings like the Protoevangelium of James paint us a picture of the early Church that might not be inspired as the Sacred Scriptures are, but that offer an intimate glimpse into the early traditions, writings and teachings of the time. More than that there are several saints who commented on this doctrine, whose writings and teachings are held in high esteem among all Christians, Catholics and Protestants alike:
As St. Jerome put it:
“the brethren of the Lord not as being sons of Mary but brethren in the sense I have explained, that is to say, brethren in point of kinship, not by nature. [By discussing such things we] are . . . following the tiny streams of opinion. Might I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men, who against [the heretics] Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus, held these same views and wrote volumes replete with wisdom. If you had ever read what they wrote, you would be a wiser man" (Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary 19 [A.D. 383]).
As St. Augustine put it:
"In being born of a Virgin who chose to remain a Virgin even before she knew who was to be born of her, Christ wanted to approve virginity rather than to impose it. And he wanted virginity to be of free choice even in that woman in whom he took upon himself the form of a slave" (Holy Virginity 4:4 [A.D. 401]).
"It was not the visible sun, but its invisible Creator who consecrated this day for us, when the Virgin Mother, fertile of womb and integral in her virginity, brought him forth, made visible for us, by whom, when he was invisible, she too was created. A Virgin conceiving, a Virgin bearing, a Virgin pregnant, a Virgin bringing forth, a Virgin perpetual. Why do you wonder at this, O man?" (Sermons 186:1 [A.D. 411]).
"Heretics called Antidicomarites are those who contradict the perpetual virginity of Mary and affirm that after Christ was born she was joined as one with her husband" (Heresies 56 [A.D. 428]).
As Origen put it:
"…the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity" (Commentary on Matthew 2:17 [A.D. 248]).
As St. Cyril of Alexandria put it:
"The Word himself, coming into the Blessed Virgin herself, assumed for himself his own temple from the substance of the Virgin and came forth from her a man in all that could be externally discerned, while interiorly he was true God. Therefore he kept his Mother a virgin even after her childbearing”
My sister, it’s more important to focus on what makes us similar and brings us together as Christians, not what “separates” us. As Christians, both Protestants and Catholics believe that: we are saved by faith and not by works, that the Bible is the inspired word of God, that salvation is a gift, that Baptism is a necessary re-birth, that works of mercy and charity are the way of Christ, that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus is Lord and Savior and that He will come again in judgment.
Let’s focus on those likenesses and maybe over coffee (when you find that cup) sometime, we can respectfully and lovingly discuss the “differences” in love, as Christ would want us to do.
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