It is no secret that ancient Judaism, like the Church, prized the goods of marriage and family. But Judaism had room for celibacy too, if practiced for religious reasons. The best known example is the rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth. In addition to him we also have the example of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 16:1–2), St. Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 7) and St. Philip’s “four unmarried daughters, who prophesied” (Acts 21:9). Beyond the record of Scripture, we also find Jewish groups like the Essenes and the Therapeutae, who likewise consecrated themselves to virginity. Consecrated virginity was not unheard of in ancient Judaism.
Indeed, there’s even room in ancient Judaism for celibacy within marriage:
Living a celibate life within marriage was not unknown in Jewish tradition. It was told that Moses, who was married, remained continent the rest of his life after the command to abstain from sexual intercourse (Ex. 19:15) given in preparation [for the Theophany on Mount Sinai. Likewise,] the seventy elders abstained thereafter from their wives after their call, and so did Eldad and Medad when the spirit of prophecy came upon them; indeed it was said that the prophets became celibate after the Word of the Lord communicated with them (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 19; 46.3; Sifre to Numbers 99 sect. 11; Sifre Zutta 81–82, 203–204; Aboth Rabbi Nathan 9, 39; Tanchuman 111, 46; Tanchumah Zaw 13; 3 PetirotMoshe 72; Shabbath 87a; Pesachim 87b, Babylonian Talmud).
The question, of course, is whether Mary was among those devout Jews who chose to live a life of virginity. And the biblical evidence says, “Yes.”
Consider: You are at a bridal shower for a friend and somebody remarks to the bride, “You are going to have such adorable kids!” Everybody laughs, but the bride gapes in astonishment and says, “How shall this be?” At that point, you would begin to notice something unusual about your friend. Because, for a woman who is betrothed to be married, there are only a limited number of explanations for such a reaction. Either nobody has ever explained the birds and the bees to her, and she genuinely has no idea how babies are made and what she’s about to sign on for with her husband-to-be—or she has every intention of remaining a virgin after marriage.
The astonishing thing about Mary is that she’s astonished. For she, too, is a woman betrothed. She knows about the birds and the bees. Yet she reacts with amazement at the news that she, a woman betrothed, will bear a son. Notice that the angel does not say “You are pregnant.” He says “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son” (Luke 1:31, emphasis added). This is a promise that has been made to other women in Jewish history such as Sarah, Hannah, and the Shunammite woman (cf. Gen. 18; 1 Sam. 1; and 2 Kgs. 4). All of them understand the promise to mean, “You and your husband will conceive a child.” So why should the same promise astonish Mary, a young woman who also plans to marry—unless she had already decided to remain a virgin throughout her life?