“All Have Sinned” vs. a Sinless, Immaculate Mary?

The key is to understand biblical language properly in context.

Juan de las Roelas (ca. 1570–1625), “Alegoría de la Virgen Inmaculada”
Juan de las Roelas (ca. 1570–1625), “Alegoría de la Virgen Inmaculada” (photo: Public Domain)

Romans 3:23 (RSV) “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

The word for “all” here, in Greek (pas) can indeed have different meanings: as it does in English. It matters not if it means literally “every single one” in some places, if it can mean something less than “absolutely every” elsewhere in Scripture. As soon as this is admitted, then the Catholic exception for Mary cannot be said to be linguistically or exegetically impossible, any more than adelphos (“brother”) meaning “sibling” in one place rules out a meaning of “cousin” or other non-sibling somewhere else.

We find examples of a non-literal intent elsewhere in Romans. In verse 1:29 the KJV has the phrase, “being filled with all unrighteousness,” whereas RSV adopts the more particular, specific meaning, “all manner of wickedness.” As another example in the same book, Paul writes that “all Israel will be saved,” (11:26), but we know that many will not be saved. And in 15:14, Paul describes members of the Roman church as “filled with all knowledge” (cf. 1 Cor 1:5 in KJV), which clearly cannot be taken literally. Examples could be multiplied indefinitely, and are as accessible as the nearest Strong’s Concordance.

What would be contrary to a sinless / immaculate Mary would be a verse that read something like: “absolutely every human being who ever lived -- no exceptions – has sinned.” This would include Jesus since He is a man, but He is also God (a Divine Person), and Mary. But Romans 3:23 doesn’t entail that logical conundrum.

One could also say that Mary was included in the “all” in the sense that she certainly would have been subject to original sin like all the rest of us but for God’s special preventive act of grace – a “preemptive strike,” so to speak. This is why she can rightly say that God was her Savior too (Lk 1:47). I don’t think that is stretching it, considering that Hebrew idiom was not at all “scientific,” “philosophical” nor excessively particularistic as to literal meanings, as English in our culture seems to be today.

This “exception / original sin / Hebrew idiom” explanation is, I submit, the most plausible. It allows one to take “all” here in its most straightforward, common sense meaning, but with the proviso that Mary was spared from inevitable sin by means of a direct, extraordinary intervention of God, and it is also in line with the thought of Luke 1:47, as interpreted by Catholic theology, in light of its acceptance of the Immaculate Conception.

That said, I go now to linguistic reference works. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged Ed.) states:

Pas can have different meanings according to its different uses . . . in many verses, pas is used in the NT simply to denote a great number, e.g., “all Jerusalem” in Mt 2:3 and “all the sick” in 4:24. (pp. 796-797)

See also Matthew 3:5; 21:10; 27:25; Mark 2:13; 9:15; etc., especially in KJV.

Likewise, Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament gives “of every kind” as a possible meaning in some contexts (p. 491, Strong’s word #3956). And Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words tells us it can mean “every kind or variety.” (vol. 1, p. 46, under “All”).

Nevertheless, I am inclined to go with the “exception” interpretation I described above. My point here is simply to illustrate that pas doesn’t necessarily have to mean “no exceptions,” so that Mary’s sinlessness is not a logical impossibility based on the meaning of pas alone.

We see Jewish idiom and hyperbole in passages of similar meaning. Jesus says: “No one is good but God alone” (Lk 18:19; cf. Mt 19:17). Yet He also said: “The good person brings good things out of a good treasure.” (Mt 12:35; cf. 5:45; 7:17-20; 22:10). Furthermore, in each instance in Matthew and Luke above of the English “good” the Greek word is the same: agatho.

Is this a contradiction? Of course not. Jesus is merely drawing a contrast between our righteousness and God’s, but He doesn’t deny that we can be “good” in a lesser sense. We observe the same dynamic in the Psalms:

Psalm 14:2-3 The LORD looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any that act wisely,
that seek after God. [3] They have all gone astray, they are all alike corrupt; there is none that does good,
[Hebrew, tob] no not one. (cf. 53:1-3; Paul cites this in Rom 3:10-12)

Yet in the immediately preceding Psalm, David proclaims, “I have trusted in thy steadfast love” (13:5), which certainly is “seeking” after God! And in the very next he refers to “He who walk blamelessly, and does what is right” (15:2). Even two verses later (14:5) he writes that “God is with the generation of the righteous.” So obviously his lament in 14:2-3 is an indignant hyperbole and not intended as a literal utterance.

Such remarks are common to Hebrew poetic idiom. The anonymous psalmist in 112:5-6 refers to the “righteous” (Heb. tob), as does the book of Proverbs repeatedly: using the words “righteous” or “good” (11:23; 12:2; 13:22; 14:14, 19), using the same word, tob, which appears in Psalm 14:2-3. References to righteous men are innumerable (e.g., Job 17:9; 22:19; Ps 5:12; 32:11; 34:15; 37:16, 32; Mt 9:13; 13:17; 25:37, 46; Rom 5:19; Heb 11:4; Jas 5:16; 1 Pet 3:12; 4:18, etc.).

One might also note 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” As far as physical death is concerned (the context of 1 Cor 15), not “all” people have died (e.g., Enoch: Gen 5:24; cf. Heb 11:5; Elijah: 2 Kings 2:11). Likewise, “all” will not be made spiritually alive by Christ, as some will choose to suffer eternal spiritual death in hell.

The key in all this is to understand biblical language properly in context. It’s not always literal.