Why Believe in the Perpetual Virginity of Mary?

In talking about the meaning of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary and the whole nuptial side of Catholic Marian devotion, I wrote with the assumption that I was writing for a Catholic readership who took it for granted that Mary is, in fact, perpetually a virgin.  However, as I survey the comboxes following that discussion, it is evident that a number of readers think that the Perpetual Virginity of Mary is not true and is, indeed, contrary to Scripture.  So as a followup, permit me to review, over the next few blog entries, the evidence for the case that Mary was, as a matter of historical and biblical fact, perpetually a virgin.  The case for this is, in fact, very strong.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 499) is straightforward concerning Mary’s Perpetual Virginity:

The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary’s real and Perpetual Virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.” And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the “Ever-virgin.”

In other words, the Church teaches that Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. It’s as straightforward a teaching as it is a controversial one.

Cultural Difficulties

Why it’s controversial is actually a multifaceted matter. To be sure, it was not always so. For most of Christian history, Mary’s Perpetual Virginity was a commonplace belief, even well into the Protestant Reformation. But in our hyper-sexualized culture— and, like it or not, this is the culture in which Christians and non-Christians are now submerged like fish in the sea—people find it extremely difficult to contemplate the possibility of a life of virginity as anything but one of unbearable deprivation. So before we ever get to discussing what Scripture says, we’ve got a gigantic cultural hostility to virginity to overcome.

Moreover, of course, our cultural biases aren’t confined to sex. Many card-carrying members of our consumer culture will wonder why anyone would choose to believe in something like Mary’s Perpetual Virginity. Behind such thinking is the notion of the Catholic faith as a mere smorgasbord of “belief options” that are there to accessorize our fashion choices. And so, conventional wisdom says: If you’re one of those strange souls who “like” virginity, then you can choose to believe in Mary’s Perpetual Virginity because it “suits your lifestyle.” But if you’re not one of these odd ducks, then why bother believing it?

The answer is that the Catholic faith is not a product of consumer culture. It proposes certain truths to us, not because they suit our lifestyle, but because they’re true. Nobody prefers a universe in which it’s necessary to “take up your cross” (versus, say, a universe in which you just have to take up your TV remote) in order to find life eternal. It’s just that the universe Jesus describes happens to be the universe we live in, like it or not. In the same way, the Church tells us Mary is a perpetual virgin, not because it suits somebody’s lifestyle, but because she is a perpetual virgin and that has real implications for us.

Of course, we’re always free to deny the truth. But the problem with that approach is that the faith is not a cafeteria. It is a whole weave—an “ecological system,” if you will. The supernatural Catholic faith, like the natural world, is a complex web of truth, love, and power that is just as perfectly balanced as any wetland on the shore of Puget Sound. When one tries to remove some “pointless doctrine” from this supernatural ecosystem, one gets results similar to removing some “pointless” ozone layer from the atmosphere: a catastrophic upheaval and a whole series of unforeseen side effects. So when the Church proposes the dogma of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, the questions we ought to start with are, “Is this teaching true and, if so, what is the point of it?”

Evangelical Difficulties

Of course, serious Christians recognize that sex belongs in the context of marriage. But that, for Evangelicals, is the problem. For Joseph and Mary were married. So what on earth would have kept them from marital relations? And given that Scripture says Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son” (Matt. 1:25); repeatedly refers to Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” in passages like Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55–56; and records Paul speaking of James as “the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19), the natural conclusion for the Evangelical reader is that Mary’s Perpetual Virginity is a case in which the Church isn’t just filling in some scriptural silence with a flight of fancy, but is deliberately and directly contradicting Scripture—probably because of some pathological fascination with celibacy.

The Difficulty with the Evangelical Reading of Scripture

Educated Christians know that it’s not enough to show that some Church doctrine seems to be “contradicted” by Scripture. Apparent contradictions don’t cut the mustard: they must be real ones. The difficulty for the Evangelical critique here is that the supposed Scriptural evidence for “Mary’s other children” is another such apparent contradiction. For there is, in fact, no such evidence.

Every text adduced to “prove” Mary had other natural-born children encounters some fatal difficulty when we look closely. So, for instance, the attempt to find absolute, ironclad proof of sexual relations between Joseph and Mary in Matthew’s remark that Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son” suffers from the fatal ambiguity of the word “until.” The whole value of the passage as an argument against Mary’s virginity depends on some supposed “rule” that “until” means “the same before, but different afterward.” But if we try to apply this “rule,” we wind up with strange results. Thus, Deuteronomy 1:31 tells Israel, “the Lord your God bore you, as a man bears his son, in all the way that you went until you came to this place.” Does the author really mean to say that God would henceforth not be carrying Israel? Likewise, Deuteronomy 9:7 says, “from the day you came out of the land of Egypt, until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the Lord.” Does the sacred author mean to imply that Israel magically stopped being rebellious after that? Or again, John the Baptist “was in the wilderness until the day of his manifestation to Israel” (Luke 1:80). Does Luke therefore mean to imply that once John appeared to Israel he never lived in the desert again? No. Similarly, neither is Matthew saying anything beyond “Mary conceived Jesus in virginity.” He is making no implications whatever about any sexual relations between Mary and Joseph.

In the same way, the texts concerning Jesus’ brothers and sisters were consistently read by the early Church with the understanding that the apostles had taught that Jesus was the only son of the Blessed Virgin. And once we get past our modern prejudice that “they simply can’t mean that,” we find to our surprise that they easily can.

Take James. Paul describes him as the “brother of the Lord,” but James himself does not. Why not? And even more oddly, Jude describes himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1). If Jude is a sibling of Jesus, why does he talk in this weird way?

The answer comes from a close reading of the Gospels. Matthew and Mark name the following as “brothers” of Jesus: James, Joseph (or “Joses” depending on the manuscript), Simon, and Judas (i.e., “Jude”). But Matthew 27:56 says that at the cross were Mary Magdalene and “Mary the mother of James and Joseph,” whom he significantly calls “the other Mary” (Matt. 27:61) (i.e., the Mary who was not Mary the Mother of Jesus). John concurs with this, telling us that “standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25, emphasis added). In short, James, Jude and their brothers are the children of “the other Mary,” the wife of Clopas, not Mary, the Mother of Jesus. This is further supported in an almost accidental way by the early Church historian Eusebius, who routinely records the succession of bishops in the major Churches of antiquity. After recording his account of the martyrdom of James, the first bishop of Jerusalem (commonly referred to as “the brother of the Lord”), he tells us that James’ successor was none other than “Symeon, son of Clopas.” Why choose Symeon / Simon for the next bishop? Because James, the “brother of the Lord,” and Symeon /Simon were the sibling children of Clopas and the “other Mary,” and we are in all likelihood looking at a kind of dynastic succession.

Interestingly, this “other Mary” is described as the Blessed Virgin’s “sister.” Is it really possible that two siblings were both named Mary? Probably not. Rather it’s far more likely they were “sisters” in the same sense Jesus and the other Mary’s son, James, were “brothers.” That is, they were cousins or some other extended relation. And, indeed, we find Jewish culture could play fast and loose with the terms “brother” and “sister.” For instance, Lot, who was the nephew of Abraham (cf. Gen. 11:27–31) is called Abraham’s ’âch (“brother”) in Genesis 14:14–16 (which is exactly how the translators of both the New International Version and the King James Version render it). And these English-speaking translators are simply following the example of the ancient Jewish translators of the Septuagint version of Genesis, who also rendered the Hebrew word as adelphos: the same Greek word that is also used to describe Jesus’ relatives.

So the biblical evidence for siblings of Jesus slips steadily away until all that is left is the school of criticism that argues that, since Jesus is called the “firstborn” (Luke 2:7), this implied other children for Mary. But in fact the term “firstborn” was used mainly to express the privileged position of the firstborn whether or not other children were born. That is why a Greek tomb at Tel el Yaoudieh bears this inscription for a mother who died in childbirth: “In the pain of delivering my firstborn child, destiny brought me to the end of life.”

Beyond that, all the critic of Perpetual Virginity has left is just the gut sensation that “It’s weird for a normal married couple to practice celibacy.” And that might be an argument—if Joseph and Mary were a normal married couple and not the parents of the God of Israel.  Of which more we will discuss over the next three weeks..