Was Mary a Perpetual Virgin?

The teaching of the perpetual virginity of Mary within the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches generally causes problems for Protestants. As such, it is typical to see Mary’s perpetual virginity from non-Catholics as, less strongly, a doubt, but more strongly at times, a flat-out demonic lie. Because of their influence by sola scriptura, Protestants generally don’t accept the perpetual virginity and point out the two following verses to disprove it.

Matthew 13:55 – Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? (NRSV Catholic Edition)
Mark 6:3 – Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. (NRSV Anglicized Catholic Edition)
Matthew 1:24-25 – When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus. (RSV Catholic Edition)

Most of the sola scriptura arguments tend to get a little bit repetitive after this but what Protestants look at when they read these texts is primarily that Jesus discussed in the texts as

a) having brothers (which they reason in well-meaning-ness at the very least that this means “biological” brothers)
b) that some ancient texts for Matthew 1:25 read “her firstborn son” which to them must mean that Mary had other children and…
c) that Joseph had no sexual intercourse with Mary until after she delivered her child must mean that Mary had other kids besides Jesus.

I hope to address these Protestant objections to the perpetual virginity of Mary and address the reason why the Catholic Church maintains her perpetual virginity as well as point out that numerous Protestants have also held to the perpetual virginity of Mary even if not as an official doctrine.

Do any of their arguments hold up? Not really. Raymond Brown is generally criticized in the area of those who consider themselves to be “traditionalist Catholics” (which attempt to basically criticize various different Popes for having invalid Papacies and what-not), however, Raymond Brown received nihil obstats in his illustrious career as a Biblical Scholar which means he writes nothing damaging to the faith or moral doctrines of the Catholic Church. More specifically, what a lot of these so-called “traditionalist Catholics” don’t get about Brown is that most of his works have much more of an ecumenical agenda as opposed to an agenda of taking down the Catholic Church (don’t feed the horse the entire hay-stack all at once so the farmer says). He interacts with one of the arguments of the Protestants.

He points out with respect to the brothers of Jesus that “Meier is more thorough in “Brothers” (5-6, 27), recognizing that the Postevangelium solution (also accepted by Epiphanius) is held by most Eastern Christians, has occasional Protestant support, and is not irrational” (605). Including “that this would make the brothers ‘stepbrothers,’ rather than ‘half-brothers’ as I and others have mistakenly called them” (606).

Adding to that, St. John Maximovitch, a Russian Orthodox Archbishop, points out that “[t]he word ‘until’ and words similar to it often signify eternity” (32) pointing out Ps. 71:7, 1 Cor. 15:25, Ps. 122:2, and Matt. 28:20 would be ridiculous to take in such a way that the events happening them take place temporarily until a specific point in time (32). Establishing that, and the fact that not all texts agree on whether the word “firstborn” should even be in Matthew 1:25, there is no solid evidence to use this as a defining part of a sola scriptura theology.

As Archbishop St. John Chrysostom once wrote,

And when he had taken her, he knew her not, till she had brought forth her first-born Son. He has here used the word till, not that you should suspect that afterwards he did know her, but to inform you that before the birth the Virgin was wholly untouched by man. But why then, it may be said, has he used the word, till? Because it is usual in Scripture often to do this, and to use this expression without reference to limited times. For so with respect to the ark likewise, it is said, The raven returned not till the earth was dried up. Genesis 8:7 And yet it did not return even after that time. (Homily 5)

Protestants such as “Zwingli, Calvin, and early Anglican theologians believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity” (Campbell, 150). Zwingli and Calvin are both some of the most hailed among Protestant Reformation historians. In fact, the Evangelical Covenant Church that I left actually was founded by Zwingli himself. Campbell’s not alone in his opinion on this issue. David F. Wright notes that the Reformers “confined to her role in the virgin birth of Christ (strictly, her conception) as ‘God-bearer’ (Gr. theotokos, normally, misleadingly ‘mother of God’) and her perpetual virginity–not ‘before’ but also ‘in’ and ‘after’ Jesus’ birth” (McKim, 237). Going further, “Luther himself consistently believed in the doctrine of the perpetual virginity” (Campbell, 150) and “Anglo-Catholics interpret the silence of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion to allow for belief in some or all of the Mariological doctrines affirmed by Roman Catholics” (150).

So not only is there no Biblical evidence against it, but there also appears to be a fortified, almost unanimous belief in it, between Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians to say the very least. So why do Catholics hold it as such an important doctrine? Well, the person has to already view Mary as the theotokos (or Mother of God) before they recognize the importance of such a doctrine like this. If Mary is the theotokos as the historical doctrines would also confirm, then she is in fact, the New Covenant Ark of God.

2 Samuel 6:6-7 – When they came to the threshing-floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. (NRSV Anglicized Catholic Edition)

The Ark of God is holy and mere men cannot touch it. No one can touch it. This is why the perpetual virginity is important for Catholics to maintain. However, in ecumenical discussions it is important we teach others the more important teachings first.

Bibliographical References
Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. Updated Ed. New York: Random House, Inc., 1993. Paperback.
Campbell, Ted A. Christian Confessions: A Historical Introduction. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996. Online. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
McKim, Donald K., ed. Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992. Online. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition. 1989. San Francisco: HarperOne Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., 1993. Online. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005. Online. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
St. John Chrysostom. Homilies on Matthew. Trans. George Prevost and revised by M.B. Riddle. From: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 10. Philip Schaff, ed. Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1899. Online. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
St. John Maximovitch. The Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God. 4th ed. Trans. Seraphim Rose. Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2012. Paperback.

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About newenglandsun

A student. Male. Passionate. Easily offended. Child-like wonderer. Growing in faith, messing up daily.
This entry was posted in Bible, Calvinism, Catholicism, Christology, Eastern Christianity, Mariology, New Testament, Old Testament. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Was Mary a Perpetual Virgin?

  1. Well written. A fitting post for the solemnity of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

    A supplementary note for the “brothers of Jesus” debate: the Biblical terms translated as “brother” (Greek “adelphos”; Hebrew/Aramaic “ach”) can describe degrees of relation ranging from “brother” to “countryman”. In fact, Hebrew and Aramaic lack a specific term for “cousin”, which is probably what was meant in Jesus’ case.

    Mary attests to her own lifelong virginity in Luke 1:34. In the original Greek version, her question to the angel Gabriel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” has a much more definitive connotation of intentional abstinence. To get an idea of how it reads, imagine an angel prophesying that a committed vegetarian will slaughter and consume a bull, to which she responds, “How can this be, since I’m a vegetarian?” There’s a strong implication in the text that Mary is celibate due to a special religious vow (which wasn’t unknown to ancient Jews, viz. nazarites like her kinsman John the Baptist).
    http://www.catholic.com/tracts/brethren-of-the-lord

    • The only problem with the vegetarian argument is that one has to assume the committed vegetarian will remain a vegetarian after eating the bull. I think the argument makes sense to some degree and would have issues dismissing it as Raymond E. Brown does in his book but it is something to consider.

  2. Pingback: Biblical Meditations—Mary a widow? | Agnostic Christianity

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