The Perpetual Virginity of Mary
Examining the Scriptures
Both sides appeal to the Scriptures to make their case. The same proof texts that were used in the fourth century debate, are appealed to by those on both sides of the debate today. The debate will be covered in another page.
The different classes of Biblical arguments are:
- NT lists of "brothers" and "sisters" of Jesus or descriptions of "brethren"
- Use of "firstborn" to describe the birth of Jesus
- The "till" verse (Mat 1:25)
- The giving of Mary by Jesus to the apostle John at the cross
- List of persons at the passion and the empty tomb
- Example of Anna
- Closed Gate Verse
- Psalm 69
Brothers and Sisters Lists
Protestants opposing Perpetual Virginity have appealed to various passages listing the brothers and sisters of Jesus as "conclusive" proof that Mary had marital relations with Joseph. The idea being that if it can be demonstrated the Mary had other offspring, then the teaching that she was a perpetual virgin would necessarily be refuted.
The Roman Catholics and Orthodox have responded to those arguments with varying assertions. Roman Catholics typically favor the explanation that the "brothers" listed in the passages are either cousins , or brothers in the "brotherhood of mankind" sense of the word. The Orthodox typically favor the explanation that the "brothers" in these passages are the children of Joseph by a marriage prior to Mary .
Although this is the primary defense of those who reject the perpetual virginity of Mary, this is nevertheless not an approach without numerous difficulties. Some of these difficulties are faced by Wenham where he has sort of "who's-who chart" reproduced here:
Wenham develops his theory that the sister-in-law of Mary (also named Mary ) had children that were named the same as Mary, the mother of Jesus' brothers and sisters. Although this seems improbable, the names themselves would have been quite common names in that day.
The passages used for this argument include:
Mat 13:55-56a Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?
Mark 6:3a Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?
Wenham notes that listing the sisters as apparently married to Galileans, is particularly telling. Also, per Wenham, the close proximity to Mary in the narrative leads to the natural conclusion that these were her children and not merely cousins of Jesus . This point does not apply if they are children of Joseph by a previous marriage. The prominent names on the list (the first two) are assumed to be in birth order as well.
Wenham plays the three competing theories of Helvidius , Epiphanius , and Jerome off against each other as the competing theories of the day, considering the plausibility of each theory based on the Scriptural evidence, and ignoring the historical strengths of the alternatives.
Other similar verses are:
Acts 1:13-14 And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.
This passage is particularly interesting. The "difficulty" here being that "his brethren" are listed as separate from "James" and "Judas the brother of James". James is listed as the son of Alphaeus raising the question of whether Alphaeus is the same person as Cleopas .
In addition to the narrative accounts, Paul made reference as well to James as being the "Lord's brother".
Gal 1:19 But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother.
An additional argument has been made that Jude did not refer to himself as the "brother of the Lord" in the passage:
Jude 1:1 Jude, the servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called:
Use of First born
The use of first-born is often taken to imply that there were other children.
Mat 1:25 And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.
Luke 2:7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
One counter-argument has been made that "'first-born' is a legal term which Jews used even if that child was the only-born of a mother" and that "archaeological evidences supports this: In a Jewish cemetery in Alexandria, Egypt, a 1st century grave stone was found in which a certain Jewish girl named Arsinoe was buried after she had given birth to "her first-born son"." However, opponents note:
Perpetual Virginity advocates also attempt a very creative interpretation of the word "firstborn" in Matthew 1:25 and Luke 2:7 by using a clear non sequitur relationship between two opposing cultures. They attempt to explain "firstborn" rwkb in Israel to the concepts of Egyptian funerary inscriptions. Re: Where does Jesus of Nazareth Fit in ?
The "Till" verse
Another popular approach is the "till" verse.
Mat 1:25 And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.
The typical defense against this use of "till" is to quote a passage such as:
1 Cor 15:25 For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.
"Obviously", proponents of this argument say, "Jesus will still reign after he has put all enemies under his feet". However, this misses the point of the use of the word "till" in the passage above. "Till" marks a difference in relationship between the things discussed with respect to time. In the passage quoted, Jesus reigns in a particular manner (in absentia, as it were) "till" the end when He reigns in person. Hence, the "till' is not related to the reigning, per se, but the lack of personal presence at the current time, and the promise of personal presence at the future time. Identifying the subject is the key. The subject is the location of reigning and the difference in that location with time.
In a similar manner, the relationship between Joseph and Mary had to have some sort of a change after the birth of Christ for the "till" to have meaning. In the Matt 1:25 passage, the subject is the status of Joseph's sexual relationship with Mary and the "till" marks a change in that status after the birth of Christ.
Additionally, if the historically prevalent idea was accurate, then Joseph took Mary as his wife knowing that he would never consummate the marriage. This is entirely absent from the narrative at this critical point. The author could have much more convincingly written that Joseph had taken Mary as his wife in order to provide a place for her to continue in her vowed virginity, as his apologetic for why Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary prior to the birth of Christ.
The intention of Joseph to take Mary as his wife sexually is implicit in the earliest Church Fathers in a number of places:
To this effect they testify, [saying,] that before Joseph had come together with Mary, while she therefore remained in virginity, "she was found with child of the Holy Ghost
The till clause (mentioned earlier) is also present in other forms in the church fathers.
He who is the Word, recapitulating Adam in Himself, rightly receive a birth, enabling Him to gather up Adam [into Himself], from Mary, who was as yet a virgin .
Jesus Giving Mary to John at the Cross
John 19:26-27 When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.
The claim here is that "If Jesus actually had other earthly brothers and sisters, it would have been customary by Jewish law that he bequeath her care to them. Instead he chooses St. John the apostle, who was not related to Him by blood. This is a clear proof that Jesus had no other brothers and sisters, or else he would have followed Jewish custom and asked them to care for their mother after his death."
Another less bold, but similar claim is "Had Mary had other children, Jesus would not have entrusted her to the only follower who did not desert him at the Crucifixion, John the son of Zebedee. Her legal residence upon the death of Jesus would have been with her next-oldest child (presumably James). "
These arguments neglect a number of possible explanations.
- Since Jesus was about 33 at the time of the crucifixion, if he had brothers they would be younger than that age, and may not have been in a position to provide care for Mary. This would include financial support, as Joseph is apparently not alive at this point in time.
- The term of the care of Mary is not stated. Is it for the rest of her life, or a month?
- John also may have been explaining how Mary came to live in his own house instead of the house of her own children.
- John seems to have had a house in the immediate area.
- Jesus was estranged from His brothers in the Gospel narratives as they rejected His messianic claims and were no where to be found at the time of the passion.
- The brothers are described as known but apparently not present to the other Galileans. (Mark 6:3), hence they may have not lived in the same area as Mary.
John may have been wealthy and in a better situation to support Mary.
List of persons at the passion and the empty tomb
Commentators are split on John 19:25, as to whether it refers to three or four persons .
John 19:25 Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.
The use of the conjunction, kai, between the first and second, and the next to the last and the last, as contrasted to the lack of kai in the middle of the list lends credibility to the idea that it refers to three persons, not four. The word wife, is not in the text. Thus, is appears that the sister of Mary is also named Mary and is related to Cleophas. Although not the same Greek word, this Cleophas is likely the same person listed as Cleopas in Luke 24:18 as one of the people on the road to Emmaus with Jesus.
An intriguing link is:
Mark 15:40 There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome;
Are the women Mark describes as "looking on afar off", the same ones which John describes as those who "stood by the cross"? At least in the case of Mary Magdalene, clearly so. Then, can the other Mary, the wife of Cleopas in John 19:25, then be positively identified as " Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome" from Mark 15:40? If so, then the list of these brothers would seem more likely to be the cousins of Jesus. However, in a family where two sisters are both named Mary, what's the oddity about cousins with the same names? As noted Wenham previously deals with this possibility in detail .
In the post resurrection appearances, Mary the mother of Jesus is not explicitly listed, but there's one interesting passage:
Mark 15:47 And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses beheld where he was laid. 16:1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
Some textual problems are still present here. Is "Mary the mother of Joses" of Mark 15:47, and "Mary the mother of James " of Mark 16:1, the same person? Why does Mark identify him explicitly as "James the less" in Mark 15:40 and not in Mark 15:47? Is the close proximity sufficient to identify this James as the same person?
Luke 24:10 It was Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.
Jesus had a large company of women that followed him and many of them were named Mary.
Some of the Fathers attempted to reconcile the accounts of the Gospels as to the identities of the Mary(s) listed. For instance:
- Mary the mother of the Lord;
- Mary the wife of Cleophas or Alphaeus, who was the mother of James the bishop and apostle, and of Simon and Thaddeus, and of one Joseph;
- Mary Salome, wife of Zebedee, mother of John the evangelist and James;
- Mary Magdalene.
These four are found in the Gospel. James and Judas and Joseph were sons of an aunt (2) of the Lord's. James also and John were sons of another aunt (3) of the Lord's. Mary (2), mother of James the Less and Joseph, wife of Alphaeus was the sister of Mary the mother of the Lord, whom John names of Cleophas, either from her father or from the family of the clan, or for some other reason. Mary Salome (3) is called Salome either from her husband or her village. Some affirm that she is the same as Mary of Cleophas, because she had two husbands.
Example of Anna
Apologists for Perpetual Virginity list this verse as evidence for their position. They present the position of the apocryphal gospels that Mary was a virgin in the temple dedicated to the Lord prior to marrying Joseph. They state that the regulations required that Mary leave the temple when she reached the age of 12 and that Joseph knew about her vow and took her as his wife with the allowance that he would never have sexual relations with her. Anna is listed as an example of a temple virgin.
Luke 2:36-37 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.
Hence, this evidence is indirect and unrelated to the claims except to demonstrate that devout women did stay in the temple praying. This does not make the case that young women or children stayed as virgins in the temple, as Anna is an elderly widow.
Closed Gate Verse
This next passage offered by pro-Perpetual Virginity proponents is the most bizarre to the contemporary Protestant mind.
Ezek 44:2 Then said the LORD unto me; This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.
The argument being that Jesus passed through the womb of Mary and that her womb must necessarily be shut due to Jesus passing through her womb. This passage is a classical example of allegorical interpretation with all of the problems that attend this school of interpretation. Taken on its face it would imply that Mary was not a virgin when she conceived (i. e., Men had walked through that gate, but that it was later to be locked up so that no more men could walk through it).
Ezek 44:3 It is for the prince; the prince, he shall sit in it to eat bread before the LORD; he shall enter by the way of the porch of that gate, and shall go out by the way of the same.
In the context of the passage, this is even less likely to be speaking of Mary prophetically. Does Jesus go in an out of Mary's womb? Applying the same hermeneutical precedent to a similar passage:
Psa 118:20 This gate of the LORD, into which the righteous shall enter.
Joseph was a righteous man. Since Mary was the "Gate of the Lord", Joseph was able to "enter into" Mary. The problem here is: "How do we decide which interpretation is correct?" For the Orthodox, the answer is surprisingly simple, "We believe because this is what the Church teaches" is the most common answer. However, does the Orthodox Church get locked into the exegesis of someone from 1500 years ago especially when the argumentation itself seems specious?
Another interesting usage of an obscure Old Testament passage to support the virginity of Mary is the following quotation:
What is meant by this sealed book, but just the virgin undefiled? From whom is this to be given? From the priests evidently. And to whom? To the artisan Joseph. As, then, the priests espoused Mary to Joseph as to a prudent husband, and committed her to his care in expectation of the time of marriage, and as it behoved him then on obtaining her to keep the virgin untouched, this was announced by the prophet long before, when he said: This book that is sealed shall be delivered to a man that is learned. And that man will say, I cannot read it. But why can'st thou not read it, O Joseph? I cannot read it, he says, because the book is sealed. For whom, then, is it preserved?
Psalm 69 Verse
The Messianic Psalm, Ps 69, refers to Mary's other children.
Psa 69:8 I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother's children.
Many of the parts of this Messianic Psalm are quoted in the New Testament. For instance, v. 9:
Psa 69:9 For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up; and the reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me.
is quoted in:
John 2:17 And his disciples remembered that it was written, The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up.
Psa 69:21 They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
is quoted in the New Testament: *
John 19:28 After this, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, saith, I thirst. John 19:29 Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a sponge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth.
Verse 25 is quoted in the New Testament:
Psa 69:25 Let their habitation be desolate; and let none dwell in their tents.
Acts 1:20 For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein:
Another passage was clearly fulfilled in the crucifixion:
Psa 69:26 For they persecute him whom thou hast smitten; and they talk to the grief of those whom thou hast wounded