As promised, some thoughts on the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
I was raised in a Protestant church (Assemblies of God) which laughed at the notion of Mary being a virgin her whole life, and dismissed it as a Roman Catholic novelty. As I grew up and pursued a life of ministry myself, I continued to reject the notion as silly and misguided. But the more I dug into church history, and ancient theology (a very dangerous practice, I might add – it will cause all kinds of re-thinking, and possible havoc in your life), the more I came to see this notion wasn’t some late addition, nor was it silly.
Before I look into the matter, let me say that I do not see it as a matter of salvific significance. I do not see it as a teaching that should divide God’s people. I do not see it, really, as “doctrine” at all (other than it being affirmed throughout the history of the Church), just as an understanding of this holy woman’s life. And finally, I would point out that, far from being a belief held by one particular group (the Roman Catholic Church), it was affirmed at the Council of Ephesus in 431, and devotedly believed by both Martin Luther and John Calvin. It was the common position of the early reformers, both on the continent and Britain. So, having said all that, let’s dig in.
THE BIBLE IS SILENT
The first line of argument is that this teaching has been affirmed from the earliest of times all the way up to the Reformers within the history of the Church. Not a convincing argument, but at least it shows that the teaching isn’t isolated or quirky.
Now, let’s look at the biblical record. Oh – the Bible doesn’t say anything about it, one way or the other. It nowhere says that Mary remained a virgin all the days of her life, and it nowhere says she didn’t. And just in case someone says, “Hey wait a minute – Matthew 1.25 says, ‘but knew her not until she had given birth to a son,’” let’s just lay that to rest right now. “Until” is the Greek word ἕως, and it doesn’t necessitate a change in condition. For example, Mt. 5.18 reads, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” This doesn’t imply that after heaven and earth pass away, then an iota or a dot will pass from the Law. Just one more example (there are many, but if two don’t make the point, neither will a dozen): In Acts 2.34f Peter quotes the Psalm, “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”’” The implication is not that after Christ’s enemies have been made his footstool he will cease to sit at God’s right hand. So, to reiterate, the Bible itself is simply silent on the matter, if by silent we mean it doesn’t specifically say whether Mary remained a virgin or not.
THE EARLIEST TRADITION
The earliest document that does specifically say is a weird early second century piece called the Protoevangeliun of James. It is a novel. It has all kinds of fanciful stuff. It isn’t history, and it isn’t dependable. But, it does have within it some of the traditions about Jesus which were prevalent at the time, and one of them is this: that Mary was a kind of “temple virgin” – a woman given to God and serving in the Temple (not unlike Samuel in the Old Testament, or the widow Anna in Luke). These women had families who served as “sponsors” for them, who would care for them financially, and to whose home they could visit during their times of “uncleanness” when because of menstrual flow they could not remain on the Temple grounds – so, once a month they would go spend several days with their “family.”
This early tradition says that Joseph was an older widowed man, and a father to many children (including James, Joses, Jude & Simon; cf. Mk. 6.3). A pious and upright man, he was covenanted (betrothed, engaged) to be Mary’s protector/caregiver (not unlike medieval knights who are covenanted to protect a damsel until her marriage – by the way, in the medieval wedding ceremony, it was the knight who answered the question, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” with the “I do,” thus releasing himself from the responsibility of her care).
So, suddenly, this young virgin, who has made a vow of virginity to God, shows up at Joseph’s house pregnant! Scandal. Put her away; divorce her; end the covenant; how shameful! Which is exactly what Joseph intended before his plans got changed by the visitation of an angel. Instead, he takes this young virgin, booted from Temple life, and marries her, but honors her vow of virginity. Laying aside for the moment that he is pious, also note that he is old – he has already raised a family – the act of sex isn’t the first thing on his radar. And this is important: her continued virginity has nothing to do with virginity being a holier or higher estate than sexual marriage – it has to do with her having already made a vow of virginity before the angel Gabriel appears to her at the Annunciation.
WHY THE BIBLE CONVINCES ME THAT MARY REMAINED A VIRGIN
Having said that the Bible is silent on the matter, I would continue by saying the Bible offers all kinds of circumstantial evidence. Here we go…
- Mary’s strange response to the angel. Gabriel tells her she will have a son who will be greatly used of God. Her response (Lu. 1.34) is, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” Now, just think what a strange response this is. Let’s say you have a 15 year old daughter who is deeply committed to following God, and an angel shows up and says to her, “You’re going to have a son who is going to be very special and greatly used of God.” Would your daughter’s natural response be, “How wil this be since I am a virgin?” No, of course not. Her response would be, “Wow! Awesome! This is great news! I’m so happy that this will happen.” Because she’s thinking to herself, “Some day I’m going to get married, and I’m going to have a son who’s going to be greatly used by God!” If Mary were like your daughter, this would have been her response too. But Mary wasn’t like your daughter. If she were, instead, a vowed virgin, and the angel had told her this news, then she would have said something, oh…I don’t know…something like, “How will this be since I am a virgin?
- The Siblings Rejection of Jesus. In the Gospels, the brothers (and sisters) of Jesus are nowhere to be found. They don’t hang around with him, they don’t follow him, they aren’t on the scene at all. Joseph disappears from the story after Jesus is 12 and in the Temple (remember, he’s an old man at the birth of Jesus; he dies off early in the story). The only time we see the siblings is when they say that Jesus is crazy. None of them believe in him until after the Resurrection. The point being, Jesus is treated, not with the respect of an older brother, but with the disdain of the runt of the family – the crazy half (in their minds) brother – the son of Dad’s new wife, a stepmother who is their age or maybe younger.
- Who Cares For Mary? When Jesus is dying on the cross, if he is the oldest son, it would fall to the next oldest son to care for “mom.” But none of them are there. Her care doesn’t fall to James, or Joses, or Simon. Her care falls to Jesus’ closest friend, John.
- The Names of the Boys. This point isn’t conclusive, because Joseph & Mary were instructed of God to name her son Jesus, but Jewish tradition in naming sons goes like this: you name your first son after your dad. Joseph’s father was James, and he names, I would argue, his first son, after his father – James. You name your second son after yourself, so Joseph names his second son Joseph (Joses) – after himself. Other sons are named after other relatives, or whatever you decide to name them. I would suggest that James, Joses & Simon are older than Jesus – sons of Joseph by his first wife, and Jesus comes along after he has pretty much raised his family.
None of these are conclusive proofs that Mary remained a virgin. But put it all together: the earliest records say she did, the logic of Scripture supports this, and the witness of the Church (all traditions – Roman, Eastern & Reformed) say she did – and I am at least safe in making the argument for her perpetual virginity. It is only later Protestantism that insists, for whatever reason, that she didn’t.