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How to Explain the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

“I’ve never understood why Catholics claim that Mary was a virgin her entire life. The Bible says that Jesus had brothers. Matthew 13:55 settles the matter for me: ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brethren James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?’”

In answering any biblical objection to the faith, step number one is putting the other at ease by agreeing that if a teaching contradicts Scripture, the teaching must be wrong.Next, examine the biblical evidence. In the case of Mary’s perpetual virginity, the key to explaining Matthew 13:55 is understanding the Greek word for “brethren” (adelphoi) and its feminine counterpart (adelphe). If the Greek words used in this passage connote only siblings, then the Catholic dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity is false.However, the word adelphoi has a much broader meaning. It may refer to male relatives that one is not a descendant of and that are not descendant from one (such as a blood brother, step-brother, nephew, uncle, cousin, etc.) or non-relatives such as neighbors, fellow workers, co-religionists, and friends.

Because of this broad usage, we can be sure that the 120 “brothers” in Acts 1:15 did not have the same mother. Neither did Lot and his uncle Abraham, who were called “brothers” (Gen. 11:26-28, 29:15).

The reason relatives were called brothers or sisters was because in Hebrew, there was no word for cousin, nephew, or uncle. So the person was referred to as simply a “brother.” Linguistically, this was far easier than calling the person the son of a mother’s sister. Since the New Testament was written in a dialect of Greek that was heavily influenced by the Semitic culture, many of the Hebrew idioms (like “brother” having multiple meanings) intrude into the Greek text. So, the fact that Jesus had adelphoi does not mean that Mary had other children.

“But there was a Greek word for cousin, anepsios. If the brothers of the Lord were really his cousins, why wasn’t that word used?”

Here is a common misconception to be on the lookout for: “Catholics teach that the brothers were actually cousins.” That’s not the Catholic position. In fact, we can’t tell if any of the “brothers” were cousins. All the Church affirms is that they were not children of Mary. They could have been children of Joseph from a prior marriage. But the specific word for cousin (anepsios) probably would not have been used in Matthew 13:55 unless all the “brothers” were cousins. If even one of them was not a cousin, the more general term ” adelphoi” covers the situation. Even if all of them were cousins, the term “brother” could still be used by Matthew to appropriately describe them.These things were taken for granted by the early Christians, who were familiar with the biblical languages and who knew that Mary was a lifelong virgin. In A.D. 380, Helvidius proposed that Mary had other children because of the “brothers” in Matthew 13:55. He was rebutted by Jerome, who was arguably the greatest biblical scholar of the day. The Protestant reformer John Calvin seconded Jerome: “Helvidius has shown himself too ignorant, in saying that Mary had several sons, because mention is made in some passages to the brothers of Christ” [quoted by Bernard Leeming, Protestants and Our Lady, 9]. Martin Luther agreed with Calvin that Mary was always a virgin, as did Ulrich Zwingli: “I esteem immensely the Mother of God, the ever chaste, immaculate Virgin Mary” [E. Stakemeier, De Mariologia et Oecumenismo, K. Balic, ed., 456].

“But Matthew 1:25 states that Joseph had no relations with Mary until she bore a son. Wouldn’t that imply that he knew her afterward?”

Before you move on to this objection, notice that the verse in question has changed. You have presented scriptural and historical evidence to support the Church’s interpretation. If the person that you are speaking with leaves Matthew 13:55 to rest, it may be a sign that he sees the incompleteness of the “brethren of the Lord” argument. This is a good sign, so follow his lead—so long as the conversation stays on topic. Zealous Protestants will have any number of objections to the faith, and, if you hope to make any progress, take only one topic at a time.Now, does Matthew’s use of “until” mean what your friend says it does? Not necessarily. The Greek word for “until” (heos) does not imply that Mary had marital relations after the birth of Christ. In 2 Samuel 6:23, we read that Michal, the daughter of Saul, had no child “until” the day of her death. (Rest assured that she didn’t have any children after that day, either.) Hebrews 1:13 and 1 Timothy 4:13 are similar examples.When we interpret any passage, we must consider what the author was trying to say. Matthew’s intent here is not to explain what happened after the birth of Christ. He is only concerned with the fact that Joseph and Mary had no relations before then. It is the virgin birth, not later siblings, that Matthew is concerned with.

“What about Psalm 69:8? It prophesied that Mary would have children when it says in regard to Jesus, ‘I have been a stranger to my brethren, an alien to my mother’s sons.’”

If your friend takes this Psalm to be a literal prophecy of Christ, he runs into bigger problems. Look three verses earlier, “O God, thou knowest my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from thee” (emphasis added). Since Jesus did no wrong and had no follies, it seems clear we shouldn’t take this passage literally.The prophecy in verse 8 is fulfilled by the fact that Jesus was rejected by his own relatives (Mark 3:21). Besides, if the “brethren” of the Lord were Joseph’s children from a prior marriage, though they were not Mary’s biological children, legally they would be considered her sons.

“But how could an unconsummated marriage have been a valid one for Mary and Joseph? It would be so unnatural.”

At the end of a wedding, the minister announces that the couple has become man and wife. They exchanged vows, and so they are married—without having consummated the marriage yet. When the marriage is consummated, the marriage—which was already valid—becomes indissoluble. So Joseph and Mary’s marriage was a real marriage, even if it was never consummated.In regard to it not being natural, the prophet Isaiah said that God’s ways are not like our ways (Is. 55:8–9). When the Second Person of the Trinity is in your wife’s womb, you can expect to have a different marriage than most folks!

“But it’s not a sin for a married couple to have marital relations.”

True, ordinarily. But even in the Old Testament God asked married couples to refrain from intercourse for various reasons. For example, the priests of the temple had to refrain from intimacy with their wives during the time of their service. Likewise, Moses had the Israelites abstain from intercourse as he ascended Mount Sinai (Ex. 20:15). There is a theme here of refraining from marital rights because of the presence of something very holy.The Church Fathers knew that there was something greater than the temple in Mary’s womb, comparing it to the Eastern Gate mentioned in Ezekiel 44: “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut.” Mary had become the dwelling place of the Almighty, like the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament.Now, if Uzzah was struck dead for touching the Ark (2 Sam. 6:6–8), should it be surprising that Joseph understood that Mary was a vessel consecrated to God alone? The idea that Joseph assumed normal marital relations with Mary after the birth of Christ was an irreverence that even the Protestant reformers rejected.

Interestingly, according to Jewish law, if a man was betrothed to a woman and she became pregnant from another, he could never have relations with her. The man had to put her away privately or condemn her in public and put her to death. Joseph chose the more merciful option.

Then, the angel told him to lead her into the house as a wife (paralambano gunaika), but the language that describes marital relations is not used here. It was used, however, in Luke 1:35: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” To “overshadow” a woman was a euphemism for having a marital relationship, as was the phrase “to lay one’s power” over a woman. The Holy Spirit had espoused Mary, and she had been consecrated, set apart for God.

Also, it appears that Mary had made a vow of virginity. When the angel said that she would conceive and bear a son, she asked, “How can this be, since I do not know man?” She knew how babies were made, and she was about to be married. “How can this be?” would seem like a pretty silly question unless she had made a prior vow of virginity.

“Why is she betrothed to Joseph if she made a vow of virginity?”

Consecrated virginity was not common among first century Jews, but it did exist. According to some early Christian documents, such as the Protoevangelium of James (written around A.D. 120), Mary was a consecrated virgin. As such, when she reached puberty, her monthly cycle would render her ceremonially unclean and thus unable to dwell in the temple without defiling it under the Mosaic Law. At this time, she would be entrusted to a male guardian. However, since it was forbidden for a man to live with a woman he was not married or related to, the virgin would be wed to the guardian, and they would have no marital relations.

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