Perhaps the two most commonly employed texts by those who deny Mary’s perpetual virginity are:
Matthew 13:55-56: "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 of his sisters with us?"
Matthew 1:24-25: "And Joseph rising up from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took unto him his wife. And he knew her not till she brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS" (Douay-Rheims).
A surface reading of these texts seems to raise some questions. If Jesus had brethren (brothers) and sisters, doesn't this mean that Mary had other children? If Jesus was Mary’s firstborn, doesn't this imply there was at least a second-born? And doesn't “he knew her not till” imply that he “knew her” at some point thereafter? We’ll begin with Matthew 13:55-56.
First, we must understand that the term brother has a wide semantic range in Scripture. It can mean not only a blood brother but an extended relative or even a spiritual brother. Abraham and Lot are classic examples of “brother” being used for an extended relation (see Genesis 13:8 and 14:12). Though they were actually uncle and nephew, they called one another “brother.” Moreover, in the New Testament, Jesus told us to call one another “brothers” (see Matthew 23:8). Obviously, this doesn't infer that all Christians have the same physical mother.
Second, if we examine more closely the example of James, one of these four “brothers" of the Lord mentioned in Matthew 13:55, we discover him to actually be a cousin or some other variety of relative of Jesus rather than a blood brother. For example, St. Paul tells us:
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother (Gal. 1:18-19).
Notice, the James of whom St. Paul speaks was both a “brother of the Lord” and an “apostle.” There are only two apostles named James among the twelve. The first James is revealed to have been a son of Zebedee. He would most likely not be the James St. Paul speaks of in Galatians, because this James, the brother of John, was martyred early on, according to Acts 12:1-2. And even if it were him, his father was Zebedee. If he were the blood brother of the Lord, his father would have been Joseph.
The second James who was an apostle, according to Luke 6:15-16, is most likely to whom St. Paul refers, and his father was Alphaeus, not Joseph. Thus, James the apostle and Jesus were not blood brothers.
Easy enough. However, some will argue that the James spoken of in Galatians 1 was not an apostle—or, at least, he was not one of the Twelve. Though this is a possibility—there are others in the New Testament, such as St. Barnabas in Acts 14:14, who are referred to as “apostles” in a looser sense—the argument from Scripture is weak.
When St. Paul wrote about going “up to Jerusalem” to see St. Peter, he was writing about an event that occurred many years earlier, shortly after he had converted. He was basically going up to the apostles to receive approval lest he “should be running or had run in vain.” It would be more likely he would have here been speaking about apostles proper, or the Twelve.
But for those inclined to argue the point, the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses another line of reasoning:
[T]he Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary. In fact James and Joseph, “brothers of Jesus,” are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls “the other Mary.” They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression (CCC 500).
The Catechism here refers to the fact that, fourteen chapters after we find the “brothers” of the Lord listed as “James, Joses, Simon and Judas,” we find “James and Joses” mentioned again, but this time their mother is revealed as being named Mary—but not Mary the mother of Jesus. The conclusion becomes apparent: “James and Joses” are “brothers” of Jesus, but they are not blood brothers.
The problem of the "firstborn"
So what about Matthew 1:24-25 and the claim Jesus was Mary’s “firstborn son” and that Joseph “knew her not until” Christ was born? Does St. Matthew here teach Mary to have had other children?
Exodus 13:1-2 reveals something important about the firstborn in Israel:
The Lord said to Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and beast, is mine.”
The firstborn were not given the title because there was a second-born. They were called firstborn at birth. Hence, Jesus being referred to as firstborn in Matthew 1 does not require there to be more siblings after him.
Propositions about a preposition
Scripture stating Joseph “knew [Mary] not until she brought forth her firstborn” would not necessarily mean they “knew” each other after she brought forth Jesus. Until is often used in Scripture as part of an idiomatic expression similar to our own usage in English. I may say to you, “Until we meet again, God bless you.” Does that mean after we meet again, God curse you? By no means! A phrase like this is used to emphasize what is being described before the “until” is fulfilled. It is not intended to say anything about the future beyond that point. Here are some biblical examples that may help clarify things:
- II Samuel 6:23: “And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to [unti] the day of her death.” Does this mean she had children after she died?
- I Timothy 4:13: “Until I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching.” Does this mean Timothy should stop teaching after St. Paul comes?
- I Corinthians 15:25: “For he [Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” Does this mean Christ’s reign will end? By no means! Luke 1:33 says, “[H]e will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
In recent years, some have argued that because Matthew 1:25 uses the Greek words heos hou for “until,” whereas the texts I mention above from the New Testament use heos alone, there is a difference in meaning. Heos hou, it is argued, would indicate the action of the first clause does not continue. Thus, Mary and Joseph “not having come together” would have then ended after Jesus was born.
The problems with this theory begin with the fact that there is no scholarship available that confirms it. In fact, the evidence proves the contrary. Heos hou and heos are used interchangeably and have the same meaning. Acts 25:21 should suffice to clear up the matter:
But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I commanded him to be held until (Greek, heos hou) I could send him to Caesar.
Does this text mean that St. Paul would not be held in custody after he was “sent” to Caesar? Not according to the biblical record. He would be held in custody while in transit (see Acts 27:1) and after he arrived in Rome for a time (see Acts 29:16). The action of the main clause did not cease with heos hou.
A positive outlook
Having dispatched some of the objections to Mary’s perpetual virginity, perhaps some positive reasons for faith would be in order. In my book Behold Your Mother: A Biblical and Historical Defense of the Marian Doctrines, I give eight positive reasons, but for brevity's sake, we will briefly consider three:
1. In Luke 1:34, when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was chosen to be the mother of the Messiah, she asked the question, literally translated from the Greek, “How shall this be, since I know not man?” This question makes no sense unless Mary had a vow of virginity.
When we consider Mary and Joseph were already “espoused,” according to verse 27 of this same chapter, we understand Mary and Joseph to then have had what would be akin to a ratified marriage in the New Covenant. They were married! That would mean St. Joseph would have had the right to the marriage bed at that point. Normally, after the espousal the husband would prepare a home for his new bride and then come and receive her into his home where the union would be consummated. This is precisely why St. Joseph intended to “divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:19) when he discovered she was pregnant.
This background is significant, because a newly married woman would not ask the question, “How shall this be?” She would know! Unless, of course, that woman had a vow of virginity! Mary believed the message but wanted to know how this was going to be accomplished. This indicates she was not planning on the normal course of events for her future with St. Joseph.
2. In John 19:26, Jesus gave his mother to the care of St. John even though by law the next eldest sibling would have the responsibility to care for her. It is unthinkable to believe that Jesus would take his mother away from his family in disobedience to the law.
Some will claim Jesus did this because his brothers and sisters were not there. They had left him. Thus, Jesus committed his mother to St. John, who was faithful and present at the foot of the cross.
This claim reveals a low and unbiblical Christology. As St. John tells us, Jesus “knew all men” (John 2:25). If St. James were his blood brother, Jesus would have known he would be faithful along with his “brother” Jude. The fact is, Jesus had no brothers and sisters, so he had the responsibility, on a human level, to take care of his mother.
3. Mary is depicted as the spouse of the Holy Spirit in Scripture. When Mary asked the angel how she was going to conceive a child in Luke 1:34, the angel responded:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.
This is nuptial language hearkening back to Ruth 3:8, where Ruth said to Boaz “spread your skirt over me” when she revealed to him his duty to marry her according to the law of Deuteronomy 25. When Mary then came up pregnant, St. Joseph would have been required to divorce her, because she would then belong to another (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Jeremiah 3:1). When St. Joseph found out that “the other” was the Holy Spirit, the idea of St. Joseph having conjugal relations with Mary would not have been a consideration for a "just man" like St. Joseph.
One final thought
An obvious question remains: Why did St. Joseph then “take [Mary] his wife,” according to Matthew 1:24, if she belonged to the Holy Spirit?
The Holy Spirit is Mary’s spouse, but St. Joseph was her spouse and protector on Earth. Tthis is not a contradiction. All Christians have a nuptial relationship with our Lord. The Church is, after all, "the bride of Christ." But in the case of Mary and Joseph, Joseph was essential in the life of Mary, his spouse, for at least two obvious reasons. First, as St. Matthew points out in his genealogy in chapter 1, St. Joseph was in line to be a successor of David as King of Israel. Thus, if Jesus was to be the true “son of David” and king of Israel (see II Samuel 7:14; Hebrews 1:5; Revelation 19:16, 22:16), he needed to be the son of St. Joseph. As the only son of St. Joseph, even though adopted, he would have been in line for the throne.
Also, in a culture that did not take kindly to espoused women becoming pregnant by someone other than their spouse, Mary would have been in mortal danger. Thus, St. Joseph became Mary’s earthly spouse and protector as well as the protector of the child Jesus.