Was Mary a Virgin Her Whole Life?
The idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity is critical to Catholic Mariology (see Herbermann, 1913, 15:459-472). Catholics maintain that Mary was a virgin, not only before and during the conception of Jesus, but also afterward, for the rest of her life. This idea is known as the “Perpetual Virginity” of Mary. But, was Mary a virgin for the totality of her life?
All Christians (or at least those who believe the biblical record is inspired) agree that Mary was a virgin when God’s angel informed her that she was with child of the Holy Spirit. Matthew is plain when he states: “Before they [Joseph and Mary] came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit” (1:18, emp. added). Luke records Mary’s question upon hearing that she was to bring forth a son: “Can this be, since I do not know a man?” (1:34, emp. added). The word “know” in Luke 1:34 obviously was used not for “having an idea or notion about a man,” but in reference to “having conjugal relations.” [Mary thought it was impossible for her to have conceived a child since “she did not know a man.”] The word “know” comes from the Greek ginosko and, in the context of Luke 1:34, is “used to convey the thought of connection or union, as between man and woman” (Vine, 1966, 2:298). The Bible clearly teaches that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ conception (cf. Isaiah 7:14). But what about after giving birth to the Savior?
First, consider Catholicism’s ideas about virginity itself. If they define virginity as “the intact conservation of a woman’s hymen” (the membrane located in the vulva), naturally Mary would have “lost her virginity” at the moment of Jesus’ birth. The Bible records that Mary’s conception was miraculous (Matthew 1:18), but to say that her pregnancy, as well as her delivery, were miraculous would be a forced interpretation of the text.
Second, consider the word “till” in Matthew 1:25 (“and [Joseph] did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son”), in connection with the word “before” in Matthew 1:18 (“before they [Joseph and Mary] came together”). The Greek phrase heos hou, translated “till,” does not necessarily imply that Joseph and Mary had sexual relations after Jesus’ birth. However, as Lewis noted, the rest of the New Testament bears out the fact that where this phrase is preceded by a negative, it “always implies that the negated action did take place later” (quoted in Miller, 2003). Most probably, Matthew’s use of the words “till” and “before” emphasizes an opposite post-condition to a virgin state. Also note that Matthew wrote his gospel account (between A.D. 40 and A.D. 70) after the events of his record had transpired. Thus, if he had wanted the reader to understand that Mary was a virgin for all her life, surely he would have been very clear on that matter. But his wording leads to an opposite conclusion.
Third, as Joseph pondered Mary’s sudden pregnancy (although they had not yet “come together,” according to Matthew 1:18), “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife’” (Matthew 1:20, emp. added). This phrase (“to take to you Mary your wife”), as Barnes noted, means to “recognize her as such, and to treat her as such” (2005, p. 6, emp. added). God’s angel encouraged Joseph not only to take Mary, but to take her as his wife, not as a sister or a roommate for life. The truth is clear: Mary became Joseph’s wife in the absolute physical sense of the word.
Fourth, both Matthew (1:25) and Luke (2:7) record that Mary gave birth to her firstborn son. “Firstborn” comes from two Greek words: protos, meaning first, and tikto, meaning to beget (Vine, 1966, 2:104). In these verses, Jesus is referred to as Mary’s first son, which may imply that Mary had more children after Jesus’ birth. It also is worth mentioning that while Luke referred to baby Jesus as Mary’s firstborn (prototokos; 2:7), one chapter earlier he referred to the infant John (the only son of Zacharias and Elizabeth) as Elizabeth’s son (huios; 1:57). This does not prove that Mary had other children, but adds to the weight of the case against Mary’s perpetual virginity.
Other passages in the New Testament provide evidence to conclude, beyond any doubt, that Jesus had half-brothers and half-sisters who were born to Joseph and Mary sometime after they “came together” (Matthew 1:18). For example, Mark 3 tells us about a disturbance that arose while Jesus was teaching a crowd of people. “Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him” (Mark 3:31, emp. added; cf. Matthew 12:46-50). Mark also noted that the people around Jesus “said to Him, ‘Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You’” (3:32, emp. added). Not only did Mark identify these people as Jesus’ direct relatives, but he recorded that the multitude (who knew Jesus) identified the same group of people as His family. Additionally, when pointing out the superiority of His spiritual family over His physical family (who was looking for Him), Jesus said: “For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). Jesus’ statement emphasizes the unique and intimate relationship between Christ and His followers. He did not intend to convey that those who do the will of God are His spiritual cousins, but His spiritual brothers and sisters!
Matthew 13:53-58 is similar to Mark 3:31-35. Matthew records Jesus’ arrival in His hometown, Nazareth of Galilee, where He taught the people in their synagogue (13:54). When the people heard Jesus’ teaching, “they were astonished and said, ‘Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us?’” (13:54-56, emp. added).
Various theories attempt to avoid the fact that Joseph and Mary had children together. One of the theories maintains that the “brothers” mentioned in Matthew 13 were His apostles. This theory fails to recognize that Jesus did not arrive at just any country but “to His own country” (13:54, emp. added). Those who identified Jesus’ brothers and sisters knew very well who Jesus was and who His close relatives were, as evidenced by the fact that they identified Jesus’ family members by name. One reason they marveled at His teaching was the fact they knew His earthly family consisted of ordinary people. It is ironic that many Catholics accept that the phrase “carpenter’s son” literally identifies Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, and that the phrase “His mother called Mary” literally identifies Jesus’ mother, while they deny that the phrases “His brothers” and “His sisters” literally identify Jesus’ half brothers and sisters. What kind of interpretation is that? Furthermore, even though the names James, Simon, and Judas (listed by the multitude) may remind us of the names of three of Jesus’ apostles (Matthew 10:2-4), no apostle was named Joses (Joseph—Matthew 13:55). It is clear that these “brothers” were not Jesus’ apostles. If “His brothers” refers to the apostles, pray tell, to whom does the phrase “His sisters” refer?
Luke offers more evidence that the men referred to as Jesus’ brothers could not be His apostles. In Acts 1:13, he identified the apostles (at this time only eleven) by name. Then, in verse 14, he added: “These all [the apostles of verse 13] continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers” (emp. added). Paul made the same distinction when he asked, “Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:5, emp. added). There can be no doubt that “the brothers of the Lord’ about whom Luke and Paul wrote were a different group from the apostles.
Due to the weight of the biblical evidence, few Catholics maintain that Jesus’ brothers were His apostles. Rather, many of them have suggested that these “brothers” and “sisters” were His disciples or followers. But, again, the biblical evidence is overwhelming.
When the people identified Jesus in Matthew 13:53-58, they connected Him with a family composed of a “carpenter,” “Mary,” “His brothers” (James, Joses, Simon and Judas), and “His sisters.” Why would the people refer to Joseph and Mary and then connect them to His “spiritual family” (followers) in order to establish Jesus’ identity? Why would they have named only four of Jesus’ “followers”? John helps us to conclude that these “brothers” and “sisters” were not Jesus’ disciples or followers. In chapter seven of his gospel account, John tells us that “His [Jesus’] brothers therefore said to Him, ‘Depart from here and go into Judea, that Your disciples also may see the works that You are doing’” (vs. 3, emp. added). John made a clear distinction between Jesus’ brothers and His disciples or followers. He went on to state that “even His brothers did not believe in Him” (vs. 5). By this time, Jesus’ brothers were not counted in the group known as “His disciples,” those who believed in Him. Luke also makes a distinction when, in Acts 1:14, he identifies a group known as Jesus’ brothers, while in verse 15 he gives the number of the disciples: “[A]ltogether the number of names was about a hundred and twenty.” Although by the time the event of Acts 1 transpired, Jesus’ brothers believed in Him and were counted in the number of His disciples, they still were described as having been closely related to the Savior. Truth be told, these “brothers” and “sisters” were neither Jesus’ disciples nor His followers during His ministry.
Is it possible that these “brothers” and “sisters” were Jesus’ cousins or other near relatives? In trying to defend this theory, a Catholic apologist turned his attention to Joses (Joseph), one of Jesus’ brothers listed in Matthew 13:55. He argued that the Jews “never name their sons after their parents.... Therefore, Joseph cannot be the son of Joseph [the carpenter—MP]” (Zavala, 2000c). This conclusion is unfounded. First, tradition may reflect what a majority of people do, but it cannot accurately represent every individual case. It cannot be said that Jews “never name their sons after their parents.” Second, by Jesus’ time, Hebrew tradition had been influenced greatly by Greek and other cultures (e.g., Babylonian, Persian, etc.). As it happens with modern influence (e.g., Latin children called by English names), by this period Jewish tradition was a mixture of different customs. Third, Luke shed light on the Hebrew tradition of naming babies by Jesus’ time. Concerning the immediate time after the birth of John the baptizer, Luke recorded that the “neighbors and relatives...called him [John] by the name of his father, Zacharias” (1:58-59, emp. added). Why would Hebrew relatives and neighbors do so if it was not an accepted tradition? Luke further informs us that when Elizabeth (John’s mother) responded that the child “shall be called John” (vs. 60), they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name” (vs. 61). The conclusion is clear (and shows the lack of Bible knowledge of some Catholic apologists): By Jesus’ time it was acceptable to name a son after his father. Therefore, Joseph (Joses—Matthew 13:55) refers to the son of Joseph the carpenter.
It is true that the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew) uses adelphos (brother) with a broader meaning to refer to a near relative or kinsman who is not technically a brother. However, this use does not establish the meaning “cousin” for adelphos in the New Testament. As Walther Gunther has indicated, “In no case in the New Testament can adelphos be interpreted with certainty in this sense [i.e., as cousins—MP]” (see Brown, 1975, 1:256). Lewis declared, even more emphatically, “‘Brothers’ (adelphos) never means ‘cousins’ in New Testament Greek” (1976, 1:181, emp. added). Therefore, interpreting adelphos as “cousins” only in New Testament passages that make reference to Jesus’ brothers is an arbitrary exegesis that lacks contextual and/or textual basis (see Miller, 2003).
Paul offers additional circumstantial evidence. When defending his apostleship before the Galatians, he declared that when he arrived in Jerusalem, he “saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother” (1:19, emp. added). This information fits perfectly with Matthew 13:55, where James is identified as one of Jesus’ brothers. Further, when Jude wrote his epistle, he introduced himself as “a bondservant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James” (vs. 1, emp. added). As a way of confirmation, Matthew identified James and Jude as Jesus’ brothers. [NOTE: Contrary to what some Catholics have declared (e.g., Tapias, 2006; Arráiz, n.d.), this James, brother of Jesus, was not James the apostle (cf. Galatians 1:17-19) and, therefore, was not the son of Alphaeus, but the son of Joseph the carpenter. As far as we know, neither of the two apostles with the name James had a brother named Jude (cf. Matthew 10:2-3).]
If Jesus, indeed, had physical half-brothers, why did He commend the care of His mother to one of His disciples while on the cross (John 19:25-27)? Does this show that Jesus had no brothers who could take care of His mother? No. Jesus’ brothers disbelieved in Him during His ministry (John 7:5). [Apparently they became Jesus’ disciples after His resurrection.] This may have been the principal reason why Jesus trusted one of His apostles to take care of His mother instead of one of His physical brothers. Jesus always prioritized His spiritual family above His physical family (Matthew 12:48-50).
One last point should be discussed. It has been argued obstinately (as a “last ray of hope” for Mary’s “perpetual virginity”) that Mary had no more children after Jesus because the Bible never mentions “children of Mary” (see Salza, n.d.). Why is the specific phrase “children of Mary” needed when so many biblical passages, which we have mentioned previously, clearly indicate that she and Joseph had children together after Jesus’ birth? Do they need the specific phrase “children of Mary” to come to this conclusion? It is interesting to note that while some Catholic apologists refuse to believe that Mary had other children because the Bible does not record the phrase “children of Mary,” they accept and promote ideas and phrases, such as “Most Holy Immaculate,” “Ever Virgin,” “Mother of the Church,” and “Mother of God,” that the Bible does not mention, much less support.
Demonstrating that Mary had more children does not, in any way, impugn her dignity. But to justify their worship of Mary, Marianists have looked for a way to distinguish her from any other woman and elevate her to the level of “sublimely pure”—which, they think, is obtained by means of her “virginity.” When God created man and woman, it was His pure and sublime desire that the two would come together to produce descendants (Genesis 1:28). Since Mary was a creation of God, we know that she could enjoy that blessing from Him. The Hebrews writer tells us that the conjugal relationship between a husband and wife is honorable (13:4), and Paul wrote that such a relationship is necessary for those who are married (1 Corinthians 7:3-5). From all we are told about Mary in Scripture, it is reasonable to believe that Mary, as an obedient servant of our Lord (Luke 1:38), also was obedient in this respect.
Arráiz, José (no date), “An In-depth Study of Mary’s Complete Virginity” [“Estudiando la Virginidad Completa de María a Profundidad”], [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticacatolica.org/Maria/MariaN01.htm.
Barnes, Albert (2005), Notes on the New Testament: Matthew and Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Brown, Colin, ed. (1975), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Herbermann, Charles G., et al., eds. (1913), The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: The Encyclopedia Press).
Lewis, Jack P. (1976), The Gospel According to Matthew (Austin, TX: Sweet).
Miller, Dave (2003), “Did Jesus Have Fleshly Half-Brothers?,” [On-line], URL: http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2318.
Salza, John (no date), “Mary: Evolving Doctrine or Eternal Truth?,” [On-line], URL: http://www.catholicintl.com/catholicissues/marysalza.htm.
Tapias, Anwar (2006), “Did Mary Have More Children?” [“¿Tuvo María Más Hijos?”], [On-line], URL: http://www.apologetica.org/maria-hijos.htm.
Vine, W.E. (1966), An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell).
Zavala, Martín (2000), “The Virgin Mary” [“La Virgen María”], [On-line], URL: http://www.defiendetufe.org/Maria.htm.