The Alleged Perpetual Virginity of Mary
A few months ago, the world was stunned by the report of a limestone ossuary (bone box), discovered in Jerusalem, bearing the inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” A number of prominent scholars believe this box once contained the bones of James, half-brother of Jesus, who is so prominently mentioned in the New Testament (cf. Mt. 13:55-56; Acts 15:13ff; 21:18-19; Gal. 2:9). For a brief discussion of the evidence, see the article elsewhere on this web site, "The “Jesus” Inscription", October 21, 2002).
Aside from the obvious importance of this discovery as such relates to the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, the inscription has rekindled the controversy concerning the alleged “perpetual virginity” of Mary. Both the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Roman Catholic Church (along with a few Protestant scholars), contend that Mary and Joseph, even after the birth of the Lord, remained celibate for life.
The Roman Catholic Church alleges that Mary’s parents presented her in the temple when she was but three years old, and that “the child herself mounted the Temple steps, and that she made her vow of virginity on this occasion” (Maas, 464F). This would suggest that at the tender age of three, Mary had considerable knowledge of human anatomy. It further hints that she understood the intricacies of sexual union. Moreover it indicates that she likely foreknew the fact that she would bear the Christ child, and that she perceived somehow that it would be inappropriate for her ever to engage in honorable intimacy with a legitimate husband.
This theory of Mary’s “perpetual virginity” became official dogma at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, and thus is binding upon both the Greek and Roman segments of the Church (Pelikan, 14.1000).
The Historical Roots of the Dogma
What is the biblical evidence for this dogma? There is none —absolutely none. As one scholar quaintly noted, the doctrine “is a matter of dogmatic assumption unmixed with any alloy of factual evidence” (Sweet, 3.2003).
The theory had its roots in the pagan environment of the post-apostolic age when there was a strong emphasis upon celibacy within certain heathen religions. In that day, sexual intercourse, even within marriage, sometimes carried the suspicion of sin.
Alexander Hislop has shown a remarkable concurrence between the Vestal Virgins of pagan Rome, and the propensity for virginity that evolved in the digressive church of the post-apostolic period (Hislop, 223, 236-238, 250).
The idea thus evolved that it was inconceivable that Mary should have engaged in normal marital relations. It is a baffling mystery how a Church, that holds marriage to be a “sacrament,” can entertain such a misdirected viewpoint (see Heb. 13:4).
A progressively deteriorating church (cf. 2 Thes. 2:1ff; 1 Tim. 4:1ff; 2 Tim. 4:1ff), therefore, was ever attempting to accommodate “Christianity” to paganism, in order to provide a “comfort zone” that would attract the heathen to the religion of Christ. This is an historical reality that not even Catholic scholars deny (see Attwater, 363). For an historical survey of this phenomenon, see Edward Gibbon’s famous work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Chapter XXVIII). Gibbon concludes this chapter with these words:
“The most respectable bishops had persuaded themselves that the ignorant rustics would more cheerfully renounce the superstitions of Paganism, if they found some resemblance, some compensation, in the bosom of Christianity” (II.70).
Hence the baseless notion was foisted upon the biblical records that Mary remained a virgin for life. And all biblical evidence that suggests otherwise is rationalized away with less-than-imaginative textual manipulations. There is, however, a compelling case against the Catholic view.
New Testament Evidence
There are a number of passages in the New Testament that argue against the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Note the following:
(1) Matthew affirms that Mary was found to be with child “before [she and Joseph] came together” (Mt. 1:18). The term “came together” (from
sunerchomai) includes the idea of sexual intimacy (cf. 1 Cor. 7:5; see Danker, 970). The implication clearly is that ultimately, they “came together.” H.L. Ellison comments that the construction is “incompatible with the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary” (1188).
(2) Matthew declares that Joseph “knew not” (i.e., was not sexually intimate with; cf. Gen. 4:1) Mary “until
heos hou she had given birth to a son” (1:25). While the expression
heos hou does not absolutely demand that Joseph and Mary were intimate after Jesus’ birth, that would be the normal conclusion, unless contextual considerations indicated otherwise (cf. 2 Sam. 6:23). In fact, “elsewhere in the New Testament (17:9 24:39; cf. John 9:18) the phrase (
heos hou) followed by a negative always implies that the negated action did take place later” (Lewis, 1.42). There is no valid reason why Matthew 1:25 should be the exception.
(3) In Luke 2:7, Jesus is called Mary’s “firstborn” child. While the term
prototokon does not demand unequivocally that Mary had other children, this term “most naturally suggests” that she did (Geldenhuys, 103). If the sustained virginity of Mary is such a crucial theological point, why did not Luke simply say that she brought forth her “only” son? That certainly would have settled the issue.
(4) There are several passages that mention the siblings of Jesus (Mt. 12:46ff; 13:55-56). Catholic apologists appeal to the fact that the term “brother” (
adelphos) is sometimes used in a broader, kindred sense, e.g., “cousins.” While
adelphos (which literally means, “out of the same womb”) is employed loosely on occasion in some literature, in the New Testament
adelphos is never used for a “cousin.” The word
anepsioi signifies that relationship (cf. Col. 4:10).
Moreover, Jesus is said to have had “sisters” (Mt. 13:56 –
adelphe). Why should it be assumed that Matthew’s use of “mother” was literal, but that the terms “brothers” and “sisters” were used figuratively? If “sister” is literal in Acts 23:16 (Paul’s sister), what would compel one to view the same term in a different sense in Matthew 13:56? Terry notes: “It is an old and oft-repeated hermeneutical principle that words should be understood in their literal sense unless such literal interpretation involves a manifest contradiction or absurdity” (159).
(5) The alleged perpetual celibate state of Joseph and Mary’s relationship is contrary to the divine ideal. Marriage, as designed by God, was intended to bring a man and woman together as “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24; cf. Mt. 19:5-6). Subsequent to the initial physical bonding is the responsibility to “render” to one another what is “due” —these terms expressing a sacred obligation (1 Cor. 7:3). If there is to be abstinence, it is to be by mutual concession, and that only temporarily (v. 5).
The Catholic defense for the dogma of Mary’s “perpetual virginity” is as barren as one will ever encounter in a religious controversy. James Cardinal Gibbons, in his apologetic for the concept, did not introduce a solitary scriptural argument in its favor. Rather, he appealed solely to the creeds of the post-biblical age (Apostles’ Creed and Nicean Creed), which are bereft of divine authority (Gibbons, 168). There is, perhaps, nothing so revealing as this “no-evidence” line of approach. The few passages that sometimes are employed in a defense of the dogma do not even approach the borders of the territory.
But the reality of the matter is this: the Catholic clergy believes it needs no authority — save that of its own pontificating voice. It creates its own dogma, writes its own rules, has become its own “god” (cf. 2 Thes. 2:4; see Jackson, 106ff). It is a sad reality that numerous people, quite noble in many respects, should sincerely, though uncritically, follow an autocratic system that stands so adverse to divinely revealed truth.
The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity is bereft of any reasonable evidence. It is an ancient superstition that has been thrust upon sincere souls who have been taught to never question the voice of the Church. Many of these good people, however, are now reviewing their faith with a more critical eye. May their tribe increase.
- Attwatter, Donald. 1961. A Catholic Dictionary. New York, NY: The Macmillan Co.
- Danker, F. W., et al. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
- Ellison, H. L. 1979. The New Layman’s Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Geldenhuys, Norval. 1956. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Gibbon, Edward. n.d., The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Three Volumes. New York, NY: The Modern Library.
- Gibbons, James. 1917. The Faith Of Our Fathers. Baltimore, MA: John Murphy Co.
- Hislop, Alexander. 1959. The Two Babylons. New York, NY: Loizeaux Brosthers.
- Jackson, Wayne. 1995. Select Studies in the Book of Revelation. Stockton, CA: Courier Publications.
- Lewis, Jack. 1976. The Gospel According to Matthew. Austin, TX: Sweet.
- Maas, A. J. 1912. “Virgin Mary,” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. XV. New York, NY: The Encyclopedia Press, Inc.
- Pelikan, J. J. 1958. “Mary,” Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago, IL: Britannica, Inc.
- Sweet, L. M. 1939. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia,. James Orr, Ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Terry, Milton. 1890. Biblical Hermeneutics. New York, NY: Eaton & Mains.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.