The Perpetual Virginity of Mary and Scripture

The following is a contribution from Seraphim Hamilton. The original post may be found here.

This is part of a larger article on the Marian teachings here, but since the controversy often focuses on the biblical justification for this doctrine in particular, I have placed my section on this teaching in a separate article as well as the original.

There are two principal objections to the perpetual virginity of Mary. First, Jesus’ brothers and sisters are cited. Two solutions to this problem are possible. First, it is possible that his brothers are step-brothers, children of Joseph from a previous marriage (because Joseph would be a widower). The other solution is the idea that these are not Jesus’ literal brothers, but relatives or cousins, since the word adelphoi can refer to cousin. I hold the latter to be more likely, for this reason: Matthew’s Gospel refers to “James and Joses” in that order as two of the adelphoi of Jesus. There is only one other time in Matthew that “James and Joses” are mentioned- that is in Matthew 27, where we find the women standing at the foot of the cross, one of whom is “the other Mary, the mother of James and Joses.” It is impossible that the Virgin Mary would be referred to as “the other Mary”, and if this was the Virgin Mary, it would make much more sense to identify her as the mother of the primary character, Jesus, not these two minor characters. If these are Jesus’ cousins, then “the other Mary” must be a close relative of the Virgin Mary. And indeed, in John 19:25, one of the women at the foot of the cross is “his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas.” Such undesigned coincidences which explain each other are a hallmark of authenticity. The Virgin Mary therefore had a sister or close relative named Mary, and this Mary is identified as the mother of James and Joses, the same James and Joses identified in Matthew as the adelphoi of Jesus. This strongly indicates that these were not the children of the Virgin Mary. Why call them adelphoi then, when there was another word for cousin? I believe it is likely because they were raised in the same household as Jesus, because poor families would sometimes group in the same household. As household is the critical unit of the family in Scripture, it would make sense for these individuals to be called the brothers of Jesus.

The second objection to the perpetual virginity of Mary is that Matthew 1:25 says that “Joseph knew her not, until she had given birth to a son”, ostensibly implying that he did have conjugal relations with her afterwards. However, in Greek (as indeed in English), the word for until (heos) need not imply a change in status after the action is completed, though it sometimes can. The classic example is Matthew 28:20 where the Lord promises to be with His people always “even until the end of the age.” Obviously, Jesus does not abandon His people afterwards. Why emphasize the period up to her birth, then? I believe Matthew does this in order to absolutely rule out the idea that the child was conceived by Mary and Joseph.

Is there positive evidence for the perpetual virginity of Mary? I believe so. Some early sources (late first to early second centuries) state that the Virgin Mary had taken a ritual vow of virginity to serve at the Lord’s temple. Whereas some have argued in the past that such vows only belonged to Gentile sanctuaries and not Israel’s, it has become clear that this is incorrect. 1 Samuel 2, for example, refers to the great sin of Hophni and Phinehas sleeping with the women at the tabernacle. This sin is great precisely because it breaks their vow with God. The temple and tabernacle are described in feminine, bridal terms, and the inviolability of the virgin women symbolizes the inviolability of the sanctuary itself. Another example is the daughter of Jepthah. The word usually translated “burnt offering”, olah, really means “ascension offering. When Jepthah offers his daughter as an “ascension” it does not mean he kills her and burns her. Instead, it means that she, as the Gibeonites (who were described in sacrificial language when they were permanently consecrated to tabernacle service), is sent upwards (the tabernacle is always described as “up”) as an ascension. Thus, she spent time beforehand lamenting her virginity- the women who served at the tabernacle were perpetual virgins.

What is the evidence that Mary had taken such a vow? First, circumstantially, Joseph disappeared before the ministry of Jesus. This implies that he was old at the time of marriage and died before the ministry of Jesus, which would make sense if his role as husband were simply as a guardian and that he did not intend to produce children with her. Second, more clearly, the response of the Virgin Mary to the Angel Gabriel makes no sense unless she had made such a vow. Gabriel tells Mary that she will have offspring. Imagine if she had intended to have conjugal relations with Joseph (she was already betrothed!)- if she intended such, it would have been obvious how she would bear Jesus. The promised child would be born after the two are formally married and consummate the marriage. But this is not how Mary responds. Instead, she says, literally: “How shall this be, since I know not man?” This literal translation is sharper than the typical “since I am a virgin.” The verb is active, and it indicates that this is an ongoing reality. There is something about Mary which entails that she has no conjugal relations with man- and that is why she must ask how she will have this child, even though she will be married to Joseph. In the Old Testament, there is indeed precedent for a married woman taking a vow of perpetual virginity. Numbers 30 mentions how a wife, with the consent of her husband, can take a vow to the Lord to “afflict herself” temporarily or permanently. This appears to be an ascetic vow which includes abstention from conjugal relations- this is likely because it matches all of the other instances where God comes in glory- at Sinai, for example, one was not to “go near” your spouse because God was about to come in glory. Vows of consecration to God entail virginity for as long as the consecration lasts, and such vows could be taken by married women.

The perpetual virginity of Mary actually makes sense of a host of curious details throughout Scripture, and does not need to be forced on the text.

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