On the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

I covered the Immaculate Conception in a previous blog post, however something I didn’t touch base on is the perpetual virginity of Mary. It’s an interesting topic, one which causes confusion among Catholics and Protestants alike. When I first started studying this, I honestly thought “compared with Virgin births, deaths and resurrections, tongues of fire, burning bushes, mana from Heaven, someone remaining a virgin for the rest of their lives doesn’t seem like that much of a stretch of the imagination”.

As mentioned, these days the perpetual virginity of Mary leaves some with a sense of confusion. Just the other day someone asked me is “why would Joseph marry someone and not have sex”? For those of us who are married, that’s question I could see being asked because, well, which married couple doesn’t enjoy renewing their marriage covenant? But the theology behind the sexual act actually gives the perpetual virginity of Mary some weight.

When two become one flesh, they share all they have with one another. They literally become one person, emulating the true nature of God (as God is both feminine and masculine, man and woman becoming one actually creates the true “image of God” spoken of in Scripture). The ramification of this for Mary;

1) If Mary was conceived without original sin, having intercourse with Joseph would expose her to original and actual sin.

2) Jesus was conceived via the Holy Spirit. As far as conceiving children go, it’s a bit of a step down to have Christ in your womb and proceeding to have other children.

For #1, it shows that perpetual virginity makes sense when you consider the Catholic belief in the Immaculate Conception. Again, I outlined this in a previous post (that I’d like to think is well worth reading). For #2, it’s more of a perception issue, although one worth thinking about.

Before getting into the main point of this post, I wanted to highlight something that some scholars have mentioned, There is the thought that Mary was a consecrated virgin, and that she married a man who could help take care of her. This would certainly explain the scandal of her having a child outside of wedlock (although admittedly that itself is quite the scandal). There’s historical context to this too; the mainstream thought among Christian scholars and early Church Fathers is that Joseph died while Jesus was a young age. If he was much older than Mary – old enough that perhaps sex wouldn’t be as important to him and that he was bound to take care of her as she was a virgin, this would make sense.

Arguably the most common objection to Mary’s perpetual virginity is regarding James and John, the “brothers of the Lord”. Looking a bit deeper than the surface, there’s a fairly simple reasoning why they were called that. Looking at the Greek word adelphos (also looking at “adelphe” for sister, and “adelphoi” for brothers), we see that “brother” is mentioned several times in the Bible in the sense of describing familial relationships that are not biological siblings. In the case of adelphos/brother, it could refer to any male relative that you aren’t descended from (such as cousins and kinsmen). In a couple of versus, it even refers to in-laws, friends, and political allies. Tellingly, in 2 Sam. 1:26 (NIV), David says the following about Saul’s son “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; you have been very pleasant to me. Your love to me was more wonderful than the love of women”

Before anyone gets the wrong idea about David’s sexual orientation, it’s pretty clear in the Old Testament that the David liked women, and at one point was willing to send some poor fellow to the front lines to die so David could take the guy’s wife. The love that David had for Jonathan wasn’t eros/erotic love, instead it was the love that two brothers have for one another. In modern terms, they were “bros” and by all accounts in Scripture followed an ancient version of what we now refer to as “the bro code”. There’s a crude saying, but I’ll defer to the more polite variation; “pals before gals”. Essentially looking at David and Jonathan’s relationship, they were as close as brothers. The word used to describe their relationship was exactly the same word used to describe Jesus, John, and James.

To take it a step further, we can look at Amos 1:9 (NIV) – “This is what the LORD says: “For three sins of Tyre, even for four, I will not turn back [my wrath]. Because she sold whole communities of captives to Edom, disregarding a treaty of brotherhood”. A treaty of brotherhood – with brotherhood using the same Greek word as found in the New Testament. And this wasn’t even in the same “brotherhood” sense that David and Jonathan shared, it was a political treaty.

Looking at the above two Scripture passages, it’s pretty easy to reconcile the “brothers of the Lord” in the New Testament not being biological or half-brothers with Jesus. As a mendicant, this is something which I understand with ease. The concept of non-biological brotherhood is not a foreign concept to me, the foundation of the Franciscan Order was based on this. The word Friar itself stems from the French word “frère” and from the Latin word “frater”, which both mean “brother”. The Brotherhood formed by Holy Father Francis takes precedence over all else in the Order; you do everything as a community. Mass, Meals, the Divine Office. Everything must be done with and for the community. The Order was founded as an Order of Brothers. The Order was founded not to be clerical – even the priests are called Brother. They wear no distinctive clothing, the only difference you will see is when someone is hearing confessions or celebrating Mass by saying the words of consecration.

I can draw a parallel in my own life in this area, in the sense that I have what I consider true brothers who I’m not related to. Living with Novecosky and Chonja, from my perspective, was a revelation when it came to fraternity and family. We spent a couple of years living under the same roof, and I can say that from my end the friendships I shared with them evolved into that of a brotherhood. Tim in an “older brother” sense (four years my senior) and Matt in the “brothers who are around the same age” sense (Matt being a year older than I am). We have stood by each other’s sides throughout the last few years, which will culminate with Matt’s impending ordination. Spending years without my blood brothers, having these two men take on that role was instrumental in my faith and personal formation.

Recently, a new situation has come up, which highlights the nature of familial relationships that do not share bloodlines. My friend McHale moved back to Ottawa after several years in Alberta. We were great friends while he was in Ottawa, and had casually kept in touch during his years away. It took a couple of months after he moved back, but we touched base and proceeded pick up our friendship where it had left off. A bit ago, McHale had not one, but two disastrous roommate situations in a row, leaving him with financial difficulties and with only days to find another place to live. After hearing this, I asked Stephanie if he could stay in our unfinished basement to give him a safe place to land. Those of you who know me well also know that this kind of situation hits a bit close to home; when I was homeless, Novecosky and the guys let me stay on their couch until things got better for me, and I eventually moved into the house officially. In McHale’s case, what started as a short-term solution grew into something that will be long term. I mentioned to Stephanie that for me this goes beyond charity, for me its family – and she astutely mentioned that she actually felt that Brendan was more like an in-law than a friend.

The above two paragraphs illustrate on a metaphysical level how brotherhood works. Based on the background I have with my family (several brothers I have not seen in 20+ years, plus my situation with my father), I find that I am less inclined to speak of family in the strict terms of bloodlines. For me, family (and specifically brotherhood) fits the definition of the Greek word used above. It explains why, to this day, I’m saddened by the loss of my friendship with Spencer. We were brothers, and then drifted apart. And now due to where he’s at in life and where he lives, I’ll never see him again. That brotherhood was broken, and it saddens me, in the same way David would have been saddened if something happened to his brother Jonathan.

Finally, I’ve always looked at this from a historical and mystical theology perspective, however Stephanie brought up a great point to me the other day. Assume for a moment that at the foot of the Cross, when Christ said “son, behold your mother” that all Jesus wanted the moments before He died was for someone to look after his mother. If Jesus had brothers, Jewish Law would dictate that they be the ones to take care of her.

Unless there was no other blood brothers around, then John would have to take care of things.

My wife is as smart as she is beautiful, with talent to match. I never considered the simplicity of her salient point, but it does make sense in that practical context.

So here we are, approaching 1700 words on if Mary had sex or not after the birth of Jesus. Some would question if this is even needed, that if the perpetual virginity of Mary is that big of a deal. Well, the early Church Fathers thought it was a big deal. Jerome certainly thought so, along with other theological heavyweights like Augustine agreeing with him. Jerome’s three primary points were;

1) That Joseph was only putatively, not really, the husband of Mary. [The first of these occupies ch. 3–8. It turns upon the record in Matt. i. 18–25, and especially on the words, “Before they came together” (c. 4), “knew her not till, c. 5–8)].

2) That the “brethren” of the Lord were his cousins, not his own brethren. [The second (c. 9–17) turns upon the words “first-born son” (9, 10), which, Jerome argues, are applicable not only to the eldest of several, but also to an only son: and the mention of brothers and sisters, whom Jerome asserts to have been children of Mary the wife of Cleophas or Clopas (11–16); he appeals to many Church writers in support of this view (17)]

3) That virginity is better than the married state. There’s a few Biblical references for this, including from Paul.

Meanwhile, Augustine did his usual thing and proceeded to contemplate and write about this issue. By the time the fourth century was finishing up, Luke 1:34 (How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?) had started to be interpreted as a passage that indicated a “vow of perpetual virginity” on the part of Mary.

At any rate, the belief of her perpetual virginity has been around for centuries, with members of the Christian faith defending the belief for just as long. The denial of Mary’s perpetual virginity took off during the reformation, however nothing said by the reformers was anything new; it was already discussed and refuted by Jerome, Augustine, and several Church Fathers centuries before.

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