Why Should We Believe in Mary’s Perpetual Virginity?

Why Should We Believe in Mary’s Perpetual Virginity? November 4, 2015
The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (c. 1510), by Gerard David (bet. 1450-1460-1523) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
The following is based on a chat on a blog with two Protestants (both Presbyterian, I believe, and one a pastor). It is, therefore, written in the first person. Their thoughts are paraphrased in blue.
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Nothing in the New Testament “even remotely suggests” the perpetual virginity of Mary.

But there is nothing in the Bible that even remotely suggests the biblical canon, either, yet you accept a tradition handed down to you by a local council, approved by the pope (excepting the “apocryphal books” which were also accepted by that council and never separated from the other books in Scripture until the 16th century).

This is the point: we all accept some traditions which are not, or may not be (arguably) explicitly biblical, or in the Bible at all. You haven’t answered my question yet (this is now my 3rd time asking — Ted Koppel style) about why Protestants have shifted away from this and why Luther and Calvin accepted it, but I am happy to answer your question (Why do I believe in this doctrine?). I believe it first of all because it is received Christian tradition; denied by virtually no one until liberal theology started becoming a force. That’s an argument in and of itself, of course, but we all accept received traditions in some manner.

You accept the Westminster Confession and TULIP and the Protestant canon, and so forth. A Catholic accepts the perpetual virginity of Mary, as it is a dogma, proclaimed early on by an ecumenical council (Ephesus, 431). That’s more than enough reason for us, given our epistemological presuppositions and our Rule of Faith.

But of course you are probing beyond that and want to know the biblical and theological “why’s”. That’s fine; that’s what I do as my profession: an apologist, and I appreciate the opportunity and your congeniality and graciousness to this Catholic guest on your blog.

The Catholic believes about this the same thing that he believes about the Immaculate Conception of Mary: neither doctrine is ontologically, intrinsically necessary. Rather, both are seen as “fitting” and the way things should properly be. I can’t think of a Protestant parallel to this offhand but I’m sure there are some.

It was fitting (but not absolutely necessary — where it couldn’t have been otherwise in any other world) for Mary to be without sin (actual and original) because she was the Mother of God (Theotokos). Likewise, we think it is altogether fitting that she remain a virgin after bearing Christ.

Partly this is because of the nature of the miracle itself: Mary was a virgin and we believe that even the birth was miraculous (that Mary’s virginity — without getting physiologically graphic — was retained even during and after the birth). This is traditional Catholic dogma (and, I believe, Orthodox, too).

It strengthens and supports the doctrine of the Virgin Birth (Mariology is always christocentric). It’s a miracle to have a virgin birth: a conception without the participation of a man. If Mary had had other children, and a normal sexual life after, people could always say, “well, how do we know that Jesus’ birth was before she started being sexually active? Why should we believe all this Holy Spirit ‘overshadowing’ foolishness?”

I believe that is part of the traditional theological reasoning on this, though I am basically speaking for myself here, not necessarily “officially” for what the Catholic Church would say. If we pursue this, of course I could look up what Aquinas and Augustine and others said about it.

The second thing is the appropriateness or propriety that the womb which bore the God-Man should not bear another child. One either grasps and accepts that notion or they don’t. It is not an argument from reason or Bible but from propriety (which is a very subjective thing and often culturally determined). It can’t and won’t be perceived or understood by the usual Protestant outlook of “everything must be fairly explicit in the Bible or else we reject it utterly.”

Traditional Catholic thought (particularly regarding Mary) does not operate along those lines. The Church ponders things for centuries. It did so with regard to christology (up to 451 and even after if we include the Monothelite controversies); it did with regard to the biblical canon (up to 397) and it did so with Mariology.

So that is the argument from tradition and “fittingness.” I know it sounds very foreign to Protestant ears, but I can’t help that, in explaining why we believe as we do, and how I understand the belief, in my apologetic, reason-loving mind. The biblical data is another matter; of a different nature. What we have would not require (and perhaps not even suggest) this belief on the surface, but I think that when we examine it closely, it at least suggests it, or at the very least shows us that the data we do know about is perfectly compatible with the notion. One can make many deductions from what we know: some of which rule out that blood brothers are being referred to in specific instances of adelphos.

There are other “situational” arguments from plausibility, such as: “where were Jesus’ siblings when He went to the Temple at age 12? If he had them, certainly they would have been around, no? — unless there was a 12-year gap between births. The narrative (Lk 2:41-52) gives not the slightest hint that there were any brothers involved. When Joseph and Mary were looking for Him, it doesn’t say they went to His supposed five brothers and four sisters (I would certainly do that first, as a parent); rather, “they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances” (Lk 2:44; RSV). When they leave, it reads, “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth . . . ” (2:51).

Now, this doesn’t technically rule out siblings, true, but it sure doesn’t positively suggest them, does it? If I took my three sons and a daughter down to Cedar Point for a day of fun, would I talk about it as “I took my first son . . . ” without mentioning the other three? No, not likely. You could do that if you were talking about one child specifically in another context (“Joe’s a good kid; we have a lot of fun together; the other day I took him to the carnival . .,” etc.), but chances are if you were simply describing the day, you would mention all the children.

Why did Jesus ask John to in effect be Mary’s son after He died? Semitic custom would have dictated that He ask His blood brothers to do so. All you have to go by, on the other hand (that I can see) is mention of “brothers” — but this proves nothing because there is such a wide range of meaning for the word adelphos.

The Bible gives explicit reasons for not accepting perpetual virginity.

This I deny. It’s based on an interpretation of the meaning of adelphos in specific instances that is by no means necessary or certain (or even plausible, I would contend). Unless you have some new arguments I haven’t run across before . . .

Much of your biblical argument is merely an argument from silence.

I don’t see how. I gave two positive arguments: Jesus at the temple at age 12 and John taking Mary as his “mother” rather than all these supposed siblings running around everywhere. I also noted that there were deductive arguments that ruled out blood brothers in various specific instances. I have yet to present that, so all my cards aren’t on the table yet.

Tradition trumps the (current, not traditional) Protestant position on this one. The ancient Church was right when its councils proclaimed on things like the Holy Trinity and the canon of Scripture. I see no reason to believe that it erred with regard to the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin in 431.

And what is the “positive” evidence to deny this? Interpreting adelphos literally as “blood brothers” when any lexicon will quickly show you that it has a very wide range of meanings.

Sometimes Protestants will say, “well then, why didn’t the Bible use the Greek term for “cousins”? The reason is simple. Adelphos and the Hebrew equivalent (I forget what it is) functioned much like our word “brother” in English. We have the word “cousin” too, but we use “brother” for friends, ethnic groups, religions (e.g., how Catholics say “separated brethren” and Protestants will say “my Catholic brother”). We say “brother in Christ,” “brothers” in terms of fellow soldiers, the “big brother” mentoring system where the man is not a sibling and functions like a father in some cases, etc. So the word can mean sibling, but it can also mean much else. In Semitic culture, extended family was much more important too, so a cousin could be called a “brother.”

The biblical evidence can be summarized as follows:

1. Many Protestants assume that whenever they read of Jesus’ “brothers,” this is referring to His siblings, other sons and daughters of Mary. But it is not that simple. Adelphos, the Gk. word for “brother” in the NT, has multiple meanings (like the English word), and they all appear frequently in Scripture. In addition to sibling, it can also denote

(1) those of the same nationality (Acts 3:17;
Rom 9:3);
(2) any man, or neighbor (Mt 5:22; Lk 10:29);
(3) persons with like interests (Mt 5:47);
(4) distant descendants of the same parents (Acts 7:23,26; Heb 7:5);
(5) persons united by a
common calling (Rev 22:9);
(6) mankind (Mt 25:40; Heb 2:17);
(7) the disciples (Mt 28:10; Jn
(8) all believers (Mt 23:8; Acts 1:15; Rom 1:13; 1 Thess 1:4; Rev 19:10).

Clearly, then, this issue is not at all settled by the mere word “brother” / adelphos in the Bible, and a more in-depth examination of the biblical data will be necessary.

2. “Brethren” – Biblical Exegesis

A. By comparing Gen 14:14 with 11:26-7, we find that Lot, called Abraham’s “brother”, is actually his nephew.

B. Jacob is called the “brother” of his Uncle Laban (Gen 29:10,15).

C. Cis and Eleazar are described as “brethren”, whereas they are literally cousins (1 Chron 23:21-2).

D. “Brethren” as mere kinsmen: Deut 23:7; 2 Sam 1:26; 1 Ki 9:13; 2:32; 2 Ki 10:13-14; Jer 34:9; Amos 1:9.

E. Neither Hebrew or Aramaic has a word for “cousin.” The NT retains this Hebrew usage by using adelphos, even when non-siblings are being referred to.

F. In Lk 2:41-51, Joseph and Mary take Jesus to the Temple at the age of twelve, with no sign of any other siblings.

G. Jesus Himself uses “brethren” in the larger sense (Mt 23:1,8; 12:49).

H. By comparing Mt 27:56; Mk 15:40; and Jn 19:25, we find that James and Joseph – mentioned in Mt 13:55 with Simon and Jude as Jesus’ “brethren” – are also called sons of Mary, wife of Clopas. This other Mary (Mt 27:61; 28:1) is called Mary’s adelphe in Jn 19:25 (two Marys in one family?! – thus even this usage apparently means “cousins” or more distant relative). Mt 13:55 and Mk 6:3 mention Simon, Jude and “sisters” along with James and Joseph, calling all adelphoi. Since we know that James and Joseph are not Jesus’ blood brothers, it is likely that all these other “brethren” are cousins, according to the linguistic conventions discussed above.

I. Even standard evangelical Protestant commentaries such as Jamieson, Fausset & Brown admit that the question is not a simple one: “an exceedingly difficult question . . . nor are opinions yet by any means agreed . . . vexed question, encompassed with difficulties.” (commentary for Mt 13:55)

J. Some Protestant commentators maintain that Mt 1:24-5 (“Joseph knew her not till . . .”) implies that Mary had marital relations after the birth of Jesus. This does not follow, since “till” does not necessarily imply a change of behavior after the time to which it refers (cf. similar instances in 1 Sam 15:35; 2 Sam 6:23; Mt 12:20; Rom 8:22; 1 Tim 4:13; 6:14; Rev 2:25).

K. Likewise, “firstborn” (Mt 1:25) need not imply later children. A mother’s first child is her “firstborn” regardless if any follow or not (Ex 13:2). Also, in the Bible, “firstborn” often means “preeminent,” and even applies to those who are not literally the first child (Jer 31:9), or, metaphorically, to groups (Ex 4:22; Heb 12:23). Thus, “firstborn” in Mt 1:25 actually is more of an indication that Jesus is Mary’s only child, than that there were others. This position is held by many evangelical Protestant scholars on these criteria, rather than Catholic dogmatic grounds.

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