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Anti-Perpetual Virginity Arguments Debunked (vs. J. Engwer)

Anti-Perpetual Virginity Arguments Debunked (vs. J. Engwer) November 7, 2021

Jason Engwer is a Protestant and anti-Catholic apologist, who runs the Tribalblogue site. I will be responding to his article, Are Jesus’ Siblings Children From Joseph’s Previous Marriage? (1-8-17). His words will be in blue.

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One of the most important concepts to focus on when thinking about this issue is what other options were available to the authors in question. What other language could they have used? For example, Luke refers to Jesus as Mary’s “firstborn” (2:7), even though elsewhere he uses a different term for “only born” (7:12, 9:38).

The Protestant Hastings Bible Dictionary (“Brethren of the Lord [2]”) offers the reply:

πρωτότοκος [prototokos / firstborn] among the Jews was a technical term, meaning ‘that which openeth the womb’ (Exodus 34:19 ff.), and does not imply the birth of other offspring. . . . Dr. Mayor objects that in a purely historical passage, like Luke 2:7, this technical meaning is not to be thought of; but the subsequent statement ‘they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’ (Luke 2:22-23), renders it certain that it was precisely this which was in the Evangelist’s mind when he called Jesus πρωτότοκον (so already Jerome, l.c. x.).

Why would Luke use a term that seems to contradict Mary’s perpetual virginity when he was aware of an alternative term that’s consistent with perpetual virginity and uses it elsewhere in his gospel?

It’s explained above: precisely because this was common Jewish / OT usage and didn’t imply in and of itself further children being born of the same mother; only that there were no previous children.

Similarly, why does Luke differentiate between “brothers” and “relatives” in 21:16 if there’s no significant difference between the two?

Luke 21:16 (RSV) You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death;

“Brothers” in this verse is adelphos, which can refer to siblings (as well as a wide range of other relatives), and may very well be Jesus’ meaning in this verse. “Kinsmen” here is the Greek sungenis (Strong’s word #4773) and has solely a wider application of “relative.” Hence, the KJV never translates it as “brother” but rather, as follows, in 12 appearances: kinsman (7), cousin (2), kinsfolk (2), and kin (1). There is a difference between the two in that sungenis is always referring to the wider application, whereas adelphos can also include the meaning of siblings. Context and previous cultural usage is usually the determinant of more precise intended meanings.

In the same way, why does Hegesippus refer to Symeon as Jesus’ “cousin” (in Eusebius, Church History, 4:22:4), yet refer to James as Jesus’ “brother” (ibid., 2:23:4) and Jude as Jesus’ “brother according to the flesh” (ibid., 3:20:1)?

I just explained it. “Brother” / adelphos can have a wider application of meaning beyond sibling. Thus, there is no need to explain the above as a supposed “discrepancy.” He simply chose different words, which is perfectly kosher and not unexpected.

We see this over and over again with the earliest sources.

Yes; they use different words for stuff (sometimes for the same thing), just as we do today! Languages are very rich. They don’t have only one word for any given thing.

They not only use language that seems to contradict the perpetual virginity of Mary, but even use different language elsewhere that’s consistent with perpetual virginity, which they could have used in the passages relevant to Mary….

There is no contradiction to the perpetual virginity of Mary, once all the words are correctly understood as to latitude of possible meanings. It’s only Jason’s and later Protestantism’s false linguistic and theological premises that bring about supposed “confusion” and “contra-indications” in the traditional view of Mary’s perpetual virginity, which continued to be held by all the major leading figures of the initial Protestant Revolt in the 16th century.

Theological liberalism from two centuries later introduced this false doctrine into Protestantism. But many Protestants continue to oppose these liberal innovations and novelties to this day.

There are also similar sorts of “why didn’t they use these terms?” arguments that support perpetual virginity. For example, Jesus’ “brethren” in Scripture are never called the children of Mary, and Mary is never called their mother, as in the case of Jesus:

John 2:1 On the third day there was a marriage at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there;

John 19:25 . . . standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Mag’dalene.

In at least two instances, these “brothers” were mentioned but Mary wasn’t called their mother; only Jesus‘ mother:

Acts 1:14 All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

Mark 6:3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” . . .

Doesn’t it stand to reason and common sense that if these “brothers” were indeed the siblings of Jesus, that Acts 1:14 would read, instead: “Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers”? Then we wouldn’t be having this dispute; it would have been so clear and undeniable. A similar argument could be made for Mark 6:3. But instead, we have Jesus only being called “the son of Mary” there, while “son of Mary” referring to someone besides Jesus, or the phrase “sons of Mary” never appear in Holy Scripture.

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I respond below to a portion of another article, Agreement Between Matthew And Luke About Jesus’ Childhood (11-30-13):

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Jesus had siblings (Matthew 1:25, 12:46-50, 13:55-56, Luke 2:7, 8:19, Acts 1:14), though they apparently weren’t born until after the passages in the infancy narratives mentioned above.

The biblical data is not conclusive in terms of asserting that Jesus had siblings (defined as brothers and sisters who were also the offspring of Mary). As I have shown in many papers (linked below), adelphos (“brother”) has a wide range of meaning; and various exegetical arguments (as well as arguments from early Christian tradition) show fairly clearly that those cited as Jesus’ “brothers” were not His siblings. Above, Jason merely assumes that adelphos means “sibling.” It can mean that (just as is the case with “brother” in English), but it can also mean many other things; thus context and cross-referencing (and Catholics would add: constant sacred tradition and Church teaching from the beginning) are crucial to determine which meaning applies.

There were no children of Joseph from a previous marriage or other siblings of Jesus during the earliest period of his childhood. Since Matthew and Luke claim that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived, they probably would have offered an explanation of where Jesus’ older siblings came from if there were such siblings to account for. No such explanation is offered. 

Obviously, since Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born (and Jason and virtually all traditional Protestants agree with the virgin birth), He had no older siblings in the strictest sense of the word (from the same mother). If we assume the meaning of half-brothers and half-sisters (offspring of Joseph from a previous marriage), then that could or would be the case (as Eastern Catholicism and Orthodoxy generally hold). But then this has no bearing on whether Mary was a perpetual virgin or not.

I deny that the Gospel writers would “probably” explain the existence of these half-brothers and half-sisters, if indeed this was the case. It has nothing to do with the narrative and I don’t see any basis for Jason making such a claim of likelihood. What would it be? Even if we accept Jason’s scenario for the sake of argument, and this disproves the “half-brothers” position (though it would be a weak argument from silence, if so), it still doesn’t touch the “first or more distant cousins or relatives” opinion of western Catholicism: held by many more Christians than the other view. Many of Jason’s contra-Catholic arguments (especially regarding the Blessed Virgin Mary) are of this highly speculative nature, rather than being indubitable conclusions from biblical texts.

Though the opening chapters of Matthew and Luke say a lot about Jesus’ family and their travels, for example, no siblings of Jesus are mentioned. Rather, the family is repeatedly described by mentioning Joseph, Mary, and Jesus (Matthew 2:13-14, 2:19-21, Luke 2:4-5, 2:16). One or more of the three is mentioned many times in the infancy narratives, but no sibling is mentioned aside from the allusion by means of “firstborn” in Luke 2:7. 

Again, this might be construed as an argument against the “previous marriage and children of Joseph” position, but if so it is only a weak objection, and doesn’t touch the other (much more exegetically based) “cousins” view. In Jewish culture (as shown above), “firstborn” simply had no inherent or necessary meaning of “first of many”.

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Related Reading

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Jesus’ “Brothers” Always “Hangin’ Around” Mary … (Doesn’t This Prove That They Are Actually His Siblings?) [8-31-09]
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Photo credit: The Madonna in Sorrow, by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (1609 – 1685) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
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Summary: Some of the endless (lousy, fallacious) arguments from Protestant anti-Catholic apologist Jason Engwer against the perpetual virginity of Mary are refuted.
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