Dialogue w a Protestant on Mary’s Perpetual Virginity

Dialogue w a Protestant on Mary’s Perpetual Virginity January 2, 2023

“Iceman2525” is some sort of Protestant. His Disqus profile offers no further information about him. This exchange took place underneath my article, “Jesus’ ‘Brothers’: Anti-Catholic Lies from a Tiny Lutheran Sect (ELS).” His words will be in blue. I have made some slight editorial corrections or additions in his text.


[Regarding] your first argument of Luke [2:]41-51, I don’t think it should be expected that siblings would be mentioned. Jesus’s siblings would have been young and hardly responsible for their brother Jesus. Mary and Joseph would have that responsibility of finding Jesus. If I found a lost child I would likely tell them that their parents have been looking for them. Even if the child had siblings I wouldn’t feel the need to mention them because his parents are his caregivers.

Also, if you are going to take the position that when Jesus’s brothers are mentioned they refer to his cousins, then that seemingly contradicts the earliest Catholic tradition of Jesus’s brothers being from a prior marriage of Joseph. If Catholics trust tradition then seems like that would be the one to stick with.

As for the adelphos argument, have you made a count of the occurrences in the NT where adelphos means actual brother/sibling versus cousin usage? My point is that if adelphos is used for sibling say 98% of the time, then the usage for cousin would be a rare one. Relying on an uncommon usage of a word doesn’t give much confidence for that argument. We already know NT writers use words for cousin. I am a Protestant but I’m just respectfully offering my insight. Thank you.

Thanks for your reply. So you think Mary bore no children between Jesus’ birth and about age 28, and then proceeded to have four or more? You think that’s likely? [these questions were never replied to]

Whether you talked to siblings of a lost and found child is irrelevant. What’s relevant is what Mary said, which confirms (in a probabilistic fashion) that Jesus was an only child.

There are two early traditions: the theory you mention (held by Orthodox and eastern Catholics) and St. Jerome’s cousins theory (held mostly by Catholics). In cases like that I look to Scripture to see which theory it seems to favor, and in my opinion, it favors the cousin theory.

I have looked into relative numbers of terms. Adelphos is used for a broad range of relational terms. And that’s because it is reflecting Hebrew / Aramaic, which didn’t have a term for cousin. Sungenis and anepsios (“cousin” in Greek) appear 12 times and once (Col 4:10), respectively, in the NT. Adephos and its cognates appear 346 times. So between the three terms, adelphos, etc. is used 96% of the time.

Recently I wrote about Josephus’ use of adelphos and it mirrored almost exactly the NT pattern. So does LXX [the Septuagint], which has adelphos 649 times, anepsios once, and sungenis five times. So that’s a 99% usage of adelphos and its cognates for relatives.

Thank you.

If the popular tradition before Jerome was that Jesus’s brothers were from Joseph’s prior marriage, then I find it odd for Catholics to support any other theory/tradition that would come later from Jerome.

I know you said you looked at Scripture to see which tradition looks more favorable but still this raises a question. If Catholics put so much trust in tradition, how can one choose an alternative theory over the earlier most dominant tradition that the brothers were from Joseph’s previous marriage? If you can’t have confidence in early tradition in this case, then how can you have complete confidence in other accepted traditions? If early church fathers can be wrong here then they can be wrong in anything else even if the tradition is widely believed. Either these were Joseph’s sons from a previous marriage or the brothers were actually cousins. At least one tradition is wrong.

As for “adelphos” I must not have been clear enough of what I was meaning. I’m asking how many times in the NT does adelphos mean cousin compared to how many times adelphos is used to mean an actual brother as a sibling. My point is that if adelphos is used to refer to an actual brother a few hundred times or whatever compared to only a handful of times adelphos is used to refer to a cousin then I don’t see that as a strong argument for your side. Depending on an uncommon word usage to fit your belied just stretches it a bit. Especially when the NT writers used other words for cousin such as sungenis.

Plus it shouldn’t matter if Hebrew/Aramaic didn’t have a word for cousin because the NT writers wrote in Greek and I’ve read evidence that many Jewish people spoke Greek or as a second language. So the NT writers had capability to differentiate words for brother and cousin.

You’re not understanding. The Greek in the NT still reflects Hebrew culture and the then-current language of Aramaic. It didn’t even have a word for cousin, and so the word for “brother” (ach: Strong’s Hebrew word #251), would be used for a wide range of relatives and even countrymen. Jesus Himself did this, using adelphos. The NT reflects Hebrew culture in that way, and so does the Greek LXX and someone like Josephus.

I don’t have time to go through all the usages and determine when “cousin” or any other non-sibling was meant, but it surely must be a lot of times.

Tradition develops, and there can be a variety of sub-traditions or non-essential traditions, especially early on. The essence of the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity is that she had no other children, and that even Jesus’ birth was supernatural (virgin during delivery, or “in partu” virginity; in biological terms that we understand today: an unbroken hymen). Both hypotheses (step-brothers or cousins) hold to Mary’s perpetual virginity. As long as that is upheld (which is the tradition passed down), different ways of working it out are no problem. It’s permissible diversity. The ones who really departed from the Grand Tradition on this were Protestants, 150-200 years after the Protestant Revolt, as a result of theological liberalism: which always breaks down traditions and internal orthodoxy wherever it is found.

Perhaps for a future article you could research how many times in NT adelphos refers to a relative and compare that to it’s more common usage meaning sibling. I think that would help put it all into perspective.

I don’t agree that the Greek in the NT entirely mirrors the Aramaic language, as you say. To some extent, sure, but as I said some of the NT writers used Greek words for relative so they obviously knew how to differentiate between brother and relative. For example Luke said he used firsthand accounts and [seeing] that Greek language was known and even used by the Jews at that time, I would think Luke’s careful [investigations] would clarify if these were Jesus’ siblings or relatives, for an accurate account. I can’t prove that, but [it] makes more sense to me.

You say it’s no problem if there [are] differing theories (step-siblings or cousins) because they both support Mary’s perpetual virginity. But I think this raises an issue.

Since Mary’s perpetual virginity is a dogma, then I assume examples of tradition were used to support this essential belief. And in that support I would imagine that the issue of Jesus’ brothers, as Scripture mentions, would be necessary to be explained away. I haven’t read the official complete dogma though as I’m having a hard time finding it for some reason.

Now if you have two competing theories to explain away Jesus brothers and both are based on tradition, then at least one of the two has to be wrong. I suppose theoretically there could be some combo of the two but [that’s] unlikely. If either of the widely held traditions is wrong, then how can other traditions used to support Marian dogmas be confidently trusted?

If the widely held idea that Jesus’ brothers were actually step brothers came from a gnostic source, then it’s also very plausible [that] the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity came from the same gnostic source. I realize that you believe the magisterium and Pope are Holy Spirit-guided to declare the truth from traditions, but of course I don’t agree [with] that. I see how even the New Testament speaks of how quickly false doctrines quickly develop, and that’s one reason I don’t [think it’s] wise to put so much faith in tradition.

You raise what you believe to be an internal inconsistency in the Catholic position. It isn’t. The dogma we are required to believe in is the perpetual virginity of Mary. As I already noted, both the “step-brothers” and “cousins” theories are perfectly consistent with that. Explanations for a dogma are different from the dogma itself, and can be held, just as different exegetical opinions are held on Bible passages, or as there are different theories of predestination within Catholicism that are allowed to be held by Catholics, as long as one believes that the elect were predestined by God.

You can rail against Catholic doctrines all you like, but I’m not moved by that unless and until you grapple with my many biblical arguments supporting perpetual virginity (that were handily summarized in the article above). Feel free to do so. Many more such are listed on my Blessed Virgin Mary web page. If you think your position is so superior to ours, then certainly you can easily refute my arguments. I look forward to it! But simply stating your position or opposition to another one is not an argument. I have appealed to Scripture (as I almost always do in arguments with Protestants, because that is their preferred ground, and what we hold in common); so I challenge you: show where my arguments went wrong.

Here’s another argument I made elsewhere:

Luke was a Greek Gentile. Paul, though Jewish, was raised in the very cosmopolitan, culturally Greek town of Tarsus. But even so, both still clearly used adelphos many times with the meaning of non-sibling:

Luke 10:29 [RSV] But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Acts 3:17 “And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.”

Acts 7:23, 25-26 “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brethren, the sons of Israel.. . . [25] He supposed that his brethren understood that God was giving them deliverance by his hand, but they did not understand. [26] And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and would have reconciled them, saying, `Men, you are brethren, why do you wrong each other?’”

Romans 1:13 I want you to know, brethren,  . . .

Romans 9:3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.

1 Thessalonians 1:4 For we know, brethren beloved by God, that he has chosen you;

And here’s yet another argument from Paul’s use of language, from a different article of mine:

Paul’s letters were written in Greek, because they were written to Greek-speaking people. Therefore, he chose [very few times] to use a Greek word for cousin (whereas Aramaic didn’t have such a word). . . .

Paul could also choose to use adelphos . . . because it was understood in Greek to have a wide variety of meanings. Even today we (in English, at any rate) often use “brother” in the broader sense: “Band of brothers”, “Brother Jed will preach the sermon today”, “Brother” and “Sister” for monks and nuns (and non-literal “Father” for priests), “am I my brother’s keeper?”, Ringo Starr (an only child) calling the Beatles his “brothers” etc. Therefore, this use in and of itself doesn’t prove that he was referring to siblings of Jesus. It’s not funny or silly; it’s how language works. . . .

Lucas [Banzoli] denied that the Greek word suggenes or sungenis had a “broader meaning” than cousin. He’s wrong about that. Sungenis (Greek for “cousin”) and its cognate sungenia appear in the New Testament fifteen times (sungenia: Lk 1:61; Acts 7:3, 14; sungenis: Mk 6:4; Lk 1:36, 58; 2:44; 14:12; 21:16; Jn 18:26; Acts 10:24; Rom 9:3; 16:7, 11, 21). But they are usually translated kinsmenkinsfolk, or kindred in KJV: that is, in a sense wider than cousin: often referring to the entire nation of Hebrews. Thus, the eminent Protestant linguist W. E. Vine, in his Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, lists sungenis not only under “Cousin” but also under “Kin, Kinsfolk, Kinsman, Kinswoman.”

In all but two of these occurrences, the authors were either Luke or Paul. Luke was a Greek Gentile. Paul, though Jewish, was raised in the very cosmopolitan, culturally Greek town of Tarsus. But even so, both still clearly used adelphos many times with the meaning of non-sibling (Lk 10:29; Acts 3:17; 7:23-26; Rom 1:7, 13; 9:3; 1 Thess 1:4). They understood what all these words meant, yet they continued to use adelphos even in those instances that had a non-sibling application.

Strikingly, it looks like every time St. Paul uses adelphos (unless I missed one or two), he means it as something other than blood brother or sibling. He uses the word or related cognates no less than 138 times in this way. Yet we often hear about Galatians 1:19: “James the Lord’s brother.” 137 other times, Paul means non-sibling, yet amazingly enough, here he must mean sibling, because (so we are told) he uses the word adelphos? That doesn’t make any sense.

“Cousin” appears four times in the entire OT in the RSV (three of those in Jeremiah, another in Leviticus). But “brother[s]” appears 390 times, “brethren” 154 times and “sister[s]” 110 times. So by a 654-4 ratio, we have those terms (which at first glance sound like siblings) used over against “cousin.” Obviously, many times they were used for non-sibling relatives.
The New Testament (which came out of the same culture, and was Jewish-written save for Luke) totally reflects this. It has “brother[s]” 159 times, “brethren” 191, and “sister[s]” 24 times, while “cousin” appears exactly once (Col 4:10). So that’s a 374-1 ratio (even more lopsided than the OT), and for the entire Bible (minus the Deuterocanon), the numbers are 1028-5, or “cousin” used instead of “brother” or “sister” once in every 206 times a relative is mentioned.

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Photo credit: Madonna and Child (c. 1743), by Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Summary: A Protestant makes several arguments against Mary’s perpetual virginity, & I provide thorough Catholic responses, including analyses of two Greek words for “cousin.”

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