Marian Reflections V: The Perpetual Virginity of the Theotokos (Part 4)

Marian Reflections V: The Perpetual Virginity of the Theotokos (Part 4) April 29, 2016

By Giotto (original fresco), SimonP (image from PD), Trelawnie (excerpt) (Public domain) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Giotto (original fresco), SimonP (image from PD), Trelawnie (excerpt) (Public domain) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The is the fourth part of a series discussing the perpetual virginity of Mary. Click here to read the first, here to read the second, and here to read the third.

Probably one of the most common objections brought out against the perpetual virginity of Mary is that Scripture appears to talk about Jesus having brothers and sisters:

Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?  And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?”  (Matt. 13:55-6 RSV).

Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him for the crowd. And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you” (Lk.  8: 19 – 20 RSV).

After this Jesus went about in Galilee; he would not go about in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill him. Now the Jews’ feast of Tabernacles was at hand. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples may see the works you are doing. For no man works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.”  For even his brothers did not believe in him  (Jn. 7: 1 -5 RSV).

Not only do we read that Jesus had brothers and sisters, we are given some of their names. Indeed, one of the most important of them, James, is mentioned not only in the Gospels, but also in the letters of Paul, where once again we find him called the brother of Jesus (cf. Gal. 1:19), and he is the one tradition states wrote the book of James. Even Josephus appears to have mentioned James as being the brother of Christ, showing this attribution was also made by non-Christian historians.[1] The author of the Book of Jude is believed to be the Judas mentioned in Matt 13:55-6, which shows, once again, that those mentioned to be Jesus’ brethren were to hold positions of authority in the church. Knowing, as we do, the names of some of these brethren, and also their accomplishments, how can we maintain that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life?

Certainly the Gospel texts are interesting. What we are told are the reactions of Jesus’s contemporaries and how they understood Jesus and his family. But it should be clear to any Christian that their views were not exactly right. The people believed Joseph to be Jesus’s father.  This sets the stage for Jesus’s family life to be misinterpreted by outsiders, for they would believe that if Jesus were Joseph’s son, then any of Joseph’s other children, if he had any, would be blood-relatives, brothers and sisters, of Jesus, even if Mary had no other children of her own.[2]And even if it were known that Joseph was not Jesus’s biological father, he still took care of Jesus as his legal father,  meaning that Joseph’s children would still be classified as Jesus’ brothers and sisters without there being any blood relation to Jesus.

Now, some point out, even if we do not believe Joseph had any children of his own, we can find ways to interpret Scripture to justify what was written while upholding the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. That is, some believe that before his betrothal to Mary, Joseph never married, never had a family of his own; they believe that he, like Mary, remained a virgin all his life. To explain what Scripture meant in the Gospels, they suggest we look through Scripture and we will find the terms “brother” and “sister” used for familial relations than literal brothers and sisters, such as with Lot and Abraham. Lot is said to be Abraham’s nephew in Gen. 12:5 and 14:12, and yet he is also called Abraham’s brother in Gen. 14:14 and 14:16, indicating how loose the term “brother” is in Scripture. This means that it is possible that Jesus’s so-called brothers and sisters could be related to Jesus in ways other than how we understand the terms today, that they could have been Jesus’ aunts and uncles, or, as some suggest, cousins of his.

From what has been said above, we have ways to explain the Gospel narratives without having any impact on Mary. Jesus’s brethren do not have to be her children. And we find such possibilities brought out by ancient sources. The Protoevangelium of James clearly stated Joseph was an elderly widower with children from a previous marriage.[3] Moreover, as we find in the works of Origen, it appears that other early books, like the so-called “The Gospel of Peter” also presented the same kind of solution.[4] While this view was commonly accepted by Eastern Fathers,[5] various Western Fathers like St Hilary of Poitiers also accepted this tradition.[6]  St Jerome, on the other hand, believed Joseph was a virgin all his life, like Mary: “You say that May did not remain a virgin; as for me, I claim more emphatically that Joseph himself was a virgin through Mary, so that a virgin son might be born of a virgin wedlock.”[7] For this reason, Jerome presented a way to read the brethren as Jesus’ cousins.[8] St Augustine, following Jerome, said that brethren could be seen to be blood relations through Mary, and suggested that this was the best way to read texts referring to Jesus’s brethren:

Understand the phrase, “His brethren,” as you know it must be taken, for it is not a new thing you hear. The blood relations of the Virgin Mary used to be called the Lord’s brethren. For it was of the usage of Scripture to call blood relations and all other near kindred by the term brethren, which is foreign to our usage, and not within our manner of speech. For who would call an uncle or a sister’s son “brother”? Yet the Scripture calls relatives of this kind “brothers.” For Abraham and Lot are called brothers, while Abraham was Lot’s uncle. Laban and Jacob are called brothers, while Laban was Jacob’s uncle. When, therefore, you hear of the Lord’s brethren, consider them the blood relations of Mary, who did not a second time bear children. For, as in the sepulchre, where the Lord’s body was laid, neither before nor after did any dead lie; so, likewise, Mary’s womb, neither before nor after conceived anything mortal.[9]

We can find more evidence of both positions in patristic sources, with those writing from the Christian East tending towards the tradition that Joseph was a widower and those from the West more likely to follow Jerome in believing that Joseph was a virgin. What was important to both traditions was the affirmation that Mary was always a virgin. The fact that James did not look after Mary after Jesus died was seen as clear proof as any that James was not her biological son.[10] Dogmatically, either position is acceptable, because they both affirm Mary’s virginity and answer the question as to what we can make of Jesus’s supposed brothers and sisters. Unlike what many might believe, the Church allows diversity of opinions like this so long as no dogma is challenged as a result. By doing so, Christians are encouraged to engage theological exploration, to wrestle with and try to understand the Christian faith better, and to present what they have reasoned out to see if it can be of help to the faithful.  There is room for free-thinking so long as the contours of dogmatic truth are followed. We need to accept, with charity, those who try to explain the truth and find a way which might differ from ours, so long as their way does not end up causing confusion over necessary beliefs. Truth is important, but our ability to comprehend it is limited, and this is one of the many reasons why such charity is accorded to individual believers, because they might discern something we lack, and bring it forward to our attention.

More to Come


[1] cf. Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews XX:19.1 in The Works of Josephus. trans. William Whiston, A.M. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1994), 537-8. In relation to Josephus, there are questions as to whether or not the text was interpolated by  Christians. While I myself do not think so, even if it were the case, it would still indicate that James was believed by early Christians to have been Jesus’ brother, and so it could be used by critics to indicate that the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity is erroneous.

[2] This is what is implied when St John Chrysostom explained: “How, then, one may say, are James and the others called His brethren? In the same kind of way as Joseph himself was supposed to be husband of Mary. For many were the veils provided, that the birth, being such as it was, might be for a time screened,” St John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew in NPNF1(10):33.

Chrysostom pointed out one of the purposes of Joseph’s guardianship of Mary was to hide her identity and what had been accomplished in her  until the time was right to declare both to the world.

[3] See Luigi S.M.  Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church. trans. Thomas Buffer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999), 35-42.

[4] “But some say, basing it on a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or ‘The Book of James,’ that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honour of Mary in virginity to the end, so that that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word which said, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you,’ might not know intercourse with a man after that the Holy Ghost came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the first-fruit among men of the purity which consists in chastity, and Mary among women; for it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the first-fruit of virginity,” Origen, “Commentary on Matthew” in ANF(9):424.

[5]  Eusebius portrayed this position in his Church History: “Then James, whom the ancients surnamed the Just on account of the excellence of his virtue, is recorded to have been the first to be made bishop of the church of Jerusalem. This James was called the brother of the Lord because he was known as a son of Joseph, and Joseph was supposed to be the father of Christ, because the Virgin, being betrothed to him, ‘was found with child by the Holy Ghost before they came together,’ as the account of the holy Gospels shows,” Eusebius, Church History in NPNF2(1):104.

[6] Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, 185.

[7] St Jerome, “Against Helvidius” in St. Jerome: Dogmatic and Polemical Treatises. Trans. John N. Hritzu, Ph.D. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1965), 39.

[8] See ibid., 29-31.  A notion some give is that Mary’s mother, St Anne, after Mary, remarried and gave birth to another daughter, who she also called Mary. While I can believe there are cousins named Mary, I find it difficult to believe St. Anne, after waiting so long for the Virgin Mary, had other children.

[9] St. Augustine, “Tractate on John XXVIII” in NPNF1(7): 179.

[10] “For if he [Jospeh –ed.] had known her [Mary  –ed.], and had kept her in the place of a wife, how is it that our Lord commits her, as unprotected, and having no one, to His discipline and commands him to take her to his own home?” Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, 33.

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