Marian Reflections V: The Perpetual Virginity of the Theotokos (Part 5)

Marian Reflections V: The Perpetual Virginity of the Theotokos (Part 5) April 30, 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 fifth part of a series discussing the perpetual virginity of Mary. Click here to read the first part, here to read the second,  here to read the third, and here to read the fourth.

While we are free to speculate with some coming out of the Western tradition and think that Joseph remained celibate all his life, a stronger case is to be had with the Eastern view that before his betrothal to Mary, he had been a widower. For, as Bulgakov explained, it is more fitting for him to have been a father, in a real sense, with children of his own, than it is for him to have only been a father in a legal sense.[1] Joseph represents fatherhood in the Holy Family. But how can he do this if he is not actually a father with children of his own? Would it not be a mere docetical fatherhood which is suggested, and as such, have implications on sonship and the incarnation as well? If he were truly a father before he met Mary, he would have been prepared to be a father and to represent fatherhood, and so God the Father, within the Holy Family. Nor, as some would think, would anything from such a past tainted him and his mission as Sergius Bulgakov also explained:

But the fact that Joseph had previously been married does not contradict but even befits Joseph’s place near the Holy Family. The qualities of father and husband that were then prepared in him are now revealed in their purest form. And there was nothing unclean in this lawful marriage of long ago, for the Virgin Mary was conceived in a similar marriage. To be sure, sexual intercourse had receded into the distant past and even had become impossible owing to Joseph’s advanced age; and in this sense, Joseph could be considered a spouse who leads a monastic life. It should be mentioned that to have been married in the past has never been an obstacle to becoming a monk or, consequently, of entering the choir of angels.[2]

Moreover, as has been previously explained, if the way the immaculate conception is best understood is that it represented the end product of God’s work with Israel, this suggests that the brethren of Jesus come from Joseph instead of being cousins of Jesus through Mary. If James and the rest of the brethren were cousins of Jesus through Mary, they would be, in the family line, near to or equal to John the Baptist. But they do not seem to be his equals in holiness.  For, if as has been explained, Mary can be said to be all holy, pure and without sin, in part because of God’s work with her bloodline to produce her, those closer to her in the bloodline would also be strengthened by grace and represent higher and greater forms of holiness in the world. This is exactly what we see with her parents, Sts Joachim and Anne, as well as her cousin, St. Elizabeth. God continued to be at work even in Elizabeth, so that John the Baptist was able to be filled with the Holy Spirit while in his mother’s womb (cf. Lk. 1:41). This is also why Jesus said no man born of a woman could be said to be greater than John (cf. Matt. 11:11). John was born without sin, and he lived a holy, sinless life, though his glory is short of Mary’s because John was cleansed from sin while in the womb, not at his conception, while Mary was free from sin in all her life, from the point of conception on.[3]

John was, in this regard, the closest representation of masculine holiness before the coming of the God-man. He was able to mirror the work of Christ as prophet and even baptizer – though his function was entirely human and so he could not grant the grace that Christ would bring. John, representing humanity, had to give himself over to Christ, to show that while those who are pure and holy are great among the people of the earth, their earthly glory is low compared to the glory of those in the kingdom of heaven.[4]

Thus, going back to what we have said about the way Mary is prepared for in the world, we must ponder what close relations to Mary would be like. They would be close to, but not equal to, Mary in natural purity. Certainly she was special because she was predestined not only for personal purity, but also to be the Mother of God. And yet she could be the Mother of God in a proper sense only if had embraced that grace and lived a life where she was open to be constantly filled with more and more grace, so that she grew from greatness to greatness, and at each step of the way, she would be full of grace (she began with what could be said a natural purity, which she embraced and used to keep herself open to the will of God in her life, so that she kept engaging, cooperating, and merging with more and more grace until she was ready to make a decision for or against God by saying yes or no to being the Theotokos). As has been previously suggested, the work of the Law of Moses with its ritual sacrifices and demands served to bring about the Theotokos so that she could give her pure body and blood over to Christ, allowing him to use it to form his own body and blood. Luis de León expressed this beautifully in his The Names of Christ:

His body as well-balanced, handsome, beyond praise. It as a proof and a praise of the high qualities of the matter it was built from and also of the craftsman that built it. The mater was the pure and most holy blood of Mary, most exquisite and special. No cleaner blood could be found, no blood more in touch with the highest qualities and principles. A soul such as Mary’s could turn each drop of Mary’s blood into a holy and deep spring of purity. Her blood was unlike our blood, a blood as we have never seen before. The law of Moses – including its prohibitions about eating certain foods, sacrifices, cleansing ceremonies, fastings, and so on – was a way of thinning our blood and bodies, almost like distilling a wine into brandy, until at a certain crucial moment a maiden could be endowed with a virginal blood which could be in extreme fashion clean and pure and could be the source and origin of Christ’s pure body. The old tests in the Old Testament were very much like an alembic, a system to distill and bring about an ancient, rich, and pure liquor, an even purer and refined liquor, until we reached the ultimate and most exquisite refined being, perfection itself.[5]

The bloodline of Jesus was slowly finding itself raised by the grace of God throughout history. The closer someone is on the family tree to Jesus, the more grace, and therefore, more holiness we find offered to them; of course, this is not to say everyone in the family tree is of the same level of purity of everyone else on the same branch as they are on, and that no one could have fallen into sin and hindered for a time the development of the tree of Jesus, the tree of life, from achieving its proper fruit (Jesus), but, in the end, the work was accomplished, and those nearest to Jesus would be those with a greater natural, that is pre-Christian,  purity and holiness. This is seen in the way St John the Baptist is the closest to Jesus outside of the Theotokos, that is, John is the one who had more initial grace and holiness than anyone other than Mary and Jesus.

If James, Judas, and the rest of Jesus’s brethren, were close cousins to Jesus, we would have expected similar reactions and belief from them as we find in John, but instead, we find that they were holy and righteous, but in a way far inferior to John, which is why it took time for them to believe in Jesus. If they were children of Joseph, this would give us a better understanding of who they were and their personal relationship to Jesus. Joseph was an extremely holy man, for no one who was not would have been fit to be with Mary.  His children would reflect this in their lives as well. Thus, there should be no surprise that James would be known as James the Righteous in Jerusalem.[6]

What Jesus’s relatives through Joseph represent is the way most of us are related to Jesus in and through an acquired holiness, a holiness which is gained through hardship and trials, through wrestling against sin, which finds its goal affirmed and achieved with the grace of God.  They represent the holiness all of us can have when we cooperate with grace. As they were not full of the Holy Spirit from birth, they needed the guidance of the law and the prophets to prepare them to believe in Jesus. They were imperfect, as can be seen manifested in various kinds of disbelief associated with them, starting with Joseph himself.  For Joseph wanted to secretly put Mary away when he learned she was pregnant (cf. Matt. 1:19). He wanted to do so honorably, showing his holiness, and yet because it was out of a righteous desire, it was a mistake which was easily overturned when he found out the truth. James, however righteous he was according to the letter of the law, should have been there with Jesus and Mary and been the one to take care of Mary, even if she were not his own mother. He fulfilled his legal obligation, but what God expected was greater than that, and his neglect of Mary demonstrates where sin blinded him from his true spiritual obligation. And when we read he had other brethren who traveled with him while not yet accepting him for who he was, becoming his disciples only much later, do we see the impurity which remained in their lives, for such impurity is what initially blinded them from the truth which should have been obvious to them, that Jesus was the messiah. None of their mistakes and faults should be read to suggest that Jesus’s brethren are unworthy of veneration: they were very holy in relation to the rest of humanity, and, as they found faith in Jesus, that holiness grew and made them great in the kingdom of heaven. What is important for us here is that they did not meet the level of holiness of John or Mary, the two who represents the height of humanity before the God-man himself. This glory would have been seen in Jesus’s brethren if they were cousins of Jesus like John, a height which would have manifested in them by their being at ease with and readily accepting who Jesus is and being his disciples early on. And for this reason, it is best to see them as being connected to Jesus through Joseph, through another holy line of Israel, a line which made them worthy of such close relations with Jesus but yet was far apart from the holiness contained in the Marian bloodline, which we see not only in Mary, but in her close relatives as well.

While the theological reasoning which has been suggested is important, that it also properly merges with the earliest non-Biblical traditions about Joseph, traditions which suggest he was a widower with children, is important as well. For this means, when we look at the traditions around Joseph which were collected and written down in texts like the Protoevangelium of James, we see theory is reinforced by tradition, which makes upholding such a tradition our most logical conclusion. Indeed, what we read in the Protoevangelium of James and similar such literature is of extreme interest and value to our understanding of the figure of Joseph and of Mary’s parents, that without them, we would not know the names of Mary’s parents (Sts. Joachim and Anne).[7] In them, we find that Joseph was believed to be a widower of advanced age before his full and proper mission in life was revealed to him. He had lived out his life, nobly and virtuously, and after his wife died, he did not think about remarrying. But he was called by God to be Mary’s husband in the eyes of society, and to confirm that, such narratives indicate that God employed a miracle to make sure everyone knew he had desired Joseph to be with Mary.[8] Thus, when we look at how fitting it is for Joseph to be a father, how unlikely it would be that cousins of Jesus would manifest doubt as to Jesus’ mission and identity, and how the early Christian record indicated Joseph indeed as children of his own before he was betrothed to Mary, we can conclude that not only did Joseph have children, this is the best explanation for understanding who Jesus’s brethren are when we see them mentioned in Scripture. Jesus’s brothers and sisters come from Joseph, and as such, do nothing to indicate Mary abandoned her virginal purity after the birth of Jesus.

To Be Concluded


[1] See for example Sergius Bulgakov, Friend of the Bridegroom. trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 178 -84.

[2] Bulgakov, Friend of the Bridegroom, 182.

[3] The prophet Jeremiah is another case in point, where this level of grace was given. Thus, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:

But since it is expressly said (of John) in the Gospel that “he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb”; and of Jeremias, “Before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee,” it seems that we must needs assert that they were sanctified in the womb, although, while in the womb, they had not the use of reason (which is the point discussed by Augustine); just as neither do children enjoy the use of free will as soon as they are sanctified by baptism.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica. trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Bros. edition, 1947), III-xxvii.6.

[4] This is not to say that St. John the Baptist, when glorified in heaven, is of the same low status; indeed, in heaven, the earthy glory is raised to a new, greater height, making the deified John one of the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

[5] Luis de León,  The Names of Christ. trans. Manuel Durán and William Kluback (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 319.

[6] cf. Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews XX:19.1 in The Works of Josephus, 537-8.

[7] While the Protoevangelium of James is a non-canonical source, its general presentation and outline of the historical events in the lives of Mary and Joseph were readily accepted by many if not most of the early Christian communities. This is because the work itself developed out of and from oral tradition, which the author put together in and through a narrative of his own working. Even though the author of the text was not infallible and did not write Scripture, so that the text itself did not have to be seen as perfect in all its details, it would not have been so readily accepted and as influential as it was within early Christian communities if it radically diverted from what was generally understood and believed by them.  The ideas in it, therefore, did not develop ex nihilo, and so must not be seen as invented by its author. If they were, they would have been quickly cast aside as was done with Gnostic authors who wrote “gospels” of their own which were not in accord with Christian tradition and belief.

[8] The Protoevangelium of James rendered the miracle in the following manner:

  1. And her parents went down marvelling, and praising the Lord God, because the child had not turned back. And Mary was in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there, and she received food from the hand of an angel. And when she was twelve years old there was held a council of the priests, saying: Behold, Mary has reached the age of twelve years in the temple of the Lord. What then shall we do with her, lest perchance she defile the sanctuary of the Lord? And they said to the high priest: You stand by the altar of the Lord; go in, and pray concerning her; and whatever the Lord shall manifest unto you, that also will we do. And the high priest went in, taking the robe with the twelve bells into the holy of holies; and he prayed concerning her. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by him, saying unto him: Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and assemble the widowers of the people, and let them bring each his rod; and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be. And the heralds went out through all the circuit of Judæa, and the trumpet of the Lord sounded, and all ran.
  1. And Joseph, throwing away his axe, went out to meet them; and when they had assembled, they went away to the high priest, taking with them their rods. And he, taking the rods of all of them, entered into the temple, and prayed; and having ended his prayer, he took the rods and came out, and gave them to them: but there was no sign in them, and Joseph took his rod last; and, behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph’s head. And the priest said to Joseph, You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the virgin of the Lord. But Joseph refused, saying: I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel. And the priest said to Joseph: Fear the Lord your God, and remember what the Lord did to Dathan, and Abiram, and Korah; how the earth opened, and they were swallowed up on account of their contradiction. And now fear, O Joseph, lest the same things happen in your house. And Joseph was afraid, and took her into his keeping. And Joseph said to Mary: Behold, I have received you from the temple of the Lord; and now I leave you in my house, and go away to build my buildings, and I shall come to you. The Lord will protect you.

The Protoevangelium of James in ANF(8): 363.

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