“The Perpetual Virginity of Mary?”
QUESTION: “Did Mary remain a virgin after the birth of Jesus?”
“The question of Mary’s perpetual virginity is not merely one of historical interest. This question relates to the validity or invalidity of the entire Roman Catholic system. If this church is wrong about this one point, it proves that the entire system is wrong since Mary’s assumed continued virginity has been a pillar of Catholic doctrine over the centuries. Therefore, what does Scripture say about this important topic?”
The perpetual virginity of Mary! Is is true–or false? The whole discussion on the presumed “perpetual virginity of Mary” goes beyond a minor technicality of Scripture. It has far-reaching ramifications. Let us discuss this briefly.
It is quite clear that Catholicism does teach the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The authoritative and contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) declares, “The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man.” In fact, Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.” And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the “Ever-virgin” (p. 126).
The same Catechism quotes Augustine (d. 430) as teaching that Mary “remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin” (p. 128). One Catholic authority states, “The Church has consistently taught the perpetual virginity of Mary: she was a virgin before, through and after the conception and birth of Christ” (Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia 1991, s.v., “Virgin Mary”).
What does Scripture say? Definitely the Bible affirms that Jesus was born of Mary and this young woman was a virgin at the time of His birth. Gabriel, the angel of the Lord, announced to Mary that she would bear a Son who would actually be the very Son of God (Luke 1:26-33). Mary’s question to this heavenly messenger seems quite clear: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). This was not asked with a degree of unbelief or consternation as might have been found in the question of Zacharias to the same angel (Luke 1:18ff). Mary’s question was simply a request for information or clarification.
At this time, Mary was engaged, but not fully married. “When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18). At this time, Mary was engaged but was not fully married. The couple had not “come together” yet. Notice this in other translations: “before they came together” (Marshall’s Greek/English), “before they came together” (KJV, RSV, NIV). Interestingly, the Jerusalem Bible (a Catholic version) says, “before they came to live together.” Can it be that Catholic teaching has influenced this rendering? After all, orthodox Catholics do not believe that Mary and Joseph actually “came together” at all in physical union as husband and wife.
It certainly would be logical, reasonable, and expected that Mary would ask a question about how such a conception would take place. How could she bear a son during this period between betrothal and the sexual relationship of marriage? It was impossible. She knew that she was still a virgin: she had not yet “known” a man sexually. How, then, could she have a child during her virginity? In other words, how could she have a child before she and Joseph “came together” in sexual relationship? Instead of this suggesting a hypothetical “vow” as Catholic apologists would suggest, it points in the opposite direction: she had every intention of entering a normal marriage and bearing children the normal way.
What further evidence does Scripture offer? Scripture speaks of the “brothers” of Christ (Matt. 12:46, 47; Mark 3:31, 32) and the “sisters” of Christ (Matt. 13:56; Mark 6:3). His brothers were James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3). These brothers were mentioned in various scriptures (cf. John 7:3-5; Acts 1:14; 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; 1 Cor. 9:5; 15:7; Gal. 1:19; 2:9, 12; James 1:1; Jude 1:1). Instead of Mary remaining a virgin after the birth of Christ, it would appear that this virtuous woman had five sons and at least two daughters–maybe more!
It is also important to realize that the Greek term adelphos literally means “brother.” Arndt and Gingrich (A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament) renders it “brother.” “Adelphos is compounded from delphys, the womb, and the copulative a, and hence means one born from the same womb” (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology). Thus, “Adelphos is used first of all for physical brother, and adelphe for a physical sister” (Ibid.). Although the term can have a wider meaning (descendant of the same parents, a person of the same nationality, a near kinsman or relative, etc.), it generally should be taken in the literal sense, as “male children of the same mother.”
Today, Orthodox churches contend that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were actually children of Joseph from a previous marriage. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that they were cousins of the Lord and not true brothers and sisters, children of Mary and Joseph. While this interpretation does go back to the early post-apostolic church, Tertullian (ca. 160–220) wrote of Joseph and Mary’s own children (Ibid.). Probably the “kinship” argument would not have arisen if there was not the desire to preserve Mary’s perpetual virginity.
The reason that Catholics cannot give up this doctrine regardless of evidence is quite simple: The existence of their church and the reliability of their history depends on it. (My supposition is that, in some degree, a denial of the “doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary” would also seriously undermine the reliability of the Eastern Orthodox churches, since they place so much emphasis on uninspired and fallible tradition.) Why do I make this point about Catholicism?
(1) If Mary did not remain a virgin after Jesus’ birth, then the papal pronouncements concerning the “Virgin Mary” have been wrong, incorrect, and actual lies! All of the “apparitions” (appearances) of the “Virgin Mary” over the centuries to Catholic mystics have been deceptive as well (see Quite Contrary by Timothy Kauffman; Apparitions at Medjugorje: Divine or Demonic? by Russell K. Tardo; and Mary: Another Redeemer? by James R. White).
(2) Perpetual virginity of Mary has been a foundation of the imposed celibacy of the Catholic priesthood and order of nuns. Not only is imposed celibacy a false teaching (1 Tim. 4:1-3), but Scripture requires the exact opposite: “Bishops” (KJV) or, better, “overseers” (NASB, Greek) must be married men (1 Tim. 3:1-2; Titus 1:5-7), just as “deacons”(KJV) or, “servants” (Greek) must be married (1 Tim. 3:12). Catholicism teaches the exact opposite of Scripture.
(3) If the pronouncements of the so-called “Popes” (Matt. 23:9) have been wrong in regard to Mary and imposed celibacy, then they are not true spokesmen for God and nothing else they have promulgated through the centuries is dependable (unless it was found earlier in Scripture).
(4) If “papal” pronouncements are proven fallacious, then the entire basis of the Catholic religion is missing. Every other false teaching also falls: the “veneration” (worship) of Mary, the “bodily assumption” of Mary into heaven, the “co-redeemer” and “co-mediator” status of Mary, the “immaculate conception” and sinlessness of Mary, and many other doctrines of Mary (i.e., Marian doctrines), not to speak of dozens of other teachings in other doctrinal categories.
(5) If Mary did not remain a virgin, over one billion followers are found to be in a false cult. Instead of the “only true Church of Jesus Christ,” Catholicism becomes a false way of salvation, a false “plant” which Christ Jesus will one day be “uprooted” (Matt. 15:13-14).
Karl Keating is a leading Roman Catholic apologist. He is intelligent, he writes fluently, and his influence is extensive. He, along with other Catholic defenders, must strongly support the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity regardless of the weighty Scriptural arguments against this. If he fails to do so–with vigor and conviction–his whole church is shown to be wrong and he personally is declared to be a false teacher!
The issue of Mary’s continued virginity goes far beyond a point of Biblical interpretation for Catholicism. The Roman Catholic’s eternal salvation is at stake!