Catholic Classroom: Mary, Ever-Virgin
Question: What is meant by the perpetual virginity of Mary?
In Christian belief going back to at least the fourth century, the Blessed Virgin Mary is described as a virgin not only before the birth of Jesus, but perpetually thereafter. Though some people argue that Mary did not remain a virgin after Jesus’ birth, the scriptures that they cite do not actually support this viewpoint. The three main arguments against Mary’s perpetual virginity are as follows:
1. “Jesus had brothers and sisters.”
Various passages from scripture (e.g. Matthew 13:55-56 and Mark 6:3, among others) refer to brothers and sisters of Jesus, which has led some people to conclude that Mary had other biological children. However, in Jewish tradition of Jesus’ time, the term we understand as “brethren” could actually refer to a person’s more distant relations or even their spiritual brethren. Some scholars suggest an alternate explanation that these brothers and sisters were actually Jesus’ stepsiblings, based on the tradition that Joseph was a widower who had children from his first marriage. In either case, there is no indication that the siblings mentioned are biological siblings of Jesus.
2. Matthew 1:24-25
Matthew 1:24-25 says, “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son.” Some people read this passage as an indication that the marriage between Mary and Joseph did not remain virginal after the birth of Jesus. However, the use of the word “until” does not indicate that Mary’s virginity was necessarily violated after Jesus was born. The phrasing of this passage is meant to tell us that Mary could only have become pregnant through the Holy Spirit. It does not indicate anything about the nature of Mary and Joseph’s relationship after the birth of Jesus.
3. Jesus is referred to as the “first-born”
In some translations of Matthew 1:25, Jesus is referred to as Mary’s first-born son. As with the argument above, however, we cannot imply a subsequent occurrence based on the use of a specific term that is set in time. “First-born” does not mean that there was necessarily a second-born. It simply means that Jesus was Mary’s first child.
According to some ancient texts and traditions, Mary was a consecrated virgin from her birth. While we cannot confirm this in scripture, we do know that the early Church Fathers and theologians through the centuries have taught that Mary remained a perpetual virgin. This does not indicate that there is anything wrong with married women not being virgins—in fact, we depend on the consummation of marriages for the beautiful vocation of family life. But in Mary’s case, God asked for the special vow of virginity, and she consented. She was set apart for the extraordinary task of bearing the Word Incarnate, and that meant being consecrated as the faithful spouse of the Holy Spirit. Just as in every other part of her life, Mary said yes to God by remaining perpetually a virgin.