The Ever-Virgin Mary

Mar 25, 2020

Rev. Sebastian Carnazzo, PhD

In the final days of Great Lent, the Church celebrates the glorious feast of the Annunciation of the most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. This feast commemorates the moment of the Incarnation of Our Lord, one of the greatest mysteries of the Christian Faith.

The Church has always held that Mary was a virgin before, during, and after giving birth to Our Lord, and that she remained so for the rest of her life. Though it may come as a surprise to some, this was also the belief of such significant founders of Protestantism as Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and Martin Luther who himself said, “Christ, our Savior, was the real and natural fruit of Mary's virginal womb . . . This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that” (Sermons on John 1-4).

Contrary to this Tradition of the Church, and even the teachings of their founders, the vast majority of modern American Protestants now deny the perpetual virginity of Mary. They base this denial on their misinterpretation of certain passages of Scripture that mention the ‘brothers’ of Jesus, as well as other passages which are said to imply that Mary bore other children after Jesus’ birth. The most commonly cited of these passages comes from the gospel of Matthew:

“When Jesus finished these parables, he went away from there. He came to his native place and taught the people in their synagogue. They were astonished and said, ‘Where did this man get such wisdom and mighty deeds? Is he not the carpenter's son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Are not his sisters all with us? Where did this man get all this?’” (Matt 13:53-56; par. Mark 6:3; see also Matt 12:46; Mark 3:31-43; Luke 8:19-20; John 2:12; 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14; Gal 1:19; 1 Cor 9:5).[1]

How are we to make sense of this passage, which may at first glance, seem to contradict the Tradition of the perpetual virginity of Mary? Historically, the Church has always understood such New Testament references to the ‘brothers’ of Jesus, as referring, not to sons of Mary born after Jesus, but rather to more distantly related relatives of varying degrees.[2] In order to understand how this could be the case, we must consider a few linguistic issues. The English word ‘brother’ in these passages is translating the Greek word adelphós, which is used in the New Testament to describe, not only brothers from the same mother, but often any relative or close friend. Again, it may come as a surprise to some, but this was also the way the Protestant reformer John Calvin understood this very same passage from Matthew:

“The word brothers, we have formerly mentioned, is employed, agreeably to the Hebrew idiom, to denote any relatives whatever; and, accordingly, Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ’s brothers are sometimes mentioned” (Commentary on Matthew 13:55).

Ignoring the complexity of this linguistic issue, the modern Protestant position encounters major problems later in the gospel of Matthew. The brothers James and Joseph, referred to in Matthew 13, are later identified, not as the sons of Mary, mother of Jesus, but rather as the sons of Mary, wife of Clopas, and thus Jesus’ cousins (cf. Matt 27:56; cp. John 19:25). Ironically enough, the very text which is thought to be the strongest evidence for the modern Protestant position - that Mary had children after Jesus - ends up being one of its clearest refutations.

In addition to the references to ‘brothers’ of Jesus, there are also two other passages in the New Testament that are often misinterpreted to ‘imply’ that Mary bore other children after the birth of Jesus. One of the passages appears at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus” (Matt 1:24-25). Based on the occurrence of the word ‘until,’ modern Protestants often mistakenly assume the passage implies that Joseph had relations with Mary after the birth of Jesus. The confusion is again based on faulty linguistic analysis.

In modern American English, the word ‘until’ is usually used to describe an action that changed course at a certain point in time. For example, “I ate until I was full.” However, the English word ‘until’ in Matthew 1:25, is not simply modern American English, but rather a translation of the Greek word héos. This Greek word, like its Hebrew equivalent ad, has a much broader range than the common English use of ‘until.’ In fact, it is often used to describe an action up to a certain point in time, with no implication of any future change of action, whatsoever.

Note for example the well-known Psalm verse quoted later in this same gospel: “Sit at my right hand until I place your enemies under your feet” (Matt 22:44; cp. Ps 110:1). If the Protestant interpretation of the word ‘until’ in Matthew 1:25 were applied to the above passage, then it would follow that Jesus would no longer sit at the Father’s right hand once his enemies had become his footstool (see also Deut 34:6; 2 Sam 6:23; 2 Cor 3:15; etc.). Thus, it is obvious that one must interpret the use of ‘until’ as the translation of the Greek héos in its literary context, and within its broader linguistic range.

In his gospel - where the passage in question occurs - Matthew is attempting to make one point absolutely clear, that Jesus is truly the Son of God, a point proven by the miraculous virginal conception (cf. Matt 1:18-25). Thus, Matthew’s statement, “He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus” (Matt 1:24-25), is simply Matthew’s way of making it plain to his reader that Jesus was conceived purely by divine intervention, and not by the workings of men. As further evidence he tells his readers that Joseph had no relations with Mary, from the time of their engagement (cf. Matt 1:18), even to the time of Jesus’ birth (v. 25). This is Matthew’s purpose, and there is no indication that he intended to imply any change in the relationship between Joseph and Mary after Jesus was born, nor even to address the subject. Thus, when one interprets Matthew 1:25 within the parameters of its proper and intended literary context, it does not imply that Mary had children after the birth of Jesus.

Again, it may come as a surprise to some, but this was also the interpretation of John Calvin:

“Let us rest satisfied with this, that no just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words of the Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ…. It is said that Joseph knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son: but this is limited to that very time. What took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us….Certainly, no man will ever raise a question on this subject, except from curiosity; and no man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation” (Commentary on Matthew 1:25).

To summarize, we have seen how the perpetual virginity of Mary, though held as an historical fact from the time of the early Church, and even taught by the Protestant reformers, is largely rejected by modern Protestantism. This rejection is based on misinterpretations of certain Scriptural passages which mention the ‘brothers’ of Jesus, and other passages which are said to imply that Mary had other children after Jesus’ birth. It has been demonstrated that these interpretations are based on erroneous linguistic assumptions and refuted not only by a careful examination of the literary context of the passages in question, but also by the rest of the Bible. In light of such evidence, even the Protestant reformer Ulrich Zwingli said: “I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel, as a pure Virgin, brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth, and after childbirth, forever remained a pure, intact Virgin” (Zwingli Opera, Corpus Reformatorum, 424).[3]

Therefore, with all confidence and joy, let us sing with the Church on the glorious feast of the Annunciation: “The Holy Scriptures speak of thee mystically, O Mother of the Most high…. The bush that burnt with fire and yet remained unconsumed, disclosed the secret mystery that shall come to pass in thee, O pure Maiden, full of grace. For after childbirth though shalt remain ever-Virgin.”[4]

Footnotes:

[1] All biblical quotations in this article are from the New American Bible (NAB).

[2] The earliest recorded tradition on the subject suggests that at least some of the ‘brothers’ of Jesus in the New Testament are not only relatives but actually ‘step-brothers’ by Joseph through a former marriage. This interpretation may find some support in the words of Mary to the angel: “How can this be for I know not man?” (Luke 1:34). This response has been interpreted by significant Fathers of the Church and other later exegetes as an indication that Mary had already taken a vow of perpetual virginity, and that Joseph was betrothed to Mary as a legal guardian, all of which appears in the tradition recorded in the Protoevangelion of St. James (c. AD 130). It has been substantiated, through such archeological discoveries as the Qumran community and the Dead Sea Scrolls, that the existences of such vows of celibacy were relatively common place in the New Testament period.

[3] The modern Protestant rejection of the perpetual virginity of Mary finds further exegetical difficulties in a number of passages in the New Testament. In Luke 2:41-51, we are told how Jesus was left behind in the temple at the age of 12. The narrative gives a number of details about Jesus, Joseph, Mary and their relatives, but there is no mention of other siblings. In John 7:3-4 and Mark 3:12, some ‘brothers’ of Jesus give him advice. It would be improper in Jewish culture for younger brothers of the same mother to give advice to an older brother, which would be the relationship if they were sons of Mary born after Jesus. In John 19:26 Jesus identified John the apostle as the guardian of his mother. If Mary had children after Jesus, the action would not only be contrary to basic Jewish culture, but also unnecessary. One would not expect that Jesus would waste these last and most precious moments with superfluous words. See also the above note on the possibility of Mary having taken a vow of celibacy according to the Protoevangelion of St. James.

[4] Hymns of Orthros on the Feast of the Annunciation from The Festal Menaion, trans Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1998), 451, 458.

Rev. Sebastian Carnazzo, PhD, is a priest in the Melkite Catholic Church of America and pastor of St. Elias Melkite Parish in San Jose, CA (steliasmelkite.org). Along with his pastoral duties, he is also an adjunct lecturer in Biblical Studies and Catechetics for a number of institutions, including, as of this spring semester, St. Bernard's! He received his MA in Theology with a concentration in Sacred Scripture from the Christendom Graduate School of Theology, Alexandria, VA, and his PhD in Biblical Studies from the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. His dissertation was published under the title Seeing Blood and Water: A Narrative-critical Study of John 19:34 (2012). He is also the author of many articles and the contributor to a number of multi-author works.