Was Mary a Perpetual virgin?


And what about the Biblical "brethren" of Jesus?



 By George Desnoyers




Both Jerome and Augustine were opposed to the position of Helvidius  regarding the virginity of Mary and the Biblical "brethren" of Jesus.  Helvidius believed that Mary did not remain a virgin all her life, but that she had biological children after the birth of Jesus.


It often comes as a surprise to Roman Catholics when they learn that hundreds of millions of Christians believe that Mary did NOT remain a virgin all her life, but that she and Joseph had biological children together..


The primary arguments of Church Fathers against Helvidius had their roots in dualism, and the notion that sex was bad and passed on original sin.


There are at least eight good arguments in favor of Helvidius’ belief that Mary and Joseph had biological children together.  Collectively, these reasons have much more appeal to the modern mind than the dualism which led Church Fathers toward supporting the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity.


Before I list eight reasons why Helvidius’ position in opposition to Mary’s perpetual virginity is by far most likely the correct one, I should explain what the Church meant by Mary’s “perpetual virginity” when the idea was invented. 


Today, people speak of virginity as physical, psychological, spiritual, or even “born again.”  But such was not always the case; there was a time when virginity was physical, period.


When Church Fathers came up with the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity, the idea referred to MORE than Mary’s never having had intercourse with Joseph or anyone else.  For the Church Fathers, as was the case in many cultures, a virgin was a woman whose hymen was intact, not torn or damaged (noticeably stretched).  This definition was applied in the Church for centuries.


There are many old writings, some by Church Fathers, in which disagreement is expressed with the above definition of virgin, in some cases for the very same reasons that physicians would give today.  But the definition made sense to most folk, and the Church accepted it.  It had the important benefit of making it easy for priests or others to determine whether a woman was a virgin (in some places a requirement for marriage).  Priests did not do the inspections, but they sometimes caused them to be performed.  [By the way, the Church determined a person’s gender by whether male genitalia were present.]


Today the idea that a virgin is a woman whose hymen is intact and undamaged is universally deemed silly.  Some women were born without a hymen.  And it’s nearly universally accepted that an intact and undamaged hymen is no guarantee that a woman has not had sexual relations, and that a torn or damaged hymen is no guarantee that she has.


Regarding Mary, however, the official position of the RCC has continued to be that, while Jesus’ birth was a normal one, Mary’s hymen was miraculously preserved intact during and after the birth of Christ.  Without that miracle, Mary could not have been called or deemed a perpetual virgin (the most common expression throughout history has been “ever virgin”) by the Church’s standard.


Interestingly on this point, in the Gospel of James (ca 150 AD), sometimes called the Infancy Gospel of James or Protoevangelium of James, there is an account of an inspection of Mary immediately following the birth of Jesus.  After the midwife claims that a miraculous birth has occurred, Salome says, "As the Lord my God lives, unless I insert my finger and investigate her, I will not believe that a virgin has given birth.” (v. 19:19)  Chapter 20 of the Gospel of James then reports: the positioning of Mary (vv. 1-2), the inspection carried out by Salome via insertion of a finger, and the resulting burning up of Salome’s hand (vv. 2-3), the regret of Salome for having doubted the virgin birth and having tested the living God, and Salome’s prayer asking for forgiveness (vv. 3-7), an angel’s instruction to Salome to pick up Jesus in order to receive salvation and joy from him (vv. 8-9), Salome’s lifting up of Jesus, worship of him, and her recognition of him as “born a king to Israel” (v. 10), the healing of Salome and her leaving the cave justified (v. 11), and a sudden instruction to Salome, “do not proclaim what a miracle you have seen until the child comes to Jerusalem." (v. 12)


The eight good arguments in favor of Helvidius’ position are the following:


First, to the argument made that the term "brethren" sometimes means "cousins," the reply is made that that the word given without any explicit or contextual qualification is naturally understood to mean "brothers," and not "cousins."


[Another theory, that the "brothers" and "sisters" were Joseph's children by an earlier marriage, appears older than the theory that they were cousins (meaning “relatives”) of Jesus.  The idea appears in the aforementioned apocryphal Gospel of James (ca 150 AD).  I was taught that the Biblical “brethren” of Jesus changed (except in Eastern Orthodox churches) from being Joseph's biological children from an earlier marriage to "cousins" when the desire intensified in the Church to free Joseph from the charge that he had ever passed on original sin (which it was thought he would have done if he had ever had biological children).  In effect, Joseph was made into virginal like Mary (except without an intact hymen).  The unofficial but predominant RCC teaching now is that the Biblical “brethren” of Jesus were cousins (meaning “relatives”), and not half-siblings with Joseph as their father.]


Second, there is a very strong indication in Luke that Mary had other children, by Joseph, after Jesus was born.  Look at the following texts.  In Luke 7:12 and Luke 8:42 the writer uses the word "monogenes" which means "only-born."  These occurrences are not referring to Jesus, but to others.  But, in Luke 2:7, when the author is referring to Jesus, he uses "prototokos" which means "first-born."  Since Luke was familiar with, and used, both words, we should assume that he deliberately chose "first-born" from the two words available when he referred to Jesus.  The meaning of the two Greek words seems clear.  The only difference between them is that "first-born" implies the birth of at least one child after the birth of Jesus.


[I’ve seen an alternative explanation for "monogenes," which I said means "only-born," and "prototokos," which I said means "first-born."  But I wasn't convinced, so I still rate this second reason as fairly strong.  Nevertheless, it is not wise to be dogmatic on reason #2.  From what I've read, reason #3 below (regarding “heos”) is stronger.]


Third, look at Matthew 1:25 - "And knew her not TILL (Greek "heos") she had brought forth her first-born son; and he called his name Jesus."  In the New Testament a negative followed by "heos," meaning "until," always implies that the negatived action did, or will, take place after the point in time indicated by the particle.   Thus, it should be understood that Joseph and Mary had normal marital relations following the birth of Jesus.  It should not be surprising, then, to learn that Jesus had brothers and sisters. (See McNeile's "Commentary on Matthew.")


[Catholics sometimes try to refute this point be referring to 2 Samuel 6:23, Hebrews 1:13, and 1 Timothy 4:13, calling them similar examples.  They are not similar examples at all, not even close.  In the first case, 2 Samuel 6:23, it is an Old Testament verse in which the original language was not Greek.  The point made in reason #3 is made with respect to the New Testament.  In the other two verses, Hebrews 1:13 and 1 Timothy 4:13, we don’t find a negatived action followed by “heos.”  Catholic theologians have no good argument against reason #3.]


Fourth, in view of procreation being one of God's ordained purposes for marriage (Genesis 1:27-28 and 2:18, 21-25), and in the absence of any scriptural evidence to the contrary, it is natural to assume that, after Jesus' birth, Joseph and Mary entered into all the relationships normally associated with marriage.  There is no good reason to assume that no brothers or sisters resulted from the marriage, especially when scripture seems to indicate otherwise, and even names four brothers.


Fifth, in several of the verses mentioning Jesus' brothers and sisters, it appears that they lived and traveled with Mary, and were regarded as members of her family.  See Matthew 12:46, 13:55-56, Mark 6:3, and John 2:12, 7:3.  These brothers and sisters did not live with "Mary of Clopas," but rather with Mary, the mother of Jesus.


Sixth, study well Matthew 12:46-50 and Mark 3:31-35.  Taken in context, the force of Jesus' declaration in Matthew 12:50 and Mark 3:35 depends greatly upon those who are there called His "brethren" standing in the nearest possible relationship to Him. ("Irwin's Bible Commentary.")


Seventh, while on the cross Jesus probably gave His mother into the care of John, not because she had no other sons, but because John was a disciple, a close and capable friend, and perhaps a nephew.  [For John as possibly Mary's nephew, compare Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, and John 19:25.] ("Irwin's Bible Commentary.")


Eighth, look at Luke 2:44 - "But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day's journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances."  It is unlikely that Mary and Joseph would have gone a day's journey from the city before discovering Jesus' absence unless they were occupied with younger children. (Tasker's "The General Epistle of James.")


There isn't a "bet-your-life" kind of proof text on this, but the accumulated force of these eight arguments is pretty strong.  There are no comparable strong reasons for the opposing view, only a dualism which led Church Fathers toward positions which would support ranking virginity and celibacy above the normal married state (including sexual relations).  The best guess we can make is that Helvidius’ view concerning the "brothers" and "sisters" of Jesus is the correct one.


April 14, 2008