All Christians believe in the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All Christians celebrate the redemption of humanity through the events of Easter, Good Friday, and the Passion of our Lord. All Christians celebrate Christmas in adoration to the Son of God, Christ Jesus. And the woman through whom God chose to make that possible was Mary.
It is written into the Gospels that she was a virgin at the time of the birth of Jesus. And, all Christians agree on this point because it was clearly written into the Gospels of the New Testament.
Despite these agreements between Christians, argument seems to ensue all too often when we look at the perpetual virginity of Mary. Now, some denominations still hold fast to the perpetual virginity of Mary such as the Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and some Lutherans. But, not all denominations agree. So, why is the perpetual virginity of Mary a significant issue?
Mary is the vehicle by which God in the flesh becomes possible. Because Mary is the Mother of God (Luke 1:43) one assumes she would be quite a special woman. She was made as the human perfect enough to hold one perfect Son of God. God the Father created the perfect mother for Jesus (himself), a woman perfected beyond the extent of which Eve could ever be (Luke 1:42). Where Eve would be the disobedient virgin who listened to a serpent to commit original sin and thus bring the entire human race to face death, Mary would be the obedient virgin (Luke 1:6, Luke 1:26-38) who listened to an angel who would usher in the events to secure the redemption of all mankind and the hope of salvation.
Like the Ark of the Covenant before her, she would be made to perfect specification to hold the most important of ALL physical things on this earth: Christ Jesus. Where the Ark of the Covenant would hold symbols of what was to come, Mary would hold the living, breathing Lawgiver, Lord of All, and Bread of Life. The Ark was merely a prefigurement of Mary, only the most blessed would lay hands on her and none would be permitted to spoil her as the early saints would note in their writings:
“The ark is verily the holy Virgin, gilded within and without, who received the treasure of universal sanctification.” – St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213 AD – c. 270 AD)
One who is like the Ark must be pure in the flesh. Where do notions of fleshly purity come from in the Old Testament? It just so happens, the Book of Numbers, Chapter 30 is dedicated to such arrangements. Here is the breakdown of the vows of celibacy that could be taken by Hebrew women:
Vows taken by a Young Woman in Her Father’s House: Numbers 30:3-5 – “Or when a woman vows a vow to the LORD, and binds herself by a pledge, while within her father’s house, in her youth, and her father hears of her vow and of her pledge by which she has bound herself, and says nothing to her; then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if her father expresses disapproval to her on the day that he hears of it, no vow of hers, no pledge by which she has bound herself, shall stand; and the LORD will forgive her, because her father opposed her.”
Vows taken by a Married Woman: Numbers 30:6-8 – “And if she is married to a husband, while under her vows or any thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she has bound herself, and her husband hears of it, and says nothing to her on the day that he hears; then her vows shall stand, and her pledges by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if, on the day that her husband comes to hear of it, he expresses disapproval, then he shall make void her vow which was on her, and the thoughtless utterance of her lips, by which she bound herself; and the LORD will forgive her.
Vows taken by a Widow or Divorced Woman: Numbers 30:9-12 – “But any vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, anything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her. And if she vowed in her husband’s house, or bound herself by a pledge with an oath, and her husband heard of it, and said nothing to her, and did not oppose her; then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she bound herself shall stand. But if her husband makes them null and void on the day that he hears them, then whatever proceeds out of her lips concerning her vows, or concerning her pledge of herself, shall not stand: her husband has made them void, and the LORD will forgive her.
Vows of Sexual Abstinence: Numbers 30:13-15 – “Any vow and any binding oath to afflict herself, her husband may establish, or her husband may make void. But if her husband says nothing to her from day to day, then he establishes all her vows, or all her pledges, that are upon her; he has established them, because he said nothing to her on the day that he heard of them. But if he makes them null and void after he has heard of them, then he shall bear her iniquity.” (Context for the vows of a woman: Vows to “Afflict Herself”[a.k.a. Sexual abstinence or Chastity]; Torah scholar Jacob Milgrom writes that “afflicting oneself” was interpreted by ancient Jews as a practice of fasting and refraining from sexual intercourse. Further, these vows were permanent and binding.)
Knowing these details about the Hebrew culture, we should probably be less surprised that some Christian teachings emphatically preach the perpetual virginity of Mary as a righteous woman (pure example for Hebrews and a pure example for all of us). But, do the original founders of the Protestant movements agree with the Catholics on this point? Yes, in fact, they do.
“When Matthew says that Joseph did not know Mary carnally until she had brought forth her son, it does not follow that he knew her subsequently; on the contrary, it means that he never did know her … This babble [about Mary having multiple children] … is without justification … he has neither noticed nor paid any attention to either Scripture or the common idiom.” – Martin Luther, That Jesus was Born a Jew, 1523
“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. […] Christ … was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him … I am inclined to agree with those who declare that ‘brothers’ really mean ‘cousins’ here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers.” – Martin Luther, Sermons on John, 1539
“He who was about to remove our sins but not to make all men holy, must be himself holy. Hence God sanctified his mother: for it was fitting that such a holy Son should have a likewise holy mother….”; “I have never thought, still less taught, or declared publicly, anything concerning the subject of the ever Virgin Mary, Mother of our salvation, which could be considered dishonorable, impious, unworthy, or evil…I hope this is sufficient to have made plain to pious and simple Christians my clear conviction on the matter of the Mother of God: ‘I believe with all my heart according to the word of holy gospel that this pure virgin bore for us the Son of God and that she remained, in the birth and after it, a pure and unsullied virgin, for eternity.” – Ulrich Zwingli, Annotationes in Evangelium Lucae, and sermon on “Mary, ever virgin, Mother of God”, 1524
“Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ’s “brothers” are sometimes mentioned.” – John Calvin, Harmony of Matthew, Mark and Luke, sec. 39, 1562
“The inference he [Helvidius] drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband … No just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words … as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called “first-born”; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin … What took place afterwards the historian does not inform us … No man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation.” – John Calvin, ibid, 1562
“I believe that [Jesus] was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person; being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought Him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.” – John Wesley, Letter to a Roman Catholic, 1749
First, why is it that Calvin and Luther refuted the assertion that Jesus had brothers or sisters who came from the womb of the Virgin Mary? We have to go back to the scriptures to find out because there are few confusing parts to this conclusion.
Christ tells us:
Mark 3:35 – “For whosoever shall do the will of God, he is my brother, and my sister, and mother.”
And the Apostle Paul tells us:
Hebrews 2:11 – “For both the One who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are of the same family. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.”
This association of the followers of Christ as family members would then leave Mary, by proxy, as the Mother of Christ’s brothers and sisters. To further this point, Jesus says this exactly to the Apostle John who remains at the foot of the Cross with Christ during the Crucifixion.
John 19:26-27 – “When Jesus saw His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then He said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” So from that hour, this disciple took her into his home.”
We must take into account the fact that John’s mother Salome was not only living, but watching the crucifixion when Christ commits His mother May to be John’s spiritual mother.
And, Paul talks of his brothers in Christ when he wrote every single epistle in the New Testament. And, Paul refers to both Timothy and Titus also as his children of the faith. Christianity is a familial relationship to one another, all children of God the Father.
1 Corinthians 1:10 – “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
This tradition carries on today and is the reason why we use the word “Pope”, derived from the Latin word for Father to talk about the head of the Church. And, this explains also why we call Priests: “Father”, Nuns: “Sister” and “Mother”, and Monks: “Brother”.
When we go back beyond the Latin into ancient Aramaic/Hebrew, we find that there is no word for: aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, or cousin; thus everyone is either mother, father, brother, or sister: Genesis 14:14 (where the Aramaic/Hebrew word: “brother” is used to describe relationship between Abram & Lot) and Genesis 29:15. Examples include:
– Laban is called the “brother” of Jacob even though Laban was Jacob’s uncle
– The sons of Oziel and Aaron were called “brothers”, but they were cousins
– The sons of Cis were called “brothers”, but they were cousins
– The daughters of Elezar were called “brothers”, but they were cousins
– The word brother was used for allies in Amos 1:9
There is no Hebrew/Aramaic word, the spoken language of Jesus, for relations beyond brother, sister, father, or mother. This means that Hebrews spoke of one another as immediate family regardless of how separated their relation. Thus the following passages talk of Jesus with either his near relatives or siblings in faith:
Matthew 13:55-56 – “Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things?”
Mark 6:3 – “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.”
Second, who was this Helvidius criticized by Protestant leaders? Well we don’t know much about him other than through the writings of St. Jerome, the man responsible for translating the Scriptures into Latin to assemble the Latin Vulgate. We know tha t Helvidius started writing prior to 383 against the notion of the perpetual virginity of Mary. But, from what we can gather from Jerome’s writings, Helvidius loosely based his assertions on Tertullian and Victorinus who did not have substantiating information to refute the teachings of the Church.
“[Helvidius] produces Tertullian as a witness [to his view] and quotes Victorinus, bishop of Petavium. Of Tertullian, I say no more than that he did not belong to the Church. But as regards Victorinus, I assert what has already been proven from the gospel—that he [Victorinus] spoke of the brethren of the Lord not as being sons of Mary but brethren in the sense I have explained, that is to say, brethren in point of kinship, not by nature. [By discussing such things we] are . . . following the tiny streams of opinion. Might I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men, who against [the heretics] Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus, held these same views and wrote volumes replete with wisdom. If you had ever read what they wrote, you would be a wiser man” – St. Jerome, Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary, 19, 383 AD
Whether or not the Scriptures talk of brothers and sisters of the faith as Paul had written or simply blood cousins as Jerome, Luther, and Calvin had posited, all agreed: Mary was a virgin her entire life on earth. And, here is what other Church Fathers had to say on the topic of Mary’s perpetual virginity:
“Let those, therefore, who deny that the Son is by nature from the Father and proper to his essence deny also that he took true human flesh from the ever-virgin Mary” – St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Discourses Against the Arians, 2:70, 360 AD
“For if Joseph had taken her to be his wife, for the purpose of having children, why would she have wondered at the announcement of maternity, since she herself would have accepted becoming a mother according to the law of nature?” – St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Generation of Christ, Ch 5, prior to 378 AD
“Let, then, the life of Mary be as it were virginity itself, set forth in a likeness, from which, as from a mirror, the appearance of chastity and the form of virtue is reflected. From this you may take your pattern of life, showing, as an example, the clear rules of virtue: what you have to correct, to effect, and to hold fast.” – St. Ambrose, Concerning Virginty, 2:2:6, 377 AD
“It was not the visible sun, but its invisible Creator who consecrated this day for us, when the Virgin Mother, fertile of womb and integral in her virginity, brought him forth, made visible for us, by whom, when he was invisible, she too was created. A Virgin conceiving, a Virgin bearing, a Virgin pregnant, a Virgin bringing forth, a Virgin perpetual. Why do you wonder at this, O man?” – St. Augustine, Sermons 186.1, (c. 400 AD)
“[T]he Word himself, coming into the Blessed Virgin herself, assumed for himself his own temple from the substance of the Virgin and came forth from her a man in all that could be externally discerned, while interiorly he was true God. Therefore he kept his Mother a virgin even after her childbearing” – St. Cyril of Alexandria, Against Those Who Do Not Wish to Confess That the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God 4, 430 AD
St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the Doctors of the Church, summarized the teachings on the entire religion of Christianity. He summarized the error of Helvidius and made points to rationalize why Mary was to be a virgin her entire life:
“Without any hesitation we must abhor the error of Helvidius, who dared to assert that Christ’s Mother, after His Birth, was carnally known by Joseph, and bore other children.
For, in the first place, this is derogatory to Christ’s perfection: for as He is in His Godhead the Only-Begotten of the Father, being thus His Son in every respect perfect, so it was becoming that He should be the Only-begotten son of His Mother, as being her perfect offspring.
Secondly, this error is an insult to the Holy Ghost, whose “shrine” was the virginal womb, wherein He had formed the flesh of Christ: wherefore it was unbecoming that it should be desecrated by intercourse with man.
Thirdly, this is derogatory to the dignity and holiness of God’s Mother: for thus she would seem to be most ungrateful, were she not content with such a Son; and were she, of her own accord, by carnal intercourse to forfeit that virginity which had been miraculously preserved in her.
Fourthly, it would be tantamount to an imputation of extreme presumption in Joseph, to assume that he attempted to violate her whom by the angel’s revelation he knew to have conceived by the Holy Ghost.
We must therefore simply assert that the Mother of God, as she was a virgin in conceiving Him and a virgin in giving Him birth, did she remain a virgin ever afterwards.” – St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III.28.3, (c. 1274)
What if Mary had taken vows of chastity? If so, then these following passages from the Gospels make more sense in line with the passages of Numbers 30 and the previous commentary of the Protestant Reformers and the Church Fathers:
Matthew 1:19 – “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.“ (Joseph’s faithfulness and righteousness compelled him to respect Mary’s vows of chastity; he would not suffer the sin of knowing her after Gabriel talked to both him and her.)
Luke 1:34 – “But Mary said to the angel, How shall this be, since I know not a man?“ (Mary referring to more than her present state, but also her lifelong vows of chastity; Joseph would have been bound by the vow of purity/chastity)
Paul, a former Pharisee, saw virtue in virginity in agreement with the previous passages:
1 Corinthians 7:34-40 – “An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better. A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.“
So What Changed?
Now is the point at which we must ask ourselves: Why did the views on the perpetual virginity of Mary change? What happened in the past 200 years to encourage some Christians to challenge the topic on the behaviors and actions of the Mother of God? Why did sex and procreation become such a sticking point to so many Protestants? Further, if individuals can personally disregard parts of the Scriptures and the Christian tradition, what prevents them from reinterpreting any other part of the faith, whether or not it is Scripturally-based?
The long-held tradition of the Church, is that Mary was and is a Blessed Virgin for all time; exhibiting perfection in all virtue, chastity included, according to the abundant graces of God bestowed upon her, Mother of the Son of God. And, this traditional view aligns with the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
Thank God for Mary the Mother of God and her Immaculate Heart.
May God bless you all!
Did you know that Mary had a prayer in the bible?
Mary spoke her own prayer within the Gospel of Luke. To Catholics, her prayer is known as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55):
“And Mary said: My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid: for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. Because he that is mighty hath done great things to me: and holy is his name. And his mercy is from generation unto generations, to them that fear him. He hath shewed might in his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath received Israel his servant, being mindful of his mercy. As he spoke to our fathers: to Abraham and to his seed forever.”