Perpetual virginity?

The argument that Mary bore other sons is usually based on the use of the word “brothers” in the New Testament. In Aramaic, the everyday langiage of the first-century Near East, the word for any male relative is brother, the meaning being taken from the context. In the New Testament, the Apostles use the Greek word adelphos for:

  • Male children of the same parents (Mt 1:2)
  • Male descendants of the same parents (Acts 7:23)
  • Male children of the same mother (Gal 1:19)
  • People of the same nationality (Acts 3:17)
  • Any man, a neighbor (Lk 10:29)
  • Persons united by a common interest (Mt 5:47)
  • Persons united by a common calling (Rev 22:9)
  • Mankind (Mt 25:40)
  • The disciples (Mt 23:8)
  • Believers (Mt 23:8)

The second-century popular fiction now known as the Protevangelium purports to tell the story of Mary’s conceiving and bearing Christ. The writer emphasizes her virginity both before and after childbirth. Second-century readers approved, copied and widely shared this document, since to them this was normal Christianity – they didn’t hear anything strange in the story.

The idea of Mary’s not being a virgin first appears around 383 in an article by the Arian preacher Helvidius. The original article wasn’t preserved, but Jerome’s scandalized response is tract now called The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary.

The idea was not heard of again until well after the Protestant Reformation, when proponents of the Radical Reformation resurrected it. Calvin, Luther, and even Zwingli contended against this innovation.

The Protestant Reformers didn’t alter the belief in Mary’s virginity, but later the Radical Reformation began rewriting this among many other doctrines.

Among the responses of the founders of Protestantism to the new idea of Mary’s not being a virgin:

Martin Luther:

  • “It is an article of faith that Mary is Mother of the Lord and still a Virgin.”– Martin Luther, Weimar edition of Martin Luther’s Works, English translation edited by J. Pelikan [Concordia: St. Louis], Volume 11, 319-320.
  • “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.”– ibid., v.22:23 / Sermons on John, chaps. 1-4 (1539)
  • “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.”– ibid., v.22:214-15 / Sermons on John, chaps. 1-4 (1539)
  • “Scripture does not say or indicate that she later lost her virginity… When Matthew [1:25] 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… is without justification… he has neither noticed nor paid any attention to either Scripture or the common idiom.”– ibid., v.45:206,212-3 / That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew (1523)

John Calvin:

  • “Under the word ‘brethren’ the Hebrews include all cousins and other relations, whatever may be the degree of affinity.”– From Calvin’s Commentaries, tr. William Pringle, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949, vol. I, p. 283 / Commentary on John, (7:3)
  • “Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ’s ‘brothers’ are sometimes mentioned.”– ibid., p.215; on Matthew 13:55
  • [On Matt 1:25:] “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.”– ibid., vol. I, p. 107
  • “There have been certain folk who have wished to suggest that from this passage [Matt 1:25] that the Virgin Mary had other children than the Son of God, and that Joseph then dwelt with her later; but what folly this is! For the gospel writer did not wish to record what happened afterwards; he simply wished to make clear Joseph’s obedience and to show also that Joseph had been well and truly assured that it was God who had sent His angel to Mary. He had therefore never dwelt with her nor had he shared her company…And besides this, Our Lord Jesus Christ is called the first-born. This is not because there was a second or a third, but because the gospel writer is paying regard to the precedence. Scripture speaks thus of naming the first-born whether or not there was any question of the second.”– Sermon on Matthew 1:22-25, published 1562.

Ulrich Zwingli:

  • “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 used Exodus 4:22 to defend the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity.– Ulrich Zwingli, Zwingli Opera, Corpus Reformatorum, Volume 1, 424.
  • “I esteem immensely the Mother of God, the ever chaste, immaculate Virgin Mary.”– E. Stakemeier, De Mariologia et Oecumenismo, K. Balic, ed., (Rome, 1962), 456.

John Wesley:

  • “The Blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as when she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.”– Wesley, Letter to a Roman Catholic, 1749

It is interesting that this belief is not the result of a chain of logical deductions. The Church does not hold this belief because it must be true, or because some crucial dogma hangs on it: Christians have taught the ever-virginity of Mary from as far back as we have documentation, simply because they believe it is what happened.

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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