When we Catholics talk about Mary the mother of Jesus, we often insert the word “virgin” somewhere into her name. For example, two of her most popular names are the Virgin Mary and the Blessed Virgin. We do this because we believe that Mary remained a virgin her entire life. Her perpetual virginity is one of her defining features.
However, not all Christians agree with us on this point. The Bible is clear that Mary conceived and gave birth to Jesus as a virgin (Matthew 1:18, 22-25; Luke 1:31-37), but it doesn’t explicitly tell us that she remained a virgin for the rest of her life. In fact, it tells us that Jesus had brothers and sisters (Matthew 13:55-56, Mark 6:3, 1 Corinthians 9:5, Galatians 1:19), so most Protestants believe that Mary and Joseph had a normal sexual life after Jesus’ birth. As a result, they often claim that our belief in her perpetual virginity is unbiblical.
So what can we say about this? Is there any way to defend our belief on this topic? Like I said, Scripture doesn’t explicitly teach the perpetual virginity of Mary, but if we look closely at what it does say about her, we can find the dogma implied very strongly.
“Behold Your Mother”
First, let’s look at a scene from the Gospel of John. Right before Jesus died, as he was hanging on the cross, he looked at his mother and the Apostle John (called “the disciple whom he loved” in this Gospel) standing close by, and he charged John with caring for her (John 19:26-27). At first, this may not seem like it has much to do with our topic, but it implies that Mary did not have any other children. If she did, Jesus would not have told someone outside his family to care for her. Rather, one of his siblings would have done that, so he would not have needed to bother about it. However, since he did make arrangements for one of His disciples to care for his mother, he almost certainly had no siblings who could have done it.
Now, it is possible that Mary and Joseph had normal sexual relations as spouses but simply did not have any other children after Jesus. That is unlikely, but it is possible, so we need to supplement this argument with something else to really show that Mary did in fact remain a virgin her entire life.
“How Can This Be?”
To do that, let’s turn to the Gospel of Luke. When the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would be the mother of the Messiah, she was puzzled and responded:
How can this be, since I have no husband? (Luke 1:34)
Before we talk about what Mary’s response means, we have to talk a bit about the absolutely horrendous translations we have of this verse. Most modern English Bibles have something like the translation I quoted, but that is not what the original Greek text actually says. In Greek, Mary’s response is literally “How will this be, since I do not know man?” That is not good idiomatic English, so most translations today try to make it say something we modern westerners can understand. Unfortunately, in doing so, they completely butcher the verse and obscure its meaning.
In the Bible, the idiom “to know someone” means to have sex with them, like when the book of Genesis tells us that Adam “knew Eve his wife” and bore a son (Genesis 4:1), so when Mary said that she did not “know man,” she was saying that she did not have sex. Now, there are a few different ways we can take this. For one, we can take it to mean simply that Mary was a virgin when the angel Gabriel announced this to her. However, that doesn’t make much sense; the fact that she had never has sex before was irrelevant. Since she was betrothed to Joseph (Luke 1:27), she would have just expected to have sex with him at some point in the future when their marriage was complete (in ancient Jewish culture, betrothal was kind of in between being engaged and being fully married), and she would have conceived her son then. As a result, she could not have meant that she was a virgin.
Another possible interpretation is that Mary wasn’t having sex at that current moment, but that is just ridiculous, so we do not need to dwell on it. Consequently, the only explanation left is that she knew she would never have sex in the future. That may sound odd, so let me use an analogy to explain it. If someone tells me about a great new cigarette brand I should try, my response would be that I do not smoke. When I say that, I do not mean that I have never smoked in the past or that I am currently not smoking. Rather, I mean that smoking is simply not something I have any interest in doing either now or in the future. Similarly, when Mary told the angel Gabriel “I do not know man,” she did not mean that she had never had sex before or that she was not currently having sex. No, she meant that having sex was simply not something she ever intended to do, much like I never intend to smoke.
In other words, Mary must have taken a vow of virginity, so even though she was betrothed to Joseph, she knew that she was never going to have sex with him (or any other man). Now, we can wonder why she would have taken this vow or why she and Joseph would have wanted to get married if they were not going to have sex, but the fact remains that the only way to make sense of Mary’s question to Gabriel is to posit that she took a vow to remain a virgin her entire life. That is why she didn’t understand how she could have a son. If she didn’t take such a vow, she would have just assumed that she would have sex with Joseph and conceive a son the normal way at some point in the future, so her question would not make any sense. As a result, this verse pretty much requires us to believe that Mary did in fact remain a virgin her entire life.
However, our task is not done yet. Despite this strong evidence for Mary’s perpetual virginity, there is one very formidable argument against it that we need to deal with if we want to really show that the dogma is solidly founded in Scripture. Like I said before, the New Testament tells us that Jesus had brothers and sisters, so we need to explain how that fits with Mary’s perpetual virginity.
To begin, we need to recognize that ancient Jews used the word “brother” a bit more liberally than we do today. While we normally reserve it for literal blood brothers (although even we sometimes use it in a broader sense, such as for really close friends), they could describe just about any close relative as a brother. For example, in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, a man named Lot is called Abraham’s “brother” (Genesis 14:14, 16), but a few verses earlier it is made clear that he is actually Abraham’s nephew (Genesis 14:12). Consequently, we can see that even though there were people called Jesus’ brothers, it is possible that they were not his literal blood brothers.
Brothers from another Mother
However, we can go even further than this. We don’t have to settle for mere possibility; there is actually a very good reason to think that these brothers were in fact the sons of a different woman. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us that when Jesus was crucified, there were a few women “looking on from afar”:
There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him; among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. (Matthew 27:55-56)
There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. (Mark 15:40)
The key here is the two brothers James and Joseph/Joses (those are just two different Greek versions of the same name). Matthew and Mark don’t tell us who they are, but we can easily figure that out for ourselves. Earlier in both Gospels, these two men are called the brothers of Jesus (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3), so when we see these same names pop up again at Jesus’ crucifixion, it stands to reason that the evangelists did not identify them because they expected us to remember them from that earlier episode.
And in case there is any doubt about this, the alternate spellings of the second brother clinch the argument for us. When Matthew mentions Jesus’ brothers, he names them “James” and “Joseph” both times, but when Mark mentions them, he calls them “James” and “Joses” both times. As a result, when we see these same people in the crucifixion scene with the same alternate spellings of one brother’s name, the connection is unmistakable: Matthew and Mark were in fact talking about the men they earlier called Jesus’ brothers.
So how does all this show that these are not Jesus’ literal blood brothers? Somewhat counterintuitively, the key is the fact that they are called the sons of a woman named Mary. If their mother was in fact the mother of Jesus, why wouldn’t Matthew and Mark just say so? Why would they call her the mother of James and Joseph/Joses rather than just the mother of Jesus? While it is theoretically possible that this woman was in fact Jesus’ mother and the evangelists simply referred to her by her lesser-known sons, that just seems odd and out of place here. We would expect the mother of the main character to be identified as such, not as the mother of his much lesser-known siblings. As a result, this Mary was almost certainly a different woman, so these men were not literal blood brothers of Jesus; rather, they were his cousins.
Putting It All Together
When we combine all of this evidence, we have a very strong biblical basis for the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Granted, it’s never taught explicitly in the New Testament, but the two events we looked at imply it very strongly. In fact, Mary’s question to the angel Gabriel pretty much requires it. Like I said, it is possible that Mary had normal sexual relations with Joseph but did not have any other children, but her response to Gabriel’s message does not make sense unless Mary intended to remain a virgin her entire life. Moreover, the brothers of Jesus that the Gospel mentions were almost certainly his cousins, not his literal blood brothers, so the strongest argument against this dogma actually doesn’t hold up. As a result, we can be confident that our belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity is solidly rooted in Scripture.