The Church has always witnessed to Mary’s virginity
Since the days of the early Church, Eastern Orthodox Christians have historically rejected the claim that the Virgin Mary had any other children, and they protected her ever-virginity. In the West, Mary’s perpetual virginity was largely undisputed until late in the Reformation; even Luther and Calvin accepted the tradition. Some opponents of this doctrine suggest that it appeared after the Apostolic Age. However, this is unlikely considering the Church fought heresy on a constant basis. Thus, it is ludicrous to suggest such an essential doctrine was just arbitrarily proclaimed on a universal level without any discussion within the Church.
Sexual purity is possible
In a secularized world dominated by sex and sexuality, it is no wonder people find it “impossible” to resist their sexual desires. At the root of the denial of Mary’s perpetual virginity lies disdain for that which is pure. And this disdain has led to the shunning of virginity in popular culture. So many people simply assume it is impossible to remain sexually pure in such a culture, and they project that belief backward through history.
However, the lives of monastics and ascetics around the world through the centuries attest to the fact that sexual purity is a challenge we can achieve with the Lord’s help. Sexual purity is but one of many challenges we may encounter in our walk with Christ. The Orthodox have no difficulty, then, considering the ever-virginity of Mary a nonnegotiable fact and its alternative unthinkable. But why insist on the idea that the Virgin Mary did not go on to have a “normal” married life and bear other children?
Mary was set apart to God
The Church insists on this because God set the Virgin Mary apart. To argue against Mary’s perpetual virginity implies that neither Mary nor Joseph thought it inappropriate to have sexual relations after the Virgin gave birth to God in the flesh. Setting aside the uniqueness of the Incarnation, devout Jews were also expected to refrain from sexual activity following any manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
For example, an early first-century rabbinical tradition notes that Moses “separated himself” from his wife Zipporah when he returned from his encounter with God in the burning bush. Another tradition, concerning the choosing of the elders in Numbers 7, relates that after God worked among them, one man exclaimed, “Woe to the wives of these men!” Whether these stories relate actual events or not, they express the popular piety in Israel at the time of the birth of Christ. That culture understood virginity and abstinence as something one naturally took up once the Lord consecrated him / her as a vessel of salvation to His people.
Mary became the vessel for the Lord of Glory Himself. Would this not have been grounds to consider her life, including her body, as consecrated to God and God alone? Consider Ezekiel 44:2 here.
And what of Joseph?
Then there is Joseph to consider. Surely Christ’s miraculous conception and birth would have been enough to convince him that his marriage was set apart from the norm. Within Mary’s very body had dwelt the second Person of the Trinity. If touching the ark of the covenant cost Uzzah his life, and if the people venerated even the scrolls containing the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, certainly Joseph would neither have dared nor desired to approach Mary, the chosen of Israel, the throne of God, to request his “conjugal rights”.
Addressing arguments against Mary’s perpetual virginity
Should you ever find yourself discussing this topic with someone, below are some of the most common Scriptural passages used to falsely justify Mary having other children after the birth of Jesus Christ. A careful study of Scripture clearly articulates the refutation of any objections against the Ever-Virginity of Mary. And it puts to shame those who teach differently.
“After the birth of Jesus,” said the false teacher Helvidius in the 4th century, “Mary entered into conjugal life with Joseph and had from him children, who are called in the Gospels the brothers and sisters of Christ”. Many of these false teachers cite Matthew 1:25 to substantiate the claim that Mary and Joseph had relations after Christ’s birth.
However, note that words in English do not always convey the fullness of a word’s meaning in another language. This is especially true when reading Scripture, which was written in either Hebrew or Greek. While the English word “until” almost always indicates change after the fact, in the ancient languages of the Bible, this is not always the case.
For instance, all of the following passages use the word “until” or “till”: Deuteronomy 34:6, 2 Samuel 6:23, Psalm 72:7 and 110:1, Matthew 11:23 and 28:20, Romans 8:22, and 1 Timothy 4:13. Yet in none of them does it indicate a necessary change. Following that faulty logic, we would have to agree that Jesus will at some point stop sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that He intends to abandon the Church!
The use of “until” in this particular verse simply clarifies that Christ was not conceived by Joseph and Mary through sexual relations, who had not known each other prior to Christ’s birth. This therefore inherently protects Christ’s identity as the Incarnate God, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. The verse says nothing, and indicates nothing, about the Virgin Mary having other children; it merely explains what did not happen between her and Joseph, before Christ was born.
Christ as “firstborn”
Those who insist the Virgin Mary had other children may also cite the word “firstborn,” prototokos in Greek, also found in Matthew 1:25. Like we said above with regard to the word “until/till”, the Greek word prototokos has a different semantic range than the English word firstborn. In English, this usually (but not always) implies the existence of subsequent children; but with prototokos, there is no such implication. In Hebrews 1:6, for example, the same word prototokos refers to the Incarnation of the Word of God. To remain consistent, we would therefore have to accept that there is a “second-born” Word of God out there somewhere.
Moreover, none of the Scriptural passages containing the word “prototokos/firstborn” use the word to express merely the order of birth. Instead Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:15, 18, Hebrews 11:28 and 12:23, and Revelation 1:5, all apply this title to Jesus as the privileged and legal Heir of the Kingdom, attesting that He is truly “first in all things”. To the contemporary ear, a better translation might indeed be “heir,” which is similarly silent on the subject of other children and carries the same legal and poetic force that is intended by “firstborn.”
The Lord’s “brothers”
You may also hear that the mention of Christ’s “brothers” is proof that the Virgin Mary gave birth to other children aside from Christ. There are nine passages to which this might refer: Matthew 12:46-47 and 13:55-56; Mark 3:31-32 and 6:3; Luke 8:19-20; John 2:12 and 7:3-5; Acts 1:14; and 1 Corinthians 9:5. The Greek word used in all these passages and generally translated “brother” is adelphos, which can also be (and often is) translated as “cousin,” “kinsman,” “fellow believer,” or “fellow countryman,” if no specific family relation is indicated. We find adelphos consistently throughout the Septuagint (LLX), even when the relation between the two people is clear (such as in Genesis 14:14, 16; 29:12; Leviticus 25:49; Jeremiah 32:8, 9, 12; etc.). Perhaps the best example is Lot, the nephew of Abraham (cf. Genesis 11:27-31), referred to as Abraham’s brother a chapter or so later (Genesis 13:8).
What we need from Scripture to substantiate the claim that the Lord had biological siblings is a clear statement establishing that they were borne of the Virgin Mary. But, of course, such a statement does not exist. Nowhere does the Scripture state that Mary is the mother of Jesus’ brothers. And there are, in fact, other passages that prove she definitely is not their mother.
Woman, behold thy son…
Perhaps the best counterargument to the claim that the Virgin Mary had other children is John 19:26-27, and a close examination of the women at the Cross in Matthew 27:55-56.
In John 19:26-27, as our Lord dies on the Cross, He commits His Mother into the care of St. John. Jewish custom dictated that the care of a mother would fall to the second born if the firstborn died; and if the widow had no other child she must take care of herself. Therefore, if the Virgin Mary had other biological children, why did Jesus not pass her care off to the second born? The sons of Joseph obviously did not consider themselves obliged to take care of her (their stepmother), otherwise one of them would have come forward to care for the Virgin Mary in St. John’s place.
The women at the Cross
But if the “brothers of the Lord” are not Christ’s biological siblings, then who are they? We find the answer by carefully studying the women at the cross in the different Gospel accounts. From Matthew, we have:
- Mary Magdalene
- the mother of the sons of Zebedee
- Mary the Mother of James and Joseph
In Mark, the women are:
- Mary Magdalene
- Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses
And in John, the women are:
- Mary Magdalene
- Christ’s Mother
- His mother’s sister, Mary wife of Clopas
Let’s focus on the third woman in each list. Note that in Matthew 13:55 and in Mark 6:3, before the Evangelists identify the women at the Cross, they list the Lord’s brothers as James, Joseph / Joses, Simon, and Judas. It is inconceivable that the evangelists would both refer to the Lord’s Mother at the foot of the Cross as the mother of James and Joseph, but not call her the Mother of Jesus as well. Thus, it seems beyond reasonable dispute that this third Mary, the wife of Clopas, is also the mother of James and Joses.
Following St. John’s account, this then means that Mary the wife of Clopas is the “sister” of the Theotokos. The Jewish Christian historian Hegisippus confirms this. According to Eusebius, Hegisippus “belonged to the first generation after the apostles” and related that Clopas was the brother of Joseph, foster-father of Christ. Therefore, Mary the wife of Clopas is indeed the Virgin Mary’s “sister”, in that she was her sister-in-law. The puzzle therefore fit together, with Mary remaining ever-virgin, and her sister-in-law being the mother of the Lord’s “brothers”.
Why Mary’s ever-virginity is important
Our kind and loving God prepared the Virgin Mary’s role in our salvation from the beginning of the ages. The entire history of Israel – the patriarchs, the psalms, the prophets, the giving of the commandments – converged in this young woman. And this young woman answered the way all of us should answer: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). But her purpose in salvation history does not end here.
God does not simply cast the Virgin Mary aside after she fulfilled her role in bearing God in the flesh. Instead her whole being and life continues to point us without distraction toward her Son. At the wedding of Cana in Galilee she tells the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it” (John 2:5). At her Son’s crucifixion, she stands fast at the foot of the Cross, refusing to leave His side. By stating that “all generations shall call me blessed,” Mary was not vainly contemplating her own uniqueness. Instead, she was proclaiming the wonder that her life’s purpose was to manifest God’s glorious victory in His Christ for all time. She is, as one Orthodox theologian said, the great example of how to live the Christian life.