About two years ago I ran into a fellow Catholic and we had a discussion on the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Mother. I recall she was reluctant to accept this as humanly possible. The modern mind ask: who would enter into marriage and agree to be celibate ? Mary is exceptional but why would Joseph agree to something like this ? Occasionally, non-Catholics will challenge this teaching of the Catholic Church. However, the answer is in scripture and supported by the Early Church Fathers.
First thing to consider is the discourse between Gabriel and the Blessed Mother in regards to her implicit vow of virginity. Let’s consider Luke 1:26-34.
“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth,to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.And coming to her, he said, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.”But she was greatly troubled at what was said and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father,and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” But Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
Let’s look at the word “betrothed”. In ancient Israel when you were betrothed, you were already married but there was a period where the wife and husband lived apart. Afterwards, the wife was brought into the husband’s home and the marriage was consummated. You’ll notice also the Blessed Mother says she has no relations with man. In other translations, it says “I do not know man”. The expression “knew” is commonly utilized for marital relations. However, it’s used in a perpetual sense and not restricted to just one point in time. So how on earth is this even conceivable ? Numbers 30 gives the answer. Numbers 30:6-8, 13-16 discusses vows of abstinence for married women. A married woman would maintain the vow of abstinence for life unless of course after her husband being aware of it could make the vow void. So Joseph accepted such a vow and there’s even more scripture to support this.
“Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’….When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus” Matthew 1:20-21, 24-25
So some people are thinking a ha ! This disproves Blessed Mother remained a virgin. Not quite. First, let’s consider the statement “he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son”. The Greek word used for “know” is heos. Heos simply means “until” describing a certain period of time. It does not indicate change afterwards. In fact, this same Greek word is used in the same context in Matthew 22:44, Matthew 28:20, and 2 Samuel 6:23. Also, let’s consider her role as the New Ark of the Covenant. If you acknowledge the Blessed Mother being the New Ark of Covenant and understand what the “ark of the covenant” truly is, Joseph honoring her vow makes sense. After all, someone dies in 2 Samuel 6 for touching it wrong because it contained God’s presence. How much more so does she play as the new Ark ?
There’s another claim that the perpetual virginity can’t be valid because she had other children.
“There were many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him. Among them were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” Matthew 27:55
Let’s address the Mary that’s referenced in the passage first. In John 19:25-27, there is a mention of another Mary, wife of Clopas, who is described as the Blessed Mother’s sister. However, the Greek word used is adelphe which is used to describe someone other than a blood sister. Also, you see in this passage that Jesus gives the Blessed Mother to the apostle John. This point is critical because in ancient Israel it was a grave sin to not care for one’s aging parents and would have been unheard of to give his mother to anyone else other than her children, unless of course she didn’t have other children. Saint Athanasius makes this very point in his writings.
In regards to the issue with Jesus having brothers, here’s another passage to consider:
“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own cousins, and his own house” Mark 6:3-4
The Greek word used “brother” is adelphoi and Greek word for “cousin” is syngeneis. During that time, they could be used as synonyms to describe relatives. Thus, we are not dealing with biological brothers here. In the Greek Septuagint, Genesis 14:14 uses a similar term. Abraham is described as Lot’s brother but Lot was actually his nephew.
About a year ago I recommended Dr. Brant Pitre’s book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary.
Dr. Pitre does an exceptional job on describing Mary’s full identity, including the issue of her perpetual virginity. When we read scripture and consider the faith, we have to be assured we’re reading passages in their proper context, keeping in mind history and ancient dynamics that the modern mind might overlook.