Friday, December 21, 2007

ASK THE PASTOR: Did Mary remain a virgin?

Did Mary (in the Bible) remain a virgin after giving birth to Jesus?

This question came to me back in November, but being so close to the Christmas season I thought it more timely to answer it in December. Many think this is a silly question, though in fact it is very important for two reasons. (1) Many individuals get quickly offended at the idea of Mary having sexual relations with Joseph, her husband; and (2) there is an entire philosophy of sexuality "behind the scenes" of this discussion of which most people are not aware.

Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and many Lutheran believers maintain what is called the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. In this view, Mary is said to have never actually married Joseph (the Bible speak of her only being betrothed, or engaged). They believe that after the birth of Jesus, Mary did not engage in sexual relations with Joseph and remained a virgin for the rest of her life.

A quick look at the Biblical evidence does not support this verse. Matthew 1:15 says, "
But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus." Here scripture maintains that her virginity was only temporary, and clearly indicates a future time when she would have marital relations with Joseph. John 7:5 and Matthew 13:55 also speak of (and Matthew even names) Jesus' brothers. Thus, after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary finalized their marriage, engaged in sexual relations, and produced other children.

However, for the past 1,800 years many in the church have denied this biblical data. They maintain that "brothers" refers to others Christians (such as Paul uses the word "brothers" to denote fellow believers). However, in the context of the Gospels such a usage is unnatural and, frankly, impossible.

What is driving this "need" to maintain the virginity of Mary? To be honest, it is a very low view of sexuality. In the Early Church period, Tertullian claimed the "marriage and adultery ...are not intrinsically different, but only in the degree of their illegitimacy". In this period, the church fathers quickly rejected sexuality as base and immoral, and therefore glorified virginity and celibacy. By the fifth century, clerics were forbidden from marriage.

Augustine would commend married couples who abstained from sex. Jerome said that the only good of marriage was that it produced (through childbirth) virgins. Chrysostom said that Adam and Eve could not have had sexual relations before the Fall. Both Origen and Gregory of Nyssa agreed, and theorized how reproduction would have taken place if man never fell into sin. Origen believed the human race would have been propagated by some mysterious angelic manner, and Gregory suggested we would have reproduced by some manner of vegetation! The church would continually add days to the church calendar which prohibited married couples from engaging in sexual activity until the point where over half the year was prohibited. Those that reluctantly allowed marital relations strongly taught that it should be for the purpose of procreation only. Gregory the Great taught that desire for one's spouse sinfully befouls the sex act.

Of course, when one holds such a low opinion of sexuality, it will not do to have Mary, the mother of Jesus, engaging in such behavior. Their logic goes something like this:

A. Sex is shameful, morally base, and possibly even sinful.
B. Mary was a model of Christian virtue.
C. Therefore, Mary couldn't have engaged in sex.

Of course, no one disagrees with statement B. Statement C cannot be directly discredited because it is produced by statements A and B. Therefore, we must look at Statement A. Is sex shameful, morally base, and perhaps sinful?

Absolutely not! Sex was instituted by God from the very beginning. God commanded man to leave his father and mother and "cleave" (a sexual term) to his bride. Song of Solomon tells the story of two lovers who find deep pleasure in marital relations. Paul the apostle commands married couples to never forbid physical relations to one another. Love and holy sexuality abound throughout Scripture. Is sex a source of evil and temptation? Certainly, but the problem is not with sex, the problem is with sin. Sex is not inherently evil, though it is certainly corrupted by sin (as is everything).

Mary finished her engagement period to Joseph and eventually became his wife. They enjoyed each other, and bore the fruit of that pleasure (other children). Instead of viewing this as something that detracts from Mary's virtue, we should see it as something that adds to it.

Questions for Pastor Josh can be submitted via Email. "Ask the Pastor" is a feature in the monthly newsletter of Indian River Baptist Church. This blog republishes those Questions, along with others not selected for print publication.


  1. If Mary and Joseph had other children then where are they in the infancy and early years of Jesus? Where are they at the nativity? Where are they when the Holy Family is in Egypt? Where are they when Jesus is twelve and stays behind in Jerusalem? (Luke 2:41-51) Are we to believe that Mary and Joseph had no other children for twelve years and then suddenly became fertile?

    At the crucifixion, Mary alone is present from the family of Jesus? Where are his so-called brothers?

    In John 19:25, Mary has a sister who is also called Mary. Her husband is named Clopas.

    Matt 27:56,61 the "other Mary", the sister of the mother of Jesus, has two sons named James and Joseph.

    Mark 6:3, James and Joseph are called brothers of Jesus, but are clearly his cousins. Hebrew has no word for cousin that is separate from brother.

    Gen 29:15, Laban calls Jacob his "brother" even though Jacob is his nephew because in Hebrew "brother" can mean a cousin, a nephew, or a full brother.

    Deut 23:7, the Edomites are called the "brother" of the Israelites, even though they are distant kin.

    1 Chron 15:5-10, the "brethren" means the male members of the extended family.

    Compare Luke 1:39-56 with 2 Samuel 6:2-18. The ark is a type that prefigures Mary. In these verses, Mary (the Ark) arose and went / David arose and went to the Ark. John the Baptist / King David leap for joy before Mary / Ark. Mary / the Ark remained in the house for about three months.

    The ark cannot be touched by man. It is to remain ever pure from human hands. The ark contains the Word of God in the form of stone tablets. Mary contains the Word of God in the incarnate form of Jesus.

    Justin Martyr, circa 155 AD, in Dialogue with Trypho, 100:

    "He became man by the Virgin, in order that the disobedience which proceeded from the serpent might receive its destruction in the same manner in which it derived its origin. For Eve, who was a virgin and undefiled, having conceived the word of the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy, when the angel Gabriel announced the good tidings to her that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her"

  2. Mark,

    Most of your comments are simply arguments from silence.Considering the brothers ill treatment of Jesus, it would be surprising if they were actually present at the crucifixion. Also, where in Luke 2:41-51 does it say that Jesus was the only child, or that no other children were with them? Again, an argument from silence!

    Since the Gospels are about Jesus, we wouldn't expect information on Jesus brothers--yet they clearly give us reference to them.

    Furthermore,Greek does have a word for cousin (anepsios). Since the New Testament was written in Greek, it is inconceivable that the Gospel writers wouldn't have used this term.

    I would also challenge you as to why you feel the need to defend this so much. What do you lose if Mary married and had other children? Is she less holy because she bore more image-bearers of God? Is sexuality within the confines of marriage an evil thing?