The perpetual virginity of Mary is the doctrine that Mary, the Theotokos, remained a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus Christ. This doctrine is affirmed by both Orthodox and Roman Catholics, but is disputed by many Protestant denominations who only hold to her virginity before, and during the birth of Christ, but not after. I will delve into the Bible verses often used and mount a defense for the Holy Theotokos, who is more exalted than the Cherubim and more honorable than the Seraphim. I pray my words are guided by God to be edifying for those reading and not to cause strife, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Matthew 1:25: “And he knew her not till she brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.” Other translations may say, “But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” This a common verse and interpretation to say the Bible is suggesting that sexual relations happened sometime after the birth of Jesus.
The use of the word “till” or “until” does not imply that Joseph had marital relations with Mary afterwards, in the original Greek it’s heos (ἕως) and it’s often used in scripture to connote not a finite period of time but rather an eternity. For example, Psalm 110 reads “God says to my Lord: Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.” By the interpretation of this verse, does this mean we are to leave the right hand of God after He makes our enemies our footstools? Assuredly not.
Genesis 28:15: “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Does God then leave after His promise is fulfilled? The interpretation does not follow, so when Matthew 1:25 says “until she gave birth to a son” does not mean she didn’t continue being a virgin afterwards.
Luke 2:7: “And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” The verse in claim 1 could be used as well in their assertion, because it includes the term “firstborn” which is an attempt to prove that Mary had children after Jesus.
This verse is simple to explain, firstborn was a common term simply indicating the first child birthed, the firstborn was primarily the heir of blessings in the family. Having a firstborn doesn’t prove any secondborn, thirdborn, etc. Firstborn is emphasized in scripture also because Christ is the firstborn over all of creation (see Colossians 1:15).
Matthew 13:55: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” Some other verses including the mention of brothers commonly referenced are Mark 3:31, Luke 8:19, Galatians 1:19, etc. The remark is that Jesus had brothers so this is clear evidence Mary was not always a virgin.
But we see in Acts 1:13 the following, “When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.“ If we are to take Matthew 13:55 as literal biological brothers then this means the Bible would contradict as Acts 1:13 lists both James and Judas as sons of those other than Joseph. Obviously, the Word of God does not contradict.
In the Hebrew-Aramaic tradition, brothers is a term that encompasses male cousins and relatives, the same conversely for sisters encompassing female cousins and relatives. If this seems like a stretch, let’s look at Genesis 14:16, “And he brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people.” Lot was Abraham’s nephew (Genesis 11:26-28), but is mentioned as his brother. Thus, the brothers of Christ are not literal biological brothers.
“When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” – John 19:26. Why does Jesus give the care of His mother to the apostle John if He had brothers? The usual argument is that Jesus’s “biological” brothers didn’t believe in Him as God at the time so He entrusted Mary to John instead of one of his literal brothers, but as already outlined above, the term brother in context doesn’t necessitate a literal brother. Just as when the Bible says “Is this not Joseph’s son?” we know this doesn’t necessitate Joseph being the actual father of Jesus. Whom of course is the Son of God.
Luke 4:22, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” & Luke 2:41, “
And his parents went every year to Jerusalem at the feast of the passover.” Joseph was told in the dream the child was conceived of the Holy Ghost, so he was well aware of it (Matthew 1:20). So why would he allow himself to be looked at as Jesus’s father? Jerome answers this in the next section in regards to Mary as well.
So we see even though Joseph is mentioned as the ‘father’ of our Lord, we know the actual context of this (Jesus is Son of God). Apply this similar context to Mary being mentioned as Joseph’s ‘wife.’
Helvidius around 383AD, was one of the first to claim the Mother of God was not Ever-Virgin. To which Jerome sharply refuted him, Jerome points out that Mary was betrothed to Joseph. And although we find it said to Joseph in a dream, “F
ear not to take Mary your wife;” inasmuch as she is called wife, she ceases to be betrothed to Joseph, for we know the title (wife) is used interchangeably with betrothed in Scripture. For example in Deuteronomy 22:24-25, “
If the man,
find the damsel that is betrothed in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her, he shall surely die, because he has humbled his neighbour’s wife.“ Deuteronomy 20:7 is another example.
Jerome gives us the reason why Mary conceived after being betrothed and not before she had no one betrothed to her, “First, that by the genealogy of Joseph, whose kinswoman Mary was, Mary’s origin might also be shown. Secondly, that she might not in accordance with the law of Moses be stoned as an adulteress. Thirdly, that in her flight to Egypt she might have some solace, though it was that of a guardian rather than a husband. For who at that time would have believed the Virgin’s word that she had conceived of the Holy Ghost, and that the angel Gabriel had come and announced the purpose of God? And would not all have given their opinion against her as an adulteress, like Susanna?”
So, we see even though Joseph is mentioned as the ‘father’ of our Lord, we know the actual context of this (Jesus is Son of God). Mary is mentioned as Joseph’s ‘wife’ and we know the context of this too (she was betrothed Ever-Virgin). Apply this same context now to the concept of “brother” (not literal/not also born of Mary).
Even the Reformers Martin Luther & John Calvin both affirm the perpetual virginity of Mary, with John Calvin speaking of the ‘brother’ argument in my 3rd claim saying, “Under the word ‘brethren’ the Hebrews include all cousins and other relations, whatever may be the degree of affinity.”
Typology // Old Testament
The book of Ezekiel shows prophecy fulfilled with Mary’s perpetual virginity in Ezekiel 44:1-2, “Then He brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary which faces toward the east, but it was shut. And the Lord said to me, “This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter by it, because the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut.” This reading tells about the east gate of the temple remaining shut even as the Lord, and He alone, goes through it. This is prophetic typology of Jesus being born of Mary with her virginity remaining intact.
For those unaware, typology is a method of biblical interpretation sometimes called “prophetic symbolism” that concerns the relationship of the Old Testament connecting to the New Testament. Just as we can find Jesus Christ foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament, so we can find Mary (and her perpetual virginity). Another example is Exodus 14 where Moses divides the waters to help Israel be freed from Egypt, they crossed the sea without a scratch and afterwards the sea remained impassable. So it is prefigures the Holy Theotokos, whom of which Jesus Christ came forth in human flesh to free us from death and sin as Israel was freed from Egypt, and Mary’s womb remained impassable and perpetually virgin like the sea was impassable after Israel made it through.
The Virgin Birth is a theme throughout the Old Testament, it’s found also in Exodus 16:33, “And Moses said unto Aaron, Take a golden pot, and put an omer full of manna therein, and lay it up before the Lord, to be kept for your generations.” Manna was a type of Christ as the bread of life, the golden pot was a type of the Mother of God, as Christ became the salvation of the world as the bread of life (manna) in her womb (golden pot). Other Old Testament examples of types/themes of the Theotokos include Numbers 17:16-23, Exodus 31:18, Isaiah 6:6, Daniel 3:19-50, Daniel 2:45, and Isaiah 7:14.
In The Church Fathers
“It was not the visible sun, but its invisible Creator who consecrated this day for us, when the Virgin Mother, fertile of womb and integral in her virginity, brought him forth, made visible for us, by whom, when he was invisible, she too was created. A Virgin conceiving, a Virgin bearing, a Virgin pregnant, a Virgin bringing forth, a Virgin perpetual. Why do you wonder at this, O man?” – St. Augustine Sermons 186:1 [A.D. 411]
“Don’t think that you have learned all, by hearing “of the Spirit”; nay, for we are ignorant of many things, even when we have learned this; as, for instance, how the Infinite is in a womb, how He that contains all things is carried, as unborn, by a woman; how the Virgin bears, and continues a virgin.” – St. John Chrysostom Homily on Matthew 4, 6.
“It was the birth that surpassed the established order of birthgiving, as it was without pain; for, where pleasure had not preceded, pain did not follow. And just as at His conception He had kept her who conceived Him virgin, so also at His birth did He maintain her virginity intact, because He alone passed through her and kept her shut [Ezekiel 44:1-3]. – St. John of Damascus Exposition of the Orthodox Faith Bk 4. Chapter 14.
“Let those, therefore, who deny that the Son is by nature from the Father and proper to his essence deny also that he took true human flesh from the ever-virgin Mary.” – St. Athanasius Discourses Against the Arians 2:70 [A.D. 360]
“The Word himself, coming into the Blessed Virgin herself, assumed for himself his own temple from the substance of the Virgin and came forth from her a man in all that could be externally discerned, while interiorly he was true God. Therefore he kept his Mother a virgin even after her childbearing.” – St. Cyril of Alexandria (Against Those Who Do Not Wish to Confess That the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God 4 [A.D. 430]
“Imitate her [Mary], holy mothers, who in her only dearly beloved Son set forth so great an example of material virtue; for neither have you sweeter children [than Jesus], nor did the Virgin seek the consolation of being able to bear another son.” – St. Ambrose of Milan Letters 63:111 [A.D. 388]
- Calvin, John. Harmony of Matthew, Mark & Luke, tr. William Pringle, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.) vol. I p. 283.
- The Orthodox Study Bible. St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology (2008).
- Jerome Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.)
- John Breck, Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church, New York: (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001).
- St. John of Damascus. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith Bk 4.
- “Pintpipeandcross” WordPress for many of the quotations.