After wading through the technical terminology of ‘typology’ and the theological implications of adoption and unity with Christ, it’s time to delve into something relatively simpler (at least on the surface). Who was Mary, from a human perspective? Specifically, what’s up with the doctrine of her perpetual virginity, and how does that work with (or against) the biblical information?
What is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity?
By way of a brief introduction for those new to the subject, the doctrine in question is the teaching that Mary was a virgin before, during, and after giving birth to Christ, and remained so for her entire life. She and Joseph had a perfectly chaste marriage. To many Protestants, this sounds like utter nonsense, anti-scriptural, and not even worth looking into. However, this doctrine is upheld by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox alike, as well as many early Protestants including Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Wesley. John Calvin seemed undecided on the matter, finding no argument against it in Scripture. So yes, it is a perspective upheld by heroes of nearly every Church denomination and tradition. But why?
The Bible does not outright tell us if Mary remained a virgin or not. And that’s not surprising; it’s probably not something Mary would have been going around telling everyone during her lifetime. The status of her sexual relationship (or lack thereof) with her husband was their private matter. One should not expect Scripture to speak to this matter one way or the other. All we can do is see if the Bible contradicts the claim of her perpetual virginity.
Two major lines of argument are raised against the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary: Matthew 1:24-25 and the several references to Jesus’ siblings.
Answering the challenge of Matthew 1:24-25
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 given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
Reading these verses, it seems to say that Joseph remained chaste with Mary only until Jesus had been born. That’s what it sounds like in English, anyway. The trick is, this was written in Greek, and the world “until” is εως (eos), which has a wider range of meaning that its English counterpart. You can read my investigation of this word in this older post “Rethinking the word Until.” The short answer is that this neither proves nor disproves that Joseph and Mary had intercourse after the birth of Jesus, only that they didn’t before the birth of Jesus. It supports the virgin birth, but does not inform us conclusively about what they did after.
Answering the challenge of Jesus’ siblings
Well, Wikipedia has a section on this question. Actually it’s got two. To summarize them briefly, there are two answers offered by early Christians about what the deal is with Jesus’ brothers and sisters. The first is that those siblings are actually his cousins. The Greek words used for brothers and sisters can indeed be used to refer to cousins, but not often. Here’s a family tree illustrating this view:
The second answer is that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were legal half-brothers and half-sisters, being the children of Joseph from a previous marriage. Here’s a family tree to illustrate this view:
Is there a positive argument for the perpetual virginity?
So far all we’ve done is see how the Bible doesn’t rule out the possibility. And I’ve already admitted that the Bible doesn’t outright tell us anything conclusive about Mary’s sex life anyway. So no, there is no proof in the Bible. And yet, somehow enough Christians all over the Roman Empire by the 3rd century were absolutely convinced of “Mary Ever-Virgin.” Sure, perhaps word got out later in her life, or after her death. Even more helpful is the fact that the first couple generations of Christians in Judea would’ve known first-hand if Mary had any children of her own. So the widespread belief in her perpetual virginity confirmed so early in Christian history makes a compelling case for the possibility. Nevertheless, it would help if the Bible had any typological or prophetic information regarding this aspect of Mary.
Typology: the Ark of the Covenant
In that mysterious book, the Apocalypse of John (or Revelation for short), we find the following vision:
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. (11:19)
What an exciting moment for Jewish-Christian readers! The long-lost Ark of the Covenant not mentioned since 2 Maccabees 2 is finally seen again! So they eagerly read on to see John’s description of the Ark…
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. … And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. (12:1-2, 4b-6)
Instead of a gold-covered box with golden cherubim on top with rings and acacia wood poles, John describes a woman. A woman whose story sounds remarkably like Mary’s. What’s going on? The answer is alarmingly simple: Mary is the Ark of the Covenant.
The Old Covenant, mediated by Moses, had the Ark as its icon. Aaron’s budded staff, a jar of manna, and first of all, the stone tablets of the Law were placed inside it. The word of God in stone was housed inside the Ark of the Old Covenant. Meanwhile, the word of God in flesh was housed inside the womb of Mary. As the Ark bore the written word of God, so too did Mary bare the Word made flesh. The Ark, then, is a type of Mary. (Remember the definition of typology – the Ark was real, Mary was real, and the prophetic foreshadowing link between them is real.)
With that typology established, we can potentially learn about Mary from what we know about the Ark. One of the Ark’s most prominent features was its extreme holiness. It was constantly wrapped up in a veil or housed in the Holy of Holies. Hardly anyone ever got to see the Ark directly. Only a select few could even touch it without suffering the immediate and fatal wrath of God.
What could this mean for Mary? In what sense is the holiness of the Ark manifested in her? One common image for holiness before God is that of virginity. Both St. Paul and St. John use the image in their New Testament writings. Could it be that Mary’s holiness before God was exhibited by virginity? The Bible offers no clear answer, again, but the possibility is there.
Wait, wouldn’t giving birth put a damper on all this, anyway?
Hahaha, almost got away without mentioning this. Martin Luther has a handy quote for this question. It comes down to Jesus – there are multiple ways in which he exists. (The following is quoted from the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, and there’s a longer version of this argument in his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper.)
…the uncircumscribed, spiritual mode of presence according to which He neither occupies nor yields space but passes through everything created as He wills. He employed this mode of presence when He left the closed grave and came through closed doors, in the bread and wine in the Supper, and, as people believe, when He was born in His mother.
Just as Jesus passed through the angry crowds trying to kill him, his sealed tomb, and the locked door of the apostles’ houses without any effect to himself or those barriers, by the same supernatural grace of God he was born to Mary without changing her virginity.
There’s also a document written in the mid-100’s called the Infancy Gospel of James, which reports some stories about the births of Mary and of Jesus. In chapters 19 and 20, Mary is examined by her midwife Salome, and found to be still a virgin after having given birth to Jesus. This isn’t biblical canon, and it’s up for grabs as to how much of it is history and how much of it is legend. But it does fit into the theological puzzle of the Early Church, and although it still proves nothing, it gives a feasible defense for the historicity of Mary’s post-partum virginity.
What’s the bottom line?
There is no proof in our day that Mary was a virgin for her entire life, nor is their proof to the contrary. The doctrine jives with the biblical typologies, the historical possibilities, the Gospel narratives, and the majority opinion of the Church in every age through its history. Believe it, or don’t believe it. Me? Given its historical tenacity from very early on, I think it’s very likely to be true.