Was Mary a Perpetual Virgin?
Updated: Apr 23, 2022
Before I get started, I want to make it clear that this is not an attack on my Roman Catholic friends and family. I have a heart for those in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). I was raised in this church and many of the good moral values that I learned as a Roman Catholic youth have never left me. My issue is with some of the false dogmas, including the perpetual virginity of Mary, that came out of the RCC. A false dogma is a belief or set of beliefs that does not align with the teachings found in the Bible - the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testament.
The Bible teaches that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:26-38). According to the RCC Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life. An article titled "Mary's Perpetual Virginity" states the following:
"The friends of Christ refuse to admit subsequent marital relations between Joseph and Mary. Accordingly, those who denied the virginity post-partum are not the friends of Christ; they are not true Christians.” (St. Basil the Great +379)
According to this statement you are not a true Christian unless you believe that Mary was a perpetual virgin.
Joseph Brought Other Children into His Marriage to Mary
Since there are New Testament passages such as Matthew 12:46-50, Matthew 13:53-58, and Mark 6:1-6 that show Jesus had brothers and sisters, it is the contention of the RCC that these must have come from Joseph through a previous marriage. There is also this thought that they were cousins of Jesus. If they were cousins, then you would expect this word to be used as it is in Colossians 4:10 ("Barnabas's cousin Mark"). In order to prove that Joseph had other children before his betrothal (engagement) to Mary, Catholics put together a fictional account of Joseph as an older man with children. This account appeared in the Protevangelium of James (Prot. Jas), also called the Infancy Gospel of James. This is a noncanonical, apocryphal New Testament gospel which focuses on the birth and life of Mary and expands on the account of Jesus’ birth and infancy.
Prot. Jas. 1-5 gives the account of the birth of Mary to Anna and Joachim. The only mention of the name Anna in the scriptures is found in Luke 2:36: “And there was a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.” There is no mention of Joachim in the scriptures however we learn that Joseph’s father-in-law is Eli (or Heli) (Matthew 1:16, Luke 3:23).
Prot. Jas. 9 depicts Joseph as an older, hardworking man who already has a family and begrudgingly accepts the task of caring for Mary. He never mentions his wife, just his children, indicating that he must have been a widower.
"And Joseph, throwing away his axe, went out to meet them; and when they had assembled, they went away to the high priest, taking with them their rods. And he, taking the rods of all of them, entered into the temple, and prayed; and having ended his prayer, he took the rods and came out, and gave them to them: but there was no sign in them, and Joseph took his rod last; and behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph’s head. And the priest said to Joseph, thou hast been chosen by lot to take into thy keeping the virgin of the Lord. But Joseph refused, saying: I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughingstock to the sons of Israel. And the priest said to Joseph: Fear the Lord thy God, and remember what the Lord did to Dathan, and Abiram, and Korah; how the earth opened, and they were swallowed up on account of their contradiction. And now fear, O Joseph, lest the same things happen in thy house. And Joseph was afraid and took her into his keeping. And Joseph said to Mary: Behold, I have received thee from the temple of the Lord; and now I leave thee in my house, and go away to build my buildings, and I shall come to thee. The Lord will protect thee."
Prot. Jas. 17 indicates that Joseph only had sons, not daughters. Joseph had thoughts of enrolling Mary as his daughter, not his wife, during the census.
"And there was an order from the Emperor Augustus, that all in Bethlehem of Judea should be enrolled. And Joseph said: I shall enroll my sons, but what shall I do with this maiden? How shall I enroll her? As my wife? I am ashamed. As my daughter then? But all the sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter."
If Joseph only brought sons into his engagement and subsequent marriage to Mary, then where did the sisters of Jesus come from if Mary remained a virgin?
“Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? “And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at Him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” (Matthew 13:55-57)
The term “ever-virgin” further emphasized the perpetual virginity of Mary. It was incorporated in the Creed for the Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553), the Lateran Council of 649, and the Sixth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (A.D. 680).
"The dogmatic term ever-virgin (ἀειπαρθένος, semper virgo), which had been coined early in the history of the Church, was incorporated in the Creed by the Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, A. D. 553. The essential elements of the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity are severally emphasized by the Lateran Council of 649, which says: “If any one refuse to confess, in accordance with the holy Fathers, that Mary was properly speaking and of a truth the holy mother of God and always an immaculate virgin … that she conceived of the Holy Ghost without seed and gave birth without corruption, her virginity remaining inviolate also after parturition, let him be anathema.” The Sixth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (A. D. 680) expresses this truth more tersely as follows: “The virginity of Mary … remained before, during, and after parturition."
The RCC was very clear on this dogma. If you do not believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, then you are anathema - a formal curse by a pope or a council of the Church, excommunicating a person for denouncing a doctrine.
"The belief in Mary’s virginitas post-partum, or, more generally speaking, her perpetual virginity, is so firmly rooted in primitive Tradition that the fathers regard its denial as an insult to our Lord Himself."
If Joseph brought children into his marriage to Mary before Jesus was conceived and born, this would have been mentioned in one or both of the two gospel accounts, Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 2:1-20, where the birth of Jesus is documented. However, there is no mention anywhere of this in these passages and in the rest of the scriptures.
This passage provides an account of the birth of Jesus. This passage ends with the following:
"And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus" (Matthew 1:24-25).
Joseph kept Mary a "virgin until she gave birth to a Son." The word 'until' indicates a before action and an after action. For example, Jimmy is not allowed to drive his father's car until he gets his driver's license. Logic tells us that Jimmy will be allowed to drive his father's car when he has a driver's license. Even though Joseph was the husband of Mary (Matthew 1:19), the consummation of this marriage did not occur until after the birth of Jesus. Joseph and Mary had a normal husband and wife sexual relationship after Jesus was born.
Matthew 2:13-15; 19-21
These passages record the flight to Egypt about one to two years after the birth of Jesus and the return to Israel upon the death of Herod.
"So, Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night and left for Egypt" (Matthew 2:14).
"So, Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel" (Matthew 2:21).
What is notably missing from these passages are Joseph's other children. If he had a son, other than Jesus, who was two years old or under, Joseph would have taken him also because Herod ordered the slaying of all male children, two years and under, in Bethlehem and its vicinity (Matthew 2:16). In fact, he would have taken his entire family to Egypt. He did not know when he would return to Israel. The angel told Joseph to remain in Egypt "until I tell you" (Matthew 2:13).
This passage is often used to say that Jesus' followers were his brothers and sisters.
"While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. Someone said to Him, “Behold, your mother and your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to you.” But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! “For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.”
The context shows that the people standing outside were the natural family of Jesus - His mother and brothers - who wanted to speak to Him. His answer emphasizes the greater importance of the spiritual family. Commitment to Jesus demands a higher loyalty than familial loyalty. Matthew 10:37 makes this very clear:
“He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me."
This passage is sometimes used as proof that Jesus put His mother into the care of "the disciple whom He loved" (the apostle John) because Jesus' other siblings were not natural children of Mary, thus they didn't need to care for her.
"But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” From that hour the disciple took her into his own household."
The last time we see Joseph is in Luke 2:41-51 when Jesus was twelve years old. Although not recorded in the scriptures, Joseph was probably dead at this time. Jesus cared deeply for His mother and wanted John, whom He loved, to care for her. If any of His other siblings witnessed the crucifixion or were at the foot of the cross, Jesus may have offered up the care of His mother to one of them. However, this is conjecture and has no basis in scripture. It is very possible that some or all of His siblings didn't believe in Him at this time.
"Jesus went out from there and came into His hometown; and His disciples followed Him. When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to Him, and such miracles as these performed by His hands? “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household.” And He could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He wondered at their unbelief. And He was going around the villages teaching" (Mark 6:1-6).
After witnessing the ascension of Jesus into heaven the disciples returned to Jerusalem.
"Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went up to the upper room where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers."
This is the last mention of "Mary the mother of Jesus" in the scriptures. If His brothers did not believe in Him before the crucifixion, they definitely believed in Him after His resurrection and ascension.
If Mary remained a virgin after she gave birth to Jesus, there is not a single shred of evidence to support this within the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testament. Those that came up with this dogma had a low view of the Word of God. Those who continue to teach this dogma also have a low view of God's inerrant and infallible Word. It comes down to this: if some dogma is not supported in the scriptures, then you must decide which has higher authority, the source of the dogma or the scriptures.
The following sources were utilized in writing this post:
Meeks, C. (2016). Protevangelium of James. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
Mary's Perpetual Virginity - Catholicism.org (December 15, 2008, Mark Alessio)
Orr, J. (Ed.). (1903). New Testament Apocryphal Writings. London; Philadelphia: J. M. Dent & Co.; J. B. Lippincott Co.
Pohle, J., & Preuss, A. (1919). Mariology: a dogmatic treatise on the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God with an appendix on the worship of the saints, relics and images. St. Louis, MO: B. Herder.
"Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth"
2nd Timothy 2:15
All scripture cited in this post is taken from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update.