Sermon Review: Mary’s Perpetual Virginity

June 13, 2010. “Jesus’ True Family.”

There are many things to say regarding Jesus’ mother.  Pastor Mark has many wonderful things to say about her and rightly holds her up as a model of faith and a model for women.  He also rightly points out that many Non-Catholic Christians have forgotten Mary altogether because they perceive idolatry on the part of Catholics and Orthodox Christians and he encourages his congregation at Mars Hill to value her example.  I support this completely and hope that Pastor Mark always encourages the people of Mars Hill to seek the truth concerning her, and I hope that those who stumble upon this post will ponder what I have to say, just as Mary Pondered the Word in her Heart (Luke 2:19).

Regarding the perpetual virginity of Mary, Pastor Mark states:

“Let me give you a few preface observations before we launch into the identity and activity. The first is that the Catholics are wrong. They would say that not only was Mary a virgin when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, she conceived Jesus, but that she remained a virgin throughout her whole life, okay? That she never consummated her marriage with Joseph. And here we find that Jesus had brothers. What that tells you is his mother and his father had a normal, healthy, enjoyable marital relationship, okay? We read as well, in Mark 6:3, that they say, “Hey, Jesus had brothers and sisters.” So Jesus came from a family. He was the oldest child, but then through the natural relations of Mary and Joseph, there were other sons and daughters. So this just shows us that marital intimacy, and joy, and offspring, and the blessing of children, it’s all part of God’s plan, and that’s how it was in Jesus’ family and it’s perfectly healthy and good.

I admittedly cannot give a clear verse from scripture that says that Mary always remained a virgin even after the birth of Jesus.  What I can do, however, is point out that the verses in Luke which Pastor Mark is explaining to his congregation do not say that these brothers of Jesus were the Children of Mary.  Pastor Mark assumes that they are, which is a possibility based on the text, but it is not a certainty.

There are a few ways that these men could be brothers of Jesus and not the children of Mary.  One possibility is that these were actually Jesus’ cousins.  As you can probably imagine, healthcare in Jesus’ day was not very good and many mothers died in childbirth and children were orphaned a little more often than they are now.  When this happened it was not uncommon for children to live with other kin nearby.  If one of Mary’s relatives or Joseph’s relatives had passed away and left children behind, it is easily possible that these children would have moved in with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus and lived with Jesus as his brothers.

Furthermore, although the greek word for brother, adelphoi was typically used to refer to blood brother, we see that the disciples of Jesus used the word much more broadly.  Paul uses the word in a much broader context several times in his epistles.  He does so in Romans 8:29 and 12:1 and then again in Colossians 1:2.  The letter to the Hebrews does so as well in 2:11.

There is one other piece of evidence that calls into question whether or not the brothers of Jesus were his actual blood brothers.  In the passion narrative of John we see that Jesus entrusts his mother to the disciple whom he loved (John 19:27).  This would have been very strange for Jesus to have done had Mary had other children.  She would have gone to live with her other children had she had them.  Hillary of Poitiers used this line of reasoning to argue for Mary’s perpetual virginity in the year 354.

Surely none of these points prove without a doubt that Mary was a virgin throughout the duration of her life.  That was not the intention of the post.  What these points do prove however is that the Catholic belief that Mary remained a virgin after the death of Jesus does not contradict the scriptures.  Mark Driscoll’s belief that these were the children of Mary does not contradict scripture either, however I point out again that these brothers of Jesus are not once referred to as naturally begotten children of Mary.  Mark Driscoll’s view does, however, contradict the witness of some of the early fathers of the Church, whose testimony on the subject can be read here.

Mark Driscoll cannot say, “The Catholics are wrong,” based on the text and scriptural evidence from other places.  He can state that he is “quite sure” that the Catholics are wrong or that to him it seems very unlikely that Mary remained a virgin for her whole life, but he cannot infallibly state that Catholics are wrong using the text alone.  In order to be 100% certain, Pastor Mark would have to draw from a non-biblical source.

There is one further comment of Pastor Mark’s that needs to be addressed concerning the relationship of Mary and Joseph and the teaching of the Church regarding sexuality.  Pastor Mark thinks that the perpetual virginity of Mary implies that Mary and Joseph did not have a, “normal, healthy, enjoyable marital relationship.” Truly, the perpetual virginity of Mary would not be normal, but it is quite a leap to say that a couple abstaining from sexual relations would not have been healthy or enjoyable.  Many married couples I know have fun together and enjoy their marriage when they are not having sex.

Pastor Mark goes on by saying,”[the fact that Mary and Joseph had sexual relations] just shows us that marital intimacy, and joy, and offspring, and the blessing of children, it’s all part of God’s plan, and that’s how it was in Jesus’ family and it’s perfectly healthy and good.”  I will briefly state that the Catholic teaching on the perpetual virginity of Mary does not in any way imply that marital relations and the begetting of children are anything other than healthy and good for a married couple.  Catholic teaching on human sexuality will be will be explained here on DriscollWatch, so stay tuned, but if you’d like a sneak peak you can start reading now.


8 comments on “Sermon Review: Mary’s Perpetual Virginity

  1. Tom says:

    Some further thoughts on the Catholic teaching of Mary’s perpetual virginity.

    While most English translations of the Bible speak of the “brothers” of the Lord in several places in the New Testament, we need to remember that neither Aramaic, the language Jesus probably spoke, nor Hebrew has a separate word for cousin.

    Instead, the word “brother” is used throughout the Bible to describe persons of close relation (cousins, nephew, etc.). For example, in Genesis we read, “And when Abram heard that his brother [Lot] was taken captive…” (Gen 14:14, King James Version). Yet we know from Genesis 11:27 that Lot is actually the son of Abram’s brother Haran, making Lot Abram’s nephew, not his brother.

    In Matthew 29:15 Jacob is called the brother of his uncle Laban. Similar uses can be found in 1 Chron 23:21-22, 2 Kings 10:13-14, Dt 23:7 and Jer 34:9. The term “brother” is used even to describe a friend in 2 Sam 1:26 and an ally in Amos 1:9.

    While the use of the term “brother” is ambiguous and may or may not refer to persons with a common biological mother, the Bible makes several strong cases for the Catholic Church’s position that Mary had no children besides Jesus.

    1.) At the Annunciation, in Luke chapter 1, the angel Gabriel greets Mary, saying “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.” (Lk 1:29-31). Mary’s response is a very poignant question: “How can this be?” (Luke 1:34) – a question which makes no sense except in the context of a vow of lifelong virginity.

    2.) The Bible recounts Jesus at the age of 12 being lost for three days and found by his parents in the temple. There is no mention or hint of other children.

    3.) In all of the passages referring to Jesus’ brothers, the authors are careful to only call Jesus the son of Mary, no one else. And in referring to Jesus as “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3) the force of the Greek implies Jesus was Mary’s only son, not a son.

    4.) In the Jewish society of Our Lord’s time, a younger son would never publicly give an older son advice, much less reproach. Yet we find Jesus’ brethren advising him to leave Galilee and go to Judea to make a name for himself (John 7:3-4). In Mark 3:21 his brethren try to restrain him, saying, “He is out of his mind.” Such passages are understandable if they were in fact Jesus’ uncles or elders.

    5.) Hanging from the Cross, Jesus entrusts his mother’s care to St. John (John 19:26-27). Such an action would be unthinkable if he had other brothers.
    That Mary bore one son, Christ Jesus, has been the consistent teaching and belief of Christians down through the centuries. Among other early Church Fathers, Augustine (391-430) described her thus: “a virgin conceiving, a virgin bearing, a virgin pregnant, a virgin bringing forth, a virgin perpetual.”

    Finally, it is worth noting that Protestant Reformers Luther, Calvin and Zwingli likewise believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity. On February 2, 1546 Martin Luther wrote that Mary was “a virgin before the conception and birth, she remained a virgin also at the birth and after it.”

  2. Anselm says:

    Very good review. Driscoll’s interpretation of scripture is at best questionable. He is simply not qualified to be a pastor.

  3. […] what Catholicism is about all the time.  He says that Catholicism is about following goofy rules, making stuff up about Mary, having sex only to make babies, and following non biblical traditions.  At least, that is what he […]

  4. Joe says:

    Mary’s perpetual virginity. I don’t understand whether Mary remained a virgin or did not remain a virgin is important at all. It seems to me a reasonable conclusion is to say that early church fathers and protestant reformers believed Mary remained a virgin, but they have no evidence to support that belief; therefore, its possible that Mary did not remain a perpetual virgin.

    • zeeehjee says:

      Joe –
      Thank you very much for the comment, and welcome to Driscoll watch. You make an interesting point, and from the perspective of systematic theology I really can’t explain why this is important. Spiritually, however, I think the doctrine makes a lot of sense. First, perpetual virginity (as I understand it) is not considered to be essential to the job of being Jesus’ mother. Rather it is considered a privilege. I think this doctrine has to be considered in this way. It was a privilege that Mary was able to reserve herself for God in this way. As somebody who has made a similar commitment to God (which you can read about here if you haven’t) it affirms what an amazing gift it is to make visible the reality that my desire for communion and intimacy is not fulfilled in earthly marriage, but in the heavenly marriage. This point can be considered to have also been revolutionary in a certain sense because many Jewish people (I can’t say all) did not have a well developed theology of eternal life prior to Jesus. As I understand it, a just man (or woman) reaped rewards or suffered God’s wrath in a temporal sense as opposed to an eternal sense. For Mary to have dedicated herself to Virginity reveals the intimacy that one can have with God in this very life, even without the traditional blessing of Children (Psalm 127: 3-5). I think that that is pretty important.

      I also visited Called to Communion, which is one of my favorite websites for theological discussions between Catholics and Protestants, and read an article about Mary’s Perpetual Virginity written by one of their contributers. I think that Augustine’s point that St. Joseph never would have considered entering into the sanctuary where God had made himself present in the world models reverence and fear of the Lord for all of us. It also looks as though there is something to be said about Jesus being the New Covenant.

      Sorry that was sort of long. Thanks again for visiting.

    • zeeehjee says:

      Joe – There is another aspect to your comment that I think demands reflection. I would agree with you that it is reasonable to state the argument in the opposite way as you have, saying that the reformers and early fathers, “had no evidence to make the claim” and that she therefore, “It is possible that Mary did not remain a perpetual virgin.”

      That is reasonable, and I think it is worth talking about because it emphasizes the differences between the ways that Catholics and protestants read the Bible (not sure which camp you fall under, but functionally at least it seems protestant). Catholics read and interpret the Bible as a community. This community does not merely exist in the present. It extends through time and includes people who have already gone home to the Lord. Thus, we Catholics accept ways in which past generations have interpreted the Bible and when ambiguous interpretations arise, we are glad to trust in our spiritual ancestors.

      Protestants on the other hand seem to interpret the Bible as individuals, and while I wouldn’t say that they completely ignore the interpretations of previous generations, they are much less interested than Catholics and are quite happy to call anything into question.

      I’m critical of the protestant mindset for a couple of reasons, but most importantly I think it is silly to think that the whole Church was wrong about a certain doctrine until somebody finally came along and FINALLY discovered the true meaning of a passage. For example, is it Mark Driscoll’s interpretation that Catholics had never considered the verses that mention Jesus’ brothers? An individualized approach to Scriptural interpretation allows doctrines never considered by large numbers of Christians to suddenly appear in history after hundreds of years (the rapture, sola fide, double predestination being but a few). In order for me to believe that this was God’s plan for interpreting the Bible, I would have to look at the Bible as some sort of a secret code that people try to figure out over time. I don’t think the Bible is a secret code. I think it is the Word of God and the Good news of Salvation, which I believe God wants revealed to every man and woman.

      A consequence is that being a Catholic is more than holding to Catholic doctrine. It also includes one’s entire mindset in accepting the doctrine. If a man picked up the Bible, read it, and interpreted it without consulting any other person, and perfectly formulated every Catholic doctrine, he would not really be a Catholic. Functionally, he would still be protestant, because he did not interpret the Bible as part of the Church.

      Any thoughts from anyone on this subject are greatly appreciated.

  5. Peter Laman says:

    I still believe that if Catholics claim this, the burden of proof is on them. As for ‘adelphoi’, this word is never ever used in Greek for cousins. They do have a word for ‘cousin’, so they wouldn’t have to use ‘adelphos’. It’s a worn out argument, and it annoys me that catholic theologians sometimes start with a dogma and then try to ‘prove’ it from scripture, endlessly repeating this kind of flawed arguments, that do not prove anything at all, because even if those men were cousins, that scripture would not imply anything regarding this claim.

    The scripture at hand speaks of ‘your mother and brothers’. The natural way to understand this, is ‘mother and brothers’. If Mary was not their mother, they wouldn’t have been brothers of Jesus at all, since He had no blood relationship to Joseph. Being born from the virgin implies Jesus only had one biological parent, so if His ‘brothers’ were really His brothers, she had to be their mother! If anyone wants to maintain that some other meaning of ‘adelphoi’ should be understood, let him come with evidence.

    Apart from this all, as you say, there’s no clue in the bible, nor any biblically supported theological reason to make a claim like this. It originated when an unhealthy negative attitude towards sexuality came into the church. Church people wanted to venerate Mary and in their minds they couldn’t reconcile that with the idea of her ever having had a sexual relationship with her husband. That is the origin of this idea.

  6. clintufford says:

    Neither the Gospel accounts nor the early Christians attest to the notion that Mary bore other children besides Jesus. The faithful knew, through the witness of Scripture and Tradition, that Jesus was Mary’s only child and that she remained a lifelong virgin.

    An important historical document which supports the teaching of Mary’s perpetual virginity is the Protoevangelium of James, which was written probably less than sixty years after the conclusion of Mary’s earthly life (around A.D. 120), when memories of her life were still vivid in the minds of many.

    According to the world-renowned patristics scholar, Johannes Quasten: “The principal aim of the whole writing [Protoevangelium of James] is to prove the perpetual and inviolate virginity of Mary before, in, and after the birth of Christ” (Patrology, 1:120–1).

    To begin with, the Protoevangelium records that when Mary’s birth was prophesied, her mother, St. Anne, vowed that she would devote the child to the service of the Lord, as Samuel had been by his mother (1 Sam. 1:11). Mary would thus serve the Lord at the Temple, as women had for centuries (1 Sam. 2:22), and as Anna the prophetess did at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:36–37). A life of continual, devoted service to the Lord at the Temple meant that Mary would not be able to live the ordinary life of a child-rearing mother. Rather, she was vowed to a life of perpetual virginity.

    However, due to considerations of ceremonial cleanliness, it was eventually necessary for Mary, a consecrated “virgin of the Lord,” to have a guardian or protector who would respect her vow of virginity. Thus, according to the Protoevangelium, Joseph, an elderly widower who already had children, was chosen to be her spouse. (This would also explain why Joseph was apparently dead by the time of Jesus’ adult ministry, since he does not appear during it in the gospels, and since Mary is entrusted to John, rather than to her husband Joseph, at the crucifixion).
    The perpetual virginity of Mary has always been reconciled with the biblical references to Christ’s brethren through a proper understanding of the meaning of the term “brethren.” The understanding that the brethren of the Lord were Jesus’ stepbrothers (children of Joseph) rather than half-brothers (children of Mary) was the most common one until the time of Jerome (fourth century). It was Jerome who introduced the possibility that Christ’s brethren were actually his cousins, since in Jewish idiom cousins were also referred to as “brethren.” The Catholic Church allows the faithful to hold either view, since both are compatible with the reality of Mary’s perpetual virginity.

    Today most Protestants are unaware of these early beliefs regarding Mary’s virginity and the proper interpretation of “the brethren of the Lord.” And yet, the Protestant Reformers themselves—Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli—honored the perpetual virginity of Mary and recognized it as the teaching of the Bible, as have other, more modern Protestants.

    The term brother has a wide semantic range in Scripture. It can mean a uterine brother, an extended relative, or even a spiritual brother. In Genesis 13:8 and 14:12, we read of one example of brother being used to describe an extended relationship: Abraham and Lot. Though they were actually uncle and nephew, they called one another “brother.” Moreover, in the New Testament, Jesus told us to call one another “brothers” in Matthew 23:8. The passage obviously does not mean to suggest that all Christians have the same physical mother.

    Second, if we examine more closely the example of James, one of these four “brothers of the Lord” mentioned in Matthew 13:55, we discover him to be a cousin or some other relative of Jesus rather than a uterine brother. For example, Galatians 1:18-19 informs us: “Then after three years I [Paul] went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.”

    Notice, the “James” of whom Paul was speaking was both a “brother of the Lord” and an “apostle.” There are two apostles named James among the 12. The first James is revealed to be a “son of Zebedee.” He most likely would not be the “James” referred to because according to Acts 12:1-2 he was martyred very early on. Even if it was him, his father was named Zebedee, not Joseph.

    Paul more likely is referring to the second James who was an apostle, according to Luke 6:15-16. This James is revealed to have a father named Alphaeus, not Joseph. Thus, James the apostle and Jesus were not uterine brothers. Easy enough. Some will argue, however, that this “James” was not an apostle or that he was not one of the original 12. Though this is a possibility—others in the New Testament, such as Barnabas in Acts 14, are referred to as “apostles” in a looser sense—the argument from Scripture is weak. When Paul wrote about going “up to Jerusalem” to see Peter, he was writing about an event that occurred many years earlier, shortly after he had converted. He was basically going up to the apostles to receive approval lest he “should be running or had run in vain.” It would be more likely he would have here been speaking about “apostles” (proper), or “the twelve.”

    But what about Matthew 1:24-25, and the claim Jesus was Mary’s “firstborn son” and that Joseph “knew her not until” Christ was born? Does Matthew here teach that Mary had other children?

    Exodus 13:1-2 reveals something very important about the firstborn in Israel: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and beast, is mine.’”

    The “firstborn” were not given the title because there was a “second-born.” They were called “firstborn” at birth. Jesus being “firstborn” does not require that more siblings be born after him.

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