Not only is Our Lady’s Perpetual Virginity a solemn dogma of the Catholic Church, but it was also a position defended by the major Protestant Reformers, including Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. “Fr. Mateo” (a pen name for a Catholic priest who is an emeritus professor of New Testament Greek) presents an outstanding apologetic defense of Our Lady’s Perpetual Virginity, with a particular emphasis on its biblical foundations. Fr. Mateo responds to the erroneous attacks of CRI, or the Christian Research Institute, an Evangelical ministry headquartered in southern California, which specializes in attacking Catholic, and particularly Marian, doctrines. – Ed.
By Mary’s perpetual virginity we mean that she was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of her Son and for the rest of her life. CRI notes that this doctrine was “a subject of intense debate as late as the fourth century.” (1) It alleges that “belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity eventually won out thanks to the rise of asceticism and monasticism.” (2)
CRI is in error here. There is no evidence whatever for this opinion. Anthologies of patristic spirituality prove that Jesus Christ, not Mary, was the ideal of virginity held up to monks and nuns from the beginning. John Cassian in his treatise On the Eight Vices (A.D. 425) writes, “If we are really eager … to struggle lawfully and to be crowned (2 Tim. 2:5) for overcoming the impure spirit of un-chastity, we should not trust in our own strength, but in the help of our Master, God.” The earliest accounts of monks and their lifestyle—like Athanasius’ life of Anthony and Benedict’s rule—give us Jesus, not Mary, as the monastic exemplar. It is the same with religious rules in later centuries. For example, the Thirty-First Congregation of the Jesuit Order (1965) declares, “The profession of chastity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven . . . shows wonderfully at work in the Church the surpassing greatness of the force of Christ the King and the boundless power of the Holy Spirit.” (3) Certainly, Mary is important to all Catholics and in particular to those “who follow the Lamb wherever he goes, for they are virgins” (Rev. 14:4). It is ironic that, in its zeal to attack our Lady, CRI gives her more credit as a spark plug for monasticism than Catholics do.
CRI confuses things further by raising a triad of questions which are irrelevant to the issue of Mary’s perpetual virginity:
1. Is celibacy a higher state than marriage?
2. Is asceticism a biblical tradition?
3. Does the gospel teach celibacy?
CRI answers “no” to all these questions, thus exemplifying what Max Thurian, when still a Calvinist, called “the anti-ascetic or anti-monastic reaction found in a certain type of Protestantism.” (4)
Paul writes that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). Our Lord teaches us that, to be his disciples, we must take up our cross every day (Luke 9:23). We hear him telling a would-be disciple that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head (Matt. 8:20), thus promising the man a lifetime of insecurity and discomfort. Elijah in the Old Testament (1 Kgs. 17:1-7) and John the Baptist in the New (Matt. 3:4) are examples of an ascetical lifestyle. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament proves asceticism as Christian and, to some degree, a means to salvation. (5)
What about celibacy in the Bible? Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul—these are examples of celibacy no Christian should undervalue. Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the Kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life” (Luke 18:29-30). With a flash of that rigorous honesty that often makes us wince, Jesus teaches us that “not all can accept this word, but only those to whom it is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Matt. 19:11-12).
But does the Bible’s teaching on asceticism and celibacy diminish marriage? Specifically, does Mary’s vocation to perpetual virginity imply disrespect toward her own marriage? No. Catholics regard marriage as a lofty vocation, elevated by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament of the New Covenant (Mark 14:4-9, John 2:1-10). Indeed, the indestructible bond between husband and wife is so awesomely holy that it is comparable only to the bond which unites Christ our Head to his Body the Church (Eph. 5:23-32).
Now we turn to CRI’s specific objections to Mary’s lifelong virginity. Elliott Miller asserts that Mary and Joseph had normal marital relations after the birth of Jesus, adducing as proofs Matthew 1:18, “before they lived together, she was found with child,” and 1:25, “he had no relations with her until she bore a son.” (6) These texts do not support CRI’s contention. In Greek, prin, “before,” and heos, “until,” do not imply a reversal of situation upon completion of the “before/until” clause. Notice these examples:
1. “Come down before my child dies” (John 4:49)— yet the child did not die even after Jesus came down.
2. “Until I arrive, attend to reading, exhortation, and teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13)—but Timothy did not give up these activities after Paul arrived. Other non-inferential “until” texts the reader may wish to examine are Romans 8:22, 1 Corinthians 15:25, Ephesians 4:13, 1 Timothy 6:14, and Revelation 2:25-26. In short, Matthew 1:18 and 1:25 prove nothing against Mary’s perpetual virginity.
CRI then refers to 1 Corinthians 7:3-5, asserting that normal marital relations were “in keeping with God’s will for the couple.” (7) I wonder how the writer knows precisely what was or was not in keeping with God’s will for the couple. Later in the article we read, “While God certainly will do what is proper, theologians who take this approach to doctrine overlook the fact that they are assuming a priori that they know what is proper to God. Isaiah 55:8-9 tells us that God’s thoughts and ways are not the thoughts and ways of man. This is true because God is not bound by the limitations of a finite nature and also because man’s reasoning process has been distorted by sin.” (8) Which is it, CRI? You can’t have it both ways.
There is no evidence that Paul had Mary and Joseph in mind when he wrote 1 Corinthians 7:3-5. Moreover, Paul permits abstention from marital rights by mutual consent in 7:5. He wishes this to be temporary “so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control.” This proviso could never have applied to Mary and Joseph. Furthermore, Paul recognizes the existence of particular charisms both within and outside of marriage (7:7). Certainly, perpetual virginity with abstention on the part of husband and wife is such a particular charism. The Pauline text, therefore, does not disprove Mary’s perpetual virginity.
Now CRI comes to the often-urged question of the “brothers and sisters of Jesus” (Matt. 13:55-56, Mark 6:3, and elsewhere). The procedure used here is to attack Karl Keating, whose treatment of this vexed problem is now the best in the field of popular apologetics. (9) Keating needs no defense. His book is easily available to the interested reader. Here I want only to make a few observations.
The point at issue in the “brothers/sisters of Jesus” texts is the translation of the Greek words adelphos (brother) and adelphe (sister). CRI admits that the Greek Septuagint (10) uses these words not only for brother/sister, but also for remoter relatives. (11) Keating rightly notes that New Testament writers follow this Septuagint usage. CRI tries to dismiss Keating’s argument with two counter-assertions:
1. “He never gives an example of a New Testament writer using adelphos for a cousin. . . . There are no such examples.” (12) This is a red herring. Keating does not claim adelphos means cousin. He claims, rightly, that it often is used for “relative.” And there are New Testament texts, which must be so translated. I invite the reader to examine Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, and John 19:25. In these James and Joses (Joseph), who are mentioned in Matthew 13:55 with Simon and Judas (Jude) as Jesus’ adelphoi, are called sons of Mary, wife of Clopas, a different Mary from our Blessed Mother. This “other” Mary (Matt. 27:61, 28:1) is called our Lady’s adelphe in John 19:25. It is wholly unlikely that two daughters of the same parents were given the same name, “Mary.” Our Lady and the “other Mary” were related only in the wider sense of adelphe. They were relatives, but not sisters. Since Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 mention Simon, Judas, and the sisters of Jesus along with James and Joses, calling them all adelphoi (masculine) and adelphai (feminine), these words in the texts at issue must be translated “relatives.”
2. CRI asserts against Keating that “The Septuagint is a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures and thus is not in a class with the contemporary narratives and letters of the New Testament.” (13) But Septuagint usage is indeed a safe and necessary guide in interpreting New Testament Greek. From the middle of the second century B.C., many Jews in Egypt (where the Septuagint translation was made) and throughout the Diaspora had lost touch with Hebrew. The Septuagint began to be read in synagogue worship. By the time of Christ, for most Jews, the Septuagint was the Bible, their only readable Bible. This became true also for several generations of early Christians. Thus the influence of the Septuagint on the Greek language, as spoken and written by early Christians and by the Jews of the Diaspora and even in Palestine, was enormous. Almost 80 percent of the Old Testament citations and allusions in the New Testament come from the Septuagint, not from the Hebrew Bible. Stylistically, much of the New Testament, especially the four Gospels and Acts, is heavily dependent on the Septuagint.
David Hill of the University of Sheffield says, “The vocabularies (emphasis mine) of the Greek Old Testament and the Greek New Testament have a great measure of similarity; and research into the syntax of the Greek of the Septuagint has revealed its remarkable likeness to that of the New Testament…. The language of the New Testament…. reveals in its syntax and… in its vocabulary (emphasis Hill’s) a strong Semitic cast, due in large measure to its indebtedness to the Jewish biblical Greek of the Septuagint.” (14)
A. T. Robertson, in his Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (1934), makes this remark about the nineteenth-century New Testament lexicographer and grammarian Gustav Adolf Deissman: “He properly condemns the too frequent isolation of the New Testament Greek from the so-called ‘profane Greek’… he insists on the practical identity of biblical with the contemporary later Greek of the popular style.”
The writers (except for Luke) and the very early readers of the New Testament, being Jews of that period, were “Septuagint conditioned.” They were accustomed to the Septuagint usage of adelphos/adelphe as the ordinary Greek rendering of the Hebrew word ach in all its familial and extra-familial meanings, meanings much broader than uterine brother/sisterhood. Texts which call James, Joses, Simon, Judas, and the unnamed women the adelphoi and adelphai of Jesus cannot be understood except by calling these people Jesus’ relatives, not his uterine brothers and sisters.
CRI, in fact, has ignored the historical and etymological importance of the Septuagint. It is as impossible to understand New Testament Greek without reference to the Greek of the Septuagint as it is impossible to understand the peculiarities of the Septuagint without reference to the original Hebrew.
CRI’s next problem is with the Catholic interpretation of Luke 1:26-35. There, Luke says that Mary was a virgin and already engaged to marry Joseph when the angel Gabriel came to her. After greeting her, he calmed her fear: “‘Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. You will conceive and bear a son, Jesus.’ Mary answered, ‘How shall this be? I do not know man'” (a Hebraism for sexual intercourse). Her question shows that Mary knew how babies were made. The question makes no sense unless she resolved to remain a virgin even in marriage. Only then could she wonder how Gabriel’s invitation could square with her resolve. When assured that her motherhood would not involve Joseph, but be altogether from the Holy Spirit, she acceded to God’s plan as the “handmaiden of the Lord.”
CRI attempts to refute the Catholic position by pouring contempt on the notion of a “vow of lifelong virginity, even in marriage.” (15) Such a vow would be “unheard of and unthinkable in biblical culture” (16)—a statement unsupported by any kind of proof. CRI’s phrase “biblical culture” is an abstraction so diffuse as to be nearly meaningless.
Besides, the problem here is not cultural, but theological. We are considering the Incarnation, and the Incarnation was unheard of and unthinkable in any culture. No human culture, “biblical” or not, could possibly anticipate or frame any detail of an event so shatteringly unique as the Incarnation of the Son of God. An integral part of God’s plan for the Incarnation was the sole and total dedication of Mary to God the Son whom she bore in her womb and to the Holy Spirit, who possessed her utterly.
In 1 Corinthians 7:25-40 Paul bases his doctrine of marriage and virginity not on an appeal to prevailing cultural norms, but on his own apostolic authority (v. 25). His recommendations on virginity are in some ways “alien to biblical culture”—and to secular culture as well! He realizes this (v. 40a), yet insists on his decision in this matter, and he further insists: “I, too, have the Spirit of God” (v. 40b). To balk at Mary’s vow is to nurse a non-problem. A vow is simply a promise to God to follow a course more excellent than its contrary. Mary did this. The conditions of a vow of virginity are perfectly met in her, as early and unbroken Church teaching affirms. Augustine made a very incisive remark on this subject: “Surely, she would not say, ‘How shall this be?’ unless she had already vowed herself to God as a virgin. . . . If she intended to have intercourse, she wouldn’t have asked this question!” (17)
Several times CRI claims to present “the Protestant position” or “the Protestant view” or “a Protestant response.” Yet Mary’s lifelong virginity is well attested in Protestant sources too—something CRI does not mention. Martin Luther said, “Christ our Savior was the real and natural fruit of Mary’s virginal womb. . . . This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that.” (18) John Calvin also defended Mary’s perpetual virginity: “Helvidius (a fourth-century heretic) has shown himself too ignorant, in saying that Mary had several sons, because mention is made in some passages of the brothers of Christ.” (19) Bernard Leeming reports that Calvin translates adelphoi as “cousins” or “relatives.” (20) The Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli wrote, “I firmly believe according to the words of the Gospel that a pure virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and remained a virgin pure and intact in childbirth and also after the birth, for all eternity. I firmly trust that she has been exalted by God to eternal joy above all creatures, both the blessed and the angels.” (21) John de Satgé says “There is certainly nothing in the Scriptures to invalidate the conclusion of the Church, in the days before the split between East and West, that Mary was a virgin all her life…. The full glory (of perpetual virginity) may be seen in the person of our Lord and his universal love, which all could claim and receive, but none could monopolize. In this sphere of love’s freedom (emphasis mine) Mary enjoys to the full an identification with him. It has set her free for universal ministry.” (22)
This article was excerpted from Refuting the Attack on Mary: A Defense of Marian Doctrines, second edition, Catholic Answers, 1999.
(1) Elliott Miller, “The Mary of Roman Catholicism,” Christian Research Journal, Part 1, Summer 1990, 11. The second part of Miller’s article appeared in the Fall 1990 issue. In these notes the two parts are referred to as Part 1, and Part 2.
(2) Part 1, 12.
(3) Our Jesuit Life, St. Louis, Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1990, II, IV, A, 33.
(4) Quoted in Max Thurian, Mary, Mother of All Christians, New York, Herder and Herder, 1964, 24.
(5) Matthew 10:38, 19:21, Romans 8:16-17, Philippians 1:28-29, Colossians 1:24, Hebrews 12:11, 1 Peter 2:19-21.
(6) Part 1, 15.
(7) Ibid., 12.
(8) Ibid., 15.
(9) Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on ”Romanism” by “Bible Christians,” San Francisco, Ignatius, 1988, 282-289.
(10) The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, produced in the third century B.C. in Egypt.
(11) Part 1,12.
(14) David Hill, Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967, 16-18.
(15) Part 1, 13.
(17) Augustine, Holy Virginity, 4, 4.
(18) Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., Luther’s Works, St. Louis, Concordia, vol. 22, 23 (emphasis added).
(19) Quoted in Bernard, “Protestants and Our Lady,” Marian Library Studies, nos. 128/129, Jan./Feb., 1967, 9.
(21) Augustin Bea, “Mary and the Protestants,” Marian Studies 83, April 1961, 1 (emphasis added).
(22) John de Satgé, Down to Earth: The New Protestant Vision of the Virgin Mary, Consortium, 1976, 112-113.