When questioning Mary’s perpetual virginity, some offer Luke 2:7 as an obstacle because Jesus is described as the “firstborn” son of Mary. From this, they infer that Mary must have had children who came afterwards. But this is reading too much into the text. Consider the tenth plague that swept across Egypt at midnight, slaying the firstborn. Those who were only children were not spared. As St. Jerome remarked, “Every only child is a firstborn child, but not every firstborn is an only child.”
Others suggest that the “brothers of the Lord” mentioned in Matthew 13:55 prove that Mary must have had other children. However, the Greek word for “brother” is adelphoi, which can refer to blood brothers, stepbrothers, nephews, uncles, cousins, neighbors, co-religionists, etc. Without any knowledge of Greek, any mother will gladly tell you that the 120 “brothers” mentioned in Acts 1:15 did not come from the same womb. This wide range of use for the term “brother” can also be seen in the Old Testament, where Lot and Abraham are called “brothers,” though they are related as nephew and uncle.
But the fact that “brother” has this wide range of meaning does not alone prove that Mary was a perpetual virgin. Other verses must be offered in support, such as John 19:26-27, in which Jesus entrusts His mother to St. John. If Mary had a number of other children, Jesus would not have given her to the care of a non-family member.
In favor of Mary’s perpetual virginity are the Church Fathers, such as Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Ephraem, John Chrysostom, and Cyril of Alexandria. In the other corner, you have characters such as the Gnostic heretic Cerinthus. When Saint Polycarp, the associate of John the apostle, discovered that he was in the same bathhouse as Cerinthus, he immediately fled, fearing that the building would collapse because the man was such a heretic!
The marital act is indeed a God-given gift and is a reflection of the love of God Himself. Certain moments are recorded in Sacred Scripture, however, where God asked married couples to not exercise their marital rights. For example, Moses asked the Israelites to abstain from marital intimacy while he ascended Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:15). The Lord also asked that the Levitical priests refrain from marital relations during their time of service in the temple. In yet another example, the priests ordered King David and his people to abstain on the occasion of eating the holy bread (1 Sam. 21:5). In all these instances, there is a theme of abstaining from marital relations due to the presence of something holy. It’s not that the marital act is sinful, but that when one is in such proximity to God, it is right to offer Him an undivided mind, heart, and body. This theme is carried into the New Testament when St. Paul suggests temporary abstinence to free spouses for prayer (1 Cor 7:5).
If it was fitting to draw near to God, receive the holy bread, and serve the temple with a consecrated body, then when God drew near to Mary as the bread of life and as someone greater than the temple, is it not surprising that her body was also consecrated wholly to God?
Following Our Lady’s apparitions in Fatima, she revealed to Sister Lucia five offenses that most wound her Immaculate Heart. Although reparation for these can only be made with acts of love from our hearts, Catholics should be able to intellectually defend her honor as well.
Each of the offenses against Mary wound her heart not because her reputation is questioned, but because God’s work in her is doubted. One such offense is the claim that she was not a life-long virgin. Not only does this imply a rejection of the miraculous virgin birth, it is also an offense to the Holy Spirit and a dishonor to Joseph, her “most chaste spouse.”
Also in support of Our Lady’s virginity is the overwhelming historical evidence. With one voice, the Church Fathers affirmed that Mary was ever-virgin. In fact, the novel theory of Mary losing her virginity after the birth of Christ was placed by the early Christians in a catalogue of heresies! The first Christians said that such an idea was “blasphemy,” “rashness exceeding all bounds,” and “God’s robbery,” “for no one whose mind on Mary is sound would claim that she had any child save Jesus.” Upon hearing of some who thought that Mary had other children besides Jesus, St. Basil remarked, “The friends of Christ do not tolerate hearing that the Mother of God ever ceased to be a virgin.”
Matthias Scheeben rightly observed, “Mary’s perpetual virginity was denied only by those heretics who denied also the divinity of Christ, such as the Ebionites, Arians, and rationalist Protestants, or by those who display a great wantonness in the domain of morals, such as Helvidius and Jovinianus.” He’s correct that it’s enlightening to examine the character and orthodoxy of those who denied Mary’s constant virginity as opposed to those who affirmed it.
The idea that Joseph assumed normal relations with Mary after the birth of Christ is an irreverence that even the Protestant reformers rejected. In the words of Martin Luther, “Mary realized she was the mother of the Son of God, and she did not desire to become the mother of the son of man, but to remain in this divine gift.” John Calvin agreed, along with John Wesley and Ulrich Zwingli.
Despite the scriptural and historical evidence, coupled by the Church’s constant teaching, some still argue that such a teaching makes the marriage between Mary and Joseph unnatural. However, the fact that they refrained from marital activity because her womb had been the tabernacle of God does not make their marriage less than natural, but rather elevates it because of the supernatural.
Jason Evert is a Catholic author and chastity speaker. He is the founder of Chastity Project, an organization that promotes chastity primarily to high school and college students. Learn more at: chastityproject.com