The Roman Catholic Church maintains that Mary retained her virginity after the birth of Christ. It says in paragraph 510 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
Mary "remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin" (St. Augustine, Serm. 186, 1: PL 38, 999): with her whole being she is "the handmaid of the Lord" (Lk 1:38).
Did she remain a virgin after the birth of Jesus? Answering the question can have a strong effect on subsequent doctrines. As far as Protestant theology goes, it makes no difference if Mary remained a virgin or not; but in Roman Catholic theology, it is very important since it elevates Mary to such a high degree that she seems almost like a goddess and receives titles such as co-mediatrix, queen of heaven, mother of the church, etc. Therefore, it is necessary to examine the issue of her perpetual virginity in hopes of providing a more biblical position.
The word "virgin" in the New Testament is parthenos, and it occurs 14 times. However, the word does not occur in Matt. 1:25. Instead, the literal Greek says, "and he knew her not until she gave birth to a son and called his name Jesus."
This would seem pretty straightforward that Joseph had no sexual relations with Mary until the birth of Christ; and that after the birth of Jesus, they had relations. The word "until" is a preposition and means "up to that time, before a specified time, to the extent that."
- Up to the time of: "I ate until I was stuffed." This means that I ate and stopped when I was full and designates a change of action. "I ate up to the time that I was stuffed."
- Before a specified time: "You can't go until you've paid the fine." This designates a condition required before a change can occur. "You can't go before you've paid the fine."
- To the extent that: I worked until I was exhausted. Signifying an effect or condition as a result. "I worked to the point that I was exhausted."
In Matt. 1:25 it says that Joseph kept Mary a virgin until the birth of Jesus. The implication is that she stopped being a virgin after the birth of Christ when they consummated their marriage, but typical Roman Catholic apologists cannot accept this explanation. Instead, they say she remained a virgin and cite verses where "until" does not mean a change in condition. For example,
- 1 Cor. 15:25, "For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet."
- Phil. 1:10, "so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ."
- 1 Tim. 6:14, "that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ."
In each verse, the word "until" does not designate cessation of the condition mentioned. In 1 Cor. 15:25 Jesus still reigns after he puts all enemies under his feet. In Phil. 1:10 we will still be blameless after the day of Christ. In 1 Tim. 6:14 we are to still keep the commandments of God after Jesus returns. Therefore, the Roman Catholics say that Mary retained her virginity because the word "until" does not necessitate that she stopped being a virgin.
Of course, it is just as easy to find verses that show a change in condition.
- Acts 20:11, "And when he had gone back up, and had broken the bread and eaten, he talked with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed."
- Acts 23:12, "And when it was day, the Jews formed a conspiracy and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul."
- Rev. 7:3, "Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads."
In each verse above, the word "until" designates a change in condition/action. In Acts 20:11 Paul talked with them until daybreak and then left. In Acts 23:12 evil men would not eat or drink until Paul had been killed. Rev. 7:3 prohibits harm to the earth, sea, and trees until the bond servants were sealed.
Therefore, we can see that the word "until" is used in different contexts; and it is not appropriate to look to other persons to see how the word is used and transfer the meaning of that word to Matt. 1:25. What are we to do?
Words mean what they mean in context
Context is the most significant thing we must look at when determining the meetings of words. The context of Matt. 1:25 is,
"Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, 23 "Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel," which translated means, "God with us." 24 And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, 25 and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus." (Matt. 1:22-25).
The context deals with a virgin bearing a child. Virginity here is the important topic, and Matthew clearly wants us to understand that Jesus was not the result of normal sexual relations between a husband and wife. This is why Mary's virginity is cited in prophecy in the Old Testament and its fulfillment in the New. The issue of her virginity is primary since Jesus is the son of God, the divine Messiah. Matthew then tells us that Joseph kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a son. The most natural reading is to conclude that he kept her a virgin until Jesus was born; that is, she wasn't a virgin after Jesus was born because she and Joseph had sexual relations.
Is this conclusion airtight? No, it is not. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary. Whether or not they and the Roman Catholic Church are correct will ultimately be decided when we encounter the Lord, and he reveals the truth to us in heaven. But whether or not Martin Luther, John Calvin, Roman Catholics, or anyone else believe Mary retained her virginity has no bearing on whether or not she did. We must always appeal to the primacy of Scripture and not to the opinions of theologians.
It is the opinion of CARM that Mary was a virgin until the birth of Jesus.
Objection: While Jesus was on the cross, why didn't he commit his mother Mary to one of his brothers instead of John? If he had brothers and/or sisters, shouldn't Jesus have committed her to them? Since he didn't, therefore it must mean that he didn't have any brothers and sisters.
John 19:26-27, "When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" 27 Then He said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" And from that hour the disciple took her into his own household."
- "But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled." Then all the disciples left Him and fled." (Matt. 26:56).
- "Then Jesus said to them, "You will all fall away because of Me this night, for it is written, I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered.'" (Matt. 26:31).
- "I have become estranged from my brothers, and an alien to my mothers sons." (Psalm 69:8). Psalm 69 is a Messianic Psalm.
- Matt. 13:55-56 says, "Is not this the carpenters son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things?"
- First, Jesus was separating himself from his mother, breaking the earthly ties (2 Cor. 5:16) and committing her to the one male disciple, John the Apostle, who was actually present and who apparently showed the greatest love for him by being there and possibly risking his own life in doing so. After all, everyone else had abandoned him.
- In committing Mary to John, he was providing the best for Mary by not committing her to the siblings who had abandoned him. Also, he gave John a higher place than he gave to Peter regarding Mary. Notice that Jesus told Mary first to look to John--not John to Mary. This dispels any idea that Mary has any supremacy in the church. We later see in Acts that Mary took her place among (not over) the believers at a prayer meeting. "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." (Acts 1:14).
- Second, there is biblical evidence that Jesus had siblings.
- Third, it is possible that because He desired to have John take care of Mary (due to his faithfulness) instead of his brothers who had abandoned him (Matt. 26:31, 56), it was necessary for Jesus to specifically declare what he wanted. This declaration can be seen as evidence that Jesus was speaking to make clear his intention that John take care of Mary, not his own brothers.1
- 1. Svendsen, Eric D., Who is My Mother? Amityville, NY: Calvary Press Publishing, 2001, p. 48-50, 52, 54.