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Part 8: Objections to Mary's Perpetual Virginity

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The following is the seventh part of our Mary 101 series.

Our Protestant brothers and sisters often express doubts about the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity, so in this part of the course we must take a close look at their objections, and look for ways in which their concerns might be addressed.

Quite often Catholics will hear their Protestant friends and acquaintances express disbelief in Mary's perpetual virginity simply because the standard translations of the Bible that they read explicitly mention the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus (e.g., Mt 12:46-50; 13:55; Mk 3:31-35). But we must not be misled by translated texts. The word "brother" in New Testament Greek had a broad range of meaning, much as it did in Hebrew and Aramaic at the time, and does even today in Arabic and Slavic languages, where one's "brother" can be any male relative of the same generation (including cousins and half-brothers). According to Protestant Bible scholar W.E. Vine, the NT Greek word adelphos (plural, adelphoi) can mean a "brother or near kinsman" (W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1940, pp.154-155).

Ancient Greek also had special words for cousin and near relative (anepsios and sungenis), but it is clear that the New Testament writers followed the custom of the Greek translation of the Old Testament that they commonly read (called "the Septuagint") and sometimes used adelphos for brother or near relative as well. Tim Staples explains why in his book Behold Your Mother:

The apostles were Jews, and so they spoke (and wrote) Greek with a "Jewish accent." Since in Hebrew and Aramaic it was common to refer to all sorts of male relations as brothers, it is not surprising that when they spoke or wrote in Greek they tended to refer to all extended male relations as brothers. And so the real question is not whether Greek has a word for cousin or not. The question should be: Did first-century Jews — and the authors of Sacred Scripture here in question, who were Jewish converts — use the Greek word for brother the same way they used its Hebrew and Aramaic equivalents?

The answer to the above is a definitive yes. In the Septuagint ... we have multiple examples [Staples cites Lev 10:4, I Chr 23:22, and Tobit 7:2-4] ... They chose to use adelphos as well ... for cousin or relative as well as for brother. (Tim Staples, Behold Your Mother. El Cajon: Catholic Answers Press, 2014, pp. 176-177)

The early tradition of the Church actually gives us two ways of understanding who these "brothers and sisters" of Jesus really were. The explanation favored by the Catechism (entry 500) is based on "connecting the dots," so to speak, among several New Testament passages. It is also based on the testimony of St. Jerome (d. 420 AD), a scholar who lived most of his life in Palestine, and was an expert in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as well as in the ancient biblical texts. Jerome insisted that the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus were actually His cousins, children of another "Mary" mentioned in Scripture, one called "the wife of Clopas," probably the Blessed Virgin Mary's own cousin! David Armstrong explains this in his book A Biblical Defence of Catholicism:

By comparing Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, and John 19:25, we find that James and Joseph — mentioned in Matthew 13:55 with Simon and Jude as Jesus' "brothers" — are also called sons of Mary, the wife of Clopas. This other Mary (Matt 27:61, 28:1) is called our Lady's adelphe in Jn 1:25 (it isn't likely that there were two women named "Mary" in the same [nuclear] family — thus, even this usage apparently means "cousin" or more distant relative). Matthew 13:55-56 and Mark 6:3 mention Simon, Jude, and "sisters" along with James and Joseph, calling all adelphoi. Since we know for sure that at least James and Joseph are not Jesus' blood brothers, the most likely interpretation of Mt. 13:35 is that all these brothers are "cousins," according to linguistic conventions (David Armstrong, A Biblical Defence of Catholicism. First Books edition, no date given, pp. 141-142).

Another early Christian explanation of the identity of these "brothers and sisters" of Jesus was that they were children of Joseph by a previous marriage. Joseph was said to be a widower, and his children from his first marriage would have been half-brothers and half-sisters of Jesus. This fits with a common use of the word adelphoi at the time (see, for example, Mt 14:3, where Herod's half-brother Philip is called his adelphos). It also could explain why Jesus is referred to in St. Mark's gospel only as "son of Mary" and never as son of Joseph. In Nazareth, Jesus would have been known around the town as "the son of Mary" rather than, in the normal, Jewish way, as the son of His earthly father, simply in order to distinguish him from the children of Joseph by his first wife. This was a common Old Testament naming custom. In fact, this way of understanding "the brothers and sisters" of Jesus was taken for granted by all the second century writings that attempt to tell the story of His early family life. Clearly, it was not something these later writers invented, but something they just passed on to their readers as if everyone already knew it to be true. It was accepted by the eastern Fathers of the Church as well, and remains to this day the general belief of Eastern Orthodox Christians.

What is common to both of these traditions? Whether the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus were really His cousins (as Western Christianity held) or His half-brothers and half-sisters (as Eastern Christianity held), in neither case are they biological children of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Early Church tradition, therefore, both east and west, is unanimous that Jesus was the only child of Mary.

Some Scripture commentators argue that the word "until" in Mt 1:25 ("Joseph ... knew her not until she had borne a son"), implies that Mary and Joseph had normal conjugal relations after Jesus was born. But as the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament points out:

The Greek heos [until] does not imply that Joseph and Mary had marital relations following Jesus' birth. This conjunction is often used (translated "to" or "til") to indicate a select period of time, without implying a change in the future (2 Sam 6:23 [Septuagint]; Jn 9:18; I Tim 4:13). Here Matthew emphasizes only that Joseph had no involvement in Mary's pregnancy before Jesus' birth (Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010, p. 8).

Other commentators claim that the phrase "first-born son" used for Jesus (Mt 1:25; Lk 2:7) must imply that Mary had additional sons (second-born, third-born, etc.) after Jesus. But as Dr. Mark Miravalle explains, that is simply not what the Jewish phrase "first-born" actually meant at the time:

The term "first-born son" neither infers nor establishes that other children were born later. In Mosaic Law the term "first-born" was applied to the child whose birth had not been preceded by another, regardless of whether other children followed or not. According to the Law, every mother was required to go through certain rituals after the birth of her first child (whether followed by other children or not). (Miravalle, Introduction to Mary, pp. 222-223)

For some Catholics, an obstacle to belief in Mary's perpetual virginity arises from the fact that the refusal of Mary and Joseph to consummate their marriage would seem to imply (in accordance with Catholic teaching) that they were not fully married at all! However, in God's plan conjugal relations in marriage are really a means to an end: given to spouses by God as a way for them to express, strengthen, and celebrate their total self-giving to each other, and as an opening to the gift of children. But Mary and Joseph received the gift of a Child from God in a special, miraculous manner. Moreover, by the Holy Spirit, Mary ("full of grace," according to Lk 1:28) and Joseph (a truly "just man" according to Mt 1:19) doubtless had already attained in their hearts the total gift of themselves to each other. There already existed a union of hearts between them, in the Holy Spirit, of a depth that can be found only among the saints in heaven. Conjugal union between them, therefore, was needed neither to strengthen this self-gift nor to enable them to have a child. Thus, for this couple to agree to offer their capacity for conjugal union as a gift to God to enable them more freely to dedicate their lives to their divine son does not constitute any true impediment to the reality of their marriage.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception.

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