What Does the Bible Say about Mother Mary’s Perpetual Virginity?

Isaiah foretold the virgin birth:[1]

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. Immanuel means God is with us.

He further foretold the birth of Jesus:[2]

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Mother Mary was the first to find out that the Lord would be born when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. He greeted her with a word unique in the New Testament: “Chaire Kecharitomene Mary,” which is translated as “hail, full of grace Mary,” calling attention to her special place among women as one “having been filled with grace” who would be the mother of God. Mary is one of six women named Mary in the New Testament and she is the person who knew Jesus the longest while on this earth. Protestants believe that Mary was a virgin at Jesus’ conception but that she had normal marital relationships with Joseph following Jesus’ birth. They further cite Romans 3:23 to say that all on the earth aside from Jesus have sinned. Catholics have posited that she took a pledge of virginity into the marriage and was not the mother of any children aside from Jesus. Brant Pitre falls into this latter camp. Since Jesus referred to Mary as “woman” at the wedding at Cana and at the foot of the cross, Pitre equates her to Eve.[3] In the book of Genesis and prior to committing the first sin, Eve was only known as “the woman.” It is not until she sinned that she was given her name (which is only mentioned once). So a woman brought sin into the world and bound us to the earth, while the second Eve made way for Jesus to free us from the binds of our sins through her sacred and sinless vessel.

Pitre further draws parallels between the Ark of the Covenant from Exodus with Mary as the Ark of the Covenant by noting that the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Tabernacle which contained the Ark in Exodus 40:34-35 and also overshadowed Mary at the annunciation in Luke 1:35.[4] After Jesus ascended, the Holy Spirit overshadowed believers.[5] The Holy Spirit has overshadowed and will overshadow all of us when we so desire.

Given the Passover Lamb had to be a first-born son, we have to assume Jesus’ brothers and sisters were born after Him. Furthermore, Luke 2:7 referred to Jesus as Mary’s “first-born” son, implying there were others. Matthew 1:25 states that Joseph didn’t consummate the marriage until the birth of Jesus. This implies strongly the marriage was consummated. Further, St. Paul instructed married couples not to deprive one another of sex unless both agree – but only for “a time” so as not to be tempted.[6]

Joseph had a brother named Clopas who also had a wife named Mary[7] and this Mary was the mother of James and Joseph.[8] Clopas may have also been called Alphaeus, as James was also identified as being the son of Alphaeus.[9] Jesus’ sisters were never named, but Mark and Matthew named James, Joseph, Judas/Jude, and Simon as Jesus’ brothers. These are likely listed in their birth order.

In the 3rd book of his Church History, Eusebius stated: “They all with one consent pronounced Symeon, the son of Clopas, of whom the Gospel also makes mention; to be worthy of the episcopal throne of that parish. He was a cousin, as they say, of the Savior. For Hegesippus records that Clopas was a brother of Joseph.”

St. Jerome believed Mother Mary took a lifelong vow of virginity. He argued in The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary: Against Helvidius that the Greek word “adelphios,” which was used to reference Jesus’ brothers, could be applied to cousins as well. However, Strong’s concordance only translates it to “brother.” Furthermore, there is a specific Greek word for cousin, “xaderfos,” which the Gospel authors could have used. St. Jerome also believed that James, the son of Alphaeus, was the same as James, the Lord’s brother.[10] Helvidius believed the brothers and sisters were of Joseph and Mary.

The fact Luke referred to Jesus as Mary’s first born – and that James is distinguished from “the twelve” in 1 Corinthians 15 leads us to another conclusion. Jesus made a special appearance to His brother James after appearing to “the twelve” (including the other two apostles named James).

An argument in support of the Catholic position relates to Jesus’ assignment of His mother at the foot of the cross to John, His beloved disciple. Why wouldn’t His brothers take on that role? I suggest that Jesus may have had other plans for His brothers, such as leading His ministry. He may also have been exalting His only male apostle who dared to be present during His resurrection by giving Him the honor of caring for the embodied Ark of the Covenant. Recall that when Jesus’ brothers and mom questioned His ministry, He said that anyone who follows the will of the Father in heaven is His brother and mother. His brothers had rejected His Divinity at this point, possibly giving His beloved apostle John a greater right.

“[The Medieval church] failed to unveil the Mary from the Scriptures and, instead, adorned her in its medieval prejudices and misperceptions. The scriptural view of Mary, to which only male clergy had access, should have been taught faithfully and truthfully to the laity whom they were entrusted to shepherd. If they had done so, the church would have provided great hope to its congregations. The truth of the biblical Mary is that God comes directly to individuals regardless of gender, moral perfection, and hierarchical position in the church and offers salvation with no strings attached so that God can work his wonders through ordinary people whom God loves. Just as Mary accepted the Lord’s proposal, so can any human being. The faith that was conceived in Mary can be conceived in every human heart.”[11]

There were three disciples named James:[12] James the great, who was esteemed as a pillar in the church and who was the son of Zebedee and brother of John, the author of the Gospel in his name and the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd books of John; James the less, who was the son of Alphaeus/Clopas (brother of Joseph) and Mary (Mother Mary’s sister-in-law), and James the just. James the just is the 2nd born son of Joseph and Mary who wrote the book of James and who was an early leader at the church in Jerusalem. Paul noted James’ presence in Jerusalem when he wrote about his visit to Peter and James, Jesus’ brother.[13] Luke documented this event as well.[14] His martyrdom was recorded by Josephus.

In summary, the jury on the relationship between Jesus and His brothers and sisters has been out for centuries, going back to the 4th century. Catholics typically endorse the Jerome’s “cousin” position while Protestants endorse Helvidius’ half-brothers and half-sisters’ position. St. Ambrose also supported St. Jerome’s position, while Tertullian, Jovinian, and Victorinus of Pettau supported the position of Helvidius.[15] When we weigh the words of the New Testament authors over the later church fathers, we find support for Helvidius’ position.

[1] Isaiah 7:14

[2] Isaiah 9:6

[3] Pitre, B. (2018). Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary: Unveiling the Mother of the Messiah. New York: Crown Publishing Group.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Luke 1:35; 9:34

[6] 1 Corinthians 7

[7] John 19:25

[8] Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40

[9] Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13

[10] Galatians 1:19

[11] Johnson, K. (2008). Morphing Mary: the Medieval transformation of the mother of Jesus Christ. Priscilla Papers, 22(1), 11-17.

[12] Mark 3:13-18

[13] Galatians 1:18-19

[14] Acts 21:17-19

[15] Hunter, D.G. (1993). Helvidius, Jovidian, and the virginity of Mary in the late 4th century. Journal of Early Christian Studies, 1(1), 47-71.

7 Replies to “What Does the Bible Say about Mother Mary’s Perpetual Virginity?”

  1. Thanks for this great insight. I have a brother in law who is a devout Catholic. This is a big stumbling block. For some reason he picks on this as an issue to try to create arguments. Thanks for speaking the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I tried to look at both sides as fairly as possible, but I couldn’t reconcile the Catholic side with Scripture. So I had to come to the conclusion of 3 people named James. Plus, the earliest sources didn’t claim perpetual virginity as far as I can see.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I also may have finally found my Protestant equivalent apologetics blogger, besides your outnumbering me in followers at a ratio of sixty-eight to one. Both of us have long lists of sources, which is something a lot of bloggers don’t do at any rate.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m an academic so it’s a hard habit to break! I was also raised a Catholic (and now call myself a Baptist), so I tend to believe Mary isn’t given enough attention by Protestants. You may note I also blogged on Mary’s miracles.

      Liked by 1 person

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