A Steel Man of Catholic and Protestant Positions on Mother Mary

For centuries, Catholics and Protestants have taken varying positions on the Mother Mary’s role, her perpetual virginity, her sinless nature, and her assumption into heaven. Many Catholics revere Mother Mary as a perpetual and blessed virgin who was immaculately conceived and assumed in spirit and body into heaven. Some Protestants believe she lived a more traditional life as a wife and mother in ancient Judah and that she should not be revered in the way Catholics revere her. Let’s examine beliefs on both sides.

In the History of the World, Mel Brooks declared, “It’s good to be the King!” Is that always the case? Being in King David’s royal line of descendants was deadly after the fall of the First Temple in 586 B.C. when the Jews resided within the kingdoms of the Babylonians, Medo Persians, Greeks, and Romans. People who had the blood rights to rule over the Jews were naturally opposed by those who were ruling and lacked such rights. As Brant Pitre has pointed out, Herod the Great exemplified the way Roman kings viewed threats to their thrones: he had his wife and three sons murdered for this reason. As Augustus recounted, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” When Herod heard that the Jewish Messiah had recently been born, he demanded the murder of all males under the age of two. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus avoided this grisly fate by fleeing to Egypt.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” – Hosea 11:1

The prophet Daniel (9) had given the Jews a timeframe for the Messiah’s appearance on the earth and they knew that the era from the Patriarchs to the Mishnaic period had come to a close (See Sanhedrin 97a and 97b). They also knew He would be born in Bethlehem, as Micah (5:2) prophesied. King Herod presided over Bethlehem as the King of Judah.

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” – Isaiah 7:14

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6

Both Mary and Joseph were in the Davidic line, as documented by the genealogies provided by Luke and Matthew, respectively. And God chose Mary to be the vessel to carry His only begotten Son. 

Mother Mary

“Chaire Kecharitomene Mary,” said the Angel Gabriel as he announced the arrival of the Messiah to a humble young maiden. These very unique Greek words are only found in one place in the Bible. They are translated as “hail, full of grace Mary,” calling attention to her special place among women as the mother of God. Mary is one of six women named Mary in the New Testament. She was the first person to learn of our Messiah’s arrival and she knew Jesus longer than any other person while on the earth.  

Perpetual Virginity of Mary

Many 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. Many Catholics believe that Mary took a pledge of virginity into the marriage and was not the mother of any children aside from Jesus.

In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew 100 in 155 A.D., Justin Martyr said, “Eve, a virgin and undefiled, conceived the word of the serpent and bore disobedience and death. But the Virgin Mary received faith and joy when the angel Gabriel announced to her the glad tidings that the Spirit of the Lord would come upon her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her, for which reason the Holy One being born of her is the Son of God. And she replied ‘Be it done unto me according to your word.’”[1]

In Against Heresies 3.22.24 in 189 A.D., Irenaeus added, “Thus, the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith.” In 5:19:1, he added, “So if Eve disobeyed God, yet Mary was persuaded to be obedient to God. In this way, the Virgin Mary might become the advocate of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so it is rescued by a virgin. Virginal disobedience has been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience. For in the same way, the sin of the first created man received amendment by the correction of the First-Begotten.”[2] 

Brant Pitre has drawn parallels between the Ark of the Covenant from Exodus with Mary as the Ark of the Covenant. During the Exodus, the glory of the LORD overshadowed the Tabernacle which contained the Ark in Exodus 40:34-35 and the power of the Most High overshadowed Mary at the annunciation in Luke 1:35.[3] After Jesus ascended, the Holy Spirit overshadowed believers.[4] The Holy Spirit still overshadows us today.

Once pregnant, Mary trekked miles to visit her cousin Elizabeth and to stay with her for three months.

“And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’”[5]

Compare Elizabeth’s response with the response of King David from 2 Samuel 6 when in the midst of the Ark of the Covenant.  “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” And David danced with joy in the presence of the Ark, just as John the Baptist leapt with joy in the womb of Elizabeth in the presence of the Ark of the New Covenant.

Jesus is the bread of life. How fitting, then, is His birth in Joseph and Mary’s hometown of Bethlehem, which means “house of bread?” Mary placed the bread of life in a manger when He was born, which is a feeding trough or box for animals. The Eucharist is the Catholic communion between believers and Jesus as we ingest Him through the proxies of bread and wine. 

Something about Mary

Christians take several routes to explain Mother Mary’s situation: the Catholic position that Jesus is a first-born and only Son of Mary who had male and female cousins; the Catholic or Protestant position that Joseph had children with another wife prior to Mary; and the Protestant position that Mary gave birth to other children after giving birth to Jesus.

Given the Passover Lamb had to be a first-born and Mary had not known a man when the Angel Gabriel approached her, some Protestants assume that if one believes Mary had other children, Jesus’ brothers and sisters were born after Him. Luke 2:7 refers to Jesus as Mary’s “first-born” son, which implies there were others. Matthew 1:25 states that Joseph didn’t consummate the marriage until the birth of Jesus, which implies the marriage was consummated. Protestants argue that 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] Catholics would argue that Mary’s and Joseph’s holy and sacred roles would help to prevent such temptations.

Catholics refute the “first-born” argument by pointing to Jesus as the first-born of all creation, as Paul mentions in Colossians 1:15.[7] Catholics respond to the consummation argument by pointing out that the Greek word for until, heōs, is also used in other places where time isn’t limited and a change of condition does not occur.[8] For example, in Matthew 28:20, Jesus says “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” This passage doesn’t mean that Jesus will not be with us after the end of the age. Extending that argument to Joseph and Mary, Catholics say that the virgin condition never changed.

Helvidius (~ 383 A.D.) believed that Mary was not a perpetual virgin, as some have claimed. He supported the position that Jesus had younger half-brothers and half-sisters born of Mary. Eusebius, Tertullian, Jovinian, and Victorinus of Pettau also supported the position of Helvidius.[9]

St. Jerome (347 – 420 A.D.) 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. St. Ambrose supported St. Jerome’s position. There is a specific Greek word for cousin, “xaderfos,” which the Gospel authors could have used. Xaderfos does not appear anywhere in the Gospels, however. While a word for cousins or extended relatives exists in Greek, such a specific word does not exist in Hebrew or Aramaic, which may have been in the original translations.[10] In ancient Hebrew, “brother” could be used to describe any male relative (e.g., Genesis 13:8; 14:14; 29:15).[11]  St. Jerome also believed that James, the son of Alphaeus, was the same James referenced as the Lord’s brother.[12] Helvidius believed the brothers and sisters were products of Joseph and Mary.

The position of the Catholic Church in the Catechism has always been that James and Joseph are sons of “the other Mary” who were closely related to Jesus.[13]

Joseph had a brother named Clopas[14] who also had a wife named Mary[15] and this Mary was the mother of James and Joseph, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.[16] Jesus had two disciples named James: James the son of Alphaeus (James the Lesser) and James the son of Zebedee and brother of John (James the Greater)[17]. Clopas may have also been called Alphaeus, as James was also identified as being the son of Alphaeus.[18] In Galatians 1:19, St. Paul referred to James, Jesus’ brother, as one of the apostles. He said, “But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.” Clopas may have also been known as Cleopas and could have been the one person named on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 whose eyes were opened by Jesus.[19] 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.

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.

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” – John 19:26-27.

Why wouldn’t His brothers take on that role if they were in the same immediate family? Protestants may respond that Jesus had other roles in mind for His brothers. On Twitter, Christian @FrankOfChrist responded with the following: “Although James was her son, Jesus told His favorite disciple to take care of her. He also knew that John would live longer than James. In God’s kingdom being a blood relative is not as important as spiritual relatives.” Austin Austin @ZazzyAustin added this: “His siblings weren’t there, and none of them believed in the deity of Jesus Christ while He was still alive, while John did believe.” Opallios @radiusopallios said, “Remember Jesus didn’t just choose John for what he may do at the time; He chose for the future as well. James was a part of the inner circle of Jesus, but John was as close to him as a brother. John’s faith was always secure. John could be counted on.” Josh Decker @Joshmdecker responded, “Imo it’s due to his special relationship with John and that his brothers’ roles after the Resurrection. Before his death Jesus decided specific roles each would have for after the Resurrection. James’ and Jude’s abandonment imo fulfilled scripture/Christ’s desire for Mary.” Scott Adams @PTSPentax added, “It’s definitely an interesting question to ponder. Maybe there was a caring nature John had that Jesus wanted to make sure was there for Mary.”

After Jesus appeared to him, James spent the rest of his life preaching in the Temple at Jerusalem, where Josephus tells us he was eventually martyred. James and Jude also wrote two books in the New Testament, which testified to Jesus’ divinity.

While considering these arguments, one must note that ancient Hebrew law and the commandments required children to honor their parents and to take care of them in their old age. This “Kibbud Av V’eim” is accomplished by actions that include feeding, dressing, and taking care of one’s parents just as servants would take care of their masters.[20]

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 Eusebius’ and 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.[21]

The Intercessory Role of Mary

Consider the way Mary served as an intercessory between the wedding guests and Jesus when Jesus began His ministry at the wedding at Cana in John 2:1-11.

“On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.’ So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.’  This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.”

Notice the way Jesus referred to His mother as “woman” rather than “mom” or “mother.” As Brant Pitre has pointed out, this harkens back to Genesis with the first woman.[22] 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, the Ark of a New Covenant. Mary is the new Eve, while Jesus is the new Adam.

The Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary

Many Protestants use Romans 3:23 to support the position that Mary was not without sin. Romans 3:23 states that “all fall short of the glory of God.” Some believe that Catholics worship Mary. Catholics would consider this a straw man, however, as the worship of Mary would be heretical, as evidenced when the church called out Collyridianism for its heretical belief that Mary is a goddess. Catholics believe in the assumption of Mary into heaven.

Catholics believe that Mary was conceived without sin, which is termed “the Immaculate Conception.” They support this by referencing the Angel Gabriel’s greeting, “hail, full of grace.”

The Greek word in Luke’s Gospel for “full of grace” (Luke 1:28) is in a perfect passive participle form, which would indicate that Mary already has been filled with God’s saving grace, even before Jesus was conceived in her womb. As we will see, the Immaculate Conception will serve as a basis for understanding Mary’s assumption.”[23]

Catholics point to the assumptions of Enoch and Elijah[24] to support the idea that God would assume Mary into heaven as well. According to the Catechism, Mary was taken into heaven body and soul at the end of her life.[25]

“Finally, the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians.”[26]

[1] Carr, B. and Brom, R.H. (2004). What the early church fathers believed: Mary’s immaculate nature. https://www.catholic.com/tract/mary-full-of-grace

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Luke 1:35; 9:34

[5] Luke 1:41-45

[6] 1 Corinthians 7

[7] Horn, T. (2017). The Case for Catholicism: Answers to classical Protestant objections. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.

[8] Horn, T. (2017). The Case for Catholicism: Answers to classical Protestant objections. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.

[9] 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.

[10] Horn, T. (2017). The Case for Catholicism: Answers to classical Protestant objections. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.

[11] Note that in the English translations, “brother,” “brethren,” “kinsmen,” and “relative” are used interchangeably.

[12] Galatians 1:19

[13] Horn, T. (2017). The Case for Catholicism: Answers to classical Protestant objections. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.

[14] According to book III, chapter 11 of Eusebius’ Church History, “After the martyrdom of James and the conquest of Jerusalem which immediately followed, it is said that those of the apostles and disciples of the Lord that were still living came together from all directions with those that were related to the Lord according to the flesh (for the majority of them also were still alive) to take counsel as to who was worthy to succeed James. 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 Saviour. For Hegesippus records that Clopas was a brother of Joseph.”  https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250103.htm It seems likely that Symeon is the same “brother” Simon named in Matthew and Mark as both are Latinized versions of the same name.

[15] John 19:25

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

[17] Mark 3: 16-19

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

[19] Bauckham, R. (2017). Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Grand Rapids, MI: William C. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[20] Neustadt, D. (2011). Honoring parents: Basic requirements. Torah.org. https://torah.org/torah-portion/weekly-halacha-5772-chayeisarah/

[21] 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.

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

[23][23] Sri, E. (2021). The assumption of Mary. Franciscan Media. https://www.franciscanmedia.org/franciscan-spirit-blog/the-assumption-of-mary

[24] See Hebrews 11:5 for Enoch and 2 Kings 2:11 for Elijah

[25] Ibid.

[26] Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 254. https://www.usccb.org/sites/default/files/flipbooks/catechism/254/#zoom=z

2 Replies to “A Steel Man of Catholic and Protestant Positions on Mother Mary”

  1. With all respect, I found this post to be very unsatisfying; whereas, I usually thoroughly enjoy your posts. You presented what you intended (I believe) as an even-handed account of conflicting positions, but I clearly see from beginning to end your (unsustainable and unsatisfying) defense of one position over the other. The “other” being the one I believe to be biblically true. A notable tell is the bibliography entry of a Catholic response to Protestant “objections.” First, the Protestant position is not an “objection” to the Catholic position. It disregards the Catholic position, which is a rival position. Again, the bias! Even so, you can count on me to continue to follow your work and some of the extremely fine writing and scholarship you (usually) present, especially your recent blog post about who defines personhood. Carry on! S/ Your Protestant Brother.

    Liked by 1 person

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