Perpetual Virginity – Making theology unnecessarily complicated

Roman Catholics place a strong emphasis on Mary as worthy of homage and devotion.  They refer to her as The Virgin Mary, believing that she was a perpetual virgin. This goes beyond the idea of a virgin conception or virgin birth to a permanent, celibate life.

I want to have a look at this in detail but why should we interested? This isn’t an issue that is going to touch on most of our day to day lives? There are two reasons, first, if we are concerned about sharing the Gospel, then we are going to meet people with Catholic heritage.  Secondly, I think there are some lessons for all of to learn about theology can be constructed in unhelpful and unnecessarily complicated ways.  We might not make the same specific mistake but we can make the same kind of mistakes.

Perpetual virginity is a belief that developed over time, there are references to it in second century works and whilst it was not universally held, some of the big hitters of early Christianity including Augustine and Athanasius held to it and even Protestants such as Luther.  Calvin seems to have had a slightly more complicated relationship with the idea.  The reason for the belief seems to have been that if Mary was mother of the only begotten son of God, then he should also be her only son. There also seems to be a sense that in some how were womb was now specially holy and so it would contaminate her womb for her to have other children.

The problem with the belief is that it simply isn’t mentioned or even hinted at in Scripture.  There is nothing there to suggest that Jesus had to be Mary’s only son. In fact, the whole Catholic inflation of Mary to a special status goes well beyond her rather brief mentions in Scripture.  Furthermore, the practically Gnostic idea that sex and children would somehow contaminate her goes against Scriptures positive view of sex and children in a deeply unhealthy way.

There is a further problem in that the Bible specifically mentions brothers of Jesus.  In John 7, his brothers go up ahead of him to the Festival. In Matthew 12:46-50, Jesus’ mother and brothers are concerned about him and turn up to try and take charge of him.  In Matthew 13, the people seem to think Jesus is getting ideas above his station. They comment:

55 Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t His mother called Mary, and His brothers James, Joseph,[o] Simon, and Judas? 56 And His sisters, aren’t they all with us? So where does He get all these things?”

Some attempts to explain this have been offered. One suggestion was that Jesus was the half brother of those mentioned that they were from a previous marriage of Joseph’s.  The problem is that you would expect such an important detail to be made explicit and the birth accounts don’t indicate the presence of other children. 

Others have suggested that those mentioned were cousins.  Aramaic didn’t have a word for “cousin” and the word adelphos could have a wider meaning than “sibling/son from the same womb.”  The names given to two of his brothers in Matthew 13 are also connected with another Mary, possibly a sister or cousin of Mary who was with the women at the Cross. 

This suggestion is plausible and people like Calvin accepted it as possible. However, I think there are a few problems with it.  Whilst the word adelphos or brother is used more broadly than immediate blood siblings, those wider usages arise out of and depend on the original meaning. Futher, whilst we frequently, in many languages and cultures, use “brother” to refer to in effect metaphorical brothers and sisters, fellow believers, close friends, members of the same group, gang etc, it doesn’t tend to be used of cousins.

Secondly, whilst there isn’t a specific word for cousin in Aramaic, there are phrases and terms that can be used. Thirdly, there are words and terms that would have served better in Greek. The issue with Aramaic is in any case a bit of a red herring.  Whilst conversations would have happened in Aramaic and perhaps literally translated into Greek (though that suggests a naïve woodenness to the Gospel writers, not present), the accounts themselves were written directly in Greek.

If the authors were aware of a reason why people would be confused by the suggestion of blood-relatives, then it would have made sense for them at some point to make it clear that these were not literal brothers. 

Incidentally, I think that mention of another Mary with sons who had the same names as Jesus’ brothers isn’t a major point.  The fact that there are several other Marys helps us to remember that some names were common and more than one person in the Gospels shared a name. 

So, when you find a word used, unless there’s good reason either inside or outside of the text to read it differently, then you would normally go with its first and primary meaning.  We have no reason to think that these men were not Jesus’ literal brothers apart from a belief that only emerges a few hundred years later.

The other place that Catholics will go to in order to make the argument is Luke 1:34. When the angel appears to Mary,  to announce that she will have a son. She responds by saying

“How can this be, since I do not know a man.”

In other words, her response is “This cannot be possible, I am a virgin, I’m not sexually involved with anyone.”  The Catholic argument is that this must be a declaration, not just about her present state but her expected future state. If she was going to have sex in the future, then it would be obvious how she would end up having children. Therefore, she must have taken a vow of perpetual virginity.

Notice that once again, speculation is being read into the text.  This doesn’t really make much sense. The reason for her perpetual virginity has not arisen yet, is not known to her and so there is no reason for her to take this vow until after the angel’s announcement.  It is unlikely that someone pledged to be married would have taken such a vow, in fact this would indicate a level of deception towards Joseph unfitting with her character. Furthermore, you would expect a far more explicit statement to the effect that she does not expect future relations.  She would say

“How can this be because I am a virgin and have taken a vow of celibacy.”

The response is blatantly obviously an immediate response to something that she correctly takes to be an announcement of something imminent and immediate This again would be our normal understanding of such a conversation.  If you were to say to me “You’re off to France” and I responded with “but I don’t have a passport.”  Then if you meant “at some point in the future” you would point out that I could get a passport.  You would understand by my response that I was taking your instruction as immediate and imminent. 

There seems to be a similar tying up in exegetical and logical knots when it comes to Matthew 1:25. There, Matthew tells us that Joseph did not have sexual intercourse with Mary until their firstborn son was born. Now apart from the mention there of “firstborn” with its implications, the obvious interpretation of that text is that he was not prevented from sleeping with his wife afterwards. It’s of course possible that he chose not to. However, the commonsense, plain reading of the text doesn’t suggest in anyway that Mary was a perpetual virgin.

In order to attempt to argue that it could support perpetual virginity, one Catholic apologist uses three examples. First, Michal, David’s wife had no children until the day she died (2 Samuel 6:23), then Paul tells Timothy to continue teaching until he comes (1 Timothy 4:13), then Christ reigns until he puts all of his enemies under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25). Does that mean Michal could have had children after her own death, that Timothy no longer had to teach God’s Word after Paul arrived and that will Christ stop reigning after his enemies are all subdued?

Well, the obvious and immediate answer is to say that of course we don’t read those texts like that but that doesn’t actually change the meaning of Matthew 1:25, we are capable of reading text in a natural manner and understanding the point made in any given context. The author’s approach seems to take a peculiarly wooden approach to language.

However, the other issue is this. The author misses the point that the “until” event does interrupt and significantly alter things. The point made regarding Michal is that her childlessness was a life long situation interrupted only by the very event that finally ruled out the possibility of children. Paul’s arrival would interrupt Timothy’s teaching ministry because the expectation was that Paul would provide teaching and encouragement when he turned up meaning Timothy would pause to join the others in listening. He would resume teaching later but there would be an interruption. Finally, and this is something that we may want to tease out later in terms of its exact meaning, the defeat of the last enemy, death, does in fact act as an interruption to the nature of Christ’s reign as it has been up until that point because we are told

28 When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.

1 Corinthians 15:28

Christ, as the Son, as the second person of the Trinity therefore never ceases to reign but there is a distinction, it seems, according to Paul with that temporal reign throughout human history of the Son and the eternal reign of God.

What we are seeing in each of these cases is what we might most charitably describe as an intriguing and unique approach to normal conversation, to logic and to Biblical exegesis. This might also highlight broader challenges in terms of how we engage with Roman Catholic thought. We may seem to be looking at the same texts and using similar words but meaning something completely different. Or as they might have said on Star Trek “It’s language … but not as we know it.”

It is worth saying that the idea of perpetual virginity is no big deal for Protestants.  It would not change our beliefs or the Gospels if it were the case.  However, it has become something very central to Catholicism, so much so that much debate seems to descend into a circular argument “It’s important because it’s true … it’s true because it’s important.”  Whilst it doesn’t touch on central doctrines, I think it matters because it takes us into a terrible mishandling of Scripture and some questionable logic, all in order to defend something dreamt up later, a speculation, a myth.

The whole edifice reminds me of the way that pre-Copernican astronomy relied on complex explanations for the orbit and position of the planets when reality was much more straight forward. Dare I say, this is where Catholicism needs a Copernican Revolution to put Christ back at the heart of their belief system instead of Mary.

However, beyond the possibility that one day you may get talking to a former Catholic or even discipling them and this might come up, our concern is to learn from the errors here.  We would do well to consider if there are beliefs, ideas, stories that we have created which need ever more complex explanations to justify when the truth is far more straight forward?

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