This has been a stimulating week for me in looking at this age-old question: Was Mary perpetually virginal? Today I want to look at three pieces of biblical evidence on this question, sorting out what can be known from what can’t be known, and then drawing a conclusion.
As I mentioned Monday, even the magisterial Reformers seemed to believe that Mary was perpetually virgin. Calvin and Luther both called Helvidius a fool, and they learned their polemical barbs from a cast of characters like Jerome, and many, many of their followers continued this line of thinking. Francis Pieper, in his Christian Dogmatics(HT: John Glover), the standard Lutheran theology, offers what I’ll take to be a warning for each one of us — Helvidians, Epiphanians, and Hieronymians. Here it is: “But we must emphatically object when those who assume that Jesus had natural brothers pride themselves on their more delicate ‘exegetical conscience’ and disparage those who hold the opposite view. They certainly cannot prove their view from Scripture… . Decisive proof cannot be supplied even from the passages that mention ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ of Christ.” (308-309).
So, where do we go?
First, I suggest we go to the most significant piece of evidence: that the NT says Jesus had brothers and sisters. Now this language is used at:
1. Mark 3:31-35: “His mother and his brothers.”
2. Mark 6:1-6: “Is this not the ‘son of Mary’ and his brothers Yakov, Yosef, Yehudah, and Shimeon? Are not his sisters here with us?”
3. John 2:12: “he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples”. (Sisters stay back in Nazareth?)
4. John 7:3: “His brothers said to him…” 7:5: “For even his own brothers did not believe in him.”
5. Galatians 1:19: “save only James, the Lord’s brother.”
6. Acts 1:14: Mary “and with his brothers.”
On balance, if one is dealing with probabilities, the terms “brother” and “sister” would mean “blood-brother” or “blood-sister” unless there is evidence to the contrary. But, and this is frequently unnoticed by some interpreters of words, when dealing with individual words we can’t take the sweep of evidence (probability) and apply it to an individual case. What probability statistics would tell us that is that, if we had 100 pieces of evidence, the vast majority would mean “brother.” It does not mean that a singular case will mean “blood-brother” because most of the instances mean “blood-brother.” I hope you see this and know this fundamental principle of interpretation, and one that is regularly (oh-so regularly) violated.
Now yet one more consideration: others proceed in a manner that says “since brother does not have to mean blood-brother, then it may not in this case, and so must not in this case.” In other words, some demand certainty or necessity for “blood-brother” but do not demand certainty or necessity for “step-brother” or “relative.” Not fair. We do not do exegesis by demanding necessity. We have to weigh the evidence, sort out the problems, and render judgment as best as possible — indeed, in full conversation with the Church with (here I speak as a Protestant) emphasis on what the Bible says.
So, here’s my conclusion on “brothers and sisters”: I would say this term probably means blood-brother or blood-sister, but I can’t say for sure in these particular instances. There is, however, not a shred of evidence that it means “relatives”, unless one believes that one of the Marys of John 19 is Joseph’s sister who has kids named Yakov and Yosef, and those kids are the same as Mark 6:3’s Yakov and Yosef. I, for one, do not think this view impossible; but I think it very difficult to demonstrate that these two sets of names are the same kids and that we’ve got one Mary in 6:3 and that the mother of those two boys is a different Mary. I don’t say “impossible,” I say it is stretching it for me.
General procedural question: we can’t judge any piece of evidence, like “brothers and sisters,” until we’ve looked at all the considerations, and then we can combine our observations and suggestions into a more workable solution.
Second, I do think “firstborn” in Luke 2:7 is a little more serious than some have given it. It is true that “firstborn,” as Jerome spewed forth, need not require more siblings to make “firstborn” really mean “firstborn”. But, and I think we need to think about this fairly, is the “firstborn” of Luke 2:7 “Joseph’s” firstborn? If not, and some would say this because Luke 2:7 says “her firstborn,” making it possible that it was her firstborn but not Joseph’s firstborn (Epiphanius) ……. if Jesus is not Joseph’s firstborn, then we have a major problem in the geneaology of Matthew’s Gospel for there Joseph is the descendant of David and his Davidic connection renders Jesus a Davidic ancestor. If Joseph already had a firstborn from a previous marriage (Epiphanius), then that first son would have to be given the throne of David. Now, Jerome gets out of this one: in his view, brothers are cousins and Jesus is both Mary’s and Joseph’s firstborn. I’ve not heard many speak about this “firstborn” element, so I put this out for consideration, too.
So, where are we here: we have eliminated Epiphanius. So it seems to me. Helvidius and Jerome are possible, with the latter less probable than the former (as I see the evidence).
Third, what about “he had no union with her until she gave birth” in Matthew 1:25. This expression in Greek, heos hou, often implies a changed condition when the condition is met. (That is, “he did not know before birth but did after the birth.”) There are times when that condition is changed, but there are some instances when the condition does not change (thus, he would not have then known her). It is possible, then, from grammar, to argue that Joseph did not know her before the birth but did after the birth, and it is possible from grammar to argue that Joseph did not know her before birth and neither did he after the birth. It is not air-tight; Roman Catholics and Protestants simply need to admit this.
The OL and OS (Latin and Syriac manuscripts) omit this line. Why? Did they find it difficult for their theology and therefore omit it (harder reading)? Or did they not know it? Fr. R.E. Brown sees these two mss traditions as intentionally dropping it because it did not support perpetual virginity which those traditon believed in. In which case, we have early evidence of how this text was understood: as supporting sexual relations after Jesus’ birth. We should not give too much weight to these textual variants.
Some scholars contend that this expression (“until”), in a Jewish world, would not necessarily imply a changed condition after the conditions were met (in other words, it could support perpetual virginity). But, the text is in Greek and we should be looking to Greek precedent.
Before leaving this, I will add that I do think some early theologians, in their zeal for sexual celibacy and finding precedent and anchors, no doubt were led to exaggerate and pontificate. I see some of this in Jerome; I’ve seen it in others. I do not mean by this to suggest that celibacy was always a weird thing; it is clearly a vocation for some according to Jesus in Matthew 19:10-12. But, the zeal for celibacy and the theology that celibacy was more pure than marriage, which Jerome believed, influenced some of the exegesis and some of the theology. (HT: RJS for regularly putting this on the table this week; but HT: Dennis Martin for his warning that we need to be careful what we say about sexuality)
So, where are we? The NT evidence is not air-tight; anyone who thinks it is overstates the evidence. I think “brother” and “firstborn,” when combined, lean in the direction of marital relations of Mary and Joseph. I don’t think “until,” on its own, helps much. If combined with “brother” meaning “blood-brothers” and “firstborn” of Joseph being an issue, then “until” certainly would mean what Helvidius said it meant.
The only reason this debate arose is because this evidence is not air-tight.
However, Tertullian and Victorinus, whom I’ve not seen in this regard (and Jerome denies Helvidius’ claim to use Victorinus), and Helvidius each show that there were those in the early churches who did think Mary and Joseph had relations and that the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus were indeed blood-brothers and blood-sisters. It did not become the view of the Church, and I have respect for that and it influences my reading of the NT (but is not determinative, else I’d not be a Protestant).
Protestants should not be bothered if Mary and Joseph chose to remain virginal. Their decision would not be an attack on marriage or on sexuality. It would be a sacred vow of celibacy on their part, not because of their sainthood but because (and here we are guessing) they sensed an overwhelming awe at the majesty of what God chose Mary to do. Her body, in other words, became a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit for both of them. That’s how I’d see it from that perspective. I don’t think that view, however, is what we find in the NT.