Mary, the mother of Jesus, was an incredible woman. In fact, precious few women’s names could even be mentioned to give her a “run for her money.” In fact, God honored Mary in a way that all other women could only dream about. The Lord favored her for an event that had been long awaited since the Genesis 3:15 prophecy of the Seed of a woman (i.e., the Virgin Birth). Luke 1 describes it:
And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”
But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”
Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”
And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.”(Luke 1:28–35)
Mary was a virgin who was to conceive by being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Son of God. Few in Christian realms would deny Mary was a virgin and remained a virgin through pregnancy and the birth of Christ. This was the ultimate fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah:
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, emphasis added)
However, Mary’s virginity after the birth of Christ can become a heated debate in some circles. Though some may think this is a Roman Catholic versus Protestant view, it is not. Many Protestants, including people like Martin Luther, have held to Mary remaining a virgin for the duration of her life. Let’s look at the issues in a little more detail.
What Does the Bible State?
Two different Gospels accounts state Mary had other sons and daughters.1 These accounts even give the names of the sons.
“Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things?” (Matthew 13:55–56)
“Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?” So they were offended at Him. (Mark 6:3)
Some have suggested these brothers and sisters were cousins or more distant relations. If true, why didn’t the writers use the Greek term for cousins (anepsios)? The Greek word did exist and was used in Scripture (Colossians 4:10). If they were more distant relatives, then why not use a Greek word that meant relatives (suggenes), such as the one describing Mary and Elizabeth’s relational status in Luke 1:36? Why did Matthew and Mark use the words most commonly translated as brothers (adelphos) and sisters (adelphe)? In any other context no one would have questioned this meaning.
A logical point concerning this passage was brought up by expositor Adam Clarke in his commentary:
Why should the children of another family be brought in here to share a reproach which it is evident was designed for Joseph the carpenter, Mary his wife, Jesus their son, and their other children? Prejudice apart, would not any person of plain common sense suppose, from this account, that these were the children of Joseph and Mary, and the brothers and sisters of our Lord, according to the flesh?2
It seems rather obvious that these Gospel accounts refer to Joseph’s and Mary’s children. Why would these people criticize Jesus by mentioning his father (as they presumed) and mother and then seemingly switch to distant relatives?
The Apostle Paul also claimed that Jesus had at least one brother. Concerning his first trip to Jerusalem after his conversion, Paul wrote, “But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19).
The first chapter of Acts tells how the disciples met to select a replacement for Judas. Luke specifically singled out Mary and the brothers of Jesus.
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey. And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers. (Acts 1:12–14)
To claim Mary was a perpetual virgin even after Christ was born is to deny the words of the Apostle Matthew, who wrote, “Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS” (Matthew 1:24–25, emphasis added).
“Knew” was a modest way of describing sexual relations in ancient times. For example, Adam knew Eve, and she conceived Cain, and he knew her again, and she bore Seth (Genesis 4:1, 25). Cain knew his wife, and she bore Enoch (Genesis 4:17). If Joseph never knew Mary at all, the phrase “till she had brought forth her firstborn Son” is pointless. Obviously, Joseph did not sleep with Mary until after she gave birth to Jesus, fulfilling both parts of the prophecy (virginal conception and virgin birth, as Isaiah 7:14 states, “the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son,” emphasis added). But this means Joseph did know her after she gave birth to Jesus, so she was no longer a virgin.
In fact, sex within marriage is not a sin but is a creation ordinance within marriage that existed prior to sin and the Curse. Jesus quoted Genesis 2:24 in Matthew 19:5–6, reiterating “the two shall be one flesh.”
Consider that God commanded people to be fruitful and multiply in Genesis 1:28 and twice in Genesis 9 (verses 1 and 7). Malachi 2:14–15 indicates one reason for marriage is to have godly offspring. Why would Mary be disobedient to God? Since she was truly a godly woman, she would have respected His commands and honor them. Having at least two daughters and five sons would indeed be fulfilling God’s commands to be fruitful and multiply.
The following Gospel account provides more evidence Jesus had siblings:
While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him. Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.”
But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46–50)
This event is also described in Mark 3:32–35 and Luke 8:19–21. Here Christ indicated a distinction between His fleshly brothers and mother and His spiritual brothers and mother. This account also further corroborates the idea that Jesus had brothers.
When Did the Idea of Mary Being a “Virgin Forever” Begin?
The idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary comes from a dubious apocryphal book written well after the New Testament. The book is called the Infancy Gospel of James, The Protoevangelium of James, or sometimes simply Protoevangelium, and it is estimated to have been written in the middle part of the second century.
Authoritative New Testament works were those written or affirmed by the apostles (Luke 11:49, 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 2:20, Ephesians 3:5, 2 Peter 3:2). A host of false teachings and books came out after the canonical books. Some were written by well-intentioned Christians, some by Gnostics (thinking they had secret knowledge of God), and others by pagans of the day. Some of these books challenged New Testament teachings while others tried to fill in information.
The Protoevangelium of James is like other forgeries trying to capitalize on an apostle.
Often, people tried to associate a particular writing with one of the apostles to give it a little more credibility. However, the church usually recognized easily what the apostles had written. But this didn’t stop the controversies, nor did it prevent some Christians from being led astray. Even today, people are often led astray, even Christians, by things they read concerning the Bible.
The Protoevangelium of James is like other forgeries trying to capitalize on an apostle. James, the half-brother of Jesus, was elevated to an apostle after he saw the resurrected Savior (Galatians 1:19; 1 Corinthians 15:7). So some people thought using his name would give some much needed credibility to the book. However, the church rightly recognized this book was not from the Apostle James. The early church father Origen wrote a commentary on Matthew in which he rejected The Protoevangelium of James as spurious and affirmed Mary had other children.3 At one stage Origen did hold to the position that Mary was a perpetual virgin per his homily on Luke 7:4.
The concept of Mary’s perpetual virginity is conveniently explained in The Protoevangelium of James since James is viewed as an older step-brother brother of Jesus being a child of Joseph and his first wife, prior to his marriage to Mary. However, there are a number of mistakes in this book and statements which contradict the Bible that an apostle writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit would not make.
Table of some contradictions between The Protoevangelium of James and the Bible:
|Protoevangelium of James4||The Bible|
|1||Gabriel is called an archangel (Chapter 9:22), which was a common designation for Gabriel in apocryphal literature written after the first century. (For example, see Revelation of Paul, The Book of John Concerning the Falling Asleep of Mary, and The Apocalypse of the Holy Mother of God.)||The Bible never identifies Gabriel as an archangel, but Michael is described as an archangel in Jude 1:9. The idea of Gabriel as an archangel seems to be a misconception that began in the second century.|
|2||Mary’s response to the angel is different than what is recorded in Scripture. “What! Shall I conceive by the living God, and bring forth as all other women do?” (Chapter 9:12).5||Luke 1:34 states, “Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?’”|
|3||Elizabeth fled the Bethlehem region with her son John (the Baptist) to the mountains because of Herod’s wrath when he decided to kill all the baby boys around and in Bethlehem (Chapter 16:3).||Concerning John the Baptist, Luke 1:80 states, “So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.” It was Joseph, Mary, and Jesus who fled from Bethlehem because of Herod (Matthew 2:13–15).|
|4||Jesus was born in a cave outside the city of Bethlehem (Chapters 12:11–14:31).||Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the town of David, according to Luke 2:4, 11 and Matthew 2:1.|
|5||The angel of the Lord, when speaking to Joseph in a dream, said to take Mary but does not mention having her as a wife. The priest chastised Joseph and accused him for taking Mary as a wife secretly by the priest. Joseph takes her home but is reluctant to call her his wife when they go to Bethlehem (Chapters 10:17–18, 11:14, 12:2–3).||Matthew 1:19 reveals that Joseph was already Mary’s husband (they were betrothed) before the angel visited him in a dream. Matthew 1:24 points out that after the angel visited Joseph, he kept her as his wife.|
|6||Mary wrapped Jesus in swaddling cloths and hid him in a manger at the inn to keep him from the massacre by Herod’s men (Chapter 16:2).||Mary and Joseph were warned of Herod’s plot by an angel, and they fled to Egypt (Matthew 2:13–14).|
|7||Wise men came to Bethlehem and inquired of Herod where the Child was born (Chapter 21:1–2).||Wise men came to Jerusalem to inquire where the child king was (Matthew 2:1).|
The Protoevangelium of James contains the first known mention of Mary’s continual virginity. Likely, this book influenced subsequent people to write of the perpetual virginity of Mary. But the book was not the work of the Apostle James, the brother of Christ. The work’s demotion by the early church, especially its non-inclusion with other books of the canon due to its numerous errors, is further verification it was not authentic.
Keep in mind that no passage of Scripture states Mary perpetually remained a virgin and many state the opposite. So to make a case for the perpetual virginity of Mary, one must use ideas that come from outside the Bible and then reinterpret Scripture with some wild hermeneutical gymnastics. This would be appealing to fallible, sinful ideas that originate in the minds of mankind—not God. Why not trust God when He speaks? After all, it would not be a sin for Mary to have sexual relations with her husband Joseph, but it would have been sinful for her to withhold herself from him throughout their marriage (1 Corinthians 7:3–5). There is no biblical or logical reason why Mary would have needed to remain a virgin following the birth of Christ.
The issue is quite simple: should we trust the imperfect sources and traditions that come from outside of Scripture and contradict it or should we trust God’s Word?