I say, I've got two Catholicism Explained posts one on top of the other again! Dearie me, I don't like when I do that. *Sigh* Oh well. We've only just begin to explore Marian dogmas in relative depth, so let's get cracking!
Previous Catholicism Explained posts have included:
The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist
Is the Eucharist Literal or Symbolic?
The Sacrament of Confession
Why Do We Need Priests?
Is the Eucharist Literal or Symbolic?
The Sacrament of Confession
Why Do We Need Priests?
Today (okay, tonight, it's late) we're focusing on Mary's virginity.
It's a staple teaching of Christianity that "Jesus was conceived solely by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 496). Mary was a virgin when the angel Gabriel appeared to her at the annunciation, and she remained a virgin throughout her pregnancy and delivery of Jesus.
So, as with Mary's divine motherhood, this dogma is not so much focused on Mary as it is on Jesus: by teaching that Mary is ever-virgin, we emphasize that Jesus had no human father but is in every way the Son of God.
I suspect the stumbling block for Protestants comes when we say Mary remained a virgin even after Jesus' birth. I'm going to give the Catechism's paragraph on Mary's perpetual virginity here, and then spend the rest of this post defending/explaining it:
"The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary's real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ's birth 'did not diminish his mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it.' And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the 'Ever-virgin.'" (CCC 499)
Scripture clearly refers to Mary as a virgin at the time of Jesus' conception: "the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin's name was Mary." - Luke 1:26
Matthew's Gospel goes through pains to point out that Joseph is not Jesus' biological father: "When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived to gether, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit." - Matthew 1:18
But what about the idea of Mary's perpetual virginity? Where is that in the Bible?
As with many of the Catholic Church's teachings, there is no Bible verse which explicitly states, "Mary remained a virgin throughout her entire life." As far as I know, Scripture is pretty silent on the matter of Mary's perpetual virginity, just as it is on the Assumption (which we'll explore in a few weeks). Evidence for Mary's perpetual virginity is found most strongly in Tradition - more on that in the next section.
But while Scripture doesn't come out and say Mary was always a virgin, it never says she wasn't.
I'll turn to the Catechism again:
"Against this doctrine the objection is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus. The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary. In fact James and Joseph, 'brothers of Jesus,' are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls 'the other Mary.' They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression." (CCC 500)
In Aramaic - the language spoken by Jesus - the word for "brother" was the same as that for "cousin." So when the Bible speaks of Jesus' "brothers and sisters," it may well be referring to his cousins or other close relatives. That's how the Church has always interpreted it.
Another verse sometimes cited as evidence against Mary's perpetual virginity is Matthew 1:25: "He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus." As the note on my Bible points out, "the evangelist is concerned to emphasize that Joseph was not responsible for the conception of Jesus. The Greek word translated 'until' does not imply normal marital conduct after Jesus' birth, nor does it exclude it."
The word "until," even in modern English, does not necessarily imply that the thing not done before is done after. For example, if I say, "My inscription in that book will remain until the pages are faded and yellow," I do not mean that my inscription will disappear once the pages are faded and yellow, but that it will stay for a long time.
Tradition and Early Writings
We've discussed in an earlier post the importance of Tradition and mentioned how there is Oral Tradition to compliment and complete Written Tradition (Sacred Scripture). From looking at early Church Father writings, we can see that Tradition has always held the belief that Mary is ever-virgin. Here are a few early quotes I snagged from this webpage:
"Heretics called Antidicomarites are those who contradict the perpetual virginity of Mary and affirm that after Christ was born she was joined as one with her husband". - St. Augustine, A.D. 428
"If they [the brethren of the Lord] had been Mary’s sons and not those taken from Joseph’s former marriage, she would never have been given over in the moment of the passion [crucifixion] to the apostle John as his mother, the Lord saying to each, ‘Woman, behold your son,’ and to John, ‘Behold your mother’ [John 19:26–27), as he bequeathed filial love to a disciple as a consolation to the one desolate." - Hilary of Poitiers, A.D. 354
"And to holy Mary, [the title] ‘Virgin’ is invariably added, for that holy woman remains undefiled." - Epiphanius of Salamis, A.D. 375
"You had good reason to be horrified at the thought that another birth might issue from the same virginal womb from which Christ was born according to the flesh. For the Lord Jesus would never have chosen to be born of a virgin if he had ever judged that she would be so incontinent as to contaminate with the seed of human intercourse the birthplace of the Lord’s body, that court of the eternal king." - Pope Siricius I, A.D. 392
There are some other very interesting quotes included in that article, including ones from St. Jerome and St. Ambrose, but I won't copy and paste them here because I want to focus on another writing: the Protoevangelium of James, which you can find here.
(I had no idea this writing even existed until a few months ago when googling apologetics regarding Mary's perpetual virginity, and pretty much all my information is being pulled from the same article where I found the Church Fathers quotes. Just so you know.)
The Protoevangelium is one of the earliest indicators that Christians have always believed in Mary's perpetual virginity. Like the Book of Enoch (which might sound familiar to any Bryan Davis fans out there), this early religious writing is NOT part of the canon of Scripture - in other words, it's not divinely inspired and shouldn't be taken as 100% infallible Gospel truth. However, it is still valuable for its historical significance. Because it was written in the year 120 A.D. or so, some sixty years after Mary's lifetime, it gives us a good idea of what people believed about her when memories of her life were still fresh and false teachings about her could have been scorned and stomped out by those who knew those who knew her.
According to the Protoevangelium, Mary was dedicated to God at the age of three years and lived in the temple from that point on as a consecrated virgin. Joseph was a widower with children (some believe Jesus' "brothers and sisters" were actually Jesus' step-siblings) who was selected as Mary's husband - not for the purpose of procreation but so that Mary would have someone to guard and protect her. So there was never any intention that Mary should lose her virginity. As St. Augustine said, Mary "chose to remain a Virgin even before she knew who was to be born of her."
If you take the above story from the Protoevangelium with a pinch of salt, I can't blame you - I do myself. But I found it very interesting and thought I'd share it. :) More importantly, it's early evidence of belief in Mary's perpetual virginity.
Protestant Reformers on Mary's Perpetual Virginity
Not only is Mary's perpetual virginity supported by early historical writings and long years of Church traditions - but by Protestant reformers, too! I found the following quotations on this webpage:
"A new lie about me is being circulated. I am supposed to have preached and written that Mary, the mother of God, was not a virgin either before or after the birth of Christ, but that she conceived Christ through Joseph and had more children after that." – Martin Luther
"The word ‘brothers’, we have formerly mentioned, is employed, agreeably to the Hebrew idiom, to denote any relative whatever; and, accordingly, Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons because Christ’s ‘brother’ are sometimes mentioned." - John Calvin
"Then the pious mind finds wonderful delights in searching for the reasons why the lamb chose to be born of a perpetual virgin..." - Huldrych Zwingli
Why Not Believe?
Scripture is silent. It does not proclaim Mary's perpetual virginity, but it does not contradict.
Oral Tradition, the Church Fathers, and the Magisterium of the Church all insist that Mary was a perpetual virgin.
Early writings, not divinely inspired but historically plausible, agree.
Generations upon generations upon generations of Christians have acclaimed Mary by the endearing title, "ever-virgin."
Even the Protestant reformers who rejected the Catholic Church embraced this doctrine.
What could be the harm in believing?