Mary’s Virginity and the Brothers of Jesus
During the last few hundred years, it has become in vogue for some Protestant Christians to not only question the virginity of Mary, but to actually oppose it openly and militantly. Many traditional Protestants have gone the way of doubting the virginity of Mary altogether, relegating it to an early Christian myth. Meanwhile most of the more contemporary Evangelical Christians firmly adhere to the virginity of Mary during Christ’s conception on up to his birth, but vigorously deny her virginity thereafter. This article will demonstrate why both assumptions are wrong.
The former assumption, that Mary’s virginity is a myth, lacks all historical evidence. It is simply an assumption based entirely on Modernist doubt. I suppose if one wants to build one’s faith on Modernist doubt, have at it. In time however, it won’t be long before one is questioning everything else in the gospel, then ultimately the gospel itself. Thus the progression of Modernism in Christianity has always been from denial of little things, to the denial of big things, and on to the denial of everything. If this is the path one finds one’s self on, don’t let me stop you. This blog is about real history, real science and real tradition. If these things are a problem for you, there is nothing I can do. So maybe you should simply move on. If however, you’re interested in real history, and what we really know about Mary and Jesus’ brothers through the only records that tell about them (Scripture and early tradition) then this blog is for you.
When we look at characters in the Bible, holy men and women of God, we need to understand that everything we know about them comes from two sources. The first source is the writings of Holy Scripture itself. The second source is the writings of the early Christians, that while they may not be infallible like Scripture, they do give us a clear image of what the early Christians believed. My father always taught me that the best way to understand history is to go to what he called “original source documentation.” What does that mean? It means going to the writings of the people who lived closest to the historical event. Fortunately for us, the early Christians were prolific writers, and some of their stuff has survived to this very day, was translated into English, digitized and can now be read in historical archives in libraries and on the Internet. Outside of these records we have no knowledge of what the early Christians believed or how they interpreted the Scriptures. That’s right, outside of these writings, we have nothing. That’s it. If you want to know what the early Christians thought, then you can read it in their own words. If you’re not interested in their writings, or are apt to dismiss them, then you’ll have to deal with the fact that you have no information about the early Christians and therefore you know virtually nothing about them.
Many of today’s Evangelical Christians usually fall into this trap, but often enough, they are completely oblivious to it. The common Evangelical narrative goes something like this…
Mary was a virgin when the Angel Gabriel announced the birth of Christ to her. She remained a virgin all through her pregnancy and Joseph did not have intercourse with her. Then after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph had sex. We know this because the Bible tells us that she only remained a virgin “until” she gave birth to Jesus, implying that she ceased to be a virgin after. The Bible also makes references to the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus Christ, even naming some of them. Therefore, we know, based on the Bible Alone, that Mary ceased to be a virgin after the birth of Jesus, had normal sexual relations with Joseph, and produced a number of younger siblings of Jesus Christ. — Typical Protestant Narrative
Okay, there are several problems with this narrative, but before I demonstrate that I want to emphasize that this is an extremely popular narrative which is almost universally accepted in Protestantism (both traditional and Evangelical). Now some traditional Protestants have ceased to believe in the virgin birth altogether, but the Evangelicals vigorously defend that, at least insofar as Mary remaining a virgin prior to the birth of Jesus. The Evangelicals almost universally subscribe to the narrative above. Aside from a small group if high-church Anglicans, and perhaps a few traditional Lutherans, almost every Protestant in the world accepts the above narrative as Biblical and historical truth. So with that said, lets look at all the Biblical “evidence” Protestants use to support the idea that Mary had sex sometime after the birth of Jesus Christ.
The first Biblical citation comes from the Gospel according to Matthew in reference to the relationship between Joseph and Mary…
“but [Joseph] had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” -- Matthew 1:25
Here Evangelicals like to put an emphasis on the word “until,” implying that because this word is used, it means that Mary’s condition as a virgin changed after the fact. However, there is a serious linguistic problem with this understanding, both with the English word “until” and with the Greek word it was translated from – heos. Neither in English nor in Greek, does the word “until” (heos) always imply that something changed after it’s used. Most of the time it does, but not all of the time. For example, 2nd Samuel 6:23 says: “And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child until the day of her death.” So does that mean that Michal had children after her death? Probably not. Matthew 22:44 says: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’” So does that mean the Lord (Jesus the Son) will not sit by our Lord’s (God the Father’s) right hand after he puts his enemies under his feet? We have some significant theological problems if it does mean that. For the Father and the Son are two Persons of the blessed Trinity. How can the Son no longer sit at the right hand of the Father? 1st Corinthians 15:25 says that Jesus “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” Does this mean the Jesus will no longer reign after he has put his enemies under his feet? Again, we’ve got some serious theological problems if it does. Jesus is God. How can he not reign after a certain event happens? 2nd Corinthians 1:13 says: “For we write to you nothing other than what you can read and also understand; I hope you will understand until the end.” So does that mean the apostle hopes we will not understand after the end — meaning the end of the world and the last judgement? Are we to conclude that based on this usage of the word “until” the Apostle Paul only wants us to understand things until Jesus comes back, and then after that he hopes we don’t understand any more? From this you can begin to see how ridiculous things get when we impose a strict single-sense meaning on the word “until” (heos). Granted, the word “until” usually means that something changes after a certain point, but it doesn’t always mean that. It can’t. So to use the argument that Mary had sex after the birth of Jesus because the word “until” (heos) is used in Matthew 1:25 is a mistake. The usage of that word alone proves nothing — neither in English nor in Greek. It simply means that Joseph did not have sex with Mary before or after she was found to be with child. It says nothing — and I mean nothing — about what happened thereafter. Sorry that’s just English (and Greek).
Another objection is commonly raised because of the way some English Bibles translate Matthew 1:25 as “And he did not know her until she brought forth her firstbornson.” The assumption here is that because the verse says “firstborn,” there must have been a second-born, and a third-born, and so on. Now that does sound logical in the modern English usage of the word. However, we are not talking about a modern people here, nor a modern culture, nor a modern linguistic usage of the term “firstborn.” In ancient Jewish culture the term “firstborn” was a legal term. It literally meant the child that opened the womb. This was important for inheritance reasons, as the legal firstborn son (not daughter but son) was always the one designated to receive the inheritance from his father (Exodus 13:2, Exodus 34:20, Numbers 3:12). What this meant is that the son who was born first was called the “firstborn” regardless if there was ever a second or a third. He was called “firstborn” immediately, even if the mother died in childbirth and never gave birth to a second or third child. The term “firstborn” was a legal term in ancient Jewish culture, and that is how the term is used here in this passage. It in no way means that a second or third child must follow. That is ancient Jewish law. Feel free to look it up, or check with a local rabbi.
Now there are multiple references to the brothers or sisters of Jesus Christ. These are as follows… Matthew 12:46; Matthew 13:55; Mark 3:31–34; Mark 6:3; Luke 8:19–20; John 2:12; John 7:3-10; Acts 1:14 & 1st Corinthians 9:5. Of course, this leads many to believe that this is irrefutable proof that Jesus had younger siblings. However, there is a problem here, and this has to do with language. While the New Testament manuscripts we have available to us today were written in Greek, that is not the native language Jesus and his apostles spoke. They all spoke Aramaic, which is a Semitic language very similar to Hebrew. Very few people speak it today, but at the time of Christ, it was very popular and widespread throughout the region. Aramaic is a primitive language and lacks words for some fine details that are taken for granted in Greek, Latin and even English. For example; Aramaic has no word for “wrist.” In fact, the wrist is just considered part of the hand. This is why the Scriptures say that Jesus was pierced through the “hands” at his crucifixion, even though modern medical science tells us it would be impossible for the hands to support the weight of his body. Medical examination of the Shroud of Turin, which is believed to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, shows the image of a man crucified through his wrists. Most archaeologists agree that the nails were commonly placed through the wrist during Roman crucifixions. Yet to people who spoke Aramaic at that time, they would have said the nails were placed through the “hands” because the wrist was considered part of the hand. Likewise, a similar situation exists in the usage of the words “brothers” and “sisters” in the Aramaic language. The problem being that like ancient Hebrew, the Aramaic language had no words for cousins, aunts, uncles and step-siblings. They were all simply referred to as “brothers” and “sisters.” There is no way that any of these verses cited above can prove that Jesus had siblings through Mary. Sorry, that’s just the nature of Aramaic. In fact, the Scriptures themselves demonstrate exactly what I’m talking about here, referring to two completely different mothers for some of those named “brothers” of our Lord (Matthew 27:56 compare to John 19:25). Now granted, the New Testament manuscripts we use today were written in Greek, not Aramaic, but they were written by Aramaic-speaking people, and based on the example I just provided, it is obvious their Aramaic manner of speech carried over into their Greek writings. Besides that, there is considerable evidence that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Aramaic before it was translated into Greek.
So I’ve demonstrated here, using the Bible fully in its linguistic and cultural context, that every passage Evangelicals commonly use, to “prove” that Mary had more children after Jesus, is nothing more than an assumption that has no real Scriptural backing. However, there is a passage of Scripture that completely backs the idea that Jesus did not have younger siblings. Throughout the gospels it becomes clear that Mary is under the care of Jesus. Now this would be unheard of if Joseph were still alive. Many early writings indicate that Joseph died when Jesus was in his early teens, and this would indicate why she would fall under the care of her son from that point on. Remember, under Jewish law at that time, women had no rights. So a woman was forced to always live under the care of a man. First a woman is raised by her father. Then she goes under the care of her husband. Then presumably, if she is fortunate, she will bear sons, and if her husband dies before she does, she will pass to the care of her eldest son, unless he is unable, then to the next eldest, and so on. As Jesus was dying on the cross, he gave care of his mother to his disciple John rather than to the next male sibling in line as Jewish custom would require (John 19:26-27). Are we to believe that Jesus broke Jewish custom immediately before he died? No! The fact that he gave the care of his mother to somebody who was clearly not his younger sibling brother indicates that he had no sibling brothers.
Now that we’ve examined the Biblical record, let’s take a look at what the early Christians had to say about this matter in their own writings. There was a small book written in about AD 120 called the Protoevangelium of James. This book has been recognized as an ancient account of early Christians beliefs concerning the lives of Mary and Joseph. The book records that Saint Anne (Mary’s mother) was childless. So following the example of the Prophet Samuel’s mother in the Old Testament (1st Samuel 1:11), she promised to God that if he would give her a child, she would dedicate him/her at an early age to serve in the Temple as a virgin. Both boys and girls served in the Temple as virgins since the earliest days of ancient Israel. In fact, the Old Testament records an incident wherein some of these female Temple virgins were defiled by the sons of the high priest (1st Samuel 2:22). The Protoevangelium of James tells us that Mary was dedicated by her mother Anne, to lifelong service in the Temple as a virgin. However, it was common for such virgins to be entrusted to a guardian to safeguard their virginity. This was done by marrying them to elderly widowers who already had children by their now deceased wives. The guardians were to take these virgins into their homes as their wives. Their sole duty was to guard their virginity. By being legally married to them, it prevented any younger men from daring to try to win their affections. In exchange, the elderly guardian would gain for himself a housekeeper, cook and companion. This practice was well known in first century Judaism. Because of the number of virgins serving in the Temple, their presence in Jerusalem was only required during certain times of the year. This allowed them to live in remote villages spread throughout the Holy Land for most of the year, only making occasional trips to Jerusalem during high feasts twice a year, and occasionally as needed.
The Protoevangelium of James tells us that Mary served in the Temple constantly as a young girl, from the time her mother dedicated her, at about the age of 3 years. Mary was raised in the Temple by the priests and scribes, and the Protoevangelium of James records that she danced for the Lord and made all therein joyful. The high priest, Zachariah (the husband of her cousin Elizabeth), raised her as his own daughter. After the age of 12 years, it was decided that she should be married to a guardian, as this was the custom. So some years later, a number of widowers were selected as possible candidates, and Joseph of Nazareth was one of them. Joseph was an elderly widower, probably in his late forties or early fifties, who already had a number of sons and daughters by his previous marriage. Joseph was selected to become Mary’s guardian-husband, and this is the commonly understood reason why the Scriptures record the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus Christ. They were his older step-brothers and step-sisters through Joseph. Now this makes Biblical sense because in John 7:3-10 these “brothers” of Jesus (presumably older step-brothers) speak down to Jesus, telling him what to do, and did not believe in him. In ancient Semitic culture it would have been unheard of for a younger sibling to speak to the oldest this way. Indeed, if these “brothers” were younger siblings through Mary, they would have been totally out of line here, defying everything in their culture, and Jesus could have (indeed should have) scolded them for not respecting their elder sibling. However, when we plug this verse into the context of the Protoevangelium of James, it all makes sense. These were Jesus’ older step-brothers through Joseph who were talking down to him. This clears up a lot of other mysteries as well. Joseph apparently died when Jesus was about twelve years old. This would have certainly been catastrophic, and mentioned in the Scriptures, if Joseph were a young man. However, Joseph was already an elderly man (by first century standards) at the time he was betrothed to Mary. Therefore, his death twelve to thirteen years later, would not have come as a shock to anyone, needing no mention in Scripture.
It was Jewish custom at that time for a betrothed couple to live together for one year before the wedding ceremony. (The wedding ceremony itself was a feast or party that could last as long as a week!) Such a living arrangement was designed to help the couple determine if they were really suitable for marriage. In other words, could they live with each other? Or did they have irreconcilable differences? Again, virtually all betrothed couples did this. During this one-year betrothal period, the couple would live in the same house, but sleep in separate rooms. Usually an older woman (such as an aunt or grandmother, etc.) would be appointed to live in the house with them as a chaperone. It was presumed that if the trio could manage to live together peacefully for a year, then a normal marriage between the man and the woman, in which just the two lived together, would be easy. All of this may seem strange to us today, but when we consider how many modern marriages end in divorce, the ancient Jewish betrothal period starts to make a lot of sense. So, we can begin to see the magnitude of the scandal when we read in the gospels that Mary was found to be with child (pregnant) during the customary betrothal period!
Now, stop and consider this situation please. Mary is just a 13 to 16 year-old girl, and Joseph is an elderly widower in his late 40s to early 50s. Mary is a Temple virgin consecrated to lifelong prayer and service to the Lord. Joseph was selected to be her guardian-husband. His sole responsibility was to protect and preserve her virginity. Now we begin to see the magnitude of the scandal! This was truly a mess, and it explains why the Scriptures tell us that Joseph, being a righteous man, sought to have her shipped off quietly to some secluded location. However, we know the rest of the story. The angel came to Joseph in a dream and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, for the child she bore was from God.
The Protoevangelium of James goes on to tell us the rest of the story. Mary’s pregnancy eventually reached the point where it could not be hidden any more. A tribunal was held in which the two were brought before a Temple priest and accused of fornication. A test was given to them, to see if their story was true, and when it was determined that they did not lie, the priest refused to condemn them. They returned home and were married privately some time later.
Certainly the whole affair was a stain on Joseph’s reputation. One can only imagine what his older children must have thought, and based on what we see written in John 7:3-10 and Mark 3:21, they obviously didn’t think very highly of Jesus at first. The Protoevangelium of James is a beautiful document, and gives a very ornate and mystical vision of the period between the birth of Mary and the birth of Christ. It is not Scripture. However, the text (written in about AD 120) gives us a very clear picture of what early Christians believed and accepted as history. It is, in fact, the only historical record we have concerning the lives of these Biblical characters during this time period. To reject it is to confess we know nothing, and one opinion is just as good as another. While not elevating the text to the level of Scripture, the early Church saw it is highly important and gave it an honored place in the early Christian patrimony. This is reflected in the words of subsequent Christian writers…
“The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James [records] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word . . . might not know intercourse with a man after the Holy Spirit came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the first-fruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the first-fruit of virginity” — Origen, Commentary on Matthew 2:17 (A.D. 248) “Therefore let those who deny that the Son is from the Father by nature and proper to His Essence, deny also that He took true human flesh of Mary Ever-Virgin.” — Athanasius, Orations against the Arians, II:70 (A.D. 362) “The Son of God…was born perfectly of the holy ever-virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit.” — Epiphanius, Well Anchored Man, 120 (A.D. 374) “The friends of Christ do not tolerate hearing that the Mother of God ever ceased to be a virgin” — Basil, Homily In Sanctum Christi, generationem, 5 (A.D. 379)
Shane Schaetzel is an Evangelical convert to the Catholic Church through Anglicanism and was trained as a catechist through the University of Dayton – a Catholic Marianist Institution. Shane’s articles have been featured on LifeSiteNews, ChurchMilitant, The Remnant Newspaper, Forward in Christ, and Catholic Online. Shane is an author of Catholic books, which can be read here.