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Does the Ever-virginity of Mary Contradict Scripture?

Timothy Copple

The ever-virginity of Mary, the one who gave birth to the Son of God in the flesh, has been a hotly debated topic in Western Christianity for the last four to five-hundred years. Prior to the Reformation, the topic was rarely questioned among Christians other than a few fringe, heretical groups here and there. And even in the early days of the Protestant Reformation, the main reformers all believed in the ever-virginity of Mary, including Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. It has been primarily in the last two to three hundred years that the repudiation of that belief has taken root, as Anabaptist influence spread.

So it is not surprising that despite the historic nature of this belief in times past, that current day Protestants checking out Orthodox Christianity would find this belief a stumbling block. I've heard some suggest that they love the deep theological interconnectedness of Orthodoxy, but when they come to this point, they find it hard to swallow.

Others may think, "This has nothing to do with who Jesus is, or our salvation. Who cares?" On the surface, not knowing the context and the connection of this belief with who Jesus Christ is, that is an easy position to take. Why does the Orthodox Church say this is an important belief?

In this article, I want to address this issue, and hopefully provide a perspective that makes sense of why we even have this belief.

First, the primary argument of those who don't accept this belief at all is that it is contrary to Scripture. There are two key pieces of Scripture used to make this point. I want to take both of them and show not only why they do not contradict a belief in the ever-virginity, but strongly supports such a view.

The first Scripture we will review is Mat 13:54-56 (NKJV).

{54}And when He had come to His own country, He taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, "Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? {55} "Is this not the carpenter's son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? {56} "And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things?"

The argument given is that Scripture states that Jesus had brothers and sisters, therefore Mary and Joseph had sexual relations after Jesus was born, for how else could these be listed as His brothers and sisters?

Textually, this is a very weak argument when you parse the passage. First, notice the context here. The Scriptures are quoting what the people were saying in Nazareth. There is no claim within Scripture that this was true. After all, notice that the Scriptures here say that Jesus is Joseph's son. Most every Christian who reads this believes that Jospeh and Mary didn't have sexual relations before the birth of Jesus, and that Joseph was not Jesus' birth father. Yet, if you are going to say that the above statements that these are the blood-brothers and sisters of Jesus based upon this text, then you have to also acknowledge that Joseph is Jesus' blood-father.

All Scripture is doing here is reporting what the people were saying about Jesus. While it accurately reports their words, it makes no claim that the statements are true. Indeed, based on them ascribing Joseph to be Jesus' father, we know they are not truthful statements.

Second, as many have heard, the terms for brothers, sisters, and such were more loosely used than we are used to using. Jerome made the case that these were actually cousins of Jesus as the word in that cultural context could be used that loosely. While the Orthodox Church doesn't make the claim that these brothers and sisters are cousins, it has historically understood them to be step-brothers and step-sisters of Jesus; children of Joseph's from a previous marriage. Even in our culture today, a step-brother or sister will often be referred to as simply brother and sister of so-and-so. If more loosely used in that day and age, it isn't any stretch to believe this could be the case here, even assuming the people reported saying this were aware that these brothers and sisters of Jesus were from Joseph's previous marriage, and not from a union between Joseph and Mary.

Third, there is historical evidence of this early belief, as early as the second century. Eucebius and Epiphanius both mention a man around 160 AD named Hegesippus who reported that these brothers and sisters were not the blood-brothers and sisters of Christ, but step-brother and step-sisters. We have only two fragments of this man's writings, but on one of them, the following is written in Greek in reference to Christ that Jude was "a brother not of His flesh."

It is the Orthodox Church's position that from early on it was common knowledge that these brothers and sisters of Jesus were not related by blood. This understanding is not contradicted by the above quoted verses of Scripture on account of the context, both textually and culturally. Indeed, taken at face value, the text of this Scripture prohibits us from assuming a blood relation is being spoken of here between Jesus and His brothers and sisters unless we are ready to say that Joseph, not God, was the father of Jesus Christ.

The other primary Scripture used to suggest that Mary could not have been ever-virgin is Mat 1:24 25 (NKJV):

Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, {25} and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

The focus falls on the "till" here, where it says that Joseph "did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son." Granted, to our English ears, it sounds like what Matthew is reporting here is that once Jesus was born, then Joseph and Mary had sex. Problem is, this is not from an English context, but a Greek one. This is an instance where it is hard to translate accurately what is being conveyed in the Greek.

The Greek word used here only focuses on the period of time leading up to a certain point. In the Greek, it makes no statement on what happened after the condition is met. In English the connotation is that once the condition is met, the situation changes, whereas in the Greek it focuses on the situation during the time period leading up to a condition is met.

This is clear when you look at how this word is translated in other passages of Scripture. It is translated as "while" in three different places in the NKJV. For instance, (Mat 26:36 NKJV) "Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to the disciples, 'Sit here while I go and pray over there.'" Here, the focus is on the time period during His prayers as to what the disciples should be doing.

It is translated as "before" in the following verse: (Mat 10:23 NKJV) "When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes." Obviously saying nothing about what happens after the Son of Man comes, but focused on what will happen between that point in time and when He returns.

You'll also find it translated as "how long" in this verse: (Mat 17:17 NKJV) "Then Jesus answered and said, 'O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.'" Again, the focus here is on the time period itself, not what will happen afterwards.

Even where it is translated as "until" or "till," you will find it focuses on the duration of the time period itself, as is clear in this verse: (Mat 11:12 13 NKJV) "And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. {13} For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John." You'll see the same dynamic in Mat 12:20 and Mat 13:33.

Therefore, it is clear from what we know of the Greek context for this word as used elsewhere in the Scriptures that the only point that can be drawn from this, and the point Matthew intended to convey, is that from the time Mary was betroathed to Joseph to the time Jesus was born, the two never had sex. The obvious point being that Joseph is not Jesus' blood-father. It wasn't Joseph's DNA that conceived Christ in Mary's womb. What happened after that would be pure assumption on anyone living today.

But based on the reports and what has been passed down in the Church, the testimony is that Joseph and Mary did not have sexual relations either before Christ was born, nor after. And as is evident, one cannot make the claim from this Scripture verse that such a testimony contradicts Scriptures. Not without imposing upon Scripture one's own assumptions and cultural beliefs, thus adding to Scriptures and falling under the condemnation in Revelations.

Before we move on to discuss the reason behind this belief of the Church and its importance for supporting our salvation, we need to look at one more verse which supports that Mary never intended to have sex with Joseph, that according to the testimony of the Church, Joseph being an older man, married her with the intent to preserve and protect her virginity.

(Luke 1:31-35 NKJV) "And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. {32} "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. {33} "And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end." {34} Then Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I do not know a man?" {35} 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.

Here the angel announces to Mary that she will conceive and bear a son. Her first reaction is, "How can this be, since I do not know a man?" Some would say she asks this because she is assuming that she will have it soon, and she's not had sex with any man, Joseph or otherwise. But that would be a big assumption for such a thought is not evident in the text. This statement only makes sense if she intended to remain a virgin.

For if her intent was to marry Joseph and bear his children, her response would have been, "Oh, all right. Cool." Well, maybe not those exact words, but something along those lines. If she intended to bear Joseph's children, she would have assumed at that point that the angel meant one of her and Joseph's children would be this child. It is not until the angel tells her how it will happen that she would expect anything other than normal human sexual relations to be the means. She didn't plan on having sex, so that presented a problem.

The fact that she responded as such indicates the plan wasn't to establish sexual relations once married to Joseph and supports the view that Mary intended to, and did remain a virgin before giving birth and after giving birth.

The next proof from Scripture that Mary remained a virgin after giving birth to Jesus Christ will also transition us into discussing why this belief is so important in defending who Christ is. As can be seen in many places through the Scriptures, wherever God resided was deemed a sacred place. Whether we are talking about Jacob's ladder to heaven, Moses and the burning bush, Mount Sinai, the Ark of the Covenant, or the Holy of Holies in the temple, those places were treated with awe, respect, and became sacred, that is, sanctified and dedicated to the sole use of God's purpose, and not human.

In much of Orthodox liturgical text, Mary is likened to these places for the simple fact that God dwelt in her womb. She and her womb became a sacred place, just like these other places and things. So restricted that only the high priest and only once a year went into the Holy of Holies. So restricted that if anyone touched the Ark of the Covenant, they died.

The Scriptures tell us that the angel told Joseph that the child in Mary's womb was conceived of the Holy Spirit and was God. (Matt. 1:18-24) Knowing the Hebrews attitudes toward sacred places where God was understood to have dwelt, could one make the case that Joseph, being described in Scripture as righteous and believing what the angel told him, would after Christ was born violate that sacred place for his own sexual purposes? Not with any degree of believability. Clearly, Joseph would have not dared to enter into her womb with his own seed even if one held that he and she intended to after Christ's birth. Such an act would have gone against his beliefs, his upbringing, his worldview. He would have died first.

No, the fact that people can believe that Joseph and Mary would have had sex once Jesus was born is due more to the complete loss of the sacred in life than anything else. There is no Scriptural contradiction to the belief, but rather Scriptural support, and cultural support evident in the Scriptures themselves.

And it is this last point upon which the value of this belief hinges. For if Joseph did have sexual relations with Mary after Jesus was born, then it proves that Jesus had Joseph as a father, and not God. For Joseph would not have dared to have sex with Mary if He believed Jesus to be God. If he didn't believe that the child was conceived of the Holy Spirit as the angel declared, then he would have done one of two things. He would have gone ahead and dismissed her as he planned, believing she had cheated on him, or in reality he did have sex with her and Jesus was his son.

The upholding of this belief, aside from the fact that the testimony of the Church simply says this is the way it happened, is to support the fact that Jesus was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary as stated in the Creed. To deny this belief, is in essence to deny that Jesus Christ is God's Son. Such a claim is equivalent to admitting that Joseph didn't believe Jesus was the Son of God, and so the Scriptures lie to us that Joseph was righteous, and that he believed the angel.

For sure, this is not a primary doctrine in the Church. That said, it is an important one if we wish to uphold that Jesus is the Son of God. It is a belief that not only does Scripture not contradict, but supports. It has only been in the last few hundred years of human history that the belief has fallen into questionable status in any widespread manner among Christian groups, despite the fact most all of the Reformers held to this belief. This is more a result of overlaying our own preconceived ideas and cultural blinders onto the text of Scripture and interpreting them in a manner foreign to the people of that time. But even a simple evaluation of the clear context and text of Scripture makes it plain that there is no contradiction to the belief, but rather a support of it. Any supposed contradiction of the Scriptures is a blind overlaying of one's own beliefs onto Scriptures, blocking them from seeing the truth.

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