Summary: Christmas means
The recent discovery of an ossuary (bone box) in Jerusalem that contained the phrase “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” has rekindled the controversy as to whether Mary had children other than Jesus. Catholicism claims she did not. What does the actual evidence reveal?
A few months ago, the world was stunned by the report of a limestone ossuary (bone box), discovered in Jerusalem, bearing the inscription, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” A number of prominent scholars believe this box once contained the bones of James, half-brother of Jesus, who is so prominently mentioned in the New Testament (cf. Mt. 13:55-56; Acts 15:13ff; 21:18-19; Gal. 2:9). For a brief discussion of the evidence, see the article elsewhere on this web site, “The “Jesus” Inscription”, “Penpoints”, October 21, 2002).
Aside from the obvious importance of this discovery as such relates to the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, the inscription has rekindled the controversy concerning the alleged “perpetual virginity” of Mary. Both the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Roman Catholic Church (along with a few Protestant scholars), contend that Mary and Joseph, even after the birth of the Lord, remained celibate for life.
The Roman Catholic Church alleges that Mary’s parents presented her in the temple when she was but three years old, and that “the child herself mounted the Temple steps, and that she made her vow of virginity on this occasion” (Maas, 464F). This would suggest that at the tender age of three, Mary had considerable knowledge of human anatomy. It further hints that she understood the intricacies of sexual union. Moreover it indicates that she likely foreknew the fact that she would bear the Christ child, and that she perceived somehow that it would be inappropriate for her ever to engage in honorable intimacy with a legitimate husband. The absurdity of this claim is almost beyond belief, but such is the superstition that shrouds this deviate theological system.
This theory of Mary’s “perpetual virginity” became official dogma at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, and thus is binding upon both the Greek and Roman segments of the Church (Pelikan, 14.1000).
The Historical Roots of the Dogma
What is the biblical evidence for this dogma? There is none—absolutely none. As one scholar quaintly noted, the doctrine “is a matter of dogmatic assumption unmixed with any alloy of factual evidence” (Sweet, 3.2003).
The theory had its roots in the pagan environment of the post-apostolic age when there was a strong emphasis upon celibacy within certain heathen religions. In that day, sexual intercourse, even within marriage, sometimes carried the suspicion of sin.
Alexander Hislop has shown a remarkable concurrence between the Vestal Virgins of pagan Rome, and the propensity for virginity that evolved in the digressive church of the post-apostolic period (Hislop, 223, 236-238, 250).
The idea thus evolved that it was inconceivable that Mary should have engaged in normal marital relations. It is a baffling mystery how a Church, that holds marriage to be a “sacrament,” can entertain such a misdirected viewpoint (see Heb. 13:4).
A progressively deteriorating church (cf. 2 Thes. 2:1ff; 1 Tim. 4:1ff; 2 Tim. 4:1ff), therefore, was ever attempting to accommodate “Christianity” to paganism, in order to provide a “comfort zone” that would attract the heathen to the religion of Christ. This is an historical reality that not even Catholic scholars deny (see Attwater, 363). For an historical survey of this phenomenon, see Edward Gibbon’s famous work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Chapter XXVIII). Gibbon concludes this chapter with these words:
“The most respectable bishops had persuaded themselves that the ignorant rustics would more cheerfully renounce the superstitions of Paganism, if they found some resemblance, some compensation, in the bosom of Christianity” (II.70).
Hence the baseless notion was foisted upon the biblical records that Mary remained a virgin for life. And all biblical evidence that suggests otherwise is rationalized away with less-than-imaginative textual manipulations. There is, however, a compelling case against the Catholic view.
New Testament Evidence
There are a number of passages in the New Testament that argue against the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Note the following:
1. Matthew affirms that Mary was found to be with child “before [she and Joseph] came together” (Mt. 1:18). The term “came together” (from sunerchomai) includes the idea of sexual intimacy (cf. 1 Cor. 7:5; see Danker, 970). The implication clearly is that ultimately, they “came together.” H.L. Ellison comments that the construction is “incompatible with the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary” (1188).
2. Matthew declares that Joseph “knew not” (i.e., was not sexually intimate with; cf. Gen. 4:1) Mary “until [heos hou] she had given birth to a son” (1:25). While the expression heos hou does not absolutely demand that Joseph and Mary were intimate after Jesus’ birth, that would be the normal conclusion, unless contextual considerations indicated otherwise (cf. 2 Sam. 6:23). In fact, “elsewhere in the New Testament (17:9 24:39; cf. John 9:18) the phrase (heos hou) followed by a negative always implies that the negated action did take place later” (Lewis, 1.42). There is no valid reason why Matthew 1:25 should be the exception.