Christian TraditionsEastern OrthodoxMary

The Perpetual Virginity of Mary: Why I Changed My Mind

Mary is a touchy subject for Protestants. I get it. Really, I get it. The majority of my life I sat in the pews of a very conservative Protestant Church with very Protestant views of Mary. If you would have told me then that in the future I would believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity, call her Mother of God, and be devoted to her in my prayer life, I would have laughed. At that time, I had the utmost confidence that I was right about Mary; but I had also devoted strikingly little study to the subject. So how did I know that what I believed about her was the truth?

The Protestant hesitancy to accept what the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches teach about Mary comes from a good place: the concern to safeguard a proper teaching about Christ and to keep him at the center of Christianity. The early Christians believed, however, that Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, title “Mother of God”, and intercession for all of us, point us to a proper doctrine of Jesus Christ. C.S. Lewis once suggested that we should read three old books for every new book we read—because if something is true, it will be true for all times and in all places, and you will see a consistency throughout history. Because modern Protestant beliefs about Mary are a relatively recent phenomena, I would like to address from an Orthodox perspective some common concerns that Protestants have about Mary. Further, through this series I hope to explain why the Orthodox beliefs about Mary are critical in keeping Christ at the center of Christianity.

There are typically three reasons for believing that Mary bore other children. The first is Matthew 1:25, which reads,

And [Joseph] knew her not till (ἕως οὗ) she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.

The catch word here is “till”—or “until”—which most Protestants point to in order to prove that Mary and Joseph did “know” one another at some point after Jesus was born.  This word “till”, in the original Greek, is heos (ἕως) and is often used in scripture to connote not a finite period of time but rather an eternity.* Note the following passage:

I am with you always, even unto (ἕως) the end of the world. Amen. Matthew 28:20b

Certainly Jesus does not mean to say he is with us until the end of the world, and at that point in time he will cease to be with us.

And another passage:

Another parable spake he unto them; The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till (ἕως οὗ) the whole was leavened. Matthew 13:33

Does this mean that the she took out the meal (yeast) after the whole was leavened? To further this point, the Reformers quoted Matthew 1:25 concerning Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, but not in the way you may think. John Calvin wrote:

[On Matt 1:25:] The inference he [Helvidius1] drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband . . . No just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words . . . as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called ‘first-born’; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin . . . What took place afterwards the historian does not inform us . . . No man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation.2

And Martin Luther had this to say:

Scripture does not say or indicate that she later lost her virginity . . .when Matthew [1:25] says that Joseph did not know Mary carnally until she had brought forth her son, it does not follow that he knew her subsequently; on the contrary, it means that he never did know her . . . This babble . . . is without justification . . . he has neither noticed nor paid any attention to either Scripture or the common idiom.3

Both Martin Luther and John Calvin were repulsed at the use of Matthew 1:25 as a “proof-text” that Mary ceased to be a virgin after the birth of Christ.

The second reason that most Protestants reject Mary’s perpetual virginity is Scripture’s reference to Jesus’s brothers. In Greek, the word brother is adelphos (ἀδελφός). Once again, our English heritage and language has done us a disservice with respect to our reading of Scripture. Most cultures, especially the culture in which Jesus lived, referred to cousins, uncles, and the like as brothers. In Genesis, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is even referred to as his brother (adelphos).

Concerning Jesus’s “brothers” John Calvin wrote, “Under the word ‘brethren’ the Hebrews include all cousins and other relations, whatever may be the degree of affinity”4 and “Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ’s ‘brothers’ are sometimes mentioned.”5

References to Jesus’ brothers in scripture is far from conclusive proof that these “brothers” were borne by the Virgin Mary. Another scripture verse that is sometimes cited with respect to Jesus’s brothers is Romans 8:29 which reads,  “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” This verse, however, is not referring to other children borne by Mary; it is referring to Jesus as the firstborn of creation, the firstborn of the human race. It is conveying the mystery of being created in the image and likeness of God—so that we might be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.

The third reason Protestants reject Mary’s perpetual virginity is that it seems unreasonable. From my conversation with Protestants on this subject, they mentioned that, because Mary and Joseph were married, it was unreasonable to believe that they did not have sex.  We must remember, however, that Joseph and Mary were thoroughly Jewish—they did not live in the culture that we live in today (a culture which is, admittedly, oversexualized). So what would a Jewish person living in the first century think about all of this?

Throughout Scripture and Jewish tradition, we see that husband and wife separate from one another after a mighty work of God. One such example is Moses’s separation from his wife, Zipporah, after his encounter with God (Numbers 7). We also see that God dwelt with the Jewish people in the Holy of Holies. But not just anyone could enter the Holy of Holies, only the High Priest, and only at specific times. If you entered the Holy of Holies, you would die. The early Christians understood this as a prefiguring of the womb of Mary, which was made Holy by the indwelling of the Incarnate Logos.

But Mary’s perpetual virginity goes even further than this. Our Holy God became man. He did not merely overshadow humanity, he became flesh (John 1:14). The physical and the spiritual world are not opposed to one another. The fact is, the human person is a single unit made up of soul and body; and the two affect one another. Scripture is rife with this fact: again, one such example can be seen in the life of Moses. When he came down from Mount Sinai after having an experience with God, his skin and face shone so brightly that he had to put a veil over his face (Ex. 34:29-35). How much more the Virgin who bore God in the flesh! If God was literally in the womb of Mary, certainly one would think twice about approaching her for sexual union. It seems to me that denying the Perpetual Virginity paves the way for dualistic thought within Christianity (e.g., the soul is good, the body is bad). But Christians are not dualists. This is why Orthodox worship is physical—we cross ourselves, we bow, we kiss, etc. Because there is a sacredness to creation; there is a sacredness, and physicality, to worship.

In today’s society, nothing is sacred. But as Christians, we do not believe that. Even within the large realm of Protestantism there is a residual understanding of this—as evidenced by the admirable fight against premarital sex. The body is sacred. But even more than that, growing up as a Protestant I recognized that there were, indeed, things that, while not necessarily wrong, were inappropriate within the walls of the church—because it is the ‘house of God.’ How much more with Mary’s womb, the house of God. As seen with Moses’ glowing face, it is not just the time of meeting with God that affects the person, but afterwards too—even after Jesus was born, Mary’s womb was consider sacred.

As an aside, I once heard someone say that, at the Transfiguration, “Jesus peeled back his human flesh” so that the disciples could see what he really was. This phraseology is quite bothersome and is evident of an underlying idea of dualism within certain segments of Christianity. What Jesus “really was” was a human being. The early Christians understood Jesus’s Transfiguration as an “opening of the disciples eyes” to what was there all the time. Meaning, Jesus’s uncreated light was always there—and their eyes were opened so that they could see it there on Mount Tabor. But his Divinity and Humanity were not opposed to one another. The human person is made whole by the indwelling of the Incarnate Logos—and so, we too, are called to this wholeness in Jesus Christ.

But scripture does not actually talk about Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, does it?

Like many things in the Old Testament that prefigure a person or event that has not yet occurred, Mary’s Perpetual Virginity is prefigured in several Old Testament passages. In Ezekiel 43:27–44:4 we read about the east gate of the heavenly temple which will remain shut after the Lord enters—for he alone shall enter by it. This passage has been read by early Christians6 as referring to Mary’s womb—Jesus’ gate into the world: a gate that Christ only would enter and would then be shut forever.

Finally, after all of this information has been conveyed, most Protestants have one final question: why does it even matter anyway? It does not have anything to do with our salvation and it need not be a core belief, right? Orthodox Christians believe that everything contributes to our salvation. It is not that we do any good works that merit our salvation, but rather that everything in our life, and everyone who has lived or is currently living, contributes to the mystery of our salvation. This means that stocking shelves or stubbing your toe can contribute to your salvation, if you let it; these things will refine you and prepare you for (and allow you to participate in!) the heavenly kingdom. Even so, the Perpetual Virginity points to the Holiness of God, the goodness of creation and its fulfillment through Jesus Christ, and the goodness of both the physical and the spiritual—realities that are not opposed to one another but rather affect one another. On my journey, it seemed evident to me that denying the Perpetual Virginity was, in some way, denying all three of these truths which often leads minimizing the Holiness and Deity of Jesus Christ, a sacredless world, and dualistic thought in Christianity—a kind of reductionism that banishes God from the physical world.

But Christianity is maximalism, not minimalism.  Everything matters.

Ultimately—and this is the real point—if the belief against Mary’s Perpetual Virginity is based on the idea of a “plain reading of scripture”, then one must ask if such was the “plain reading of scripture”, why did the first 1500 years of the Christians miss it? And why did even the Reformers quote the exact same passage of scripture (which is used by modern Protestants in an attempt to disprove Mary’s Perpetual Virginity) in order to prove her Perpetual Virginity? And finally, why are most Protestants so against the Perpetual Virginity anyway?

This concludes the first of eight articles on the Virgin Mary.

View Sources
Benjamin Cabe

Benjamin Cabe

Benjamin Cabe is an Eastern Orthodox Christian who aspires to learn from, and write within the framework of, the teachings of the Church Fathers. He is an artist, writer, animator, husband, and father. In his free time, he enjoys spending time with his family, reading, writing, and composing music.

Previous post

The Religious Atheists: Community, Ritual, and Dogma in a Secular Age

Next post

A Defense of Nagel, Part III