“If we have a box in which we keep our money, we know that one thing we must always give attention to is the key; we never think that the key is the money, but we know that without the key we cannot get our money. Our Blessed Mother is like the key. Without her we can never get to Our Lord, because He came through her. She is not to be compared to Our Lord for she is a creature and He is a Creator. But if we lose her, we cannot get to Him. That is why we pay so much attention to her; without her we could never understand how that bridge was built between Heaven and earth.”
~Venerable Fulton J. Sheen
All Christians agree that Mary was a virgin when she miraculously conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Sacred Scripture states this very clearly:
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus'” (Luke 1:26-31).
What Christians do not always agree upon, however, is whether or not Jesus was the only child Mary had, or whether Mary and Joseph had marital relations after Jesus was born. Catholics believe that Mary and Joseph remained chaste and celibate in their marriage even after Jesus was born. Many Protestants and Evangelicals hold that Mary and Joseph went on to have other children.
Passages in Scripture used to support the position that Mary and Joseph had other children are:
Galatians 1:19 – “But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.”
Mark 6:3 – “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”
Matthew 12:46-50 – “While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brethren! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.’”
Matthew 1:24 – “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.”
The Catholic teaching is that Mary’s virginity is perpetual, and that Jesus is the only child that she conceived and gave birth to. The Catholic tradition dating to the first and second centuries of the Church has been that Mary remained a virgin during pregnancy, after the birth of Jesus, and for her entire life. Mary had taken a vow of virginity, and Joseph, her most-chaste spouse, accepted this and lived a chaste life with her.
Having sketched out the general points for and against Mary’s perpetual virginity, we can now attend to some of the specific points.
Let’s begin with the question of whether Mary and Joseph had normal sexual relations after Jesus was born. Based on the wording of Matthew 1:24, it could be interpreted that Joseph and Mary waited until after the birth of Jesus to have sexual relations. Brant Pitre in his book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary is helpful regarding this point. Matthew’s main reason for making this statement is to make clear that Joseph had no part in the conception of Jesus. The original Greek word in this passage for “until” is heos, which simply means a given period of time and makes no claim about what came afterward. This is the same word that is used in the Greek Old Testament passage when it describes Michal having no children until the day of her death (2 Samuel 6:23). Clearly she would not have had children after she died! Likewise, we cannot say much more or less about this question solely based on this passage.
Concerning vows in general made by a woman, Numbers Chapter 30 details the Jewish Law regarding such a vow:
“When a woman vows a vow to the LORD, and binds herself by a pledge, while within her father’s house, in her youth, and her father hears of her vow and of her pledge by which she has bound herself, and says nothing to her; then all her vows shall stand, and her every pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand….And if she is married to a husband, while under her vows or any thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she has bound herself, and her husband hears of it, and says nothing to her on the day that he hears; then her vows shall stand, and her pledges by which she has bound herself shall stand” (Numbers 30:3-4,6-7).
This passage offers scriptural backing to the notion that a woman could make vows and that there was legal backing to those vows within Jewish Law. Luke’s Gospel specifically mentions that Mary was betrothed to Joseph. They were married but had not consummated their marriage. Either Mary had kept her vow a secret from Joseph, or Joseph had accepted her vow at the time of their marriage. Mary keeping such a serious matter as a vow of virginity from Joseph is simply not consistent with her being full of grace and highly favored of God. That only leaves the latter option on the table. Joseph, being a righteous man of God, knew of Mary’s vow and agreed to live a chaste and celibate life with her even prior to her conceiving Jesus miraculously by the Holy Spirit.
Yet, there remain the multiple passages in the New Testament that mention Jesus’ brethren. Generally speaking, it was common parlance to use the plural brethren to describe one’s relatives (e.g. Genesis 13:8). Jesus himself in the aforementioned quote from Matthew 12:46-50 clearly states that anyone who does the will of the Father is considered a brother or sister.
More specifically, Galatians 1:19 speaks of James, the Lord’s brother, and Mark 6:3 lists James, Joses, Judas, Simon, and his sisters and lists those names in the same sentence as Mary. One of the difficulties to getting clarity concerning these lists of names is that there were many people in the New Testament that had names in common with others also associated with Jesus. The James mentioned in Galatians is listed elsewhere as the Son of Alphaeus (see Mt 10:3, Mk 3:18, Lk 6:15).
Likewise, the siblings in Mark’s Gospel belong to Mary, the wife of Clopas (John 19:25). The mention of Jesus as “the carpenter, the son of Mary” is one association, and the following list of names is another association, but not directly related. This would be similar as saying I work for a certain company, and my children’s names are Tommy and Susie. Both statements may describe something about me that people would be familiar with, but they do not necessarily have anything directly to do with one another.
A final, but crucial point, in support of Mary’s perpetual virginity comes from one of Jesus’ last words from the cross. “But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (John 19:25-27).
Nowhere in the New Testament are any other children of Mary or Joseph mentioned. But as we can see above, children are often associated as sons or daughters of their mother or father.
Jesus entrusting his mother into the care of John (and more importantly, John into the care of his mother!) indicates two things. First, Joseph was no longer alive; and second, there were no other children to care for Mary once Jesus died. Being a widow in those days without the care of a man to protect and provide for her was a dire state to be in. Jesus, loving his mother more than any other person, simply would not have left her so vulnerable. There is certainly a deeper spiritual significance to Jesus’ words, but the practical point remains — Mary had no other children to care for her once Jesus died.
In the end, one might ask why should it even matter whether or not Mary was perpetually a virgin or not. The words of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen are an appropriate way to conclude this topic of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity and captures why this question matters:
“We do not believe that Jesus is God because He was born of a virgin mother, as the Apostles and Evangelists did not believe it for that reason alone. We believe in the Divinity of Christ because of the evidence of the Resurrection, the marvel of the Gospel portrait, the growth of the Church, the miracles and prophecies of Christ, the consonance of His doctrine with the aspirations of the human heart. The Virgin Birth is rather related to the manhood of Christ and His separateness from the sin that affected all men who are born of the union of man and woman. Far from treating the Virgin Birth as the dazzling mark of Divinity, the Te Deum regards it as Our Lord’s sublime condescension to the lowly conditions of humanity:
‘When thou tookest upon Thee to deliver man:
Thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb.
The Virgin Birth is the safeguard of the sinlessness of the human nature that Our Blessed Lord assumed. The only salvation that is given to men on this earth is in the name of Him Who as God Himself entered the ranks of sinful men. That no one should ever deny He was a man, He was born like the rest of men from the womb of a woman” (The World’s First Love, p.73).