The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative as pertains to the Perpetual Virginity of Mary and the brothers and sisters of Jesus, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, dear Reader, “so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings” on these two very inter-related topics (cf. Luke 1:1, 3-4). They are the perpetual virginity of Mary and the brothers and sisters of Jesus. Both are topics that seem to cause more than a few words of disagreement.

Many articles have been written about the two — most are about whether or not Jesus had brothers and sisters. So, here…let us begin.

Photo by Sr. Angelica, pddm

Mary’s Encounter With the Angel

For this we go direct to Sacred Scriptures. In Luke’s Gospel we are told that the Angel Gabriel is sent to a young woman and we learn four amazing things. The first is that the young woman is a virgin – in Greek, παρθένος (parthenos). She is the παρθένος foretold in Isaiah 7:14 – “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel”. Some will point out that the term used in Is. 7:14 is עַלְמָה (“almah”, which is Hebrew) and simply means “maiden” but the Greek Septuagint which were the Scriptures in use by the time of Jesus (and still in use in the Catholic and Orthodox churches today) uses παρθένος.

The second point about this heavenly encounter is that the angel greeted her with a term which “greatly troubled” (1:29) Mary: χαῖρε κεχαριτωμένη (Chaire Kecharitomene) which means “Rejoice, Full of Grace”. This is the only time in all of Sacred Scripture that anyone is greeted in such a lofty manner. It is not used here as a description, however, but as her actual name. The angel does indeed call her by her given name of Μαρία (Maria) in v. 31 but his intent in v. 29 is to call her Full of Grace.

According to notes on the term χαῖρε κεχαριτωμένη it is a verb. It is a “perfect participle passive” and is in the “nominative feminine singular”.

The (unknown) author of the website, ( explains that “Full of Grace” translates kecharitōmĕnē asthe perfect passive participle of charitŏō. It denotes one who has been and still is the object of divine benevolence, one who has been favored and continues to be favored by God, one who has been granted supernatural grace and remains in this state”.

A side note: It is because of the angel’s greeting of “Rejoice, Full of Grace” that many people now begin the Hail Mary with “Rejoice, Full of Grace” rather than “Hail Mary”.

The third point is Mary’s response to the angel: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Luke 1:34) This tells us most plainly that Mary was indeed a virgin at the time of the Annunciation.

The fourth point is that the angel explains the role of the Holy Spirit to her and finishes with the (likely) most-often quoted line from the Annunciation narrative: “…for nothing will be impossible for God” (Luke 1:37).

Mary as Fulfillment

Mary’s pregnancy is not the first to come about through the intervention of God. In fact, there are at least five women of the Old Testament who were childless/barren. They are:

  • Sarah – The wife of Abraham. Sarah was barren but became pregnant by the power of God “at ninety”. She had long since been considered to have a “dead womb” and Abraham’s body to be “dead”. Their offspring was Isaac.
  • Rebekah – The wife of Isaac, the daughter-in-law of Abraham & Sarah. She was “very beautiful, a virgin, untouched by man”. Isaac was “forty years old”8 when he married her. “Isaac entreated the LORD on behalf of his wife, since she was sterile. The LORD heard his entreaty, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant”and she gave birth to twins, Esau and Jacob.
  • Rachel – the wife of Jacob. “Like Sarah and Rebekah before her, Rachel experiences a long period of barrenness”.  The emotional strife was so painful for Rachel and her desire for sons so great that she had demanded sons from Jacob shouting, “Give me children or I shall die!”11. To which he had replied in anger, “Can I take the place of God, who has denied you the fruit of the womb?”. Indeed, being childless was seen as a shameful thing, for without sons a woman lost her status in the community, having no-one to carry on the name or to care for her. “Then God remembered Rachel. God listened to her and made her fruitful. She conceived and bore a son, and she said, ‘God has removed my disgrace.She named him Joseph, saying, ‘May the LORD add another son for me!’”. She did indeed bear one more son whom she named Benjamin but she died in childbirth.

These three pregnancies are very important. According to Tikva Frymer-Kensky in her article on Rachel,  “The infertility of the matriarchs has two effects: it heightens the drama of the birth of the eventual son, marking Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph as special; and it emphasizes that pregnancy is an act of God”.

Two more women of the Old testament are found to be barren. One is a nameless woman known simply as the mother of Samson. “An angel of the LORD appeared to the woman and said to her: Though you are barren and have had no children, you will conceive and bear a son “. The other woman is Hannah, wife of Elkanah; she had prayed to God “year after year”for a son because “the LORD had closed her womb”. Finally, after weeping bitter tears her prayer was answered because “the LORD remembered her”. His name is Samuel.

Elizabeth, wife of the high priest Zechariah is the only woman mentioned in the New Testament who is both “advanced in years and barren”. Their child is John the Baptist the forerunner of Jesus and of whom Jesus had said, Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist”.

And now there is Mary, spouse of Joseph the carpenter. A young virgin whose maternity is announced by an arch-angel, Gabriel. She is (as stated earlier) the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”. All of the aforementioned pregnancies ultimately came about in the normal, unitive manner — the joining of “male and female” who become “one flesh”.

This time the angel assures Mary, “The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God”.

The Betrothal of Mary and Joseph

The Betrothal of Mary & Joseph by Rubens

Here we switch our attention to the Gospel of Matthew, Ch. 1:18-25.

“Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit.Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly”.

Jewish marriages in the time of Jesus came about in two phases — the betrothal and then the actual wedding. Today’s marriages usually celebrate an engagement — but not always, and it is not mandatory. In the First Century the betrothal was a legal ritual where a man and a woman were promised to each other even though they were not yet living together. The betrothal lasted about one year during which time the groom would painstakingly build a room onto his parents’ house and making sure that it was just right for him and his new family. When all was ready, the marriage took place and then it was consummated. This Joseph would have been doing when he became aware that Mary was with child.

Unlike today’s engagements which, when they do not work out, are simply ended — whereas Joseph could actually file for a divorce from Mary for her infidelity as he had decided to do quietly until the angel intervened. Even though not “fully” married (consummated), Joseph was already called “her husband” (v. 19) and Mary was already Joseph’s “wife” (v. 20).

According to the Law the penalty for such infidelity was steep: “If there is a young woman, a virgin who is betrothed and a man comes upon her in the city and lies with her, you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city and there stone them to death…” (Deut. 22:23-24a)

But Joseph loved Mary as much as he loved the Law and so a quiet divorce would be his out. But again, the angel intervened. “Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her”. (Mt. 1:20)

One may object and speak of Mt. 1:25 — “He (Joseph) had no relations with her until she bore a son” (italics mine) but caution must be used about how words were used back then. Consider 2 Sam 6:3 — “Saul’s daughter Michal was childless until she died”. We know that she had no children after she died.

The Celibacy of Joseph

Here are two ways to know that Joseph never had sexual relations with Mary – even after the birth of Jesus. In his article, The Perpetual Virginity of Mary, Br. Anthony Opisso, M.D. refers to the Greek of Matthew’s Gospel by stating “The angel does not use the phrase for marital union: “go in unto” (as in Gn 30:3, 4, 16) or “come together” (Mt 1:18) but merely a word meaning leading her into the house as a wife (paralambano gunaika) but not cohabiting with her”.

He further states, “For when the angel revealed to him that Mary was truly the spouse of the Holy Spirit, Joseph could take Mary, his betrothed, into his house as a wife, but he could never have intercourse with her because according to the Law she was forbidden to him for all time”.

Why was Mary forbidden to Joseph? Opisso explains: “We also have to take into consideration that when Mary was told by the archangel Gabriel “Behold, you shall conceive in your womb, and bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus” (Lk 1:31), he also added that this was to come about because “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the Holy one to be born shall be called the Son of God” (Lk 1:35). By stating it in those terms the archangel declared to Mary that God would enter into a marital relationship with her, causing her to conceive His Son in her womb, for “to lay one’s power (reshuth) over a woman” (Targum to Dt 21:4) was a euphemism for “to have a marital relationship with her.” Likewise, “to overshadow” (Lk 1:35) by spreading the “wing” or “cloak” over a woman was another euphemism for marital relations”. Joseph understood then that Mary was the bride of the Holy Spirit.

Joseph’s role was as protector of Mary and as the foster father of Jesus. It is not known whether Joseph was an older gentleman or whether he had children from any previous marriage (or even if he had been previously married) but with Mary he remained continent the rest of his days. “When for the sake of the Torah (i.e., intense study in it), a rabbi would abstain from relations with his wife, it was deemed permissible, for he was then cohabiting with the Shekinah (the “Divine Presence”) in the Torah (Zohar re Gn 1:27; 13:3)”.

Even Moses had required the men to “Be ready for the third day. Do not approach a woman” when God had made known his plans to “come down on Mt. Sinai in the sight of all the people”.  Jewish tradition mentions that, “although the people had to abstain from sexual relations with their wives for only three days prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai (Ex 19:15), Moses chose to remain continent the rest of his life with the full approval of God. The rabbis explained that this was so because Moses knew that he was appointed to personally commune with God, not only at Mount Sinai but in general throughout the forty years of sojourning in the wilderness”.

Mary’s Virginal Yes

Mary’s purity of intention and purity of heart go hand-in-hand with her virginal womb. Mary had no interest in any gain for herself in giving birth to God’s own son — hence, her reply: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word”. She knew very well what a pregnancy would mean to an unmarried woman but in her great act of faith and love of God she answered yes. Mary’s reaction to the Holy Spirit within her was to turn outward and “she traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth”. (Lk 1:39-40) We know the rest of that story — “how the child in Elizabeth’s womb had leapt for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice” and how Mary had praised and magnified the Lord for all he had done for her. Virginal Yes…virginal body — the two very much go hand in hand.

In the Old Testament — in the building of the ark for the covenant which were the two stone tablets containing the word of God given to Moses and the people — God dictated that the ark be built to certain specific dimensions and then “plate it inside and outside with pure gold, and put a molding of gold around the top of it”. How much more, then, should the “vessel” — the womb that was to carry the Word Made Flesh also be “lined” with pure gold, the gold of virginity of heart and body?

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

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Cynthia Trainque is an author who is enrolled in the Master of Arts in Ministry (MAM) for the Laity at St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA. She has served the church for several years as a worker, writer, and volunteer and is presently an active member of Our Lady of Lourdes in Worcester, MA. Cynthia is available to come to speak as a guest speaker/teacher on the beauty of the Catholic faith.  She gives talks and also creates/uses PowerPoint presentations. She may be contacted at [email protected].

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