“Born of the
Catholics say that Mary was always a virgin?
by Bishop Victor Galeone
it’s not just Catholics who believe Mary was a virgin throughout her
life. So does the Orthodox Church. And the Protestant reformers
Luther and Calvin held the same belief. To understand why, let’s go
to Luke’s gospel (1:26-38) where the Angel Gabriel tells Mary that
she’s going to have a baby. Her reaction was, “How can that happen
since I don’t know man?”
In Scripture, “to know man” is a euphemism for having sexual
relations. Mary’s question is somewhat strange, since we learned in
verse 27 that she’s engaged to be married to Joseph. Didn’t they
plan to consummate the marriage after their wedding?
To learn the answer, suppose that I offer you a beer (or a
cigarette) and you reply, “Sorry, I don’t drink/smoke.” When do you
plan to start? With your present mindset, never. Doesn’t Mary’s
question fall into the same category? Did she ever plan to have
The early church fathers concluded that Mary and Joseph had made a
private vow to live as brother and sister after the wedding. (We
know from the historian Josephus that members of the Essene
Community, who lived around the time of Jesus, were celibate.) When
Gabriel explained that she was to conceive through the power of the
Holy Spirit, Mary gave her consent. And she remained a virgin for
the rest of her life.
What about Jesus’ brothers and sisters named in Mark 6:3?
In Hebrew, the word for brother (’AK) can mean blood brother,
half-brother, stepbrother, uncle, nephew or cousin. The context must
indicate the relationship. For example, Genesis 12:5 states that Lot
is “the son of Abraham’s brother,” that is, his nephew. But in the
next chapter, Abraham says to Lot, “Let us not quarrel, for we are
brothers.” Besides, if Jesus had other siblings, why did he entrust
Mary to the care of John while he was dying on the cross? Such an
action would have been unthinkable if Mary had other children to
care for her. So Jesus’ siblings mentioned in Mark were probably his
But Matthew 1:25 says that Joseph had no relations with Mary until
she gave birth to her son. Doesn’t the “until” imply they had
Not really. We’re dealing with another Hebrew idiom. In English,
what is said before until is usually not true afterwards: “I didn’t
drink until I was 21.” But there are exceptions: “Behave yourselves
until I get back.” Does that mean the kids can tear the house apart
once mother returns? Hebrew, however, stresses only what occurs
before the until clause. What is said there may or may not be true
afterwards. For example, 2 Samuel 6:23 states: “Michal had no
children until the day she died.” Are we to assume Michal bore
children in the grave? So too, Matthew 1:25 is the Hebrew way of
stressing that Joseph had no role in Jesus’ conception.
What about Luke 2:7 which says, “She gave birth to her firstborn
son.” If he’s the first, there must have been others after him.
Firstborn (bekor) in Hebrew was a technical term, conferring special
legal status on the firstborn son. As St. Jerome explained in the
fourth century: “Firstborn doesn’t mean there were any later-born.
It merely excludes any previous-born.” Archeology has confirmed St.
Jerome’s statement. In 1922 a tombstone was unearthed in Egypt of a
Jewish bride who had died in 5 B.C., with the inscription: “Fate has
ended my life in the birth pangs of my firstborn son.”
Why is there no mention of Jesus’ virgin birth outside of the
infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke?
While there are no explicit references, there are some implicit
ones. For example, in citing someone’s human ancestry, St. Paul
usually refers to the father alone, or in some cases, to both father
and mother. The only exception occurs in Galatians 4:4. “Now in the
fullness of time, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the
Law…” Precisely when Paul reaches the end of Salvation History (“in
the fullness of time”), he mentions only the mother of the promised
Messiah - who is not linked to any human father. When the Messiah
appears in our midst, he has only one Father (“God sent his Son”),
and only one mother (“born of a woman”).
Also, Joseph, Mary’s husband, is never mentioned in Mark’s gospel.
This is especially striking in the passage where Matthew and Luke
have, “Isn’t this the son of the carpenter (Mt)/Joseph (Lk)?”
Instead, Mark has: “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary?”
Let us conclude this reflection with the opening lines of
Wordsworth’s sonnet, “The Virgin.”
“Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied;
Woman! Above all women glorified,
Our tainted nature’s solitary boast…”