Was Mary Ever-Virgin?
Do Catholics believe that Mary remained a virgin her entire life? Did she have children other than Jesus? I have non- Catholic friends who say the Bible mentions Jesus’ siblings.
The Scriptures and tradition convey information on Mary that help us understand the details of her life and her importance to our faith. Passages in the Bible do reference the brothers and sisters of Jesus, leading some to claim that Mary clearly bore other children. However, this is inconsistent with Christian tradition. The words “brothers” and “sisters” (in Greek, adelfos and adelfa) can describe other close family members who were not siblings.
The Church has consistently taught that Mary was not only a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, but remained a virgin after. In the early Church, Mary’s virginity was bound up with Eve. As the mother of all the living, Eve was a virgin and undefiled, but she conceived death. Mary was likewise a virgin and undefiled, but she conceived Jesus, the Savior, to reverse the effects of Eve’s disobedience. As the “new Eve,” Mary’s virginal womb became the dwelling of the incarnate God. Because of the Church’s consistent teaching of Mary’s perpetual virginity, it is one of the four Marian dogmas that Catholics hold and it is shared by many non-Catholics, including Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Christians.
The adjective “ever virgin” (in Greek, aeiparthenos) was applied to Mary by the end of the second century. Church Fathers, including Jerome and Origen, discussed Mary’s virginity. Eventually, the teaching solidified around her threefold virginity—meaning she was a virgin before, during and after Christ’s birth. The teaching became widely accepted and was affirmed at the Ecumenical Councils of Ephesus (431) and Second Constantinople (553).
SIBLINGS OF JESUS
This tradition notwithstanding, the Scriptures name several “brothers of Jesus” (James, Joseph, Simon and Judas) and “sisters,” too (Mt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3). However, the meaning of the Biblical authors’ choice of the terms brother and sister is not certain. James and Joseph are identified as both brothers of the Lord and sons of “the other Mary”—presumably not Mary, the mother of Jesus (Mt. 27:56; Catechism of the Catholic Church, §500).
This seems to present a conflict unless we consider that the word for brothers could indicate other close male relatives, such as cousins. Such terminology can be found elsewhere in the Bible; for instance, when Abram calls Lot his “brother” (Hebrew = awkh, which is usually translated as “kinsman”).
It has also been suggested that the brothers and sisters of Jesus could be Joseph’s children by a previous marriage, though this tradition is not found in the Bible and may not answer the riddle of how Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” were children of the “other Mary.”
WHOEVER DOES GOD’S WILL…
No matter the precise family relationship, Jesus deemphasizes the biological connection to His “siblings” when He compares them to those who do God’s will. As the Evangelist Mark recorded, someone called out to Jesus: “Your mother and your brothers are outside asking for you….” But he replied, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk. 3: 32-35).
Herein lies the greater truth: by adoption, we are all in the family of Jesus and his mother, Mary. As the Catechism relates, “Jesus is Mary’s only son, but her spiritual motherhood extends to all” (§501). For when we do God’s will, we are spiritually linked to Jesus and Mary, which is a bond more important than blood.
Father David Endres is professor of Church history and historical theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology.
This article appeared in the May 2023 edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.