Bible Question:

We just finished reading your excellent article on “How Many Brothers did Jesus Have?” When did this belief begin in the church since several of the reformers including Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and John Wesley all held to the perpetual virginity dogma?

Bible Answer:

The earliest evidence for the teaching that Mary was a perpetual virgin occurs in the writings of the early church father Jerome[1] who was born in A.D. 347 and died about A.D. 419. Prior to Jerome there is no evidence that the early church taught anything other than the scriptural record – that Jesus had siblings: flesh and blood brothers and sisters. Some have claimed that Origen was the first early father who wrote that Mary was a perpetual virgin, but a close examination of his statement reveals that is not true.

And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the first-fruit among men of the purity which consists in chastity, and Mary among women; for it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the first-fruit of virginity.[2]

His statement was simply that Jesus’ mother was a virgin, and not that she was a perpetual virgin.

Other early church fathers taught that Mary was a perpetual virgin also. At first this might appear impressive and decisive, but a closer examination reveals that the early church writers who held this viewpoint wrote after A.D. 300 and not during the first, second, or even the third centuries. This is important since the Roman Catholic church began to emerge as an organization sometime around A.D. 300. This strongly implies that the teaching of Mary’s perpetual virginity started with the Roman Catholic Church.

It is also important to notice that Luther, Calvin, and Wesley came out of the Roman Catholic Church and, consequently, some of their theology had Roman Catholic leanings. This could explain why Luther[3], Calvin[4], Zwingli[5] and John Wesley[6] believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity.

Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church and others point back to the writings of the early church fathers and use their writings as authoritative truth in determining the meaning of the scriptural passages. But that approach assumes the writings of these mortal men are inspired. The truth is they are not. Only the Bible is inspired. Look at the following passage regarding Mary’s children.

“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him. Mark 6:3 (NAS95S)

The passage says that Mary had other children and the names are provided. Some of the early church fathers and current Roman Catholic theologians say that the passage refers to the spiritual brothers and sisters of Jesus. We are told to understand these names in a figurative way.

If so, how are we supposed to understand the following passage?

Now the feast of the Jews, the Feast of Booths, was near. Therefore His brothers said to Him, “Leave here and go into Judea, so that Your disciples also may see Your works which You are doing. For no one does anything in secret when he himself seeks to be known publicly. If You do these things, show Yourself to the world.” For not even His brothers were believing in Him. John 7:2-5 (NAS95S)

Are we supposed to assume that these brothers, who did not believe in Jesus at that time, are in some way spiritual brothers? A close examination of the passage makes it very clear that these “brothers” are not spiritual brothers and sisters in the sense that the Roman Catholic Church and some early church fathers would want us to believe. These brothers did not believe in Jesus. If they did not believe in Jesus, then they cannot be spiritual brothers. It is very clear that they are Jesus’ flesh and blood brothers.

The names of Jesus’ brothers are given in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3. Here is the Mark passage:

“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him. Mark 6:3 (NAS95S)

In John 2:12 we discover that Jesus and His mother are accompanied by His brothers and His disciples to the wedding at Cana in Galilee.

After this He went down to Capernaum, He and His mother and His brothers and His disciples; and they stayed there a few days. John 2:12 (NAS95S)

It is important to note that “brothers” is not included with “disciples” in a general sense. Instead they are called out separately because they were Jesus’ siblings and they did not believe in Jesus yet. Later, at least two of His brothers came to faith.

Conclusion:

The teaching that Mary was a perpetual virgin started at about the time the Roman Catholic Church came into existence and continues to this day. However, the scriptures make it clear that Jesus had siblings. Mary was a virgin until the time Jesus was born. Afterward she had children. Otherwise, why did Matthew write these words?

And Joseph . . . kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. Matt 1:24-25 (NAS95S)

The Greek words that are translated as “kept her a virgin” are OUK EGINOSKEN AUTOS. The first word, OUK, means “not” and the second word, EGINOSKEN, is an imperfect verb which means “to be knowing.” Therefore, the correct translation is that Joseph was “not knowing” Mary. This was a common ancient euphemism that meant He was not actively having sexual intercourse with Mary before Jesus was born. The last word, AUTOS, means “her.” Now notice the word “until.” The Greek word is “EOS.” It refers to a period of time up to a certain point but not beyond. If we put this all together, we discover that Joseph was not having sexual intercourse with Mary before Jesus was born. The emphasis of the passage is upon what happened before. The strong implication of the text is that he did have sexual intercourse with Mary after she gave birth to Jesus. Then she was no longer a virgin. Those who claim that Jesus’ brothers and sisters referred to in the gospels were step-brothers and step-sisters to keep Mary a virgin, have ignored many very important passages, distorting the plain sense meaning of scripture. May the Lord bless you.

References:

1. Jerome, The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary, Against Helvidius, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995) Volume VI, pp. 334-346.
2. Origen, “The Brethren of Jesus, Section 17”. Commentary on Matthew, Book X.
3. Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries. Baker Book House. Grand Rapids. Vol. 1, p. 109, 214.
4. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, The American Edition, Jaroslav J. Pelikan & Helmut Lehmann, eds., 55 vols., (St. Louis & Philadelphia: CPH & Fortress Press, 1955-1986), 295-358; cf. Anderson, 236-237.
5. G. R. Potter, Zwingli, London: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1976, pp.88-9, 395.
6. In This Rock, Nov. 1990, p.25.

Reference Links:

How many brothers and sisters did Jesus have?
Peace With God