What is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary?

This Saturday is the Feast of St. Mary, the Virgin, so I thought some folk in our church (many of whom are former Roman Catholics) may be interested to hear about the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. This doctrine boils down to the idea that Mary was not only a virgin at the time of Jesus’ birth, she remained celibate her entire life. It’s a doctrine that is held as true by Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but it’s not generally a part of Episcopal circles.

So is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary correct? I think the best place to look for the answer to that question is scripture, where the evidence points to the contrary. All four gospels, as well as the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters, speak of the brothers (or brothers and sisters, as the Greek word “adelphoi” can refer to either brothers or siblings in general) of Jesus. Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55-56 even name the brothers of Christ and mention his sisters as well. Proponents of the doctrine would argue that “adelphoi” in these cases refer to Jesus’ cousins rather than siblings, which seems unlikely since they are grouped together with Mary and Joseph. Another passage that supports the idea that Christ had siblings is Luke 2:7, which refers to Jesus as Mary’s “firstborn son”—a strange description if he were her only child.

Even if we were to assume that “adelphoi” described Jesus’ cousins and that the title “firstborn” is appropriate for an only child, Matthew 1:24-25 seems especially straightforward in answering whether Mary lived the entirety of her life in celibacy. It describes how Joseph marries Mary, but does not have “marital relations with her until she had born a son,” which would imply that they did indeed engage in “marital relations” after Jesus birth.

So why would the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary pop up in the first place? Upholding celibacy as a holy way of living has long been a part of Christian tradition. Therefore, the idea that the mother of Christ would not live in the holiest way possible was objectionable to some Christians. To them, it stood to reason that Mary must have lived her entire life in celibacy, even if the biblical account contradicts this idea.

So the short answer is—though some still argue for the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, the biblical evidence just doesn’t support that view.

Do you have any other questions about Mary or anything Episcopal-related? Click here to suggest a topic for another What Why Wednesday!