One day, during my childhood, my mother and I were attending daily Mass. During the Gospel reading the priest proclaimed a passage from Matthew which describes the people of Jesus’ hometown reacting to his teachings and miracles, “They asked: Is this not the carpenter’s son? Isn’t His mother’s name Mary, and aren’t His brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas?” (Matthew 13:55). Upon hearing this I was shocked. My mother had taught me that Mary was a perpetual virgin and that Jesus was her only child. This passage appeared to contradict the Catholic Church’s teaching on Mary’s virginity. When the priest finished the Gospel and began to preach his homily, I anxiously waited for him to address this pressing issue. However, much to my dismay, the issue was not mentioned. I ended up setting the question aside to revisit later.
Years later I was directed to another text in the Gospel of St. Matthew. Here, Jesus has just been crucified and Matthew names the women who followed him to his death: “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matthew 27:56). Here we see James and Joseph (two of the men called the brothers of Jesus) as the sons of another Mary. If this Mary were the mother of Jesus, it would not make sense for the Gospel writer to identify her as the mother of minor characters and not the main character. Hence, we can suppose that these two men were not Jesus’s blood brothers, and that the New Testament term "adelphoí" (brothers) has a broader usage than "children of the same parent." It is likely that the so-called brothers of Jesus are actually his cousins. Numerous places in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament and the original Greek New Testament explicitly use the term "adelphoí" to describe relationships between people who do not have the same parents (for just a few examples see Genesis 13:8, 1 Chronicles 23:21-22, and Acts 11:1).
The most important passage concerning the perpetual virginity of Mary comes from the Gospel of St. Luke where the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will give birth to the “Son of the Most High.” Mary responds by saying [in phoenetic Greek] "pôs éstai toûto epeí ándra ou ginosko" (Luke 1:34) which literally translates from Greek to mean “How shall this be done, because I know not man?” Her response is bewildering. Mary expresses shock—not at the news that she will give birth to the Messiah, but that she will give birth at all! A woman engaged to a man with whom she will have marital relations does not wonder how she will conceive a child. So why is Mary surprised that she will give birth? The answer is simple. She had previously made a decision not to have sexual relations with a man.
One may understandably find it odd that a woman planning to get married would remain a virgin. Nevertheless, this practice was not alien to the Jews of classical antiquity. As the Catholic scripture scholar Brant Pitre points out, “the ancient collection of Jewish traditions known as the Mishnah (usually dated around 200 AD) contains explicit references to married Jewish men and women taking ‘vows’ to abstain from ordinary marital relations [Ketuboth 7:3-7; Nedarim 11:1-12].” While the life of Mary and the completion of the Mishnah are separated by about 150 years, it is not implausible that Mary and Joseph participated in that same practice. While there is much more that can be said, we can say with confidence that the scriptures indicate Mary’s perpetual virginity.
Br. Matthew Heynen, O.P.