From the beginning of my walk with God, my heart has been gripped with awe concerning the glory of the incarnation. That the Holy Spirit would overshadow a virgin and place within her womb the substance that would become the physical form of the Son of God—what a mystery! What a miracle of divine intervention! What an abundant outpouring of love on an unworthy human race!

I have also felt deep admiration for the virgin, the pure-hearted young woman, chosen for such a pivotal purpose. That Mary would receive such a high calling from the Creator of the universe is unutterably profound.

Because of this, my heart is also gripped with holy caution. God forbid that I should misinterpret any facet of this powerful act of redemption or misrepresent any aspect of Mary’s role! Nevertheless, the pursuit of pure truth in this area is essential, so it demands due diligence from all of us, both logically and theologically. Therefore, let us proceed—respectfully and prayerfully.

The Ever-Virgin Status

A Catholic website presents the doctrine of the infinite virgin-status of Mary with the following words:

Mary is referred to in Catholic theology as aeiparthenos meaning ever-virgin—a declaration that she was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.

“The teaching of Mary’s perpetual virginity is one of the longest defined dogmas of the Church. It was taught by the earliest Church Fathers, including: Tertullian, St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose, and St. Augustine. And it was officially declared a dogma at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 553 A.D. That declaration called Mary ‘ever-virgin.’ A century later, a statement by Pope Martin 1 clarified that ‘ever-virgin’ meant Mary was a virgin before, during, and after Christ’s birth. Of those three aspects of Mary’s perpetual virginity, the easiest part to see in Scripture is her virginal conception of Christ. Both Matthew and Luke leave no room for doubt on that (Mt 1:18; Lk 1:34–35, 3:23). That virginal motherhood is the guarantor of both Jesus’ divinity and Jesus’ humanity. It safeguards the truth that he was both fully God and fully man.”[1]

Two important parts of this quote are irrefutably true: first, that “Matthew and Luke leave no doubt” concerning the virgin birth of Jesus, and second, that He was “fully God and fully man.” However, I respectfully offer that Tertullian died in the third century (220 A.D.), Athanasius and Ambrose died in the fourth century (373 & 397 A.D.), and Augustine died in the fifth century (430 A.D.)—so they were not among the “earliest Church fathers.” On the contrary, their earthly existences ranged from two to four centuries beyond the original event of the Savior’s birth. Making this claim is like asserting that John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George Bush were among the earliest presidents of the United States. The earliest and most important ‘fathers of the faith’ (the Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the epistle writers: Peter, Paul, James, and Jude) were all completely silent about this doctrine. If they had known about it—if it was celebrated among early believers—something this important would have been loudly proclaimed by many of them to assure that future generations would be informed. But an ever-virgin status for Mary is never mentioned or even implied—not a whisper, not one time. That alone should cause us to seriously question the legitimacy of this extra-biblical idea.

It is true that some Protestant leaders during the Reformation—such as, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli—while rejecting many other Catholic doctrines, retained this one. However, their endorsement does not make this concept more acceptable and believable, because the reformers were not always right. All three of them also upheld infant baptism, which is an unscriptural doctrine.

Undoubtedly, Mary is a shining beacon of virtue and grace, to be greatly esteemed, to be emulated, to be celebrated for her virtue, her obedience, and her often-quoted, heart-warming response to the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation:

     “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to Your Word.” (Luke 1:38 KJV/A)

Even so, this idea of her ‘perpetual virginhood’ just does not align with the biblical narrative. After she conceived of the Holy Spirit and brought forth the Lord Jesus (fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14), it is obvious that Mary entered a normal, marital relationship with Joseph. Read Matthew 1:18-25 and judge for yourself:

     Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.
     Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.
     But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.
     And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.”
     So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying:
     “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
     Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

The angel Gabriel appearing to Joseph

Verse eighteen explains that “before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit.” Had she become pregnant after they “came together” (after Joseph and Mary co-habited and consummated the marriage), people would have insisted Jesus was Joseph’s child. So, Matthew apparently felt it was important to stress this point. Furthermore, the wording of this passage implies that after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary did “come together”—in both ways. Even though the exact meaning of this phrase could be challenged by those who embrace the Catholic stance, the next reference is too plain to be refuted.

Verse twenty-five explains that Joseph did not “know” Mary “till she had brought forth her firstborn Son.” The word “know,” used this way, is a common biblical expression describing a man experiencing sexual union with a woman. The scriptural use of this terminology begins with the foreparents of the human race (“Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived” / Genesis 4:1, see 4:25 also, emphasis by author).

The New Catholic Bible offers an even clearer rendering of Matthew 1:24-25:

    When Joseph rose from sleep, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him. He took Mary into his home as his wife, but he engaged in no marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus.

Based on the wording of this statement, there are two logical conclusions:

  • Joseph did not have marital relations with Mary prior to the birth of the Son of God.
  • Joseph did have marital relations with Mary after Jesus was born.

Is there any other way of interpreting these words? I don’t think so. Some Catholic apologists insist that the words “till” or “until” do not always indicate a change in the condition or action of the thing being referenced. At times, this may be true linguistically, but trying to make Matthew 1:25 fit into that category is like attempting to force the proverbial “square peg into a round hole.” It just doesn’t fit unless you whittle down the edges with a sharp religious knife forged in the fire of long-standing tradition.

Furthermore, Matthew explains that Jesus was Mary’s “firstborn” (Greek prototokos). Isn’t that suggestive that there were more sons who came afterward?

So, what is my verdict so far in the courtroom of truth? Personally, I am already convinced—Mary was not and is not “ever-virgin.” However, we will probably need to gather more evidence to persuade the rest of the jury.

Did Jesus have brothers and sisters?

There are quite a few passages that mention Jesus having siblings, such as the following:

        While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him.
     Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.”
     But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?”
     And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers!
     For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.”  (Matthew 12:46-50)

Jesus’ brothers are even named in the Gospels:

     “Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas?
      And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things?”
     So they were offended at Him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.”
     Now He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief. (Matthew 13:55-58)

(Other references include Mark 3:32; 6:3, Luke 8:19-21, John 2:12; 7:3-5, Acts 1:14, 1 Corinthians 9:5, Galatians 1:19.)

Some Catholic apologists insist that those persons referred to as Jesus’ “brothers” were actually His cousins. However, the word translated “brothers” in Matthew 13:55 is adelphos (pronounced ad-el-fos’) and “brothers” is normally the intended meaning in New Testament Greek. When broken into its two parts, the prefix a means “from” and delphos means “womb”—thus, adelphos means from the same womb.

Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.”  (Matthew 12:50)

Even when Bible writers addressed fellow believers as spiritual “brethren,” the word is adelphos (See Romans 15:14,15,30). You don’t call others in the body of Christ your spiritual cousins or even your spiritual relatives; you refer to them as your brothers and sisters, because all children of God are begotten of the same Word, born of the same Holy Spirit, and are beloved of the same heavenly Father. In other words, spiritually, we all proceed from the same source. Whether natural brothers or spiritual brothers are being referenced, adelphos (singular) or adelphoi (plural) is the word of choice. The feminine noun used for Jesus’ “sisters” in Matthew 13:56 is adelphe (pronounced ad-el-fay’).

Significantly, this rendering is not just confined to Protestant versions of the Bible. Two primary Catholic versions of the Bible (the Douay-Rheims and the New Catholic Bible) both use the words “brethren,” “brothers,” or “brother” in all the references just listed in the paragraph below Matthew 12:46-50 and 13:55-58 (just quoted). If this is the preferred rendering even in Catholic translations of the Bible, that imparts even more credibility to this being the proper word choice.

The word “cousin” only appears twice in the King James Version of the New Testament. It is from the Greek word suggenes (pronounced soong-ghen-ace’) and is a reference to Elizabeth, who was described as Mary’s “cousin.” The same Gospel also mentions Elizabeth’s other “cousins” who rejoiced with her over John the Baptist’s birth (Luke 1:36, 58 KJV). Many modern versions translate suggenes into the word “relative” or the plural, “relatives,” in these two instances.

The primary word most properly used for “cousin” in the New King James Version is anepsios in Colossians 4:10, a verse which describes Mark as Barnabas’ cousin.

If James, Joses, Simon, and Judas, were truly Jesus’ “cousins,” anepsios would have been the most logical word choice, or even suggenes, describing them as “relatives.” Surely, the New Testament writers, realizing the importance of their task, would not have misrepresented such important human relationships.

Dealing with the “cousin” theory

Some who favor the “cousin” theory try to lend weight to that view by offering a unique interpretation of the following verse:

     Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister (Greek adelphe), Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene Magdalene. (John 19:25)

There are two ways to interpret this verse. The first is to say that three women were at the cross and all three were named “Mary”: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary’s sister, whose name also happened to be Mary (which is hard to believe). Assigning this “third Mary” the role of being the sister of the mother of Jesus is critical, because Matthew 27:56 further identifies her as “Mary the mother of James and Joses,” and Mark 15:40 names her “the mother of James the Less and of Joses.” If this were the case, then James and Joses quite possibly could have been Jesus’ cousins, not his brothers. (See also Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10.) The extreme weakness of this theory is how unconventional and strange it would be for any parents to give two of their daughters the same name. How confusing that would be!

The second and more correct way of interpreting this verse is to insist that it is describing four women at the cross and that Mary’s sister, for some reason, was unnamed. (I suggest that you go back and read it again.) So, who was Clopas, who elsewhere is described as the “mother of James and Joses”? There are too many theories to explore and doing so does not produce any indisputable answers.

Were her two sons, “James and Joses,” the same persons as those described to be the “brothers” of Jesus? There is no way of knowing for sure. However, if there were three Marys, there certainly could have been two sets of brothers with the same names. On an issue as important as this one for establishing true doctrine, we must opt for those biblical references that can be interpreted in a very plain, uncomplicated, and irrefutable way.

Misapplication of the word “brother” in the Old Testament

In the ongoing debate about this important subject, sometimes the point is made that there are occurrences in the Old Testament when the word “brother” is used for relationships other than actual siblings. For instance, Lot was literally Abram’s nephew, yet when he was captured by the armies that attacked Sodom, the Bible describes Lot’s rescue the following way:

     Now when Abram heard that his brother (Hebrew ach) was taken captive, he armed his three hundred and eighteen trained servants who were born in his own house, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. (Genesis 14:14)

Another example is Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, who went to live with Laban, his mother’s brother. Laban was literally Jacob’s uncle, yet he made the following statement during their initial conversation:

     “Because you are my brother (Hebrew ach), should you then serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall be your wages?” (Genesis 29:15, see verse 12 also)

Some versions (like the KJV, MKJV, and the Catholic DRA) translate the Hebrew word ach in this passage as “brother.” But other more modern versions, Catholic and Protestant alike, more appropriately translate it “relative” (NKJV, NCB). This is a weak point to emphasize for two main reasons:

  1. It doesn’t directly apply to the Greek words or verses in the New Testament that speak of the “brothers” of Jesus;
  2. The Hebrew word ach could have been used with a great deal of latitude during the days of Abraham and Laban, just as the English word “brother” is in our day.
Another View: The Protoevangelium of James

There is yet another opinion that has been brought to the floor in this controversial case—that those referred to as Jesus’ “brothers” were actually His stepbrothers, sons of Joseph by a previous marriage. This idea primarily stems from the Protoevangelium of James (the Gospel of James), a questionable manuscript possibly written around 120 A.D., over a century after the birth of Jesus. The author claimed to be James, the half-brother of Jesus, but his real identity is unknown.

This alleged “infancy Gospel” offers expanded information about Mary: her upbringing, her marriage to Joseph, and details about the miraculous conception and subsequent birth of the Son of God in Bethlehem. It is the earliest known manuscript to promote the idea of the “ever-virgin” status of Mary. Many of the claims made in the apocryphal Gospel of James are completely absent from the four Gospels of the approved Canon of Scripture. Some stories are unusual, even bizarre, like the accounts of:

  • Mary being fed by an angel daily in the temple from the age of three,
  • Mary being subjected to the test of “bitter waters” to see if she was guilty of infidelity during her espousal to Joseph (Numbers 5:11-31),
  • The baby Jesus suddenly appearing on her breast, instead of Mary going through the normal birthing process, emerging like light passing through a glass without harming the glass,
  • The arm of a midwife, named Salome, withering because she attempted to inspect Mary after Jesus’ birth to see if her virginity was still intact. Her withered arm was restored to normalcy upon touching the Christ child.

Though some Christian leaders from the second century onward professed faith in the Gospel of James, it was condemned by Pope Innocent I in 405 A.D. and rejected by a Gelasian Decree around 500 A.D. (a papal decree, a decretal, by Pope Gelasius I / 492-496 A.D.). Thus, to this day, it remains a very debated and questionable work.

Believing either view

We have already examined two main rebuttals offered by those who believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary: the idea that the individuals identified as “brothers” of Jesus in various Bible passages were instead His cousins, and the idea that they were His stepbrothers. Apparently, Catholics are allowed to embrace either of those views, even though they contradict each other, as long as they uphold the Catholic stance on the perpetual virgin status of Mary. The following quote verifies this claim:

“The perpetual virginity of Mary has always been reconciled with the biblical references to Christ’s brethren through a proper understanding of the meaning of the term ‘brethren.’ The understanding that the brethren of the Lord were Jesus’ stepbrothers (children of Joseph) rather than half-brothers (children of Mary) was the most common one until the time of Jerome (fourth century). It was Jerome who introduced the possibility that Christ’s brethren were actually his cousins, since in Jewish idiom cousins were also referred to as ‘brethren.’ The Catholic Church allows the faithful to hold either view, since both are compatible with the reality of Mary’s perpetual virginity.”[2]

What? Shouldn’t Bible believers be committed only to the pursuit of truth? Surely you agree—permitting a wrong belief in order to guard a cherished church tradition should never be acceptable.

The Conclusions

When all these scriptures are taken verbatim, and their meaning weighed out theologically, logically, and sensibly, it is impossible to believe with all assurance that Mary possessed the status of being a “perpetual virgin.” To fully embrace that proposal, one must overlook very plain statements from the Word of God addressed at the beginning of this article.

Is it possible? Of course, it is. All things are possible with God. Is it provable? No, it is not.

If this doctrine of the perpetual virgin status of Mary was true, does it automatically validate all the other Marian doctrines, like: praying to Mary, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and her status as the Queen of heaven? No, none of these are proven by an ever-virgin state of the mother of Jesus. So, is this discussion even relevant? Yes, it is, because if one traditional belief is shown to be indefensible, it is easier to question other longstanding doctrines that are also unbiblical.

Mixed with pagan influence

In the sixth century, a mixture of pagan influence took place that significantly enhanced and enshrined this belief of Mary’s perpetual virginity. This convenient merging of darkness and light may have been intentional or simply coincidental.

The following verse, already quoted at the beginning of this article, concerns the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth and is often quoted joyously by all professing Christians:

     “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23)

The Parthenon [which means “House of the Virgin”] on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, is dedicated to Athena, the virgin goddess of war, wisdom and the crafts (a pagan deity). It was later dedicated to Mary, the perpetual virgin, when the Christian Byzantine army conquered Greece.

The Greek word translated “virgin” in this verse is parthenos. From that word, the related word “Parthenon” was derived. The Parthenon was an impressive, marble temple, built between 447 and 432 B.C. on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, at the peak of the Grecian empire. The Parthenon housed a statue of a female deity in the Greek pantheon referred to as “Athena Parthenos” (Athena, the virgin goddess—supposedly, the goddess of wisdom).

The Christian Byzantines conquered Greece in the sixth century A.D. and outlawed the pagan worship of the ancient Greek gods. Toward the end of that century, “the Parthenon was converted into a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.”[3] So, a pagan temple dedicated to an eternal “virgin” goddess named Athena was transformed into a Christian cathedral dedicated to an eternal “virgin” named Mary. Could this have been a continuation of a pagan practice and mindset that resulted in greatly exaggerating Mary’s true nature and identity? Such an inquiry is worthy of consideration.

Without question, Mary should be deeply respected for her purity, her obedience to God’s calling, her humility, her willingness to endure false accusations, her faithfulness to the Almighty, and the awe-inspiring way that God used her to pivot the world into the New Covenant era and counteract the evil that invaded this earthly realm through Eve, but no more than that. Mary, too, had to be born again and filled with the Holy Spirit in the upper room just like the other disciples, in order to inherit New Testament salvation and completion in God. She was one of us—an exceptional and exemplary human being, but again, just one of us.

One final statement is a fitting conclusion to this lengthy article. The Scripture definitely commands all believers to “honor the Son just as they honor the Father” (John 5:23). But there is absolutely no passage that commands believers to “honor the mother of Jesus even as they honor her Son.”

May we never submit a verdict in the courtroom of truth unless the evidence is beyond the shadow of a doubt!

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[1] https://stpaulcenter.com/understanding-marys-perpetual-virginity/ accessed 10-26-21.

[2] https://www.catholic.com/tract/mary-ever-virgin / accessed 5/17/24

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parthenon, accessed 8/4/2022.