Introduction: Mary’s Perpetual Virginity
Amidst the intricate tapestry of medieval Christianity, a question veiled in theological obscurity and societal taboo emerged, casting an enigmatic shadow upon the sacred figure of Mary, the revered mother of Jesus. It is an inquiry that, for many, appears audacious and sacrilegious, for Mary’s exalted status as the “Mother of Jesus” renders her seemingly immune to such terrestrial contemplations.
We Must Acknowledge the Sexual Desire
Nevertheless, we must first acknowledge that sexual desire, originally bestowed upon humanity as a divine blessing, underwent a transformation following the Fall. What was once a pure and God-given impulse evolved into selfish and, at times, violent cravings. In the context of a virtuous family, sexual desire serves as the propelling force behind conjugal love and the divine act of procreation. However, it is paramount to recognize that conjugal love transcends the boundaries of mere physical desire.
Furthermore, the tainted desires spawned in the wake of the Fall transcend the realm of sexuality, raising the perplexing question of the extent to which other natural appetites may have similarly deviated from their intended course.
The human psyche, albeit unconsciously, yearns for objects of veneration to remain unsullied by the taint of sexual activity. This longing intensifies in proportion to the fervor of our reverence and devotion. Notably, many objects of worship have ascended to the status of deities through the projection of distinctly human desires.
The Assumption of Mary
In the case of Mary, her narrative not only casts her as chaste and sexually dormant throughout her earthly sojourn but elevates her to the divine plane as an innocent soul ascending to the celestial realms. The doctrine of the Assumption, proclaiming Mary’s ascent to heaven after her mortal passage, was not unilaterally decreed by the Pope but emerged through fervent petitions from the faithful.
An analysis of 3018 papal petitions, spanning from 1869 to 1940, astoundingly reveals that 96 percent of these entreaties sought the dogmatic proclamation of the Assumption of Mary. In response to this overwhelming supplication, Pope Pius XII finally pronounced the Assumption of Mary as dogma on November 1, 1950, a day celebrated as the Feast of All Saints.
Thus, it was not until the mid-20th century that the Assumption of Mary transformed from a cherished belief held within the hearts of the Church’s adherents into an officially endorsed dogma. While this doctrinal assertion indeed poses intricate theological challenges, one cannot help but ponder whether its formal acceptance has invigorated the faith of modern believers.
Perpetual virginity of Mary
Yet, concealed within this theological enigma resides a profound question: Did Mary, in the eyes of divine decree, maintain perpetual virginity—eschewing sexual intercourse throughout her earthly sojourn, anointed by God, sanctified posthumously, resurrected, and ultimately assumed into the celestial expanse?
The Brother of Jesus
The crux of the contentious matter hinges on the term “brothers of Jesus” as articulated in the New Testament. In passages found in Mark 3 and Matthew 12, we encounter scenarios wherein Jesus imparts teachings to the multitudes, and his mother, Mary, along with his purported brothers, come seeking him. Matthew 13 unveils a pivotal moment as Jesus revisits his hometown of Nazareth, prompting the townsfolk to query, “Is this not the son of the carpenter?”
Their inquiry deepens with, “Is this not the son of the carpenter, whose mother is Mary, whose brothers are James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas, and whose sisters dwell among us?”
This paradox presents a formidable quandary—how can these explicitly named individuals be construed as the offspring of Jesus’ brothers and sisters while upholding Mary’s perpetual virginity? The term “brothers and sisters” within the New Testament, rooted in Greek, carries a broader semantic spectrum, encompassing cousins or close kin, mirroring the inclusive nature of its English counterpart.
Nonetheless, as the townsfolk of Nazareth traced Jesus’ lineage back to his familial roots, it appears incongruous to singularly emphasize, “Is this not the son of the carpenter, whose mother is Mary?” Such detailed enumeration of siblings seems gratuitous if these purported brothers and sisters indeed comprised cousins or distant relatives.
Strange stories about Mary and Joseph from the Apocrypha
To resolve this intricate conundrum, a more cogent hypothesis has emerged, contending that Jesus’ brothers were, in fact, the offspring of Joseph’s prior marital union. In this intricate narrative, Mary, though perpetually chaste, enters wedlock with Joseph subsequent to his earlier conjugal bereavement. In this scenario, Mary not only bears Jesus but also assumes maternal care for Joseph’s progeny from his antecedent matrimony. This particular storyline, deeply rooted in the Apocrypha, stands staunchly defended by scholars championing the cause of Mary’s perpetual virginity, conferring upon it a weight akin to any New Testament scripture.
Yet, the Apocrypha’s account ventures into the realm of the fantastical, recounting episodes such as Mary’s presentation in the temple at the tender age of three and her nourishment by the hand of an angel. The narrative delves further, describing Joseph’s selection of a spouse through the miraculous transformation of staff—an approach that some might regard as unconventional, if not outright improbable.
One of the most surreal and dreamlike episodes within the Gospel of James unfolds as Joseph embarks on a mission to summon a midwife for the laboring Mary, nestled within the confines of a cave. The text paints a vivid tableau of a suspended natural order: “And when I looked at the earth, I saw bowls laid out, and people at work, sitting down to eat, with their hands in their bowls, but those who were chewing were not chewing, and those who were picking them up were not picking them up, and those who were taking them to their mouths were not taking them, and everyone’s face was looking up.”
In this bewildering passage, Joseph bears witness to a moment of utter stasis, where shepherds clutching their staffs remain frozen mid-stride, fleeing sheep hang suspended in their escape, and a flowing river halts in midstream as a young goat remains transfixed, its mouth poised above the waters.
Conclusion: the Doctrine of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity
The fact that Mary’s hymen remained intact when the baby Jesus came out of her womb into the world is, of course, emphasized in this fictionalized account in order to defend the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. However, the Original Gospel of James, which speaks of the preservation of the hymen as a prerequisite for virginity, is childish from a modern perspective, knowing full well that the presence or absence of a hymen has little to do with virginity.
The verse “And she did not lie with her husband until she had conceived a son, and when she brought him forth, she called his name Jesus” (Matthew 1:25) paradoxically suggests that Joseph slept with Mary after she gave birth to Jesus. The fact that Mary had a sexual relationship with her husband does not diminish our respect for her or compromise her chastity. Again, a healthy family sex life is holy and sacred.
Perhaps the obsession with Mary’s virginity, both New and Old Testament, has left the church and its members with a tendency to think of sex as unclean and unwilling to talk about it. But again, sex is God’s creation and a gift. We must remember the words of 1 Timothy 4:4:
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.1 Timothy 4:4, ESV