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  • Writer's pictureMark Sparks

Does Matthew 1:25 refute the perpetual virginity of Mary?

Does Matthew 1:25 refute the perpetual virginity of Mary?

24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

The perpetual virginity of Mary has significant historical foundations. It finds early attestation in the life of the second century church and by the sixth century, it was presented as a matter of orthodoxy. The attestation of this doctrines carries through the middle ages and even up to the period of the reformation. Around the time of and even after the reformation, there are prominent Protestant voices that in some way attest to the veracity of this doctrine including Martin Luther, Melanchton, John Wycliffe, Theodore Beza, John Wesley, and Thomas Cranmer. Additionally, it has also found its way into the Smalcald Articles of 1537 and the Second Helvetic Confession of 1562. Needless to say, this doctrine has considerable historical testimony in the life of the Christian church. However, in recent years, this doctrine has increasingly come into question with many Protestants finding it to be lacking a firm biblical basis. Several point to Matthew 1:25 as an indicator that after the birth of Jesus, conjugal relations occurred between Mary and Joseph. Additionally, the many references to the siblings of Jesus is used as evidence that Mary had other sons and daughters with Joseph. It is is the first line of argumentation that I will be engaging in this article.

Though it may seem like this is just a matter of needless theological musing, I do believe that the potential perpetual virginity of Mary does carry some level of significance. I believe that the denial or affirmation of Mary as ever-virgin does provide some difference in how we view Mary within our theology, and it caries implications for how we view some matters of anthropology, redemption, and even sexual ethics. Many Protestants, with anti-Catholic flair, have a tendency to over correct by seeking to demean or belittle Mary, however I believe that this correction itself can be damaging. For this reason, I believe careful consideration must be made of these doctrines and conclusions must be drawn, not from reactions or speculative imagination, but rather from sound biblical, theological, and historical reasoning.

Our passage:

24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

The Greek word here for until is ἕως and it is on the understanding of this word that carries the weight of interpretation regarding Mary’s sexual relations after the birth of Jesus. If Matthew 1:25 is going to be a refutation of the perpetual virginity of Mary, it will be dependent on how this Greek word is understood.

The word ἕως occurs in a notable construction here in the Greek, being paired with οὗ and an aorist indicative verb, to convey the meaning of “denoting the end of a period of time.” There are three examples of this construction throughout Scripture in addition to Matthew 1:25, including Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:21, and Acts 21:26. These verses are listed below.

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Matthew 13:33

It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Luke 13:21

Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having purified himself, he entered the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them. Acts 21:26

Additionally, this construction can be found in several places throughout the LXX (cf. (Judg 3:30; 4:24; 2 Kings 17:20; Tob 1:21; 2:4, 10; Jdth 10:10; 15:5).

There is little to no evidence in the word ἕως that can be used to draw out whether there are any future implications that follow, even when the word is found in the above grammatical construction. In our context, this word simply does not carry enough weight to provide conclusive evidence of what happened after Jesus was born, rather it only gives testimony of what happened up until the time of the birth of Jesus. The word has the potential to imply that conjugal relations occurred, however, the implication does not follow from the Greek text itself, rather it follows from external inferential considerations. To put it succinctly, the Greek word for “until” simply does not provide enough clear support for the assertion.

In English, we typically take the implication of change to be fairly intuitive because we frequently use “until” to mark both progress and change. When there is some action that we are doing until some other point in time, we often assume also that there is some change within that action at that point of time. So, when I say, I was playing basketball until my friends came, there is a hidden implication that when my friends came, I stopped playing basketball. This is just a matter of how we use English, so when we see the English translation, “but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son” we assume that this also carries the hidden implication that after she had borne a son, they had sexual relations. However, this implication is not always present and contextually may or may not be apparent. Take for example the following sentence:

“Don’t tear up the house until morning.”

Certainly, there are two ways of reading this sentence. On the one hand, it could be a prohibition laying emphasis on the negative imperative over a period of time. A restatement to highlight this reading could be, “Don’t tear up the house all evening.” Another way of reading this could be focusing on a prohibition that will be removed after a period of time. A restatement for this highlight could be, “When morning comes, you can tear up the house.” This example should suffice to draw out the varied senses of the word “until” and just as the word “until” can bear these two senses in the English, it can do the same in the Greek and in the Greek both senses are more readily used whereas in English, we often have an expectancy of change. With this in mind, one can say that the most “natural” reading in the English is that Mary and Joseph had sexual relations after the birth of Jesus. However, the most natural reading of the English is anachronistic to the reading of the Greek.

This passage is notable early in the church as dissension arose in the 4th century over whether it is indicative that Mary had relations with Joseph. Helvidius writing in the fourth century, argued against the perpetual virginity of Mary stirring Jerome to write a treatise against him. Jerome focuses his argumentation from this passage on the “until” drawing several instances in which the meaning of “until” does not mean a fixed time but a time without limitation.

Chrysostom agreeing on this matter, writes that “Matthew has here used until not that you should suspect that afterward Joseph did not know her but to inform you that before the birth the Virgin was wholly untouched by man.” He goes on to address why Matthew used this word nothing that it is common in Scripture that “this expression is used without reference to specific, limited times.”

On this he provides three Old Testament examples in order to support his point, (1) the raven and the ark; (2) the everlasting nature of God; and (3) righteousness of the king. In the first example, Chrysostom points out that the verse states in the LXX that “the raven did not return until (ἕως) the earth dried up,” however, the raven did not return after the earth had dried up. Chrysostom here drawing out the fact that this verse is referencing to the time before the earth dried up while saying nothing about what followed from that. For the second example, working with the Psalms, he notes that God being from everlasting to (ἕως) everlasting does not imply some fixed time limit upon which there is an expectancy in circumstantial change but instead is using the word in the phrase to demonstrate something that is time endurant. Finally, on the last example, working with Psalm 72:5 (71:7 LXX), Chrysostom notes that in the prayers for the king, in the phrase “In his day may righteousness flourish, and peace abound, until (ἕως) the moon be no more,” there is not a temporal limit being established and an expectancy that righteousness and peace cease if the moon were to disappear.

All of these examples serve as a means of argumentation through which Chrysostom can make the point that the use of the word until does not necessitate a temporal fixation but instead leaves room for further inference to be made. Other important commentators throughout history have weighed in on this passage as well. John Calvin reflecting on this passage notes the controversy brought in by Helvidius (3rd Century) which he states was “earnestly and copiously defended” by Jerome. Though Calvin is not explicit on the perpetual virginity of Mary in his commentary on this passage, he is comfortable with leaving this passage as improper grounds for justifying inferences regarding whether sexual relations with Mary and Joseph occurred after the birth of Christ. On this matter, John Calvin notes that “what took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us.”

It is on this final summative quote by Calvin that we will conclude. Though this passage features prominently in the discussion of the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, there is little conclusive evidence that can be drawn from it on this matter. It certainly doesn’t provide any attestation of Mary’s ongoing virginity as it only lays emphasis on the perpetual virginity at least up until the birth of Christ. Furthermore, it does not indicate that after the birth of Christ, there was a change in Mary’s status at virginity. Though this interpretation does have a measure of inferential plausibility, it can only remain a matter of inference, not a matter of exegesis. Thus it fails as a “proof-text” to refute the perpetual virginity of Mary. In order to reject the perpetual virginity of Mary, one would do well to present more robust biblical, theological, and historical argumentation in order to deny the veracity of this doctrine.

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