By Prof. Michael Ogunu
(Coordinator of the World Apostolate of Fatima in Africa)
The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was virgin during the birth of Jesus. This teaching grew out of the understanding of the Church, enlightened by the Holy Spirit. It expresses the belief that at the moment of her giving birth to Jesus, through a special divine action, Mary did not lose the physical signs of her virginity. The Fathers of the Church would say that the womb of the Blessed Mother remained closed and intact, and that Jesus passed through the enclosure of her womb much as he passed through the walls of the room where the Apostles were gathered on Easter night with the doors bolted closed (cf Jn. 20:19).
The Church also teaches that after the birth of Jesus Mary never had marital relations with Saint Joseph, but preserved her virginity intact for the rest of her life. Certain objections have however been raised against this belief over the centuries.
Non-Catholics, especially fundamentalists (including Pentecostals) contend that Mary had other children because Mt. 1:25 says concerning her and Joseph: “He had no relations with her at any time before she bore a son, whom he named Jesus”. Some translations use “till” or “until” instead of “before”. Regardless of the word in English, the Greek word for “until” does not imply that that which did not occur up to a certain point, had to have occurred afterwards. For example: in 2 Sam. 6:23 we read: “And until the day of her death Michal, the daughter of Saul, had no children”. Could it be possible that Michal had children after she was dead? The problem for them (fundamentalists) is that they are trying to use the modern meaning of “till” (or “until”) instead of the meaning it had when the Bible was written. In the Bible, it means only that some action did not happen up to a certain point; it does not imply that the action did happen later, which is the modern sense of the term. In fact, if the modern sense is forced on the Bible, some ridiculous meanings result.
How about the raven that Noah released from the ark? The bird “went forth and did not return till the waters were dried up upon the earth” (Gen. 8:7). In fact, we know the raven never returned at all. Then there was the burial of Moses. About the location of his grave it was said that no man knows “until this present day” (Dt. 34:6) – but we know that no one has known since that day either. Or how about this: “And they went up to mount Sion with joy and gladness, and offered holocausts, because not one of them was slain till they had returned in peace. (1 Macc. 5:54). Does this mean the soldiers were slain after they returned from battle?
The examples could be multiplied, but there should be no need. It should be clear that nothing at all can be proved from the use of the word “till” in Matthew 1:25. Recent translations give a better sense of the verse: “He had no relations with her at any time before she bore a son” (New American Bible); “he had not known her when she bore a son” (Knox translation).
The other argument used by fundamentalists concerns the term “first¬born”. They say Jesus could not be called Mary’s “first-born” unless there were other children that followed him. This is a misunderstanding of the way the ancient Jews used the term. For them it meant the child that opened the womb (Ex. 13:2; Nb. 3:12). Under the Mosaic Law, it was the “first-born” son that was to be sanctified (Ex. 34:20). Did this mean the parents had to wait until a second son was born before they could call their first the “first-born”? Hardly. The first male child of a marriage was termed the “first-born” even if he turned out to be the only child of the marriage. This usage is illustrated by a funerary inscription discovered in Egypt. The inscription refers to a woman who died during the birth of her “first-born”.
Fundamentalists also say it would have been repugnant for Mary and Joseph to enter a marriage and yet remain virgins. They called married virginity an “unnatural” arrangement. Certainly it is unusual, but not as unusual as having the Son of God in one’s family; not as unusual as having a true virgin give birth to a child.
Why are fundamentalists, particularly those most opposed to Catholicism, so insistent that Mary was not perpetually a virgin?
Karl Keating in Catholicism and Fundamentalism says there are two reasons: One is dislike of celibacy for priests and nuns. They are aware that it is Catholic teaching that celibacy is to be highly prized, that there is much virtue and much common sense in priests and nuns giving up the privilege of marriage in order to serve Christ better. They know Catholics refer to the example of Mary when praising consecrated virginity. So, by undermining her status, they hope to undermine that of priests and nuns. By claiming Mary did not live her life as a virgin, they hope to make religious celibacy seem contrary to the gospel.
The other reason concerns Mary herself. In the Catholic scheme of things, she is certainly different from other women, so much so that “she is considered worthy of special devotion (not of course of worship, latria, but of a level of honour, hyperdulia, higher than other saints receive). Her status accounts for the attention paid her. Fundamentalists think that what she gets, by way of devotion, is necessarily taken from Christ. This is neither true nor logical, but they nevertheless think devotion to Mary must be discouraged if proper devotion to our Lord is to be maintained. One way to diminish her status is to show she was just like other women, more or less, and that can be done in part by showing she had other children. Their desire to do this tends to make impossible fundamentalists’ accurate weighing of the facts. Their presuppositions do not allow them to see what the Bible really implies about the “brethren of the Lord”.
Mary was always a virgin, both before and after the birth of our divine Lord. “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign, behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
In the Liturgy of St. James she is called “Our most holy, immaculate, and most glorious lady, Mother of God and ever Virgin Mary”.
Theodorus, Patriarch of Jerusalem, said in the second Council of Nicea that “Mary is truly the Mother of God, and Virgin before and after childbirth; she was created in the condition more sublime and glorious than that of all natures, whether intellectual or corporeal”.
Mary’s perpetual virginity is also clear from the most ancient symbols of faith especially the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. It was also the constant belief of the Church both in the East and West.
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