By Greg Litmer
One of the most interesting doctrines of Roman Catholicism involves Mary, the mother of Jesus. The things we are going to be talking about are the virgin birth, which I agree with, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and her bodily ascension to Heaven. This particular act is known as the Assumption. The Catholic works that we will be referring to are Twenty-Five Questions Non-Catholics Ask, authored by John A. O’Brien, a professor of research at the University of Notre Dame at the time of his writing, and the Revised Edition of the Baltimore Catechism, a manual of Catholic theology.
The first point that we will deal with is the virgin birth of our Lord. Catholics believe in this and so do all true Christians. The New Testament clearly teaches that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived and that she remained a virgin until after His birth. Let us turn to Matt. 1:18-25 and read Matthew’s account. There the Bible says,
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fueled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying. Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son: and he called his name Jesus.”
Clearly Mary was a virgin at the time of the conception of Jesus as this passage, as well as Luke 1:26-38, shows us. It is obvious as well from the passage in Matthew that Mary remained a virgin until after the birth of Jesus. It is at this point that differences in belief begin to occur. According to the Baltimore Catechism, “Mary, the Mother of God, remained a virgin not only in the conception of Christ but also in His birth and during the rest of her life. ” O’Brien says, “Catholics believe in the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary because this truth is clearly taught by holy Scripture, in both the Old and New Testament, and is mirrored in the constant and unbroken tradition of the Church found by Christ from the earliest days down to the present.” It is to this issue that we now want to address ourselves. We will follow closely the Catholic reasoning on it.
The Bible teaches us that at the time of the conception of Jesus, Mary was espoused to Joseph. We could equate this with being engaged today, although an espousal was much more serious than an engagement. In his book, O’Brien refers to Luke 1:34. He says, “As Mary had already dedicated herself by a vow or at least a firm resolve to a life of virginity, she asks: `How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”‘ Now I ask you, is there anything in this passage that even hints that Mary had dedicated herself by a vow, or by a firm resolve, to a life of virginity? Was there anything in Matt. 1 that could lead us to this conclusion? No! Much to the contrary, actually. In Luke 1:27, we see that she was espoused to Joseph. That is hardly indicative of one who intends to lean a life of perpetual virginity. To do so as a married woman, she would have had to deny Joseph the relations that he had every right to expect as her husband. The statement that O’Brien makes is simply unfounded. He has absolutely nothing to base that on. Sadly enough, I know from experience that most Catholics do not know enough about the Bible to investigate his statements for themselves.
He goes on and says, “Transparently clear then is the covering testimony of the Old and New Testament to the fact that Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit with no impairment of her virginity.” With this statement I fully concur. He then goes on to explain Matthew 1:25 which says, “And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.”
A simple, unprejudiced reading of that passage shows that Mary and Joseph did not engage in sexual relationships until after Jesus was born. According to O’Brien, the key to understanding that passage rests with the two words “till” and “first-born.” He says that the word “till”, “May indicate a point of time up to which a state, an action or inaction continues, without implying any change thereafter.” As a reference, he cites Isaiah 46:4. He renders the first part of that verse, “I am till you grow old.” He says, “Here the state of God’s being continues unchanged – the same afterward as before. So, too, did the state of Mary’s virginity remain unchanged.” A simple rule for understanding the Bible says that the meaning must make sense in context. I agree with what he says about Isaiah 46:4. That is exactly what was being said, it makes sense and fits the context. But to use that same reasoning in Matt. 1:25 does not make sense. The context clearly shows that after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived in a normal husband and wife relationship. There is no use trying to get around it, that is what it says.
Concerning the use of the word “first-born,” he says that this does not necessarily mean that Mary ever had another child and I agree with this. Other places in the Bible teach that she did indeed have other children, but one does not have to have children to not be a virgin. Matt. 1:25 is really sufficient to disprove the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.
Let us continue, however, and look at the passages concerning the “brethren” of the Lord. According to O’Brien, the word “brethren” or “brother” in the Bible is used to designate not only near relatives, but also compatriots and co-religionists. He says neither Hebrew nor Aramaic had a word to signify cousin exclusively. But, brethren, the Greek did, although not exclusively; and Matthew and Luke were written in Greek. The word for cousin is sungenis as used in Luke 1:36 and it means kinswomen or kinsfolk.
Now turn to Matthew 12:46-50. There the Bible says, “While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold, they mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren? For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother. “Now, obviously Jesus realized when they told Him that His “brethren” were outside that they were talking about His brothers and sisters. He defined the term “brethren” as they used it. If He had been talking about only kinsmen, or cousins, the inspired writer could have used a term that would have meant that, but he did not.
This is not the only passage that shows that Jesus had brothers and sisters. In the very next chapter, Matt. 13:54-58, we read the following,
“And when he was come into his own country, he taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this man all these things? And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house. And he did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief. “
The term “brethren” (adelphos) used in verse 55 means “male children of the same mother” according to Vine. It means that these men, James, Joses, Simon, and Judas, were His actual brothers. It means that Mary was not a perpetual virgin.
To give us an idea of what kind of thought gave birth to this perpetual virginity and this adoration of Mary, look at a letter from Pope Siricius (384 – 398 A.D.) which he wrote to a bishop of Thessalonica. In it he wrote,
“We surely cannot deny that you were right in correcting the doctrine about children of Mary, and Your Holiness was right in rejecting the idea that any other offspring should come from the same virginal womb from which Christ was born according to the flesh. For the Lord Jesus would not have chosen to be born of a virgin if he had judged that she would be so incontinent as to taint the birthplace of the body of the Lord, the home of the eternal king, with the seed of human intercourse.”
According to the Bible, the marriage bed is undefiled (Heb. 13:4) and there would have been absolutely nothing incontinent about Mary fulfilling her obligations as a wife. But this letter shows you what happens when man will no longer accept the Word of God.
The last thing that we want to discuss is the Assumption of Mary. According to the Baltimore Catechism, “After her death, the body of the Blessed Virgin, reunited with her soul, was miraculously taken up into heaven. The church observes this event in the Feast of the Assumption.”
This is a belief that has gradually grown over the years as Mary was more and more venerated. It seems to have been started in a work called “The Passing of Mary,” which was written in the late 4th or early 5th century when Mary worship had reached an advanced stage. Even though this piece of literature was eventually condemned by the Catholic Church, this particular belief has hung on. There is in Catholic dogma, a full-grown legend concerning the latter life of Mary. This legend includes her death, her bodily assumption into heaven, and her reception in heaven by Jesus and her subsequent glorification there. Even Roman Catholic writers will admit that there is no reliable historical information to be found among the legendary accounts. They handle this by saying, “Mary’s corporeal assumption into heaven is so thoroughly implied in the notion of her personality as given by Bible and dogma, that the church can dispense with strict historical evidence of the fact (Manual of Catholic Theology). It is easy to see how, with this type of attitude, that these beliefs have risen.
All of these different legends and doctrines have given rise to a whole system of veneration that is given to Mary. It was in the latter part of the third and fourth centuries that this system of Mary worship began to take shape. About two hundred years removed from the time of the apostles, the Baltimore Catechism says, “Special veneration, called hyperdulia, is given to the Blessed Virgin, because of her excellence which far surpasses that of all the saints and angels.”
Included in this system of worship, or veneration, is a number of prayers, such as the Hail Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
Also, the Hail, Holy Queen: “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of mercy, hail, our life, our sweetness, and our hopes! To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve! To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears! Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us; and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus! O clement, O loving, O sweet virgin Mary!”
In this system of hyperdulia, Mary has been elevated to the position of an advocate for us in prayer. This, too, is contrary to the scriptures. 1 John 2:1, 2 shows us who our real advocate is. There we read, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate With the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
We could go on and on showing how this special honor, this hyperdulia, which is given to Mary, is contrary to the Word of God. God is to be the object of our honor and reverence and we must be careful not to give honor due to Him to anyone else. The first century church did not afford Mary any special position and if we are to be the same today, neither must we. Indeed, we cannot, if we wish to be pleasing in God’s eyes.
Baltimore Catechism. A Catechism Of Christian Doctrine, No. 3 Confraternity of-Christian Doctrine, 1949.
O’Brien, John. 25 Questions Non-Catholics Ask. Huntington, Indiana. Our Sunday Visitor Press, 1958.
Tolle, James. The Bible And Catholicism. Alexander Street Church of Christ. San Fernando, California.
Certain material from Lessons 1 and 2 was taken from past issues of Apostolic Doctrine.
Scriptural quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible.
Truth Magazine XXIV: 35, pp. 566-568
September 4, 1980