By Steve Kearney
This subject is never an easy one to discuss in public because emotions run high even at the prospect of the virgin Mary being brought into question. What is needed is a dispassionate study of the word of God on this subject, so we can realize the promise made by Jesus to his disciples, “And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:32.
Let me begin by saying, anyone who does not teach that Mary was a virgin when she conceived her firstborn denies the Scriptures! For proof let us read the following passage: “Now the birth of Jesus was as follows. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18). This verse alone is sufficient to prove the point! But the case does not rest on this one Scripture; the Holy Spirit has given us more. In the gospel of Luke, he gives us a personal and specific account of the events surrounding the annunciation. The details he preserves for us show that Mary was as bewildered, as any rationalist might be, at the announcement of her asexual conception. “And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus.’ . . . And Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin? And the angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God'” (Lk. 1:30-35).
You might well ask, but how could a rational person like Mary believe in a virgin conception? It must have been the very powerful combination of the angelic message, backed as it was by the sacred Scriptures (Isa. 7:14, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel”) which made the prediction eminently reasonable to Mary. Knowing the Omnipotence of the Almighty (“for nothing will be impossible with God”) she responded in faith, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to Thy word.”
What further proof do we need? Do not the records of Matthew and Luke make the virgin conception, beyond doubt, an integral part of the “faith once for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3)?
Do Roman Catholics not believe the inspired record? Of course they do! But it must be added, that in the Roman Catholic mind, the virgin birth embraces much more than Bible teaching. Hesychius writing in 451 A.D. explains, “Christ did not open but left closed the door of the Virgin; he did not violate nature’s seal, did not harm the one giving birth; for her, in reality, he left intact the sign of virginity.”(1) Pope Leo I, called it a miraculous birth. The Catholic Encyclopedia says, “The Virginity of our Blessed Lady was defined under anathema in the 3rd canon of the Lateran Council held in the time of Pope Martin I, A.D. 649.”
Do the Holy Scriptures teach a miraculous birth? That is the question at issue. Some feel because the church has spoken the question has been settled already, and any dispute about it reflects on the deity of Christ. To affirm that the question is settled is a misconception, as the rest of this article will prove. The accusation about not believing in the Deity of Christ is just not true. Too many times this propaganda has worked by warding off any further investigation. But we will be undeterred by this rhetoric, so we shall press on to unearth the facts about the Roman Catholic tradition on the Virgin Birth.
Was Christ’s Birth Miraculous?
Dr. Gresham Machen, in his book The Virgin Birth of Christ states, “It should never be forgotten that according to the New Testament representation, although the conception was supernatural, the birth itself was natural.”(2) Christians and scholars alike are convinced that the accumulative evidence in the New Testament is in favor of a natural birth.
Contrary to that claim, a Catholic catechism for adults asserts, “The Church also proclaims that Mary gave birth to Jesus in a virginal way. ‘She brought him forth without loss of virginity, even as she conceived Him without the loss of virginity . . . it was a miraculous birth.'” The question is which birth is scripturally correct: the natural birth or the miraculous birth?
Let us examine the relevant passages in the New Testament. More than any other writer, Luke gives us the fullest account of the birth of Jesus. One of the “eyewitnesses” he speaks about in ch. 1:2 was Mary herself. So it would not be wrong to expect her to verify all the elements of the miraculous delivery in her testimony. Alas! As we shall see, there is not even a hint of anything beyond a natural birth.
“And it came about that while they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped him in cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Lk. 2:6-7). Pause for a moment and ask yourself, where is the miraculous tradition in this verse?
Compare the birth of John the Baptist (Lk. 1:57) with the birth of Jesus Christ (2:6-7). The similarity between both verses makes it obvious that both births were natural. There is as much justification for believing that the birth of John was miraculous as there is for believing that the birth of Jesus was miraculous.
The Levitical Law required Mary to remain in the blood her purification for 40 days (see Lev. 12:1-5). This Mary did according to Luke. Had the supposed supernatural birth been verified by Luke then the days of her purification, like the baptism of Jesus, would simply have been to fulfill all righteousness. Since Luke has not documented a miraculous birth, the days of her purification become corroborative evidence of a natural birth.
Matthew also uses the words “born” and “birth” without qualification (Matt. 1:24-25; 2:1), making it obvious that these words are to be understood in their usual way. Paul gives no hint of a supernatural nativity, “But when the fulness of time came, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the Law” (Gal. 4:4). Being born of a woman made Jesus a fleshly descendant of Abraham, as Romans 9:5 will verify.
The accumulative evidence proves that the miraculous birth story is not scriptural. A fact which the Magisterium of the Church openly admits, “The perpetual virginity of Mary is not a revealed truth which can be clearly demonstrated from the New Testament without the light of tradition. But what is implicit in the Scriptures concerning this dogma gradually came to light in the Church’s faith-consciousness. Thus, in the fourth century “ever-virgin’ became a popular title for Mary.”(3)
Since there is no evidence in the Bible for a miraculous birth. Those who believe the Bible to be their only rule of faith cannot accept the miraculous birth story as truth! There is something else which must be given more consideration. The term Virgin Birth is widely used by Christians; although the appellation Virgin Birth is of Protestant origin(4) it is not (as we have already proved) concise enough to exclude unscriptural additions. Virgin Birth is like a Cuckoo’s egg laid in another bird’s nest. While we sit on it, afraid to throw it out, we inadvertently hatch an unscriptural teaching. Why not change the phrase to Virgin Conception? It is more accurate, and more importantly, it is more scriptural.
Source of Miraculous Story
Since the teaching about the miraculous birth is not in the Bible, where is its origin? The hierarchy try to make it look like it originated in tradition. They affirm that Irenaeus (193) and Origen (185-254) taught that Mary never lost her virginity in giving birth to Christ.
The key to understanding the statements of these fathers is found in Clement of Alexandria (215). Speaking about the preservation of Mary’s virginity he says, “For certain people say that Mary examined by the midwife after she had given birth was found to be a virgin.”(5) The “certain people” Clement speaks about are the Gnostics among whom is the writer of the Apocryphal Book of James, which dates back to the second century. This is the source from which the early fathers formulated their ideas on the Virgin Birth.
Can you see what is happening here? The Catholic Church points to the early Fathers for their authority to teach the miraculous birth, while the early fathers were relying on a spurious book.
At this point I need to show you that the Protevangelium, or Book of James, has never been accepted by the Catholic Church as inspired work. By their own admission that infancy gospel “is based on the canonical gospels which it expands with legendary and imaginative elements, which are sometimes puerile or fantastic.”(6) That is damning enough, but as a doctrinal treatise “it was condemned in the western church by Pope Damascus (382), Innocent I (405) and by the Decreturn Gelasianum (496?).”(7) Jerome also denounced it as, “A fabrication of heretics, apocryphal nonsense, idle dreams.” If you were familiar with the infancy gospel of James it would not surprise you that he describes it in this way.
How can the Catholic Church base any teaching on what is by their own admission lies? Not alone have they formulated the miraculous birth tradition on a “fabrication of heretics” but the hierarchy has whitewashed it with an array of scriptural references to solace an unsuspecting laity.
Scriptures such as Ezekiel 44:1-2 are obscure enough to appear to the man in the street to support a supernatural birth. “Then he brought me back by way of the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces the east; and it was shut. And the Lord said to me, ‘This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut.” You see, it is obscure enough to seem like a reference to Mary’s perpetual virginity!
The argument is that the shut gate proves the perpetual virginity of Mary. By that logic, the gate opened again would mean she did not remain a virgin. But it was never opened again, was it? Two chapters later Ezekiel 46:1-2 says: “Thus says the Lord God, the gate of the inner court facing east shall be shut the six working days; but it shall be opened on the Sabbath day, and opened on the day of the new moon.”
It is not necessary to pursue this line of argument because it could never be proved that this passage ever had anything to do with Mary in the first place.
The Song of Solomon (4:12) is another abused Scripture, “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a rock garden locked, a spring sealed up.” But by what law of hermeneutics does Solomon’s bride to-be become Mary? These two situations are entirely different! And besides Solomon is talking about his bride before they got married, not after she had had a baby.
It seems no Scripture is sacrosanct; the devout Marianist sees her virginity in everything from the Ark of the Covenant to the burning bush. Notwithstanding these so-called references, there is no basis in Scripture or tradition for the miraculous birth story.
Ponder this point, if the traditionalists were right in saying that Jesus was not born into the world in a natural way, then the supernatural event changes the actual birth into a miraculous transplanting. (Transplant is defined by Webster’s Dictionary point (b) as “to remove [persons] from one place of abode, and re-settle them elsewhere.”) By making the natural birth of Jesus a non-event, the title “Virgin Birth” becomes a misnomer even for Catholics. It would be more appropriate for them to call it, the Miraculous Transplantation.
The Ever-Virgin teaching goes way beyond the belief that Mary was a virgin when she conceived. “It is Catholic faith that Mary was a virgin before the divine birth; during it (our Lord was born as miraculously as he passed through the walls of the upper room after his resurrection); and after it – Our lady never had any other children.”(8)
The theologians in their high-brow language speak of the process as virginitas ante partum, virginitas in partu and virginitas post partum; which is her virginity before the birth, her virginity during the birth, and her virginity after the birth, respectively.
Seeing the doctrine in terms of real life, the perpetual virginity of Mary means, she never consummated her marriage, she never fulfilled her conjugal obligations, and she never had any other children. The perpetual virginity of Mary with all its ramifications is demonstrably unscriptural.
Matthew 1:18: “Now the birth of Jesus was as follows. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” “Before they came together” suggests that the natural copulation of a married couple was suspended because she (Mary) was found to be with child. While saying that, it also implies that sexual union took place as a natural course after the child was born.
Verses 24-25, are even more explicit, “And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife; and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.” The command to take her as his wife would unquestionably involve the total fulfillment of Genesis 2:24, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.”
Remember that when the couple travelled to Bethlehem to register, they did it as one family; but just in case there would be any question in the readers’ mind about the virginity of Mary at that time the Holy Spirit adds, “And (Joseph) kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son,” making it obvious that they did not become one flesh until after the birth of Christ.
What we learn from all of this is that Joseph had left his father and mother, and cleaved to his wife, but he did not become one flesh with her until after the Lord Jesus was born.
The following is the Catholic Encyclopedia’s response to Matthew 1: 18,25.
As to Mary’s virginity after her childbirth, it is not denied by St. Matthew’s expression “before they came together” (1,18), “her firstborn son” (1,25), nor by the fact that the New Testament books repeatedly refer to “the brothers of Jesus” (Matt. xii, 46-47; xiii, 55-56; Mark iii 31,32; vi, 3; Luke viii, 19-20; Jn. ii, 12; vii, 3,5,10; Acts i, 4; 1 Cor. ix, 5; Gal. i, 19; Jude 1).
The words “before they came together” means probably, “before they lived in the same house,” referring to the time when they were merely betrothed; but even if the words be understood of marital intercourse, they only state that the incarnation took place before any such intercourse had intervened, without implying that it did occur after the Incarnation of the Son of God.
The same must be said of the expression, “And knew her not till she brought forth her firstborn son” (Matt. i, 25); the Evangelist tells us what did not happen before the birth of Jesus, without suggesting that it happened after his birth.(9)
It must be obvious that the argument is lopsided. Viewing the content of Matthew from the standpoint of the conception, verses 18 and 25 do not point in one direction, when Matthew says, “Before they came together” (v. 18); he looks back from the conception. But when he says, “And he knew her not till she brought forth her firstborn son” (v. 25), he looks forward. From what is said in verse 25 it is necessarily inferred that they became one flesh after the birth of their first child.
Add to all of that in eleven places the Holy Spirit speaks of his mother and brothers, of which Mark 6:3 is a fair sample of the rest, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? Are not his sisters here with us? And they took offence at him.” If plain language means anything it means they were brothers and sisters of the same mother and father!
Josephus, the first century Jewish historian mentions James the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ (Antiquities 20:9: 1). Did Josephus not know the difference between brother and cousin?
Philip Schaff, author of the four volume History of the Christian Church, makes this important observation in a footnote (Vol. 3, p. 416): “They are always called adelphoi (4 in number, James, Joseph or Joses, Simon, and Jude) and adelphai (at least two), Matt. 12:46-47; 13:55-56; Mk. 3:31-32; 6:3; Jn. 7:3,5,10; Acts 1:14, etc., but no where anepsiai, cousins, a term well known to N.T. vocabulary (Col. 4: 10), or sunegeneis, kinsmen (Mk. 6:4; Lk. 1: 36,5 8; 2:44; Jn. 18:26; Acts 10:24) or huioi tes adelphes, sister’s son (Acts 23:16). This speaks strongly against the counsin theory.”
For all these reasons we conclude that the Holy Spirit intended to convey the message that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were the sons and daughters of Mary.
No, my good friends, Mary did not remain a perpetual virgin. Rather she lived in the honorable state of marriage, adhering to the command, “Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:3).
Religious people seek to honor Mary with the title Ever-Virgin, but to make Mary a perpetual virgin does not add one iota to Christ’s deity. Being a wife and mother does not diminish one whit from Christ’s glory or honor either. Ask yourself, does the idea of Mary being a normal wife and mother, after the birth of Jesus, take anything away from the claim that Jesus is the “only begotten Son of God”? No it does not! What it does do is tarnish the image of a myth – the belief that Mary is something more than human.
Guardian of Truth XXXV; 6, pp. 176-179
March 21, 1991