"Ever Blessed Virgin"

Infidels who deny the supernatural conception and birth of Christ also reject the perpetual virginity of Mary. They refuse to Mary the title of "Ever Blessed Virgin" on two grounds; first, the terms "until" and "first-born" in St. Matthew's formula, "He knew her not till she brought forth her first-born Son" (Matthew 1:25); second, the various passages in the Gospels and New Testament writing where there is mention of the "brethren" of our Lord.

1. The conjunction "until" in Scriptural usage expresses what has occurred up to a certain point, and leaves the future aside. Thus God says in the book of Isaias: "I am till you grow old" (Isaias 46:4). Are we to infer that God would then cease to be? Again, God says to His Divine Son: "Sit Thou on My right hand until I make Thy enemies Thy foot-stool" (Psalm 109:1). Will the Messias, once His enemies are subdued, relinquish His place of honor? St. Matthew's principal aim was to tell his readers that Christ's birth was miraculous and that Joseph had no part in the conception of Mary's child. His statement is confined to this point.

In itself the statement, "He knew her not till she brought forth her first-born Son," neither proves Mary's subsequent virginity nor contains an argument against it. Speaking as he does, the Evangelist in no wise affirms that the abstention mentioned by him ceased after the expiration of the time indicated.

To say that the exclusion of an event up to a certain point implies that it occurred afterward, is pure caevil. In fact, one would find it difficult to believe that the sacred writer, after insisting so strongly on Mary's anterior virginity in the opening verses of the chapter, could suddenly imply that it ceased later on. If Joseph abstained from the use of the union preceding the angel's message, who could think that after Mary had brought forth the Son of God, he should feel less reverence for the temple of the Trinity?

2. It is also argued that the word "first-born" (Luke 2:7) cannot be reconciled with Mary's perpetual virginity. The word "first-born," however, is a legal term and does not imply that Mary had other children besides Christ. As St. Jerome points out, the Scriptures employ the word "first-born" to denote a mother's first child, no matter whether it is followed by other children or remains the only one; the child is called "first-born" from the fact of its opening the womb and not to contra-distinguish it from subsequent issue; in itself the term leaves indefinite whether other children were born after him.

Among the Jews even an only son was called "first-born" because he was the object of special legislation. According to the Mosaic Law the first-born male was consecrated to God by the very fact of his birth and had to be redeemed at a price (Exodus 13:2; 34:19); Christ is called "first-born" because He "was made under the law" (Galatians 4:4) as the Apostle tells us, and because Mary and Joseph fulfilled the Mosaic prescriptions concerning a first-born child.

3. The "brethren of the Lord" (I Corinthians 9:5) are mentioned in various passages of the Gospels and other New Testament writings. The first two Gospels mention the names of some of these "brethren," and also make reference to Christ's sisters. Here are some of the passages: "As He was yet speaking to the multitudes, behold His mother and His brethren stood without seeking to speak to Him" (Matthew 12:46; Mark 3:31; Luke 8 :19); "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joseph, and Jude, and Simon? Are not also his sisters here with us" (Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55); After this He went down to Capharnaum, He and His mother, and His brethren, and His disciples" (John 2:12, 7:3; Acts 1:14); "But other of the Apostles I saw none, save James the brother of the Lord" (Galatians 1:19). What meaning, then, are we to attribute to the terms "brethren" and "sisters" of the Lord? How interpret them consistently with Mary's vow of virginity, contained implicitly in her own words, "How shall this be done because I know not man" (Luke 1:34), and moreover affirmed explicitly in Patristic teaching on the subject?

According to the apocryphal Gospels of James, Matthew and Peter, and according to some Greek Fathers, the "brethren" were the children of Joseph from a previous marriage. This opinion, however, is now antiquated. Although it safeguards the virginity of Mary, it is opposed to the common and traditional belief in the Church concerning Joseph's perpetual virginity. As a matter of fact, there is absolutely no trace in the Scriptures of any former marriage of St. Joseph, nor is Joseph at any time designated as the father of the "brethren" of the Lord. The Gospel story concerning the Nativity, the flight to Egypt and the finding in the Temple, clearly shows that apart from the Divine Child no other children were the object of Joseph's solicitude. Again, if St. Joseph had older sons, how could our Lord be the heir to David's throne?

The "brethren" were not real brothers of our Lord. Nowhere in the New Testament is it said that Mary bore other children besides our Lord. That Christ had no real brothers and sisters is evident from the following incidents: the flight into Egypt, the annual journey to Jerusalem, and Mary's being unaccompanied on Calvary. In all these instances there is no mention of any other children of Mary. The words of our Lord on the Cross (John 19:26) making John, a stranger, the protector of His mother, show that St. Joseph was dead and that there were no other children in the family. Christian tradition of both the East and the West is unanimous in its affirmation of Marys' perpetual virginity. The Fathers applied to Mary the words of the prophet Ezechiel, 44:2: "This gate shall be closed. It shall not be opened and no men shall pass through it because the Lord God of Israel entered in by it and it shall be closed for the prince." The early Christians were acquainted with the "brethren" several of whom - as James, the celebrated Bishop of Jerusalem - occupied important positions in the Church. If Mary had given birth to several children, how could this universal tradition arise? To ascribe the origin of this belief to the rise of monasticism is beside the point, since the belief was prevalent long before the beginning of this movement.

The Blessed Virgin frequently appears in the company of the "brethren of the Lord," but at no time is she called their mother - not even in circumstances where such an expression would be expected (e.g. Acts 1:14). St. Mark represents the men of Nazareth speaking of our Lord as the "son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joseph, and Jude and Simon" (Mark 6:3); the Evangelist implies thereby that our Lord was the only Son of the Blessed Mother. Again, from the fact that the "brethren" occasionally assume an attitude of superiority toward our Lord, it is clear that they were older than He. Hence they were not the children of Mary, since she was a virgin when she conceived our Lord. Finally, the New Testament explicitly designates Mary of Cleophas as the real mother of James, Joseph, Jude and Simon (John 19:25; Mark 15:40; Matthew 13:55; Jude 1).

The accepted teaching of Catholic theologians is that the "brethren of the Lord" were cousins or kinsmen of our Lord. But why, then, did the sacred writers use the terms "brothers" and "sisters" - terms which give rise to such grave misunderstandings? - Philology furnishes the solution. The Hebrew language is not rich in expressions and is especially poor when it tries to express degrees of relationship. It has no special word for "cousins" and hence is obligated to designate them as "brothers." According to the celebrated lexicographer, Gesenius, the Hebrew word 'ahh is applicable not only to a brother in the strict sense but to a nephew (Genesis 14:16), cousin (Numbers 16:10), husband (Cant. 4:9; Esther 16:12), members of the same race (Numbers 20:14), ally (Amos 1:9), friend (Job 6:15), and to those performing some duty (III Kings 9:13). Although the New Testament authors wrote in Greek and not in Hebrew, their language is merely Hebrew or Syro-Chaldaic in Greek dress; their style abounds in Hebraisms and their sentences are replete with Oriental expressions.

Our Lord and His kinsmen undoubtedly lived for some time under the same roof. Possibly after the death of Cleophas, his wife and children came to live in the house of Joseph and Mary. Or it may be that after Joseph's death, the Blessed Virgin and her Divine Son retired to the home of Mary's "sister." In these circumstances there would be additional reason for calling Christ's kinsmen His brothers. A still simpler supposition might be that after Jesus left her and began His public ministry, Mary sought the hospitality of Cleophas' home. This would explain why she appeared in the company of the "brethren," especially when she sought her Son.

A final point of interest is the precise relation of Mary, (wife of) Cleophas, to the Blessed Virgin. Enumerating the women who stood beneath the Cross, St. John writes: "Now there stood by the cross of Jesus, His mother, and His mother's sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene" (John 19:25). If taken literally, the passage teaches that Mary of Cleophas was the natural sister of the Blessed Virgin; the text was understood in this sense by St. Jerome and St. Thomas Aquinas. This explanation, however, is opposed to the ancient tradition accepted by St. John Damascene, St. Germanus and the great Jesuit theologian Suarez, according to which the Blessed Virgin was an only child, conceived miraculously from a sterile mother. In addition, the first theory fails to explain how two sisters would bear the same name. Hence the more probable explanation is that the term "sister" is used by John in a broad sense and that Mary of Cleophas was the "sister-in-law" of the Blessed Virgin, Cleophas being the natural brother of Joseph. In this case, the "brethren" would be only putative cousins of our Lord.

Discussion Aids

1. What is meant by Mary's virginity after the Birth of Christ?
2. Is the perpetual virginity of Mary disproved by the conjunction "until" in the passage, "He knew her not till she brought forth her first-born son"?
3. Is it disproved by the title "first-born" in the same passage?
4. Name some of the "brethren of the Lord."
5. Were the "brethren" the children of Joseph from a previous marriage? Why?
6. Were they Christ's real brothers and sisters? Why?
7. Were the "brethren" the cousins of our Lord? Explain.
8. What possible explanations may we give for the close association of the "brethren" of our Lord with the Mother of Christ?
9. How was St. Joseph related to Cleophas?
10. How was the Blessed Virgin Mary related to Mary of Cleophas?
11. What does your pastor mean by the words, "My dear brethren," with which he begins his Sunday sermon?
12. Give various reasons (natural and supernatural) to show that all members of the human race are brethren.

Religious Practices

I will consider all members as my "brethren" because we are all
a) equally created by God;
b) redeemed by Christ's Blood;
c) and destined for heavenly glory.

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