Mary’s Firstborn

Did the Blessed Virgin bear other children after our Savior’s birth?

That the Blessed Virgin was “ever-virgin” is a dogma of the Catholic Church. Early Protestant reformers — Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli — believed the Virgin was “ever-virgin.” Yet for centuries Protestants have claimed that Mary had other children. They point to a number of scriptural references to Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters”: Matthew 12:46; 13:55; Mark 3:31-35; 6:3; Luke 8:19-25; John 2:12; 7:1-10; Acts 1:14; 1 Corinthians 9:5; Galatians 1:19. What is the correct interpretation of these passages? 

Interpreting the New Testament 

Before we examine these passages, let us think about the New Testament itself and its appropriate interpretation. 

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What is the origin of the writings we call by the phrase “New Testament”? They were written by leaders of the Church decades after Our Lord’s ascension. And what did they enshrine? Key elements of the Church’s teaching. But only key elements. “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:25). Thus St. John ends his Gospel. 

Not only did the Church compose the writings of the New Testament. Through the Spirit, the Church preserved the authentic writings; cast aside false, erroneous writings; and gave us the authoritative canon of the New Testament. But then, how to interpret those writings? 

This calls to mind the common-sense dictum of Blessed John Henry Newman: “A revelation is not given if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given” (“An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” Part 1, ch. 2,2,12). Otherwise, deciding what is the truth on which our salvation hinges is “up for grabs.” Protestants claim the Bible is our guide. But the Bible cannot interpret itself. There are now 35,000 competing Christian denominations in the world, 35,000 differing interpretations of what God has revealed. And the number of brand-new denominations increases each year. Amid all these contradictory interpretations, how can we know what is the truth? 

Can we imagine Jesus leaving us in the lurch? Can we imagine His enduring His life and death and resurrection for our salvation; can we imagine His sending His Spirit to guide His Church in setting forth in writing basic truths of His revelation; can we then imagine His dusting His hands, so to speak, and saying, “I hope they understand it right”? 

Is that where Our Lord left us, knowing full well what total confusion would result? That would be unspeakably cruel to us. Thanks be to God, our divine Savior did not forsake us! He established a Church and gave her authority to speak in His name. He made her custodian and interpreter of His truth; against whom the gates of hell — the flood of erroneous, false teaching — can never prevail (see Mt 16:18). 

Understood in the light of the Church’s commission and authority, the references quoted above do not detract from the fact of the Blessed Virgin’s perpetual virginity. Take a closer look. 

The Greek words used in Scripture, adelphos and the feminine form adelphe, are ambiguous terms. They are used to designate a blood brother or sister; a relative or near kinsman; a person of equal rank with another; an associate; a member of the Church. Jesus and His disciples spoke Aramaic, which had no word for “cousin.” New Testament writers used the Aramaic word for “brother” to denote not only children of the same father but also cousins, relatives, even nonrelatives. 

Those writers followed the example of Old Testament usage of the word “brother.” Sometimes it designates simply another human being (see Gn 9:25; 19:7; Ex 32:27,29). It may refer to a neighbor (Lv 19:17). Again, it can refer to a kinsman (Dt 23:8; Jer 34:9; 2 Kgs 10:13-14) or a friend (2 Sm 1:26; 1 Kgs 9:13; 20:32). It can even simply mean an ally (Am 1:9). 

In opposition to Catholic teaching about the Virgin, non-Catholics often quote Matthew 1:25, which tells us Joseph “had no relations with her until she bore a son.” This verse tells us Joseph had no connection with the conception of Jesus. It does not imply later conjugal relations with our Blessed Mother. 

The Meaning of “Until”

Sacred Scripture frequently uses “until” (or a variant) with no thought that something else was to follow. In 2 Samuel 6:23, we read that “Saul’s daughter Michal was childless to [until] the day of her death.” And certainly none after her death. Deuteronomy 34:6 reports that no one knows where Moses was buried “to this day.” We still don’t know. The raven Noah released from the ark “flew back and forth until the waters dried off from the earth” (Gn 8:7). We know the raven never came back. 

We find the same usage in the New Testament. “Whatever town or village you enter, look for a worthy person in it, and stay there until you leave” (Mt 10:11). But don’t stay after departure. In one of Our Lord’s parables, He speaks of a man who goes after a lost sheep “until he finds it.” Or of the woman who looking for a lost coin will “sweep the house…until she finds it” (Lk 15:4,8). But there was no looking or sweeping after the sheep or the coin is found. 

That Jesus was our Blessed Mother’s “firstborn” Son does not imply subsequent births. In both Old and New Testaments it simply designated the first son born of his mother. 

The phrase “firstborn son” (Lk 2:7) had important legal implications because the first son born in a marriage had special privileges (see, for example, Ex 13:12-13b; Nm 3:12). 

“How Can this Be?”

An important consideration with regard to Our Lady’s perpetual virginity is her response at the Annunciation. When told she would bear a son, she asked incredulously, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Lk 1:34). If a young woman about to be married were told she would become pregnant, she would not have asked the question, “How can this be?” She would know. Our Blessed Mother asked this question because, the Church tells us, she had taken a lifelong vow of virginity in marriage. From earliest days this has been the Church’s interpretation of her question. 

The context of the account of Jesus’ being left behind in the Temple implies that he was an only child of Joseph and Mary (see Lk 2:41-51). The people of Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, referred to Jesus as “the son of Mary” (Mk 6:3), not “a son of Mary.” The Gospels refer to Mary as Jesus’ mother, but they do not speak of her being the mother of anyone else mentioned. 

Assume for the moment, as non-Catholics do, that Mary did have other children, Jesus being the eldest. In that culture, Jesus’ entrusting His mother into the care of an outsider, John, would have been an unthinkable insult to her other children (see Jn 19:25-27). We know from Galatians 2:9 that James, “brother of the Lord,” was alive in A.D. 49. If James were truly son of Mary, why had not Jesus commended His mother to the care of her own son James? 

Often our non-Catholic brothers and sisters challenge us to “prove” the Church’s teaching from Scripture. They do not realize that nothing like that challenge is found in Scripture. It’s a presupposition of Protestant reformers. Nor should Catholics ever suggest that Catholicism is “based” on the Bible. A few years ago appeared a book entitled “Biblical Basis of Catholicism.” I emailed the publisher, whom I knew slightly, and protested: the title should have been something like “Biblical Reflections of Catholicism.” He answered promptly with two words: “You’re right.” TCA 

Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D., is an adjunct professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and is an assistant pastor at St. Peter’s Church in the same city. He is also the TCA Faith contributor.