Some Protestants react very strongly to the idea that Mary, the Theotokos, remained a virgin for her entire life. While this claim is rather mundane in light of other claims the Church makes about her, such as the claim that she miraculously conceived a child without seed, and the claim that she carried God Himself in her womb, some people are highly invested in it not being true. If you are one of those people, probably nothing I write here will change your mind in the least. However, these notes may help you understand why millions of Orthodox Christians affirm her perpetual virginity.
First, we should note that there is no verse anywhere in the Protestant 66-book canon of Scripture that explicitly states that Mary did or did not have sexual intercourse after the birth of Christ. However, there are verses in the Protestant canon that do have implications on the question. Probably the most obvious of these is Matthew 1:25, which explicitly states that Mary remained a virgin up to the point of giving birth to Christ. “But he knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (ESV). While the verse does not make any explicit statement about what happened after the birth of Christ, most English-speakers would find it to be a reasonable inference—absent any other information—that Mary did not remain a virgin after the birth of Christ. I am not an expert on Greek, and I cannot say whether that inference would seem as natural to a Greek-speaking reader of the 1st or 2nd century as it does to an English-speaker today.
There are also several verses that refer to siblings of Jesus. Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:31-35, Mark 6:3, Luke 8: 19-21, John 2:12, John 7:3-10, Acts 1:14, 1 Corinthians 9:5, Galatians 1:19. All of these refer to brothers, sisters, or both of Christ. Again, most English-speakers would find the implication that Mary had other children after Christ reasonable. When this was the extent of my knowledge on the subject, I assumed that Mary had other children after Christ, and therefore did not remain a virgin after his birth. However, I was never highly invested in this belief. It was just an assumption, based on implications, and wasn’t really something I thought much about.
The verse that made me reconsider some of these assumptions was Ezekiel 44:2: “And the Lord said to me, ‘This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the Lord the God of Israel, has entered by it. Therefore is shall remain shut’” (ESV). This verse is in the context of Ezekiel’s vision. My first response to the verse was that was not talking about Mary. However, I was aware of that Christ continually referenced Ezekiel by referring to himself as the “Son of Man,” a title taken directly from Ezekiel. I had also accepted by this point that the entire Old Testament existed to point to Christ, and that prophecies and visions in the Old Testament especially so. So the question was, what did this saying in Ezekiel’s vision reveal about Christ? What else could this be a type of? I tried just taking the verse in Ezekiel as literally as possible—it only meant that an actual gate on the actual City of Jerusalem was to remain closed, because God had entered through it. But then the obvious question was, if God felt so strongly about a gate through which He entered a City, how would He feel about a gate through which He entered humanity?
Returning the earlier verses, I realized that when I read Jesus’ statement “I am with with you always, to the end of the age,” in Matthew 28:20, I did not feel that it necessarily implied that Jesus would not be with us always after the end of the age. In light of Ezekiel 44:2, I no longer felt that Matthew 1:25 implied that Mary did not remain a virgin. However, this left the question of the brothers/sisters of Christ.
The primary written source for the claim that Mary was perpetually a virgin is the Protoevangelion of James, which scholars say was written in the Second Century (for comparison, they also say the Gospel of Luke was written in the Second Century). Orthodox Tradition is that it was written by James, the Brother of the Lord, just as Orthodox Tradition is that Luke was actually written by Luke. Regardless of one’s beliefs about the authorship of the Protoevangelion of James, the claim made in the Protoevangelion about the brothers of Jesus is that they were older children born to Joseph from a previous marriage. This immediately made sense to me, as when we talk about Joseph, the prime minister of Egypt, we say that he had 11 brothers, when he only had 1 full brother, Benjamin. While Joseph of Nazareth was not biologically the father of Jesus, he is referred to as Jesus’ father in Scripture (Luke 2:48), so it makes sense that Joseph’s sons would also be called Jesus’ brothers.
Because I was not strongly invested in maintaining a narrative that Mary had sexual intercourse at some point in her life, this evidence was enough to convince me that Orthodox claim of perpetual virginity was reasonable. Later, when I accepted that the Orthodox Church was what it said it was, I became Orthodox, and thus accepted the teaching of the Church on the matter.
I should also note that even if the scholars are right, and the Protoevangelion of James was written in the mid-to-late Second Century, there would still have been many people alive who had been trained in the faith by the apostles, and who even met the Theotokos. These are the people who made the choice to preserve this book rather than anathematize it.
One final thought. Some Protestants have described as “poorly written fan fiction” the story in the Protoevangelion of James of a midwife attempting to check the Theotokos for a hymen after the birth of Christ and having her hand burst into flame. Considering the Biblical statement that there are many true stories about Christ that are not recorded in Scripture (John 21:25), I am not sure on what basis they write this story off as fiction. Do they also write off the story of Moses’ hand turning leprous (Exodus 4:6)? Of the earth swallowing Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16)? Of the fire from heaven consuming the drenched sacrifice of Elijah (1 Kings 18)? I will write more later about my own experience surrounding miracles not documented in Scripture.
Hopefully these notes help create a greater understanding of the Orthodox teaching on the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos. Thank you for taking the time to read.