It is well accepted by Christians that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. This is crucial for providing Jesus Christ a dual nature of humanity and divinity. What gets people hung up is Mary’s perpetual virginity—that she remained a virgin and her marriage to Joseph was never consummated sexually. Furthermore, the lack of consummation also seems to course against Catholic teaching on marriage, sexuality and children. So what’s up with that? Were they married or weren’t they? This essay attempts to shed light on the nature of the marriage within the holy family from a Catholic perspective.
First, we must understand that we are dealing with concepts–celibacy / chastity—that existed centuries before the Sexual Revolution and Hollywood imbued everyone with the idea that sex is the be-all and end-all. We don’t ask how Jesus, Paul or the Essene Jews were celibate or how Pagan cultures, particularly Greek, would commit to a celibate life. Vows of virginity/celibacy, although not common, were not unheard of in the ancient world and even in our modern day there are illustrations of this in the Catholic priesthood, religious orders, and laity (Opus Dei).
Second, we are also dealing with a very unique and grace filled situation—the Holy Family. As with many miracles, natural laws may not apply. Some allowance is in order here but it still must harmonize with Catholic theology.
Third we must also understand that any teaching will be accepted as a matter of faith. Nothing can be scientifically proven to modern satisfaction and even if it could many would go on believing what they want. As you know the Catholic Church derives its teaching from thousands of years of preserving the Deposit of Faith, Sacred Tradition, the Church Fathers, centuries of theologians and scholars, the Magisterium, bishops, popes as well as an understanding of Sacred Scripture which they compiled—it’s not just one guy with a novel thought in his head. Now what the Church teaches on matters may not vividly and overtly reflect in a translation of the Bible but it should at least comport with scripture and be plausible. And yet—much can be taken away from the Bible that simply is not there and the reason we have so many fractures in Protestantism.
Church teaching on the perpetual virginity of Mary has been challenged throughout the centuries mostly based on the usual verses of scripture cited by Protestants—this is not new. In fact, a very early case of this was the claims of Helvidius in the 4th century who was refuted by St. Jerome in a pamphlet entitled The Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary. For those who do not know St. Jerome, he was arguably the greatest Bible Scholar of all time, have translated all the scriptures into Vulgate Latin—a translation that was in use in the Catholic Church until the 20th century. St. Jerome is one of the eminent Doctors of the Church and lived at a time when the Greek of the New Testament was still spoken. He is also the author of one of the most popular prayers of all times, the Gloria Patri, said at the end of each decade when praying the Rosary and sung after each Psalm in the Traditional Mass and Sacred music. To put it mildly, St. Jerome is no slouch.
And to say that St. Jerome went on the offensive toward Helvidius on this heresy is not overstating it, basically calling his opponent an idiot in ways only a saint could conjure, and throwing down the gauntlet: “Let [Helvidius] be refuted by the same proofs which he employed against us, so that he may see that it was possible for him to read what is written, and yet to be unable to discern the established conclusion of a sound faith.”
One would think, given St. Jerome’s credentials in language and sacred scripture, the matter would be settled but, alas, the topic rears its head again and again. It may surprise one to know that the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) believed and supported the doctrine of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity too. It’s not until Bible fundamentalist who rely exclusively on the overt and literal text of the scripture got a strangle hold that the issue resurfaces in modern times. But the Bible was never to be read and understood in such a vacuum. That’s why we have the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church to shepherd Christians toward a common understanding of truth, faith, and morals.
I dare say that all objections brought about by Bible Christians today were refuted by St. Jerome in his pamphlet which can be read here. I will draw from this and sources such as Hahn’s Hail Holy Queen and other apologetic writings.
To understand the nature of Joseph’s marriage to Mary, it is important to know the importance of Mary’s perpetual Virginity. Why does it matter? In some ways we can push it further: why does it even matter that Joseph not touch Mary until she delivers her first born? If they are married and consummating the marriage is warranted, why wait until after the nativity? At least from the text we know he waited for some unspecified reason but why does that reason become null and void after Christ’s birth and only valid before? Or is the reason valid ongoing? What is it that we are trying to preserve by waiting at all since scripture indicates Jesus was conceived of the holy spirit and that’s all we really need to go on.
Whenever Mary’s name is invoked it is always with the word Virgin. She is known as the most Blessed Virgin so much so that whenever one talks about The Virgin, we are pretty sure it’s about Mary. The title Virgin must accompany her name so that there is no ambiguity about who we are talking about—but also, no ambiguity about the dual nature of her human offspring, Jesus Christ. Her status as virgin isn’t just a description of her state, but a description of what all Christians believe in. And, so, conceptually, she should be ever-virgin if Jesus is to remain ever-Divine.
Aside: Ever more so than Protestants, Catholics hold to the idea that physical things can be consecrated and contain the spiritual property of holiness: water, relics, rosaries, church buildings, a room, chalices, patens, clothing, bread, wine, tabernacles, and so forth. Converts are often startle by this as I was when, after I purchased an olive wood cross at a Church sponsored charity, Fr. Drummond wanted to know if I wanted him to bless it for me. Though this sort of thing might be standard for the average Catholic, it had never occurred to me; I was delighted and slightly weirded out. And yet, the Bible is saturated with objects and people and things that are set apart as holy items—objects given deference and imbued with a spiritual property. It is curious that Satanists use the Eucharist in their profane rites and not just some bread and some wine they purchased at Rite-Aid. It is because the consecrated host is different from the accidents of bread and wine – at least they believe it so.
Because she was the God-bearer, the theotokos, the conduit through which God entered the world as a man, Mary was such a sacred vessel and was not to be repurposed for any ordinary life no matter how honorable that ordinary life may be. Prefiguring her in the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant, was an incredibly sacred object, so much so that those who inadvertently touched it met with a quick end. Consider Uzzah, the guy who stuck out his hand to stabilize the Ark on its way back to Jerusalem and was struck down by God right then and there (2 Samuel 6:6-7). If the ground that Jesus walked on was holy, if the robe that he wore was holy, imagine the womb that held him for nine months. As good of a man as Joseph was, he was probably not going to consummate the marriage with Mary given the odds, his understanding of the sacred, and the story of poor Uzzah. Yes, there is nothing wrong with sexual relations in the confines of a wholesome marriage, but this is a different circumstance and Mary and Joseph were “set apart” for God’s special purposes, i.e., holy.
Along these lines, in the following passage, apologist Scott Hahn supports Mary’s Perpetual Virginity by appealing to our understanding of the sacred most explicitly in the Old Testament.
God gave her singular graces because of her unique role in history. He made her sinless from the moment of her conception. He called her to be “Ever-Virgin.” Why? Because she was to become the vessel of God’s presence in the world! Now, the vessels used in the temple service were made, by God’s command, of the purest, most precious metals; and they were reserved only for sacred use. You could not repurpose the temple’s golden altar as an end table. You could not take the chalice used for libations and fill it with a cold beer on a hot summer night. Apart from the temple service, even the finest wine would profane the sacred vessels. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with end tables or alcoholic beverages, but the temple vessels were sacred and for God’s use only. Mary’s body was that kind of vessel. Once blessed with God’s presence, she could not simply “retire” and resume an ordinary married life. What would be permissible and even honorable for others would be a profanation for the Mother of God. [Hahn, Scott (2014-05-27). Angels and Saints: A Biblical Guide to Friendship with God’s Holy Ones (Kindle Locations 1822-1831). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]
And one might add that it would seem rather rude (nay abusive) to simply borrow Mary’s womb and then, what, her 15 minutes of fame are over? Is that what one would expect from a loving, caring, holy God? God made some pretty big promises to Mary and, of course, He kept them.
In some traditions, specifically that derived from the non-canonical Protoevangelium of James, Mary is said to have taken a vow of chastity and consecrated to the Temple by her parents. This was the situation before Joseph, before the annunciation, and it may have been an agreement that Joseph, betrothed to Mary, was going to remain celibate as a result. As a mutual understanding from the get-go, it is no wonder that Mary asks Gabriel at the annunciation: “how can this come about…” I suppose Gabriel could have said, “Well, duh, you are betrothed to Joseph. First comes love, then comes marriage, the comes Jesus in the manger!” Had Mary taken a vow of chastity and this was understood by Joseph and the Angel, perhaps the question is not so remarkably naive. “How can this come about if I’ve taken a lifelong vow of chastity”? And if she was already on the marriage plan with Joseph, her question should not have been “How will this come about…?” but “When will this come about…?”
And so, with the understanding of the importance of Mary’s perpetual virginity, it dictates the kind of marriage she has with Joseph. Although the Bible suggests that Joseph consummated the marriage sexually, the key verse is misinterpreted as exhaustedly demonstrated by St. Jerome in his pamphlet. Basically the use of the word “until” does not imply anything to occur beyond that point in the original language.
What about Jesus’ brethren? Again, St. Jerome explains that the word for brethren means way more in the original language and culture than our English language reveals. I encourage one to read the pamphlet which is not as dry as one would expect and mildly entertaining.
In what sense were Mary and Joseph married then? In perhaps the most critical ways defined by the Church and many Christians in general:
- A commitment to each other in life
- Respect for each other’s welfare and persons
- Joint travail and suffering.
- The custody and raising of children or a child in the faith.
Consider that sexual intercourse is a small part of marriage and summarily abused in modern life anyway, it’s not important to put an emphasis on it in the Holy Family or any married life in general. Although it may consummate a marriage, it should not define it. It is sad that marriages in our society are defined purely by the physical and end promptly when people are sexually dissatisfied (often shaped by ideals promoted by pornography and the entertainment industry) since, quite probably, people age, get sick, get tired, get stressed, travel, deploy overseas, dysfunction, and other vicissitudes of life. Though sexual conduct may diminish or even cease in a marriage, it should not mean that the marriage is over—not at all.
Regarding the thought on the Mosaic Law and the possibility that Joseph died shortly after his introduction into the infancy narratives—an interesting theory but one I never heard of in the early Church Father writings. Furthermore, we know that Joseph was alive when Jesus was lost at the temple around the age of twelve so he was at least alive that long. It is generally accepted that Joseph is gone by the time Jesus starts his public ministry (not present at the Wedding of Cana, not present at the Crucifixion) but when that happens is not entirely certain. If he died shortly after, he would have been technically assumed to have offspring in Jesus at least as a public understanding—after all, his genealogy is listed in the Gospels.
On that note, Joseph also provides Mary cover in a society where single mothers were socially stigmatized if not condemned violently. It could have been that Mary stay single, give birth, as well as stay perpetually chaste. But then the role of a father would have been diminished, Mary would be unduly burdened and modern feminists would have a field day. In prototype, the Holy Family is a family modeling the Trinity with the roles of father, mother and child; lover, beloved and the fruit of that love; Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Finally, in the same way the role of Mary is greatly studied in the Catholic Church to the extent that the field is referred to as Mariology, Joseph’s role is also studied, an area known as Josephology. He is also given great honor and mentioned in the Mass during the Eucharistic Prayer after Mary, described as “her most chaste spouse”. He is also the patron saint of the Church overall and has feast days in his honor.
 The Ark contained Aaron’s staff (priesthood), Tablets (the Law), and Manna (The Bread of Life) as Mary contained Jesus who represented all three.