Was the Virgin Mary a Virgin?

This ancient question boils down to the origin of the word 'virgin' in biblical texts, and the evolution of belief.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Mary, painted by Fra Angelico, circa 1437-1446.
Mary, painted by Fra Angelico, circa 1437-1446.Credit: The Yorck Project, Wikimedia Commons
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Christians widely believe that Jesus was born of Mary without sexual intercourse, and some believe she remained a virgin to her death. Where do these beliefs come from?

Before addressing the question of Mary’s virginity, it is useful to discuss what exactly we mean by "virgin." This is not a discussion about the birds and the bees, rather an elucidation of three closely related Catholic doctrines about Mary that are often confused – the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.

Immaculate Conception has nothing to do with Mary’s virginity. It is a doctrine stating that Mary herself was born without Original Sin, and as such will not be discussed here.

The two other doctrines do concern the matter of Mary’s virginity. The Virgin Birth of Jesus deals with her virginity before giving birth to Jesus, while the Perpetual Virginity doctrine contends that Mary remained a virgin after giving birth to Jesus, and to her death.

The earliest Christian works, The Epistles of Paul, do not mention virgin birth, though this doesn’t necessarily prove that the doctrine did not exist at the time, or that he was unaware of it. Paul was more concerned with theological matters than with narrating the life and ministry of Jesus. Still, the Pauline epistles do not so much as mention it.

It is in the gospels, written several decades after the Epistles of Paul, that we first hear of the Virgin Birth doctrine.

Virgin Birth and a mistake in translation

Two of the four gospels have an account of Jesus' birth, the earlier one being the Gospel of Matthew. The other is the Gospel of Luke.

Pope Francis I swings an incense burner to bless a statue of the Virgin Mary, Vatican, May 11, 2014. Photo by Reuters

Matthew's texts set out to show that the birth of Jesus fulfils the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Bible. Among other things, he starts his gospel with a genealogy showing that Jesus was born of the Davidic male line, which was and still is held to be a must for Jewish messiahs.

Yet after showing that Joseph, Mary’s husband, was descended from David, he undermines his own argument by saying that Jesus was not really the son of Joseph: “…before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” (1:18). Why would Matthew do this?

It bears noting that the gospel of Matthew was actually penned many decades after the death of Matthew the Apostle by an unknown writer, who wrote in Greek. He evidently never read the original Hebrew text of Isaiah, but settled for reading the Greek translation, the Septuagint.

So, the author of Matthew may have wanted to show that Jesus’ birth also fulfilled another Old Testament prophecy. He quotes from the Book of Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Matthew 2:23).

The Isaiahic text is apparently not discussing any prophesy of a future Messiah: he seems to be talking of an actual child born at the time. But that is beside the point. More important is the fact that the original Hebrew text does not actually say "virgin."

The word in Isaiah (7:14) translated as "virgin" is alma, which just means young woman, irrespective of her sexual history. The Hebrew word for virgin is betula.

What misled the anonymous Greek-speaking writer of Matthew is that the Septuagint rendered alma into the word parthenos, which could be used to mean young woman but more usually meant virgin.

Pagan beliefs

Luke also gives genealogy linking Joseph to King David (though not in the same way as Matthew does – Mathew has Jesus’ line coming from David’s son Solomon while Luke has Nathan, Mathew has Jesus’ grandfather called Jacob, while Luke has him named Heli – naturally the inconsistencies go all the way through). Then he describes how an angel comes to tell Mary that she will give birth.

Christian worshipers next to a statue of the Virgin Mary, that residents say "weeps" oil, Tarshiha, Feb. 11, 2014. Photo by AP

When she says that this cannot be since she’s a virgin - the angel tells her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” (1:35)

Both Luke and Matthew were likely repeating an oral tradition that existed at the time they were writing, probably the end of the 1st century. This tradition may have been influenced by a prevailing notion in both pagan and Jewish societies that divine beings have semi-divine children by mating with human women.

There is any number of myths having Zeus and other gods impregnating any number of women. Genesis itself has a passage that reads: “…when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” (6:4)

Not a universal doctrine

The gospels of John and Mark do not mention a virgin birth, which goes to show that the idea of the virginity of Mary was not universally held by early Christians. The fact that Mark is widely held to be the earliest of the gospels is telling. It is very unlikely that early Christians would have thought of Jesus’ family as unique in any way, since the leader of the early Church was James the Just - “James the brother of the Lord” - as his contemporary Paul calls him. (Galatians 1:19)

If you are surprised to hear that Jesus had siblings (the New Testament lists four brothers and also mentions sisters but doesn’t name them), this is because of the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, which obviously conflicts with the idea that Jesus had siblings.

The doctrine of Perpetual Virginity became popular during the 4th century, when a cult of Mary was developing in the young Catholic Church. In light of this doctrine, the passages mentioning Jesus’ brothers and sisters were reinterpreted in two ways: The terms brother and sister only reflected that they were close to Jesus (“like siblings”) or that they referred to “half-siblings,” that is Joseph’s children from a previous marriage.

In light of this critical and historical reading of scripture and the facts of biology as we know them, it seems Mary was probably not a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus.



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