Was Mary a virgin, and did she have children other than Jesus?
As I wrote recently about purgatory, I had been discussing Catholic doctrine with a neighbor. Like many Catholics, my neighbor has an emotional attachment to Mary, the mother of Jesus. My neighbor, and the Catholic church, believe that Mary was ever virgin, and that after Jesus’ birth she never had any children.
From my perspective, this issue is more or less irrelevant. If a person wants to believe this but believes the gospel, I don’t necessarily want to engage in a debate about something that won’t impact their eternal salvation. However, as I thought about this in light of Catholic beliefs, I thought it would be helpful to look at what Scripture says about this teaching. Hence, this article.
The reason I think it’s useful for believers to understand this issue is so they can engage Catholic friends and family with gentleness and respect, directing them to study what Scripture says. This is because many Catholics idolize Mary, and the belief that she was ever virgin feeds this idolatry. Most will not admit that their devotion to Mary is idolatry, but it’s difficult to call it something else. So, I’m hopeful that this article will help Christians show Catholic family and friends the truth about Mary, the mother of our Lord.
With respect to Mary’s eternal virginity, I think there are really two related, but distinct, issues here. First, was Mary “ever virgin”; that is, she could have not been ever virgin but still be childless. Second, did Mary have children other than Jesus. As always, we look to Scripture for the answer.
First, we look at what Scripture says regarding Mary’s virginity. To be sure, Scripture goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Jesus would be born of a virgin. The reason for this has nothing to do with Mary. Rather, it has everything to do with Jesus, to show He is the God-Man, not a child of Adam. With God as His Father, Jesus can be without sin, even though Mary was a sinner. Recall, sin comes from the father, as we are all sinners in Adam (see Romans 5).
Isaiah 7 says, “14 Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” Upon discovering that his betrothed virgin wife was pregnant, Joseph sought to quietly divorce Mary, as he thought she had committed adultery. An angel of the Lord visited Joseph in a dream, and quoted Isaiah (from Matthew 1; see also Luke 1):
“18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. 20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” 24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.”
So, we know that Mary was a virgin before she became pregnant with Jesus by the Holy Spirit. However, note what v. 25 says above. Joseph “kept her a virgin” until she gave birth to Jesus. The Greek here actually says Joseph did not “know” Mary until she gave birth to Jesus. This is the same language we read in Genesis 4:1, where Adam is said to “know” Eve, and they had a son, Abel. This clearly shows that Joseph and Mary eventually had sexual relations.
This is very important. If God kept Mary “ever virgin”, stating this in Matthew 1 would have been the perfect opportunity. Instead, we read that Mary was a virgin until Jesus was born. We have to ask ourselves, why does God say here that Mary was a virgin until Jesus was born? God does not put useless statements in the Bible. The clear implication here is that Joseph and Mary had sexual relations after Jesus was born. What would be the point of saying Joseph kept her a virgin until Jesus was born? Again, this is stated here not because of Mary, but to demonstrate that Jesus was born of God.
The article (to which my neighbor referred) also says that Mary took a vow of perpetual virginity, that Joseph was an old widower who was marrying her only to take care of her. There is absolutely no support for this in Scripture. None. Zero. Indeed, if Mary had devoted herself to God’s service as a perpetual virgin, would she really need an older, widowed man to care for her? Would not God take care of her? The article makes no sense, both Scripturally and logically.
So, we see that Mary was not ever virgin. But, this does not prove she had children, so we now consider what Scripture has to say about this.
Since we have shown from Scripture that Mary had sexual relations with Joseph after Jesus was born, it’s obviously possible that Mary and Joseph had children of their own. It is also possible that Joseph was a widower who already had children when he married Mary (as the article claims), but Scripture does not indicate this. In any event, let’s consider the passages that demonstrate Mary had children (whether hers or stepchildren from Joseph).
Matthew 12 says, “46 While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him. 47 Someone said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to You.” 48 But Jesus answered the one who was telling Him and said, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” 49 And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.””
The word for brother is the Greek adelfos, which can mean the following: 1) a brother, whether born of the same two parents or only of the same father or mother; 2) having the same national ancestor, belonging to the same people, or countryman; 3) any fellow or man; 4) a fellow believer, united to another by the bond of affection; 5) an associate in employment or office. Since adelfos can have different meanings, the context in which it is used will help us understand the right meaning. To prove our point here, I’ll show Scripture where it’s obvious brother means blood brother, and Scripture that means something else.
Matthew 4 says, “18 Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 19 And He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed Him. 21 Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.”
It’s obvious here that Peter and Andrew were brothers, and James and John were brothers. As an example of a passage that does not mean brother by blood is Acts 9:17, which says, “So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”” Clearly here, Ananias is referring to Saul (Paul) as a brother in Christ, a fellow believer. The point here is that we can discern which definition is in view by the context of the passage.
With that in mind, let’s consider when Scripture says Jesus had a brother (my emphasis added).
Acts 1: “12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went up to the upper room where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. 14 These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.”
This passage clearly has blood brothers in mind here. If it meant believers, the passage would have said Peter, John, etc. were also Jesus’ brothers. Instead, brothers is included with Mary as His mother. These brothers could theoretically be Joseph’s previous children, but clearly we are talking familial brothers.
Mark 6 (also Matthew 13): “Jesus went out from there and came into His hometown; and His disciples followed Him. 2 When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to Him, and such miracles as these performed by His hands? 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?””
Once again, the clear meaning of the passage is blood relations (mother, brothers, sisters). While not explicit, the implication is that these are Mary’s children. If God wanted us to believe that Mary was ever virgin, would it not make sense to say “the children of Joseph”? Nowhere in Scripture do we read about Joseph having children prior to marrying Mary.
Galatians 1: “18 Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.”
1 Corinthians 9: “5 Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?”
Again, these are clearly Jesus’ family brothers.
John 7: “1 After these things Jesus was walking in Galilee, for He was unwilling to walk in Judea because the Jews were seeking to kill Him. 2 Now the feast of the Jews, the Feast of Booths, was near. 3 Therefore His brothers said to Him, “Leave here and go into Judea, so that Your disciples also may see Your works which You are doing. 4 For no one does anything in secret when he himself seeks to be known publicly. If You do these things, show Yourself to the world.” 5 For not even His brothers were believing in Him. 6 So Jesus said to them, “My time is not yet here, but your time is always opportune. 7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil. 8 Go up to the feast yourselves; I do not go up to this feast because My time has not yet fully come.” 9 Having said these things to them, He stayed in Galilee.”
Since Jesus’ disciples are mentioned and contrasted with His brothers, we can safely conclude that these are His familial brothers. Also, families journeyed to the feasts together, which gives more evidence for this being Jesus’ brothers.
Given all of these passages, it is logical and reasonable to conclude that Jesus had at least four brothers and two (or more) sisters (Mark 6 above). Were they Joseph’s from a previous marriage, or the children Joseph and Mary had after Jesus was born? I conclude they are the children of Joseph and Mary.
There are at least two reasons why I believe this. First, Scripture makes clear, as we saw above, that Joseph “knew” Mary after Jesus was born. It is only logical that they had children. Therefore, such children would be the ones Scripture mentions above. Furthermore, marriage is a picture of Christ, and the family is God ordained. It would only be fitting that Jesus’ earthly parents would exhibit such a picture, and Scripture is clear they were married and had children.
Second, if Joseph had previous children, how come Scripture never mentions them when speaking of Jesus, Joseph and Mary when they traveled (while Jesus was a small child)? For example, in Luke 2 we read about Joseph and a pregnant Mary traveling to Bethlehem for the census: “1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2 This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. 6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” The only ones mentioned are Joseph and Mary, who was pregnant. Where are Joseph’s other children?
Likewise, in Matthew 2, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt because Herod is trying to kill Jesus: “13 Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.”” Where are Joseph’s other children?
Finally, Matthew 2 speaks about Joseph’s return from Egypt: “19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, 20 “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” 21 So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel.” Again, why are Joseph’s other children never mentioned? Clearly, because they did not exist.
In summary, given all the evidence from Scripture, it is clear that Jesus had brothers and sisters, and that these were the offspring of Mary and Joseph. Therefore, it's also clear that Mary was not "ever virgin". It is far better to believe Scripture than it is to believe the falsehoods of men. This false teaching of the Catholic church helps lead some into idolatry, and the Bible says idolaters will not inherit the kingdom of God. I pray this will be helpful in evangelizing Catholics.