The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was not only a virgin at the time of Jesus' conception, but remained a virgin throughout her life—essentially a faithful wife wed to the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, according to Rome, when the Gospels speak of the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus, they do not mean other children of Mary. The Hebrew words were very broad, according to Catholics, and they could cover any sort of relationship. In addition, those who defend the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity point out that Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ and his disciples, lacked a specific word for "cousin", so brother and sister were often used in lieu of cousin. Even modern English, they point out, uses "brother" and "sister" more broadly for members of fraternities and sororities. Proponents also claim there is implicit evidence of Jesus being without living brothers or sisters at the time of his crucifixion in that Jesus entrusts his mother to John instead of a sibling.
In addition, it is sometimes argued that if "brothers and sister"” really means brothers and sisters, it refers to Joesph's children from a previous marriage. In this view, Joseph was much older and died much earlier than Mary.
This doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity is very old. This doctrine underwent a period of discussion until the late 4th century when general consensus emerged. The earliest witness to the perpetual virginity of Mary seems to appear in the apocryphal Protogospel of James (ca 150). Tertullian (ca 220) denied the perpetual virginity of Mary. Origen (d 254) appears to have affirmed it. In the East, St Athanasius strongly defended Mary's virginity after the birth of Jesus. Shortly after, St Basil the Great (d ca 380) accepted Mary's perpetual virginity and claimed that it reflected the general sense of believers; though he did not consider it to be a dogma. Around the same time, in the West, Jovinian and Helvidius denied the perpetual virginity while Ambrose (d. 397), Jerome (d. 420) and Augustine (d. 430) defended it.
The official acts of the Fifth Ecumenical Council held at Constantinople in 553 refer to Mary as aeiparthenos (ever-virgin). For example, an anathema against the 'three chapters' condemns those who deny:
that nativity of these latter days when the Word of God came down from the heavens and was made flesh of holy and glorious Mary, mother of God and ever-virgin, and was born from her ...These statements were not made in reference to a direct discussion of Mary's virginity. Hence, some argue that this statement was not a dogmatic definition. For Catholics, such definitions may be made by the Episcopal college, in communion with its President, the Bishop of Rome, or by the Pope in virtue of his Presidency over the entire Episcopal college. Such definitions must be derived, at least implicitly, from the revelation closed at the death of the Apostles.
Though not an Ecumenical Council, the Lateran Council of 649 convened by Pope Martin I also issued an important statement affirming Mary's lifelong virginity:
If anyone does not, according to the Holy Fathers, confess truly and properly that holy Mary, ever virgin and immaculate, is Mother of God, since in this latter age she conceived in true reality without human seed from the Holy Spirit, God the Word Himself, who before the ages was born of God the Father, and gave birth to Him without corruption, her virginity remaining equally inviolate after the birth, let him be condemned.After Constantinople II the title was universally accepted by the Church. Finally, it should be pointed out that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, the three main reformers, all demonstrated support for the doctrine.
Objections to the Doctrine
A first objection arises from the reference to Jesus as Mary’s firstborn:
6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7)It should be remembered that Luke wrote long after both Mary and Joseph were dead. If Jesus was Mary's only child, with hindsight, he would likely not, it is argued, have used the word firstborn.
A second objection comes from the fact that all the gospels refer to Jesus' brothers and sisters, for example:
Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? Matt. 13:55)
31 And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” (Mark 3:31-32)Again, the Catholic explanation of these (and many other) passages is that either (a) brothers and sisters was used for other relatives such as cousins, or (b) they refer to Joseph's children from a previous marriage. It should be pointed out that Elizabeth, Mary's cousin, is not referred to as her sister but rather her relative. (Luke 1:36)
Those opposed to the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity argue that Jesus entrusted John with his mother because, at the time of his death, it appeared that none of his siblings were believers (John 7:5). Of course, most Protestants believe that references such as:
But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother. (Gal. 1:19)Clearly indicate that James, author of the Gospel of James, was Jesus’ brother. How did he come to believe? Apparent by an unrecorded visitation of the risen Christ, perhaps similar to Paul's, for Paul writes:
6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Cor. 15:6-8)It is interesting to read what Calvin has to say about Gal. 1:19:
Who this James was, deserves inquiry. Almost all the ancients are agreed that he was one of the disciples, whose surname was "Oblias" and "The Just," and that he presided over the church at Jerusalem. Yet others think that he was the son of Joseph by another wife, and others (which is more probable) that he was the cousin of Christ by the mother's side: but as he is here mentioned among the apostles, I do not hold that opinion. Nor is there any force in the defense offered by Jerome, that the word Apostle is sometimes applied to others besides the twelve; for the subject under consideration is the highest rank of apostleship, and we shall presently see that he was considered one of the chief pillars. It appears to me, therefore, far more probable, that the person of whom he is speaking is the son of Alpheus [The husband of Mary’s sister]. (Calvin’s Commentaries)A final objection to the doctrine comes from the passage:
24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matt. 1:24-25)
To most Protestants, this passage clearly implies that Joseph and Mary had normal sexual relations after the birth of Jesus. To Catholics, who argue, in part, based on the subtleties of the Greek word heos, (translated as until) this passage states nothing more than what happened during the time period under discussion—from the conception of Jesus until His birth, with no implication for what occurred afterward even though in modern English we infer that the until" generally implies not just duration but that the situation later changed. And not just Catholics teach this—Calvin writes:
This passage (Matt. 1:25) afforded the pretext for great disturbances, which were introduced into the Church, at a former period, by Helvidius. The inference he drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband. Jerome, on the other hand, earnestly and copiously defended Mary's perpetual virginity. Let us rest satisfied with this, that no just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words of the Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called first-born; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin. It is said that Joseph knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son: but this is limited to that very time. What took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us. Such is well known to have been the practice of the inspired writers. Certainly, no man will ever raise a question on this subject, except from curiosity; and no man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation.Calvin's position, as I read it, is that he affirms the Catholic viewpoint that this passage says nothing about what happened after the birth of Christ, and furthermore he laments that it is the fodder of excessive argument.