On the Perpetual Virginity of Mary: A Response to Peter Leithart

The classic Western answer to the denial of Mary’s perpetual virginity is St. Jerome’s fourth-century tract "Against Helvidius", and Martin Luther echoed and affirmed it in his own day.

At his First Things blog, Peter Leithart attempts to explain why St. Matthew claims Joseph did not “know” his wife, Mary, until she gave birth to her son, Jesus (Matt. 1:25). His answer is that Joseph might have seen her as a sort of temple since she was pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit:

Joseph might have reasoned: Since Mary was inhabited by the Spirit, and by the Holy One conceived by the Spirit, she was, or at least her womb was, holy space. If she is holy space, he cannot have sex with her, since by the rules of Torah sex defiled both the man and the woman (Leviticus 15:18). Having sex with Mary during her pregnancy would have been like a leper or a menstruant entering the temple of God. It would have been like having sex in the temple court itself.

He then claims that this sublime respect for Mary’s womb would have ended once Jesus was delivered:

If this is the reasoning, it sheds some light on the question of perpetual virginity. Matthew’s phrasing implies that Joseph did have sex with Mary after Jesus was born, and the reasoning above would imply the same. Temples are holy only when the Holy One inhabits them. Once Yahweh abandoned the temple, it was an empty shell for demolition and burning. If Mary was holy because the Holy One lived in her, then His birth exodus from her body would have ended her temporary holiness. She would have reverted to normal “common” status. And Joseph would have known her as his wife.

Joseph refrained from sex with Mary because she was the ark, bearing the glory; but only for nine months.

I would reply with several points:

First, it’s not clear at all that Joseph would have refrained from copulating with his wife while she was pregnant on grounds of Jewish law or custom; I can find nothing in ancient Jewish texts that suggests sex with a pregnant woman would be contrary to Torah and thus not kosher. (Compare Augustine on this point of sex with pregnant women, or St. Hildegard, representative of patristic and medieval Christian tradition; they’re very much not in favor.) So the only possibility is what Leithart suggests: that Joseph perceived Mary’s womb to be holy and thus off-limits.

Second, Leithart’s claim that “Matthew’s phrasing” implies the couple did copulate is unconvincing on grammatical grounds.  In English, “until” suggests two periods, with some change afterwards: I didn’t do something or have something until something else changed, like “I didn’t save any money until I learned how to stick to a budget.” But the Greek word for our “until” Matthew employs in Matt. 1:25 (heōs) does not necessarily involve two periods or indeed any change afterwards. (It can, as in Matt. 2:13 and 5:26.) Here it refers simply to the one period, as if St. Matthew had written, “Joseph did not copulate with Mary during her pregnancy,” period. 

But why, then, would St. Matthew write that? What’s the point? In English it sounds like St. Matthew is suggesting a change of status after Jesus’ birth, but with attention to the Greek, which implies no necessary change, we may suppose he writes that Joseph did not know Mary during her pregnancy for the purpose of safeguarding the Virgin Birth. The phrase doesn’t set up some second period in which the reader should assume Joseph and Mary were copulating, but rather emphasizes that no man whatsoever was in any way involved in Jesus’ miraculous conception whatsoever. 

In fact, St. Matthew often bends over backwards to reinforce his points so that his readers can make no mistakes whatsoever, through doubling characters in stories in which Mark and Luke have one, or putting similar stories and teachings back to back (often in groups of threes), or, here, in our own context, not only quoting Isaiah’s words about the sign of a virginal conception in Greek Isaiah 7:14 but also alluding to God’s declaration of the miraculous birth of Isaac.  In Gen. 17:19 God says to Abraham, “Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you will call his name Isaac”; in Matthew 1:20-21 the Angel of the Lord says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…she will bear you a son and you will call his name Jesus.” In Genesis, the Holy Family of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac become types for the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. It’s as if Matthew gives his readers a one-two rhetorical punch. St. Matthew is never subtle. That’s St. Mark’s job. And might the typology St. Matthew sets up between Sarah and Mary be suggestive here? Sarah, after all, had one and only one son.

Further, St. Matthew employs the Greek heōs in another location proving that it need not imply any change of status. At the very end of his Gospel, St. Matthew writes, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Is Jesus implying he’d be absent from his disciples in the eschaton? Hardly. He’s not promising to be with them during history, but then depart after the End of history, to abide with them in time but not in eternity. Presumably he’s with his disciples in heaven forever even after the “until” of the end of the age has been realized.

So while “Matthew’s phrasing” in Matt. 1:25 does not necessitate the perpetual virginity of Mary, it certainly permits it. “Until” here implies no necessary change. But does St. Matthew’s story of the Virgin Birth require the perpetual virginity?

It does, if one accepts certain common Jewish and Christian beliefs about sanctity. And so my third point: The idea that Mary loses her acquired temple sanctity once Jesus is delivered is odd, for in Judaism and Christianity holy things do not revert to common use once they’re taken out of sacred service. It may not be strictly necessary that the Virgin Mary remain the Perpetual Virgin Mary, but it is certainly fitting. (Theology often does best when it operates less according to the logic of strict necessity and more according to the logic of propriety, thus avoiding every deracinating reductionism.)

Why fitting? Because St. Matthew’s Gospel teaches that Mary has been a holy vessel. Having had “Emmanuel,” God incarnate, in her womb, could it be returned to common use? Unlikely. If the Ark of the Old Testament were recovered today, would anyone of any piety dare use it (say) as a trunk or footlocker? Neither is it likely that Joseph would have treated the New Ark of the Covenant in a common way. Or ask contemporary Orthodox Jews about the Wailing Wall. Though the Temple in Jerusalem was leveled by the Romans almost two thousand years ago in 70 C.E., Jews still gather there to pray at this one wall remaining; the site retains its sanctity.

What of Leithart’s claim that temples can lose their sanctity? He writes, “Temples are holy only when the Holy One inhabits them. Once Yahweh abandoned the temple, it was an empty shell for demolition and burning.” On this basis he suggests by parallel that Mary loses her special status once Jesus is delivered. The parallel fails because in the world of St. Matthew’s Gospel the destruction of the temple is punishment for the murder of God’s Son; Jesus dies, and God flees the Holy of Holies through the rendered temple veil. Thus the Romans advance on Jerusalem a generation later, leveling the city and razing the temple. But Mary has done nothing deserving that sort of abandonment. Even if the Son departs her womb, she’s no “empty shell.”

Like the site of the temple for Jews, Christian vessels retain their sanctity: It simply would not be fitting for Catholics, or Orthodox, or (for that matter) Lutherans who have a high view of Holy Communion to (say) sell a worn-out chalice that has held the Blood of Christ at a parish rummage sale and have someone then use it to sip Cabernet while binge-watching the latest series on Netflix. Even after vessels, vestments, and sacramentals wear out, they retain their sanctity, and so require especial treatment and disposition. Mary’s womb having held God, then, it is simply not fitting that she and Joseph would have copulated in the normal way. Like temples and vessels, she retains her special sanctity. 

Therefore, St. Matthew’s story in itself would be enough to generate the longstanding doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, though I think (to switch Gospels) the logic of St. Luke’s story requires it. Why would Mary ask the archangel Gabriel “How will this be?” in Luke 1:34 unless she had taken a vow of perpetual virginity according, perhaps, to the process outlined in Numbers 30? Gabriel says nothing about a virgin birth until Mary asks her question, and Jews did not expect the Messiah to be born of a virgin; Isaiah 7:14 became a messianic text when read as such by Christians, who found a messianic prophecy there precisely because they already believed in the Virgin Birth (!). The logic of Luke’s passage thus makes sense if we presume Mary has taken a vow of perpetual virginity. That’s why she asks her question, at which point Gabriel explains how she’ll remain a virgin while also conceiving and bearing the Son of the Most High, the Messiah: the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and the power of the Most High will overshadow her.

For these reasons, not only Catholics and Orthodox Christians but also Protestant Christians have held the perpetual virginity of Mary as an article of faith. But the rise of historical criticism within the Protestant world gave it an acid bath there (along with, it should be said, doctrines like the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ, which orthodox Protestants still retain), and it then proved a worthy polemical stick with which to beat Catholics in the arena of apologetics. 

But Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and other earlier Protestants, no fans of monkery or popery, were also good readers of Scripture who nevertheless retained a belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity. In the Smalcald Articles, which Luther composed in 1537, we find this affirmation: “That the Son became man in this manner, that He was conceived, without the cooperation of man, by the Holy Ghost, and was born of the pure, holy and always Virgin Mary” [emphasis mine; Latin: ex Maria pura, sancta, semper virgine] (1.4).

The classic Western answer to the denial of Mary’s perpetual virginity is St. Jerome’s fourth-century tract Against Helvidius, and Luther echoed and affirmed it in his own day. Luther writes, “Helvidius, that fool, was also willing to credit Mary with more sons after Christ’s birth because of the words of the Evangelist: ‘And he knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born Son.’ This had to be understood, so he thought, as though she had more sons after the first-born Son. How stupid he was! He received a fitting answer from Jerome.”

In 1541, a few years before his death (1546), Luther preached a homily on the Eve of the Day of Circumcision, in which he proclaimed:

Now, although Mary was not required to do this—the Law of Moses having no claim over her, for she had given birth without pain and her virginity remained unsullied—nevertheless, she kept quiet and submitted herself to the common law of all women, and let herself be accounted unclean. She was, without doubt, a pure, chaste virgin before the birth, in the birth, and after the birth [emphasis mine], and could certainly have gone out of the house after giving birth, not only because of her exemption from the Law, but because of the interrupted soundness of her body. For her Son did not detract from her virginity, but actually strengthened it…. 

For his part, the other great Magisterial Reformer, John Calvin, affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary in his commentary on Matt. 1:25, like Luther adverting to St. Jerome’s rejoinder to Helvidius:

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 [emphasis mine]. 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. 

Another representative of the Reformed or “Calvinist” tradition, the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, likewise affirmed the doctrine: “I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin.”

So like these good Protestants before us (and like Leithart himself, whose blog post is irenic), let no one obstinately keep up any argument against Mary’s perpetual virginity from an extreme fondness for disputation, but be good readers of Scripture together.

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About Dr. Leroy Huizenga 48 Articles
Dr. Leroy Huizenga has a B.A. in Religion from Jamestown College (N.D.), a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. During his doctoral studies he received a Fulbright Grant to study and teach at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität in Frankfurt, Germany. After teaching at Wheaton College (Ill.) for five years, Dr. Huizenga was reconciled with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2011. Dr. Huizenga is the author of The New Isaac: Tradition and Intertextuality in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill, 2012), co-editor of Reading the Bible Intertextually (Baylor, 2009), and is currently writing a major theological commentary on the Gospel of Mark for Bloomsbury T&T Clark’s International Theological Commentary series. A shorter work on the Gospel of Mark keyed to the lectionary for Year B, Loosing the Lion: Proclaiming the Gospel of Mark, was published by Emmaus Road (2017), as was a similar work on the Gospel of Matthew, Behold the Christ: Proclaiming the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road, 2019).

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