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Did Mary take a vow of celibacy?
In Luke 1:34 the angel which appeared to Mary tells her that she will have a child. Mary responds in such a way as to indicate that she thought this to be impossible since she was still a virgin.  The Greek text literally says “since I do not know man” with “know” being the biblical euphemism for sexual relations. Mary was not ignorant of the facts of life and, since she was engaged to Joseph at this point, making sexual relations permissible according to their practice,  the answer should have been obvious to her unless there was some factor involved here which the gospel does not mention. I believe that the missing factor is a vow of virginity which Mary had taken some time prior to her engagement to Joseph.
While it is reasonable to say that the reason Mary could not understand how she could become pregnant since she and Joseph had apparently not yet engaged in sexual relations, it would have been logical for her to assume that either she and Joseph would soon do so, whether or not it was in the context of marriage. Mary’s answer to the angel indicates that she expected to remain a virgin for her entire life, despite her betrothal to Joseph.
Nowhere in the Bible is it stated that Mary and Joseph engaged in sexual activity after the birth of Jesus nor does it specifically name any children as being their offspring. If it did then anything stated to the contrary would be in error. The Bible does state that they did not engage in sexual relations until the birth of Jesus, but it is silent regarding their marital activities after that point. Some would say that the use of the word “until” indicates that sexual activity did occur afterwards but this is due to an imposition of the English usage on the Greek text.
It should also be pointed out that there is nothing sinful about a marriage which the partners never consummate sexually. Some Christians, in an attempt to discredit the perpetual virginity, put forth the belief that Scripture says that to fail to have sexual relations within marriage would be a sin. However, whenever I have seen this claim made, there has been no reference to any passage from the Bible which would support this contention. Clearly, they are grasping at straws.
The passage in question is Matt 1:25 which says that Joseph and Mary did not have sexual relations until after the birth of Jesus. It is a common mistake to take the use of the word “until” in this verse to indicate that, after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph maintained the normal sex life of a married couple. However, this implication is not there in the original languages. In Matt 1:25, the Greek word translated ‘until’ is ‘eos‘. It is limited to the time period described and has no bearing on anything before or after the time period. Therefore, no conclusions about sexual relations between Mary and Joseph after this time can be derived from this verse. There are many passages in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, which are similar in structure but would be quite absurd if the assumption is made that the condition changed after the event in the “until” had occurred. Some examples are given below:
- Gen 8:5 In the account of Noah and the Ark we are told that the waters continued to decrease until the tenth month but we know that it continued to decrease afterwards.
- Gen 8:7 Here we are told that the raven did not return to the ark until the water had dried up when, in actuality, it never returned at all.
- Gen 26:13 Isaac continued to become richer until he was very rich. He did not cease to grow richer.
- Gen 28:3 When Isaac was sending Jacob off to Paddan-aram to find a wife he asked God to bless him until he became a mighty people. It is unlikely that he meant for God’s blessing to stop at that point.
- Gen 28:15 God promised Jacob that He would not leave him until all that He had planned was accomplished. God was not planning to leave Jacob after that point.
- Ex 7:16 When Moses was trying to get Pharoh to let the Israelites go into the desert he said that they had not obeyed God on this until then. The Israelites were prevented from obeying even after this.
- Num 6:5 The Nazirite was expeced to be holy until the time for taking his vows was over. He was not free to stop being holy afterwards.
- Deut 9:7 Moses told the Israelites that they had been rebellious from the time they left Egypt until then. They did not stop being rebellious at this point, however.
- Deut 34:6 The author of this portion of the book tells us that until this time, the location of Moses’ grave was unknown. He does not mean to say that it was discovered the day he wrote this portion.
- 1 Sam 15:35 The verse says that Samuel did not see Saul again until the day that he died. He did not see him afterwards either.
- 1 Sam 19:23 Saul prophesied until he arrived at Naioth in Ramah but he also prophesied after that.
- 2 Sam 6:23 This verse tells us that Michal (Saul’s daughter and David’s wife) had no children until the day of her death. Did she have any afterwards?
- 1 Macc 5:54 The soldiers were not slain until they returned in peace. Were they slain when they returned?
There are many more examples of this usage.
Some newer translations render Matt 1:25 as: “He had no relations with her at any time before she bore a son” (NAB) or “he had not known her when she bore a son” (Knox).
The best evidence for Mary having taken a vow of virginity comes from a work entitled the “Protoevangelium of James”. This was written by a Christian, probably about the year 150 AD and not by either of the men of that name in the New Testament. Although never considered canonical, it was well-received by the Church. It relates the story of Mary’s birth and childhood as well as the birth of Jesus.
It should be noted that some scholars believe that the portion of the Protoevangelium of James that deal with Mary’s vow of perpetual virginity are taken from the Old Testament account of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1. There is no hard evidence either way.
© 2017 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.