The Virgin Birth, Perpetual Virginity, and NFP

…we need to look back at the reign of Joseph’s direct ancestor, the great King David … (which) will help us understand that Mary was … the lifelong Spouse of the Holy Spirit, and that Joseph was her protector, but not her sexual partner.

As a matter of course, my former business partner, an Evangelical Christian, and I used to share religious insights from our different perspectives. One day, I pointed out to him a passage from one of the Old Testament books disregarded by Protestants, and its fulfillment in the New Testament account of Christ’s passion. With a nonverbal hinting of contempt, he asked, “Well, what about the Bible’s passages about Jesus’ brothers and sisters?” He was referring to verses like Matthew 12:46.

I always declined to get into a game of “Bible verse tennis match” whenever encounters like that turned sour, but that  20 year-old incident lodged firmly in my mind. We can counter such one-verse heresies with good, scripturally sound analyses: if Jesus had siblings whose mother was Mary, then he would have entrusted Mary to one of them, not the beloved disciple (Jn 19:25-27). The Greek word translated “brother,” adelphos, with a first meaning of “sibling,” can also refer to any male relative who is not your direct ancestor. Thus Lot, Abraham’s nephew, was called his brother in Genesis 14. But, since the first meaning of adelphos is “brother-sibling,” and that of adelphe is “sister-sibling,” non-Catholics usually hold traditional Catholic teaching to be a “man-made invention” and not truly Bible based. For a fuller discussion, see

Many Evangelicals believe that after Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph assumed normal marital intercourse, and gave birth to more children, male and female, who were the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus. They often refer to Mattew 1:25 to prove that Jesus was virgin-born, but that Joseph became Mary’s husband in every way after the Nativity. (There are great arguments for Mary’s perpetual virginity from the Greek there, too, but they aren’t relevant here.) The doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary is then, in the Evangelical mind-set, a good example of Catholic tradition trumping the clear biblical message. See

Those of us involved in, or supporting, natural birth regulation, or Natural Family Planning (NBR or NFP), know, as Pope John Paul II taught through his “theology of the body,” that sexual intercourse is truly a “marital act.” Any use of sexual organs outside a man-woman marriage is an abuse, because it is unhealthy for the persons involved, in spirit, emotions, and body, and because it is a lie. Particularly when it is accompanied by artificial birth control, the partners say with the body, “I give myself totally to you,” but with the mind and with contraceptives say, “Well, not totally.” This is why Pope Paul VI was so prophetic when he taught clearly that every marital act had to be open to the transmission of human life (Humanae Vitae §11), and that barriers, whether chemical or physical, were abusive. He wrote, “This love is, above all, fully human, a compound of sense and spirit. It is not, then, merely a question of natural instinct or emotional drive. It is also, and above all, an act of the free will, whose trust is such that it is meant not only to survive the joys and sorrows of daily life, but also to grow, so that husband and wife become, in a way, one heart and one soul, and together attain their human fulfillment” (Humanae Vitae §9).

Now, with that clearly established, we need to ask “to whom was Mary married?” What was Joseph’s role in that state? To answer the question, we need to look back at the reign of Joseph’s direct ancestor, the great King David. Three incidents, related to his relationships with the house of King Saul, and two of David’s sons, will help us understand that Mary was, as Catholic tradition teaches, the lifelong Spouse of the Holy Spirit, and that Joseph was her protector, but not her sexual partner.

Saul was the first king of Israel, but he was unfaithful to the covenant, so he lost his life and his kingship in battle. Saul’s fourth son, Ishbosheth, backed by Israelite general Abner, attempted to rule a rump Israelite kingdom in the TransJordan, while David began ruling the southern tribes from Hebron. Ishbosheth (probably a name change from Eshbaal) was a weakling administrator, propped up only by Abner’s army. We read in 2 Samuel 3 that Abner had sexual relations with Rizpah, one of Saul’s former concubines. This created a rift between Ishbosheth and Abner. Why is that?

In ancient Israel, one of the rights of a usurper of the throne was to the harem of the former king. By taking Rizpah as a sexual conquest, Abner was really declaring himself to be the real king, the successor to Saul. Abner was, for all practical purposes, the power in that rump kingdom, but to Ishbosheth, the taking of Saul’s mistress was an intolerable usurpation. Ultimately, Abner defected to King David.

We see a similar motif in the rebellion of Absalom. Absalom was the third son of David, born in Hebron. He was unlike his brothers because he was the son of a foreign woman, Maacah, the daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur, a kingdom in the TransJordan. Many years into David’s reign, David’s oldest son, Amnon, who appears to have been something of a sexual predator, raped Tamar, Absalom’s sister (2 Sm 13:1-14). Absalom later ordered the murder of Amnon, and fled to the king of Geshur, his grandfather, for a long exile. In time, David allowed Absalom to return, but Absalom returned that favor by grooming the people of Israel for his own usurpation of the kingship (2 Sm 15:1-6). He revolted, and the popularity of that revolt caused David to flee Jerusalem, where he was ruling over Israel. This sets up an important scene: As David is preparing to flee the city, he takes his whole household, including his harem, but leaves “ten concubines to keep the house” (2 Sm 15:16).  Absalom enters Jerusalem in triumph, and takes the counsel of Ahithophel to “go into” David’s concubines. Ahithophel’s words are important: “Go in to your father’s concubines, whom he has left to keep the house; and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself odious to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened” (Verse 21). By establishing himself as the sexual conqueror of his father’s mistresses, Absalom has conclusively broken ties with his family, and positioned himself as the new king. Once the rebellion had been quelled, and David returned to his palace, he “took the ten concubines whom he had left to care for the house, and put them in a house under guard, and provided for them, but did not go in to them. So, they were shut up until the day of their death, living as if in widowhood” (2 Sm 20:3). Thus, he confirmed the shame and importance of what his son had done to him, and established the principle that a “wife,” abused by a usurper, could no longer be the companion of the true king.

The final pericope we must examine records an incident that happened shortly after the death of King David, and the accession of his chosen successor, Solomon, son of Bathsheba. Before King David died, his son Adonijah had conspired to have himself anointed king without David’s blessing. In response, before his death, David arranged for Solomon’s coronation (1 Kgs 1). Adonijah, fearing for his life, fled to the altar of the Temple for sanctuary from Solomon’s wrath, and appealed for mercy. “Solomon said, ‘If he prove to be a worthy man, not one of his hairs shall fall to the earth; but if wickedness is found in him, he shall die.’ So King Solomon sent, and they brought him down from the altar. And he came and did obeisance to King Solomon; and Solomon said to him, ‘Go to your house’” (1 Kgs 1:52-53).

All was calm for a time. But then Adonijah did something he probably thought clever, but was really stupid and self-destructive. “Adonijah the son of Haggith came to Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon. And she said, ‘Do you come peaceably?’ He said, ‘Peaceably.’ Then he said, ‘I have something to say to you.’ She said, ‘Say on.’ He said, ‘You know that the kingdom was mine, and that all Israel fully expected me to reign; however, the kingdom has turned about and become my brother’s, for it was his from the Lord. And now I have one request to make of you; do not refuse me.’ She said to him, ‘Say on.’ And he said, ‘Pray ask King Solomon—he will not refuse you—to give me Abishag the Shunammite as my wife.’ Bathsheba said, ‘Very well; I will speak for you to the king.’ So Bathsheba went to King Solomon, to speak to him on behalf of Adonijah. And the king rose to meet her, and bowed down to her; then he sat on his throne, and had a seat brought for the king’s mother; and she sat on his right. Then she said, ‘I have one small request to make of you; do not refuse me.’ And the king said to her, ‘Make your request, my mother; for I will not refuse you.’ She said, ‘Let Abishag the Shunammite be given to Adonijah, your brother, as his wife.’ King Solomon answered his mother, ‘And why do you ask Abishag the Shunammite for Adonijah? Ask for him the kingdom also; for he is my elder brother, and on his side are Abiathar the priest and Joab the son of Zeruiah.’ Then King Solomon swore by the Lord, saying, ‘God do so to me and more also if this word does not cost Adonijah his life! Now therefore as the Lord lives, who has established me, and placed me on the throne of David my father, and who has made me a house, as he promised, Adonijah shall be put to death this day.’ So King Solomon sent Benaiah the son of Jehoiada; and he struck him down, and he died.” (1 Kgs 2:13-25)

Bathsheba may have been naive. She probably wasn’t, because she had heard Adonijah claim that he was the popular choice as king, even as he requested the rights to the old king’s virgin mistress. She likely knew that by delivering the older brother’s request to Solomon, she was sealing his fate. Solomon had seen the acting out of the tradition when he heard of Absalom’s insolent taking of the concubines, and David’s sequestering them for life away from the harem.  He knew what it would mean if Adonijah were given Abishag as wife. So he rightly considered the request to be an act of treason, and executed the usurper.

Mary, the Virgin Queen Mother

The Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke are two precious gems in the Church’s crown, but they are also gems in the crown of the Virgin Mary. Together, they establish firmly our questions about the spouse of Mary, and the role of Joseph. Matthew 1:18 tells us that Mary was “with child of the Holy Spirit.” The reproductive biology of ancient times was simple: the semen of the father was the seed of the child, and the child grew in the mother’s womb like a plant growing in the ground. Matthew boldly states that no human male was involved. The Holy Spirit was the father of the child Jesus. Later, after Joseph accepts his role as the human father of the child, but without having sexual relations with Mary, Matthew explicitly states that that condition of mutual continence continued “until” she bore her son.

The Church teaches that that state of mutual continence between Joseph and Mary continued for life. Now, we can turn to Luke to see why. But first let’s note that Matthew states obliquely something that Luke will say explicitly. He quotes Isaiah’s prophecy as one being fulfilled: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us).”  The virgin in the original prophecy would have been the spouse of Ahaz, and the ultimate mother of Hezekiah. Her virginity when Ahaz “went into” her was the guarantee that Ahaz would be the father of her child. That would also make the people of Israel certain that the new king was the rightful heir of David, to whom the Lord had promised a dynasty that would last forever (2 Sm 7:13).

Luke’s Gospel (Lk 1:26-56) is entirely coherent with this understanding. The angel (messenger) of the Lord is sent “to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.” Therefore, the child she is promised will be heir to “the throne of his (ancestral) father David.” The rule of Jesus would fulfill the prophecy made to David, that “of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary’s question about this, “since I know not man,” is almost certainly prompted by her determination, even in marriage to Joseph, to remain virginal. The angel tells her that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you,” and God’s power will make her pregnant. That means that the child will not only be the human heir and king, but have divine identity, “the Son of God.”

So the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary is both a guarantee of his right to be the heir of King David, and an affirmation of his divine status. Mary is espoused to Joseph, but is, in truth, the spouse of the Holy Spirit. Joseph did not “go into” her; the Holy Spirit “came upon” her. Mary will then be the mother of the Davidic king, and the Queen Mother in the new kingdom of her Son.

Now let us consider the proposition that after the birth of Jesus, Joseph might have assumed the role, not just of protector of Mary, but also the role of her sexual partner. He was well aware by the birth of Jesus of the special character of the child, and the true virginal status of his spouse. He was a “just” man, and if the underlying Hebrew is, as Tresmontant taught, he was a “living saint.” He knew his Torah, and he knew the writings and traditions of the Davidic line. He then knew all the stories we have studied from the books of Samuel and Kings. If he had assumed marital relations with Mary, he would have taken on the role of usurper. If the Holy Spirit was truly the spiritual father of Jesus, then he would be, in a real sense, calling a death sentence upon himself by taking his “marital rights.” Besides that, if the tradition of the Church is correct, he had already acquiesced in Mary’s determination to remain a virgin. From the little we know about Joseph, he would never have disturbed the divine plan in any way. Like Mary, Joseph spent his life as the servant of the Lord, praying that it would be done to him according to God’s will.


Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham About Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham

Deacon Pat Cunningham was ordained in 2002 and recently celebrated twenty years of diaconal service. He is retired from Catholic school teaching and administration but still serves part-time at St. Pius X parish in San Antonio, TX. He has been married to Carolyn since 1971; they have three daughters and ten grandchildren.


  1. Up to 1960’s , almost all women saints, according to the catholic calendar, were called”virgin”, but no man was called “virgin” – just google “catholic calendar 1962/ 1963”.

    Is it a requirement for men not to be virgin, in order to be canonized ?

    • Avatar Marion (Mael Muire) says:

      Jenny is puzzled about the use of the designation virgin for many women saints, but never for men.

      Men might devote themselves to God as alter Christus, that is, another Christ, by being ordained to the priesthood, and very many of the male saints were priests. It was considered important that such men had led praiseworthy Christian lives before entering, although it was permissible for them to have been married. Women might devote themselves to God not as alter Christus but as a bride of Christ, representing the whole Church, which is the Espoused of Christ; it was her virginity itself that she offered and set apart especially unto God. Although it seems that religious communities as we know them today did not exist in the 4th century, we do know that Saint Agnes of Rome (d. c. 304 AD) had consecrated herself in this way, since she refused all offers of marriage and said she was a bride of Christ. It was these words that resulted in her denunciation as a Christian to the pagan Roman authorities, her arrest, and trial. The pagan Romans understood well enough what this young maiden of 12 meant when she called herself a bride of Christ; tradition has it that to break this relationship they forced Agnes into a brothel and attempted to commit outrages upon her. However, God protected Agnes, and she was released from the brothel unmolested. Later, she was beheaded.

      In later years, after the founding of the various religious congregations, women who had devoted their virginity to God lived in community, often in a stable location, such as a convent or an abbey, and promised themselves or professed themselves to God and to the community. Saint Gertrude the Great, a 12th century Benedictine nun is an early example of one of these; more recent examples are Saints Faustina Kowalska and the Carmelite Saint Theresia Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), both of whom lived and died during the 20th century at around the time of World War II. All of these would be known as Virgins, and Faustina would also be a Martyr.

      This special dedication of their virginity belongs to women alone.

      • Avatar Christopher Knuffke says:

        Re: Marion. . .ALL those in consecrated life take vows of poverty, obedience, and CHASTITY (virginity).

  2. Joseph had every right to have a marital relation with Mary after Jesus was born. It is incorrect to say “If he had assumed marital relations with Mary, he would have taken on the role of usurper. If the Holy Spirit was truly the spiritual father of Jesus, then he would be, in a real sense, calling a death sentence upon himself by taking his “marital rights.”

    • Avatar Marion (Mael Muire) says:

      On the contrary, Joseph had no right to have a marital relationship with Mary after Jesus was born. It is perfectly correct to say “If he had assumed marital relations with Mary, he would have taken on the role of usurper. If the Holy Spirit was truly the spiritual father of Jesus, then he would be, in a real sense, calling a death sentence upon himself by taking his “marital rights.”

  3. Then can you please explain the references, in scripture (as recently heard: apologies for not having the exact reference handy) of ‘the brothers of Jesus’?


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