Saint Joseph and the Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary

My friend was an Evangelical Protestant but we occasionally discussed faith. I had questioned him enough to conclude, with him, that he agreed with the great Christological and Trinitarian Councils of the early Christian centuries, particularly Nicaea, Chalcedon and Ephesus. But when I asked about the perpetual virginity of Blessed Mary, Mother of Christ, he threw Scripture at me, Matthew 13:55–6: “‘Isn’t His [Jesus’s] mother’s name Mary, and aren’t His brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Aren’t all His sisters with us as well? Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offense at Him.”

So, he concluded, all these brothers and sisters were children of Joseph and Mary after the birth of Jesus. No amount of discussion of the Greek noun behind “brother” and “sister” would dissuade him from his opinion. God used Mary to give birth to Jesus, and then the family grew from there. And, as an evangelical Christian, my friend did not give any credence to Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli, all of whom believed Mary to be ever-virgin, because they obviously were not paying close enough attention to Holy, infallible Scripture (in the authorized translation).

Now Catholics generally accept the various explanations and testimonies of the Fathers of the Church, all of whom, sometimes in debate with heretics, affirmed that Mary was a physical virgin “before, during and after” the birth of Christ. But such arguments from tradition hold not much appeal to “Bible-only” Christians. So let’s dig further into the Old Testament and see if the literal meaning of some of those texts, plus some rudimentary logic, can give us a broader picture of the Scriptural testimony for the physical and moral integrity of the Mother of God.

The Fathers of the Church liked to jump back to the book of Genesis (3:15) to show that the offspring of the Woman was promised the mission of crushing the serpent’s (Satan’s) head. They then logically saw Mary as the promised Woman, daughter of Eve, who presumably was a virgin when she and Adam sinned. Thus Mary would be a virgin herself, mother of Jesus, the New Adam, acting in union with Mary, the New Eve, to battle successfully the forces of sin and death.

Isaiah 7:14 is used by Matthew (1:23) to show that the mother of the Messiah would be a virgin. This calls for a deeper look, because what Matthew translates as παρθένος (parthenos/virgin) is originally òÇìÀîÈä (Almah/young woman) in Hebrew. Matthew, or Matthew’s translator, is taking the Isaiah text from the Septuagint parthenos, showing that at least that school of translators considered the Queen Mother of Hezekiah (as the child of Ahaz would be known) to have been a virgin at the time of Isaiah’s prophecy.

The text is supportive of this. There is a strong suggestion, which would be controversial, that King Ahaz, under threat from at least two foreign powers of deposition, and who had sacrificed his only male heir to the pagan god Moloch (see 2 Kings 16:3), was temporarily impotent and unable to sire a replacement heir by the virgin Abijah, daughter of high priest Zechariah. Isaiah tells Ahaz, “If your faith is not firm, you shall not be firm.” Isaiah then tells Ahaz to ask for a sign. Ahaz refuses, appealing to his own non-existent piety, and Isaiah gives him the sign: “Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.” (Is 7:14)

Although this sequence is not directly predictive of Mary’s perpetual virginity, it is a reminder of the special position of the king’s mother in the kingdom of Judah, a position with a history that extended at least back to King Solomon, son of David. It must be remembered that David heard the prophecy of Nathan: “The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever.” (2 Samuel 7:11–13).

This was the Davidic Covenant, which the angel Gabriel invoked to Mary at the Incarnation: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.” As Abijah was in the time of Isaiah, Mary would be in the time of the Messiah. She would be the Queen Mother of the eternal Messiah, Jesus.

Each of the kings of Judah after the division of the kingdom subsequent to the death of Solomon is identified with his mother, Naamah, almost certainly because most of the Judaic kings had multiple wives. Thus, beginning with the disastrous king Rehoboam, first after Solomon, the Queen Mother (in Hebrew, gebirah) is almost always named. Naamah (1 Kings 14:21b) was an Ammonite princess, one of Solomon’s scores of wives and concubines.

So how does this relate to the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity? Why is it so unthinkable that Joseph, legally married to Mary, mother of Jesus, would “go in to” her and sire additional children? To understand this, we need to go back to two incidents related to the reign of King David, ancestor of all the Davidic kings.

The first took place well into David’s reign, when a series of events occurred that would rival any modern novella. Amnon, David’s firstborn son, lusted after his half-sister, Tamar, and raped her. Tamar was the full sister of Absalom, David’s third-born son. Two years later, Absalom got his revenge by sending servants to get Amnon drunk and then murder him. Absalom was the son of David and Maacah, who had come from the kingdom of Geshur. That kingdom was on the fringes of Galilee, and so had strong connections to the northern Israelite tribes. Absalom, afraid of his father’s wrath, fled to his grandfather, Talmal, king of Geshon, and remained in exile for three years, when David invited him to return to favor. Absalom then spent four years playing politics with the northern tribes especially, when they came to Jerusalem to ask for fair treatment. The author of 2 Samuel quotes him: “If only I were the judge of the land! Then all who had a suit or cause might come to me, and I would give them justice.” And thus he won the loyalty of many of the clans of Israel.

After that four years, he raised a revolt among those friendly tribes. David and his household and a remnant of his army fled Jerusalem, but David left ten concubines in the palace to take care of it (2 Samuel 15:16), and perhaps to provide a diversion for Absalom. When the rebels arrived in Jerusalem to install Absalom, they discovered the concubines there. The counselor Ahithophel advised Absalom to “go in to” the concubines, to make himself “hateful to” David, and he did. He had made David’s harem his own, and did so “in the sight of all Israel.” The rift with his father was complete, because only a conquering new king would get away with that.

When Absalom’s army lost to David’s, and Absalom was slain, David and his household, including his wives, returned to Jerusalem and faced the conundrum of what to do about the violated concubines. To take them back as his own would make it seem that David recognized the legitimacy of Absalom’s assumption of power. In 2 Samuel 20:3, we see the solution he adopted: “the king took the ten concubines whom he had left to look after 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.”

Leviticus 20:11 and Deuteronomy 22 may have been consulted in making this decision, even if they had not been written down at the time, but passed on by oral tradition. In brief, Torah scholars would have declared Absalom guilty of lying with his father’s wife, and the penalty for that injustice would be death. Joab and his associates then were instruments of Torah justice when they killed Absalom. But the women were raped, and there was no one to whom they could have made an outcry. So they were guiltless, but could not legally resume their “wifely” status. In justice, they could not be punished, so they were cared for for life.

Finally, we should move forward a few years to the final “revolt” David had to endure, recorded in the first book of Kings, chapters 1 and 2. David was old and could not be warmed adequately. So a young woman was selected to be his last wife, to wait upon him and nurse him in his final days, and keep him warm at night. So they found a comely virgin, Abishag, and he married her, but did not consummate the relationship. She was, however, the king’s wife.

Adonijah was the fourth son of David, and with older brothers being dead, he probably saw himself as David’s legitimate heir. It is not clear that David had actually named Solomon his successor at court, or if only his immediate circle knew that. So Adonijah assumed some of the trappings that Absalom had taken for himself, chariots, horses, and footmen, and recruited some of the elite of the kingdom to his conspiracy. “Adonijah sacrificed sheep, oxen, and fatlings by the Serpent’s Stone, which is beside En-rogel, and he invited all his brothers, the king’s sons, and all the royal officials of Judah, but he did not invite Nathan the prophet or Benaiah or the mighty men or Solomon his brother.” He had taken to himself the kingship.

When alerted by Bathsheba and Nathan of the usurpation, David took action. He fulfilled the promise to Bathsheba, his preferred wife, by having Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet to wash and anoint Solomon at the Gihon brook, and so he became king. David confirmed it with his blessing: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has granted one of my offspring to sit on my throne this day, my own eyes seeing it.” (1 Kings 1:48) Adonijah’s cabal fell apart and he sought sanctuary at the altar, begging clemency. “And 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.’” (verse 52)

So David died and Solomon began his reign “firmly established.” Or was it? Solomon was not the eldest of David’s sons to have survived. Adonijah was, and he still had a circle of friends who probably resented Solomon’s ascendancy. So he approached the Queen Mother, Bathsheba, and his foolish words were preserved. They were not crafted to win over Bathsheba’s heart: “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.” He asked her one thing: to request from Solomon that David’s comely widow, Abishag, become his wife.

So she did, fully suspecting the eventual result, because she was not stupid. She even used Adonijah’s exact words: “do not refuse me.” Solomon was infuriated and “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.’” By granting such a request, Solomon would have legitimized the rebellion, allowing his brother to “go in to” the widow of the king, and recognizing Adonijah’s prior claim to the throne. So he ordered his execution, since wickedness had clearly been found in him.

So where does that leave Joseph with respect to Mary, his legal spouse? The angel Gabriel had declared Jesus to be the successor of King David to the eternal throne. That made Mary, his only human parent, the Queen Mother of Israel. For any man, even Joseph, her legal spouse, to aspire to sexual union with Mary would have been tantamount to what Absalom did, and Adonijah wanted to do, to the Davidic line. It would have been an act of rebellion, usurpation, even incest.

Joseph, who was in Scriptural terms, a living saint (dikaios) would have accepted that reality when he heard the stories of Mary’s encounter with the angel and her sojourn with Elizabeth, Zechariah and John the Baptist (Luke 1:5–80), as well as the words spoken by an angel to himself (Matthew 1:20–24). The reference brings us full circle back to Isaiah, and the original prophecy of a virgin birth.

Thus for the rest of his life, Joseph became the legal father of Jesus, the virgin husband of Mary, and the righteous protector of the Holy Family. His prayer must have been that of his wife and son: “Behold the servant of the Lord, be it done to me as you have spoken.”

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. Avatar Raymond D. Aumack says:

    I am a devotee of Mary. What attracts me is that she was a real woman like all of the women in my life that I loved and admired. I also have a terminal degree in New Testament studies. The Greek word, parthanos, is not translated as virgin but as a young woman, in the culture of the times, presumed to be a virgin. The mission of first parents throughout the world was to propagate, not to remain virgins. Looking for prophesy in texts that are several thousand years older than the period of Mary’s life, does not provide a cogent argument. I accept Mary’s perpetual virginity as Church teaching. I see no reason for perpetual virginity. That she is declared so is the only fact.

  2. Avatar Fr. Adrian Head says:

    The fact that from the Cross Jesus entrusted His Mother to John the Apostle means that there were no other children. It would not happen even today among us, but even more so in the time of Jesus.

  3. From the Book of Numbers – Chapter 30
    3-4:  … when a woman vows a vow to the LORD, and binds herself by a pledge, while within her father’s house, in her youth, and her father hears of her vow and of her pledge by which she has bound herself, and says nothing to her; then all her vows shall stand … 6-7: And if she is married to a husband, while under her vows … and her husband hears of it, and says nothing to her on the day that he hears; then her vows shall stand, and her pledges by which she has bound herself shall stand.
    (Short of the father or husband acting in a timely manner to “legally” renounce the vow, it would remain in effect for life, with no further recourse available. According to the Law of Moses, intentionally disregarding such a vow would constitute a very serious … and even “deadly” sin.)