Mary—Blessed Among Women
FOR a woman to be in the line of descent leading to the Messiah would be an honor. How highly favored, then, would be the woman who actually became the mother of the Messiah! As the Bible shows, a virgin of the royal house of David, Mary, was the one so blessed among women.
It was the angel Gabriel who told Mary about the role that God had in mind for her. According to the rendering of the Catholic Douay Version, Gabriel greeted Mary with the words: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” (Luke 1:28) Based on these words, many people have concluded that Gabriel was ascribing a special degree of sanctity or holiness to Mary.
But did Gabriel’s words call attention to Mary’s “holiness”? No. Note how the Catholic New American Bible translates Gabriel’s greeting: “Rejoice, O highly favored daughter! The Lord is with you.” The Catholic Jerusalem Bible reads similarly, and in a footnote we find this explanation: “‘So highly favoured’, i.e. [that is] as to become the mother of the Messiah.” Of course, for the Most High to have favored Mary with the honor of becoming the mother of his Son on earth indicates that she was a faithful and humble servant of God.—Luke 1:38, 46-50.
But was Mary more than a humble servant of God who was given the unique privilege of bearing the Son of God? Did she, for example, continue in a special state of “holiness” by remaining ever virgin?
Many professed Christians believe that Mary did remain a virgin throughout her life. They point to Mary’s statement to the angel Gabriel as proof. Told that she would conceive and bear a son, Mary said: “But how can this come about, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34, Jerusalem Bible) In the Jerusalem Bible, a footnote on this rendering says: “Lit[erally] ‘since I do not know man’; this phrase means that Mary is in fact a virgin and perhaps expresses also her intention to remain so.”
To determine whether Mary had perhaps decided to remain a virgin before the angel Gabriel visited her, we must look at matters from the standpoint of the time in which she was living. For a married woman to be childless in that time was viewed as a reproach. Hence, when Elizabeth became pregnant with her first and only child, John, she said: “In these days the Lord is acting on my behalf; he has seen fit to remove my reproach among men.”—Luke 1:25, New American Bible.
Accordingly, for Mary to have gotten engaged to Joseph with the intent of remaining a virgin would have meant making herself an object of reproach. How could Joseph have consented to an arrangement whereby his wife would come under the reproach of barrenness? Why would he deliberately want to forfeit the opportunity to have an heir to carry on his name? The Hebrew Scriptures with which he and Mary were acquainted in no way recommended such a thing. They pointed to parenthood as something desirable. For example, at Psalm 127:3 we read: “Sons are a gift from the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward.” (New American Bible) The only arrangement known to the Israelites whereby a man or a woman might remain a virgin was by continuing in the single state.—Compare Jeremiah 16:1-4.
Years later both Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul recommended voluntary singleness as the better course for those seeking to devote themselves more fully to spiritual interests. (Matt. 19:12; 1 Cor. 7:28-38) However, nowhere does the Bible encourage celibate marriages or attribute a special sanctity to them. The contrary is the case. The inspired apostle Paul said to married people: “The husband should fulfill his conjugal obligations toward his wife, the wife hers toward her husband.”—1 Cor. 7:3, New American Bible.
So, had Mary and Joseph intended to enter a celibate marriage, they would have been doing something for which there was no Biblical precedent. In fact, they would have been acting contrary to God’s purpose respecting marriage. Is it not far more reasonable, therefore, to conclude that they had no thought of living with each other as celibates and that they did not do so for the full course of their marriage?
Of course, prior to the birth of Jesus, Joseph had no sexual relations with his wife. At Matthew 1:25, the New American Bible reads: “He had no relations with her at any time before she bore a son, whom he named Jesus.” As pointed out in a footnote of the Jerusalem Bible, the literal reading is: “He did not know her until the day she gave birth.” Would you say that this should be understood to mean that Joseph thereafter had no relations with his wife? Or, does it not, rather, allow for, not only the possibility, but actually the probability that he did have relations with Mary after the birth of Jesus?
If it could be established Scripturally that Jesus had brothers and sisters, all question as to whether Mary remained a virgin would be removed. Surely the inhabitants of Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth, must have known the facts. What did they say? At Mark 6:2, 3, we read of their being amazed about Jesus and saying: “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, a brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not his sisters our neighbors here?”—New American Bible.
These words were originally recorded in Greek. Hence, the question arises, How would Greek-speaking people have understood the original terms here rendered “brother” and “sisters”? The New Catholic Encyclopedia (Vol. 9, p. 337) admits: “The Greek words . . . that are used to designate the relationship between Jesus and these relatives have the meaning of full blood brother and sister in the Greek-speaking world of the Evangelist’s time and would naturally be taken by his Greek reader in this sense.”
In view of what the Bible says about marriage, should we not accept the natural meaning of the terms “brother” and “sister” rather than to claim that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were merely his kinspeople, perhaps his cousins? When we accept this natural meaning, we come to appreciate that Mary lived her life as a humble servant of God in harmony with his purpose respecting marriage.
The Scriptural view of matters counteracts any warped ideas about sex relations in marriage. Proper sex relations are not in themselves defiling. Not sex relations between marriage partners, but celibate marriages are contrary to the spirit of God’s Word. So the teaching that Mary remained ever virgin misrepresents God’s purpose respecting marriage, making it appear that unnatural celibate marriages are “holy.” In no way did Mary’s becoming the mother to other children diminish her being blessed among women in having been granted the unique favor of bearing the human Son of God.