Why Mary Is Still Called “Virgin”

I had mentioned two posts ago a writing called Protoevangelium of James which was written in the mid-second century. This is the oldest apocryphal infancy gospel in Christian literature, and information therein provides an early and rather evolved belief surrounding Mary’s person and the birth of Christ, and shows an especial interest in the mother of Christ. It’s believed that this writing originated in Syria in Antioch, where disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). It’s also believed that the gospel of Matthew was written in Antioch too, so this area was a center of Christian activity and piety though it was a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians.

As the story goes, Mary’s mother and father were unable to have children. Mary’s mother’s name was Anna, and her story resembles a great degree that of the Hebrew mother of Samuel, Hannah—whose name was the Hebrew form of Anna. An angel of God appeared to Anna, Mary’s mother, to inform her that she would indeed bear a child, and Anna vowed to give the child to the Lord just as Hannah did of Samuel.

When Mary was born, her parents gave her to the Temple where she received food from an angel’s hand. When she turned twelve, and her menstruating began, the elders wanted to marry her to a man lest her cycle become a matter of pollution in such a holy place. Joseph was a widower who was chosen to be Mary’s husband due to a divinely orchestrated scheme. The High Priest prayed and, suddenly, a dove appeared and flew onto Joseph’s head thus proving that God chose him among others who appeared to vie for her hand in marriage. This scene also would have reminded early Christians of the Holy Spirit’s descent as a dove onto Christ at His baptism.

While we read in Matthew 12:46 and Mark 3:31 that Christ had brothers, the belief that Joseph was a widower upon betrothal to Mary also yields the belief that Joseph had sons from his previous marriage. Hence, the brothers of Christ are, in reality, the step-brothers of Christ. Joseph, initially, did not want to wed Mary, but he was swayed to take her by the Temple elders. Joseph, however, never lay with Mary, but cared for her and preserved her virginity. Despite the gospels referring to them as husband and wife, this writing from the mid-second century did not use this designation of their relationship at all.

Joseph was off building, since the canonical gospels identify him as a carpenter, and when he returned from a project, it was then that he discovered that his young betrothed was with child. Of course, the rest of the story appears in our gospels except for some other scenes contained in Protoevangelium. This work, however, explained the preservation of Mary’s virginity, and it’s for this reason that many still refer to her as “The Virgin, Mary” and believe that she remained such her entire lifetime.

Steven Hunter (PhD, Faulkner University) is the preaching minister for the Glendale Road Church of Christ in Murray, KY. He's also authored several books for Start2Finish, and Classically Christian explores Christianity from a church-historical perspective. Steven enjoys reading books, drinking coffee, and is a practitioner of Goshin Ryu Jujutsu—a traditional Japanese martial art.