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Based on this question it seems that a lot of weight is given to the simple statement by Mary to Gabriel that she is a virgin.

Luke 1:34 NIV How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

Various translations use different phrasing here like “I do not know a man” or “I am not knowing a man”. Catholics make a big deal out of this verse declaring it to be proof that Mary was informing Gabriel that she was a woman who had vowed to remain a virgin forever.

What is the reasoning for making this seemingly unexceptional statement into a cornerstone of the unsubstantiated (in scripture) dogma of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary?

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    Good answers could show other places where similar grammar is used to indicate permanent eternal vows, and also explain why explicitly "vow/promise/etc" language isn't used here. – curiousdannii Dec 8 '18 at 23:03
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    My understanding of the argument is that it's rather obvious how someone who is a virgin but is betrothed to a man (as Mary was) could conceive a child. There would be no need to ask Gabriel about this. On the other hand, it is not obvious how someone who, though betrothed, intended to remain a virgin could conceive a child. That situation would warrant asking Gabriel to explain. Mary's asking Gabriel this question makes sense only if she intended to remain a virgin. – Andreas Blass Dec 9 '18 at 4:02
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    @KenGraham the opening words of the question I reference are my source for calling it a big deal. – Kris Dec 9 '18 at 4:14
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    Hm. Most of the writing I've seen about this focuses on the Protevangelium of James, part of Sacred Tradition, though it mentions this verse as well. – Matt Gutting Dec 9 '18 at 4:23
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    @MattGutting Be clear to distinguish between the deposit of the Faith (Tradition) and a document (Protev. Jac.) which corroborates its being believed at an early stage. The Protevangelium of James isn't the 'source' of Mary's perpetual virginity any more than sermons are the source of the doctrines they expound or attempt to explain. – Sola Gratia Dec 9 '18 at 17:54
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One would think Mary knew the birds and the bees. One would think that she knew that after betrothal, a couple would cohabitate and consummate their marriage. Naturally, a baby would ensue approximately 9 months later. After all, that’s how Mary was born! Her mother and father went through the same process. One would think Mary knew that.

This is a translation of Gabriel’s statement to Mary:1

31 And behold, you shall conceive in your womb, and you shall give birth to a son, and you shall call his name “Jesus.”

At that very time, Mary was already betrothed to Joseph. It would be expected for them to cohabitate and consummate their marriage. Would it not? If indeed this were to be the case with Mary and Joseph—the consummation—then why would Mary ask Gabriel:

34 ...How shall this be since I do not know a man?

“To know” is, of course, a euphemism for “to have sex.” Thus, we could just as well translate that verse as such:

34 ...How shall this be since I do not have sex with a man?

Hello?! Mary?! Don’t you know what shall happen when you and Joseph consummate your marriage? What do you mean, “How shall this be?”

So, if you do not believe that Mary was going to remain a virgin perpetually, then you have to believe Mary did not understand what happens when a husband and wife consummate their marriage. You have to believe Mary did not understand the birds and the bees although her parents already handed her off to be married to another man. You have to believe that Mary was asking Gabriel for a biology lesson.

Note, Gabriel does not say to Mary, «μέλλεις συλλαμβάνειν»—“you are about to conceive,” implying that her conception was at hand, prior to her consummation with Joseph. Rather, he uses the future tense, and Mary, already being betrothed, would have rightly understood it as being fulfilled when she consummated her marriage to Joseph—if indeed she did not have a perpetual vow of virginity.


Footnotes

1 Luke 1:31: «καὶ ἰδού συλλήψῃ ἐν γαστρὶ καὶ τέξῃ υἱόν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν»
2 Luke 1:34: «εἶπεν δὲ Μαριὰμ πρὸς τὸν ἄγγελον Πῶς ἔσται τοῦτο ἐπεὶ ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω»

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    "You have to believe that Mary was asking Gabriel for a biology lesson." Hardly. Her response indicates that she understood Gabriel to be talking about her conceiving before her marriage was consumated, otherwise she wouldn't have said what she said. – curiousdannii Dec 9 '18 at 6:01
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    @curiousdannii—If Mary thought she was going to conceive before her marriage was consummated, then she thought either that 1) she was going to have a sexual encounter with another man other than Joseph; or, 2) she was going to conceive without human intervention. I doubt the plausibility of either. If she thought she was going to conceive with Joseph, there's no reason for the question. She would naturally assume that they'd consummate soon, and she would conceive. This would be any rational person's inclination. – Der Übermensch Dec 9 '18 at 7:25
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Establishing Context

What does Gabriel say? (Luke 1:31)

καὶ ἰδού συλλήψῃ ἐν γαστρὶ καὶ τέξῃ υἱόν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν

And behold, you shall concieve in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.

What does Mary say in response? (Luke 1:34)

εἶπεν δὲ Μαριὰμ πρὸς τὸν ἄγγελον Πῶς ἔσται τοῦτο ἐπεὶ ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω

But Mary said to the angel, How will this happen, seeing as I know not man?

All quibbling over 'a man,' 'any man,' or 'man' as translations here is purely a red herring. To "know a man" means "have sex."1 As a Hebrew idiom, its meaning is only that of not having engaged sexually, period, without reference to a specific individual (a very specific, known man or otherwise).

The Fundamental Reasoning Behind Understanding a Vow of Virginity

  • Gabriel said nothing of a miraculous conception, a virginal conception, or anything of the sort. He simply stated (as angels have before to women) that she "shall" conceive (Cf. Genesis 18:10). Gabriel might as well have said, you will start a family: there is no virginal conception mentioned at all at this point.

  • Mary is at this point betrothed to Joseph.2

  • Mary says 'How can this be if I know not man'—Mary is the one who brings her virginity into this (specifically as some sort of obstacle to what was prophesied by Gabriel)

  • Not knowing Joseph in the past, and not knowing Joseph in the present are not at odds with the announced conception.... only not knowing Joseph.. ever is.

A More Detailed Look; A Brief Engagement with Some Objections

  • The word ἐπεὶ (here translated "seeing as") is not the same as simply εὶ ("if"). To illustrate it in English, here are the different senses of the word:

    Jimmy: I will go to work earlier than the normal time tomorrow.

    Robert: But how will you go to work if you have no job!

    Here Robert would be using ἐπεὶ—"seeing as." Here Robert is telling something he thinks Jimmy obviously must have overlooked or not known or might need to know.3

    Jimmy: I will go to work tomorrow, because I secretly got a job yesterday.

    Robert: If you got a job yesterday, why didn't you tell me?

    Here Robert would be using εὶ—"if it be [as you say] that." Robert is reacting to something of which he was informed by Jimmy, not the other way around.4

    The difference is lost in many English translations of this passage. The Doauy-Rheims does well in removing the ambiguity at the cost of using more awkward English:

    Luke 1:34 (DRB) And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done, because I know not man?

    (The Vulgate uses "quóniam" which means "because," "for," or "seeing that.")

    That is, to put it more simply: Mary isn't saying 'OK Gabriel, if not by knowing Joseph, then how,' but 'Gabriel, I don't know man, so how is this going to happen?'

    The force of this particular point cannot be underestimated in my opinion. It precludes the already evidenceless assertion and question-begging that, 'Well, Gabriel must obviously have told her it would be a virgin birth.'

    What is the immediate context?

    Matthew 1:20-25 (DRB) But while he thought on these things, behold the angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, saying: Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost. 21 And she shall bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name JESUS. For he shall save his people from their sins. 22 Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: 23 Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. 24 And Joseph rising up from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took unto him his wife. 25 And he knew her not till she brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

    The intention of saying 'until/up to that point in time when' in the context of Matthew 1 is not '(because after this he did have sex with Mary)' but obviously, 'and he had no part in this conception; he was not knowing Mary up to this point in order for that to be possible.' What occurs after Jesus' birth is not so much as hinted at here, since it concerns only what led up to his birth "until she had brought forth a son." In other words, there is a difference between "Joseph was not doing x until y" and "Joseph was not doing x until y but afterwards did." The "but afterwards did" part doesn't necessarily follow, and in context it has nothing to do with what Matthew is writing about whatsoever. If it doesn't necessarily follow, there is no 'you must necessarily accept' bit to place an argument against the perpetual virginity of Mary.

    Anything else is, as you can see, devoid of the context in which this sentence is found: Joseph's involvement with Jesus' conception and birth.

  • The alternative to the perpetual virginity interpretation is proven false by its sheer ridiculousness. That is, if Mary said, 'How shall I conceive, I do not know a man!' Gabriel could have said, 'Mary, Joseph; Joseph, Mary. You two probably know each other from your betrothal ceremony. Hello??'

    That this is left even theoretically possible is an insult to Mary's person, quite frankly. And you can't say she was ignorant of how children are conceived (and so be so stupid or ignorant as to ask how she will concieve with a husband if she has a husband), since she specifically brings it up herself.

  • "What is the reasoning for making this seemingly unexceptional statement into a cornerstone of the unsubstantiated (in scripture) dogma of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary?"

    No Catholic uses any Scripture as the 'foundation' of any doctrine (as Protestants would), since the faith once delivered to the saints precedes Scripture. The Church precedes Scripture. By definition, therefore, any truth of the faith will not have its 'origin' in the words of Scripture. Scripture only corroborates or fleshes out or nourishes our understanding of the already held belief. It's not where the belief 'came from,' whole or in part. But I can see how a 'glean Christianity from the pages of Scripture alone' standard would lead to a rejection of many doctrines. When Catholics use the term 'Scriptural foundation' they mean 'Scriptural support,' 'corroboration' or 'vindication' (i.e. that the faith is not at odds, as is claimed, with Scripture, but rather witnessed to by something in the written Word).

For me personally, I cannot find another way to make this argument clearer or more obvious, so that'll be all I can say on this matter. Thanks for reading.


Footnotes

1 Cf. Genesis 4:1; 18:9; 24:16

2 Luke 1:26-27: "εμνηστευμενην"—"having been betrothed" to Joseph

3 Cf. Mt 21:46

3 Cf. Mt 4:3

  • Nice job here +1 – Kris Dec 9 '18 at 22:42
  • Your scorn for those who disagree is unbecoming. It's not immature to read Luke along with Matthew. – curiousdannii Dec 10 '18 at 0:14
  • That I cannot fathom how an argument is mature is not 'scorn.' You're being calumnious. If someone says 'I can't see how that's logical,' they aren't even saying it's illogical, just that it's in no way evident to them how it is. I think Catholics and Protestants need to have a joint Ecumenical Council on the meaning of language, because that's what this specific question is demonstrating quite clearly. We can't even agree on what basic words mean. To me, 'I can't see how that's seen as a mature argument, if..' is a polite way of rejecting an argument, not an injurious or offensive one. – Sola Gratia Dec 10 '18 at 0:29
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    I'm halfway between the two of you. I can understand it was not meant to be insulting or condescending, but address the argument rather than (not in addition to) your ability or inability to understand it. – Matt Gutting Dec 10 '18 at 3:00
  • I've removed it altogether. – Sola Gratia Dec 10 '18 at 14:50
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How are the words of Mary in Luke 1:34 incontrovertible proof of her perpetual virginity?

Luke 1:34 NIV How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

"Catholics make a big deal out of this verse declaring it to be proof that Mary was informing Gabriel that she was a woman who had vowed to remain a virgin forever."

Well, before going on into the main response to this question, please allow me to make note of the entire dialogue between the Angel Gabriel and Mary, the Mother of Jesus in the Gospel of St. Luke:

The Birth of Jesus Foretold

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. - (Luke 1:26-38)

The Church seldom, if ever, takes one unique source to base a single doctrine on. The perpetual virginity is likewise in this category. It is quite obvious how someone who is a virgin but is betrothed to a man (as Mary was) could conceive a child. There would be certainly no need to ask the Angel Gabriel about this. On the other hand, it is not obvious how someone who, though betrothed, intended to remain a virgin could conceive a child. That situation would warrant asking Gabriel to explain. Mary's asking Gabriel this question makes sense only if she intended to remain a virgin.

The relevant verse is Luke 1:34: “How shall this be, seeing I do not know man.” These words of Mary to the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation show that Mary did not intend to have conjugal relations with a man; otherwise, Mary surely would have known that conjugal relations with Joseph, her husband, could cause a pregnancy. Catholic theologian Stefano Manelli explains Mary’s strange response to the angel this way:

“Confronted by this [the angel Gabriel’s] wondrous announcement, however, the virgin finds herself embarrassed; not because of the sublime greatness of the majesty announced to her, but rather for the way in which such a maternity might be realized. The embarrassment would seem inexplicable because, on any reasonable grounds, she is precisely a woman in ideal conditions to conceive a son. She is the young spouse of Joseph – What young spouse would not be inclined to desire a beautiful son? It is obvious, therefore, and must be acknowledged that Mary’s difficulty stems from a precise commitment — vow or promise — “not to know man,” that is, to be and remain a virgin. St. Augustine rightly says, that ‘Mary certainly would not have spoken those words If she had not vowed her virginity to God” In fact, only by admitting Mary’s virginal consecration to God, can it be understood why she found herself facing an unsolvable dilemma: How to reconcile her virginal offering to God with the request of maternity on the part of God? How could she become a mother without betraying a promise of virginal consecration to God.” (Stefano Manelli, All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed, pages 137-140) - THE BIBLICAL BASIS FOR MARY’S PERPETUAL VIRGINITY

Seeing that Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, she became the spouse of the Holy Spirit and was the formal cause of her virginal conception of Jesus (Luke 1:35).

Mary, Spouse of the Holy Spirit

Mary is properly to be considered the spouse of the Holy Spirit since the Holy Spirit “overshadowed” her and was the formal cause of her virginal conception of Jesus (Luke 1:35). This is why her offspring, Jesus, “will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35), and this is also why Mary is properly called the Mother of God according to the decree of The Council of Ephesus in 431. Mary’s unique and “supernatural maternity” through the power of the Holy Spirit necessarily precludes her from intimate union with a man. Mary is a virgin because of her “undivided gift of herself” to God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 506). - THE BIBLICAL BASIS FOR MARY’S PERPETUAL VIRGINITY

Now Mary did not tell Joseph that she was pregnant with the Son of God. In her humility and abandonment she left that to her God:

Joseph Accepts Jesus as His Son

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. - Matthew 1:18-25

Both Joseph and Mary were privileged persons in the mystery of Our Lord's birth and Our Lady's perpetual virginity. Not a single word from St. Joseph is ever recorded in the Scriptures. Like Mary he too must have pondered all these things in his heart.

The relevant verse is sometimes translated, “he [Joseph] had no relations with her [Mary] until she bore a son, whom he named Jesus.” The New American Bible translates the verse as follows: “He had no relations with her at anytime before she bore a son, whom he named Jesus,” This verse demonstrates that Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary before Jesus’ birth, thus establishing the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal birth, The verse does not mean that Joseph had sexual relations with Mary after Jesus was born. - THE BIBLICAL BASIS FOR MARY’S PERPETUAL VIRGINITY

The Protoevangelium of James, written around A.D. 120, had as one of its principal aims to prove the perpetual virginity of Mary. Origin (died 254) strongly defended Mary’s perpetual virginity but Tertullian (died 230), who was excommunicated, denied it. Other early Church fathers affirming Mary’s perpetual virginity include Athanasius, Epiphanius, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine and Cyril of Alexandria.

  • Origen was excommunicated too. He defended the ever-virgin idea citing the PofJames, while ignoring Scripture's POV about brothers of Jesus. Cyril of Jerusalem BTW did not support the idea of ever-virgin Mary; he said, let the women glory in Mary's NINE MONTHS, rather than in her life. – SLM Dec 10 '18 at 17:27
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    Origen was not excommunicated for holding to the perpetual virginity of Mary. Which is what you implied. "while ignoring Scripture's POV about brothers of Jesus" Scripture doesn't give a 'point of view' on itself. It simply mentions the brothers of Jesus, not whether they were siblings or cousins or other male relatives. And even if we conceded the words of Cyril were to the effect that he denied the perpetual virginity, that would mean absolutely nothing. Nothing whatsoever. He would in that case stand out from, not stand for, the perennial belief of the Church. – Sola Gratia Dec 10 '18 at 23:08

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