Was Mary an Unwed Mother?

I learned about the absolute best evidence for Mary’s perpetual Virginity this past weekend.  I went to Fr. De Celles’ Mass at St. Raymond’s, and he announced that the notion that Mary was “an unwed Mother” is one of the biggest fallacies out there.  He then pointed to the Gospel from the day, and proved his point without a shadow of a doubt.

I. Why it’s not true that Mary and Joseph were just “Engaged”

Here’s how we get confused.  Matthew 1:18 says:

Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit.

We read that word “betrothed,” and we think, “Ah, the two were engaged, but not yet married.” And that’s if we’re lucky enough to have something like the Catholic NAB, or the Protestant KJV (which says “espoused”). Most of the less-formal Protestant translations go ahead and just say “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph” (NIV) or even “Mary was engaged to Joseph” (ISV).

That’s a bad translation.  And how do we know?  Well, a couple of ways.  First, the Western concept of a pre-marriage engagement is totally foreign to first-century Judaism. Second, the next verse tells us that they’re already married. Here’s Matthew 1:19, and while this is the NAB, the other versions are very similar:

Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.

So Joseph is (1) already Her husband, and (2) to end the relationship, he’d have to divorce Her, and (3) taking this route wouldn’t expose Her to shame.  So what’s really going on?

II. The Two-Step Marriage Process of the Old Testament

Well, it turns out that in Judaism, there are two stages to marriage:

According to Torah law, marriage is a two-step process. The first stage is called kiddushin, loosely translated as “betrothal,” and the second step is known as nisu’in, the finalization of the nuptials. Both kiddushin and nisu’in are accomplished successively beneath the chupah: the kiddushin is effected when the groom gives the bride the wedding band, and the nisu’in through “chupah” — the husband uniting with the wife under one roof for the sake of marriage.

The kiddushin is defined as:

The first stage of the Torah-mandated wedding process. Kiddushin is accomplished beneath the chupah (wedding canopy) when the groom giving the bride the ring. Kiddushin actually renders the bride and groom full- fledged husband and wife except that the couple may not live together as husband and wife until the second stage, the nisu’in, is completed.

Now, historically, there was a year between the kiddushin and nisu’in, in order for the new husband to have time to prepare a place for his bride to live. During this year, as the above site said, the woman was wife to her husband in every sense of the term but one: she was not to live with him yet, and remained a part of her father’s household.  The year let them get to know each other (remember, there is no engagement or dating), and served as a transition period.  The time period of a year was a formality: for divorced women or widows, who didn’t have a father to rely upon during the kiddushin, the period was only 30 days, and outside of pockets of Israel, most Jews today celebrate the two steps in a single ceremony. So that’s what’s going on. Mary and Joseph were already married, but had not celebrated the last step, the nisu’in.

III. How this Proves Mary’s Perpetual Virginity

The reason this proves Mary’s perpetual Virginity is simple: marital sex is allowed during the kiddushin.  In fact, according to the Jewish Mishnah, sex was one of the three ways to begin the kiddushin (the way Isaac opted for in Genesis 24:67). This explains what’s going on in Matthew 1:18.  If an unmarried man slept with an unmarried woman, the kiddushin was considered to have begun, and he was then to give a ring or some other token signifying that they were now married (the “bride-price” referenced in Exodus 22:16).  But if he had consensual sex with a married woman (including one who was between the kiddushin and nisu’in), they were both to be put to death (Deut. 22:23-24).

So Joseph knows that if people think that he’s the biological father of Jesus, Mary’s okay.  There’s no sin, since they’re already married.  But if some other man slept with Her, then She’ll be killed.  That’s why he both has to divorce Her to end the relationship, and why he needed to do it quietly, if it was going to happen.  He didn’t want to see Mary die.  I think we already sort of get that part, but think about it: this only makes sense if Mary and Joseph weren’t in any danger for sleeping with each other.  And they weren’t.

Now look at Matthew 1 (Joseph’s view of the Nativity) and Luke 1 (Mary’s view), and something weird emerges.  It’s already the kiddushin, and they haven’t had sex. Luke 1:27 explicitly says that Mary is a “virgin betrothed” – that is, She’s Joseph’s Virgin Wife.  And when the Angel Gabriel tells Her She’s going to have a kid, Her reaction is bafflement, because She’s a Virgin (Luke 1:34).  Now, think about this.  She’s married, She’s free to have sex, and yet She’s telling the Angel She’s not sure how She could possibly get pregnant.  Assuming Mary understood the birds and bees, something is going on here.  She not only hasn’t had sex, but She doesn’t seem to be planning on it, either.

And Matthew includes an even stranger detail.  During the course of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph and Mary celebrated the nisu’in (Matthew 1:24), yet they still didn’t have sex (Mt. 1:25).  Now, here we run into a language issue. Matthew says that they did not have sex “until the birth of Her Child,” and in English (but not Greek), that implies that they did afterwards. A more accurate understanding is just to say that they didn’t have sex during Her pregnancy, and Matthew doesn’t comment on anything after that. We’ll address that in a second.  Now, we should ask ourselves: why weren’t they having sex?  Gabriel didn’t tell Mary that She couldn’t, and it was certainly the norm.  The clear reason is that prior to Gabriel saying anything, Mary had already taken a pledge of Virginity.  That’s why they weren’t having sex during the kiddushin, that’s why Mary wasn’t sure how She could conceive, and that’s why they didn’t have sex even after the nisu’in when they were living together as man and wife.

III. Why Does Matthew 1:25 Limit Itself to “Until the Birth of Christ,” Then?

If this is true, which the early Church affirms it is, then why does Matthew only tell us about it up until the end of Mary’s pregnancy with Christ?  Simple.  Matthew is trying to explain how Jesus fulfills the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14.  He says as much in Matthew 1:22-23.  Well, Isaiah 7:14 says a Virgin will conceive and bear a child.  Had they had sex halfway during the pregnancy, the prophesy would be wrong.  Matthew doesn’t need to talk about Mary’s vow of perpetual Virginity, or explain that She never had sex with Joseph. To prove Isaiah 7:14, he just needs to show they didn’t have sex up through the time of Jesus’ birth.  And that’s exactly what he attests to, without saying anything one or another afterwards.

It’s interesting to note that the Angel Gabriel never has to tell Mary not to have sex during the pregnancy.  Nor do we see Mary and Joseph trying to make the Isaiah prophesy come true.  No.  The Angel assumes that they won’t be having sex, and the prophesy predicts that they won’t.  The obvious answer here is that Mary was already pledged to be a Virgin.  If She weren’t, She would have had sex by this point.

IV. Why Was Mary a Perpetual Virgin?

All of this raises an obvious question: Why?  Why would Mary pledge Herself to be a Virgin for life?  There are four reasons.

First, this is considered one of the highest forms of sacrifice for the Kingdom of God possible. When Jesus says in Matthew 19:12 that (in the NIV’s paraphrase), “there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” He’s describing a situation already occurring.  He proceeds to promote this as the ideal (“The one who can accept this should accept it.”), but it’s obviously a practice which preceded His mentioning it.

Second, Mary is the New Eve, as I’ve described recently.  Jesus describes Her as “Woman,” which was the first Eve’s name until the Fall (compare Genesis 2:23 and Gen. 3:20).  And Eve was a virgin in the Garden (the fall occurs in Genesis 3, and she’s a virgin until Genesis 4:1).  Eve’s virginity was an outward symbol of her internal sinlessness in the Garden.  And so it was with Mary.  Mary remained “Woman,” at the Cross, when She became a Mother spiritually to the Beloved Disciple (John 19:26-27), and onwards to the end of time, even as She acquires more and more spiritual children (Rev. 12:17).  By becoming the Mother of all the Living in Christ, She perfectly fulfills what Eve’s name means (Gen. 3:20), but does so spiritually, not sexually.

Third, Mary is the Ark of the Covenant.  The Old Covenant Ark contained the Ten Commandments, the manna, and the staff of Aaron the priest (Hebrews 9:4), all of which prefigured Christ, who is the New Law, the Eucharist, and our eternal High Priest.  In 2 Samuel 6:6-7, Uzzah touches the Ark to stop it from falling off the back of an ox-cart (which it shouldn’t have been on in the first place), and God kills him for touching the Ark.  It was that pure.  And the Ark was just a store-house. Mary shared the same Flesh and Blood of Christ, and He lived in Her womb. Frankly, even if Joseph weren’t planning on living celibately with Mary before (which the evidence suggests he was), I think any man who remembered what happened to Uzzah would be terrified of trying anything on Jesus’ Mom.

Finally, Mary is the Temple Gate.  Ezekiel describes at some length the Temple he sees in a vision, beginning with Ezekiel 40:2-4.  It’s clearly not a physical building, and there’s a lot to suggest it’s Christological: for example, John explicitly telling us Christ spoke of Himself as the Temple in John 2:21.  Well, in Ezekiel 44:1-2, we hear,

Then the man brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, the one facing east, and it was shut. The LORD said to me, “This gate is to remain shut. It must not be opened; no one may enter through it. It is to remain shut because the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered through it.”

The Early Church Fathers saw this as Mary: She’s the Gate surrounding the Temple, Christ. And Since the LORD Himself lived in Her, and passed through Her, Her Body was consecrated to Him forever.

Look at those last three: Mary as the Virgin Mother of the Living, Mary as the Ark of the Covenant, and Mary as the Temple-Gate.  Now look at Revelation 11:19-12:17, where Mary appears with the Ark and the Temple, and the imagery is just obvious.


  1. Why is this supposed to be Mary in the Revelation verses? Is this not to be the Second coming? This also goes on to say the Dragon goes to fight her other offspring. So if this is is Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, then Mary has other children and therefore could not be a perpetual virgin unless they were all conceived of the Holy Spirit and Sons/Daughters of God all. Please explain.

  2. I would love to share this post on FB, but for some reason, when I try to share it, underneath the title, instead of the first paragraph showing, the comment “Why is this supposed to be Mary in the Revelation verses? Is this not to be the Second coming? This also goes on to say the Dragon goes to fight her other offspring. So if this is is Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, then Mary has other children and therefore could not be a perpetual virgin unless they were all conceived….” is what shows up as the ‘teaser.’ It is a bit misleading about what the article contains. I’ve tried to delete that, but it won’t let me. Any suggestions?

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