If you just read Deacon Sabatino’s article about St. Matthew’s infancy narrative and the wondrous mystery of the Incarnation, you may be interested in reading Subdeacon Sebastian Carnazzo’s article on the perpetual virginity of Mary. Click here to read the entire article.
For those who are not on our email list – click here and sign up! And then read his entire article below – Deacon Sabatino is responding to several questions he received about Mary’s perpetual virginity, when St. Matthew states that she remained a virgin “until” giving birth to Jesus. Read this, and meditate on the Word of God and the revelation of the Incarnation of our Savior.
In these days of preparation for the Nativity of the Lord, many Christians are paying special attention to the biblical narrative of the birth of the Savior. Reading over the Scriptural text in prayer is one of the best ways to internalize the gift of Salvation that will be born in our midst on Christmas morning.
The biblical narrative of the birth of Christ, however, contains words and phrases that are difficult for the modern reader to understand and can sometimes lead to confusion. One such stumbling block is the text of Matthew 1:25, in which we read that Joseph “knew [Mary] not until she had borne a son.”
In what sense can we understand that use of the word “until” if we are to hold to the ancient tradition of Mary’s virginity before, during and after giving birth? “You see,” many of our Protestant brethren will say to us, “the Bible does not support your belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity!” How many of us cower in embarrassment at this attack and do not give a response?
Far from supporting the Protestant claim, however, the evangelist’s statement regarding the virginity of Mary is the foundation for the apostolic tradition and does not support the Protestant position in any way. To understand this point, we will need to look beyond the English translation of this text and our modern interpretation of “until” and ask ourselves what St. Matthew meant his readers to understand by his statement.
First, it is important to remind ourselves that St. Matthew’s concern for Mary’s virginity has nothing to do with the modern Catholic vs. Protestant debate over the role of Mary in our salvation. St. Matthew knew nothing of Protestantism! In fact, St. Matthew’s concern is not primarily about Mary at all, but rather about Christ.
Remember, the biblical narrative of the Nativity is a revelation about the Incarnation of God and was written to reveal the nature of the God-man to the world. St. Matthew’s concern is to show clearly that Joseph had no involvement in Mary’s pregnancy – it was wholly due to the work of the Holy Spirit.
Thus, as we read this text, we must stay focused on the wonder of the Incarnation. Mary’s virginal state reveals and gives evidence for the supernatural work of the Incarnation. In other words, St. Matthew’s concern in the opening chapter of his Gospel has nothing to do with proving or disproving Mary’s state in life after Jesus’ birth. Rather, the focus of the text is totally on the revelation of the Incarnate Word of God, in which no human father has taken part.
Now that we understand St. Matthew’s focus in his Infancy Narrative, we are still confronted with what appears to be an implicit denial of Mary’s perpetual virginal state. What else could St. Matthew mean, using the word “until,” other than that Joseph and Mary had marital relations after Christ was born?
The answer to this question is simple. In the original Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel, the word that is translated in our English Bible as “until” is heos. Heos, in the present context, does not indicate a change of state at some future time as our English word “until” often does, but rather is bound to the time in which the statement is referring. In other words, heos simply indicates that Joseph and Mary had no marital relations that would have resulted in Mary’s pregnancy.
To see a clear example of the use of heos that does not indicate a change of state in the future, turn to the final verse of Matthew’s Gospel, where we read of Christ’s final promise: “And lo, I am with you always, until (heos) the end of the age” (Matt 28:20; see also Matt 22:44). Here, the use of the word heos in the original Greek clearly does not mean that the Christ will cease to be with us when this age is complete.
Another example of this is found in 1 Timothy 4:13, where we read, “Until I come, attend to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, to teaching.” Clearly, St. Paul does not hope that his disciple will cease reading the Scriptures, preaching and teaching once St. Paul has visited him.
Finally, my favorite example to help us understand St. Matthew’s use of the word heos is found in 2 Samuel 6:23. Here we read of a certain woman named “Michal, the daughter Saul,” who “had no child until the day of her death.” Here, the use of heos in the Greek text of 2 Samuel sounds almost comical when translated into English. Obviously, Michal, who was barren, did not suddenly start bearing children after she had died!
With a clearer understanding of St. Matthew’s motives and his linguistic background, we are able to read the narrative of the birth of Christ in its original sense and not read into the text more than the author had originally meant. St. Matthew proclaims the Good News to us: the Eternal Word of God is with us – Emmanuel has been born! In no way can we deny it, for Joseph did not have any relations with her “heos” she had born a son” (Matthew 1:25).
Christ is born! Glorify Him!