Wednesday, February 3, 2016

John Wesley and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

John Wesley, like many prominent Protestant leaders such as Zwingli[1], Luther[2], and Calvin[3], firmly maintained that Mary was a perpetual virgin, meaning that she never had sexual relations with Joseph nor did she bare any other children except Jesus Christ. The most explicit expression of Wesley on his adherence to the perpetual virginity of Mary is found in his A Letter to a Roman Catholic: “I believe that he was made man...and born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.” Throughout Wesley’s Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament we find his biblical explanations in response to commonly quoted scriptural passages to the contrary. One of the main ways that opponents to the doctrine attempt to argue against Mary’s perpetual virginity is to prove from various passages in Scripture that seem to convey that Jesus had biological brothers in the same manner in which we commonly use the term today in the West. Two of the most common passage quoted are Matthew 1:24-25 and Matthew 13:53-57.

Matthew 1:24-25 RSVCE “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commended him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.”[4]

Matthew 13:53-57 RSVCE “And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his own country he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brethren James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this? And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.’”

The main argument from Matthew 1:24-25 centers around the word “until”. It is argued that this use of ‘ewV (Greek) definitively proves they had sexual relations after she had borne a son. In response to He knew her not, till after she had brought forth, Wesley argues that “It cannot be inferred from hence, that he knew her afterward: no more than it can be inferred from that expression, (2 Samuel 6:23), ‘Michal had no child till the day of her death,’ that she had children afterward. Nor do the words that follow, ‘the firstborn’ son, alter the case. For there are abundance of places, wherein the term ‘firstborn’ is used, though there were no subsequent children.[5]” We also see other New Testament examples of this such as in I Tim. 4:13 – “Until (‘ewV) I come, attend to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, to teaching.” We would not infer from this that after Paul arrives that they would change what they were doing. Likewise, the ‘ewV in Matthew 1:24-25 only affirms that no sexual relations occurred up to that time and does not affirm that a change occurred with the arrival of Jesus. In fact, the New American Bible captures this understanding when it translates “He had no relations with her at any time before she bore a son”.

Wesley had much more to say about Matthew 13:53-57 concerning the brothers and sisters of Jesus. I think it is necessary at this point to view its parallels in the other Gospels as well which will be quoted in full for convenience. 

Matthew 13:53-57 “And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his own country he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brethren James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this? And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.’”

Mark 6:1-4 “He went away from there and came to his own country; and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.’

Luke 4:22-24 “And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth; and they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ And he said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Cater’naum, do here also in your own country.’ And he said, ‘Truly, I say to you , no prophet is acceptable in his own country.”

The main focus of these passages concerns the Greek terms adeljoi, adeljoV, adeljai (Brothers, brother, and sisters respectively). Unfortunately for English readers we can not easily appreciate the semantic range of the Greek terms adeljoi, adeljoV, adeljai. The Greek term adeljoV is widely used in Scripture as a nearly related cousin (1 Chron 23:21-22), a more remote kinsman (Deut 23:7; 2 Kings 10:13-14), an uncle or a nephew (Gen 13:8), the relation between men bound by covenant (2 Sam 1:26), or even the relation of Christians with one another (Rom 8:29). The closest example of this broad range of meaning of the terms is found several versus later in Mark 6:17 where we see Herod’s relation to Philip as tou adeljou autou “his brother” but we know from history that Philip was only the half-brother of Herod Antipas. In the immediate context, Jesus responds to the comments about his relatives when he says that a prophet is without honor “in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” That is, where they were, the brothers and sisters that are mentioned, and his mother Mary and father Joseph respectively.

We also understand the Semitic usage of the term as it is seen in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. More than 80% of the New Testament quotations and allusions of the Old Testament are direct quotations from the Septuagint. That is why it is very important for us to understand not only the broad semantic range of the Greek word in its own right but also to examine how the term has been used by the Jews at that time and in the past. The Septuagint had practically become “the bible” for most Jews and its usages would also come into play in the use of Greek in the New Testament.

John Wesley understood this usage as well when he argued that these ‘brethren’ were better understood as “kinsmen. They were the sons of Mary, sister to the virgin, and wife of Cleophas or Alpheus.[6]” Let’s quote the passages that are pertinent to Wesley’s position.

John 19:25-27 “So the soldiers did this. But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Mag’dalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”

Matthew 27:55-56 “There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him; among whom were Mary Mag’dalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zeb’edee.”

Mark 15:40-41 “There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Mag’dalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.”

As to John 19:25 Wesley notes: “His mother's sister-But we do not read she had any brother. She was her father's heir, and as such transmitted the right of the kingdom of David to Jesus: Mary, the wife of Cleopas-Called likewise Alpheus, the father, as Mary was the mother of James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas.[7]” Wesley makes reference to this Mary, who is said to be the  adeljh thV mhtroV autou
(His mother’s sister).

First, Wesley clearly does not identify the brethren of the Lord as sons of Mary. In fact, in order to avoid any ambiguity on this issue no person in Scripture is explicitly said to be the son of the Virgin Mary except Jesus; only Jesus is ever referred to as ‘o uoiV thV MariaV (The Son of Mary” Mark 6:3).

Second, Wesley identifies James and Joseph (Joses) and Simon and Judas as children of this other Mary that is said to be the sister of the Virgin Mary. One can not help but notice that if this other Mary is in fact the biological sister of the Virgin Mary then we would understand that their parents gave the same name to two of their children. The Syriac Christians are said to maintain that the reason for this is because according to early church sources that the Virgin Mary was born first and was dedicated to the Jewish Temple at the age of three and remained there as a Temple virgin taking an oath of celibacy, and that their second child Mary would be with them. If the idea of them being biological sisters is rejected, then we would see here another example of adeljh being used in a much broader sense. Even if one were to argue that their parents gave them the same name it would seem even more interesting if each of these girls were to name some of their children the exact same name such as James and Joseph. Either way, Wesley clearly identifies James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas as the sons of Mary, the wife of Cleopas.

Wesley’s note on Galatians 1:19 in referring to James the brother of the Lord says “that is, the kinsman[8]”. He also makes another connection concerning James in his introduction to the book of James: “This is supposed to have been written by James the son of Alphaeus, the brother (or kinsman) of our Lord.[9]” The book of Jude (the Greek is literally Judas), identifies himself as adeljoV Iakwbou (brother of James – Greek: Jacob). According to Wesley, he would understand this usage of adeljoV in this context to mean that they were both sons of this other Mary.

Supplemental thoughts:

Augustine, Holy Virginity, 4,4 “Surely, she would not say, ‘How shall this be?’ unless she had already vowed herself to God as a virgin… If she intended to have intercourse, she wouldn’t have asked this question!”

See also: Against Helvidius: On the Perpetual Virginity of the Virgin Mary by Jerome.

Colossians 4:10 uses the Greek term for cousin is used  “Mark the cousin of Barnabas”. The Greek aneyioV is used in the New Testament to refer to a cousin, though we can not argue that this must always be the case since Elizabeth is said to be the cousin of Mary and this we find in some English translations, even though the Greek there hsuggeniV sou ”your relative” is often rendered as relative. Gabriel refers that “your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son” This is a “kinswoman”. The problem of arguing that since the New Testament utilizes the Greek word aneyioV for cousin, therefore it is concluded that since this word aneyioV is not used then the adeljoi in another passage can not mean cousin even though the meaning is part of its semantic range.





[1]              "I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the gospel, as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin."  (Ulrich Zwingli, Opera, Vol. 1, P. 424)
[2]              "It is an article of faith that Mary is Mother of the Lord and still a virgin... Christ, we believe, came forth from a womb left perfectly intact."  (Martin Luther, Works of Luther, Vol. 11, pp.319-320; Vol. 6, p. 510)
[3]               "There have been certain folk who have wished to suggest from this passage (Matthew 1:25) that the Virgin Mary had other children than the Son of God, and that Joseph had then dwelt with her later; but what folly this is!  For the gospel writer did not wish to record what happened afterwards; he simply wished to make clear Joseph's obedience and to show that Joseph had been well and truly assured that it was God who had sent His angel to Mary.  He had therefore never dwelt with her nor had he shared her company....And besides this Our Lord Jesus Christ is called the first-born.  This is not because there was a second or a third, but because the gospel writer is paying regard to the precedence.  Scripture speaks thus of naming the first-born whether or no there was any question of the second."  (John Calvin, Sermon on Matthew 1:22-25, written 2 - 3 years before his death, 1562)
[4]               In order to better understand Wesley’s comment on this verse one needs to know the version that Wesley used in his New Testament Notes which states: “But he knew her not till she had brought forth her son, the firstborn. And he called his name Jesus.” However the Greek simply uses the term “uion” which is the accusative of “uioV” meaning ‘son’ which is the rendering that is followed in the RSVCE.
[5]               Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, 18
[6]               Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, 73-74
[7]               Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, 383
[8]               Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, 681
[9]               Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, 855

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