Photo by Andreas F. Borchert
I’m sorry to have to break this to you, but Mary (the mother of Jesus) was not a virgin. At the very least, we can surmise that she did not die a virgin, since there are several references about Jesus’ brothers in the New Testament. Yes, I know that a counter-argument to this is that these “brothers” were either: (1) Jesus’ half-brothers from a former marriage of Joseph, or (2) “brothers in Christ”. Sorry, but neither one of these explanation holds water, as I hope to demonstrate.
If Jesus’ brothers were indeed half-brothers, then they would have to be related to Jesus through Joseph. Except that Joseph is not Jesus’ father, according to the Gospels, so James (the Just, brother of Jesus, head of the church in Jerusalem) would not be related to Jesus at all. Maybe they grew up together, but they would not really be brothers in any familial sense.
If the references to brother means brother in Christ, we have a few problems as well. Firstly, in Mark 6:3, it is the townspeople who refer to the brothers of Jesus, and certainly they would not be thinking in terms of “brothers in Christ.” Secondly, when Paul (Galatians 1:19) refers to “James, the Lord’s brother” he also talks of Peter but does not mention him as a “brother of the Lord.” If this was an appellation meaning “brothers in Christ”, certainly Peter would count!
Probably Mary was a young woman who was betrothed to a much older man, went away to visit her sister, and came back pregnant. This would have been considered a scandal of course, and the early Christians could not have their Messiah be known as a bastard. (It was bad enough that they had to explain why the Messiah was tried and crucified as a criminal.)
Okay, so up till now it looks like I’m just bashing Mary. This is not at all my purpose. Instead, I want to suggest why the story of Mary is important.
Remember that early Christianity flourished due to Paul’s evangelizing to the gentiles (anyone who was not Jewish). The plethora of religions that pervaded the Roman Empire at that time ranged from the veneration of Apollo to Zoroastrianism, including many mystery religions and cults. In fact, it was a practice of the Roman Empire to absorb as many local religions into one homogeneous one in order to keep the peace.
One thing that most of these religions had in common was that they held to some kind of dualism — the universe was made of good/evil, light/dark, male/female, Ahura Mazda/Angra Mainyu. In this regard, Judaism was an outlier, as it held that there was only God, who was (and continues to be), depicted as a male.
By developing what some (many) have called the cult of Mary, early Christianity mutated doctrine to absorb the gentiles by giving them an implicit dualism. This also had the added benefit of explaining the embarrassing situation regarding Jesus’ parentage. Although Mary has never officially been the equal of any of the Trinity, she became so defacto, in the same sense that if the President of the United States’ mother is still alive, you kind of have to give her proper deference. (I think the last such case was Lillian Carter.)
Now, why should you care about this if you are a hip-and-with-it cool cat from from the 21st century? Because this is an example of the wisdom of Christianity — it has absorbed the ideas it needed to grow into the spiritual powerhouse that it is. We must understand the story and veneration of Mary as the spiritual expression of the inherent value of the feminine side of life. By dismissing Mary because “none of that shit is true” is entirely missing the deeper point.
The other aspect of “on virginity” has to do with the notion of abstinence and how it became integrated into Christianity. That discussion is for another day.