Updated: Mar 11
By Luke Lancaster
Some Protestants think that St. Joseph had sexual relations with his wife, Mary. This would make sense, considering that they were married. However, the Church has taught from the very beginning that Mary actually stayed a virgin her entire life. Meaning, she never had relations with Joseph! Many Protestants only look to Scripture though, and will claim that it (specifically Matt. 1) proves that Mary and Joseph had relations. Matthew 1:25 says,
"When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus."
This text is where Joseph is thinking about divorcing Mary since she is pregnant because of another, but an angel appears to Joseph. He tells him to stay married to Mary, for she was pregnant of the Holy Spirit. The child to be born is Divine, and Joseph has been chosen to be His father. So, he still took his wife, but "knew" her not until she gave birth.
Many Protestants will say that this text shows that Joseph "knew" his wife Mary after she had given birth to Jesus. For to "know" somebody in Scripture typically means that the couple had relations. Now, the word “until” here is what this debate of Mary's perpetual virginity hinges on. Did Joseph avoid normal marital relations with his wife only before Jesus's birth, or did he avoid those relations even after Jesus's birth?
Catholics believe in the latter, for the Greek word for “until” simply means that there weren’t any relations between Mary and Joseph up to the time Jesus was born - a specific period of time. It says nothing of what happened after the fact. The verse is really just trying to emphasize the divine source for Mary’s virginal conception, that Joseph was not the reason for Jesus! Rather, it was the Holy Spirit.
Oftentimes, we speak the way Scripture does in this passage. For example, if a mother tells her kids "don't tear up the house until I get home," that emphasizes to the children that they need to behave well while the mother is gone. It does not mean that the kids should tear up the house after she returns! Rather, "until" only meant a specific period of time.
Or consider 1 Timothy 4:13, where Paul says, "Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching." Does that mean that Timothy is to stop "public reading of scripture" or "preaching" once Paul arrives? No. In fact, proof of this exact usage of the word “until” can also be shown in the Old Testament and surrounding literature of the New Testament (ex. Aseneth met Joseph & Apocalypse of Moses).
Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said this about interpreting Matthew 1:25, "When Matthew says that Joseph did not know Mary carnally until she had brought forth her son, it does not follow that he knew her subsequently; on the contrary, it means that he never did know her . . . This babble . . . is without justification . . . he has neither noticed nor paid any attention to either Scripture or the common idiom" (That Jesus was Born a Jew).
Protestant Reformer John Calvin had this to say about Matthew 1:25, "no just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words of the Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ" and that "[w]hat took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us. Such is well known to have been the practice of the inspired writers" (Commentary on Matthew, Mark, Luke, Vol 1, Matthew 1.18-25).
Truly, there is no reason to imagine that Matthew 1:25 indicates what occurred after the birth of Jesus. Rather, as we so often do in language, it only referred to what happened before the birth of Jesus. So, let us respond to our objector with this knowledge.