The Catholic Church teaches that our Blessed Mother, Mary, was a perpetual virgin, meaning she was a virgin when she conceived Jesus, but also remained one after His birth. There is a scripture verse that is very commonly used to argue against this particular teaching which reads: “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 given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Matt 1:24-25). The premise of the argument is that the word until suggests that there is a change in status after an event. Today, we’ll do some apologetics and unpack why this is not necessarily true.
It is true that in our modern 21st-century way of speaking, we do use the word until to connote a change of status in a situation. For example, if I tell my child that he cannot go outside to play until he has cleaned his room, I am saying that after he cleans his room, he may go outside to play. His status from not playing to playing is bridged by the word until. Since this is the way we speak and understand the word today, it is easy to see the scripture verse through that perspective. However, in a more ancient context, that word didn’t necessarily mean there was a change in status, but rather more generally, that something only did not occur until that event without any bearing on what happened afterward.
In order to prove that the word was used differently at the time of the writing of scripture, we will turn to scripture itself. We’ll begin with 2 Samuel 6. In this chapter, King David is celebrating the return of the Ark of the Covenant. While he is exuberantly dancing for joy, he is exposed to some extent or another. His wife, Michal, is watching his celebration and finds his behavior unseemly, as he was exposed in front of female servants, and she expresses her disgust with his behavior. David, then, dismisses her concerns and essentially shares his own disdain for her. We are to understand that they end their sexual relationship as the final verse in the chapter reads, “And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child until the day of her death” (2 Sam 6:23). If the status prior to Michal’s death was that she was not having relations with her husband, are we to infer from the word until that the status changed after her death and she had relations with him and bore a child? Obviously not! So, we can see very clearly here that the word until simply means that something was true up to an event, but has no implication as to what happened after the event.
Now we’ll look at Isaiah 46:4. As a prophet, Isaiah is speaking the words of God as God declares Himself the one true God and condemns the Babylonian idols. He says, “even to your old age I am He.” Now, the word to is used here instead of the word until, but the meaning is exactly the same in this context and they are therefore interchangeable. So, is God saying here that He will be God until they have reached old age and then He will cease to be God? Again, certainly not! God will be God until the people have reached old age, but He will still remain God after they have aged and died.
In the New Testament we’ll look at Matthew, the same author cited at the beginning, who refers to Mary as a virgin “until” the birth of Jesus. Here, Jesus is giving His apostles their commission to go out to preach the gospel, baptize the people, and make disciples. He ends by telling them, “…And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mat 28:20). The word to is used here, but in some translations, it reads unto and in others, until, so the words remain interchangeable as their meanings are the same in these sentences. Jesus is telling them that He will be with them throughout their ministry, giving them the strength to do as He asked, but He is no way implying that He will abandon them after that particular mission is finished. Jesus is not with us conditionally and once those conditions have been met, He will move on to better things. So, we see once again that the words do not imply a change of status after an event.
Now, we’ll look to St. Paul and his first letter to the Corinthians. He says, “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor 15:24-25). By this point, I’m sure you know where I am going with this. The question remains the same: once Jesus has put all his enemies under His feet, does He cease to reign? This is yet another scriptural example of how the word until does not imply a status change, as we know that Jesus will never cease to reign. In fact, we can see a parallel here with Mary’s perpetual virginity and Jesus’ perpetual reign both not being cancelled out by the word until.
Finally, I want to make mention of the fact that the controversy around this word is not a new one. In the 4th century, a man by the name of Helvidius wrote an essay against the teaching of Mary’s perpetual virginity. He used many faulty arguments, but one of them referenced Matthew 1:24-25. In the year 383 AD, St. Jerome responded to this essay with his own, titled Against Helvidius, which can easily be found online. St. Jerome argues against each of Helvidius’ points, including his points about until and changes in status, similarly to the way I have done here. However, the difference between St. Jerome and me is that he was a master of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, which enabled him to translate our Bible for us, and I am not. Therefore, if this master translator was effectively dealing with this problem of semantics, we do not have to look much further than his explanations.
This week, think about how our modern understanding of words and concepts cloud the way we read and interpret scripture. It is for this very reason that we cannot individually interpret scripture outside of the teaching office of the Magisterium and instead, must look to our early Church Fathers for understanding. Only then can we be certain of what is meant.
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