Originally from the Catholic blog of Brant Pitre and Michael Barber:
Thursday, March 13, 2008
A Biblical Basis For Mary’s Perpetual Virginity?
Something absolutely fascinating I found while reading the book of Numbers recently…
It is well-known that the Catholic Church teaches that the Blessed Virgin Mary not only conceived Jesus in a state of virginity but that she remained a virgin throughout her entire married life. This doctrine is known as the perpetual virginity of Mary (see CCC 499-501). It is also well-known that most of our Protestant brothers and sisters do not accept this doctrine, usually because the Gospels mention the “brothers” of Jesus such as “James and Joseph”, who are assumed to be uterine siblings of Jesus, born of Mary (cf. Matt 13:55)
Now, I don’t want to rehash the old arguments about whether these are Jesus cousins–Matthew himself tells you they are the sons of “the other Mary,” not the Virgin Mary, a woman who was at the foot of the cross (Matt 27:56-61) and who in John is identified as the “sister” (GK adelphes) of the Virgin Mary (John 19:25). Instead, I want to focus on a more fundamental objection to the perpetual virgininty of Mary: namely, the plausibility of a married Jewish woman remaining a virgin in the first place. As one of my students put it so eloquently last week: “You don’t expect me to believe that they were married and didn’t have sex??” Well, yeah, that is what the Church expects you to believe; that is what Christians have believed for almost two thousand years… But is there any historical basis for this, apart from the later practice of Christian “spiritual marriages”?
Shortly after this in class discussion, I was reading the book of Numbers, and found an entire chapter I had never noticed before, regarding vows taken by women. What is fascinating about the passage is that, according to some commentators, it appears to specifically be concerned with vows of sexual abstinence taken by married women. Although this text is universally neglected in discussions of Mary’s virginity, consider it closely. (I know it’s long, but read it carefully, and then I’ll break it down.) The question is: What kind of vows are in view? The answer is given at the end:
Vows Taken by A Young Woman in Her Father’s House
 Or when a woman vows a vow to the LORD, and binds herself by a pledge, while within her father’s house, in her youth,  and her father hears of her vow and of her pledge by which she has bound herself, and says nothing to her; then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand.  But if her father expresses disapproval to her on the day that he hears of it, no vow of hers, no pledge by which she has bound herself, shall stand; and the LORD will forgive her, because her father opposed her.
Vows Taken by a Married Woman
 And if she is married to a husband, while under her vows or any thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she has bound herself,  and her husband hears of it, and says nothing to her on the day that he hears; then her vows shall stand, and her pledges by which she has bound herself shall stand.  But if, on the day that her husband comes to hear of it, he expresses disapproval, then he shall make void her vow which was on her, and the thoughtless utterance of her lips, by which she bound herself; and the LORD will forgive her.
Vows Taken by a Widow or Divorced Woman
 But any vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, anything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her.  And if she vowed in her husband’s house, or bound herself by a pledge with an oath,  and her husband heard of it, and said nothing to her, and did not oppose her; then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she bound herself shall stand.  But if her husband makes them null and void on the day that he hears them, then whatever proceeds out of her lips concerning her vows, or concerning her pledge of herself, shall not stand: her husband has made them void, and the LORD will forgive her.
Context: Vows to “Afflict Herself”
 Any vow and any binding oath to afflict herself, her husband may establish, or her husband may make void.  But if her husband says nothing to her from day to day, then he establishes all her vows, or all her pledges, that are upon her; he has established them, because he said nothing to her on the day that he heard of them.  But if he makes them null and void after he has heard of them, then he shall bear her iniquity."
All right: so what does all of this mean? The key is in the final section; the chapter is concerned with a woman’s vows to “afflict herself,” which, as the great Torah scholar Jacob Milgrom points out, was interpreted by ancient Jews as referring to fasting and refraining from sexual intercourse. Similar terminology is used in descriptions of the Day of Atonement, when Jews were expected to fast and refrain from sexual intercourse (see Milgrom, Harper Collins Study Bible n. Lev 16:29; citing Targum Pseudo-Jonthan; cf. also Exod 19:15). Once this terminology is clear, the whole chapter makes sense. It is discussion three kinds of vows: