The Book of Numbers and Mary's Perpetual Virginity


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
[3] 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, [4] 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. [5] 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
[6] 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, [7] 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. [8] 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
[9] But any vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, anything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her. [10] And if she vowed in her husband’s house, or bound herself by a pledge with an oath, [11] 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. [12] 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”
[13] Any vow and any binding oath to afflict herself, her husband may establish, or her husband may make void. [14] 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. [15] 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:


  1. Vows of sexual abstinence taken by a young, unmarried woman.
  2. Vows of sexual abstinence taken by a married woman.
  3. Vows of sexual abstinence taken by a widow or divorced woman.

In all three cases, the binding nature of the vow is dependant on whether the male party (whether father or husband), upon hearing of the vow, said nothing and in thereby consented to it. In each case, if he heard the vow and accepted it, the vow is perpetually binding.

Now, what this means is that if a young Jewish woman–say, Mary, in this instance–took a vow of sexual abstinence, and her legal husband–in our case, Joseph–heard of the vow and said nothing, then the vow stands, and she is bound to keep it. This provides a solid historical basis for Joseph and Mary having a perpetually virginal marriage: indeed, Numbers is very explicit in the final verse that if the husband changes his mind “and makes them null and void after he has heard of them,” the the sin will be upon him: “he shall bear her iniquity” (Num 30:15). One can easily imagine a situation where some husbands would think better of deciding to accept such a vow! But as Matthew’s Gospel tells us: Joseph was a “righteous man” (Matt 1:19), and obedient to Torah. If Mary took a vow of sexual abstinence–and her words “How can this be, since I know not man?” in Luke are evidence that she did (Luke 1:34)–and if Joseph accepted this vow at the time of their wedding, then he would have been bound by Mosaic Law to honor her vow of sexual abstinence under the penalty of sin.

However implausible it may sound to a sex-saturated Western culture that a man would ever do such a thing, the fact of the matter is that the Old Testament appears to assume it as a real possibility. Indeed, the fact that an entire chapter of the Bible is devoted to it appears to suggest that vows of sexual abstinence on the part of women must have been a visible enough part of the culture that a law was necessary to deal with the situation! (This should come as no surprise to students of antiquity; consecrated virgins were part of the religious landscape of the ancient world). Should there be any doubt about this, I would suggest in passing that the reader call to mind the controversy that faced Pauline churches about young widows renegging on their vows of sexual abstinence (1 Timothy 4) and the otherwise difficult and confusing passage in 1 Corinthians about what a man should do about marrying his “virgin” (1 Cor 7:36-38). If both these texts apply to the situation envisaged in Numbers 30, then Mary’s situation is anything but unique in culture.

Anyway, love to hear your thoughts about this. It’s just my take at this point. I’ll need to do more research, but I thought I’d offer a little rose to Our Lady.

Totus Tuus, Maria.

Response to Objection
Note: I’d like to respond to one possible objection to this argument: “Couldn’t a vow of abstinence be a temporary vow? I don’t believe that those verses mentioned anything of a perpetual vow of abstinence.” (tip of the hat to Billy for this great question!)
In response, I would certainly not deny that the text could be applied to temporary vows, but there are two things that make me think the primary context is permanent vows. (1) First, what meaning would a temporary vow of sexual abstinence have for an unmarried virgin in her father’s house?!! This is the first category, and as far as I can see it must primarily refer to a permanent vow of abstinence, of which the father approves. To suggest otherwise would mean that Numbers envisions the unmarried woman having sexual relations outside of marriage. This makes no sense. (1) Second, what meaning would a temporary vow of abstinence have for a widow? If she was taking a vow of temporary abstinence for sexual relations with her husband, she would obviously be automatically be released from the vow by his death!
If a permanent vow of sexual abstinence is in view in both these cases, it makes sense to me to suggest that the primary meaning of the third category is the same: a permanent vow of sexual abstinence. In Mary’s case, it is only a permanent vow that explains her response to Gabriel while she is betrothed to Joseph: “How shall this be, since I know not man” (Luke 1:34; present tense).


Wow.Thanks and may our Lord Bless you.


I didn’t write it, I just posted it.:wink:


Thanks for the link. Very definitive! A common sense answer to defend Mary.


This is also the reason Scripture records two versions of the annunciation, Luke, chapter 1, and Matthew, chapter 1. Luke tells of the annunciation from the perspective of Mary while Matthew tells from the perspective of Joseph. Matthew shows that Joseph did indeed know of her vow, and accepted her vow.
There’s an old thread here:
Which discusses Luke, Matthew and Numbers.


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