An old attack against the perpetual virginity of the Most Blessed Virgin has been swept away by the archaeological discovery of a Jewish tomb in Egypt at Tell el-Yahoudieh, attached to the ancient Leontopolis. It had an inscription in Greek that was published in 1922.
For centuries, opponents of the perpetual virginity of Mary have been abusing the text: “And she (Mary) brought forth her firstborn son” (Lk.2:7). They repeat the words of Lucian of Samosate (c.120-c.180), who did not speak of Christ: “If he is first, he is not alone; if he is alone, he is not first.”
The deniers of perpetual virginity confused by the Fathers of the Church
Helvidius (c.340 - c.390), the Roman theologian, considered heretical by St. Augustine, asserted that the Virgin Mary had children after her virginal birth, children she would have had by St. Joseph, relying on the text of St. Luke and the term firstborn. St. Jerome brilliantly refuted it, showing that, according to biblical usage, the firstborn “is not only he who has successors, but also one who has no predecessor.” In this sense, firstborn is not exclusive of unique.
St. Jerome had no difficulty in finding many examples of his assertion. Biblical usage leaves no room for hesitation: firstborn is used in the Mosaic law to designate that child who possesses all the privileges inherent to the quality of being the firstborn, and who imposes on his parents all the duties fixed by the Law, since he is born first, the eldest, regardless of any subsequent birth.
The later fathers repeat St. Jerome’s explanation. Thus St. Basil explains that when the evangelist calls Jesus the firstborn son of Mary, “this term does not imply a relation to others who would be born after him; but he is called firstborn who first opens the womb.” St. John Damascene also says: “Firstborn is the one who is born first, whether he is the only son or the eldest of other brothers.” All Catholic theologians and commentators would remain faithful to this interpretation.
Attacks by Protestants, Rationalists and Modernists
However, even if a certain number of Protestants did not deviate from tradition and reason on this point, a greater number of Protestant or rationalist exegetes have not ceased repeating Helvidius’ argument. Like Frédéric Godet (1812-1900): “The term firstborn naturally implies that Mary had other children after this one.” Or Hermann Usener (1834-1905): “Jesus was the first fruit of the lawful marriage between Joseph and Mary; this is said in very clear words in Luke 2:7, ‘And she brought forth her firstborn son’; the Evangelist says firstborn and not unique ... Jesus is therefore recognized as the eldest of Joseph’s sons and daughters, whom the Gospel itself mentions elsewhere.”
Unfortunately, to this list must be added some theologians who claim to be Catholic, such as John Paul Meier (born in 1942), a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and emeritus professor of exegesis at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. In the first volume of his very long, multi-volume, work: A Marginal Jew, Rethinking the Historical Jesus, after some precautionary formulas, he finally concludes that the most probable opinion is that “the brothers and sisters of Jesus were real brothers and sisters.” Notwithstanding the fact that Mary’s perpetual virginity is a dogma of Catholic Faith!
An epitaph of Jewish origin
That being said, let’s return to the funeral epitaph. It is dated 5 BC and is a moving epitaph expressing pity for a deceased. “Here is the tomb of Arsinoe, O passerby. Weep, considering how she was so unhappy, so unfortunate, and overwhelmed by fate.” The inscription continues with an appeal by the deceased herself: “Still small, I lived as an orphan of my mother... My father Phabeiti gave me a husband. But in the pains of childbirth with my firstborn child, fate led me to the end of life.”
Thus, this firstborn child, whose birth cost his mother’s life, was the first and the only one, which answers Lucien’s (false) dilemma. The term is here used in the biblical sense, there is no need have a long discussion to understand it. So, it is fully proved that St. Luke was able to call Jesus Christ the firstborn son of Mary, rather than her only son, knowing full well that, not only the fact, but also the possibility of Mary having later children was excluded.
He was able to do this, either by using the term firstborn in the sense that was used by the Jews of his day, or by using a source that contained the corresponding Hebrew or Aramaic word, and translating it with the Septuagint—the Greek version of the Old Testament of the third century BC—as firstborn.
In any case, the use of this term, in Luke 2:7 is as little in opposition to the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary, as is the epitaph of Tell el-Yahoudieh, with the absolute certainty that Arsinoe would not have other children ...
The virginity of the Virgin Mary was thus avenged from the claims of pseudo-learned unbelievers, and humiliates the haughtiness of the rationalist criticism, whose intellectual poverty is an offense to reason.