Small words can cause big problems

After the angel announced the conception of Jesus to the Virgin Mary, Matthew’s Gospel says Joseph “had no relations with her until she bore a son.” Is this evidence against Mary’s perpetual virginity? Not necessarily, as other uses of the word in Scripture show.

After the angel announced the conception of Jesus to the Virgin Mary, Matthew’s Gospel says Joseph “had no relations with her until she bore a son.” Is this evidence against Mary’s perpetual virginity? Not necessarily, as other uses of the word in Scripture show.

It’s funny how some of the smallest things can cause the biggest problems. Take, for example, the little word “until.” It’s a very common word. You’ve probably read thousands of sentences that use “until” and never gave it much thought. But in the realm of theology and Scripture study, little words can sometimes cause big problems if they’re misunderstood. Such is the case in Matthew’s Gospel, where this little unpretentious word has caused many to misunderstand the Blessed Virgin Mary.

After being visited in a dream informing him that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, Matthew 1:25 states that Joseph “… had no relations with her until she bore a son.” Protestants often argue that because the word “until” implies a change occurs after Jesus’ birth, Joseph must have had normal marital relations with his wife afterward, denying Mary’s perpetual virginity. Is this biblical or is there more to the word “until” than meets the eye?

While the word “until” often indicates a change after a certain period of time, it doesn’t have to. For example, when we say, “He was put in police custody until he stood trial,” obviously we don’t mean that the prisoner was released once the trial began. He remained in custody during the trial and possibly afterward as well.

Parallel examples can be found in Scripture, as well. In Acts 25:21, Festus tells King Agrippa that Paul was put in custody until he could be sent to Caesar. Obviously, this doesn’t imply that once Paul was sent to Caesar he was released from custody. The Apostle remained in protective custody even after he arrived in Rome. The “until” in Acts 25:21, therefore, does not signal that a change took place, but rather only comments on the state of affairs up until Festus sent Paul to Caesar.

There are many other biblical examples of this focused use of “until.” One of my favorites is in 2 Samuel, which says, “And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child till the day of her death” (2 Samuel 6:23). Obviously, Michal didn’t give birth to a child after she died! The “until” merely states that Michal remained childless for the rest of her life.

Another favorite is 1 Timothy 4:13, where Paul commands Timothy, “Until I come, attend to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching, to teaching.” If “until” always signals a change, then Paul must have meant Timothy to stop publicly reading Scripture, preaching, and teaching after he arrived, which is nonsense. Paul’s concern is that Timothy should continue to do these things before he comes. He was not implying anything about what would happen after he arrived. The same is true for the “until” in Matthew 1:25.

Matthew’s concern is to establish the Virgin Birth. Matthew 1:18 introduces this section with, “…[This is] how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit…” He then recounts how the angel informed Joseph of this in a dream (Matthew 1:20-21) and how Christ’s miraculous conception fulfills Isaiah 7:14, which says, “…a virgin shall conceive and bear a son…” (Matthew 1:23). Since the preceding context focuses exclusively on “how the birth of Jesus Christ came about,” we have every reason to understand that the “until” in Matthew 1:25 speaks only to what happens before Jesus’ birth, not afterward. Matthew 1:25, therefore, is evidence for the Virgin Birth, not a defeater for Mary’s virginity.

Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.