Was Mary really a Virgin?
Updated: Dec 5, 2020
Probs not. But, I'm not here to convince you either way. What I am here to do is offer 3 alternative ways to understand Mary's virginity that doesn't involve purity culture prohibitions or inflicting sexual shame on women.
To start the conversation I want to ask: Why did the authors of the Gospels that mention Mary's virginity (not all of them do) care about that detail?
As the gospel's were written decades after Jesus' death, the gospel writers already knew what points they wanted to prove in their gospels. One particularly important point was Jesus' divinity. And, a common way of proving the divine nature of a human being across a variety of mythologies is to say that the child's father was God. So, the gospel writers follow that common trope, and say Mary's a virgin therefore there's absolutely no doubt that Jesus' father was God.
They care about her virginity, not because they care about her sexual behavior, but because they care about making the point that Jesus' father wasn't Joseph, but God. Just like today, it's impossible to deny maternity, but without blood tests we can't prove paternity nearly as easily. And thus the gospel writers include Mary's virginity to prove Jesus' divine nature, not anything about her sexual experiences. Secondly, Virginity from a mythological standpoint is usually indicating a woman's openness to receiving the divine into her life. Whether we look at Buddha's mother who had a divine elephant whisper in her ear to impregnate her with the Buddha, or Gabriel coming to Mary a large part of why we say they're virgins is to indicate the way they're not wholly of this world. They're not immersed in worldly desires (like sex), and because of that they're open to the Spirit. Now, granted that's still somewhat sex-negative, but her virginity still doesn't have to do with her sexual experiences, but rather it's shorthand for her spiritual maturity and depth. Finally, one of the most impactful definitions of virginity I've heard is: "A woman unto herself." What this means is a woman isn't defined by her relationships to others. Mary is introduced to us in the gospels not as "Mary daughter of Joachim" or "Mary betrothed of Joseph." She is simply Mary. Even today, women tend to get defined by their relationships to others (their husbands, children, etc.), so to be a woman unto herself is an empowering way to say, we're simply enough by ourselves.
If you have any thoughts our ideas I'd love to read them in the comments below.