And he knew her not till she brought forth her firstborn son:
and he called his name Jesus.
Matthew 1, 25
Most Protestants who deny the Perpetual Virginity of Mary and wish to believe that Mary and Joseph had conjugal relations and children of their own after the birth of Jesus often cite Matthew 1:25 as a proof-text against this ancient Catholic dogma. The problem with this, however, is they try to support their belief by super-imposing a modern English use of the preposition “until” on the sacred text. Yet, to understand what Matthew is saying in the above passage we must examine what the Hebrew and Greek meanings are for this word since the Gospel wasn’t originally written in modern English, but in Hebrew-Aramaic, and then translated into Koine Greek. Matthew himself was a Jewish Christian, and he addressed a Hebrew audience when he wrote his gospel.
Unfortunately, the meanings of words and phrases in the Bible are often lost in subsequent translations. So, let’s examine this word in its original form and context for ourselves and see what the sacred author means to say. For a moment, let’s forget what this passage appears to mean by our common use of the word “until” in casual, modern everyday English.
The Semitic and Greek words for “until” or “till” (‘ad/ heos) refer to the period that precedes an event. These prepositions do not function to imply what might come after it. What matters is only what happens before the event in question occurs. So, let us begin by looking at a couple of passages in the Hebrew Old Testament to see how this grammatical exponent is designed to function and convey meaning. The following verses translated from Hebrew into English are taken from the King James Bible.
לְדָוִ֗ד מִ֫זְמֹ֥ור נְאֻ֤ם יְהוָ֨ה ׀ לַֽאדֹנִ֗י שֵׁ֥ב לִֽימִינִ֑י עַד־אָשִׁ֥ית אֹ֝יְבֶ֗יךָ הֲדֹ֣ם לְרַגְלֶֽיךָ׃
A Psalm of David. The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand,
until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
– Psalm 110, 1
The preposition ‘aḏ (עַד) literally means “up to the time of”. This Messianic prophecy is referring to the period when Jesus shall sit at the right hand of God before or up to the time his enemies are made his footstool. Obviously, the author doesn’t intend to imply that Jesus will no longer be sitting at the right hand of God after his enemies are made his footstool. Similarly, nor does Matthew mean to imply that Joseph had conjugal relations with Mary after Jesus was born. All he means to say is that the couple had no marital relations up to the time of Jesus’ birth. Matthew originally wrote his gospel for Jewish Christians in Hebrew (Aramaic was used orally), so the Greek copy reflects his native language. Let’s look at another example in the Old Testament.
לְמִיכַל֙ בַּת־שָׁא֔וּל לֹֽא־הָ֥יָה לָ֖הּ יָ֑לֶד עַ֖ד יֹ֥ום מֹותָֽהּ׃ פ
Therefore, Michal the daughter of Saul had no child unto the day of her death.
– 2 Samuel 6, 23
Again, we have the preposition ‘ad, only the English translation is less ambiguous and misleading with the word “unto” instead of “until.” In Hebrew, this verse literally reads “up to”, “to”, or “until” (the day of). It is obvious that Michal couldn’t have had any children after her death. But that is beside the point. The only thing that matters is what the author intends to say, that Michal was childless up to the day of her death, without any further irrelevant or even nonsensical implications.
Surely, Matthew has no reason to express himself as to imply that Joseph had no marital intercourse with Mary until after Jesus was born to get his gospel message across to his audience. All he has to say is what he intends to say which is relevant to the gospel, that Joseph and Mary had no conjugal relations ‘before’ or ‘up until’ Jesus was born. He is underscoring the truth of the Incarnation, which wasn’t easy for many Jews to reconcile with their idea of the one, indivisible God. If he is implying anything, it’s that Mary conceived Jesus by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. This implication or hidden premise is contained in the statement that Joseph and Mary had no marital relations up to the time of Jesus’ birth and is relevant to what Matthew is proposing over and against traditional Judaic beliefs.
In the original Greek translation of the Gospel of Matthew, the word for “until” is heos or ἕως. Not unlike the Hebrew preposition, the word references the period leading up to an event in question. It literally means “up to the time of” or “hitherto” without necessarily implying anything unrelated that might come after. Matthew is strictly concerned with how Mary and Joseph related to each other prior to the conception and birth of Jesus. This is evident by the fact that the author quotes Isaiah 7:14 in Vv. 22-23. His main point is that Jesus is indeed the long-awaited Messiah of the Hebrew people, but he isn’t of paternal human lineage as the Jews expect. If the evangelist meant Joseph did not know his wife “until after” the birth of Jesus, we would have έως ότου instead. Simply put, the Greek word for “until” does not mean or imply “until after” but rather “up until.”
Nevertheless, some Protestants adamantly maintain that, because the original Greek text reads heos hou (ἕως οὗ), it follows a reference to the time after the birth of Jesus can be made. The phrase heos hou (up to the time of – that) somehow lends them the notion that Joseph did not have sexual relations with his wife Mary until “after” she had brought forth her firstborn son. The Greek text literally reads: “And (he) knew her not until that (time when) she had brought forth a son.” However, the demonstrative “that” is being used to emphasize the couple had no conjugal relations up until that time when Mary had brought forth Jesus. In other words, she did not conceive her son by her husband’s seed. The use of the negative form – “knew her not until” – really makes no difference, at least not in Koine Greek, unlike modern English. It simply means the couple had no marital relations up to the time Jesus was born, and so, Joseph isn’t his natural father.
Anyway, many Protestants contend that the grammatical structure of the verse (heos hou) indicates that the action or state (Mary’s virginity) of the first clause discontinues after the event (birth of Jesus). However, heos hou can be used interchangeably with heos and mean the same thing “up to the time of.” We find another example in the NT: ‘But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I commanded him to be held until (heos hou) I could send him to Caesar” (Acts 25:21). We know for a fact that the apostle remained in custody after he was sent to Caesar; he was held while en-route to Rome (Acts 27:1) and for a short time after he arrived there (Acts 29:16). Thus, the action of the main clause (the command to be held in custody) did not necessarily cease upon the pivotal event (being sent to Caesar) in the linear course of time. Paul was no more sent to Caesar free of his chains at any point than Mary was no longer a virgin sometime after the birth of Christ.
Still, one could easily have the impression that Matthew is implying Joseph and Mary had marital relations after Jesus was born when he reads the text in modern English and even with preconceived notions. But the word “until” does not reference the future in the ancient Greek and Hebrew languages and it might not even in modern English use, depending on the speaker’s intention. For instance: “After the teacher had left the classroom, the students did not make any noise until he returned.” The speaker could mean in all probability that the students worked quietly after the teacher had left the classroom and continued to work quietly before or up until he returned. He doesn’t necessarily have to mean that the students became noisy after the teacher returned.
Likewise, Matthew mustn’t necessarily mean to imply that Mary and Joseph had no conjugal relations until after Jesus was born (Joseph did not know Mary – he knew her not – until (heos hou) the birth of her firstborn son.) but must mean they never “came together” before he was conceived to underscore the Messiah’s divinity. After all, the couple had celebrated their second and final marriage ceremony (Nisuin) about the time Jesus was born. He was understood to be “the carpenter’s son” (Mt 13:55).
I’m afraid many Protestants overlook or choose to ignore one significant factor in the equation. The verb used for “know” (eginosken) is in the imperfect tense, not in the aorist (egno) which means that the emphasis is placed on the duration of time in which Mary and Joseph had no marital relations. In other words, the couple had no intercourse during the time that preceded the birth of Jesus. This fits well with the context of the verse, that being the virginal conception of Jesus and its consequences of natural paternity. If Matthew had wished to imply (which wasn’t necessary) Mary and Joseph consummated their marriage like most other married couples had, he would have used the aorist.
The aorist is an unqualified past tense of a verb without reference to duration or completion of the main action. Thus, the future isn’t left aside. The possibility of the couple having marital relations after the birth of Jesus isn’t excluded and can be implied. So, Matthew’s intention isn’t to tell us that Mary and Joseph had no conjugal relations until after the birth of Jesus. Rather, his intention is that the couple had no conjugal relations before Jesus was born to reiterate what he writes in the preceding verses (1:22-23): ‘Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the LORD by the prophet, saying, “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”’
It is important for us, therefore, to ask ourselves what it is that Matthew primarily intends to say to his audience without having to needlessly infer anything mundane before we presumptuously venture to force our interpretation onto the text to suit our own religious or cultural bias.
“And when he had taken her, he knew her not, till she had brought forth her first
born Son.’ He hath here used the word till,’ not that thou shouldest suspect
that afterwards he did know her, but to inform thee that before the birth the
Virgin was wholly untouched by man. But why then, it may be said, hath he used
the word, till’? Because it is usual in Scripture often to do this, and to use this
expression without reference to limited times. For so with respect to the ark
likewise, it is said, The raven returned not till the earth was dried up.’ And yet it
did not return even after that time. And when discoursing also of God, the
Scripture saith, From age until age Thou art,’ not as fixing limits in this case.
And again, when it is preaching the Gospel beforehand, and saying, In his days
shall righteousness flourish, and abundance of peace, till the moon be taken
away,’ it doth not set a limit to this fair part of creation. So then here likewise, it
uses the word “till,” to make certain what was before the birth, but as to what
follows, it leaves thee to make the inference.”
St. John Chrysostom, Gospel of Matthew, V:5
And Mary said to the angel: How shall this be done,
because I know not man?
Luke 1, 34