I'm Protestant and have been all my life. Just recently I've started digging into Catholic Theology. I've been excited as more and more of the Bible seemed to open up before me. Oh, my friends and family think I'm nuts, but my wife and I (and our 5 kids) keep on plugging and who knows where God will lead us.
Anyway, the point is, I've been digging into this stuff and I hit a road block that's pretty tough for me: Mary's children. Now, I understand that if this is proven, then really, the whole infallibility thing falls.
At times, I've been convinced of her perpetual virginity, but just last night and this morning, I stumbled into very early (1st and 2nd Century) teachings from the Church fathers that Jesus' brothers "according to the flesh" were doing this or that.
Well, if the earliest Christians thought Jesus had brothers, what does that do to the idea? I know later Fathers (4th and 5th century) adopted the idea of the perpetual virginity . . . but if the earliest ones didn't, where does that leave me? Development of Doctrine?
Thank you so much for the email! Thank you for sharing your story and seeking answers to questions. Sometimes the bother of looking for an answer is the biggest hurdle to finding it!
First of all, the question of Mary's perpetual virginity is discussed on the blog here. I'm not sure what writing you're referring to that say Jesus had brothers "according to the flesh". As always "bothers" is a suspicious term since it can mean "cousin" in modern English; it's hard to nail down exactly what early writers were trying to say. If you'd let me know what you were reading, I'd be happy to look at it.
It's important to remember that teachings that "evolve" over time do so because we understand the Bible more clearly the more we study it. Mary is a perfect example of this (which is why so many teachings about her came later on). For example, in Ezekael 44:2 we read "This gate is to remain closed; it is not to be opened for anyone to enter by it; since the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it, it shall remain closed". This is a literal reference to a particular gate in Jerusalem but when we take the Old and New Testament together it becomes clear that we have a reference to Mary; the gate through which the Prince of Peace entered the world. The gate is to remain closed "since the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it". How much more so must the "gate" of Mary be closed since Jesus, the God of the universe has entered by it?
Another example: in Luke 1 Gabriel tells Mary she will conceive a child and Mary asks how that's possible. Here's a girl whose engaged to be married; I should think that it's pretty obvious how getting pregnant is possible; they'll consummate their marriage like any "normal" couple and get pregnant. Not exactly rocket science. So why does Mary ask? Contrast this to earlier in Luke 1 when Zechariah asks how it's possible for his wife to get pregnant. He's struck dumb as punishment for his lack of faith. Why does Mary get a free pass for her "lack of faith"?
One logical answer is she was a consecrated virgin marrying a much older man (Joseph) and she had no intention of having sex with him. It wasn't uncommon at the time and it certainly explains why Mary would be confused about how she'd get pregnant.
In John 19 Jesus gives Mary to the "beloved disciple". Why not to a brother according to Jewish custom?
These and other bits and pieces, plus the utter lack of any evidence that Mary had other descendants (where are they today? What became of them? Why did they just abandon their mother to these zealots?) and that "brothers" can easily mean "next of kin" make us confident that Mary was a perpetual virgin. The Bible and early Christians were silent on the issue because they didn't care about it. They were MUCH more interested in Jesus virgin birth (because it was a proof of his being the Messiah) and frankly didn't care if Mary remained a virgin afterward (that's not exactly something you ask someone, you know?)
It wasn't until after the persecutions that Christians could finally relax enough to settle in and really define theology. The Trinity wasn't defined until 323, for example. Why? Because for the first few hundred years Christians were too busy avoiding the arena to really get into the nitty gritty (this is a generalization, of course, many important decisions came out of the persecution era). As the realization that Mary was special (not divine or "better" than anyone else but certainly special) and she was looked at more closely did things like perpetual virginity, immaculate conception, and assumption come to be understood.