Was Jesus the "first born" of many children
It is a dogmatic teaching of the Church that Mary is ever virgin, before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. How do we then reconcile this with the fact that Jesus is called the “first born” of Mary? This implies that Mary had additional children doesn’t it. On the surface it appears that this one statement alone contradicts the Catholic understanding of Mary's perpetual virginity. However, to use this text in this way would be to only give it a surface reading.
The term "first born" must be understood as it was used within the Jewish historical context and not as a 21st century American reading the English translation. The term "first born" meant many things but it ultimately referred to the first male son who “opened the womb”. It did not however imply that there were other children. It also was a reference to the son who was to receive the inheritance and who would rule over the family. It was a term associated with authority and blessing. Let's look at a few examples.
Ex. 13: 2-15
2 Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine.
Luke 2: 22-23
22 And when the days of her purification according to the Law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;
23 (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord ;)
These verses clearly show that who or whatever opened the womb first, received the title of “first born” irrespective of whether or not there were any additional children. This verse alone shows that the term “first born” does not have to mean there were other children.
The rest of the verses listed below show that the title “first born” had many different meanings within the Jewish culture, not just to signify who the first child of many was.
This verse demonstrates that the term “first born” denoted the person who was to receive the birthright.
Gen. 43: 33
33 And they sat before him, the firstborn according to his birthright, and the youngest according to his youth: and the men marveled one at another
This person was always the first male to open the womb but it could also be forfeited making the new recipient of the birthright the true “first born”. Here are some examples from scripture of when this happened.
1 Chr. 5: 1-2
1 Samuel 16:6-12
1 Kings 2:15
1 Kings 2:22
The term “first born” was also associated with receiving a blessing. This was similar to the birthright and could also be forfeited.
Deut. 21: 17
17 But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his.
Below is an example of the term “first born” being applied to an entire tribe not just to the literal first child of many.
They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
The verse below is a prophecy of Christ and it shows that Christ was to have the title of “first born” because he would rule over all the kings of the earth. The kings of the Earth are not other sons of God. Even if they were other literal sons of God, they were all born before Jesus came into the world. How could Jesus then be called the “first born”? He was the first born because he was the true Son of God, not because He was the first of many children that Mary had.
Also I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth.
The verse below uses the term “first born” to show that Christ is the firstborn of the redeemed children of God, of which we are. Here the term has nothing to do with a literal first child being born and then many coming after.
For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.
Below are three more examples of the term being used with a different meaning altogether.
And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.
To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,
Col. 1: 13-18
13 Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:
14 In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins:
15 Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:
16 For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:
17 And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.
18 And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.
In summary the term “first born” had many different meanings and implications within the Jewish historical context of Jesus’ day, but none of them means that there were necessarily any additional children. Scripture itself gives us all of the examples we need to clearly show this.