Catholics and Protestants agree that the Scripture covers a lot of the really important, essential details of the Christian faith. They also have to admit that only the Scripture remains as our only uncontested source of Apostolic tradition. So, when the Bible says quite a few times that Jesus is unequivocally without sin (1 Peter 2:22, 2 Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15, 1 John 3:5), it seems like an awfully big omission to not include that detail about his mother if that were such an important statement of fact.
“Well,” say these defenders of Mary’s sinlessness, “Sola Scriptura is an abhorrent doctrine that the ancients did not teach. Apostolic oral tradition that confirms her sinlessness, immaculate conception, and assumption are true. Hence, Protestants by rejecting God’s other source of revelation in oral tradition do not have the whole of Sacred Tradition and have an incomplete view of the Christian faith.”
Your objection is noted, but on both Scriptural and traditional grounds we are going to show there is significant reason to doubt the sinlessness of Mary.
The testimony of Scripture:
Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins (Ecc 7:20).
There is no one righteous, not one (Rom 3:10).
The above two Scripture appear to teach the simple fact that unless the Scripture specifically says that someone (i.e. Jesus) is without sin, the default is that they are sinful. There is not a single verse in the Bible that even implies that Mary is without sin, in fact there appear to be verses that clearly teach the opposite:
Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matt 11:11).
Being that Mary was born of a woman, she would be by default less than John the Baptist (who, by the way, was having doubts that Jesus was the Messiah at the time Jesus said this according to Matt 11:3). Some argue saying, “The least of those in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist, and Mary is in the kingdom of heaven, so she is greater than John the Baptist.”
This may be a legitimate point. This is because those born of the Spirit are indwelt by God Himself, and because of His righteousness exceed the righteousness of men that are not. So, John the Baptist in his own right would not be greater than anyone who has the Holy Spirit.
Yet, according to Luke 1:15 John the Baptist was full of the Holy Spirit! So, while John on his own may not be that great, by God’s own imputed righteousness he is the opposite. So, at the very least, Matt 11:11 is highly suggestive that Mary is not the greatest human by virtue of humanity. An odd fact considering Roman Catholics today don her with the title, “Queen of the Universe.”
When His own kinsmen heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, “He has lost His senses…” Then His mother and His brothers arrived, and standing outside they sent word to Him and called Him. A crowd was sitting around Him, and they said to Him, “Behold, Your mother and Your brothers are outside looking for You.”Answering them, He *said, “Who are My mother and My brothers?” Looking about at those who were sitting around Him, He said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:21, 31-35).
The Biblical passage quoted here at the very least shows that Christ did not consider his mother (nor his brothers at the time) to be his disciples. Depending upon the rendering of the Greek translated as “kinsman” here, it is possible that Christ’s family publicly called Him a madman. It is worth noting, however, that the original Greek (“οἱ παρ’”) in the Septuagint’s rendering of Susanna 13:33 can mean something along the lines of “friends.” So, certain translations such as the NIV probably go to far in conflating the kinsmen in Mark 3:21 to Christ’s literal family.
While Jesus was saying these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts at which You nursed.” But He said, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:27-28).
This verse is the most convincing and definitive in the Scripture. Many give St. Mary the title, “The Blessed Virgin Mary” which is strikingly at odds with how Jesus responded to the idea. This does not mean that Mary is not blessed, she is (Luke 1:45), but Christ viewed the blessedness of faithful obedience to be greater than the womb that bore Him and the breasts that nursed Him.
This idea might confuse Catholics because they repeat the following prayer repeatedly:
Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
The Roman Catholic prayer appears to elevate Mary, the person. She is the one full of grace, which is why Mary does not receive veneration like other Saints, but hyper-veneration which apparently is as much as one can venerate a being without worshiping it. The part in bold is lifted from Luke 1:42, when read in its full context, paints a different picture:
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord (Luke 1:42-45).
In the Scripture, Mary’s blessedness is not something inherent to her being (hence she is not the greatest born of women), nor is it a reference to her supposed sinlessness (which the Scripture does not address). Rather, she is blessed specifically because:
1. She is a chosen vessel of God to bear God Incarnate.
2. The fruit of her womb is blessed.
3. She believed what the Lord told her.
None of these things speak specifically of her character or being in anyway. She is righteous by faith like the rest of us are according the the passage in Luke 1:42-45. Because of this understanding, Christ declined to call his own mother blessed and instead called all those who are faithful blessed–because no one is blessed because anything in themselves, but rather they are credited righteousness for their faith (Rom 1:17).
The testimony of tradition: (Some quotes came from this link)
While none of the preceding verses definitively prove that Mary has ever sinned, several are suggestive that she had and two of them elevate the importance of discipleship above simply being Christ’s mother. Not surprisingly, the ancient church did not take a definitive stand on the issue because the Scriptural evidence did not demand it. However, quite a few Church Fathers appear to credit Mary with wrongdoing or insufficient faith:
Examples of insufficient faith:
He was justly indignant, that persons so very near to Him stood without, while strangers were within hanging on His words, especially as they wanted to call Him away from the solemn work He had in hand. He did not so much deny as disavow them. And therefore, when to the previous question, Who is my mother, and who are my brethren? He added the answer None but they who hear my words and do them, He transferred the names of blood-relationship to others, whom He judged to be more closely related to Him by reason of their faith (Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book 4, Ch. 19).
For, doubtless, some such train of thought as this passed through her mind: ‘I conceived Him That is mocked upon the Cross. He said, indeed, that He was the true Son of Almighty God, but it may be that He was deceived; He may have erred when He said: I am the Life. How did His crucifixion come to pass? and how was He entangled in the snares of His murderers? How was it that He did not prevail over the conspiracy of His persecutors against Him? And why does He not come down from the Cross, though He bade Lazarus return to life, and struck all Judaea with amazement by His miracles?” The woman, as is likely, not exactly understanding the mystery, wandered astray into some such train of thought (Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, Book 12).
And therefore He answered thus in this place, and again elsewhere,
Who is My mother, and who are My brethren? Matthew 12:48, because they did not yet think rightly of Him; and she, because she had borne Him, claimed, according to the custom of other mothers, to direct Him in all things, when she ought to have reverenced and worshiped Him…And so this was a reason why He rebuked her on that occasion, saying,
Woman, what have I to do with you? instructing her for the future not to do the like; because, though He was careful to honor His mother, yet He cared much more for the salvation of her soul, and for the doing good to the many, for which He took upon Him the flesh (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 21).
They have no wine. For she desired both to do them a favor, and through her Son to render herself more conspicuous; perhaps too she had some human feelings, like His brethren, when they said,
Show yourself to the world John 17:4, desiring to gain credit from His miracles. Therefore He answered somewhat vehemently” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homily 21).
…St Hilary in his Annotations on the 20th verse of the cxixth [119th] Psalm, “My soul breaketh for the longing that it hath unto thy judgments,” applies it unto the future judgment and among other observations has this passage, “Seeing we must render an account for every idle word do we desire the day of judgment in which that unwearied fire is to be passed through in which those grievous punishments are to be undergone for the expiating of a soul from sin [1 Cor 3:12], a sword shall pass through the soul of the blessed Virgin Mary that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed [Luke 2:35]. If that Virgin who bore God is to come into the severity of the judgment will any one dare desire to be judged by God?”(Excerpt of Hilary of Poitiers Homily on Psalm 119).
Although they [Christ’s family] had like the rest power to come in, yet they abstain from all approach to Him, “for he came unto his own, and his own received him not” (Hilary of Poitiers commenting of Matt 12:50).
The preceding leads us to the following conclusions:
1. The Scripture does not explicitly call Mary sinless, and though the Scriptural evidence is suggestive that she is not an exception to Rom 3:10 it is not logically impossible that Mary would be exempt.
2. It was not considered heretical in the ancient church, at least for a time, to speculate that Mary was at times lacking in faith and committed wrongdoing.
For what it is worth, the Eastern Orthodox Church in the modern day does not take a definitive stand on the issue. The most we can say based upon the evidence is that it is suggestive that Mary sinned, but we cannot definitively prove it. However, the issue is not important. Mary’s sinlessness saves nobody, because she did not satisfy the wrath of God against sinners like us. Christ’s sinlessness does.