Perpetual virginity of Mary

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The Vladimir Eleusa icon of the Ever Virgin Mary. The Aeiparthenos (Ever Virgin) title is widely used in Eastern Orthodox liturgy, and icons show her with three stars, on shoulders and forehead, symbolising her threefold virginity.[1]

The perpetual virginity of Mary is the doctrine that Mary, the mother of Jesus was a virgin ante partum, in partu, et post partum, before, during and after the birth of Christ.[2] It is one of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church,[3] and the Eastern Orthodox Church recognizes Mary as Aeiparthenos, meaning "ever-virgin",[4] but modern Protestants have largely rejected it.[5]

The problem facing theologians who want to maintain Mary's perpetual virginity is that the New Testament explicitly affirms her virginity only prior to the conception of Jesus and mentions his brothers, (adelphoi), with Mark and Matthew recording their names and Mark adding unnamed sisters.[6][7] The word adelphos only very rarely carries any other meaning than a physical or spiritual sibling,[8] and the most natural inference is that they may have been sons of Joseph and Mary.[9]

The tradition of the perpetual virginity of Mary first appears in a late 2nd century text called the Protoevangelium of James,[10] and came to be included in the thinking of theologians in the 4th century due to the writings of the Church Father Ambrose. It was established as orthodoxy at the Council of Ephesus in 431,[11] the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 gave her the title "Aeiparthenons", meaning Perpetual Virgin, and at the Lateran Synod of 649 Pope Martin I emphasised the threefold character of the perpetual virginity, before, during, and after the birth of Christ.[12] Some of the early reformers, including Martin Luther, accepted the belief, but modern Protestants have largely rejected it.[5]

Origin and history[edit]

The midwife tests Mary's virginity following the birth of Christ, as recounted in the Protoevangelium of James

First appearance: 2nd century[edit]

Mary's ante-partum (pre-birth) virginity is attested in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Gospel of Luke, but there is no biblical basis for the idea of her perpetual virginity.[13] This first appears in a late 2nd century text called the Protoevangelium of James,[10] in which Mary remains a life-long virgin, Joseph is an old man who marries her without physical desire, and the brothers of Jesus are explained as Joseph's sons by an earlier marriage.[14] The Protoevangelium was widely distributed and seems to have been used to create the stories of Mary which are found in the Quran,[15] but while Muslims agree with Christians that Mary was a virgin at the moment of the conception of Jesus, the idea of her perpetual virginity thereafter is contrary to the Islamic ideal of women as wives and mothers.[16]

The establishment of orthodoxy: 4th century[edit]

By the early 4th century the spread of monasticism had promoted celibacy as the ideal state, and a moral hierarchy was established with marriage occupying the third rank below life-long virginity and widowhood.[17] Around 380 the theologian Helvidius objected to the devaluation of marriage inherent in this view and argued that the two states, of virginity and marriage, were equal;[18] but his contemporary Jerome, realising that this would lead to the Mother of God occupying a lower place in heaven than virgins and widows, defended her perpetual virginity in his immensely influential Against Helvidius, issued c.383.[19]

Helvidius soon faded from the scene, but in the early 380s the monk Jovinian followed him in denying Mary's virginity, writing that if Jesus did not undergo a normal human birth then he himself was not human, which was the teaching of the heresy known as Manicheism.[20] Jerome wrote against Jovinian but failed to mention this aspect of his teaching, and most commentators believe that he did not find it offensive.[20] The only important Christian intellectual to defend Mary's virginity in partu was Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, who was the chief target of the charge of Manicheism.[21] For Ambrose, both the physical birth of Jesus by Mary and the baptismal birthing of Christians by the Church had to be totally virginal, even in partu, in order to cancel the stain of original sin, of which the pains of labor are the physical sign.[22] It was due to Ambrose that virginitas in partu came to be included consistently in the thinking of subsequent theologians.[23]

Jovinian's view was rejected at a Synod of Milan under Ambrose's presidency in 390 and Mary's perpetual virginity was established as the only orthodox view,[12] although it was not until the Council of Ephesus in 431 that a fully general consensus was established.[11] Further developments were to follow when the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 gave her the title "Aeiparthenons", meaning Perpetual Virgin, and at the Lateran Synod of 649 Pope Martin I emphasised the threefold character of the perpetual virginity, before, during, and after the birth of Christ.[12]

Protestant Reformation[edit]

The Protestant Reformation brought with it the idea of the Bible as the fundamental source of authority regarding God's word (sola scriptura),[24] and the reformers noted that while holy scripture explicitly required belief in the virgin birth, it only permitted the acceptance of perpetual virginity.[25] The Reformation also saw a rejection of the sanctity of virginity, and as a result marriage and parenthood were extolled, Mary and Joseph were seen as a normal married couple, and sexual abstinence was no longer regarded as a virtue.[26] Despite the lack of clear biblical support for the doctrine,[27] it was supported by Martin Luther (who included reference to it in the Smalcald Articles, a confession of faith written in 1537).[28], Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and later Protestant leaders including John Wesley, the co-founder of Methodism.[29][27] This was because these moderate reformers were under pressure from others more radical than themselves who held Jesus to have been no more than a prophet: Mary's perpetual virginity thus became a guarantee of the Incarnation of Christ, despite its shaky scriptural foundations.[30] Notwithstanding the acceptance of the earliest reformers, modern Protestants have largely rejected the perpetual virginity of Mary and it has rarely appeared explicitly in confessions or doctrinal statements.[5]


Catholic Church[edit]

Image of Mary depicting her nursing the Infant Jesus. 3rd century, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome.

The perpetual virginity of Mary is one of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church, meaning that it is held to be a truth divinely revealed, the denial of which is heresy.[3] It declares her virginity before, during and after the birth of Jesus,[31] or in the definition formulated by Pope Martin I at the Lateran Council of 649:[32]

The blessed ever-virginal and immaculate Mary conceived, without seed, by the Holy Spirit, and without loss of integrity brought him forth, and after his birth preserved her virginity inviolate.

Thomas Aquinas says that reason could not prove this, but that it must be accepted because it was "fitting",[33] for as Jesus was the only-begotten son of God, so he should also be the only-begotten son of Mary, as a second and purely human conception would disrespect the sacred state of her holy womb.[34]

Symbolically, the perpetual virginity of Mary signifies a new creation and a fresh start in salvation history.[35] It has been stated and argued repeatedly, most recently by the Second Vatican Council:[36]

This union of the mother with the Son in the work of salvation is made manifest from the time of Christ's virginal conception … then also at the birth of Our Lord, who did not diminish his mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it... (Lumen Gentium, No.57)

Orthodox Church[edit]

Eastern Orthodox Church recognizes Mary as Aeiparthenos, meaning "ever-virgin".[4] The 2nd century Gospel of James affirms that Mary was always a virgin before, during and after childbirth, stating that Jesus' brothers (adelphos) are sons of Joseph from a previous marriage.[37]

Arguments and evidence[edit]

The Church Fathers in an 11th-century depiction from Kyiv

The New Testament explicitly affirms her virginity only prior to the conception of Jesus and mentions his brothers, (adelphoi), with Mark and Matthew recording their names and Mark adding unnamed sisters.[6][7] The Gospel of James and Epiphanius mention that the adelphoi are Joseph's children by an earlier marriage,[38] which is still the view of the Eastern Orthodox Christian churches.[39] Jerome, believing that Joseph, like Mary, must be a life-long virgin,[40] affirms that these adelphoi are children of Mary's sister, another Mary, whom he considers the wife of Clopas,[40] which remains popular in the Western church. A modern proposal considers these adelphoi sons of Mary, the mother of James and Joses (not here identified with the Virgin Mary's sister), and Clopas, who according to Hegesippus was Joseph's brother.[39]

Further scriptural difficulties are added by Luke 2:6, which calls Jesus the "first-born" son of Mary,[41] and Matthew 1:25, which adds that Joseph did not "know" (consummated the marriage) his wife "until she had brought forth her firstborn son."[42] Helvidius argued that first-born implies later births, and that the word "until" left open the way to sexual relations after the birth; Jerome replied that even an only son will be a first-born and that "until" did not have the meaning Helvidius construed for it, and painted a word-portrait of Joseph having intercourse with a blood-stained and exhausted Mary immediately after she has given birth - the implication, in his view, of Helvidius's arguments.[19] Opinions on the quality of Jerome's rebuttal range from the view that it is masterful and well-argued to thin, rhetorical and sometimes tasteless.[12]

Two other 4th century Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, advanced a further argument by reading Luke 1:34 as a vow of perpetual virginity on Mary's part,[43] although virginity was never an ideal in Israel and such a vow would have been "inconceivable" among Jews of the time.[13] Nevertheless, this argument, and those advanced by Jerome and Ambrose, were put forward by John Paul II in his catechesis of August 28, 1996, as the four "facts" supporting the Catholic Church's ongoing faith in Mary's perpetual virginity:[44]

...[T]here are no reasons for thinking that the will to remain a virgin, which Mary expressed at the moment of the Annunciation (cf. Luke 1:34) was then changed. Moreover, the immediate meaning of the words "Woman, behold your son!" "Behold your mother" (John 19:26), which Jesus addressed from the Cross to Mary and his favorite disciple, imply that Mary had no other children. ...[T]he word "firstborn" literally means "a child not preceded by another", and, in itself, makes no reference to the existence of other children. ...The phrase "brothers of Jesus" indicates "the children" of a Mary who was a disciple of Christ (cf. Matthew 27:56) and who is significantly described as "the other Mary" (Matthew 28:1). "They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression."

See also[edit]




  1. ^ Hesemann 2016, p. unpaginated.
  2. ^ Bromiley 1995, p. 269.
  3. ^ a b Collinge 2012, p. 133.
  4. ^ a b Fairbairn 2002, p. 100.
  5. ^ a b c Campbell 1996, p. 47,150.
  6. ^ a b Maunder 2019, p. 28.
  7. ^ a b Parmentier 1999, p. 550.
  8. ^ Blomberg 2015, p. 387 fn.1.
  9. ^ Cross, FL, ed. (2005), "Brethren of the Lord", The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, New York: Oxford University Press.
  10. ^ a b Lohse 1966, p. 200.
  11. ^ a b Rahner 1975, p. 896.
  12. ^ a b c d Polcar 2016, p. 186.
  13. ^ a b Boisclair 2007, p. 1465.
  14. ^ Hurtado 2005, p. 448.
  15. ^ Bell 2012, p. 110.
  16. ^ George-Tvrtkovic 2018, p. unpaginated.
  17. ^ Hunter 2008, p. 412-413.
  18. ^ Hunter 1999, p. 423-424.
  19. ^ a b Polcar 2016, p. 185.
  20. ^ a b Hunter 1993, p. 56-57.
  21. ^ Hunter 1993, p. 57.
  22. ^ Hunter 1993, p. 59.
  23. ^ Rosenberg 2018, p. unpaginated.
  24. ^ Miller-McLemore 2002, p. 100.
  25. ^ Pelikan 1971, p. 339.
  26. ^ Miller-McLemore 2002, p. 100-101.
  27. ^ a b Breed 1992, p. 237.
  28. ^ Gill 2004, p. 1254.
  29. ^ Campbell 1996, p. 150.
  30. ^ MacCulloch 2016, p. 51-52,64.
  31. ^ Greene-McCreight 2005, p. 485.
  32. ^ Miravalle 2006, p. 56.
  33. ^ Dodds 2004, p. 94.
  34. ^ Miravalle 2006, p. 61-62.
  35. ^ Fahlbusch 1999, p. 404.
  36. ^ Miravalle 2006, p. 59.
  37. ^ Vuong 2019, p. 100-101.
  38. ^ Nicklas 2011, p. 2100.
  39. ^ a b Cross & Livingstone 2005, p. 238.
  40. ^ a b Kelly 1975, p. 106.
  41. ^ Pelikan 2014, p. 160.
  42. ^ Harrington 1991, p. 36 fn.25.
  43. ^ Brown 1978, p. 278-279.
  44. ^ Calkins 2008, p. 308-310.