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 Christ, 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 is held also by the Orthodox churches and by some Lutherans and Anglicans.[4]

Mary's pre-birth virginity is attested in the New Testament,[5] but there is no biblical basis for her perpetual virginity.[6] It arose at the end of the 2nd century in ascetic circles who believed that sex and marriage were symptoms of original sin,[7] and was affirmed as orthodoxy during the 4th century debates between supporters of virginity on the one hand and Christian marriage on the other.[4] The 4th century controversies centred on the question of whether scripture did or did not indicate that Mary had other children, for the Pauline epistles, the four gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles, all mention the brothers (adelphoi) of Jesus;[8] the scriptural evidence is not absolutely conclusive.[9] Thomas Aquinas said that although reason could not prove Mary's perpetual virginity it must be accepted because it was "fitting",[10] for as Jesus was the only-begotten son of God, so he should also be the only-begotten son of Mary.[11] The lack of scriptural support led to it being largely abandoned by most Protestants.[4]


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.[12] (The other three are her role as Theotokos (meaning mother of God), her Immaculate Conception, and her bodily assumption into heaven).[13] It declares her virginity before, during and after the birth of Jesus,[14] or in the definition formulated by Pope Martin I at the Lateran Synod in 649:[15]

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.

Both Catholic and Orthodox Christianity recognise Mary as Aeiparthenos, meaning "ever-virgin".[16] Thomas Aquinas said that reason could not prove this, but that it must be accepted because it was "fitting",[10] 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.[11] The 2nd century Protoevangelium of James has a similar message, describing how the hand of the midwife who attempted to test the holy mother's integrity by inserting her finger into Mary's vagina burst into flames and withered.[17]

The church teaches that her virginity before the birth is revealed by scripture and affirmed in the Apostles' Creed which states that Jesus was "conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary"; Pope Martin's definition of her virginity at the moment of birth means that this caused no physical injury to her virginal seal, which is both symbol and part of her perfect virginity of body and soul; while the final aspect affirms that Mary continued as a virgin to the end of her Earthly life, having no physical relations with her husband nor bearing any further children.[18] Symbolically, the perpetual virginity of Mary signifies a new creation and a fresh start in salvation history.[19] It has been stated and argued repeatedly by the Church, most recently by the Second Vatican Council:[20]

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)


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

Mary's ante-partum virginity: the virgin birth of Jesus

Mary's ante-partum virginity is attested in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Gospel of Luke, but the modern scholarly consensus is that it rests on very slender historical foundations.[21] Both gospels use the virgin birth to make theological points, Matthew that the birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of prophesy and of God's promise to Israel signified in the name Emmanuel, "God is with us", for Luke, that the story of God's creation begun in Genesis is moving to its completion,[22] and in both, the emphasis is on Mary's assent to the miraculous birth rather than on her virginity.[23] Both date probably from the period AD 80-100, both are anonymous (the attributions to Matthew and Luke were added in the 2nd century), and it is almost certain that neither was based on an eyewitness account.[24][25][26] (Raymond E. Brown suggested in 1973 that Joseph was the source of Matthew's account and Mary of Luke's, but modern scholars consider this highly unlikely).[27] It is not otherwise mentioned in the New Testament writings,[5] and it follows that the narratives were created by the two gospel-authors, drawing on ideas in circulation in some Christian circles perhaps by around 65 AD.[28]

The Protoevangelium of James

Mary's perpetual virginity first appears in a late 2nd century text called the Protoevangelium of James,[29] which was the ultimate source of almost all later Marian doctrine.[30] Probably deriving from a sect called the Encratites,[30] whose founder Tatian taught that sex and marriage were symptoms of original sin,[7] it tells how the new-born Jesus simply appears from a dark cloud and a blinding light and takes his mother's breast;[31] 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.[32]

The context of the Protoevangelium was the growth of asceticism with its emphasis on celibacy and the chastity of the mother of Christ, the monks seeing all sexual activity as tainted by sin.[33] It was widely distributed and seems to have formed the stories of Mary found in the Quran,[34] 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.[35]

The 4th century establishment of orthodoxy

Mary's virginity seems to have attracted little theological attention prior to the end of the 2nd century, Ignatius of Antioch (c.35-108), for example, discussing it only to argue for the reality of Jesus's human birth against the Docetic heretics who denied him any humanity.[36] 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.[37] Around 380 Helvidius objected to the devaluation of marriage inherent in this view and argued that the two states, of virginity and marriage, were equal;[38] 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.[39]

Helvidius soon faded from the scene, but in the early 380s the monk Jovinian wrote 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.[40] Jerome wrote against Jovinian but failed to mention this aspect of his teaching, and most commentators believe that he did not find it offensive.[40] 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.[41] 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.[42] It was due to Ambrose that virginitas in partu came to be included consistently in the thinking of subsequent theologians.[43]

Jovinian's view was rejected at a Synod of Milan under Ambrose's presidency in 390, after which Mary's perpetual virginity was established as the only orthodox view.[44] The Council of Ephesus in 431 established a fully general consensus on the subject,[45] in 553 the Second Council of Constantinople gave her the title "Aeiparthenons", meaning Perpetual Virgin, and at the Lateran Synod of 649 Pope Martin I emphasised its threefold character, before, during, and after the birth of Christ.[44]

Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation rejected 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.[46] It also brought the idea of the Bible as the fundamental source of authority regarding God's word (sola scriptura),[47] and the reformers noted that while holy scripture explicitly required belief in the virgin birth, it only permitted acceptance of perpetual virginity.[48] But despite the lack of a clear biblical basis for the doctrine,[49] it was supported by Martin Luther (who included it in the Smalcald Articles, a Lutheran confession of faith written in 1537)[50] as well as by Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and later John Wesley, the co-founder of Methodism.[51][49] 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, despite its shaky scriptural foundations.[52] Notwithstanding this early acceptance by the reformers, modern Protestants, apart from some Lutherans and Anglo-Catholics, have largely rejected the perpetual virginity and it has rarely appeared explicitly in confessions or doctrinal statements.[53]

Arguments and evidence

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

There is no biblical basis for Mary's perpetual virginity.[54] The major problem facing theologians wishing to maintain it is that the Pauline epistles, the four gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles, all mention the brothers (adelphoi) of Jesus, with Mark and Matthew recording their names and Mark adding unnamed sisters.[55][8][Notes 1] The Protoevangelium resolved the problem by turning the adelphoi into Joseph's children by an earlier marriage;[56] this is still the view of the Orthodox Christian churches,[57] but Jerome, believing that Joseph, like Mary, must have been a life-long virgin, said that they were the sons of a different Mary entirely, a kinswoman of the Virgin - a modern variation is that the second Mary, mentioned in John 19:25 as the wife of Clopas, was not a kinswoman of Mary's but that Clopas was Joseph's brother.[57]

Further scriptural difficulties were added by Luke 2:6, which calls Jesus the "first-born" son of Mary,[58] and Matthew 1:25, which adds that Joseph did not "know" (have sex with) his wife "until she had brought forth her firstborn son."[59] Helvidius argued that first-born implies later births, and that the word "until" left open the way to sexual relations after the birth; Jerome, replying that even an only son will be a first-born and that "until" did not have the meaning Helvidius construed for it, painted a repulsive 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.[39] Opinions on the quality of Jerome's rebuttal range from the view that it was masterful and well-argued to thin, rhetorical and sometimes tasteless.[44]

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; this idea, first introduced in the Protoevangelium of James, has little scholarly support today,[60] but it and the arguments advanced by Jerome and Ambrose were put forward by Pope John Paul II in his catechesis of August 28, 1996, as the four facts supporting the Church's ongoing faith in Mary's perpetual virginity.[61]

See also


  1. ^ Mark 6:3 names James, Joses, Judas, Simon; Matthew 13:55 has Joseph for Joses, the latter being an abbreviated form of the former, and reverses the order of the last two; Mark 6:3 and Matthew 12:46 refer to unnamed sisters; Luke, John and Acts all mention brothers also. See Bauckham (2015) in bibliography, pages6-9.



  1. ^ Hesemann 2016, p. unpaginated.
  2. ^ Bromiley 1995, p. 269.
  3. ^ Miravalle 2006, p. 51.
  4. ^ a b c Losch 2008, p. 283.
  5. ^ a b Lincoln 2013, p. 129.
  6. ^ Boislcair 2007, p. 1465.
  7. ^ a b Hunter 2008, p. 412.
  8. ^ a b Bauckham 2015, p. 6-8.
  9. ^ Brown 1978, p. 72.
  10. ^ a b Dodds 2004, p. 94.
  11. ^ a b Miravalle 2006, p. 61-62.
  12. ^ Collinge 2012, p. 133.
  13. ^ Rausch 2016, p. 173.
  14. ^ Greene-McCreight 2005, p. 485.
  15. ^ Miravalle 2006, p. 56.
  16. ^ Fairbairn 2002, p. 100.
  17. ^ Vuong 2019, p. 100-101.
  18. ^ Miravalle 2006, p. 56-60.
  19. ^ Fahlbusch 1999, p. 404.
  20. ^ Miravalle 2006, p. 59.
  21. ^ Bruner 2004, p. 37.
  22. ^ Isaak 2011, p. 242.
  23. ^ Maunder 2019, p. 35.
  24. ^ Boring & Craddock 2009, p. 12.
  25. ^ Fredriksen 2008, p. 7.
  26. ^ Reddish 2011, p. 13.
  27. ^ Lincoln 2013, p. 144.
  28. ^ Hurtado 2005, p. 318-319,325.
  29. ^ Lohse 1966, p. 200.
  30. ^ a b Hunter 1993, p. 63.
  31. ^ Burkett 2019, p. 242.
  32. ^ Hurtado 2005, p. 448.
  33. ^ Bromiley 1995, p. 271.
  34. ^ Bell 2012, p. 110.
  35. ^ George-Tvrtkovic 2018, p. unpaginated.
  36. ^ Hunter 1993, p. 61.
  37. ^ Hunter 2008, p. 412-413.
  38. ^ Hunter 1999, p. 423-424.
  39. ^ a b Polcar 2016, p. 185.
  40. ^ a b Hunter 1993, p. 56-57.
  41. ^ Hunter 1993, p. 57.
  42. ^ Hunter 1993, p. 59.
  43. ^ Rosenberg 2018, p. unpaginated.
  44. ^ a b c Polcar 2016, p. 186.
  45. ^ Rahner 1975, p. 896.
  46. ^ Miller-McLemore 2002, p. 100-101.
  47. ^ Miller-McLemore 2002, p. 100.
  48. ^ Pelikan 1971, p. 339.
  49. ^ a b Wright 1992, p. 237.
  50. ^ Gill 2004, p. 1254.
  51. ^ Campbell 1996, p. 150.
  52. ^ MacCulloch 2016, p. 51-52,64.
  53. ^ Campbell 1996, p. 47,150.
  54. ^ Boisclair 2007, p. 1465.
  55. ^ Maunder 2019, p. 28.
  56. ^ Nicklas 2011, p. 2100.
  57. ^ a b Cross & Livingstone 2005, p. 238.
  58. ^ Pelikan 2014, p. 160.
  59. ^ Harrington 1991, p. 36 fn.25.
  60. ^ Brown 1978, p. 278-279.
  61. ^ Calkins 2008, p. 308-310.