Perpetual virginity of Mary

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, and is held also by the Eastern Orthodox Churches in Eastern Christianity and by some Lutherans and Anglicans in Western Christianity.[3]

There is no biblical basis for Mary's perpetual virginity.[4] The belief arose at the end of the 2nd century in ascetic circles who believed that sex and marriage were symptoms of original sin,[5] and was affirmed as orthodoxy during the 4th century debates between supporters of virginity on the one hand and Christian marriage on the other.[3] Those debates centred on the question of whether scripture did or did not indicate that Mary had other children, for the Pauline epistles, the four canonical gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles, all mention the brothers (adelphoi) of Jesus.[6] Various reconciliation of these texts with Mary's perpetual virginity have been advanced, and Thomas Aquinas said that because the only-begotten son of God should also be the only-begotten son of Mary "we must confess simply" the doctrine.[7] The doctrine was established at the Council of Ephesus in 431[8] and the Lateran Council of 649 emphasised its threefold character before, during, and after the birth of Christ,[9] but the lack of scriptural support led to it being largely abandoned by most Protestants following the Reformation.[3]


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.[10] (The other three are her role as Theotokos (meaning mother of God), her Immaculate Conception, and her bodily Assumption into heaven).[11] It declares her virginity before, during and after the birth of Jesus,[12] or in the definition formulated by Pope Martin I at the Lateran Council of 649: 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.[13]

Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches both recognise Mary as Aeiparthenos, meaning "ever-virgin".[14] Thomas Aquinas said that "We must confess simply that the Mother of Christ was a virgin in conceiving"[7] 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 not respect the sacred state of her holy womb.[15]

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.[16] Symbolically, the perpetual virginity of Mary signifies a new creation and a fresh start in salvation history.[17] It has been stated and argued repeatedly, most recently by the Second Vatican Council:[18]

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 Gospel of James

Origins: 2nd century

The exact origin of the tradition of Mary's perpetual virginity is unknown;[19] her ante-partum virginity is attested in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Gospel of Luke, but there is no biblical basis for her virginity during and after the birth.[4] Mary's virginity, pre or post natal, 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.[20]

The idea of Mary's perpetual virginity first appears in a late 2nd century text called the Gospel of James (or Protoevangelium of James),[21] "the ultimate source of almost all later Marian doctrine."[22] In this story Mary remains a life-long virgin, Joseph is an old man without physical desire, who marries her; the brothers of Jesus are explained as Joseph's sons by an earlier marriage.[23] The birth takes place in a cave near Bethlehem, and the new-born Jesus simply appears from a cloud and a blinding light and takes his mother's breast;[24] a midwife is present outside the cave, who believes, and her acquaintance Salome, who demands to touch the physical organs of the holy mother:

The midwife came out of the cave [in which the birth took place], and Salome met her. And she said to her: "Salome, Salome, I have I have a new sight to tell you; a virgin has brought forth, a thing which her nature does not allow." And Salome said: "As the Lord my God lives, unless I put (forward) my finger and test her condition, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth." And Salome went in and made her ready to test her condition. And she cried out saying: "I have tempted the living God..." (The Protoevangelium of Gospel of James, 19:3-20, quoted in Brown, 1978).[25]

Salome's hand withers, but she prays to God for forgiveness and an angel appears and tells her to touch the Christ-child again, whereupon her hand is restored;[26][27] the episode performs the same function as "doubting Thomas" in the Gospel of John.[28]

James possibly derives from a sect called the Encratites,[22] whose founder Tatian taught that sex and marriage were symptoms of original sin;[5] its context was the growth of asceticism with its emphasis on celibacy, the monks seeing all sexual activity as tainted by sin.[29] It was widely distributed and seems to have formed the basis of the stories of Mary in the Quran.[30]

3rd–4th century establishment of orthodoxy

By the early 4th century the spread of monasticism had promoted celibacy as the ideal Christian state, and a moral hierarchy was established with marriage occupying the third rank below life-long virginity and widowhood.[31] 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;[32] but his contemporary Jerome, realising that this would lead to the Mother of God occupying a place in heaven lower than virgins and widows, defended her perpetual virginity in his immensely influential Against Helvidius, issued c.383.[33]

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 Manichaeism.[34] Jerome wrote against Jovinian but failed to mention this aspect of his teaching, and most commentators believe that he did not find it offensive.[34] 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.[35] 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.[36] It was due to Ambrose that virginitas in partu came to be included consistently in the thinking of subsequent theologians.[37]

Jovinian's view was rejected at a Synod of Milan held under Ambrose's presidency in 390, after which Mary's perpetual virginity was established as the only orthodox view.[9] The Council of Ephesus in 431 established a full general consensus on the subject,[8] in 553 the Second Council of Constantinople gave her the title Aeiparthenons, meaning Perpetual Virgin, and at the Lateran Council of 649 Pope Martin I emphasised its threefold character, before, during, and after the birth of Christ.[9]

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.[38] It also brought the idea of the Bible as the fundamental source of authority regarding God's word (sola scriptura),[39] and the reformers noted that while holy scripture explicitly required belief in the virgin birth, it only permitted acceptance of perpetual virginity.[40] But despite the lack of a clear biblical basis for the doctrine,[41] Martin Luther (who included it in the Smalcald Articles, a Lutheran confession of faith written in 1537)[42] wrote, "Mary realized she was the mother of the Son of God, and she did not desire to become the mother of the son of man, but to remain in this divine gift."[15]

It was supported as well as by Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and later John Wesley, the co-founder of Methodism.[43][41] 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.[44] 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.[45]

Arguments and evidence

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

The New Testament explicitly affirms Mary's virginity only prior to the conception of Jesus.[46] The problem facing theologians wishing to maintain her perpetual virginity is that the Pauline epistles, the four canonical 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.[47][6][Notes 1] The Gospel of James resolved the problem by turning the adelphoi into Joseph's children by an earlier marriage;[48] this is still the view of the Orthodox Christian churches,[49] 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.[49] Brown expounds such a hypothesis, but admits it involves an "excessive number of 'ifs'".[50]

Luke 2:6 calls Jesus the "first-born" son of Mary,[51] which has been argued (eg by Helvidius) to imply later births; but this is too strong an implication: the word merely allows the possibility of later births, it does not imply them.[52][53] Matthew 1:25 adds that Joseph did not "know" (have sex with) his wife "until she had brought forth her firstborn son". This text does not support the doctrine, but it does not absolutely deny it[54]. Helvidius says that the word "until" leaves open the way to sexual relations after the birth.[55] Jerome replied that even an only son will be a first-born, and that "until" did not have the meaning Helvidius construed for it; painting 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.[33] 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.[9]

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:[56] Marshall says that it is impossible on linguistic grounds for the text to have this meaning, and quotes Easton that based on Jewish psychology such a vow by a betrothed Palestinian maiden is inconceivable.[57] Nevertheless, this argument, and those 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:[58]

...[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


  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, pages 6-9.



  1. ^ Hesemann 2016, p. unpaginated.
  2. ^ Bromiley 1995, p. 269.
  3. ^ a b c Losch 2008, p. 283.
  4. ^ a b Boisclair 2007, p. 1465: "There is no biblical basis for the idea of Mary's perpetual virginity. 'The Protevangelium of James,' a noncanonical 'gospel' from the mid-second to early third centuries, is the earliest extant evidence for the tradition of Mary's perpetual virginity. Since virginity was never an ideal in Israel, the legend that she made a vow of virginity as a child would have been inconceivable for a daughter of Israel even when Hellenistic influences were pervasive in the late postexilic period."
  5. ^ a b Hunter 2008, p. 412.
  6. ^ a b Bauckham 2015, p. 6-8.
  7. ^ a b Dodds 2004, p. 94.
  8. ^ a b Rahner 1975, p. 896.
  9. ^ a b c d Polcar 2016, p. 186.
  10. ^ Collinge 2012, p. 133.
  11. ^ Rausch 2016, p. 173.
  12. ^ Greene-McCreight 2005, p. 485.
  13. ^ Miravalle 2006, p. 56.
  14. ^ Fairbairn 2002, p. 100.
  15. ^ a b Miravalle 2006, p. 61-62.
  16. ^ Miravalle 2006, p. 56-60.
  17. ^ Fahlbusch 1999, p. 404.
  18. ^ Miravalle 2006, p. 59.
  19. ^ Brown 1978, p. 275.
  20. ^ Hunter 1993, p. 61.
  21. ^ Lohse 1966, p. 200.
  22. ^ a b Hunter 1993, p. 63.
  23. ^ Hurtado 2005, p. 448.
  24. ^ Burkett 2019, p. 242.
  25. ^ Brown 1978, p. 276.
  26. ^ Booton 2004, p. 55.
  27. ^ Vuong 2019, p. 100-101.
  28. ^ Zervos 2019, p. unpaginated.
  29. ^ Bromiley 1995, p. 271.
  30. ^ Bell 2012, p. 110.
  31. ^ Hunter 2008, p. 412-413.
  32. ^ Hunter 1999, p. 423-424.
  33. ^ a b Polcar 2016, p. 185.
  34. ^ a b Hunter 1993, p. 56-57.
  35. ^ Hunter 1993, p. 57.
  36. ^ Hunter 1993, p. 59.
  37. ^ Rosenberg 2018, p. unpaginated.
  38. ^ Miller-McLemore 2002, p. 100-101.
  39. ^ Miller-McLemore 2002, p. 100.
  40. ^ Pelikan 1971, p. 339.
  41. ^ a b Wright 1992, p. 237.
  42. ^ Gill 2004, p. 1254.
  43. ^ Campbell 1996, p. 150.
  44. ^ MacCulloch 2016, p. 51-52,64.
  45. ^ Campbell 1996, p. 47,150.
  46. ^ Parmentier 1999, p. 550.
  47. ^ Maunder 2019, p. 28.
  48. ^ Nicklas 2011, p. 2100.
  49. ^ a b Cross & Livingstone 2005, p. 238.
  50. ^ Brown 1978, p. 73.
  51. ^ Pelikan 2014, p. 160.
  52. ^ I H Marshall "The Gospel of Luke", p. 69; Paternotser Press, 1978
  53. ^ J.B. FREY, "La signification du terme" Bib 11, 1930, p. 373-390
  54. ^ D Hill, "The Gospel of Matthew", MMS, 1972, p. 80
  55. ^ Harrington 1991, p. 36 fn.25.
  56. ^ Brown 1978, p. 278-279.
  57. ^ I H Marshall "The Gospel of Luke", p. 69; Paternotser Press, 1978
  58. ^ Calkins 2008, p. 308-310.


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