The doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary expresses the Virgin Mary’s “real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to Jesus the Son of God made Man”. According to the doctrine, Mary was ever-virgin for the whole of her life, making Jesus her only biological son, whose conception and birth are held to be miraculous.
By the fourth century, the doctrine had been widely supported by the Church Fathers, and by the seventh century it had been affirmed in a number of ecumenical councils. The doctrine is part of the teaching of Catholicism and Anglo-Catholics, as well as Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy, as expressed in their liturgies, in which they repeatedly refer to Mary as “ever virgin”.
Some early Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther supported the doctrine. However, later Reformed teaching largely abandoned it. The doctrine of perpetual virginity is, however, currently maintained by some Anglican and Lutheran theologians.
Doctrine and representations
The doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, which is believed de fide (i.e. held by Catholics as being an essential part of faith), states that Mary was a virgin before, during and after giving birth for all her life. The threefold nature this doctrine (referring to before, during and after) thus subsumes the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus.
The doctrine of perpetual virginity is also distinct from the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which relates to the conception of the Virgin Mary herself without any stain (macula in Latin) of original sin.
The Greek term Aeiparthenos (i.e. “Ever Virgin”) is attested to by Epiphanius of Salamis from the early 4th century. It is widely used in the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (item 499) also includes to the term Aeiparthenos and referring to the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium (item 57) states: “Christ’s birth did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.” The doctrine of perpetual virginity is also held by some Anglican and some Lutheran churches, but not all of those churches endorse the doctrine. Eastern Orthodox liturgical prayers typically end with “Remembering our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary”.
The virginity of Mary at the time of her conception of Jesus is a key topic in Marian art in the Catholic Church, usually represented as the annunciation to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel that she would virginally conceive a child to be born the Son of God. Frescos depicting this scene have appeared in Roman Catholic Marian churches for centuries. The oldest fresco of the annunciation is a 4th century depiction in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome.
Mary’s virginity even after her conception of Jesus is regularly represented in the Christian art of both the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox (as well as in early Western religious art) by including in Nativity scenes the figure of Salome, whom the Gospel of James presents as finding that Mary had preserved her virginity even in giving birth to her son. In many icons, Mary’s perpetual virginity is signified by three stars that appear on her left, her right, and above her or on her head, which represent her virginity before, during and after giving birth.
Development of the doctrine
As of the second century, interest developed within the early Church regarding the conception of Jesus and the virginity of Mary.The majority of early Christian writers accepted the virginal conception of Jesus via reliance on the accounts in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, yet, the focus of these early discussions was of virginity before birth, not during or afterwards.
The interpretation of the Matthew 1:25 statement that Joseph “knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son” and of the various New Testament mentions of the brothers (and sisters) of Jesus is discussed below under the heading “Scripture”. Some early writers[who?] interpreted Matthew’s statement to mean that Joseph and Mary did have normal marital relations after Jesus’ birth, and that James, Joses, Jude, and Simon were the biological sons of Mary and Joseph; and, thus, Jesus’ half-brothers.
A second century document that paid special attention to Mary’s virginity was originally known as the Nativity of Mary, but later became known as the Protoevangelium of James.] The document tells of Mary’s virginity before giving birth, the miraculous way in which she gave birth, and her physical virginity even after giving birth. The work also claims that Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters” are Joseph’s children from a marriage previous to his union with Mary. However, this text does not explicitly assert Mary’s perpetual virginity after the birth of Jesus.
The “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels, and the “James, the Lord’s brother”, mentioned in Galatians 1:19, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James”, mentioned by Josephus were thus interpreted by some texts as not being children of Mary.
2nd to 4th century
There was no full consensus on the doctrine of perpetual virginity within the early Church by the end of the second century, e.g. Tertullian (c.160 – c.225) did not teach the doctrine (although he taught virgin birth), but Irenaeus (c.130 – c.202) taught perpetual virginity, along with other Marian themes. However, wider support for the doctrine began to appear within the next century.
Origen (185-254) was emphatic on the issue of the brothers of Jesus, and stated that he believed them to have been the children of Joseph from a previous marriage.
Helvidius appealed to the authority of Tertullian against the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity, to which Jerome (c.340-419) replied, of Tertullian, that he was “not a man of the church.”
By the 4th century, the doctrine of perpetual virginity had been well attested. For example, references can be found in the 3rd century writings of Hippolytus of Rome, who called Mary “the tabernacle exempt from defilement and corruption,” and the 4th century works of Athanasius, Epiphanius, Hilary, Didymus, Ambrose, Jerome,] and Siricius continued the attestations to perpetual virginity – a trend that gathered pace in the next century.
Church Fathers and the Middle Ages
John Chrysostom (347–407) defended perpetual virginity on a number of grounds, one of which was Jesus’ commands to his mother in Calvary: “Woman, behold your son!” and to his disciple “Behold, thy mother!” in John 19:26-27. Since the second century these two statements of Jesus from the cross had been the basis of reasonings that Mary had no other children and “from that hour the disciple took her unto his own home” because after the deaths of Joseph and Jesus there was no one else to look after Mary, and she had to be entrusted to the disciple.
By the time of Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine of Hippo, with the increased emphasis on Marian piety, a wider role for Mary began to appear in the context of the history of salvation. Augustine himself presented a number of arguments in favor of the doctrine of perpetual virginity. By the end of the 4th century, Luke 1:34 (How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?) had started to be read as a passage that indicated a “vow of perpetual virginity” on the part of Mary.
The concept of Mary’s vow of virginity had already appeared in the Protovangelium (4:1) which asserted that Mary’s mother, Anne, gave Mary as a “virgin of the Lord” in service in the Temple, and that Joseph, a widower, was to serve as her guardian (legal protections for women depended on their having a male protector: father, brother, or, failing that, a husband). Early in the 7th century, in the Short Book on the Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary Isidore of Seville connected the Mariological and Christological themes by linking the virginity of Mary to the divinity of Christ in a single line of argument. The Lateran Council of 649, attended by Maximus the Confessor, explicitly affirmed the teaching of Mary’s virginity before, during and after birth. This was further affirmed at the sixth ecumenical council in 680.
Another book, “The History of Joseph the Carpenter” (7th Century), presents Jesus as speaking, at the death of Joseph, of Mary as “my mother, virgin undefiled”.
Over the centuries the interpretation of Mary as an ever virgin bride of the Lord who had taken a vow of perpetual chastity spread and was in full vogue by the time of Rupert of Deutz in the 12th century. By the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas had fashioned long and detailed theological arguments in defense of the doctrine and stated that a denial of the perpetual virginity of Mary would be derogatory to the perfection of Christ, an insult to the Holy Spirit, and an affront to the dignity of the Mother of God.
Mary, the Second Eve
As of the fourth century, in discussing God’s plan of salvation, a parallel theme began to appear in which Mary’s obedience (be it unto me according to thy word in Luke 1:38) and the doctrine of perpetual virginity were counter-positioned against Adam and Eve, just as Jesus’ obedience was counter positioned against that of Adam in Romans 5:12-21.
The concept of Mary as the Second Eve was first introduced by Justin Martyr around 155 AD. In this perspective, which was discussed in detail by Irenaeus, supported by Jerome, and then grew further, the vow of obedience and virginity of Mary positioned her as the “Second Eve” as part of the plan of salvation, just as Jesus was positioned as the Second Adam.
The theme developed by the Church Fathers ran parallel to the theme developed by Apostle Paul in Romans 5:18-21 when he compared Adam’s sin with the obedience of Jesus to the will of the Father, all the way to Calvary: “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” In the same manner, Mary’s obedience to the statements of the angel, and her adherence to her vow of perpetual virginity was seen as a remedy for the damage caused by Eve.
The Second Eve teaching continued to grew among Catholics, and in discussing perpetual virginity, the 1566 Catechism of the Council of Trent explicitly taught that while Eve by believing the serpent brought malediction on the human race, Mary by believing the angel brought benediction to mankind.
The concept of the Second Eve has continued to remain part of Catholic teachings, e.g. Pope Pius XII referred to it in the encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi and Pope John Paul II referred to it in a General Audience at the Vatican in 1980.
The start of the Protestant Reformation at the beginning of the 16th century did not immediately bring about a rejection of the doctrine of perpetual virginity and several leaders of the Reformation provided varying degrees of support for it, at times without directly endorsing it.
The early Protestant reformers felt that Scripture required the acceptance of the virgin birth of Jesus, but only permitted the acceptance of perpetual virginity. Over time, many Protestant churches stopped teaching the doctrine and other Protestant churches denied it.
Support by early reformers
Martin Luther believed that Mary did not have other children and did not have any marital relations with Joseph. The Latin text of the 1537 Smalcald Articles, written by Martin Luther, used the term “Ever Virgin” to refer to Mary.The perpetual virginity of Mary was Luther’s lifelong belief, even after he rejected other Marian doctrines.
Huldrych Zwingli directly supported perpetual virginity and wrote: “I firmly believe that [Mary], … forever remained a pure, intact Virgin.” Like Zwingli, the English reformers also supported the concept of perpetual virginity, but often varied on their reasons for the support. Luther and Zwingli’s support of perpetual virginity was endorsed by Heinrich Bullinger and was included in the 1566 Second Helvetic Confession.
John Calvin was less emphatic in his open support of the idea, and neither flatly accepted or rejected it. He cautioned against the idea of “impious speculation” on the topic of perpetual virginity. However, Calvin rejected arguments against Mary’s perpetual virginity based on the mention in Scripture of brothers of Jesus that were interpreted to imply that Mary had other children.
The Anglican reformers of the 16th and 17th century supported perpetual virginity “on the basis of ancient Christian authority”. In the 18th century, John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, also supported the doctrine and wrote that: “… born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought Him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.”
Later Protestant teachings
Many current Protestant churches teach the virgin birth of Jesus, without teaching that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, a historian of the Reformation, wrote that the reason why the early reformers upheld Mary’s perpetual virginity was that she was “the guarantee of the Incarnation of Christ”, a teaching that was being denied by the same radicals that were denying Mary’s perpetual virginity. However, the absence of clear Biblical statements expressing the doctrine, in combination with the principle of sola scriptura, kept references to the doctrine out of the Reformation creeds and, together with the tendency to associate veneration of Mary with idolatry and the rejection of clerical celibacy, led to the eventual denial of this doctrine among Protestants, who, thus uncommitted to the doctrine of perpetual virginity, take the “brothers” (???????) ?f Jesus mentioned in the New Testament most naturally (but not certainly) to be children of Mary and thus Jesus’ half brothers, rather than his cousins or stepbrothers from a postulated previous marriage of Joseph.
However, some conservative Lutheran scholars such as Franz Pieper (1852–1931) refused to follow the tendency among Protestants to insist that Mary and Joseph had marital relations and children after the birth of Jesus. It is implicit in his Christian Dogmatics that belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity is the older and traditional view among Lutherans. He stated, that “we should simply hold that (Mary) remained a virgin after the birth of Christ because Scripture does not state or indicate that she later lost her virginity”. He taught that “Christ, our Saviour, was the real and natural fruit of Mary’s virginal womb . . . This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that”; and that ” Christ . . . was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him . . . I am inclined to agree with those who declare that ‘brothers’ really mean ‘cousins’ here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers”.
The Annunciation, by Francesco Albani. “How can this be, for I know not man?”, Luke 1:34
Some passages in the New Testament have been used to voice objections to the doctrine of perpetual virginity, while other passages have been used to support it.
One objection concerns the mention of brothers and sisters of Jesus, who include James, Joses (the form in Mark 6:3, but “Joseph” in Matthew 13:55), Simon, and Jude. They have been interpreted as children of Joseph and Mary, a view put forward by Tertullian and perhaps by Hegesippus, but that, when proposed by Helvidius, met with opposition from Jerome, who was apparently voicing the general Christian opinion at the time. Jerome held that the “brethren” in question were children of Mary, the mother of James and Joses, named in Mark 15:40 and 15:47, a sister of Jesus’ mother (John 19:25), making them cousins of Jesus.
Another view, expressed by Eusebius and Epiphanius, is that they were children of Joseph by an earlier marriage. A modern view is that they were children of Cleopas, a brother of Joseph according to Hegesippus, and of “Mary, the mother of James and Joses” seen as sister-in-law, not blood sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The 1978 book Mary in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars concluded that “it cannot be said that the New Testament identifies them (the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus) without doubt as blood brothers and sisters and hence as children of Mary”.
Matthew 1:25 states that Joseph had no marital relations with Mary “until” (??? ?? ) she had borne Jesus. Writers such as R.V. Tasker and D. Hill argue that this implies that Mary and Joseph had customary marital relations after the birth of Jesus. Others, such as K. Beyer, point out that Greek ??? ?? after a negative “often has no implication at all about what happened after the limit of the ‘until’ was reached”,] and Raymond E. Brown observes that “the immediate context favors a lack of future implication here, for Matthew is concerned only with stressing Mary’s virginity before the child’s birth”.
Woman behold your son!. A Stabat Mater depiction by Gentile da Fabriano, c. 1400
On the other hand, Mary’s response to the angel, when told that she will conceive, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”, has been interpreted, at least since the time of Gregory of Nyssa, as indicating that Mary had taken a lifelong vow of virginity, even in marriage:
For if Joseph had taken her to be his wife, for the purpose of having children, why would she have wondered at the announcement of maternity, since she herself would have accepted becoming a mother according to the law of nature?
This interpretation, although upheld by many, is rejected by writers such as Howard Marshall. and is considered implausible by Raymond E. Brown.
A passage used to support the doctrine of perpetual virginity is of the sayings of Jesus on the cross, i.e. the pair of commands first to his mother “Woman, behold your son!” and then to his disciple “Behold, thy mother!” in John 19:26-27. The Gospel of John then states that “from that hour the disciple took her unto his own home”. Since the time of the Church Fathers this statement has been used to reason that after the death of Jesus there was no one else in the immediate family to look after Mary, and she had to be entrusted to the disciple given that she had no other children. This passage was one of the arguments Pope John Paul II presented in support of perpetual virginity. John Paul II also reasoned that the command “Behold your son!” was not simply the entrustment of Mary to the disciple, but also the entrustment of the disciple to Mary in order to fill the maternal gap left by the death of her only son on the cross.
In Sura 19, the Qur’an declares that Jesus was the result of a virgin conception (verses 20-22), and some extend this to mean perpetual virginity of Mary.There is no clear doctrinal belief one way or another as to whether she retained her virginity after Jesus’ birth.
In Islam Jesus and Mary were the only two children not be touched by Satan at the moment of their birth, for God placed a veil between them and Satan. The Qur’an says that Jesus was the result of a virgin birth. The account of the annunciation and birth of Jesus is provided in Sura 3 and 19 of The Qur’an, where an angel is sent to announce that Mary should expect to bear a son, despite being a virgin. (3667)
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