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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.

The perpetual virginity of Mary is a Christian theological doctrine which teaches that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin ante partum, in partu, et post partum - before, during and after the birth of Christ.[1] It arose at the end of the 2nd century and was confirmed as orthodox dogma during the 4th, was initially followed but then largely abandoned by Protestants, and today is accepted by the Catholic and Orthodox churches and by some Anglican and Lutheran theologians.[2][3] Prior to the 4th century there was no widespread consensus on Mary's perpetual virginity during and after the birth,[4] and when the idea did appear it was almost invariably associated with marginal or even heretical tendencies.[5]

Doctrine and representations

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

The Roman Catholic dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary declares her virginity before, during and after the birth of Jesus,[6] and both Catholic and Orthodox Christianity refer to her as Aeiparthenos, meaning "ever-virgin".[7] In the definition formulated by Pope Martin I at the Lateran Synod in 649:[8]

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 explained the theological importance of Mary's perpetual virginity: 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.[9] 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.[10] It has been stated and argued repeatedly by the Church, most recently by the Second Vatican Council:[11]

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)

Mary's perpetual virginity is represented in Christian art through nativities featuring the midwife Salome, a figure whom the Gospel of James represents as finding that Mary had preserved her virginity even in giving birth to her son.[12] and religious icons of Mary frequently featured three stars, on her left, her right, and above her or on her head, representing her virginity before, during and after giving birth.[13]


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

Mary as virgin ante-partum

The virginal conception of Jesus (Mary's ante-partum virginity) is not found in the letters of Saint Paul, nor in the Gospel of Mark, nor in John, where he is introduced with both father and mother;[14] in the entire New Testament it appears only in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Gospel of Luke.[15] It seems 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 heretics who denied him any humanity at all.[5] No connection is made between the holy mother's status and the supposed superior sanctity of virginity, and the virginal conception is depicted as the result of divine intervention, not of Mary's choice.[16]

The Protoevangelium of James

The concept of Mary's perpetual virginity evolved out of the growth of monastic asceticism, with its emphasis on celibacy and the chastity of the mother of Christ.[17] It first appears in a late 2nd century text called the Protoevangelium of James,[18] which was the ultimate source of almost all later Marian doctrine.[19] Probably deriving from a sect called the Encratites,[19] whose founder Tatian taught that sex and marriage were symptoms of original sin,[20] it tells how the new-born Jesus simply appears from a dark cloud and a blinding light and takes his mother's breast;[21] 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.[22]

Virgin post-partum and in partu

By the early 4th century the spread of monasticism had led many to view celibacy as the ideal state, and a moral hierarchy was established with Christian marriage occupying the third rank, below life-long virginity and widowhood.[23] Around 380 the Roman theologian Helvidius objected to this and argued that the two states, of virginity and marriage, were equal, advancing various proofs that Mary had not remained a virgin after the birth of Christ;[24] but his contemporary Jerome, seeing that this would lead to the Mother of God occupying a lower status in heaven than virgins, defended her perpetual virginity in his immensely influential Against Helvidius, issued c.383.[25]

The monk Jovinian defended Helvidius,[26] but the Synod of Milan of 390 established Mary's perpetual virginity as the only orthodox view.[27] The matter was settled at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, where Mary was given the title "Aeiparthenons", meaning Perpetual Virgin.[27]

Jerome helped make Mary's perpetual virginity orthodox,[28] but the question of her virginity in partu, meaning her intact hymen during the birth itself, remained controversial.[29] Jerome expressed doubt, fearing it implied that Jesus was not fully human in all things except sin,[30] but Ambrose's vigorously defended it, and it was due to his defense that virginitas in partu came to be included consistently in the thinking of subsequent theologians,[29] 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.[27]

Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation brought with it the idea of the Bible as the fundamental source of authority regarding God's word (sola scriptura),[31] and the reformers noted that while holy scripture explicitly required belief in the virgin birth, it only permitted the acceptance of perpetual virginity.[32] 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.[33] Despite the lack of clear biblical support for the doctrine,[34] it was supported by Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and other reformers.[35][34] 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.[36] Notwithstanding the acceptance of the earliest reformers, Protestants have historically rejected the pepetual virginity of Mary and her bodily assumption into heaven, and it has rarely appeared explicitly in confessions or doctrinal statements.[37]

Arguments and evidence

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

The brothers of Jesus

Thomas Aquinas said that reason could not prove Mary's virginity, but that it must be accepted because it was "fitting";[38] the message of Protoevangelium was similar, for when the midwife attempted to test the holy mother's integrity by inserting her finger into Mary's vagina, her hand burst into flames.[39] This did not resolve the problem posed by Pauline epistles, the four gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles, all of which mention the brothers (adelphoi) of Jesus, with Mark and Matthew recording their names and Mark adding unnamed sisters.[40] The Protoevangelium turned them into Joseph's children by an earlier marriage,[41] and this is still the view of the Orthodox Christian churches.[42] Jerome, believing that Joseph like Mary must have been a life-long virgin, held that they were the sons of a different Mary entirely, a kinswoman of the Virgin - a modern variation is that second Mary, mentioned in John 19:25 as the wife of Clopas, was not the sister of the mother of Christ, but still kin, for Clopas was Joseph's brother.[42] While scriptural evidence is not absolutely conclusive,[43] the overwhelming majority of modern scholars, including Roman Catholics, agree that the "brothers of Jesus" were probably his full siblings.[44]

Other biblical texts

Matthew 1:25 states that Joseph had no marital relations with Mary "until" (ἕως οὗ ) she had borne Jesus, with proponents of the perpetual virginity arguing that Matthew's focus here is his claim that Mary conceived Jesus while still a virgin, so the text neither confirms nor denies her perpetual virginity.[45]

By the end of the 4th century Mary's reply to the angel on being informed of her coming conception, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" (Luke 1:34), was being taken as a vow of virginity, but this reading has few adherents today.[46]

and John 19:26, in which he first commands Mary, "Woman, behold thy son" (meaning the Beloved Disciple) and then the disciple, "Behold thy mother," which is interpreted as evidence that Jesus had no other kin to whose care he could commend his mother.[47]

In Islam

The Protoevangelium, which was widely read in the Near East, seems to have formed the stories of Mary which are found in the Quran,[48] 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.[49]

See also




  1. ^ Bromiley 1995, p. 269.
  2. ^ Losch 2008, p. 283.
  3. ^ Cambell 1996, p. 47.
  4. ^ Rahner 1975, p. 896.
  5. ^ a b Hunter 1993, p. 61.
  6. ^ Greene-McCreight 2005, p. 485.
  7. ^ Fairbairn 2002, p. 100.
  8. ^ Miravalle 2006, p. 56.
  9. ^ Miravalle 2006, p. 61-62.
  10. ^ Miravalle 2006, p. 56-60.
  11. ^ Miravalle 2006, p. 59.
  12. ^ Roberts 1998, p. 904.
  13. ^ Coomler 1995, p. 203.
  14. ^ Lincoln 2013, p. 21-25.
  15. ^ Lincoln 2013, p. 129.
  16. ^ Brown 1978, p. 40.
  17. ^ Bromiley 1995, p. 271.
  18. ^ Lohse 1966, p. 200.
  19. ^ a b Hunter 1993, p. 63.
  20. ^ Hunter 2008, p. 412.
  21. ^ Burkett 2019, p. 242.
  22. ^ Hurtado 2005, p. 448.
  23. ^ Hunter 2008, p. 412-413.
  24. ^ Hunter 1999, p. 423-424.
  25. ^ Polcar 2016, p. 185.
  26. ^ Tilley 1995, p. 57.
  27. ^ a b c Polcar 2016, p. 186.
  28. ^ Salisbury 2004, p. 579.
  29. ^ a b Rosenberg 2018, p. unpaginated.
  30. ^ Pomplun 2008, p. 315.
  31. ^ Miller-McLemore 2002, p. 100.
  32. ^ Pelikan 1971, p. 339.
  33. ^ Miller-McLemore 2002, p. 100-101.
  34. ^ a b Breed 1992, p. 237.
  35. ^ Campbell 1996, p. 150.
  36. ^ MacCulloch 2016, p. 51-52,64.
  37. ^ Campbell 1996, p. 47,150.
  38. ^ Dodds 2004, p. 94.
  39. ^ Vuong 2019, p. 100-101.
  40. ^ Bauckham 2015, p. 6-8.
  41. ^ Nicklas 2011, p. 2100.
  42. ^ a b Cross & Livingstone 2005, p. 238.
  43. ^ Brown 1978, p. 72.
  44. ^ Dickson 2012, p. 41.
  45. ^ Harrington 1991, p. 36.
  46. ^ Brown 1978, p. 40,fn.52, and 278.
  47. ^ Calkins 2008, p. 308.
  48. ^ Bell 2012, p. 110.
  49. ^ George-Tvrtkovic 2018, p. unpaginated.


External links