Thursday, September 4, 2008

Mary's Perpetual Virginity

The Perpetual Virginity of the Theotokos
By Matthew James Bellisario 2008

It is the teaching of the Church that the Blessed Mother of God is a Virgin, before, during and after the birth of Christ. Dr. Paul Haffber gives an overview of the teachings concerning Mary's virginity. The doctrine of virginitas ante partum teaches the absence of marital relations between Our Lady and St Joseph up to the time of Christ's birth, and therefore affirms the virginal conception. The virginitas in partu includes no rupture of the hymen at the moment of birth, which takes place without any opening of the membranes or damage to Our Lady's body, and without pain. The teaching concerning the virginitas post partum excludes marital relations, and thus the generation of other children, after the birth of Christ. (Haffner 2004) We see in the Sacred Scriptures an emphasis on Mary's virginity before the conception of Christ. We see these examples in the Gospel of Luke 1:27 and 1:34. I want however to focus on the virginitas post partum in this writing.

We know from the Church, which includes the Sacred Scriptures that the Theotokos never had any other children other than Christ Himself. This is not only fitting to her position as the Theotokos, but the constant teaching of the Church. In reading the early Church writings we can see that Christians from the early Church also believed in her perpetual virginity as well. Aside from Tertullian we see a consensus of the early Church on this subject. Saint Hillary of Poitiers was insistent on this point of view in his writings and referred to those who promulgated a teaching contrary to her perpetual virginity as being irreligious individuals, utterly divorced from spiritual teaching. (Haffner 2008)

St. Jerome’s writing On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary Against Helvidius (383) proves once again that this teaching is not something invented in the middle ages as some have falsely suggested. I suggest that anyone doubting this teaching read his entire treatise on the subject. We also have many other writings that substantiate this position as well. Didymus the Blind (381) who was head of the catechetical school at Alexandria wrote "for neither did Mary. . . marry anyone, nor did she ever become the mother of anyone else, but even after childbirth she remained always and forever an immaculate virgin." #1073, II, p. 62. St. Augustine (391), St. Cyril of Alexandria (542), St. Peter Chrysologus (405) as well as many others also attested to this position.

Some read the Gospel of Matthew 1:25 and assume that the word “until” means that the Blessed Mother had relations after the birth of Christ. This position has been refuted many times, not only by the Church and her writings, but also by Protestants such as John Calvin. John Calvin wrote in his commentary on Matthew 1:25 regarding the word until this,

“25. And knew her not This passage afforded the pretext for great disturbances, which were introduced into the Church, at a former period, by Helvidius. The inference he drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband. Jerome, on the other hand, earnestly and copiously defended Mary’s perpetual virginity. Let us rest satisfied with this, that no just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words of the Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called first-born; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin.115115 “Il est nomme Premier nay, mais non pour autre raison, sinon afin que nous sachions qu'il est nay d'une mere vierge, et qui jamais n'avoit eu enfant;” — “he is called First-born, but for no other reason than that we may know that he was born of a pure virgin, and who never had had a child.” It is said that Joseph knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son: but this is limited to that very time. What took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us.”

So even though Calvin here appears slow to agree with Jerome on the perpetual virginity, Calvin readily admits that this passage does not address the issue at all. The word until in this passage of Sacred Scripture is not a prooftext of Mary having sexual relations after the birth of Christ.

Some also argue that these biblical passages that refer to the brothers of the Lord, Mt 12: 46-47, Mk 3:31-32, and Lk 8:19 refute that Mary was an ever virgin, and that she bore brothers of Jesus. This also is not the case since there are no words in Aramaic, nor Hebrew that denote a separate word for brother distinct from that of a cousin or step brother. There is nothing in these texts that tell us that these brothers were indeed born of the Blessed Mother. Once again early church writings confirm this. Epiphanius of Salamis in 377 wrote against Mary having intercourse with Joseph. "... the Son of God . . . who for us men and for our salvation came down and took flesh, that is, was born perfectly of the holy ever-virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit" (The Man Well-Anchored 120 [A.D. 374]) Not only did Epiphanius believe and promote Mary's perpetual virginity, he also attested to her sinlessness, “How shall Mary, the holy one not possess the kingdom of heaven in the flesh, she who was not lude or wanton, who did not commit adultery, was in no way at fault in what concerned the flesh, but remained unsullied? Saint Athanasius in the 4th century also concurred on Mary's perpetual virginity, writing, "Let those, therefore, who deny that the Son is by nature from the Father and proper to his essence deny also that he took true human flesh from the ever-virgin Mary" (Discourses Against the Arians 2:70 [A.D. 360]). Saint Ambrose of Milan also wrote the following regarding the Theotokos, "Imitate her [Mary], holy mothers, who in her only dearly beloved Son set forth so great an example of material virtue; for neither have you sweeter children [than Jesus], nor did the Virgin seek the consolation of being able to bear another son" (Letters 63:111 [A.D. 388]).

The overwhelming evidence from the early Church is contrary to what Protestants today believe. In fact it is also contrary to what some of their heros of Protestantism believed as well. Heinrich Bullinger a “Reformer” attested to Mary's perpetual virginity as well as her being titled the Mother of God. (O,Carroll 1982) Martin Luther also believed that Mary losing her virginity after the Child's birth should neither be said nor thought. (O'Carroll 1982) saint Peter Chrysologus, a doctor of the Church from the 5th century wrote, “The Virgin conceives, the Virgin brings forth, the Virgin remains thus.” This is entirely in line with Saint Augustine who said As a Virgin she conceived, as a Virgin she brought forth, as a virgin she remained.” O'Carroll in his book titled the Theotokos expounds on Saint Augustine's view of Mary as being the spouse of Christ much like the Church, and therefore remains and possesses perpetual virginity. Ephraem of Syria in the mid 4th century also held this view of Mary as bride of Christ, and maybe the first that we have record of doing so. In his response he also confirms her perpetual virginity, “Thy mother she is, she alone, and thy sister with all; she became thy mother, she became thy sister. She is also thy bride, along with the chaste.” Finally we look to St Gregory of Nyssa another doctor of the Church who writes, “Mary was always a virgin, undefiled, pious and dutiful, the honor of our nature, the gate of our life, the one who won salvation for us.” (O'Carroll 1983) There is quite a bit of Catholic Marian theology in this one passage.

I want to sum up this teaching by looking at a local council of the Church. In 649 the Lateran council was called. It seems that this teaching was well understood in that council since it has in its documents, "If anyone does not in accord with the Holy Fathers acknowledge the holy and ever virgin and immaculate Mary was really and truly the Mother of God, inasmuch as she, in the fullness of time,and without seed, conceived by the Holy Spirit, God in the Word Himself, who before all time was born of God the Father, and without loss of integrity brought Him forth, and after His birth preserved her virginity inviolate, let him be condemned."


Haffner, Paul. The Mystery of Mary. Chicago, IL: Liturgy Training, 2004.

O'Carroll, Michael. Theotokos. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1983.

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