If a Catholic [1] and a Protestant were to get together and talk about Mary and her virginity, it is likely that the discussion would soon become confused as a result of their vastly different ideas about what that means. The Protestant would say that this means that she remained a virgin until the birth of Jesus and afterwards had a normal married life with Joseph including having children by him. A Catholic, however, believes that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. I hope to present the case of the Catholic Church here, demonstrating that, although it is not explicitly stated in the Bible, this belief is not contradicted by it and is, in fact, fits in well with the testimony of the Scriptures and is supported by the writings of the early Christians. Many of the Church's early liturgical prayers use the phrase "the virgin" to refer to Mary. This would not be the case if she had not remained a virgin.

Why is virginity important?

It is sometimes hard to see why the issue of whether Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus is important. It does not seem to have any bearing on our salvation so why worry about it?

There are several reasons why this doctrine is important. The most important involves the use of biological virginity as a type of spiritual virginity.

In 2 Cor 11 Paul writes:

I wish you would put up with a little foolishness from me - not that you don't do this already. The jealousy that I feel for you is, you see, God's own jealousy: I gave you all in marriage to a single husband, a virgin pure for presentation to Christ. (2 Cor 11:1-2, NJB)

Mary's physical virginity is also important to us as a type of our (and her) spiritual virginity, our faithfulness to our Lord Jesus Christ. Furthermore, Jesus told us that in Heaven we will all live as virgins (Matt 22:30). Here again, Mary is our example.

"The mystery of Mary can be understood only in the light of her perpetual virginity, a virginity enduring before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. It is this perpetual virginity that lends the figure of Mary the spiritual greatness which was seen, little by little, to set her apart. All this is to be gleaned from the Marian writings of Saint Ignatius, Saint Justin, Saint Irenaues, Clement of Alexandria, Saint Ephrem, Saint Epiphanius, and later on Saint Ambrose and Saint Jerome in their respective refutations of Bonosius and Helvidius." [Daniel-Rops, 1960:86-87]

St. Francis of Assisi had a particular appreciation for the perpetual virginity of Mary and the statement it makes concerning our own lives. He wrote two prayers to Mary which speak of her virginity: the Antiphon to the Virgin and the Salutation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He uses Mary as a symbol of what the rest of us must someday be.

As important as our salvation is, the Christian life is more than just "getting to Heaven." It is a matter of living in accord with God's will for us. Some people believe that God has called them to live a celibate lifestyle while others believe that celibacy is contradictory to God's command to multiply which was given to Adam and Eve (Gen 1:28). If Mary is an example of one who has lived celibately for the glory of God, then to walk in this path is a viable option for any of us.

Although the value of a celibate lifestyle and belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary are not unique to the Catholic Church, it is to that church which most thought turn when this issue is brought up. However, even the Protestant reformers Martin Luther [11], John Calvin [12] and Huldreich Zwingli [13] also held that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life.

It is currently the practice of the Catholic Church that its clergy adopt this celibate lifestyle. However, the Catholic Church has not always required it. Although it was common all along, and was encouraged, it was not until the Second Lateran Council (1139) that it was made mandatory. (The rules of the non-priestly orders, including the nuns, were determined by the orders themselves.)

Celibacy, as a way of life, appears very early in the history of the Christian church. There is a strong biblical foundation for such a practice found in the following passages:

Matt 19:12 Jesus commends those who live celibately for the sake of God's kingdom. It is unlikely that He is referring to those who have made themselves eunuchs in a literal, physical sense. [3]

Acts 21:9 Philip the evangelist had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses implying that they were old enough to have been married.

1 Cor 7:1-7 Paul says that it is better not to marry unless this lifestyle would provide too great a temptation to illicite sexuality.

Rev 14:4 The 144,000 chosen by Jesus will be virgins.

Some non-Catholics would like to be able to undermine the Catholic practice of celibacy for priests and nuns. If they can prove that Mary did not remain a virgin, the basis for this practice will be shown to be false or perhaps even contrary to the gospel. Some also feel that to prove that Mary was not a virgin would lessen her worthiness for special devotion in the eyes of Catholics.

There is one more very important reason for this doctrine. In our day, virginity and chastity are being beseiged on every front. Even some churches deny that we are expected to flee fornication (1 Cor 6:18). The Church presents Mary as a model for us thereby presenting virginity and chastity as a positive value. Mary shows us that it is possible to resist sexual temptation, even though, as St. Joseph's wife, she had every right to do so. [2]

Did Mary take a vow of celibacy?

In Luke 1:34 the angel which appeared to Mary tells her that she will have a child. Mary responds in such a way as to indicate that she thought this to be impossible since she was still a virgin. [7] The Greek text literally says "since I do not know man" with "know" being the biblical euphemism for sexual relations. Mary was not ignorant of the facts of life and, since she was engaged to Joseph at this point, making sexual relations permissible according to their practice, [4] the answer should have been obvious to her unless there was some factor involved here which the gospel does not mention. I believe that the missing factor is a vow of virginity which Mary had taken some time prior to her engagement to Joseph.

While it is reasonable to say that the reason Mary could not understand how she could become pregnant since she and Joseph had apparently not yet engaged in sexual relations, it would have been logical for her to assume that either she and Joseph would soon do so, whether or not it was in the context of marriage. Mary's answer to the angel indicates that she expected to remain a virgin for her entire life, despite her betrothal to Joseph.

Nowhere in the Bible is it stated that Mary and Joseph engaged in sexual activity after the birth of Jesus nor does it specifically name any children as being their offspring. If it did then anything stated to the contrary would be in error. The Bible does state that they did not engage in sexual relations until the birth of Jesus, but it is silent regarding their marital activities after that point. Some would say that the use of the word "until" indicates that sexual activity did occur afterwards but this is due to an imposition of the English usage on the Greek text.

It should also be pointed out that there is nothing sinful about a marriage which the partners never consummate sexually. Some Christians, in an attempt to discredit the perpetual virginity, put forth the belief that Scripture says that to fail to have sexual relations within marriage would be a sin. However, whenever I have seen this claim made, there has been no reference to any passage from the Bible which would support this contention. Clearly, they are grasping at straws.

The passage in question is Matt 1:25 which says that Joseph and Mary did not have sexual relations until after the birth of Jesus. It is a common mistake to take the use of the word "until" in this verse to indicate that, after Jesus' birth, Mary and Joseph maintained the normal sex life of a married couple. However, this implication is not there in the original languages. In Matt 1:25, the Greek word translated 'until' is 'eos'. It is limited to the time period described and has no bearing on anything before or after the time period. Therefore, no conclusions about sexual relations between Mary and Joseph after this time can be derived from this verse. There are many passages in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, which are similar in structure but would be quite absurd if the assumption is made that the condition changed after the event in the "until" had occurred. Some examples are given below:

* Gen 8:5 In the account of Noah and the Ark we are told that the waters continued to decrease until the tenth month but we know that it continued to decrease afterwards.
* Gen 8:7 Here we are told that the raven did not return to the ark until the water had dried up when, in actuality, it never returned at all.
* Gen 26:13 Isaac continued to become richer until he was very rich. He did not cease to grow richer.
* Gen 28:3 When Isaac was sending Jacob off to Paddan-aram to find a wife he asked God to bless him until he became a mighty people. It is unlikely that he meant for God's blessing to stop at that point.
* Gen 28:15 God promised Jacob that He would not leave him until all that He had planned was accomplished. God was not planning to leave Jacob after that point.
* Ex 7:16 When Moses was trying to get Pharoh to let the Israelites go into the desert he said that they had not obeyed God on this until then. The Israelites were prevented from obeying even after this.
* Num 6:5 The Nazirite was expeced to be holy until the time for taking his vows was over. He was not free to stop being holy afterwards.
* Deut 9:7 Moses told the Israelites that they had been rebellious from the time they left Egypt until then. They did not stop being rebellious at this point, however.
* Deut 34:6 The author of this portion of the book tells us that until this time, the location of Moses' grave was unknown. He does not mean to say that it was discovered the day he wrote this portion.
* 1 Sam 15:35 The verse says that Samuel did not see Saul again until the day that he died. He did not see him afterwards either.
* 1 Sam 19:23 Saul prophesied until he arrived at Naioth in Ramah but he also prophesied after that.
* 2 Sam 6:23 This verse tells us that Michal (Saul's daughter and David's wife) had no children until the day of her death. Did she have any afterwards?
* 1 Macc 5:54 The soldiers were not slain until they returned in peace. Were they slain when they returned?

There are many more examples of this usage.

Some newer translations render Matt 1:25 as: "He had no relations with her at any time before she bore a son" (NAB) or "he had not known her when she bore a son" (Knox).

The best evidence for Mary having taken a vow of virginity comes from a work entitled the "Protoevangelium of James". This was written by a Christian, probably about the year 150 AD and not by either of the men of that name in the New Testament. Although never considered canonical, it was well-received by the Church. It relates the story of Mary's birth and childhood as well as the birth of Jesus.

What about the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus?

In several places the Bible makes reference to Jesus having "brothers" and "sisters". Here is a list of them:

Matt 12:46 "He [Jesus] was still speaking to the crowds when his mother and his brothers appeared; they were standing outside and were anxious to have a word with him." (JB)

Mark 3:31 "His mother and brothers now arrived and, standing outside, sent in a message asking for him." (JB)

Mark 6:3 "`This is the carpenter, surely, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joset and Jude and Simon? His sisters, too, are they not here with us?' And they would not accept him." (JB)

Luke 8:19-21 "His mother and his brothers came looking for him, but they could not get to him because of the crowd. He was told, `Your mother and brothers are standing outside and want to see you'. But he said in answer, `My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice.'" (JB)

John 7:5 "Not even his brothers had faith in him." (JB)

Acts 1:14 "All these joined in continuous prayer, together with several women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers." (JB)

1 Cor 9:5 "And the right to take a Christian woman round with us, like all the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?" (JB)

However, the Bible does not always use the terms "brother(s)", "sister(s)" or "brethren" to refer to children of the same parents. (The Bible also refers to St. Joseph as the father of Jesus.) In his defense of Mary's perpetual virginity, St. Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate lists four different usages of these terms in the Bible. They are:

* offspring of the same parents
* close relatives who are not offspring of the same parents including:
* children by a previous marriage
* cousins [It was common to have cousins in the household especially if they were being cared for because their natural parents had died.]

* any fellow Jew (Israelite)
* those who are followers of Jesus ("spiritual" brethren)

In this passage, it is most likely that the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus fall into category number two. It should be noted that it is not necessary that these people be either children from a previous marriage or all of them be cousins. Some of them may be cousins while others are children from Joseph's earlier marriage. I shall try to prove this from the Bible and from the writings of early believers.

This still provides us with several options: the "brethren" could be half-brothers (Mark 6:17 uses "adelphos" to describe the half-brothers Philip and Herod Antipas [10]), children of Joseph's from a previous marriage, or they could be cousins. Since they seem to be in the company of Mary quite often, this would tend to indicate the former. There are many scriptural examples of the term "brother" being applied to two people who did not share the same parents. Some are listed here:

Gen 14:14 Lot is refered to as Abraham's brother when actually, he was the son of Abraham's deceased brother, Aran (Gen 11:26-28). Thus Lot was really Abraham's nephew.

Gen 29:15 Jacob is called the "brother" of his uncle Laban.

1 Chron 23:21-22 The daughters of Cis and Eleazar married their "brethren" but Cis and Eleazar had no sons. The girls married their cousins.

In addition, sometimes the terms referred to someone who was kin, but not close kin (Deut 23:7; 2 Kings 10:13-14; Jer 34:9); a friend (2 Sam 1:26; 1 Kings 9:13; 20:32) or someone who was an ally (Amos 1:9).

The non-canonical Protoevangelium of James regards Jesus' "brothers" as children from a previous marriage of Joseph's (8:3; 9:2). It is also possible that they were cousins, since Aramaic/Hebrew lacks a simple term for this.

If the word could mean "brother" or "cousin", how do we know in which sense it is being used here? There are several passages in Scripture which give us a view to the relationship between Jesus and these individuals.

Mark 3:21 Jesus' "brothers" thought He was out of His mind and went to take charge of Him. No younger brother would ever make such an assessment of his older brother in Jesus' time. For them to have been older "brothers", they must have been the result of a prior marriage of Joseph's.

Mark 6:3 Jesus is referred to as "the son of Mary", not "a son of Mary". The Greek expression used here implies that He is he only son [Keating, 1988: 284].

Luke 2:41-51 This is the passage dealing with Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem at the age of twelve. Note that there is no mention of other children here.

John 7:3-4 A younger brother would not take it upon himself to advise an older brother. The reasoning here is similar to that given for Mark 3:21.

John 19:25-27 In this passage Jesus is on the cross and He tells John to take care of Mary, His mother. Apparently Joseph was dead by this time and Mary had no one to take care of her. If Jesus had brothers, Mary would have been their responsibility. Some people feel that Jesus did this not because He had no brothers, but because His brothers were not believers. The trouble with holding to this view is that

1) Turning Mary over to John's care flies in the face of the prevalent Jewish customs if there were other brothers to care for her.

2) These "brothers" thought that Jesus was not in the best of mental health. They most likely would have protested Jesus's action, especially since He was dying a criminal death, and taken their mother back from John. If they failed to do so, they would look bad to their neighbors.

3) Even though they were not believers then, Jesus would have known that they would be converted at Pentecost.

Since we know that Mary did remain in John's care, it is very unlikely that Jesus had brothers who were children of Mary and Joseph.

Why doesn't the Bible just use cousin, nephew or whatever when that is what is meant? Neither Hebrew nor Aramaic have a word for "cousin". [5] The idea could be expressed by saying "the son of my father's sister" or something similar, but that is very clumsy and would almost never be used. Greek does have a word for "cousin" (anepsios), and, since the New Testament was written in Greek, there would be no reason to use "brother". For the most part, however, it wasn't done that way. (Col 4:10 uses anepsios for cousin to describe the relationship between Mark and Barnabbas. However, this passage was written by the highly-educated Paul, not a Judean fisherman.) In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, "brother" (Greek "adelphos" for the Hebrew/Aramaic "ah") is used even when it is true cousins which were being discussed. The New Testament authors followed the Septuagint usage.

It is reasonable to ask if any of the people named as "brethren" can be demonstrated to be other than a true brother. Let's take the case of James. In Matthew's gospel (27:56) he reports that Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee were present at the crucifixion. (Some would say that the second Mary was the mother of Jesus, but then why not identify her as such rather than using the younger brothers.) Mark 15:40 identifies them as Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James the Less and Joseph, and Salome. But John 19:25 identifies the second Mary as the wife of Cleophas, not Joseph. Therefore, the mother of James the Less, Joseph and Salome was not the same Mary who gave birth to Jesus.

This James (the Less) is also identified as the son of Alphaeus in Matt 10:3. There are two possible explanations for this:

1) This Mary was originally married to Alphaeus, widowed and then married to Cleophas.

2) Alphaeus and Cleophas (Gr, Clopas) are the same person. He may have taken a Greek name similar to his Aramaic name, such as Saul when he changed his name to Paul.

Hegesippus, the second century historian, says that Cleophas was the brother of St. Joseph, making his sons Jesus' cousins, or brother in the Jewish usage of the time. [From a fragment recorded in Eusebius Pamphilius' Ecclesiastical History 3,11,1 and 4,22,4.]

If Jesus was the "first-born", wouldn't there be siblings?

There are two Greek words which are pertinent to this discussion: monogenes (only-born or only-begotten) and prototokos (first-born).

Those who reject the perpetual virginity of Mary point to the fact that the New Testament writers do not use "monogenes" to describe the relationship between Mary and Jesus and that "prototokos" is often used [Birch, 1960:59].

Jesus is called the first-born son of Mary (Luke 2:7). This being the case, does that not imply at least one other child if not more? Not really. The term "first-born" referred to the one who opened the womb (Ex 13:2; Num 3:12). It was the first-born who was to be redeemed (Ex 34:20). An only child would still be the first-born by virtue of the fact that he was still the one to open the womb.

Celibacy Was Uncommon

It might be protested that it was not common for a woman, especially a married woman to live celibately. We must keep in mind, however, that the Holy Family was not a typical family. After all, is it not unusual to have as a family member, the Son of God. While this, in itself, does not prove anything, it does prevent us from using, as an excuse, the normal practices of the day.

While it is true that celibacy was not a common practice in New Testament times, it was not unheard of. The Essenes, of Dead Sea Scroll fame, practiced celibacy and it is recorded that the prophetess Anna (Luke 2:36-38) remained unmarried after the death of her husband at an age when most other women would have remarried.

The Protoevangelium of James records some miraculous circumstances surrounding the childhood of Mary which led to her vow of virginity. No attempt is made to make it appear that what Mary did was common. It is, however, the most reasonable explanation for Mary's response at the Annunciation.

How Can an Unconsummated Marriage Be a True Marriage?

Under Catholic Canon Law, an unconsummated marriage can be annulled. The marriage partners are expected to make themselves available sexually to each other. If Mary and Joseph never consummated their marriage, was it a valid marriage?

Sacramental marriage, as the Catholic Church currently celebrates it, was established by Jesus. This occurred when Jesus raised the level of the Jewish practice at the wedding in Cana (John 2). From this point on, marriage would be a sign of His presence and a mirror of His love for His bride, the Church (CCC 1613). Therefore Mary and Joseph were not married in this manner and Canon Law, as it exists now, was not binding upon them.

Historical Overview

It is clear that the perpetual virginity of Mary was almost universally accepted by the Church from its earliest days. By the fourth century it was established dogma. [8] St. Jerome was the first to write an entire work (Against Helvidius) on the subject of Mary's perpetual virginity. [6] However, the doctrine was often mentioned by other early Church Fathers in their writings on other subjects.

Ignatius of Antioch (110 AD)

"Mary's virginity was hidden from the prince of this world...." (Letter to the Ephesians, 19) While he does not state that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus, he says nothing that would limit her virginity to the time before the birth of Jesus.

Justin Martyr

"by means of the Virgin became man, that by what way the disobedience arising from the serpent had its beginning, by that way also it might have an undoing. For Eve, being a virgin and undefiled, conceiving the word that was from the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death; but the Virgin Mary, taking faith and joy ... answered, 'be it to me according to Thy word'". (Tryph.)

Hegesippus (d. 175-180)

Although none of his writings are now extant, portions have survived by virtue of their being quoted by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. In a fragment quoted in Book II Chapter 23 Hegesippus refers to James the Just as the brother (Greek, adelphos) of the Lord.

Later, Eusebius has another quotation from him:

Now there still survived of the family of the Lord, grandsons of Judas, who was said to have been his brother (adelphon), according to the flesh, and they were delated as being of the family of David. [Ecc. Hist. Bk. III, Chap. 19]

According to Birch [1960:119] Eusebius uses the Greek "adelphos" (brother) to refer to Jesus' relationship with James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, and "anephion" (cousin) for the relationship of Jesus to Simeon, the son of Clopas and the second bishop of Jerusalem.

After James the Just had suffered martyrdom for the same reason as the Lord, Symeon, his cousin (Greek, anephion), the son of Clopas, was appointed bishop, whom they all proposed because he was cousin (anephion) of the Lord. [Ecc. Hist. Bk IV, Chap 22]

Even with this usage, it does not negate the possibility that James the Just was the brother of Jesus in the sense that he was the child of St. Joseph and an earlier wife. It is not unreasonable, given the closeness of families during this time, that brothers and cousins would live together. It would also explain why James acted toward Jesus as an older brother would and why there is no mention of any protest when Jesus placed Mary in the care of St. John rather than her next oldest son since none existed.

Clement of Alexandria (153-c. 215)

In a fragment of his works which appears in a Latin translation by M. Aurelius Cassiodorus (d. 560) Clement writes:

Jude, who wrote the Catholic Epistle, the brother of the sons of Joseph, and very religious, whilst knowing the near relationship of the Lord, yet did not say that he himself was a brother. But what said he? `Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ,' - of him as Lord; but `the brother of James.' For this is true; he was His brother, (the son) of Joseph.

According to his student, Origen of Alexandria, Clement held that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. It is most likely then that when James is referred to as the son of Joseph, it is referring to an earlier marriage. The passage does not state that James was the son of Joseph and Mary, only Joseph.

Clement is pointing out that Jude is not calling himself the brother of Jesus which is why it is so surprising that some anti-Catholic writers use this passage to bolster their claims that he was [Birch, 1960:123].

Tertullian (c. 160-c. 220)

Tertullian was originally a Christian, but he left the Church to join the Montanist heresy. He believed that Mary and Joseph had children after the birth of Jesus (De Monogamia, 8:2). Of course his heresy does not make him wrong on this point but it certainly does make him suspect, especially if his idea finds no support from those who remained true to the faith.

But with us there is no equivacation, nothing twisted into a double sense. Light is light; and darkness darkness; yea is yea; and nay, nay; whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. She who bare (really) bare; and although she was a virgin when she conceived, she was a wife when she brought forth her son. Now, as a wife, she was under the very law of "opening the womb," wherein it was quite immaterial whether the birth of the male was by virtue of a husband's cooperation or not ... Indeed she ought rather to be called not a virgin than a virgin, becoming mother at a leap, as it were, before she was a wife. And what must be said more on this point? Since it was in this sense that the apostle declared that the Son of God was born, not of a virgin, but "of a woman" he in that statement recognized the condition of the "opened womb" which ensues in marriage. (On the Flesh of Christ, 23)

In this work, written somewhere between 208 and 212 [9], Tertullian believes that Mary was a virgin when she conceived but from then on she was no longer to be considered a virgin. To back this up he quotes from St. Paul where he says that Jesus was born of woman instead of virgin (Gal 4:4).


"Eve ... becoming disobedient, became the cause of death both to herself and the whole human race, so also Mary ... being obedient, became both to herself and to the whole human race the cause of salvation". (Adv. Haer iii,22.34)

St. Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235)

In his work, Apostolic Tradition, he quotes from an ancient (mid-first century) creed, often referred to as the Roman Creed, which asks the question "Do you believe Christ Jesus ... who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary ...." Since this creed was written after the death of Joseph, the only person with whom she could have had sexual relations, and continued to be used after her own death, it is something that could not be do if she had not remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. (Since we don't know when Mary died, I am allowing for the possibility that she may still have been alive when the creed was first written. This may not have been the case.)

Origen of Alexandria (d. 253)

In his Homilies on Luke (#7) Origen calls `heretics' those who say that Jesus rejected His mother because she had intercourse with Joseph after His birth. He addresses the matter of Jesus' brothers and sisters in his Homily on Matthew (#1, 5) saying they were the children of Joseph by a previous marriage.

Origen, however, does not use the term `aeiparthenos' (Gr., ever-virgin) in any of his writings [Graef, 1963:45], but, as can be seen from the above, he most definitely held to the view regardless of his terminology.


Around the year 277 a dispute arose between Archelaus, the bishop of Mesopotamia, and Manes. The issue of who were the brothers of Jesus was discussed.

Athanasius (c. 296-373)

In his defense of orthodoxy against Arianism (Oratio II, 70) he refers to Mary as "ever-virgin". He also emphasizes the doctrine in his Letter to the Virgins. In this letter he uses Mary as a model for those who vowed to live a life of celibacy.

St. Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315-367)

Hilary referred to those who reject the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary as "irreligious and very far removed from spiritual teaching".

St. Basil the Great (of Caesarea) (c. 329-379)

Basil taught that "The friends of Christ refuse to admit that the Mother of God [Gr., theotokos] ever ceased to be a virgin".

Zeno, Bishop of Verona (363-372)

"She [Mary] was virgin after marriage, virgin after conception, virgin after her Son. Finally, if anything had been better than virginity, the Son of God would rather have given that to His mother, whereas he gave her to rejoice in the honor of divine virginity." [Tractatus, 1,5,3]

"Mary conceived as an incorrupt virgin, after conception she brought forth as a virgin, after giving birth she remained a virgin...." [Tractatus, 2,8,2]

"Mary brings forth not in sorrow, but in joy: the Son is born without a father ... who owes to himself that he is conceived, but gives to the Mother that he is born. She marvels that such a Son should have come forth from her, who could not be believed to have been born from her, had she not been an undefiled virgin after her conception and remained such after the birth." [Tractatus, 2,9,1]

Creed of Epiphanius (c. 374)

The Creed refers to Mary as "the ever-virgin Mary."

Gregory of Nazianzus (d.c. 390)

Gregory taught the perpetual virginity of Mary in his work, Contra Apolinarem, 6.

Didymus (d.c. 398)

Refers to Mary as Theotokos [On the Trinity, 1,31] and ever-virgin [1,27].

"For the most glorius Mary, more honorable than any other, was never married to anyone, nor ever became the mother of another; but she remained after her childbirth for ever an undefiled virgin." [On the Trinity, 3,4]

Epiphanius, Bishop of Salmis (d. 403)

In a work entitled "Refutation of all Heresies" he attacks the Antidicomarianites (Opponents of Mary - Heresy #78) who "dared to say that Holy Mary had intercourse with a man, that is to say Joseph, after the birth of Christ" [78,1].

In his work, Panarion, he referred to the idea that Mary did not remain a virgin as "unheard-of insanity and preposterous novelty". He was also responsible for the introduction of the phrase "ever virgin" into the Nicene Creed.

John Chrysostom (c. 347-407)

Rejects the idea that the text "before they came together" in Matthew's gospel requires that they do so later [Homily, 5,3].

Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (339-397)

Defended the perpetual virginity of Mary against Jovinian and Bonosus, bishop of Sardica.

"Christ ... however, being God, came to earth in an unusual way, as ... he was born from the immaculate Virgin ... But they say perversely: she conceived as a virgin, but she did not give birth as a virgin. So a virgin could conceive, but a virgin could not give birth, though the conception always precedes and the birth follows? But if they will not believe the teaching of the priests, they should believe the sayings of Christ, they should believe the admonitions of the angels who say: `No word shall be impossible with God.' (Luke 1:37) They should believe the Apostles' Creed, which the Roman Church always guards and preserves ... This is the Virgin, who has brought forth her Son. For thus it is written:`Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son'; for he says not only that a virgin shall conceive, but also that a virgin shall bring forth. For which is the gate of the sanctuary, that outer gate looking towards the east, which remains shut? (Ezek 44:1f) ... Is not this gate Mary, through whom the Savior entered this world ... who conceived and brought forth as a virgin?" [Epistle 42, 4-6]

Second Council of Constantinople (353-354 AD)

The documents of this council twice refer to Mary as "ever-virgin".

Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

Augustine taught that Mary had taken a vow of virginity based on the scripture "How shall this be done, because I know not man?"

"Therefore also is her virginity all the more pleasing and acceptable, because Christ did not prevent what he had preserved from being violated by a man only after he had been conceived, but had elected her from whom he was to be born after she had dedicated herself to God even before he was conceived. This is indicated by the words with which she answered the angel who announced to her that she was to have a child ... which she would certainly not have said if she had not vowed herself to God already before. But because such a thing had until then been rejected by the customs of the Israelites, she was betrothed to a just man, not that he should rob her of what she had already vowed, but rather that he should guard it against violation" [De Sancta Virginitate, 4,4].

"Her husband should be a witness of her virginal purity" [Sermo 225,2].

"Some want to deny Mary's virginity after she gave birth. Such a great sacrilege should not remain uncondemned."

St. Jerome

Around the year 382 Helvidius wrote a small book which asserted that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were offspring of Joseph and Mary conceived after the birth of Jesus. Almost nothing is known about Helvidius and the book has not survived but his points are known as a result of St. Jerome's refutation of his work, Adversus Helvidium de perpetua virginitate beate Mariae.


Birch [1960:114] quotes from the forged Second Epistle to St. John to support his case against Mary's perpetual virginity without noting that it was not written by St. Ignatius:

And in like manner (I desire to see) the venerable James, who is surnamed Just, whom they relate to be very like Christ Jesus in appearance [or, face; omitted in some mss.], in life, and in method of conduct, as if he were a twin brother of the same womb. They say that, if I see him, I see also Jesus Himself, as to all the features and aspects of His body.

First, similarity does not imply common lineage. We've all seen people who look very much like another person we know and there are some people who even make a living out of the fact that it is very difficult to distinguish them from someone famous. I happen to look very much like Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead; so much so that I have had people ask me for my autograph and start singing to me. However, I am not related to him. Birch ignores this and tries to build his case on the reported physical similarity. The author of this forgery does not state that James and Jesus were children of the same parents, only that they look alike.

Letter of Herod to Pilate

The letter of Herod to Pilate is not genuine. Our text of it comes from a Syriac manuscript dating to the sixth or seventh century. It teaches that the so-called brothers of Jesus were actually sons of Joseph by an earlier marriage.

Justinus, one of the writers that were in the days of Augustus and Tiberius and Gaius, wrote in his third discourse: Now Mary the Galilaean, who bare the Christ that was crucified in Jerusalem, had not been with a husband. And Joseph did not abandon her; but Joseph continued in sanctity without a wife, he and his five sons by a former wife; and Mary continued without a husband. (1)

Martin Luther's Writings

Christ ... was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him ... "brothers" really means "cousins" here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers. [Sermons on John, chapters 1-4, 1537-39]

He, Christ, our Savior, 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. [Sermons on John, chapters 1-4, 1537-39]

God says ... : "Mary's Son is My only Son." Thus Mary is the Mother of God. [Sermons on John, chapters 1-4, 1537-39]

God did not derive his divinity from Mary; but it does not follow that it is therefore wrong to say that God was born of Mary, that God is Mary's Son, and that Mary is God's mother... She is the true mother of God and bearer of God ... Mary suckled God, rocked God to sleep, prepared broth and soup for God, etc. For God and man are one person, one Christ, one Son, one Jesus, not two Christs ... just as your son is not two sons ... even though he has two natures, body and soul, the body from you, the soul from God alone. (On the Councils and the Church, 1539).



[1] I will use this term to refer to those churches which are under the authority of the pope, the Bishop of Rome, since it is the branch with these which I am most concerned. This is not meant to sleight other Catholic denominations which may or may not share the positions of the Catholic Church.

[2] One theory holds that Mary took a vow of virginity in which case she could not have engaged in sexual activity with Joseph without breaking the vow. This belief will be looked at in detail later.

[3] Origen took this passage literally and castrated himself.

[4] While I would not agree with the practice since I believe that it is God's plan that sex be limited to married couples, it was common at this time for engaged couples to have sexual relations. (They were not allowed to live together.) It must also be kept in mind that engagement was considered to be much more of a commitment than it is in our culture. A man who wished to dissolve the relationship was required to get a divorce just as if the couple had been married.

[5] Modern Hebrew has introduced a word for `cousin' but this word did not exist when the New Testament was being written. Ancient Hebrew/Aramaic could have used "ben-dod" to refer to the son of a paternal uncle but other cousin-type relationships would not be so easily rendered.

[6] A likely explanation for this would be that, as Jerome points out, with the exception of the heretic, Tertullian, no one even suggested that Mary did not remain a virgin for her entire life until Helvidius.

"Tertullian, the doughty African controversialist, beset by the necessity of combating the Docetists who held that Jesus was never truly born in the flesh, had maintained Mary's virginity only in the conception of Jesus, and relinquished it in and after her act of actually giving birth to her Son. Later on Bonosius and the Arian Helvidius were persuaded that Mary had other children after the birth of Jesus. But almost all the Fathers ranged themselves against this opinion, which their consensus adjudged to be blasphemous. They found its refutation in the figure of Mary as the Gospel shows her to us, and in the tradition of the Church." [Daniel-Rops, 1960:86]

[7] "The reply which she [Mary] made to the Angel: `How shall this be, seeing that I know not man?' would be meaningless unless it meant that she had made up her mind never to know man, that in other words, as Catholic faith expresses it, she had made a vow of virginity. Vows were regarded as having an important place in the lives of a people who were as strict as the Jews in the practice of their religion. In Deuteronomy (XXIII, 22, 24), Ecclesiastes (V, 3, 5), as well as in certain other parts of the Holy Scripture, attention is given to vows and to the matter of their regulation. In particular, it is known that Nazarites bound themselves, for a specified time, to observe chastity and certain forms of abstinence, and to restrain from cutting their hair. But did their exist a vow for women similar to that of the Nazarites among the men? Could it be possible, moreover, that such a vow would be accorded any real value inasmuch as it ran counter to the normal precept: `Increase and multiply.' In the Mishna there is to be read a Talmudic text which formally declares: `No one may vow to transgress the presepts of the Law.' This aspect of Jewish custom makes us realize how extraordinary and exceptional was Mary's vow of virginity." [Daniel-Rops, 1960:41-42]

[8] "It may be stated that at the end of the fourth century Mary's two fundamental characteristics, her divine maternity and her perpetual virginity were part of accepted doctrine." [Daniel-Rops, 1960:87]

[9] This was after he abandoned orthodox Christianity for the Montanist heresy.

[10] In other Greek literature the terms "adelphos homopatrios" ("brothers of the same father") or "adelphos ook homometrios" ("brothers not of the same mother") to refer to half-brothers who shared the same father but different mothers. Conversely, "adelphos homometrios" ("brothers of the same mother") or "adelphos ook homopatrios" ("brothers not of the same father") would be half-brothers of the same mother.

[11] Luther wrote "Christ our savior 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." (Luther's Works, Vol 22, 23).

[12] Calvin wrote "Helvidius has shown himself too ignorant, in saying that Mary had several sons, because mention is made in some passages of the brothers of Christ." Calvin also translated the Greek 'adelphoi' as cousins or relatives.

[13] Zwingli wrote "I firmly believe according to the words of the Gospel that a pure virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and remainded a virgin pure and intact in childbirth and also after the birth, for all eternity."


Birch, W. Grayson. 1960. Veritas and the Virgin. Berne, IN: Berne Witness, Inc.

Concetta, Sr., DSP. 1976. In the Light of the Bible, Vol. 1. Boston, MA: Daughters of St. Paul.

Daniel-Rops, Henri. 1960. The Book of Mary. New York: Hawthorne Books.

Graef, Hilda. 1963. Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion. (Vol. 1) Westminster, MD: Christian Classics

Jelly, Frederick M., OP. 1986. Madonna: Mary in the Catholic Tradition. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.

Keating, Karl. 1988. Catholicism and Fundamentalism. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

MacKinnon, Grace. 2003. "Mary: Really Married," Catholic Exchange, 16 Dec 2003. (www.catholicexchange.com/vm/index.asp?art_id=21619)

Schreck, Alan. 1983. What Do Catholics Believe About Mary? Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications.

Bible versions used:
JB - Jerusalem Bible
Knox - Knox translation
NAB - New American Bible
NJB - New Jerusalem Bible
RSV - Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition


© 2003, 2013 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.