The Witness of the Fathers and the Church to Mary’s Perpetual Virginity

We continue our look at the Perpetual Virginity of Mary and its significance from MARY, MOTHER OF THE SON.

Patristic sources who affirm that Mary’s Perpetual Virginity was taught by the Apostles include

  • the author of the Protoevangelium of James: “And behold, an angel of the Lord stood by [St. Anne], saying, ‘Anne! Anne! The Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive and shall bring forth, and your seed shall be spoken of in all the world.’ And Anne said, ‘As the Lord my God lives, if I beget either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God, and it shall minister to him in the holy things all the days of its life.’ . . . And [from the time she was three] Mary was in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there.”[1]

“And when she was twelve years old there was held a council of priests, saying, ‘Behold, Mary has reached the age of twelve years in the temple of the Lord. What then shall we do with her, lest perchance she defile the sanctuary of the Lord?’ And they said to the high priest, ‘You stand by the altar of the Lord; go in and pray concerning her, and whatever the Lord shall manifest to you, that also will we do.’ . . . [A]nd he prayed concerning her, and behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him saying, ‘Zechariah! Zechariah! Go out and assemble the widowers of the people and let them bring each his rod, and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be. . . . And Joseph [was chosen]. . . . And the priest said to Joseph, ‘You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the Virgin of the Lord.’ But Joseph refused, saying, ‘I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl.’”[2]

“And Annas the scribe came to him [ Joseph] . . . and saw that Mary was with child. And he ran away to the priest and said to him, ‘Joseph, whom you did vouch for, has committed a grievous crime.’ And the priest said, ‘How so?’ And he said, ‘He has defiled the virgin whom he received out of the temple of the Lord and has married her by stealth.’”[3]

“And the priest said, ‘Mary, why have you done this? And why have you brought your soul low and forgotten the Lord your God?’ . . . And she wept bitterly saying, ‘As the Lord my God lives, I am pure before him, and know not man.’”[4]

  • Origen: “The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James [records] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word . . . might not know intercourse with a man after the Holy Spirit came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity.”[5]
  • Hilary of Poitiers: “If they [the brethren of the Lord] had been Mary’s sons and not those taken from Joseph’s former marriage, she would never have been given over in the moment of the passion [crucifixion] to the apostle John as his mother, the Lord saying to each, ‘Woman, behold your son,’ and to John, ‘Behold your mother’ (John 19:26–27), as he bequeathed filial love to a disciple as a consolation to the one desolate.”[6]
  • Athanasius: “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.”[7]
  • Epiphanius of Salamis: “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things, both visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, 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.”[8]

“And to holy Mary, [the title] ‘Virgin’ is invariably added, for that holy woman remains undefiled.”[9]

  • Jerome: “[Helvidius] produces Tertullian as a witness [to his view] and quotes Victorinus, bishop of Petavium. Of Tertullian, I say no more than that he did not belong to the Church. But as regards Victorinus, I assert what has already been proven from the gospel—that he [Victorinus] spoke of the brethren of the Lord not as being sons of Mary but brethren in the sense I have explained, that is to say, brethren in point of kinship, not by nature. [By discussing such things we] are . . . following the tiny streams of opinion. Might I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men, who against [the heretics] Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus, held these same views and wrote volumes replete with wisdom. If you had ever read what they wrote, you would be a wiser man.”[10]

“We believe that God was born of a virgin, because we read it. We do not believe that Mary was married after she brought forth her Son, because we do not read it. . . . You [Helvidius] say that Mary did not remain a virgin. As for myself, I claim that Joseph himself was a virgin, through Mary, so that a virgin Son might be born of a virginal wedlock.”[11]

  • Didymus the Blind: “It helps us to understand the terms ‘first-born’ and ‘only-begotten’ when the Evangelist tells that Mary remained a virgin ‘until she brought forth her firstborn son’ [Matt. 1:25]; for neither did Mary, who is to be honored and praised above all others, marry anyone else, nor did she ever become the Mother of anyone else, but even after childbirth she remained always and forever an immaculate virgin.”[12]
  • Ambrose of Milan: “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.”[13]
  • Pope Siricius I: “You had good reason to be horrified at the thought that another birth might issue from the same virginal womb from which Christ was born according to the flesh. For the Lord Jesus would never have chosen to be born of a virgin if he had ever judged that she would be so incontinent as to contaminate with the seed of human intercourse the birthplace of the Lord’s body, that court of the eternal king.”[14]
  • Augustine: “In being born of a Virgin who chose to remain a Virgin even before she knew who was to be born of her, Christ wanted to approve virginity rather than to impose it. And he wanted virginity to be of free choice even in that woman in whom he took upon himself the form of a slave.”[15]

“It was not the visible sun, but its invisible Creator who consecrated this day for us, when the Virgin Mother, fertile of womb and integral in her virginity, brought him forth, made visible for us, by whom, when he was invisible, she too was created. A Virgin conceiving, a Virgin bearing, a Virgin pregnant, a Virgin bringing forth, a Virgin perpetual. Why do you wonder at this, O man?”[16]

“Heretics called Antidicomarites are those who contradict the perpetual virginity of Mary and affirm that after Christ was born she was joined as one with her husband.”[17]

  • Leporius: “We confess, therefore, that our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, born of the Father before the ages, and in times most recent, made man of the Holy Spirit and the ever-virgin Mary.”[18]
  • Cyril of Alexandria: “[T]he Word himself, coming into the Blessed Virgin herself, assumed for himself his own temple from the substance of the Virgin and came forth from her a man in all that could be externally discerned, while interiorly he was true God. Therefore he kept his Mother a virgin even after her childbearing.”[19]
  • Pope Leo I: “The origin [of Christ] is different but the nature like: not by intercourse with man but by the power of God was it brought about: for a Virgin conceived, a Virgin bare, and a Virgin she remained.”[20]
  • and the dogmatic teaching of the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, Canon 2: “If anyone does not confess that God the Word was twice begotten, the first before all time from the Father, non-temporal and bodiless, the other in the last days when he came down from the heavens and was incarnate by the holy, glorious, God-bearer, ever-virgin Mary, and born of her, let him be anathema.”[21]

And they’re only the beginning. For the entirety of Christian history until roughly the seventeenth century, Christians agreed with them—except for two guys.

Those two guys are:

  • Tertullian, a fierce North African lawyer and defender of the faith who lived in the late-second and early-third century. He fell prey to a spiritual disease that sometimes afflicts those who come to love apologetics more than they love Jesus: Tertullian got so intent on building up antibodies against heresy that he eventually contracted a sort of spiritual auto-immune disease and started building antibodies against the Body of Christ itself. Eventually, he abandoned Christianity for Montanism. But along the way, Tertullian wrote some brilliant—and virulent—stuff. He did nothing by halves, and he was no stranger to the deep end when it came to contradicting his opponents. And so, when he encountered Docetists (people who denied Jesus was truly human), Tertullian countered by arguing that not only was Jesus human, but his mother, being herself fully human, must have had a bushel of other kids, too! True to form, Tertullian didn’t argue this from biblical evidence (because, as we’ve seen, there isn’t any), but from his own polemical needs at the moment. In fact, Tertullian’s passionate opposition to Docetism also prompted him to argue that Jesus was ugly![22] He was an extremist with an axe to grind and a blinding need to win an argument at any cost, not a very reliable witness to the constant faith of other Christians.
  • Helvidius, who lived in the fourth century. He wrote a pamphlet (lost to history) that argued most of the same things that Evangelicals argue against Mary’s Perpetual Virginity. How does Helvidius know Mary had other kids? He doesn’t. He just cites Tertullian and says that it seems to him she must have had them, using all the misreadings of Scripture we have just looked at and discredited.

It’s worth noting that when Jerome wrote his famous refutation Against Helvidius in defense of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, his argument was seen by all his contemporaries as completely non-controversial: It was Helvidius who was universally regarded throughout Christendom as the kook. Jerome’s view was regarded as simply normal by Christians everywhere. And that remained true right down through the Reformation, whose leading lights, such as

  • Luther: “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”[23]

“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.”[24]

“A new lie about me is being circulated. I am supposed to have preached and written that Mary, the mother of God, was not a virgin either before or after the birth of Christ . . .”[25]

“Scripture does not say or indicate that she later lost her virginity . . .When Matthew[1:25] says that Joseph did not know Mary carnally until she had brought forth her son, it does not follow that he knew her subsequently; on the contrary, it means that he never did know her . . . This babble . . . is without justification . . . he has neither noticed nor paid any attention to either Scripture or the common idiom.”[26]

  • Calvin: “Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ’s ‘brothers’ are sometimes mentioned,”[27]

[On Matt 1:25:] “The inference he [Helvidius] 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 . . . No just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words . . . 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 . . . What took place afterwards the historian does not inform us . . . No man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation.”[28]

“Under the word ‘brethren’ the Hebrews include all cousins and other relations, whatever may be the degree of affinity.”[29]

  • Huldrych Zwingli: “I firmly believe that Mary, according to the words of the Gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin.”[30]
  • and even John Wesley: “I believe . . . he [Jesus Christ]was born of the blessed Virgin, who, as well after as she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.”[31]

also accepted Mary’s Perpetual Virginity as clear and unarguable biblical teaching. Far from “contradicting” Scripture, the dogma of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity is at least as well attested, both biblically and historically, as the dogma of the Trinity.

[1] Protoevangelium of James 4, 8. Link available as of August 5, 2015.

[2] Ibid., 8–9.

[3] Ibid., 15.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Commentary on Matthew 10:17. Link available as of August 5, 2015.

[6] Commentary on Matthew 1:4.

[7] Four Discourses Against the Arians 2:70.

[8] Ancoratus 120.

[9] Panarion 78:6.

[10] Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary 19. Link available as of August 5, 2015.

[11] Ibid., 21.

[12] The Trinity 3:4.

[13] Letter 63:111. Link available as of August 5, 2015.

[14] Letter to Bishop Anysius.

[15] Of Holy Virginity 4:4.

[16] Sermons 186:1.

[17] Heresies 56.

[18] Document of Amendment 3.

[19] Against Those Who Do Not Wish to Confess That the Holy Virgin Is the Mother of God 4.

[20] Sermons 22:2, a.d. 450.

[21] Note that these sources span a period of time from about a.d. 150 to a.d. 553. That’s longer than the span of time separating us from William Shakespeare, Plymouth Rock, and the publication of the King James Bible.

[22] Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, 9.

[23] Luther’s Works, eds. Jaroslav Pelikan, vols. 1–30, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vols. 31–55 (St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Pub. House, vols. 1–30; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, vols. 31–55, 1955, v. 22:23, Sermons on John, chaps. 1–4, 1539).

[24] Ibid., Pelikan, v. 22:214–15.

[25] Ibid., Lehmann, v. 45:199, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, 1523.

[26] Ibid., Lehmann, v. 45:206, 212–3, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, 1523.

[27] Harmony of Matthew, Mark & Luke, sec. 39, Geneva, 1562, vol. 2, from Calvin’s Commentaries, tr. William Pringle, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949, 215; on Matthew 13:55).

[28] Ibid., Pringle, vol. 1, 107.

[29] Ibid., Pringle, vol. 1, 283, Commentary on John, 7:3.

[30] Zwingli Opera (Corpus Reformatorum, Berlin, 1905, v. 1), 424.

[31] “Letter to a Roman Catholic,” quoted in A.C. Coulter, John Wesley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964) 495.


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