Perpetual Virginity of Mary

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The Perpetual Virginity of Mary is a Catholic and Orthodox doctrine of faith which states that Mary, the mother of Jesus, remained an actual virgin, implying both "virginal disposition" and "physical integrity", before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. This included the conception and birth of Jesus, and the remainder of the life of Mary. God is believed to have arranged miracles in relation to the conception and birth, while Mary's own holiness and dedication to her role as the mother of God are the basis for her having remained a virgin throughout her life.


Scope of belief

The Eastern Orthodox churches venerate Mary partly in relation to this doctrine, as do Catholics. Protestants such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli did as well. [1] ( Presently among Protestants, doctrinal (or official) belief is varied. Most Protestant churches do not have this doctrine. Among ecclesial communions which cleave to this doctrinal position, the actual faithful do not all give it their positive assent, which may be related to sociologists' observations that religion is now less important on a daily basis to the people than it was in earlier centuries. Research by many groups, including Christian Research, indicates that among both the clergy and the laity (in all branches of Christianity) belief in central tenets of the faith such as Virgin Birth or bodily Resurrection is highly variable: for example, among male clergy in the English Affirming Catholicism group less than 25% believe in the Virgin Birth. Mary's perpetual virginity is also a doctrine of Islam, stated in the Qur'an.

Spiritual significance of the doctrine

Those who do believe sing hymns and say prayers daily or weekly in relation to Mary, usually mentioning her perpetual virginity. In some modern spiritual writings, Mary's virginity is cited as a counter-example to current sexual mores. In spiritual writings more generally, her virginity is cited as an expression of holiness, devotion, and loving self-denial. In some of St. Augustine's writings he gives her virginity as an example of the mystery of God. Other spiritual writings have mentioned Mary's great humility, which is connected with the sparse mention of her in Scripture and with her willingness to be virginal in order to carry out a part of God's plan. Some writers give Mary as an example of spiritual integrity, of which her virginal integrity is a sign. Over the centuries, it has been a tradition for some of the faithful to consecrate themselves to God, partly by remaining virgins, which is called the "charism of virginity".

History and details of the doctrine

Earliest centuries

The virginity of Mary was, from the earliest years of the faith, considered as hidden a mystery as the death of the Savior. "The virginity of Mary, her giving birth, and also the death of the Lord, were hidden from the prince of this world: — three mysteries loudly proclaimed, but wrought in the silence of God" (St. Ignatius of Antioch [2] (, died c. 107, Jurgens §42). These elements of faith are, in this very early example, given some sense of equality, and the former thereby strongly affirmed in terms of the central event.

The apocryphal books Protoevangelium of James, believed to have been written c. 125150, ¹ and the "Gospel of the Nativity of Mary," whose date is unknown, translated from the Hebrew by Jerome, both mention the doctrine, illustrating prior belief. James is concerned with the character and purity of Mary [3] ( and is the first literature to attest her perpetual virginity (James chs. 7 - 8). Aristides of Athens ([4] (, [5] (, c. 140, stated of Jesus: "He was born of a holy Virgin" (Jurgens §112).

Among the Church fathers, Tertullian is unusual in accepting the virgin birth (Jurgens §277) but also the notion of later childbearing by Mary (Jurgens §359). Athanasius, in Orations against the Arians, II:70 written 362 refers in passing to Mary as "Mary Ever-Virgin", implying all three areas of virginity.

The teaching of Jovinian, that as a virgin Mary conceived, but that the act of childbirth ended her physical virginity was rejected at a synod at Milan (390), presided over by Ambrose, which recalled the Apostles Creed, "born of the Virgin Mary". St. Pope Siricius [6] (, wrote in 392 to the Bishop of Thessalonica: "Surely, we cannot deny that regarding the sons of Mary the statement is justly censured, and your holiness has rightly abhorred it, that from the same virginal womb, from which according to the flesh Christ was born, another offspring was brought forth" (Denziger §91).

Jerome described Mary in relation to virginity in his famous essay Against Helvetius, ch. 21:

"But as we do not deny what is written, so we do reject what is not written. We believe that God was born of the Virgin, because we read it. That Mary was married after she brought forth, we do not believe, because we do not read it. Nor do we say this to condemn marriage, for virginity itself is the fruit of marriage; but because when we are dealing with saints we must not judge rashly. If we adopt possibility as the standard of judgment, we might maintain that Joseph had several wives because Abraham had, and so had Jacob, and that the Lord's brethren were the issue of those wives, an invention which some hold with a rashness which springs from audacity not from piety. You say that Mary did not continue a virgin: I claim still more, that Joseph himself on account of Mary was a virgin, so that from a virgin wedlock a virgin son was born. For if as a holy man he does not come under the imputation of fornication, and it is nowhere written that he had another wife, but was the guardian of Mary whom he was supposed to have to wife rather than her husband, the conclusion is that he who was thought worthy to be called father of the Lord, remained a virgin."

To Eustochium, Jerome wrote: "For me, virginity is consecrated in the persons of Mary and of Christ." He encouraged others to "[s]et before you the blessed Mary, whose surpassing purity made her meet to be the mother of the Lord."

Relevant scriptural citations

A partial list of common reference points:

  • Isaiah 7:14 ( ("a virgin shall conceive..." although this translation is disputed by Jews)
  • Ezekiel 44:2 ( ("This gate ... because the Lord the God of Israel hath entered in by it, and it shall be shut")
  • Matthew 1:18 ("with child, of the Holy Ghost")
  • Luke 1:27 ( ("the virgin's name was Mary")
  • Luke 1:34 ( ("How shall this be done, because I know not man?")
  • Luke 2:41-51 ( (No other children mentioned as Jesus and parents go to Jerusalem for the pasch)
  • John 19:26 ( (Entrusted Mary to John not to a sibling)

Continuity over time

In A.D. 649 (the Lateran Synod) a statement covering the three specific aspects of virginity — before, during, and after the birth of Jesus — was issued. St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) taught (Summa Theologica III.28.2 (, in reply to three objections based on logic and observed facts of nature, that Mary gave birth painlessly in miraculous fashion without opening of the womb and without injury to the hymen. Pope Paul IV affirmed the three-fold belief in an ecclesiastical constitution, Cum quorundam, August 7, 1555, at the Council of Trent (Denziger §993). The doctrine has been affirmed by the Roman Catholic Church as recently as the 1990s. [7] (

Expressed in iconography

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. These three stars represent her virginity before giving birth, while giving birth, and after giving birth in iconography.

Interreligious theological discussion

References in the New Testament to Jesus' "brothers" and "sisters," who were revered after the Crucifixion, especially among Christians in Jerusalem, as the Desposyni are cited as a basis for believing that Mary and Joseph, her spouse, had normal marital relations. Besides his mother Mary and his earthly father Joseph, the Desposyni included Jesus' unnamed sister or sisters, and his brothers James the Just, Joses, Simon and the "twin" Jude Thomas. That the books repeatedly refer to the "brothers of Jesus" are explained in Catholic tradition as other blood relatives (possibly children by an earlier marriage of Joseph for Eastern Orthodoxy or cousins for Roman Catholicism) or to relatives in a "spiritual" sense only, not literal brothers and a sister in the typical English connotation of the term. Protestants point especially to Matthew 1:25 that describes Jesus as "her firstborn son" and states that the virginity persisted until the birth of Jesus. Catholics and Orthodox to refer to the Old Testament law of "first borns" (Exodus 13 (, Numbers 18:15 (, which post-Temple Jews still adhere to in "redeeming" their first-borns in a "pidyon ha-ben." In this sense "first born" would include an only child. They also believe the Greek grammar, unlike the English, does not imply that sexual relations began after the birth of Jesus. Catholics, and most Protestants, believe that the "coming together" prior to the birth of Jesus in Mt 1:18 and 1:24 refers to the Old Testament and post-Temple Jewish rite of "home-taking" ("nisuin") which comes one year after a betrothal ("kuddushin"), said betrothal being legally binding, but an "actual but incomplete marriage."

The Qur'an says Mary remained a virgin; for Christians this is not indicative as Muslim teaching related to Jesus and his family appears to draw from both orthodox Christian and Gnostic teachings of the time.

See also

Assumption of Mary, Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception, Theotokos

External references


1 Lower range from Protoevangelium of St. James, from "The Orthodox Web Site for information about the faith, life and worship of the Orthodox Church", [8] (, retrieved 14 June 2004; Mary, Ever Virgin, from "Catholic Answers",[9] (, retrieved 14 June 2004 (suggests ca. 120 authorship). Later date commonly mentioned in other sources.


fr:Virginité perpétuelle de Marie


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