The perpetual virginity of Mary is one of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church, and states that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin ante partum, in partu, et post partum—before, during and after the birth of Christ. In Western Christianity, some Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican and a few other Protestant theologians adhere to the doctrine; Eastern Orthodox churches recognize Mary as Aeiparthenos, meaning "ever-virgin".[Notes 1] Modern Protestants have largely rejected the doctrine.
The problem facing theologians who want to maintain Mary's perpetual virginity is that the New Testament explicitly affirms her virginity only prior to the conception of Jesus and mentions his brothers, (adelphoi), with Mark and Matthew recording their names and Mark adding unnamed sisters. The word adelphos only very rarely means other than a physical or spiritual sibling, and the most natural inference is that Joseph and Mary had other children after the birth of Jesus.
The tradition of the perpetual virginity of Mary first appears in a late 2nd century text called the Gospel of James. It was established as orthodoxy at the Council of Ephesus in 431, the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 gave her the title "Aeiparthenos", meaning Perpetual Virgin, 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.
Mary's pre-birth virginity is attested in the Gospel of Matthew and in the Gospel of Luke, but there is no biblical basis for the idea of her perpetual virginity. This first appears in a late 2nd century text called the Protoevangelium of James, in which 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. The Protoevangelium was widely distributed and seems to have been used to create the stories of Mary which are found in the Quran, 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.
By the early 4th century the spread of monasticism had promoted celibacy as the ideal state. Athanasius of Alexandria (d.393) declared Mary Aeiparthenos, "ever-virgin", and the liturgy of James the brother of Jesus likewise required a declaration of Mary as ever-virgin. A moral hierarchy was established with marriage occupying the third rank below life-long virginity and widowhood, Eastern theologians generally accepted Mary as Aeiparthenos, but many in the Western church were less convinced. The theologian Helvidius objected to the devaluation of marriage inherent in this view and argued that the two states, of virginity and marriage, were equal. His contemporary Jerome, realising that this would lead to the Mother of God occupying a lower place in heaven than virgins and widows, defended her perpetual virginity in his immensely influential Against Helvidius, issued c.383.
Helvidius soon faded from the scene, but in the 380s and 390s the monk Jovinian followed him in denying Mary's perpetual virginity, writing that if Jesus did not undergo a normal human birth then he himself was not human, which was the teaching of the heresy known as Manicheism. Jerome wrote against Jovinian but failed to mention this aspect of his teaching, and most commentators believe that he did not find it offensive. The only important Christian intellectual to defend Mary's virginity in partu was Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan, who was the chief target of the charge of Manicheism. For Ambrose, both the physical birth of Jesus by Mary and the baptismal birthing of Christians by the Church had to be totally virginal, even in partu, in order to cancel the stain of original sin, of which the pains of labor are the physical sign. It was due to Ambrose that virginitas in partu came to be included consistently in the thinking of subsequent theologians.
Jovinian was condemned as a heretic at a Synod of Milan under Ambrose's presidency in 390 and Mary's perpetual virginity was established as the only orthodox view, although it was not until the Council of Ephesus in 431 that a fully general consensus was established. Further developments were to follow when the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 formally gave her the title "Aeiparthenos", 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.
The Protestant Reformation 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. It also brought with it the idea of the Bible as the fundamental source of authority regarding God's word (sola scriptura), and the reformers noted that while holy scripture explicitly required belief in the virgin birth, it only permitted the acceptance of perpetual virginity. Despite the lack of clear biblical support for the doctrine, it was supported by Martin Luther (who included reference to it in the Smalcald Articles, a Lutheran confession of faith written in 1537)., Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and later Protestant leaders including John Wesley, the co-founder of Methodism. 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. Notwithstanding the acceptance of the earliest reformers, modern Protestants have largely rejected the perpetual virginity of Mary and it has rarely appeared explicitly in confessions or doctrinal statements.
The Second Council of Constantinople recognised Mary as Aeiparthenos, meaning "ever-virgin". It remains axiomatic for the Eastern Orthodox Church that she remained virginal throughout her Earthly life, and Orthodoxy therefore understands the New Testament references to the brothers and sisters of Jesus as signifying his kin, but not the biological children of his mother.
The Latin Church, known more commonly today as the Catholic Church, shared the Council of Constantinople with the theologians of the Greek or Orthodox communion, and therefore shares with them the title Aeiparthenos as accorded to Mary. The Catholic Church has gone further than the Orthodox in making the Perpetual Virginity one of the four Marian dogmas, meaning that it is held to be a truth divinely revealed, the denial of which is heresy. It declares her virginity before, during and after the birth of Jesus, or in the definition formulated by Pope Martin I at the Lateran Council of 649:
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 admitted that reason could not prove this, but argued that it must be accepted because it was "fitting", for 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. Symbolically, the perpetual virginity of Mary signifies a new creation and a fresh start in salvation history. It has been stated and argued repeatedly, most recently by the Second Vatican Council:
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)
The major problem facing theologians wishing to maintain Mary's life-long virginity is that the Pauline epistles, the four gospels, and the Acts of the Apostles, all mention the brothers (adelphoi) of Jesus, with Mark and Matthew recording their names and Mark adding unnamed sisters.[Notes 2] The Gospel of James, followed a century later by Epiphanius, explained that the adelphoi are Joseph's children by an earlier marriage, which is still the view of the Eastern Orthodox Christian churches. Jerome, believing that Joseph, like Mary, must be a life-long virgin, argued that these adelphoi were the sons of "Mary, the mother of James and Joses" (Mk. 15:40), who he identified with the wife of Clopas and sister of the virgin Mary (Jn 19:25). which remains popular in the Western church. A modern proposal considers these adelphoi sons of "Mary, the mother of James and Joses" (not here identified with the Virgin Mary's sister), and Clopas, who according to Hegesippus was Joseph's brother.
Further scriptural difficulties were added by Luke 2:7, which calls Jesus the "first-born" son of Mary, and Matthew 1:25, which adds that Joseph "did not know her until she had brought forth her firstborn son." [Notes 3] Helvidius argued that first-born implies later births, and that the word "until" left open the way to sexual relations after the birth; Jerome, replying that even an only son will be a first-born and that "until" did not have the meaning Helvidius construed for it, painted a repulsive word-portrait of Joseph having intercourse with a blood-stained and exhausted Mary immediately after she has given birth - the implication, in his view, of Helvidius's arguments. Opinions on the quality of Jerome's rebuttal range from the view that it was masterful and well-argued to thin, rhetorical and sometimes tasteless.
Two other 4th century Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine, advanced a further argument by reading Luke 1:34 as a vow of perpetual virginity on Mary's part; this idea, first introduced in the Protoevangelium of James, has little scholarly support today, but it and the arguments advanced by Jerome and Ambrose were put forward by Pope John Paul II in his catechesis of August 28, 1996, as the four facts supporting the Church's ongoing faith in Mary's perpetual virginity.
"Against Heresies 3.21.4". New Advent. c. 180. Retrieved 2021-12-30.
To this effect they testify, [saying,] that before Joseph had come together with Mary, while she therefore remained in virginity, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost; Matthew 1:18 and that the angel Gabriel said to her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon you, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of God; Luke 1:35 and that the angel said to Joseph in a dream, Now this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, Behold, a virgin shall be with child. Matthew 1:23
"Against Heresies 3.21.10". New Advent. c. 180. Retrieved 2021-12-30.
And as the protoplast himself Adam, had his substance from untilled and as yet virgin soil (for God had not yet sent rain, and man had not tilled the ground Genesis 2:5), and was formed by the hand of God, that is, by the Word of God, for all things were made by Him, John 1:3 and the Lord took dust from the earth and formed man; so did He who is the Word, recapitulating Adam in Himself, rightly receive a birth, enabling Him to gather up Adam [into Himself], from Mary, who was as yet a virgin.
While the perpetual virginity of Mary is held as a pious opinion by many Lutheran confessors, it is not regarded as a binding teaching of the Scriptures.
Partly because of these biblical problems, the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary has not been supported as unanimously as has the doctrine of the virginal conceptioon or title mother of God. It achieved dogmatic status, however, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 and is therefore binding upon Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic believers; in addition, it is maintained by many Anglican, some Lutheran, and a few other Protestant theologians.