The Vladimir Eleusa icon of the Ever Virgin Mary. The Aeiparthenos (Ever Virgin) title is widely used in Orthodox liturgy, and icons show her with three stars, on her shoulders and forehead, symbolising her threefold virginity.[1]

The perpetual virginity of Mary is a Christian doctrine that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin "before, during and after" the birth of Christ.[2] In Western Christianity, the Catholic Church adheres to the doctrine, as do some Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed, and other Protestants.[3][4][5][6][7] The Oriental Orthodox Churches also adhere to this doctrine as part of their ongoing tradition,[8] and Eastern Orthodox churches recognize Mary as Aeiparthenos, meaning "ever-virgin".[9] It is one of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church.[10] Most modern nonconformist Protestants reject the doctrine.[11]

The extant written tradition of the perpetual virginity of Mary first appears in a late 2nd-century text called the Protoevangelium of James.[12] 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 emphasized the threefold character of the perpetual virginity, before, during, and after the birth of Christ.[13] The Lutheran Smalcald Articles (1537) and the Reformed Second Helvetic Confession (1562) codified the doctrine of perpetual virginity of Mary as well.[14][3]

The doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity has been challenged on the basis that the New Testament explicitly affirms her virginity only until the birth of Jesus[15] and mentions the brothers (adelphoi) of Jesus,[16][17] who may have been: (1) sons of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Joseph; (2) sons of the Mary named in Mark 15:40 as "mother of James and Joses", whom Jerome identified as a sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus; or (3) sons of Joseph by a former marriage.[18]

Origin and history

Virginitas in partu: 1st century

The Odes of Solomon have been interpreted as implying that Mary was a virgin even during childbirth as well as stating that Mary did not have pain during childbirth.[19] Similar statements exist in the Ascension of Isaiah.[20][21]

2nd century

Clement of Alexandria (150–215 AD) was an early proponent of the perpetual virginity of Mary.[22]

The virgin birth of Jesus is found in the Gospel of Matthew and possibly in Luke, but it seems to have little theological importance before the middle of the 2nd century.[23] The 2nd century Church fathers Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, though mentioning the virgin birth, nowhere affirmed explicitly the view that Mary was a perpetual virgin.[24] This idea, however, appears in at least three second-century works: the Protoevangelium of James,[12] the Gospel of Peter[25][26] and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.[27] All of these early sources independently assert that the so-called "brothers of the Lord" were children of Joseph's first marriage.[27] According to Protestant scholar Richard Bauckham, these works "show no signs of literary relationship"[27] and probably "evidence of a well-established tradition in (probably early) second-century Syrian Christianity that Jesus' brothers and sisters were children of Joseph by a previous marriage".[27] According to Richard Bauckham, Ignatius of Antioch also believed in the doctrine of Mary's virginity in partu.[27]

The Gospel of James states that Mary remained a life-long virgin, because Joseph was an old man who married her without physical desire, and the brothers of Jesus mentioned in the canonical gospels are explained as Joseph's sons by an earlier marriage.[28] The Protoevangelium seems to have been used to create the stories of Mary which are found in the Quran,[29] 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.[30] The Second Apocalypse of James portrays James, the Brother of the Lord, not as a child of Joseph but of a certain "Theudas", a relative of the Lord.[31]

Hegesippus's writings are not clear on this subject, with some authors arguing that he defended the doctrine,[32] while others arguing that he disputed the perpetual virginity of Mary.[33]

The Ebionites denied the virgin birth and Mary's perpetual virginity.[34][35]

Early uncertainty: 3rd century

In the 3rd century, Hippolytus of Rome held that Mary was "ever-virgin",[36] while Clement of Alexandria, writing soon after the Protoevangelium appeared, appealed to its incident of a midwife who examined Mary immediately after the birth ("after giving birth, she was examined by a midwife, who found her to be a virgin") and asserted that this was to be found in the Gospels ("These things are attested to by the Scriptures of the Lord"), though he was referring to an apocryphal Gospel as a fact. The 3rd century scholar Origen used the Protoevangelium's explanation of the brothers to uphold the perpetual virginity of Mary ("There is no child of Mary except Jesus, according to those who think correctly about her").[22] Origen also mentioned that the gospel of Peter affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary, saying that the "brothers" of Jesus were from a previous marriage of Joseph.[25][26]

Tertullian, who came between Clement and Origen, denied Mary's virginity in partu to refute the docetist idea that the Son of God could not have assumed a human body ("although she was a virgin when she conceived, she was a wife when she brought forth her son").[37] Tertullian, however, is not entirely clear on the issue of Mary's virginity post partum, with some scholars denying his traditional association with the Helvidian position.[38][39][40]

Helvidius also argued that Victorinus believed that Mary had other children;[41] Jerome later claimed that Helvidius was misinterpreting Victorinus.[42] Epiphanius invented a name "Antidicomarians" for a group of people who denied the perpetual virginity of Mary, which Epiphanius attacked.[43] Their same views were also mentioned earlier by Origen, although he too rejected them as heretical.[44] They were active from the 3rd to the 5th century.[45]

According to Epiphanius the Antidicomarians claimed that Apollinaris of Laodicea or his disciples denied the perpetual virginity of Mary, though Epiphanius doubted the claim.[46]

Early Christian theologians such as Hippolytus[47] (170–235), Eusebius (260/265–339/340) and Epiphanius (c. 310/320–403) defended the perpetual virginity of Mary.

Establishment of orthodoxy: 4th century

By the early 4th century the spread of monasticism had promoted celibacy as the ideal state,[48] and a moral hierarchy was established with marriage occupying the third rank below life-long virginity and widowhood.[49] Eastern theologians generally accepted Mary as Aeiparthenos, but many in the Western church were less convinced.[50] 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.[51] 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.[52]

Jerome defended the perpetual virginity of Mary against Helvidius.[53]

In the 380s and 390s the monk Jovinian denied Mary's virginity in partu (virgin during childbirth), writing that if Jesus did not undergo a normal human birth, then his body was something other than a truly human one.[54] As reported by Augustine, Jovinian "denied that the virginity of Mary, which existed when she conceived, remained while she gave birth." Augustine goes on to say that the reason for Jovinian's denial of Mary's virginity in partu was that the doctrine was too close to the Manichean view that Christ was simply a phantom.[55] According to Ambrose, Jovinian maintained that Mary had conceived as a virgin, but she had not given birth as a virgin.[54] Jerome wrote against Jovinian but failed to mention this aspect of his teaching, and most commentators believe that he did not find it offensive.[54] Jovinian also found two monks in Milan, Sarmatio and Barbatian, who held similar views as Jovinian.[56]

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.[55] In 391, he wrote Concerning Virginity[57] whose full title was On the Education of the Virgin and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.[58] 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.[59] It was due to Ambrose that virginitas in partu came to be included consistently in the thinking of subsequent theologians.[60] Bonosus of Sardica also denied the perpetual virginity of Mary, for which he was declared a heretic. His followers would survive for many centuries, especially among the Goths.[61][62][63] Additionally, the perpetual virginity of Mary was denied by some Arians.[34]

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.[13] 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.[13]

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.[64] This view was defended by Augustine, Hilary of Poitiers, Didymus the Blind, Cyril of Alexandria among others.[65][66][67]

The Apostles' Creed taught the doctrine of virginitas in partu.[68]

Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages the perpetual virginity of Mary was commonly accepted,[69] however the Paulicians denied her perpetual virginity, even saying that Christ denied her to be blessed.[70][71]

Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation saw a rejection of the special moral status of lifelong celibacy. As a result, marriage and parenthood were extolled, and Mary and Joseph were seen as a normal married couple.[72] It also affirmed the Bible alone as the fundamental source of authority regarding God's word (sola scriptura).[73] The reformers noted that while scripture records the virgin birth, it makes no mention of Mary's perpetual virginity following the birth of Christ.[74] Mary's perpetual virginity was upheld by Martin Luther (who names her ever-virgin in the Smalcald Articles, a Lutheran confession of faith written in 1537),[14] Huldrych Zwingli, Thomas Cranmer, Wollebius, Bullinger, John Wycliffe and later Protestant leaders including John Wesley, the co-founder of Methodism.[75][11][76][77] Osiander denied the perpetual virginity of Mary, for which Melanchthon was scornful.[78]

John Calvin's view was more ambiguous, believing that knowing what happened to Mary after the birth of Jesus is impossible.[76] However John Calvin argued that Matthew 1:25, used by Helvidius to attack the perpetual virginity of Mary does not teach that Mary had other children.[79] Other Calvinists affirmed Mary's perpetual virginity, including within the Second Helvetic Confession—stating that Mary was the "ever virgin Mary"—and in the notes of the Geneva Bible.[80][3] Theodore Beza, a prominent early Calvinist, included the perpetual virginity of Mary in a list of agreements between Calvinism and the Catholic Church.[81] Some reformers upheld the doctrine to counter more radical reformers who questioned the divinity of Christ; Mary's perpetual virginity guaranteed the Incarnation of Christ despite the challenges to its scriptural foundations.[82] Modern Protestants have largely rejected the perpetual virginity of Mary on the basis of sola scriptura, and it has rarely appeared explicitly in confessions or doctrinal statements,[83] though the perpetual virginity of Mary is still a common belief in Anglicanism and Lutheranism.[84]

Among the Anabaptists, Hubmaier never abandoned his belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary and continued to esteem Mary as theotokos ("mother of God"). These two doctrinal stances are addressed individually in Articles Nine and Ten, respectively, of Hubmaier's work, Apologia.[85]


Image of Mary depicting her nursing the Infant Jesus. 3rd century, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome.

The Second Council of Constantinople recognized Mary as Aeiparthenos, meaning "ever-virgin".[9] 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.[86]

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.[10] It declares her virginity before, during and after the birth of Jesus,[87] or in the definition formulated by Pope Martin I at the Lateran Council of 649:[88]

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",[89] 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.[90] Symbolically, the perpetual virginity of Mary signifies a new creation and a fresh start in salvation history.[91] It has been stated and argued repeatedly, most recently by the Second Vatican Council:[92]

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

Arguments and evidence

The Church Fathers in an 11th-century depiction from Kiev

A 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.[16][93][a] The Gospel of James, followed a century later by Epiphanius, explained the adelphoi as Joseph's children by an earlier marriage,[94] which is still the view of the Eastern Orthodox Christian churches.[95] Jerome, believing that Joseph, like Mary, must be a life-long virgin,[96] argued that these adelphoi were the sons of "Mary, the mother of James and Joses" (Mark 15:40), who he identified with the wife of Clopas and sister of the virgin Mary (John 19:25),[95] 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.[95]

Further scriptural difficulties were added by Luke 2:7, which calls Jesus the "first-born" son of Mary,[97] and Matthew 1:25, which adds that Joseph "did not know her until she had brought forth her firstborn son."[98][b]

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.[52] 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.[13]

Two other 4th century Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, following "a certain apocryphal account", and Augustine, advanced a further argument by reading Luke 1:34[99] as a vow of perpetual virginity on Mary's part; this idea, first introduced in the Protoevangelium of James, has little scholarly support today,[100] 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 Catholic Church's ongoing faith in Mary's perpetual virginity.[101]

It has been argued from John 19, where Jesus entrusts Mary to the disciple John instead of his brothers, to support the view that Jesus had no brothers, however Protestants have generally argued in two ways against this passage, one by claiming that the brothers of Jesus were unbelievers or that they were not present during the crucifixion.[102]

Some have argued that Mary and Joseph could not have had a normal marriage if Mary remained a perpetual virgin; however, it has been argued by some Catholics that there is evidence that celibacy within marriage was already practiced by the Qumran community and other Jews at that time.[103]

Catholic priest and New Testament scholar John P. Meier argues that although the preponderance of scriptural evidence indicates that Jesus had siblings, the evidence is not conclusive enough to disprove the perpetual virginity of Mary.[104]

See also


  1. ^ Mark 6:3 names James, Joses, Judas, Simon; Matthew 13:55 has Joseph for Joses, the latter being an abbreviated form of the former, and reverses the order of the last two; Mark 6:3 and Matthew 12:46 refer to unnamed sisters; Luke, John and Acts all mention brothers also. See Bauckham (2015) in bibliography, pages 6–9.
  2. ^ The phrase "did not know her" is a biblical euphemism for sexual relations (see Genesis 4:1). The text neither confirms nor denies the perpetual virginity of Mary.[98]



  1. ^ Hesemann 2016, p. unpaginated.
  2. ^ Bromiley 1995, p. 269.
  3. ^ a b c "THE SECOND HELVETIC CONFESSION". Retrieved 2021-12-21.
  4. ^ Alexander, Joseph Addison (1863). The Gospel According to Mark. C. Scribner.
  5. ^ The American Lutheran, Volume 49. American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. 1966. p. 16. While the perpetual virginity of Mary is held as a pious opinion by many Lutheran confessors, it is not regarded as binding teaching of the Scriptures.
  6. ^ The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 11. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1983. p. 562. ISBN 978-0-85229-400-0. 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 conception 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.
  7. ^ Losch 2008, p. 283.
  8. ^ "The Perpetual Virginity of St. Mary". Retrieved 2024-02-05.
  9. ^ a b Fairbairn 2002, p. 100.
  10. ^ a b Collinge 2012, p. 133.
  11. ^ a b Campbell 1996, p. 150.
  12. ^ a b Lohse 1966, p. 200.
  13. ^ a b c d Polcar 2016, p. 186.
  14. ^ a b Gill 2004, p. 1254.
  15. ^ Matthew 1:25
  16. ^ a b Maunder 2019, p. 28.
  17. ^ Parmentier 1999, p. 550.
  18. ^ Cross & Livingstone 2005, p. 237-238.
  19. ^ Shoemaker 2016, p. 44.
  20. ^ Caruana, Salvino. ""born of the Virgin Mary ... " According to St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus of Lyons" (PDF). The two inferences in Ode 19, namely, the one to the non-suffering aspect, and the other to the absence of a midwife, seem to have been also a common note in other apocryphal pieces of literature. They are also found in The Ascension of Isaiah and in The Acts of Peter. It could also be a reference to the fact that during their exile years in Egypt, Jewish women were known to be very quick and strong at childbirth. It is said that they did so in next to no time. Egyptian midwives continually complained to the Pharaoh that they did not succeed in making it fast enough to check whether the newly-born Jewish child was a male or a female, see: Ex 1,19.
  21. ^ Shoemaker 2016, p. 43.
  22. ^ a b Wirth 2016, p. 167-168.
  23. ^ Hunter 1993, p. 61.
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