Amateur Theology Hour: On the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

There are basic arguments for and against the position that Mary retained her virginity in perpetuity. The words below are not mine, but are cribbed from various sources. I deal below briefly with the theology, with dogma, and with Biblical and emotional arguments for and against the position.

The first source you might recognize from the exceptional clarity of the logic.

The Theological Argument

I answer that, God so prepares and endows those, whom He chooses for some particular office, that they are rendered capable of fulfilling it, according to 2 Corinthians 3:6: “(Who) hath made us fit ministers of the New Testament.” Now the Blessed Virgin was chosen by God to be His Mother. Therefore there can be no doubt that God, by His grace, made her worthy of that office, according to the words spoken to her by the angel (Luke 1:30-31): “Thou hast found grace with God: behold thou shalt conceive,” etc. But she would not have been worthy to be the Mother of God, if she had ever sinned. First, because the honor of the parents reflects on the child, according to Proverbs 17:6: “The glory of children are their fathers”: and consequently, on the other hand, the Mother’s shame would have reflected on her Son. Secondly, because of the singular affinity between her and Christ, who took flesh from her: and it is written (2 Corinthians 6:15): “What concord hath Christ with Belial?” Thirdly, because of the singular manner in which the Son of God, who is the “Divine Wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:24) dwelt in her, not only in her soul but in her womb. And it is written (Wisdom 1:4): “Wisdom will not enter into a malicious soul, nor dwell in a body subject to sins.”

The Angelic Doctor goes into more detail on the topic here:

Catholic and Orthodox Argument

The primary questions for the Catholic and Orthodox are:

(1) Did the Church ever teach authoritatively that Mary lost her virginity after the nativity of Our Lord? If so, was the reverse of this doctrine justified?

(2) Did the Church ever teach authoritatively perpetual virginity of Our Lady? — and, if so, is this an ancient (for if not, the charge that it is an innovation is not impossible) and anciently majority view (for perfect unanimity is never to be expected)?

(3) Did the Church leave this as a matter for each man to decide in his own conscience? — and if not, is it an abuse of the authority of the magisterium so to teach?

We are not asking whether Mary was Perpetually a Virgin or not, simply because absent her eyewitness, or Joseph’s, or relatives present at the birth of younger siblings, we have only the records. What does the record say? The record we have is the testament of the Church Fathers, since the written testament of scripture is not definitive on the point.

This brings us to the first question:

(1) Did the Church fathers ever teach authoritatively that Mary lost her virginity after the nativity of Our Lord?

There are Church Fathers for and against the position, but they are not equal in number or authority.

Church Fathers against the position:


Hegesippus, a convert from Judaism probably hailing from Palestine seems to have considered the brothers and sisters of Jesus to be true siblings, distinct from the cousins and uncles Hegesippus also mentions “Hegesippus’ work is titled the Hypomnemata.


The primary early writer that denied the perpetual virginity of Mary was Tertullian. A dispute arose with the Docetists who denied that Jesus really appeared in flesh. The specific listing of the mother and brothers of Jesus was used as part of the evidence that Jesus had actual family relations as part of the counter apologetic argument. The brothers of Jesus are listed as being actual brothers, with no effort to explain that they were really not brothers at all. In fact, it would have made the argument moot about Jesus having brothers as proof of his being made of actual flesh, if they were really not brothers at all but rather stepbrothers (sons of Joseph by a prior marriage). Tertullian taught that Mary lost her virginity in the conception of Christ.

Tertullian wrote that Mary had relations with Joseph after Jesus was born. Tertullian also wrote that the brothers were actually borne by Mary.


Victorinus, bishop of Petavium, is mentioned by Jerome as an opponent of perpetual virginity (references by Helvidius), but Jerome claims in the same text that Victorinus should be interpreted to mean near relative.


An interesting tidbit is found in one of the epistles of Ignatius in his desire to visit Mary and James, and in particular expresses a desire to see James who he described as bearing a remarkable similarity to Jesus. If this quote is of early origin, this lends credibility to the view that Jesus and James were half brothers, due to the striking physical similarity reported. If they were simply sons of Joseph and not related by blood to Jesus, then how could the resemblance be explained? Cousins often bear a strong physical resemblance as well.

Heresies which denied perpetual virginity

There were various sects that denied the perpetual virginity of Mary. The beliefs of the sect, outside of this issue are not known. For instance, a group led by Jovinian, which denied the perpetual virginity of Mary, is mentioned. Another sect mentioned by Augustine was the Antidicomarites who denied the perpetual virginity of Mary.


The Jewish historian Josephus referred to James as “the brother of Jesus”. Josephus used the Greek word (anepsios) 12 times

Church Fathers For the Position:

Scripture referred to Jesus as The son of Mary and not A son of Mary (Mark 6:3). This  is why Jesus entrusted the care of His mother to the apostle John at the foot of the cross (John 19:26-27). If He had siblings, that responsibility would have been transferred to one of them.


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 first fruit 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 first fruit of virginity (Commentary on Matthew 2:17 [A.D. 248]).

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 (Commentary on Matthew 1:4 [A.D. 354]).


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 (Discourses against the Arians 2:70 [A.D. 360]).


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 (The Man Well-Anchored 120 [A.D. 374]).


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. (Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary 19 [A.D. 383]).

Didymus the Blind

It helps us to understand the terms “firstborn” 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” (The Trinity 3:4 [A.D. 386]).

Ambrose of Milan

Imitate her [Mary], holy mothers, who in her only dearly beloved Son set forth so great an example of maternal virtue; for neither have you sweeter children [than Jesus], nor did the virgin seek the consolation of being able to bear another son (Letters 63:111 [A.D. 388])

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, chat court of the eternal King (Letter to Bishop Anysius [A.D. 392]).


In being born of a virgin who chose to remain a virgin even before she knew who was to be born other, 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 (Holy Virginity 4:4 [A.D. 401]).


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 (Document of Amendment 3 [A.D. 426]).

Cyril of Alexandria

The 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 (Against Those Who Do Not Wish to Confess That the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God 4 [A.D. 430]).

Thus the Church Fathers.

(2) Did the Church ever teach authoritatively perpetual virginity of Our Lady?

This is a matter of historical record. Both synods and ecumenical councils did so.

Local Synod — The Lateran Synod of AD 649 was the first to stress the threefold character of Mary’s virginity. Ecumenical Councils — The Council of Constantinople declared Mary’s perpetual virginity in 681.

(3) Did the Church leave this as a matter for each man to decide in his own conscience?

A fortiori, if the Ecumenical council has ruled on it, the matter is a matter of doctrine.

All the dates given above are from before the Great Schism, so unless some Eastern sect has repudiated her origins, all ancient churches of West and East, Syriac and Nestorian and the like, are bound by the precedent of the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils.

Protestant Argument

Turning now from the Catholic position to the Protestant, please note that the Protestants, by and large, accept only the authority of the Bible, and only such tradition as is confirmed by the Bible.

The Biblical arguments against the position run as follows:

Matthew 1:24-25 reads, “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home.  He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.”

The word “until” seems to indicate that after the birth of Jesus there were normal marital relations.

Luke 2:7 is often pointed to as evidence that Mary had other children. It reads: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son.”

If Mary had a firstborn wouldn’t that indicate that she had at least a second born?

There is also an argument from silence, which says that since the Bible does not say Mary was a perpetual virgin, we have no reason to believe she was.

Finally, and most strongly, there are passages which name the brothers of Jesus:

Matthew 13:55 “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?”

Mark 6:2-3 – “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?”

Gal. 1:19 – “But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother”

The Counter-arguments:


The Greek word heos (ἕως) which is translated as until, does not imply that anything happened after Jesus’ birth, nor does it exclude it. The point of the verse is that Joseph was not responsible for the conception of Jesus.

The word “until” is used this way elsewhere. In reference to John the Baptist, Luke 1:80 states: “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.”  Does this mean that once he appeared publicly he left the desert?  It might appear so, but Jesus says otherwise in Luke 7:24: “When the messengers of John had left, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John.  ‘What did you go out to the desert to see, a reed swayed by the wind?'” John had already begun his ministry back in chapter 3. Here we are in chapter 7, and he is still in the desert.


In Hebrew culture the term firstborn is simply a title for a woman’s first child. If she only had one child he would still be her first-born. There is a perfect example of this in Numbers 3:40: “The Lord then said to Moses, ‘take a census of all the firstborn males of the Israelites a month old or more, and compute their total number.'”  No one month old baby has younger siblings.

Argument from Silence

The argument from silence is not valid theology. By that argument, Christians should all be Arians, who hold that Jesus was not equal with God, or Moslems, who hold that Jesus was merely a human prophet, since the Bible is silent or ambiguous both on the doctrine of the Trinity and on the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Named Siblings

But what about the verses that speak about the brothers and sisters of Jesus?

Matthew 13:55 “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?”

Mark 6:2-3 – “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?”

Gal. 1:19 – “But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother”

These verses, importantly, actually named the Lord’s brothers, whereas all the others shown did not. Let us look at these four men: James, Joses (or Joseph), Judeas (or Jude) and Simon.

James and Joseph

Let’s begin with James. There are two men named James among the disciples. One, of course, is the brother of John and the son of Zebedee. This cannot be him then. So, this is the other James, called in Scripture James the less:

Mark 15:40: “There were also women looking on afar off: among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less, and of Joseph, and Salome.” (emphasis added)

So James is indeed the son of a woman named Mary. Not only that, but Joseph is his brother. That’s two of the four, right? Then, in Matthew, reciting the names of the twelve:

Matt 10:3: “…’James the son of Alphaeus, and Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddeus.” (emphasis added)

This too is talking of James the Less, as the other James, son of Zebedee, is spoken of in the previous verse.  Alphaeus is this James’ father, not Joseph, the husband of Mary, mother of the Lord.

Strong’s Concordance identifies Alphaeus and Cleophas as simply two forms of the same name, both listed as the father of James the Less. This is not unusual in Scripture (John 11:16 Thomas, who is called Didymus; Acts 13:1 Simeon who was called Niger, etc…). Ergo, James and Joseph are the sons of Cleophas (or Alphaeus) and a woman named Mary.

John 19:25: “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother (Mary) and His mothers sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.” (emphasis added)

That Mary, who was the mother of James the Less, and of Joseph, from Mark 15:40, is the wife of Cleophas, the father of James the Less, and she is called the ‘sister’ of Our Lord’s mother Mary.


Acts 1:13 “…James, the son of Alphaeus , and Simon Zelo’tes, and Jude the brother of James…” (emphasis added)

If Jude is the brother of James the son of Alphaeus, then he is the son of Alphaeus. Jude says of himself in his own epistle:

Jude 1:1 Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James…” (emphasis added)

We should also point out that the Scripture nowhere calls them Mary’s children. They are the sons of his mother’s sister, hence Our Lord’s cousins, for which there is no distinguishing word in Aramaic.


Simon, called the Zealot, is identified as coming from Cana, not Nazareth as were Joseph, Mary and the Christ.

Luke 6:15 “and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot,” (emphasis added)

Mark 3:18 “Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean…” (emphasis added)

Matt 2:23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene. (emphasis added)

Simon is a Cananaean, while Jesus is a Nazarene. This is not possible if they are siblings, but it is possible were he a cousin or other blood relation.

In John’s Gospel, chapter 2, Mary and Our Lord are invited to a wedding at Cana. Mary is depicted as giving commands to the servants ‘Do whatever he tells you.’  It is unlikely she would feel free to give them orders, or even have been invited to the wedding at all, were she and He not blood relations of someone in Cana.

Sisters of Christ?

We do also read about Our Lord’s sisters, correct?

Mark 15:40 There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome (emphasis added)

If this Mary, the wife of Cleophas, is the mother of James the Less and Joseph, and also of Salome, then Salome could be called a sister of the Christ just as her blood brothers (same mother) could be called brothers of Christ, without being a sibling.

Mark 16:1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.

In every instance in which a brother or sister of Christ is named, each one can be shown to be a son or daughter of someone other than the Blessed Virgin Mary.

James, Joseph and Jude all have the same father and mother, and it is not Joseph and the Virgin Mary, but their mother is named Mary and called the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary. Even here ‘sister’ may not mean blood sibling, or we have two sisters with the same name in the same family. Simon is not from the same town, but may be a cousin or relation.

Emotional Argument

There is a final objection to the perpetual virginity of Mary, which, as far as I can tell, is purely emotional: some people do not like the idea of virginity. They consider it an insult to marriage. Or they think it unfair that Mary should be deprived the pleasures of the flesh.

To this emotional argument, I have four responses:

First, it is not in accord with the emotions of the rest of Christianity, either Catholic or Protestant, Orthodox or Heretic. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bullinger and Wesley all strongly proclaimed the doctrine of perpetual virginity.

Second, even if a modern woman holds the honors of virginity were less than the honors of marriage, a woman born in ancient Palestine before the Christian Era would perhaps hold the opposite. In other words, just because it seems to you, dear reader, unfair that Mary never consummated her relation with Joseph, this might not seem so to Mary.

Third, the example of Uzzah would have been ever before the imagination of Joseph. Uzzah is the worthy man struck dead on the spot for reaching out a hand to touch the ark of the covenant to prevent it falling in the mud.

If such was the respect and fear with which Godfearing men in ancient Palestine held the vessel of divine testament, how much more would they revere the vessel of the living testament of the Son of God Himself?

Keep in mind that, each time in the Old Testament a mortal sees an angel, he expects he will die. The parallel between Mary and the ark of the covenant is emphasized when John the Baptist dances in his mother’s womb at Mary’s approach, in parallel with King David dancing naked before the ark.

Personally, I regard it as inconceivable that Joseph would consummate his marriage to Mary, or, rather, about as unlikely as that Zechariah and Elizabeth would copulate on top of the ark in the Holy of Holies while the archangel Gabriel was looking on in order to produce John the Baptist. This is not the way observant Jews behave, and certainly not those selected by Providence to be the parents of the Messiah.

Finally, the whole approach of emotional argumentation is faulty. One is entitled to one’s own opinion, even to one’s own judgment, but not to one’s own facts.