Originally Published on July 13, 2008
One of the first exclusively-Catholic teachings that I encountered is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. I was unaware until just a few years ago that the Church even taught this. It surprised me. I don’t want to deal in this post with whether this doctrine is true or Biblical. I want only to address it’s historicity.
This is one of the most ancient beliefs. I did a bit of research on this a few months ago. I made a short list of resources that are easily available on the internet for anyone to read.
1. The entire Protoevangelium of James. The purpose of the writing seems to be to defend Mary’s perpetual virginity and to relate some of the history of Christ’s earthly family. The earliest known manuscript of this is from the 3rd or 4th century. Scholars date it to about 140. A few highlights:
Mary was dedicated to God:
From 4 “And Anna said: As the Lord my God liveth, 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 holy things all the days of its life.”
From 7 “And the child was two years old, and Joachim said: Let us take her up to the temple of the Lord, that we may pay the vow that we have vowed, lest perchance the Lord send to us, and our offering be not received. And Anna said: Let us wait for the third year, in order that the child may not seek for father or mother. And Joachim said: So let us wait.”
She was formally “married” to Joseph.
From 9 “And the priest said to Joseph, Thou hast been chosen by lot to take into thy keeping the virgin of the Lord. … And Joseph was afraid, and took her into his keeping. And Joseph said to Mary: Behold, I have received thee from the temple of the Lord; and now I leave thee in my house, and go away to build my buildings, and I shall come to thee. The Lord will protect thee.”
She and Joseph were suspected, but found innocent, of having marital relations.
From 16 “And the priest said: I will give you to drink of the water of the ordeal of the Lord, and He shall make manifest your sins in your eyes. And the priest took the water, and gave Joseph to drink and sent him away to the hill-country; and he returned unhurt. And he gave to Mary also to drink, and sent her away to the hill-country; and she returned unhurt. And all the people wondered that sin did not appear in them. And the priest said: If the Lord God has not made manifest your sins, neither do I judge you. And he sent them away. And Joseph took Mary, and went away to his own house, rejoicing and glorifying the God of Israel.”
A midwife verified that Mary remained physically virginal after Jesus’ birth
From 19 and 20 “And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to thee: a virgin has brought forth — a thing which her nature admits not of. Then said Salome: As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth. And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire.”
2. Jerome’s Against Helvidius. This is another work composed for the purpose of defending the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. The whole thing is too good, and too much to the point, for me to pull out quotes. Please read it
3. Augustine’s On Holy Virginity: The purpose of this writing is to defend the practice of consecrated virginity. In at least two places, Augustine refers to Mary’s perpetual virginity.
In 2 Augustine says that the church is a virgin as Mary is a virgin. “Whereas, therefore, the whole Church itself is a virgin espoused unto one Husband Christ, as the Apostle says, of how great honor are its members worthy, who guard this even in the flesh itself, which the whole Church guards in the faith? which imitates the mother of her husband, and her Lord. For the Church also is both a mother and a virgin. For whose purity consult we for, if she is not a virgin? or whose children address we, if she is not a mother? Mary bare the Head of This Body after the flesh, the Church bears the members of that Body after the Spirit. In both virginity hinders not fruitfulness: in both fruitfulness takes not away virginity.”
In 4 Augustine claims that Mary’s dedicated virginity is an example to all dedicated virgins throughout the history of the church. “Her virginity also itself was on this account more pleasing and accepted, in that it was not that Christ being conceived in her, rescued it beforehand from a husband who would violate it, Himself to preserve it; but, before He was conceived, chose it, already dedicated to God, as that from which to be born. This is shown by the words which Mary spoke in answer to the Angel announcing to her her conception; ‘How,’ says she, ‘shall this be, seeing I know not a man?’ Which assuredly she would not say, unless she had before vowed herself unto God as a virgin. But, because the habits of the Israelites as yet refused this, she was espoused to a just man, who would not take from her by violence, but rather guard against violent persons, what she had already vowed. Although, even if she had said this only, ‘How shall this take place?’ and had not added, ‘seeing I know not a man,’ certainly she would not have asked, how, being a female, she should give birth to her promised Son, if she had married with purpose of sexual intercourse. She might have been bidden also to continue a virgin, that in her by fitting miracle the Son of God should receive the form of a servant, but, being to be a pattern to holy virgins, lest it should be thought that she alone needed to be a virgin, who had obtained to conceive a child even without sexual intercourse, she dedicated her virginity to God, when as yet she knew not what she should conceive, in order that the imitation of a heavenly life in an earthly and mortal body should take place of vow, not of command; through love of choosing, not through necessity of doing service. Thus Christ by being born of a virgin, who, before she knew Who was to be born of her, had determined to continue a virgin, chose rather to approve, than to command, holy virginity. And thus, even in the female herself, in whom He took the form of a servant, He willed that virginity should be free.”
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it makes the point: This doctrine was held by the very early Church and is attested by some of the “biggest names” among the church fathers.