The Perpetual Virginity of Mary

There was a time, before I understood anything about Mariology, when I considered that the teaching of the Church with regards to Mary's virginity was irrelevant and probably misogynistic. What difference could it possibly make in any case? I did not understand the interconnectedness of Catholic dogma that means that Mary is the nexus mysteriorum inter se. In many ways Mary is the lens through which we look to properly understand how the mysteries of faith relate directly to us and to our lives.

Of course the doctrine of Mary's virginity is not about sex being dirty, or virgins being better than women who have had sex, those are relatively modern ideas we have imbued the story with retrospectively. In fact the whole idea runs somewhat contrary to expectations of the time, which saw virginity in a negative way. Probably the key insight is that Mary's virginity has Christological significance since it emphasises the central mystery of Christian faith; that Christ has only one Father in heaven, and so is true God, while having one Mother on earth, and so is true man. Sometimes her virginal conception is called the "pneumatological conception" because both Luke & Matthew revealed the mystery as taking place through the Holy Spirit. This has shaped the formulation of faith in the Creeds from the earliest days of the Church:
" the power of the Holy Spirit He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man."
Because the doctrine of Mary's virginity as an historical reality is a matter of faith in the Roman Catholic Church by reason of her ordinary universal magisterium, its spiritual significance should be stressed, especially in our time. This completely accords with the theological reasons of fittingness for it found in the Tradition, particularly in Augustine and Aquinas who did not hesitate to articulate the inspiring symbolic meaning of the doctrine. Her perpetual virginity was viewed by such outstanding Christian Scholars and Saints as a type of the Church's virginal motherhood which begets and nourishes the life of Christ in the world through her spiritual ministries of word and sacrament. It has traditionally been an inspiring example for those in the Church who have been called to a life of consecrated virginity and celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, so that they might be more available both for the contemplation of God and for ministry to his people. The witness of these men and women has been called eschatological in pointing to the primacy of the kingdom fulfilled in heaven where there is no marriage. Karl Barth saw in Mary's virginal conception of Christ a testimony to the complete gratuitousness of the Incarnation and so a deepening of the great Christian dogma of grace. All such interpretations of Mary's virginity preclude any negative attitude towards the sexual expression of love in marriage.

A perfunctory glance might cause one to say that this doctrine is not something explicit in Scripture. However, traditionally, since Augustine, Mary's question at the Annunciation, "How shall this be, since I know not man", was considered to be an indication that Mary had made a vow of virginity. Otherwise, it was argued, what was the source of Mary's difficulty? She was a young woman betrothed to a man, and would in the near future go to live with him as his wife. The angel had merely told her that she would conceive (in the future)—something which, under normal circumstances, might be expected to happen anyway. The fact that she was a virgin at the time was no barrier to conception in the future. However, attractive though such arguments may be, it does appear historically improbable that a Jewish girl of this age could have contemplated such a vow, which was contrary to Jewish tradition, and ran counter to the negative Judaic attitude towards virginity.

Increasingly this theory is being discarded even by those who accept the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity. Nevertheless the difficulty of the text remains. The renowned Scripture scholar Raymond E. Brown seeks to overcome it by treating Mary's question as a literary device manufactured by Luke, in order to give an opening for Gabriel's explanation of the manner of conception. Therefore one does not need to account for Mary's strange puzzlement, since this is not actually meant to represent her psychological state. McHugh also accepts the question as a literary device, but asks why, if it is merely to afford an opening to Gabriel, it includes the clause "since I know not man", which is not only unnecessary for this purpose, but which retains its anomalous character, in view of the scenario Luke himself has described. McHugh observes:

"The words he attributes to Mary are so absolute and so devoid of qualification that they represent Mary, though betrothed, as one who does not regard the consummation of her marriage as imminent or positively probable. Why did Luke, after stating that she was a virgin and betrothed, place such words on her lips?" The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament, p. 196.

McHugh's answer is that Luke must have composed the dialogue in this way, because at the time of writing "he firmly believed that Mary had in fact remained a virgin all her life, before and after the birth of Jesus." Brown dismisses this interpretation on the grounds that there are no grounds for assuming that Luke had any knowledge of Mary's lifetime virginity. But since McHugh's interpretation is meant to furnish some such grounds, and since his argument is that only such an assumption makes sense of the text, this hardly seems a coercive riposte. Brown's own argument is itself still open to the objection that the phrasing of Luke's literary device here is somewhat maladroit. Even as a literary device, why should Like put on Mary's lips a problem which the reader can see is no problem at all. It seems to me that McHugh's solution is at least worthy of serious consideration.

Other Scriptural references include Ezekiel 44:2 (used by Fathers of the Church and even Martin Luther) and Isaiah's prophecy in 7:14 made 754 years before the birth of Christ. In this passage the verbs 'shall conceive' and '(shall) bear' have the same subject—the virgin. Therefore both words refer to the noun "virgin": that is, the virgin will conceive and the virgin will bear. Matthew tells us that the conception of Christ took place in a virginal way, without man being involved, by the action of the Holy Spirit: this is Mary's virginity prior to giving birth (Mt 1:18-24). Matthew tells us explicitly that the conception and birth of Jesus fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy (Mt 1:22-23).  Luke 1:26-33 contains the doctrine that Mary, when she was already betrothed to Joseph, was a virgin; and the way she was to conceive was by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by the action of man. St. Luke's account is quite easy to see the parallel between the angel's words and the prophecy of Isaiah, quoted by Matthew (cf. CCC 497).

As always with Sacred Scripture, there are many dimensions we can drill down to and meditate upon. Here is another meditation on the theological dimension of this. One answer to "why" is to ask the question "when is it permissible for a woman to bear the children of two different fathers?":

Mary concieved one child, Jesus, by the Holy Spirit. Mary had one spouse, the Holy Spirit.
A Jewish woman could not have children by two different spouses unless the first spouse died. For Mary to have had children by both the Holy Spirit and then by someone else means that Mary would have been an adulterer, and that her son Jesus Christ is the son of an adulterer. Clearly, it would not be possible for the Second Person of the Trinity to have been born into creation through an adulterer. Mary could not have had children by two different spouses because that would put Jesus in an awkward position!
"while David and all the house of Israel danced before the LORD with all their might, with singing, and with lyres, harps, tambourines, sistrums, and cymbals. As they reached the threshing floor of Nodan, Uzzah stretched out his hand to the ark of God and steadied it, for the oxen were tipping it. Then the LORD became angry with Uzzah; God struck him on that spot, and he died there in God’s presence." (2 Samuel 6:5-7).
The ark of the covenant prefigures and forshadows Mary. No one could touch the ark. Anyone who did died immediately as noted in the passage above. Just as no one was to touch the ark, no one was to touch Mary. God had reserved Mary for something special and protected her from the beginning of all creation for her special purpose (thus the immaculate conception), to bring Jesus into the world. It is argued that God stationed an angel to protect Mary from the beginning of creation:
"Then the LORD God said: "See! The man has become like one of us, knowing what is good and what is bad! Therefore, he must not be allowed to put out his hand to take fruit from the tree of life also, and thus eat of it and live forever." The LORD God therefore banished him from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he had been taken. When he expelled the man, he settled him east of the garden of Eden; and he stationed the cherubim and the fiery revolving sword, to guard the way to the tree of life." (Genesis 3:22-24).
In this passage in Genesis, we read how God stationed an angel to protect the "Tree of life", the fruit of which gives eternal life. The fruit of Mary's womb is Jesus, our 'way bread' for eternal life. We see from the beginning of creation, God protected Mary - the tree of life who gives the fruit of her womb - to be his spouse, and reserved her for himself.

There was to be no other. No one was to touch Mary just as the cherubim with the fiery revolving sword would have killed anyone approaching the tree of life. As Dei Verbum teaches us, the Old Testament prefigures the actual events of the New Testament and here we see Mary and God's plan for her revealed and prefigured for us.

To conclude, from a modern perspective this doctrine may to many seem fantastic. Without the theology it may seem unnecessary, with an anachronistic perspective it may seem misogynist, with a scientific perspective it might seem impossible. Yet with the information handed down to us from the early Church, we have to ask ourselves why would they make it up? If it wasn't true, isn't it just too complicated to make up? And for what purpose? Would it really bother anyone if it wasn't the case? Logically, it seems that once one can accept the possibility of the virgin birth of Jesus of Nazareth and the necessity of that fact for the reality of the Incarnation, the historical evidence to support the claim is more than adequate.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c. 1597) a painting by the Italian Baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio


Brown, R.E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York: Doubleday, 1997.
Komonchak, J.A., et al, The New Dictionary of Theology, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1993.
McHugh, J., The Mother of Jesus in the New Testament, New York: Doubleday, 1975.
Redford, J., Born of a Virgin, London: St. Paul's, 2007.
Preston, K., Mariology, Birmingham: Maryvale, 1994.
Bastero, J. L., Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2006.
O'Carroll, M., Theotokos, Delaware: Glazier, 1983.

Further reading:

St. Jerome defends the perpetual virginity of Mary against Helvidius
Catholic Answers Mary: Ever Virgin
Video: Jimmy Akin explains how the Church Fathers defended the perpetual virginity of Mary

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