The Perpetual Virginity of Mary
Then he brought me back to the outer
gate of the sanctuary,
which faces east; and it was shut. And he said to me, “This
gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall
enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it;
therefore, it shall remain shut.”
Ezekiel 44, 1-3
Before she was in labor she gave
before her pain came upon her she was delivered of a son.
Who ever heard of such a thing, or who ever saw the like?
Can a land be brought forth in one day,
or a nation be born in a single moment?
Yet Zion was scarcely in labor when she bore her children.
Shall I bring a mother to the point of birth,
and yet not let her child be born? says the LORD.
Or shall I who bring to birth yet close her womb?
says your God.
Isaiah 66, 7-9
Behold thou shalt conceive in thy
womb, and shalt bring forth a son;
and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called
the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne
of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob forever.
And of his kingdom there shall be no end. And Mary said to the angel:
How shall this be done, because I know not man? And the angel
answering, said to her: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the
power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. And, therefore, also the
Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
Luke 1, 31-35
The Perpetual Virginity of Mary is one of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church. Not unlike the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary body and soul into Heaven, this de fide doctrine derives its integrity from the first Marian dogma of Mary being the Mother of God, in virtue of her first-born Son’s divinity in his single-person hypostatically united with our humanity. Mary is the mother of God or the Divine Logos incarnate (Isa. 7:14; Lk. 1:35, 43; Jn. 1:14). So, the dogma of Mary ever-virgin basically holds that the mother of our Lord remained a virgin her entire life in view of the Divine Maternity, albeit her marriage with Joseph and the Jewish religious and cultural norms of the time.
Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus, during his birth, and after she gave birth to him. Moreover, Catholics have always believed since the earliest time that Mary’s union with the Holy Spirit was redolent of a marriage in a spiritual sense, as the relationship between YHWH and Israel was, and thereby moral in nature. If Mary chose to remain chaste her entire life and stay continent in her marriage with her legal husband, whoever that might be, it was by the prompting of the Holy Spirit at an early age, whose virgin spouse in a spiritual and mystical sense she was chosen to be from all eternity (Lk. 1:35). The angel told Mary that she would be “overshadowed by the power of the Highest.” In ancient Jewish culture, a man’s “laying his power over” (resuth) a woman was a euphemism for having marital relations (cf. Gen 3:16). Similarly, for a man to “overshadow” a woman or “spread his cloak or wing over her” was a euphemism for having conjugal relations in the holy bond of matrimony.
We have no better and explicit Scriptural proof-text for this Marian dogma other than Luke 1:34: And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be done, because I do not know man?” The original Greek text reads ‘andra ou ginosko’ (ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω) which literally is “man not I know” or in English “I know not or have sexual relations with a man.” The Greek verb ‘ginosko’ (Present Indicative Active) is in the continuous present which shows a permanent disposition to not know man. The original Greek translates what Mary says to the angel in her native tongue of Hebrew-Aramaic: ‘ki enneni yodaat ish.’ The Greek present tense used for Mary’s words in Luke 1:34 corresponds to the Hebrew Aramaic active participle ‘yodaat’ indicating a permanent condition (cf. Manuel Miguens, The Virgin Birth: An Evaluation of Scriptural Evidence). So, Mary has a permanent disposition to not know a man, just as the man who says, “I don’t smoke” has a permanent disposition not to smoke.
Therefore, we should keep in mind that the verb “to know” in the first person (ginosko) does not have to do with an instant of time, but rather with Mary’s state itself. Mary does not tell the angel, ‘I am not having relations with a man (my husband) now’ or ‘I have not had any relations with a man until now.’ There would be no reason for her to say these things, since the angel does not tell her that she has conceived or suggest even remotely that she will conceive the child immediately or before her marriage is formally solemnized upon the second and final wedding ceremony (Nisuin). The original Greek text reads: “I do not know (a) man.” Mary has sexual relations with no man ever – not presently, not ever. And since the verb is in the active indicative mood, there is an emphasis on the progress of the negative action (to not know man) which continues when she is supposed to have the child – whenever that will be.
By the influence of divine grace, Mary felt compelled to remain chaste her entire life so that she could devote herself to God entirely in body and spirit. Once she became the mother of our Lord, she could focus all her attention on her divine Son and, in union with God, raise and nurture him until it was time for his public ministry to begin, on which occasion Mary’s motherhood would be spiritually redefined and extended to all redeemed humanity (Jn. 2:3-8; 19:26-27).
When Catholics speak of Mary as having been a virgin during the birth of Jesus, they don’t mean that she abstained from having conjugal relations with her husband during the time of her pregnancy or at the time of her Son’s birth. Rather, what the Catholic Church has traditionally believed and taught from the earliest time is that when Mary gave birth to Jesus, her physical virginal integrity remained intact. There was no breaking of the hymen, no physical pain or discomfort that is normally experienced by a woman in labor, no-issuance of water and blood, and no placenta and umbilical cord.
In defense of the miraculous and painless birth of Christ, St. Thomas Aquinas drew the analogy of light passing through glass without damaging it (Summa Theologica, III, Q. 28, a. 2. ). With this imagery in mind, he argued that Jesus passed through his mother’s womb without opening it and without any harm to her physical virginal seal. This was only fitting because Mary was the pure and perfect tabernacle of Christ, who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. The birth of her Son ought to have been an experience that drew her into closer spiritual communion with God rather than one that could have momentarily distanced her soul from God because of physical distress. St. Augustine contended that he who was the light of the world and “came to heal corruption” should not “by his advent violate integrity” (Sermon 189).
Mary’s bodily integrity remained inviolate in harmony with her chaste spiritual integrity. There was no profane element of anything natural or any form of physical corruption in her giving birth to Jesus that could violate the purity of her soul and her exemption from all stain of original sin, nor anything wholly natural at all that could defile and render impure her holy Child. Both the Mother and the Son were exempted from experiencing the corruption associated with original sin. Hence, the Catholic dogma of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary simply stated means that Our Blessed Lady was “ever-virgin.” She was a virgin (Virgo) before (ante-partum), during (in partu), and after (post-partum) the birth of Jesus.
Early Sacred Tradition
and the Son of God the son of man--
the Pure One opening purely that pure womb,
which generates men unto God.”
St. Irenaeus , Against Heresies, 4, 33, 12
Jesus says to His mother, Woman, behold thy son,’ and not Behold you have this son also,’ then He
virtually said to her, Lo, this is Jesus, whom thou didst bear.’ Is it not the case that every one who
is perfect lives himself no longer, but Christ lives in him; and if Christ lives in him, then it is said of
him to Mary, Behold thy son Christ.’"
Origen, Commentary on John, I:6
Essence, deny also that He took true human flesh of Mary Ever-Virgin; for in neither case had it
been of profit to us men, whether the Word were not true and naturally Son of God, or the flesh
not true which He assumed.”
St. Athanasius, Orations against the Arians, II:70
St. Epiphanius, Well Anchored Man, 120
St. Basil, Homily In Sanctum Christi generationem, 5
(ante A.D. 379)
was born of the Virgin, because we read it. That Mary was married after she brought forth, we do
not believe, because we do not read it. Nor do we say this to condemn marriage, for virginity
itself is the fruit of marriage; but because when we are dealing with saints we must not judge
rashly. If we adopt possibility as the standard of judgment, we might maintain that Joseph had
several wives because Abraham had, and so had Jacob, and that the Lord’s brethren were the issue
of those wives, an invention which some hold with a rashness which springs from audacity not
from piety. You say that Mary did not continue a virgin: I claim still more, that Joseph himself on
account of Mary was a virgin, so that from a virgin wedlock a virgin son was born. For if as a holy
man he does not come under the imputation of fornication, and it is nowhere written that he had
another wife, but was the guardian of Mary whom he was supposed to have to wife rather than
her husband, the conclusion is that he who was thought worthy to be called father of the Lord,
remained a virgin.”
St. Jerome, The Perpetual Virginity of Mary Against Helvedius, 21
of maternal virtue; for neither have you sweeter children, nor did the Virgin seek the consolation
of being able to bear another son.”
St. Ambrose, To the Christian at Vercellae, Letter 63:111
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 spake in answer to the Angel
announcing to her conception; How,’ saith 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.”
St. Augustine, Of Holy Virginity, 4
likened to those of other woman? For, this latter case is one of the earth, and the Virgin’s is one
from heaven. The one case is a case of divine power; the other of human weakness. The one case
occurs in a body subject to passion; the other in the tranquility of the divine Spirit and peace of
the human body. The blood was still, and the flesh astonished; her members were put at rest, and
her entire womb was quiescent during the visit of the Holy One, until the Author of flesh could
take on His garment of flesh, and until He, who was not merely to restore the earth to man but
St. Peter Chrysoslogus, Sermon 117,
paternal desire, without injury to the mother’s chastity: because such a birth as knew no taint of
human flesh, became One who was to be the Saviour of men, while it possessed in itself the
nature of human substance. For when God was born in the flesh, God Himself was the Father, as
the archangel witnessed to the Blessed Virgin Mary: because the Holy Spirit shall come upon thee,
and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee: and therefore, that which shall be born of
thee shall be called holy, the Son of God.’ The origin is different but the nature like: not by
intercourse with man but by the power of God was it brought about: for a Virgin conceived, a
Virgin bare, and a Virgin she remained.”
Pope St. Leo the Great, On the Feast of the Nativity, Sermon 22:2
(ante A.D. 461)