Semper Reformanda Radio recently produced a series of five podcasts on the Roman Catholic view of Mary under the title Roman Catholics and their Queen. The purpose of this blog series is to provide the supporting data behind the podcasts. We hope this will be helpful to those who would like to become familiar with the Roman Catholic claims to apostolicity for their Marian position, and the historical and biblical data showing that the apostles and the Early Church knew nothing of it.
We continue this week with the supporting data for Episode 4.
Episode 4: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary
Roman Catholics call Mary by the title, ἀειπαρθένου, or Ever Virgin because she is alleged to have remained a virgin for her entire life—prior to Christ’s birth (pre partum), during Christ’s birth (in partu), and after Christ’s birth (post partum). Her post partum virginity assumes that she and Joseph neither had any other children, nor ever consummated their marriage. Her in partu virginity assumes that Jesus’ miraculously passed through Mary’s womb into her arms, leaving her physical virginity completely uncompromised—no birth pangs, no tearing, no bleeding, nor any other discomfort associated with physical act of giving birth. The belief in the “perpetual virginity” of Mary is that she is the Ever Virgin—always, and in every stage, pre partum, in partu and post partum.
- That Mary was a virgin until Christ’s birth the Scriptures plainly teach (Matthew 1:18-23; Luke 1:27-34).
- The Roman Catholic support for her in partu and post partum virginity comes from the following argument:
- Typologically, as the Ark of the New Covenant, Mary’s physical body was as inviolable by men as the Ark of the Old Covenant was inviolable.
- In Ezekiel 44, the “east gate” is shut, and remains shut, “because the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it” (Ezekiel 44:2).
- The Protogospel of James taught that a midwife was present for Christ’s delivery, and that she inspected Mary afterward and found her physical virginity to be intact.
- The Early Church Fathers are alleged to have taught that Mary physically remained a virgin in perpetuity.
- We list them first in summary form, and will now refute them in the same order, below.
Mary the Untouchable Ark
- Roman Catholics believe that Mary’s identification as the Ark of the New Covenant supports their belief that she remained a virgin perpetually. Roman Catholic apologist, Tim Staples, makes the argument:
- “According to multiple parallel texts in Scripture, Mary is depicted as the New Testament Ark of the Covenant. … According to the Old Testament, no one except the high priest could touch the ark or even look inside it. If anyone else touched or looked inside the ark, the punishment was death…. If this was the case for the Old Testament type, which, according to Hebrews 10:1, is no more than a shadow of the true New Testament fulfillment, then it would seem fitting that Mary would remain ‘untouched’ by Joseph as well.” (Tim Staples, More Reasons for Mary’s Perpetual Virginity)
- As we showed in part 2, the Scriptures do not identify the Ark as a type of Mary, and further, it is not until the latter part of the 4th century that we begin to see such references from patristic sources. Any evidence alleged to be earlier than that has proven to be fraudulent. The Early Church thought the Old Testament Ark signified many different things—Christ, His ministry, His people—but what is conspicuous by its absence is any reference to the Ark signifying Mary.
- Even after the 4th century there continued to be differing opinions on what it signified:
- Cyril of Alexandria (412 – 444 A.D.) said the ark was “the image and symbol of Christ” (Cyril of Alexandria, de Adoratione in Spiritu et Veritate, Book 9 (Migne, Patrologia Graeca, 68, col. 597-598), and that Christ “is presented in figure and image” by the ark (Cyril of Alexandria, In Joannis Evangelium, Book IV, (Migne, P.G. 73, col. 619-622))
- Even as late as the 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great asked, “What but the holy Church is figured by the ark?” (Gregory the Great, Pastoral Rule, Book II, chapter 11).
- In sum, the Roman Catholic claim that Mary’s perpetual virginity has long been established by her identify as the Ark lacks even minimal evidence that the early church considered her to be the Ark at all—at least not until the latter part of the 4th century.
Mary, the East Gate
- Roman Catholics believe that Mary was in view when Ezekiel says the “east gate” is shut, and remains shut, “because the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it” (Ezekiel 44:2). Roman Catholic apologist, Taylor Marshall, makes the argument:
- “As the Catholic Church teaches, the Blessed Virgin Mary is perpetually a virgin – she did not have relations with Joseph after Christ’s birth in accordance with the prophecy of Ezekiel: ‘and no man shall enter by [the east gate]; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut.'” (Taylor Marshall, The Virgin Mary’s Womb as Ezekiel’s Closed Gate of the Messiah)
- The context of this passage is that Israel had defiled the sanctuary by allowing gentiles and other unclean people to enter it (Ezekiel 44:7), so the Lord instructs Ezekiel on how Israel is to regulate “the goings out thereof, and the comings in thereof” (Ezekiel 43:11, c.f. 44:5). Ezekiel is taken to a properly constructed temple (Ezekiel 40:1-3), and in the vision “the glory of the LORD came into the house” from the east, all the way “into the inner court” (Ezekiel 43:1-5). Ezekiel 44:1 refers to “the [eastern] gate of the outward sanctuary,” and the angelic narrator explains to Ezekiel that the eastern gate of the outer sanctuary “shall be shut, it shall not be opened … because the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it” (Ezekiel 44:2). Roman Catholics end their analysis at this point and take the closed eastern gate of the outer court to refer to Mary. But the vision continues, and Ezekiel describes the eastern gate of the inner court, and that gate is opened every sabbath and every new moon, and was to remain so all day:
- “The gate of the inner court that looketh toward the east shall be shut the six working days; but on the sabbath it shall be opened, and in the day of the new moon it shall be opened. …the gate shall not be shut until the evening.” (Ezekiel 46:1-2)
- Roman Catholics only assign typological significance to the gate that remains shut, passing over the one that remains open, providing no explanation as to what the inner eastern gate signifies—even though the glory of the Lord entered by that gate, too. It is a highly selective interpretation that merely assumes, rather than proves, that the “shut gate” refers to Mary. In other words, the Roman Catholic must first assume that Mary’s womb was closed in order to derive a typological connection; it is not something the text suggests to us. The Scriptures offer no connection between Mary and either of eastern gates—inner or outer—and nothing in the passage even hints that the outer gate signifies Mary’s womb.
- Second, when Roman Catholics attempt to find support for their interpretation of Ezekiel 44 in the early church, all they can come up with in the first three centuries is Origen (c. 185 – c. 234 A.D) who believed that the shut gate of Ezekiel 44:2 signified the Scriptures and their correct interpretation (Origen, Homilies on Ezekiel, Homily 14.1-3). Evidence of an early interpretation of Ezekiel 44 as a prefiguration of Mary dates to the latter part of the 4th century. Taylor Marshall, cited above, only quotes Ambrose (340 – 397 A.D.) and Augustine (354 – 430 A.D.). As Kenneth Stevenson and Michael Glerup show in their commentaries on Daniel and Ezekiel, there is simply no evidence for the Roman Catholic interpretation prior to the latter part of the 4th century:
- “Overview [of Ezekiel 44:1-3]: The east gate is closed, which means the importance of the right interpretation of the Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, as revealed by Christ (Origen), but it also may mean the womb of the Virgin Mary (Jerome [347 – 430 A.D.], Theodoret [393 – 457 A.D.], Ambrose [340 – 397 A.D.], Rufinus [c. 340 – 410], Cyril of Alexandria [c. 376 – 444 A.D.], John of Damascus [c. 675 – 749 A.D.]).” (Kenneth Stevenson and Michael Glerup, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, vol. 13, “Ezekiel, Daniel,” (Intervarsity Press, 2008) p. 141)
- In sum, the interpretation of Ezekiel 44:2 referring to the shutting of Mary’s womb and Mary’s perpetual virginity is highly selective and inconsistent with the whole of Ezekiel’s vision. It is a novelty dating to the latter part of the 4th century.
The Protoevangelium of James
- The “protogospel” of James is an apocryphal document of unknown origin, dated to the second century. The document attempts to establish Mary’s in partu and post partum virginity. To establish the former, Christ’s birth is said to have taken place in a flash of light as He simply appeared in Mary’s arms and began to take her breast, with none of the painful labor of a normal delivery (Protoevangelium of James, 19). To establish the latter, the document claims that Jesus’ brethren in the Scriptures were actually children of Joseph from a previous marriage (Protoevangelium of James, 9). The document is used by Roman Catholics to establish the antiquity and apostolicity of the belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity.
- By way of example, Roman Catholic Apologist James Akin, in this 3-minute video, asserts that the antiquity of the doctrine can be proven both by the Protoevangelim of James and the testimony of Jerome (Catholic Answers, How did the Church Fathers explain the perpetual virginity of Mary?)
- First, the Protoevangelium essentially supports the docetic heresy that originated in apostolic times. Docetism comes from the Greek word, δοκεῖν (dokein), which means “to seem” or “to appear.” The heresy alleged that Jesus had not really taken on a physical body, but only “seemed” to do so, and thus was not really incarnated, did not really suffer or die or physically rise from the dead. The early heretics attempted to pass off Jesus’ body—the birth, suffering, death and resurrection—as only a phantom. Tertullian, by way of example, argued against such thinking and understood that teachings like that of the Protoevangelium of James would play right into the hands of the heretics. He thus argued against such a miraculous delivery, and countered the heretics by emphasizing the completely natural birth of Christ:
- “At all events, he who represented the flesh of Christ to be imaginary was equally able to pass off His nativity as a phantom; so that the virgin’s conception, and pregnancy, and child-bearing, and then the whole course of her infant too, would have to be regarded as putative. These facts pertaining to the nativity of Christ would escape the notice of the same eyes and the same senses as failed to grasp the full idea of His flesh.” (Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, chapter 1).
- Tertullian continued, describing Mary as “a woman in travail” at Christ’s delivery (Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, chapter 4), and defends the incarnation as so real and so natural that in Mary’s labor pain, her physical virginity was lost: “Indeed she ought rather to be called not a virgin than a virgin” (Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, 23)
- Second, even Origen, who found the idea of Joseph’s children from a previous marriage to be “in harmony with reason” (Origen, Commentary on Matthew, Book 10, chapter 17), rejected the other claim of the Protoevangelium, denying Mary’s in partu virginity, for her womb had in fact been opened in childbirth the way a bride’s is opened on her wedding night:
- “In the case of every other woman, it is not the birth of an infant but intercourse with a man that opens the womb. But the womb of the Lord’s mother was opened at the time when her offspring was brought forth …” (Origen, Homilies on Luke, Homily 14, paragraphs 7-8).
- Third, Jerome (c. 383 A.D.) at first ridiculed the teachings of the Protoevangelium of James as “an invention which some hold with a rashness which springs from audacity.” He claimed instead that Jesus’ brethren in the Scriptures were not Joseph’s children from a previous marriage, but were Jesus’ cousins. In the process he insisted that Christ’s delivery had been perfectly normal and that Mary had travailed in pain, which is a material rejection of her virginity in partu:
- “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. … Add, if you like … the other humiliations of nature, the womb for nine months growing larger, the sickness, the delivery, the blood, the swaddling-clothes. … We do not blush, we are not put to silence.” (Jerome, Against Helvidius, paragraphs 19-20)
- Fifth, between 383 A.D. and 393 A.D., Jerome changed his tune and concluded that Mary’s virginity had in fact been preserved in partu, and adopted the view of the Protoevangelium of James, although he maintained his position that Jesus’ “brethren” were in fact His “cousins.” He insisted nonetheless that Jesus’ body was no mere phantom—it had just miraculously translated through Mary the way Jesus’ resurrected body walked through closed doors after the resurrection, essentially moving the beginning of Jesus’ miracles that “manifested forth his glory” 27 years earlier than the Gospel of John informs us (John 2:11):
- “Let my critics explain to me how Jesus can have entered in through closed doors when He allowed His hands and His side to be handled, and showed that He had bones and flesh, thus proving that His was a true body and no mere phantom of one, and I will explain how the holy Mary can be at once a mother and a virgin. A mother before she was wedded, she remained a virgin after bearing her son.” (Jerome (393 A.D.) to Pammachius (letter 48, paragraph 21)
- Finally, even Roman Catholic apologists know that the Protoevangelium of James cannot possibly be construed to convey an apostolic doctrine. Esteemed Mariologist, Juniper Carol, informs us:
- “Whatever their origins, we have no grounds for concluding that the Apocrypha contained and transmitted an authentic apostolic tradition concerning the dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity; in each instance such a tradition would have to be established—an impossible task with our present documentary sources. Moreover, in themselves, the apocryphal narratives scarcely measure up to the quality of sober objectivity characteristic of the transmission of a doctrine that is authentically apostolic in origin.” (Juniper Carol, Mariology, Volume II, p. 267)
- In sum, the Early Church fathers who gave credence to the Protoevangelium of James regarding Joseph’s children from a previous marriage nonetheless held that Mary had lost her virginity in partu, showing that the preservation of Mary’s virginity in partu was not even imagined, much less defended, until the latter part of the 4th century. Even Jerome, who is invoked to prove early belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity initially rejected the Protoevangelium as an audacious invention, and insisted that Mary’s childbirth had been perfectly normal, complete with “the sickness, the delivery, the blood.” Ten years later he changed his tune and began arguing for Mary’s in partu virginity. Additionally, even esteemed Mariologist, Juniper Carol, insisted that the Protoevangelium carried no apostolic weight at all. As evidenced by Tertullian’s about a miraculous passing of Jesus through Mary’s womb as a phantom, the Protoevangelim was more suited to the docetic heresies of the subaposotlic era, and was not part of the faith once delivered. There is no case made for Mary’s “ever virginity” until the end of the 4th century, three centuries removed from the apostles.
Mary’s Perpetual Virginity in the Early Church
Alleged Support from the Church Fathers
- Roman Catholics are unable to cite any authentic or authoritative sources on the doctrine until the latter part of the 4th century. By way of example, Mark Shea writes:
- “Patristic sources who affirm that Mary’s perpetual virginity was taught by the apostles include the author of the Protoevangelium of James, Origen, Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius, Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome, Didymus the Blind, Ambrose of Milan, Pope Siricius I, Augustine, Leporius, Cyril of Alexandria, Pope Leo I, and the dogmatic teaching of the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople. And they’re only the beginning. For the entirety of Christian history until roughly the 17th century, Christians agreed with them – except for two guys.” (Mark Shea, Perpetual Virginity as Prophetic Sign)
- Others argue that Irenæus of Lyons (died c. 202 A.D.) and Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 A.D.) also affirmed the doctrine (see, for example, Ask Father Mateo).
- Regarding Irenæus of Lyons, esteemed Mariologist, Juniper Carol, writes,
- “…according to those authentic writings of his which have come down to us … there is nothing in these translated passages to show that Irenaeus held the permanence of Mary’s virginity” (Juniper Carol, Mariology, Volume II, p. 266)
- Regarding Origen, as we have already shown above, he believed that Mary did not have other children, but he insisted that Jesus’ birth was completely natural, and that Mary’s physical virginity was lost in childbirth.
- Clement of Alexandria, initially appears to support Mary’s perpetual virginity (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book VII, chapter 16), but as Juniper Carol acknowledges, we cannot completely trust the document because the Greek original is lost, and the Latin version dates to the 6th century and was written specifically to correct offending sentiments:
- “We cannot rely absolutely on this text, since it is a [6th century] translated adaptation [by Cassiodorus], with the expressed intention of expurgating anything that might be offensive…” (Juniper Carol, Mariology, Volume II, p. 271)
- Once the unreliable and questionable early sources are removed, the only remaining early support is from the latter part of the 4th century and later:
- Hilary of Poitiers (c. 310 – c. 367). Became bishop after 350 A.D., and his 1st work, Commentary on Saint Matthew, was from about 356 A.D..
- Athanasius (c. 296 — 373 A.D.) called Mary ἀειπαρθένου, or Ever Virgin in his Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse 2, chapter 70, in 360 A.D..
- Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 315 – 403 A.D.) makes an argument for her virginity in his Panarion (c. 374 A.D.).
- Jerome (c. 347 – 420 A.D.)
- Didymus the Blind (c. 313 – 398 A.D.)
- Ambrose of Milan (c. 340 – 397 A.D.)
- Pope Siricius I (reigned 384 — 399 A.D.)
- Augustine (354 – 430 A.D.)
- Leporius (5th century monk)
- Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 – 444 A.D.)
- Pope Leo I (reigned 440 — 461 A.D.)
- 2nd Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (553 A.D.)
Actual Evidence from the Church Fathers
- That the Early Church did not consider Mary to be “ever virgin” is shown not only by Roman Catholicism’s inability to provide credible evidence in the first three centuries, but by the actual teachings of the early writers rejecting Mary’s virginity in partu. If she lost her virginity in partu, then she ceased to be a virgin. We have already shown above that Origen and Tertullian rejected Mary’s virginity in partu, and that Jerome initially rejected it, too. To these we add Eusebius and Chrysostom, both of whom believed that Jesus’ birth was natural, and that Mary had suffered actual labor pains:
- Eusebius (c. 260 – 340 A.D.) understood that Jesus’ birth was almost as painful as His death because He was drawn out of His “travailing mother”:
- “[Jesus] knew that His original union with our flesh, and His birth of a woman that was a Virgin was no worse experience than the suffering of death, while He speaks of His death He also mentions His birth, saying to the Father: ‘… Thou, my God and Father, like a midwife didst draw the body that had been prepared for Me by the Holy Spirit from My travailing mother…” (Eusebius, Demonstration of the Gospel, Book X, Chapter 8 (c. 311))
- John Chrysostom (c. 349 – 407 A.D.), based on Matthew 12:50, understood that obedience makes one more a mother to Christ than Mary’s actual labor pains did:
- “For behold, He has marked out a spacious road for us; and it is granted not to women only, but to men also, to be of this rank, or rather of one yet far higher. For this makes one His mother much more, than those pangs did. So that if that were a subject for blessing, much more this, inasmuch as it is also more real.” (John Chrysostom, Homilies in Matthew, Homily 44.2).
- Eusebius (c. 260 – 340 A.D.) understood that Jesus’ birth was almost as painful as His death because He was drawn out of His “travailing mother”:
- We conclude this section by invoking David G. Hunter—previously Monsignor James Supple Chair of Catholic Studies at Iowa State University, currently Cottrill-Rolfes Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Kentucky—and his work on celibacy and virginity in the early church. He observed that in the latter part of the 4th century, there was an inordinate focus on female virgins:
- “In the later years of the fourth century the ascetic and monastic movements led male Christian writers to devote an extraordinary degree of attention to the bodies of women, especially celibate women. In the hands of ascetic authors the traditional biblical image of the virgin bride acquired new life. The ‘bride of Christ’ became the celibate Christian woman. … In the ascetic controversies of the late fourth century, the identity of the virgin bride—and specifically the question of the relationship between the individual Christian as virgin and the church as virgin—was clearly a point of contention.” (David G. Hunter, The American Society of Church History, June 2000 (283-84))
- Hunter also highlights a man by the name of Jovinianus who was condemned by Pope Siricius I, Ambrose and Jerome for supporting married clergy and suggesting that Christ’s birth was entirely normal. Hunter concluded, correctly, that Jovinianus—rather than his critics—reflected more accurately the teachings of the early church, and that the in partu virginity of Mary was built upon an untenable foundation:
- “If there is a single conclusion to be derived from my study, it is that Jovinian stood much closer to the centre of the Christian tradition than previous critics have recognized; … Ambrose’s attraction to the ideal of virginal integrity, …, caused him to adopt a Marian doctrine (virginitas in partu) that had only a fragile basis in earlier Christian tradition.” Hunter, David G., Marriage, Celibacy and Heresy in Ancient Christianity (Oxford University Press (2007) 285).
- That “fragile basis” is comprised of the Protoevangelium of James and the other sources that even the expert Mariologist acknowledges are unreliable.
We will continue this series with part 5, on Mary’s alleged bodily assumption into heaven, and conclude the series.