Doug's Theology Pages

Is the Dogma of the
Perpetual Virginity of Mary Based on a
Bibliographical Ghost?

Douglas Gilliland

Table of Contents


A major sticking point(ref) in contemporary dialog/debate between Eastern Orthodox(ref) and Protestants(ref) concerns the person and life of Mary(ref). While both sides(ref) agree that Mary is the mother of Jesus and was a virgin prior to the birth of Jesus, Christians in the Eastern Orthodox Church insist that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus was born up through the time of her death. Most Christians in contemporary Evangelical Protestant Churches teach that Mary had marital relations with Joseph and produced other children. There has been much misrepresentation on both sides of the issue concerning the historical record with unwarranted and exaggerated claims made by all parties concerned.

For a Protestant who is concerned about historical theology, but rejects a particular point of traditional teaching, it's important to have a reasonable explanation for why the generally historically accepted point is rejected. Typical Protestant treatments credit the rise in the role of asceticism as being a key factor in the development of the spread of the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary(ref) and the attendant need for an appropriate role model for the ascetics. Some feminist sources treat Mary as "an impossible ideal(ref)" and "desexed in Christian tradition(ref)". Other theologians have linked the development of the doctrine to the view of Mary as the new Eve, based on allegorical teaching(ref).


It's the contention of the author of this paper that the teaching of the perpetual virginity of Mary is a bibliographical ghost(ref) that started with the Protoevangelium of James(ref) and was carried down through the centuries in both the Eastern and Western Churches eventually gaining almost complete acceptance.

This paper considers the dogmatic status of the teaching patristic evidences, creeds and councils, views of other sects, the Protoevangelium of James itself, use of "Ever Virgin" in the Liturgy, as well as the views of contemporary Orthodox writers in tracing the development of the written records of the teaching(ref). Claims of oral transmission of the dogma are outside the transmitted and preserved texts and, as such, are beyond the scope of this paper.

Dogmatic Status of the Teaching

The dogmatic status itself is a point of some disputation in the Orthodox Church. On one hand, John Meyendorff states that, "the only doctrinal definition on Mary to which the Byzantine Church was formally committed in the decree of the Council of Ephesus which called her the Theotokos(ref)".

In contrast, Timothy Ware states that the title Ever-Virgin has dogmatic status due to its Liturgical usage, "In Orthodox services Mary is often mentioned, she is usually given her full title: 'Our All-Holy, immaculate, most blessed and glorified Lady, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary.'(ref)"

Other sources also take even more uncompromising stances on the teaching of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary as a dogma of the church(ref). For instance, the Catechism of the Orthodox Church states:

Q. What is the Dogma of the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God? A. That the Mother of God "conceived as a virgin, brought forth as a virgin, and after the birth still remained a virgin(ref).

The insistence on this dogma is illustrated in the same document:

"Which Church is right... ? ... the Protestants are in error, because the so-called brethren of Jesus were not children of the Mother of God, because if she had had other children, Jesus upon His cross would have left His Mother to the care of some one of them, who would have been present at His last moments, and not to the care of John, and He would not have said to her: "Woman, behold thy son," (St. John, Chapter 19, Verse 26), that is, since you are losing the only one you have.

It's important to note that this generalization is not completely accurate. Historically, the Protestant church has had those who affirm the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. Calvin(ref), Luther(ref), Zwingli(ref) and others taught the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, but the teaching has fallen into disrepute in Protestant circles in more recent times(ref). Although, this paper refers to the two positions as the Orthodox and Protestant positions, it should be noted that this distinction is not universal(ref).

Patristics and the Role of Tradition

Although the Protestant hermeneutic of Sola Scriptura is often appealed to if the weight of patristic evidence does not favor a particular Protestant doctrine(ref), Protestants realize that a hermeneutic that does not take into account historical development is inadequate at best(ref). The Eastern Orthodox concept of Tradition places a much heavier weight on the value of the teachings of the Fathers(ref). This section will outline the case that is found in the Patristics.

Early Writers Against Perpetual Virginity

Contrary to the hyperbolic claims by certain Orthodox writers(ref), the dogma is conspicuously absent from the very earliest Christian writers(ref) and even explicitly contradicted by a some early(ref) writers.


Meier(ref) notes that "In the 2nd century, for example, 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 ("Memoirs")(ref).


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)(ref). Tertullian taught that Mary lost her virginity in the conception of Christ(ref).

Tertullian wrote that Mary had relations with Joseph after Jesus was born(ref). Tertullian also wrote that the brothers were actually borne by Mary. When Tertullian was later quoted by Helvidius to support his position against perpetual virginity, Jerome attempted to defeat Tertullian's credibility with a classical ad hominem(ref) argument(ref).


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(ref).


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(ref). 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(ref)? Cousins often bear a strong physical resemblance as well.

Sects 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(ref). Another sect mentioned by Augustine was the Antidicomarites who denied the perpetual virginity of Mary(ref)"


The Jewish historian, Josephus, referred to James as "the brother (??????s) of Jesus"(ref). Josephus used the Greek word (anepsios) 12 times(ref).

Patristics Supporting Perpetual Virginity

Although there is a noticeable dearth of early witness to the perpetual virginity of Mary, the vast majority of the sources after the middle of the fourth century support perpetual virginity. The historical sources that support perpetual virginity are listed in these following sections.

Origen and the Protoevangelium of James

A 2nd century contemporary of Tertullian, Origen(ref) is the key figure in the development of the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary since he was the first (in surviving writings) to comment on it. In the earliest recorded quote on the perpetual virginity of Mary, Origen(ref) wrote that Jesus was the only child of Mary(ref). Further, Origen credited the source of his ideas about the perpetual virginity of Mary as the apocryphal gospel, "The Protoevangelium of James"(ref). This last quote is crucial for several reasons:

Hilary of Poitiers

An indirect appeal to the perpetual virginity of Mary is made by Hilary attempted to refute the idea that they brethren of the Lord were Mary's children(ref).


Some of the clearest statements supporting the perpetual virginity of Mary come from St. Athanasius. This statement presupposes that there are people who deny the perpetual virginity of Mary(ref).

John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom presents an argument against the word "till" being taken to mean that Mary had marital relations with Joseph after Jesus was born. This statement is apparently offered as a apologetic against those who raised the argument that the Scriptures indicate the marital union of Joseph and Mary(ref).

Gregory of Nyssa

Another writer that supported perpetual virginity was Gregory of Nyssa.(ref)


Epiphanius referred to the perpetual virginity of Mary(ref).


The pivotal position was that of Jerome. In his disputation with Helvidius is found the earliest theological dissertation on the subject of the perpetual virginity of Mary(ref). Jerome also brought an additional innovation(ref) when he proposed the solution to the "brethren of Jesus" being his first cousins(ref).


Basil is typical of early writers who state that he believes in the perpetual virginity of Mary(ref), but notes that there are other opinions in the Church(ref)"

Didymus the Blind

Didymus the Blind is another late 4th century writer who affirmed the perpetual virginity(ref).

Pope Siricius I

The emotional repulsion at Mary having relations with Joseph and bearing children was well expressed by Pope Siricius I(ref).


Imitate her, holy mothers, who in her only dearly beloved Son set forth so great an example of maternal virtue; for neither have you sweeter children, nor did the Virgin seek the consolation of being able to bear another son.(ref)


Augustine also took a dogmatic stance on the issue in several of his writings(ref). Augustine takes the issue of virginity a level further than the Biblical text by claiming that Mary was chosen because of her prior commitment to being a virgin(ref). As with the other writers, there is an imaginary objector who is being interacted with by the author. Whether this is a real objector, or not, there is most likely a real basis for the objections and real questions being answered, unless it is supposed that the author is constructing a strawman and then tearing it down(ref).


Leoporius applied the title "ever-virgin" to Mary(ref).

Cyril of Alexandria

Cyril of Alexandria taught that Jesus kept Mary a virgin after her giving birth to him(ref).

Peter Chrysoslogus

Peter Chrysoslogus takes it a step farther when we wrote that Mary's womb was not affected during the pregnancy(ref).

Pope Leo I

Pope Leo wrote several sermons on the subject(ref).

John of Damascus

John of Damascus affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary and argued against those who quoted the New Testament passages that Mary had other children(ref). He uses other lines of argumentation to make the same point(ref).

Creeds and Councils


None of the creeds of the ancient church affirm the perpetual virginity of Mary.

Local Councils and Synods

The Lateran Synod of AD 649 was the first to stress the threefold character of Mary's virginity.(ref)

Ecumenical Councils

The Council of Constantinople declared Mary's perpetual virginity in 681(ref)

The Protoevangelium of James

The Protoevangelium of James(ref) is an apocryphal gospel/birth narrative(ref). Dating of the Protoevangelium is uncertain. Although some Catholic apologists in the effort to strengthen their case point to early dates(ref), other scholars have proposed later dates(ref).

The Protoevangelium is reminiscent of the story of Samuel in the Old Testament, but instead with Mary cast in the role of Samuel. Mary is given to the Jewish temple as at age 3 and stays there until age 12. In the story, Mary takes a vow of celibacy, which is lifetime. Thus, while the Protoevangelium of James itself does not directly state the perpetual virginity of Mary, it is a necessary consequence of the vow that she has taken(ref).

Although the Christian Community did not accept the Protoevangelium as authoritative(ref), the details in the stories did find their way into the Christian apologetic and traditional teaching(ref). Origen, as we have seen, distinctly credits the Protoevangelium of James as the source of his teaching. With the exception of Jerome whose account of the "brethren of the Lord" was that they were cousins, the other writers all followed the pattern of the Protoevangelium.

While it can not be proven conclusively that the Protoevangelium is the source of the materials that followed(ref), there is no other credible sources are known. Both Roman Catholic(ref) and Eastern Orthodox(ref) scholars acknowledge the literary dependence of the traditions to the Protoevangelium of James.

An issue is raised by this theory of origins, though. Why are there two theories about who the "brethren of Jesus" were? As noted, Jerome seems to be the source of the idea that the "brethren" were actually first cousins(ref). The Protoevangelium presents the view that the "brethren" were the children of Joseph by a prior marriage. If the Protoevangelium was considered to be authoritative, then how did the "cousin" theory gain an advocate with Jerome? No satisfactory explanation has yet been offered to the question. However, the relatively late date of Jerome's theory, along with the lack of any supporting evidence proposed by Jerome, weakens his case.

On the other hand, if both traditions were extant at the time, then it weakens the ultimate authority claims of both.

None of the earliest fathers credit the apostle James with authorship.

The stories contain historical inaccuracies with errors in the details of the temple, for existence. The account seems to be oriented towards providing an apologetic for virginity(ref).

Apocryphal books like the Protoevangelium filled a psychological need in people to know more of the details than the otherwise spartan Gospels present(ref). Other apocryphal sources add additional details to the story(ref).

Use of "Ever-Virgin" in the Liturgy

Lex orandi est lex credendi et agendi(ref)

The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom(ref) is the liturgy that is celebrated most in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Seven separate references to Mary as ever-Virgin can be found in the Liturgy, for instance:

Remembering our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, with all the saints, let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God. (4 times in total)

Only begotten Son and Word of God, although immortal You humbled Yourself for our salvation, taking flesh from the holy Theotokos and ever virgin Mary and, without change, becoming man. Christ, our God, You were crucified but conquered death by death. You are one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit - save us.

Especially for our most holy, pure, blessed, and glorious Lady, the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary.

Since one of the sources of doctrine in the Orthodox Church is its use in the Liturgy, the use of the title "Ever-Virgin" in the Liturgy establishes it as an authoritative part of the Tradition.

Contemporary Orthodox Writers

In his book on Mary, St. John Maximovitch of San Fransisco gives both explanations of who the "brothers of Jesus" are. He writes: "In the Gospel it can nowhere be seen that those who are called there the brothers of Jesus were or were considered the chidren of His Mother. On the contrary, it was known that James and others were the sons of Joseph, the Betrothed of Mary, who was a widower with children from his first wife. (St. Epiphanius of Cyprus, *Panarion*, 78.) Likewise, the sister of His Mother, Mary the wife of Cleopas, who stood with her at the cross of the Lord (John 19:25), also had children, who in view of such close kinship with full right could also be called brothers of the Lord(ref)" Sergius Bulgakov interacted with the Protestant view of Mary when he wrote, "This failure to be mindful of the Virgin Mary is often found in Protestantism in such extreme beliefs as the Virgin might have had other children by Joseph...(ref)" Other Orthodox sources can be listed confirming a belief in Mary as "the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God.(ref)"


The Protoevangelium of James is the most likely literary source of the teaching of the perpetual virginity of Mary. As the earliest extant writer on perpetual virginity, Origen quoted the Protoevangelium to support the teaching. Origen's influence on Hilary of Poitiers , Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Epiphanius, Jerome, Basil, Ambrose of Milan, and Gregory of Nazianzus is well documented(ref). This list is virtually identical to the list of strong supporters of perpetual virginity in the fourth century.

This subject touches on the foundation of the canon itself as well as the authority of traditionally accepted teaching(ref) in the church. Both sides of the debate have traditional teachings. The historical churches claim apostolic succession, but can't agree on enough of the details of things like the "brothers" of Jesus to make a convincing story for those who do not accept their epistemological starting point.

Additionally, the argument in favor of perpetual virginity has the appearance of a logical tautology, i.e., "The perpetual virginity of Mary is true because it is proven by Tradition(ref)."

An interesting quote by Schmemann may shed some light on the development of doctrine:

Thus in 190-192, Pope Victor demanded in an ultimatum that the Eastern Churches accept the Roman practice of celebrating Easter. ... Victor based his demand on the authority of the apostles Peter and Paul. He was answered by one of the senior bishops of the East, Polycrates of Ephesus, who referred in turn to a tradition that had reached him directly from the apostles. ... Thus a Roman tradition was gradually allowed to develop. When East and West later came to face it, it was too late; for Rome the tradition was already sanctified by antiquity and interpreted as true(ref).

The interesting part is that in this quote, a credible Orthodox source admits that (at least when it's Rome he's talking about) that there have been false claims in the past of apostolic authority for a tradition that was actually a development over time. Both sides claimed to have received something from the apostles. Either one was wrong, or they both were (unless they were taught contrary teachings by the apostles).

Eventually, it all boils down to an authority claim. Either one accepts that the Eastern Orthodox Church is the infallible repository of Tradition, or one rejects that claim.

This particular point is illustrative of the differences between the approaches of historical theology and Evangelical Protestant theology. The ultimate questions of the relationship between Church authority and individual autonomy of belief are raised.

Works Cited

0801025893_m.gif (11975 bytes)Clendendin, Daniel. "Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader." (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Baker Books, 1995).

Essey, William. "Mariology in the Fathers: Apostolic Era through Byzantine Synthesis", March 1973, St. Vladimir's Theological Seminary, Thesis for BDiv.

Geisler and MacKenzie. "Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences" (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Baker Books, 1995).

Hendriksen, William. "Commentary on the Gospel of Mark" (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Baker Books, 1990).

0385264259_m.gif (6473 bytes)Meier, John P. "A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Vol 1)." (New York: Doubleday, 1991).

0385469926_m.gif (6311 bytes)See also: A Marginal Jew - Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Anchor Bible Reference Library-Volume Two-Mentor, Message, and Miracles) Vol 2)

Meyendorff, John. "Byzantine Theology" (New York: Fordham University Press, 1979).

Ramm, Bernard. "Protestant Biblical Interpretation." (Boston: W. A. Wilde Company, 1956).

Tucker, Ruth. "Daughters of the Church." (Grand Rapid, Mi.: Zondervan, 1987).

Wenham, John. "Easter Enigma: Are the Resurrection Accounts in Conflict?." (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Baker Books, 1984).

Winston, William. "The Works of Josephus." (Peabody, Mass.; Hendrickson, 1987).

Works Consulted

Brown, Raymond E. "Mary in the New Testament." (New York: Fortress Press, 1978).

Graef, Hilda. "Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion", Volume 1, "From the Beginnings to the Eve of the Reformation." (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963)

O'Meara, Thomas A. "Mary: In Protestant and Catholic Theology."(New York: Sheed and Ward, 1966)

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