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It's common knowledge that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxy have the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Protestants generally don't have that belief.

Less known is that Zwingli and Luther believed in perpetual virginity, too. What are the arguments for the doctrine, not assuming papal authority?

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personally, I find it hard to believe she was "perpetually virginal" as Jesus had brothers :) – warren Aug 24 '11 at 15:12
I think it should also be noted that the majority of protestantism does not follow this belief. Still, Nice question! +1 – Richard Aug 24 '11 at 15:56
I would expect that the arguments used by Zwingli and Luther would be exactly the same as the ones Catholics of the time used. None of the Reformers were throwing away everything that the church stood for. – DJClayworth Aug 25 '11 at 13:11
Calvin, too. He refers to Mary as the holy Virgin, although he argues the Biblical evidence is inconclusive – gmoothart Sep 12 '11 at 20:31
And I thought the JWs were unusual in not believing this. I didn't know most Protestants agreed. A side effect of growing up in Ireland, I suppose. Learned something new today. – TRiG Sep 21 '11 at 22:17

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

There is no clear biblical evidence for the non-Virginity of Mary.

  1. The Bible never says he had full blooded brothers and sisters. I don't want to delve into translations which I don't understand (Aramaic words for niece, cousin, nephew, etc...), but it is clear that Jesus does however call many people his brothers, and exhorts us all to call others our brothers and sisters, who are clearly not siblings.

  2. The Bible says Jesus was Mary's 'firstborn' son, but firstborn could be a title given to son's offered to the temple. Then there's the use of the word 'until', in reference to Mary and Joseph's relations. But, if I claim to lover and serve the Lord until my dying day, I certainly hope to do so after my dying day!

But there is an inkling of evidence for her not having any other children - although if you accept the brothers in (1.) as being other living sons of Joseph, it confuses the argument.

  1. When Jesus is dying on the Cross (in John's gospel), He instructs His beloved disciple and he takes to take Mary into his house. If she truly had other sons, that would be moot point for the other sons would have been there to take care of her.

Note, this is not an argument in relation to the doctrine that Mary was still materially a virgin after birth. That requires adherence to the Dogma.

Virginity itself is not altogether uncommon in human history (Vestal Virgins, Jewish Virgins). Having a Child while remaining a virgin, is a singular event worthy of our Creator and Redeemer.

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+1 Nicely answered. I think this made an interesting question, since a lot of (us) Protestants find the notion laughable but it isn't necessarily. – dancek Aug 25 '11 at 6:29
+1 Very good answer. You point to an interesting fact that may lead to think that Mary had no other children. – deps_stats Aug 25 '11 at 12:38
This is a particularly compelling argument. The implications of the scene at the foot of the cross are profound for this particular doctrine. It carries with it a very strong inference that Mary had no other sons to take care of her. – Lawrence Dol Oct 6 '11 at 2:59
One possible answer to why Jesus instructed Mary to treat the beloved disciple as her son and instructed him to take in Mary is that her natural children were not (yet) His followers (cf. Mark 3:31-35). The Jewish and Roman ideals of virginity are evidence that cuts both ways: virginity might have been a secular ideal that crept into church tradition. (But +1 on a well-reasoned answer.) – Jon Ericson Feb 21 '12 at 9:54
@JonEricson That may not be true. – cwallenpoole Feb 21 '12 at 14:54

I've found some very interesting quotes of Martin Luther:

Christ, our Savior, was the real and natural fruit of Mary's virginal womb . . . This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that.

Luther's Works, eds. Jaroslav Pelikan (vols. 1-30) & Helmut T. Lehmann (vols. 31-55), St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House (vols. 1-30); Philadelphia: Fortress Press (vols. 31-55), 1955, v.22:23 / Sermons on John, chaps. 1-4 (1539)

Christ . . . was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him . . . I am inclined to agree with those who declare that 'brothers' really mean 'cousins' here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers.

Pelikan, ibid., v.22:214-15 / Sermons on John, chaps. 1-4 (1539)

A new lie about me is being circulated. I am supposed to have preached and written that Mary, the mother of God, was not a virgin either before or after the birth of Christ . . .

Pelikan, ibid.,v.45:199 / That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew (1523)

However I found no other explanation for this issue except that both Luther and Zwingli were raised in the teachings of catholic church.

As for the authority of the doctrine I think it relies on the early teachings of the church, as it is reflected in the teachings of the first fathers:

  • Athanasius (Alexandria, 293-373);
  • Epiphanius (Palestine, 315?-403);
  • Jerome (Stridon, present day Yugoslavia, 345?-419);
  • Augustine(Numidia, now Algeria, 354-430);
  • Cyril (Alexandria, 376-444);

For example, the title Mary Ever-Virgin is found in is found in Athanasius'. Orat. ii. § 70. (Orations against the Arians Book II section 70) "Let those who deny that the Son is from the Father by nature and proper to His substance, deny also that He took true human flesh of Mary Ever-Virgin." You can read more in newmann reader under the title Mary Ever-Virgin.

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I find it interesting that all of these "first fathers" you cite were a few centuries after Christ. Is there any evidence that the actual first fathers (the Apostles) believed this? – Mason Wheeler Aug 24 '11 at 16:32
This all evidence that they believed it, not why they believed it. – jimreed Aug 24 '11 at 16:49

Calvin's commentary on Matthew 1:25 deserves to be quoted in full (hat-tip to gmoothart):

25. And knew her not This passage afforded the pretext for great disturbances, which were introduced into the Church, at a former period, by Helvidius. The inference he drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband. Jerome, on the other hand, earnestly and copiously defended Mary’s perpetual virginity. Let us rest satisfied with this, that no just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words of the Evangelist, as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called first-born; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin. It is said that Joseph knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son: but this is limited to that very time. What took place afterwards, the historian does not inform us. Such is well known to have been the practice of the inspired writers. Certainly, no man will ever raise a question on this subject, except from curiosity; and no man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation.

To me, this suggests that Calvin (and the other Reformers who did not oppose the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity) didn't think the matter, well, mattered. Later reformers, I think, have expressed concerns because of the deeper divide between Protestants and Catholics.

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