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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
up vote 10 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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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. – user32 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
@cwallenpoole: I'm sorry? What does "that" refer to? Of course, any part of my comment might be false, but I'm curious which part you think most likely. – Jon Ericson Feb 21 '12 at 16:02

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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One of the points of theology that has traditionally separated some Protestants from our Roman and Eastern brothers and sisters is the question of the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Mary. The argument is usually cast as a typical reformed – catholic debate with the issue of biblical authority vs. authority of tradition at the center of it. I however I want to suggest that there is a strong, almost overwhelming, biblical case for the Ever Virginity of the Blessed Theotokos.

I can already hear the objection that the natural reading of Mark 6:3 and Matt 13:55-56 would preclude St. Mary being a virgin throughout her life. I will deal with this objection, but not until I have laid out my case to the contrary. The argument is based on scriptural premises that may seem too obvious to state, but I hope the reader will bear with me because I think they are important.

A) Jesus is God made Flesh

My first premise is that Jesus Christ is the eternal son of the living God consubstantial with the Father. This is shown by John 1:1–2, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God" and John 1:14, "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth." Many other biblical passages support this proposition, including but not limited to Matt. 17:5 "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him"; Mark 1:11 "Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased"; 1 John 4:15 "Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God."

B) Blessed Mary was the Mother of Jesus

My second premise is that Blessed Mary is the mother of Jesus. The support for this comes primarily from the Gospel of Luke. Chapter 1:26-31 tells us:

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.

Chapter 2:6,7,21 tells of the fulfillment of this prophecy:

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn .. And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Several other passages tell us the same: Acts 1:14 states "These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren." And John 19:26, "When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son!"

C) Therefore Blessed Mary is Theotokos

From these premises it follows that Mary bore God within her womb. It is for this reason that the Council of Ephesus declared,

If anyone will not confess that the Emmanuel is very God, and that therefore the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Θεοτόκος), inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh, as it is written, ‘The Word was made flesh’, let him be anathema.

(1st Anathama of the Council of Ephesus)

D) As Theotokos, Blessed Mary was like the Holy of Holies

Mary as God Bearer has a very direct parallel in the Old Testament, the mercy seat where God dwelt between the cherubim. Exodus 25:22 says

And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.

Just as God was present at the mercy seat in the holy of holies, he was present in the womb of Blessed Mary.

E) Joseph was a Pious Jew

My third premise is that Joseph was a pious Jew. The scriptures tell us that: Matt 1:19 states "Joseph her husband was faithful to the law". Likewise Luke 2:21 tells us that Jesus was circumcised in accordance with the law. Luke 2:22 tells us that St. Mary was purified according to the law. Luke 2:23 tells us that Jesus was dedicated at the temple as a first born son according to the law. In fact it was necessary to Jesus' mission that he fulfill the whole law, thus he needed a pious stepfather to see that law was fulfilled while he was a child.

F) A Pious Jew Would not think of Entering the Holy of Holies

My fourth premise is that a pious Jew would not enter the Holy of Holies. The scriptures are clear that only the high priest could enter the holy of holies, and even the High Priest could only enter on one occasion.

The Lord said to Moses: 'Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark.'

(Leviticus 16:2)

G) Therefore Joseph would not think of Entering the Blessed Mary

It follows that just as Joseph, a pious Jew, would not enter the holy of holies where God dwelt between the Cherubim, he would not enter the Blessed Mary where God dwelt as the Incarnate Word. Now some might argue that Joseph did not know that his step son was very God. However the scriptures tell us,

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.

Matthew 1:20–21

Now God alone can save people from their sins, so Joseph must have had a pretty good idea, especially after speaking with Blessed Mary, hearing the stories of the shepherds and wise men, and hearing the prophecy of Simeon.

H) Therefore Blessed Mary would remain ever virgin

It follows from this that unless Mary remarried or was cheating on Joseph, neither of which is even hinted at in the scriptures, that the Blessed Mary remained a virgin until her falling asleep.

Now turning to the objection that the natural reading of Mark 6:3 and Matt 13:55–56 would preclude St. Mary being a virgin throughout her life. The earliest tradition of interpretation of these passages was that the brothers and sisters mentioned in these passages are the children of Joseph by a previous marriage. The modern Roman interpretation is that these are Jesus' cousins by Clopas and his wife Mary. Either are possible, neither ruled out by the scriptures.

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Welcome! Thanks for contributing. Unfortunately, this post is extremely difficult to read because of the formatting. It would also be stronger if you included sources to show that it reflects the line of reasoning employed by Zwingli/Luther or their modern followers. I hope you'll take a minute to take the tour and review how this site is different from others. – Nathaniel Jan 21 at 18:56
@StephenW.Houghton Interesting, but do protestants give these reasons? – user13992 Jan 21 at 19:02

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