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Not counting Martin Luther, who appears to have believed in the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, what do other Protestants think is the source and reason for Catholic adherence to the notion that the Blessed Virgin Mary was a virgin before giving birth, after giving birth and until the end of her earthly life?

My assumption, as a Catholic, is that once the reformation took off, and people were interpreting the Bible for themselves, that they looked at the brothers and sisters of Christ mentioned in Mark and threw out the doctrine.

They probably thought that it leads to

  • worshiping Mary.
  • is an extra burden put on them by the Church.
  • is borne out of ignorance of scripture.
  • is a made up tradition.

But all these are my assumptions, what are the protestant assumptions about the source and reason for the existence of the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary (the one that they absolutely do not adhere to).

By perpetual virginity, I mean mainly that she remained a virgin after during and after giving birth to Jesus.

If the answer is purely biblically based is should at least acknowledge the fact that pre-reformation Christians were capable of reading and interpreting scripture. I'd like to know what the reformers used as their arguments that most Protestants just take for granted nowadays. Unless, of course, they seriously weren't all that interested in convincing anyone who was not ignorant of scripture.

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I'll look for answers from Protestants, but presumably the default answer here of the Protestant assumptions of Catholics (head spinning a bit!) is simply: "Catholcism believes that to be the correct interpretation of scripture, and not a mis-translation of the word 'maiden'" – Marc Gravell Feb 20 '12 at 16:11
@Marc, I'm mainly talking about post-birth virginity. In any event, I'd say most Christians don't get hung up over a mistranslation (or a misinterpretation of a mistranslation) of Isaiah. For myself, I prefer the more beautiful, mysterious and glorious translation - but I'm a big softie without much common sense. – Peter Turner Feb 20 '12 at 16:24
But yeah, if that's the crux of the issue, then by all means let's hear it! – Peter Turner Feb 20 '12 at 16:25
My confusion, then; it may be worth strengthening the emphasis in the question? – Marc Gravell Feb 20 '12 at 16:59
Yeah, I better fix it up before I get a lot of Bible quotes too. – Peter Turner Feb 20 '12 at 17:00
up vote -1 down vote accepted

The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity comes not only from Catholics as you mentioned but from traditional Lutheranism as well. The basis for this is not only an ancient understanding of the role Mary plays in the incarnation, but also it is revealed to the early Christians, especially those coming from Rabbinic Judaism, as a completion of God’s plan as revealed by recapitulating the old testament as it pertains to the Ark Of the Covenant and Mary, as the New Ark of the New Covenant.

The Old Ark of the Covenant which carried the Rod of Aaron, the Manna, and the Word of God, is a foreshadow of the Ark to come which is Mary who also carried these things in their perfection, Christ Jesus our Lord. This method of using scripture from the Old Testament is called “Typology” a practice used also by the apostles in their Epistles to bring forth truths in the OT as it is made manifest in the New, perfected and completed in Christ. Examples of Typology used by the NT Scripture writers and indeed Christ himself are:

Romans 5:16, John 3:14, Mat 24:37-39, 1 Cor 10:1-5 Just to list a few.

This method of using past scripture to show God revealing himself in later times was also used by David foreshadowing Christ as well as other prophets to many to mention. PS 110:4, Zach 6:12-13 again just a few.

This pattern continues even today inside many Protestant Denominations.

When we look at how the Ark of Gods, word, his Bread and the staff of his priest hood, were cared for, we see how The Ark was cherished and held above all things as most sacred to the Jews. Indeed it was considered the Holy of Hollies, the dwelling place of God where the spirit of God dwelt in the form of Pillar of cloud by day and a Pillar of fire by night. Exodus as well as Numbers and Leviticus (many examples).

The idea, that the Ark of the Old Testament, which carried something precious to the Jewish people, would be less important than that, which was carried by the New Ark (Mary), never crossed the mind of early Christians including many of the heretics of the 15th century. It was clear to those men and to all who understood Mary’s role in carrying the Son of God that she was the consummation of what was foreshadowed by the Ark of the Covenant.

Joseph, regardless of what many later Protestants claim, knew to that which Mary was called, and informed by God himself, knew also that which Mary was to carry in her womb. Knowing this, being guided to protect and act as the adopted father of Christ, would he knowing full well to whom Christ was and knowing how Mary had been set apart by God Himself as the “Woman” of whom the prophets spoke of to deliver the Messiah, Ever even for a moment, consider violating her sacred role? One would only have to look to Uzzah (2 Sam 6:10), to see that this coarse of action would be unwise.

From the moment of his conception to the moment of his death, Mary was and continued to be, ever virgin. Set apart from all others, Holy and blessed among women, consecrated to God for his purpose predestined before creation, kept Sacred to the Glory of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, to raise and love Jesus Christ our Lord in perfection.

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I don't think this is a valid answer for this question. This question isn't asking for the basis of the belief, but the origin. This is a church history question, and good answers should be based on quotes from past Christian authors. – curiousdannii Apr 21 '15 at 13:45
I respect your opinion, but I also respectfully disagree. Old Testiment Typology as I mentioned was and is, a method of seeing things of old all anew in light of what has come to pass. I give you saint Jerome, read away – Marc Apr 22 '15 at 2:30
You need to edit your answer. Key sources like that don't belong in comments. – curiousdannii Apr 22 '15 at 3:04

One of the defining tenets of Protestant Christianity is sola scriptura--that the Scriptures are the fundamental basis for all doctrine. This is in contrast to extra-biblical teachings. The idea is that if it were important enough for us to know, God would have told us in the Scriptures themselves and not have us rely on extra-biblical teachings. Protestants see the potential for great danger when there is reliance on the teaching of men rather than on the unchanging Word of God.

To answer your question specifically, Protestants generally believe that this was a teaching that was introduced by the Catholic church centuries after the life of Jesus. There is no apostolic authority behind it, as it appears nowhere in Scripture. All we are told is that Mary was a virgin at Jesus' conception and remained so until His birth, as @ryanOptini also noted.

Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angle of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife, and knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus. Matthew 1:24-25

Nowhere in Scripture does it indicate that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Christ. This would certainly have been noteworthy, since it would not have been a normal thing for a married woman (and man, for that matter) to not have a consummated marriage and experience the normal and sacred aspects of marriage. Yet, the best biblical support is quite vague at best.

It is also problematic to Protestants as to why it would have been necessary for Mary to remain a virgin--and for Joseph to remain celibate towards her as her husband. Why is this level of intimacy denied both Mary and Joseph and what could possibly be wrong with it?

Now, it may have been the Mary began to be held up as a female example for women to follow. Men could look to Jesus Himself or any of the apostles to see a male example to follow. So, perhaps it was well-intentioned. God found favor with Mary, much like He had done with Noah in the Old Testament. Her virginity as an unmarried woman is commendable as well. And perhaps over time, Mary's virginity was turned into eternal virginity to really set her apart and give her even more honor.


So, again, it may have been well-intentioned, but Protestants generally believe it was a teaching introduced by the Catholic church long after the apostles were gone. So, the teaching lacks apostolic authority as well as biblical support, which is extremely important if something so unexpected is to be believed and held as such an important doctrine.

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Even though generally I agree with you on an interpretational level, I don't see how this answers the question. Isn't he asking a historical question, not an interpretational one? – Mallioch Feb 20 '12 at 18:04
What I find particularly bizarre in this is the "virgin wife as an example" - isn't that an anti-example as far as Christianty goes? Not a critique of te answer - it is a familiar view - simply: it is curious. – Marc Gravell Feb 20 '12 at 18:36
@Marc it's an example (not a counter example), married Catholics are called to live chastely, to the extent that they can. Men and women should imitate Mary in this regard. Furthermore, she mirrors the Church as the mystical, spotless bride of Christ, that's the example - and a good one. Religious sisters who consider Christ as their spouse would take Mary's example very seriously. – Peter Turner Feb 20 '12 at 19:13

One answer that has been suggested is the Infancy Gospel of James (AKA The Protoevangelium of James). This document dates to roughly the middle of the second century and focuses largely on the person of Mary from her birth to the birth of Jesus. As the central character, Mary's honor and purity are defended in great detail. Mary's virginity is repeatedly demonstrated—including when she is six-months pregnant and endures an ordeal by the high priest. Since she survives drinking poison, the priest says, "If the Lord God has not made manifest your sins, neither do I judge you."

Most important to our question comes immediately after the miraculous birth of Jesus:

And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: "Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to thee: a virgin has brought forth—a thing which her nature admits not of." Then said Salome: "As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth."

And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: "Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee." And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: "Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief..."—Roberts-Donaldson English Translation (with added punctuation)

In other words, the midwife and Salome are said to have inspected Mary's hymen immediately after the birth in order to show that Mary was a virgin before and after the event.

So here's my speculative sequence of events:

  1. Jesus was born from the virgin Mary as described in Luke and Matthew.
  2. Sometime later, opponents of Christianity questioned this doctrine.
  3. In response, someone (no scholars believe it was written by James the Just) wrote the Infancy Gospel to defend Mary's honor.
  4. Even though it was not accepted as canonical, many early Christians accepted the story of Mary's perpetual virginity and even expanded on it. (The Protoevangelium does not speak of Mary's life after the birth of Jesus, so it doesn't claim she never had other children.)
  5. The doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary became enshrined in tradition.

When the Reformation examined church tradition against scripture, it understandably focused on what it considered most important and Mariology was not high on the list. Therefore, the question of whether Mary remained a virgin after Jesus' birth was not immediately questioned.

I should point out that as far as it goes, perpetual virginity is an innocuous doctrine to the Protestant worldview. That Christ was born of a virgin is a matter asserted by the earliest Creeds and the gospels themselves, so it wouldn't be much of a stretch if it turned out that Mary remained a virgin—what's a little more miracle after all? But Protestants generally agree that perpetual virginity is a) not true and b) part of a larger set of doctrines that misplace the importance of Mary. That's why we tend to be opposed to the doctrine.

As you point out, pre-Reformation Christians did read scripture. But they did not have many of the tools of criticism that were developed at about the same time. Therefore, the doctrine of perpetual virginity was placed beside the gospel accounts and the differences were harmonized. The harmonized interpretation then became part of church's tradition. When the doctrine of sola scriptura was introduced, the differences were interpreted as denying perpetual virginity, which was therefore dropped. It's not necessarily even a matter of Protestants being better at interpretation. Rather, I would say that Protestants are more willing to be skeptical of tradition.


If Protestants venture any theory at all, it is that perpetual virginity defense entered the church's tradition very early on in its history in response to charges that Christ's birth was entirely natural (and even illegitimate). Understandably, the tradition may have exaggerated the facts at times.

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Very thorough and well-developed answer. – davidethell Feb 22 '12 at 19:23
@mattgutting juxtapose this answer with the one you gave to my similar question – Pam Nov 3 '15 at 14:33

Maybe this isn't an answer, but I'd say: Why do you ask Protestants for the origin of a Catholic doctrine? Wouldn't it make more sense to ask Catholics where they got this idea?

Personally I don't know if historical documents survive that would give an objective answer to the question. If anyone out there knows, I think that would be interesting.

Any Protestant will surely say, "This was a doctrine invented by human beings long after the Gospel was written." I'm sure some Protestants speculate on the psychological reasons why a church would adopt a doctrine that he believes to be false, i.e. what human emotional or psychological need does this doctrine satisfy? Personally I prefer to be cautious about speculating about the reasoning or motives of people I disagree with.

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I think you hit the nail on the head with your mention of the brother's and sisters of Christ mentioned in Mark. All scripture says that Christ would be born of a virgin, it says nothing about her having to stay a virgin forever. On top of that there is this scripture in Matt:

Matt 1: 24-25

24 Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angle of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:

25 And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.

(emphasis mine)

So it says that he didn't have relations with her until she had brought forth Jesus. Which then leads to the interpretation that he did have them with her after Christ was born.


In response to your edit on the question and comments. The historical context of the Middle Ages is important to note. If you look at the timeline of the reformation it started after the printing press was invented. This is because the printing press opened up the possibility of cheap books (and even then really cheap books for the masses didn't happen until the industrial revolution), particularly the Bible, which the masses could then read instead of having the scriptures be read to them at Mass and interpreted by the priest. So in essence its not so much that Catholics were dumb or could not interpret scripture before the time of the reformation its that they didn't have access to the scriptures even if they had known how to read.

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Isn't this representing the opposite position? It might be my interpretation, but the question seems to be asking for views about the origins/sources for eternal virginity – Marc Gravell Feb 20 '12 at 17:01
Yeah, I'd like to know what Protestants thought Catholics thought. I guess it's sort of a strange way to put phrase the question, but I want to draw out the assumptions because on the surface it seems like Protestants think Catholics can't (or don't) read. – Peter Turner Feb 20 '12 at 17:10
It seemed to me that he was asking why Protestants left the view of the eternal virginity. I don't think that you can ask protestants who don't believe in that view to give sources and reasons for believing in that view. They just won't interpret the scriptures that way. Maybe I'm off but that's how it seemed to me. – ryan Feb 20 '12 at 17:11
Just a note on the word "until." I am not trying to spark debate, but Aquinas addresses that rather well here – cwallenpoole Feb 20 '12 at 18:13
No scriptural basis for any of the objections to her not being a virgin after birth. On top of that, Christ came to fulfill the law of Moses (He says so Himself) but the commandant or law to multiply and replenish the earth wasn't given to Moses it was given to Adam. And having read the New Testament I haven't seen anywhere where it says that Christ revoked that command. And the term know in the biblical sense is universally thought of to imply sexual relations. To think that in this case it doesn't is suspect at best.... – ryan Feb 20 '12 at 18:31

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