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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

5 Answers 5

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

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

In this particular debate there are certain facts that cannot be ignored. It would be extremely foolish to put your trust and faith in the organization known as the Roman Catholic Church. This "religion" is responsible for changing the 10 commandments, eliminating completely the 2nd commandment forbidding idolatry. The last commandment, which pertains to coveting, has been divided into two separate commands in order to maintain "10" laws instead of 9.

Not yet finished mutilating God's word, the RCC has the audacity to change God's Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. I have heard all the explanations why the papacy did this, inferring that the "Lords Day" could replace God's holy words. NOBODY has the right to change what was written in stone by the very finger of God. The traditional Sabbath is a sign between us and God, that we are obedient and respectful, worthy to become the children of God.

It would be impossible to discount the horrendous persecution of Christians and Jews perpetuated by the Church for hundreds of years. What most people are unaware of, is that the RCC has changed very little from the earlier church. The papacy worked closely with Hitler in an effort to aid the third riche's plan to eradicate all Jews on the planet. The Vatican ran it's own concentration camp during WW II of which there were very few survivors.

In conclusion, the entity known as the RCC hides behind a veil of Christianity and piety. It is common for evil to disguise itself as holy benevolence, a practice that is very evident throughout the Church's long and sordid history. I recommend reading Foxe's Book of Martyrs. This should clear things up.

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Waiter,Check Please. –  Marc 38 mins ago

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