Early Church's Understanding of Mary's Perpetual Virginity

On another board, some Protestants are claiming that the early Fathers’ understanding of virginity was different than ours.

They say that most of them believed that Christ was born miraculously without any passage through the birth canal, or afterbirth, etc.

(I looked in Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic dogma, and he appears to me to confirm that)

The others believed that she was not a Virgin, because Christ was born naturally.

They insist that because the ECF understanding of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary was different from ours today, that we can’t claim that today’s Catholic Church has a leg to stand on in its current understanding of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.

How would you respond to this?

Some did. I don’t think “most” is accurate, though.

(I looked in Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic dogma, and he appears to me to confirm that)

Protestants held the same belief. [Calvin was actually back and forth on it…his quote in this reference isn’t his support of the Perpetual Virginity doctrine, just that the “evidence” used by some does NOT suggest subsequent children of Mary.]


The others believed that she was not a Virgin, because Christ was born naturally.

Why is that relevant? [That’s what you ask those folks on the other board.] Let’s pretend that Mary gave natural birth. What’s that got to do with the doctrine on Mary’s Perpetua Virginity? [For this, they’ll need to actually know what that doctrine says…so they don’t argue a strawman. It’s their burden to provide if they are the ones making a claim about it.]

They insist that because the ECF understanding of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary was different from ours today, that we can’t claim that today’s Catholic Church has a leg to stand on in its current understanding of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.

That’s a non sequitur. You respond to that by asking what the ECF understanding of “virgin” has to do with the doctrine on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. Why is it relevant whether Mary gave a natural birth, or a miraculous one which did not breach the womb?

How would you respond to this?

Like that. ^ :slight_smile:

Not trying to cast aspersion on the Protestants who claim what they claim but what makes their “tradition” any different from the Catholic Church Tradition they seem so set against? On one hand, they reject our Tradition that has been passed down over 2,000 years. Then, on the other, they cite it as the basis for their own understanding. Is their intent merely to disprove Catholic Tradition or to claim a tradition of their own? :confused:

This is very close to what the Catholic Church teaches to this very day.

The doctrine is virginitas in partu and it means that Mary remained physically intact during and after the birth.

The First Lateran Council used the words “her virginity remaining equally inviolate after the birth.”




Please read the following from new advent

It was written at the end of the 4th century by St. Jerome. St. Jerome translated the bible and he knew Hebrew quite well. Find out from the Church Fathers themselves what they thought aeparthenos (ever virgin) actually meant. These are the men and women who were taught by the apostles and the disciples of the apostles.

It is not that long and if you will be glad you read it, and have all the confidence that you are part of the Church of Christ, and not some johnny come lately teaching.

About the birth of Jesus. There are many modern scholars protestant and catholic alike who love to teach that Mary would still be a virgin even if the birth was not miraculous.

Some passages of scripture to ponder on. There are no mention of Midwives at the birth of Jesus. In fact scripture tells us it is Mary who wraps Jesus in swaddling clothing. Immediately you have shepherds coming to worship God, and you don’t read about Joseph telling them this is not a good time. The wedding feast of cana for instance you hear about Mary directing the other young women to assist the steward and you learn about all that is going on behind the scenes of the wedding, but with the birth of Jesus you learn that Mary alone with no help even from Joseph gives birth and takes care of him. The incarnation started miraculously as the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and Jesus was conceived in the womb like when he passed through the walls after His resurrection, and like His conception He was born into the world in the same way He passed through the wall of His mother, Mary. He was born and miraculously as He was conceived.

“Virginitas in partu” is also tangentially related to the teaching that Mary is the sinless “New Eve” who chose to obey the Lord instead of rebelling and sneaking; and that therefore Mary did not suffer pain in childbirth (among other consequences). Since there are some women even now who suffer barely any pain (the luckies), it speaks to how God originally designed our bodies versus how they work after the Fall.

Here’s a small part of St. Ambrose’s big discussion of Mary’s virgin lifestyle, and his comparison to her as virgin mother as a sort of New Sarah:

""Come, Eve - now Sarah, since you bear children not in sorrow but in joy, not in grief but in laughter…

"…“Listen to Sarah, your wife.” (Gen. 21:12) … [Sarah,] your husband is bidden to listen to you.

"Now if by giving birth to a type of Christ, Sarah merits to be listened to by her husband, how great an advantage accrues to the [female] sex through its bringing forth Christ! And that, without loss of virginity!

"Come, then, Eve - now Mary - who has not only given us an incentive to virginity, but has also brought us God.

"… Illustrious, then, is Mary who bore aloft the sign of holy virginity, and raised on high for Christ the pious standard of inviolate chastity intemeratae integritatis].

“And yet, while all are invited to the practice of virginity by the example of holy Mary, there have been those who would deny that she persevered a virgin. We wished to keep silent about such a great sacrilege; but because in our midst, one called bishop [Bonosus of Nis] must also be argued with about this error, which we do not suppose will remain uncondemned…”

St. Ambrose, “De Institutione virginis et Sanctae Mariae virginitate perpetua,” lib. 1, c. 5, 32-33; 35.

Ambrose also talks about perpetual virginity in Epistle 42-43.

One of the main problems with studying this subject is that people aren’t comfy talking about it in English, and a lot of the great Victorian translators didn’t tackle these works because they couldn’t have been printed without using some very exact terminology.

But the Fathers talked about it, mostly in response to Bonosus’ new idea that Mary wasn’t a virgin all her life, or Helvidius’ idea that Mary had other kids.

“Intemerata” is one of the words talking partly about physical wholeness of virginity in this context, as is “integritas.” So if you’ve been singing all these years about “Mater amata, intemerata,” now you know.

Catholic Answers has a tract called "Mary Ever-Virgin." It touches on this subject, although it’s mostly about the “Mary had other kids” error.

Here’s a quote from St. Augustine in the article:

“A Virgin conceiving, a Virgin bearing, a Virgin pregnant, a Virgin bringing forth, a Virgin perpetual. Why do you wonder at this, O man?”

Sermons, 186:1 [A.D. 411]).

There are also some good quotes from St. Cyril of Alexandria and Pope Leo the Great.

I think it’s from St. Augustine that we got the classic expression that Jesus was born from Mary like a ray of sun passing through a piece of glass, without breaking it. This used to be a staple of medieval Christmas carols. Here’s a literature article that talks about it.

Here’s an example from Middle English:

“For, so gleam glidis thurt the glass,
of thi bodi bom he was.”

For as gleam glides through the glass,
of thy body born He was.

But basically, we don’t know the exact logistics. We just know that the Church has always taught that Mary remained physically a virgin after the birth of Christ.


Thanks, Timothy. That article is very helpful. I checked it in the Catechiism CCC number 499. Mary was perpetually Virgin even in the act of giving birth, and did not lose an of her virginal integrity, but rather this integrity was sanctified by Christ’s birth.

I think it does matter because the Church teaches that Mary was a Virgin in conceiving Christ, a Virgin pregnant with Christ, and a Virgin bringing forth Christ.


I think a lot of us just haven’t really been taught the miraculous character of Christ’s birth and Mary’s Virginal Integrity because of weak catechesis in the Church.

Thanks so much. The writing by St. Jerome is too much for me to understand, but your explanation is very good.

I never understood the miraculous nature of Mary’s Perpetual Virginal Integrity even in the act of giving birth to Christ, which actually sanctified Mary’s Virginal Integrity further.


P.S. again, this article referenced above is great!


As I understand Jimmy Akin is the Senior Apologist here at Catholic Answers. I watched a video in which he explained how the early Church fathers understood the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.

He didn’t talk about the Physical Integrity of Mary but about the issue of what the “brothers” of the Lord refers to.

He gave the theory of the Protoevangelion of James (Joseph had children by a previous marriage) and of Jerome (the “brothers” are cousins).

It was a bit confusing because while the Catechism says these “brothers” were near relations, the children of “the other Mary”, Jimmy Akin said that this theory is “somewhat speculative”.

Does anyone know why he would say that when the Catechism says it’s true.

Jewish families lived communally, not like the nuclear families in the western world today.

Often brothers would live together with their wives and children under a common roof. The brothers often engaged in the same family business and the wives would care for all the children together. I had read somewhere that this arrangement was called a “bet ab” but am not sure where I read it and can find no reference on the internet. Regardless of the name, this communal family arrangement where multiple sets of “parents” cared for all the “brothers and sisters” together was likely the reason why Mary and Joseph could loose track of Jesus at the feast.

and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the company they went a day’s journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; (Luke 2:43-44)

A Jew at the time of Jesus would naturally understand how this could happen given the way most people lived. The terms in the company and kinsfolk seem odd to us because we don’t have the cultural reference point.

The “brothers” of Jesus were all the children in the home in which he lived regardless of who their parents were. Again, this is a reflection of the cultural reality at the time of Jesus. All the “brothers” were cared for communally by the “kinsfolk” who ran the household. There was not so much of a separation - those are your children and these are mine - as we see today. The “brothers” and “sisters” were the responsibility of all the parents who lived in the same house.

That these types of households existed is not speculative but fact. The theory is speculative because we don’t know for sure whether Mary and Joseph lived this way but it is likely they did. The sacred text’s many references to Jesus’ “brethren” seem to indicate this, especially Luke 2 above.

This is how Mary could be ever virgin but Jesus still had “brothers”. They were most likely the children of his extended family who lived under the same roof.


Hi Timothy,

That is interesting. It’s hard for me to picture Mary and Joseph living with other relatives but I guess it’s possible.

But I don’t know that that explains what I perceive as Jimmy Akin’s reserve about the idea that “brothers” refers to cousins (or other near relations).

I say this because Akin doesn’t say that the idea of living with near relatives was speculative–he doesn’t even mention this idea–but instead he says that the very idea that “brothers” could refer to near relatives is “somewhat speculative”

In my view, it would be better to firmly agree with what the Catechism says in number 500, and with the Catholic Answers “Brethren of the Lord” tract, which shows how the Bible uses the word “brothers” to refer to near relations, kinsmen, friends, etc.



Could she have given birth through the birth canal and remained a virgin?

Thanks for sharing this. Very enlightening. Perhaps this is how Mary lived while Jesus traveled during His 3 year ministry?

I would say that today and for the last 150 years or so that has been the argument. That is Mary would still be technically a virgin if Jesus was birthed through the birth canal. The same scholars who commonly promote this though are the same ones who taught that Jesus did not multiply the fishes and loaves, but got everyone to share their food. It is the group of scholars who work to strip away the fact that Jesus is God.

In Dan chapter 7 you read about the vision of the incarnation to come. Daniel writes that the Ancient of Days came down. Think on the image of glory and magnificent way God was to be presented to mankind. In much of Jesus early life His Divine nature was hidden, but on the day which He was born into the world that was not the case. I am sure Joseph and Mary were worried and troubled and stressed beyond belief that their family (Joseph was back in Bethlehem) did not open the doors to make room for his pregnant wife. How was Jesus to be born without access to some basic items needed for the birth. Their faith in God paid off in full. Mary was intact and was able to join Joseph back in Jerusalem for Jesus circumcision. All within 8 days.

I don’t mean she is a virgin by just not having sex but could her birth canal have stretched so as to allow her virginity to remain intact? Hope I’m not being too graphic.

Jimmy Akin is tepid here and I don’t understand why.


Mary was with Jesus during his ministry.

Look at John’s Gospel. We see Mary here twice - at the beginning of his ministry at the Cana wedding and again at the end of his ministry at the Crucifixion. This is a literary technique called bookending which St. John the Apostle uses several times.

John bookends Mary around Jesus’ ministry. Mary is there at the beginning and at the end. It is St. John’s way of telling us that Jesus’ mother was with him from beginning to end.


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