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Historical Overview

It is clear that the perpetual virginity of Mary was almost universally accepted by the Church from its earliest days. By the fourth century it was established dogma. [8] St. Jerome was the first to write an entire work (Against Helvidius) on the subject of Mary’s perpetual virginity. [6] However, the doctrine was often mentioned by other early Church Fathers in their writings on other subjects.Ignatius of Antioch (110 AD)“Mary’s virginity was hidden from the prince of this world….” (Letter to the Ephesians, 19) While he does not state that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus, he says nothing that would limit her virginity to the time before the birth of Jesus.

Justin Martyr“by means of the Virgin became man, that by what way the disobedience arising from the serpent had its beginning, by that way also it might have an undoing. For Eve, being a virgin and undefiled, conceiving the word that was from the serpent, brought forth disobedience and death; but the Virgin Mary, taking faith and joy … answered, ‘be it to me according to Thy word'”. (Tryph.)

Hegesippus (d. 175-180)Although none of his writings are now extant, portions have survived by virtue of their being quoted by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. In a fragment quoted in Book II Chapter 23 Hegesippus refers to James the Just as the brother (Greek, adelphos) of the Lord.

Later, Eusebius has another quotation from him:Now there still survived of the family of the Lord, grandsons of Judas, who was said to have been his brother (adelphon), according to the flesh, and they were delated as being of the family of David. [Ecc. Hist. Bk. III, Chap. 19]

According to Birch [1960:119] Eusebius uses the Greek “adelphos” (brother) to refer to Jesus’ relationship with James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, and “anephion” (cousin) for the relationship of Jesus to Simeon, the son of Clopas and the second bishop of Jerusalem.

After James the Just had suffered martyrdom for the same reason as the Lord, Symeon, his cousin (Greek, anephion), the son of Clopas, was appointed bishop, whom they all proposed because he was cousin (anephion) of the Lord. [Ecc. Hist. Bk IV, Chap 22]

Even with this usage, it does not negate the possibility that James the Just was the brother of Jesus in the sense that he was the child of St. Joseph and an earlier wife. It is not unreasonable, given the closeness of families during this time, that brothers and cousins would live together. It would also explain why James acted toward Jesus as an older brother would and why there is no mention of any protest when Jesus placed Mary in the care of St. John rather than her next oldest son since none existed.

Clement of Alexandria (153-c. 215)In a fragment of his works which appears in a Latin translation by M. Aurelius Cassiodorus (d. 560) Clement writes:Jude, who wrote the Catholic Epistle, the brother of the sons of Joseph, and very religious, whilst knowing the near relationship of the Lord, yet did not say that he himself was a brother. But what said he? `Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ,’ – of him as Lord; but `the brother of James.’ For this is true; he was His brother, (the son) of Joseph.

According to his student, Origen of Alexandria, Clement held that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life. It is most likely then that when James is referred to as the son of Joseph, it is referring to an earlier marriage. The passage does not state that James was the son of Joseph and Mary, only Joseph.

Clement is pointing out that Jude is not calling himself the brother of Jesus which is why it is so surprising that some anti-Catholic writers use this passage to bolster their claims that he was [Birch, 1960:123].

Tertullian (c. 160-c. 220)Tertullian was originally a Christian, but he left the Church to join the Montanist heresy. He believed that Mary and Joseph had children after the birth of Jesus (De Monogamia, 8:2). Of course his heresy does not make him wrong on this point but it certainly does make him suspect, especially if his idea finds no support from those who remained true to the faith.

But with us there is no equivacation, nothing twisted into a double sense.She who bare (really) bare; and although she was a virgin when she conceived, she was a wife when she brought forth her son. Now, as a wife, she was under the very law of “opening the womb,” wherein it was quite immaterial whether the birth of the male was by virtue of a husband’s cooperation or not … Indeed she ought rather to be called not a virgin than a virgin, becoming mother at a leap, as it were, before she was a wife. And what must be said more on this point? Since it was in this sense that the apostle declared that the Son of God was born, not of a virgin, but “of a woman” he in that statement recognized the condition of the “opened womb” which ensues in marriage. (On the Flesh of Christ, 23)

In this work, written somewhere between 208 and 212 [9], Tertullian believes that Mary was a virgin when she conceived but from then on she was no longer to be considered a virgin. To back this up he quotes from St. Paul where he says that Jesus was born of woman instead of virgin (Gal 4:4).

Irenaeus“Eve … becoming disobedient, became the cause of death both to herself and the whole human race, so also Mary … being obedient, became both to herself and to the whole human race the cause of salvation”.  (Adv. Haer iii,22.34)

Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235)In his work, Apostolic Tradition, he quotes from an ancient (mid-first century) creed, often referred to as the Roman Creed, which asks the question “Do you believe Christ Jesus … who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary ….” Since this creed was written after the death of Joseph, the only person with whom she could have had sexual relations, and continued to be used after her own death, it is something that could not be do if she had not remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. (Since we don’t know when Mary died, I am allowing for the possibility that she may still have been alive when the creed was first written. This may not have been the case.)

© 2017 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.


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Written by Gary J Sibio


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