How Mary Came to Be Regarded as Eternally Virginal


By Carol SymesUniversity of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

After Jesus’s birth, Mary’s virginity ceased to be important and, indeed, clearly came to a natural end. As Matthew mentions, Joseph did not have sexual relations with his wife until after this event, but she then went on to have an unspecified number of unnamed daughters (as told in Gospel of Mark) and at least four sons named James, Josiah, Judas, and Simon (as told in Mark and Matthew’s Gospel). How, then, did Mary come to be regarded as eternally virginal?

John II Komnenos, Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, Irene of Hungary
According to a Koine text, Mary miraculously remained a virgin even after delivering her child, Jesus. (Image: Josep Renalias/Public domain)

Rise of a Doctrine

The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity developed gradually, alongside other core doctrines of the early Christian Church. For about a century after the first Gospels were written down, in the years immediately after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in the year 70 CE, the topic of Mary’s virginity and the nature of her relationship with her husband Joseph appear to have attracted little interest. 

“Saint James the Just”
Mary had at least four sons, including James. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Toward the middle of the 2nd century, however, an anonymous author posing as James, the brother (or stepbrother) of Jesus, published an extended description of Jesus’s birth in Koine, or “common”, Greek.

This text claimed that the attendant midwives at Jesus’s birth (not mentioned in any Gospel) witnessed the fact that Mary had miraculously remained a virgin even after delivering her child. The text attributed to James also gave Mary a backstory, claiming that Mary’s own mother, Anna, had miraculously conceived her in old age, as Elisabeth had conceived John the Baptist. It also fabricated a legend that Mary had been dedicated as a child to the Temple in Jerusalem, where there was allegedly a group of holy Jewish virgins just like the Vestal Virgins of Rome. (There is no such attested Jewish tradition.) 

The First Gospel

Even though many contemporary and future theologians rejected this text as a forgery, it spoke to popular curiosity about the infancy and childhood of Jesus. And like many other apocryphal stories, it proved indelible; medieval Christian artists of all media would return, again and again, to fanciful stories of Mary and Jesus’s childhoods. 

This specious text, known as the Protoevangelium (or “first gospel”) of James, did not make a case for Mary’s perpetual virginity; however, by the beginning of the next century, other authorities were. The most influential, and also controversial, was a theologian called Origen of Alexandria who was active in the first half of the 3rd century. Both Origen’s teaching and personal piety were suspect because his extreme anxieties about sexual incontinence and pollution allegedly drove him to castrate himself.

And it was Origen who most forcefully insisted that the sisters and brothers of Jesus were just his stepsiblings, the previous children of Joseph, who had been a widower (also not a detail mentioned in the canonical gospels). 

Moreover, Origen insisted that Mary had only been betrothed to Joseph so that he could offer her protection while she cared for him in his dotage. This idea, too, had a long afterlife.

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Mary the Nun

As the historian Pamela Sheingorn has shown, medieval depictions of Joseph change over time as this story gains wider purchase. In early medieval representations, he is a young man of Mary’s own age; but then he gets older, and older, and older, as a way of visually making the case for his impotence, and even for his shameful status as God’s cuckold. 

Buttressing this narrative was a more mainstream doctrine, espoused by another Church Father who was fascinated and yet repelled by his own sexuality: Saint Augustine of Hippo, who famously confessed that he had prayed, throughout his randy youth, “God give me chastity—but not yet!” 

Augustine, among other teachers, interpreted Mary’s words in Luke’s Gospel to be evidence that she had taken a vow of perpetual virginity. “How can this be, seeing I know not a man?” This received corroboration from more dubious sources which, like the Protoevangelium, had depicted Mary as a kind of Jewish nun, dedicated in the Temple to perpetual virginity. 

The Virgin Bride of the Lord

From these early beginnings, the idea that Mary was the avowed Virgin Bride of the Lord from the very origin of creation was fully articulated in the 12th century by the influential theologian Rupert of Deutz and popularized by the powerful and zealous preacher Bernard of Clairvaux, the major publicist for the cult of the Virgin. 

It was thanks to their influence that dedicating churches—especially cathedrals—to the Virgin became very much in vogue. By the 13th century, when Thomas Aquinas was developing his textbook of systematic theology, the Summa Theologiæ, the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity had become a dogma of the Roman Church: that is, a tenet of the faith and “a truth necessary for salvation” within the Church. 

Even major Protestant reformers of the 16th century and beyond, notably the voraciously sensual Martin Luther, accepted this teaching—even as they rejected many other doctrines of the medieval Roman Church. 

All of these developments are, of course, connected to broader historical phenomena, particularly early Christianity’s seismic impact on beliefs about the nature of the body and human sexuality, and ongoing debates about the role of women within the institutional Church.

Common Questions about How Mary Came to Be Regarded as Eternally Virginal

Q: How did Mary maintain her virginity despite the fact that she had numerous daughters and sons?

According to an extended description of Jesus’s birth in common Greek, the attendant midwives at Jesus’s birth witnessed the fact that Mary had stayed a virgin after delivering her child. Although many theologians rejected this text as a forgery through the centuries.

Q: How did the medieval depictions of Joseph change over time?

As the story of Mary gained wider purchase, the Medieval depictions of Joseph gradually changed from a young man of Mary’s own age to an old man with a shameful status as God’s cuckold.

Q: Where were all fabrications regarding Mary’s eternally virginal come from?

Those developments about Mary being eternally virginal were products of early Christianity’s impact on beliefs about the nature of the body and human sexuality, as well as continuous debates about the role of women within the institutional Church. 

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