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Why is Mary Considered Ever-Virgin?

A Protestant inquirer recently wrote the Orthodox Christian Information Center to ask why it is a dogma of the Orthodox Church that the Blessed Virgin Mary is ever-virgin. This page was compiled as a response.

Two dogmas concerning the Mother of God are bound up, in closest fashion, with the dogma of God the Words becoming man. They are: a) Her Ever-virginity, and b) Her name of Theotokos. They procede immediately from the dogma of the unity of the Hypostasis of the Lord from the moment of His Incarnation-the Divine Hypostasis.

The birth of the Lord Jesus Christ from a Virgin is testified to directly and deliberately by two Evangelists, Matthew and Luke. This dogma was entered into the Symbol of Faith of the First Ecumenical Council, where we read: Who for the sake of us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man. The Ever- virginity of the Mother of God is testified by Her own words, handed down in the Gospel, where she expressed awareness of the immeasurable majesty and height of Her chosenness: My soul doth magnify the Lord... For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed... For He that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is His Name (Luke 1:46-49).

The Most Holy Virgin preserved in her memory and in her heart both the announcement of the Archangel Gabriel and the inspired words of righteous Elizabeth when she was visited by Mary: And whence is this to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to Me? (Luke 1:43); both the prophecy of the righteous Symeon on meeting the Infant Jesus in the Temple, and the prophecy of the righteous Anna on the same day (Luke 2:25-38). In connection with the account of the shepherds of Bethlehem concerning the words of the angels to them, and of the singing of the angels, the Evangelist adds: But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19). The same Evangelist, having told of the conversation of the Divine Mother with the twelve-year-old Jesus after their visit to Jerusalem on the Feast of Pascha, ends his account with the words: But His mother kept all these sayings in her heart (Luke 2:51). The Evangelists speak also of the understanding of the majesty of her service in the world by the righteous Joseph, her espoused husband, whose actions were many times guided by an angel.

When the heretics and simple blasphemers refuse to acknowledge the Ever-virginity of the Mother of God on the grounds that the Evangelists mention the "brothers and sisters of Jesus," they are refuted by the following facts from the Gospel:

a) In the Gospels there are named four "brothers" (James, Joses, Simon and Jude), and there are also mentioned the "sisters" of Jesus—no fewer than three, as is evident in the words: and His sisters, are they not ALL with us? (Matt. 13:56).

On the other hand, b) in the account of the journey to Jerusalem of the twelve-year-old boy Jesus, where there is mention of the "kinsfolk and acquaintances" (Luke 2:44) in the midst of whom they were seeking Jesus, and where it is likewise mentioned that Mary and Joseph every year journeyed from faraway Galilee to Jerusalem, no reason is given to think that there were present other younger children with Mary: it was thus that the first twelve years of the Lord's earthly life proceeded.

c) When, about twenty years after the above-mentioned journey, Mary stood at the cross of the Lord, she was alone, and she was entrusted by her Divine Son to His disciple John; and from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home (John 19:27). Evidently, as the ancient Christians also understood it, the Evangelists speak either of "half' brothers and sisters or of cousins.

*From Fr. Michael Pomazansky, trans. Fr. Seraphim Rose, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994), pp. 187-189.

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The seedless birth of Christ can and could be denied only by those who deny the Gospel, whereas the Church of Christ from of old confesses Christ incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary." But the birth of God from the Ever-Virgin was a stumbling stone for those who wished to call themselves Christians but did not wish to humble themselves in mind and be zealous for purity of life. The pure life of Mary was a reproach for those who were impure also in their thoughts. So as to show themselves Christians, they did not dare to deny that Christ was born of a Virgin, but they began to affirm that Mary remained a virgin only until she brought forth her first-born son, Jesus (Matt. 1:25).

"After the birth of Jesus," said the false teacher Helvidius in the 4th century, and likewise many others before and after him, "Mary entered into conjugal life with Joseph and had from him children, who are called in the Gospels the brothers and sisters of Christ." But the word "until" does not signify that Mary remained a virgin only until a certain time. The word "until" and words similar to it often signify eternity. In the Sacred Scripture it is said of Christ: In His days shall shine forth righteousness and an abundance of peace, until the moon be taken away (Ps. 71:7), but this does not mean that when there shall no longer be a moon at the end of the world, God's righteousness shall no longer be; precisely then, rather, will it triumph. And what does it mean when it says: For He must reign, until He hath put all enemies under His feet? (I Cor. 15:25). Is the Lord then to reign only for the time until His enemies shall be under His feet?! And David, in the fourth Psalm of the Ascents says: As the eyes of the handmaid look unto the hands of her mistress, so do our eyes look unto the Lord our God, until He take pity on us (Ps. 122:2). Thus, the Prophet will have his eyes toward the Lord until he obtains mercy, but having obtained it he will direct them to the earth? (Blessed Jerome, "On the Ever-Virginity of Blessed Mary.") The Saviour in the Gospel says to the Apostles (Matt. 28:20): Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Thus, after the end of the world the Lord will step away from His disciples, and then, when they shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel upon twelve thrones, they will not have the promised communion with the Lord? (Blessed Jerome, op. cit.)

It is likewise incorrect to think that the brothers and sisters of Christ were the children of His Most Holy Mother. The names of "brother" and "sister" have several distinct meanings. Signifying a certain kinship between people or their spiritual closeness, these words are used sometimes in a broader, and sometimes in a narrower sense. In any case, people are called brothers or sisters if they have a common father and mother, or only a common father or mother; or even if they have different fathers and mothers, if their parents later (having become widowed) have entered into marriage (stepbrothers); or if their parents are bound by close degrees of kinship.

In the Gospel it can nowhere be seen that those who are called there the brothers of Jesus were or were considered the children of His Mother. On the contrary, it was known that James and others were the sons of Joseph, the Betrothed of Mary, who was a widower with children from his first wife. (St. Epiphanius of Cyprus, Panarion, 78.) Likewise, the sister of His Mother, Mary the wife of Cleopas, who stood with Her at the Cross of the Lord (John 19:25), also had children, who in view of such close kinship with full right could also be called brothers of the Lord. That the so-called brothers and sisters of the Lord were not the children of His Mother is clearly evident from the fact that the Lord entrusted His Mother before His death to His beloved disciple John. Why should He do this if She had other children besides Him? They themselves would have taken care of Her. The sons of Joseph, the supposed father of Jesus, did not consider themselves obliged to take care of one they regarded as their stepmother, or at least did not have for Her such love as blood children have for parents, and such as the adopted John had for Her.

Thus, a careful study of Sacred Scripture reveals with complete clarity the insubstantiality of the objections against the Ever-Virginity of Mary and puts to shame those who teach differently.

*From St. John (Maxomovitch), The Orthodox Veneration of Mary, The Birthgiver of God (Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1994), pp. 31-33.

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The following was sent to me by Deacon Fr. John Whiteford. It is part of an exchange he had with another Protestant inquirer:

In response to appeals to Matthew 1:25:

First of all we must remember that the Bible was not written in English. The word translated "TILL" in this verse is the same word translated "UNTIL" (or "unto" in the KJV) in Matthew 28:20: "...And behold I am with you always, even UNTIL the end of the age."

Following your logic, we would have to assume that this teaches that after the end of the age Christ will no longer be with us. Also even in English, when we say "Joe did not repent TILL the day he died"—obviously he did not repent afterwards either.

The point of the verse you have cited is plain. It leaves no room for doubting that Christ was not the result of relations between the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph—it says nothing about what happened thereafter, one way or the other.

St. Jerome wrote a very detailed treatise on this subject that one can find in several readily available translations—it is titled "The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary".

Not only was this view held universally in the Early Church, but the Early Reformers all believed it as well. John Wesley did too.

By the way, where in the NT does it say that the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph ever moved beyond betrothal? The Bible speaks of St. Joseph's "espoused" wife—but never mentions anything beyond it.

You Baptists are likely not familiar with the rite of betrothal, but the Traditional understanding thereof is that a betrothal gives a couple all the responsibilities of marriage, but none of the privileges. Once betrothed, one can only break the betrothal with a divorce. Nevertheless, the couple were not permitted to have marital relations until after the marriage ceremony.

In response to the question of whether or not this doctrine only brings glory to the Virgin Mary, and not to God:

This doctrine is not taught for the sake of upholding the sanctity of the Virgin Mary, but because of the uniqueness and holiness of her Son. Consider the following verse:

"Then said the LORD unto me; This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut." (Ezekiel 44:2).

This has always been interpreted by the Fathers of the Church to be a typological reference to the Virgin Mary and the Incarnation. When we consider that God took flesh from the Virgin's womb, it is not difficult to imagine that this womb would remain virgin.

The bottom line is this has been the consistent and universal view of the Church from the time of the Apostles until today.

This does not mean that sex is dirty, though the Apostles taught that it was better to remain in virginity—though only those who can accept such a life are called to do so. Certainly some are called to this life, and it is blessed by God.

Why then did the Virgin need St. Joseph? That question is valid even if one believes she had other children later—why did she need St. Joseph to give birth to Christ. The answer is obvious: virgins do not as a rule give birth, and Christ would likely have grown up an orphan had he been born to a single mother.

You ask: "So then was Jesus born out of wedlock? Why then did they travel together to be taxed? Why does Luke write Luke 2:48 ‘And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.’?"

I could ask you the same questions: Why does she refer to Joseph as Christ's Father? Obviously not because he really was his father. Why did they travel together to be taxed when they were clearly only at that time "espoused" or betrothed: "To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child (Luke 2:5). Do you think they were married on the way to Bethlehem, because they clearly were not when they set off in that direction? Furthermore there is no mention of such a marriage ever having taken place—and certainly it would be odd for them to have had such a ceremony with a women "great with child" or even thereafter with a women who had a nursing baby. As I stated, a betrothal gives one all the responsibilities of a marriage without the marital privileges thereof. It can only be broken by a divorce—so in a sense they were married when they were betrothed.

In the Orthodox Church we still have the rite of betrothal, but because it is so serious—and is considered a marriage even if never consummated—it is almost always done these days immediately prior to the wedding ceremony.

You said: "Mary had other children. James is called The Lord's brother. The brothers and sisters who came for Jesus while he was teaching are not cousins as catholic footnotes try to make out, like there is no Greek word for brother."

Do you really believe that the Virgin Mary had another sister from the same parents who was also named Mary (John 19:25)? Also, if these brothers were the children of St. Joseph's brother Cleopas (as the second century Palestinian Christian history Hegessipus records), and if as St. Jerome contends Cleopas had reposed and St. Joseph had taken his brothers widow and children under his care (as was Jewish custom) then these children would of course be called brothers and sisters of our Lord.

Also, I will again point out that the Bible only refers to the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph as being "betrothed" or "espoused". Unless they were subsequently married, they had all the responsibilities of marriage, but would have sinned to have had marital relations with one another. It is clear from the Gospels that they were still only betrothed when they left Nazareth and when the Virgin was "Great with child". Do you suppose they could have gotten married at some point after that without being stoned to death first?

You said: "There's no need to be that specific. Can't it be understood from several Scripture passages (John 2:12; Matthew 12:46; Mark 3:31; Luke 8:19; especially Matthew 13:55,56 and Mark 6:3,4; etc.) that what's referred to are Mary and Joseph's offsprings?"

How do you deal with the Mary who is not Christ's mother but who also just happens to be the Virgin Mary's sister and who happens to have kids with the same names as Christ's brothers? How do you deal with the very early testimony of Hegesippus who states plainly that the brethren of the Lord were the Children of St. Joseph's brother Cleopas and his wife Mary?"

See: Matt 27:56, Mark 15:40, 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 19:25 The Matthew account has Mary the mother of James and Joseph. Mark has Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses. John has "his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas". All accounts mention Mary Magdalene separately and Matthew mentions the mother of the sons of Zebedee (who could not also be married to Clopas). This suggests that Mary the wife of Clopas, who is Mary's sister, is the mother of James and Joses, etc.

[Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History 3:11] "After the martyrdom of James and the conquest of Jerusalem which immediately followed, it is said that those of the apostles and the disciples of the Lord that were still living came together from all directions, with those that were related to the Lord according to the flesh (for the majority of them also were still alive), to take counsel as to who was worthy to succeed James. They all with once consent pronounced Symeon, the Son of Cleopas, of whom the Gospel also makes mention [note the Gospels only list Symeon as one of the Brother's of the Lord], to be worthy of the episcopal throne of that parish. He was a cousin, as they say, of the Savior. For Hegesippus records that Cleopas was a brother of Joseph." [note: Hegesippus was a 2nd Century Palestinian Jew. Eusebius preserves one of the few fragments left of his works, since he had access to the great library of Ceasarea and of Alexandria—the contents of which were mostly lost later.]

A few additional points on this subject:

1) The Apostle James, the Son of Alpheaus is not necessarily the same as James the less. They are not connected in the Gospels, though this connection is possible. James the less was the son of Cleopas, but as I have read up on this, it is possible that "Cleopas" is a variant helenized transliteration of the Aramaic name "Chalphi".

2) Yesterday I quoted from Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History in which a fragment from St. Hegesippus was preserved. As I dug about last night, I found some more:

"Some of these heretics, forsooth, laid an information against Symeon the son of Clopas, as being of the family of David, and a Christian. And on these charges he suffered martrydom when he was 120 years old, in the reign of Trajan Caesar, when Atticus was Consular legate in Syria. And it so happened, says the same writer, that, while inquiry was then being made for those belonging to the royal tribe of the Jews, the accusers themselves were convicted of belonging to it. With show of reason it could be said that Symeon was one of those who actually saw and heard the Lord, on the ground of his great age, and also because the Scripture of the Gospels makes mention of Mary the [wife] of Clopas, who, as our narrative has shown already, was his father. The same historian mentions others also, of the family of one of the reputed brothers of the Savior, named Judas, as having survived until this same reign, after the testimony they bore for the faith of Christ in the time of Domitian, as already recorded. He writes as follows: They came, then, and took the presidency of every church, as witnesses for Christ, and as being of the kindred of the Lord. And after profound peace had been established in every church they remained down to the reign of Trajan Caesar: that is, until the time then he who was sprung from an uncle of the Lord, the aforementioned Symeon son of Clopas, was informed against by various heresies, and subjected to an accusation like the rest, and for the same cause, before the legate Atticus; and while suffering outrage during many days, he bore testimony for Christ: so that all, including the legate himself were astonished above measure that a man 120 years old should have been able to endure such torments. He was finally condemned to be crucified...." [St. Hegesippus [who reposed 170 ad], Fragments from his five books of commentaries on the acts of the Church, Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 8, p 762]

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See also:

  • St. John Chrysostom, Homily 5 on St. Matthew's Gospel

  • St. Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity

  • The texts for the Feast of the Dormition and the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos in the Festal Menaion (St. Tikhon Seminary Press). This is a treasure of Orthodox dogmatic theology. If one wants to know what the Orthodox Church teaches on a number of dogmatic issues, a proper understanding can only be had by consulting the liturgical texts of the Church. In a very real way, Orthodox chant their theology. As Bishop Kallistos has written: "Certain doctrines, never formally defined, are yet held by the Church with an unmistakable inner conviction, an unruffled unanimity, which is just as binding as an explicit formulation. 'Some things we have from written teaching,' said St. Basil, 'others we have received from the Apostolic Tradition handed down to us in a mystery; and both these things have the same force for piety.' [On the Holy Spirit, xvii, 66] This inner Tradition 'handed down to us in a mystery' is preserved above all in the Church's worship. Lex orandi lex credendi: our faith is expressed in our prayer. Orthodoxy has made few explicit definitions about the Eucharist and the other Sacraments, about the next world, the Mother of God, the saints, and the faithful departed: our belief on these points is contained mainly in the prayers and hymns used at services." (The Orthodox Church, [Penguin Books, 1993] pp. 204-5).

  • Book Review: The Winter Pascha: Readings for the Christmas-Epiphany Season. By [Father] Thomas Hopko. Reviewed by Bishop [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos of Etna in Orthodox Tradition, Vol. IX, No. 2&3.