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Perpetual Virginity in the Early Church

Perpetual Virginity in the Early Church

Q: Are there written sources which indicate belief by the early Church in Mary's perpetual virginity?

A: Discussions of Mary's virginity eventually came to examine Mary's virginity during three periods: ante partum (i.e. before the birth of Christ); in partu (i.e. during the delivery of Christ); and post partum (i.e. after the birth of Christ). Your question involves what came to be called Mary's virginitas post partum.

The best sources of information on Mary's virginity prior to the birth of Jesus are the Infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, usually dated around 80 A.D. There are also several writings before 350 on both Mary's virginitas in partu and on her virginitas post partum which expand on the Biblical reflection about Mary's virginitas ante partum.

The first witnesses are to be found in the Apocrypha from around 150, especially: the Protogospel of James, the Book of Sybils, the Ascent of Isaiah, and the Acts of Peter (see: Corp. Mar. I, 131-158). These apocryphal texts may not be considered sufficient doctrinal justification for Mary's lifelong virginity. However, they point out how widespread the conviction about this point was among early Christians.

There are suggestions that Irenaeus (d. circa 220) and Justin (d. circa 165) may have alluded to Mary's virginitas in partu, but there are no explicit statements by either author. Origen (d. 254) may have been the first to affirm Mary's lifelong virginity (see: PG 14, 320) in commenting on the Protogospel of James (see also Corp. Mar. 265; GCS 38, 42f; PG 13, 1631). Clement of Alexandria (d. ca 215) accepted the Protogospel of James without problem (Strom VII, 16, 93, 7) along with its perspective on Mary as ever-virgin. However, Tertullian (d. circa 200) rejected the apocryphal protogospel and with it Mary's virginitas in partu and her virginitas post partum (see De carne Christi, 23).

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