The Perpetual Virginity of Mary: Part 1

by St. Jerome of Stridonium

Our venerable and God-bearing father Jerome was noted as a scholar of Latin at the time when Greek was considered the language of scholarship. He was one of the most learned of the Fathers of the Western Church and is noted as the translator of the holy scriptures into Latin. This translation, the Vulgate, became the official biblical text of the Roman Catholic Church. A critic of secular excesses, he was a strong defender of the Orthodox faith against the heresies of his time.

This writing against Helvidius, is part one of a three part installment of this important teaching. This understanding of the Perpetual Virginity of the Theotokos is the Orthodox tradition, the Roman Catholic teaching, and until the advent of modernism, was the undisputed teaching of Luther, Calvin, and the entire Protestant tradition.

1. I was requested by certain of the brethren not long ago to reply to a pamphlet written by one Helvidius. I have deferred doing so, not because it is a difficult matter to maintain the truth and refute an ignorant boor who has scarce known the first glimmer of learning, but because I was afraid my reply might make him appear worth defeating. There was the further consideration that a turbulent fellow, the only individual in the world who thinks himself both priest and layman, one who, as has been said, thinks that eloquence consists in loquacity and considers speaking ill of anyone to be the witness of a good conscience, would begin to blaspheme worse than ever if opportunity of discussion were afforded him.

He would stand as it were on a pedestal, and would publish his views far and wide. There was reason also to fear that when truth failed him he would assail his opponents with the weapon of abuse. But all these motives for silence, though just, have more justly ceased to influence me, because of the scandal caused to the brethren who were disguised at his ravings. The axe of the Gospel must therefore be now laid to the root of the barren tree, and both it and its fruitless foliage cast into the fire, so that Helvidius who has never learnt to speak, may at length learn to hold his tongue.

2. I must call upon the Holy Spirit to express His meaning by my mouth and defend the virginity of the Blessed Mary. I must call upon the Lord Jesus to guard the sacred lodging of the womb in which He abode for ten months from all suspicion of sexual intercourse.

And I must also entreat God the Father to show that the mother of His Son, who was a mother before she was a bride, continued a Virgin after her son was born. We have no desire to career over the fields of eloquence, we do not resort to the snares of the logicians or the thickets of Aristotle.

We shall adduce the actual words of Scripture. Let him be refuted by the same proofs which he employed against us, so that he may see that it was possible for him to read what is written, and yet to be unable to discern the established conclusion of a sound faith.

3. His first statement was:

“Matthew says, Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privately. But when he thought on these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.”

Notice, he says, that the word used is betrothed, not entrusted as you say, and of course the only reason why she was betrothed was that she might one day be married. And the Evangelist would not have said before they came together if they were not to come together, for no one would use the phrase before he dried of a man who was not going to dine.

Then, again, the angel calls her wife and speaks of her as united to Joseph. We are next invited to listen to the declaration of Scripture:

“And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took unto him his wife; and knew her not till she had brought forth her son.”

4. Let us take the points one by one, and follow the tracks of this impiety that we may show that he has contradicted himself.

He admits that she was betrothed, and in the next breath will have her to be a man’s wife whom he has admitted to be his betrothed. Again, he calls her wife, and then says the only reason why she was betrothed was that she might one day be married. And, for fear we might not think that enough, “the word used,” he says, “is betrothed and not entrusted, that is to say, not yet a wife, not yet united by the bond of wedlock.

But when he continues, “the Evangelist would never have applied the words, before they came together to persons who were not to come together, any more than one says, before he dined, when the man is not going to dine,” I know not whether to grieve or laugh. Shall I convict him of ignorance, or accuse him of rashness? Just as if, supposing a person to say, “Before dining in harbor I sailed to Africa,” his words could not hold good unless he were compelled some day to dine in harbor. If I choose to say, “the apostle Paul before he went to Spain was put in fetters at Rome,” or (as I certainly might) “Helvidius, before he repented, was cut off by death,” must Paul on being released at once go to Spain, or must Helvidius repent after death, although the Scripture says

“In Sheol who shall give thanks to Thee?”

Must we not rather understand that the preposition before, although it frequently denotes order in time, yet sometimes refers only to order in thought? So that there is no necessity, if sufficient cause intervened to prevent it, for our thoughts to be realized. When, then, the Evangelist says before they came together, he indicates the time immediately preceding marriage, and shows that matters were so far advanced that she who had been betrothed was on the point of becoming a wife.

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As though he said, before they kissed and embraced, before the consummation of marriage, she was found to be with child. And she was found to be so by none other than Joseph, who watched the swelling womb of his betrothed with the anxious glances, and, at this time, almost the privilege, of a husband.

Yet it does not follow, as the previous examples showed, that he had intercourse with Mary after her delivery, when his desires had been quenched by the fact that she had already conceived. And although we find it said to Joseph in a dream,

“Fear not to take Mary thy wife;”

and again,

“Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took unto him his wife,”

no one ought to be disturbed by this, as though, inasmuch as she is called wife, she ceases to be betrothed, for we know it is usual in Scripture to give the title to those who are betrothed. The following evidence from Deuteronomy establishes the point.

“If the man,” says the writer, “find the damsel that is betrothed in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her, he shall surely die, because he hath humbled his neighbour’s wife.”

And in another place,

“If there be a damsel that is a virgin betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour’s wife: so thou shalt put away the evil from the midst of thee.”

Elsewhere also,

“And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her.”

But if anyone feels a doubt as to why the Virgin conceived after she was betrothed rather than when she had no one betrothed to her, or, to use the Scripture phrase, no husband, let me explain that there were three reasons. First, that by the genealogy of Joseph, whose kinswoman Mary was, Mary’s origin might also be shown.

Secondly, that she might not in accordance with the law of Moses be stoned as an adulteress.

Thirdly, that in her flight to Egypt she might have some solace, though it was that of a guardian rather than a husband. For who at that time would have believed the Virgin’s word that she had conceived of the Holy Spirit, and that the angel Gabriel had come and announced the purpose of God? and would not all have given their opinion against her as an adulteress, like Susanna? For at the present day, now that the whole world has embraced the faith, the Jews argue that when Isaiah says,

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,”

the Hebrew word denotes a young woman, not a virgin, that is to say, the word is ALMAH, not BETHULAH, a position which, farther on, we shall dispute more in detail.

Lastly, excepting Joseph, and Elizabeth, and Mary herself, and some few others who, we may suppose, heard the truth from them, all considered Jesus to be the son of Joseph. And so far was this the case that even the Evangelists, expressing the prevailing opinion, which is the correct rule for a historian, call him the father of the Savior, as, for instance,

“And he (that is, Simeon) came in the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, that they might do concerning him after the custom of the law;”

and elsewhere,

“And his parents went every year to Jerusalem at the feast of the passover.”

And afterwards,

“And when they had fulfilled the days, as they were returning, the boy Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and his parents knew not of it.”

Observe also what Mary herself, who had replied to Gabriel with the words,

“How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”

says concerning Joseph,

“Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I sought thee sorrowing.”

We have not here, as many maintain, the utterance of Jews or of mockers. The Evangelists call Joseph father: Mary confesses he was father. Not (as I said before) that Joseph was really the father of the Savior: but that, to preserve the reputation of Mary, he was regarded by all as his father, although, before he heard the admonition of the angel,

“Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit,”

he had thoughts of putting her away privily; which shows that he well knew that the child conceived was not his. But we have said enough, more with the aim of imparting instruction than of answering an opponent, to show why Joseph is called the father of our Lord, and why Mary is called Joseph’s wife.

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This also at once answers the question why certain persons are called his brethren.

5. This, however, is a point which will find its proper place further on. We must now hasten to other matters.

The passage for discussion now is,

“And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took unto him his wife and knew her not till she had brought forth a son, and he called his name Jesus.”

Here, first of all, it is quite needless for our opponent to show so elaborately that the word know has reference to coition, rather than to intellectual apprehension: as though anyone denied it, or any person in his senses could ever imagine the folly which Helvidius takes pains to refute. Then he would teach us that the adverb till implies a fixed and definite time, and when that is fulfilled, he says the event takes place which previously did not take place, as in the case before us,

“and knew her not till she had brought forth a son.”

It is clear, says he, that she was known after she brought forth, and that that knowledge was only delayed by her engendering a son. To defend his position he piles up text upon text, waves his sword like a blind-folded gladiator, rattles his noisy tongue, and ends with wounding no one but himself.

6. Our reply is briefly this,—the words knew and till in the language of Holy Scripture are capable of a double meaning. As to the former, he himself gave us a dissertation to show that it must be referred to sexual intercourse, and no one doubts that it is often used of the knowledge of the understanding, as, for instance,

“the boy Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem, and his parents knew it not.”

Now we have to prove that just as in the one case he has followed the usage of Scripture, so with regard to the word till he is utterly refuted by the authority of the same Scripture, which often denotes by its use a fixed time (he himself told us so), frequently time without limitation, as when God by the mouth of the prophet says to certain persons,

“Even to old age I am he.”

Will He cease to be God when they have grown old ? And the Savior in the Gospel tells the Apostles,

“Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”

Will the Lord then after the end of the world has come forsake His disciples, and at the very time when seated on twelve thrones they are to judge the twelve tribes of Israel will they be bereft of the company of their Lord ? Again Paul the Apostle writing to the Corinthians says,

“Christ the first-fruits, afterward they that are Christ’s, at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father, when he shall have put down all rule, and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.”

Granted that the passage relates to our Lord’s human nature, we do not deny that the words are spoken of Him who endured the cross and is commanded to sit afterwards on the right hand. What does he mean then by saying,

“for he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet?”

Is the Lord to reign only until His enemies begin to be under His feet, and once they are under His feet will He cease to reign? Of course His reign will then commence in its fulness when His enemies begin to be under His feet. David also in the fourth Song of Ascents speaks thus,

“Behold, as the eyes of servants look unto the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look unto the Lord our God, until he have mercy upon us.”

Will the prophet, then, look unto the Lord until he obtain mercy, and when mercy is obtained will he turn his eyes down to the ground ? although elsewhere he says,

“Mine eyes fail for thy salvation, and for the word of thy righteousness.”

I could accumulate countless instances of this usage, and cover the verbosity of our assailant with a cloud of proofs; I shall, however, add only a few, and leave the reader to discover like ones for himself.

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7. The word of God says in Genesis,

“And they gave unto Jacob all the strange gods which were in their hand, and the rings which were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was by Shechem, and lost them until this day.”

Likewise at the end of Deuteronomy,

“So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in the valley, in the land of Moab over against Beth-peor: but no man knoweth of his sepulcher unto this day.”

We must certainly understand by this day the time of the composition of the history, whether you prefer the view that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch or that Ezra re-edited it. In either case I make no objection.

The question now is whether the words unto this day are to be referred to the time of publishing or writing the books, and if so it is for him to show, now that so many years have rolled away since that day, that either the idols hidden beneath the oak have been found, or the grave of Moses discovered; for he obstinately maintains that what does not happen so long as the point of time indicated by until and unto has not been attained, begins to be when that point has been reached.

He would do well to pay heed to the idiom of Holy Scripture, and understand with us, (it was here he stuck in the mud) that some things which might seem ambiguous if not expressed are plainly intimated, while others are left to the exercise of our intellect.

For if, while the event was still fresh in memory and men were living who had seen Moses, it was possible for his grave to be unknown, much more may this be the case after the lapse of so many ages. And in the same way must we interpret what we are told concerning Joseph.

The Evangelist pointed out a circumstance which might have given rise to some scandal, namely, that Mary was not known by her husband until she was delivered, and he did so that we might be the more certain that she from whom Joseph refrained while there was room to doubt the import of the vision was not known after her delivery.

8. In short, what I want to know is why Joseph refrained until the day of her delivery? Helvidius will of course reply, because he heard the angel say,

“that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”

And in turn we rejoin that he had certainly heard him say,

“Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife.”

The reason why he was forbidden to forsake his wife was that he might not think her an adulteress. Is it true then, that he was ordered not to have intercourse with his wife ? Is it not plain that the warning was given him that he might not be separated from her? And could the just man dare, he says, to think of approaching her, when he heard that the Son of God was in her womb?

Excellent! We are to believe then that the same man who gave so much credit to a dream that he did not dare to touch his wife, yet afterwards, when he had learned from the shepherds that the angel of the Lord had come from heaven and said to them,

“Be not afraid: for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people, for there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord;”

and when the heavenly host had joined with him in the chorus

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men of good will;”

and when he had seen just Simeon embrace the infant and exclaim,

“Now lettest thou thy servant depart, O Lord, according to thy word in peace: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation;”

and when he had seen Anna the prophetess, the Magi, the Star, Herod, the angels; Helvidius, I say, would have us believe that Joseph, though well acquainted with such surprising wonders, dared to touch the temple of God, the abode of the Holy Spirit, the mother of his Lord?

Mary at all events

“kept all these sayings in her heart.”

You cannot for shame say Joseph did not know of them, for Luke tells us,

“His father and mother were marvelling at the things which were spoken concerning Him.”

And yet you with marvellous effrontery contend that the reading of the Greek manuscripts is corrupt, although it is that which nearly all the Greek writers have left us in their books, and not only so, but several of the Latin writers have taken the words the same way.

Nor need we now consider the variations in the copies, since the whole record both of the Old and New Testament has since that time been translated into Latin, and we must believe that the water of the fountain flows purer than that of the stream.

About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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