The Perpetual Virginity of Mary: Part 2

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 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 two 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 modernism, was the undisputed teachings of Luther, Calvin, and the entire Protestant tradition.

9. Helvidius will answer, “What you say, is my opinion mere trifling. Your arguments are so much waste of time, and the discussion shows more subtlety than truth. Why could not Scripture say, as it said of Tamar and Judah, ‘ And he took his wife, and knew her again no more’? Could not Matthew find words to express his meaning ? ‘

He knew her not,’ he says, ‘ until she brought forth a son.’

He did then, after her delivery, know her, whom he had refrained from knowing until she was delivered.”

10. If you are so contentious, your own thoughts shall now prove your master.

You must not allow any time to intervene between delivery and intercourse. You must not say,

“If a woman conceive seed and bear a man child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of the separation of her sickness shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days. She shall touch no hallowed thing,”

and so forth. On your showing, Joseph must at once approach, her, and be subject to Jeremiah’s reproof,

“They were as mad horses in respect of women: every one neighed after his neighbor’s wife.”

Otherwise, how can the words stand good,

“he knew her not, till she had brought forth a son,”

if he waits after the time of another purifying has expired, if his lust must brook another long delay of forty days? The mother must go unpurged from her child-bed taint, and the wailing infant be attended to by the midwives, while the husband clasps his exhausted wife. Thus forsooth must their married life begin so that the Evangelist may not be convicted of falsehood. But God forbid that we should think thus of the Savior’s mother and of a just man.

No midwife assisted at His birth; no women’s officiousness intervened. With her own hands she wrapped Him in the swaddling clothes, herself both mother and midwife,

” and laid Him,” we are told, “in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn “;

a statement which, on the one hand, refutes the ravings of the apocryphal accounts, for Mary herself wrapped Him in the swaddling clothes, and on the other makes the voluptuous notion of Helvidius impossible, since there was no place suitable for married intercourse in the inn.

11. An ample reply has now been given to what he advanced respecting the words before they came together, and he knew her not till she had brought forth a son. I must now proceed, if my reply is to follow the order of his argument, to the third point. He will have it that Mary bore other sons, and he quotes the passage,

“And Joseph also went up to the city of David to enroll himself with Mary, who was betrothed to him, being great with child. And it came to pass, while they were there, the days were fulfilled that she should be delivered, and she brought forth her first-born son.”

From this he endeavors to show that the term first-born is inapplicable except to a person who has brothers, just as he is called only begotten who is the only son of his parents.

12. Our position is this: Every only begotten son is a first-born son, but not every first- born is an only begotten. By first-born we understand not only one who is succeeded by others, but one who has had no predecessor.

“Everything,” says the Lord to Aaron, “that openeth the womb of all flesh which they offer unto the Lord, both of man and beast, shall be thine: nevertheless the first born of man shall thou surely redeem, and the firstling of unclean beasts shalt thou redeem.”

The word of God defines first- born as everything that openeth the womb. Otherwise, if the title belongs to such only as have younger brothers, the priests cannot claim the firstlings until their successors have been begotten, lest, perchance, in case there were no subsequent delivery it should prove to be the first-born but not merely the only begotten.

“And those that are to be redeemed of them from a month old shalt thou redeem, according to thine estimation for the money of five shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary (the same is twenty gerahs). But the firstling of an ox, or the firstling of a sheep, or the firstling of a goat, thou shalt not redeem; they are holy.”

The word of God compels me to dedicate to God everything that openeth the womb if it be the firstling of clean beasts: if of unclean beasts, I must redeem it, and give the value to the priest. I might reply and say, Why do you tie me down to the short space of a month ? Why do you speak of the first-born, when I cannot tell whether there are brothers to follow ?

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Wait until the second is born. I owe nothing to the priest, unless the birth of a second should make the one I previously had the first-born. Will not the very points of the letters cry out against me and convict me of my folly, and declare that first-born is a title of him who opens the womb, and is not to be restricted to him who has brothers?

And, then, to take the case of John: we are agreed that he was an only begotten son: I want to know if he was not also a first-born son, and whether he was not absolutely amenable to the law. There can be no doubt in the matter. At all events Scripture thus speaks of the Saviour,

“And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were fulfilled, they brought him up to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord) and to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtle-doves, or two young pigeons.”

If this law relates only to the first-born, and there can be no first-born unless there are successors, no one ought to be bound by the law of the first-born who cannot tell whether there will be successors. But inasmuch as he who i has no younger brothers is bound by the law of the first-born, we gather that he is called the first-born who opens the womb and who has been preceded by none, not he whose birth is followed by that of a younger brother.

Moses writes in Exodus,

“And it came to pass at midnight, that the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first- born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon: And all the first-born of cattle.”

Tell me, were they who then perished by the destroyer, only your first-born, or, something more, did they include the only begotten? If only they who have brothers are called first-born, the only begotten were saved from death. And if it be the fact that the only begotten were slain, it was contrary to the sentence pronounced, for the only begotten to die as well as the first-born.

You must either release the only begotten from the penalty, and in that case you become ridiculous: or, if you allow that they were slain, we gain our point, though we have not to thank you for it, that only begotten sons also are called first-born.

13. The last proposition of Helvidius was this, and it is what he wished to show when he treated of the first-born, that brethren of the Lord are mentioned in the Gospels. For example,

“Behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, seeking to speak to him.”

And elsewhere,

“After this he went down to Capernaum, he, and his mother, and his brethren.”

And again,

“His brethren therefore said unto him, Depart hence, and go into Judaea, that thy disciples also may behold the works which thou doest. For no man doeth anything in secret, and himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou doest these things, manifest thyself to the world.”

And John adds,

“For even his brethren did not believe on him.”

Mark also and Matthew,

“And coming into his own country he taught them in their synagogues, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son ? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren James, and Joseph, and Simon, and Judas ? And his sisters, are they not all with us ?”

Luke also in the Acts of the Apostles relates,

“These all with one accord continued steadfastly in prayer, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.”

Paul the Apostle also is at one with them, and witnesses to their historical accuracy,

“And I went up by revelation, but other of the apostles saw I none, save Peter and James the Lord’s brother.”

And again in another place,

“Have we no right to eat and drink ? Have we no right to lead about wives even as the rest of the Apostles, and the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?”

And for fear any one should not allow the evidence of the Jews, since it was they from whose mouth we hear the name of His brothers, but should maintain that His countrymen were deceived by the same error respect of the brothers into which they fell in their belief about the father, Helvidius utters a sharp note of warning and cries,”The same names are repeated by the Evangelists in another place, and the same persons are there brethren of the Lord and sons of Mary.”

Matthew says,

“And many women were there (doubtless at the Lord’s cross) beholding from afar, which had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”

Mark also,

“And there were also women beholding from afar, among whom were both Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome”;

and in the same place shortly after,

“And many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem.”

Luke too,

“Now there were Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them.”

14. My reason for repeating the same thing again and again is to prevent him from raising a false issue and crying out that I have withheld such passages as make for him, and that his view has been torn to shreds not by evidence of Scripture, but by evasive arguments. Observe, he says, James and Joses are sons of Mary, and the same persons who were called brethren by the Jews. Observe, Mary is the mother of James the less and of Joses. And James is called the less to distinguish him from James the greater, who was the son of Zebedee, as Mark elsewhere states,

“And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses beheld where he was laid. And when the sabbath was past, they bought spices, that they might come and anoint him.”

And, as might be expected, he says: “What a poor and impious view we take of Mary, if we hold that when other women were concerned about the burial of Jesus, she His mother was absent; or if we invent some kind of a second Mary; and all the more because the Gospel of S. John testifies that she was there present, when the Lord upon the cross commended her, as His mother and now a widow, to the care of John.

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Or must we suppose that the Evangelists were so far mistaken and so far mislead us as to call Mary the mother of those who were known to the Jews as brethren of Jesus?”

15. What darkness, what raging madness rushing to its own destruction! You say that the mother of the Lord was present at the cross, you say that she was entrusted to the disciple John on account of her widowhood and solitary condition: as if upon your own showing, she had not four sons, and numerous daughters, with whose solace she might comfort herself ?

You also apply to her the name of widow which is not found in Scripture. And although you quote all instances in the Gospels, the words of John alone displease you. You say in passing that she was present at the cross, that you may not appear to have omitted it on purpose, and yet not a word about the women who were with her. I could pardon you if you were ignorant, but I see you have a reason for your silence. Let me point out then what John says,

“But there were standing by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”

No one doubts that there were two apostles called by the name James, James the son of Zebedee, and James the son of Alphaeus. Do you intend the comparatively unknown James the less, who is called in Scripture the son of Mary, not however of Mary the mother of our Lord, to be an apostle, or not? If he is an apostle, he must be the son of Alphaeus and a believer in Jesus,

“For neither did his brethren believe in him.”

If he is not an apostle, but a third James (who he can be I cannot tell), how can he be regarded as the Lord’s brother, and how, being a third, can he be called less to distinguish him from greater, when greater and less are used to denote the relations existing, not between three, but between two? Notice, moreover, that the Lord’s brother is an apostle, since Paul says,

“Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and tarried with him fifteen days. But other of the Apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.”

And in the same Epistle,

“And when they perceived the grace that was given unto me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars,”

etc. And that you may not suppose this James to be the son of Zebedee, you have only to read the Acts of the Apostles, and you will find that the latter had already been slain by Herod. The only conclusion is that the Mary who is described as the mother of James the less was the wife of Alphaeus and sister of Mary the Lord’s mother, the one who is called by John the Evangelist “Mary of Cleopas,” whether after her father, or kindred, or for some other reason.

But if you think they are two persons because elsewhere we read, “Mary the mother of James the less,” and here, “Mary of Cleopas,” you have still to learn that it is customary in Scripture for the same individual to bear different names. Raguel, Moses’ father-in-law, is also called Jethro. Gideon, without any apparent reason for the change, all at once becomes Jerubbaal. Ozias, king of Judah, has an alternative, Azarias. Mount Tabor is called Itabyrium. Again Hermon is called by the Phoenicians Sanior, and by the Amorites Sanir.

The same tract of country is known by three names, Negebh, Teman, and Darom in Ezekiel. Peter is also called Simon and Cephas. Judas the zealot in another Gospel is called Thaddaeus. And there are numerous other examples which the reader will be able to collect for himself from every part of Scripture.

16. Now here we have the explanation of what I am endeavoring to show, how it is that the sons of Mary, the sister of our Lord’s mother, who though not formerly believers afterwards did believe, can be called brethren of the Lord.

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Possibly the case might be that one of the brethren believed immediately while the others did not believe until long after, and that one Mary was the mother of tames and Joses, namely, “Mary of Cleopas,” who is the same as the wife of Alphaeus, the other, the mother of James the less. In any case, if she (the latter) had been the Lord’s mother S. John would have allowed her the title, as everywhere else, and would not by calling her the mother of other sons have given a wrong impression.

But at this stage I do not wish to argue for or against the supposition that Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary the mother of James and Joses were different women, provided it is clearly understood that Mary the mother of James and Joses was not the same person as the Lord’s mother. How then, says Helvidius, do yon make out that they were called the Lord’s brethren who were not his brethren ? I will show how that is.

In Holy Scripture there are four kinds of brethren—by nature, race, kindred, love.

Instances of brethren by nature are Esau and Jacob, the twelve patriarchs, Andrew and Peter, James and John. As to race, all Jews are called brethren of one another, as in Deuteronomy,

“If thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee.”

And in the same book,

“Thou shalt in anywise set him king over thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shall thou set king over thee; thou mayest not put a foreigner over thee, which is not thy brother.”

And again,

“Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ox or his sheep go astray, and hide thyself from them: thou shalt surely bring them again unto thy brother. And if thy brother be not nigh unto thee, or if thou know him not, then thou shall bring it home to thine house, and it shall be with thee until thy brother seek after it, and thou shalt restore it to him again.”

And the Apostle Paul says,

“I could wish that I myself were anathema from Christ for my brethren’s sake, my kinsmen according to the flesh: who are Israelites.”

Moreover they are called brethren by kindred who are of one family, that is patri’a, which corresponds to the Latin paternitas, because from a single root a numerous progeny proceeds. In Genesis we read,

“And Abram said unto Lot, Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we are brethren.”

And again,

“So Lot chose him all the plain of Jordan, and Lot journeyed east: and they separated each from his brother.”

Certainly Lot was not Abraham’s brother, but the son of Abraham’s brother Aram. For Terah begat Abraham and Nahor and Aram: and Aram begat Lot. Again we read,

“And Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife. and Lot his brother’s son.”

But if you still doubt whether a nephew can be called a son, let me give you an instance.

“And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen.”

And after describing the night attack and the slaughter, he adds,

“And he brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot.”

Let this suffice by way of proof of my assertion. But for fear you may make some cavilling objection, and wriggle out of your difficulty like a snake, I must bind you fast with the bonds of proof to stop your hissing and complaining, for I know you would like to say you have been overcome not so much by Scripture truth as by intricate arguments.

Jacob, the son of Isaac and Rebecca, when in fear of his brother’s treachery he had gone to Mesopotamia, drew nigh and rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, and watered the flocks of Laban, his mother’s brother.

“And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept. And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s brother, and that he was Rebekah’s son.”

Here is an example of the rule already referred to, by which a nephew is called a brother. And again,

“Laban said unto Jacob. Because thou art my brother, shouldest thou therefore serve me for nought? Tell me what shall thy wages be.”

And so, when, at the end of twenty years, without the knowledge of his father-in-law and accompanied by his wives and sons he was returning to his country, on Laban overtaking him in the mountain of Gilead and failing to find the idols which Rachel hid among the baggage, Jacob answered and said to Laban, “

What is my trespass ? What is my sin, that thou hast so hotly pursued after me ? Whereas thou hast felt all about my stuff, what hast thou found of all thy household stuff? Set it here before my brethren and thy brethren, that they may judge betwixt us two.”

Tell me who are those brothers of Jacob and Laban who were present there? Esau, Jacob’s brother, was certainly not there, and Laban, the son of Bethuel, had no brothers although he had a sister Rebecca.

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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