Tomorrow I’ll post my own view of Mary’s perpetual virginity. But today we need to look at Jerome, who is perhaps the first major theologian to deal with our question — was Mary perpetually virgin? He does so in polemics with Helvidius, both of whom were in Rome at about the same time, c. 383 AD. Most of the whole debate today unfolds from his arguments with Helvidius. After today’s post, I’d be interested if this discussion has any impact on you.
First, Jerome’s style is overly accusatory and polemical. I’ll give a few examples (all from Against Helvidius), in part because of the fun of watching him bare his teeth.
He says he’s been asked to “refute an ignorant boor” but is “afraid my reply might make him appear worth defeating.” Yikes!
“The axe of the Gospel must therefore be now laid to the root of the barren tree.” Ouch!
“Helvidius who has never learnt to speak, may at length learn to hold his tongue.”
He “waves his sword like a blind-folded gladiator, rattles his noisy tongue, and ends with wounding no one but himself.”
On his need to read the Bible, Jerome says “it was here he stuck in the mud.”
Now he gets more serious: Helvidius, he speaks to him directly, you “employed your madness in outraging the Virgin…. You have set on fire the temple of the Lord’s body, you have defiled the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit from which you are determined to make a team of four brethren and a heap of sisters come forth.”
He asks, “Pray tell me, who, before you appeared, was acquainted with this blasphemy? who thought the theory worth two-pence?”
Second, Jerome begins with four issues Helvidius uses to demonstrate that Mary had children as a result of sexual relations with Joseph:
1. The “until” of Matthew 1:25: he did not know her until… Jerome contends that there are all kinds of biblical examples of the time of something “until” something does not imply a change of behavior after the “until.” Thus, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto [until] the end of the earth.” Does this, he asks, mean the Lord is not with us “after” the end?
2. Joseph knew her not… Jerome’s argument here has already been mentioned on this blog. How, he asks, could Joseph, who could not touch her before she gave birth, touch her after she gave birth to the All-holy Son of God?
3. On “firstborn,” Jerome proves that “firstborn” need not mean there were other births, for a firstborn could be an only begotten. His argument, that if “firstborn” was only known when more were born means priests would have to wait until there were more born is rather empty in my logical bank, but still, his overall point is irrefutable.
4. Then he goes to “brothers” and mounts his famous case. This word is used in four ways: by nature (James and John), by race (all Jews are brothers), by kindred (Abram and Lot), and by affection/love (spiritual Christians).
Which leads to this: are the “brothers” of Jesus by nature (Helvidius), by race (obviously), by kindred/nephews/relatives (Jerome), or by love (only later). He argues the Jesus son of Joseph, say in G John, does not mean “blood father” so there is precedent in the family of Jesus for some “relative” family members.
He asks who believed this before Helvidius: only two, Tertullian and Victorinus. Tertullian is dismissed as a heretic and not in the Church and therefore emptied of any authority, and Victorinus actually taught the brothers were relatives. On his side are Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and many other “apostolic and eloquent men.”
Finally, Jerome speaks of virginity and marriage, arguing the former is a holy state for some who are so called. (This was big for Jerome, and he was not without problems in these matters. He ended up in Bethlehem running a monastery for monks and nuns.)
He says Mary was not married after she gave birth (21), and he also argues that Joseph was also perpetually virgin. He denies the Epiphanian view that Joseph was married previously.
Jerome makes some very strong statements about the spirituality (don’t know quite what term to use) of the married in comparison with that of virgins. They need not be detailed here for fear of some kind of uprising.
At any rate, we have here the strongest case in the early church for Mary being perpetually virgin and for the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus being relatives.