Two days ago I observed that there is an early and widespread belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity in the Church. Today I want to begin to begin looking more particularly at the debates and actual comments by the early theologians. Today’s post will begin the examination of the major biblical texts, but they will be more clear tomorrow.
The first real debate occurred around two figures: Tertullian and Jerome. We’ll stop for a coffee with Tertullian today, tomorrow look at Jerome, then the next day look at Matthew 1:25 and the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus.
Tertullian (born in 155 and converted, after a successful law practice in Rome, in 193 AD) returned to Carthage to become the first Christian writer in Latin. He tragically got himself entwined with the Montanists later, but all recognize the profundity of his contribution to the development of Christian thinking. His Christology anticipates Chalcedon by 2.5 centuries! One person, two natures, Trinity … . In particular, he fought against the Docetists, who thought Jesus only “seemed” to be human; for Tertullian, Jesus was human.
In Against Marcion, 4.19, Tertullian thinks Jesus was upset that his own blood family stood outside while others trusted him and were inside. Jesus does not deny his family but disavows them. This, so he argues, can only occur if he has a blood family. And the implication is that a blood family means Mary had other kids; if so, she was not perpetually a virgin. So, for Tertullian, Mark 3:31-35 and the like deal with real mother and real brothers and sisters.
Mary’s real maternity demonstrates the real humanity of Jesus. In speaking of this in On the Flesh of Christ, 20.1, Tertullian suggests (it is not all that clear in my mind) that Mary was not perpetually a virgin. Some suggested that Jesus was only born “through” but not “of” a virgin, that is, the body simply passed through Mary but was not really a part of her body as normal reproduction works. Tertullian fiercely defends the real humanity of Jesus from the real pregnancy of Mary and the real birth of Jesus “of” Mary.
To be born “of” Mary is clearly a contention that Jesus was not simply born “through” Mary: that is, that she really was in his body and really broke her hymen and really partook of her body.
And then later, chp. 23, he says what he also says in On Monogamy, 8, where he makes the case that Mary was not perpetually virgin. Mary was a virgin when she conceived and gave birth, so that it was Christ’s birth that ended her “virginity” (here he defines virginity by in tact hymen and non-virginity by breaking the hymen at the birth). This breaking of the hymen is important to the argument, and some thought the “birth was miraculous” in that the hymen was never broken and Mary’s birth was painless. Why? Because she was immaculately conceived and preserved from the stain of original sin (which led to pain in childbirth).
These texts, according to most, imply that Mary’s marriage was normal after the birth. That is, she engaged in intercourse with Joseph and had other children.
What I find most interesting in Tertullian is that he seems unaware of a view that would claim Mary was perpetually virgin, though he may have thought some thought Jesus was born “miraculously” (that is, merely “through” Mary), and it makes me think he may have paused to refute such had it been there. He goes along, esp. in Against Marcion 19, in such a way that “brothers” means “blood brothers.”
Tertullian, then, at an early date, as a profound and well-known theologian, believes Mary was not perpetually virgin and he believes this is found in the Bible, in particular, in the word “brothers”.
From an Eastern perspective, here’s a good source: Ever-Virgin. (HT: Georges Boukalsky)