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Helvidius, Jovinian, and the Virginity of Mary in Late Fourth-Century

Rome
David G. Hunter

Journal of Early Christian Studies, Volume 1, Number 1, Spring 1993,


pp. 47-71 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/earl.0.0147

For additional information about this article


http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/earl/summary/v001/1.1.hunter.html

Access Provided by Oxford University Library Services at 11/27/12 9:42AM GMT

Helvidius, Jovinian, and the


Virginity of Mary in Late
Fourth-Century Rome
DAVID G. HUNTER
Marian doctrine and ascetical theology become increasingly intertwined in the
late fourth century West, especially in the writings of Ambrose and Jerome.
Helvidius and Jovinian are two Christians who oppose these new developments.
Helvidius rejects the doctrine of Mary's virginitas post partum; Jovinian rejects

her virginitas in partu. For both, the Marian teachings represent faulty notions
of sin, sexuality and the church. When compared to the ideas of earlier writers,

the positions of Helvidius and Jovinian appear to be remarkably consonant with


earlier Christian tradition.

One of the more striking features of the ascetic movement in the West at the
end of the fourth century is the manner in which it spawned a new form of
devotion to the virgin Mary.1 Western writers, most notably Ambrose,

bishop of Milan, fastened on certain ideas, such as the perpetual virginity


of Mary after the birth of Jesus (virginitas post partum) and the virginity of
Mary in the process of giving birth (virginitas in partu), to exhort their
followers to adopt an ascetic life.2 Mary "ever-virgin" became, in the
1. This paper was originally delivered at the Oxford International Conference on
Patristic Studies, 1991, under the title, "The Anti-Ascetic Argument in the Late Fourth
Century." I am grateful to those who attended the session and provided helpful comments. 1 also wish to express my thanks to Elizabeth A. Clark and Robert L. Wilken who
read the manuscript and offered expert criticism.
2. A reliable survey of Ambrose's views can be found in Charles W. Neumann, The
Virgin Mary in the Works of Saint Ambrose, Paradosis 17 (Fribourg: The University
Press, 1962). On the development of Marian theology more generally, see Hilda Graef,
Mary. A History of Doctrine and Devotion, (London and New York: Sheed and Ward,
1963), vol. 1, 77-100; also Hans von Campenhausen, The Virgin Birth in the Theology
of the Ancient Church, SHT 2 (London: SCM, 1964), 53-70.
Journal of Early Christian Studies 1:1,47-71 1993 The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES

theology of Saint Ambrose, a model for the life-long celibacy of the consecrated virgin. Her virginal integrity, as Peter Brown has suggested, became

a potent symbol of the repudiation of all "commingling" with sexuality,


sin, and even secular society.3
It must never be forgotten, however, that Ambrose's position was not the

only Christian one. During the last two decades of the fourth century,
particularly at Rome, there was widespread and outspoken opposition to
the ascetic ideals being propagated by writers such as Jerome and Am-

brose. Just as ascetic piety often expressed itself in Marian devotion, so


resistance to the ascetic ideal at times took the form of objection to Marian
doctrine. In this essay I will focus on two writers, Helvidius and Jovinian,

who were among the most vocal critics of the ascetic movement. Not only
did these authors challenge many of the claims of the ascetic leaders, but
they also chose (though in different ways) to criticize certain aspects of
Marian doctrine as it was being developed in the West at this time. For both
the ascetic and the non-ascetic teachers, Mary's virginity came to symbolize different notions of sin, sexuality, and the church.
PART ONE: THE POLEMIC OF HELVIDIUS

Sometime late in the year 383, Jerome was asked by a group of Christians
at Rome, probably fellow ascetics, to write a work in response to a treatise
by one Helvidius. Jerome hesitated, so he tells us, for he did not wish to give
the views of Helvidius more circulation than they deserved. Nevertheless,
because so many of the "brothers" were being scandalized by Helvidius'
teaching, Jerome says, he reluctantly agreed to take up the axe of the
Gospel and to demolish the barren tree. The result was the first treatise in
Christian history devoted solely to defending the perpetual virginity of
Mary.4
What is evident immediately from Jerome's work is that Helvidius himself had written in response to someone named Carterius.5 Carterius had
3. For this "social" reading of Ambrose's Marian theology, see Peter Brown, The
Body and Society. Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 353-355.

4. Jerome, HeIv. 1 (PL 23.193-194). For the dating of the work, see J. N. D. Kelly,
Jerome. His Life, Writings, and Controversies (New York: Harper and Row, 1975),
104-105. For a fine attempt to reconstruct the viewpoint of Helvidius, see G. Jousssard,
"La personnalit d'Helvidius," Mlanges J. Saunier (Lyon, 1944), 139-156.
5. Carterius is mentioned by name in HeIv. 16 and is addressed directly in a quotation from Helvidius which Jerome cites in HeIv. 4.

HUNTER/HELVIDIUS, JOVINIAN, ON MARY'S VIRGINITY

49

written a pamphlet arguing that the virginal life was superior to the married life. Such a notion, of course, was nothing new. What was new was
Carterius' argument that the perpetual virginity of Mary was proof of the

superiority of virginity over marriage. It was this latter issue, and not
concern over Mary's virginity per se, that appears to have lain at the heart
of Carterius's little tract and which, therefore, was the main object of
Helvidius' response.
It is important to grasp the initial impulse behind Helvidius' work. Like

Jovinian in the following decade, Helvidius did not attack the practice of
virginity itself; he simply maintained the strict equality of marriage and
virginity. "Virgins and married women are equally glorious," he wrote, in a
excerpt quoted by Jerome.6 Helvidius' denial of Mary's perpetual virginity
seems to have followed from this position: Mary was not, as in Carterius'

view, solely a model for virgins. Rather, she was a virgin, as well as a
spouse; in respect to the conception of Jesus, and until his birth, Mary was
a virgin. But afterwards she lived a normal married life with her husband
Joseph and was a model of marital virtue.7
The ecclesial implications of Helvidius' appeal to Mary as virgin and
married woman must be stressed. Helvidius saw that an emphasis on Mary

as ever-virgin resulted in a symbol that was essentially exclusive: Mary as a


model for virgins, not for all Christians. Against this perspective Helvidius
proposed a more inclusive symbol: Mary as the harmonious model of both
the celibate and the married lives. Helvidius must have recognized the
potency of Mary as a symbol of ascetic piety. As we will see below, both
Ambrose and Jerome had recently begun to use Mary as a model of the
consecrated virgin in their ascetical discourses. Helvidius did not wish
totally to exclude the ascetical dimension of Marian symbolism, but only
to broaden its scope to embrace the life of married Christians as well.
Naturally, Helvidius could not be content simply with asserting that
Mary had married and produced children in the normal way. He had to

argue it on cogent historical and theological grounds, which he promptly


did. Helvidius cited a variety of New Testament passages which seemed to
imply that Mary and Joseph had sexual relations. For example: Matthew

1:18 (" . . . before they came together she was found to be with child")
and Matthew 1:25 (" . . . and [Joseph] had no marital relations with her
until she had borne a son"). He also referred to the many texts of the New

6.He^. 22 (PL 23.216).

7. Jouassard, "La personnalit," 145.

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Testament which speak of Jesus' "brothers" (Luke 2:7, Matthew 12:46,


John 2:12 and 7:35, Acts 1:14 and 13:55, etc.). Furthermore, Helvidius
supported his views with quotations from earlier Western writers, such as
Tertullian and Victorinus of Pettau, who shared his understanding of Jesus'
siblings.8 According to Jerome, Helvidius marshalled such an impressive
array of evidence both from scripture and from tradition that he accomplished his aim and won many adherents, even among committed ascetics.9
Helvidius concluded his work with a comparison of marriage and virginity. He appealed to the example of the Old Testament patriarchs who
were married: "Are virgins better than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who
had wives?" he asked. Helvidius also argued, like Clement of Alexandria

and other anti-gnostic writers before him, that God's own participation in
the act of creating a child is a sign of the goodness of marital procreation.10
No one should have to blush, he says, at the thought that Mary lived a
normal married life after the birth of Jesus.11 Finally, Helvidius suggests,

those who defend the perpetual virginity of Mary do so because they really
find the whole notion of birth shameful and "degrading" (turpe). If such
Christians followed the logic of their own argument, Helvidius suggested,
they would deny altogether the possibility of God's being born of a virgin's
womb (per genitalia virginis).11
The foregoing comments show that Helvidius' polemic extended beyond
the initial concern with the exclusivist symbolism of Mary's perpetual
virginity. Helvidius also argued that the rejection of Mary's marital life
rested on an essentially negative evaluation of human sexuality and procreation, one which led ultimately to a denial of the goodness of creation
itself. Echoing earlier anti-heretical writers, Helvidius maintained that to
deny the goodness of creation leads logically to a denial of the Incarnation
itself and to the heresy of Docetism. Any ascetic piety that would depreciate marriage, in Helvidius' view, is false both because it fosters an elitist

distinction within the church and because it introduces an unhealthy theological pessimism into its appraisal of creation and the works of creation.
8. HeIv. 19.

9. HeIv. 16 (PL 23.210). In HeIv. 1 (PL 23.193), Jerome says that he wrote his
response ob scandalum fratrum, qui ad eius i.e., Helvidii] rabiem movebantur, which is
a further indication of Helvidius' success.

10. See, forexample, Clement of Alexandria, paed. 2.10.83 and Methodius of Olympus, symp. 2.1.

11. HeIv. 18 (PL 23.212): Nunquid non quotidie Dei manibus parvuli finguntur in
ventribus, ut mrito erubescere debeamus, Mariam nupsisse post partum?
12. HeIv. 18 (PL 23.212).

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51

PART TWO: THE POLEMIC OF JOVINIAN


Helvidius seems to have disappeared rather quickly from the Roman theological scene, although a sect of Helvidiani is said to have survived.13 But
his place was taken within the next decade by an even more formidable

critic of ascetic claims, the monk Jovinian. Jovinian appeared at Rome


sometime late in the 3 80s, preaching the fundamental equality of all Christians, much as Helvidius had done. In the work of Jovinian, however, we

find an even sharper and theologically more sophisticated argument.14


Jovinian revived Helvidius' two primary concerns, that is, the opposition to
the formation of an ascetic elite in the church and resistance to the ascetic

devaluation of creation and human sexuality, but he gave to both a more


extensive biblical and theological grounding. Indeed, judging from Jerome's refutation of it, Jovinian's treatise (or treatises) must have consisted

largely of biblical texts to which he attached his theological commentary.15


But Jovinian's work was not without some systematic unity, and this
seems to have been provided by four theses or propositions which Jerome

claims to be citing verbatim from Jovinian's work. They are as follows:


1.

Virgins, widows and married women, who have once been washed

in Christ, are of the same merit, if they do not differ in other works.
2.

Those who have been born again in baptism with full faith cannot
be overthrown by the devil.

3.

There is no difference between abstinence from food and receiving

4.

it with thanksgiving.
There is one reward in the kingdom of heaven for all who have preserved their baptism.16

13. On the followers of Helvidius, see Augustine, haer. 84 (CChr 46.338). It may be
significant that there was no official condemnation of Helvidius. Indeed, Jerome is the
only contemporary writer who attacked Helvidius directly. This may be due to the fact
that there was as yet no consensus on the question of Mary's virginity post partum. Cf.
Jouassard, "La personnalit," 154.
14. On the anti-Manichean aspects of Jovinian's work, see my article, "Resistance to
the Virginal Ideal in Late-Fourth-Century Rome," TS 48 (1987): 45-64.
15. Jerome calls Jovinian's works commentarioli and commentant. Ancient com-

mentators frequently noted Jovinian's extensive use of scripture. See, for example, Vincent of Lerins, Commonitorium 35; cited in Wilhelm Haller, lovinianus. Die Fragmente
seine Schriften, die Quellen zu seiner Geschichte, sein Leben und seine Lehre, TU 17/2
(Leipzig: J.C. Hinrichs, 1897), 111-12.
16. Iov. 1.3 (PL 23.224).

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It is clear from the phrasing of these propositions that baptism was a

critical category in Jovinian's thought.17 It is baptism, Jovinian argued, that


establishes the holiness of each Christian, not ascetic merit. Furthermore, it
is baptism that establishes the holiness of the church, a holiness which

belongs essentially to the church itself. Only through baptism does one
enter into the holiness of the church, and therefore this holiness is possessed by all Christians alike, regardless of ascetic merit.18

This ecclesiological dimension of Jovinian's argument is clearly expressed at a number of places, particularly when he is interpreting biblical
texts. In one passage, for example, Jovinian is treating 2 Corinthians 11:2

("I espoused you to one husband, that I might present you as a pure virgin
to him"). According to Jerome, Jovinian takes this text to refer to "the
whole church of believers" (ad totam ecclesiam credentium), which con-

tains within it married persons, widows, the twice-married, and virgins.19


All Christians share in the chastity (pudicitia) of the church, Jovinian ar-

gued, and in the reward of virginity which belongs to the church.


In another place Jovinian paraphrased the words of Jesus from the high-

priestly prayer of John's Gospel (17:20-23): "I do not pray for these alone,
but for those who will believe in me through their words. Just as you are in
me, Father, and I am in you, so may they all be one in us. ..." According to

Jovinian, the passage signified that just as the Father, Son, and Spirit are one
God, so too "there is one people in them (unus populus in ipsis), who like

beloved children all share in the divine nature."20 Jovinian appears to have
placed a particular stess on the unity of the church, a unity constituted by
the indwelling of the triune God, a unity which ought not to be divided by
distinctions of ascetic merit.

Immediately following the passage just cited Jovinian goes on to add a


further gloss on the text, a gloss made more significant by the fact that it
does not seem to be commenting directly on the passage from John's Gospel. "Whatever names you want to call it," Jovinian writes, "Bride, Sister,
17. This was recognized more than thirty years ago by Francesco Valli in his Gioviniano. Esame delle fonti e dei frammenti (Urbino: Universit di Urbino, 1953). See also

the useful theological appreciation of Jovinian by Allan J. Budzin, "Jovinian's Four


Theses on the Christian Life: An Alternative Patristic Spirituality," Toronto Journal of
Theology 4/1 (1988): 44-59, esp. 52-55.
18. See the helpful statement of J.N.D. Kelly, Jerome, 181: "... what gave a theological basis and inner cohesion to these propositions was Jovinian's stress on the
element of faith in baptism, and his conviction that the transformation effected by it not
only rescued a man from the power of sin but created a unified, holy people in which
considerations of merit were irrelevant."

19. Iov. 1.37 (PL 23.275-276).


20. Ibid. 2.19 (PL 23.328).

HUNTER/HELVIDIUS, JOVINIAN, ON MARY'S VIRGINITY

53

Mother, or anything else: it is the gathering of one church, which is never


without its Spouse, Brother, or Son. She has one faith, nor is she defiled by a
variety of doctrines, nor is she divided by heresy. She remains a Virgin. And
wherever the Lamb goes, she follows him. She alone knows the canticle of
Christ."21 And in another place Jerome says that Jovinian continually

repeated the words "Bride," "Sister," and "Mother" and asserted that
these names are titles of the one church and should be applied to all
believers.22

The foregoing fragments from Jovinian make reference to several biblical texts. The allusions to the "Bride" (sponsa) and "Sister" (soror) echo

the Song of Songs, where these epithets are applied to the central female
character. The reference to the Lamb recalls the Book of Revelation 14:3

4, where it is said that only the 144,000 who had been redeemed could
learn the new song: "These are those who did not defile themselves with
women, for they are virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes." The

allusion to the church as "virgin" would have been familiar from a variety
of scripture passages, such as 2 Cor 11:2, a text which, as we have already
seen, Jovinian interpreted with reference to the church.
Jerome does not tell us exactly whose views Jovinian was opposing when
he insisted that these various titles belonged to the whole church and not

to any specific group within the church, but we do not have to look very
far to discover the likely source. Jerome's own Letter 22 on virginity,
addressed to Eustochium in 384, had made extensive use of bridal imagery

from the Song of Songs to characterize the life of the Christian virgin. From
its opening reference to Psalm 45 (1011: "Hearken, O Daughter, and
see . . . forget they people and they father's house; and the king shall
greatly desire they beauty"), to its closing citations of the Song (8:6-7),
Jerome's Letter 22 constantly referred to the Christian virgin as the Bride of
Christ.23

In Jerome's letter the virgin is the "garden enclosed, the fountain sealed

up" of the Song (4:12), who has retreated from public life and from public
scrutiny.24 She will be greeted on judgement day by Mary, the virgin mother of the Lord, accompanied by bands of virgins, including the noble
21. Ibid.: Sponsa, soror, mater, et quaecumque alia putaveris vocabula, unius ecclesiae congregatio est, quae numquam est sine sponso, fratre, filio. Unam habet fidem, nee
constupratur dogmatum varietate, nee haeresibus scinditur. Virgo permanet. Quocunque vadit agnus, sequitur ilium: sola novit Canticum Christi.
22. Ibid. 2.30.

23. Ep. 22.1.1-2, 5; 8.1; 16.1; 17.1-2, 4; 20.1; 24.6; 25.1, 3-5; 26.1; 29.2;
41.1-4.

24. Ep. 22.25.1; cf. 17.1.

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Thecla.25 Then, too, Christ will come and welcome his spouse with the

words of the Song (2:10): "Arise, come, my love, my beautiful one, my


dove, for winter is now past; the rain is over and gone."26 She will enter the
throne room, Jerome say, and join the 144,000 virgins who alone can sing
the new song, that is, the virgins of the Book of Revelation who have not
defiled themselves with sexual relations and who alone follow the Lamb

wherever he goes.27
It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Jovinian was responding directly to Jerome's interpretation of the Song of Songs as Jerome had presented
it in his Letter 22 to Eustochium. Not only are there several textual parallels, but Jerome's use of the biblical text omits precisely that element which
Jovinian insisted on, that is, an ecclesial interpretation. Not once in this
letter does Jerome indicate that the bride of the Song might also refer to the
church.28 Furthermore, not only does Jerome ignore the ecclesial interpretation, but at times his virginal interpretation actually undermines the
ecclesial one. In one place, for example, Jerome tells Eustochium: "I would

not have you consort with married women. I would not have you visit the
homes of the distinguished. . . .Why do you, the bride of God, make haste

to call on the wife of a mortal man? Attain a holy pride in this relationship.
Know that you are better than they."29 Jerome's use of the conjugal imag-

ery of the Song of Songs was exactly the kind of interpretation against
which Jovinian was protesting.30
To understand the full significance of this exegetical conflict between
Jovinian and Jerome, it is important to see that the application of bridal
imagery to the individual virgin was a relatively new development in the
exegetical tradition, particularly in the West. The dominant interpretation,
prior to the fourth century, was that the bride of the Song signified the
church, whom Christ had espoused to himself. Origen had expanded this
to include the union of the Logos with the individual soul.31 Only in the
25. Ep. 22.41.1-2.
26. Ep. 22.41.2.

27. Ep. 22.41.2, citing Rev 14:34. Ambrose also refers to this passage from Revelation, along with allusions to the Song of Songs, but not in any work which predates the
Jovinianist controversy. See his de institutione virginis 113 (PL 16.348), dated 391-392.
28. This omission is especially odd since Jerome had recently translated two of
Origen's homilies on the Song of Songs, in which the ecclesial interpretation was predominant.

29. Ep. 22.16.1-2; translated by C. C. Mierow, The Letters of St. Jerome, ACW 33
(New York: Newman Press, 1963), 147.

30. "Be not proud," Jovinian had written, "you and your married sisters are members
of the same church"; cited in Iov. 1.5.

31. Although Origen saw virginity as a privileged means of achieving intimate union
with Christ and of actualizing the union of Christ and the church, this view did not lead

HUNTER/HELVIDIUS, JOVINIAN, ON MARY'S VIRGINITY

55

later years of the third century was the text applied directly to Christian
virgins. Methodius of Olympus seems to have been the first to use nuptial
imagery to characterize the relationship between Christ and the individual
virgin.32

In the West it was Ambrose of Milan who first developed the virginal
interpretation of the Song and who was, in all probablity, the source of
Jerome's exegesis in his Letter 22 to Eustochium.33 Several years before the

debates with Helvidius and Jovinian, around the year 377, Ambrose had
issued a three book treatise, De virginibus, a collection of different sermons

which he had reworked into a single composition.34 Two features of Ambrose's work are especially striking. First, he makes extensive use of the
Song of Songs to portray the life of the Christian virgin. Second, he presents
the virgin Mary as a pattern of the ascetic life of the consecrated virgin.
Both themes had been developed by Athanasius in the Coptic Letter to
Virgins, a work from which Ambrose borrowed extensively.35
What is most significant about Ambrose's work is the manner in which
the virginal interpretation of the Song is used to stress the superiority of
virgins over married persons. Like Jerome, Ambrose in de virginibus often
emphasizes the superiority of the virgin who has Christ as her spouse over
the married person who has a merely human one.36 That holiness and
him to speak of the virgin as the bride of Christ in any of his commentaries on the Song of
Songs. A useful survey of the earlier exegetical tradition can be found in Introduction by
O. Rousseau to Origne. Homlies sur le Cantiques des Cantiques, SC 37 (Paris, 1953),
1018. See also Elizabeth A. Clark, "The Uses of the Song of Songs: Origen and the
Later Latin Fathers," in her Ascetic Piety and Women's Faith: Essays on Late Ancient
Christianity, SWR 20 (Lewiston and Queenston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1986), 386-427.
32. Symp. 7.1, for example. In Methodius, however, the virginal interpretation of the
Song is not the only, or even the primary, interpretation. The Church itself is the true
Bride of Christ; the order of virgins serve as her attendants, but it is her wedding that is
being celebrated. See his symp. 7.8-9; also 3.8, 8.8-11, and the Hymn of Thecla, 7 and
28.

33. In ep. 22.22.3 Jerome says that Ambrose in his treatise de virginibus "has
expressed himself with such eloquence that he has sought out, arranged, and given
expression to all that pertains to the praise of virginity" (Mierow, 155).
34. For a discussion of the dating and composition, see Y. M. Duval, "L'originalit du
De virginibus dans le mouvement asctique occidental. Ambroise, Cyprien, Athanase,"

in Ambroise de Milan. XVIe Centenaire de son lection episcopate (Paris: tudes Augustiniennes, 1974), 11-12.

35. The text is preserved in extensive Coptic fragments. It was published by LouisThodore Lefort, "Saint Athanase: Sur la Virginit," Mus 42 (1929): 197-275; also in
Athanase. Lettres festales et pastorales en copte, CSCO 150-151 (Louvain, 1955). Fora
more recent discussion, see Y. M. Duval, "Le problmatique de la Lettre aux vierges
d'Athanase," Mus 88 (1975), 405-433.

36. For example, virg. 1.22; also 1.36 (the virgin is married to a superior spouse);
1.37 (the virgin is married to an everlasting King); 1.38 (the virgin's soul is perfect and

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union with Christ, which earlier writers had attributed to the church,
became in the hands of Ambrose a means of exalting virginity over marriage. It is true that in other works Ambrose showed that he was very skilled
at applying the Song of Songs to the union of Christ with the church and to
the mystical communion of Christ with the individual soul.37 Nevertheless, in his ascetical writings it is the virginal interpretation which predominates.

Jovinian seems to have had in mind this ascetical use of the Song of Songs
when he composed his biblical commentaries. Recall his remark that terms

such as "Bride," "Sister," "Mother," and "Virgin" belong to the gathering


of the one church, whose faith is one and undivided. Jovinian appears to
have regarded the assimilation of the Christian virgin to the bride of Christ
as an illegitimate narrowing of the scope of holiness, a shift from an ecclesial and corporate piety to an ascetical and private one, a shift from a vision
of a church unified by the indwelling of the Spirit given in baptism to that of
a church divided into hierarchies based on ascetic merit. Jovinian's response, therefore, was to insist that the spousal imagery of the Song of
Songs applied only to the church as a whole.38
Another feature of Jovinian's argument that must be given attention is
the manner in which he denied Mary's virginity in partu. This point is of
particular interest because it is not mentioned by Jerome in his extensive
refutation of Jovinian. Nor does this position of Jovinian's appear in the
brief letter of Pope Siricius, which announced the condemnation of Jovinian and his followers at a Roman synod of 393. It is first mentioned by
faultlessly beautiful, citing Song 4:7-10); 1.39 (citing Song 4:10-11); 1.45 (the virginal

soul is stamped with the image of God, citing Song 4:12) ; 1.48 (the virgin lives the life of
heaven and is not to be compared with the citizen of earth, citing Song 8:6).
37. In his treatise de Isaac vel anima, for example, Ambrose, like Origen before him,
always interprets the bride as the church or the individual soul. In myst. 7.3541 and
9.55-58, the church is the bride whom Christ pastures and feeds on the sacraments.
And in sacr. 5.2.5-3.17, the bride is the church or soul whom Christ kisses with the

sacraments. Such passages have caused Bernard McGinn to suggest that one of Ambrose's great contributions was to place the interpretation of the Song of Songs at the
center of an "ecclesial mysticism," that is, "one realized only in and through the church
and its sacraments. " See his The Presence of God. A History of Western Mysticism (New
York: Crossroad, 1991), vol. 1, The Foundations of Mysticism. Origins to the Fifth
Century, 203. For a fuller discussion, see Ernst Dassmann, Die Frmmigkeit des
Kirchenvaters Ambrosius von Mailand, Mnsterische Beitrge zur Theologie 29 (Mnster: Aschendorff, 1965), 135-171.

38. In Iov. 1.30 (PL 23.263), Jerome says that Jovinian took the Song of Songs as an
endorsement of marriage. Jerome's response is to argue that the Song of Songs "contains
the mysteries of virginity." He concludes his illustrations by applying the Song to the
virgin Mary: Iov. 1.31 (PL 23.265).

HUNTER/HELVIDIUS, JOVINIAN, ON MARY'S VIRGINITY

57

Ambrose in his rescript to Pope Siricius reporting the condemnation of


Jovinian by a synod at Milan. According to Ambrose, Jovinian maintained
that Mary had conceived as a virgin, but that she had not given birth as a
virgin: Virgo concepit, sed non virgo generavit.39
The silence of the other sources on this proposition of Jovinian is intrigu-

ing. Although it is possible that such a teaching did not occur in any of
Jovinian's writings to which Jerome and Siricius had access, most commentators believe that the omission is a result of the fact that neither Siricius nor

Jerome found Jovinian's denial of Mary's virginity in partu to be partic-

ularly offensive.40 Jerome seems not to have held the doctrine at this time.
Ambrose, by contrast, devotes a good portion of his letter to answering
Jovinian's view on Mary. Why was Ambrose the only one to attack Jovinian
on this point? And why did Jovinian bother to criticize a teaching which
was not itself widely held? To answer these questions we must turn to a

later source, Augustine of Hippo, who provides evidence on both points.


Augustine treats Jovinian at several places in his works. In his Contra

Julianum, a treatise written ca. 420 against the Pelagian bishop, Julian of
Eclanum, Augustine noted that Jovinian, like Julian, charged the Catholics
with "Manicheism." Jerome had already stated in a number of places that
Jovinian called the leaders of the ascetic movement "Manichees," but Au-

gustine tells us why.41 Jovinian did so, Augustine says, "because he denied
that the virginity of Mary, which existed when she conceived, remained
while she gave birth."42 Augustine goes on to say that the reason for

Jovinian's denial of Mary's virginity in partu was that the doctrine was too
close to the Manichean view that Christ was simply a phantom (Phantasma). It was well-known that the Manichees held a Docetic christology.43
Jovinian seems to have been unable to construe the doctrine of Mary's

virginity in partu as anything other than a denial of the true humanity of


Christ. If Jesus did not undergo a normal human birth, as Jovinian saw it,
then his body was something other than a truly human one, and this was
Manicheism.

Jovinian's argument was, as Augustine put it, "most acute" (acutissimum), and it is no wonder that Jerome and Siricius declined to answer it.
But Ambrose had a special interest in addressing the issue. He himself was
the chief target of Jovinian's charge of Manicheism. The point is made

explicitly by Augustine in several places, first in De nuptiis et concupiscen39. Ep. 42.4 (PL 16.1173).

40. For example, Kelly, Jerome 185-86.


41. lov. 1.5; cf. 1.9.
42. IuI. 1.2.4 (PL 44.643).

43. Augustine, conf. 5.10.20 (CChr 27.69); Faust. 30.6 (CSEL 25.755).

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JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES

tia (ca. 420). There Augustine notes that Jovinian had called Ambrose a

Manichee and that Ambrose had defended the perpetual virginity of Mary
against him.44 Once again, a brief digression into the works of Ambrose

will be helpful to clarify exactly what it was that Jovinian was attacking.
The doctrine of the virginity of Mary in partu emerged only gradually in
Ambrose's thought. It first is found in his treatise De virginibus in a passage
that does not deal explicitly with Mary, but rather with the virginity and
fecundity of the church. "The church is unstained by sexual intercourse
(immaculata coitu)" Ambrose writes, "and yet fruitful in childbirth. She is

virgin because of her chastity and a mother because of her offspring. She
brought us into life, conceived not of man but of the Spirit, in a birth free of
bodily pain (non cum dolore membrorum) and full of the joy of angels."45
Although Ambrose does not explicitly mention Mary, it is clear that the
notion of a virginal conception and birth of Jesus lies behind his exposition
of the church; both are virgins ante partum and in partu.
The virginity in partu is later developed by Ambrose in his Exposition on

the Gospel of Luke, a work issued around 385388, which Jovinian may
have known. Here Ambrose makes explicit reference to the parallel be-

tween Mary and the church. He writes that it was appropriate that Mary
was betrothed and a virgin at the conception of Jesus: "For she is a type of
the church, who is immaculate but married. A virgin has conceived us by
the Spirit, a virgin has given birth to us without groaning."46 Later in the
Exposition on Luke Ambrose develops even further the implications of this

text. The virginal conception and birth of Jesus, he writes, were necessary
because "the fragility of the human flesh and mind is inextricably caught in
vice since it is lead by a sort of desire for sin."47 Christ's own birth from the
virgin was holy because it resulted not from sexual intercourse, but from
the immaculatum semen sown by the Holy Spirit.48 Jesus "did not experience the defilement of earthly corruption because of the novelty of the
44. Nupt. 2.15 (CSEL 42.267): Numquidetiamistum [i.e., Ambrosium], o Pelagiani
et Caelestiani, audebitis dicere Manicheum? Quod eum dicebat esse Jovinianus haereticus, contra cujus impietatem vir lie sanctus etiam post partum permanentem virginitatem sanctae Mariae defendebat. Cf. c. lui. op. imp. 4.121-122 (PL 45.1415-19).
45. Virg. 1.31 (PL 16.208). Ambrose goes on to stress the superiority of the church's
virginal fecundity over that of married couples.
46. Luc. 2.7 (SC 45.74).

47. bid. 2.56 (SC 45.97). Ambrose's doctrine of sin is strongly influenced by Philo,
especially in its tendency to link sin with corporeality and sense pleasure. See the
discussion in Dassmann, Die Frmmigkeit 4650. As Dassmann notes (50), "[Ambrosius] asketischen Forderungen, seine Bewertung der Ehe, die Begrndung der Jungfrulichkeit werden davon mitgeprgt sein."
48. Luc. (SC 45.97-98).

HUNTER/HELVIDIUS, JOVINIAN, ON MARY'S VIRGINITY

59

immaculate birth."49 Therefore, Ambrose continues, Jesus alone "opened


the hidden womb of the holy virgin church, which possesses immaculate
fecundity, in order to generate the people of God."50
Ambrose is here echoing the idea, already taught by Origen, that the

virginal conception was necessary so that Jesus would be free of the taint of
sin which is passed on by sexual intercourse.51 But Ambrose goes further
than Origen (and further than most of his own contemporaries) by speaking of Mary's virginity even in partu. The reason for this development
seems to lie in Ambrose's view of Mary as a "type" of the church. This

typology, which was Ambrose's original creation, reflects his intense interest in Mary as a model of virginal integrity, as well as his idea of the virginal
character of the church. Mary's virginal birthing of Jesus came to typify, in
the full theological sense of that term, the salvific act whereby the church
gives birth to Christians. Ambrose is here recalling the ancient Eve/Mary

parallel, but extending it to the church. Both the physical birth of Jesus and
the baptismal birthing of Christians have to be fully virginal, even in partu,
in order to cancel the ancient sin of Adam and to reverse the sentence given
to Eve: "In pain you will give birth to children" (Gen 3:16).52

It is significant that Ambrose's use of the Eve/Mary parallel now hinges


on the matter of sexual purity and physical integrity; it depends on the
notion that sexual relations somehow defile the human child and that the

natural pains of labor are a sign of the original sin. Jesus, therefore, in
the perspective of Ambrose, could not have had a truly normal conception
or birth.53 This was a step which most of Ambrose's contemporaries were
not yet willing to take, and Jovinian's criticism tells us why. The notion of a
virginity in partu seemed too redolent of the Manichean rejection of cre49. Ibid. (SC 45.98).

50. Ibid. 2.57 (SC 45.98). In Luc. 2.43 (SC 45.92) Mary's virginitas in partu is stated
in almost formulaic terms without reference to the church: Nupta peperit, sed virgo
concepit; nupta concepit, sed virgo generavit. This last statement seems to be literally
echoed by Jovinian in his denial of the doctrine: Virgo concepit, sed non virgo generavit.
Cf. Ambrose, ep. 42.4 (PL 16.1173).

51. For more on Origen's idea of sin and its connection with sexual generation, see
my discussion further below. Ambrose's commentary on Luke follows Origen's commentary on Luke almost verbatim at some points.
52. For Ambrose's explicit use of the Eve/Mary parallel, see Luc. 4.7 (SC 45.153);
also his expositio psal. 118 2.8 (CSEL 62.24).

53. This notion is made explicit by Ambrose in pee. 1.3.13 (PL 16.490): Non enim
sicut omnis homo est, ex virili erat et fem-nea permistione generatus: sed natus de Spiritu
sancto et de virgine, immaculatum corpus susceperat, quod non solum nulla vitia maculaverant, sed nec generationis aut conceptionis concretio injuriosa fuscaverat. This
passage was to be quoted by Augustine several times against Julian of Eclanum. See
Neumann, Virgin Mary, 78.

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JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES

ation. It implied contempt for the natural processes of procreation and

childbirth which, for Jovinian and his allies, were God's original gifts to the
human race.

Furthermore, the theme of Mary's virginity in partu eventually became


connected in Ambrose's thought with the image of the virginal bride in the

Song of Songs. From his earliest works on virginity Ambrose (following


Athanasius) had taken Mary as a model of virginal purity. Gradually,
however, he began to assimilate the virgin Mary to the bride of the Song;
the identification is found in several works written just before and during
the conflict with Jovinian.54 This development corresponded to his growing attachment to the doctrine of Mary's virginity in partu. Mary becomes

the "garden enclosed, the fountain sealed up" of the Song of Song (4:12).55
In other words, the several images are simultaneously coalescing in Am-

brose's mind: the Church = the bride of Christ = the consecrated virgin
the virgin Mary (in partu, as well as ante partum and posr partum). The
Song of Songs, for Ambrose, spoke of all these virgins.

Ambrose's virginal ecclesiology may provide another clue as to why


Jovinian attacked his teaching on Mary's virginity. Not only did the doctrine seem "Manichean," but it served to underwrite a view of the church
that profoundly devalued all who were not virgins. Ambrose's understand-

ing of the virginity of Mary and the virginity of the church was grounded in
a view of sexuality that was linked to original sin; such a view automatically relegated the married to a lower status. Ambrose's active propagation
of the virginal ideal at Milan led more than one person to conclude that
Christian baptism required the repudiation of sexual relations.56
To sum up my argument thus far, both Helvidius and Jovinian rejected

the notion that virginity was a higher and better way of life than marriage.
Both taught that ascetic elitism threatened a sound understanding of the
church, whose holiness was shared by all members alike. They also shared
54. It is hinted at in Ambrose's psal. 118 17.19 (dated 386-3 90) ; it is stated explicitly
in his de institutione virginis, composed 391-392. For further references and comment,
see Graef, Mary 85-86. I have followed the dates given in Angelo Di Berardino, ed.,
Patrology (Westminster, Md: Christian Classics, 1986), vol. 4, The Golden Age of Latin
Patristic Literature, 163-64 and 168.

55. Ambrose applies the verse to Mary in response to Jovinian: ep. 42.12-13 (PL
16.1176). Cf. Jerome, ov. 1.30-31 and ep. 49.21 (CSEL 54.386). For further references, see Elizabeth Clark, "Uses of the Songs of Songs," 404-406.
56. See Augustine, conf. 9.3.5, and the comments of Peter Brown, Body and Society,
350: "Listening to Ambrose preaching, in the exciting years of 385 and 386, Verecundus, a well-placed Milanese teacher, decided that his bishop had implied that he could
not yet become baptized, for he was a married man, "fettered" to an active sexual
relation with his wife."

HUNTER/HELVIDIUS, JOVINIAN, ON MARY'S VIRGINITY

61

the view that the ascetic depreciation of marriage was based on a faulty, and

ultimately heretical, view of created reality. Both writers saw these negative
tendencies mirrored in the ascetic use of Mary's virginity. For Helvidius,
the doctrine of Mary's virginity posr partum served to narrow the scope of
holiness. For Jovinian, the virginity of Mary in partu, currently being es-

poused by Ambrose, expressed the ascetic party's contempt for the material world and implied that only the virginal Christian truly transcended
the original sin.
PART THREE: MARY'S VIRGINITY IN THE
EARLY TRADITION

From the perspective of the later history of ascetical theology and Marian
devotion, the views of Jerome and Ambrose were destined to triumph.

Doctrines such as the virginity of Mary in partu and posr partum were to
become generally accepted in Catholic theology down to our own century.
From the point of view of a fourth century observer, however, this development would not have been clear. A survey of Marian theology before the
era of Ambrose and Jerome reveals that these doctrines have almost no

place in Western theology prior to the fourth century. Furthermore, where


they do occur, they are invariably associated with marginal, if not heretical,
theological tendencies. In other words, in the context of the late fourth
century, Helvidius and Jovinian could plausibly claim to be authentic representatives of the mainstream of Christian tradition.

There is no need to dwell at any length on the evidence of the New


Testament. There is universal agreement that the New Testament makes no
explicit declaration on either the virginity of Mary in partu or posr partum.

The idea of the virginal conception of Jesus, to be sure, can be found in


Matthew's Gospel and possibly also in Luke's. But even this teaching seems

to have had little theological significance before the middle of the second
century. Of the Apostolic Fathers only Ignatius of Antioch makes any
extended reference to the virginal conception, and he does so largely to

emphasize the reality of Jesus's human birth against Docetic heretics who
would deny any humanity at all in the savior.57
57. Ignatius' most extensive discussion of Jesus' birth from Mary is found in Eph.
19.1-3. Here Ignatius mentions that Jesus' birth was a "mystery" that "eluded the ruler
of this age. " The theme of Jesus' hidden birth was sometimes linked to docetic views, e.g.
in the Ascension of Isaiah. Ignatius, however, insists on the virgin birth to make "a
vigorous anti-docetic statement." See the comments of William R. Schoedel, A Commentary on the Letters of Ignatius of Antioch, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress,
1985), 90. It has been suggested that Ignatius himself taught Mary's virginity in partu;

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JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES

The situation changes around the middle of the second century. In the

apologist Justin the virginal conception begins to gain some theological


prominence. In his first Apology, Justin uses the virginal conception of
Jesus as part of his argument from the fulfillment of prophecy. The text of
Isaiah 7:14 ("A virgin will conceive and bear a son and will call him
Emmanuel") is used to argue on behalf of the divine origins of Jesus.58 In
Justin there also appears for the first time the typological parallel between
Eve and Mary, which is destined to exercise such a great influence on the
subsequent development of Marian theology.59
At the end of the second century Irenaeus takes up and develops the
Eve/Mary parallel within his broader scheme of the history of salvation.
But there appears to be little interest in Mary or in her virginal integrity as

such; everything in Irenaeus' discussion is subordinate to his christological


and soteriological perspective: the obedience of the virgin Mary recapitulates the disobedience of the virgin Eve.60 It must also be noted that neither
Justin nor Irenaeus says anything explicit about the perpetual virginity of
Mary or about the virginity in partu.61 Their focus is entirely on the

virginal conception of Jesus and on its significance for the history of salvation.

For evidence of early Christian teaching on the perpetual virginity of


Mary, we must turn to the world of the apocrypha, which is the only place
where such doctrines seem to have flourished in the second century. The
Odes of Solomon, for example, make a passing reference to Mary's giving
birth without the pain of labor.62 The Ascension of Isaiah refers to the
see Joseph C. Plumpe, "Some Little-Known Early Witnesses to Mary's virginitas in

partu," TS 9 (1948):567-77. I am not convinced by Plumpe's argument.


58. 1 Apol. 33.1-4 and 54.8; text in Andr Wartelle, Saint Justin. Apologies (Paris:
Etudes Augustiniennes, 1987), 143 and 175.
59. Justin, dial. 100. Cf. H. Graef, Mary, 37-38; Campenhausen, Virgin Birth, 2021,31-33. See also R. Brown et al., Mary in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress
Press, 1978), 253-254.
60. Irenaeus, haer. 3.22.3-4 (SC 211.438-44); also 5.19.1 (SC 153.248-50). Cf.

Campenhausen, Virgin Birth, 34-41.


61. Essential on this question is H. Koch, Virgo Eva-Virgo Maria. Neue Untersuchungen ber die Lehre von der Jungfrauschaft und der Ehe Mariens in der ltesten
Kirche (Berlin and Leipzig: Walter de Gruyter, 1937), 17-60, 63-64.
62. Odes SoI. 19.7-9: "... the Virgin became a mother with great mercies. And she
laboured and bore a Son without pain, because it did not occur without purpose. And
she did not require a midwife, because he caused her to give life." Translated by J. H.
Charlesworth, The Odes of Solomon (Oxford: The Clarendon Press of Oxford University, 1973), 82. Once thought to be Gnostic, the Odes are now regarded as essentially
"orthodox," at least by second century Syrian standards. See the discussion in

HUNTER/HELVIDIUS, JOVINIAN, ON MARY'S VIRGINITY

63

sudden appearance of Jesus after Mary has been pregnant for only two

months.63 Mary and Joseph were amazed, the text says, and "after her
amazement wore off, her womb was found as it was before she was with
child. " But by far the most significant document for the post partum and in
partu virginity of Mary is the Protevangelium of James, a text which stands
as the ultimate source of almost all later Marian doctrine.

The Protevangelium was written towards the end of the second century,
probably in Syria.64 It reflects the radically ascetic, possibly Encratite,
environment of early Syrian Christianity, which produced other apocryphal works such as the Acts of Thomas.65 The Protevangelium has as its

primary aim to glorify the virgin Mary and to defend her perpetual virginity.66 But the text offers more than simply a restatement of the gospel
traditions. It presents an extended narrative of Mary's entire life, from her
own miraculous conception to the birth of Jesus, as a testimony to the
purity of virginity.
The Protevangelium begins by describing Mary's own conception as a
direct act of God's providence (1.24.4). She is consecrated as a virgin from
the time that she is six months old. Her mother Anna makes her bedroom

into a sanctuary (hagiasma) and allows nothing common or unclean to


enter it (4.1). At the age of three Mary is brought to the temple to be raised
by the priests (7.2). When she is twelve years old, because of the danger of

ritual pollution from her menstrual period, Mary is given in marriage to


Joseph, an elderly widower who has several sons by his previous marriage.
The Protevangelium stresses, however, that theirs is not a true marriage;
Charlesworth, "The Odes of SolomonNot Gnostic," CBQ 31 (1969): 357-69; also
Henry Chadwick, "Some Reflections on the Character and Theology of the Odes of
Solomon," in P. Granfield and J. Jungmann, eds., Kyriakon: Festschrift Johannes Quasten (Mnster: Aschendorff, 1970), vol. 1, 266-270.

63. Ascension of Isaiah 11.8. Text translated in E. Hennecke and W. Schneemelcher,


eds., New Testament Apocrypha (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965), vol. 2, Writings
Related to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects, 661.
64. For background, see H.R. Smid, Protevangelium Jacobi. A Commentary, Apocrypha Novi Testamenti 1 (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1965); also O. Cullmann, "Infancy Gospels," in Hennecke-Schneemelcher, eds., New Testament Apocrypha 1.370-374.
65. See E. Cothenet, "Protvangile de Jacques," in the Dictionnaire de la Bible,
Supplment 8 (1972): 1383, who suggests such a connection. On the relation between
Encratism and the Apocryphal Acts generally, see Y. Tissot, "Encratisme et Actes Apocryphes," in F. Bovon et al., Les actes apocryphes des aptres. Christianisme et monde
paen (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1981), 109-119.
66. There is a clear polemic against Jewish and pagan critics, such as the philosopher
Celsus, who impugned the tradition of the virginal conception of Jesus. See Smid,
Protevangelium, 15-16.

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JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES

rather, Mary is given to Joseph only to be protected by him, and he does not
live with her (9.1-2).67
When the document comes to the story of Jesus' birth, even more ex-

traordinary elements are present. Having acquired a midwife to assist in


the birth, Joseph and the midwife approach the cave only to discover that
Jesus has suddenly appeared (19.2). The midwife is present only to testify

to the miraculous birth of the child. The narrative continues with the story
of Salome, another midwife, who questions the evidence of the in partu
virginity. Like the doubting Thomas, Salome declares that she must put her
finger into Mary's womb, for she cannot believe that a virgin has given
birth (19.3). When Salome's hand is suddenly withered and consumed by
fire, she accepts the doctrine without further inspection.
The Protevangelium is a puzzling text. Its high Mariology stands at
variance with the sort of concerns evidenced by other second century
sources such as Justin and Irenaeus. It is unique even among the apocrypha
because of its intense focus on Mary's perpetual virginity. Whereas the
christological element is still dominant in the Odes of Solomon and the
Ascension of Isaiah, the Protevangelium is preoccupied entirely with Mary
and with her consecration to a life of perpetual virginity. Furthermore,

within the focus on Mary, the concern is entirely with her sexual purity. No
other virtue is mentioned: not her faith at the annunciation, nor her devotion to Jesus at the crucifixion. Mary's sole merit, according to the Protevangelium, is her sexual chastity, and the sole purpose of the narrative is
to express and defend sexual purity.
These various features are best accounted for by the profoundly ascetic,
possibly Encratite, origin of the text. The intense focus on Mary's perpetual virginity and the image of the celibate marriage of Mary and Joseph
corresponds precisely with the ideal of "spiritual marriage" cherished in
Syrian ascetical circles. Furthermore, the very notion of the virginitas in
partu is dependent on the idea of the reversal of the penalty of the first sin as
described in Gen 3:16. The idea of virginity as a return to the state of Adam

and Eve in paradise before the fall is thoroughly congruent with the Encratite view that sexuality is a symptom of the fall and that virginity is both
a return to a pre-lapsarian paradise and an anticipation of the resurrec67. After the virginal conception of Jesus, both Mary and Joseph are accused by the
temple priests of violating their agreement of chastity (15.1-2). They are tested according to a ritual prescribed in Num 5:11-31 and are found to be guiltless. The Protevangelium wants it to be clearly understood that Mary and Joseph have entered into a
pact of perpetual virginity and that such an agreement was publicly known, especially by
the temple priests.

HUNTER/HELVIDIUS, JOVINIAN, ON MARY'S VIRGINITY

65

tion.68 The ever-virgin Mary, as depicted in the Protevangelium, whose

very parturition reversed the penalty of Eve, would be a powerful endorsement of the Encratite ideal.69

Whatever the precise origins of the Protevangelium are, it is clear that its
doctrine was a novelty and an oddity in second century Christianity. It is

the only document from this period to describe at any length the virginity
of Mary posr partum and in partu. It was, moreover, a work whose time
had not yet come.70 Not until the fourth century and the writings associated with the ascetic movement do we find a comparable interest in these
two doctrines. There, as we have seen, the seeds sown by the Protevangelium will bear fruit in the discourses of Ambrose. But that is not the

whole story. This survey would not be complete without some attention to
two further writers, Tertullian and Origen, who show that the perspectives

of the Protevangelium were not widely shared in third century Christianity.


In Tertullian's writings early in the third century, we find both a vigorous
polemic against the idea of Mary's virginitas in partu and apparent ignorance of her virginitas post partum. In his treatise De carne Christi Tertullian attacks several Gnostic writers, each of whom denied the reality of
Jesus' human flesh and, therefore, the reality of the resurrection.71 In defense of Jesus' real humanity Tertullian argues for a genuine birth of the

saviour from the virgin Mary. He does not deny the virginal conception of
Jesus; in fact, he vigorously affirms it, drawing on the Eve/Mary parallel
which he inherited from Justin and Irenaeus.72 But Tertullian refuses to
68. In classic Encratite theology, such as that represented by Julius Cassian in the late
second century, sexual differentiation is a result of the fall of the soul into matter. Cf.
Clement of Alexadandria, str. 3.91-93 and 100. For an attempt to define the primary
features of Encratism along these lines, see the collection of essays edited by Ugo Bianchi,
La tradizione dell'Enkrateia. Motivazioni ontologiche et protologiche (Rome: Edizioni

dell'Ateneo, 1985), especially the Final Document of the colloqium, pp. xxviixxix
(English).
69. The supposition of an Encratite origin for the Protevangelium is attractive for
another reason. Such a provenance would explain the document's odd position in
second century literature. It has long been recognized that the text is neither Gnostic, nor
Jewish-Christian, nor truly orthodox. An Encratite origin offers a plausible explanation
both of the document's content and of its uniqueness in second century Christianity.
70. The Protevangelium is first mentioned by Clement of Alexandria, who does not
pursue any of its themes. See str. 7.93-94 (GCS 172.66). Later Western tradition was
sometimes hostile to it: the so-called Gelasian decree of ca. 500 regards the text as an
apocryphon which "the catholic and apostolic Roman church does not in any way
receive"; cited in Brown et al., Mary in the New Testament, 248.

71. He has in mind the views of Marcion, Apelles, and Valentinus. See earn. Chr.
1.2-4 (CChr 2.873-74).
72. Car. Chr. 17 (CChr 2.905).

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JOURNAL OF EARLY CHRISTIAN STUDIES

extend the virginity of Mary to encompass either the circumstances of


Jesus' birth or Mary's post partum marital life. Both points must be examined.

Tertullian's reluctance to accept the virginitas in partu stems from his


anti-gnostic agenda. The notion of a sudden "appearance" of Jesus seemed
rather like the theory of Marcion that Jesus simply "appeared" in the
thirtieth year of his life.73 Tertullian resisted such ideas first of all because
they were not contained in scripture. But he also had objections based on
more strictly doctrinal grounds: the virginity in partu implied that Jesus'

birth was something other than a truly human one, and it was precisely this
sort of view which Tertullian was opposing in De came Christi.7*
Tertullian argued that the gnostic rejection of the flesh of Christ was

based on their repudiation of nature, and especially their aversion to the


embarrasing physical conditions surrounding human birth.75 Against the
gnostic position Tertullian presented the traditional orthodox response:
what was not assumed was not healed. Christ loved humanity in its fullness, Tertullian argued, and he has redeemed both the flesh and the processes of human birth by choosing to undergo both of these himself. On
this point Tertullian stands in fundamental agreement with the argument
of Jovinian, who regarded the virginitas in partu as a position which could

only rest on dubious christological grounds.


On the subject of the virginity of Mary post partum, Tertullian takes a
less aggressive stance. He nowhere attacks it explicitly; indeed, he seems to

show no awareness that such an idea existed at all. Tertullian simply assumes that the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus mentioned in the gospels are
Jesus' real biological brothers and sisters.76 Just as Mary conceived virginally, but gave birth in a normal human manner, Tertullian maintained, so
after the birth of Jesus she remained married to Joseph and bore other

children.77 Tertullian gives no indication that the post partum virginity of


Mary was a doctrine held by any orthodox Christians. Indeed, his assurmp73. See, for example, Marc. 1.19 (CChr 1.459-60), 3.11 (CChr 1.521-23), 4.7
(CChr 1.553).

74. The argument from scripture occurs in car. Chr. 7 (CChr 2.886-89), regarding
the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus; the doctrinal argument occurs in car. Chr. 23 (CChr
2.914-15).
75. See car. Chr. 4 (CChr 2.878-79).
76. bid. 7 (CChr 2.886-89).

77. This is implied in car. Chr. 23; more clearly in mo. 8. The point is made explicit
in Marc. 4.19. Against the Marcionites who cite the words "Who are my mother and
brothers?" to argue that Jesus had no human relations, Tertullian argues that the true
meaning of the text is that Jesus prefers the relationship of faith to one of blood.

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tions about Mary's other children confirm Helvidius' view that the doctrine was not widely held in the West prior to the fourth century.
There is, however, one Eastern writer, Origen, whose views on the ques-

tion of Mary's virginity diverged somewhat from those of Tertullian. Origen was the first Christian writer outside of the Protevangelium to maintain
the virginity of Mary posr partum, and his influence on the subsequent
tradition, East and West, was immense.78 Origen's belief in Mary's perpet-

ual virginity, like that of the Protevangelium, was closely related to his
ascetical theology.79 His most extensive discussion of Mary's posr partum
virginity occurs in his Commentary on Matthew.80 After stating that many
of Jesus's contemporaries believed him to be the son of Joseph and Mary,
Origen notes that some say the brothers of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a
previous marriage, basing their view on a tradition in the Gospel According to Peter and the Book of James. "Those who say so," Origen writes,
"wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that that

body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word which said: 'The
Holy Spirit shall come upon you, and the power of the Most High shall
overshadow you' (Lk 1:35), might not know intercourse with a man after
that Holy Spirit had come upon her and the power from on high overshadowed her."81

Origen goes on to provide his own opinion on the matter: "I think it is in
harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruits among men of the purity
which consists in chastity, as was Mary among women. For it would not be
pious to attribute to anyone but to her the firstfruits of virginity."82 As this
text shows, Origen's belief in Mary's virginity post partum depends directly on his understanding of the virginal conception itself. Because of the
special sanctity caused by the descent of the Holy Spirit and the Logos into
Mary's flesh, it was unseemly, in Origen's view, that Mary should afterwards sully her flesh by having marital relations with Joseph.83
78. Campenhausen, Virgin Birth, 57-63. A fine summary of Origen's views on Mary
can be found in the introduction by H. Crouzel, "La thologie mariale d'Origne," in
Origne. Homlies sur s. Luc, SC 87 (Paris, 1962), 11-64.
79. Crouzel, "La thologie mariale," 35. Origen is the first writer to refer explicitly to
the Protevangelium.
80. See also/o. 1.4.23 (SC 120.70-72), where Origen maintains that "Mary had no
other children other than Jesus, according to those who think properly about her" and
horn, in Lc. 7.4 (SC 87.158), where, like the Protevangelium, Origen believes Jesus'
siblings to be children of Joseph by a previous marriage.
81. Comm. in Mt. 10.17 (SC 162.216).
82. Ibid.

83. Cf. Crouzel, "La thologie mariale," 39.

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Behind Origen's insistence on Mary's perpetual virginity there lies a


fairly pessimistic evaluation of human sexual relations.84 He often speaks
of "a sort of defilement" that accompanies all acts of sexual intercourse,

even legitimate ones in marriage.85 This defilement, according to Henri


Crouzel, which is distinct from actual sin, seems to be linked to the very

ambiquity of living in the flesh itself.86 Furthermore, Origen had a notion


of original sin that was linked to the process of human sexual generation.

The virginal conception of Jesus was necessary for Origen, because the
taint of sin was transmitted to every child born of the sexual act; therefore,
Jesus had to have been conceived virginally to ensure that he was free of this

taint.87 Origen's belief in Mary's post partum virginity, therefore, was


inseparable from his notion that all sexual relations were somehow contaminating.88

It is significant, I believe, that an interest in Mary's perpetual virginity


emerges first in those writers (and, it seems, only in those writers), like the
author of the Protevangelium and Origen, who link sexual relations very
closely with original sin. If the Protevangelium is truly Encratite, then its

presuppositions about creation, sin, and sexuality are not far from those of
Origen. In both cases we have the idea of an originally spiritual and sexless
state of Adam and Eve in paradise. Material existence and consequently

sexuality are symptomatic of the primal sin and are, quite literally, a result
of the fall of the soul into matter. In both Encratism and Origenism, we

have the notion of some taint of the original sin being transmitted via
sexual procreation.89 And for both the Encratite and for Origen, these
84. See the extensive discussion in H. Crouzel, Virginit et manage selon Origne
(Paris and Bruges: Descle de Brouwer, 1962), 49-66.
85. Comm. in Mt. 17.35 (GCS 40 [10].698-99).

86. Crouzel, Virginit, 6466. As Crouzel has described it, every act of a human
being in the flesh is subject to some taint of egoism and concupiscence, that is an
idolatrous tendency to substitute the material for the spiritual. Sexual relations in Origen's view were merely a more intensive example of the same impurity that infects all
human actions.

87. Cf. Crouzel, Virginit, 53: "Pour Origne et beaucoup de ses successeurs le pch
originel ne se transmet donc pas seulement par l'hrdit, ou par l'appartenance
l'humanit, solidaire de la faute d'Adam: il est li au mode habituel de la gnration
humaine. La souillure des relations sexuelles, mme licites, contamine en quelque sort
l'enfant. Elle empche, en outre, la prire." He cites Origen's horn, in Lev. 8.2-3 (SC
287.10-22). It should be noted, however, that Origen is equally insistent on the freedom
of the human spirit that persists despite its habitation in the human body. See prin. 3.2.
88. Crouzel, Virginit, 52; citing Origen, horn in Lev. 12.4 (SC 287.176-78).
89. The link between the Encratite view of original sin and all later accounts, especially Augustine's notion, has been argued by Pier Franco Beatrice in Tradux peccati.

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theories undergird an ascetical theology that sees virginity as the privileged

way to recapture the original state of spiritual union with God. The virgin
Mary, both in the conception of Jesus and in her subsequent virginal life,
becomes the prototype (or, as Origen said, the "firstfruits") of this virginal
life.

If Origen insisted that Mary remained ever virgin, we must note that he
did not believe that this extended to her physical integrity in the process of
giving birth to Jesus. Like Tertullian before him, Origen was anxious to
maintain the genuine corporeality of Jesus' human existence against those,
such as Marcion and Apelles, who taught that he had a purely spiritual or

astral body.90 Origen therefore insisted that Jesus' body truly "opened" the
womb of Mary, which had not been opened by sexual union.91 In this way,
Origen argued, Jesus truly fulfilled the Jewish law stating that "every male
offspring that opens the womb belongs to the Lord. "92 In every other case it
is sexual intercourse that opens the womb, Origen argued, but Jesus was
the first to open the womb of Mary.
To sum up this brief survey of Marian theology, it is fair to say that the
doctrines of Mary's virginity post partum and in partu have only a fragile
basis in the tradition of the first three centuries. The Protevangelium of
James is virtually unique in its description of the physical integrity of
Mary's womb after the birth of Jesus. Both Tertullian and Origen associate
this view with the docetic christologies of Marcion and Apelles. There is

somewhat greater diversity on the issue of Mary's posr partum virginity,


although here, too, the evidence is remarkably sparse. Except for Origen
and the Protevangelium, the doctrine is virtually absent from both Western
and Eastern sources prior to the fourth century.93 And in the two sources
where the posr partum virginity is important, it appears to rest on either
Encratite or Origenist accounts of the origin of sin and sexuality.
Alle fonti della dottrina agostiniana del peccato originale, Studia Patr-stica Mediolanensia 8 (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 1978). I am not convinced by the full sweep of Beatrice's
argument, although the similarities between the Encratite and the Origenist view are
indisputable. Both may ultimately be traceable to Platonic and Philonic notions.
90. Horn, in Lc. 14.4 (SC 87.220-22).

91. Ibid. 14.8 (SC 87.226): Matris vero Domini eo tempore vulva reserata est, quo et
partus editus, quia sanctum uterum et omni dignatione venerandum ante nativitatem
Christi masculus omnino non tetigit. A thorough discussion of Origen's view of Mary's
in partum virginity can be found in Crouzel, "La thologie mariale," 4048.
92. Exod 13:2; Num 8:16.

93. Not even writers with a strong interest in virginity, such as Methodius of Olympus in the East or Cyprian and Novatian in the West, pay any attention to the perpetual
virginity of Mary.

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CONCLUSION

What light do these earlier traditions shed on the arguments of Helvidius


and Jovinian in the fourth century? At the very least it can be said that when
Helvidius denied the virginity of Mary post partum or when Jovinian

denied the virginity in partu, they were both appealing to positions which
had a genuine place in the tradition of the early church. When Helvidius

cited the evidence of scripture and the tradition of the Western church
regarding Mary's other children, he had a legitimate argument which Jerome, for all his efforts, could not deny.94 When Jovinian noted that the

virginity of Mary in partu espoused by Ambrose bore a strong resemblence


to Manichean teaching, he had a strong precedent behind him, both in

Tertullian in the West and in Origen in the East. Viewed in the light of the
earlier tradition, the ascetical developments on Mary's virginity would
have appeared to many to be incautious innovations.

Furthermore, it is clear that both Helvidius and Jovinian were responding to aspects of ascetical teaching that were theologically problematic. It
was difficult to articulate coherently the idea of the "superiority" of virgin-

ity over marriage without either depreciating marriage and sexuality or


introducing odious distinctions within the church. This was essentially the
point being made by Helvidius and Jovinian. The appearance of Augustine's De bono coniugali and De sancta virginitate early in the fifth
century reveals how much dissatisfaction there was with the solutions of
Ambrose and Jerome.95 And the reappearance of the issue of sexuality and
original sin in the later phases of the Pelagian controversy is an indication of
how deeply troubling this linkage between sexuality and sin was to Western
Christians.

Finally, this essay has illustrated how far Marian theology and piety had
travelled from the New Testament to the late fourth century. The symbol of

Mary's virginity, in Jerome and Ambrose, came to bear a significance


profoundly different from that which it had borne in previous Christian
tradition. What was once a testimony to the presence of God in Christ had
94. Recent Roman Catholic scholarship on the New Testament has begun to acknowledge that Helvidius may have been correct in his understanding of Jesus' "brothers." See, for example, John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew. Rethinking the Historical Jesus
(New York: Doubleday, 1991), vol. 1, The Roots and the Problem of the Person, 31832.

95. On this point see the telling remark of R. A. Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 45: "Augustine's rehabilitation
of the married state is a thinly veiled answer to Jerome's denigration (vituperatio) of it:
his covert work Against Jerome. " Throughout his career Augustine found it necessary to
distance himself from the ascetical theology of both Jerome and Ambrose.

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become an affirmation of absence, an emblem of exclusion and closure;

what was once a sign of salvation extended to all became a symbol of


holiness possessed by the few. Once it was extended beyond the scope of its
originally christological meaning, the doctrine of Mary's virginal integrity
became, ironically, divisive.

David G. Hunter is an Associate Professor of Theology at the University


of St. Thomas