As we approach the Nativity of our Blessed Lord, Jesus Christ, it is good to take up the doctrinal realities and teachings on the Virgin Birth, as it is the second great jewel in the crown of the Deipara. (NB: Deipara is the classical Latin theological term which translates the Greek Θεοτόκος, and is used in theology as opposed to Dei genitrix, which is normally used in Liturgy). We will proceed by unfolding three Theses of this doctrine and their proofs, namely that Our Blessed Lady was a virgin a) before birth b) during birth c) after birth. While c was historically denied by many protestants, in modern times both a and b are denied, even by some claiming to be Catholic.
Maria purissima virgo ante gignentem Christum fuit. (De fide)
(Mary was a pure virgin before the birth of Christ)
This part of the doctrine holds that the Mary was a virgin from her beginning and through the moment when the archangel St. Gabriel was sent to announce to her the mystery of the incarnation. This should be logical, since in terms of effects if this were not the case, it would be very hard to prove that Jesus was the incarnate God as opposed to having his origin in some man. Therefore it is one of the first and obvious places to attack if one were going to disprove the Incarnation, validating the principle that authentic Mariology lays the foundation for authentic Christology.
The Prophecy of Isaiah, which in the Traditional breviary is read in the first week of advent, declares: “On account of this, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: behold a virgin will conceive, and will bear a son, and his name will be called Emmanuel.”1
Emmanuel of course, means “God with us” in Hebrew. Some today, most especially amongst “Catholic” scripture scholars, claim that the Hebrew word used here,ָ הַעְלָמה (eolme) simply means a young women, and therefore is not prophesying a Virgin birth. This is refuted in two ways. Firstly, before the progressive promiscuity of modern culture, it was safely assumed in general that a young woman was a virgin. Traditional cultures, and middle eastern cultures are certainly no exception, place great value on a woman’s virginity. Classical culture in the Greek world, for example, would keep young girls out of the public eye, to make sure that they would not fall prey to the lusts of disordered young men, since it was seen even in pagan cultures that the virtues of young women were necessary to the stability of families, and therefore the state. Semitic cultures have always done the same, and they were so successful that young woman was synonymous with virgin. Moreover, the term itself is translated into English as virgin in a number of contexts. The Hebrew word eolme, the Greek Παρθένος (parthenos) and the Latin virgo, all tend to be rendered in English as virgin, or old English maiden. Maiden in old English also, was synonymous with virgin. In mythology the daughter of Apollo and Chrysotemis was named Parthenos, because she was a virgin. Would there be anything remarkable in calling her “young woman”? All women at some time are young women, rather she was a virgin, and the constellation Virgo is named after her.
This brings us to the second point: there would be nothing remarkable about this prophecy if it meant “A young woman will conceive”, because at that time, as for most cultures until the 20th century, only young women conceived. It would be tantamount to saying an unmarried man is a bachelor. Didn’t you know?
The third point, is applicable to those Catholics who would follow this line of argument: Certainly not only the Fathers, but even the Gospel writers themselves understood this to mean Virgin. For, St. Matthew writes in his Gospel: “Now all of this was done that what the Lord spoke by the prophet might be fulfilled, saying: Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bring forth a son,” etc.2 Thus St. Mathew, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, understood this prophecy to mean a Virgin would bear a son. Therefore this should be taken in sensu composito. The Trend to conform modern scholarship to the rationalist positions is sadly evidence of how modernism has penetrated Catholic scholarship in this day and age.
Apart from Matthew I:18, which was just referenced, there is that in St. Luke’s gospel, Mary asked the Archangel how this could happen, since she doesn’t “know man.”3 He replies: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon you, and the power of the most High will overshadow you.”4 This shows two things: firstly that Mary doesn’t understand how she can conceive, because she doesn’t know man, that is she has not had carnal relations (and will not, as we shall see), meaning that she is a Virgin. Gabriel then explains it, which shows also that the conception of the Word will not in any way violate her virginity. Thus, what is described in the Gospel has nothing in common with Greek mythology, where the gods have carnal relations with women, such as Zeus and Alcmena, who gave birth to Hercules. The power of the God will overshadow her, a metaphor for the spiritual way in which the incarnation will be effected materially. In St. Matthew’s gospel we also have: “As his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost.”5
Thus, the New Testament is crystal clear on Mary’s virginity before birth.
Fathers and theologians
The Church Fathers unanimously taught that Christ was conceived by a virgin and that this fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, VII:14. St. Justin Martyr is the earliest witness, who says in his Apology: “The words ‘Behold a virgin shall be with child’ means that the virgin shall conceive without carnal intercourse. For had she admitted such intercourse, she would no longer be a virgin. But the power of God effected that she conceived as a virgin.”6 Among the Latin fathers, St. Augustine sums up patristic opinion, when he says: “It behooved a virgin to give birth to Him who was conceived by His mother’s faith, not by her lust.”7 In the Catacombs, there is also a monument to Our Lady’s virginity. The Catacombs of St. Priscilla depict an image of our Lady which beneath it has the inscription: Virgo virginum (Virgin of virgins). This dates to the 3rd century.
The next consideration is St. Joseph. While the Blessed Virgin was the true spouse of St. Joseph, even though she conceived Christ without detriment to her virginity. Joseph as Mary’s spouse and adoptive father of Jesus, had all the rights of a legal father, one of which is naming, which we see in the Gospels. “Behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, saying: Joseph, son of David, fear not to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost; and she shall bring forth a son: and you will call his name Jesus.”8 This point helps us to understand other passages in the Gospel, where it says “His father and mother were wondering at those things” (Luke II:33), or “Behold your father and I have sought you in sorrow” (Luke II:48). He is in fact Jesus father as far as all earthly things are concerned, except the origin. St. Augustine notices this, and expounds on it: “Joseph is called the father of Christ in the same way in which he is understood to be the husband of Mary, without carnal intercourse, by the connexion of marriage, that is to say, far more intimately than if he had been adopted in some other way.”9
St. Thomas adds, that God the Father is the father of Christ, not the Holy Ghost, making the distinction between generatio aequivoca, and generatio univoca, the latter meaning the production of a being consubstantial with its progenitor. The Holy Ghost supplied supernaturally the male principle of human conception, which was absent. “Christ was conceived of the Virgin Mary, who supplied the matter of His conception unto the likeness of the species, and on that account He is called her Son. But as a man He was conceived of the Holy Ghost as the active principle of His conception, yet, not according to likeness of species, as a man is born of his father. Therefore Christ is not called the Son of the Holy Ghost.”10 The Council of Toledo also expressly confirmed this point.11
Therefore, the question of Mary’s virginity before birth is a matter of Catholic faith (de fide). Numerous quotes could be piled up on end from fathers and theologians, but that is too daunting a task for this medium. It remains for the next installments, to speak of the virginity during birth, and after birth.
1 Isaiah VII:14, Propter hoc dabit Dominus ipse vobis signum: ecce virgo concipiet, et pariet filium, et vocabitur nomen ejus Emmanuel.
2. Matth I:22-23, Hoc autem totum factum est, ut adimpleretur quod dictum est a Domino per prophetam dicentem: Ecce virgo in utero habebit, et pariet filium: et vocabunt nomen ejus Emmanuel, quod est interpretatum Nobiscum Deus.
3 Luke I:34, Dixit autem Maria ad angelum: Quomodo fiet istud, quoniam virum non cognosco?
4 Luke I:35 Et respondens angelus dixit ei: Spiritus Sanctus superveniet in te, et virtus Altissimi obumbrabit tibi.
5 Matth. I:18.
6. Apology, I.
7. Enchridion, n. 34.
8. Matt. I:25 et vocavit nomen ejus Jesum.
9. De consensu Evangel., II, 1: Eo modo pater Christi dicitur Joseph, quo et vir Mariae intelligentur sine commixtione carnis, ipsa copulatione conjugii, multo videlicet conjunctius quam si esset aliunde adoptatus.
10. Summa Theologiae, III, qu. 32, a. 3, ad 1: “Christus conceptus est de Maria Virgine materiam ministrante in similitudinem speciei, et ideo dicitur Filius ejus. Christus autem secundum quod homo conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto sicut de activo principio, non tamen secundum similitudinem speciei, sicut homo nascitur de parte suo, et ideo Christus non dicitur filius Spiritus Sancti.”
11. Denzinger, 282.