The dogma of Perpetual Virginity of Mary, states that Mary was a virgin before, during and after giving birth, and so covers much more than the doctrine of her virginal conception of Jesus, often referred to as the virgin birth of Jesus, and is believed as De fide, i.e. Divine revelation of the highest degree of certainty.
The virginity of Mary at the time of her conception of Jesus is a key topic in Roman Catholic Marian art, usually represented as the annunciation to Mary by the Archangel Gabriel that she would virginally conceive a child to be born the Son of God. Frescos depicting this scene have appeared in Roman Catholic Marian churches for centuries. Mary's virginity even after her conception of Jesus is regularly represented in the art of both the Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodoxy (as well as in early Western religious art) by including in Nativity scenes the figure of Salome, whom the Gospel of James presents as finding that Mary had preserved her virginity even in giving birth to her son.
Origen, in his Commentary on Matthew (c. 248), expressly states belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity. In the words of Luigi Gambero, “Origen not only has no doubts but seems directly to imply that this is a truth already recognised as an integral part of the deposit of faith.” In this context, Origen interpreted the comments of Ignatius of Antioch (d. c 108) as significant:
However, Tertullian (155-220), while holding that Mary conceived Jesus as a virgin, denied that her virginity was preserved in his birth, thus emphasizing the reality of her son's body, and the unorthodox monk Jovinian (who died in about 405), who denied that virginity as such was a higher state than marriage, and that abstinence as such was better than thankful eating, also denied the perpetual virginity of Mary and was condemned by synods at Rome and Milan. These views were shared by his contemporary Helvidius, but were not repeated in the following centuries.
He stated, that "we should simply hold that (Mary) remained a virgin after the birth of Christ because Scripture does not state or indicate that she later lost her virginity". He taught that "Christ, our Saviour, was the real and natural fruit of Mary's virginal womb . . . This was without the cooperation of a man, and she remained a virgin after that"; and that " Christ . . . was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him . . . I am inclined to agree with those who declare that 'brothers' really mean 'cousins' here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers". In fact Luther held throughout his career that, "in childbirth and after childbirth, as she was a virgin before childbirth, so she remained".
Huldrych Zwingli wrote: "I firmly believe that [Mary], according to the words of the gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin."
John Calvin rejected arguments, based on the mention in Scripture of brothers of Jesus, that Mary had other children.
John Wesley wrote: "I believe that He was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person; being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought Him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, a historian of the Reformation, wrote that the reason why the magisterial reformers upheld Mary’s perpetual virginity, and why they had a "genuinely deep reverence and affection" toward Mary, was that she was "the guarantee of the Incarnation of Christ", a teaching that was being denied by the same radicals that were denying Mary’s perpetual virginity. However, the absence of clear Biblical statements expressing the doctrine, in combination with the principle of sola scriptura, kept references to the doctrine out of the Reformation creeds and, together with the tendency to associate veneration of Mary with idolatry and the rejection of clerical celibacy led to the eventual denial of this doctrine amongst Protestants, who consider that the "brothers" (ἀδελφοί) οf Jesus mentioned in the New Testament were children of Mary (and thus his half brothers), rather than of Joseph by another marriage (and thus his stepbrothers) or his cousins, a view not shared by the magisterial Protestant reformers themselves.
Mary's virginity before and in regard to her conception of Jesus is stated in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It is disputed whether elements in the New Testament favour or contradict belief that she remained a virgin afterwards.
With regard to the identification of the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament, the 1978 book Mary in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars reached the following agreed conclusions:
It acknowledged as consonant with Scripture the two opposing interpretations of the texts that mention Jesus' brothers and sisters: either as referring to actual siblings, or as meaning close relatives. Catholics and Orthodox usually prefer the latter interpretation, Protestants the former.
Scholars of each tradition, not having made advances since then in demonstrating the superiority of either interpretation, have become more open to acknowledging the scriptural acceptability of the opposite tradition.
At the Annunciation Mary, told by an angel that she will conceive, responds: "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" Gregory of Nyssa understood this in support of the view that Mary had taken a lifelong vow of virginity, even in marriage:
In the opinion of the writer Howard Marshall "it is impossible to see how the text can yield this meaning. He quotes the view of a certain Easton that "no writer with a knowledge of Jewish psychology could have thought of a vow of virginity on the part of a betrothed Palestinian maiden", and says that to hold that Mary constitutes a special case "will convince only those who have other reasons for adopting this interpretation of the text". This view ignores the accounts in Philo and Josephus of celibacy among the Essenes, and suggests that the practice of celibacy by the early Christians witnessed in the earliest writings of the New Testament by Saint Paul the Apostle was an unprecedented novelty in the culture from which Christianity sprang.
The New Testament mentions Jesus' adelphoi ((ἀδελφοί), which can mean either literally "brothers" or metaphorically refer to countrymen, people or believers. The Protoevangelium of James, as shown above, presented these adelphoi as Joseph's children from a previous marriage, stating that Joseph married Mary after he had become a widower; that would make these adelphoi Jesus’ stepbrothers. Victorinus argued that the adelphoi were merely kinsfolk, a view repeated by Jerome. Tertullian interpreted these passages as referring to Jesus’ siblings from both Joseph and Mary, thus excluding the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the only case that this is argued to refer to first cousins in the new testament is Jesus, whilst where ἀδελφοί is used eg. with James and John, Andrew and Peter etc., it is always assumed this refers to actual brothers. However, when cousins is meant (eg. Elizabeth and Mary), a completely different word is used. This begs the question, as to whether the interpretation of adelphoi as brothers relates primarily from a theological rather than a linguistic basis. , states that Jesus was Mary's "firstborn son" (although Tasker says that there is strong evidence for omitting the word firstborn) and that Joseph "had no marital relations with her until (εως) she had borne a son." Tasker and Hill argue that this passage implies that Mary and Joseph had customary marital relations after the birth of Jesus, with Tasker quoting McNeile as saying that the Greek construction "always implies in the New Testament that the negatived action did, or will, take place after the point of time indicated". Hill comments that "if the notion of Mary's perpetual virginity had been familiar to the evangelist or to the milieu in which he wrote, he would surely have been more explicit". But which says, "I am with you always, [even] unto (εως) the end of the world" does not mean that Jesus would then abandon his disciples. There are several other passages in the Greek text of both the New Testament and the Old where the word "until" does not imply a later change: instances are , , and (as interpreted by Jesus in ), ,, and . They do not mean, for instance, that Jesus will at some point stop sitting at the right hand of the Father. John Hainsworth remarks: "'The use of 'until' in Matthew 1:25, then, is purely to indicate that Christ was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, not conceived by Joseph and Mary, since they did not 'know' each other 'until' the birth. In this context 'until' is really synonymous with 'before'. If on the contrary it were meant in its full contemporary English sense—that is, if it really meant that Joseph and Mary's chaste relationship changed after the birth—then the stylistics present another big problem: the reader would have to believe that Matthew was actually inviting contemplation of the couple's later sexual activity. This is doubtful to say the least.
One of the "brothers" of Jesus is called "Joses" in and "Joseph" in the corresponding . Since in Judaism children are rarely named after the father,, it is unlikely that Jesus' "brothers" were biological children of Joseph. Besides, the only other mention of Joses in Mark (and indeed the whole New Testament) is in , which pairs Joses with a James, as in , and says that their mother, another woman called Mary, was present at the Crucifixion and so was then still alive.
Joseph Blinzler, in his study Die Bruder und Schwestern Jesu, concluded that the "brothers" and "sisters" of Jesus were cousins of his. For Simon and Jude, their relationship with Jesus came from their father Cleophas/Clopas, a brother of Joseph and thus a descendant of David. Their mother's name is unknown. The mother of James and Joses was a Mary, distinct from Jesus’ mother; she (or her husband) was related in some unspecifiable way to Jesus' family. There are indications that the father of James (and Joses) was of sacerdotal or Levitical origin and was a brother of Mary. The silence of the Gospels about Joseph after Luke 2 indicates that the putative father of Jesus died soon, after which Mary and her son joined the family of her (their?) closest relative. The children of this family (these families?), grew up with Jesus and were called his brothers and sisters, since in Aramaic there was no other term for them. The early Church kept this term even in Greek to honour in this way these relatives who had meanwhile become eminent members of the Church, and as a way of distinguishing them from the many others in the early Church that had the same names.
For more on this matter and on the quotation of by in relation to Mary's virginity, at least at the time of her conception of Jesus, see Virgin birth of Jesus.
In some modern spiritual writings, Mary's virginity is cited as a counter-example to current sexual mores. In spiritual writings more generally, her virginity is cited as an expression of holiness, devotion and loving self-denial. In some of St. Augustine's writings, he gives her virginity as an example of the mystery of God. Other spiritual writings have mentioned Mary's great humility, which is connected with the sparse mention of her in Scripture and with her willingness to be virginal in order to carry out a part of God's plan. Some writers give Mary as an example of spiritual integrity, of which her virginal integrity is a sign. Over the centuries, it has been a tradition for some of the faithful to consecrate themselves to God, partly by remaining virgins, which is called the "charism of virginity" (or "gift of virginity").
In many icons, Mary's perpetual virginity is signified by three stars that appear on her left, her right, and above her or on her head, which represent her virginity before, during and after giving birth.