The Protoevangelium of James, A historical document written probably less than sixty years after the conclusion of Mary’s earthly life (around A.D. 120), supports the teaching of Mary’s perpetual virginity. During that time, the memories of her life were still vivid in the minds of many.
According to the world-renowned patristics scholar, Johannes Quasten: “The principal aim of the whole writing [Protoevangelium of James] is to prove the perpetual and inviolate virginity of Mary before, during, and after the birth of Christ” (Patrology, 1:120–1).
Thus, the perpetual virginity of Mary has traditionally been defended and examined in three parts: Mary’s conception of Christ (virginitas ante partum); her giving birth to Christ (virginitas in partu); and her remaining a virgin after the birth of Christ (virginitas post partum). This formulation was used by many of the early Church Fathers– St. Augustine, St. Peter Chrysologus, Pope St. Leo the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzus, and St. Gregory Nyssa.
Here, the Protoevangelium records that when Mary’s birth was prophesied, her mother, St. Anne, vowed that she would devote the child to the service of God, just as Samuel was by his Mother (1 Sam. 1:11). Mary would thus serve the Lord at the Temple, as women had for centuries (1 Sam. 2:22), and as Anna, the prophetess did at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:36–37). A life of continual, devoted service to the Lord at the Temple meant that Mary would not be able to live the ordinary life of a child-bearing mother. Rather, she was vowed to a life of perpetual virginity.
Because of the ceremonial Cleanliness, it was necessary for Mary, a consecrated “virgin of God,” to have a guardian or protector who would respect her vow of virginity.
. . . . And the priest said to Joseph, ‘You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the Virgin of the Lord.’ But Joseph refused, saying, ‘I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl’” (ibid., 8–9).
Thus, according to the Protoevangelium, Joseph, an elderly widower who already had children, was chosen to be her spouse. (This would also explain why Joseph was apparently dead by the time Jesus adult ministry began, reasons because, he did not appear during it in the gospels. Also, Mary was entrusted to John, rather than to her husband Joseph or the “brethren of the Lord” misunderstood to be “Mary’s sons” at the crucifixion).
“If they [the brethren of the Lord] had been Mary’s sons and not those taken from Joseph’s former marriage, she would never have been given over in the moment of the passion [crucifixion] to the apostle John as his mother, the Lord saying to each, ‘Woman, behold your son,’ and to John, ‘Behold your mother’ [John 19:26–27), as he bequeathed filial love to a disciple as a consolation to the one desolate” (Commentary on Matthew 1:4 [A.D. 354]).
However, Mary’s Perpetual Virginity has always been reconciled with the biblical references to Christ’s brethren through a proper understanding of the meaning of the term “brethren.” The understanding that the brethren of the Lord were Jesus’ stepbrothers (children of Joseph) rather than half-brothers (children of Mary) was the most common one until the time of Jerome (fourth century).
“The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James records that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. (Commentary on Matthew 2:17 [A.D. 248]).
It was Jerome who introduced the possibility that Christ’s brethren were actually his cousins since in Jewish idiom cousins were also referred to as “brethren.” The Catholic Church allows the faithful to hold either view since both are compatible with the reality of Mary’s perpetual virginity.
According to the Protoevangelium, Joseph was required to regard Mary’s vow of virginity with the utmost respect. The gravity of his responsibility as the guardian of a virgin was indicated by the fact that, when she was discovered to be with child, he had to answer to the Temple authorities, who thought him guilty of defiling a virgin of the Lord as Mary was being accused of breaking the vow she made to God.
In our Recent days, Protestants are unaware of these early beliefs regarding Mary’s virginity and the proper interpretation of “the brethren of the Lord.” And yet, the Protestant Reformers themselves—Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli—honored the perpetual virginity of Mary and recognized it as the teaching of the Bible, as have other, more modern Protestants.
“It helps us to understand the terms ‘first-born’ and ‘only-begotten’ when the Evangelist tells that Mary remained a virgin ‘until she brought forth her first-born son’ [Matt. 1:25]; for neither did Mary, who is to be honored and praised above all others, marry anyone else, nor did she ever become the Mother of anyone else, but even after childbirth she remained always and forever an immaculate virgin” (The Trinity 3:4 [A.D. 386]).
Finally, we need to emphasize and respect both the virginity and motherhood of Mary. The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II asserted that Christ’s birth “did not diminish His mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it” (#57). Accordingly, “in the mystery of the Church, which is itself rightly called mother and virgin, the Blessed Virgin stands out in an eminent and singular fashion as exemplar both of virgin and mother” (#63).