Chapter I: The Virginity of St. Joseph

Chapter I
The Virginity of Saint Joseph

A. Scriptural “Basis”

Sacred Scripture has no direct reference to the question of Saint Joseph’s virginity. It does, however, bring out the fact that Joseph, while being the true father of the Son of God and the husband of Mary, is certainly not the natural father of Jesus. Indirectly it shows that the union between Mary and Joseph, while a true marriage, was primarily virginal.

As a preliminary to this question, it may be wise to say that the scriptural source of direct information concerning Saint Joseph is limited to the gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John. The last one has only two references to the saint.1 So we have to look to the accounts of Matthew and Luke for our treatment of the question of Saint Joseph’s virginity.2

In fact, apart from a few comparisons taken from texts of the Old Testament,3 and ideas drawn from the Apocrypha, the above two gospels will constitute, for the Latin Fathers and, later ecclesiastical writers, the main sources of information on Saint Joseph, at least on his virginity.

As we have said before the union between Mary and Joseph was a true marriage, but primarily virginal. Luke’s entire account is replete with the words “his parents” and. “they.”4 Joseph is called the “husband of Mary,”5 the father of Jesus and Jesus is the “Son of Joseph.”6 Words such as these point to the fact that this union was a true marriage. In contrast to this, Scripture brings out the point that this marriage was free from all intercourse. It appears clearly that Joseph had no relations with Mary, at least up to an including the birth of Christ: “He did not know her till she brought forth her firstborn son.”7 Mary’s virginity is indirectly affirmed in Matthew’s quotation of the prophecy of Isaias: “Behold the virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a son; and they shall call his name Emmanuel.”8 Mary is also “a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph of the house of David.”9

It appears also from their accounts that Joseph is not the natural father of Jesus:

And Jacob begot Joseph, the husband of Mary, and of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.10

Now the origin of Christ was in this wise.  When Mary his mother had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.11

These assertions are given strength when we see the Evangelist refer to Jesus as the “supposed son of Joseph”: “And they kept saying, ‘is this not Jesus the son of Joseph whose father and mother we know?  How then does he say, “I have come down from heaven”?’”12

The above texts and references are not adduced as clear indications of Joseph’s virginity.  As we have stated at the beginning of this chapter, their value consists mainly in bringing out the idea of a virginal marriage: a thought frequently in the minds of the Fathers when they speak of Joseph and Mary.

B. Notice and Use of the Term “Virginity”

We have used many a time the word “virginity” in connection with Mary and Joseph.  What is meant precisely, when we predicate the term “virgin” of a person?  We shall attempt briefly to bring out the meaning of this term and to determine its precise use in this dissertation.

Perhaps this is the first idea that comes to mind when we see the term “virgin”: an unmarried woman or a person, man or woman, who has not had sexual intercourse.  The word “virgin,” as an adjective, may also mean something pure, fresh, unsullied, unadulterated, undefiled.  Virginity, the state of being a virgin, may be either internal or external.  These two elements are brought out in Saint Augustine’s definition of virginity: “Virginity is continence by which the integrity of the flesh is preserved, consecrated, and vowed to the very Creator of the body and the soul.”13

Here Augustine brings out the idea that virginity involves the preservation of the integrity of the flesh.  This external virginity is referred to by theologians as material virginity.  It is verified when on e abstains from all venereal pleasure.  It consists in keeping “the natural condition of physiological integrity with which we are born into the world.”14  Material virginity is lost by sexual intercourse (even if it is licit), by the sin of pollution, or finally, in women, by a voluntary or accidental act which causes the breaking of the hymen.

Augustine’s definition brings out another idea.  In virginity, the integrity of the flesh is consecrated and vowed to God the Creator of the body and soul.  This idea of Augustine’s implies the general theological notion of formal virginity, and also two other ideas intimately bound up with the above notion: the virtue of virginity and the vow of virginity. Formal or internal virginity consists in the “firm determination of the will to perpetually abstain from all venereal pleasure, even from those acts which are licit in marriage.”15 When this determination of the will is supernaturalized, we have the virtue of virginity. Saint Thomas brings this out clearly.16 He also states that the virtue of virginity implies the vow of virginity.17 The words “preserve, consecrate, and vow” of Augustine’s definition thus summarize the basic notions in the concept of virginity.

Augustine refers to virginity as continence.  Here he is using the latter term in a specific sense. Continence usually means the battle that the mind wages against all the sensible and inordinate impulses of the flesh.  It can, however, designate virginity, in so far as it is concerned with the repulsion of the more violent desires of the flesh.18 Virginity also differs from chastity (even perfect chastity) in that “virginity must be preserved perpetually, while chastity, even perfect, can be observed by him who consented beforehand to carnal pleasure.”19 It is important to remember that the word “virginity” of itself implies the notion of perpetuity; however, at times it may denote only a period of one’s life.

In this paper the term “virginity,” when predicated of Saint Joseph, will denote external or bodily virginity, at least in the statements of the Latin Fathers.  Here we mean: that natural condition of physiological integrity with which men are born into the world and which is lost by sexual intercourse either licit or illicit.  However, when certain Medieval and later ecclesiastical writers speak of Joseph’s vow of virginity or of his resolve to remain a virgin, then it is evident that the term refers to formal or internal virginity.20  With these basic notions in mind, we can now proceed to the core of our dissertation.

  1. John 1:45; 6:42. 

  2. A list of the gospel references to Saint Joseph in Matthew and Luke will be helpful in localizing most of the information that is to be given on Joseph’s virginity:

    1. Joseph’s genealogy: Matt. 1:1-16; Luke 3:23-39.
    2. His betrothal to Mary and his justice: Matt. l:l8-19; Luke 1:27.
    3. The angel’s revelation to him of Mary’s miraculous conception: Matt. 1:20-23.
    4. The solemnization of his marriage to Our Lady: Matt. 1:24-25.
    5. The trip to Bethlehem: Luke 2:1-7.
    6. Joseph’s presence during the adoration of the shepherds: Luke 2:16.
    7. Joseph’s naming of the Child Jesus: Matt. 1:25; Luke 2:21.
    8. Joseph’s part in the presentation of’ Jesus: Luke 2:22-36.
    9. The flight into Egypt and the return: Matt. 2:13-23.
    10. Life at Nazareth: Matt. 2:13-23.
    11. The loss and finding of Jesus: Luke 2:41-50.
    12. Passing reference to the saint: Matt. 13:55; Luke 4:22; John 1:45; 6:42.

    From: Francis J. Filas, S.J., Joseph and Jesus, A Theological Study of Their Relationship, p. 10. 

  3. Ezechiel 40:2ff; Isaias 46:4; Cant. of Cant. 2:16; 4:4-5; 7:3-4. 

  4. Luke 2:27, 33, 39, 41-44, 48, 51.      

  5. Matt. 13:55-56; Luke 2:48; 3:23; John 1:45; 6:42. 

  6. Matt. 1:16-25; Luke 2:4-7. 

  7. Matt. 1:25. 

  8. Matt. 1:23. 

  9. Luke 1:27. 

  10. Matt. 1:16. 

  11. Matt. 1:18. 

  12. John 6:42; 1:45; Matt. 13:55-56; Luke 3:23; 4:22. 

  13. De sancta virginitate, Ch. 8; ML 40, 400: “Virginitas est continentia qua integritas carnis ispi Creatori animae et carnis vovetur, consecratur, servatur.” 

  14. Juniper Carol, Fundamentals of Mariology, p. 142.  See also B. Merkelbach, O.P., Quaestiones de castitate et luxuria, p. 20. 

  15. Ad. Tanquerey, Synopsis theologiae moralis, 2, Supplementum, pp. 3-4. 

  16. Summa theologica, 2-2, q. 152, a. 3; Opera 10, 27: Ad primum ergo dicendum, quod homines ex sua nativitate habent id quod est materiale in virginitate, scilicet integritatem carnis immunem ab experimento venereorum; non tamen habent id quod est formale in virginitate, ut scilicet habent propositum servandi hujusmodi integritatem propter Deum; et ex hoc habet rationem virtutis.”  See also Franciscus Suarez, De mysteriis vitae Christi, disp. 6; Opera Omnia 19, 90. 

  17. Ibid., ad 4: “Virginitas secundum quod est virtus importat propositum voto firmatum integritatis pertetuo servandae.” 

  18. Tanquerey, op. cit., p. 4. 

  19. Ibid. 

  20. At times, however, it is difficult to determine the precise meaning of this term even with the aid of the context.