Chapter III: Testimony from the Medieval Ecclesiastical Writers

Chapter III
Testimony from the Medieval Ecclesiastical Writers

During this period (circa 600-1300), as we would expect, the attention given to Saint Joseph stems mainly from texts of Saints Jerome and Augustine.  These writers speak of Augustine’s idea that the marriage between Mary and Joseph was a perfect marriage, one without divorce and fornication.  However, the ideas of Jerome with regard to this question have a greater influence.  These men adopt his solution of the question of the “brethren of the Lord” and emphasize his idea that Joseph “remained a virgin.”  From these two points, they deduce that Saint Joseph was perpetually a virgin.

In general the ideas on this question during this period may be thus summarized: 1) Joseph’s virginity is compared to Mary’s: just as Mary is a virgin so also is Joseph.  2) It is the general belief of the Church that Joseph was a virgin.  3) Joseph and Mary both made a vow of virginity.

A. Joseph’s Virginity Compared to Mary’s

Many writers of this period draw comparisons between Joseph’s virginity and that of Mary:  as Mary preserved virginity, so also did Joseph.  In some instances this idea is not clearly brought out, but it can be seen or at least certainly deduced from the statements of these writers.  One such example is Venerable Bede (673-735), who constitutes a fitting transition or link between the Fathers and Medieval ecclesiastical writers.  He tells us that “not only the Blessed Mother of God, but also the most holy witness and guardian of her chastity remained free from absolutely all marital acts.”1  By itself this statement does not necessarily show that Joseph was a virgin all his life.  However, after reading the context, one is led to draw this conclusion, for we see that Bede has just excluded the possibility of the “brethren of the Lord” as children of Joseph from a former wife, and the possibility of his having had other children from Mary.  He then adopts and develops Jerome’s solution of this problem:  the “brethren of the Lord” are not truly brothers and sisters, but cousins:

There were indeed heretics who thought Joseph, the husband of the ever Virgin Mary, had generated from another wife those whom Scripture calls the ‘brethren of the Lord.’ Others, with still more cunning, thought that he (Joseph) would have given birth to others from Mary herself after the birth of the Lord.  But, my dearest brethren, without any fear on this question, we must know and confess that not only the Blessed Mother of  God, but also the most holy witness and guardian of her chastity, remained free from absolutely all marital acts; in scriptural usage, the ‘brothers and sisters of the Lord’ are called, not their children (of Mary and Joseph), but their relatives.2

Alcuin (735-804) repeats this statement of Venerable Bede practically verbatim when commenting on the gospels of Matthew and John.3

Rabanus Maurus (d. 856) also takes over and amplifies Jerome’s interpretation of the “brethren of the Lord”: they are cousins and not children of Joseph. Then he adds: “Catholic devotion teaches and it must be admitted that the parents of Our Lord were always endowed with an unspoiled virginity.”4

From this statement and in the light of his ideas on the “brethren of the Lord,” we can reasonably conclude that he believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary and Joseph.  The words, “Catholic piety teaches and it must be admitted,” show that this belief was widespread, and perhaps universal, in the ninth century.

Abelard (1079-1142) tells us that “Joseph, as Saint Jerome recalled, remained a virgin, just as his spouse did.”5  Peter Comestor (d. 1179) brings out the same idea: “Joseph remained a virgin with a virgin.”6 Peter Lombard (1100-1160) repeats Augustine’s idea that the marriage between Joseph and Mary was a perfect union: one wherein loyalty reigned, one without divorce or conjugal intercourse.7

B. Belief of the Church that Joseph was a Virgin

Saint Peter Damian (988-1072) took up the idea of Rabanus Maurus, that is was the belief of Catholics that Joseph and Mary were virgins, but expressed it more directly.  After stating that Christ had become man, not in the respectability of marriage, but in the closed womb of a virgin, he adds: “And if it does not suffice for you that not only the mother is a virgin, there remains the belief of the Church that he who served as the father is also a virgin.”8

Hugh of Saint Victor (1100-1141) appeals to the general belief that Joseph was a virgin as proof that he was not the father of the “brethren of the Lord.” Commenting on the verse, “I saw none other of the Apostles except James the brother of the Lord,”9 he says:

Not a few affirm that he was thus called the brother of the Lord, because he was the son of Joseph, the putative father of the Lord, by another wife:  but this is not a proven fact, since Joseph is believed to have been a virgin; therefore another solution must be sought.10

Then he gives Jerome’s solution to the problem of the “brethren of the Lord.”  In his commentary on Galatians, Peter Lombard (d. 1160) repeats the statement of Hugh of Saint Victor in very similar language.11

C. Joseph and Mary Both Made a Vow of Virginity

Saint Albert the Great (1206-1280) brings out a new idea on Joseph’s virginity, one which will be repeated by later theologians, among whom is his disciple Saint Thomas Aquinas:  Joseph and Mary both made a vow of virginity.  Albert the Great mentions this more than once.  He looks at the vow of virginity of Mary and Joseph as a “condition sine qua non” for the virginity of this union, an idea that was to be repeated often by later theologians.  He brings out this idea very well in his explanation of the words “Mother, Jesus, Mary and Joseph.” Under the name “Joseph” he writes:

Here is the fourth name which deserves the homage of virtue, because she (Mary) was espoused to the just Joseph, but not united to him in concupiscence.  Reflect also on the vow of virginity of both these spouses, for it is stated that the angel was sent by God to a virgin espoused to a man named Joseph.  And this is said because she was found to be with child before they were united.  Since therefore she had been espoused before this was revealed to her, that is since she had been entrusted to his care, as the Fathers repeat, up to the time when, because of her physical condition, she was found to be with child, this union would not have continued unless, by mutual consent, they had already made a vow of virginity.12

Albert the Great looked upon Joseph’s virginity as only one of his virtues, as a necessary ornament of his holiness.  He refers to Joseph as the “dux virginitatis conjugis.”13 In other places he states that Joseph made a vow of perpetual chastity,14 an expression which he seems to use as practically synonymous with the expression, “vow of virginity.” In the text, he uses those two phrases interchangeably.

In a general way, Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the disciple of Saint Albert the Great, summarizes the opinions we have seen throughout this paper on the question of Joseph’s virginity.

When commenting on the texts of Saint Augustine, he does emphatically state that Joseph had absolutely no relations with Mary.  However, he does not express his opinions as to whether or not Augustine’s statements, by themselves, warrant the conclusion that this virginity covered the entire period of Joseph’s life.  This can be seen in many of the Angelic Doctor’s statements, such as this one:

We must answer to the second objection that Saint Joseph, as St. Augustine says (De Nup. Et Concup. Lib. I), called the Mother of God his wife only because of the promise of marriage that they had given one another, even though he had never known her, nor was he ever to do so.15

However, when he comments on Saint Jerome’s text, he sees in it a clear indication that Joseph was always a virgin:

With regard to Saint Joseph, as Saint Jerome states (Contra Helvid. c. 19), we must rather believe that he remained a virgin, because we see nowhere that he had another wife and because a saint does not succumb to fornication.16

The above statement, with its context, gives us a general evaluation of the greater part of the evidence we have presented on the question of St. Joseph’s virginity.  Implied in that text are three ideas: 1) There is no evidence for the idea that the “brethren of the Lord” are sons of Joseph from a former wife. 2) Saint Joseph had absolutely no relations with Mary (this from the context; see 3, q. 28, a 3, ad 2; Opera 11, 524). 3) It is fitting that Saint Joseph be virgin because of his holiness and dignity.

This third point, an argument of fitness, is expressed by Saint Thomas more directly in one of his other works.  His argument is that if Our Lord, when dying on the cross, required that it be a virgin, Saint John, who was to take care of His mother after his death, how much more fitting would it not be that he who was chosen to be the spouse of Mary be also a virgin and remain one.17

Saint Thomas also repeats the affirmation of his predecessor, that both Mary and Joseph made a vow of virginity, Saint Thomas answers in the affirmative. Then he adds:

It is not believed that the Mother of God made an absolute vow of virginity before her espousal to Saint Joseph… However, after her marriage, in accordance with the customs of her day, together with her husband, she made a vow of virginity.18

Further on in the same article, he insists that both Mary and Joseph made this vow.19

D. Late Medieval, Modern and Contemporary Conspectus on this Question

The preceding opinions of Saint Thomas and of his teacher, Saint Albert the Great, will serve as the basis for further speculations on this question.  Their ideas will be repeated and developed by later theologians.  We shall now give a brief resumé of what we believe to be the main ideas on this question from the thirteenth century to the twentieth.

The ecclesiastical writers of the end of the Middle Ages and theologians of the Modern Period had more to say about Saint Joseph. Men such as Jean Gerson, Bernardine of Siena, Isidore Isolani, Suarez, and Saint Francis of Sales, contributed much to the development of the theology of Saint Joseph.  They upheld the doctrine of Joseph’s perpetual virginity.  Most of them said that his virginity was strengthened with a vow.  In any case, they look upon Joseph’s virginity as necessary to protect that of Mary.  Here they only bring out more clearly what had been implied in the works of Albert the Great and of others.  Suarez, Saint Francis of Sales, and Bossuet give us good illustrations of this view.

After saying that the Holy Spirit had protected the union of Mary and Joseph in everything, especially in this “regravissima,” that is, with regard to virginity, Suarez adds: “By the same revelation, the Blessed Virgin understood that her spouse had freely consented to perpetual virginity, in order that no harm would come to the protection of her own virginity.”20

Saint Francis of Sales brings out the idea that both Joseph and Mary made a vow of virginity in order to help one another in their marriage:

Both had vowed to remain virgins all their lives; and now God wants them to be united through the bond of a holy marriage, not in order that they break their promise or repent of their vow, but that they be strengthened and help one another to persevere in their holy endeavor;  that is why they renewed their vow of living virginally for their whole lives.21

He also refers to Mary as a virginal tower which is reinforced with incorruptible wood,22 a beautiful figure from the Canticle of Canticles illustrating the protective role of the virginal Joseph over his virgin spouse.23

Coupled with this view that Joseph’s virginity was necessary to protect that of Mary is the idea that such a doctrine is also very fitting because of the holiness of Saint Joseph and the dignity of his mission.  This view, implied in Saint Thomas, was taken up by men such as Gerson, Suarez, Francis of Sales, and others.  It is the basis of the contemporary opinion on the virginity of Saint Joseph.

Today, whenever theologians speak of Saint Joseph’s prerogatives, they include his perpetual virginity.  Many reasons are given for this truth, almost all of them are arguments of fitness.  Thus Mueller says that we should believe that Joseph was always a virgin because of the high value placed on virginity by Jesus and Mary, who always remained virgins, and because of the eminent dignity of Saint Joseph which flows from his most intimate association with our Savior.24

Cardinal Lépicier sees a good indication of the fittingness of this doctrine in the analogy of the virginal disciple, an argument introduced by Saint Thomas: “As Christ dying (on the cross) did not entrust His mother to any man save a virgin (Saint John), so also God had to provide for her no spouse except a virgin.”25  His reason for this opinion is that the preservation of Mary’s virginity required a vow of perpetual virginity on Joseph’s part.26

Louis d’Argentan and others say that both made a vow of perpetual virginity in order to protect one another’s virginity.27 Later on, he repeats Gerson’s idea that the Holy Family on earth was an image of the virginal Trinity in Heaven.28

Other writers want to draw an argument from Sacred Scripture.  They deduce it from Mary’s question: “How shall this happen since I do not know man?”29  Her question, they say, would be meaningless unless, as Catholic tradition holds, she made a previous compact with Joseph, unless, by a revelation from above, or from her intimate acquaintance with Joseph, she had been assured that her virginity would in no way be endangered.30

In our mind Scheeben sums up very well the reasons given today for the virginity of Saint Joseph.  After saying that the doctrine of Joseph’s perpetual virginity could not be defined because it lacks dogmatic evidence, he immediately adds:

It certainly may be presumed, partly from the sublime vocation of Joseph and the analogy with the virginal disciple who was assigned a similar and close relationship to Christ and Mary, partly from the fact that the virginal marriage of Joseph with Mary required from him also a vow of virginity.  The latter indicates a virginal inclination which ruled his whole life.31

  1. Expositio in sancti Joannis evangelium, Ch. 2; ML 92, 662C-D: “Non tantum beatam Dei genitricem, sed et beatissimum castitatis ejus testem atque custodem Joseph, ab omni prorsus actione conjugali permansisse immunem.” 

  2. Ibid.: “Nec defuere haeretici qui Joseph virum semper beatae Mariae virginis putarent ex alia uxore geniuses eos quos fraters Domini Scriptura appellat.  Alii majore perfidia alios eum ex ipsa Maria post natum Dominum generasse putarent.  Sed nos, fraters charissimi, absque ullius scrupulo quaestionis scire et confiteri oportet, non tantum beatam Dei genitricem, sed et beatissimum castitatis ejus testem atque custodem Joseph, ab omni prorsus actione conjugali permansisse immunem; nec natos, sed cognates eorum more Scripturae usitato, fratres sororesque Salvatoris vocari.” 

  3. Matt. 13:55-56: “Is this not the carpenter’s son?  Is not his mother called Mary and his brethren James and Joseph and Simon and Jude?  And his sisters, are they not all with us?”

    John 6:42:  “And they kept saying: ‘Is not this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know’?”

    Alcuin, Commentarius in sancti Joannis evangelium, bk. 2, Ch. 3; ML 100, 771-772. 

  4. Commentarius in Mattaeum, bk. 1, Ch. 1; ML 107, 753B: “Catholica pietas docet, sentiendum est, parentes nostril Salvatoris intemerata fuisse semper Virginitate praeclaros.” 

  5. Sermo in annuntiationem Beatae Virginis Mariae, ML 178, 382A: “quem (Joseph) ut Beatus Hieronymus meminit, virginem sicut sponsam ipsius permansisse. 

  6. Historia scholastica, bk. 1, Ch#. 3; ML 198, 1539A: “Cum virgine virgo permansit” (permanens). 

  7. Augustine, De nuptiis et concupiscentia, Ch. 11; ML 44, 421. Peter Lombard, Sententiarum bk. 4 De Ecclesiasticis sacramentis, dist. 28; ML 192, 1107C. 

  8. Opusculum 17, De coelibatu sacerdotum, Ch. 3; ML 145, 384: “Et ne hoc sufficere videatur, ut tantummodo virgo sit mater, Ecclesiae fides est, ut virgo fuerit et is qui simulatus est pater.” 

  9. Galatians 1:19. 

  10. Quaestiones et decisions in epistolam ad Galatas, q. 5; ML 175, 555C: “Dicunt nonnulli quod ideo frater Domini dictus est, qui fuit filius Joseph de alia uxore, qui pater Domini putabatur: set non est ratum, cum Joseph virgo esse credebatur; alia ergo quaerenda est solution.” 

  11. Commentarius in epistolam ad Galatas, Ch. 1; ML 192, 101C 

  12. In evangelium secundum Matthaeum, Opera 9, 12: “Ecce quartum, quod pertinet ad virtutis laudem: Quod justo Joseph desponsata, sed non in concupiscentia juncta.  Et attende utriusque conjugium virginitatis propositum dicitur, quod Angelus missus est a Deo ad virginem desponsatam viro cui nomen (erat) Joseph. Et hoc dicitur quod inventa est in utero habens, antequam convenirent. Cum igitur esset desponsata ante annunciationem: et assignata ei, ut tradunt Patres, usque ad tempus quo per tumorem ventris inventa est in utero habens, non continuissent nisi pari consensus virginitatis habuissent propositum.” 

  13. Ibid., p.13 

  14. Ibid. 

  15. Summa theologica, 3, q. 28, a. 3, ad 2; Opera 11, 524: “Ad secundum dicendum, quod sicut Augustinus dicit (De Nup. Et Concup. Lib I), conjux Joseph vocabatur Mater Dei ex prima desponsationis fide, quam per concubitum, non cognoverat, nec fuerat cogniturus.”  See also 3 q. 28, a. 3, ad 3, sed contra; Opera 11, 522; q. 29, a. 3, resp; Opera 11, 539 

  16. Ibid., 3, q. 28, a. 3, ad 6; Opera 11, 527: “Joseph autem, sicut Hieronymous dicit, (Contra Helvid, c. 9), magis credendus virgo permansisse, quia aliam uxorem habuisse non scribitur, et fornicatio in sanctum virum non cadit.” 

  17. Commentarius in epistolam ad Galatas, lectio 5; Opera 21, 185: “Si Dominus  matrem virginem noluit nisi virgini commendare custodiendam, quomodo sustinuisset sponsum ejus virginem non fuisse et sic perstitisse?” 

  18. Summa theologica, 3, q. 28, a. 4, resp.; Opera 11, 528: “Mater Dei non creditor, antequam desponsaretur Joseph, absolute virginitatem vovisse… Postmodum vero, accepto sponso secundum quod mores illius temporis exigebant, simul cum eo votum virginitatis emisit.” 

  19. Ibid., 3, q. 28, a. 4, resp.; Opera 11, 530: “sed post desponsationem ex communi voluntate simul cum sponso suo votum virginitatis emisit.” 

  20. De mysteriis vitae Christi, p. 117: “Eadem autem revelatione intellexit B. Virgo suum sponsum libenter in perpetuum virginitatem fuisse consesurum, nullumque detrimentum perfectioni suae virginitatis allaturum.” 

  21. Entretiens spirituals, Oeuvres 6, 356. 

  22. Cant. Of Cant. 4:4; 4:7. 

  23. Entretiens spirituals, p. 358. See also Jacques Bénigne Bossuet, Premier panégyrique de saint Joseph, Oeuvres 2, p. 158. 

  24. The fatherhood of Saint Joseph, p. 54 

  25. Tractatus de Sancto Joseph, Sonso Beatissimae Mariae Virginis, p. 248: “Sicut Christus moriens non alteri quam virgini Matrem suam commendavit, ita enim non alterum quam virginem tanquam sponsum Deus ipsi providere debuit.” 

  26. Ibid., p. 260. 

  27. Conférences théologiques et spirituelles sur les grandeurs de la sainte Vierge Marie, mère de Dieu, 1 254. 

  28. Ibid., p. 255. 

  29. Luke 1:34. 

  30. R. Ginns, O.P., “The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Luke,” A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, n. 784d, p. 941. 

  31. Mariology, 1, p. 130.