The Virginity of Saint Joseph in the Latin Fathers and Medieval Ecclesiastical Writers


Saint Joseph has often been called “the hidden saint.”  Indeed, we know very little about his life. The gospels, those of Matthew and Luke in particular, contain two short accounts concerning his mission. The Fathers present us with brief and scattered explanations of the gospel accounts. The early medieval ecclesiastical writers devote a little more space to him. However, it is only in the late Middle Ages that we find works which treat of Saint Joseph ex professo.

Why then was scant attention given to this great saint for so long a period of time? Various reasons are adduced. It seems that this obscurity was required by the very nature of his mission. His vocation consisted mainly in protecting and supporting Mary and the Christ Child during the years which preceded the public life of Our Lord. God had willed that Saint Joseph’s mission take place during the period of Christ’s hidden life. When Jesus began His public ministry, Saint Joseph’s position as the supposed natural father of Jesus had served its purpose.  Also, the early Fathers speak of Joseph only occasionally and with restraint, because the special relationship existing between Joseph, Mary and Jesus could not be emphasized without endangering the dogmas of the faith. In fact, despite the comparatively infrequent assertions of the Fathers concerning Saint Joseph’s fatherhood, we find heretical groups such as the Ebionites, and men such as Cerinthius and Carpocrates stating that Joseph was the carnal father of Jesus. Still another reason is that the heresies in the early Church attacked the fundamental doctrines of Christianity: the divinity of Christ and the nature of the Trinity. It was necessary for the Fathers to concentrate on the essentials, that is, repel the attacks against the more important dogmas of faith. The truths which were not of immediate importance, such as those pertaining to Saint Joseph, were kept in the background.

One striking fact, however, is that whenever the Fathers speak of Jesus and Mary and their relationship, they point out Joseph’s place as the husband of Mary and the father of Jesus. Now, from these two facts flows the theology of Saint Joseph: Joseph is authentically the father of the Son of God; Joseph is Mary’s husband, the guardian and the protector of the Holy Family, which is an image of the Church.1 Because of his Position as head of the Holy Family, theologians deduce his prerogatives: his holiness, his great dignity, his purity, etc. This is well expressed in Leo XIII’s encyclical on Saint Joseph, “Quamquam Pluries” (August 15, 1889), the largest papal document on this saint: “For he (Joseph) indeed, was the husband of Mary and the father, as was supposed, of Jesus Christ. From this arise all his dignity, grace, holiness, and. Glory.”2

Saint Joseph’s role as the protector of the Holy Family was extended to the whole Church. On December 8, 1870, Pius IX declared Saint Joseph “Patron of the Universal Church.”3  His patronage thus extends to all persons and to every group or class of persons in the Church: husbands, fathers, the rich, the poor, and especially the workers. With regard to this last group, Benedict XV, on July 25, 1920, issued a special “Motu Proprio” pointing out Saint Joseph as the patron of workmen.4

One may ask what is the relation of Saint Joseph’s virginity, the subject of this paper, to the theology of Saint Joseph. Strange as it may seem, the question of Saint Joseph’s virginity is closely linked to his union with Mary. In fact a study of this marriage gives rise to two questions:

the virginity of Mary and Joseph’s virginity. The former is not within the scope of this work. Suffice it to say that it is of faith that Mary was perpetually a virgin.5 The second question is the subject of this essay. Our aim is to show that there is a basis in the Latin Fathers and Medieval ecclesiastical writers for the almost universal belief among the faithful that Joseph was perpetually a virgin.

Our work is limited to the writings of the Latin Fathers and to the more important Medieval ecclesiastical writers. Material from the Greek Fathers will be used at times as corroborative evidence. We will treat of the ecclesiastical writers up to Saint Thomas inclusively. One who is acquainted with the existing literature on Saint Joseph may be tempted to ask why this investigation should end at this point, when, in fact, it seems that it is precisely after Saint Thomas, in the late Middle Ages, that we find the greater part of the documents concerning this saint. Men such as Gerson, Bernardine of Siena, Isidore Isolani, and many others of this period wrote works which not only indirectly treated of Saint Joseph, but were primarily intended to spread devotion to this great saint. We may answer that, as far as our subject is concerned, Saint Thomas and his master, Saint Albert the Great, stand out in a unique way. The position of Saint Thomas especially may be described as one wherein the thought of his predecessors is crystallized and the consent of his successors prepared.6

The question of Joseph’s virginity is diffuse. The Fathers and, the ecclesiastical writers refer to it here and there in their commentaries on the first and, second chapters of Matthew and Luke and, in their explanations of the problem of the “brethren of the Lord.” As we have mentioned before, the Fathers were occupied with the refutation of errors which attacked the very roots of Christianity. Often the true state of their mind on the question of Joseph’s virginity is hard to determine. Many of their texts are not clear on the subject. At any rate, we can see from their writings that the idea of Joseph’s virginity was in the back of their minds: something perhaps that many took for granted or found unnecessary to speak about more explicitly.

In this paper we shall first give the scriptural basis for Joseph’s virginity: the gospel texts related to this question, and the notion of virginity as applied to him. Secondly, we shall present the testimony of the Latin Fathers. Thirdly, we will give evidence from Medieval ecclesiastical writers. A synthesis of this question and a theological evaluation of it will conclude this work.

  1. Henri Rondet, Saint Joseph, p. 41 

  2. A.S.S., 22, 65 From the translation of Francis J. Filas, S.J., The Man Nearest to Christ, p. 171. 

  3. A.S.S., 2, 193 

  4. A.S.S., 12, 313 

  5. This truth is drawn from many pronouncements, in particular that of Pope Saint Martin I at the Lateran Council of 649: “Canon 5: If any one does not properly and truly confess, in accord with the holy Fathers, that the holy Mother of God and ever Virgin and immaculate Mary in the earliest of the ages conceived of the Holy Spirit without seed, namely, God the word Himself specifically and truly, who was born of God the Father before all ages, and that she incorruptibly bore (Him?), her virginity remaining indestructible even after His birth, let him be condemned.”

    Henricus Denziger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, translated by Roy J. Deferrari, n. 256, p. 102. 

  6. U. Holzmeister, S.J., “Quaestiones Biblicae de S. Joseph,” Verbum Domini, 24 (1944) p. 181: “S. Thomas omnium praecedentium sententiam resumit, futurumque theologorum consensum praeparat.” See also M.J. Lagrange, O.P., “Varia,” Revue biblique, 2 (1906) p. 506: “On peut dire, (au sujet de la virginité de saint Joseph), que nous en sommes toujours au point où étaient saint Jérôme et saint Thomas d’Aquin.”