TRANSLATED: Francis Pieper’s footnotes on the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

Detail from “Holy Family With St. Anne,” by El Greco; 1605; Spain, oil on canvas.

Here ’tis, Herr Carver’s long-awaited translation of Francis Pieper’s German footnotes on the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Mother of Our Lord, from Dogmatik Vol. II, p. 366ff (available for free as a Google eBook here). As it turns out, the content of most of these footnotes was, in fact, included in the English translation of 1951, but in the main body of the paragraph, rather than as footnotes. So, no big reveal. However, the content of footnote 848 was left out of the English edition entirely. So, medium reveal.

(NB: Footnotes 844 and 846 were simple citations not in need of translation.)

Those not familiar with the debate over the question of the semper virgo— and possibly confused as to why anyone cares one way or another about it— can do no better for an introduction than to read this article by the Rev’d Dr. John R. Stephenson: Et Tamen Virgo Mansit: Some thoughts on the dogmatic status of FC SD VII, 24.” You may find that you start caring about it, too.

Not to belabor the point, but confessing the semper virgo is obviously not a slippery slope with Rome at the bottom. As my dear friend and mentor Fr Charles McClean has written…

Confessional Lutherans differ on the latter but, given the fact that Lutherans from Luther through Pieper to this very day…have accepted the perpetual virginity, it can scarcely be seen as uniquely Roman Catholic teaching.

If anything, it ought to be stressed that the greatest dogmatician of the Old Synodical Conference made a concession in the opposite direction from what is usually heard today. Pieper writes: “If the Christology of a theologian is orthodox in all other respects, he is not to be regarded as a heretic for holding that Mary bore other children in a natural manner after she had given birth to the Son of God.” Nowadays it is only barely conceded that those Lutherans who believe as Pieper did— and as virtually all Lutherans did prior to the era of Rationalism— are within the fold at all!

Anyway, here’s the relevant section from the English Christian Dogmatics (Vol. II, pp. 308-309); I’ve indicated in curly braces { } where translations of the German footnotes appear in the English text:

At this point we may discuss also the question concerning the semper virgo, that is, the question whether Mary, after she had become the mother of the Savior of the world through the miraculous working of the Holy Ghost, became the mother of other children33 in her marriage with Joseph. The early Christian Church, as did also Luther and other Lutheran teachers, answered the question in the negative. Luther thus writes: {FN 843: “Helvidius [a teacher of the fourth century whose writings were condemned by Jerome], that fool, was also willing to credit Mary with more sons after Christ’s birth because of the words of the Evangelist: ‘And [Joseph] knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born Son’ (Matt. 1:25). This had to be understood, as he thought, as though she had more sons after the first-born Son. How stupid he was! He received a fitting answer from Jerome.”} {FN 845: In more recent times theologians disagree on the question. Luthardt remarks on John 2:12 that Sieffert, Wieseler, Neander, Weiss, Bleek, L. Schulze, favor brothers of Christ, in the proper sense of the term; in favor of cousins we find Holmann, Lichtenstein, Lange. To the latter belong also Hengstenberg and Keil. David Brown, in the Commentary, Critical and Explanatory (ad Matt. 13:55), leaves the question open, while his collaborator Fansset decides in favor of cousin (ad Gal. 1:19). Dummelow, in the Commentary on the Holy Bible, weighs both possibilities (ad Matt. 12:46).}


If the Christology of a theologian is orthodox in all other respects, he is not to be regarded as a heretic for holding that Mary bore other children in a natural manner after she had given birth to the Son of God. In his Systema (I, 159) Quenstedt gives this matter careful consideration. But we must emphatically object when those who assume that Jesus had natural brothers pride themselves on their more delicate “exegetical conscience” and disparage those who hold the opposite view. They certainly cannot prove their view from Scripture, at least not from the “till” (ἕως οὗ, Matt. 1:25) and the “first born” (πρωτότοκος, Luke 2:7). {FN 847: In his Harmonia Evangelica (ad Matt. 1:25) Chemnitz shows that ἕως οὗ, donec, priusquam, which mean “until then” or its equivalent, do not declare that the things that did not take place “till then” did occur at a later time. Chemnitz proves this fact, on the one hand, by Gen. 19:22; Lev. 12:4; Acts 25:16; and, on the other, by Gen. 8:7; 1 Sam. 15:35; 2 Sam. 6:23; Matt. 28:20, and similar passages. This second group of passages Chemnitz correctly describes as follows: “It denies the past without determining the future.” Meyer agrees as regards the ἕως οὗ, but holds that πρωτότοκος entitles him to conclude that Mary gave birth to other children besides Christ. Chemnitz, however, says of “first-born” (prototokos): “The answer is simple; for in the Law, when they are commanded to offer the first-born to the Lord, the sense is not that there must be born another after the first. Not only he is called ‘first-born’ after whom others are born, but rather he before whom none was born, even though he be the only child.”} Decisive proof cannot be supplied even from the passages that mention “brothers” and “sisters” of Christ, such as Matt. 12:46 ff.; 13:55 ff.; John 2:12; 7:3 ff.; Gal. 1:19. Since the question is a purely historical one, it is best not to spend too much time on it. [See FN 848, below]

Here are Herr Carver’s translations:

843) St. Louis Edition 20:2098:

Helvidius, the fool, also wished to attribute more sons to Mary after Christ, based on these words of the Evangelist: ‘And Joseph knew not his bride Mary till she bore her first Son.’ This he wished to understand as though she had more sons after the first Son; the crude fool! St. Jerome responded nicely to this.

845) Luthardt reports on John 2:12: Deciding in favor of brothers of Christ in the proper sense are Sieffert, Wieseler, Neander, Weiß, Bleek, L. Schulze; for cousins are Hofmann, Lichtenstein, Lange. To the latter belong also Hengstenberg and Keil. David Brown (in Commentary Critical and Explanatory on Matthew 13:55) wishes to leave the question undecided, while his collaborater Fausset, on Gal. 1:19, decides in favor of “cousin.” Dummelow, on Matthew 12:46 (Commentary on the Holy Bible) attempts to weigh the [arguments] for and against.

847) Cf. the presentation by Chemnitz in the Harmony of the Gospel on Matthew 1:26: ἔως οὖ, donec, priusquam, until that, etc., in themselves express nothing concerning whether what did not happen or did happen up to that point in time did or did not happen afterwards. Chemnitz demonstrates this on the one hand with Gen. 19:22; Lev. 12:4; Acts 25:16, on the other hand with Gen. 8:7; 1 Kings 15:35, 2 Kings 6:23; Matt. 28:20, etc. The latter series of passages Chemnitz characterizes correctly: ita negat praeteritum, ut non ponat futuram [“He denies the past in such a way that he does not set the future”]. Meyer says the same in three places, only he thinks that he can conclude from “πρωτότοκος” that Mary had other children afterwards. However, Chemnitz is right when he says:

De primogenito facilis est responsio. Nam in lege, quando jubentur primogenitos offerri Domino, non est sensus, exspectandum esse, donec post primum nascatur alius. Sed primogenitus vocatur non tantum post quem nati sunt alii. verum etiam ante quem nullus natus est, etiamsi sit unigenitus, hoc est, etsi postea nullos alios habeat fratres, tamen vocatur primogenitus.

[“Concerning the Firstborn the answer is easy. For in the law, when they are commanded to offer the firstborn to the Lord, the sense is not that one should wait until another one is born after the first one. Rather, he is called firstborn not only after whom others are born, but also before whom none is born, even if he should be the only-born; that is, even if he should afterward have no other brothers, he is still called firstborn.”]

848) Matthew 12:46ff.; 13:55f.; John 2:12; 7:3ff.; Gal. 1:19.

Matt. 13:55: “Is this not the carpenter’s Son? Is not His mother named Mary? And his brothers James and Joses [Joseph] and Simon and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?” The question is now whether the “exegetical conscience” causes us to understand  “brothers” and “sisters” here as physical brothers and sisters here. The principle that each word is firstly to be taken in its proper and primary sense, is correct. But this is also valid with respect to the word “Son” which appears in the text. “Is this not the carpenter’s son (υός)? Hence all Antiebionites, because they interpret the word υός in this passage not as a natural son but as an adoptive son, are able without any burdening of their exegetical conscience to understand the accompanying ὰδελφοί and ὰδελφαί as adoptive brothers and adoptive sisters. In the same way, they also understand “father” as adoptive father in the words of Luke 2:48: “Behold, your father and I have sought you with pains.” If it is objected that Scripture itself offers this qualification of “son” and “father”, it should be pointed out that the same is the case with respect to “brothers.” In Gal. 1:19 the apostle James is called “the brother of the Lord,” ὁ ἀδελφὸς τοῦ Κυρίου. The apostle James (minor), however, is according to the catalog of Apostles (Matt. 10:3) not a son of Joseph but of Alphaeus, Ιάκωβος ὁ τοῦ Ἀλφαίου. So those who, despite this, wish to attribute to Christ physical brothers must rely too heavily on dubious “exegetical means.” They must assert that the James named in Gal. 1:19 in no way belongs to the apostles. The words “I saw none other of the apostles except James, the brother of the Lord” would have to be explained thus: “I saw no other apostle; however, I saw James, the brother of the Lord.” Fritzsche appeals to this in a “notus Graecismus” (Ev. Matt. p. 482). Meyer rejects this, [saying that] according to Gal. 1:19, the attribute “apostle” has to be conceded to James, the “brother of the Lord,” only he was an apostle in the broader sense and therefore not identical with the son of Alphaeus in the catalog of the apostles. However, that Meyer himself does not trust this assertion becomes evident from the fact that he eventually returns to the “firstborn” (Matt. 1:25; Luke 2:7) to demonstrate the physical fraternal relationship.

It has been further objected that none of the brothers of the Lord, and thus not the one named in Gal. 1:19, can have belonged to the Twelve Apostles, since it says in John 7:5: “Even his brothers did not believe in him.” And to Dummelow it seems to be a “firmly established” fact “that none of the brethren were included among the twelve apostles.” Only in Matthew 17:17 does Christ also call the Twelve an “unfaithful and perverse generation,” and in verse 20 He explicitly ascribes to them “unbelief” (ἀπιστία) (cf. Bengel and Meyer). As only relative unbelief, or frailty of faith with respect to the healing of the lunatick is meant here with the Twelve, so also it is made explicit by the context in John 7:5 in what the unbelief of Jesus’ brothers consists in: namely, in their dissatisfaction with the fact that Christ did not wish to go to Jerusalem in a celebratory parade. Briefly, the most certain thing is that an identification is to be permitted between the apostle James and brother of the Lord named in Gal. 1:19 and the son of Alphaeus. One will have to stick with Chemnitz, who, (loc. cit.) following Jerome, comes to the conclusion: “Mariam post partum (Matt. 1:25) aut cum Ioseph aut filios ex ipso sustulisse non credimus, quia non legimus”, namely in Scripture. [“We do not believe that after birth (Matt. 1:25) Mary either lay with Joseph or produced sons by him, since we do not read it,”] namely in Scripture.

The familial relationship of the brothers of Jesus appears in one of the most ancient traditions (cf. Eusebius III, 11, after Hegesippus) as follows: Alphaeus (Cleopas) was a brother of Joseph, the guardian [Pflegevaters] of Jesus. Alphaeus died early on and Joseph took on the family by adopting the children. Thus the children of Alphaeus became the adoptive brothers of Jesus—his brothers purely in a legal sense. As Jesus Himself is called the “Son of Joseph” (Matt. 13:55) although he was admittedly only the adoptive Son, so are James, Joseph, etc., also called brothers of Jesus, even though they were only adoptive brothers. Adoptive brothers being simply referred to as brothers reflects not merely a “Jewish linguistic usage” but is also a general custom in America and other places to this day. The question of what it means for the “brothers” of Jesus brings into consideration a host of other points. A compilation of the subject material is found in Sieffert, who comes down on the side of physical brothers, NE(2) and (NE(3) under “James in the N.T.” Under the same title, Lange takes the opposite position in NE(1). Cf. also Hengstenberg on John 2:12. Hengstenberg is severely attacked by Kahnis in “Zeugnis von den Grundwahrheiten” (1862, pp. 88-89).

I have always given the advice not to spend much time and energy on debating the question. A resolute rejection, however, should (as already noted) be made whenever those who decide in favor of physical brothers seek to arouse the appearance of representing the more accurate historical opinion and exegesis. For such behavior there is no warrant.




One Comment

  1. This is a pretty convincing argument:

    The apostle James (minor), however, is according to the catalog of Apostles (Matt. 10:3Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)) not a son of Joseph but of Alphaeus, Ιάκωβος ὁ τοῦ Ἀλφαίου. So those who, despite this, wish to attribute to Christ physical brothers must rely too heavily on dubious “exegetical means.”

    However, Jesus grew up in Galilee, correct? Why is it that the only place where the 12 disciples are collectively referred to as the “brothers of the Lord” is in John 7? It seems odd that John and the other gospel writers would always refer to the 12, or to the disciples, but in one chapter, when Jesus also happens to be in the town where His family lived, John switches it up and refers to them as his brothers.

    I guess that would be a possible reading of John 7, but the most natural conclusion would be that John was referring to some group other than Jesus’ disciples.

    It could be that John was referring to Jesus’ adopted brothers, the sons of Alphaeus, so that would still work with John 7.

    hmmm… good stuff to consider here…

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