Many Roman Catholic websites will refer to the early church father Epiphanius of Salamis (310/320-403) as a source to substantiate early traditions concerning Marian doctrines. For instance, on Mary’s perpetual virginity, This Rock Magazine, December 1991 and This Rock Magazine, February 2002 use him as historical support, as does EWTN. Recently I posted an argument for Mary’s perpetual virginity from Epiphanius. I’d like to share a few more of his arguments in favor of Mary’s perpetual virginity. While it may be true that a particular church father held a Marian view similar to what Rome teaches today, Catholic apologists rarely explain the reasoning or differences between the current view and the ancient view. The argumentation used by ancient writers rarely matters for Catholic apologists. It cannot be denied that Epiphanius believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity, but would the modern Catholic apologist grant the validity of Epiphanius’s argumentation?
Epiphanius states, “For I have heard from someone that certain persons are venturing to say that [Mary] had marital relations after the Savior’s birth. And I am not surprised. The ignorance of persons who do not know the sacred scriptures well and have not consulted histories, always turn them to one thing after another, and distracts anyone who wants to track down something about the truth out of his own head.” Well so far, these words could be from a host on Catholic Answers Live. Let’s take a look at the argumentation used and see how Biblical it is. Below are six arguments from Epiphanius in support of Mary’s perpetual virginity.
6.1 Why this ill will? Why so much impudence? Isn’t Mary’s very name (i.e. “Virgin”) a testimony, you troublemaker? Doesn’t it convince you? Who, and in which generation, has ever dared to say St. Mary’s name and not add “Virgin” at once when asked? The marks of excellence show from the titles of honour themselves. (2) For the righteous received the honors of their titles appropriately for them and as it became them. “friend of God” was added to the name, “Abraham,” and will not be detached from it. The title, “Israel,” was added to “Jacob” and will not be changed. The title “Boanerges,” or “sons of thunder,” was given to the apostles and will not be discarded. And St. Mary was given the title, “Virgin,” and it will not be altered, for the holy woman remained undefiled. Frank Williams, trans., The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Book II and III (Sects 47-80, De Fide) 78. Against Antidicomarians, 15,4 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), pp. 604-605.
7.2 To begin with, when it fell to the Virgin’s lot to be entrusted to Joseph she was not entrusted to him for marriage, since he was a widower. (3)He was called her husband because of the Law, but it plainly follows from the Jewish tradition that the Virgin was not entrusted to him for matrimony (Ibid.p. 605).
8.2 So we are told in the Gospel, for it says, “Mary, his espoused wife;” it didn’t say, “married wife” (Ibid. p. 606).
7.5 For how could such an old man who had lost his first wife so many years before, take a virgin for a wife? (Ibid.).
8.4 In the first place, the course of nature entirely confutes them. An old man of over eighty did not take a virgin as a sexual partner to begin with; she was committed to his protection. (Ibid., p. 606).
8.5 If even today (many of the faithful) strive to remain virgin, pure and continent in his name, wasn’t Joseph more faithful? And Mary herself, “who,” as scripture says, “pondered all things in her heart?” After a dispensation of that sort, as such greatness and importance (how could it not be wrong) for an elderly man to have relations once more, with a pure and honored virgin, a vessel which had contained the Uncontainable and had received such a mystery of a heavenly sign and man’s salvation? (Ibid., p. 607).
10.5 But nowhere have we heard that Joseph fathered (more) sons. Indeed, he did not live many years after his return from Egypt, for it was the Savior’s fourth year, while Joseph was over eighty-four when he arrived from Egypt. And Joseph survived for another eight years; and Jesus in his twelfth year, as it says in the Gospel according to Luke, he was sought for on their journey to Jerusalem, when he could not be found on the road (Ibid., p. 608).
20.3 For even if it was expected that the Virgin would have relations with Joseph, an impossibility because of his age, the holy scriptures show us in advance, and confirms our notion, (to) convince (us) that, although the thing is possible despite the sacred childbirth, no man(may) ever again approach the Virgin for sexual relations- convincing us in the same way in which the angel convinced Joseph that his suspicion was unfounded (Ibid., p. 616).
7.5 Joseph was the brother of Cleopas but the son of Jacob surnamed Panther; both of these brothers were the sons of the man surnamed Panther. (6) Joseph took his first wife from the tribe of Judah and she bore him six children in all, four boys and two girls, as the Gospels according to Mark and John have made clear [Mark 6:3; John 19:25] (Ibid. p. 605).
9.1 Where can I not find proof that the Virgin remained pure? For a starter, let them show me that Mary bore children after the savior’s birth! Let these designers and reciters of deceit and mischief make the names up and give them! But they can’t show them because she was still a virgin and perish the thought, had no sexual relations! (Ibid., p. 607).
17.7b “And he knew her not.” For how could he know that a woman would receive so much grace? Or how could he know that (the Virgin) would be so highly glorified? (8) He knew that she was a woman by her appearance, and her womanliness by her sex, and knew that her mother was Ann and her father Joachim, that she was related to Elizabeth, that she was of the house and lineage of David. But he did not know that anyone on earth, especially a woman, would be honored with such glory. (9) He did not know how wondrous she was until he had seen “that which was born of her.” But when she gave birth he also knew the honor God had done her, for it was she who had been told, “Hail, thou art highly favored, the Lord is with thee” (Ibid. p. 614).
In all of these arguments, one is hard pressed to find Biblical support. Some of the argumentation is very similar to material found in the Protoevangelium of James, an apocryphal source. Epiphanius doesn’t argue that the brothers of Jesus are cousins, as most of the current pop-apologists do. Rather, his view is that these are children from Joseph’s previous marriage. This would be a minority view among Roman Catholics today. Epiphanius states that incorrect views on Mary’s virginity stem from ignorance of the sacred scriptures. I would not deny Epiphanius knew scripture, I would though argue his incorrect views on Mary are the result of poor exegesis and tradition being foisted onto the Biblical text, rather than letting the text speak for itself.