"And yet why should it be thought marvelous for a virgin to conceive, when it is well known that the Phoenix is in such wise born, or born again, without the intervention of a mate?" - Rufinus' Apologia for the Virgin Birth

Rufinus, Tyrannius, Aquileiensis (344/5-411)

Expositio in symbolum apostolorum

[Cologne: Ulrich Zel], about 1472


Chancery quarto in half sheets: 20.6 x 14 cm., 30 leaves. Collation: a-c8, d6 (leaf d6 blank and present). 2a: 27 lines, 146 x 85 mm. Type 96 (108) Voulliéme 1057. Hain *8578.


First edition of Rufinus' exposition on the Creed. The printer, Ulrich Zel (d. ca. 1505), was the first printer in Cologne. A fine copy. Bound in nineteenth-century green morocco gilt. Later 4-line initial in red on a gold ground with red penwork decoration, early red paraphs and initial strokes, early manuscript note on verso of final blank.  With watermarks of a unicorn and a p surmounted by a cross, which was also used by Zel for his edition of "De pollutione nocturna" (see Needham, p. 27)

"Tyrannius Rufinus is chiefly known from his relation to Jerome, first as an intimate friend and afterwards as a bitter enemy. Like Jerome, he departed from Italy to live in the East. For many years he lived in monasteries in Egypt and in Palestine, acquiring the learning of the Eastern churches. Towards the end of his life he returned to Italy and occupied himself in translating works of the earlier Greek Fathers into Latin.

"His exposition on the Creed, besides its intrinsic merits, must always be an authority as a witness to the state of the creed as held in the Italian churches in the beginning of the 5th century, as also to the state of the Canon and the Apocrypha at that time.

"The exposition was made at the request of Laurentius, a Bishop whose see is unknown, but is conjectured by Fontanini, in his life of Rufinus, to have been Concordia, Rufinus’ birthplace. Its exact date cannot be fixed; but from the fact that he says nothing of his difficulty in writing Latin after being so long in the East, as he does in several of his books, and from the comparative ease of the style, it is most probable that it was written in the later years of his sojourn at Aquileia, that is, about 307–309.

"Its value is considerable (1) as bearing witness to the state of the Creed in local churches at the beginning of the 5th century, especially their variations. (In the church of Aquileia, in Jesu Christo. Patrem invisibilem et impassibilem. Resurrectio hujus carnis); (2) as showing the adaptation of Eastern ideas to the formation of Western theology; (3) as giving the Canon of the books of Scripture, and the Apocrypha of both the Old and New dispensations."(W.H. Fremantle)

"Qui natus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine". Rufinus and the Virgin Birth:

Rufinus' exposition contains his remarkable explanation of the mystery and mechanism of the Virgin birth, in the course of which even the Virgin's initial lack of understanding is recalled. This part of the exposition includes an even more remarkable apologia for that doctrine, in which Rufinus points to examples of parthenogenesis in nature, including the marvelous Eastern bird, the phoenix; and counters the arguments of pagans, whose parthenogenic deities (such as Athena who was born from the head of Zeus) do not involve conception, gestation in the womb, or even the agency of a woman. Among the other matters considered by Rufinus is whether Christ's passage through the birth canal was a form of defilement.

The text reads in part:

“Who Was Born by (de) The Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary.”

9. He is born by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin. Here a chaste ear and a pure mind are required. For you must understand that now a temple hath been built within the secret recesses of a Virgin’s womb for Him of Whom erewhile you learnt that He was born ineffably of the Father. And just as in the sanctification of the Holy Ghost no thought of imperfection is to be admitted, so in the Virgin birth no defilement is to be imagined.

The words of the Prophets concerning Him, “A Virgin shall conceive and bring forth a Son," are known to all, and are cited in the Gospels again and again. The Prophet Ezekiel too had predicted the miraculous manner of that birth, calling Mary figuratively “the Gate of the Lord,” the gate, namely, through which the Lord entered the world. For he saith, “The gate which looks towards the East shall be closed, and shall not be opened, and no one shall pass through it, because the Lord God of Israel shall pass through it, and it shall be closed.” What could be said with such evident reference to the inviolate preservation of the Virgin’s condition? That Gate of Virginity was closed; through it the Lord God of Israel entered; through it He came forth from the Virgin’s womb into this world; and the Virgin- state being preserved inviolate, the gate of the Virgin remained closed forever. Therefore the Holy Ghost is spoken of as the Creator of the Lord’s flesh and of His temple.

10. Starting from this point you may understand the majesty of the Holy Ghost also. For the Gospel witnesses of Him that when the angel said to the Virgin, “Thou shalt bring forth a Son and shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins," she replied, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” on which the angel said to her, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. Wherefore that holy Thing which shall be born of Thee shall be called the Son of God." See here the Trinity mutually cooperating with each other. The Holy Ghost is spoken of as coming upon the Virgin, and the Power of the Highest as overshadowing her.

11. These things, since they are asserted upon the warrant of the Prophetical Scriptures, may possibly silence the Jews, infidel and incredulous though they be. But the Pagans are wont to ridicule us when they hear us speak of a Virgin birth. We must, therefore, say a few words in reply to their cavils. Every birth, I suppose, depends upon three conditions. There must be a woman of mature age, she must have intercourse with a man, her womb must not be barren. Of these three conditions, in the birth of which we are speaking, one was wanting, the man. And this, forasmuch as He of Whose birth we speak was not an earthly but a heavenly man, was supplied by the Heavenly Spirit, the virginity of the mother being preserved inviolate. And yet why should it be thought marvelous for a virgin to conceive, when it is well known that the Eastern bird, which they call the Phœnix, is in such wise born, or born again, without the intervention of a mate, that it remains continually one, and continually by being born or born again succeeds itself? That bees know no wedlock, and no bringing forth of young, is notorious. There are also other things that are found to be subject to some such law of birth. Shall it be thought incredible, then, that was done by divine power, for the renewal and restoration of the whole world, of which instances are observed in the nativity of animals? And yet it is strange that the pagans should think this impossible, who believe their own Minerva to have been born from the brain of Jupiter. What is more difficult to believe, or what more contrary to nature? Here, there is a woman, the order of nature is kept, there is conception, and in due time birth; there, there is no female, but a man alone, and—birth! Why does he who believes the one marvel at the other? Again, they say that Father Bacchus was born from Jupiter’s thigh. Here is another portent, yet it is believed. Venus also, whom they call Aphrodite, was born, they believe, of the foam of the sea, as her compounded name shows. They affirm that Castor and Pollux were born of an egg, the Myrmidons of ants. There are a thousand other things that, though contrary to nature, find credit with them, such as the stones thrown by Deucalion and Pyrrha, and the crop of men sprung from thence. And when they believe such myths and so many of them, does one thing seem impossible to them, that a woman of mature age, not defiled by man but impregnated by the Holy Ghost, should conceive a divine progeny?

12. But they say, perhaps, If it was possible to God that a virgin should conceive, it was possible also that she should bring forth, but they think it unmeet that a being of so great majesty should enter the world in such wise, that even though there had been no defilement from intercourse with man, there should yet be the unseemliness attendant upon the act of delivery. To which let us reply briefly, meeting them on their own level. If a person should see a little child in the act of being suffocated in a quagmire, and himself, a great man and powerful, should go into the mire, just at its verge, so to say, to rescue the dying child; would you blame this man as defiled for having stepped into a little mire, or would you praise him as merciful, for having preserved the life of one that was perishing? But the case supposed is that of an ordinary man. Let us return to the nature of Him who was born. How much, think you, is the nature of the Sun inferior to him? How much beyond doubt, the Creature to the Creator? Consider now if a ray of the sun alights upon a quagmire, does it receive any pollution from it? Or is the sun the worse for shedding his light upon foul objects? Fire, too, how far inferior is its nature to the things of which we are speaking? Yet no substance, whether foul or vile, is believed to pollute fire if applied to it. When the case is plainly thus with regard to material things, do you suppose that aught of pollution and defilement can befall that super-eminent and incorporeal nature, which is above all fire and all light?

13. But there is another consideration which we must not leave out in the solution of this question, namely, that the substance of God, which is wholly incorporeal, cannot be introduced into bodies or be received by them in the first instance, unless there be some spiritual substance as a medium, which is capable of receiving the divine Spirit. For instance, if we say that light is able to irradiate all the members of the body, yet by none of them can it be received except by the eye. For it is the eye alone which is receptive of light. So the Son of God is born of a virgin, not associated with the flesh alone in the first instance, but begotten with a soul as a medium between the flesh and God. With the soul, then, serving as a medium, and receiving the Word of God in the secret citadel of the rational spirit, God was born of the Virgin without any such disparagement as you imagine. And therefore nothing is to be esteemed base or unseemly wherein was the sanctification of the Spirit, and where the soul that was capable of God became also a partaker of flesh. Account nothing impossible where the power of the Most High was present. Have no thought of human weakness where there was the plenitude of Divinity.

The printer:

"Ulrich Zel is no obscure figure in the history of printing. He has long been recognized as the first printer in Cologne, with a prolific, if sparsely signed and dated, output spread over more than a generation from the mid-1460s on. He is, moreover, a critical witness in the matter of Johann Gutenberg. The 1499 Cologne Chronicle cites Zel, then still living, as the primary source of its statmenets that 'joncker Johan Gudenburch' was the inventor of typography, and that the first book made by this new system was a Latin Bible printed with a 'grobe' types. In essence, Zel asserted that there was such a thing as a 'Gutenberg Bible,' centuries before antiquaries took the statement seriously… It is accepted that by strong probability, Zel himself became involved in the craft of printing in Mainz during Gutenberg's lifetime, and that his statements reflect personal knowledge."(Needham, Ulrich Zel's early quartos revisisted, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, Vol. 15, No. 1, (2012), pp. 9-57)

ISTC ir00351000 ; Goff R351; HC 8578*; Voull(K) 1057; Pell Ms 10282 [bis] (10057b); CIBN R-226; Zehnacker 2033; Kotvan 635; Sajó-Soltész 2987; IDL 3971; Ernst(Hildesheim) I,I 239; Voull(B) 716,5; Voull(Trier) 371; Ohly-Sack 2507; Pad-Ink 602; Walsh 338; Oates 383, 384; Bod-inc R-147; Sheppard 667, 668; Pr 877; BMC I 191; BSB-Ink R-285; GW M08074