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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Virgin Virginity

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1. Metaphorical usage.-St. Paul regards himself as the paranymph-the one who brings the bride to the bridegroom on the marriage day. The Corinthian Church is the intended bride, and St. Paul’s ambition is to present her, a chaste virgin, to Christ. (The Rabbis ascribed this honour to Moses in the case of Israel.) Just as Israel was regarded by the prophets (Hosea 2:19, Isaiah 62:5, etc.) as the bride of Jahweh, so St. Paul regards the Church here (2 Corinthians 11:2). The figure was used by our Lord Himself. To Him His earthly sojourn with His disciples was like a marriage feast and His removal was regarded as the time of their widowhood (Matthew 9:15). Elsewhere the Apostle (Ephesians 5:25 ff.) urges husbands to love their wives ‘as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for it; that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing.’ Here Christ Himself is at once Paranymph and Bridegroom, and in both cases the days of the Church’s espousals are in the future-at the Parousia. In 2 Corinthians 11:2 St. Paul uses the thought to safeguard the Corinthians from deception, so that the fate of Eve, whom the serpent beguiled, might not be theirs. St. John has the same figure (Revelation 21). He sees the bride adorned for her Husband. It is noteworthy that marriage is used by both as a fit symbol of this most glorious reality. St. Paul regards Christian marriage as in some way deriving its glory from the true Marriage-of Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5:27 ff.). In Revelation 18:23 the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride are typical of earthly joy, and their absence in overthrown Babylon (Rome) is a proof of its utter destruction; so also Jeremiah in regard to Jerusalem (Jeremiah 25:10); cf. Jos. Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) VI. v. 3.

2. Quasi-metaphorical usage.-In Revelation 14:4 παρθένοι is masculine (W. H. Simcox, Cambridge Greek Test., ‘Revelation,’ Cambridge, 1893, in loc., says this is the first example of this usage). In later ecclesiastical literature this usage becomes common, and ‘virgins’ is so used at times in our own language. Thus Jeremy Taylor: ‘But Joseph [i.e. Mary’s husband] was a virgin, and had kept under all his inclinations to loose thoughts’ (Life of Christ, ed. London, 1811, vol. i. p. 207). St. John himself is styled a virgin by Jerome-‘a Domino virgine mater virgo virgini discipulo commendatur’ (c. Jov. i. 26)-and by others, e.g. Photius: τοῦ παρθένου καὶ εὐαγγελιστοῦ Ἰωάννου (see Lexicons, s.v. παρθένος). Whether St. John or any of the other apostles was married we cannot say, save in St. Peter’s case (cf. Eus. Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) iii. 30). The passage in Revelation 14:4 is, ‘These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins.’ Is the term here literal or not? T. C. Edwards (on 1 Corinthians 7:25) says that it is obviously metaphorical, and so also B. L. Wordsworth (quoted by Alford on Revelation 14:4), and many more. Had the words ‘with women’ been wanting, this meaning would be the natural one, and the reference would be to those who as the true bride of Christ refused to give worship to Caesar; but the words ‘with women’ make the literal interpretation practically certain, and the passage indicates not so much a depreciation of marriage as an ascetic horror of immorality. There is also the feeling (probably based on the writer’s experience) that the man who was bound up with wife and children found it more easy to compromise and more difficult to accept martyrdom. The horrible possibility would arise in such cases of a man having to obey the Divine call of faithfulness unto death in the face of weeping wife and children (cf. the beautiful story of Peter leading his wife to martyrdom saying, ‘Oh thou, remember the Lord’ [Clem. Strom. vii. 11; Eus. Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) iii. 30. 2], a story which if true proves that marriage was not an insuperable obstacle to the highest fidelity). There were always in the Church celibates for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake, but not at this time as an organized body, or in obedience to ecclesiastical orders. Long after this Paphnutius, himself a celibate, opposed a motion to make celibacy binding on the clergy; cf. Soz. Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) i. 23: ‘But Paphnutius, the confessor, stood up and testified against this proposition; he said that marriage was honorable and chaste, and that cohabitation with their own wives was chastity, and advised the Synod not to frame such a law, for it would be difficult to bear, and might serve as an occasion of incontinence to them and their wives; and he reminded them that according to the ancient tradition of the church, those who were unmarried when they took part in the communion of sacred orders were required to remain so, but that those who were married were not to put away their wives.… The Synod concurred in his counsel, enacted no law about it, but left the matter to the decision of individual judgment, and not to compulsion’ (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Oxford, 1891, p. 256). While the writer here does not directly oppose marriage yet he does regard virginity for the Lord’s sake as a privileged position and as receiving from the Lord a corresponding reward, and, although the number 144,000 is an apocalyptic ideal, yet we may safely infer that there was a considerable opinion in favour of celibacy in St. John’s day. He would, however, agree with St. Paul that unless a man could exercise continence of desires-as so many of the so-called monkish celibates could not-he had better marry.

3. Literal usage.-(a) In Acts 21:9 we read of Philip the evangelist at Caesarea and his four virgin daughters who were prophetesses. These daughters lived at home with their father and entertained St. Paul and his companions. Whether they were bound by a public vow of virginity we know not. It is curious to note that Clement of Alexandria in Eus. Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.) iii. 30 says: ‘For Peter and Philip begat children; and Philip also gave his daughters to husbands’ (τὰς θυγατέρας ἀνδράσιν ἐξέδωκεν). It is possible, however, that Philip the apostle is referred to (ib. iii. 31), in which case he also had two daughters prophetesses and ‘another daughter who lived in the Holy Spirit.’ The probability is that Clement-as evidently Eusebius-identifies the two names. From the saying in Acts we cannot infer the existence thus early in the Church of an order of virgins. A later age saw the conditions of their own time in the Apostolic Age. They ‘peopled the Apostolic age with virgins living in community and presided over by the Virgin Mary: see, for example, Dormitio Mariae (Tischendorf, Apocal. Apocr. 1861), p. 96 f.; Coptic Apocr. Gospels, F. Robinson, 1896. But this picture has no historical authorisation, and is simply the reflex of a subsequent institution’ (J. A. Robinson, in Encyclopaedia Biblica iv. 5252).

(b) The locus classicus for our subject is 1 Corinthians 7:25-38. St. Paul here discusses the question of the marriage of virgins (i.e. maidens of marriageable age) as a specific instance of the question of marriage in general, and he does so not abstractly or exhaustively but in view of a definite situation. He makes it clear that marriage is no sin, not even though in his view this world-age is speedily coming to an end. He says also that he has no command from the Lord, either directly or indirectly, on this question. What he gives is his own opinion (γνώμη), not, however, as an obiter dictum, but as the opinion of one who knows his Lord’s mind.* [Note: It was on this text (Vulgate) that the distinction between precepts of law (praecepta legis) and counsels of perfection (consilia evangelica) was founded. The former were binding on all, the latter on a select few, and their superior excellence accumulated a store of transferable merit (works of supererogation), according to some. Yet it is possible to hold to the distinction without the ideas of supererogation and merit (see an excellent note in T. C. Edwards, 1 Corinthians2, London, 1885, p. 188 f.).] He recommends, however, in view of the present necessity, of the shortened earthly horizon, of the straits to which Christians were put, and of the fact that marriage made it more difficult for parties to face these conditions, that they remain as they are, married and unmarried alike. He widens this to apply to circumstances, business, emotions even. His opinion is based, not on any idea as to the spiritual superiority of virginity in itself, but on the view that the fashion of the world is passing away, and that for the married there might arise the fearful alternative of loyalty to Christ or loyalty to the ties of home. In 1 Timothy, where the outlook is different, he advises young widows to marry, while the older ones should be loyal to their first faith, evidently to their resolution not to marry. The Apostle sees clearly the objections to his views, especially in the case of daughters of marriageable age. Such a daughter ought not to be kept from marrying if she had been already promised, or if her moral life was endangered thereby, or if it shocked public opinion. In such cases let her marry. But if the father was firm in his resolution to keep her a virgin, if his heart was convinced that this was best, and if he had come to this resolution freely without external pressure, then he is right in keeping her a virgin. Nothing is said of the maiden’s own opinion, unless from 1 Corinthians 7:28 we infer that the father should not put pressure on the daughter if she desired a reasonable marriage. It is evident that the Apostle is face to face with a situation so different from the conditions of our own time-when the end of the age is not regarded as imminent, when social conditions are based on political and civil freedom-that we have to be very careful in drawing modern practical inferences from his words. There is also no hint of an order of virgins, and the Apostle deprecates ecclesiastical or even apostolic interference with the liberty of the individual.

This passage, however, has been recently explained as referring not to marriageable daughters at all but to what are known as ‘virgines subintroductae’ (or συνείσακτοι).* [Note: The term was given at Antioch as a nickname to the female companions of Paul of Samosata (see Eus. HE vii. 30. 12).] In later times unmarried women and widows resided with the clergy in their homes-a monk in the desert might have his ‘uxor spiritualis.’ Both parties were under vows of virginity and yet lived together and sometimes slept together. Latterly the practice became a scandal. It is to this custom, according to some, that the Apostle is here referring, and his recommendation is that where the woman has fallen in love either with him who cohabits with her or with another then marriage should take place: where, however, firmness of purpose in virginity exists, this condition of cohabitation should continue. The reader is referred for further information on this topic to article ‘Agapetae,’ Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics i., by H. Achelis, who with hesitation explains St. Paul as referring to this custom-an explanation which the present writer cannot accept. In 1 Corinthians 9:5, where St. Paul speaks of a ‘sister as wife’ (ἀδελφὴν γυναῖκα), Jerome (c. Jov. i. 26) and others found a reference to this custom. As our Lord was ministered to by women of substance so were the Apostles, but this view is almost certainly wrong. The earliest Christian writer who seems to mention this form of living together is Hermas, and although he writes in visions and similitudes it is quite possible that he knew the custom and approved of it. The passages are Sim. IX. ii. 3, X. 3.; Vis. II. ii. 3 (see notes by A. Hilgenfeld, Nov. Test. extra Canonem reception, Leipzig, 1876, in locis). At first this custom may have arisen from the highest spiritual motives among those to whom sexual intercourse even in marriage was degrading, and it may have been practised by married persons who resolved to live in absolute chastity;† [Note: In the Acts of Thomas, § 51, we have an account of a converted youth who killed his wife because she refused to abide with him in chastity. The Apostle raised her again to life.] but as events proved it was bound to end in disaster. It is almost certain that St. Paul does not refer to this custom in 1 Corinthians 7:25 ff. or anywhere else, nor is there any hint of it in the NT.

(c) From 1 Timothy 4:3 we learn that even in St. Paul’s time there were those who forbade marriage, and in the 2nd cent. the practice of abstaining from marriage became common. Justin (Apol. i. 15) refers to many men and women of sixty and seventy who had been from infancy disciples of Christ and had kept themselves unpolluted (see E. von Dobschütz, Christian Life in the Primitive Church, Eng. translation , London, 1904, p. 261 f., for the growth of the feeling in favour of ascetic virginity). But in the Pastoral Epistles there is no reference to virgins. Even the deaconesses are not required to be unmarried (1 Timothy 3:11); and, as we saw above, the younger widows are to marry again so that they may not be a burden on the Church funds, and so as to save them from sexual temptation. It was only in the 4th cent. that virgins became a definite Church order, although there are references to individual virgins earlier as existing both in orthodox and in heretical circles. St. Paul advises older widows who are on the Church rolls for relief to adhere to their decision to remain unmarried, and these seem to have been called virgines* [Note: The Greek word χήρα, indeed, is used of a woman without a husband (either ‘widow’ in our sense or ‘unmarried’).] (see Ign. ad Smyrn. 13, ‘I salute … the virgins who are called widows’), but they are not so named in the NT (see article Widows). The question as to the perpetual virginity of Mary is not raised in the NT, although it is usually raised by commentators in the discussion concerning ‘the brethren’ of our Lord. Jerome maintained the Aei-virginitas on a priori grounds as to the superiority of the virgin life, and he tried to defend it from Scripture (see J. B. Lightfoot, Galatians 5, London, 1876, p. 252 f.; J. Eadie, Galatians, Edinburgh, 1869, p. 57 ff.; for a spirited vindication of the Helvidian view, with which the present writer agrees, see F. W. Farrar, Early Days of Christianity, London, 1882, vol. i. bk. iv. ch. xix.).

Literature.-H. Achelis, in article ‘Agapetae,’ Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics i., and literature cited by him, gives information about ‘virgines subintroductae’; see also articles ‘Subintroductae’ and ‘Virgins’ in Smith and Cheetham’s Dict. of Christian Antiquities ii. For 1 Corinthians 7:25-38 consult T. C. Edwards, G. G. Findlay (Expositor’s Greek Testament ), and Meyer-Weiss; for Revelation 14:4, J. Moffatt (Expositor’s Greek Testament ) and H. B. Swete. H. C. Lea, History of Sacerdotal Celibacy in the Christian Church3, 2 vols., London, 1907, gives the history.

Donald Mackenzie.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Virgin Virginity'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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