What About the Virgins?

Madonna: Like a Virgin album jacket, 19841 Corinthians 7:25-26

With regard to independent women, God hasn’t told me anything, but I’ll tell you what my opinion is (and you know my opinions are nearly always right). I think that, since we’re so close to the end of the world, you shouldn’t pressure anybody to get married.

[Credit: What follows is derived from some radical monastic characters I know of second hand, and who would probably be excommunicated if they said it themselves in public.]

If you comb through the writings of the early church fathers you will find a peculiar expression crop up here and there: “widows who are virgins.” It’s such an awkward expression that it sometimes gets mistranslated “widows and virgins,” or some such thing. But there it is. Could there really be that many sexless marriages out there that the first generation church would have had to deal with a whole class of people who are “widows who are virgins”?

Here’s an eye-opener. It’s well documented that the in that provincial Roman society being a woman nearly always required being attached to a man, whether by attachment to a father or brother, or to a husband. When a woman’s husband died, she either returned to a father or a brother, or got remarried. It’s just what you did. Otherwise, you were a kind of societal pariah. Women-as-independent-people was an unthinkable concept.

And yet, as a result of Jesus example, the first-generation church somehow got the idea that women were people too. Imagine! But if women are people, too, on their own, apart from the person-hood of whatever man they were attached to, what do you do about this whole new class of people? What do you even call them in a society that doesn’t have a word for such a person. What about the widow (who certainly has had marital relations) who is now independent, her own person, and who has not gone back to live with her father or brother?

Or could it be that the early church was so egalitarian in its view of women that they had to come up with a word for that class of person? Could it be that they picked a readily available word for a virtuous woman (parthenos) and applied it to this new class of virtuous Jesus-following women? Could it be that’s who the early church fathers were writing about when they had to deal with all these “widows who are virgins”?

What’s a church to do with all these “loose virgins?” Do you make them get married? Paul says, no. What’s the use in conforming the practice to the world’s practice? The old system, where women aren’t really people, sucks. And besides, the whole thing is slated for demolition? Don’t conform! Don’t pressure them to get married!

Too bad that kind of egalitarian practice only lasted a generation. But, hey, it’s not too late to start treating women like real people in the church again now!

[Bonus thought – get ready to have your mind blown: When Luke writes the Christmas story, 30 years after Paul has already written to the Corinthians about what to do about the independent women, and other early church writers had already been talking about “widows who are virgins,” what do you think he really means when he says that Mary was a young “virgin” betrothed to a man named Joseph? Luke’s use of the word has nothing to do with Mary’s sexual status. What he means is that she was her own person. And of course Joseph “knew her not before she had borne a son.” Having sex with a pregnant woman was taboo, and Joseph was “a righteous dude.”]

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