The Virgin Orphans on Trial

A Russian Icon, The Virgin, by Trile Stvuyuschaya

Herod betrothed his grandchildren by his son Aristobulus son of Mariamne the Queen as he should, to those that would enhance their position with Rome. If he didn’t, Augustus would object…Rome will continue to honor Hasmonean royal blood until the end of the kingdom (65-70 A.D.). The two granddaughters of the Queen had enough power with the multitudes and Rome that Antipater insisted on being betrothed to one of them, Mariamne III. The other girl, Herodias was betrothed to the next heir in line, Herod II son of Mariamne II the High Priest’s daughter.

There were others at court, though, hoping to secure places in the kingdom to come…the kingdom after Herod died…as well. They wanted the court rid of the prodigy of Mariamne the Queen even though her heirs were half-Herodian. With the sons of Alexander son of Mariamne the Queen sent back to Cappadocia with their mother Glaphyra and the sons of Aristobulus son of Mariamne the Queen sent to Rome to be raised with Caesar and not old enough to inherit at this time anyway, interest fell to certain other sons at court with blood lines that could sway Rome and daughters who could bear sons that might be king.

Pheroras’ Wife

Josephus now tells us of another woman at court who set out to knock Mariamne III and Herodias out of the running; “Pheroras’ wife.” [i] She was the wife of Herod’s brother who was a Tetrarch, and her son and daughter were part of the betrothal wars who lost out to Antipater’s machinations and the “orphan” virgin’s priority. The time-honored way to attack a girl, as with John Hyrcanus’ mother, was to attack her chastity.

There was also a company of women in the court, who excited new disturbances; for Pheroras’s wife, together with her mother and sister, as also Antipater’s mother, grew very impudent in the palace. She also was so insolent as to affront the king’s two (grand)daughters[ii], on which account the king hated her to a great degree…So he got an assembly of his friends and kindred together, and there accused…Pheroras’s wife, ascribing the abuses of the virgins to the impudence of that woman… Wars of the Jews I.XXIX.1, Antiquities XVII.III.1

We have no way of knowing what the abuse was. It could be anything from rumors and paid lies like Salome used behind Mariamne the Queen’s back to actually “debauching the damsels.” But it seems clear that it would have had something to do with the betrothal wars going on at just this time…the pending death of Herod. Here is a brief look at who Pheroras’ wife was in the grand scheme of things…much more later…

Hillel’s Ruling on Virginity

Herod brought Pheroras’ wife to trial. (More in the next post.) Coincidentally, at about this time, Jewish scholars were holding a debate about virginity. One of the sages engaged in the debate was Hillel; to this day considered to be one of the great sages of the Jewish religion. He was the “Nasi” or Prince, head of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court. He was also a “friend” of Herod. [iii] His rulings on points of Law held immense weight and often became accepted practice. He died in ca 10 A.D. so would have been alive at the time of the trial of Pheroras’ wife for abuse of the virgins.

Geza Vermes in his book, Jesus the Jew [iv], gives us a unique glimpse at a legal debate involving Hillel, Shammai, and Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on the subject of marriage before the age of puberty, as the virgin Mariamne was betrothed to the much older Antipater “before the age of puberty.” The trial against Pheroras’ wife occurred in ca. 6-4 B.C., however, and centered on “abuses” done to the girls. Apparently, a way was needed to leave the girls blameless and still virgin. Each could bear the next king with Hasmonean blood…each were betrothed to heirs to the kingdom. It would have been a “high profile’ case. There was much to gain in a ruling in favor of the granddaughters of Mariamne the Queen. The King and the High Priest were interested parties. The big guns would have been called in. That’s my guess…Quoting Vermes:

…Marriage prior to puberty

It was possible, the evidence shows, for a girl to marry and cohabit with her husband before reaching puberty. In fact, it appears to have happened often enough to give rise to a dispute between the two leading rabbinic schools of the first century AD on the subject of whether a bloodstain on the wedding night of a minor (i.e. a virgin in respect of menstruation) should be attributed to the rupture of the hymen or to her first period. The more rigorous House of Shammai settled for the first alternative for the first four nights only; the House of Hillel decided similarly but ‘until the healing of the wound’.

Another consequence of such a state of affairs was that a girl could conceive whilst still a ‘virgin’ in respect of menstruation, i.e. at the moment of her first ovulation. She could thus become a ‘virgin mother’. Indeed, in the event of her becoming pregnant a second time before menstruating, she could be, as Eliezer ben Hyrcanus argues, the ‘virgin mother’ of several children.’

The King to Come

Surviving Herod the Great’s harem was not for the faint of heart…or surviving Antipater. There was at least one good reason, though, why Antipater would care if Mariamne remained a virgin during their betrothal year (more later). If we cast back to when his father Herod first officially claimed the kingdom, it was right after he had consummated his marriage with Mariamne the Queen…as part of his coronation process. The reason for Antipater to have gotten himself betrothed to Mariamne III was for that boost in popularity (legitimacy) it would have given him. So, while he was an opportunist, it is hard to see him “debauching” his virgin damsel.  And, Josephus, bless him, gave us a hint as to what may have amounted to the “abuse of the virgins.” After the trial…

(T)he king slew…Bagoas the eunuch…for Bagoas had been puffed up by (certain Pharisees…more later) as though he should be named the father and the benefactor of him who, by the prediction, was foretold to be their appointed king; for that this king would have all things in his power, and would enable Bagoas to marry, and to have children of his own body begotten. Antiquities of the Jews XVII.II.4 (See Isaiah 56:4-5)

Now that is an extraordinary statement…and had repercussions…as we will see. Note that this “king to come” would have all things in his power…even miraculous things having to do with procreation…and that he was probably yet unborn…hence, perhaps, the attack on the virgin granddaughters of Mariamne the Queen who might reasonably be expected to bear such a king…to the detriment of the sons and daughters of others at court…


[i] Pheroras’ wife is so hated by Herod that her name is never used in the court record. I have a theory for this hatred as we will see in own post.

[ii] This is not the only passage where Josephus’ record gets the relationship wrong. I will point out two others as we go along. Also the age and bloodline of the two virgin orphans shows that they were a challenge to Pheroras’ wife’s son and daughter at this very time, not later non-royal wives’ daughters.

[iii] The Ethics of the Talmud: Sayings of the Fathers by R. Travers Herford, Schocken Book, NY, 19662, original 1945,

[iv] Jesus the Jew, A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels by Geza Vermes, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1973

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