While researching Jewish royal women, I began to notice an interesting thing having to do with royal/noble/religious women…almost like seeing ripples in a pond where a stone had been thrown…the stone was long gone but the ripples remained. In those ripples I saw hints of a cult of “widows of their virginity.”
As I’ve interpreted it, the phrase means the young betrothed virgin that a young virgin Jewish boy/man married…for the young man this young wife was idealized…as it was for the girl. But in addition to “first love,” young women were culturized…especially royal ones, to do as Tharbis did, spying the Egyptian Commander Moses laying seige to her city…
“she fell deeply in love with him; and upon the prevelency of that passion, sent to him the most faithful of all her servants to discourse with him about their marriage.” Antiquities of the Jews II. X.2
In reality, her father the Ethiopian King probably worked out a treaty with Moses to save the city from utter destruction by marrying his daughter to him in an alliance.
In a Time of War
Almost all marriages were marriage alliances, even for poor families but the young people were groomed to “fall in love” with the person picked for them…and sometimes they did have a say in who they got to be betrothed too. But there is more to it in a time of war. As Tharbis was expected to marry for her father and nation’s political advantage, the opposite almost was also true for…if the young husband should die during a war especially in battle, especially a martyred death, his young wife was expected to go back to being a virgin and would not remarry but wait for him to be resurrected or to be reunited in Heaven.
I think that a cult of “the widow of her virginity” as I label it, can be traced back to the Jewish war against the Greek Antiochus Epiphanes ca 160 B.C. I have covered that war at length because I feel it left a mark on the collective consciousness of the Jewish nation; concepts like the glory of “dying for the Law,” resurrection, awards in heaven, mothers encouraging their sons to martyrdom in a suicidal war…and now widows not remarrying…were born during those terrible years.
I started noticing it with the story of Judith written about that war.
The Widow Judith
In those days news of it came to Judith…Her husband Manasseh had died in the days of the barley harvest…Judith had been a widow[i] …for three years and four months. She built herself a tent on top of her house, and she wore sackcloth next to her skin…She fasted all the days of her widowhood except the day before the Sabbath and the Sabbath…and…There was nobody who spoke ill of her…
But her town is about to be besieged and she does her heroic deed of boldly marching into the camp of her enemy and offered herself to him and then when he fell asleep, she cut off his head.
After those days…Judith returned to Bethulia and remained on her estate…Many men desired to marry her, but no man had relations with her, all her life long…she grew old in her husband’s house until she was a hundred and five…The Book of Judith 16:21-25
What we are being told, subtly, is that Judith’s “indiscretion” with the Assyrian Commander was “forgiven” because she returned/repented/survived and was again faithful to her dead husband for the rest of her life.[ii] Judas Maccabeus, first son of the House of the Hasmoneans, and his warriors saw themselves as purified Saints who would probably die in their Holy War and for their reward they would receive—not 70 virgins in Paradise, straight out of today’s headline news of Middle Eastern warrior cultures—but the “wife of their virginity” would be restored to them.
Resurrection and Widows
And that is not just a quaint notion. Josephus tells us that the belief in resurrection was the main differences between Sadducees and Pharisees[iii] as does the New Testament.
Then came to him certain of the Sadducees, which deny that there is any resurrection; and they asked him, Saying, Master, Moses wrote unto us, If any man’s brother dies, having a wife, and he dies without children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother…There were therefore seven brethren: and the first took a wife, and died without children. And the second took her to wife, and he died childless. And the third took her; and in like manner the seventh also: and they left no children, and died. Last of all, the woman died also. Therefore in the resurrection whose wife of them is she? for seven had her to wife. Matthew 22:24-30, Mark 12:18-23, Luke 20:27-35[iv]
It was still a very practical question for those who died fighting in the war with Rome (Remembering that it helps to read the gospels knowing they were all written well AFTER the war with Rome that devastated the nation and sent the few who survived around the Mediterranean as slaves). Friends and family members of those who died in 65-70 A.D. had questions. What if a young widow remarried, what would happen to the promise to get her “back again.” Luke lets us know right at the beginning of his gospel (ca 4 B.C. but written in about 100 A.D.) that no remarriage for a widow was still the ideal…
And there was one Anna, a prophetess[v], the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of As(h)er: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; And she was a widow of about four-score years (80), which departed not from the temple, but served God with fasting and prayers night and day… Luke 2:36-38
In a story from about 10 A.D., Josephus told us of Queen Glayphra’s dream visitation by her dead husband Alexander son of Mariamne the Hasmonean Queen just before she was “hurried away” by death. I will just repeat here the narrative rules for widows as the ghost of Alexander related them and Josephus recorded them (and I numbered them):
1) the specialness of marrying a “wife of their virginity;” 2) the necessity for such wives, if widowed, to remain widows and not remarry; 3) the belief in the untrustworthiness of women to carry out these rules; 4) blame laid on a royal woman for her remarriages even though the King or her own father can and will marry her out again. 5) a quick death and heaven is preferable to continuing to live in a state of re-marriage sin; 6) that there is an afterlife and 7) dead heroes are still expected to “meddle in the affairs of the living,” especially the wives of their virginity…as Glaphyra had been. (Taken from Antiquities of the Jews XVII.XIII.4.)
John Hycanus’ mother died a widow and martyr. Salome Alexandra widow of the Hasmonean king Alexander Janneus did not remarry again when he died but ruled Israel as Regent as a widow. Alexandra daughter of Hyrcanus II, wife of her virginity to the dead hero Alexander (mother and father of Mariamne the Queen) did not remarry but was a strong Queen Mother in Herod’s court and was martyred herself. Bernice daughter of King Agrippa I tried her best not to remarry but first her father and then her brother kept her in a perpetual state of remarriage. Mary mother of Jesus did not remarry after Joseph disappeared from the gospels.
Antonia Greatly Esteemed
It wasn’t just a Jewish phenomenon, though. There also appears to have been a movement afoot in Rome during the gospel story timeframe for wives of famous men not to remarry when widowed. Even Josephus included a passage on Antonia wife of Drusus who was the mother of two Caesars, Claudius and Caligula:
Now, Antonia was greatly esteemed by Tiberius on all accounts, from the dignity of her relation to him, who had been his brother Drusus’s wife, and from her eminent chastity; for though she was still a young woman, she continued in her widowhood, and refused all other matches, although Augustus had enjoined her to be married to somebody else; yet did she all along preserve her reputation free from reproach… Antiquities of the Jews XVIII.VI.6
So…for a woman to have a reputation “free from reproach” she felt she needed to stay faithful to her husband after he died. It seems to have been her idea. And, Antonia wasn’t the only one. Augustus eventually had to pass a law saying that young widows must remarry and have children as the birth rate in Rome was dropping; too many young upper class widows were refusing to remarry and supply Rome with new citizens. But they were living in a time when noble women could inherit from their fathers giving them enough wealth that they were allowed a certain freedom from forced marriage…for awhile; a feminist revolution, if you will.[vi]
Widows in the “Early Church”
At first, “widows” were so esteemed by the earliest followers of Jesus awaiting his resurrection that for a time they were on an equal footing with the “saints.”
And (Peter) gave her his hand, and lifted her up, and when he had called the saints and widows, presented her alive. Acts 9:41
After the war with Rome, widows were esteemed because of the resurrection. And there were a lot of widows and a lot of young virgins following the rules to keep their lamps full of oil and watch for the return…and stay unmarried until the new kingdom was established. But time went on and Jesus did not return…
But the younger widows refuse: for when they have begun to wax wanton against Christ, they will marry; Having damnation, because they have cast off their first faith…I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully. For some are already turned aside after Satan. I Timothy 5: 1-15
The “first faith” was that widows should remain the widows of their martyred husbands. And, even though she was “wanton” and “unfaithful” to suggest it, if a young widow wanted to remarry and have children…well, maybe, now it was okay:
Make the following rules about widows, so that no one may incur blame…a widow should be not less than sixty years of age. She must have been married only once. Her good character will be attested to by her good deeds. I Timothy 5:7
In other words, if the woman had been widowed either as an early follower of Jesus, about 40-50 years earlier she still qualified…hinting perhaps that there was a rebellion of some sort that had Saul/Paul “persecuting” the early follower until about 50 A.D. She could still be honored for remaining a widow…and more to the point she was past child-bearing. The statement “if she had been married only once,” is the crux of the issue. It tells us that so many women were staying virgins or staying unmarried when widowed that their upkeep was causing a drain on the group. As time went on, there was a backlash against the women:
In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array: But (which) becometh women professing godliness, with good works. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, not to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence… Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety….her chastity taken for granted. I Timothy 2:9-15
So, while most people think that the letters of Timothy, in particular, contain so many admonitions against women was because they are Gentile women, not knowing the “rules” and living in a more permissive society, these are the same complaints made against rich women of the city by gospel writers and rabbis for wearing perfumes and their jewels and with their hair broided and uncovered…well, there must have been many independent widows and virgins doing those things. Women were told vehemently to just keep quiet and to obey their husbands so the opposite must have been true…for a while.
Too many widows too long independent of a husband and having their own money. Luke even had Jesus lament the troublesome widows as if they were in his day…
And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. Luke 18:2-5
That statement certainly seems like it belongs with Timothy’s admonitions. And, as in Rome, the young widows were needed to remarry and bear children to help replenish “the remnant” so they would not be “wiped from the face of the earth,” before the overdue Resurrection finally came…they couldn’t wait on mountain tops any longer. Life had to go one…the first faith dimmed…and the build-up to the apocalyptic war was already being felt. When it became expedient that they do so…either before the war in 65-70 A.D….or after…it became policy that widows of child-bearing age should remarry and talk of forsaking their “first-faith” and being “wanton” died away and women were again safely relegated to control by living husbands.
The Promise to Widowed Mothers
But the promise to mothers who encouraged their sons to martyrdom…especially widowed mothers…this time in the war with Rome, still would not die with, one could imagine, Mary being the first among mothers awaiting her son’s resurrection. Luke had Jesus speak yet another assurance directly to those mothers who waited…for those with eyes to see:
Now when he came nigh to the gate of the city, behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow… And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her, and said unto her, “Weep not.” And he came and touched the bier…And he said, “Young man, I say unto thee, Arise.” And he that was dead sat up, and began to speak. And he delivered him to his mother.” Luke 7:12-15
[i] According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia on-line, the names, Judith (Jewess)…and Bethulia (come) perhaps from the Hebrew meaning “virgin”… in the shorter Hebrew version Judith is called not “the widow” but “the virgin”, i.e.“Bethulia” –sounds rather like a symbolic name rather than those of historical places or persons…
[ii] Josephus also tells how he gave another speech to those inside the walls trying to get them to give up and save the city from being sacked…with shades of Judith’s story, he says that when Old Testament Sarah wife of Abraham was captured by an Egyptian Pharaoh, Abraham did not fight for her, he prayed and Sarah was returned to him “undefiled.” Wars of the Jews V.IX.4
[iii] Josephus Antiquities XVIII.I.2-4 Pharisees and Sadducees on resurrection.
[iv] Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees was unexpected; “Do ye not therefore err…For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.” Mark 12:25
[v] There is a hint that I don’t have room to go into here that Prophetesses in the early movement awaiting the return of Jesus, should be either virgins or “widows of their virginity.”
[vi] Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine by Tal Ilan and Women’s Life in Greece & Rome by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant