Two Cults for Jewish Mothers and Widows

While doing my own comparison of women in the New Testament and Josephus’ Jewish histories, I began to notice a theme, or rather, two themes. Each one dealing with customs involving women and since I could not find them written in biblical stone with my limited access, I am calling them cults…or as Josephus and the Romans would say, “superstitions.” It took me years to put them together. They are:

  1. The wife of her virginity
  2. The mother of seven sons

The Mother of Sons

I will go into the Mother of Seven Sons first. As far as I can tell, they both sprang from the same War to End all Wars, against the Greek King Antiochus Epiphanes who decided to wipe the Jewish nation from the face of the earth in about 160-165 BCE. A priest named Mattathias son of Hasmon and his five sons rose up against them and fought a guerilla war they really had no hope of winning but did.

Part of the reason they won…other than sheer suicidal bravery and determination…was another belief that underlies the two involving women discussed here: Resurrection.

I came to identify this concept as Maccabean. Book Two of the Books of the Maccabees–found in the Apocrypha and online–chronicles the Jewish war against the Antiochus Epiphanes. The book especially mentions their warrior leader Judas Maccabee’s efforts to preserve the bodies of his fallen soldiers for their resurrection.

“And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin…he also took a collection, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, each man contributing, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide a sin offering, acting very finely and properly in taking account of the resurrection. For if he had not expected that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead; or if it was through regard for the splendid regard destined for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore, he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be set free from their sin.” II Maccabees 12:42-45

This belief in resurrection will become known as the Resurrection of Saints…”saints” being what Judas called his purified warriors who martyred themselves in their Holy War. In case one thinks this was all 190 or so years before Jesus died, so was probably forgotten here is a quote for context from the New Testament written even later than that:

“And behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” Matthew 27:50-53

The story of the “Mother with Seven Sons” comes out of this same war and told in the same II Maccabees. (It was a given that she was a widow.) As you will see, the concept of “mothers receiving their sons again” was part of the belief in resurrection from this war…woman’s division.

I will only quote the mother’s role in the story because what befell each son was more gruesome than the next. Here is the verdict given on the mother…

“But their mother was surpassingly wonderful, and deserves a blessed memory, for though she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage, because of her hope in the Lord. And she encouraged each of them in the language of their forefathers, for she was filled with a noble spirit and stirred her woman’s heart with manly courage, and said to them,

“‘I do not know how you appeared in my womb, for it was not I that gave you life and breath…Therefore the creator of the world, who formed the human race…will give you back again life and breath in his mercy, as you now are…for the sake of his laws.’

“Now Antiochus, thinking that he was being treated with contempt…called the mother to him and urged her to advise the boy to save himself…She bent over him, and mocking the cruel tyrant, she spoke thus, in the language of her forefathers:

“‘My son…Do not be afraid of this butcher, but show yourself worthy of your brothers, and accept death, so that by God’s mercy I may get you back again with your brothers.’” II Maccabees 7:1-41

This was war propaganda, but the promise goes back to the Prophets in the Old Testament. I’m a novice at this so there may be other better quotes but here are two similar stories of mothers whose sons died, not for the Law but illness. Each mother demanded that either the prophet Elijah or Elisha bring her son back to life…and he did.

I Kings 17:21-22 Elijah…cried unto the LORD, and said, O Lord my God, hast thou also brought evil upon the widow with whom I sojourn by slaying her son? …I pray thee, let this child’s soul come into him again. And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah, and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. And Elijah took the child and… delivered him unto his mother and said, See thy son liveth.

II Kings 4:32-35 And when Elisha was come into the house, behold, the child was dead and laid upon his bed. He went in therefore and shut the door…and prayed unto the LORD. And he went up (to the child and perhaps did mouth to mouth breathing) and the flesh of the child waxed warm…and the child opened his eyes. And he called the Shunnamite…And when she was come in unto him, he said, Take up thy son. Then she went in and fell at his feet and bowed herself to the ground and took up her son and went out.

“As the widow of Zarephath, and the Shunammite, (1 Kings 17:22) (2 Kings 4:34, 2 Kings 4:35) Their sons were really dead, and they received them alive again, from the hands of the prophets, Elijah and Elisha, in the way of a resurrection, and by faith; by the faith of the prophets…”

From website

These stories helped lay a basis for the belief that mothers had a promise that they would get their sons restored to them if they died in the Holy War against Antiochus Epiphanes (“Epiphanes” meaning the god or a god…anathema to the Jews). But it wasn’t just the mothers, widowed or otherwise who were taxed with urging young men to sacrifice themselves. I Maccabees gives Judas Maccabee’s father Mattathias’ dying blessings to his five sons:

“Now, my children, you must be zealous for the Law, and give your lives for the agreement of our forefathers…Do not be afraid of the words of a sinful man, for his glory will turn to dung and worms…My children, be manful and strong for the Law, for by it you shall attain glory.” I Maccabees 2:49-65

We will run into this religious belief/cult/concept again later. There is one more propaganda-type story that came out of this war: The Book of Judith. In the way of stories back then, it was set in another time and place. She was a young widow, but no sons are mentioned. Her story shifts us to the early concept of wives/widows of their virginity and the roles they might play.

The Widow of her Virginity–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 down the hill and into the camp of her enemy and offered herself to their commander and then when he fell asleep, she cut off his head and marched back home.

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 enemy was “forgiven” because she survived and was again faithful to her dead husband for the rest of her life, her lapse of “virginity” was as if it never happened; a hint that sometimes women’s roles in wartime had to be excused. Something not always remembered. Judith was the female counterpart to Judas Maccabeus, first son of the House of the Hasmoneans who instituted Hannukah. I think that he was expected to lead the Resurrection of the Saints…at a time of Yahweh’s choosing. Their mother’s reward for urging them to fight was to receive them back again. THEIR reward was–not 70 virgins in Paradise, straight out of last decade’s headline news of Middle Eastern warrior cultures—but the “wife of their virginity.” as it came to be thought of and expected. More later.

(Josephus tells how he gave a speech to those inside the walls of besieged Jerusalem in 65 CE relating a story 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 against all odds Sarah was returned to him “undefiled.” Wars of the Jews V.IX.4)

Maccabean Women through the next 150 years

I have posts and chapters on each of these time frames and women but here is a partial list of Hasmonean widows: The Maccabean/Hasmonean first official High Priest’s wife and High Priest 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 and as a widow. Alexandra daughter of Hyrcanus II, wife of her virginity to the dead hero Alexander son of Aristobulus (mother and father of Mariamne the Queen) did not remarry but was a strong Queen Mother in Herod’s court and was martyred herself.

Roman Women….Antonia Greatly Esteemed

Before I go on to New Testament era examples, we need to note that refusing to remarry and remain “chaste” for their dead husbands wasn’t just a Jewish phenomenon. There also appears to have been a movement afoot in Rome during the gospel story timeframe for wives of powerful 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

Augustus died in 14 CE and Tiberious was the next Caesar, see also Jewish Women in Greco-Roman Palestine by Tal Ilan and Women’s Life in Greece & Rome by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen B. Fant

So…Antonia felt that to have a reputation “free from reproach” she needed to stay faithful to her husband after he died. Antonia wasn’t the only one, though. Augustus eventually had to pass a law saying that young widows must remarry and have children as the birth rate in Rome was dropping because 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 a while; a Roman feminist revolution, if you will. [vi] And, Jewish queens at this time were given a lot of space in Josephus’ writings about the reign of the Maccabean Hasmoneans and their descendants. Roman royal and noble women and Jewish royal women knew each other or knew of each other. QUOTE on Bernice sent to Rome with Alexander….

A Judean Belief System of Widows of their Virginity….ca 10 CE

Princess Glaphyra of Cappadocia was wed to Alexander the eldest son of Mariamne the Hasmonean Queen and King Herod. When Herod has Alexander executed, he sent Glaphyra and her sons back to Cappadocia. But then, oddly, Herod’s son by a different mother and heir to the kingdom, Archelaus, (who figures in the New Testament story GET Matthew) divorced his wife and married Glaphyra, making her for all intents and purposes, the “Queen” of Judea. (SEE)

Herod Archelaus ruled in Judaea for ten years but then had a dream saying that his rule is about to end, and it does immediately. But then, even more oddly, Josephus records a dream that Glaphyra had. In fact, he gave us two versions; a straightforward recounting of the supposed details in Wars II.VII.4 and this revised one in Antiquities.

The like accident befell Glaphyra his wife…who was married, while she was a virgin, to Alexander, the (executed) son of Herod (and Mariamne I)…and she lived in widowhood in Cappadocia with her father, (until) Archelaus divorced his former wife…and married her…who, during her marriage saw the following dream:–She thought she saw Alexander standing by her, and said,–“O Glaphyra; thou provest that saying to be true, which assures us that women are not to be trusted. Didst thou not pledge thy faith to me? Wast thou not married to me when thou wast a virgin? and had we not children between us? Yet hast thou forgotten the affection I bare to thee, out of desire of a second husband…to lie by thee, and in an indecent and imprudent manner hast entered into my house, and has been married to Archelaus, thy husband and my brother. However, I will not forget thy former kind affection for me; but will set thee free from every such reproachful action, and cause thee to be mine again, as thou once wast.”  When she had related this to her female companions, in a few days’ time she departed this life. Antiquities of the Jews XVII.XIII.4

Josephus has recorded for posterity a dream visitation of the firstborn son of Mariamne the Queen–and– has added in a whole Jihad/Priestly Warrior/Essen/Hasmonean belief system regarding the actions of women spoken by a dead Hasmonean prince highlighting: 1) the specialness of marrying a “wife of their virginity;” 2) the necessity for such wives, if widowed, to remain widows and not remarry so their husbands can have them back; 3) an Essen belief in the untrustworthiness of women to carry out these rules; 4) the “forgiving” of royal, yet sinning women; 5) a quick death preferable to continuing to live in a state of sin; (6) because there is an afterlife; and 7) dead heroes are still expected to “meddle in the affairs of the living.” AND the ones who profess these beliefs were willing to kill an offending royal woman “for her own good.” See my chapter on Sapphira (from Acts) and Glaphyra from Josephus.

Resurrection and Widows in the New Testament

We are now into the gospels’ recounting of the life and death of Jesus son of Mary. We have noted that the belief in resurrection was not just a quaint notion…or a Christian invention. The “wives of their virginity” concept was real. The Synoptic Gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, all tell a parody of the Levirate Law (A Mosaic Law that rules that if a man dies before he has children, the wife is required to marry his brother to have children for the dead husband and, to be fair, it safeguards the future of the young widow, then having children to care for her. GET) But the aim of the parody is…I think…to further the “need” for young widows to not remarry…to remain wives of their virginity…more later.

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

And Jesus answering said unto them, The children of this world marry, and are given in marriage: But they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world, and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage…Luke 20:34-35, Mark 12:25

Trying to sparse that a bit; my guess is that it was expected that Jesus would return with the Resurrection of the Saints momentarily and institute the Kingdom (if it was the Resurrection of Judas Maccabee saints expected, the kingdom would be Hasmonean, Judas’ Dynastic House)…best to wait until then to marry because marriage in the world as it is led to problems like the one about the widow who married seven husbands. Here is one clear example of the way a woman was respected who…like Judith…had lived a long life as the widow of her husband.

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

Widows in the “Early Church”

An odd thing about the Book of Acts; it presumes an already established hierarchy and order that isn’t always addressed as to why and how it came to be. So, here I will just accept it and move on.

At first, “widows” were so esteemed by the early 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

But, by the time that “Timothy” was writing, be he Paul or not, there appear to have been a lot of young widows…and a lot of young virgins following the rules to keep their lamps full of oil and watch for the return…and stay virgins for their husbands or even to wait to marry until the new kingdom was established. But as time went on Jesus and/or the saints did not return and something had to be done…

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 few young widows 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, she still qualified…hinting perhaps that the persecution in Acts led by Saul/Paul actually led to the deaths of many early followers and family ca 50-60 CE. She could still be honored for remaining a widow…and more to the point she was past childbearing. The statement tells us that so many women were staying virgins or refusing to remarry when widowed that their upkeep was causing a drain on the group. As time went on, there was a backlash against the women because not only were they claiming widow of their virginity privileges, but they were also teaching and speaking in meetings:

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 why the letters of Timothy contain so many admonitions against women was because they were Gentile women, not knowing the “rules” and coming from a more permissive society. Not so. It was their own women. (And, if there was a royal noble but veiled tie for some of the women…that would explain their sense of uncharacteristic boldness.) There are stories in the gospels and in the writings of the rabbis complaining about rich women of the city and their demands and love of perfumes and broided hair and speaking up.

(Some of this backlash against “uppity” women also shows up in the rabbi’s stories from the destruction of Israel in 68-70 A.D.

“A happening with Miriam the daughter of Nakdimon that the Rabbis granted her…500 denarii a year for her perfume needs…. She cursed them, saying: ‘I would like to see you apportion such an amount for your own daughters!’ R. Acha said: We answered “amen” after her!” From website Midrishet Lindenbaum of Irene Stern College: “A Shiu for Tisha Be’Av” Two Midrashim on the Destruction of Jerusalem (Eicha Rabba 1:47-8)

Too many widows with their own “means”, too long independent of a husband. Luke even had Jesus lament the troublesome widows…

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

Bernice the Last Queen of Jewish Palestine

In ca 50s and 60s CE…in Jerusalem, according to the Book of Acts, Paul had been arrested for rabblerousing in the Temple. At this point, the Book of Acts meets Josephus’ Jewish histories. Paul is brought before the Roman Procurator to be heard. We can date it because Josephus tells us when that Procurator served.

But first a bit of history on Queen Bernice who is one of the authorities who will hear Paul defend himself. She was the eldest daughter of King Agrippa I (grandson of Mariamne I the Hasmonean Queen and King Herod). Her father the king married her off in first one and then another very early marriage alliance, and then married her to her uncle Herod king of Chalcis (her father’s brother and also a grandson of Mariamne I with Hasmonean blood) When he died, she tried her best not to remarry but her brother pushed her to remarry which she did under protest, demanding that the king of a small nation be circumcised first…but she left it and refused to marry anymore and remained a widow (for her part-Hasmonean husband?) and shared the Hasmonean palace in Jerusalem with her brother the king. She was politically active and reigned beside her brother Agrippa II and tried to stop the growing push among the people for war with Rome that will begin in the early 60s CE.

And, as important for this study is the fact that she and her brother carried the royal Hasmonean bloodline. Theirs was a different role than that played by Judas and his brothers…but they were still standing.

Hers is a complex story…this is just one part. See my chapter on The Daughters of the King in the Last Days.

Paul before King Agrippa II and Bernice

And after certain days king Agrippa and Bernice came into Caesarea to salute Festus. And when they had been there many days, Festus declared Paul’s cause unto the king, saying, There is a certain man left in bonds by Felix: About whom, when I was at Jerusalem the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me, desiring to have judgment against him.

To whom I answered, It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man to die before that he which is accused have the accusers face to face…Therefore…I sat in the judgment seat and commanded the man to be brought forth.

Against whom when the accusers stood up, they brought none accusation of such things as I supposed: But had certain questions against him of their own superstition, and of one Jesus, which was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive. And because I doubted of such manner of questions, I asked him whether he would go to Jerusalem, and there be judged of these matters….

Then Agrippa said unto Festus, I would also hear the man myself…

And on the morrow, when Agrippa was come, and Bernice, with great pomp, and was entered into the place of hearing with the chief captains, and principal men of the city, at Festus’ commandment Paul was brought forth…

Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Thou art permitted to speak for thyself. Then Paul stretched forth the hand and answered for himself: I think myself happy king Agrippa, because I shall answer for myself this day before thee…Especially because I know thee to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews: wherefore I beseech thee to hear me patiently.

My manner of life from my youth…(before) all the Jews which knew me from the beginning…that after the most straitest sect of our religion I lived a Pharisee. And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God unto our fathers: Unto which promise…which for hope’s sake, king Agrippa, I am accused of the Jews.

Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you, that God should raise the dead? (Long speech)

King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest. Then Agrippa said unto Paul, almost thou persuadest me… And… the king rose up, and the governor, and Bernice, and they that sat with them. And when they were gone aside, they talked between themselves, saying, This man doeth nothing worthy of death or of bonds… Acts 25& 26.

(The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees believe all these things.) Acts 23:8 8 and Josephus Antiquities XVIII.I.2-4

Paul spoke about resurrection…though in time he will develop a spiritual form, not the physical form.

But mothers had their promise that they would receive their sons back again to life. The belief did not die. One could imagine Mary being the first among mothers awaiting her son’s resurrection, having perhaps pushed her son to go to Pilate and make a blood claim to the throne, her being the granddaughter of Mariamne the Hasmonean Queen…my theory.

But there was more to it than that. The Jewish nation was facing another War to End all Wars against Rome…one that zealous patriots will fight to the bitter end, thinking they will be saved or have rewards in heaven. Their refusal to lay down their arms against all the legions of Rome, led to the destruction of their nation and the death and the casting of survivors around the Mediterranean as slaves. Luke…writing well after that war…had Jesus speak yet another assurance directly to those mothers who still 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

II Esdras of the Apocrypha is an actual Apocalypse. It was written during or shortly after the war with Rome as a series of reassurances for those devastated by the war that God was still prepared to keep is promises. One such “Apocalypse” was for mothers of sons:

“Mother, embrace your sons, bring them up in gladness, like a dove; strengthen their feet, for I have chosen you, says the Lord. And I will raise up the dead from their places, and bring them out of their tombs, because I recognize my name in them. Do not fear, mother of sons, for I have chosen you, says the Lord. I…have consecrated and prepared for you twelve trees loaded with different fruits, and an equal number of springs flowing with milk and honey, and seven huge mountains on which roses and lilies grow, with which I will fill your sons with joy…When you find any who are dead, give them burial and mark the place, and I will give you the first place in my resurrection…” II Esdras 2:15-24

As transcribed and commented on in “The Apocrypha, An American Translation by Edgar J. Goodspeed 1959 Random House NY