Julia Kelto Lillis, “Virgin Territory: Configuring Female Virginity in Early Christianity” (Ph.D. Dissertation, Duke University, 2017).
Early Christian authors found it crucial to map out the conceptual territory of female virginity. Virginity had long been important in ancient Mediterranean societies as a premarital requirement for respectable women, and Christians fashioned it into permanent ascetic lifestyles that gained increasing followers and esteem. Growing numbers of studies have investigated the significance of virginity among early Christians and their Jewish and “pagan” neighbors. Seldom, though, have current readers questioned whether their own conceptualization of virginity is a fitting one for investigating past discourse. Do we actually know what “virginity” means in ancient texts?
My dissertation reveals that “virginity” meant multiple things in antiquity, even within Christian writings that scholars have treated as homogeneous. Today’s readers usually assume that the label “virgin” refers to sexual inexperience and that ancient societies could have tested female virginity by assessing whether a woman’s hymen was broken or intact. I show instead that groups had various ways of differentiating “virgins” and “women,” that “virginity of the body” could mean several different things, and that beliefs about vaginas being perceptibly virginal did not become commonplace until the turn from the fourth to the fifth century CE. The multiplicity of virginity and the rise of anatomical definitions created both opportunities and problems for late ancient Christian reasoning.
This project contributes to the historical study of gender and sexuality and is an example of new intellectual history—in this case, an investigation of meanings of particular terms within texts and of the social, rhetorical, and theological logic that helps them make sense. I prefaced the investigation with an introduction conveying why we should be willing to revise our assumptions about how ancient people understood physical aspects of virginity. Biologists and physicians today describe the hymen as a highly variable bit of tissue with no established function; its unpredictable appearance and behavior in individual girls and women make it unreliable for testing virginity. It is the hymen’s cultural significance that convinces people of its utility as biological evidence, not the other way around. People of other times and places have had good reason not to “believe in” hymens.
The second chapter of the dissertation demonstrates that when Christianity emerged, virginity was already a flexible and ambiguous concept. While it designates sexual inexperience in some pre- and non-Christian sources, in others it indicates something else: the difference between a “virgin” and a “woman” can be age, marital status, or reproductive status (virgins are young, unmarried, or not yet mothers). Although some texts associate female virginity loss with bleeding or pain, they do not explain these physiological phenomena with reference to anatomical structures of the body. For example, Deuteronomy 22:13-21 may imply that initial intercourse causes women to bleed, but it provides no evidence for the belief that virgins have a special body part or tissue like a hymen. More striking still, our wealth of surviving medical literature constructs a picture of genital anatomy in which the hymen does not exist. Greek physicians describe vaginas as unobstructed organs and give other explanations for bleeding or pain during first intercourse; medical experts apparently saw whatever hymen tissue they encountered as part of the vagina, not a body part of its own. The methods people imagined for testing sexual virginity relied not on the appearance of sex organs, but on ordeals, verbal testimony, or other forms of proof.
Chapters three and four show ways that early Christians perpetuated this variety. Scholars of various disciplines have treated early Christian thought on virginity as a monolithic set of ideas, but Christian discourses use a range of definitions and do not uniformly associate sexual inexperience with hymenal intactness. Second- and third-century discussions of Jesus’ mother Mary (chapter 3) utilize diverging meanings. The Protevangelium of James and Clement of Alexandria portray Mary as “virginal” with regard to childbearing, drawing a contrast between the appearance of her body after childbirth and the messy, dilated, or impure state of an ordinary new mother’s body. Origen of Alexandria defines virginity in terms of abstinence from sex, while Tertullian of Carthage pioneers an anatomical definition by claiming in Flesh of Christ that Mary lost her virginity when her son opened her womb by being born.
As lifelong virginity became increasingly prominent among Christians, fourth-century writers gave virginity multiple aspects: a “true” virgin possesses both “virginity of the body” and “virginity of the soul,”which expresses itself everywhere in her being and life—her appearance, behaviors, and theological allegiances. At the same time, writers diverged over what virginity is. Chapter four juxtaposes a series of Greek, Syriac, and Latin writers—Basil of Ancyra, Gregory of Nyssa, Ephrem the Syrian, and Ambrose of Milan—to demonstrate that seemingly similar vocabulary and motifs can yield remarkably different configurations for virginity. For instance, only in Ambrose does the imagery of an “enclosed garden and sealed fountain” from Song of Songs 4:12 eventually come to designate hymenal closure; the others dwell on other kinds of “sealing” for virgins. When these writers turn readers’ attention toward virginal bodies, virginity of the body turns out to be an absence of passionate pleasure (Basil), a commitment of one’s bodily life to an immortal age rather than a mortal one (Gregory), a natural sterility that God miraculously makes fertile (Ephrem writing on Mary), or a purity of the entire body (Ambrose’s early works).
Chapter five charts a significant shift in virginity discourse. The end of the fourth century and dawn of the fifth saw intensifying interest in the notion that virgins’ vaginas are noticeably virginal. Christian sources of this period show a newly prevalent belief that female virgins’ sex organs are sealed shut and that midwives can verify virginity through genital inspection. Jewish and “pagan” sources from this period and the next centuries exhibit the belief that it is possible to perceive virginity when encountering female genitals, whether the telltale sign is closure, narrowness, tightness of tissue, or dryness. Late ancient Jewish texts suggest a range of signs or features, and Talmudic passages give the first clear indications of Jewish belief in hymen tissue (though English translations misleadingly render betulim/betulin as “hymen” in other cases and insert hymens into earlier works). Latin etymologies of nuptial hymen terms begin to add a gloss concerning an anatomical membrane alongside more conventional explanations for words’ origins. Pharmacological recipes begin to include urine-based virginity tests and chemical techniques for making a vagina seem more virginal—sometimes for the benefit of sex partners, sometimes for fertility, and sometimes to reverse or disguise a past assault. A seventh-century Alexandrian writer makes the first extant attempt to integrate the hymen into medical conceptualizations of anatomy. In late antiquity, different groups and traditions turned toward anatomical definitions of virginity, yet variety persisted.
Christian writers catalyzed this shift, but it also created problematic tensions in Christian discourse. The ideas that female virgins’ bodies are innately closed off and that they offer concrete evidence of virginity served useful purposes for some leaders and thinkers, but ran counter to the prevailing trajectories of early Christian reasoning about virginity, which emphasized personal holiness, purity of mind, and undivided devotion to God. Authors were hard-pressed to explain how these higher goals and newly widespread beliefs about anatomy fit together; the works of Ambrose and of Augustine of Hippo show the struggle especially clearly. Chapter six examines Augustine’s terminology in several works to argue that his famous discussions of sexual violence in City of God affirm raped virgins’ chastity, but not their virginity. Chastity is a good of the mind lost only by one’s own will; virginity, on the other hand, entails both mental chastity and genital integrity, and thus can be destroyed against one’s will. Augustine intervenes in traditional Roman value-making by insisting that an attacker’s violent lust does not damage or pollute a victim’s virtue or holiness, but he fails to reconcile his convictions about the physical prerequisites of virginity with his moral configuration of chastity. His logic imposes a potential rift between virginity and the virtue of chastity it is meant to embody.
As my concluding chapter summarizes, virginity remains relevant today. The significance of virginity for many Christians, news of virginity testing and medical re-virginizing from around the globe, the market for young women who have auctioned off their virginity and for cosmetic surgeries that (once again) make sex organs seem more virginal—ideas and ideals concerning female virginity continue to abound. My work contributes to larger histories of gender and sexuality by marking a key development in beliefs about women’s bodies and by exploring the variety and contingency of such pictures. The ascendancy of hymens, conceptualized as a body part that epitomizes or proves virginity, was not historically inevitable; virginity has multiple meanings, and anatomy has been interpreted in multiple ways. The anatomization of sexual virginity has had far-reaching implications for how societies reason about women’s bodies and sexual intercourse, influencing perceptions of sexual difference and helping justify correlations of sexual intercourse with violence. Yet hymenal versions of virginity are not timeless and natural. They were not the only models produced by early Christians or those around them. Virginity has always been an invention and a conversation, and today, just as in antiquity, there is room for creativity and room for dissent.
 The bibliography on virginity in early Christian studies has continued steadily since the 1980s, building on foundational authors like Peter Brown, Averil Cameron, Elizabeth Clark, and Elizabeth Castelli. Studies on the late ancient significance of virginity have come from multiple disciplines and subfields, with some writers focused on early Christian sources (for example, Virginia Burrus, Gillian Clark, Teresa Shaw) and some focused primarily on “pagan” sources or Jewish sources (Simon Goldhill, Daniel Boyarin, Naomi Seidman). Several new studies attend to the flexibility of virginity’s meanings, with varying amounts of attention to how the virginal body itself is configured (a conversation that owes much to Giulia Sissa’s work): recent monographs include Michael Rosenberg, Signs of Virginity: Testing Virgins and Making Men in Late Antiquity, Sissel Undheim, Borderline Virginities: Sacred and Secular Virgins in Late Antiquity, and Thomas Arentzen, The Virgin in Song: Mary and the Poetry of Romanos the Melodist.
 On new intellectual history, see Elizabeth A. Clark, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2004), 106-185.
Julia Kelto Lillis is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Prior to this position, she researched and taught at the University of Virginia as Postdoctoral Fellow and Lecturer in New Testament and Early Christianity. She is currently working on a book project based on this dissertation.