Virgin Territory: Configuring Female Virginity in Early Christianity

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Lillis, Julia Linnea Kelto

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This dissertation examines ancient conceptualizations of female virginity. Giving particular attention to early Christian sources, I challenge the common assumption that virginity was a uniform concept in antiquity. In contrast to scholars’ tendency to treat virginity as a familiar and static concept in early Christian texts, I show that different writers construe it in different ways, often without including notions that modern readers have treated as universal—such as the idea that virginal women have intact hymens or the idea that virginity can be verified by medical inspection.

The early chapters of this dissertation emphasize the diversity of conceptualizations that can be found among ancient groups and thinkers. Surveying a wide range of pre- and non-Christian sources from various ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern regions, I show that these societies distinguished between female “virgins” and “women” but did so in a number of different ways, using “virginity” as a category for age, marital status, and more. Christians thus could work with a variety of ideas and assumptions when they wrote at length on virginity. An examination of second- and third-century writings about Jesus’ mother Mary reveals that the Christian authors of these texts held divergent opinions about what virginity is; they not only give different verdicts about whether Mary could be considered a virgin after giving birth, but employ different definitions of virginity in their answers to this question. A long central chapter identifies commonalities and significant differences between four fourth-century authors who wrote in Greek, Syriac, or Latin (Basil of Ancrya, Gregory of Nyssa, Ephrem the Syrian, and Ambrose of Milan). This comparison demonstrates that writers who utilized similar terminology and themes could construct surprisingly different configurations of the concept of virginity, especially the idea of “bodily” virginity.

The later chapters of this dissertation focus on developments in virginity discourse at the turn from the fourth to the fifth century C.E. and afterward. Unlike earlier sources, texts of this time indicate a widespread belief that virginity can be perceived in anatomical features of the female body. I draw on Christian, Jewish, medical, and encyclopedic sources to chart the shift, and I consider the relationship between belief in anatomical virginity and the social institutions of marriage, the sex trade, the slave trade, and Christian consecrated virginity. Turning to a Christian author who became especially influential in later periods (Augustine of Hippo), I provide a new reading of his discussions of virginity and chastity in the work City of God, exploring the tensions that the notion of anatomical virginity produces within his thinking. My analysis underscores the difficulties that emerged in Christian thought on virginity when writers both viewed virginity as an anatomical state and sought to promote it as a moral and spiritual state. I conclude that early Christians and their neighbors in the Mediterranean world held a variety of views on what female virginity is, and that the ideas of hymenal intactness and gynecological virginity testing did not become common until very late antiquity. In my concluding chapter, I offer brief observations about the connections between ancient conceptualizations of virginity and virginity’s meanings and value in present-day societies.






Lillis, Julia Linnea Kelto (2017). Virgin Territory: Configuring Female Virginity in Early Christianity. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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