Almah Parthenos

JMJ

IN ISAIAH 7:14 the Spirit of the Lord speaking through the Prophet says, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (AV) and people bicker a lot about the word “virgin” there: the Hebrew – according to the Masoretic text is עַלְמָ֗ה almah which means only a young girl. The Greek, however, is παρθένος parthenos which means rather a lot more than just young girl. In fact parthenos means so much more than almah that there is a story about this word choice:

In the middle of the 3rd Century Before the Christian Era, Ptolemy II asked for a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, tradition says the project was given to 70 wise elders who, in prayer and meditation, sought to render a translation that could be seen as spirit-breathed and trustworthy. This translation is called the Septuagint, often noted as the LXX for the 70 translators. As one elder was translating Isaiah, he tried to render the word almah as νεᾶνις neanis meaning only a young girl (as in other passages in the scriptures), but the Holy Spirit told him to write parthenos. The man objected but God insisted – and promised him he was to see the fulfillment of this prophecy with his own eyes. This man, the legend says, was Simeon who was blessed to hold in his own hands the Messiah as a baby. Your host digresses, but only a little bit: the story makes it clear even earlier Christians saw there was a crucial difference between almah and parthenos.

As this scripture comes into Latin, Roman culture, it gets rendered virgo which actually means less than the Greek and the Hebrew. By way of exploring these differences, there may also be something to learn about current issues in the Church and something about ourselves in relation to God and each other.

Before we go any further though let the reader understand clearly: none of this is to be read as commentary on the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Your host believes, together with Holy Church, that the Mother of God was alma, parthenos, and virgo before and after giving birth to the Second Person of the Trinity. The best description of the All-Holy Theotokos uses all three of these words in their fullest cultural meanings. It’s the cultural meanings that are the focus. To reiterate, we are exploring these words in order to have a better context for discussing current issues in the Church.

The Latin word, virgo, can mean a young woman or girl, but it specifically refers to not-having sex and, even more specifically, to the membrane called the hymen. If this is intact, the woman is a virgo. There is a word for “young girl” in Latin puella, but culturally it’s missing the context of virgo. As I noted, the Latin word actually means much less than either alma or parthenos. It’s this word that comes into English as “Virgin” and so, too, it means much less for us. When we discuss sexual issues in the Church we often get hung up on virgo.

Alma is used a few times in the Hebrew scriptures. In almost all cases it can mean only a young girl without implying anything about their personal history. Culturally such a young woman may not yet have been married but at a time when they were given in marriage rather young (by our eyes) it is more a chronological term dealing with age. Even in the important passage in Isaiah, the woman in question is only being used as sort of a time-keeper. The Prophet is saying that she will have a child and before the child grows up all the predictions will come to pass (meaning they are not far in the future). The woman will still be a young woman at that time, actually, still a neanis, a youth. Perhaps, though, she has stopped being parthenos. We are not told. She may be virgo. We are not told.

The important word is παρθένος parthenos. At the time of the Ptolemy II parthenos was an honorific applied to several Greek goddesses: Artemis and Hera, although Athena is the best known example. Her temple in Athens included a statue called Athena Parthenos and this statue was also copied in several places. Parthenos is the adjective. The noun becomes the name of the Temple: the Parthenon. Please note that all three of these goddesses had extant stories of their sexual activities. They would not be virgins as we, today, understand that word in either a secular or religious context. The goddeses are not virgo. Parthenos carries a different cultural meaning.

Other persons in the Septuagint are called parthenos: one example is Rebecca, the woman who was to become the wife of Issac and the mother of Israel (Jacob). While it is outside of the scope of the present essay, fruitful meditation could arise on the connection of the Biblical title parthenos to the Mother of Israel and the Mother of God. The title itself is also applied to certain classes of people through the Old and New Testaments. It’s usually rendered as virgin(s) in English and Latin, implying no-sex but, again, culturally I think it means rather a bit more, even in the 1st Century of the Christian Era. Its meaning in the 1st century becomes our meaning today but we have forgotten it.

When you look up παρθένος parthenos in Strong’s Greek (the standard Greek reference for Biblical Scholars, augmented on the net by several other resources) we are come to word number 3933.
Usage: a maiden, virgin; extended to men who have not known women.
properly, a virgin; a woman who has never had sexual relations; a female (virgin), beyond puberty but not yet married; (figuratively) believers when they are pure (chaste), i.e. faithful to Christ their heavenly Bridegroom (2 Cor 11:2; Rev 14:4).
Word Origin: of uncertain origin.
Yet, as I’ve already noted, the several Goddesses to whom this title was originally applied were not “women who have never had sexual relations” and two, at least, were married.

Digging into the word further we need to go back to the temple mentioned earlier, the Parthenon. Whence that title for the Temple? We need to go to Liddell & Scott which is a rather more secular source for words outside of the Bible. Here we find the root word, παρθέν parthen which means “maidens’ apartments in a house” and was used of the apartments for the priestesses in the western end of the temple. So that is kind of like saying “a rector lives in a rectory”. Which came first, the house or the occupant? In the case of the clergyman, the office of rector was first, of course. But digging deeper into parthenos it seems the word was used for both men and women, always implying unmarried, but not always implying sexlessness, and not always implying virgo. What it does carry is implication of a sexuality being set apart and, in the case of women in Ancient Greece, this is important. They are set apart for a divine purpose – not for their father’s use in the way of the time. This is why Athena gets called parthenos – and the other goddeses: even though they are not virgo they struggle against all the male deities that want to own or control their sexual identities. They are enclosed in their own apartments, as it were. Having set their sexual selves aside for divine purposes, assuming they continue in that, they stay parthenos even after no longer being virgo, and even into old age. By the time it gets used in the LXX parthenos is culturally tied to those apartments in the greek Temple and to the patroness of Athens. Just as now we do not use “rector” without the Christian echos so, too, the LXX used parthenos. And this is where the meaning for the Mother of God and the Mother of Israel becomes important: regardless of their status as virgo, their sexuality, their sexual being, there sexual identity was consecrated; that is, set apart and dedicated to God’s purposes.

This is where this word, parthenos, should be important for the Church.

There are earlier essays in this blog on the difference between being a bachelor and being celibate. Essentially the difference is between a job and a vocation: the former is what one does, the latter is what one is. Celibate, here, means parthenos: having one’s sexual identity so consecrated to God by self-choice, self-gift (to God, that is) that any use outside of God’s plan is inconcievable, pardon the pun. It’s a placing of this part (whole) of one’s life at God’s disposition and trusting in him to maintain his plans and purposes.

It is possible to see clerical life in the teachings of the Church as sort of perpetual bachelorhood. One can be a virtuous bachelor, like Charles in Brideshead Revisited, or one can be unvirtuous. In Courage to be Chaste, Fr Benedict Groeschel, CFR, recognizes that there’s a type of person who just stopped having sex because they can’t anymore. By way of examples, this can happen because they feel they are too old, or because they don’t want to take risks reaching out, or because they fear rejection. Whatever the reason they simply stop having sex and then (because of sloth, fear, or habit) they just don’t anymore. Father Benedict finds this to be of concern: he recognizes that they’re following the rules, they may even have chosen to follow the rules after a time, but in the end, they’re only not-having sex. They are not celibate. They have not give all to God at this moment. St Jane Frances de Chantal notes, “Give God your unconditional consent and… What happens is that love seeks out the most intimate and secret place of your soul, as with a sharp sword, and cuts you off even from your own self.” (From: The memoirs of the secretary of St Jane Frances de Chantal, used in the Office of Readings for her Memorial.)

In this light we can see that sometimes, even something that is not sex-having could be a sin against this status as parthenos if it means placing one’s sexual identity (or even seeming to place one’s sexual identity) before others as an offering, thus recanting, at least for a moment, on one’s vows. We refrain from being cut off even from our own self. There are many reasons one might do this: feeling lonely, of course, or feeling awkward. One knows that one can’t have sex, but I can at least pretend I might, you know. That way I can enjoy this conversation, or initiate this flirty moment on the street, or even install a hookup app on my phone: I do not intend to use it of course, but you know… just to look. And just to look as if I might use it if I wanted to. Even while still not-having sex, this participation in the glamour of sin (even while not going all the way) is not parthenos. And, in the throes of passion, it’s possible this is setting us up for a fall that’s even worse.

It’s important to see that this is not only an issue for clergy who up hookup apps on their phone, however. Since the Mother of God is called to parthenos so are we all called to this: we give our entire self over to God, we consecrate our entire self to him. This means that even our sexual identity is his as well. We are cut off even from our ideas of “who we are” and “what we feel” in that all of it is given to God, holding nothing back. In marriage this means refraining from lust and that the gift of self is given to God through giving to our spouse and, in this way, to our children. In all other states of life, we are called to refrain from lust and offer the Gift of Self as God has commanded us in the moment. We live in a way set apart from the world, in a way that marks us as God’s own. Like those in Athens, we have our dwelling place in the courts of the house of Our God, the True and Living God.

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.