Reflections on Virginity and Patriarchy

In Facebook I published:

People assume that for the early and medieval Christians virginity was about sex. That’s our cultural bias. For men it was about freedom, and often about sex. (The last is especially our gnostic legacy.) But for the woman, it was about MEN. It was a rejection of patriarchy. It was a way of asserting that no man has a right over her body or her soul. No man can own her. It was even a renunciation of her father’s rights over her to marry her off as he will. Living in a community of women, moreover, freed her from the patriarchal family, the rule of her father and brothers. In the early centuries of our era, these women acted in defiance of (Augustus’) Imperial edict.

Then I added these thoughts:

“Thecla, an early apostle, is a good example of this defiance. Junia too (mentioned in Romans 16) was an apostle, and Priscilla (Paul’s coworker) taught men. She’s also a good candidate for the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the theology of which most resembles the Gospel of John, which was written after the author spent every day for years with the mother of Jesus, until her death. (Just saying…)

“It is interesting that men interpret a woman’s rejection of them as a form of self-denial.

“The history of the early church is complicated, for there were contradictory forces at work, as in all history. But besides their rejection of civic and household (family) gods, one of the main reasons for the tension between Christians and their neighbors was their careless attitudes toward and, as I said, sometimes open defiance of the patriarchal household and its conventions.”

A friend of mine, a fellow-student of Paulie Zink, then wrote: ” Look at this film, I think you will like it. it is about the Tsoknyi Nangchen Nuns in Tibet – 3000 remarkable women who live and practice an ancient yogic tradition in nunneries and hermitages scattered across this remote, mountainous region: Blessings (”

I responded: “I have heard of them and find them very interesting. The Christian story is probably complicated by how frequently anti-patriarchal movements by women have been co-opted by the interests of men afraid of losing control. This is one reason why Clare’s story is so interesting. She fought popes for decades and on her deathbed finally won. Let me now take a rest and enjoy this film!” Unfortunately it was only a trailer.

I added: “Paulie and Maria recommended that we read, The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler, which is about the early development of patriarchy in the West. Min Jiayin edited a book, The Chalice and the Blade in Chinese Culture. The development of patriarchy in East and West did not follow the same trajectory, and so it would not be surprising if it does not follow the same rules. These two books make an interesting comparative study.

“Patriarchy also went through major changes in the West during the Christian Era. I think Europe’s contact with the Islamic cultures of Persia and northern Africa in the High Middle Ages had an effect, for things got much worse for European women during those centuries.”

Someone then commented, ” Thanks for sharing this, Petra. Interesting info.”

A writer friend of mine, whom I have known a long time through the Presbytery, picked up the thread and wrote, “Actually, I think the tradition of women choosing to live in their own communities, and their being respected as prophets, is well grounded in the Hebrew Bible and such practices as a house of widows on the Temple grounds.”

I write: “You are right, but it was at least partly for the same reason. One of the wonders of the Hebrew Bible is its complexity. Israel was terribly patriarchal, but whatever there was on the surface there was always a strong undercurrent that ran contrarily, and then there was the way these two interacted and accommodated each other. In the New Testament, communities of widows were already an institution but there was never an explanation – because it already existed in Judaism, and like almost everything the church practiced from Judaism (e.g., the presbytery), no explanation is given. Prophets and wise women in Israel may well trace back all the way to Israel’s beginnings in shamanism. Eisler’s history of patriarchy in the west overlooks the survivals of women’s culture from the Neolithic era. Patriarchy ruled but there always was this coherent world hidden from men often in plain sight.”

She writes: ” I’m proposing that ‘Mary’ was not necessarily a given name, but a functional title honoring Miriam, without whom the people wouldn’t move on through the wilderness, and Jephtha’s daughter may have been sacrificed (as you said) by being dedicated to the life of a widow, and established the order of widows in that going out to mourn her virginity. And yes, remember that Jesus’ movement (and where did he learn his theology?) was of peasants, not the urban, patriarchal elites; subsistence farmers and peasant craftspeople can’t afford patriarchy. In one of the ‘Feminist Companion’ volumes (though I’ve lost track of it) there’s a footnote that suggests ‘they had to invent patriarchy to give the men something to stand up to women’s power of procreation.'”

I am puzzled by her proposal because in the days of the New Testament, Mary was a ridiculously common name in Palestine, similar to Judah or Simon. But it is an interesting thought. In any case, whenever a girl was given the name “Mary” she was being honored with the memory of their ancestor Miriam.

I write back: ” Interesting. Biologically men are necessary to mix the gene pool and protect and provide meat for women and their children when the children are young. This is probably the reason testosterone even exists. The role of men originally was basically to serve the lives and roles of women. What I find in the oldest of traditional societies is that this pattern held, but it was enacted ‘ritually’ (in cult, in roles, in ‘style’) in a kind of microcosmic balance between contrasting forces, over which women seemed to have been in charge. For example, men might be war chiefs and women peace chiefs but the peace chief still took precedent and could step in and command a war to stop.

Patriarchy broke this balance when men got it into their heads that the added large-muscle strength that testosterone gave them (to inflict death) could be used to simple serve themselves instead of serving the forces of life that once formed the basis of community. But this huge shift long long predated the coming of Jesus.

“The question for scholarship is how women, as part-arbiters of culture, found ways to sustain the powers of life and mutual community when and after this catastrophe happened.

But the rural societies of Palestine were hardly isolated from the developed cultures around them (Jerusalem, Egypt, Parthia, Antioch, etc.; major trade routes passed through its heartland), and as the gospels demonstrate were heavily dominated by patriarchal traditions. That Jesus culled the margins of this society is interesting, though; although John and the household in Bethany were not representative of those country folk. I think the picture is complex.”

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