The concept of virginity plays an important role in the Bible, particularly in relation to marriage and sexual purity. But what exactly does the word “virgin” mean in the original Hebrew and Greek texts? And what significance does virginity carry in biblical times versus today?
In this comprehensive blog post, we will examine the meaning of “virgin” throughout both the Old and New Testaments. We will look at the cultural context of ancient Israel and first-century Judea to better understand what virginity signified. And we will explore how Evangelical and Charismatic Christians can apply biblical principles of sexual purity today.
- The Hebrew word bethulah and the Greek word parthenos are commonly translated as “virgin” and refer to an unmarried woman of marriageable age who has not had sexual relations.
- Virginity in biblical times was highly valued as a sign of purity, virtue, and worthiness for marriage. Loss of virginity outside of marriage was seen as deeply shameful.
- God’s people were called to refrain from sexual immorality and idolatry, which are often metaphorically pictured as “virginity” being lost.
- Jesus Christ was born of the virgin Mary, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy of a messianic child conceived miraculously. His virgin birth indicates his divinity untainted by original sin.
- The Apostle Paul encourages both married and betrothed Christians to remain celibate and preserve their “virginity” in order to focus on God’s kingdom.
- Biblical principles of sexual purity apply today through abstinence before marriage and faithfulness within marriage.
- Key Takeaways:
- Understanding Key Hebrew and Greek Terms
- Cultural Context of Virginity in Biblical Times
- Metaphorical Uses of Virginity
- The Virgin Mary and Importance of Jesus' Divine Conception
- Paul's Advocacy of Remaining a Virgin
- Applying Biblical Sexual Purity Today
Understanding Key Hebrew and Greek Terms
When exploring the meaning of “virgin” in the Bible, we must start by understanding the original Hebrew and Greek terms. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word bethulah is most often translated as “virgin.” In the New Testament, the Greek word parthenos carries the same meaning.
Bethulah in the Old Testament
The Hebrew word bethulah appears over 50 times in the Old Testament. Its fundamental meaning refers to a girl or young woman who has reached marriageable age but is still under the protection of her father and has not had sexual relations with a man. Unlike the related Hebrew word almah, which more broadly refers to a young woman of childbearing age, bethulah specifically connotes virginity and sexual purity.
For example, in Genesis 24, Abraham insists that his servant find a wife for Isaac from among the bethulah of his kinsmen, rather than the pagan Canaanite women. The implication is the patriarch desires a wife who is sexually pure and carries the same faith as Isaac. Similarly, the laws in Deuteronomy mandate that if a man falsely accuses his new wife of not being a bethulah, her parents can present evidence of her virginity to the elders to avoid punishment (Deut 22:13-21). This demonstrates how highly valued virginity was among the Israelites.
Parthenos in the New Testament
The most common Greek word translated as “virgin” in the New Testament is parthenos. Like bethulah, its fundamental meaning refers to a marriageable but unmarried young woman who has maintained her chastity. Parthenos is used in verses describing Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a virgin (Matt 1:23, Luke 1:27). It also appears in parables Jesus told, such as the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25:1-13.
The similar Greek word korē refers more broadly to an unmarried girl regardless of sexual experience. The more precise parthenos implies virginity and is the correct understanding of the biblical text when it describes a virtuous young woman of marriageable age.
Cultural Context of Virginity in Biblical Times
To truly grasp the meaning and significance of “virgin” in the Bible, we must explore the cultural context regarding virginity at that place and time. Within ancient Israeli and Middle Eastern societies, virginity was highly valued and seen as a prerequisite for marriage.
Virginity Linked to Virtue and Honor
In Old Testament Jewish culture, virginity was seen as a reflection of virtue, purity, and worthiness. Virgins were honored and viewed as untouched. Premarital sex, on the other hand, was considered shameful and an act of disobedience against God. We see this value system clearly in the case of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13. After Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar, “she remained desolate in her brother Absalom’s house” (2 Sam 13:20 NKJV). Tamar tears her ornate robe and marks herself with ashes, symbols of grief and devastation over the loss of her virginity.
Similarly in the New Testament, we find evidence that virginity continued to be highly prized. When the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will give birth to the Messiah as a virgin, her response is first to question, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1:34 NKJV). Mary’s concern implies that remaining a virgin and avoiding sexual relations outside of marriage is compliant with righteous Jewish customs.
Proof of Virginity on Wedding Night
Given the importance of virginity in biblical Jewish society, proof of the bride’s virginity was often required on the wedding night. The marital bedsheets would be inspected for blood as evidence the bride had never had intercourse. Deuteronomy 22:13-21 describes a ritual whereby suspicious husbands could accuse new brides of not being virgins, and parents would show evidence in their defense.
Likewise in parables that Jesus told, we see hints that newlywed couples were expected to provide proof of the bride’s purity. In Matthew 1:18-25, we find that when Mary is discovered to be pregnant with Jesus – despite being betrothed to Joseph – he considers quietly divorcing her. This implies suspicion of her virginity since they have not consummated their marriage.
Absence of Virginity Seen as Disgrace
Because virginity was so highly valued as a moral virtue and prerequisite to marriage, loss of virginity through rape, incest, or premarital sex was seen as disgraceful.
Second Samuel 13 tells the horrific story of Amnon, King David’s son, raping his half-sister Tamar. After the rape, Tamar tears her ornate robe, the special garment of a virgin daughter of the king, and she ashes herself in grief. Her virginity was not only her honor but her future – Amnon’s act leaves her destitute and “desolate.”
While victims of rape were innocent, those who lost their virginity through incest or premarital sex were considered shameful. Deuteronomy 22 prescribes death for both participants if a man sleeps with a betrothed virgin within the city limits. The implication is the woman failed to call for help. Their sin removed their purity, leaving them unworthy of marriage within Israel.
Metaphorical Uses of Virginity
In addition to literal references to virginity, the prophets of the Old Testament metaphorically portray the loss of virginity in two contexts: 1) when God’s people turned to idolatry and 2) when nations were conquered.
Idolatry Seen as Loss of Virginity
Multiple passages in the Major and Minor Prophets metaphorically depict Israel and Judah as an unfaithful virgin or harlot because they embraced idolatry and turned from worshipping Yahweh alone.
For example, Jeremiah 3:6-11 accuses Israel of spiritual “harlotry” for turning to false idols. Jeremiah portrays this betrayal of God as a loss of purity, like a virgin defiling herself with a lover. The passage calls Israel’s idolatry “adultery” and a “defilement of the land” (v. 9).
Ezekiel 23 tells an elaborate allegory of Israel (Oholah) and Judah (Oholibah) as sisters who became “defiled” from the day they lost their “virginity” by turning from God (v. 3, 8 NKJV). Their spiritual adultery led to exile and ruin, just as a loss of actual virginity outside marriage brought shame and rejection.
Conquest Seen as Loss of Virginity
The prophets also depict literal virginity being lost when nations are conquered. This portrays the pain, vulnerability, and indignity of women raped during war.
Isaiah 47 refers to Babylon as a “virgin daughter” who will be violated, stripped bare, and uncovered when conquered by the Medes and Persians (v. 1-3). Rather than honor in virginity, she will experience shame in “nakedness” and “captivity.” The prophecy portends real horrors Babylon’s women will soon face at the hands of enemy soldiers.
Similarly, Jeremiah laments Judah as a “ravished” and “defiled” virgin in Lamentations 1:4, 15. He vividly describes the misery of Jerusalem’s women, ashamed like violated virgins after soldiers rape them. The verses grieve the brutality of Babylonian forces conquering Judah while also connecting it metaphorically to Judah’s previous spiritual “adultery” with idols.
The Virgin Mary and Importance of Jesus’ Divine Conception
One of the most theologically significant references to virginity in Scripture is the miraculous virginal conception and birth of Jesus Christ. Both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke declare Mary was a virgin when she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 1:18-25 describes how Joseph sought to quietly divorce Mary after she was “found with child of the Holy Spirit.” But an angel reassures Joseph that “what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” Matthew ties this back to Isaiah’s prophecy that “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.’” (Isaiah 7:14 NKJV).
In Luke 1:26-35, the angel Gabriel announces to Mary, “you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS.” Mary questions, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” Gabriel explains, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.”
Why is the virgin conception so essential to Christianity? First, it fulfilled the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy of the messianic child. More importantly, Jesus’ miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit meant he did not inherit original sin from an earthly father. As the Son of God, his divinity remained pure. The virgin birth distanced Christ from sinful humanity while allowing him to fully identify with humankind and serve as our perfect sacrificial lamb on the cross.
Paul’s Advocacy of Remaining a Virgin
Beyond affirming Christ’s virgin birth, the New Testament also directly addresses virginity through the writings of the Apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul responds to questions from the Church in Corinth about whether celibacy is more spiritual than marriage. His teachings encourage unmarried Christians to remain virgins and abstain from sex for the sake of Christ’s kingdom.
In 1 Corinthians 7:25-28, Paul writes: “I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment… the present crisis is so pressing that it is good for a person to [remain] as he is… Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife.” He advocates singleness to avoid being “worldly” and devote oneself to God.
Paul also addresses virgins and widows in verses 1 Corinthians 7:34-38. He contrasts the married woman who must focus on pleasing her husband with the unmarried woman who can be “holy in body and spirit” by fully devoting herself to the Lord as a “virgin.” His teachings elevate celibacy as the most spiritual path.
While affirming that marriage is not sinful, Paul clearly advocates that virgins – both never-married and widowed – remain celibate. He sees a single, undistracted life totally dedicated to Christ as most virtuous for an urgent time when God’s kingdom should be the sole focus.
Applying Biblical Sexual Purity Today
For modern Evangelical and Charismatic Christians, what principles from biblical teachings on virginity remain relevant today? While few advocate complete celibacy, calls for sexual purity ring clearly through both Testaments. Virginity may no longer prove marriage worthiness, but avoiding sexual immorality remains a biblical value.
Abstinence Before Marriage
Perhaps the clearest application is the importance of abstinence from sexual relations before marriage, recapturing the spirit of virginity cherished in biblical days. Rather than proving worthiness, premarital celibacy honors the future spouse by offering them a special gift of intimacy God designed solely for marriage. Avoiding sexual entanglements before marriage also allows single Christians to wholly focus on God rather than relationships.
Faithfulness Within Marriage
Sexual faithfulness between spouses also upholds biblical values of purity. While the culture may condone adultery or easy divorce, Scripture celebrates the marriage bed as undefiled and holy when kept between one husband and wife (Hebrews 13:4). Just as virginity reflected virtue in biblical times, marital faithfulness demonstrates moral character and obedience to God today.
Avoiding Sexual Immorality
More broadly, the New Testament continually warns believers to flee all forms of sexual sin and cling to holiness. From Paul’s letters telling Christians to shun sexual immorality to Revelation’s descriptions of the wicked whose portion is in the lake of fire, moral purity matters greatly to God. Virginity represented that virtue in biblical days; avoiding sexual indulgence outside of marriage fulfills that ideal now.
In conclusion, the elevation of virginity in both the Old and New Testament reflects cultural values prizing sexual purity as a prerequisite for marriage. But biblical authors also employ the concept metaphorically and theologically to communicate spiritual truths about devotion to God. As Evangelical and Charismatic Christians, we can uphold God’s standards of sexual holiness today through moral integrity before marriage, fidelity within it, and continuing avoidance of sexual immorality throughout our lives. While cultures change, our call to purity as God’s people remains timeless.