A cursory reading of Irenaeus, Tertullian, Epiphanius, and Ephrem’s texts from this past week will convey the stress all four authors place upon Mary’s virginal status. Though Irenaeus is perhaps the most thorough of the four in his discussion of the controversy within the early Church surrounding the designation of Mary as a virgin in the Septuagint, it is Ephrem alone who addresses the definitive physicality of virginity itself: the persistence of Mary’s hymen before, during, and after her pregnancy. Why does Ephrem so heavily emphasize this particular aspect of Mary, while the other three others fail to so much as mention it?
Ephrem’s “Hymn 12” deals almost exclusively with the importance of Mary’s physical virginity and the nature of virginity itself, not bothering to address or consider common inconsistencies in hymenal appearance. Is it possible that Ephrem would not have known that a hymen can easily break for reasons other than vagnial penetration? If so, it seems likely that he would have not known that the hymen can simply bend as opposed to breaking after vaginal sex and childbirth, leaving it looking very much intact.
In any case, Ephrem does not seem to acknowledge any variation or exception to the rule of hymenal virginity, instead using the hymen as the definitive indicator of a Mary’s virginity at every stage of her pregnancy. Before she is impregnated, Ephrem describes Mary as a “chest that was empty / and sealed,” and, goes on, “while [it was] secured, / from within emerged the Great Signet / of the King of Kings!” signifying a lack of change or damage to her “seal” prior to her contact with the Holy Spirit and after it impregnates her (pg. 134, strophe 3). Likewise, during Mary’s pregnancy her hymen remains unbroken: “Evidence of virginity upon it, evidence of virginity outside, / a fetus inside–a great paradox!” (134, str. 2). The continued existence of Mary’s hymen after she has given birth is, for Ephrem, the final and most convincing proof of Mary’s virginity, a thought that he expresses saying, “The seal refutes / one who falsely claims that Your mother made false pretenses” (134, str. 4).
Rather than remaining content with Mary’s “seal” as the ultimate mark of virginal authenticity, however, Ephrem takes his argument one step further. “Womankind possessed the evidence of virginity / because of You, to affirm that Yours / was a holy conception. Within the seals / dwelt Your purity” (134, str. 4). Not only does Mary’s hymen affirm her virginity, but Ephrem posits that Christ’s birth is the very reason that all women are born with hymens; God knew that Mary’s claims of virgin birth would be contested, thus He gave all women (what Ephrem believes to be) a clear and incontrovertible indicator of virginity. Though Mary is no longer alive while Ephrem is writing, however, he maintains that the hymen is still relevant. “Within the seal You dwell even now / within chase women, and if anyone slanders / Your brides, the silent seal / the curtain, rages out to meet him (134, str. 5). Just as Mary’s hymen provided evidence of her virginity, all virgins have been given a hymen so as to prove their chaste dedication to Jesus. “Your bulwark keeps Your brides,” Ephrem states, “as [it did] Your mother” (135, str. 10).
Ephrem goes on to more specifically address doubters of Mary’s virginity in a scriptural context in “Hymn 14.” While in “Hymn 12” Ephrem claimed that the presence of the hymen in all women exists to provide eventual proof of Mary’s virginity, in “Hymn 14” he again touches on and expands the cultural-historical significance of the hymen as a means of protecting women from false slander. Referencing Deuteronomy 22:13-19 and 24:1-4, as well as Numbers 5:11-30, Ephrem points to Old Testament verifications of a woman’s virginity, namely the inspection of a bloody sheet, written verification, and the drinking of cursed water, respectively. Ephrem goes on to claim that God instructed his people to perform and understand these texts so that they would grasp the concept of virginity when the time came for Mary to bear His son: “By water ordeals and cloths / He taught them, so that when the Lord of conceptions / came to them, and they slandered that womb / in which He dwelt, pure evidence of her virginity would convince us about it” (143, str. 14).
Not only did these ancient tests establish the means to prove virginity that would later become essential to proving the miracle and fulfillment of prophecy that was Christ’s virgin birth, but they concurrently provided women protection from false accusations of adultery. “If, therefore,” Ephrem states, “the evidence of virginity made public / would save the wife of a man / from the sword, O wise women, / preserve it and be preserved by it. It is a weapon that, / turns around and does battle with its master, if he is guilty” (144, str. 15). Ephrem then connects the hymen as protection from slander back to Mary, once more incorporating his argument from “Hymn 12” concerning Mary as the reason for the hymen in all women: “All slander / was frustrated in the presence of Mary, who was sealed” (Hymn 14 str. 12).
Epiphanius spends much less time on the legacy of Mary herself, and discusses her only as a reaction against the Collyridians, a Christian sect in which women placed bread upon a table or chair as an offering to Mary. While Epiphanius is incensed that the Collyridians would worship Mary as he believes they ought to worship God alone, his main concern seems to be that in making such an offering these women are acting as priests, an arena specifically designated in scripture for men. Indeed, he goes to great lengths to demonstrate in meticulous detail all of the scriptural examples of men fulfilling priestly roles, and conversely, women neglecting to participate in such rituals (621-623, sections 2.3-3.4).
There is one instance of religious practice, however, in which Epiphanius finds women’s presence not only excusable, but necessary. The “order of deaconesses,” he explains, is required “not...for the practice of priesthood or any liturgical function, but for the sake of female modesty.” Epiphanius specifically mentions baptism as one such instance “when a woman’s body may be bared,” but on the other circumstances under which this nudity may occur he is uncharacteristically vague. While it is entirely possible that Epiphanius’s designation “some condition or trouble” could refer to illness or injury, it seems likewise conceivable that these deaconesses were dealing with gynecological issues (621, sec. 3.6).
Is it possible that the deaconesses were, in fact, called upon to verify contested hymenal virginity? If so, given the scriptural evidence surrounding the importance of such verification, should Epiphanius not hold deaconesses in higher regard? If we are to regard virgins’ hymens as a direct link to Mary’s legacy, why does Epiphanius neglect to acknowledge this connection, if one of his main concerns is the biblical roles of women? Undoubtedly the issue of physical virginity will emerge again as we continue our readings throughout the quarter, and it seems worth remembering that this anxiety over the persistence of Mary’s hymen existed as early as Ephrem’s writings.