Virginity and Continence Before Aphrahat


From Shafiq AbouZayd,
Ihidayutha: A Study of the Life of Singleness in the Syrian Orient. From Ignatius of Antioch to Chalcedon 451 AD

ARAM Society for Syro-Mesopotamian Studies ©1993

Marriage in the early Syrian Church did not destroy virginity; rather virginity maintained the truly Christian marriage and was unspoilt by the purity of holy marriage partners. Devout celibacy as it emerged in the Ascetic movement of the fourth century was based on the spirituality of the Syrian church during the first three centuries, but quickly developed its own features within the different forms of the Monastic vocation. Early Syrian theology provided the Monastic movement with the principal elements of its own spiritual life, but did not offer the early monks monastic institutions. Before the fourth century there were no organized predecessors of the Monastic way of life to which celibates could belong. In the early Syrian church, devout celibacy was not yet a central tenet. It developed as such in the Syrian Orient from the fourth century onwards. Asceticism in the Syrian Orient, as elsewhere, expanded quickly into several ways of life one of which was Monasticism. The Monastic understanding of devout celibacy helped to encourage a restricted, physical interpretation of the idea of virginity and to impose it on Christian theology. This limited understanding of virginity, derived principally from a specifically Monastic spirituality, should be considered in the context of other interpretations of the concept. Virginity appears to have been the word used to indicate a type of total purity in the Syrian church. Despite its tendency to regard virginity as mere physical celibacy, however, the Syrian monastic tradition did not deviate entirely from the original broad understanding of the term. Aphrahat, for example, along with other ascetic Syrian writers, clearly emphasizes a cosmic understanding of Virginity as a total concept of purity.

In an earlier footnote (n.515), AbouZayd draws attention to how this contrasts with later Latin understanding.

In 1580, Eliano, the papal legate to the Maronite Church, accused the Maronites of heresy because they did not consider the state of marriage as inferior to that of virginity, and because they regarded married women as, in a sense, virgins, as long as they maintained a certain propriety in their in their marriage...This Maronite belief is consonant with the early Syrian tradition regarding marraige and virginity.