Saturday, 11 April 2015

Michael Rosenberg: Physical Virginity in the Protevangelium of James, the Mishnah, and Late Antique Syriac Poetry

This paper is part of the accepted workshop "Christianity and Medicine, Health, and Disability: Virginity's Anatomy." This paper will consider attitudes towards virginity tests in three works not generally juxtaposed: the Protevangelium of James, the Mishnah, and an anonymous Syriac verse homily. I will argue that the Protevangelium and the Mishnah, despite coming from different communities and representing very distinct literary genres, both reflect an emphasis on physical markers as the most significant "evidence" of female virginity, even as they both reveal an awareness of and even perhaps anxiety about other possible signs of virginity. By contrast, the late antique Syriac homily, though clearly based on and reworking the narratives of the Protevangelium, in fact subverts the emphasis on physical virginity in the earlier works and instead preferences non-anatomical markers of female virginity. Various possibilities for explaining this shift and appreciating its significance will be considered.

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