The Meaning of Virginity in the Early Christian Church

The Holy Virgin Martyr Febronia suffered during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (284 – 305). She chose a life of virginity, dedicating herself to the Lord, and became the patron saint of the Holy Venerable Duchess Febronia of Murom.

Saint Febronia of Nisibis was one of the few known examples of holy virgin martyrs of the first centuries of Christianity. She typifies all those champions of faith who lived far from the centres of apostolic Christianity but still bore witness to it before the gentiles, kings and governors (Matthew 10:18).

Febronia came from Nisibis, now Nusaibin, in Southeast Turkey, close to its border with Syria. In her time, Nisibis was a town on the border of the Roman and Persian empires that came under Roman jurisdiction in 298. Nisibis was a key centre of commerce and a military outpost. It was also a centre of arts and sciences open to Roman, Persian and Oriental influences. In the middle of the fourth century, Nisibis became the seat of a distinct theological school connected with the name of the Holy Venerable Ephraim the Syrian.

Three principal sources influenced the views, language and discourse of Christians:

Mesopotamian writings and way of thinking;

The Syrian translation of the Bible, and orally transmitted Hebrew legends;

Greek Christian writings, in Syrian translations.

Syrian was then a variant of Aramaic. Aramaic was the language spoken by the Lord. In Aramaic, the Gospel was preached for the first time, and the good news of salvation was brought to the people.

Febronia led a life of dedication to God. The liturgical calendar refers to her as the Holy Martyr, but she was not a nun in the modern meaning of the word. Typical of the Syrian churches of the time were the communities of God’s men and women named “Sons and Daughters of the Testament”.

In the spirit of the Scriptures, early Christianity could not, and did not view dedication to God in virginity as a form of asceticism practised to put to death the desired or the flesh or to refrain from childbearing. In this, it was different from the false teachings of Gnosticism and Manichaeism that despised and dismissed life, the world and the body. As Christ Himself warns us, “the time will come for destroying those who destroy the earth.” (Revelation 11:18).

Remarkably, the celibacy of the first bishops not just conformed with the ideal of a Christian missionary found in the writings of Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 7:7) but also met the criteria of purity, integrity, inviolability and courage. When Christianity became legal under Emperor Constantine, bishops took on the role of judges, advocates and petitioners. People could bring their disputes before the clerical authorities if they preferred them to secular ones. For example, Bishop James of Nisibis, the wonder worker of Syria, spent a great part of his day performing such judicial duties. The Church tradition attributes to him the veneration of the virgin martyr Febronia as a saint.

Her glorification made virginity an aspect of permanence and a symbol of the presence of the Incarnate God born of the Virgin, of the One and Only Lord Who stands above the laws of time and existence. It was this Christological view of virginity in dedication to Christ, not its philosophical and theological interpretation, that angered the Pagans the most, especially the Pagan rulers and governors of Rome. Seeing the Roman Emperor as God, they could not bear to observe the visible triumph in the fragile vessels of the virgins’ bodies of the Lord Jesus Christ as the true victor and master of life and death (Matthew 3:7).

As we read in the life of Saint Febronia, rumours about the forthcoming persecution of Christians reached her community, and all its virgins chose to flee. Febronia stayed, and she was seized and brought to trial.

Of relevance in this regard are the two lines of attack pursued by the Pagan rulers. They viewed both as equally important. First, they demanded of the virgins to renounce their faith; and second, they promised them a dignified marriage to a Pagan husband.

In the minds of the Pagan rules, that would cause the Christian virgins to perform a double renunciation. First, by recognising the Emperor as God, and second by accepting a Roman noble and dignitary as their new father. They saw this outcome as their ultimate victory, knowing very well Who the Christians called their One and Only Father in Heaven.

Febronia did not renounce her faith, and she turned down the offer of marriage from the Roman governor Lisimach, a Pagan. He used persuasion, subjected her to torture, maimed her body, severed her limbs, but achieved nothing.

Her martyrdom 1725 years ago became her day of rebirth, in the discourse of early Christians. A witness to Saint Febronia’s baptism of blood, the Pagan Lisimach believed in Christ and found His Father in Heaven by the prayers of the Holy Virgin. (Matthew 6:9).

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds

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