Signs of Virginity: Testing Virgins and Making Men in Late Antiquity

ISBN : 9780190845896

Michael Rosenberg
336 Pages
156 x 235 mm
Pub date
Feb 2018
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Although the theme of bloodied nuptial sheets seems pervasive in western culture, its association with female virginity is uniquely tied to a brief passage in the book of Deuteronomy detailing the procedure for verifying a young woman's purity; it seldom, if ever, appears outside of Abrahamic traditions. In Signs of Virginity, Michael Rosenberg examines the history of virginity testing in Judaism and early Christianity, and the relationship of these tests to a culture that encourages male sexual violence. Deuteronomy's violent vision of virginity has held sway in Jewish and Christian circles more or less ever since. However, Rosenberg points to two authors-the rabbinic collective that produced the Babylonian Talmud and the early Christian thinker Augustine of Hippo-who, even as they perpetuate patriarchal assumptions about female virginity, nonetheless attempt to subvert the emphasis on sexual dominance bequeathed to them by Deuteronomy. Unlike the authors of earlier Rabbinic and Christian texts, who modified but fundamentally maintained and even extended the Deuteronomic ideal, the Babylonian Talmud and Augustine both construct alternative models of female virginity that, if taken seriously, would utterly reverse cultural ideals of masculinity. Indeed this vision of masculinity as fundamentally gentle, rather than characterized by brutal and violent sexual behavior, fits into a broader idealization of masculinity propagated by both authors, who reject what Augustine called a lust for dominance as a masculine ideal.


Introduction - Defining Virginity, Making Men; Part One: Testing Virginity in the Body; Chapter One - Testing Virginity in the Body; Chapter Two - Bloodied Sheets: The Biblical Nuptial Bed as Rape Scene; Chapter Three - Trustworthy Women and Other Witnesses: Tweaking Deuteronomy in Pre-Rabbinic and Early Rabbinic Judaism; Part Two: Testing Virginity through Faith; Chapter Four - Doubts and Faith: Possible Alternatives in Three First-Century Jewish Authors; Chapter Five - Struck by Wood, Struck by God: Virginity Beyond/Despite Anatomy; Part Three: Subjecting Virginity; Chapter Six - Open Doors and Accused Brides: Subjectivity and a New Standard for Virginity Testing in Rabbinic Babylonia; Chapter Seven - Impure Nuptials and Sex as Work: The Bavli's Attempted Divorce of Virginity from Violence; Chapter Eight - (De)Mythologizing the Hymen: Augustine, the Bavli, and the Rejection of Force; Epilogue; Bibliography

About the author: 

Michael Rosenberg is assistant professor of rabbinics at Hebrew College.

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