Jerome on Virginity

1 Corinthians vii

Jerome opens his argument against Jovinian by using what he perceives to be Paul’s doctrine on virginity and uses it to interpret the divine blessings given in Genesis to “be fruitful, to multiply and to fill the earth.”

Among other things the Corinthians asked in their letter whether after embracing the faith of Christ they ought to be unmarried, and for the sake of continence put away their wives, and whether believing virgins were at liberty to marry.

Jerome, Against Jovinian, Bk. I Par. 7.

Jerome now sets out to establish what he thinks Paul actually said. If, as St. Paul says, it is good not to touch a woman the reverse side of that must be that it is bad to touch one, for, so Jerome says, the necessary opposite to goodness can only be badness.

But if it be bad and the evil is pardoned, the reason for the concession is to prevent worse evil. But surely a thing which is only allowed because there may be something worse has only a slight degree of goodness. He would never have added let each man have his own wife, unless he had previously used the words but, because of fornications. Do away with fornication, and he will not say let each man have his own wife. Just as though one were to lay it down: It is good to feed on wheaten bread, and to eat the finest wheat flour, and yet to prevent a person pressed by hunger from devouring cow-dung, I may allow him to eat barley. Does it follow that the wheat will not have its peculiar purity, because such an one prefers barley to excrement?

Jerome, Against Jovinian, Bk I, Par. 7.

As moderns we may not like Jerome’s example of excrement in the context of marriage, nor the implicit suggestion that marriage is merely a tolerated version of fornication, but Jerome’s basic point stands. If marriage is allowed as a concession then virginity seems to be the preferred way of life. Consequently virginity and marriage are not of equal merit. Again to get Jerome’s point the reader needs to let go of the rudeness (or crudeness perhaps) of Jerome’s style. Underneath the coarse rhetoric there is a real point being made and Jerome proves to be a careful reader of Paul.

Reading more closely, Jerome argues, Paul does not say that a man should not marry a woman rather a man should not touch a woman. To Jerome this is reflected in the rule that in order to receive Holy Communion one must abstain from sexual intercourse. Citing 1 Corinthians 7, 5: Defraud not one another, except, perhaps, by consent, for a time, that you may give yourselves to prayer, Jerome argues that in order to pray one must also be continent (abstain from sexual intercourse). And what about the admonition to pray always?

The same Apostle in another place commands us to pray always. If we are to pray always, it follows that we must never be in the bondage of wedlock, for as often as I render my wife her due, I cannot pray.

Jerome, Against Jovinian, Bk. I; Par. 7.

In other words if the Christian is indeed commanded to pray always it necessarily follows that a Christian must always abstain from sexual intercourse. Thus virginity again proves to be preferred over marriage.

Toward the end of this paragraph Jerome explains what he believes a good Christian marriage to be. Jerome strings together the following passages from St. Peter’s first Epistle:

[1] In like manner also let wives be subject to their husbands: that if any believe not the word, they may be won without the word, by the conversation of the wives. [2] Considering your chaste conversation with fear. [3] Whose adorning let it not be the outward plaiting of the hair, or the wearing of gold, or the putting on of apparel: [4] But the hidden man of the heart in the incorruptibility of a quiet and a meek spirit, which is rich in the sight of God. [5] For after this manner heretofore the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection to their own husbands:

[6] As Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters you are, doing well, and not fearing any disturbance. [7] Ye husbands, likewise dwelling with them according to knowledge, giving honour to the female as to the weaker vessel, and as to the co-heirs of the grace of life: that your prayers be not hindered.

1 Peter 3; 1-7.

To Jerome these passages reveal that the way to honour wives is to abstain from sexual intercourse. The outward absence of sex leads to a turn inward “the hidden man of the heart” which is according to knowledge (vs. 6) rather than according to the flesh. What, asks Jerome, hinders prayer in this context? What could it be but precisely sexual intercourse? Paul and Peter agree! Jerome concludes triumphantly:

Words truly worthy of an apostle, and of Christ’s rock! He lays down the law for husbands and wives, condemns outward ornament, while he praises continence, which is the ornament of the inner man, as seen in the incorruptible apparel of a meek and quiet spirit. In effect he says this: Since your outer man is corrupt, and you have ceased to possess the blessing of incorruption characteristic of virgins, at least imitate the incorruption of the spirit by subsequent abstinence, and what you cannot show in the body exhibit in the mind. For these are the riches, and these the ornaments of your union, which Christ seeks.

Jerome, Against Jovinian, Bk. I; par. 7.

Once again Jerome forcefully affirms that virginity is always preferable. Even when the Christian is already married and has lost virginity per se, the Christian is still called to sexual abstince in imitation of virginity as much as possible. That is the dwelling with them according to knowledge St. Peter mentions in his first epistle. This is what Christ Himself seeks in any Christian. For Jerome it is quite clear that marriage has no merit of its own as marriage. Whatever merit it could possibly have depends on how much the married couple imitates virgins and therefore applies the virgin life-style. It is with this understanding that Jerome goes about interpreting the Genesis origins narratives of which I will speak in my next post.

Fr. Gregory Wassen



About Father Gregory

I am an Anglican Catholic Priest, currently residing in Orvelte, the Netherlands.
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