Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Parthenos--virgin, unmarried and young/unmarriageable

A new discussion by Mark Wilson of the Greek word parthenos at a recent Greek-Turkish Symposium on Epigraphy can be found here. At a paper given by the


Greek epigrapher Angelos Chaniotis, he discussed a 2nd-3rd century C.E. funerary inscription of a young Aphrodisian woman named Melition Tatis who was called a parthenos in the inscription. The proper translation of this Greek word is still debated in several Biblical texts. Is the meaning in Isaiah 7:14 “virgin” (niv) or “young woman” (nrsv)? However, all translations of Matthew 1:23, which quotes the verse from Isaiah and speaks of Mary, read “virgin.” So I was intrigued whether this newly found inscription might help us understand better how parthenos was used in antiquity.
In Chaniotis’s handout, the word was translated “virgin.” But he suggested verbally that it was better understood as a class of young women. Chaniotis shared with me later that such a use was not just localized to Aphrodisias. And I learned that parthenos and its derivatives could even be a female name, probably indicating the person’s youthful appearance rather than her status of virginity or being unmarried. Chaniotis’s research has revealed that parthenos has three closely related yet distinct meanings: virgin, unmarried, and young/unmarriageable. While it may not always be possible to distinguish among them, an awareness of this difference can help us better understand Biblical texts. For example, the niv and nrsv both use “unmarried” in Acts 21:9 to designate Philip’s daughters, a better translation of parthenos than “virgin.” Listening to Chaniotis, I was reminded again of the importance of context in translating and interpreting Greek words.

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