Signs of Virginity

Testing Virgins and Making Men in Late Antiquity

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Michael Rosenberg
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     336 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


At first blush, the title of Michael Rosenberg’s Signs of Virginity: Testing Virgins and Making Men in Late Antiquity might lead to a few misconceptions about the book’s topic. It may be easy for readers to assume that this book revolves around defining female virginity in late antiquity, or that the worksheds equal light on both men and women of the late ancient world. Yet as Rosenberg makes clear from the outset, his study is not about female virginity in itself. Rather the thrust of his work is to explore the “cultural constructions of men’s sexuality as ideally aggressive” and how this ideal is both reflected in and shaped by men’s understanding of female virginity (1). 

The book is split into three parts: (1) Testing Virginity in the Body; (2) Testing Virginity through Faith; and (3) Subjecting Virginity. The first two parts are dedicated to setting up the history of how purely physical definitions of virginity led to an idealization of male sexual violence. Part 1 lays out a wide swath of biblical source material that emphasizes the importance of female virginity, legal ways of affirming that virginity, and the violence associated with it. He provides an in depth look at Deuteronomy 22 and its emphasis on “bloody sheets” as an objective and physical way to prove a woman’s virginity. Thereafter, he describes the effect these biblical texts had on subsequent discussions of virginity in later Jewish texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, Midrash, and the Palestinian Talmud. The physicality of female virginity In Jewish texts engendered an idealization of male sexual violence, culminating in the idea that a man should “penetrate vigorously and violently enough that he can produce blood on his wedding night” (75-76). 

Part 2 explores cracks in this biblical foundation of virginity. Rosenberg looks at moments that betray an anxiety about purely physical virginity tests. In texts like the Gospel of Matthew and the 2nd century Protevangelium of James, we begin to see virginity assessed not by physical tests alone, but also through “faith-based” tests (88). Although Josephus, Philo, the Protevangelium of James, and the Mishnah each reflect this anxiety, the Deuteronomic model is never completely discounted. After using these first two sections to define the normative discourse surrounding virginity and male sexuality, Rosenberg moves to show how both the Babylonian rabbis and Augustine subvert that discourse.

Part 3 is the heart of Rosenberg’s study. To put it simply, his main argument is that the Babylonian rabbis and Augustine represent radical outliers in their respective views on virginity. The Bavli push back against their predecessor’s violent idealization of “objective” virginity tests such as the presentation of bloody sheets and physical examinations. Rather, they advocate for a more subjective assessment with the “open door” policy that leads them to prize male gentleness. In his discussion of the rape of virgins in City of God, Augustine breaks with the tradition of defining virginity as purely physiological, and instead views it as a spiritual state. It is important to note that Rosenberg does not posit a literary relationship between the rabbis and Augustine. He is also quick to point out that there are distinctive differences between the Bavli and Augustine. The former continue to ground their understanding of virginity in the physical body, while the latter, according to Rosenberg, completely discounts its physicality. But both the compilers of the Babylonian Talmud and Augustine move away from traditional masculine sexuality that valorizes force, lust, or dominance to an “idealization of controlled, deliberate, nonviolent male sexuality” (204). 

Signs of Virginity is a beautifully in depth and complex work that in the hands of another writer could have been impossible to follow. Michael Rosenberg does an excellent job of leading readers through a variety of texts with ease, without ever oversimplifying the complexity of each. The sheer diversity of texts he brings to the table is admirable. From the Mishnah to the Protevangelium of James to Cyprian’s epistles, Rosenberg employs a wide swath of diverse documents in order to illustrate the tenacity of Deuteronomy’s legacy. Yet chapters 6 and 7 on the Babylonian rabbis clearly show that his wheelhouse is rabbinic literature. He treats every jot and tittle with both precision and nuance which makes these chapters the strongest in the book. For readers not acquainted with the study of rabbinics, Rosenberg’s thorough treatment may be a bit difficult to follow at times. However, he concludes each section with such clarity that even lay readers can understand the overall gist. 

Rosenberg’s study will soon be indispensable for those interested in late antique masculinity. His work is clearly inspired by and builds upon that of Michel Foucault, John Winkler, Charlotte Fonrobert, and, most significantly, Daniel Boyarin. Along with earning a spot in the ranks of masculinity studies, Signs of Virginity also belongs to a burgeoning field of scholarship that treats rabbinic Judaism and Christianity together. Rosenberg’s comparison of the Babylonian Talmud with Christian sources places him in a similar vein as scholars like Michal Bar-Asher Siegal, Seth Schwartz, and Jeffrey Rubenstein.

The epilogue laments the fact that the radical views of the Babylonian rabbis and Augustine were never adopted into mainstream discussions of virginity—even modern conceptions of virginity are indebted to the interpretive legacy of Deuteronomy 22. However, Rosenberg offers a sign of hope that this study will help dislodge “those dominant narratives of male sexuality as aggressive” (212). While he admits that the work of the Bavli and Augustine are by no means feminist, Rosenberg’s analysis can be instrumental in further attempts to destabilize patriarchal views of virginity and sexuality. Although Rosenberg’s Signs of Virginity belongs to wider traditions of Jewish-Christian and masculine studies, hopefully this book will also spark a new wave of scholarship on reassessing virginity, masculinity, and femininity in late antiquity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeannie Sellick is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Rosenberg is assistant professor of rabbinics at Hebrew College.


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