Did Jewish Temple Virgins Exist and was Mary a Temple Virgin?

Previously we examined the tradition and biblical foundation for the Catholic teaching that Mary was consecrated as a Temple virgin at the age of three and lived in the temple precincts till the age of fourteen when she was married to Saint Joseph and there after virginally conceived the Son of God.*

See post: The True Presentation of the Virgin Mary (Foretold in the Book of Sirach)

This school of Temple virgins in Jerusalem formed an altar guild that fulfilled the necessary tasks at the Temple. This included sewing and creating vestments, washing the vestments of the priests which would be stained regularly by animal blood, preparing liturgical linen, weaving the veil of the Temple, and most importantly, liturgical prayer. The Jewish and Catholic tradition holds that this school for Israelite virgins was completed by marrying age of about 14 and that they were dismissed at this time. There were also older women, perhaps widows such as the prophetess Anna, who served as teachers and governesses for the virgins under their care.

There has been some doubt as to whether their were really consecrated Jewish virgins at the Temple. In my previous post I referenced the first-century Jewish historian Josephus in support of “Temple virgins” in Jerusalem, but I fear that this cannot be substantiated. Jimmy Akin asked me for the citation and I cannot find it. One would assume that it would be in Book 5 of the Jewish Wars of Josephus. There Josephus mentions cloisters, but he does not tell us who lived in them. That’s as close as Josephus gets.

There are, however, three Scriptural accounts that are used by Catholics to demonstrate that there were special women who ministered at the Temple complex.

Exodus 38:8 mentions women who “watch (צָבָא) at the door of the tabernacle.”

The second is in 1 Samuel:

“Now Heli was very old, and he heard all that his sons did to all Israel: and how they lay with the women that waited (צָבָא) at the door of the tabernacle:” (1 Samuel 2:22, D-R)

In both of the verses above, Hebrew verb for “watch” and “waited” is the same. It is the Hebrew word צָבָא, which is the same verb used to described the liturgical activity of the Levites (see Num 4:23; 8:24). This corresponds to the Latin translation in the Clementine Vulgate, which relates that these women “observabant” at the temple doors – another liturgical reading.

So these women are not simply hanging out around the Temple, looking for men, gossiping, or chatting about the weather. These are pious women devoted to a liturgical function. In fact, the Court of Women might exist formally for these special “liturgical women.”

The third and final reference to these liturgical females is in 2 Maccabees:

And the virgins also that were shut up, came forth, some to {High Priest} Onias, and some to the walls, and others looked out of the windows. And all holding up their hands towards heaven, made supplication. (2 Macc 3:19-20)

Here are virgins that are shut up. In the Greek it is “αἱ δὲ κατάκλειστοι τῶν παρθένων” or “the shut up ones of the virgins.” In this passage the Holy Spirit refers not to all the virgins of Jerusalem, but to a special set of virgins, that is, those virgins who had the privilege and right to be in the presence of the High Priest and address him. It’s rather ridiculous to think that young girls would have general access to the High Priest of Israel. However, if these virgins had a special liturgical role at the Temple, it becomes clear that they would both address the High Priest Onias and would also be featured as an essential part of the intense supplication in the Temple at this moment of crisis.

There is further testimony of temple virgins in the traditions of the Jews. In the Mishnah, it is recorded that there were 82 consecrated virgins who wove the veil of the Temple:

“The veil of the Temple was a palm-length in width. It was woven with seventy-two smooth stitches each made of twenty-four threads. The length was of forty cubits and the width of twenty cubits. Eighty-two virgins wove it. Two veils were made each year and three hundred priests were needed to carry it to the pool” (Mishna Shekalim 8, 5-6).

We find another reference to the “women who made the veils for the Temple…baked the showbread…prepared the incense” (Babylonian Talmud Kethuboth 106a).

Rabbinic Jewish sources also record how when the Romans sacked Jerusalem in AD 70, the Temple virgins leapt into the flames so as not to be abducted by the heathen soldiers: “the virgins who were weaving threw themselves in the flames” (Pesikta Rabbati 26, 6). Here we also learn that these virgins lived in the three-storey building inside the Temple area. However, it is difficult to find any other details about this structure. The visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich placed the cloisters of the Temple Virgins on the north side of the Temple (Emmerich’s Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary 3, 5).

Even more, the first century document by the name of the Apocalypse of Baruch (sometimes called “2 Baruch”) describes the Temple virgins living in the Temple as weavers of the holy veil:

“And you virgins who weave byssus and silk, and gold from Ophir, in haste pick it all up and throw it in the fire that it will return it to its Author, and that the flame will take it back to its Creator, from fear that the enemy might seize it” (2 Baruch 10:19).

So then, there is ample evidence for the role of consecrated women, especially virgins at the Temple. If one were to accept the passages above, we have plenty of testimony for cultic women in the time of Moses’ tabernacle, in the time of David, in the Second Temple era, and in the first century of Our Lord.

This substantiates the claims of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church who claim that the Blessed Virgin Mary was presented to the Temple and served there from the age of three until the age of fourteen. To claim that Temple virgins are a myth of celibacy-crazed Catholic bishops does not hold up. Scripture and Jewish tradition records that there were specially commissioned virgins associated with the Temple. We may not know much about them, but we know that they existed.

That the most holy human girl of all time, the Mother of the Messiah, should live as a temple virgin should come as no surprise. This also accounts for the vow of virginity she had taken since she “knew not a man” even though she was already espoused to Joseph.

Now then, there is also a tradition that Mary was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. This seems absurd to us. Moses stipulated that the High Priest and only the High Priest be allowed to enter the Holy of Holies and that only once a year. It was the greatest privilege in Israel. Why was the Holy of Holies so special? It was the inner room that housed the ark of the covenant.

Yet remember that this is the Second Temple, not the original Temple of Solomon. The Ark of the Covenant was hidden by Jeremiah and it had been lost ever since. The Second Temple, therefore, had an empty Holy of Holies. It was an empty room. No Ark of the Covenant. Nothing. In a sense, the Second Temple was a sham. It was like an empty suit. The Temple was built to house the Ark of the Covenant, but Ark was not there.

So then, the Temple in Jerusalem was empty. It did not contain the ark of the covenant. And yet we Catholics know from Revelation 11:19-12:1 that the Mother of Christ is truly the Ark of the New Covenant. The wood ark of old contained the Word of God engraved in stone. The stainless womb of Mary contained the Word of God made flesh.

Perhaps by a singular inspiration, the High Priest of that time had been inspired to lead this immaculate virgin into the inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies. My heart leaps when contemplating this. The angels of heaven would rejoice to see the true Ark of the Covenant restored into the earthly Temple of Jerusalem. In fact, it would be a foretaste of the glorious assumption of Mary. The Temple represented a new Garden of Eden and, of course, Mary is the New Eve. Thus, her entry into the Temple reveals that the fullness of time has come. The New Eve will soon bring forth the New Adam to reverse the curse and lead the faithful into the presence of God.

This is speculation and I do not want it to obscure the purpose of this post, which is to defend the existence of Temple virgins in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the presence of the New Eve at or in the Temple certainly is fitting since it hearkens back to the prophecy that the virgin mother will crush the head of the serpent. This is an exciting new perspective at the meaning of Christmas.

Immaculate Mary, dutiful at the Temple, pray for us.

*It is blasphemy to say that the Blessed Virgin Mary was an “unwed mother” or that she conceived Christ “out of wedlock.” Joseph and Mary were married before the angel Gabriel came to her in the Annunciation, and thus she conceived Christ after she was married to Saint Joseph. “The angel Gabriel was sent…to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph.” Joseph and Mary were “spouses.”

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  • Pingback: The Presentation of Mary in the Temple (in Ecclesiasticus/Sirach) - Taylor Marshall()

  • dan

    One of the greatest 20th Century Mystics Maria Valtorta also backs up everything you have documented in this post through her visions and writings in The Poem of The Man God, a very worth while read on The Hidden Life of The Holy Family.

  • Veritas81

    Blasphemy seems a bit much…

  • isabel kissinger

    dr. taylor, how does the presentation of the child Jesus at the temple differs from that of the presentation of 3 year old Mary at the temple?

  • Karen

    In the ancient Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Virgin Mary is hymned as the “Bride unwedded,” and St. Joseph has the formal title of “the Betrothed,” (which I assume is the word also translated as “espoused”). We would agree Mary is certainly no “unwed mother,” though, in the modern sense! Betrothal in the ancient Jewish world, from what I have learned, was far more like marriage in terms of social responsibilities on the part of the betrothed “husband” and “wife” than is becoming “engaged” in our modern world. A severing of the betrothal, even before the wedding, required a divorce. This is why when the righteous Joseph found out his betrothed “wife,” Mary, was with child, he sought to put her away (i.e., “divorce” her) quietly. In first-century Jewish marriage customs, however, there was a second stage, the actual “wedding,” that was required before a couple was considered fully “married,” even though they were still called “husband” and “wife” at the betrothed stage.

    In the ancient world, St. Joseph, as the betrothed husband of the Mother of God, would have had all of the responsibilities of a husband, but none of the privileges (i.e., consummation of the marriage and begetting of children). Consummation of the marriage was allowed only after the wedding proper took place. There is no record of such a wedding between Joseph and Mary in the NT. The only record is of their “betrothal.” A righteous Jew could never have gone ahead with a wedding and its consummation to his betrothed and still retained his righteous standing in the religious community had his betrothed “wife” been found with child before the wedding. This would have been considered a defilement of the marriage and the marriage bed.

    Being enlightened about the holy origins of the Child Mary was carrying, St. Joseph would never have scandalized himself, never mind the righteous Jewish community, by attempting to go through with a wedding to his betrothed wife, Mary (the whole point of which was, after all, also to consummate the marriage). That St. Joseph was still legally the Virgin Mary’s betrothed “husband,” however, meant he was responsible for providing for and protecting her (as the testimony of the Gospels show he did). As it was, the miracle of the Incarnation meant that that St. Joseph and the Virgin had to live under the stigma of a question about their purity and holiness in the eyes of their own religious community virtually from the time Mary said “Yes” to God at the Angel Gabriel’s annunciation. Their sacrifice shows the magnitude of their faith, love, and humility before God.

    • Beehopie

      Tube bible states in Mathew 1:25 that Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary until she bore Jesus. So you have to decide is gods word True or mans traditions.

      • Gloria

        Look further to see how the word “until” is used in the Bible. It isn’t in this case as you interpret it.

  • rico

    the Life of the virgin Mary was written by Ven. Mary of Jesus of Agreda – Mystical City of God.
    maybe that is a good books to read by every catholic, do they Dr. Marshall?? I read the IV volumes and its worth my time.

  • Mitchell

    Even if there were a fairly organized group of consecrated virgin woman that served at the temple, there still would be a large lack of reliable evidence that mary was one of these. As I commented on your previous post, the Protoevangelium of James is not a strong source at all; nor is Sirach.

    However, the arguments given above for there being this sort of collection of virgins serving at the temple this are shaky at best. Many commentators take Exodus 38 and 1 Sam 2:22 to be referring to levite women doing their priestly duties (see Num. 8:24 for use of the same verb and a clear proclamation for this sort of thing).

    The citation from 2 Macc. 3 is not at all referring to some sort of group of virgins serving at the temple, rather it is concerning the young women who ran from their houses of their parents in mourning and prayer (along with other people as well). There is no sufficient evidence in this passage that they are special, consecrated virgins that served at the temple. Additionally, this passage, in general, is one portion of Maccabees that ought to be suspected of using hyperbole (which this work often does).

    The citation from 2 Baruch is merely referring to unmarried women who spin silk. How does this entail that they serve at/live at the temple at all? All the Author is doing is telling all sorts of people how futile the situation is of Zion. He references the virgins as one type of people he wants to instruct in how to respond to this futility. In addition to this, is this text to be trusted really at all? Both the Jews and the early Christians rejected this text, and even in the very chapter cited, the work even deduces non-Christian views concerning the messiah(!). In my opinion, one would be better off scrounging the Shepherd of Hermes for references to virgins serving at a temple (which, in that work, was actually the Church) and inferring that this derived from some previous tradition (but this sort of argument would still be very weak).

    Lastly, the reference to the Mishnah merely says that young women sewed the veil. It does not say that these women were specially consecrated or lived at the temple, etc. For all we know, these women were called upon merely because they volunteered (or were volunteered by their families) because they were yet unmarried and had more time to do so than the older women.

    One final note about the entire argument: When one is trying to defend their position, especially one that his highly debated, it behooves the person positing a claim to not merely show that their position is theoretically possible but to also demonstrate its cogency. AT each step of the way, defense of these sorts of claims about Mary are found to be lacking if one just examines the evidence for themselves. Irrelevant citations are lifted -merely because they mention “young women” and the “temple” close together- to give an air that they are pertinent, when they do not fit with the issue at all. In other places, works not accepted by the earliest Christians are cited as key evidence. And in other places, Christians hundreds of years after Christ are cited as authoritative who believed and propounding these Marian doctrines much more fully -yet these very Christians either fail to cite the their own most fundamental grounding for having these views or the ones they do cite fall far short of demanding true consideration (e.g. the Protoevangelium of James).

    • Laurence Charles Ringo

      Good stuff, Mitchell; thanks for bringing some clarity to this fable of Mary’s so-called”perpetual virginity”, a fantasy woven out of whole cloth, so to speak. I’ve raised the question of how is it that Mary would perform the rituals attendant upon being a mother who had given birth as outlined in Leviticus chapter 12 if she was still a virgin? No such rites were incumbent upon virgins, and I don’t care how loss of virginity comes about, If a woman has a child, she’s no longer a virgin, period.

  • Dave

    That Mary was a worker in the Temple…OK, I’ll grant it. But never, never because some “seer” or mystic says so. We put too much stock in visions and the like. Most are nonsense.

  • Malaysian Neocon

    Thanks for the insights! I was looking for an Old Testament passage, or failing, Jewish tradition that forms a precedent for the idea that Jephthah’s daughter committed herself to a lifetime of service and celibacy (as opposed to burning up in flames).

    • Jeanne

      Malayasian Neocon – That question was what brought me to this page as well. But I don’t believe it does make a case that Jephthah’s daughter would have had to be celibate all her life. Even in this supposed temple virgin tradition, they were done their service at a marriageable age. No need to stay and be celibate all her life. The priests certainly weren’t. Therefore, nothing for her young girlfriends to grieve. And old Anna, who greeted infant Jesus’ arrival at the Temple, was a widow. So you could serve at the Temple and still have had a spouse and children.