In her discussion of the life of Macrina (ca. 327–79), the sister of Gregory of Nyssa, Susanna Elm comments upon Macrina's decision to treat the death of her fiancé as if it were the death of a husband. Inasmuch as this decision became a reason for her not to (re)marry, Macrina took on “a new social role: the virgin widow.” Elm's casual remark points to a remarkable failure among a number of commentators to take account of the ambiguities inherent in the title “widow” (Greek χήρα, Latin vidua). While acknowledging the existence of an order of widows, scholars have also widely assumed that the terms χήρα and vidua can be equated to the modern term “widow,” that is, a woman who has survived her husband. The discussion of Christian widows, and especially enrolled widows, has accordingly focused primarily upon the function and often the age of these women. If scholars mention the marital status of such women at all, their discussion is generally directed toward the question of second marriages. I shall argue, however, that it is in fact misleading to assume that a widow must have been married previously and that in the earliest centuries of the Christian church, there is evidence not only for the existence of “virgin widows” but also for the problems that these women posed for some church leaders.
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