Take the 2-minute tour ×
Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professors, theologians, and those interested in exegetical analysis of biblical texts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Jesus told a parable about the kingdom of God involving "ten virgins" and a "bridegroom". It starts out in the beginning of Matthew:

Matthew 25:1-2 (ESV)
1 "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.

In other places in the New Testament we learn that church is the bride of Christ and it is generally understood that in the parable above, the groom is representative of Christ. The question becomes, who are the virgins?

What can hermeneutics tell us about these ten ladies? What are the relevant Jewish wedding customs? Does calling them 'virgins going to meet the bridegroom' mean they were each to be his bride making for a ten-in-one polygynous wedding ceremony? Or were they to play some other roll in the story? Were they some ancient equivalent of bridesmaids in current Western wedding tradition? What would it have meant to Jesus audience as he told the parable that these ten ladies "went out to meet" the groom?

share|improve this question
    
Lots of questions there! –  Richard Oct 24 '11 at 14:11
1  
@Richard: True, but they are all about a couple of words in one verse and about the context of how they should be understood, so I think it's fair to have them all in one question. –  Caleb Oct 24 '11 at 14:41
3  
s/roll/role/ (Great question, by the way. I've never thought the women could all be brides.) –  Jon Ericson Oct 25 '11 at 16:57
2  
@JonEricson Heh. I never thought that they could be anything but brides! ;) –  Richard Oct 25 '11 at 17:44
    
I've just updated my answer with links to questions I asked on Judaism.SE - I'll be refining it further. –  stringo0 Nov 3 '11 at 17:28

5 Answers 5

Marriage Process

The marriage process in ancient Israel went like this:

  • The agreement A man went to the girl's father's house and set up an agreement. Then they put the agreement in writing
  • The bride price The man paid the bride price to the father. Technically, this gift belonged to the bride and it set her free from her parents. Once the bride price was paid, the woman belonged to the man and was (in the eyes of the community and law) legally married

  • The betrothal period At this point, the groom returned home without his bride. Even though they were legally married, they could not be together for a year and did not have sex.

  • The wedding After a year, the man came to the town, bringing his family and party to "carry away" the woman and take her to the wedding party. At this point in the wedding process, the groom took her from the house to the wedding site where they partied (from four to seven days, usually).

    It is claimed that the groom would often show up at a random time to surprise his bride (occasionally in the middle of the night). It is also claimed that the groom could call the wedding off before the feast and turn her away.

Source (this is one source among many).

Ten Virgins: Ten Brides

If we put the Parable of the Ten Virgins in context of this ancient wedding traditions, we can see that the point-in-process that Jesus refers to is the betrothal and wedding process.

The bridegroom is coming take take away his wife for the wedding party. The bride price has been paid and the betrothal period has passed. The virgins knew that the bridegroom was approaching, but they didn't know when he would come exactly.

Because of all these contextual clues that Jesus gave us in the parable, we can easily conclude that the ten virgins were actually all brides of the bridegroom, not just the wedding party.

If we put this in context, the parents of the bride were not required to remain vigilant. Nor were the servants of the house. Nor were any brothers who were also living in the same household. These were, after all, virgins. Even a loose translation of the word, parthenos, gives us "young girls" (from the definition "one's marriageable daughter").

Clearly, the groom is coming for the bride. In this case, he has ten brides that he is coming for. And he's coming to carry off the bride(s) in the middle of the night (which, apparently, was not unheard of).

Historical Polygamy

To help further support this idea that the groom was coming for ten brides, we can see that polygamy was actually common during the time of Jesus.

The historian Josephus had twice noted that polygamy was permitted to Herod because it was permitted by Jewish custom. This actually went against the Roman laws that forbade multiple wives (which is what made the multiple marriages allowed to Herod notable to Josephus).

Ten Virgins: Symbology

The ten virgins in this parable clearly refer to the church members. Directly before this parable, Jesus tells his disciples to be prepared for his second coming:

Matthew 24:42-44 (NASB)Emphasis added
42 “Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. 43 But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. 44 For this reason you also must be ready; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will."

He adds to his warning by including the "thief in the night" parable showing that Jesus will return suddenly and unexpectedly. We, therefore, as his chosen people must be ready for his coming.

In the parable, there are ten virgins; half of them are prepared and the other half are not. The half that are ready are taken away to the marriage feast as the bride--they join to the groom in marriage. The other half are not.

In context of the previous warning of Jesus, it is very clear that the ten virgins are symbolic of the church. It also serves as a warning to be ready and sanctify yourself (as a betrothal period). We are no longer under the law; the bride price has been paid and we are now married to Jesus. We're just awaiting his coming!

Ten Virgins: Bridesmaids?

Some have claimed that the ten virgins are bridesmaids. However, this interpretation fails in many senses.

  • First, in the marriage traditions of the day, the groom did not come to carry away the servants of the bride, but the bride herself. The interpretation of the virgins as bridesmaids fails the historical context.

  • Also, Jesus is coming to take us away from this world for a place he is preparing for us. In this parable (and per the traditions), the groom is coming to take away the brides. His goal in showing up is not to take away the bridesmaids only to return them later.

    Further down this road: If this parable were to be interpreted as bridesmaids, they would be returned to the house of their father after the wedding: only the bride is taken with the groom. If this were the interpretation, the groom (Jesus) would end up leaving his church (the "bridesmaids") behind after the feast was over.

    Because of this, the interpretation falls short on the eschatology. Clearly Jesus is coming to take us away, not just "borrow us" for a short while.

  • Another point, the servants of the brides would not be referred to as "virgins", but as "servants". We can see this clearly from the wedding in Canaan, the site of Jesus' first miracle. If these were "bridesmaids", they wouldn't be referred to as "virgins".

    Another possibility is that they would be referred to as maids, as is Genesis 29:24, where a maid is given as a bridal gift.

  • Also, putting bridesmaids into this story would be anachronistic!

    The history of bridesmaids allegedly comes from an old Roman law stating that there had to be ten witnesses. Of course, the immediate assumption is that 10 witnesses = 10 virgins. However, while valid at face value, this quickly dissipates under closer examination! First and foremost, if these virgins were needed as witnesses, the groom would not throw them out of the party.

    Also along these lines, while the Roman law required that there be 10 witnesses, it also prevented these witnesses from being women. In other words, while bridesmaids may have descended from the ancient Roman laws, there were no bridesmaids in the ancient Roman empire!

    Finally, the idea of "bridesmaids" didn't come around until many years later. The horizon of understanding that Jesus would have had at the time of this telling would not have been of 10 virgins that needed to fulfill the law by witnessing a ceremony, but 10 people that needed to witness the ceremony in order to fulfill the law. The idea that he would have included 10 virgins in the story as the people needed to fulfill the Roman laws is ridiculous.

    Therefore, since (a) the groom would not throw out the witnesses that the law required, (b) the witnesses had to be men and (c) the concept of "bridesmaids" originated from these set of male witnesses, clearly bridesmaids would have been anachronistic in the ancient Roman Empire!

  • Again (admittedly, probably the weakest point), the servants of the bride would not be waiting for the groom, but rather waiting for the bride to be taken away. Their focus would be on the bride and on the party, not on anxiously awaiting the groom. It seems incredibly odd to me that a bunch of servants to the bride would be waiting for the groom instead of helping the bride wait. The focus of the story seems odd and the mental leaps required to imagine that Jesus would talk about servants waiting for a bridegroom seem to be too much of a stretch.

So why this interpretation?
The reason that people interpret this as bridesmaids is to avoid the unpleasant reality of the popularity of polygamy in the days of Jesus. As we've seen earlier, however, polygamy was a custom of the time and a historical fact. Modern ethics say that polygyny is "wrong" and therefore commentaries tend to interpret things through this lens.

With the realization that polygyny was common and acceptable during that day, we can clearly see that these are brides, not servants.

Summary

The ten virgins in this parable are all, very clearly, brides of Christ.

The parable itself is a very clear eschatology reference saying that the church members (the virgins) are to remain ready and waiting for Jesus (the groom) because he will be coming soon. In fact, directly before this parable, Jesus says that he is coming very soon; that we should remain ready; and his coming will be like a thief in the night; and that he will be taking us to a new home. Given this context, the parable is clearly referring to members of the church being ready and waiting for Christ's return.

share|improve this answer
1  
I would disagree with your conclusion about how a different word would be used for bridesmaid vs. virgins. Virgins in this context would refer to any unmarried woman of "marrying age" indicating that the others were peers of the bride, perhaps friends, as opposed to family. –  Jessica Brown Oct 25 '11 at 20:52
    
@JessicaBrown Thank you for pointing this out. It made me research the history of bridesmaids. I've updated my answer to show that the concept of bridesmaids would have been anachronistic to the Roman empire. –  Richard Oct 25 '11 at 21:19
1  
Extensive commentary and discussion on the first revision of this question available in chat –  Shog9 Oct 27 '11 at 3:43
    
These are good points. Right now, glossing over the answers, it still feels just like good points on both sides on the table. Finding a historic example of a groom marrying more than one "bride" at a time would seal the deal. –  stringo0 Oct 27 '11 at 20:40

While elsewhere in the New Testament marriage is used as a picture of Christ and his bride, that does not imply that the same picture should be imported into every parable and saying of Jesus. Consider Jesus' words elsewhere in Matthew:

Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

Matthew 9:14-15 (NIV)

It would be ridiculous to ask, "Who is the bride in this little analogy here?" To do so would surely be to miss Jesus' point. While elsewhere in the New Testament, the picture may be of the Son and his bride, in Matthew's gospel the picture is of the Son and the guests invited to his wedding banquet. Besides the passage above, we also have the parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22:1-14.

The point of the parable in Matthew 25 is fairly straightforward. It comes right on the heels of Jesus' warnings in the previous chapter to "keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come" and serves along with several other parables to reenforce this point.

First, though, here is some of the background you asked for from Dr. Thomas Constable's notes:

Some background information concerning weddings in the ancient Near East is helpful in understanding this parable. First, the parents arranged the marriage with the consent of the bride and groom. Second, the couple passed an engagement period of many months in which it would become clear, hopefully, that the bride was a virgin. Third, on the day of the wedding the groom would go to the bride’s house to claim his bride from her parents. Friends of his would accompany him. Fourth, the marriage ceremony would take place at the bride’s home. Fifth, on the evening of the day of the wedding the groom would take his bride home. This involved a nighttime procession through the streets. Sixth, the bride and groom would consummate their marriage at the groom’s home the night of the wedding ceremony. Seventh, there would be a banquet that would often last as long as seven days. This often took place at the groom’s home.

The scene in this parable is at night as the bride’s friends wait to welcome the couple and to enter the groom’s house where the banquet would begin shortly. All ten of the virgins knew that the groom’s appearing would be soon.

The ten virgins are guests invited to the wedding banquet, anticipating the bridegroom's return. The bridegroom does represent Jesus; but like in Matthew 9, the identity of the bride is orthogonal to the point of the parable. The guests are in danger of being shut out of the celebration because they are not prudent enough in being watchful for the bridegroom's return.

Thus it concludes: "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour."

share|improve this answer
    
You begin with It would be ridiculous to ask, "Who is the bride in this little analogy here?" but then conclude with the assumption that the ten virgins are not the brides. That's a very bold assumption and can't really be supported with the text. –  Richard Oct 25 '11 at 10:57
    
@Richard I'm confused; are you saying the identity of the bride in Matthew 9 is important? –  Soldarnal Oct 25 '11 at 14:05
1  
No, I'm saying that you're assuming that the virgins are not the brides. Given how common polygyny was back in that day, and given the marriage traditions of the day, and given the eschatological implications of it, it makes a lot of sense to understand these ten virgins as the brides of the coming groom. –  Richard Oct 25 '11 at 14:14
5  
I'm not assuming it; I'm arguing that the pattern in Matthew (and all the synoptics) is that of Jesus and his wedding guests. Moreover, the practice of polygyny even if common (which I would dispute) does not determine anything about wedding practices. –  Soldarnal Oct 25 '11 at 16:37
    
In all the synoptics? I thought the parable only existed in Matthew... Are there other places where we can see Jesus referring to wedding guests awaiting the groom (in particular virgins)? If so, I'm open to considering it. –  Richard Oct 25 '11 at 16:44

As far as the relevant wedding customs, Chuck Missler explains the traditional custom fairly well, as follows:

1) Betrothal - the marriage covenent is established, a price for the bride is negotiated and paid by the groom to the bride's family. There were also some symbolic rituals involved, but that's not so relevant to the question at hand.

2) Preparation - The betrothal period is similar to being engaged. They were not yet to unite sexually, and the bride wore a veil to signify her consecration to her husband to be. The husband returned home after becoming betrothed/engaged to prepare a home for the woman, and the woman made her preparations for married life as well. Often this would be about a year of preparation.

3) Arrival of the Groom - Once the groom finished his preparations he would come to collect his bride. This was usually done at night, and the groom would be accompanied by a wedding party, male escorts and a best man, and they would carry torches to light their procession. The bride knew he would be coming but would not know when exactly (hence, needing to be prepared), so the groom would arrive with a shout to get the attention that they had arrived.

4) Wedding party - The bride along with her female attendants would accompany the groom back to his family home for a wedding celebration. After the procession walked back to the groom's family home... The bride and groom entered a wedding tent called a huppah to physically consecrate the marriage, while everyone involved waited and cheered. Then the bride would bring out the evidence of her virginity, and their marriage was essentially finalized. This was followed by a week of feasting and celebration by the entire bridal party.

Conclusion So, in this parable, if one follows ancient Jewish wedding cultural traditions, the 10 young women would be the bridal party, not additional brides. They were all supposed to go feast and celebrate once the groom arrived.

In the parable the groom arrived late and half of the wedding party was not prepared, and had to go buy more oil for their lamps, and thus arrived late at the wedding celebration, and were turned away at the door when they arrived late. It is also worth noting that contextually, this parable appears to be building upon and amplifying what was taught in the previous parable which was about preparedness for the Lord's coming, with the analogy of marriage given.

The audience to whom the parable was given revealed earlier in the text was primarily Jewish, and would be quite familiar with that wedding custom, and the emphasis would be on the preparedness and missing the wedding moreso than anything else described.

share|improve this answer
    
So, if the virgins are the bridal party, when Jesus (the groom) comes for the wedding party, he will leave the church (the virgins) behind? He'll invite them to the wedding party and then send them on their way after the party is over? Also, doesn't this imply that we do not belong to Jesus, since he--as the groom--has some other bride? If Jesus is the groom, who's the bride? This interpretation falls short. –  Richard Oct 26 '11 at 12:24
    
I think you meant "bride" when you said groom in a couple of places here, especially in "Then the groom would bring out the evidence of her virginity" –  stringo0 Oct 27 '11 at 20:24
5  
hmm - @Richard, maybe you're stretching the parable too far/reading into it? There's many analogies that illustrate one point, but if you take them too far they lose their meaning. –  stringo0 Oct 27 '11 at 20:26

No.

I'll update my answer to refine it, but based on these 2 questions I asked on Judaism.SE, this is most likely just a wedding party rather than a polygamous marriage:

  1. Question about Polygamy in Jewish Law and Culture
  2. Question about Polygamy and Marriage Ceremonies

Included below is my old answer I have yet to refine.


When I think of the passage, I'm reminded of the story of Esther:

Then the king's young men who attended him said, “Let beautiful young virgins be sought out for the king. And let the king appoint officers in all the provinces of his kingdom to gather all the beautiful young virgins to the harem in Susa the citadel, under custody of Hegai, the king's eunuch, who is in charge of the women. Let their cosmetics be given them. And let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This pleased the king, and he did so. (Esther 2:2-4 ESV)

Based on that, and my cultural understanding of marriage, I think the bridegroom was going to pick the ideal bride from among the five virgins. Having multiple wives might have been accepted during Jesus' time, but through the course of the bible, I'm used to them being married to one at a time.

Maybe the question of the practice of polygyny should be asked in the Judaism/Jewish Life SE to see what the common practices of the day were in terms of marriage, and more especially whether a groom married more than one bride at a time.

share|improve this answer
    
Thanks @JonEricson - I have asked a question about this on the Jewish site (2 related ones actually ;p). Could you expand on your first point? I get what you mean by saying that it was a different cultural setting - that does make sense, but I don't get what you're saying with "the brides are brought to the king one at a time". Thanks! –  stringo0 Nov 2 '11 at 21:51
1  
The biggest problem I have with the multiple bride theory is that I can't imagine a wedding with 10 brides in any culture. (I'm sure someone will suggest a culture, but that won't change my ability to imagine it. ;-) I see now that your suggestion is that the man might pick just one of the virgins at the last minute. So my comment missed the mark there. (By the way, it might be good to link to the other questions assuming they are getting answers.) –  Jon Ericson Nov 2 '11 at 21:58
1  
Thanks! - I'm hoping to update my answer once I get more answers - but here are the links for now. judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/11040/… & judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/11063/… –  stringo0 Nov 2 '11 at 22:00
    
The first has a really helpful answer that threatens to change my understanding of polygamy, if not the parable. The second is too young yet to know. –  Jon Ericson Nov 2 '11 at 22:30
    
Hmm - what stood out from the first? There's some insightful updates on the second now. –  stringo0 Nov 3 '11 at 17:22

In sensus plenior, by way of drash, all the brides in all the stories are one bride. Here the one bride is represented by five who have oil and five who do not.

Numbers in sensus plenior are not the same as they are in popular typology.

5 is the number of man, 10 being two fives is the dual-natured man. Initially it represents Christ, but we are to be made like him.

The bride is the church. We have the nature which is wrapped up in buying and selling with merchants. This is the flesh. We have the nature which is filled with the spirit (oil). The old nature will perish.

This same theme is represented by a long string of women:

Rebeckah was a virgin, but in the language of riddles (without imputing any sin) it says that the servant 'took' (same word as 'married') her, and she was uncovered until she saw Isaac.

Leah and Rachel play the two parts as Leah sneaked into Jacobs wedding bed.

Gomer was a prostitute, yet she named her first son "God sows" as a hint of the virgin birth.

Even 'Mary' means rebellious, yet she was the virgin mother of Christ.

Tamar played a harlot, but was called 'more honorable' than Judah.

Rahab was a harlot, but became the mother of the promise.

The ten virgins are the same theme. Half represent the pure bride of Christ, the other represent the 'old nature' which buys and sells with the merchants.

share|improve this answer

protected by Jon Ericson Jul 18 '12 at 19:14

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.