What is a virgin widow?

What does St. Ignatius of Anitoch mean in his letter to the Smyrnaeans in his conclusion “and the virgins who are called widows”.

I salute the families of my brethren, with their wives and children, and the virgins who are called widows. Be strong, I pray, in the power of the Holy Ghost.

- The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, ch. 13

Ignatius of Antioch provides no definition or explanation of the term. Whatever they were, they appear to have been widespread enough to not require an explanation.

Most scholars think it refers to young never married women (virgins) joining the ranks of widows within the Church. In the early Church widows who did not remarry would often dedicate themselves to service in the local Church community (1 Timothy 5:9-10). They formed a kind of religious order, so to speak. They originally only included older widows while younger widows were encouraged to remarry (1 Timothy 5:11,14). Over time younger widows were accepted as well as young women who consecrated themselves to virginity would be included amongst this “order of widows” and would serve the local Church in this role.

It appears that Tertullian did not approve of this arrangement:

I know plainly, that in a certain place a virgin of less than twenty years of age has been placed in the order of widows! Whereas if the bishop had been bound to accord her any relief, he might, of course, have done it in some other way without detriment to the respect due to discipline; that such a miracle, not to say monster, should not be pointed at in the church, a virgin-widow! the more portentous indeed, that not even as a widow did she veil her head; denying herself either way; both as virgin, in that she is counted a widow, and as widow, in that she is styled a virgin.

- Tertullian’s On the Veiling of Virgins, ch. 9

So, while Tertullian didn’t like it, it appears to have been fairly common in the early Christian communities.

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