the foolish virgins

Recent lexical study of Hellenistic Greek throws new light on the parable of the 5 wise virgins and 5 foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1-13). English translations of this parable have traditionally translated the Greek word μωραὶ (morai) as an adjective ‘foolish.’

However, in a pre-publication copy of a new lexicon by scholars Brown, Driver, Aren’t, and Gig, convincing evidence is presented that μωραὶ was a noun, not an adjective. Furthermore, the meaning of ‘foolish’ is secondary, by semantic extension from its core lexical meaning which was ‘jesters’ (feminine gender).

This new evidence correlates with a previously little understood passage from Josephus where he briefly mentioned the μωραὶ of Herodian courts. In a single sentence Josephus wrote (my translation): “The jesters served in the Herodian courts to levitate the dour atmosphere of those courts.”

A traditional interpretation of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins is eschatological. With this new lexical data, however, exegetes will have to work with the claim that the parable is jestertional, rather than eschatological. The 5 wise virgins were commended for their actions because they gave good advice. The 5 so-called “foolish” virgins were condemned because they did not speak seriously. They remained in character as jesters of the court.

Secondarily, we can derive a connotational sense that the 5 jesters were foolish because they stayed in character. They wasted the time of the court of the kingdom of heaven which Jesus declared as near and even among us. But their foolishness is not the central point of the passage.

Better Bibles are those which use the latest lexical and exegetical evidence available to their translation teams. I wonder which new English version will incorporate this latest lexical incite as they translate Matthew 25.

11 thoughts on “the foolish virgins

  1. Peter Kirk says:

    To me, the whole point of the parable is that the so called “wise” ones turned out to be both foolish and gastronomically challenged, because they didn’t buy extra virgin olive oil. There has been a similar misunderstanding here as in the previous chapter, 24:36-41 which I blogged about. It was these “wise” virgins who were left outside (the text we have may be corrupt, hetoimoi “ready” as an error for erchomenai “coming” perhaps), because who would invite to a feast people who didn’t appreciate good food!

  2. Refe says:

    I actually am a member of a Jestertional Reformed Church, and we have understood this reading for over 100 years. Hopefully the renewed interest in the proper lexical context of this passage will begin to put an end to the ostracization of our denomination and allow us to take our rightful place in mainline Evangelicalism.

  3. jkgayle says:

    Glad to hear that Brown, Driver, Aren’t, and Gig are finally catching up with Frederick Crews, the MLA, its Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, Sisera Catheter, and, of course, Pooh (as in Winnie The, who, in her or his various post-modern Man-ifestations was four jesters, three wise men, two virgins, and A Partridge in a Pear Tree).

  4. Craig Benno says:

    I always thought there was some links to this passage to Nehemiah – when he went about mourning in front of the king, an action which could have resulted in his losing his head.

  5. Ounbbl says:

    The scholars – Brown, Driver, Aren’t, and Gig – they must be jesters. I’m serious. They seem got stuck with lexicographic level rather than thematic level of the pericope. Of course, it does not have to be understood as something eschatological. But with the contrast of one being foolish and one being wise, I don’t see anything smell of jesters in the text.

  6. Sue says:

    Sigh. What’s up with you guys? Surely you know that the word is gestational, and not jestertional. I think that an improved spellcheck function might clear that up.

    This then indicates that these were young women, and not virgins at all. However, just as the RSV encountered endless problems translating virgin as “young woman” any Bible translation today that used “young women” instead of “virgins” would experience the usual boycott.

    I would expect that it should be a simple thing, but alas – to expect a bunch of bible blokes to understand the political significance of attributing wisdom (or folly) to a female who is no longer a virgin, is unrealistic.

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