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Chapter Four

The Parable of the Ten Maidens

by Susan Marie Praeder
from The Word in Women’s Worlds, Four Parables
Published in 1988 by Michael Glazier, Inc. Wilmington, Delaware.
Published on our website with the necessary permission

Mt 25:1-13 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be likened to ten maidens who took their lights and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For thefoolish took their lights without taking along oil, but the wise took oil in the flasks with their lights. When the bridegroom tarried, they all became drowsy and slept. In the middle of the night there was a shout, ’Behold the bridegroom! Go out to meet him!’ Then all those maidens awoke and tended to their lights. The foolish said to the wise, ’Give us some of your oil, because our lights are out.’ The wise said in reply, ’No, never; it will not supply us and you. Go instead to the sellers and buy for yourselves.’ While they were gone to buy, the bridegroom came. The maidens who were ready went in with him to the wedding party, and the door was shut. Later the rest of them returned and said, ’Lord, lord, open for us.’ He said in reply, ’Truly I say to you: I do not know you.’ So stay awake, because you know neither the day nor the hour.”

This chapter approaches the parable of the ten maidens, a future kingdom parable, as an account of a wedding procession and as an illustration of the christological and ecclesi-ological drama of the end time. In the first part of the chapter I discuss the parable in relation to Greek, Jewish, and Roman wedding processions. In the second part I conduct a parabolic reading of the text, pointing out interpretative options and raising questions about the christological and ecclesiological significance of certain story elements. A discussion of allegorical, parabolic, redactional, and traditional interpretations concludes the chapter.

Wedding Processions in Ancient Times

In wedding processions of the Greeks,Jews, and Romans, the bride was conducted from her father’s house to the bridegroom’s house or his father’s house. The processions usually took place during the evening hours and included bride and bridegroom, their friends and relatives, and interested towns- people. In Jewish processions the bridegroom and his party came to take the bride from her father’s house at evening. Dance, music, and symbolic displays could turn the procession into a festive parade. Rabbinic sources tell of processions accompanitedby dancing, drums and other instruments, and singing. Participants expressed their wished for the fertility and good fortune of the couple by showering the route with aromatic substances, oil, and wine. Hens and roosters were pressed into service as live symbols of fertility. A wedding party at the bridegroom’s house or his father’s house followed the procession.(1)

Greek and Roman processions were preceded by a wedding party in the father-of-the-bride’s house . Among the Romans this wedding party was a day-long ritual including auspices, sacrifices, and a wedding dinner. In Greek procession the bride and bridegroom were conducted to his house amid music, song, and sounds and stunts of friends and relatives. The bride’s mother carried torches in the procession, and her future mother-in-law, also carrying torches, greeted her at the door of the decorated house. Flute music and torchlight, the latter even during daylight processions, were among the standard features of Roman weddings. A boy carried a special torch, the spina alba, before the bride, and the distaff and spindle, symbols of obedient domesticity, were carried behind her. At the wedding party at the bridegroom’s house, the guest fought for the souvenir spina alba(.)2

The setting of the parable of the ten maidens reflects the general setting of Greek, Jewish, and Roman weddings: evening, a wedding procession, and a wedding party. At the same time the parable is not intended as an accurate or a complete account of a wedding. It is an illustration of the kingdom based a selective and somewhat symbolic account of such proceedings. It is a selective account in that it includes the bridegroom and ten maidens while omitting the bride, other participants, and the sights and sounds of the wedding procession and party.

Some NT scholars cit the omission of the bride as evidence that the parable is not even a selective account of a wedding, and others explain the omission by suggesting that the bridegroom is coming to claim her at her father’s house.(3) The omission of the bride does demonstrate that the parable is not a complete account but not that it must be based on some other imaginary or real occasion. Selectivity is characteristic of wedding accounts in ancient art and literature, and portrayal of the bride is not an essential element. Our understanding of Greek, Jewish, and Roman weddings is based on composite evidence assembled from various sources. Since no one source succeeds in telling the whole story, it is unreasonable to expect the parable to do so. The christological portrayal of the bridegroom does not support the suggestion that he is coming to claim the bride. It seems that the wedding party should be set in his house or his father’s house.

The characters in the parable play out the double identities of wedding participants and principals in a christological and ecclesiological drama. The bridegroom appears in the role of bridegroom and Jesus, the Lord of the Christian community. Similarly, the ten maidens are girls in a wedding procession and representatives of the Christian community at the end time. The portrayal of the bridegroom is recognizable from ancient sources, and the portrayals of Jesus and the Christian community resemble other such portrayals in Matthew. The ten maidens, however, are not recognizable from ancient sources, and this fact raises several questions about the portrayal: What is meant by “maidens”? Did maidens carry lights in wedding processons or into wedding parties? What is meant by “lights”? Does the parabe portray maidens who carry and tend to lamps or torches?

“Maidens” is a translation of the pural form of the Greek word parthenos, a term applied to unmarried women and implying virginity and youth. In ancient times women married in early youth. Twelve-year -olds were viewed as women of marriageable age, and many women entered into marriages during their teen years.(4) In its portrayal of the ten maidens as wedding participants, the parable is representing subteenage or teenage girls. They are unmarried friends, relatives, or townspeople attached to the wedding procession and party.

Aside from the parable and interpretations of the parable in early Christian art and literature, there are no representations of maidens carrying lights in wedding processions or into wedding parties dating from ancient times. Others, not maidens, are assigned the role of carrying or setting out lights. Greek sources report that the mother of the bride and the mother of the bridegroom carried torches. Rabbinic sources are short on information about lighting for wedding processions. On one occasion a man and a woman carried torches during the transport of the marriage bed, and on another a man, the father of the bride, had golden lamps set out along the route of the wedding procesion.(5) According to Roman sources, a boy carried the principal torch, but other torch-carriers were also required. Although there is no ancient evidence to corroborate the parable’s portrayal of subteenage or teenage girls as light-carriers, it does not necessarily follow that the portrayal is an invention of the storyteller or the synoptic tradition. It is possible that groups of maidens, not necessarily groups of ten, served as light-carriers but were not selected for portrayal inthe scattered ancient sources that survive.

A medieval commentary and a modern custom attest to the participation of groups of ten light-carriers and groups of maidens in Jewish wedding of later times. In a comment of the Mishnah text “A torch is susceptible to uncleanness, and the reservoir of a lamp is susceptible to uncleanness from [an uncleanness within] its air-space” (Kelim 2:8), the medieval Jewish scholar Rashi observes:

In the land of Israel it is estabished custom for the bride to be conducted from her father’s house to her husband’s house during the evening and as a prelude to her entry into the marriage chamber. Pole lights are carried in front of her. There are about ten of them, and at the top of each there is a copper sort of receptacle for shreds of old cloth and oil or resin. They light this anduse it to illuminate the route in front of her.(6)

A traveler in Palestine at the turn of the century saw unmarried girls carrying torches in wedding processins andperforming torch dances and rounds at wedding parties. He described the torches as “long poles with rages of good size thoroughly soaked with olive oil and wound around the top.”(7) Although these later sources neither establish the existence of similar ancient customs nor explain the parable’s portrayal of the ten maidens, they give us some idea about the roles that could have been assigned to girls in wedding processions and parties and about the types of lighting devices, special lamps or torches, that they could have used.

The parable describes the lights as lampades, the plural of a term with general and specific ranges of meaning. As a general term, lampas includes lamps, torches, and various other types of lighting devices. It was also a specific term for torches and other lighting devices involving the burning of solid materials such as wax and wood. This group was distinguished from the group designated by lychnos, a term for oil-burning lighting devices such as the household lamp in the parable of the lost coin.(8) The sequence of events in the parable and the use of oil can be interpreted in support of the translation “lamps” for lampades. Greek and Roman sources and the distinction between lampas and lychnos in the NT and LXX suggest that lampades should be rendered as “torches”.

Most NT scholars settle on the translation “lamps.”(9) My translation of lampades as “lights” is meant as a reminder of the interpretatives difficulties posed by the parable and as a representation of the broad range of the term. If the lights admit of description as lamps, then they seem to be ceremonial or processional lamps and should be distinguished from household lamps. If they are torches, then the lampas-lychnos distinction between lights using fuels of oil and solid materials does not apply in this case. In the medieval and modern examples oil and solid materials are used in devices described as pole lamps and torches. Torches were used in Greek and Roman wedding processions, but the lack of parallel Jewish sources prevents us from formulating a general rule. Early Christian artists depicted the lights as torches, but Greek and Roman customs scould have dictated their interpretative choices.(10)

The LXX and the NT tend to preserve the distinction between lampas and lychnos. Lampas is a torch:

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed betwen these pieces (Gen 15:17).

When the sun shone upon the shields of gold and brass, the hills were ablaze with them and gleamed like torches (1 Macc 6:39).

So Judas, procuring a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons (Jn 18:3)

The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch,...(Rev 8:10).(11)

Lychnos is a light used in the household or in the temple, the household of God:

...the lampstands and their lamps of pure gold to burn before the inner sanctuary, as prescribed (2 Chr 4:20)

The light is dark in his tent, and his lamp above him is put out (Job 18:6).(12)

In Acts 20:8 the plural of lampas is used of the lighting in an upper room. Thes “lights” could be ordinary household lamps or other lighting devices for the special occasion. The silver lampades in Jdt 10:22 are neither torches nor ordinary lamps. They are tokens of the lavish lifestyle of Holofernes, a man who sleeps under a canopy of emeralds, gold, and other precious stones. (13)

Our consideration of Greek, Jewish, and Roman wedding processions, “lights,” and “maidens” has identified several points or problems of interpretation for further study in our parabolic reading in the second part of the chapter. The most important is the problem of the parable’s double areas of action and character identities: a wedding procession and party with bridegrooom and maidens and a christological and ecclesiological drama. Other points include the depiction of the lighting devices and the portrayal of the ten maidens as wedding participants. In the reading I review the lamps-or-torches controversy in terms of the sequence of events in the parable. The woman’s world represented in the parable seems to be that of subteenage or teenage girls anticipating a parade or an ancient version of “a big party.” There are no ancient sources to assist us in reconstructing this world, but from time to time I contribute some imaginative comments about the role of the ten maidens as wedding participants.

Analysis and Interpretation of the Parable

The parable of the ten maidens is a kingdom parable involving a comparison of likeness in story form. Matthew’s characteristic term for the kingdom, “the kingdom of heaven,” identifies the topic of comparison. The comparison of likeness applies to a future time, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be likened to ...” In the context of the apocalyptic discourse in Matthew 24-25, this future time is the coming of the Son of Man at the end time. The disciples introduce the discourse by asking, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” (24:3). In reply Jesus repeatedly alludes to his coming as the Son of Man or Lord at the end time but observes that the exact time of the coordinated events of his coming and the end is known to God alone (24:6, 13, 14, 27. 30, 36, 37, 39, 42, 44; 25:13, 31).

In contrast to the parable of the leaven, the comparison in this kingdom parable is not limited to a similitude or simple statement of likeness. Instead “ten maidens who took their lights and went out to meet the bridegroom” introduces a story about the meeting.(14) The introduction identifies the characters and setting of a wedding procession. There are no overt indications of the double areas of action and character identities that figure in the story part of the parable and the short interpretative conclusion. Jesus is not the only bridegroom in the NT, and the use of this title for him is limited to one set of synoptic parallels and a saying of John the Baptist in the fourth gospel (Mt 9:15; Mk 2:19-20; Lk 5:34-35; Jn 2:9; 3:29; Rev 18:23). Elsewhere maidens do not serve as stand-ins for the Christian community, although Paul speaks of the Corinthian community as the maiden bride of Christ (2 Cor 11:2). The lamps or torches could be sources of light for the procession or sources of symbolism, and the meeting an eschatological or everyday situation.

With regard to their foolishness and wisdom, the maidens form two groups of five, “Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.” Mõrai and phronimoi are “foolish” and “wise” in the sense of common sense or skill in surviving the challenges of daily life. The foolish lack this common sense or skill; they are silly or stupid girls. The wise are clever, prudent, or smart, Their foolishness and wisdom also signify the negative and positive sides of community and individual commitment to the kingdom and readiness for the end time. The Sermon on the Mount teaching about the two houses uses mõros and phronimos to contrast foolish and wise commitments. Those who hear and do the word are likened to a “a wise man who built his house upon the rock,” and those who hear but do not do the word are like “a foolish man who built his house upon the sand” (7:24, 26). The teaching preceding the parable of the ten maidens contrasts the fates of “the faithful and wise servant” and “that wicked servant” (24:45, 48). The former is rewarded for his service, and the latter is caught unprepared and punished accordingly.(15)

The foolish maidens demonstrate their foolishness by failing to take oil for their lamps or torches. Only the wise maidens take oil in their flasks. The basic contrast is clear, but the parable does not spell out the details. Is it that the foolish take their flasks but have forgotten to fill them with oil? Or do they fail to take flasks and oil? Is the oil taken by the wise maidens reserve oil in case their already-burning lamps or torches run out of fuel? Or is the oil to be poured once they learn of the bridegroom’s coming?(16) Later events suggest that the oil in question is reserve oil. The foolish maidens fail to take reserve oil out of lack of foresight or forget to pour it into their flasks. The oil is olive oil, a substance valued in ancient times as an essential food, fuel, and ointment.The parable understands olive oil as a fuel. The possession of reserve oil distinguishes one group from the other, but there seems to be no interest in linking the symbolic properties of olive oil, a sign of cultivation and peaceful prosperity, to wisdom and lack of wisdom.(17)

The delayed coming of the bridegroom and the sleeping and rising of the ten maidens are reminiscent of NT allusions to the second coming and the corresponding situation of the Christian community. Of special interest is the fact that the details in this part of the parable resemble some of the details in the apocalyptic passage in 1 Th 4:13—5:11. As I see it, however, comparative study of this part of the parable and NT apocalyptic passages does not allow us to conclude that christological and ecclesiological interests colored or determined Matthew’s entire selection of details. Although some of the details are clustered in 1 Thessalonians, they are not all that characteristic of apocalyptic passages in the synoptic gospels. Most of the details occur in nonapocalyptic passages and can be read as circumstances and events suitable for a parabolic wedding procession.

The bridegroom is said to have “delayed” or “tarried” in coming. The same term, chronizõ, appears in the quotation of the wicked servant’s thoughts in the preceding parable and its parallel in Luke, “My master is delayed” (24:48; cf. Lk 12:45). These delays are usually interpreted as representations of the delay of the Son of Man.(18) Scholarly reconstructions of the community situations of Matthew and Luke, the double meaning of kyrios as “Lord” and “master,” and later developments in the parable of the ten maidens support this line of interpretation. Nevertheless there is still room for doubt. Chronizõ describes the delay of characters in parables, and the assumption that delay in the parabolic world signifies delay in the real worlds of Matthew and Luke is a generally accepted but unproven interpretative guideline.(19)

During the bridegroom’s delay all the maidens, foolish and wise, become tired and fall asleep. At his coming they all rise and prepare to meet him. The only other NT occurrence of nystazõ, “drowsy,” does not suggest a special meaning for the verb in the parable (2 Pet 2:3). The verbs used of sleeping and waking of the ten maidens, katheudõ and egeirõ, also signify death and resurrection in the NT, but Matthew’s usage does not further the argument for allegorical reading of their sleeping and walking. The evangelist uses both verbs in the accounts of the stilling of the storm, raising of the ruler’s daughter, and scene in Gethsemane (8:24, 25, 26; 9; 19, 24, 25; 26: 40, 43, 45, 46). Jesus falls asleep and is roused from sleep by his sailing companions in the story of the stilling of the storm. In the raising story he suggests that the ruler’s daughter is only sleeping. Egeirõ refers to her return from death to life or sitting up and to his standing up to go to the ruler’s house. The disciples fall asleep three times in Gethsemane before Jesus tells them to stand up or wake up to follow him on his way.(20)

Katheudõ appears at the conclusion of the apocalyptic discourse in Mark, “lest he come suddenly and find you asleep” (13:36). In this passage the verb signifies lack of readiness at the end time, not premature death. A nonapocalyptic passage in Ephesians views Christian existence as waking from sleep for a new way of life, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light” (5:14) 21. Katheudõ and various words for dying, living, rising, sleeping, and waking are found in the apocalyptic passage in 1 Thessalonians. Paul approaches the problem of deaths in the community by explaining that the dead and the living will be reunited in Christ at the end time. The dead will rise, and the living will be snatched up with them. His explanation demonstrates that death was a problem in one early Christian community, but this does not mean that the problem of death is mirrored in the parable. The circumstances and vocabulary of the parable and the apocalyptic passage are quite distinct. In the parable all the maidens fall asleep, but the apocalyptic passage speaks of two separate groups, the dead or sleepers and the living. The parable uses katheudõ of the sleeping maidens, but Paul uses koimaomai of the dead or sleeping members of the community in all but one instance. In the same passage katheudõ is associated with darkness, drunkenness, and the negative side of life. (22)

The bridegroom’s coming is announced at midnight, a time that is too late for a wedding procession and only one of the possible times for the coming of the Son of Man or Lord. Matthew does not specify the time of day for the second coming, and the apocalyptic discourse in Mark implies that it could occur at any time of day, “for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning” (13:35). Luke sets the time at night, “in that night” (17:34). Paul likens the coming of the day of the Lord to the coming of “a thief in the night” (1 Th 5:2). It is like a thief in its suddenness but not necessarily in its time of coming. (23)

The shout and the instructions to meet the bridegroom remind some interpreters of the sounding of the coming and accompanying meeting in the apocalyptic passage in 1 Thessalonians. The coming of the Lord is sounded by “a cry of command,” “the archangel’s call,” and “the trumpet of God” (4:16). The coming of the bridegroom is announced by a single shout in the form of a quoted command. The command “Go out to meet him!” echoes the introductory “went out to meet the bridegroom. ” Similar expressions occur in nonapocalyptic passages, and the aerial meeting in 1 Thessalonians is not a true parallel to the terrestrial situation of the parable (4:17; cf. Mt 8:34; Jn 12:13). (24)

At the news of the bridegroom’s corning, the ten maidens “tended to their lights.” Kosmeõ, “tend to,”covers a range of actions that involve setting things in order, ’’adorn, arrange, clothe, ready, show respect for the dead or the living,“ and so on. As such, it does not clue us in on the precise action or actions of the maidens. They could be refilling their lamps, resoaking their torches, or readying them for the first time. Or they could be decorating them or doing something to make it possible to carry them at full flame.(25) The RSV translation of ekosmēsan as ”trimmed“ is an interpretative rendering based on the assumption that the lights are lamps with wicks.

It is only with the conversation of the ten maidens that some interpretative options concerning their lights seern more likely than others. The foolish ask for oil from the wise ”because our lights are out.(26) This indicates that they had lighted their lamps or torches at some point, unless the foolish maidens are lying and trying to conceal the fact of their lack of foresight or forgetfulness. Since oil seems to be the principal fuel for the lights, they should be classified as lamps. The readying of the lights is linked to the coming of the bridegroom, a fact that suggests that they are special lamps for a wedding procession. In reply the wise maidens, refusing to share their oil, recommend that the others “Go instead to the sellers and buy for yourselves.” This could be a rude dismissal, a serious recommendation, or some sort of joke or trick statement to get rid of the foolish maidens. The fact that the foolish follow the recommendation of the wise could be one more proof of their stupidity. Their foolishness is usually understood as a simple case of lack of foresight.(27)

While the foolish maidens are away, the bridegroom comes, and the wise maidens go in with him to the wedding party. “Came” and “went in” are translations of forms of erchomai and its compound eiserchomai, general terms for coming and going and technical terms for the coming of the Son of Man and going into the kingdom (e. g., Mt 8:5, 9, 14, 28; 9:1, 18, 23, 28; 18:3; 19:23, 24; 24:30, 44; 26:64). The wise maidens are “ready,” a description that seems to fit both sides of their double identity as wedding participants and representatives of the Christian community. They are ready to meet the bridegroom because their lamps or torches are in working order. In an earlier statement in the apocalyptic discourse, Jesus uses hetoimoi, “ready,” in the context of a warning to the disciples and the gospel’s readers (24:44; cf. Lk 12:40,47).

The wedding party is the double setting for the account and Matthew’s illustration of the kingdom of heaven. A wedding party also serves as the setting for the kingdom parable about the king who hosted a nuptial feast for his son. The phrase eis tous gamous, “to the wedding party,” occurs in both parables (Mt 22:3; 25:10 RSV “to the marriage feast”). The NT speaks of earthly and heavenly doors, but only Luke contains parabolic teaching about a closed heavenly door, “Strive to enter by the narrow door;... When once the householder has risen up and shut the door,...” (13:24-25; cf. Mt 24:33, Jn 10:1-2, 7, 9; Acts 14:27; Col 4:3; Rev 3:8, 20; 4:10. (28)

In their conversation the foolish maidens and the bridegroom take on the voices of certain members of the Christian community and their Lord. Their plea and his reply are reminiscent of an eschatological conversation cited in the Sermon on the Mount. The maidens address the bridegroom as kyrie kyrie, “lord, lord,” a title of respect or reverence. In the parallel passage Jesus explains, “Not every one who says to me ’Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven,...” and, “On that day many will say to me ’Lord, Lord,..’ ” (7:21-22). The bridegroom replies, “Truly I say to you: I do not know you,” and Jesus indicates that his reply will be, “I never knew you” (7:23).(29) Luke’s version of the teaching about the door, a parallel to the conversation in the Sermon on the Mount, preserves some traditional materials that could have influenced Matthew’s portrayal of the foolish maidens and the bridegroom. Both passages include a shut door, the similar pleas “Lord, open to us” and “Lord, Lord, open to us” (kyrie, anoixon hēmin and kyrie kyrie, anoixon hēmin), a reply in “answer” (apokritheis) form, and the similar replies “I do not know where you come from” and “I do not know you” (ouk oida hymas pothen este and ouk oida hymas).(30)

At the conclusion of the parable Jesus addresses his second person plural audience, “So stay awake, because you know neither the day nor the hour.” The idea that the day and hour of the end time are known only to God is repeated a number of times in the central section of the discourse:

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (24:36).

“So stay awake, because you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (24:42).

“Therefore you must also be ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (24:44).

“The master of that slave will come on a day that he does not expect and at an hour that he does not know” (24:50).(31)

The warnings in the interpretative conclusion and in one of the similar addresses, “So stay awake,” are ecclesiological applications of a general term meaning “stay on guard” or “be watchful.” Jesus is recommending that the disciples and the gospel’s readers live in readiness and watchfulness for the coming of the kingdom. Some scholars observe that this sort of warning is an odd conclusion to a parable in which all ten maidens fall asleep. (32) To a certain extent, it is more a case of the repetitive signposting of the themes of the central section of the discourse than a conclusion to the parable itself. Parabolic falling asleep, however, is not necessarily a representation of lack of readiness and watchfulness. Or perhaps the conclusion is meant to apply to the fate of the foolish maidens alone.

Along with the series of interpretative options arising in the course of verse-by-verse reading of the parable, there is the problem of selecting an interpretative approach or orientation for reading the parable as a story unit in the synoptic tradition. Three approaches or orientations to the story unit of the account and illustration, and its tellings and retellings in the synoptic tradition, can be distinguished in modern parables scholarship. Allegorical interpretation approaches the account as a point-by-point illustration of the kingdom. In turn, the point-by-point illustration is supposed to reflect the communicative situation of a particular stage of tradition. Redactional interpretation tries to sort out the several stages of tradition represented in the parable. Sometimes the tension between the account and the illustration is resolved by assigning them to different stages of tradition. Traditional interpretation aims at reconstruction of stages of tradition and story units prior to those of Matthew.

In order to illustrate the problems inherent in all interpretative approaches or orientations, I intend to sketch some examples of allegorical, redactional, and traditional interpretation from modern scholarly publications. One set of problems, in part familiar to us from our study of the parable of the leaven, concerns the story unit. How do the elements in the account relate to the illustration of the kingdom? Is it possible to discern several stages of the tradition in the story unit? The other set of problems pertains to the synoptic tradition. How does the illustration relate to the communicative situations of the tellers and retellers of the parable? Is it possible to reconstruct these communicative situations? The answers to these questions are not forthcoming from the parable of the ten maidens or related NT texts; they must be selected or supplied by interpreters from the various options for reading the text and understanding its communicative and literary contexts.

Ford interprets the parable’s portrayal of ten maidens as an allegory about “men who apply themselves to the study of Torah hoping to be led into the bridal chamber, the chamber of instruction.”(33) The point of orientation for her interpretation is the observation that the parable and rabbinic interpretation of the Song of Solomon portray God and the people of God as bridegroom and bride or bridegroom and bridesmaids. She then proceeds to relate certain elements in the account to the proposed illustration on the basis of rabbinic materials, the OT, and other Jewish sources. For example, there are ten maidens and ten circles of study in the Qumran community, the lamps symbolize the law or word of God (Ps 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp to my feet”), and midnight revelations are in store for rabbinic scholars who study into the night.(34) She identifies the communicative situation as Jesus’ opposition to the Pharisees and scribes. He uses the parable to criticize their orientation toward God and shortcomings in the area of good deeds, symbolized by the lamp oil.

Donfried’s interpretation of the parable as an allegory about the good deeds and obedience owed to God relies on a set of NT parallels similar to the set of passages included in our verse-by-verse reading: the apocalyptic discourse in Matthew, the Sermon on the Mount, the apocalyptic passage in 1 Thessalonians, and other texts. In his study of these literary contexts, however, most of the elements in the account end up qualifying as elements of christological and ecclesiological allegory. For example, Christ the bridegroom and his maiden Corinthian bride parallel the parable’s bridegroom and bridesmaids, and the sleeping and waking of the ten maidens are symbols of death and resurrection in the Christian community. He understands the allegory as a composition for the situation of Matthew’s community. In view of the delay of the parousia and the possibility of premature death, the evangelist reminds the community of the need for good deeds, symbolized by the lamp oil. The clincher in Donfried’s argument is a rabbinic interpretation of Num 7:19 also cited by Ford. According to this interpretation, “mixed with oil,” part of the instructions for a cereal offering, “alludes to the Torah, the study of which must be mingled with good deeds.”(35)

The redactional approach represented by Jeremias understands the story unit as an allegorized parable of Jesus. In the original communicative situation of Jesus and the disciples, the parable was a summons to “wake up” to the kingdom and the impending eschatological crisis. Matthew interpreted the delay of the bridegroom and other elements in the parable as allegorical indications of the delay of the parousia and was responsible for several additions to the parable and its present apocalyptic setting. Other redaction critics interpret the original story unit as an allegory composed by and for the Christian community. To some of them it also seems that Jeremias was too conservative in his estimate of redactional additions. (36)

Schenk’s traditional approach offers a tentative reconstruction of the story unit at a stage of tradition prior to its redaction by Matthew:

Ten maidens went out with their lights to meet the bridegroom. Five of them became drowsy and slept. In the middle of the night there was a shout, ’Behold the bridegroom! Go out in meeting!’ Those maidens awoke and tended to their lights. The bridegroom came, and all the maidens went in to the wedding party. (37)

His reconstruction eliminates characteristic elements of Matthew’s style and theology such as the contrast of foolish and wise and the conversation of the bridegroom and the foolish maidens. Delay is no longer an issue, there is no oil, and all the maidens go into the wedding party. The story line follows the five maidens who fall asleep and wake at the shout. Schenk understands the reconstructed parable as an allegory of a community situation similar to the one discussed in 1 Th 4:13-5:11. Some members of the community die prematurely, but at the coming of the Lord they rise to enter into the kingdom with the living.

In the case of the parable of the ten maidens, parabolic interpretation serves as a self-critical control and supplement to previous approaches to the parable. Ford ranges too far afield from the NT literary context of the parable in her selection of rabbinic materials. The searches for parallels carried out by Donfried and Ford lack the balance of self-critical reading. In my reading I limit the pertinent literary context of the parable to NT apocalyptic passages. The story unit illustrates the future kingdom but is not a point-by-point illustration. My decision to interpret the parable at the gospel stage of tradition relates to the difficulties that stand in the way of accurate reconstruction of earlier or original communicative situations and story units, a problem exemplified by the very different reconstructions of Jeremias and Schenk. Although the parable does not afford a clear vantage point to the complicated situation of Matthew’s community, the apocalyptic discourse offers an overview of its communicative situation.

This overview is offered in the repeated comments about the day and the hour in Mt 24:36—25:13. The teachings in this central section of the apocalyptic discourse, including the parable of the ten maidens, relate to the need for readiness and watchfulness because of the coming of the Son of Man or Lord at an unknown future time. The central section is introduced by the comment that only God knows the day and the hour. The teaching about the days of Noah likens the situation in those days to the situation at the parousia of the Son of Man. People continued and will continue in their daily occupations, completely oblivious of the events to come. The flood destroyed all the people of Noah’s generation, but at the coming of the Son of Man there will be a mysterious sort of division. Since the day and the hour are unknown, the disciples and the gospel’s readers are supposed to be ready and watchful at all times. This warning is developed in the repeated comments and the teachings about the householder, slaves, and ten maidens. The householder did not know when the thief was coming, and the second person plural audience of the discourse does not know when the Son of Man or Lord is coming. The householder did not stay awake, and the thief dug into his house. The audience should be ready and stay awake so as not to be caught unawares. In the teaching about the slaves, there is a division on the basis of obedience and wisdom and disobedience and wickedness. Similarly, there is a division on the basis of foolishness and wisdom in the parable of the ten maidens.(38)

The special contribution of the parable to the central section is the contrast of readiness and lack of readiness for the delayed coming of the bridegroom. There are no allusions to the delayed coming of the Lord, master, Son of Man, and thief in the teachings about Noah’s generation, the householder, and the faithful and wise servant. The reason for the wicked servant’s lack of readiness for the delayed coming of his master is not the same as the reason for the lack of readiness on the part of the foolish maidens. He is wicked, but they are stupid. His lack of readiness is the result of his decision to party and play the petty tyrant during his master’s delay. The foolish maidens are unprepared for the bridegroom’s delay because they fail or forget to take reserve oil. It seems that the contrasts of the maidens and servants illustrate complementary aspects of readiness for the delayed coming of the Son of Man or Lord: the need to be prepared for this delayed corning and the need to live in obedience during the period of delay.(39) The portrayal of the wicked servant who “eats and drinks with the drunken” and the setting of the wedding procession and party could be intended as parallels to the description of Noah’s generation, “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (24:38, 49).

As part of the apocalyptic discourse, the parable of the ten maidens is part of its illustration of the relationship of the Son of Man and the members of the Christian community at the end time. The portrayal of the bridegroom is dominated by the christological side of his double identity. He is delayed, comes, is called “Lord, Lord,” and speaks in the style of Matthew’s Jesus. I am unsure whether the idea of “Christ the bridegroom,” the need for a male lead in a parabolic rendering of a situation similar to the days of Noah, or a combination of both determined the selection of the bridegroom character. The portrayal of the ten maidens pays equal attention to their ecclesiological and teen identities. As wedding participants, they take and tend to special lamps for the procession. As representatives of the Christian community, the wise are ready to be included in the kingdom, and the foolish are excluded.

There is not sufficient evidence to conclude that drowsiness, sleeping, midnight, shouting, meeting, waking, shutting the door, and other such minor details are apocalyptic elements in an allegory of the end time or, more precisely, of the reunion of the dead and the living during their meeting with the Son of Man at the end time. Although the NT offers apocalyptic and symbolic parallels to these items, I prefer to read them on the level of elements in an account of a wedding procession and party. It is not that they are insignificant for the illustration of the future kingdom; it is that their significance is not the “is” of allegory, but the “is like” of parable.(40)

Drowsiness, sleeping, and waking are part of the subteen-age or teenage identity of the foolish and wise maidens. They are out late at night, become tired and start to sleep, and are roused by the shout. Their period of sleeping renders the foolish maidens oblivious to their need for reserve oil until it is too late. All ten maidens sleep and wake, a fact that makes it difficult to coordinate these details with the contrast of foolish and wise and the apocalyptic divisions of “some” and “others.” Their sleeping also functions as a “blackout” period in the history of the community and the story of the wedding procession. According to the parable, there is nothing to report about the community until the delay is over. Since this is so, the story moves rapidly to the crucial hour of midnight.

Midnight is an absurdly late and unexpected time for a wedding procession. It signifies the unexpected hour of the coming of the Son of Man and his considerable delay without implying that he will come in the middle of the night. Shouting is one of the excited sounds of the wedding procession, and the meeting of the bridegroom and the maidens is one of the many meetings and movements that are supposed to occur along the route to the wedding party. The significance of the shut door as a barrier for the exclusion of the foolish maidens becomes apparent only in the course of their conversation with the bridegroom. It is possible that I have been too strict in my reading of these elements. Perhaps all or some of them were familiar apocalyptic elements in the communicative situation of Matthew and the gospel’s first readers. In view of the lack of precise apocalyptic parallels in Matthew and the rather freewheeling approach to these elements in allegorical interpretation, I see it as one of the tasks of parabolic interpretation to err, if need be, on the side of strictness

The burning lamps and reserve oil are signs of readiness for the coming of the bridegroom at midnight, and the readiness of the wise maidens in these areas corresponds to readiness for the delayed coming of the Son of Man. The wise maidens are like those who will have lived by the warnings about readiness and watchfulness in this part of the apocalyptic discourse. My conclusions about the lights, reserve oil, and readiness of the wise maidens are drawn from the repeated comments in the central section and the common characterization of the maidens and the second person plural audience as “ready.” A further note is that a somewhat similar parabolic teaching in Luke links burning lamps, the readiness and watchfulness required of the Christian community, and the watchfulness of slaves waiting for their master’s late night return from a wedding party, “Let your loins be girded and your lamps (lychnoi) burning” (12:35). (41)

I am not convinced by allegorical readings of the lamp oil as a representation of good deeds. My attempts to reproduce such allegorical readings founder in the details of the parable. For example, do the good deeds of the Christian counterparts to the foolish maidens “burn out” before the end time? Who are the sellers of good deeds? Angels, as one might conclude from Mt 13:36-43, or first-century sellers of indulgences? The parables discourse in Matthew 13 demonstrates that allegory and allegorical interpretation are not foreign to the communicative situation of the gospel, but the allegorical interpretations of the parable of the sower and the parable of the wheat and tares make sense of the details in the corresponding parables. Modern allegorical interpretations are not so careful or clever at discerning the details of the supposed allegorical scheme in our parable.(42) Until someone sorts out the special sense of the burning, burned out, and bought oil, I must continue to question the allegorical significance of this common fuel.

It cannot be denied that the identification of the lamp oil with good deeds or works of righteousness draws on Matthew’s ecclesiology. After all, the active element in Christian existence is of special concern in this gospel. It does not necessarily follow, however, that readiness through good deeds or works of righteousness is a special concern in this one parable. As I see it, the parable of the ten maidens stresses the need for readiness but does not survey the way to readiness or the way of righteousness. Righteousness is of concern in the following parable of the talents and the judgment scene forming the grand conclusion to the apocalyptic discourse.(43) Since Mt 25:14-46 is an obvious display of the need for good deeds or works of righteousness, the unusually arcane treatment of the same theme proposed for the preceding parable seems out of place. Moreover, since oil had various symbolic properties, it is unreasonable to use a single rabbinic interpretation as the key to an unrelated passage. The only passage in Matthew that speaks of good deeds and light is nonapocalyptic, uses lychnos, and does not allude to olive oil (5:14-16). (44)

Parabolic interpretation preserves the surprise ending of the story, where the plea, reply, and wedding party reveal, finally and fully, the christological and ecclesiological identities of the bridegroom and the foolish and wise maidens. Wedding parties and the like serve as kingdom settings in Matthew, and NT parallels suggest that the bridegroom and the foolish maidens are conversing as Lord and community at the end time. Allegorical interpretation eliminates the surprise, and redactional and traditional interpretations tend to overlook the role of poetics and pragmatics in the story unit and its communicative situations in the synoptic tradition. My personal preference is for parabolic reading and its surprise ending. It allows me to read the parable over and over again as one not knowing the outcome but waiting to be caught unawares at the end. For me this is “an apocalyptic reading experience” that reinforces the concluding point about not knowing and staying awake.

The parable of the ten maidens presents an almost endless array of interpretative problems. Critical readers are called to consider allegorical, parabolic, redactional, and traditional approaches, the communicative and literary contexts of the parable, its stages of tradition and the story units at those stages of tradition, the significance of the elements in the account for the illustration of the kingdom, and the function of lamps and torches in Greek, Jewish, and Roman weddings—and this is only a representative outline. In my analysis and interpretation of the parable, I took up the cause of parabolic interpretation as a supplement to other types of interpretation. As a rule, interpreters of all persuasions understand the final story unit and stage of tradition as at least partly related to the immediate literary context in the apocalyptic discourse. It is an illustration of the future kingdom and represents a communicative situation in which the delayed coming of the Son of Man or Lord, readiness, and watchfulness are of some concern. The special contributions of parabolic interpretation are the result of comparative study limited to NT apocalyptic passages, self-critical reading, and serious consideration of the parable as an account of a wedding procession and party including sub-teenage or teenage girls among the participants.


1. Str-B 1.505-11.

2. Heckenbach, “Hochzeit,” PW 8.2129-33: C. Lécrivan, “MATRIMONIUM,” Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines 3.1639-62.

3. E.g., R.A.Batey, New Testament Nuptial Imagery (Leiden: Brill, 1971) 46; F.W.Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981) 480-81; E. Grä Ber, Das Problem der Parusieverzögerung in den synoptischen Evangelien und in der Apostekgeschichte (BZNW 22; Berlin; Töpelmann, 1957) 120-21: E. Linnemann, Gleichnisse, 131.

4. Str-B 2.373-75.

5. Ibid., 2.510. See also S. Krauss, Archäologie, 2.38.

6. My rendering is a translation of A.Oepke, “lampõ,” TWNT 4,17-18 n.2. The corresponding TDNT reference is 4.17 n.2.

7. L. Schneller, Kennst du das Land? (p.188), as cited in geremias, “LAMPADES Mt 25 1.3f.7f.,” ZNW 56 (1965) 198.

8. For lamps and torches, see K. Galling, “Die Beleuchtungsgeräte im israelitisch-jüdischen Kulturgebiet,” ZDPV 46 (1923) 1-50, esp, 6 31-32; Mau, “Fackeln,” PW 6.1945-53; E.Pottier, “FAX,” Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines, 2.1025-29; J.Toutain, “LAMPAS,” Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines 3,914: idem, “LUCERNA, LYCHNUS,” 3.1320-39.

9. E.g., G.Schneider, “lampas,” EWNT 2.834-36; E.Schweizer, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (NTD 2: 3d ed,; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1981) 304-5. J. Jeremais (“LAMPDES,” 196-201) argues for “torches,” and R.H.Gundry (Matthew: A Commentary on His Literary and Theological Art [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982] 498) follows Jeremias in his interpretation of the parable. Z. Zorell (“De lampadibus decem virginum,” VD 10 [1930] 172-82) was not available to me.

10. For representations in early Christian art, see H.Heyne, Das Gleichnis von den klugen und törichhten Jungfrauen. Eine literarisch-ikonographische Studie zur alt-christlichen Zeit (Leipzig: Haessrel, 1922).

11. Other LXX examples include Jg 7:16, 20; 15:4, 5; Is 62:1;Ezk 1:13; Nah 2:4; Zech 12:6; Sir 48.1.

12. NT examples include Mt 5:15: 6:22; Mk 4:21; Lk 8:l6; 11:33, 34, 36; 12:35; 15:8; Jn 5:35; 2 Pet 1:19; Rev 18:23; 21:23; 22:5

13. M. S. Enslin and S. Zeitlin, The Book of Judith (JAL 7; Leiden: Brill, 1972) 133-34

14. Jeremias, “LAMPADES,” 199

15. For a different contrast of mõros and phronimos, see 1 Cor 4:10

16. J. Jeremias, “LAMPADES” 200.

17. For some of the associations and uses of olive oil, see H. Schlier, “elaion,” TWNT 2,468-70 / TDNT 2.410-73.

18. E. g.. E. Grässer, Parusieverzögerung, 91-92, 119-20.

19. Lk 1:21, the only reference to chronizõ outside the parables, reports Zechariah’s delay in the temple. See also the OT allusions in Heb 10:37.

20. Like the parable and the central section of the apocalyptic discourse, the scene in Gethsemane is also concerned with wakefulness or watchfulness (26:38, 40, 41).

21. For interpretation of this passage, see J. Gnilka, Der Epheserbrief, (HTKNT 10/2; 2d ed.; Freiburg: Herder, 1977) 259-63.

22. Koimaomai is the usual term for death in the Christian community: katheudõ Mt 8:24; 9:24; 13:25; 25:5; 26:40, 43, 45; Mk 4:27, 38; 5:39; 13:36; 14:37, 40, 41; Lk 8:52; 22:46; Eph 5:14; 1 Th 5:6, 7, 10; koimaomai Mt 27:52; 28:13; Lk 22:45; Jn 11:11, 12: Acts 7:60; 12:6; 13:36; 1 Cor 7:39; 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Th 4:13, 14, 15; 2 Pet 3:4.

23. J. Freundorfer and K, Staab, Die Thessalonicherbriefe. Die Gefangen-schaftsbriefe. Die Pastoraibriefe (RNT 7/2; 4th ed; Regensburg: Pustet, 1965) 39.

24. For the proposed parallelism, see E. Grässer, Parusieverzögentng, 123.

25. J. Jeremias, “LAMPADES,” 200.

26. Or “are dry ”or “are going out” instead of “are out.” RSV “For our lamps are going out,”

27. J. Jeremias (“LAMPADES” 200} links their foolishness to forgetfulness. Like the case of lack of foresight, this characterization is limited to the first part of the parable.

28. Mt 7:13-14, the parallel to Lk 13:24, has pylē, “gate,” instead of thyra, “door.” K.. P. Donfried, (“The Allegory of the Ten Virgins [Matt 25:1-13] as a Summary of Matthean Theology,” JBL 93 [1974] 423) does not call attention to this important difference.

29. For similar rabbinic formulas of dismissal, see Str-B 1.469“.

30. For the possible sources for the similar passages in Matthew and Luke, see J. A. Fitzmyer, Luke, 2.1021-22; I. H. Marshall, Luke, 563.

31. The renderings of Mt 24:42, 44, 50 are my translation.

32. J. Jeremias (Parables. 52) objects, and R. H. Gundry (Matthew, 502) and E. Linnemann (Gleichnisse, 135) overrule.

33. J. M. Ford, “The Parable of the Foolish Scholars (Matt. XXV 1-13),” Nov T9 (1967) 107-23. The quotation is from p. 115.

34. The LXX has lychnos for “lamp.”

35. K. P. Donfried, “Allegory,” 415-28. The quotation from Midrash Rabbah to Numbers is from p. 427. See also J. M. Ford, “Parable,” 117. A. Feuillet (“Les épousailles messianiques et les références au Cantique des cantiques dans les évangiles synoptiques,” R Thom 84 [1984] 409) interprets the lamps as symbols of the interior disposition of the addressees, and D. Flusser (Die rabbinischen Gleichnisse und der Gleichniserzähler Jesus Bern: Lang, [1981] 181-82) understands the parable on the basis of rabbinic interpretation.

36. Compare G. Bornkamm, “Die Verzögerung der Parusie. Exegetische Bemerkungen zu zwei synoptischen Texten,”In Memoriam Ernst Lohmeyer (ed. W, Schmauch; Stuttgart: Evangelisches Verlagwerk, 1951) 116-26 and J. Jeremias, Parables, 51-53. 1. Maisch (“Das Gleichnis von den klugen und törichten Jungfrauen. Auslegung von Mt 25, 1-13,” BibLeb II [1970] 247-59) interprets the final story unit as allegorized parable. W. Radl (“Zur Struktur der eschatologischen Gleichnisse Jesu,” TTZ 92 [1983] 122-33) concludes that the original parable was not a parable of Jesus.

37. W. Schenk, “Auferweckung der Toten oder Gericht nach den Werken. Tradition und Redaktion in Mattäus XXV 1-13),” Nov T20 (1978) 278-99. His reconstruction of the Greek text of the traditional story unit appears on p. 294.

38. For quotations from this section, see above pp. 87-88.

39. For the complementary aspects, see E. Grässer, Parusieverzögerung, 119.

40. For example, sleeping in the parable does not signify sleeping at the end time, and midnight is not necessarily the time of the second coming. Sleeping and midnight are like the circumstances of the future kingdom, but the parable itself does not reveal the point of the comparison or their shared characteristics. The point or shared characteristics must be supplied by interpreters.

41. For the relationship of the parabolic teachings in Matthew and Luke, see I.H. Marshall, Luke, 535-39. Lk 12:35 contains an allusion to Ex 12:35 and the readiness and watchfulness required of the Exodus community.

42. The allegorical readings of Donfried and Ford are selective readings of the parable.

43. For these passages, see R. H. Gundry, Matthew, 502-16.

44. For a positive evaluation of the significance of this passage, see K. P. Donfried, “Allegory,” 423-24.

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