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‘Virtuous’ Redefined

Further to the concluding thoughts expressed in the authorial note appended to the preceding post, the second entry under the word virtuous in The American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed., 2006) defines it as ‘possessing or characterized by chastity; pure: a virtuous woman. The example cited is straight out of the King James version of the Old Testament (Proverbs 31: 10). This version is closer to the Hebrew tradition than any previous English translation when it comes to the non-Christological portions of the Old Testament; cf. the following translations of the word in question in its fuller Proverbial context:

10 Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies.
11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, so that he shall have no need of spoil.
12 She will do him good and not evil all the days of her life. (King James Version)

10 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. (New International Version)

10 aleph mulierem fortem quis inveniet procul et de ultimis finibus pretium eius
11 beth confidit in ea cor viri sui et spoliis non indigebit
12 gimel reddet ei bonum et non malum omnibus diebus vitae suae (Vulgate)

י אֵשֶׁת-חַיִל, מִי יִמְצָא;    וְרָחֹק מִפְּנִינִים מִכְרָהּ. 10 A woman of valor who can find? for her price is far above rubies.
יא בָּטַח בָּהּ, לֵב בַּעְלָהּ;    וְשָׁלָל, לֹא יֶחְסָר. 11 The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her, and he hath no lack of gain.
יב גְּמָלַתְהוּ טוֹב וְלֹא-רָע–    כֹּל, יְמֵי חַיֶּיהָ. 12 She doeth him good and not evil all the days of her life. (The Masoretic Text, i. e., the authoritative Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible)

The latter text is traditionally glossed as follows:

1. She is a virtuous woman––a woman of power and strength. אשת חיל esheth chayil, a strong or virtuous wife, full of mental energy.
2. She is invaluable; her price is far above rubies––no quantity of precious stones can be equal to her worth.

The deriving base of the adjective in question is Latin virtus; cf. Greek ἀρετή, both of which mean something like ‘moral excellence’. In turn, Latin virtus is derived from vir ‘man, hero’. This last meaning was doubtless what the translators who rendered the King James version must have had in mind, since they followed the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible. Hence the meaning ‘a woman of valor’, which is precisely the definition answering to the purport of the relevant portion of my authorial note.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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