Was Jesus Dissing His Mother When He Called Her "Woman"?
This Sunday we're going to hear the gospel account of the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns to Mary and says, "Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.”
Sounds disrespectful, doesn't it?
Or at least you could take it that way.
But Jesus wasn't being disrespectful at all.
Here's the story . . .
First, the translation "How does your concern affect me?” (John 2:4 in the NAB:RE) is not a literal rendering of what Jesus says in Greek.
Word-for-word, what he says is "What to me and to you?"
In context, Mary has just come up to him and informed Jesus that the people running the wedding have no wine, so you might literally translate his response as "What [is that] to me and to you?" In other words: "What does that have to do with us?"
He's not dissing her. He's putting the two of them--both of them--in a special category together and questioning the relevance of the fact that people outside this category don't have wine. He's saying that it's not the responsibility of the two of them to make sure they have wine.
But that's lost if you take the Greek pronoun that means "to you" (soi) and obliterate it in translation.
Part of what makes it sound like Jesus might be dissing his mother is the fact that he refers to her as "woman."
We don't talk to women like that today--not if we respect them, and certainly not our own mothers.
But the connotations--of respect, disrespect, or other things--that a word has in a given language are quite subtle, and we can't impose the connotations that a word has in our own language on another.
Consider: Suppose, in English, we replaced "woman" with a term that means basically the same thing but with better connotations.
For example, the word "lady" or "ma'am."
Suddenly what Jesus says sounds a lot more respectful.
In British circles, "lady" has distinctly noble overtones (it's the female counterpart to the noble honorific "lord").
And even in demotic America, a son can say, "Yes, ma'am" to his mother and mean it entirely respectfully.
So what can we learn about the connotations of "woman" as a form of address in Jesus' time?
Evoking the Vocative
Before we look at specific verses, I should point out an aspect of Greek grammar (Greek being the language in which we have the New Testament).
In Greek, nouns and pronouns change their form depending on the role that they are playing in a sentence. We call these different forms "cases."
As it happens, there is a special form--or case--that is used for nouns when they are being used as terms of direct address.
In other words, when someone is using a noun to refer directly to someone (talking to them), it will take a special form or case.
The name of this form is "the vocative case."
You hear this at Mass when we say "Kyrie eleison" ("O Lord, have mercy").
The ordinary Greek word for "lord" is kyrios (or kurios), but when you are talking directly to the Lord, it gets changed from Kyrios to Kyrie.
English sometimes does the same thing by putting the word "O" in front of something. If you say, "O Lord," you know that you are talking directly to the Lord.
The fact that Greek has a vocative case makes it easy to just do a Bible software search to turn up all the instances in which a word is being used as a form of direct address in the New Testament.
So what do we find when we do that?
As a control on the term "woman," it makes sense to look and see if "man" gets used as a form of direct address.
And it does.
One common Greek word we translate "man" is anthropos, which gets put into the vocative case as anthrope ("an-thro-peh").
Jesus uses this as a term of address:
And when he saw their faith he said, “Man [anthrope], your sins are forgiven you” [Luke 5:20].
But he said to him, “Man [anthrope], who made me a judge or an arbitrator over you?” [Luke 12:14].
So do others, such as Peter and Paul:
And a little later some one else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man [anthrope], I am not” [Luke 22:58].
But Peter said, “Man [anthrope], I do not know what you are saying.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed [Luke 22:60].
Therefore you have no excuse, O man [anthrope], whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things [Rom. 2:1].
Do you suppose, O man [anthrope], that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? [Rom. 2:3].
And there are other instances (Rom. 9:20, 1 Tim. 6:11, Jas. 2:20).
So we have "man" (anthrope) being used as a form of address without it being disrespectful.
And there's another term that means almost the same thing . . .
The Greek word anthropos is commonly translated "man," but it isn't fully gender-specific. It can include both genders, like "human," except translating it that way would sound totally awkward.
There is, however, a Greek term that means a male human specifically: anér ("ah-NAIR").
The difference is a bit like the difference between the English word "man" (which can be used for both males and females) and "male" (which can be used only for males).
Anér also gets put in the vocative case and used as a form of direct address. On one occasion, St. Paul writes:
Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband [anér], how do you know whether you will save your wife?
Here the meaning of "man" is obscured because Greek does not distinguish between the terms "man" and "husband" (or "woman" and "wife"), but it's the same term being used as a form of direct address, and it's not disrespectful.
Interestingly, the word anér gets used as a form of direct address far more often in the plural--when a speaker is addressing a group of men. In this case the word takes the form andres, and it occurs over and over in the New Testament.
And [the angels] said, “Men [andres] of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” [Acts 1:11].
“Men [andres] of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know" [Acts 2:22].
Here is a complete list of all the times andres gets used this way: Acts 1:11, 16, 2:14, 22, 29, 37, 3:12, 5:35, 7:2, 26, 13:15, 16, 26, 38, 14:15, 15:7, 13, 17:22, 19:25, 35, 21:28, 22:1, 23:1, 6, 27:10, 21, 25, 28:17, Col. 3:19, 1 Peter 3:7.
So much for the term "man" (either anthrope, anér, or andres). What about the term "woman"?
The Greek term for "woman" is guné ("goo-NAY"; same word we get "gynecologist" from). In the vocative case, it takes the form gunai.
Jesus does refer to Mary by this word--twice.
We've already seen the first instance, where he does so at the wedding at Cana (John 2:4).
The other instance where he does so is when Mary sees him being crucified:
When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman [gunai], behold, your son!” [John 19:26].
He is hardly being disrespectful to her here.
But Mary is far from the only woman for whom this word (gunai) is used as a form of address. We also find the following:
- Jesus uses it to address the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matt. 15:28).
- Jesus uses it to address the woman with a hemorrhage (Luke 13:12).
- Peter uses it to address the high priest's servant girl (Luke 22:57).
- Jesus uses it to address the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:21).
- Two angels use it to address Mary Magdalene (John 20:13).
- Jesus uses it to address Mary Magdalene (John 20:15).
- Paul uses it to address an individual wife among his readers (1 Cor 7:16).
- Paul uses it to address the wives in his audience (Col 3:18, using the plural: gunaikes).
- Peter uses it to address the wives in his audience (1 Peter 3:1, using the plural: gunaikes).
That's quite a number of uses, to which we can add the two Marian uses, but none of them are disrespectful!
"Sir," "Ma'am," and the Ten Commandments
What we find, then, is that neither the term "man" nor the term "woman" had negative overtones when used as a form of direct address in the New Testament books.
Instead, they were used respectfully.
In fact, they were used much the way we would use the terms "sir" and "ma'am."
There is also another reason why we can be sure that Jesus wasn't dissing his mother when he referred to her as "woman": He kept God's law perfectly, and that included keeping the Ten Commandments, one of which is:
Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you [Ex. 20:12].
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