Saturday, August 12, 2006

Biblical Analysis: Jesus' Use of the Word "Woman"

John 2:2-4 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what does that have to do with us? My hour has not yet come."

These words of Jesus to Mary mark the most popular instance in which someone uses the word "woman" to address a female. However, there are other times in which this form of address is used. When we isolate John 2:3-4 we seem to have an instance of sexism. But, when we look at this verse within the context of other examples, we find that this address is merely the common form of address.

First, note that the Greek word used for "woman" in John 2:3-4 is gunh/, which means:

1. a woman of any age, whether a virgin, or married, or a widow
2. a wife
--a. of a betrothed woman

So we find from the start nothing derogatory by the word, for the definition of the Greek reveals nothing objectionable. This is further reinforced by the context of other verses in which this same Greek word is used.

Mat 15:28 Then Jesus answered her, "O woman (gunh/), great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly.

If "woman" is to be taken as an insult, then we would have here Jesus simultaneously insulting and praising her. This of course is illogical. Jesus has no reason to address her in a disrespectful manner. She has done a great thing by her faith, and so His words to her are nothing but praise.

A similar instance occurs in Jesus' interaction with the woman crippled by infirmity:

Luke 13:10-17
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.
11 And there was a woman who had had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself.
12 And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, "Woman (gunh/), you are freed from your infirmity."
13 And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God.
14 But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, said to the people, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day."
15 Then the Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it?
16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?"
17 As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.


In this instance, the woman didn't say or do anything at all to compel Jesus to address her negatively. At least in the example from John, the (erroneous) claim could be made that Jesus addressed Mary in such a way because she attempted to change the Will of God. But, this woman crippled with infirmity did nothing.

In both cases there is no reason for Jesus to disparage the woman in question, but such is more obvious in this instance. the context here reveals that Jesus respects the woman and honors her as the "daughter of Abraham" (vs. 16) that she is. Plus, since the woman was merely there in the synagogue and not even calling on the Lord, it becomes more plain that this word is used as a form of address or to get someone's attention.

Upon reading the third instance where this word is used, an interesting pattern is revealed. first, the verses in question:

John 4:19-24
19 The woman said to him, "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.
20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship."
21 Jesus said to her, "Woman (gunh/), believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.
22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.
23 But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.
24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."


After reading this discourse, it becomes apparent that Jesus often addresses a female as "woman" whenever he wants to provide force or emphasis to what he is about to say. Notice how the words that immediately follow this address have great significance:

John 2:4 And Jesus said to her, "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come."

Mat 15:28 Then Jesus answered her, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire."

Luke 13:12 And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, "Woman, you are freed from your infirmity."

John 4:21 Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.


In John 2:4, his words reflect the importance of Jesus beginning his ministry at the appointed time and they point to the forknowledge of God, who has predetermined all things. In Mat 15:28, he wishes to affirm the faith of the woman by healing her daughter. In Luke 13:12, Jesus' words are the instrument of healing for the sick woman and have the secondary intention of rousing the Jews so as to teach them a lesson. In John 4:21, Jesus means to deliver a hard truth to a Samaritan who has thus far been slow to comprehend the meaning of his words.

Also, note that if this was merely an insult that Jesus used before he began to talk to a woman, then when he spoke to the Samaritan, he would have used this word from the onset. But, instead we see something different. Lets look at this conversation again, this time from the beginning:

7 There came a woman of Samar'ia to draw water. Jesus said to her, "Give me a drink."
8 For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, "How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samar'ia?" For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.
10 Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water."
11 The woman said to him, "Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water?
12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?"
13 Jesus said to her, "Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again,
14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."
15 The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw."
16 Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come here."
17 The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband';
18 for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly."
19 The woman said to him, "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.
20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship."
21 Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.


We see here that Jesus did not address her as "woman" right away. Instead, he waited until it was necessary to finally open her eyes to his truth and his identity. Notice that after he addresses her and speaks to her more explicitly, she believes in him and runs into town to tell the rest:

28 So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people,
29 "Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?"


If speaking down to a woman could ever be condoned, it would be with this Samaritan woman. Afterall, Jesus was a Jew, and Jews regarded Samaritans as inferior because they were actually half-Jews and because they rejected the prophets and the Word of God not found in the Pentetuch. However, Jesus held not the views of his contemporaries (isn't that an understatement!!). His simple willingness to even talk to her shows the regard he had for her. Of course, most Jews would have considered themselves "too good" to do such a thing.

Actually, how could we possibly overlook, both here and throughout the bible, God's genuine love and respect for women? Jesus was thirsty and tired when the Samaritan woman came to him. But, instead of concerning himself w/ earthly water to quench his thirst, he concerned himself with offering to this woman the water that quenches all thirst.

We observe similarly genuine positive regard in his dealings with the adulteress, where he again uses the word "woman":

John 8:7-11
7 And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her."
8 And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.
9 But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
10 Jesus looked up and said to her, "Woman (gunh/), where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
11 She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again."


The word "woman" here lies within the context of words and actions by Jesus which can only be described as compassionate and merciful. St Augustine elaborates on Jesus' gentleness towards the woman:

The two were left alone, the wretched woman and Mercy. But the Lord, having struck them through with that dart of justice, deigned not to heed their fall, but, turning away His look from them, "again He wrote with His finger on the ground." But when that woman was left alone, and all they were gone out, He raised His eyes to the woman. We have heard the voice of justice, let us also hear the voice of clemency. For I suppose that woman was the more terrified when she had heard it said by the Lord, "He that is without sin of you, let him first cast a stone at her," [. . .] she expected to be punished by Him in whom sin could not be found. But He, who had driven back her adversaries with the tongue of justice, raising the eyes of clemency towards her, asked her, "Hath no man condemned thee?" She answered, "No man, Lord." And He said, "Neither do I condemn thee;" by whom, perhaps, thou didst fear to be condemned, because in me thou hast not found sin. "Neither will I condemn thee." What is this, O Lord? Dost Thou therefore favor sins? Not so, evidently. Mark what follows: "Go, henceforth sin no more." Therefore the Lord did also condemn, but condemned sins, not man (St. Augustine, On the Book of John, Tractate 33, para. 5, 6).
With a proper understanding of his dealings with the adulteress, could anyone still claim that Jesus wished to disparage her, or that he held any ill-will against her?

Next we come to Jesus' words on the Cross which, through their parallelism to other instances in which the word "woman" is used and in their connection to the wedding feast at Canaa, elucidate a profound truth about our Lord's most holy mother:

John 19:25-30
25 So the soldiers did this. But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Mag'dalene.
26 When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, "Woman (gunh/), behold, your son!"
27 Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
28 After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfil the scripture), "I thirst."
29 A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth.
30 When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, "It is finished"; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.


Jesus' use of the word "woman" to address Mary both at the wedding of Canaa and later on the Cross connects her both with the beginning and the end of the Messianic age as our spiritual mother and co-redeemer. See this from the Navarre Commentary:
In Jn 2:1-11 the wedding at Cana is descrived, and in 19:25-27 we are told of Mary's presence on Calvary. The two accounts are quite in parallel: in both she is described as the Mother of Jesus and in both our Lord refers to her as "woman." At both Cana and Calvary Jesus' "hour" is referred to--in the first case as somethign which has not yet arrived, and in the second as a present fact. This "hour" of Jesus is something which marks his whole life until it culminates in the Cross (cf. Jn 7:30; 8:20; 12:27; 13:1; 17:1).....

The Fourth Gospel contemplates Mary's divine motherhood in all its fullness, aware that she is the Mother not only of the head but also of the members of Christ's mystical body. This is why, instead of referring to Mary by name, the Fourth Gospel uses the titles of "Mother of Jesus" and "woman", which have a special significance connected with her spiritual motherhood; this is why at Cana, Jesus calls his Mother "woman" (Jn 2:4). Similarly in 19:25-27, where the Gospel speaks of our Lady's presence on Calvary, our Lord's words have a deeper meaning than might at first appear. After entrusting his Mother to the care of John, Jesus announces that his mission is accomplished (19:28); only "now", not before. His accouncement that Mary is the Mother of the beloved disciple, therefore, establishes her role in the work of salvation which has at that moment reached its climax: in addition to being a son's act of devotion it has a more transcendental meaning--Mary's spiritual maternity. This is the moment at which the Virgin Mary's co-redemption acquires its full force and meaning. Now we can indeed see how closely united Mary is to Jesus, now her divine Motherhood attains its full measure, now she is made spiriual Mother of all believers. The beloved disciple stands for all those who will folow the Master and who in the Apostle John receive Mary as their Mother.

The word "woman" also implies a certain solemnity and contains a special emphasis: most authors are inclined to see in this title given to Mary a clear allusion to the "protoevangelium" (Gen 3:15), which speaks of the triumph of the woman and her seed over the serpent. In addition to being endorsed by the text itself (the use of the word "woman"), this allusion is confirmed by interpretations given byt he Fathers when they speak of the parallelism between Eve and Mary, a parallelism similar to that between Adam and Christ (cf. Rom 5:12-14).....
Beyond this, we also see here Mary raising to new heights what it truly means to be called "woman." It is this "woman", as our Savior called her, who stands both at the beginning and end of Jesus' saving work. It is this "woman" who will forever be at odds with the serpent. It is this "woman" who resides in heaven, clothed with the sun, moon, and stars (cf. Rev 12:1). It is this "woman" who is God's greatest creature. How then could "woman" be an insult when to be a woman is such a glorious thing?

With all of this evidence to refute the sexist claim, we are essentially left with one final question: "If it was merely commonplace and not a matter of insult to call a female 'woman' why do we not also see the word 'man' used to address males?" To this we turn to the words of Peter, the Vicar of Christ, a man who transcended cultural norms and loved both man and woman just as Jesus did. His words appear to deliver the final blow against this charge that Jesus (and the apostles, if they be included in the charge) was a sexist:

Luke 22:54-60
54 Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest's house. Peter followed at a distance;
55 and when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them.
56 Then a maid, seeing him as he sat in the light and gazing at him, said, "This man also was with him."
57 But he denied it, saying, "Woman (gunh/), I do not know him."
58 And a little later some one else saw him and said, "You also are one of them." But Peter said, "Man (aànqrwpov), I am not."
59 And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, "Certainly this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean."
60 But Peter said, "Man (aànqrwpov), I do not know what you are saying." And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed.


Notice here how "man" is used in the same way that we have found the word "woman" being used. would anyone propose that by addressing someone as "man" Peter meant to insult him? Surely not! Yet, this is what they must do if they wish to further the claim that "woman" is an insult to females. Both words are used in the same manner and thus carry the same purport.

So, what have we discovered through this analysis of the word "woman" as a form of address?

  1. There is nothing derogatory implied by the Greek word gunh/ used for "woman", as evidenced by the definition of the Greek word.
  2. In none of the examples in which Jesus uses the word to address a female does He have any reason to harbor contempt, look down upon, or deem as inferior the female in question.
  3. Often times, when Jesus addresses a female as "woman" it is to get her attention or to lend an air of importance to what he is about to say.
  4. When he had the right to talk down to a woman, he did not (the Samaritan at the well).
  5. In reference to Mary, the word "woman" acts not to insult her but to reveal her as the Mother of God and our spiritual mother on earth.
  6. When the address "man" is used in the same way as "woman" it holds no sexist or disparaging intent.
Thus, the claim that Jesus is sexist in his use of the word "woman" holds no weight, and it is up to the objector to refute both the scripture and the commentary I have provided if he wishes to persist in making this claim.

Pax Christi,
phatcatholic

1 comment:

Laura H. said...

Very good. :) (See... I told you I would read it.)

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