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“Dear Woman” – Odd Gospel Greek

November 3, 2013

λέγει ἡ μήτηρ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ πρὸς αὐτόν…
καὶ λέγει αὐτῇ ὁ Ἰησοῦς,
τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί,

the mother of Jesus said to him…
And Jesus said to her,
what does this have to do with me?”
– John 2 (ESV)

Ἰησοῦς οὖν ἰδὼν τὴν μητέρα καὶ τὸν μαθητὴν παρεστῶτα ὃν ἠγάπα
λέγει τῇ μητρί·
γύναι, ἴδε ὁ υἱός σου·
εἶτα λέγει τῷ μαθητῇ·
ἴδε ἡ μήτηρ σου.

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby,
he said to his mother,
Woman, behold, your son!”
Then he said to the disciple,
“Behold, your mother!”
– John 19 (ESV)

If Mark’s gospel Greek has Jesus crying Αββα ὁ πατήρ, the odd gospel of John has its Jesus saying some odd Greek indeed.

The Greek word John’s Jesus uses when talking to his mother is not that very distant formal Greek phrase ἡ μήτηρ /hē mḗtēr/. Nor is it that childish childlike and girlish little girl Greek, that overly familiar term of endearment like μάμμη /mamma/ or the unambiguous μαμμία, μαμμία, μαμμία /mammia mammia mammia/.

No, those would have English equivalents respectively to phrases like these:

  • what author P. D. Eastman wrote “To My Mother,” when he wrote his book for children entitled Are You My Mother, which happens to be incidentally one of the first books I ever read with my mother.
  • what songwriter Freddy Mercury sang to his Mama (i.e., “Mama, I killed a man“), after he “did a bit of research” to write this, to sing further (i.e., “Oh mama Mia mama Mia Mama Mia”), which seems pretty clearly obviously to be what prompted:
  • what songwriter Tommy Shaw wrote (i.e., “Oh Mama, I’m in fear for my life…”).

In Greek, never mind these English translations, the phrase μάμμη would be one where the writer of 4 Maccabbees is mixing up mother/woman/grandmother familial familiar Greek phrases (in chapter 16) and Paul would use it later when making clear to young Timothy that he keeps distinct his Mammy Lois from his Mother Eunice (in 2 Timothy, chapter 1). And the phrase μαμμία, μαμμία, μαμμία is what the little baby of Myrrhini is made to cry out by the nasty Cinesias in the play of Lysistrata by Aristophanes (lines 877 to 890, where the words for Mother, Mama, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, and γυναιξί [gynaizi] get all mixed up).

Γύναι /Gynai/, of course, is what Jesus in the odd gospel Greek twice calls Mary, or Mariam, his mother.

Γύναι /Gynai/, of course, is what Jesus in the odd gospel Greek calls the unnamed loose wo-man of the outcast mixed-breeds of Samaria (in chapter 4).

Γύναι /Gynai/, of course, is what Jesus in the odd gospel Greek calls the unnamed wo-man caught in the act of having sex with another man’s husband (in chapter 8).

Γύναι /Gynai/, of course, is what Jesus in the odd gospel Greek twice calls an-Other Mary, or Mariam, who for all of her womanly public uncontrolled emotion fails to recognize him (in chapter 20).

It’s a far cry from crying Αββα ὁ πατήρ. So what are we to make of this odd gospel Greek?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 5, 2013 11:15 pm

    In my term paper on John 2:1-11, I wrote:

    While “woman” is not a disrespectful form of address from a man to a woman in this culture, it is unattested between mother and son. John’s Jesus generally addresses women by name if they are known to him; there is only one other exception. Many authors speculate that the intent here is to diminish the importance of Jesus’ biological family, emphasizing that his true family are all those who are children of God.

    This professor preferred footnotes that grouped multiple references at the end of a paragraph, so it’s not clear whether both references below are sources for that statement, or whether the Fehribach reference pertains only to the following comment about Mary’s subsequent instruction to the servants:

    Robert Gordon Maccini, Her Testimony is True: Women as Witnesses according to John, Journal of the Study of the New Testament, Supplement Series 125 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 100-102; Adeline Fehribach, The women in the life of the Bridegroom: a feminist historical-literary analysis of the female characters in the Fourth Gospel (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998), 35-6, 39.

    I later wrote:

    Even a cursory reader of the gospel of John might suspect that this passage has something to do with 19:25-30, because these are the only two scenes in which the mother of Jesus appears, and in both of them, she is addressed as “Woman.” Furthermore, this scene constitutes the culmination of Jesus’ “hour,” which had “not yet come” in 2:1-11. Thus, these two scenes create an inclusio for the bulk of the gospel.
    Because neither the mother nor the beloved disciple is named, many authors infer that they are both symbolic, rather than personal, figures; and that whatever Mary symbolizes here, she must also symbolize in the earlier scene at Cana. However, there is no consensus as to exactly what or whom she represents; the literature is plentiful and diverse. Suggestions include the Jewish people, the Jewish Christians, the Church, and Eve.

    with footnote:

    Fehribach, 23-25, provides a brief survey; however, she argues that the figure of the mother of Jesus must be interpreted separately in each pericope, and presents an interpretation by Schussler-Fiorenza.

  2. November 6, 2013 7:28 am

    I would absolutely love to read your entire term paper. Thank you so very much for sharing these brief quotations. Your insight about “an inclusio” is just brilliant. The writer of the Greek gospel is apparently doing something rhetorical, signaling with the vocative γύναι, something direct(ed) to his reader. What an invitation to women readers, perhaps! (Did you look at this address to the woman of Samaria and to the Mary of Magdalene in the narrative and how these might function in a literary/rhetorical way?)

  3. November 7, 2013 12:06 am

    Oo, I hadn’t thought about the vocative being a signal to the reader! That makes me think that the mother of Jesus would likely represent the church, and opens up other possibilities, too. Hmm…

    Thanks for your interest in my paper! If I have some time, maybe I’ll post it in pieces as a series. I didn’t look specifically at the “woman” address to Mary Magdalene and the woman at the well, but I do engage with both passages (the latter briefly, the former more substantively) in the analysis of this one.

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