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The Sexist Greek Jesus Addresses of Women

August 25, 2014

γυνη is Greek for “woman” or “wife.” It is in the vocative case [i.e., Γύναι] as Jesus addressing her directly. It is not nearly so abrupt in Greek as it sounds in English. It is the same form of the word Jesus uses when he tenderly comforts Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb (John 20:15). And yet it is not usual. Leon Morris (The Gospel According to John, Eerdmans, 180) comments that while the vocative can be used to express “respect or affection,” it is an unusual term for a son to use of his mother. It is not a Hebrew or a Greek expression.

— Bill Mounce, How Rude was Jesus?

There is no getting around that the fact that the use of “woman” sounds pejorative to our ears, and yet there is nothing pejorative at all in the Greek γύναι. After all, this is what Jesus calls his mother (John 2:4; 19:26). It is the term Jesus uses to address the weeping Mary at the tomb (John 20:15)…. “Lady” sounds pejorative to me, and “girl” is only a young “woman” and again sounds pejorative. So what are we left with [in English for the Greek Jesus’s addresses of women using γύναι]? Nothing.

— Bill Mounce, An Untranslatable Word: γύναι

After reading my post The Womanly Adultery of a Gospel, my BLT co-blogger Victoria responded this way: “Can you help us out a little here, Kurk? What is odd about this gospel Greek?”

I apologize for being unclear sometimes. And much much more than that I always appreciate intellectual curiosity, especially Victoria’s on this blog and at her other blog Gaudete Theology.

So here are a few things I’m thinking as I try to begin answers to the helpful questions:

  1. The fourth canonical gospel of the New Testament often uses odd Greek, and also since it’s the oddly non-synoptic gospel (i.e., it doesn’t always see things about Jesus and his message in the same way that the other three canonical gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, see things together), I’ve got this blog series going themed ambiguously:  “Odd Gospel Greek” (or the gospel using odd Greek and also the oddest of the gospels in Greek).
  2. The first quotation of Bill Mounce (i.e., my epigraph) above correctly asserts that Γύναι /Gynai/ “is an unusual term for a son to use of his mother” and is “not usual” for a tender comfort coming from a man when addressing a grieving woman.
  3. That first quotation of Mounce could even be more general and still be correct:  Γύναι /Gynai/ is odd Greek. The vocative address is used only a couple of times in the Homeric epics (in the Iliad twice); once only in one of the fragments of Bacchylides; once only in Thesmophoriazousai by Aristophanes, who has women celebrating the festival of the Thesmophoria; and only thrice by Sophocles  (only twice in the Oedipus King, and only once in Ajax). Much later, after all this old Greek literature shows only these few uses of the vocative Γύναι /Gynai/, this odd Greek address to a woman/wife/lady/mother/girl is also rare in the Septuagint: only once in Judith and only twice in 4 Maccabees. Then comes the New Testament in Greek and its few odd uses of Γύναι /Gynai/ for direct speech to or at a woman:  the first Pauline epistle to the Korinthian readers has it once; Mark’s gospel does not have it; Matthew’s gospel puts it in the mouth of Jesus once; Luke’s gospel has it once in the mouth of Jesus and once in the mouth of Peter and no more; and, except for the odd gospel of John (which uses Γύναι [Gynai] six times), this odd Greek does not appear anywhere else in the post-LXX Christian scriptures.

Here are a couple of other things to note as we begin to consider Englishings of this odd Greek:

  1. The gospel of John uses the Greek vocative address of a woman Γύναι [Gynai] twice as often as the Septuagint uses it and nearly twice as often as the rest of the writers of the New Testament use it. Invariably, the Greek writer of the gospel has Jesus saying this to women, different women in different contexts  — his mother at a wedding; an unnamed Samaritan adulteress; an unnamed Jewish adulteress; his mother watching him hang naked and shamefully on a Roman cross; the crying grief-stricken Miriam of Magdala [addressed exactly the same way as angels had addressed this Miriam moments earlier]. This is high frequency usage of a rare Greek form in one short narrative mostly in the mouth of its male protagonist. Odd.
  2. That first quotation of Mounce is correct in quoting Morris in saying that, in Greek, for John to have Jesus addressing his mother as her son with Γύναι [Gynai] is rather odd. It’s also correct in noting that “γυνη is Greek for ‘woman’ or wife’.” In Greek literature, the only other writer to have a son address his mother, in Greek, this way is Sophocles. Sophocles has Oedipus address Jocasta, his mother, as follows:

Lady [Γύναι /Gynai/], do you know the one whom we summoned just now? [English translation by Sir Richard C. Jebb]

Wife [Γύναι /Gynai/], do you remember the man we were earlier asking to come here?  [English translation by Dr. George Theodoridis]

Here are a few other things as we begin to consider whether this odd gospel Greek is really translatable or not (especially since we might not want to make the ambiguities of Oedipus and Jocasta our standards):

  1. That first quotation of Mounce correctly claims generally that “γυνη is Greek for ‘woman’ or ‘wife’.” And yet for a man to call the woman who is his mother by “the vocative case [i.e., Γύναι]” is “unusual” and odd and “not a Hebrew or a Greek expression.”
  2. However, that second quotation of Mounce incorrectly claims, in all too overgeneralized way, that “there is nothing pejorative at all in the Greek γύναι.” Mounce incorrectly claims by this second quotation also that this term John’s gospel puts five times in the mouth of Jesus is “untranslatable.”
  3. What Mounce has overlooked is how the sexist Aristotle quotes Sophocles, who has his character Ms. Tecmessa quoting a sexist Greek jingle or insult using Γύναι [Gynai] to justify her subjugating herself to Mr. Ajax in the play Ajax. Here’s the Greek in her mouth and a couple of good translations:

ὁ δ᾽ εἶπε πρός με βαί᾽, ἀεὶ δ᾽ ὑμνούμενα:

     γύναι, γυναιξὶ κόσμον ἡ σιγὴ φέρει.

κἀγὼ μαθοῦσ᾽ ἔληξ᾽, ὁ δ᾽ ἐσσύθη μόνος.

But he answered me curtly with that trite jingle:

Woman, silence graces woman.”

And I, taking his meaning, desisted, but he rushed out alone. [Jebb]

What I got as an answer from him was the usual short insult.

Listen woman! Women are only beautiful when they are silent!”

At that I shut up and he ran out of the hut all alone. [Theodoridis]

For Mounce, it would seem, there is no English to address a woman, as a son must his mother, that is not pejorative. Of course, to address a woman who’s committed the capital offense of adultery (as much as Mounce would have translators put non-pejorative English in the mouth of John’s Jesus addressing individual women), I’m afraid it’s not so clear that the johannine Greek is not sexist.

Γύναι [Gynai] seems as marked, and as odd, as any other term of address at a “Wo-Man!” or a “Fe-Male!” has to be.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2018 5:18 pm

    Just a tiny quibble on the appropriateness of the address “γύναι” and the correct translation in the context of Oedipus to Jocasta. It must not be forgotten that when Oedipus says these words to Jocasta, she is his wife. It is only much later in the play that it is revealed that she is also his mother, so the term “γύναι” should be translated as “wife” and it is therefore a common expression.

    Moreover, and I’d hate to cross swords with someone as eminent a classic scholar as Sir Jebb for whom I have enormous respect but the term “Lady” is highly objectionable to my Greek ears; and it is an objection that grates on my mind as I read so many translations of ancient Greek. Reading those translations, especially the plays, one gets the impression that its authors were Englishmen, trouncing about in Stratford-upon-Avon during the Elizabethan years and not by Greeks, walking and talking in the Athenian agora during the 5th C. BCE.

    Sir Richard is one of many culprits, I’m afraid and “lady” is not the only word that does this grating. It is also the Greek tone and style of expression which, I’m afraid, are treated with abject scorn and disdain and replaced by english mannerisms which are quite foreign to the Greeks of today. Reading the translations done by Greek scholars, into today’s Greek one can very clearly see the difference.

    Thank you for the opportunity to air my rant!

  2. January 28, 2018 9:00 am

    How wonderful to hear from you, George Theodoridis!

    Thank you, first, for your translations. I’ve seen elsewhere you describe yourself as one who “Has the ear of Zeus.” I wholeheartedly believe that. We are much obliged, now, that you take the time to offer your quibble and to air your rant!

    Oedipus, as husband, would call to his mother as “wife” when she was precisely that.

    That in Greek, and that by your English rendering, the spectators in Aristophanes’s audience are made to laugh is important. The early listeners watching the play may have appreciated his troubling of social constructs of sexuality. We later readers can only get the humorous discomforts of taboos when the implications are not erased by a Victorian British culture of propriety. We’re grateful how you retain, for all of us, the tone and style of expression of Greece through the ages.

    (Your note on Sir Richard Jebb’s “lady” for γύναι in Aristophanes sounds a bit like Emily Wilson’s complaint after she read a few translators who came after him:

    Notorious for their bowdlerized translations of the more risqué classical authors, the volumes lapsed into Latin to handle the dirty bits of Greek authors or Italian when dealing with the ribald Romans. Even perfectly decent texts, like the Odyssey, were consistently translated into a stilted language that only very rarely resembled contemporary English.

    She’s taking her jab at many translating for the early Loeb Classical Library.)

    For the question of how a woman is addressed by her son (who is not her husband), in the later New Testament, written in this same Greek reflective of the humor perhaps of Aristophanes, you’ve given us more to consider more carefully. Again, thank you.


  1. Womanly Silence in the Dirt: a translation of the fragment of John 8 | BLT
  2. Little Lady or Woesome Woman or Wiley Wife? Why Peter’s Γύναι in Luke 22? | BLT

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