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More Odd Greek: Melania, the anthropos of God

August 31, 2014

So many, many times, men have told me that anthropos means a human being, or a male human being, but never a woman on her own. One man asked me what the feminine term was for Adam. When I claim humanity for women, when I say, “but women are human beings, and these words which mean “human being” must refer also to women,” usually they mutter words like “shrill” “vitriol” etc. Why should a woman make such a fuss? Sad, but true.

Here are two passages of odd Greek, where the anthropos and the aner are female.

ποτὲ ἀνὴρ ἀγαθὸς γίγνοιτ’ ἄν,
τὴν ἀνθρώπῳ προσήκουσαν ἀρετὴν τῆς ψυχῆς ἔχων ,
εἴτε ἄρρην τις των συνοικούντων οὖσα ἡ φύσις εἴτε θήλεια, νέων ἢ γερόντων

– in which a member of our community –
be he of the male or female sex, young or old,-
may become a good citizen,
possessed of the excellence of soul which belongs to man. Plato’s Laws 1 – 6, Bury, Harvard U. P. 1926, 6. 770d. 

“In brief this was the substance of the agreement,
in whatever way a member of the community,
whether his nature be male or female, young or old,
might become a good man,
possessing the virtue of soul that befits a human being … ” page 158 Laws by Plato, trans. by T. Pangle, 1980. U. of Chicago P. 6. 770d

In the first translation, the Greek word ανθρωπος is translated as “man” generic – meaning human, “the excellence of soul which belongs to man” and the word ανηρ is translated as citizen, either male or female. Being human had an excellence which belonged equally to men and women. However, being a man had an excellence which properly belonged to men, but women could also share in it. Bury translated aner as “citizen” in a gender neutral way, and Pangle translated aner as “man,” a man which could be either male or female.

Here is another expression, one which I was told did not and could not exist. It is not found in the Bible but in Greek literature a few centuries later.

Ἐν τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ Νιτρίας γέγονεν ἀνὴρ ἀσκητὴς Ὠρ ὀνόματι ᾦ πολλὴν προσεμαρτύρει ἀρετὴν καὶ πᾶσα μὲν ἡ ἀδελφότης ἐξαιρέτως δὲ ἡ ἄνθρωπος τοῦ θεοῦ Μελανία, πρὸ ἐμοῦ εἰσελθοῦσα εἰ τοῦτο τὸ ὄρως Palladius Lausiac Histories, chapter IX

In the mountain of Nitria there was an ascetic named Or, to whose great virtue the whole brotherhood bore witness, and especially Melania, that woman (anthropos) of God, who came to the mountain before me.

The Lausiac History of Palladius, trans. W.K. Lowther Clarke B.D. Aeterna Press, April 18, 2014, tns. W.K. Lowther Clarke B.D.

Some commentators have translated he anthropos of God, as the “female man” of God. Bible translators usually translate ho anthropos of God as “man of God.” But aren’t Melania and Timothy both equally “persons of God.” How can we show the equal status of the two? How can we show that a woman does not have to be a man to be an anthropos.

There are two words translated “man” in Greek, and two in Hebrew. The way I understand it anthropos and adam predominantly mean “a human being,” while aner and ish mean an individual and predominantly refer to men, but can include women. In English, “man” can include women, but “a man” cannot. So, one cannot really say “a good man, male or female” in English. It doesn’t quite work.

However, many Bible scholars, not familiar with obscure classical Greek and modern Hebrew, claim that aner and ish exclusively mean “a man” and there is no deviation from this. Joel, at God Didn’t Say That, expresses the case regarding ish well. It is inclusive, although with less clarity, he compares anthropos to ish. These are not usually thought of as equivalent terms.

My point is that anthropos is not like “person” or “man” in English.

Here’s another example, this time from Modern Hebrew, where we can actually test hypothetical sentences to see if they are accepted by native speakers.

There’s a Modern Hebrew word ish.

In many contexts, it looks exactly like our English “person.” The phrase anashim tovim (“good ish‘s”) refers to good people of any gender or age. In the negative — ish lo nimtza, e.g., [“not an ish was present”] — it again refers to people of any gender or age. And so on.

Yet in other contexts it contrasts with “woman.” The phrase ish v’isha, “an ish and a woman,” means “a man and a woman.” Even more clearly, the phrase at lo ish, “you (f) aren’t an ish,” simply means “you aren’t a man.” It does not mean “you aren’t a person.”

The main point is clear. These words are not exact equivalents of either “man” or “person.” There will be no exact equivalents. Perhaps the most worrisome for some people is that neither aner nor ish exclude women.

Here is another passage, from the Dialogue of Palladius on the Life of Saint Chrysostom,  chapter 16, pqge 151, which may clarify a little how the early church used these Greek terms. I will take a stab at transliterating this, starting with “the deacon” at the end of the first line, and ending with schema, second word in the last line.

Olympias aner Greek

ὁ διάκ. ποταπῂ γυνὴ τυγχάνει οὖσα;
ὁ ἐπίσκ. μὴ λέγε γυνὴ, ἀλλ’ οἷος ἂνθρωπος.
ἀνὴρ γάρ ἐστί παρὰ τὸ τοῦ σώματις σχῆμα.

The deacon speaks: Now, if it’s not too much trouble, tell us about Olympias,
if you have some knowledge of her.
The bishop: Which one? There are several.
The deacon: The deacon (diakonos) of Constantinople,
who was the bride of Nebridius, the former prefect.
The bishop: I know her well.
The deacon: What kind of woman is she?
The bishop: Do not say “woman,” but “such a person” (anthropos),
for she was a man (aner) despite her bodily appearance.

The deacon: How is that?
The bishop: By her life, her asceticism and knowledge,
and her patient endurance in trials. Madigan, Osiek, 2011

So, in the early church, the most important thing about being a Christian woman was being a man. And many women were called manly in the early church. How else can we phrase this in English? Sometimes, I see that people can’t wrap their brains around the women that are men. Not women who inherit eternal life because they are “sons.” These are women who behave as men, who perform as men, and are respected as men. But you must empty your brain of your native language, before trying to fill it with a new one. Is translation – the pursuit of equivalent words and terms – even possible?

What is a man? A man is a mature and fully responsible human being with all the rights of citizen and head of the family, and with all the attributes of the ascetics and martyrs, male or female. That’s why a man would set the price of a manly – ἀνδρεία – wife far above rubies. Nobody ever remembers that the Bible says a woman should be manly. But if we define the Greek word “man” properly, then women are also to be men. Or men should be called “persons.” One way or the other.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. krwordgazer permalink
    August 31, 2014 1:16 pm

    This reminds me of something I wrote once on my blog:

    “When I was a little girl, my father used to sing us a folk song which had been recorded by the Kingston Trio. I remember the chorus went like this:

    It takes a worried man
    To sing a worried song
    I’m worried now
    But I won’t be worried long

    The thing about this song is this. It never occurred to me or my father– and I’m pretty sure it never occurred to the Kingston Trio– that the meaning of these words included the idea that a worried woman couldn’t sing a worried song. In those days the masculine gender in the English language was the default. It could mean just males, but unless the context indicated otherwise, it was generally assumed to mean both sexes. The song is saying that only a worried person can sing a worried song. The song could have used the word “person” there, but just because it says “man,” doesn’t mean the meaning isn’t “person.” And no one, as far as I know, has ever thought otherwise.

    The Greek language spoken and written by Paul and the Apostles was similar. The Scripture 4 All Online Interlinear New Testament shows that when James wrote in Chapter 1, verse 8 of his epistle, “A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways,” he used the Greek word for “man,” which is transliterated as “aner.” The ancient Greek did have a gender-neutral word which meant “person” — “anthropos”– and this word is often used in the New Testament. In fact, James used this word in verse 7, immediately before: “let not that person (“anthropos”) think he shall receive anything from the Lord.” (Emphasis added.) But in verse 8 James used the word that meant “man.” Did he mean that a double-minded woman was not unstable in all her ways? Is it only double-minded male humans who are unstable?”

  2. August 31, 2014 2:03 pm

    Good thinking. Yes, sometimes aner is just a synonym for anthropos – a person.

  3. September 1, 2014 9:20 am

    Is translation – the pursuit of equivalent words and terms – even possible?

    I love your rhetorical question here. Well, of course, this is some of the crux of the issue. “Objectivity” in translation (i.e., the binary between either exegesis or eisegesis) privileges sexism, when the translator has his male privilege unquestioned and has her marginalization always an add-on, a fe-male mark, a wo-man variant of the human (where the default and the natural and the normal is always male, invariably man).

    Thanks for this wonderful explanation with real examples of how the Greek words work (and how they do not always mean). The phrase ἄρσεν καὶ θῆλυ is so much a translation of the Hebrew it translates, and yet why in English are we stuck with “male and fe-male”?

    Did you see this?

    (And your link to Dr. Osiek’s book isn’t working.)

  4. September 2, 2014 2:13 pm

    I fixed the link, and of course, we should be male et femelle, or masculus et femina, no confusion there. I notice how over time, maleness sticks its nose in odd places. Or femaleness takes on alienating terms.

    For example, in this passage Olympias was described as a diakonos in Greek, but it was translated into Latin as a diaconissa. She was unmanned, so to speak.

  5. September 4, 2014 8:05 am

    over time, maleness sticks its nose in odd places. Or femaleness takes on alienating terms.

    Great example with the shift from manly Greek woman to Latin womanly (unmanned) woman.

    The same thing happens with some English translations of the Greek of 1 Peter 3:6B –

    Why should τέκνα there be “daughters” and not “sons” and not even “children” in English just because they are girls who are married just as Sarah was married?

    And in the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis 6), this is an interesting set:

    οἱ υἱοὶ τοῦ θεοῦ τὰς θυγατέρας τῶν ἀνθρώπων

    (never mind the ambiguities and the textual variations:

  6. December 26, 2014 12:07 pm

    Is it possible that the default meaning of anthropoid is “person”, not man? And also possible that it is the English language preference (default) of everything male that get’s in the way of us seeing that>

  7. December 26, 2014 3:01 pm

    Anthropos definitely means “human” and not “divine.” The problem with the word “person” is that we can say God is a “person” but God is definitely not “anthropos,” that is “human.” The “man” thing is just a product of translation into English.

  8. tiro3 permalink
    December 26, 2014 4:33 pm

    thank you. that clarifies it nicely.


  1. oh, the humanity in the Hebraic Hellene to the Korinthians (I Cor. 15:20-22) | BLT

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