Sunday, February 05, 2006

Did Mary consent? Linguist Friend looks into Luke 1:38

The text of Luke 1:38 is widely interpreted essentially as in the NRSV. No textual variations or grammatical issues of the Greek text are significant. The Greek word doule "female slave" in this text is commonly translated by the English term "servant", implying a legal status that scarcely existed in the Hellenistic world. This follows a West European tradition that apparently stems from the early Latin translations of the gospels. This translation is not appropriate in view of the knowledge of Hellenistic Greek and its legal terminology that has accumulated since major studies of the language and contents of the the Greek papyri from Ptolemaic Egypt began to appear about a century ago. Revision of the translation of this passage leads to a different understanding of Mary's response to the annunciation. Mary recognizes her subordinate position and what follows from it, no less, no more.

The NRSV text here reads, reporting the supposed words of Mary speaking in response to the words of the angel Gabriel that she will bear a child who will be called the Son of God:

"Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word".

The recent New Interpreters' Study Bible (Nashville 2003) notes "although introduced without reference to her family origins (v.27), Mary now claims a place in God's household. Partnership with God transcends family ties ( . . . )." This translation and note set the stage for the issue of the interpretation of this passage.

This is a passage where there are no significant variants of the Greek which might underly different understandings. The text is not attested in the papyri of the first three centuries AD, and the standard editions of the Greek text of Nestle/Aland (27th edition, 1999) and the United Bible Society (4th edition, Stuttgart, 1994) list only one minor variant. Other very minor variants of the text which need not be considered here are provided by Tischendorf (editio octava critica major, I, Leipzig 1869).

The Greek word doulos which is translated "servant" in the NRSV and in most English-language versions is more accurately to be translated "slave". Apparently on the basis of the etymological formation of the Greek word doulos, which contains the root "tie", the term "bondservant" or "bondswoman" has been used to translate it. Frederick Danker's new edition (Chicago, 2000) of Walter Bauer's wonderful standard dictionary of NT Greek defines the term clearly as "slave as an entity in a socioeconomic context" or "one who is solely committed to another, slave, subject". The word doulos is used in its concrete legal sense in references to legal slaves and is also used metaphorically in the second sense by speakers to those of rank much higher than theirs, such as officials, nobles, or God. This interpretation is based on the Bauer/Danker article on the word in the masculine gender (with literature); the much briefer article on the word in the feminine gender, where there are many fewer passages to consider, defines it as "female slave, bondswoman". Danker interprets the present passage as "an oriental expression, used by one of humble station in addressing one of higher rank or a deity". (p.259). Thus an interpretation such as that in the New Interpreter's Study Bible above, that Mary claims by its use a place as servant in God's household, is misleading.

The Bauer/Danker interpretation is not new. The distinguished German theologian Adolf Deissmann while at the University of Heidelberg wrote an epoch-making treatise Light from the Ancient East (1908, English 1910) in which he showed the importance of the late Greek of the Egyptian papyri for the interpretation of the Greek Bible and especially for the NT. Here Deissmann in a long excursus (pp.322 ff.) points out the significance for New Testament theology of the accurate understanding of the term doulos, which occurs in the feminine form in this passage. He discusses the use of the term especially in regard to Hellenistic popular law and references to manumission (in Greek, the same word as "redemption") in the NT, which lose their point if doulos is translated as "servant" rather than "slave". The point was also made by a British scholar who in terms of linguistic expertise in Hellenistic Greek usage was at least the equal of Deissmann, James Hope Moulton, in his Vocabulary of the New Testament(1914/1930). Moulton and his collaborator Milligan cite the study by the papyrologist Wilcken (1899) which points out the extent to which various occupations in the Hellenistic world were held exclusively either by slave labor or free labor. The issue of occupation thus overlaps the issue of legal status. It follows that, in the words of the International Critical Commentary volume on Luke by Alfred Plummer, "In an age in which almost all servants were slaves, the idea which is represented by our "servant" could scarcely arise" (Edinburgh 1901, p.26). The term used in the Greek NT defines Mary metaphorically in terms of her legal status (slave), not metaphorically in terms of her occupation. Since not all slaves in the Hellenistic world were house-servants, however, from Luke's Greek term "slave" it could not be inferred that the person to whom it referred was a servant.

However, the Latin translation which has overshadowed the Greek text in a tradition which we know from Jerome and is suggested even in the notes cited above translates the Greek term by a Latin one which often refers to occupation: "ecce ancilla Domini fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum" in the Biblia Sacra Latin text of the Wuerttembergische Bibelanstalt (ed. Robert Weber, Stuttgart 1969), which lists no textual variants. In Latin, the term "ancilla" is translated in the older (and broader) dictionary of Lewis and Short (OUP 1879) as "maidservant, handmaid, female slave" with the observation that it was commonly used as the feminine of servus. The newer Oxford Latin Dictionary ed. P.Glare (OUP 1996) treats the word more from a legal point of view ("female slave, slave girl, maidservant"), but Lewis and Short make clear the usage as a designation of occupation in later Latin than is treated in Glare's Oxford dictionary of classical Latin. Deissmann (p.323) points out that the German Bible translation of Luther also softens the Greek term "slave" and creates legal confusion, just as does the English translation by translating the Greek word "slave" by the English word "servant".

These traditions in West European Bible translations seem to reflect the influence of the early anonymous translators of the Greek NT into Latin whose work Jerome revised in his fourth-century Latin version of the gospels. The Latin text hovered in the back of the mind of early West European translators, even those working directly from the Greek, and its influence is not entirely absent even from modern scholarship. By contrast, this influence is lacking in the earliest East European translation, the Old Bulgarian translation of the NT of the mid-ninth century, which was carried out directly from the Greek, probably by Greeks who were bilingual in Old Bulgarian. There, the earliest surviving Old Bulgarian manuscripts of the gospels without an exception (I checked the six editions of them on my shelves) read the equivalent of "Behold the slave of the Lord" in this verse, which is also a correct rendering of the Greek original.

The second sentence in this verse, in the NRSV "let it be with me according to your word" simply is semantically parallel to the first. Since Mary takes the role of a slave, she can do nothing but submit. Plummer's older commentary on Luke (1901) agrees with the classic commentary on Luke of J.M.Creed (MacMillan, London 1930, p.21), which states that "Mary humbly accepts the lot which has been appointed for her". The modern commentary on Luke by I.H.Marshall in the New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI, 1978, p.72) states that "The scene closes with Mary's humble acceptance of the will of God". The Greek clause here is almost identical to the Septuagint's Greek OT text of Genesis 31:34, and perhaps is also related to Gen 21:1 as Marshall suggests. However, the Greek text in Luke would be better translated as "let it happen to me . . . " (sic also The New Jerusalem Bible 1985, p.1687), with an aorist verb referring to a particular event rather than to a state, in which the only suggestion of any active wish is the optative mood of the verb by which Mary expresses her submission. The absence of the definite article before the word "Lord" in the Greek text is consistent with Septuagint/ NT Greek usage in which common nouns such as "kyrios" and "theos" referring to unique divinities are frequently treated as proper names.

Thus, a more accurate translation of Mary's speech in Luke 1:38 would be "Behold the slave of the Lord. Let it happen to me according to your word." Mary expresses recognition of her absolutely subordinate position and what follows from it, no less, no more.

Finally, it is worth noting that an almost identical issue about the Greek terminology for "slave" arises in the translation of the Song of Simeon, also in Luke (2:29), where the AV has "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart", and Goodspeed recommends and justifies a rendering as "Now, Master, you will let your slave go free, . . . " (Edgar J. GoodspeedProblems of New Testament TranslationChicago 1945, pp.77-79).


Anonymous said...

Linguist Friend: I did read the whole thing. It appears to me to be a lot of stuff with no conclusion. You imply stuff, but don't come out and say what you mean. Very academic.
could you please now say what you meant by it? Then we can discuss it.

LinguistFriend said...

I have added a summary at the beginning and a clearer separate conclusion in the next to last paragraph. I hope that is helpful.
If we adjust the translation of her response in L 1:38 so that it is more precise, Mary is portrayed as accepting a position of ultimate subordination. Her statement of obedience to the message conveyed by the angel
does not go beyond this recognition that she must obey.

Anonymous said...

So, are you saying that Mary didn't really consent, she accepted or acquiesced?
Does it make any difference? Would a God even think to ask permission? Well, some Gods might, but Yahweh really isn't the considerate type, is he?
But my real underlying concern is: did the people who wrote the bible really really pick every word to be exactly what they meant so carefully that you can hang your soul on the turn of a phrase? Frankly, I doubt it.

LinguistFriend said...

CC had expressed curiosity about this text on several occasions, so I took a look at what sense I could make of the Greek text in the form it has. This requires a certain amount of analysis from philological disciplines which will be dull to many people, but is necessary to know what form of the text should be used, and what it means. Since my early training was as a linguist/philologist, this is familiar territory for me. I am fallible, but I have had enough grounding here to have been invited to and carry through collaboration with the Society of Biblical Literature to publication on one occasion, although I no longer work in that area. I was rather surprised to realize that the modern revisors who created the NRSV had not escaped the influence of Jerome in their treatment of the text in question.

Beyond this is the issue of how people of the first century AD wrote and talked, and for what purposes. The people who wrote the NT were deeply imbued with the preceding oral or written texts of their peoples, as were the people who composed the Homeric poems and the Rig Veda. Thus Luke, like them, did not write like the author of a modern newspaper or history book. I need not believe that Mary literally saw and talked with an angel to attribute importance to Luke's text.

Indeed, as you say, one should not hang one's soul on the turn of a Biblical phrase. That way lies madness. I do not look at the text as if my religious beliefs depended on it, since I have never been a member of a Christian church. But it means much that I
know the text when I must interact with people whose religious beliefs do depend on it, or who are in spiritual agony because they can no longer trust in those beliefs. Lack of knowledge of historical Christianity, on the other hand, is a problem both for UUs and Christians (some of whom overlap, of course).

The NT contains two versions that contain at least partial accounts of Jesus's birth and childhood, in Matthew and in Luke. They do not agree very well, and there is no reason to think of Luke's account of the Annunciation as a historical account. But, in view of the importance of Christian tradition in the world, the text is a historical phenomenon that is worth studying, like the texts of many other religions.

To reach defensible conclusions, however, first one must study it as a text, as I do here, and only then can one interpret it in terms of what the person referred to as Luke wanted to accomplish. Almost regretfully, I think that the person who has read my paragraphs on Luke 1:38 will be better prepared to evaluate the text in this sense than the person who works from the current translation and interpretation of the text of the text cited at the beginning of my note.
Linguist Friend

Anonymous said...

This is a great post, and I really appreciate it. This issue came up because a feminist with a livejournal site posted a piece speculating that Mary was essentially "raped." Then blogger Richard Ames ridiculed that post as an example of "churlish" feminist thinking and writing. I then responded by arguing that her idea is a legitimate critique of a Bible story, and then Chalice Chick took up the issue.

My take on it is that the issue of consent is awfully muddy here. Mary was forewarned about something that would be done to her. The forewarning was not framed as a request nor is there any indication that she would have had the opportunity to disobey. Other Biblical heroes, like Abraham and Jesus had the opportunity to disobey God's will. Abraham and Jesus are heroes because they freely chose to obey. Although I am not at all a Biblical scholar, it is striking that Mary was not given the opportunity to choose to obey God-- she was merely acted upon. The sense one gets is that perhaps free will is not quite so important in Biblical terms when it comes to a woman's sexual/reproductive functioning.

I am not necessarily wedded to this conclusion but I think the original livejournal on this topic raised a good point. Linguist Friend's analysis confirms my thinking on this topic.

LinguistFriend said...

Happy Feminist:
I will take a small step beyond my philological role to try to put part of this issue in a cultural background. Of course, the text of L 1:38 was written in a period when it was widely mentioned (not necessarily believed) that a god such as Zeus might mate with a human, sometimes quite to that woman's surprise, so Yahweh's behavior here is consistent with other religious traditions in the same general geographic area.

But it is probably more relevant that the role of women
in the Judaism of this period, and in many other periods, has been that they were expected to obey their husbands and God. [Since I had the good fortune to grow up in close connection with an open and liberal Jewish community, this is not a negative remark, but a historical one.] Mary's response to Gabriel is an expression of general obedience comparable to that of a slave. She is described as extending her general pattern of obedience to the procreative arena. The following "Magnificat" text in which she is said to express her response to the favor of God is a pastiche of Old Testament texts and especially of paraphrases from the Greek version of the Psalms, so her willingness can be seen to be marked as an expression of a traditional attitude. Especially in a closed society, such unquestioned obedience can be at times abused in the most regrettable senses.

The heritage of Christianity in respect to the role of women is a mixed one. On the one hand, Jesus seems to have had more liberal views of the role of women than were prevalent in contemporary Jewish tradition. This is one of the points that Borg, for instance, makes well in an accessible form in his "Meeting Jesus again for the First Time".
There are also the more mixed views of Paul, partly more traditional than Jesus in his assessment of women's role, and partly expressing a possible liberty from some traditions of religious law which cut across all social groups, again in conflict which Jesus, who stated that in principle he followed Jewish law.

But this is a subject on which there is an existing literature, and also intriguing information on women such as Mary Magdalene, who chose a more active role as an apostle, to find herself in conflict with Peter during her lifetime and defamed by Christians after her death. I tend to think that Mary Magdalene is a more positive role model for the present day, but perhaps her freedom to assert herself came about, in the long run, partly because of the results of the previous submission of Mary. It is a thought-provoking story, although certainly not true in detail.

Linguist Friend

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree that it is worth remembering that we are talking about a very different cultural context than our own. There are, however, many conservative Christian groups today that want to impose on our own society mores from this very different cultural context. That's why I found the prior post I read about the "rape" of Mary so striking-- that we are talking about a tradition in which women's reproductive function was something in which they did not necessarily, at least in Mary's story, take much of an active role in controlling. And based on the linguistic analysis, Mary seemed to embrace and revel in her very subordinate cultural status as a woman.

Of course, criticizing a Bible story from this perspective does not mean devaluing the Bible. I think the story of Jesus's conception as the son of God serves a number of fairly profound theological purposes, such as the idea of God himself becoming one of us. I would be inclined to read Mary's rather passive and subordinate role to be incidental to the primary purpose of the story, a product of the cultural assumptions of the era, assumptions that I am sure the writers of the Gospels didn't think about twice.

LinguistFriend said...

Happy Feminist:
It would take some study before I would say much specific about the general issue of women's control of their bodies in the Hellenistic age. But, in terms of what I know, you seem to have a realistic view of the subject. Women did not control much in that period, although they had ways of getting around things. They could not legally own property, for instance, but could get a man, such as a retired Roman veteran, to sign documents for them, so that the woman had effective control; I recall reading an example of that in a Greek papyrus from Egypt. But there is a scholarly literature in that area.
I would not, however, think of the Bible as a unity in more of a sense than that it is bound together. It is an anthology of early and late Jewish and Christian literature chosen by a committee whose members had their own views and their own fatted calves to feed. Canon formation is an interesting story, with as much politics as religion. Some texts, such as the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, had a better claim to be included in the NT than a piece of psychopathology and bad Greek such as Revelation, which seems beloved by the same people who would prefer to limit women to the role they occupied in the first century AD. Once I was asked to (and did) write a chapter on the Testament of Abraham, a piece of Hellenistic Jewish literature that didn't make it into either testament, but is still interesting.