I have recently read in two blogs (neither is CBE’s Scroll) that Jesus sometimes treated women rudely. Each cites John 2:4, where Jesus addresses Mary as “woman” at a wedding feast. Unfortunately, both bloggers have fallen prey to an elementary interpretive fallacy: The implications of a word or phrase in one culture are not necessarily the same in another. Thus in this case, the fact that calling one’s mother “woman” would be offensive in many cultures today is no help in discerning whether it was offensive in first-century Galilee.
So what evidence is there that “woman” in John 2:4 is indeed not an offensive address?
1. Mary gives no indication that she is offended.
2. The disciples, other bystanders, and the narrator give no indication that she is offended.
3. Jesus calls her “woman” from the cross in 19:26, where he is clearly concerned about her well being.
4. In 4:21, Jesus calls the Woman at the Well “woman” (as do we!) in a story that highlights Jesus’ care for women and Samaritans.
5. After his resurrection, both Jesus (20:15) and the angels at the tomb (20:13) address Mary Magdalene as “woman.” Their words are words of comfort.
6. In 8:10, Jesus addresses the Woman Caught in Adultery as “woman” (as do we!). His words are words of forgiveness.
7. Scholarship has weighed in against the two bloggers. Prominent Baptist commentator George Beasley-Murray, citing evidence from the gospels and Josephus, said the term “has caused needless perplexity. While it is an unusual mode of address to one’s mother, it also may be affectionate” (Word Biblical Commentary, 34). Roman Catholic commentator and leading John scholar Raymond Brown affirmed, “this is not a rebuke, nor an impolite term, nor an indication of a lack of affection” (Anchor Bible, 99). And these opinions are not new. In 1881, Cambridge professor B. F. Westcott wrote, “In the original there is not the least tinge of reproof or severity in the term. The address is that of courteous respect, even of tenderness.”
So why the odd title to this blog entry? John Lennon titled a song “Woman,” and wrote these words: “Woman, I can hardly express my mixed emotions and my thoughtlessness. After all, I’m forever in your debt….” If he can call a woman “woman” without implying disrespect, surely Jesus can as well!