Imagine your mother asking you to do something for a neighbor, and you responding to her by saying, “Woman, what does that have to do with me?” If your mother is anything like mine, she probably would have given you “the look” (among other things) as she pondered how her son could be so rude. Responding to a mother’s (or any woman’s) request in twenty-first-century America with the refrain, “Woman…,” sounds impolite and offensive. Furthermore, a Christian, who is commanded to “honor” his “father and mother” (Ephesians 6:2), would be out of line in most situations when using such an expression while talking directly to his mother.
In light of the ill-mannered use of the word “woman” in certain contexts today, some question how Jesus could have spoken to His mother 2,000 years ago using this term without breaking the commandment to “[h]onor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12; cf. Matthew 15:4; Matthew 5:17-20). When Jesus, His disciples, and His mother were at the wedding in Cana of Galilee where there was a depletion of wine, Mary said to Jesus, “They have no wine” (John 2:3). Jesus then responded to His mother, saying, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4). Notice what one skeptic has written regarding what Jesus said in this verse.
In Matt. 15:4 he [Jesus—EL] told people to “Honor thy father and thy mother”; yet, he was one of the first to ignore his own maxim by saying to his mother in John 2:4, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” (McKinsey, 1995, p. 44).
Imagine someone talking to his own mother is such a disrespectful manner and addressing her by such an impersonal noun as “woman.” Talk about an insolent offspring! (1995, p. 134).
Jesus needs to practice some parental respect… (2000, p. 251).
Apparently Jesus’ love escaped him (n.d., “Jesus…”).
Why was Jesus disrespectful of his mother? In John 2:4, Jesus uses the same words with his mother that demons use when they meet Jesus. Surely the son of God knew that Mary had the blessing of the Father, didn’t he, (and she was the mother of God—Ed.) not to mention the fact that the son of God would never be rude? (n.d., “Problems…”, parenthetical comment in orig.).
As one can see, Mr. McKinsey is adamant that Jesus erred. He used such words to describe Jesus as disrespectful, insolent, unloving, and rude. Is he correct?
As with most Bible critics, Mr. McKinsey is guilty of judging Jesus’ words by what is common in twenty-first-century English vernacular, rather than putting Jesus’ comments in its proper first-century setting. It was not rude or inappropriate for a man in the first century to speak to a lady by saying, “Woman (gunai)….” This “was a highly respectful and affectionate mode of address” (Vincent, 1997) “with no idea of censure” (Robertson, 1932, p. 34). The New International Version correctly captures the meaning of this word in John 2:4: “ ‘Dear woman, why do you involve me?’ ” (NIV, emp. added). Jesus used this word when complimenting the Syrophoenician woman’s great faith (Matthew 15:28), when affectionately addressing Mary Magdalene after His resurrection (John 20:15), and when speaking to His disconsolate mother one last time from the cross (John 19:26). Paul used this same word when addressing Christian women (1 Corinthians 7:16). As Adam Clarke noted: “[C]ertainly no kind of disrespect is intended, but, on the contrary, complaisance, affability, tenderness, and concern, and in this sense it is used in the best Greek writers” (1996).
As to why Jesus used the term “woman” (gunai) instead of “mother” (meetros) when speaking to Mary (which even in first-century Hebrew and Greek cultures was an unusual way to address one’s mother), Leon Morris noted that Jesus most likely was indicating
that there is a new relationship between them as he enters his public ministry…. Evidently Mary thought of the intimate relations of the home at Nazareth as persisting. But Jesus in his public ministry was not only or primarily the son of Mary, but “the Son of Man” who was to bring the realities of heaven to people on earth (1:51). A new relationship was established (Morris, 1995, p. 159).
R.C.H. Lenski added: “[W]hile Mary will forever remain his [Jesus’—EL] mother, in his calling Jesus knows no mother or earthly relative, he is their Lord and Savior as well as of all men. The common earthly relation is swallowed up in the divine” (1961, p. 189). It seems best to conclude that Jesus was simply “informing” His mother in a loving-yet-firm manner that as He began performing miracles for the purpose of proving His deity and the divine origin of His message (see Miller, 2003, pp. 17-23), His relationship to His mother was about to change.
Finally, the point also must be stressed that honoring fathers and mothers does not mean that a son or daughter never can correct his or her parents. Correction and honor are no more opposites than correction and love. One of the greatest ways parents disclose their love to their children is by correcting them when they make mistakes. Similarly, one of the ways in which a mature son might honor his parents is by taking them aside when they have erred, and lovingly pointing out their mistake or oversight in a certain matter. How much more honorable would this action be than to take no action and allow them to continue in a path of error without informing them of such. We must keep in mind that even though Mary was a great woman “who found favor with God” (Luke 1:30), she was not perfect (cf. Romans 3:10,23). She was not God, nor the “mother of God” (viz., she did not originate Jesus or bring Him into existence). But, she was the one chosen to carry the Son of God in her womb. Who better to correct any misunderstanding she may had had than this Son?
Clarke, Adam (1996), Adam Clarke’s Commentary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), The Interpretation of the St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).
McKinsey, C. Dennis (no date), “Jesus, Imperfect Beacon,” Biblical Errancy [On-line], URL: http://members.aol.com/ckbloomfld/bepart11.html#issref113.
McKinsey, C. Dennis (no date), “Problems with the Credentials and Character of Jesus,” Biblical Errancy [On-line], URL: http://mywebpages.comcast.net/errancy/issues/iss190.htm.
McKinsey, C. Dennis (1995), The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus).
McKinsey, C. Dennis (2000), Biblical Errancy (Amherst, NY: Prometheus).
Miller, Dave (2003), “Modern-day Miracles, Tongue-Speaking, and Holy Spirit Baptism: A Refutation,” Reason & Revelation, 23:17-24, March.
Morris, Leon (1995), The Gospel According to St. John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), revised edition.
Robertson, A.T. (1932), Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman).
Vincent, Marvin R. (1997), Word Studies in the New Testament (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).