Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mary the Parthenon as equal to Joseph the Heitheon

Let me propose translations of LXX Isaiah 7:14 and of Matthew 1:23 and of Luke 1:26, 27, 34 that do not emphasize virginity. It's not because I'm a "liberal" (therefore not a "conservative") translator trying to diminish or downplay the biblical and accurate stories of pregnancies of virgins. Not sure I fit in either of those boxes ("liberal" or "conservative") very well. I'm not wanting to try a different translating because the Greek word parthenos (παρθενος) never refers to female virgins. We all know of examples where that's the case, where the Parthenon has to be female only and in which the emphasis is on her purity on her being yet untouched by a male.

What I'm hoping to do with English translation is to get at the part of the range of meanings of the Greek word parthenos (παρθενος) that gets beyond the female as the virgin .

Sometimes Often, female virginity is all that counts. For the radical extremist terrorists of September 11, 2001, (as the horrible folklore goes) female virginity was of supreme importance as their reward for their suicide mission. And for US culture in general, male virginity can actually be something of a joke.

The quick point I'm trying to make is one that Hanne Blank shows with her history of the concept of female virginity: there's a huge disparity between how cultures have regarded virginity in girls and women compared with boys and men.

Now, interestingly, Euripedes made use of another Greek word for virgins, untouched.  In his play Hippolytus, the playwright has the character Theseus ask the protagonist:

"Are you the chaste one, untouched by evil?"  David Kovacs is translating.  The words are σὺ σώφρων καὶ κακῶν ἀκήρατος; Notice how a-kēratos (ἀ-κήρατος) is the word for "un-touched" and sṓphrōn (σώφρων) the word for "chaste." The question is whether these sorts of words apply equally to males and to females. For Aristotle, of course, females are botched males, naturally, and therefore, it is important to divide them. The same word, such as sōphrosȳnē (σωφροσύνη) or "temperance," actually divides women and men, for Aristotle, just as for Hitler, Blutes or "blood," actually divided der Jude or "the Jew" and the untainted Arier or "the Aryan."

Homer's Greek did not always so divide people by blood, by temperance, by how and whether they were untouched and untainted and virgin.  The epics of Homer actually made good use of a pair of words that marked difference in sex but that gave import to both girls and boys as equals more or less. The pair included parthenos (παρθενος) as the feminine and hēitheos (ἠιθεος) as the masculine. Both, as a pair, together, refer to unmarried young people, to eligible bachelorettes and eligible bachelors.

You can see this pair in the following excerpt from a fragment of papyri recording a bit from Homer's Iliad, Book 22. It's probably from sometime in the 3rd century B.C.E. and is now in the collection of papyri at the University of Heidelberg.

Alex C. Purves in 1891 translated that bit in the following way:

IL.22.128 παρθένος ἠΐθεός τ' ὀαρίζετον ἀλλήλοιϊν.

IL.22.128 maid and bachelor in amorous prate;

The longer context goes like this, where you can see it as a repetition of the pair:

IL.22.123 μή μιν ἐγὼ μὲν ἵκωμαι ἰών, ὃ δέ μ' οὐκ ἐλεήσει
IL.22.123 Surely, if I solicit him, he will have no pity

IL.22.124 οὐδέ τί μ' αἰδέσεται, κτενέει δέ με γυμνὸν ἐόντα
IL.22.124 nor courtesy, but will slay me like a helpless

IL.22.125 αὔτως ὥς τε γυναῖκα, ἐπεί κ' ἀπὸ τεύχεα δύω.
IL.22.125 woman, a naked man, who have put off mine arms;

IL.22.126 οὐ μέν πως νῦν ἔστιν ἀπὸ δρυὸς οὐδ' ἀπὸ πέτρης
IL.22.126 I may not talk with him from tree or stone,

IL.22.127 τῷ ὀαριζέμεναι, ἅ τε παρθένος ἠΐθεός τε
IL.22.127 like a man and a maid, like

IL.22.128 παρθένος ἠΐθεός τ' ὀαρίζετον ἀλλήλοιϊν.
IL.22.128 maid and bachelor in amorous prate;

IL.22.129 βέλτερον αὖτ' ἔριδι ξυνελαυνέμεν ὅττι τάχιστα:
IL.22.129 better to close with him in speedy anger;

IL.22.130 εἴδομεν ὁπποτέρῳ κεν Ὀλύμπιος εὖχος ὀρέξῃ.
IL.22.130 so shall we know to whom the Olympian gives the glory.

And in Book 18 of the Illiad, the pair of words is used a couple of other times.

The pair of words also can be heard in Homer's Odyssey. With Samuel Butler's English translation of 1900, that with some context went like this:

OD.11.35 ἐλλισάμην, τὰ δὲ μῆλα λαβὼν ἀπεδειροτόμησα
OD.11.35 I cut the throats of the two sheep

OD.11.36 ἐς βόθρον, ῥέε δ' αἷμα κελαινεφές: αἱ δ' ἀγέροντο
OD.11.36 and let the blood run into the trench, whereon the ghosts came

OD.11.37 ψυχαὶ ὑπὲξ Ἐρέβευς νεκύων κατατεθνηώτων.
OD.11.37 trooping up from Erebus -

OD.11.38 νύμφαι τ' ἠΐθεοί τε πολύτλητοί τε γέροντες
OD.11.38 brides, young bachelors, old men worn out with toil,

OD.11.39 παρθενικαί τ' ἀταλαὶ νεοπενθέα θυμὸν ἔχουσαι,
OD.11.39 maids who had been crossed in love,

OD.11.40 πολλοὶ δ' οὐτάμενοι χαλκήρεσιν ἐγχείῃσιν,
OD.11.40 and brave

OD.11.41 ἄνδρες ἀρηΐφατοι βεβροτωμένα τεύχε' ἔχοντες:
OD.11.41 men who had been killed in battle, with their armour still smirched with blood;

So now we come to the Bible. Even though the male counterpart is lost after Homer's epic works, there's still reason to believe that readers could have heard "unmarried young person" as what was meant.

Here's Isaiah:

διὰ τοῦτο δώσει κύριος αὐτὸς ὑμῖν σημεῖον
Thus, this is what he will give -- Master himself will give something to you all -- a sign.

ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει
Look, the eligible bachelorette -- in her innermost belly -- will have it

καὶ τέξεται υἱόν
And, she will deliver and have a child, a son

καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Εμμανουηλ
And, she will call its name EmmanouĒl

Here's Matthew:

Ἰδού, ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει
Look, the eligible bachelorette -- in her innermost belly -- will have it

καὶ τέξεται υἱόν
And, she will deliver and have a child, a son

καὶ καλέσουσιν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουήλ
And, she will call its name EmmanouḖl

ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον
which is rendered literally

Μεθ’ ἡμῶν ὁ θεός
"with us - God"

Here's Luke:

Ἐν δὲ τῷ μηνὶ τῷ ἕκτῳ
And yet in the sixth month

ἀπεστάλη ὁ ἄγγελος Γαβριὴλ ἀπὸ (or possibly ὑπὸ) τοῦ θεοῦ
there was the Messenger GabriḔl from God sent

εἰς πόλιν τῆς Γαλιλαίας, ᾗ ὄνομα Ναζαρὲθ (or possiblyΝαζαρέτ)
into the City-State of Galilaias named Nazareth

πρὸς παρθένον
to an eligible bachelorette,

μεμνηστευμένην (or possibly ἐμνηστευμένην) ἀνδρί,
to be engaged to a man,

ᾧ ὄνομα Ἰωσήφ, ἐξ οἴκου Δαυίδ·
named Joseph, of the household of David.

καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τῆς παρθένου Μαριάμ.
and she, this bachelorette, was named Mariam,

Εἶπεν δὲ Μαριὰμ πρὸς τὸν ἄγγελον,
Mariam, nonetheless, said to the Messenger,

Πῶς ἔσται τοῦτο,
How is this going to be,

ἐπεὶ ἄνδρα οὐ γινώσκω;
seeing how I have not yet known a husband?

Now you tell me, does this translation disrupt the Greek?  Does it rob the narrative of female virginity that would be so very important to men and to males and to the Christian Bible?


Kristen said...

I'm no Greek scholar, but your translation makes sense to me. There has to be some reason why the Septuagint translated the Hebrew "almah" into "parthenon," right? "Unmarried female/bachelorette" makes more sense than "virgin," here, given the word they were translating from.

I think the Matthew and Luke texts are fairly clear that Mary "knew not a man" when she conceived Christ by the Holy Spirit, and that she was indeed a virgin. But your translation helps me understand why Matthew and Luke took the Isaiah passage as prophetic of this event-- even though it seems to me that God appears to have performed a miracle that the prophecy does not explicitly mention or require for the birth of the Messiah.

It is my understanding that the early church began to put a premium on virginity (both male and female) partly in reaction to the increasing looseness of Rome's sexual culture. There is a book called "Pagans and Christians," (I don't remember the author), that I read parts of once, and one thing that stuck out to me was a particular interpretation of the appearance of Christ after the Resurrection to the disciples at the sea of Gallilee while they were fishing. The early church interpreter found it significant that John recognized the Lord first-- stating that the reason was that John, being unmarried and a virgin, was more spiritually sensitive than the married Peter.

That the virginity of Mary thus became the main emphasis of the virgin birth story thus makes sense.

Hesperado said...

Forgive my off-topic comment, but I didn't want to deposit this comment on an essay you write back in October of 2008 there, as you likely would never see it.

Concerning your conjecture regarding James Taylor's Portuguese lyrics in "Only a Dream in Rio" --

Quando a nossa mae acordar
Andareimoz au sol
Quando a nossa mae acordar
Cantara pelos sertao
Quando a nossa mea acordar
Todos os filios saberao
Todos os filios saberao
E regozilarao

-- where the "mae" is "mother", you hypothesize JT is referring to his own mother; but I have always thought he was generously referencing the Catholic culture of Brazil, and was referring to Mary, mother of Jesus. Another reference in addition (no need to make them mutually exclusive, in a loosy-goosy comparative mythology sense) would be to "Mother Earth" -- since the word "sertão" refers to a vast region in Brazil of wilderness that culturally and mythically has the resonance of "Nature" for Brazilians.

J. K. Gayle said...


Yes, you're absolutely right that Luke and Matthew are also emphasizing how Mary didn't "know a man" and yet was pregnant. And yet it's not necessarily by the word "parthenos" that they (or that LXX Isaiah) so make the emphasis. Ann Nyland's translation of the Greek word stresses the fact that Mary was unmarried.

Thank you for your comment, which is some on topic as the post here is on Mary, the mother of Jesus also. You can see how little of the Catholic Brazilian allusions registered with me when first listening to James Taylor sign, and I wonder how many of us initially her the references to Mother Earth. Thank you for helping us! Language is wonderfully dimensioned, and I think good translation is too.

(BTW, my old post that you reference is here.)

Hesperado said...

Thanks for your response, J.K. Yes, after posting, I saw that my comment wasn't all that off-topic after all.

By the way, In Greek Orthodoxy, they use the word "aeiparthenos" ("ever-virgin") to denote Mary, and I believe the Catholic church follows suit, as the two churches were for practical purposes one in the first several centuries after Christ.

Shawna Atteberry said...

I think you're right on with the translation of parthenos. I think it only gets forced into being translated as only "virgin" because of Mary and the virgin birth. But the word parthenos isn't what describes Mary has virgin in either Matthew or Luke: both of them qualify parthenos with she had not had sex with a man. That's what makes Mary virginal.

I'm more interested into looking into virgin as being synonymous with being sovereign (which has nothing to do with translation). The Virgin Goddesses like Artemis occasionally took male lovers, yet remained "virgins," which has nothing to do with sexual purity but sovereignty. No man--father or husband--had control over them. They were their own bosses. I'm wondering how this would apply to Mary as human but also as the mother of God? It's something I've been playing around with in my head but haven't drawn any conclusions about.

Kristen said...

That is fascinating information, Shawna. Thanks for sharing it.

J. K. Gayle said...

In Greek Orthodoxy, they use the word "aeiparthenos" ("ever-virgin") to denote Mary

The Virgin Goddesses like Artemis occasionally took male lovers, yet remained "virgins," which has nothing to do with sexual purity but sovereignty. No man--father or husband--had control over them. They were their own bosses. I'm wondering how this would apply to Mary as human but also as the mother of God?

Thanks Hesparado and Shawna. This is fascinating, as you put it Kristen.

Here's a bit of related commentary from Hanne Blank, page 79:

"Virgin magic substantially predates Christianity. In ancient Greek literature, we find instances where sacred snakes only accept offerings from virgins, spurning those from any other hands. Mythological virgins like Persephone are capable of visiting the world of the dear. Virgin women like Evadne and Leda and a certain Mary (or Miriam) were singled out to bear the children of gods. In Christian martyr legends, virgins could withstand any torture, stop would-be rapists in their tracks, defeat demons, defy parents and kings and even Satan himself. In the Christian apocrypha, we read that a certain midwife named Salome doubts the virginity of the Virgin Mary and goes to perform a virginity test on her only to have her hand burnt to a crisp by the magical force of Mary's holy and virginal genitals. Over and over again, virgins are magical beings."