Thursday, August 27, 2009

Compassionate Mother: part 1

I have been intending for some time to continue my discussion of grammatical gender and pronouns. So far, I have noticed that there seems to have been an historical movement in the direction of using masculine pronouns in many places which formerly did not have a masculine grammatical reference of any kind.

The most notable of these places is in associaton with the "spirit" which is neuter in Greek, and feminine in Aramaic and Hebrew. We don't have any original Aramaic material from the NT, but we do have the Syriac translations of the Greek New Testament books and the literature of the Eastern church, written in Syriac. Syriac is an Aramaic language, written in the Syriac alphabet.

For the next little while, I am going to cite from Fire from Heaven: Studies in Syriac theology and liturgy by Sebastian Brock, page 250, from the chapter called "Come, compassionate Mother.
    In the Semitic languages the word for 'spirit' (ruha in Syriac) is grammatically feminine, and this grammatical detail has given rise, in the over-literalistic mind, to the inference that the role of the Holy Spirit (ruha d-qudsha) was solely a female one.

    Grammatical gender, of course, varies considerably from one language to another, and need have no bearing at all on ontological gender; thus the term for (Holy) Spirit is neuter in Greek and masculine in Latin. And in any cse, as Jerome pointed out long ago, 'there is no gender in the divinity.'

    Even though the Godhead is totally beyond gender, nevertheless metaphors and similes associated with either male or female characteristics have readily been used of God by religious writers of all times and all faiths. Thus in early Christian tradition we find, alongside the more familiar male imagery, references, to the Father's breasts being milked and to the Godhead as a wetnurse.

    Such images, which may strike the modern reader as surprising, or even bizarre, are in fact no less appropriate than the male imagery which we have (sadly) grown accustomed to expect, for any description of the Godhead which confines itself to solely male (or solely female) imagery is both inadequate and misdleading, seeing that the Godhead transcends all gender.

    As the great poet Ephrem, writing in the fourth century, pointed out,

      If someone concentrates his attention
      solely on the metaphors used of God's Majesty.
      he abuses and misrepresents that Majesty
      by means of these very metaphors with which God has clothed himself.

For footnotes, please refer to google books.


Steve Ulrich said...

Just one correction, the syriac for the Spirit is not all the time feminine, It is sometimes feminine and sometimes masculine. Plus, Syriac is not always a translation of the Greek. It has its own traditions independent of the Greek and not wholly reliant on the Greek.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Yes, the evolution from the feminine for spirit to the masculine will be covered in this chapter - stay tuned. :-)

I also mentioned the literature of the Eastern church, so I cannot see where you think that I have said it is always a translation of Greek. However, the NT books are considered by most to be translations from the Greek, AFAIK.