Sunday, August 30, 2009

Compassionate Mother: part 3

part 1
part 2

A commenter recently mentioned that the Holy Spirit is not always feminine in Syriac. This is true, and it is quite unusual that a word would change gender over time while otherwise retaining the same form. In this segment of Fire from Heaven: Studies in Syriac theology and liturgy by Sebastian Brock, we read,
    In the Acts of Thomas, belonging probably to the third century and one of the most important documents of early Syriac Christianity, we find a number of passages which describe the Baptism followed by Communion, of people who have been converted by the Apostle Thomas. In those passages the unknown author provides various liturgical invocations addressed to Christ and to the Holy Spirit, and it so happens that the original text of these is best preserved in the early Greek translation of the Syriac; thus in the Greek we read the following three passages:

      (Section 27) Come, hole name of Christ, which is above every name; come, Power of the Most High (cp Luke 1:35), and perfect mercy; come exalted Gift (i.e. the Holy Spirit_; come, compassionate Mother, ...

      (Section 50) Come, hidden Mother, ... come and make us share in this Eucharist which we perform in your name, and cause us to share in the love to which we are joined by invoking you, ...

      (Section 133, in the course of a Trinitarian convocation over the newly baptized) We name over you the name of the Mother ...

    In each of these passages the surviving Syriac manuscripts of the Acts of Thomas have slightly altered the wording, removing the word 'Mother". It is in fact clear from many different pieces of evidence, that towards the end of the fourth century Syriac writers began to become wary about addressing the Holy Spirit as Mother, no doubt due to abuse of this imagery by certain groups whom they regarded as heretical.

    One consequence of this reaction was a tendency to change the grammatical gender of ruha from feminine to masculine whenever ruha referred to the Holy Spirit. It is a fact that in virtually all Syriac literature before about AD 400 ruha d-qudusha)or more rarely, ruha qaddishta) "the Holy Spirit', is treated grammaatically as feminine, but after that approximate date the feminine came to be increasingly avoided. It is not without interest to follow the course of this process, both in the Syriac translations of the Bible, and among Syriac writers.
I don't see the reference to the Spirit as Mother as a heresy to be corrected, but simply as a natural metaphorical use of the gender of the Aramiac word ruha. It is astonishing that this word could later take on the masculine gender in Syriac but only when referring to the Holy Spirit. One has to suppose that the word used by Jesus in talking about the Spirit would have been feminine in gender.

There are many different ways of interpreting this, of course. Some people may see grammatical gender as having no value at all. Others may believe that it is part of the overall revelation of God about the nature of the divine being. Jesus does not talk about the Spirit as his mother, but he does make a more oblique reference to the Spirit as the Comforter, arguably a reference to the "spouse" in Wisdom of Solomon chapter 8.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "Jesus does not talk about the Spirit as his mother." But actually He did.

"For John came neither eating nor drinking; and they say: He hath a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say: Behold a man that is a glutton and a wine drinker, a friend of publicans and sinners. But Wisdom is justified by her children." (Matthew 11:18,19)

In this passage Jesus refers to Himself and John the Baptist as both being sons of Wisdom.

And Who is this Wisdom but the same Wisdom written about in the Wisdom literature? And is not this Wisdom (Sophia) the Holy Spirit?

"In Wisdom there is a Spirit intelligent and holy, unique in its kind yet made up of many parts, subtle, free-moving, lucid, spotless, clear, invulnerable, loving what is good, eager, unhindered, beneficent, kindly towards humanity, steadfast, unerring, untouched by care, all-powerful, all-surveying, and permeating all intelligent, pure, and delicate spirits. For Wisdom moves more easily than motion itself, She pervades and permeates all things because She is so pure. Like a fine mist, She rises from the power of Deity, a pure effluence from the glory of the Almighty; so nothing defiled can enter into Her by stealth. She is the brightness that streams from everlasting light, the flawless mirror of the active power of Deity, and the image of goodness. She is but one, yet can do everything; Herself unchanging, She makes all things new; age after age She enters into holy souls, and makes them Deity's friends and prophets....". Wisdom 7:22ff

Jesus calls himself (and John the Baptist) children of Wisdom, and Wisdom is the Holy Spirit.