Historical Cultural Context
Jesus and His Mother
Jesus’ response to Mary is interesting on at least two counts. His customary respectful title of address to the females he encounters throughout the Gospels is indeed “Woman” (see Mt 15:28; Lk 12:12; Jn 4:21; 8:10; 20:13). This usage is common in Greek writing
Yet referring to one’s mother as “Woman” without further qualification is very unusual in Jesus’ cultural world. There is no parallel to this in either Hebrew or Greek literature. While some scholars see a special symbolism in this usage, a very plausible Mediterranean cultural scenario suggests other interpretations.
After birth boys and girls were routinely brought up together exclusively by the women (mother, aunts, sisters). Since boys were highly valued in this culture, they were pampered and spoiled by the women. A strong relationship resembling codependency developed between mothers and sons, especially the eldest son.
When boys entered the male world at the age of puberty, they experienced a rude awakening. This harsh hierarchical world was a contrast to the women’s world from which the young man just emerged. To help him develop a masculine identity, other men often punished the young man physically. “He who loves his son will whip him often” and “beat his ribs while he is young or else he will become stubborn and disobey you” are pieces of advice offered to fathers by the sage Jesus Ben Sira (see Sir 30:1, 12).
As he grew into adulthood, a young man tried to weaken those strong emotional ties with females. In a very public society like the Mediterranean world the young man would seek to demonstrate his independence by rejecting the claims of all women upon him, including his mother.
“What to me and to you, woman?” This phrase, literally translated, is sometimes a response of someone who feels unjustly bothered by another (see Judg 11:12; 2 Chr 35:21; 1 Kgs 17:18; Mk 1:24; 5:7; Jn 2:4[?]). In other instances the phrase is the answer of someone who refuses to get involved in the affairs of someone else (see 2 Kgs 3:13; Hos 14:8; Jn 2:4 [?]).
In the light of Mediterranean child-rearing practices described above, one plausible cultural scenario for Jesus’ statement to his mother is that Jesus the adult son felt unjustly bothered, perhaps even embarrassed by his mother’s comment and implied suggestion that he get involved. His reply would then be an attempt to put distance between himself and his mother to declare further independence.
Another equally plausible cultural scenario for Jesus’ statement is that Jesus did not want to interfere in something he believed was none of his/their business. On another occasion, he rejected the honorable invitation to be a mediator between two brothers (Luke 12:13-15) because he judged that the petitioner was motivated by greed rather than by justice denied.
Why does Jesus give in? Perhaps maternal pressure was too difficult to evade. Even in his adulthood, his mother’s wish may have been Jesus’ command. Or perhaps he was genuinely concerned about preserving family honor at a relative’s wedding. The traces of Mediterranean culture embedded and hidden in segments of this story offer us beautiful insights into Jesus the Mediterranean man, who John the evangelist tells us early on in his Gospel “pitched his tent among us” (John 1:14). He’s just like us in so many human ways.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University