The Physician Luke, the Virgin Mary and the Poet Sappho by Stuart Dean


Stuart WordPress photoSince my last contribution to Feminism and Religion my interest in Sappho and her influence has led me to a detailed analysis of Luke 1:27-45 (hereafter, the “Conception Story”).  I want to share two observations from that analysis that I think will be of interest to readers of this blog.  Both relate to the generally agreed upon fact that Luke was a physician and in particular to knowledge he can be assumed to have had of female anatomy based on evidence from approximately contemporaneous sources.

My first observation relates to the fact that Luke lived during a time when the existence of ovaries in women had only recently been discovered and their function correctly understood.  While this had obvious implications for Greek medical theory, it would appear to have affected how Luke himself interpreted the source material he had for the Conception Story and hence how he told that story.  My second observation, based on what is known of Greek gynecology, is that Luke would have correctly understood that although as a medical term ‘virginity’ does refer to the physical fact that sexual intercourse has not occurred, it does not necessarily or even often have an anatomical meaning.  That observation leads directly to investigating whether ‘virgin’ as used by Luke may have a primarily metaphysical rather than physical meaning.

Though in general the ‘glory days’ of Classical Greece belonged to the centuries well before Luke’s time, that is not true of Greek medicine.  Notwithstanding promising origins in a sexual egalitarianism that was in principle consistent with modern medicine, Greek medicine regressed substantially with Aristotle, who introduced the notion that the male’s contribution to reproduction was the active one and the female’s merely the passive provision of the material for its success.  Not only did Aristotle not know of ovaries, even after their discovery it is far from clear when exactly their function was fully understood (the best evidence is about a half century after Luke).  Once that happened, however, Greek medicine moved back towards the sexual egalitarianism of its origins (the ‘two seed theory’ of reproduction), repudiating Aristotle’s theory (the ‘single seed theory’ of reproduction).

Although Luke never expressly states his views on human reproduction and does not actually narrate the conception of Christ, the Conception Story seems to be predicated on the two seed theory.  Authoritative support for such a reading is to be found in Gregory of Nazianzus, who characterizes the conception of Christ as a “mixing” and “blending” (Oration 38.13).  Those terms are unmistakable echoes of the poetry of Parmenides and Empedocles, poetry that constitutes the earliest evidence of the two seed theory in Greek medicine.  He thus uses biology to inform his theology.  Notwithstanding the changes in Greek medicine around Luke’s time, the single seed theory took root in the Latin West and was not weeded out, with profound effects upon Latin language theology.

As I just noted, ‘the conception’ itself  is not in the Conception Story.  That surely is no accident, for the deliberate omission of an otherwise important detail is a well known storytelling technique (frequent, for example, in Homer) that can have many purposes and meanings.  Given Luke’s concern with empirical evidence (he specifically mentions eyewitnesses as being among the sources he used) it may signal that Luke’s original source (that he leads us to believe must have been Mary) did not provide any such detail.  What I want to suggest, however, is that it seems to relate to the intent of Luke to focus our attention on the metaphysical meaning rather than physical details of the Conception Story.

This intent is revealed in a number of storytelling devices, and not just the omission of the conception, all of which relate to the meaning of ‘virgin.’  In ancient Greek ‘virgin’ had a range of meanings that make it impossible to translate it into one English word.  ‘Virgin’ could mean ‘unmarried’ (sexually experienced or not) and postmenopausal women could be thought of as ‘virgins.’  Thus it seems ancient Greek virginity was not defined by anatomy or even a physical event but rather a state of being with which a woman might identify (or be identified) at any point in her life.  Luke’s awareness of the possible meaning of ‘virgin’ as unmarried surely motivated his including Mary’s reference to not having had sex in her question to Gabriel; the possible ‘postmenopausal’ meaning seems to be played upon in the parallel of Elizabeth’s condition to that of Mary.

Mary’s question would appear to give ‘virgin’ a purely physical meaning, but her question is only vaguely answered by reference to plainly metaphysical concepts.  That we are to take virginity itself as a metaphysical concept requires knowing that as an abstract noun (strictly speaking, a  ‘metaphysical idea’) virginity is first attested in Sappho.  Furthermore, even with what little survives of her poetry today, it is clear from it that virginity for Sappho is a uniquely female spiritual quality she associates with divinely bestowed grace.  Proof that Luke is drawing upon Sappho in characterizing Mary is not hard to find: the first line of Gabriel’s annunciation is an echo both in sound and meaning of Sappho’s poetry.

Consider also the ‘fruit of the womb’ of Mary.  What knowledge Elizabeth has is not clear.  The reader certainly has no basis for concluding that conception has occurred.  Elizabeth may be speaking prophetically of what is to happen, such as she does in referring to Mary as the ‘mother of my Lord’ though Mary has yet to give birth.  Perhaps ‘fruit,’ rather than a physical meaning, has a metaphysical meaning, symbolizing virginity.  Sappho uses the image of an unpicked fruit on the highest branch of a tree as a symbol for virginity.  Although speculative, such a reading makes better sense of the ‘among women’ of the initial clause than any other reading.  If ‘fruit’ metaphorically means baby why not ‘among men and women,’ but if ‘fruit’ symbolizes virginity why not only ‘among women?’

Stuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City.  Previously he worked in a variety of other capacities, including 15 years as a corporate attorney.   



Categories: Bible, General, Mary, Scripture, Textual Interpretation

Tags: , , , , ,

9 replies

  1. Looking at the meaning of parthenos in the context of ancient Greek society, it is just as likely that the word referred to a girl who had not yet had sex with a lawful husband and whose sexuality was under the control of her father whose duty it was to ensure that she not have sex with any man other than a husband. In other words, the term has a great deal to do with male property rights.

    It was a well-known trope in the Hebrew Bible for God to effect the pregnancy of an old woman, such as Elizabeth. It was also a well-known trope in Greek literature for Zeus and other Gods to rape mortal women with the result of offspring.

    The idea that God effected a pregnancy in a parthenos without a husband more clearly marks the offspring as his property, than in the case of an old woman whose husband would have been viewed as the immediate cause.

    How do these ideas fit in with your reading?

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  2. With respect to the ‘property right’ meaning in your first paragraph: yes something like that is also implicit in how the adjective is used. I have seen some of the feminist scholarship on the story reflecting rape but decided not to go into that given my focus on the two medical issues.

    If you (or others) want more granularity on what went into my essay I have backup notes and references on my blog on Sappho: http://studysappho.blogspot.com/

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  3. I disagree that Sappho’s understanding of “unplucked fruit” concerns virginity. For instance, she also says, “I don’t expect to touch the sky with these two arms.” In regards to the highest fruit on the tree of life, that’s what she means by “they couldn’t reach it” — in other words, attaining various forms of transcendence, or to envision the most profound insights in art and in life, cannot be achieved via the lure of wealth, fame, ego trips, etc. In general her understanding of “virgin” or “parthenos” (παρθένος) is much more down to earth, very realistic. Consider frag. #114, for example, where she speaks directly to her own virginity (παρθενία):

    “Virginity, virginity
    where are you gone
    leaving me behind?

    “No longer will
    I come to you
    no longer will I come.”

    At the same time, every word Sappho uses is packed with innumerable levels of meaning, of course — her images are purposely left open to our interpretation — that’s why she is so great a poet.

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  4. The ancient source responsible for that fragment says it is about a virgin. For more detail go to my blog on Sappho and click on the texts, translations and commentaries tab to find fragment 105a.

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    • In Barbara G. Walker’s “The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets,” under “Virgin Birth,” it states, “”Holy Virgin’ was the title of harlot-priestesses of Ishtar, Asherah, or Aphrodite. The title didn’t mean physical virginity; it meant simply ‘unmarried.’ The function of such ‘holy virgins’ was to dispense the Mother’s grace through sexual worship…and to become Brides of God.” p. 1048-1049.

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      • Very interesting–thanks for the reference. There is speculation Sappho was of Hittite or other Anatolian or Middle Eastern ancestry so the similarity in thought may not be a coincidence.

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  5. Actually, most scholars believe the writer of Luke was anonymous and therefore we do not know if he was a physician. None of the gospels were written by the disciples they are named for. It was common in that time for writers to use the name of someone famous to give their works more authority, as you probably know.

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  6. I always enjoy the reply’s to a well written article. Just a few items for consideration 1) you never mention Luke’s timeline so unless one knows the timeframe, we are not able to make academic comparisons to other cultures, of the same period, from the article. Not all people in 2014 have a Christian education. 2) as to the issue of “discovering” ovaries, we have thousands of idols & sculpture found cross culturally, as well as leading up to the Greeks, that depict women’s ovaries during, before and in pre-historic times (see Paleo/Neolithic icons) and 3) you might wish to read Dr. Marguerite Rigoglioso’s research on the Priestess lineage and parthenogenesis in Pagan Greece that re-covers the meaning and traditions around the word “Virgin”. Lastly, at the time of Mary the Mother, the term “Virgin”, (in that part of the world) meant a “self realized woman” not an unmarried woman. It might also suggest that Mary was trained in an ancient sacred female tradition passed on from her Mother. King James did his best to interpret “the bible” but ah well, the damage was already done.
    Jayne DeMente, MA WS 4 http://www.womensheritageproject.ning.com.

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  7. Thank you for your comments. There is no timeline for Luke because his exact dates are not certain; he is widely believed to have lived in the last half of the 1st century CE and first half of the second. With regard to your other points: my focus was on explaining just two aspects of Luke’s account based solely on the assumption that he was a physician. I therefore did not go into other possible explanations/interpretations.

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