Since 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.