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). Continue reading “The Physician Luke, the Virgin Mary and the Poet Sappho by Stuart Dean”