Jesus, the Woman at the Well, and the Meaning of ‘Man’
The story in the Gospel of John of the encounter Jesus has with a Samaritan woman (hereafter, ‘the Samaritan’) at Jacob’s well (4:7–29) has attracted considerable scholarly attention. For an overview of some of the interpretive issues raised by it there is a video of a conversation about it between H. W. Attridge and D. L. Bartlett of Yale Divinity School available on youtube here. I intend to focus primarily on only four verses: John 4:16–19.
Here is my translation (the underlying Greek and links to interpretive resources can be found here):
16 [Jesus] said: “go tell your ‘man’ and come back here.”
17 The Samaritan answered, “I do not have a ‘man.”’ Jesus said to her “Beautifully you said: ‘I do not have a man.’”
18 “You have had five ‘men,’ and the one whom you have now is not your ‘man.’ You spoke truthfully.”
19 The Samaritan said to him: “Sir, I see you are a wise listener.”
My translation is intended to bring out what I take to be a play on the meaning of the underlying Greek word for man. As a threshold matter, I want to justify the assumption that there is some sort of play in the first place before I explain the play on the meaning of man. Some have argued that the reference to the bride and bridegroom at John 3:29 foreshadows the meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan as signifying a spiritual wedding. The theme of a spiritual wedding is arguably also foreshadowed in how the Gospel of John starts, for ‘beginning’ is a feminine noun in Greek and ‘word’ is masculine, making ‘in the beginning was the word’ sexually symbolic. That suggests that the well before which Jesus and the Samaritan stand, or the water in it, symbolizes God or the spirit of God.
Because of that context the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan has been characterized as erotically charged banter. For example, when the Samaritan asks Jesus if he is ‘bigger’ at John 4:12 it would seem she wants that word to be taken any number of ways. That resonates with how the groom at a Greek wedding would, with sexually charged humor, be compared to a god in wedding songs. The title of the famous short story by J. D. Salinger, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, is a quote from a fragment of one such wedding song attributed to Sappho: the dimensions of the bridal chamber need to be expanded to make room for the exaggerated ‘size’ of the excited groom; significantly, with regard to its possible relevance to what the Samaritan woman says, Sappho compares the groom to a god (albeit a pagan god). In making that comparison Sappho uses a form of the same Greek word John has the Samaritan use in her question to Jesus: the groom, Sappho says, is “much bigger than a big man.”
As Sappho uses the word ‘man’ in the line just quoted (the same word used in John 4:16–18) ‘man’ clearly has primarily a biological meaning: it refers to a male adult. But, as in English, the word man in ancient Greek could take on more or less specific meanings. Sappho plays upon the multiple meanings of ‘man’ in another poem where she juxtaposes the word man next to the name Helen (of Troy). The juxtaposition of noun and name associates Helen with masculinity, whereas the noun by itself also has a legal meaning: it refers to Helen’s husband. Modern English has a parallel: in the formulaic expression “I now pronounce you man and wife,” man means husband rather than simply ‘adult male.’ Yet, man can have a psychological meaning. Phrases such as ‘be a man’ or ‘man up’ can even be spoken to or about women. Also in ancient Greek, as in English, notwithstanding its legal meaning, man could be used to refer to a sexual partner or paramour to whom one is not legally married.
The Samaritan’s play on ‘bigger’ anticipates the play on the meaning of ‘man’ that follows. When Jesus first uses the word it clearly means husband or partner. But, when the Samaritan responds to Jesus she is playing on the biological meaning. She is telling Jesus she is a lesbian. His acknowledgment and acceptance of this fact is brought out in the way he frames his response: by complimenting how the Samaritan spoke and then by his own use of the word man in both senses. It is correct to say the Samaritan had five ‘men’ (sexual partners), but not correct to say she has a ‘man’ as a partner.
Other aspects of how the Samaritan is portrayed suggest John understood her to have been lesbian. She appears at an odd time of day, with no one else around and she manifests an inquisitive, independent mind. Given prevailing attitudes at the time those elements alone would be enough to raise the suspicion she might be lesbian. Confirmation that we are to think of the Samaritan as lesbian, though, is in the reference to the five ‘men’ (here meaning sexual partners). Lesbianism was associated with any form of sexuality not related to procreation — in particular, oral sex performed by a woman on a man or another woman; the recognition that procreation was not the purpose (or even possible) led to its association with promiscuity (perhaps because family law issues related to children (for example, inheritance) that ostensibly mandate monogamy are not implicated). Such associations could lead to exaggeration and ridicule: Sappho was characterized by some Romans at the time of Jesus as having been a slut who had a hundred lovers. By contrast, the reference to the Samaritan’s prior five partners should be taken to be a polite acknowledgment of what was deemed customary of a lesbian lifestyle (the number ‘five’ probably a generic number meaning ‘more than one’).
Other than a post I contributed to a blog several years ago, to my knowledge no one before has argued for such a reading of this story. Based on comments I have received from those who read my prior post, including well respected scholars in relevant fields (e.g., theology, Greek poetry and New Testament studies), I believe my reading is at a minimum a reasonable one.
There are three points I want to make for the benefit of those who do not have much or any background in studying the issues relevant to my reading.
First, notwithstanding that Sappho herself is widely considered to have been a lesbian (the adjective ‘Sapphic’ formed from her name is effectively a synonym for lesbian in English), the evidence is very weak and the issue is not relevant at all to appreciating the majority of the fragments of her poetry that survive. Nevertheless, in antiquity her reputation as a lesbian was very widespread (much of the evidence dates from the centuries immediately before and after the life of Christ).
Second, though it is a controversial topic for which there is not, and likely never will be, much consensus, homosexuality (including lesbianism and/or bisexuality) appears to have been far more prevalent in the Hellenized Mediterranean than it is today in any region of the world.
Third, though few scholars think Christ spoke ancient Greek, the use of ancient Greek in Israel in the centuries before and after Christ is well attested, and therefore it is likely John assumed that Christ and the Samaritan woman spoke ancient Greek and hence would have found it plausible that they used the word man in the way I am suggesting.