May 21, 2016

The Importance of Being Articles

I don't have the time to flesh it out in full just at the moment, but I want to flag how important close attention to text is to any case made concerning marriage. There are two places in Scripture where inattention to the difference between definite and indefinite nouns has wrought havoc with a consistent and canonical comprehension of the texts.

First, when Genesis 1:27 and 5:2 speaks of "male and female" (zakar u'nqebah) it is using nouns, not adjectives. It would be better to translate as "a male and a female." Reading this text as referring to classes of people instead of two individuals has given rise to much unproductive theological reflection concerning everything from the nature of the image of God to a defective anthropology that squeezes the understanding of humanity into a dualistic, yin-yang strait-jacket.

Evidence for the correct reading (as nouns and not adjectives) comes in part from Jesus' reading of the passage to be about a pair: the "two" who become one. (Mark 10:8; as in Matthew, Jesus picks up the LXX version of Genesis which refers to "the two" -- an emphasis not needed in the Hebrew). Jesus uses this as his starting point for the durability of marriage. (I've noted elsewhere that the Qumran texts follow this reading concerning "the two" in support of the call for radical monogamy.)

Additional canonical support for this reading comes from Genesis itself: whenever the phrase occurs in Genesis it could (and should) be translated with the indefinite article to indicate nouns are being used, rather than cast as adjectives. This is perhaps clearest Genesis 6:19 and 7:3,9, and 19 (the only other uses of this phrase in Genesis), all of which refer to the pairs of animals to be saved in the ark. Each pair consists of one male and one female. (Note that other uses of "male and female" in English translations of Genesis, such as references to "male and female slaves" add further confusion. No words for "male" or "female" occur in these passages; there are separate Hebrew words for "a male slave" and "a female slave.")

The second mistaken reading (unfortunately well enshrined in the tradition) is the reading of Ephesians 5:32 that forces "Paul" to make the very unlikely statement that marriage is a great mystery -- understood as a sacrament. Again, I've written about this at some length elsewhere, but want to flag the problems with this reading here. First, it is obviously inconsistent to suggest that the Pauline School (if not Paul himself -- there being some disagreement as to the authorship of the epistle) would attach a quasi-divine status to an institution elsewhere in "his" writings given scant honor beyond its social utility. Second, this is not the only verse in the epistle to refer to "mystery" -- and as the author makes clear in the following clause, he is talking about that same mystery that is addressed throughout the document -- the mystery of Christ and of the Church, how the two become one, a mystery reflected in -- but not consisting of -- the marriage of a man and a woman. And, of course, that is what the text says, though bad translations have twisted it in such a way as to have the author speak of "a" great mystery -- one such marvel among many. But a literal translation of the verse, far from saying "This is a great mystery," would read, "This mystery is great -- but I speak of Christ and of the Church." Not marriage, not the verse from Genesis; but the mystery of salvation in Christ, in which all of humanity, Jew and Gentile, is taken up and redeemed. And if that isn't a genuinely Pauline message I don't know what is.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

1 comment:

John Julian said...

and thanks to your perspicacity, we can recognize the logical fallacy usually called "Pars pro toto" in which what applies in individual cases is illogically applied to all.
And this is the first time I have heard that principle applied to the male-female scriptural bits. That's very impressibe scholarship!
Congratulations! (And let no one say the study of Hebrew is irrelevant!)