2018-01-15

The Function of the Term: “Born of a Woman”

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by Tim Widowfield

Job: “Man, who is born of woman, is short-lived and full of turmoil.”

Have we, after all, been making too much of Galatians 4:4? That’s the question I keep asking myself. After much reflection, I believe yes, we have, but perhaps not for the reason you would expect.

In Daniel Gullotta’s “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts,” he writes:

Furthermore, while Paul does use the word γενόμενον [genómenon] (to be made/to become)  [see: γίνομαι (ginomai)] instead of the typical γεννάω [gennáō] (to be born), γενόμενον does appear in relation to human births in other pieces of ancient literature, such as Plato’s Republic and Josephus’ Antiquities [of the Jews].61 It is also noteworthy that the similarly worded phrase ‘born of a woman’ is also found within the Book of Job, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospel of Matthew, and the Gospel of Thomas, as well as in other early Christian texts, each time indicating a human birth.62 With this convention in mind then, Paul’s expression, ‘born of a woman’, is fitting and certainly not exceptional. Thus, when Paul writes of Jesus’ coming into the world (Gal 4.4-6; cf. Phil 2.5-8; 2 Cor 8.9; Rom 8.3-4), it is apparent that it should be taken at face value to indicate Jesus being born like any other ordinary Jewish human being, that is, ‘born of a woman, born under the law.’ (Gullotta 2016, p. 329)

61 Josephus Ant., 1.303; 7.154; Plato, Rep., 8.553.

62 Cf. Job 14.1; 15.14; 25.4; 1 qs 11.20-21; 1 qh 13.14; 18.12-13; Matt 11.11; GThom 15; Origen, Against Celsus 1.70; Ps.-Clem., Homily 3.52.

I have preserved Gullotta’s footnotes above, because we’re going to take a look at all of his references to see if his assertions hold up. We’ll see whether the phrase “born of a woman” is (1) fitting and (2) certainly not exceptional. Ultimately, we’ll try to determine the function of the phrase in its context in Galatians.

Citations in Ancient Greek Literature

Before we examine the citations in ancient literature, I must praise Gullotta for scouring the thousands of occurrences of genómenon to find three instances in which the word appears (he claims) “in relation to human births.” Let’s begin. 


JosephusAntiquities of the Jews, 1.303(b)

Now Lea was sorely troubled at her husband’s love to her sister; and she expected she should be better esteemed if she bare him children: so she entreated God perpetually;

καὶ τῆς Λείας ἥπτετο δεινῶς ὁ πρὸς τὴν ἀδελφὴν ἔρως τοῦ ἀνδρὸς προσεδόκα τε παίδων γενομένων ἔσεσθαι τιμία ἱκέτευέ τε τὸν θεὸν διηνεκῶς. [Perseus Digital Library]

Lea thought if she could give Jacob children, he would pay more attention to her, and stop mooning over Rachel all the time. In this case, the focus seems to be on her producing children, not so much on specific children being born.


JosephusAntiquities of the Jews, 7.154

However, God sent a dangerous distemper upon the child that was born to David of the wife of Uriah, at which the king was troubled, and did not take any food for seven days, although his servants almost forced him to take it; but he clothed himself in a black garment, and fell down, and lay upon the ground in sackcloth, entrusting God for the recovery of the child, for he vehemently loved the child’s mother;

Τῷ δ᾽ ἐκ τῆς Οὐρία γυναικὸς γενομένῳ παιδὶ Δαυίδῃ νόσον ἐνσκήπτει χαλεπὴν τὸ θεῖον, ἐφ᾽ ᾗ δυσφορῶν ὁ βασιλεὺς τροφὴν μὲν ἐφ᾽ ἡμέρας ἑπτὰ καίτοι γε ἀναγκαζόντων τῶν οἰκείων οὐ προσηνέγκατο, μέλαιναν δὲ περιθέμενος ἐσθῆτα πεσὼν ἐπὶ σάκκου κατὰ γῆς ἔκειτο τὸν θεὸν ἱκετεύων ὑπὲρ τῆς τοῦ παιδὸς σωτηρίας: σφόδρα γὰρ ἔστεργεν αὐτοῦ τὴν μητέρα. [Perseus Digital Library]

In this passage, we have the curious case of a child born to David (a man) of the wife of Uriah. Perhaps a clearer translation would be: “the child produced by David through Uriah’s wife.”


Plato, Republic 8.553a (last sentence)

“When a son born to [him] the timocratic man at first emulates his father, and follows in his footsteps and then sees him . . .

ὅταν αὐτοῦ παῖς γενόμενος τὸ μὲν πρῶτον ζηλοῖ τε τὸν πατέρα καὶ τὰ ἐκείνου ἴχνη διώκῃ, ἔπειτα αὐτὸν ἴδῃ ἐξαίφνης . . .

Here we have another case of a child “born” to a man. In English we would be comfortable saying a man had a son, but not a man bore a son. Hence, both King David (above) and the “timocratic man” produce children but do not give birth to them.


Citations in Scripture

For me, at least, the above citations seem rather exceptional and somewhat unusual in their phrasing and subject matter. Perhaps we’ll have better luck with Gullotta’s scriptural references. You may have noticed the only New Testament verse he offers is this one:

Matthew 11:11

“Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (NASB)

ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐκ ἐγήγερται ἐν γεννητοῖς γυναικῶν μείζων Ἰωάνου τοῦ Βαπτιστοῦ· ὁ δὲ μικρότερος ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν μείζων αὐτοῦ ἐστιν.

This passage comes closer to the meaning in Galatians 4:4 than Gullotta may realize. The root verb here is γεννάω (gennaó), not γίνομαι (ginomai), but the concept is the same. Jesus is referring to humans with a poetic turn of phrase. He could have just as easily said, “Nobody is greater than John the Baptist.


In the Old Testament citations, this is always what it means:

Job 14:1

Man, who is born of woman, Is short-lived and full of turmoil. (NASB)

Job 15:14

“What is man, that he should be pure, Or he who is born of a woman, that he should be righteous? (NASB)

Job 25:4

“How then can a man be just with God? Or how can he be clean who is born of woman? (NASB)

In all three verses, the Hebrew and Greek (Septuagint) are the same:

Hebrew: יְל֣וּד אִשָּֽׁה
Greek (LXX): “γεννητὸς γυναικός

In each case, the author is aware that created beings — e.g., angels, Adam and Eve before the Fall — do not suffer the way begotten beings — humans — do. Those of us on the terrestrial plane will feel pain, get sick, suffer corruption, and die. That is the way of all flesh.


Dead Sea Scrolls (Translations by Geza Vermes)

1QS (Community Rule) 11.20-21

Who can endure Thy glory,
and what is the son of man
in the midst of Thy wonderful deeds?
What shall one born of woman
be accounted before Thee?

1QH (The Thanksgiving Hymns) 13.14 (Old numbering, XII; new numbering V)

What is he that is born of woman
in the midst of all Thy terrible [works]?

1QH 18.12-13 (Old numbering, XVIII; new numbering, XXIII)

Thou didst open [his fountain]
that he might rebuke the creature of clay for his way,
and him who is born of woman
for the guilt of his deeds;

As with the passage in Matthew, the phrase refers to creatures who are begotten. God, of course is neither begotten nor made. He is the eternal changeless being from whom all life emanates.


Gospel of Thomas, Saying 15

Jesus said: When you see him who was not born of woman, throw yourselves down upon your face and worship him. He is your Father.

Gullotta’s sole citation from Thomas is in the negative. God, your father, is not a human — not begotten, not born.


Citations in Patristic Literature

Origen, Against Celsus, 1.70

And let him say also, that He experienced the sensation of thirst beside the well of Jacob, and drank of the water of the well. In what respect do these facts militate against what we have said respecting the nature of His body? Moreover, it appears indubitable that after His resurrection He ate a piece of fish; for, according to our view, He assumed a (true) body, as one born of a woman.

Λεγέτω δ’ αὐτὸν καὶ διψήσαντα παρὰ τῇ πηγῇ τοῦ Ἰακὼβ πεπωκέναι· τί τοῦτο πρὸς τὰ περὶ τοῦ σώματος αὐτοῦ ὑφ’ ἡμῶν λεγόμενα; Σαφῶς δὲ φαίνεται ἰχθύος μετὰ τὴν ἀνάστασιν βεβρωκώς· κατὰ γὰρ ἡμᾶς σῶμα ἀνείληφεν, ὡς γενόμενος ἐκ γυναικός. (See: archive.org)

Here we have the only instance among Gullotta’s examples in which we find the preposition ἐκ (“ek,” from), meaning that the literal translation here would be “as coming from woman.” We could assume Origen is referring to Paul’s letter to the Galatians (which also uses “ek”), but he could just as well be quoting doctrine. We’ll return to that idea later.


Pseudo-Clementine Homily 3.52

Since, then, while the heaven and the earth still stand, sacrifices have passed away, and kingdoms, and prophecies among those who are born of woman [literally, born of women], and such like, as not being ordinances of God . . .

Ἐπεὶ οὖν οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς ἔτι συνεστώτων παρῆλθον θυσίαι, βασιλεῖαι, αἱ ἐν γεννητοῖς γυναικῶν προπητεῖαι, καὶ ὃσα τοιαῦτα, ὡς οὐκ ὄντα θεοῦ προστάγματα . . . (See: archive.org)

Here, in a work written two or three centuries after Paul, we have an unambiguous reference to humankind. The author is decidedly not writing about the birth of a single person to a particular woman but all those born of women.


Analysis

What can we say now regarding Gullotta’s assertions? First, he claims each of his examples is a citation “indicating a human birth.” I’m willing to allow his references from Plato and Josephus, despite their unusual nature. And I will grant Origen’s usage mirrors Paul’s — but whether it expresses the simple idea of a human birth is precisely the topic under discussion, so we’ll lay that one aside.

However, in the quotations from Matthew, Job, and the Dead Sea Scrolls the term “born of woman” is nothing more than a poetic way to say “mortal humans.” And in the Gospel of Thomas, it’s a negative reference to the unbegotten and immortal being — God.

Gullotta is wrong. None of these scriptural references refers to “a human birth”; instead they refer to mortals and to the mortal realm, with the implied wretched condition of mortal life — short, painful, insignificant. The usage in Job and in the DSS with the connotations of misery and wretchedness is probably not exactly what Paul had in mind. In Galatians, it simply refers to the humanity of Christ.

Interestingly, some English translations of Galatians 4:4 drop the indefinite article (not present, of course, in the original text, since ancient and Koine Greek had only the definite article). For example, here’s the ESV:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law

Notice the subtle change in meaning. In this case the reference is clearly not to a specific woman but to the shared condition of humanity. Moreover, I would argue that even this translation, which correctly drops the article, misses the importance of the preposition “ek.” The passage does not use the simple genitive. Instead, it deliberately places “ek” in line with “hypo,” hence:

γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός
γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον

Come from woman
Come under the law

The two statements are parallel lines in a stanza, which explains why the author used the same verb. We should thus understand it to mean “a human, a Jew.” Or as Gullotta put it:

Thus, when Paul writes of Jesus’ coming into the world (Gal 4.4-6; cf. Phil 2.5-8; 2 Cor 8.9; Rom 8.3-4), it is apparent that it should be taken at face value to indicate Jesus being born like any other ordinary Jewish human being, that is, ‘born of a woman, born under the law.’ (Gullotta 2016, p. 329)

I will agree with Gullotta, but only up to a point. The passage does emphasize the humanness of Jesus. We part ways when he describes it as “fitting and certainly not exceptional.” Nor can we let this statement pass without objection:

All this means that the Pauline corpus supposes Paul knew that Jesus was born of a human mother. (Gullotta 2016, p. 330)

In listing the “things Paul surely knew” about Jesus, NT scholars will often throw in “born of a woman,” as if Paul had merely tossed it off in passing. That is a mistake. The issue here is not that Paul is stating the obvious, but that he is transmitting something of importance using very deliberate, carefully chosen, unusual language.

Not offhand remarks

Hence, these terms are not incidental biographical nuggets. They must serve some theological function. Whoever wrote these lines (and it very well could have been someone other than Paul — see: “Born of a Woman” — Sober Scholarship Questioning the Authenticity of Galatians 4:4) purposefully used uncommon language to state a point. And since the rest of the chapter is a dense thicket of Pauline doctrine, I submit that “come from woman, come under the law” is a doctrinal statement.

It doesn’t look like an offhand remark, because it isn’t. It looks like something readers are supposed to accept and believe. It is not eyewitness knowledge, but received knowledge.

Now we may ask, “How was this knowledge received?” Paul could have deduced it from scripture. Or he could have received it from direct revelation. Or he could have learned it as part of a creed, whose function was to counteract a heretical belief that Jesus had not been born. You may recall the antidocetic discussions in Bart Ehrman’s The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.

In Galatians 4:4, Paul says that God “sent forth his Son, come from a woman, come under the law” (γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός, γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον). The verse was used by the orthodox to oppose the Gnostic claim that Christ came through Mary “as water through a pipe,” taking nothing of its conduit into itself; for here the apostle states that Christ was “made from a woman” (so Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. III, 22, 1, and Tertullian, de carne Christi, 20). Irenaeus also uses the text against docetists to show that Christ was actually a man, in that he came from a woman (Adv. Haer. V, 21, 1). It should strike us as odd that Tertullian never quotes the verse against Marcion, despite his lengthy demonstration that Christ was actually “born.” This can scarcely be attributed to oversight, and so is more likely due to the circumstance that the generally received Latin text of the verse does not speak of Christ’s birth per se, but of his “having been made” (factum ex muliere). (Ehrman 1993, p. 239, emphasis mine)

So we know early Christians used Galatians 4:4 against heretics. And I submit that is no accident, because that was its original purpose. The contemporary targets could have been docetists, but other “incorrect” beliefs came under attack from NT authors. For example the author of Colossians (possibly Paul) warned against worshipping angels.

Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement [ascetic practices? fasting? monastic life?] and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind, . . . Colossians 2:18 (NASB)

According to Jewish belief, angels are created beings from the divine realm. Galatians 4:4 insists that Jesus is human and terrestrial.

Conclusion

We have asked the question, “What function did Galatians 4:4 serve?” I contend that whoever wrote it did not intend it as an offhand remark — “That Jesus chap, nice guy: tall, handsome, come of woman” — but as a doctrinal statement. As evidence, I pointed out its highly unusual language. Here I must thank Daniel Gullotta for providing a list of citations that, under proper scrutiny, amply demonstrate just how odd it is.

Under pressure from competing versions of Christianity, Galatians 4:4 would prove insufficient. As we saw from the Ehrman quote above, simply uttering the credo come of woman or even born of a woman would be insufficient. Perhaps Jesus shot through Mary like water through a pipe. Eventually, the doctrine of human birth from a virgin and the status of Jesus as a begotten and not created being would require separate emphasis in the Nicene Creed (of 381 CE), using highly specific, carefully crafted language:

  1. . . . the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds (æons), Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father . . .
  2. . . . incarnate by the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man;

The more I examine the evidence, the more convinced I am that a later editor inserted Galatians 4:4, but that hardly matters for the discussion at hand. Its function remains the same. At the beginning of this post, I asked whether we’ve been making too much of this passage. We have. Historicists, mythicists, and agnostics (like me) have been treating it as a “problem,” as if its authenticity would prove that Paul knew something about Jesus.

But doctrinal knowledge is not biographical knowledge. Christians today “know” that Jesus is of one substance with the Father. This is knowledge derived from faith.

“When Jesus was born, he naturally came into a family. We have seen that Paul obliquely mentions Jesus’s mother when he indicates that he was “born of a woman.”

Excerpt From: Bart D. Ehrman 2012, Did Jesus Exist? – The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, p. 256

Sorry, Bart, but nobody “obliquely mentions” a person’s mother by saying he was “born of a woman” (much less the more honest translation: “come from woman”). Paul or some later editor is not telling us something he happens to know, but something you’re supposed to believe.

13 Comments

  • Lowen Gartner
    2018-01-16 06:17:57 UTC - 06:17 | Permalink

    Tim, I am not qualified to comment on this and don’t have any particular insight. I sure have enjoyed reading it. Thank you for the high-effort post. I know it’s a pipe dream but I would love to see the “experts” actually respond to the points you make.

  • Pingback: Vridar » Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s “On the Historicity of Jesus”: that “born of a woman” passage (again)

  • 2018-01-16 12:20:36 UTC - 12:20 | Permalink

    I think Paul is talking about himself as the one being produced by a woman via ektroma

    • flummoxed
      2018-01-16 14:33:44 UTC - 14:33 | Permalink

      Tim C – I think you are correct. Wasn’t the character Jesus in Mark’s gospel a good man from Galilee, infused with the Christ spirit thus being adopted by God – suffered hardship and eventual death thinking God had abandoned him. In the end God did not abandon because he went to a martyrs glory. The Christ spirit moved on to possess Simon the magus (Paul?). Did he not claim to be the Christ? Thus the Christ was a mobile spirit of God which some claimed for themselves.

      I think Theophilus of Antioch also saw himself as a Christ. Did he not say that he was a Christian because he had been “anointed” – with no reference to Jesus at all?

      I suspect that in the early more gnostic days there were lots of Christ’s wandering the Roman Empire.

  • Blood
    2018-01-16 12:33:10 UTC - 12:33 | Permalink

    “None of these scriptural references refers to “a human birth”; instead they refer to mortals and to the mortal realm, with the implied wretched condition of mortal life — short, painful, insignificant.”

    It’s interesting that the meaning of the phrase “born/made of a woman” parallels “son of man.” Both are simply euphemisms for “human being,” but interpreted (or misinterpreted) by early Christians to have some special significance.

  • Greg Shelley
    2018-01-16 14:08:04 UTC - 14:08 | Permalink

    Very interesting analysis. I am not sure why Gullotta thought his worth focussing on. Carrier says that although he thinks the phrase more likely in mythicism than historocity, he would assign it values the other way round.
    Even if all Gullotta said was valid and he had demonstrated that someone would have written this way about an actual woman, it would t change anything.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-01-17 01:23:38 UTC - 01:23 | Permalink

      Exactly. Gullotta has in fact quite misrepresented Carrier’s argument by claiming that he is dismantling key planks in his argument.

  • 2018-01-16 19:34:45 UTC - 19:34 | Permalink

    Revelation 12:1-5 pictures a heavenly Christ who is born of a woman:

    “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, **with the moon under her feet** and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth… She gave birth to a son, a male child, who ‘will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.'”

    Also notice verse 17:

    “Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.”

    This heavenly woman’s other offspring are on Earth, thus the heavenly Christ has earthly brothers.

    • Pofarmer
      2018-01-22 12:56:30 UTC - 12:56 | Permalink

      This is exactly what I was thinking of. Thanks for the verses.

  • David Fitzgerald
    2018-01-16 21:49:47 UTC - 21:49 | Permalink

    Excellent analysis, Tim!
    -DF

    • Tim Widowfield
      2018-01-16 22:22:28 UTC - 22:22 | Permalink

      Thanks, David!

  • MrHorse
    2018-01-16 23:32:36 UTC - 23:32 | Permalink

    Origen, Against Celsus, 1.70 –

    “… it appears indubitable that after His resurrection He ate a piece of fish; for, according to our view, He assumed a (true) body, as one born of a woman.”

    – seems to be saying He assumed a (true) body *after His resurrection* …

    • MrHorse
      2018-01-16 23:42:23 UTC - 23:42 | Permalink

      I tried to make that

      “.. Against Celsus, 1.70 … seems to be saying He assumed a (true) body ‘after His resurrection’ …”

      Not that my formatting emphasis matters that much.

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