Anthropos, gender and markedness, part 3

This continues the series from Part 1 and Part 2. In the former I started to examine Joel Hoffman’s claim that the Greek word anthropos has a male meaning component. In the latter I introduced the concept of markedness and outlined how it might be applied to gender in Greek. Now I want to bring these two together by considering how the markedness helps to explain how anthropos is used.

As I explained before, anthropos is one of a group of Greek nouns which can be either masculine or feminine. The technical word for this is “epicene”. The feminine form of anthropos is rare, and not found in the New Testament. I guess many epicene nouns are much rarer in the feminine than the masculine – although the opposite is true, at least in the NT, of parthenos “virgin” which is usually feminine, but presumed (on the basis of usage elsewhere – the gender is not marked in the NT text) to be masculine in Revelation 14:4 (referring to men only) and perhaps 1 Corinthians 7:25 (referring to both men and women).

Let us now consider how anthropos is used in the New Testament. According to the rough figures in my Modern Concordance to the New Testament (Darton, Longman & Todd 1976) the 552 occurrences can be divided as follows: 88 in the phrase “son of man”, mostly referring to Jesus but including Hebrews 2:6 which I discussed here yesterday; 5 referring to Adam; the 5 occurrences I discussed earlier in which there is a contrast with “woman”; 29 other cases referring to Jesus; 39 referring to other named individuals; 43 referring to unnamed individuals; 5 referring to inhabitants or citizens; 1o referring to the self or nature; 2 in the phrase “man of God”; and the rest, more than 300, referring to “MAN, HUMAN(ITY) – PEOPLE, EVERYBODY, EVERYONE – SOMEONE, ANYBODY”.

Some of the 111 references listed as to named or unnamed individuals are in fact to groups which may well have included women. But it appears that every reference to a single individual is to a man, an adult male, rather than a woman or a child. I say “appears” because in many cases the gender and age of the referent is not otherwise stated. But I would not dispute a claim that in the New Testament anthropos never refers to a specific woman – although it does (with feminine gender) in other Greek literature.

Here is the Greek text of the most convincing example of feminine anthropos, from Herodotus 1:60, the first of the six examples Suzanne quotes in English translation:

οἱ ἐν τῷ ἄστεϊ πειθόμενοι τὴν γυναῖκα εἶναι αὐτὴν τὴν θεὸν προσεύχοντό τε τὴν ἄνθρωπον καὶ ἐδέκοντο Πεισίστρατον.

Here we have two feminine epicene nouns: he theos “goddess”; and he anthropos, rendered “human creature” and referring to the woman who had just been described, more typically, as gune. Presumably she is called anthropos because she is being contrasted with the goddess Athene. I can’t help thinking that anthropos would have been used in a somewhat similar incident in the New Testament, at Acts 12:22, even if the referent had been a woman.

To complete this study it is important to look at that majority of the occurrences of anthropos classified as referring to “MAN, HUMAN(ITY) – PEOPLE, EVERYBODY, EVERYONE – SOMEONE, ANYBODY”. The significant point here is that only a very few of these more than 300 refer to men rather than women or indeed have any gender significance at all. Many of these gender generic examples are plural, but there are also a considerable number which are singular but still gender generic. Consider for example the use of singular anthropos in Mark 7:14-23 and Romans 3:28, teaching which surely applies to women as much as to men. So there really is no evidence to support the common claim that anthropos is gender generic in the plural but specific to men in the singular.

To put this in the language of markedness, this very common use of anthropos to refer to men and women indefinitely without specifying gender seems to show that this word is the default or unmarked one for referring to human beings in general, singly or in groups. In the thinking of the time (and to some extent today) the default or unmarked person, the prototypical person (to use the language of another semantic model), was a man, an adult male.

This explains why when it was known that a person was a woman or a child it was normal to use not anthropos but a different word, one marked as referring to a female or a young person. But in exceptional cases, perhaps for stylistic variation or to contrast with a god or an animal, anthropos could be used of a specific woman or child. And when used of a woman it was also marked as such with its gender, feminine rather than the unmarked masculine. But the selection of grammatical gender seems to have been independent of the choice between anthropos and other words.

The implication of this is that anthropos is a word entirely devoid of gender marking within itself, that it in no sense “means” “man” to the exclusion of woman. The fact that it is rarely used of specific women is entirely explained by markedness theory, and does not indicate any male meaning component.

I accept that this is only the outline of an argument, which would need to be firmed up by a more careful examination of the evidence, not relying on the sometimes questionable classifications in my concordance and not restricted to the New Testament. But I think I have given enough evidence to show that Joel’s hypothesis that “one meaning of anthropos is “man”” is unlikely to be correct.

13 thoughts on “Anthropos, gender and markedness, part 3

  1. Pingback: Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » Anthropos, gender and markedness, part 2

  2. It is worth noting that all these anthropoi were women.

    καὶ ἔλαβε Μωυσῆς ἀπὸ τοῦ ἡμισεύματος τῶν υἱῶν ᾿Ισραὴλ τὸ ἓν ἀπὸ τῶν πεντήκοντα, ἀπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν κτηνῶν

    Numbers 31:47

    Of course, the article does not say if it is the masculine or feminine, but if the word anthropos meant “man, a male” then this chapter would be difficult to understand.

  3. Sue, thanks for the reminder of this example, one of several in this chapter (see also verses 26,28,30,40,46. This is of course translation Greek again, with anthropos rendering Hebrew adam as very often. TNIV renders the Hebrew “women” in these places. I suppose it could be that the LXX translators were translating concordantly and thoughtlessly into nonsense Greek. I doubt it they could have understood the passage differently – verse 35 (cf. verse 18) seems to make it unambiguous that the two groups of 16,000 were indeed women. Sadly there don’t seem to be any gendered articles to test whether anthropos is feminine here. But this is clear evidence that even in biblical Greek anthropos can refer to a group of women only, in this case contrasted with animals.

  4. So, what we have is evidence that anthropos can be used to refer to a woman/women as part of humanity, in contrast to another class of existence such as deity or chattel. Alright. Do we have references where the anthropos (feminine) is used more informally where there is no distinction to be made between women (as humans) and another class?

    In this series and elsewhere, I’ve seen the masculine gender used (by our wording) to function as though it were a common gender. Indeed, we’ve seen it used in place of such a thing. However, is that how they actually viewed the masculine gender, and if so, to what extent?

    Why is the masculine gender the common one, and the feminine one to be seen as singling out more deictic? Does this make masculinity the standard of humanity? [Or rather, was masculinity construed as such by a patriarchal world?]

  5. Gary, I don’t have more references for anthropos (feminine) than the ones Suzanne and LSJ list. Of course if the women are not being distinguished from any other class they don’t need to be referred to by any noun. Yes, I suppose I am suggesting that the masculine functions as a common gender. As for why, that is lost in the mists of time as it seems to be a feature common to Indo-European and Semitic languages. But this tells us only about language, nothing about human culture.

  6. Most translations translate anthropos as “man” in Luke 22:58 giving the impression that the second person here to accuse Peter was a male. Yet in two of the other Gospels this second person is identified as a woman. So either this is a contradiction in scripture or it is an error in translation assuming that anthropos is referring to singular male.

  7. Verner, that is a very interesting observation. According to Luke (22:56-60), there are three different accusers, and Peter addresses the first of them as gunai “woman” and the second and third as anthrope “man/person”. In Mark’s version (14:66-71), the first and second accusers are the same woman and the third accusation is by a group, and Peter uses no form of address. Matthew’s version (26:69-74) is similar to Mark’s except that the second denial is by a second servant girl.

    I think we have to say that there is some contradiction between Mark’s one servant girl and Matthew’s two. Luke’s account can be made compatible with Matthew’s, but not Mark’s, if we understand anthrope in Luke 22:58 as referring to a woman. But it is unlikely that Luke was using Matthew as a source here. More likely Luke is retelling the story himself based on Mark’s somewhat confusing account.

    So, much as I would like to find one, I don’t think we have a female anthropos here.

  8. Verner, it is clear that Matthew contradicts Mark at this point. Did Matthew get it wrong, or did Mark? It is an undeniable fact that the gospel accounts do not agree in every detail. You can’t even get round this one by saying that Peter denied Jesus nine times, because Jesus said he would do so three times. Paul taught that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), not that it was useful for nitpicking about the details of ancient history.

  9. Peter, I understand and agree what you are saying about “All Scripture being God-breathed” and I am truly not trying to “nitpick” here. But to me there is a simple way all three Gospels can complement each other: All three Gospels clearly agree on the first maiden or servant-girl (paidiske). It is from this point on that they vary in perspective but not necessarily contradict each other. Let me explain: After his first denial in the courtyard, Peter goes out to the porch or the gateway (Mat. And Mk.). Possibly trying to get away from this first servant-girl that had identified him. But the same servant-girl eventually sees him again out there and she starts relaying to the bystanders (not to Peter) “He is one of them.” (see Mk 14:69) Another (Gr. allos Mat. 26:71; Gr. heteros in Lk. 22:58 – No gender mentioned) also says begins to affirm the first servant-girls observation “Certainly, this man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Peter replies to this person in Luke: “Man (Gr. anthropos – Often male but not always), I do not know what you are talking about.” Matthew and Mark do not specify gender either. Either way it’s not a contradiction between Gospels. But it does show us that the first servant-girl is gaining the affirmation of the bystanders and others are joining in on the accusation. Now it gets very serious, more are suspecting him. I can imagine the rumours spreading about him as another “hour” passes away (see Lk.). Some other bystanders comes up and says to Peter, “Surely (affirming the others) you too are one of them; for the way you talk gives you away.” (Mat. 26:73) and Mk says something similar, “you are a Galilean”. Could have been a group now together. Luke quotes one of these bystanders as saying, “Certainly (He affirms what the others are saying) this man also was with Him, for he is a Galilean too.” Peter then begins to curse and swear and says to this man (and to them all) “Man, I do not know this man you are talking about!” And immediately a cock crowed. I do not see the contradiction, just different details of the story by each Gospel giving us a picture of what happened over a period of probably one to three hours. A story starts with the testimony of one servant-girl escalating to two and then gathering momentum until there are several saying the same thing. Peter denies the Lord three times in the process. But you’re right, the important part of the story is that Peter denied the Lord three times as Jesus said he would. Thanks!

  10. Verner, I don’t have time to look at this in detail again, but at first glance your reconstruction seems to make sense. So we may indeed have a female anthropos here. But there are variant reconstructions possible e.g. that at the second denial there are male and female bystanders and Peter addresses a man among them. So I don’t feel confident enough to promote this as a definite example of female anthropos, especially as many who might read what I write are quite happy to accept discrepancies and errors in Scripture.

  11. I understand. The discovery of clear discrepancies or “errors” in scripture does not throw my faith at all. My only caution is that perhaps in becoming “quite happy to accept discrepancies” we fail to discover the deeper treasures. Apparent discrepancies often lead to new and beautiful discoveries. Thanks for your time and answers. Your article on “anthropos” is excellent!

  12. Thank you, Verner. Just to clarify, I am not saying that I am “quite happy to accept discrepancies”, only that many scholars and other Christians are, and some of them read my blog.

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