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Feminine God Imagery in Early Syrian Christianity

The following is a surprising excerpt concerning the development of early Christianity from History of the World Christian Movement, Vol I: Earliest Christianity to 1453 by Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2001), 63-64.  

After reading this excerpt, leave your thoughts in the comment section: What do you think about the use of Feminine Imagery for the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit?  

Another distinctive feature in Syriac Christian literature concerns the positive use of feminine images in liturgy and theology. Often Syriac writers employed images of the Spirit as woman, reflecting a theological inclusiveness in gender that has contributed to contemporary discussions of trinitarian language. An early Syriac eucharistic liturgy calls upon God as both Father and Mother to descend upon the elements being shared. The Syrian tradition sometimes provided strong feminine imagery for both Christ and the Holy Spirit.

It was not uncommon in the early Christian movement for newly baptized persons to be fed milk and honey as a sign of their crossing the Jordan River. The Odes of Solomon, a collection of Christian hymns from the end of the first or very early second century, extends that image in a strongly feminine direction to encompass all three divine figures in Christian worship. The Son is a cup of sweet milk, the book tells us, while the Father is he who was milked, and the Holy Spirit she who milked him. In another place the Odes contain a hymn of Christ that suggests Christ is the one who feeds us. Christ says:

     I fashioned their members
     And my own breasts I prepared for them,
     That they might drink my holy milk and live by it. (1)

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(1) The Odes of Solomon, trans. James H. Charlesworth (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 42.

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12 Comments

  1. Occidentalis says:

    Simply too much conjecturing. Furthermore there is no historical proof that a “feminine” view of the Holy Spirit–as presently understood–was the orthodox view of the Syriac Church.

    So which bishops then held a modern feminine view? They would have no longer been in communion with the other catholic bishops.

    The Syriac Church notes:
    “The Syriac Orthodox Church believes that the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit of Truth, proceeding from the Father. The Holy Spirit is equal with the Father and the Son. (Note. The word for ‘spirit’ in Syriac, ruho (which is also the word for ‘wind’), is grammatically feminine. Holy Spirit is referred to with the feminine pronoun in almost all early Syriac writings, though later writings refer to it in the masculine.)”

    It’s hard for a non-gender language speaker (i.e. English) to understand a gender specific language.

    Christ compares himself to a mother hen, another feminine analogy, but we are positive he is a man. Elsewhere in Scripture we understand that Christ’s body is composed of many members–namely Christians. Some of those members have to be breasts that produce milk to nurse from.

    These authors should heed some good advice:
    “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.”(Heb 5:12-13)

  2. theophilogue says:

    Occidentalis,

    I think you make a good point about the Bible itself using feminine imagery for God.

    I think you are perceptive to realize that utilizing feminine imagery for God is not the same as capitulating to a modern feminine view of God wholesale.

    The gender language point is also fair.

    What do you say, however, about this particular claim that the excerpt in my post contains?: “An early Syriac eucharistic liturgy calls upon God as both Father and Mother to descend upon the elements being shared.”

    Is that a capitulation to a modern feminine view in your opinion (to call upon God as Mother during the Eucharist) or is it acceptable?

    Bradley

  3. Occidentalis says:

    I would prefer to read the liturgy myself to assess the authors’ claims.

    The epiclesis is directed to the Holy Spirit, which in the Syrian language was a feminine gender noun. This may have actually been rendered Mother, or it is possible that these authors are taking (deducing) this mere feminine noun to be a “Mother” since God is a masculine name and also “Father.”

    Something else to ponder. The Free Woman, the one bearing free children, the Jerusalem from above is our mother (Gal 4). Can this be anything else but the Church, and what is the church but the body of Christ our God. Again here is a dual masculine and feminine Scriptural principle.

    The best thing to do on this question is read the Syrian sources and comments.

  4. Occidentalis says:

    Another thing. Eastern liturgies are extremely poetic. They cannot be approached with a Western rationalistic/literalistic mind-set so easily.

    Just as one cannot understand Eastern Christianity from a confession or a theological book, as they can Western Christianity.

  5. theophilogue says:

    Occidentalis,

    Thanks for your thoughts. They have been very helpful for me. I have some questions if you care to answer:

    What is “the epiclesis”?

    What do you think are the implications of the “dual masculine and feminine” Scriptural principle?

    Thanks again!

    Bradley

  6. Occidentalis says:

    The epiclesis is the point in the peoples’ worship of God (liturgy = “work of the people”) that the produce of creation is offered back to God and the Church in thanksgiving (Eucharist) asks that this creation, namely the bread and the fruit, become life giving and blessed (bread of life and wine from the Tree of Life) so that the Body might be nourished for continued life and liturgy.

    Implications…although Jesus Christ is indeed a man, just as you and I—and the “exact imprint,” “form” and “icon” of the invisible God—the Trinity is not a man. However, the icon (image) of the Trinity is both male and female as expressed in the creation of mankind. The purpose of male and female (image) is to jointly attain to the likeness of God (who is Trinity), which God once again makes possible by One who is simultaneously in the nature of man and of God, namely the man Jesus Christ, and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

  7. theophilogue says:

    Occidentalis,

    I like how you work from an implicit distinction between the incarnation of God (which forced God to choose a gender form) and the ontological reality of God (which is “represented” by both genders, not just one).

    So … would you say, then, that God is neither masculine or feminine?

    Bradley

  8. Occidentalis says:

    If he is masculine or feminine, I am not sufficient to judge. I can say that all things flow from the Trinity.

    Please allow me to slightly modify some of your comments. It might be said the genders of mankind likely image, in some sense, the Trinity. The image of the Trinity is “best expressed” on a creature level in the form of mankind and furthermore as foremost man and then woman. It does not seem safe to “impose” human gender back upon the Trinity. All things are from God, although not all things are God.

    Consider this, truth reveals to us that woman was fashioned from man. She literally came from the exact substance of the man, though amazingly she was not a man. The first woman was a person while still being of man (Adam). A man is a person and a woman is a person while they are simultaneously both mankind (i.e. humankind if one wants to remove the generic reference to “man”)–different persons having the same nature. “Humankind” is neither masculine nor feminine, yet the persons who are of humankind may be masculine or feminine. I’m scared to go to far here so as not to step beyond my bounds.

    However regarding the primacy of man and woman, this we know for sure: “For a man…is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man….Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.”(1 Cor 11:7-12).

    Additionally, I want to say that the idea that God was forced to choose a gender form has some detractors. Consider this, the man Jesus of Nazareth is the image (icon) of the invisible God (Col 1:15); the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Heb 1:3). Now Adam was a type of the one to come (Rom 5:14). Was Adam thus an image of the man Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that Adam was of male gender as the image of God seems derived from the One who was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was eventually made manifest(1 Pet 1:20). There was an “in him” before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4). To save mankind this One had to possess the nature of mankind. Whoa this is tricky, so I’ll stop here lest I fall into heresy as the Fathers warned.

    With all that, I still stick to my first statement.

    Bless

  9. beninmwangi says:

    I am not familiar with the feminine imagery the early Syriac Church so that was an interesting piece that you quoted from Charlesworth.

    However, I have heard of similar connections made with respect to the Father and the Holy Spirit. This is a good question as to whether God is masculine or feminine.

    Often it is mentioned that God’s creative manifestations are likened to the creative birthing process that we associate with the feminine. But conception typically requires both masculine and feminine participation to become manifest. For this reason it seems that God possesses both qualities.

  10. theophilogue says:

    beninmwangi,

    Good insights!

    Many of the mighty acts of God fit better with feminine analogies (e.g. giving birth, as you have pointed out), and since God doesn’t have a gender (outside of Jesus Christ), I agree that it’s best to understand both types of imagery as capable to communicating the divine person(s). This does mean that the predominate imagery of God in the Bible is not overwhelmingly masculine, but it that’s a separate, thorny issue that I don’t have time to post on right now.

    Bradley

    Bradley

  11. Occidentalis says:

    It is interesting to note that all those that are being conformed to the image and likeness of God in Christ Jesus are never considered “daughters of God.” But the apostle says;

    “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus….There is neither…male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”(Galatians 3:28)

    This seems consistent with his former statement “woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man.”

    So as Righteous Elizabeth, mother of The Baptist, stands before God she is a son.

  12. Bradley says:

    Occidentalis,

    Yes. That raises the question of why Paul would do that.

    Is it because woman is the glory of man? I’m not sure, since it is hard to see how calling a woman a daughter of the Lord would undermine or take away from woman as the glory of man anymore than any other feminine gender specific terminology in the Bible would. Maybe you could help elucidate the logic of your understanding?

    If I had to guess, off the top of my head, I would suggest, rather, that this language reflects Paul’s point in the context of the passage: that all those who believe are “sons of Abraham” because they inherit the covenant of God (the patriarchal society of Abraham gave the inheritance only to males, so the language in Paul, although gender inclusive in concept, is gender specific in wording, reflecting a reliance on Semitic categories).

    Thoughts?

    Bradley

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