(Jn. 2:4) Was Jesus being disrespectful by calling Mary “woman”?

CLAIM: Jesus abruptly calls his mother “woman” (Greek gynai). In our culture, this would be disrespectful (“Woman, do the dishes!” or “Cook me my dinner, woman!”). Was Jesus being disrespectful to Mary here?

RESPONSE: Jesus wasn’t being disrespectful. F.F. Bruce comments, “The English word ‘woman’ …carries with it a flavor of disrespect which is not present in the original.”[1] He points out that Jesus tenderly uses this same word to speak to his mother from the Cross (“Woman, behold, your son!” Jn. 19:26). Therefore, no condescending warrant should be seen here.

However, Jesus is rebuking his mother here. He is trying to show her that he needs to put God’s work first—even over his relationship with her. The idiom “what does that have to do with us” is a way of saying that what is important to her is not important to Jesus. Commentator Andreas Kostenberger writes,

The underlying thrust of the phrase translated ‘Why do you involve me?’ in the TNIV is ‘What do you and I have in common (as far as the matter at hand is concerned)?’ The implied answer: ‘Nothing.’ The expression occurs elsewhere in the Gospels exclusively on the lips of demons who strongly oppose Jesus (see Matt. 8:29 pars; Mark 1:24 par.). As OT parallels make clear, the phrase always distances two parties and frequently carries a reproachful connotation. This suggests that Jesus here is issuing a fairly sharp rebuke to Mary (cf. Matt. 12:46-50), similar to his rebuke of Peter when he failed to understand the nature of Jesus’ calling (cf. Matt. 16:23).[2]

Since Jesus was making a break from his family duties (and beginning to focus full-time on his public ministry), he probably felt the need to sharply rebuke Mary to let her know that he was calling the shots in his public ministry—not her. For more on the veneration of Mary, see comments on Luke 1:42.

[1] Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983. 69.

[2] Kostenberger, Andreas J. John: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2004. 94-95.