The feminist classic Our Bodies, Ourselves was already out when my father paid me, one of his sons, to memorize parts of the Bible.
My soul earned a dollar for reciting this stanza, yes she did:
I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together.
However, my dad didn’t give me, or my soul, the option to make anything from this stanza from the same Bible:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
Of course, why would a man like my father want a young man like his son to take deep into his own soul the words of a woman? And besides, this virgin woman pregnant rejoicing is Mary of the Mariologists, not the ones a Southern Baptist Protestant Christian really ought to be learning from. After all, she’s admitting she’s a “servant,” a “bondslave” as the New American Standard Version has it.
Stick with David, who slayed the giant with his stones, my father implied. And besides, this biblical manly man was kingly and wise in his magnificat, “when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” After all, he’s clearly no slave of any man and is more of the model of missionary and first Southern Baptist, James Reeves.
How, really, can one compare King David’s Psalm 34:1-3 and this bit of Mother Mary’s Magnificat found in Luke 1:47-49?
Well, let’s assume we really want to do that first. Okay, well then, we go to Luke’s Greek. He has her starting in like this:
ἡ ψυχή μου
Yes, her words have gender, and her words for herself and to herself and about herself are female.
My dear feminine motherly soul
And yes, yes, the Roman Clementine Vulgate only makes this femininity abundantly clear, which is important, since, as we all know, Latin, like Greek, has other gender options, not only the feminine. So we hear Mary begin this way:
Mary the wo-man, of course, is not a man. S-he’s not a he. S-he, this wo-man is a fe-male, not a male.
David, of course, is a man. So let’s hear his language. In Hebrew, he starts in this way:
The Alexandrian Jewish translator for his Septuagint renders him starting in in Greek this way:
ἐν τῷ κυρίῳ
ἡ ψυχή μου
Well, hmm. Well, sure. David’s word for himself, the nephesh, is a feminine noun. This is not his sex. It’s the gender of his grammar. Let’s not get carried away here. Everybody knows he has something, some body part, that Mary lacks. Maybe Luke is making his singing Mary mimic the Septuagint translator’s psalmist David. Well, hmm. They’re both feminine, the nouns that is. Psyche just does what nephesh does. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that David’s soul, like Mary’s must be, is fe-male.
Never mind that the Roman Clementine Vulgate with its Versio Gallicana makes him saying:
Jerome is just trying to follow that Alexandrian Jewish fellow with his fancy Hellene. Yes, that’s true. They both have David continuing by saying:
Magnificate Dominum mecum
μεγαλύνατε τὸν κύριον σὺν ἐμοί
See how unclear this is? And, besides, Jerome makes David compel his fellow singers, real men of biblical manhood, to taste and see that the LORD “sweet“:
Gustate et videte quoniam suavis est Dominus
This clearly confused Julian of Norwich who wrote of God’s sweetness and of tasting it. And it influenced the whole Monastic West. Even the Septuagint’s Hellenistic Jewish translator in Alexandria wouldn’t go that far.
So back to the Septuagint, then. It does, we must figure, account for the feminine Greek psyche attributed to David by a would-be Greek-speaking David.
He’s sounding a little too much like Plato’s Socrates’s “wise Diotima.” And she says in this bit excerpted from her rather long speech in the Symposium:
Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women
and beget children-this is the character of their love; their offspring,
as they hope, will preserve their memory and giving them the blessedness
and immortality which they desire in the future. But souls which are
pregnant-for there certainly are men who are more creative in their
souls than in their bodies conceive that which is proper for the soul
to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions?-wisdom and
virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who
are deserving of the name inventor. But the greatest and fairest sort
of wisdom by far is that which is concerned with the ordering of states
and families, and which is called temperance and justice. And he who
in youth has the seed of these implanted in him and is himself inspired,
when he comes to maturity desires to beget and generate. He wanders
about seeking beauty that he may beget offspring-for in deformity
he will beget nothing-and naturally embraces the beautiful rather
than the deformed body; above all when he finds fair and noble and
well-nurtured soul, he embraces the two in one person, and to such
an one he is full of speech about virtue and the nature and pursuits
of a good man; and he tries to educate him; and at the touch of the
beautiful which is ever present to his memory, even when absent, he
brings forth that which he had conceived long before, and in company
with him tends that which he brings forth; and they are married by
a far nearer tie and have a closer friendship than those who beget
mortal children, for the children who are their common offspring are
fairer and more immortal. Who, when he thinks of Homer and Hesiod
and other great poets, would not rather have their children than ordinary
human ones? Who would not emulate them in the creation of children
such as theirs, which have preserved their memory and given them everlasting
glory? Or who would not have such children as Lycurgus left behind
him to be the saviours, not only of Lacedaemon, but of Hellas, as
one may say? There is Solon, too, who is the revered father of Athenian
laws; and many others there are in many other places, both among hellenes
and barbarians, who have given to the world many noble works, and
have been the parents of virtue of every kind; and many temples have
been raised in their honour for the sake of children such as theirs;
which were never raised in honour of any one, for the sake of his
The critical phrase is
Another English translator renders some of that this way:
when someone has been pregnant with these [seeds of wisdom] in his soul from early youth, while he is still a virgin, and, having arrived at the proper age, desires to beget and give birth, he too will certainly go about seeking the beauty in which he would beget; for he will never beget in anything ugly.
What does this mean for men, for us men?
We can put it away as, chalk it up to the fact that, one Greek man’s Greek woman trying to conceive of Greek male poets as having female souls. I mean, didn’t Aristotle straighten out all of this crooked teaching of Plato’s when he much more clearly parsed out the differences between males and fe-males, bodies and souls?
We can let Henry Wadsworth Longfellow have these lines:
O let the soul her slumbers break,
Let thought be quickened, and awake;
For we know that the American English poet is rendering another’s Spanish verse.
But what do we do with William Wordsworth, the man, whose soul sounds all too much like the man David’s and the woman Mary’s both, all persons, male and female, with female souls pregnant:
But as a face we love is sweetest then
When sorrow damps it, or, whatever look
It chance to wear, is sweetest if the heart
Have fulness in herself; even so with me
It fared that evening. Gently did my soul
Put off her veil, and, self-transmuted, stood
Naked, as in the presence of her God.
While on I walked, a comfort seemed to touch
A heart that had not been disconsolate:
Strength came where weakness was not known to be,
At least not felt; and restoration came
Like an intruder knocking at the door
Of unacknowledged weariness. I took
The balance, and with firm hand weighed myself.
—Of that external scene which round me lay,
Little, in this abstraction, did I see;
Remembered less; but I had inward hopes
And swellings of the spirit, was rapt and soothed,
Conversed with promises, had glimmering views
How life pervades the undecaying mind;
How the immortal soul with God-like power
Informs, creates, and thaws the deepest sleep
That time can lay upon her; how on earth,
Man, if he do but live within the light
Of high endeavours, daily spreads abroad
His being armed with strength that cannot fail.