Born of a woman.

Ancient instances of the phrase in Galatians 4.4.


Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.

Thou wast born of woman.
But swords I smile at, weapons laugh to scorn,
Brandish'd by man that's of a woman born.

—William Shakespeare, Macbeth IV.1, apparition speaking; and V.7, Macbeth speaking.

Refer also to the use of the expression according to the flesh in Greek and Christian literature.

Liddell and Scott define γενναω in part as follows:

γεννάω, f. ήσω, (γέννα) Causal of γίγνομαι (cf. γείνομαι II), of the father, to beget, engender, Aesch., Soph.; rarely of the mother, to bring forth, Aesch.

And γιγνομαι they define in part as follows:

γί-γνομαι, Ion. and in late Gr. γί-νομαι.... Radical sense, to come into being, Lat. gigni: 1. of persons, to be born, νέον γεγαώς new born, Od.; γεγονέναι ἔκ τινος Hdt.; more rarely ἀπό τινος Id.; τινος Eur.:—with Numerals, ἔτεα τρία καὶ δέκα γεγονώς, Lat. natus annos tredecim, Hdt., etc. 2. of things, to be produced, Plat., Xen., etc.

The frequent synonymity of γινομαι and γενναω comes out in the fact that both of these words are used to translate the Hebrew word ילד (yalad) in the Septuagint.

The following are instances in which the Hebrew ילד (A) is used to mean to give birth and (B) is translated by the Greek γινομαι (to become, to come into being, or to be born) in the Septuagint: Genesis 4.18, 26; 6.1; 10.1, 21, 25; 17.17; 21.3, 5; 35.26; 36.5; 46.20, 27; 48.5; Leviticus 25.45; Deuteronomy 23.8; 2 Samuel 5.13; Psalm 86.4, 5, 6; Job 1.2; 15.7.

Genesis 4.18 is an interesting case, because it has four instances of the Hebrew ילד, one of which is translated by the Greek γινομαι, the other three of which are translated by the Greek γενναω, all in the same sentence. There are other instances (Genesis 17.17; 21.3; 36.5) in which the sentence has two instances of the Hebrew ילד, one of which is rendered by γινομαι, the other of which is rendered by τικτω (to have a child).

The actual phrase born of a woman appears thrice in the book of Job. First, Job 14.1 (Masoretic and LXX):

אדם ילוד אשה קצר ימים ושבע־רגז׃

Βροτος γαρ γεννητος γυναικος ολιγοβιος και πληρης οργης.

For a mortal born of woman is short-lived, and full of wrath.

Second, Job 15.14 (Masoretic and LXX):

מה־אנוש כי־יזכה וכי־יצדק ילוד אשה׃

Τις γαρ ων βροτος οτι εσται αμεμπτος, η ως εσομενος δικαιος γεννητος γυναικος;

What is a mortal that he should be blameless, or one born of woman that he would be just?

Third, Job 25.4 (Masoretic and LXX):

ומה־יצדק אנוש עם־אל ומה־יזכה ילוד אשה׃

Πως γαρ εσται δικαιος βροτος εναντι κυριου, η τις αν αποκαθαρισαι εαυτον γεννητος γυναικος;

How then is a mortal just before God? Or who born of woman can cleanse himself?

These verses use the Greek adjective γεννητος, to bear or to give birth, which is the adjectival form of γενναω, based on the same root as γινομαι.

Euripides offers a classical parallel to this kind of phrase in the Bacchae, lines 987-990:

Τις αρα νιν ετεκεν; ου γαρ εξ αιματος γυναικων εφυ, λεαινας δε τινος οδ η γοργονων Λιβυσσαν γενος.

Who then bore him? For he was not produced from the blood of women, but is the offspring of some lioness or of Libyan gorgons.

Herodotus offers another classical parallel in his Histories 1.61.1:

Απολαβων δε την τυραννιδα τροπω τω ειρημενω ο Πεισιστρατος κατα την ομολογιην την προς Μεγακλεα γενομενην γαμεει του Μεγακλεος την θυγατερα. οια δε παιδων τε οι υπαρχοντων νεηνιεων και λεγομενων εναγεων ειναι των Αλκμεωνιδεων, ου βουλομενος οι γενεσθαι εκ της νεογαμου γυναικος τεκνα εμισγετο οι ου κατα νομον.

Now, having received back his sovereignty in the aforesaid manner, Pisistratus married the daughter of Megacles according to his agreement with Megacles. But, as he already had children, and as the Alcmeonid family were said to be under a curse, he had no wish that children be born from his newly-wedded wife, and therefore had intercourse with her [of a kind] not according to law.

Then there is Sirach 10.18:

Ουκ εκτισται ανθρωποις υπερηφανια, ουδε οργη θυμου γεννημασιν γυναικων.

Arrogance was not created for men, nor wrathful rage for the brood of women.

This verse uses the Greek noun γεννημα, brood, based on the same root as the verb γενναω.

From the Dead Sea scrolls we have at least two instances of the phrase, both using the Hebrew word ילד. First, 1QS 11.21a:

וילוד אשה מה יחשב לפניכה׃

As what shall one born of woman be considered in your presence?

Second, 1QHa 5.20b:

ומה ילוד אשה בכול מעשיך הנוראים׃

What is one born of woman among all your fearful works?

There may be other instances of this phrase in the Dead Sea scrolls; I have not searched at all exhaustively.

The phrase appears twice (in parallel) in the gospels. First, Matthew 11.11:

Αμην, λεγω υμιν, ουκ εγηγερται εν γεννητοις γυναικων μειζων Ιωαννου του βαπτιστου, ο δε μικροτερος εν τη βασιλεια των ουρανων μειζων αυτου εστιν.

Amen, I say to you, there is not greater than John the baptist among those born of women, but the lesser in the kingdom of the heavens is greater than him.

Second, Luke 7.28:

Λεγω υμιν, μειζων εν γεννητοις γυναικων Ιωαννου ουδεις εστιν, ο δε μικροτερος εν τη βασιλεια του θεου μειζων αυτου εστιν.

I say to you, no one is greater than John among those born of women, but the lesser in the kingdom of God is greater than him.

These two verses use the Greek adjective γεννητος, born.

Tertullian quotes Matthew 11.11 in On Baptism 12.5:

Unde et suggeritur, cum adversantes domino tingui noluerint, eos qui dominum sequebantur tinctos fuisse, nec cum aemulis sapuisse, maxime quando dominus cui adhaerebant testimonio Ioannem extulisset: Nemo, dicens, maior inter natos feminarum Ioanne baptizatore.

Whence is also suggested that, since the adversaries of the Lord refused to be baptized, they who followed the Lord were baptized, and did not think like their rivals, especially when, if there were anyone to whom they adhered, the Lord had extolled John above him by his testimony, saying: No one among those born of females is greater than John the baptist.

Clement of Alexandria quotes Matthew 11.11 in The Rich Man 31:

Κατα τα αυτα και του μεγιστου εν γεννητοις γυναικων Ιωαννου τον ελαχιστον εν τη βασιλεια των ουρανων, τουτεστι τον εαυτου μαθητην, ειναι μειζω λεγει.

In the same way he also says that the least in the kingdom of the heavens, that is, his own disciple, is greater than John, the greatest among those born of women.

Refer also to Origen, On Matthew 10.22; 13.15.

Tertullian quotes (the Marcionite version of) Luke 7.28 in Against Marcion 4.18.8:

Maior quidem omnibus natis mulierum. sed non ideo subiecto ei qui minor fuerit in regno dei.

That forerunner was indeed greater than all of women born; but even so he who was least in the kingdom of God was not subject to him.

Refer also to Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor 1.5.

The gospel of Thomas has the following in saying 15:

ΠΕϪΕ Ι̅C̅ ϪΕ ϨΟΤΑΝ ΕΤΕΤΝ̅ϢΑΝΝΑΥ ΕΠΕΤΕΜ̅ΠΟΥϪΠΟϤ ΕΒΟΛ ϨΝ̅ΤCϨΙΜΕ ΠΕϨΤΤΗΥΤΝ̅ ΕϪΜ̅ΠΕΤΝ̅ϨΟ Ν̅ΤΕΤΝ̅ΟΥΩϢΤ ΝΑϤ ΠΕΤΜ̅ΜΑΥ ΠΕ ΠΕΤΝ̅ΕΙΩΤ.

Jesus said: When you see one who was not born of woman, prostrate yourselves onto your faces and worship him; that one is your father.

In Galatians 4.4-5 the apostle Paul says:

Οτε δε ηλθεν το πληρωμα του χρονου, εξαπεστειλεν ο θεος τον υιον αυτου, γενομενον εκ γυναικος, γενομενον υπο νομον, ινα τους υπο νομον εξαγοραση, ινα την υιοθεσιαν απολαβωμεν.

But, when the fulness of time came, God sent forth his son, made [or born] from a woman, made under the law, in order to redeem those under the law, in order that we might receive the adoption.

Irenaeus quotes this Pauline passage in Against Heresies 3.22.1:

Et apostolus autem Paulus in epistola quae est ad Galatas, manifeste ait: Misit deus filium suum, factum de muliere. et rursus in ea quae est ad Romanos: De filio autem, inquit, eius, qui factus est ex semine David secundum carnem, qui praedestinatus est filius dei in virtute, secundum spiritum sanctificationis, ex resurrectione mortuorum, Iesu Christi domini nostri.

The apostle Paul, moreover, in the epistle to the Galatians manifestly says: God sent his son, made of a woman. And again in that to the Romans he says: Concerning his son, who was made of the seed of David according to the flesh, who was predestinated as the son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

He quotes it again in Against Heresies 5.21.1:

Ex eo enim qui ex muliere virgine habebat nasci, secundem similitudinem Adam, praeconabatur observans caput serpentis, id est semen, de quo ait apostolus in epistola quae est ad Galatas: Legem factorum positam donec veniret semen qui promissum est. manifestius autem adhuc in eadem ostendit epistola, sic dicens: Cum autem venit plenitudo temporis, misit deus filium suum, factum de muliere. neque enim iuste victus fuisset inimicus nisi ex muliere homo esset qui vicit eum.

For from that time he who should be born of a virgin woman, after the likeness of Adam, was preached as keeping watch for the head of the serpent. This is the seed of which the apostle in the epistle to the Galatians says: The law of works was established until the seed should come to whom the promise was made. This fact, moreover, is exhibited more manifestly in the same epistle, speaking thus: But when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth his son, made from a woman. For indeed the enemy would not have been fairly vanquished unless it had been a man [born] of a woman who conquered him.

(Irenaeus also quotes Galatians 4.4 in Against Heresies 3.16.7, but stops short of our key phrase, factum ex muliere, in that instance.)

Tertullian also quotes Galatians 4.4 in On the Flesh of Christ 20.2b-3a:

Sed et Paulus grammaticis istis silentium imponit: Misit, inquit, deus filium suum, factum ex muliere. numquid per mulierem aut in muliere? hoc quidem impressius quod factum potius dicit quam natum. simplicius enim enuntiasset natum; factum autem dicendo, et verbum caro factum est consignavit et carnis veritatem ex virgine factae adseveravit.

But Paul also imposes silence these grammarians: God, he says, sent his son, made of a woman. Does he mean through a woman or in a woman? This is indeed the more emphatic in that he says [the word] made in preference to [the word] born. For it would have been simpler to pronounce that he was born; yet, by saying [the word] made, he has both set his seal on [the sentence that says that] the word was made flesh and asserted the verity of the flesh made of the virgin.

He also quotes it in On the Veiling of Virgins 6:

Scribens enim ad Galatas: Misit, inquit, deus filium suum, factum ex muliere, quam utique virginem constat fuisse, licet Hebion resistat.

For while writing to the Galatians he says: God sent his son, made of a woman, who of course it is established was a virgin, though Hebion resists it.

Finally, Tertullian notices two missing phrases in the Marcionite text of the epistle to the Galatians. He writes in Against Marcion 5.4.2b-4:

Erubescat spongia Marcionis; nisi quod ex abundanti retracto quae abstulit, cum validius sit illum ex his revinci quae servavit. cum autem evenit impleri tempus, misit deus filium suum, utique is qui etiam ipsorum temporum deus est quibus saeculum constat, qui signa quoque temporum ordinavit, soles et lunas et sidera et stellas, qui filii denique sui revelationem in extremitatem temporum et disposuit et praedicavit: In novissimis diebus erit manifestus mons domini, et, In novissimis diebus effundam de spiritu meo in omnem carnem, secundum Ioelem. ipsius erat sustinuisse tempus impleri cuius erat etiam finis temporis, sicut initium. ceterum deus ille otiosus, nec operationis nec praedicationis ullius, atque ita nec temporis alicuius, quid omnino egit quod efficeret tempus impleri et iam implendum sustineri? si nihil, satis vanum est ut creatoris tempora sustinuerit serviens creatori. cui autem rei misit filium suum? ut eos qui sub lege erant redimeret, hoc est ut efficeret tortuosa in viam rectam et aspera in vias lenes, secundum Esaiam, ut vetera transirent et nova orirentur, lex nova ex Sion et sermo domini ex Hierusalem, et ut adoptionem filiorum acciperemus, utique nationes, quae filii non eramus. et ipse enim lux erit nationum, et in nomine eius nationes sperabunt. itaque ut certum esset nos filios dei esse, misit spiritum suum in corda nostra, clamantem: Abba, pater. in novissimis enim, inquit, diebus effundam de meo spiritu in omnem carnem. cuius gratia, nisi cuius et promissio gratiae?

Let the sponge of Marcion be ashamed of itself; except that it is superfluous for me to discuss the passages he has left out, since my case is stronger if he is shown wrong by those he has retained. But, when it came about that the time was fulfilled, God sent his son, evidently that God who is the God even of those times of which the ages consist, who also has ordained the signs of the times, suns and moons and constellations and stars, and in short has both foreordained and foretold the revelation of his own son at the far end of the times: In the last days the mountain of the Lord shall be made manifest, and: In the last days I will pour out of my spirit upon all flesh, as Joel has it. To have waited for the time to be fulfilled was characteristic of him to whom belonged the end of time, as also its beginning. But that leisured god of yours, who has never either done anything or prophesied anything and so knows nothing of any time, what has he ever done to cause time to be fulfilled, and to justify waiting for its fulfilment? If he has done nothing, it was foolish enough that he waited for the times of the creator, and thus did service to the creator. But to what purpose did he send his son? To redeem those that were under the law, that is, to make crooked places into a straight way and rough places into smooth ways, as Isaiah says, so that old things might pass away and new things might arise, a new law out of Zion and the word of the Lord out of Jerusalem, and that we might receive the adoption of sons, we the gentiles, who once were not sons; and he himself will be a light of the gentiles, and in his name shall the gentiles hope. And so as to make it certain that we are sons of God, he has sent his own spirit into our hearts, crying: Abba, father. For he says: In the last days I will pour out of my spirit upon all flesh. By whose grace, if not his whose was the promise of grace?

Thus we see that the text of Marcion as Tertullian had it must have jumped from misit deus filium suum (God sent his son) to ut eos qui sub lege erant redimeret (to redeem those who were under the law), skipping the phrases about the son being made of a woman or made under the law (factum ex muliere, factum sub lege).

Some evidence from Josephus. First, Antiquities 1.6.5 §153:

Ταβαιος γαρ και Γαδαμος και Τααυος και Μαχας εκ Ρουμας παλλακης αυτω γεγονασι.

For Teba and Gaam and Tachas and Maaca were born of Reuma his concubine.

Next, Antiquities 1.12.2 §214:

Ισμαηλος γαρ ο κτιστης αυτων του εθνους Αβραμω γενομενος εκ της παλλακης εν τουτω περιτεμνεται τω χρονω.

For Ishmael, the founder of their nation, who was born to Abraham of the concubine, was circumcised at that age.

Next, Antiquities 8.8.1 §212a:

Μετα δε την Σολομωνος τελευτην διαδεξαμενου του παιδος αυτου την βασιλειαν Ροβοαμου, ος εκ γυναικος Αμμανιτιδος υπηρχεν αυτω γεγονως Νοομας τουνομα, πεμψαντες ευθυς εις την Αιγυπτον οι των οχλων αρχοντες εκαλουν τον Ιεροβοαμον.

And after the death of Solomon, when his son Rehoboam, who began from an Ammonite woman whose name was Naamah, had succeeded him in the kingdom, the rulers of the multitude sent immediately into Egypt and called back Jeroboam.

Next, Antiquities 16.11.5 §382:

Δυο νεανισκους εκ βασιλιδος γυναικος γενομενους εις πασαν αρετην ακρους αναιρησεις σεαυτον εν γηρα καταλιπων εφ ενι παιδι κακως οικονομησαντι την εις αυτον ελπιδα και συγγενεσιν, ων αυτος τοσαυτακις ηδη κατεγνωκας θανατον;

Will you slay these two young men, born of a queenly woman, who are accomplished with every virtue in the highest degree, and leave yourself destitute in your old age, but exposed to one son who has very ill managed the hopes you have given him, and to relations whose death you have so often resolved on yourself?

Finally, Wars 4.8.3 §460:

Ταυτην την πηγην λογος εχει κατ αρχας ου μονον γης και δενδρων καρπους απαμβλυνειν, αλλα και γυναικων γονας, καθολου τε πασιν ειναι νοσωδη τε και φθαρτικην, εξημερωθηναι δε και γενεσθαι τουναντιον υγιεινοτατην τε και γονιμωτατην υπο Ελισσαιου του προφητου· γνωριμος δ ην ουτος Ηλια και διαδοχος.

The report is that this fountain at the beginning caused, not only the blasting of the earth and the trees, but also of the offspring of women, and that it was entirely of a sickly and corruptive nature to all things whatsoever, but that it was made gentle, and very wholesome and fruitful, by the prophet Elisha. This prophet was familiar with Elijah, and was his successor.

Josephus also writes in Antiquities 12.4.6 §186 that Joseph, son of Tobias, had become a father of seven children from one woman (πατηρ μεν γενομενος εκ μιας γυναικος παιδων επτα).

Origen, Against Celsus 1.70:

Σαφως δε φαινεται ιχθυος μετα την αναστασιν βεβρωκως· κατα γαρ ημας σωμα ανειληφεν, ως γενομενος εκ γυναικος.

But it clearly appears that after his resurrection he ate fish; for according to us he took on a body, as one made from a woman.

Pseudo-Clementine homilies 2.17:

Και ο εν γεννητοις γυναικων πρωτος ηλθεν· ειτα ο εν υιοις ανθρωπων δευτερος επηλθεν.

And he who was among those born of women came first; then he who was among the sons of men came second.

Pseudo-Clementine homilies 3.22:

Πλην τουτω συζυγος συνεκτισθη, θηλεια φυσις, πολυ αποδεουσα αυτου, ως ουσιας μετουσια, ως ηλιου σεληνη, ως φωτος το πυρ. αυτη του νυν κοσμου ως θηλεια ομοιου αρχουσα πρωτη προφητις ειναι πεπιστευται, μετα παντων των εν γεννητοις γυναικων προφητειαν επαγγελλομενη. ο δε ετερος, ως υιος ανθρωπου, αρσην ων, και τα διαφεροντα ως αρσενι τω μελλοντι αιωνι προφητευει.

But a yokefellow was created for him, a female nature, much differing from him, as being from substance, as the moon from the sun, as fire from light. She, likewise as a female ruling the present world, was entrusted to be the first prophetess, announcing prophecy with all among those born of women. But the other, as the son of man, being a male, prophesies more beneficial things to the age to come as a male.

Pseudo-Clementine homilies 3.23:

Η μεν ουν εν γεννητοις γυναικων ουσα, ως θηλεια του νυν κοσμου επαγγελλομενη, αρσενικη ειναι πιστευεσθαι θελει.

The one among those born of women, therefore, as the female announcer of this present world, wishes to be believed masculine.

Pseudo-Clementine homilies 3.52:

Επει ουν, ουρανου και γης ετι συνεστωτων, παρηλθαν θυσιαι, βασιλειαι, αι εν γεννητοις γυναικων προφητειαι και οσα τοιαυτα, ως ουκ οντα θεου προσταγματα....

Since, therefore, while the heaven and the earth still stand, sacrifices have passed away, kingdoms, and prophecies among those born of women, and suchlike things, as not being ordinances of God....

Pseudo-Clementine homilies 8.15:

Εκ δε της νοθου μιξεως αυτων ανθρωποι εγενοντο νοθοι, πολλω γε των ανθρωπων κατα κορυφην μειζους, ους οι μετα ταυτα γιγαντας ωνομασαν, ου δρακοντοποδες οντες και προς θεον πολεμον αραμενοι, ως οι βλασφημοι των Ελληνων αδουσιν μυθοι, αλλα θηριωδεις τον τροπον και μειζους μεν ανθρωπων τα μεγεθη, επειπερ εξ αγγελων εγενοντο, αγγελων δε ελαττους, επειπερ εκ γυναικων γεγεννηντο.

But from their spurious intercourse spurious men came into being, much greater in stature than men, whom they afterwards named giants, though not those dragon-footed giants who waged war against God, as the blasphemous myths of the Greeks sing of, but rather wild in their ways, and greater than men in size, since they came into being from angels, but less than angels, since they were born of women.

(Still to check out: Socrates, History of the Church 7.32.)

G. A. Wells, Who Was Jesus?, page 52:

All that Paul says about Jesus's birth is that he was "born of a woman" (Galatians 4:4). He believed that Jesus existed as a supernatural being before the world was created, and he is here arguing that he humbled himself by being born as an ordinary Jew "under the law". Anything but a quite ordinary birth would go against this argument which is concerned to stress Jesus's extreme self-abasement in adopting human existence.